Tag Archives: Aglianico

Geek Notes — UK Wine Show Episode 111 with Ian D’Agata

I have a new vino crush and man have I been crushing hard.

How can you not to get all tingly and giddy over sweet talk about biotypes, Pigato vs Vermentino, Cerasuolo di Vittoria and the battle for the soul of Pecorino?

Well at least it is hard for me not to get tingly, especially when that sweet talk is coming from a wine writer with over 25 years of experience living and breathing the wines of Italy. Thankfully for us, and my geeky fan-girling heart, Ian D’Agata has drilled down all of those years of walking the vineyards and tasting wines with producers into the magnum opus of Italian wine grapes with his 640 page tome–Native Wine Grapes of Italy.

Frequent readers know that one of my favorite resources is Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes written with Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz. That gorgeous hunk of geekdom devoted 1280 pages to covering 1,368 grape varieties grown across the globe.

But with an estimated 2500 different varieties (many of which likely biotypes/clones of other grapes) growing in Italy alone, you need a dedicated source to help untangle the messy weave of regionalization, synonyms and just downright weirdness that can be found with Italian grapes.

D’Agata’s book is like a scalpel to that tangled mess. While he is upfront about not having all the answers–especially with conflicting DNA analysis and contrary first person observations–it is impossible to pick up Native Wine Grapes of Italy and not come away learning mountains of new information about Italian grapes.

Photo by Megan Mallen. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Did you know that the Moscato bianco grape of Piedmont was once one of the most widely planted wine grapes in the Tuscan village of Montalcino? In fact, it is still grown there today and used to make the DOC wine Moscadello di Montalcino.
Those are just a few of the hundreds of fun tidbits I learned from D’Agata’s Native Wine Grapes of Italy.

The work is exceptionally well organized (mostly alphabetical though several varieties which belong to groups or families of grapes like the many Greco, Trebbiano and Malvasia grapes get their own chapter) making it a fantastic and easy to use reference anytime you want to dive deeper.

I seriously can’t recommend Native Wine Grapes of Italy enough for wine geeks and students. A definite must have that is less than a third of the price of Wine Grapes and can often be found used for around $25.

But you don’t need to take my word on it. As I’ve discovered while prepping for my upcoming class on Italian wine, Ian D’Agata has been a frequent guest on several of my favorite podcasts discussing Italian grapes and wine regions. These podcasts, plus his writings on Vinous, give you a great sneak peak into the content of Native Grapes as well as an upcoming book he’s working on about the crus of Barolo and Barbaresco.

They are all well worth a listen–after which I’m sure you’ll be vino-crushing on Ian too.

Podcast Interviews with Ian D’Agata

In The Drink Episode 206 w/ Ian D’Agata (43:57)

Monty Waldin’s Italian Wine Podcast Episodes 20 through 22 on the Aglianico, Glera and Sangiovese grapes respectively. (About 10 to 15 minutes each)

Really wished I had listened to the IDTT episode with D’Agata before I visited Piedmont last June. I probably would have appreciated even more how cool this map and viewpoint from La Morra was.

I’ll Drink to That! Episode 354 w/ Ian D’Agata (1:37:49) — In this podcast, Levi Dalton and D’Agata spend a lot of time talking about Barolo, Barbaresco and his upcoming book on those regions. Really fascinating stuff.

My only slight negative with D’Agata’s interviews is that he does speak very quickly. While his enunciation and articulation–especially of Italian names and words–is great I do find myself having to slow down the podcast or go back sometimes to re-listen to things that D’Agata breezes through.

For this edition of Geek Notes, I’m going to go back to a June 2008 interview that Ian D’Agata did with Chris Scott of the UK Wine Show (37:28).

Some Fun Things I Learned/Enjoyed From This Podcast

The format of the UK Wine Show starts with Chris and his wife Jane going over recent wine and beverage industry news. Even with older podcasts, I always find this segment very interesting as a “window in time” look at what was big and newsworthy in the world of wine at the time. I also often end up learning something as well.

Photo taken by self and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons as User:Agne27 under  CC-BY-SA-3.0

I know now if I pick up a strong oaky flavor in a DOC wine under $10-15 that perhaps I should be suspicious.


For instance, the first news story in this 2008 podcast (1:07) was on a controversy in the Tuscan wine region of San Gimignano where 4000 bottles of red wine were confiscated because of the use of oak chips in production of the DOC wine. I honestly didn’t know that San Gimignano produced red wine (much less a DOC wine) because I was only familiar with the white Vernaccia di San Gimignano.

While it makes sense that oak chips wouldn’t be acceptable in DOC/G wine, I didn’t realize how strictly regulated that was in Italy or that oak chips were permitted for IGT wines.

It was also fun listening to early thoughts on the 2007 Bordeaux vintage with Chris and Jane (5:36) especially considering the woeful reputation that vintage has now (though, in hindsight, good cellar defenders can still be found from 2007).

The interview with Ian D’Agata begins at the 10:35 mark.

(11:47) Of the 2500+ grape varieties grown in Italy, only around 1000 of them have been genetically identified. Of that 1000, around 600 are used for wine production.

(13:55) Chris asks if the Sangiovese of Brunello di Montalcino is a specific clone. Ian D’Agata debunks quite a bit of common misconceptions about Sangiovese and clones that is incredibly eye opening (and also well worth reading about in his book). Simply put, a lot of the stuff that we’ve learned in wine books of the past have been very incomplete and imprecise.

(18:45) D’Agata describes the Umbrian variety Sagrantino which I haven’t had the privilege of tasting yet but am very intrigued by.

(19:20) A prediction that Aglianico is the next big thing from Italy. This has definitely held true with even producers in the US like Leonetti releasing an Aglianico. I know at my local wine shops I’ve seen the selection of Italian Aglianico in the last 5 years go from maybe one bottle of Taurasi ($50+) to now featuring more than a half dozen options from Basilicata, Marche and Campania. As many of these can be found in the $13-25 range, there is some awesome value here that is well worth exploring. In my January 2018 post In a rut? Try these new grapes!, I describe Aglianico as a fantastic wine for Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah drinkers to branch out with.

