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Untangled Vine

An attempt to sort through all things wine. Specifically of, and about, but not limited to: Food and Wine in Toledo, Ohio. Plus the day to day musings of a Wine Distributor...

Silver Joke

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Dear readers, I have some unfortunate news, we, as a wine consuming society, have been duped, hornswaggled, scammed! You see, we have been led to believe that Cabernet, in any form, but particularly from Bordeaux or Napa, is the best wine in the world. Attorneys everywhere beat their chests after numbing their palates with Ketel-One Martinis and proclaim Silver Oak to be “the best”. For a sense of irony, please refer to American Psycho,
Americans, true to the stereotype, continue to consume without knowledge, and then make bold proclamations of what is the best that money can buy. Meanwhile, $100+ bottles of Napa Cabs perch precariously atop this teetering house of cards. Banking on a 30 year old assumption that Napa Cab is the best, it will always be worth the money. The truth is out there, but the reality is not the perception.
Great Wine is Great Wine, just like “a pint is a pound the world around” or something like that. All things being equal, the best Napa Cabs are amazing. They really know how to get the best out of this grape up there. Unfortunately, they aren’t worth my hard-earned money. I love to drink OPC (other people’s Cabs), but I can’t bring myself to plop down a fat C-note to pay for, not only the wine, but the inequities of man. If you’ve been to Napa, it will astound you the size of the tasting rooms. Every time I go to Vegas, I invariably utter the phrase “these casinos weren’t built by the money of all of the winners”. The same principle applies to the tasting rooms. There is a direct parallel between mid-life crises sports cars, boats and producing $100 Cabs, just different levels, same neuroses.
How did the situation escalate itself? Well, California began to gain credibility in the 1970’s thank, in large part, to pioneers like Robert Mondavi, Joe Heitz, and a few other notables. Just like their predecessors Inglenook, they made Cabernet Sauvignon, along with just about everything else. But the Cabernet was great, and it continues to be great. And there is probably no better place in the US to grow Cab than in Napa. So the prices began to escalate, so did the value of property in Napa. Suddenly, probably thanks to Opus One, everyone wanted to produce a $100 bottle of Cab.
At one time, the hands down best wines from this country were Napa Cabs. That has all changed, now, there are many regions in this country that are producing equally amazing wines, and most aren’t even Cabernets. That is not even to mention the amazing wines from all around the globe that are made in an “International Style”, which means low acidity, and robust fruit for the American Palate.
The greatest Irony of all is the fact that most people that plonk down the money never appreciate the wine. They are not wine devotees; they are just as likely to enjoy a bottle of Yellow-Tail if their minions thought that it made them cool. In the restaurant biz, we call it “table-dressing’ wine bottles that sit at the edge of a table so all of the other diners can see how cool they are, just as they probably parked their car taking up 2 spaces in the back of the lot.
So, does that mean that you can’t buy Cabs from Napa? Absolutely not! Please choose producers who are charging what is reasonable for these wines, I draw the line around $60 retail, but I might go as high as $75 for a really special wine. There are hundreds of producers in Napa making cabs that are every bit as good as Opus One or Silver Oak for half the price. Furthermore, you will find top quality wines from everywhere in California and The Pacific Northwest, from grapes other than, gasp!, Cabernet. Just remember, the wine road less traveled bears the most fruit!

Sí España!

Thursday, August 18, 2005

10 years ago, the mere mention of Spanish wine, invariably received a mixed bag of emotions. This enigmatic wine region had been overlooked for far too long, and today, The United States wine market is beginning to reflect that sea of change. But what has brought about the (seemingly) sudden transformation, and is this a passing trend, or are we staring at the next bona fide wine region superstar?

History has a funny way of shedding light on a current situation, and with the Spanish Wine market, this couldn’t be truer. 140 years ago, phylloxera hit France thanks to an Ohio wine grape farmer. As this disease infested every winemaking region of France, the people in the French wine industry followed the jobs right to Spain. Spain didn’t get hit as hard by phylloxera because of the Pyrenees Mountains. This range proved to be the only thing to slow down this incessant pest. With them, the French brought some of their favorite varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay and Mourvedre. After 40 or so years, the French went home after the phylloxera issue was resolved (perhaps a discussion for a future article). Their influence remains today, nowhere more than the “international” grape varieties commonly used there. Fast forward to 1975- Franco dies, and tyranny ends, opening up wine trade in Spain for essentially the first time. At this point, there were a few regions exporting (Rioja, Ribera del Duero), but many were of questionable quality. The wine revolution in Spain had begun.

Over the next 30 years, a few important events occurred, most notably irrigation. Irrigation became legal in 1996, opening up a new world for winemakers in La Meseta (the center of Spain defined by arid climate and high elevations). Winemaking prowess has continued to improve, as has viticulture. A seemingly collective conscious towards high quality, and exporting have made Spain the #1 nation in the world under vine. With 5500 wineries (and growing) and 2.64 million acres planted to the wine grape, the Spanish wine revolution is upon us.