Fun fact: When you Google pics of Nero d’Avola, one of the results is a picture of the Muscat of Norway grape instead. I know this because that is my hand in the pic holding a cluster of Muscat of Norway I harvested from Cloud Mountain Vineyard in the Puget Sound AVA.


(20:40) Chris notes that he always found Nero d’Avola to be very Merlot-like. D’Agata highlights the similarities (and that Merlot is apparently often blended with Nero d’Avola) but also the relationship with Syrah and Teroldego and what good Nero d’Avola should taste like.

(21:40) A great discussion about the unheralded gems of Southern Italian whites like Mt. Etna’s Carricante (a distant relative of Riesling), Grillo, Inzolia, Vermentino and Grechetto. However, D’Agata notes that the Grechetto used in Orvieto is not always the best Grechetto.

(24:52) Apparently Italy makes really good dry Kerner, Silvaner and Gewurztraminer on par with Alsace up in the Alto Adige region.

Photo by Puntin1969. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

The Valadige (pictured), Alto Adige and Friuli regions can be more labor intensive than the Veneto or some parts of New Zealand which can make producing value priced Sauvignon blanc a bit difficult.


(26:16) While Italy doesn’t do well with Chardonnay (over-oaked), D’Agata feels that they excel with Sauvignon blanc with a style between Sancerre and Marlborough. This definitely caught the attention of New Zealand native Chris Scott. Considering how hot Sauvignon blanc has been in the UK market, I’m kind of surprised that we don’t hear more about Italian Sauvignon blanc. The higher cost of bottles from Italy compared to bulk NZ Sauvignon blanc probably is a significant reason.

(29:06) A lot of Pinot grigio that is/was imported to the United States might not actually be Pinot grigio with D’Agata noting that a fair amount of Trebbiano is likely used.

Photo by Giovanni. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

D’Agata does notes that just because there might be Syrah, Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon growing in a vineyard of Montalcino that doesn’t mean it is being used in a producer’s Brunello di Montalcino. However, the color of the wine could be a tip off.


(30:26) Very interesting discussion about the Brunellopoli scandal that was just starting to hit the news at the time of the interview. D’Agata notes that the dark purple/black color of Brunello di Montalcino is often a clue that something might be up with a wine that is supposed to be 100% of the moderately pigmented Sangiovese. The new clones of Sangiovese that produce darker colors can only give you a deeper ruby, not black color.

(34:23) Even though Italians invented screw caps, apparently they can only be used for IGT wines and not DOC/G? (At least back in 2008) D’Agata pointed out that it is more expensive to bottle wines with screw caps as opposed to corks which can be a financial burden for small producers.

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Doubling Down On What’s Been Done Before

Photo taken by self and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under : CC-BY-SA-3.0

Andy Perdue of Wine Press Northwest says it time for Washington State wine producers to “double down” on Cabernet Sauvignon.

The state needs to focus, he says, much like how Oregon did several decades ago with Pinot noir.

Washington has proved it can grow several wine grape varieties very well, and in some ways this has hurt the industry, because the state hasn’t had a focus. Now, we can align ourselves with other Cab regions, including Bordeaux and Napa Valley. — Andy Perdue, 9/13/18

Now why in the hell would we want to do that?

Napa On My Mind — And The Minds Of Most Consumers

Yes, I know that Cab is still king and there is no doubt that Cabernet Sauvignon sales are still going strong. You can’t fault vineyards for planting Cabernet Sauvignon or wineries for producing it.

But what you can fault is the idea that we should start hoarding all our eggs into one Cab basket–especially a basket that is already dominated by one really large hen.

Look at any “Most Popular” list of American wines and you can easily see a stark theme.

Wine & Spirits Top Restaurant Wines of 2018.

I would definitely be impressed seeing a wine list with Woodward Canyon prominently featured.

Cakebread, Caymus, Chateau Montelena, Corison, Duckhorn, Faust, Frank Family, Heitz, Jordan, Justin, Louis M. Martini, Mount Veeder, Rodney Strong, Sequoia Grove, Silver Oak, St. Francis Winery, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Turnbull–all well known California Cabernet producers. Though, yes, Washington State does get a few nods with Woodward Canyon, L’Ecole 41 and Chateau Ste. Michelle (probably for their Riesling).

The Most Searched-For Cabernet Sauvignon on WineSearcher.com in 2017.

Screaming Eagle, Caymus, Scarecrow, Shafer, Dunn, Robert Mondavi and Silver Oak–all Napa Valley staples with only Penfolds 707 from Australia and Concha y Toro Don Melchor from Chile being outside Cabernets that cracked the list.

Vivino’s Top 20 Cabernet Sauvignon for Cab Day (which was apparently September 3rd)

Pretty much the same Napa-dominated list like the ones above with Quebrada De Macul’s Domus Aurea from Chile, Gramercy Cellars’ Lower East from Washington, Thelema Mountain Vineyards’s The Mint and Springfield Estate’s Whole Berry from South Africa sprinkled in for diversity.

This is not to say that Washington State can’t compete with California–in quality or in price. Lord knows we can and often exceedingly over deliver in both. Many years the state usually leads the pack in percentage of wines produced that receive 90+ scores from critics and often command a sizable chunk of year-end “Top 100” lists.

Photo a compilation of creative commons licensed images uploaded to Wikimedia commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Perhaps the Washington State Wine Commission needs to get Steven Spurrier on the phone.

But to the vast majority of American wine buying consumers (particularly of Cabernet Sauvignon) that hardly makes a dent in their Napa-centric worldview. Pretty much since the 1976 Judgment of Paris, Cabernet Sauvignon in the United States has been synonymous with Napa Valley, California.

Of course, I’m not saying that Washington should stop producing its bounty of delicious and highly acclaimed Cabs but why should we double down on chasing a horse that has already left the stable?

The Lessons Of Oregon

To bolster his case, Perdue points to the example of Oregon which has built its brand (quite successfully) on the quality and notoriety of its Pinot noir. It’s no shock that on that same Wine & Spirits Top Restaurant List that Oregon has a healthy showing with Adelsheim Vineyard, Argyle Winery, Cristom Vineyards, Domaine Drouhin Oregon, Elk Cove Vineyards and King Estate representing the state–doubling the amount of wineries that Washington has featured.

Perdue would, presumably, attribute that success to Oregon’s seemingly singular focus on Pinot noir instead of the jack-of-all-trades approach that Washington State has taken in a modern history that is pretty close to the same age.

But what I don’t think Perdue has really taken into consideration is that Oregon started doubling down on Pinot long before Pinot noir was cool.

Photo by Ethan Prater. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Pinot noir in early veraison at Cristom Vineyards in the Eola-Amity Hills

In his book Oregon Wine Country Stories Kenneth Friedenreich notes that many of Oregon’s early pioneers were thought to be crazy by their neighbors and bankers when they started planting Pinot noir in the Willamette Valley in the 1960s. It wasn’t until the 1980s when French producers like the Drouhin family of Burgundy took notice that the state began getting some attention on the world’s stage.

Even then, Oregon Pinot noir was still a tough sell in the domestic US market.

 

It’s hard to discount the impact that the 2004 film Sideways had on the perception of Pinot noir. As David Adelsheim noted “There were two great grapes of America [Cabernet Sauvignon & Chardonnay], and after ‘Sideways,’ there were three,” with the Oregon wine industry reaping the benefit of sustained sales ever since.

In the game of life, when Oregon wine producers were least expecting it, they rolled a ‘7’. But they could have just as easily crapped out.

Oregon was initially betting on a long shot–not a 2 to 1 favorite like Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s crazy to think that Washington could every get the same kind of payout.

How About Betting On What’s Exciting?

Seriously, if you are not on the Washington Cab Franc train than you are lagging behind my friend!

Earlier this week Sean Sullivan of Seattle Met and Wine Enthusiast published a fantastic list of “The 30 Most Exciting Wines in Washington”.

Now while there are certainly Cabs included on this list–several of which, like Passing Time and Quilceda Creek, I wouldn’t dispute–there are several wines included that are truly, genuinely exciting.

2013 Leonetti Cellar Aglianico Serra Pedace Vineyard Walla Walla Valley

Yes, an Aglianico! From Leonetti!

2015 Spring Valley Vineyard Katherine Corkrum Estate Grown Cabernet Franc Walla Walla Valley

The 2012 vintage of this wine was one of the best wines being poured at the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance tasting in Seattle earlier this year.

2017 L’Ecole No. 41 Old Vines Chenin blanc Columbia Valley

I’m no stranger to hollering into the void about the charms and deliciousness of Washington Chenin blanc. I love that L’Ecole is highlighting “Old Vines” on this bottle. It shows that their faith in this wonderful variety isn’t a fly-by-night fancy.

2015 Two Vintners Cinsault Make Haste Yakima Valley

Cinsault has been on my radar since attending the Hospice du Rhone seminar highlighting South African Cinsault. Obviously Washington doesn’t have anywhere close the vine age or experience but Morgan Lee of Two Vintners is an incredibly talented winemaker so it will be fun to see what he could do with the grape.

2016 Savage Grace Côt Malbec Boushey Vineyard Yakima Valley

Michael Savage makes some of my favorite Cabernet Francs from the Two Blondes Vineyard and Copeland Vineyard. The Boushey Vineyard is one of the grand crus of Washington. All perfect ingredients for what is likely a very kick ass wine.

2017 Syncline Winery Picpoul Boushey Vineyard Yakima Valley

If you’re not drinking Picpoul, is it really worth drinking anything?

2012 MTR Productions Memory Found Syrah Walla Walla Valley

This Syrah, made by Matt Reynvaan (of Reynvaan Family Vineyards fame),  is practically treated like a Brunello di Montalcino. It sees two years of oak aging followed by 3 years of bottle aging before release. A fascinating project.

2015 Sleight of Hand Cellars Psychedelic Syrah Stoney Vine Vineyard Walla Walla Valley

Yeah, yeah the Rocks District is technically Oregon. But since the wine consuming public is too myopically focused on Oregon Pinot noir,  Washingtonians can take credit for the insane depth and character that comes out of wines from this area. At the Taste Washington “Washington vs The World Seminar” this was the run away winner at an event that featured heavy hitters like Joseph Phelps Insignia, Lynch-Bages, Sadie Family, Amon-Ra and Duckhorn Merlot.

Lessons of Oregon part II

Another lesson from Oregon that’s often overlooked is the lack of attention given to other grapes grown in the state. This was a takeaway I had from Friedenreich’s Oregon Wine Country Stories that I noted in my review with the fascinating possibilities of the Southern Oregon AVAs like the Umpqua, Rogue and Applegate Valleys or the shared Columbia Gorge AVA up north with Washington.

There are over 50 grape varieties grown in Oregon–yet we really only hear about 1 to 3 of them. Sure the producers in prime Pinot country with blessed vineyards on Jory and Willakenzie soils, have a good gig right now. But the countless small wineries in other areas of the state trying to promote and sell their non-Pinot wines are facing an uphill battle.

Now What?

Does Washington State really want to  be associated with just one grape variety? With more than 70 different grape varieties, why limit ourselves?

As a Washington wine lover that adores the bounty and bevy of fantastic wines like Viognier that can compete with great Condrieu, geeky Siegerrebe and Pinot noir from the Puget Sound, Counoise rosé that echoes the grape’s Châteauneuf-du-Pape heritage and robust Malbecs that gets your mouth watering with their savory, spicy complexity, I vote no.

If are going to double down on anything then we should double down on what makes Washington, Washington.