In order to truly understand the diversity of Spanish wines, one must first explore the grapes employed throughout this vast winemaking region. We previously discussed the “International” varietals, but that’s only part of the story. Spain is proud of its many noble varietals, and some are among the best in the world.
Tempranillo- Without question, the most important Spanish varietal, this grape can be very tannic and long lived. The best examples are in Rioja and Ribera del Duero, although, it’s dependable in most regions. Also known as Tinta de Toro and Tinto Fino.

Garnacha/ Grenache- This is probably a noble grape, dating back to the days of Aragon, although the French may disagree. It is arguably better here than anywhere. A hundred years of neglect has been good for these grapes, the older the vine the better. Deep and dark to bright and red, this is certainly Spain’s most versatile red, finding it’s way into Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Navarra and to new heights in Priorat. Also labeled as Garnaxta Negre.
Monastrell/Mourvèdre-Another assumed French varietal, probably originated in Spain. This grapes shows some serious Terroir, and can be almost gamey. Grown extensively throughout Alicante, Almansa, Jumila and Yecla.

Mazuelo/Cariñena/Carignan- ¬Used to add structure and color to blends in need, this is most common in Rioja, and the regions surrounding Tarragona.

Maccabéo/ Viura- One third of the famed trio of grapes in Cava (Spain’s amazing and inexpensive Sparkling Wines), this lovely white does well in warmer regions, particularly where oxidization can be an issue. It has elegant low acidity, and a nice floral character.

Albariño- One of the few Spanish wines that is consistently labeled as the varietal. It can have high acidity and alcohol. Aromatic and peachy, it’s reminiscent of Viognier. Found most commonly in the Galicia Region, specifically in Rias Baixas.

Verdejo- The grape of the famous Rueda. It is often blended with Sauvignon Blanc. This grape is aromatic with an herbaceous quality reminiscent of Laurel.

Xarel-lo/ Pansa Blanca- Another important component of Cava, this grape is most notably grown in Penedès. Early ripening, this can be an intensely distinctive grape.

And here are a few key terms you will eventually come across on Spanish Wine Labels:

¬Cosecha: year or vintage
Joven: 12 months or less in oak.
Crianza: six months in oak casks, and at least a year and a half in tank, cask, or bottle. Requirements many vary slightly from region to region.
Reserva: Minimum of three years in both cask and bottle, with at least one of those in cask.
Gran Reserva: Wines that may not leave the winery until at least 6 years of ageing ahs elapsed, of which 2-3 years are in Cask and 2-3years are spent in the Bottle.

One of the best things about Spanish wines is the fact they seem to have one foot firmly entrenched in the old world, and the other firmly in the new world. Straddling styles seems to wear well on them. They are at once accessible and cerebral, both cathartic and delicious. They are certainly something for everyone to enjoy. Now armed with inspiration and a wealth of info, you can continue on the wine route unsupervised. Please take some time to enjoy Spanish wines of all colors and prices; you will be impressed time and time again.

Cult Wines?!?

Thursday, August 11, 2005

I spent the last 7 years of my wine career in Southern California. I worked as a Sommelier in a very notable restaurant in Santa Barbara for a chunk of that time. I was always a very conscientious customer for all distributors, and I bought a ton of wine. That said, there were several wines that were next to impossible to acquire. The harder it was, the more I wanted them. Very little of the competition got them either. You see, in California, most of the Cult Wines are mailing list only.

So, Cult Wines are defined by the extremely limited amount of wine made, what else makes these wines the stuff of legends? Well, it’s the quality choice. Winemakers of these wines make choices that would ordinarily be bad business decisions with one thought: make the best wine possible. Excruciatingly low yields, high vine density, hand picking berry by berry, Intense canopy management, dry farming, organic measures, native yeast fermentations, extended macerations and expensive oak regimes all contribute to these highly stylized wines. And of course, these wines come from only the very best vineyard sites on the West Coast.

So how do the wines taste? Unforgettable. These are the wines that we sit around after a great meal telling our friends about. They are the stuff of Braggadocios. They inspire jealousy, and owning these bottles crystallizes what we think of our friends by determining who is a good enough friend to drink these wines with. Oh, and by the way, the press on these wines is amazing. Parker, Spectator, Tanzer, etc… all bastions of obtuseness, the type of publications that make you cringe during renewal time because they provide you with so little joy, and feel like they are constantly filling you with bile, they actually get it right (Maybe it’s the infinite monkeys theory). The fact is, these wines are undeniably good.

Let’s review, they are next to impossible to own, you may lose friends over them, the press drives the prices (and demand) of these wines through the roof. And if you’ve had them, you really need them (almost sounds like they should be illegal). So do we really want to mess around with such controversial wines? That all depends on your financial situation. Screaming Eagle, Harlan, etc, will likely cost you upwards of $500/ bottle, but you can get a relative deal on Non-Cabernet producers. There are a multitude of Pinot Noirs and Syrahs for under $100/ bottle. This is where you should spend your money. They age well, but you don't need 30 years for them to peak, usually under 10 will do just fine. And plenty of people in the world of wine believe that Syrah at it's best will beat Cabernet at it's best. So the choice is yours, but don't shut yourself out of the rare opportunity to try one of these legendary wines...

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