We’re the Meryl Streep and Daniel Day-Lewis of the American wine industry. We can do it all and we can do it very, very well.

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Playing the Somm Game in Vegas

“Unicorns aren’t real, but the house advantage is.”

I just got back from a weekend in Las Vegas where I lost far more than I care to admit at the casinos.

Growing up in St. Louis with church bingo and riverboat casinos, I will always have soft-spot for the gambler’s heart.

But man does it suck losing.

However, as I’ve gotten older I’ve found one game that I love playing in Vegas where I’m a sure bet to come out a big winner–the Somm Game.

How to Play

It’s a simple game. You go to a nice restaurant with a thick, Bible-size wine list.

Give the sommelier your budget, what food you are ordering, let them know you are open to anything and then let them take it from there.

That’s it. That’s the game and the payoff is almost always better than anything you’ll find at the tables or slots.

Why the Somm Game works

First off, your objective is to have a great dining experience. You know who else shares that same objective? The sommelier. Their entire job is to give you a memorable experience so the house odds are already in your favor.

Just like I’m sure you perform best at your job when your clients let you do your thing, so too do sommeliers really get a chance to shine when you simply trust them to do what they are trained to do—which is far more than only opening bottles and pouring them into decanters.

And *spoiler alert* sometimes they have bottles like this just “lying around”.

Sommeliers are professionals and many have spent years honing their craft, studying, tasting and traveling the world of wine. With certification programs from the Court of Master Sommeliers, Wine & Spirits Education Trust, International Sommelier Guild and the like, the quality of wine education in the industry has never been higher. Why let that advantage go to waste?

And it is an advantage–one that even the most savvy and experienced wine drinkers don’t readily have.

Look I know my fair share about wine. I can open up a wine list and recognize most every name and region on it. I can hold my own rattling off producers, soil types, grapes varieties and facts. But I’ll tell you what I don’t necessarily know—how everything on the list is drinking now and what exactly will pair best with the particular flavors of the chef’s cuisine.

No matter how much a person knows about wine, the odds are that the sommelier team knows their own list and their own food at least a little bit better than you do. Especially at a restaurant with a good wine program that involves frequent tastings and pairing exercises, they’re going to have a leg up on you with what is drinking great right now and is pairing well.

“But Amber, I don’t want to get ripped off by restaurant mark ups!”

Okay, I know restaurant mark ups can be painful to swallow. Believe me, it’s even tougher when you’ve been in the business and know intimately what the typical wholesale and retail prices are of the wines you frequently see on wine lists.

But here’s the beauty of playing the Somm Game and trusting the sommelier to make the wine picks—most likely you’re going to avoid getting the crazy mark up wines and instead get the gems that the sommeliers themselves would pick for their own dinners.

By trusting the sommeliers you are far less likely to get “ripped off” by markups than you would be ordering on your own. They don’t need to sell you the crazy high mark up wines because your fellow diners are already buying those wines and paying the “Ego Tax” on them.

The “Ego Tax”

General rule of thumb–if an average wine drinker would recognize the name on a wine list then you are probably going to pay an “ego tax” ordering it.

Restaurants are businesses and all businesses aim to make a profit. With margins on food being so tight, it naturally falls on the beverage side of the business to earn healthy returns.

In the wine industry, there are certain well known brands that restaurants know will sell off their wine list without any effort. These are your Jordan, Caymus, Rombauer, Veuve Clicquot, Dom Perignon, Opus One and Silver Oak type wines of the world.

There is no need for effort because wine consumers will order these wines on their own as frequently these are the only names on the list they recognize. Often their ego (either hubris or an irrational fear of looking helpless) keeps them from seeking the sommelier’s assistance so they retreat to the comfort of a known quantity.

But these “known quantities” are often the highest marked up wines on the entire list!

That hesitance to relinquish control and trust the sommelier to guide you out of the realm of the “the same ole, same ole” is not limited to just “regular wine drinkers”. It hits folks who “know wine” and have been around the industry. I mean come on! We don’t need help. We know how to order wine and what’s good!

And that is why restaurants make bank off of the “Ego Tax”.

Which is fine, I suppose, if you are living off an expense account and paying with someone else’s dime. But most of us in the real world aren’t expense account dandies so it’s pointless to be paying the “Ego Tax” when all we’ve got to do is trust the somm and have some fun.

The Somm Game in Action

When I play the Somm Game, I start by introducing myself as a wine geek and telling the sommelier that all I want to do this evening is “geek out” a bit. Sometimes in the conversation that follows I will mention my wine industry background but that is rarely brought up. My approach is to present myself as just a geek that trusts and respects the sommelier’s judgement and expertise.

I give them a budget and tell them that I’m open to anything–glass pours, half-bottles, full-bottles. I recommend going a little higher in your budget than you would usually give yourself for ordering a single bottle because the more flexibility you give the somms, the more fun you can have. Trust me, it will pay off dividends.

I share with them what food I’m ordering–again emphasizing my openness in going with whatever the sommelier thinks will work best whether it be glass pours for each course or half/full-bottles, etc.

Then I sit back and have fun.

This weekend I had the opportunity to play the Somm Game at two restaurants–Lago by Julian Serrano at the Bellagio and at Aureole by Charlie Palmer at Mandalay Bay. Both restaurants have tremendous wine programs overseen by Master Sommelier Jason L. Smith, Executive Director of Wine for MGM Resorts International, and Mandalay Bay Director of Wine Harley Carbery.

When playing the Somm Game, it helps to increase your odds by playing with a stack deck.

Lago

At Lago, we were served by head sommelier Jeffrey Bencus, an Advance Sommelier who is on the cusp of achieving his MS. Talking with him, we found out that he has separately passed his theory and tasting exams for the Master Sommelier certification–just not within the same testing cycle.

On my own, when out for a nice dinner I usually aim for a bottle in the $250-300 range so I gave Jeffrey a budget of $350 and laid out the perimeters above. I told him we were geeks and opened to pretty much anything.

The style of cuisine at Lago is small plates so we started off with short rib cannelloni and red wine risotto.

These were red wine heavy dishes but we were delighted when he brought out a half bottle of 2015 Jean-Philippe Fichet Meursault.

Granted, coming from the tremendous 2015 vintage this wine was already playing with a full house.

With plots in the enviable “second crus” of Les Chaumes de Narvaux (upslope from the Premier cru vineyards of Les Bouchères and Les Gouttes d’Or) and Le Limozin (flanked by 1er crus Les Genevrières and Les Charmes) as well as 65 to 75+ year old vine plantings in Les Clous and Les Criots, this village-level Meursault was delivering premier cru quality pleasure.

Textbook Meursault with subtle butteriness, hazelnuts and that liquid-rocks minerality that makes this place so special for Chardonnay. I don’t remember what the restaurant price was, but the Wine Searcher Average for the 2015 was $65. Well worth finding.

The following course was Italian sausage skewers with red pepper sauce and a filet with a Gorgonzola demi-glaze. Originally Jeffrey was thinking a classic 2012 Brunnello di Montalcino but decided to geek it up more for us with a 2012 Mastroberardino Radici Taurasi from the legendary Campanian producer. I was quite familiar with Mastroberardino and their flagship Taurasi but my initial instinct was that a 2012 would be far too young.

But, again, here is where a somm’s expertise and experience with their own wine list pays off.

With nothing more than a splash decant the Radici was absolutely singing with the savory floral and spicy undertones of Aglianico complimenting not only my steak but also my wife’s Italian sausage with its sweet roasted red bell pepper sauce.

Black olives and black fruit with a long savory finish. A masterful wine from Mastroberardino that was drinking surprisingly well for a young Taurasi.

The Wine Searcher Average for this wine is listed at $47 but that is skewed a little by some discount Hong Kong retailers. In the US, it is far more common to find it retailing for $55-60.

For dessert we had a creme brulee and citrus cannoli and boy did we hit the jackpot with the Somm Game!

My wife and I were flabbergasted when Jeffrey brought out a tiny 187ml split of 1993 Château Pajzos Tokaji Esszencia.

I don’t think this wine was even on the wine list!

While I’ve had Tokaji several times, this was my first experience trying an Esszencia because of how rare (and expensive) it is. Made from the free-run juice of dried botrytized grapes, residual sugars can go as high as 85% and take over 6 years to ferment because of how sweet and concentrated it is. Tokaji Esszencia is truly one of the wonders of the wine world.

This wine was the #3 ranked wine on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list in 1998 and was described as “a perfect wine” with 100 pts from Robert Parker.

And it was just….wow!

I think I finally found a wine that broke my mental 94 point barrier. It’s been over four days since I had this wine and I can still taste the amazing concentration of liquid figs, honey, cognac and lingering spice.

Folks….this is a WHITE wine!

Incredibly difficult to find retail due to its limited supply (only 165 cases made), the Wine Searcher Average for a 500ml of the 1993 Pajzos Esszencia is $698.

A stunning treat and life-long memory.

All together, the three wines were well around our $350 budget. As we were finishing up dinner while savoring that amazing Esszencia, I noticed the table next to us had ordered a bottle of 2006 Opus One which was $995 on the Lago’s restaurant list.

While I’m sure they enjoyed that bottle of Opus fine enough, I can’t help but think that we came out WAY ahead in our wine and food pairing experience by paying around a third of what they did.

Heck, all three of the wines we had which included one 375ml half bottle, one 750ml bottle and one 187ml split was less at restaurant mark-up than what one single bottle of 2006 Opus One averages at retail price.

That folks….is winning big with the Somm Game.

Aureole

The next night we visited Aureole at Mandalay Bay where we rolled the dice for the Somm Game with Kyran O’Dwyer, an Advance Sommelier since 2006.

While Kyran didn’t have an extra 187ml bottle of an uber-rare wine lying around, he had his own ace up his sleeve and delivered a remarkable and personalized experience that far exceeded our expectations.

We didn’t finish this bottle till just before dessert and it paired exquisitely with every dish we had.

Giving him the same $350 budget, the first roll came up sevens when he brought out a perfectly geeky Champagne–the Drappier Quattuor Blanc de Blancs featuring some of the rarest grapes in Champagne.

A blend of 25% Arbane, 25% Petit Meslier, 25% Blanc Vrai (Pinot blanc) and 25% Chardonnay to round it out, the wine was aged 3 years on the lees before being bottled with a dosage of 4 g/l. The Wine Searcher Average for it is $61 but most retailers in the US have it closer to the $120 release price noted by Wine Spectator. However it is incredibly difficult to find with most retailers (like K & L) getting less than a couple cases.

But oh is it worth the hunt!

This is a “unicorn Champagne” like the ones I’ve been on the prowl for since I finished reading Robert Walters’ Bursting Bubbles. High intensity aromatics that continually evolved in the glass with a mix of citrus lemon custard and orange blossoms with some creamy creme brulee action. Exceptionally well balanced between the creamy mousse, racy citrus notes and dry dosage, the long finish brought out intriguing salty mineral notes that lasted for several minutes after you swallowed.

For appetizers my wife got a black garlic Cesar salad while I had the foie gras du jour–which was seared foie gras with a balsamic berry reduction paired with a French toast concoction that had the chef’s homemade nutella filling. While we enjoyed the Champagne, he gave us each an additional 2-3 oz “taster pour” of the 2014 Braida Brachetto d’Acqui to go with the foie gras.

The wine was lively and fresh with ample acidity to balance the sweetness.

A seriously good sweet wine worth geeking out over.

The wine tasted like you were eating ripe strawberries picked straight from the bush. In a market flooded with Moscatos, Roscatos and Stella Rosa, sweet wines often get a bad rap as overly simple but tasting a wine like the Giacomo Bologna Braida Brachetto d’Acqui is a great reminder about how joyful and delicious “simple sweet wines” can be. At a retail average of $18 a bottle, it is also a great deal for folks wanting to trade out of the same ole, same ole for something new to try.

For dinner I had braised short rib ravioli with a smoked tomato cream sauce while my wife had one of the most delicious vegetarian lasagnas that we had ever tried. It must have had at least 20 layers of fresh pasta, butternut squash, sage, spinach and mascarpone. My ravioli was great but her lasagna was outstanding.

Of course, these dishes were quite different and not necessarily the easiest to pair with the same wine. Truthfully, on my own, I probably would have “wimped out” and took the easy route of ordering a village-level Burgundy with the thinking of acidity for my tomato cream sauce while some earthiness could play well with the lasagna without being too big or tannic. Not a perfect pairing but a serviceable one.

But Advance Sommeliers do not settle for serviceable.

One of the tell-tale signs of a good restaurant wine program is when the wine list has gems like this Portuguese Douro on it. Few people are savvy enough to recognize or order them but the sommeliers know what’s up.

Instead, Kyran surprised me with a 2012 Prats & Symington Post Scriptum de Chryseia from the Douro. I was already very familiar with the Symington family’s stable of Port houses like Cockburn, Dow, Graham, Warre and Quinta do Vesúvio but wasn’t aware of this particular Douro red wine label.

A blend of 53% Touriga Franca, 45% Touriga Nacional and 2% other Portuguese varieties, the wine was remarkably “St. Emilion-like” with a beautiful mix of blue flowers, dark fruit and savory baking spice notes on the nose. Far from being “too big” or “too tannic” for the vegetable lasagna, the wine was beautifully balance with juicy medium-plus acidity and velvety medium-plus tannins.

If this was a blind tasting and I pegged it as a St. Emilion, I would have been expecting it to be in the $45-55 range retail for a bottle. But here is where the savvy of a good sommelier comes into play because this absolute gem of a wine from a very underappreciated region is a total steal at around $26 a bottle retail.

The wine list price for this bottle was $67 which, compared to the usual 3x retail mark up common in the industry, was a great deal in its own right. Frankly, you would be hard-pressed to find a better bottle than this on most restaurant’s wine lists for less than $80.

We would have been more than happy with only this bottle for both our main courses.

But, again, Kyran when above and beyond as he brought my wife out a glass pour of the 2015 Domaine Laroche Vielle Voye Chablis to compliment her vegetarian lasagna. Sourced from 70+ year old vines, this village-level Chablis way over delivered and is another great value at $36 a bottle (and probably a $20-25 glass pour, at least).

The wine….they just kept coming!

Then for dessert my wife went with a blood orange creamsicle parfait while I ordered a maple brown butter creme brulee (my favorite dessert if you haven’t guess yet). Once again Kyran decided to individualize the pairing for us with my wife getting a glass of the 2008 Jackson Triggs Vidal Ice Wine from Niagara that was chock-full of orange blossoms and apricot notes while I got a 2011 Kracher Beerenauslese from Burgenland that had amazing lightness in the mouthfeel despite its rich concentration.

And coming…..
Like a hot slot machine.

With Wine Searcher averages of $93 and $61 respectively, my wife and I rarely buy full bottles of dessert wines because we never finish them. For us, it’s worth paying a little bit of a premium to enjoy them by the glass pour at a restaurant with a nice dessert. Yet, I rarely ever feel like I am paying a premium compared to the amount of pleasure I’m getting with the pairing.

With an end total of 2 bottles, 3 glasses and two taster pours over the course of a fabulous dinner with a personalize touch made this another jackpot win for the Somm Game. There is truly no way that I could have spent my money better that evening than just letting Kyran run the table with his fantastic pairings.

That is the beauty of the Somm Game.

Yes, it’s still gambling

And the house is going to get its share.

Of course, I could have likely bought (assuming I could even find them) bottles of the wines I had at each dinner for less than $350 on the retail market but that’s the same truth when comparing the cost of the food ingredients if you cooked the meal at home versus what you paid at a restaurant for a dish.

No one should approach the Somm Game or buying wine at restaurants with the perspective of beating retail prices. It’s never going to happen. These restaurants are businesses with overhead and staff that deserve to be paid living wages and benefits.

I’m not advocating the Somm Game as a way of “beating the house” though I do wholeheartedly endorse it as a way of getting the most out your money and having a kick-ass experience.

There is really not a dollar amount that you can put on your own personal pleasure or the joy of trying something new.

You “come out ahead” when you end up getting more than you expected with a tremendous evening of great wine, great food and great memories that happened just because you let the professionals do the very thing that they are really good at doing.

No, there is not guaranteed 100% success each time you play. Sometimes you may be at a restaurant that doesn’t have a serious wine program with trained sommeliers. Sure you can still roll the dice but, as with all forms of gambling, there is always a chance you will crap out.

I recommend checking out the wine list and asking questions of the staff to get a feel if this is the type of place that is worth playing the Somm Game at.

But in Las Vegas, with its high density of outstanding restaurants and sommeliers, I’ve found no surer bet.

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Wine Geek Notes 3/4/18 — Organic Viticulture and Aglianico

Image from L'Ampélographie (Viala et Vermorel), reproduced in
Here is what I’ve been reading in the world of wine today.

Interesting Tweets and Weblinks

Organic Vineyard Share of National Vineyard Area in Selected Countries in 2016 from the American Association of Wine Economists (@wineecon) brought to my dash via Craig Camp (@CraigCamp)

It’s really interesting how much Europe (excluding Greece & Portugal) is taking the lead with organic viticulture. I wonder how much of it is in response to their soils being exhausted after centuries of agriculture or if there are other cultural dynamics at play here. I’m also curious why the US is lagging so much behind, only slightly better than China, Chile & Portugal.

Aglianico Connections in the Napa Valley by Jill Barth (@jillbarth) of L’Occasion brought to my dash via Jane Niemeyer (@always_ravenous).

Also have to give a hat tip to @always_ravenous for leading me to Savor the Harvest’s (@savortheharvest) Aglianico post Aglianico: A Southern Italian Gem #ItalianFWT.

I ADORE Aglianico and featured it in my post In a rut? Try these new grapes! as a great grape for Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah drinkers to explore. I had a lot of fun geeking out to Barth’s post exploring a very unique Aglianico from Napa while Savor The Harvest’s description of a classic old school Aglianico del Vulture from Tenuta del Portale paired with Daube French Beef Stew over egg noodles had my mouth watering.

I wasn’t familiar with the Italian Food, Wine, Travel Group (#ItalianFWT) but this seems to be a monthly series that generates a lot of great posts and wine discussion. For wine geeks and foodies, this is definitely a group worth keeping an eye on. Next month’s topic is La Primavera e Verdicchio hosted by Culinary Cam (@Culinary_Cam).

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Cab is King but for how long?

Photo from Wikimedia Commons from George Cattermole and the Gallery of Shakespeare illustrations, from celebrated works of art (1909).At a 2018 Unified Wine & Grape Symposium panel on Cabernet Sauvignon, one of the directors of winemaking for E. & J. Gallo Winery, Chris Munsell, shared a bit of advice that he learned from a marketing executive.

…for any wine to be successful, it need[s] to be of good quality, known by consumers and profitable for everyone involved. — Wines & Vines, Jan 29th, 2018.

Following that line of thought, it’s easy to see how Cabernet Sauvignon ticks off each box.

Cab’s ability to make high quality and age-worthy wines is legendary. It is relatively easy to grow in the vineyard and is very adaptable to a wide range of winemaking techniques. This adaptability increases the profitability of the grape. Winemakers can make virtually any style of Cab to fit consumers’ tastes at prices that still meet desired profit margins.

At the Unified panel mentioned above, Evan Schiff, the winemaker for Francis Ford Coppola Presents’ Diamond line, describes how Coppola can make consistent under $13 Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from vineyards throughout California. They achieve this with enzymes that facilitate quick fermentation, oak barrel alternatives like chips and staves (as opposed to $400-1000 new barrels) and micro-oxygenation.

Meanwhile, in Napa County where a ton of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes can cost anywhere from $6,829 to $59,375, producers seemingly have no problem selling high-end Napa Valley Cabernets for several hundreds of dollars.

The reason why Cabernet Sauvignon is a relatively easy sell is because of the second point in Munsell’s advice. For consumers, it is a known quantity.
Photo by self, uploaded to Wikimedia Commons as Agne27

One of the oldest plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon in Washington State at Red Willow Vineyard in the Yakima Valley.

In 2017, while off-premise sales of wine only grew by 3%, Cabernet Sauvignon out-paced that trend with 5% growth. This growth was across a variety of price points ranging from a 21% increase in sales of $4.50 (per 750ml) boxed wine to a 15% increase in sales of Cabernet Sauvignon over $25.

Cab is clearly King, but even the reigns of Sobhuza II and Louis XIV eventually came to an end. Looking to the horizon, it is not hard to find trends that, like Macbeth’s witches, whisper of toil and trouble in store for the monarch.

Fair is Foul and Foul is Fair: Who seeks something unique and rare?

If you want to bet on the dethronement of Cab, you only need to look towards the first, second and third murderers of all things–Millennials. With over 75 million members (surpassing now the Baby Boomers), industries ignore this influential demographic at their peril.

While it’s a mistake to overly generalize with such a large cohort, one consistent theme that has emerged is that Millennials tend to value experiences over material goods. In the wine industry, we see this play out in Millennial wine drinkers’ “curiosity” about unique grape varieties and unheralded regions. Instead of seeking out the high scoring Cult Cabs and status symbols that beckoned previous generations, Millennials often thirst for something different, something exciting.

A report by Master of Wine Matt Deller notes that 65% of Millennial drinkers in his Wine Access study actively sought out “unusual wines and vintages.” And while the buying power for Millennials currently lags behind Generation X and Baby Boomers, Millennials have a desire to spend more.

With this context in mind, some interesting trends stand out when you look at the acreage reports of vineyard plantings in California.

Of course, Cabernet Sauvignon still commands a significant chunk of acreage with 90,782 acres of vines in 2016. That is around a 26% increase from 2008 and is a testament to the healthy market that exists for Cabernet. But looking a little deeper we see savvy vineyard owners and wineries anticipating the adventurous appetites of Millennial drinkers.

How does Teroldego pair with newt eyes and frog toes?
From the California Department of Food and Agriculture and USDA 2016 acreage report

During that same 2008-2016 period, there is impressive growth in Italian grape varieties in California like Aglianico (≈ 63% growth), Montepulciano (≈ 77%) and Primitivo (≈ 233%). Even the obscure northeastern Italian grape of Teroldego from Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol is getting in on the action with an astounding growth of nearly 731%.

The vast majority of these new Teroldego plantings occurred in 2014 & 2016 with huge producers like Bogle Vineyards, Constellation Brands, E & J Gallo Winery and Trinchero Family Estates behind most of the plantings in the Central Valley of California. It looks like the grape is being groomed to be the “new Petite Sirah”. It likely will be a key component in mass-produced red blends or a Pinot noir-enhancer. However, varietal examples from producers in Clarksburg, Lodi, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara could offer consumers attractive and characterful wines.

Beyond the second wave of Cal-Ital varieties, Cabernet is seeing growing competition from its Bordeaux stable-mates.  We see increase plantings in Malbec (≈ 130% growth) and Petit Verdot (≈ 62%) as well as the Uruguayan favorite Tannat (≈ 132%).

 

Among white wines, we see a similar pattern.

Though Chardonnay still accounts for over 94,000 acres in California–an increase of around 13% from 2008.

If she was around today, it’s likely that Lady Macbeth would be drinking Moscato… or Rombauer Chard
From the California Department of Food and Agriculture and USDA 2016 acreage report

Chardonnay still rules by Cabernet Sauvignon’s side. However, we have upstarts like the Spanish variety Albariño (≈ 107% growth) and Portuguese grape Verdelho (≈ 75%) seeing a significant increase in plantings.

As with the reds, the interest in Italian white varieties is growing.  Vermentino is seeing around a 287% growth in plantings. Plus, the combined stable of Muscat grapes (led by Moscato bianco) more than doubled their acreage in 8 years.

There is no question that Cabernet Sauvignon bears a charmed life. It makes delicious wines that delight both wine drinkers’ palates and wineries’ bottom lines. But the fickle and ever-changing tastes of the wine world means that even the greatest of kings have reigns that are just brief candles.

While Cab’s light is not likely to go out anytime soon, perhaps the king should watch out for his shadows.

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In a rut? Try these new grapes!

CC BY-SA 3.0, on Wikimedia Commons

We all get into ruts sometimes, especially during the heart of the January-February “Winter Blues” season. But ruts can be the perfect time to shake things up!

So how about trading out and swapping some of your same ole, same ole for something new? Here are 5 recommendations of geeky new grape varieties that are worth trying.

Do you like Sauvignon blanc and unoaked Chardonnay?

Try Pecorino!

According to Ian d’Agata’s Native Wine Grapes of Italy, Pecorino likely originated in the Marche region of eastern Italy where it is the dominant white grape of the Offida DOCG. The name comes from the Italian pecora for ‘sheep’ and is derived from anecdotal stories of sheepherders snacking on the grapes as they tended to their flocks. Other stores involve the sheep, themselves, breaking into vineyards to snack on the ripe grapes near harvest time.

Pecorino produces fragrant wines with citrus, apple and mineral notes that go fantastic with seafood (much like Sauvignon blanc and unoaked Chardonnay!). The wines are often light to medium body and can sometimes have delicate herbal notes (like the grassiness in a New Zealand Sauvignon blanc). Usually produced in stainless steel, some examples can see brief time in neutral oak that will add a little weight to the wine (like many Sauvignon blanc-based white Bordeauxs).

Do you like Pinot gris and dry Gewürztraminers?

Try Grüner Veltliner!

Photo taken by self as Agne27, on Wikimedia Commons

An Oregon Gruner Veltliner from the Willamette Valley.


We can also add fans of aged white Burgundies to the list too.

According to the Oxford Companion to Wine, Grüner Veltliner is the most widely planted grape variety in Austria, representing more than a third of all vineyard plantings. Here is used to produce everything from light cafe wine, to weighty ageworthy whites to sparkling Sekt.

Grüner Veltliner produces wines that have a mix of citrus and tree fruit notes (like Pinot gris) with a characteristic spicy note of white pepper (like Gewurz but a different spice). With age these wines take on a remarkable transformation with more weight and texture that is not that dissimilar to great white Burgundies.

Outside of it Austrian homeland, American wine lovers can find domestic examples being produced in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, Virginia and Maryland.

Do you like Merlot and Grenache?

Try Mencía!

Actually, you can also tally this one down if you are a fan of Pinot noir and Cabernet Franc or even Gamay because Mencía is a very versatile grape that produces different styles based how it is grown and winemaking choices.

By SanchoPanzaXXI - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, on Wikimedia Commons

Mencía grapes growing in the Ribeira Sacra DO of Spain

According to Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes, this very aromatic and fruit forward grape was once thought to be related to Grenache, Graciano and Cabernet Franc though DNA analysis has shown that there isn’t any relation.

But the similarities can been seen in Mencía wines that are fresh with ripe tannins and juicy fruit that can carry a tinge of herbal notes (a la Cabernet Franc). Like Gamay, some of these fruity wines are produced via carbonic maceration. However, when yields are kept low and Mencía sees some time in oak it can produce more dense, concentrated examples with ripe dark fruit and chocolate notes like Merlot.

Admittedly it is hard to know what style of Mencía you are getting with a particular bottle but the immense potential of deliciousness makes it worth exploring the whole spectrum!

Do you like Cabernet Sauvignon and spicy Zinfandels?

Try Touriga Nacional!

According to Karen MacNeil’s Wine Bible, while Touriga Nacional is most known for being the backbone of Portugal’s famous fortified Port wines, it also produces some of its best table wines that demonstrate great balance and aging ability.

As a dry red varietal Touriga Nacional crafts big full bodied tannic reds with intense color and mouth-filling juicy dark fruits (very much like Cabernet Sauvignon!). Its high aromatics can also bring a variety of spice notes that carry through to the palate, lingering towards a long finish (like your spicy Zins!).

Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by Bauer Karl under CC-BY-3.0

Touriga Nacional from Wines of Portugal, i. V. Marie-Luise Bächle


Outside of Portugal, you can find domestic examples of Touriga Nacional from the Zinfandel hot beds of Lodi, Amador County and the Sierra Foothills as well as in Napa Valley, Georgia and Virginia.

Do you like Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah?

Try Aglianico!

In their book Vino Italiano, Joseph Bastianich and David Lynch describe young Aglianico wines as “… dark and feral, like the wolves that still roam the hills [in Basilicata].”

By Alexis Kreyder - L'Ampélographie (Viala et Vermorel), reproduced in

Aglianico from L’Ampélographie Viali i Vermorela


This grape produces big tannic wines with savory meatiness that can remind you of aged Cabernets and Rhone-style Syrahs. While it can develop even more layers of complexity with age, in its youth it still has charm and is worth seeking out by any big red wine fan.

Outside of Italy, there are domestic examples of Aglianco being produced in Paso Robles, Napa Valley, the Sierra Foothills and Amador County as well as in Texas and Virginia.

So seek out some of these obscure varieties and try something new! Life is too short to be in a rut of drinking just the same ole, same ole.

Cheers!

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