3. Smith Haut Lafite, Pessac Leognan
I’m often asked what my favorite kind of wine is. My answer, like most wine enthusiasts I know, is “I don’t have a favorite.” I think of wines like parents think of children– you love them all equally, just in different ways. One might be pretty, one might be the funniest, one is usually the smartest, one is artistic and so on. Obviously my family is not a good example since I am all of the above. But typically, good parents give equal affection to all. And so, I love all my grapes. One is soft and elegant, one is loud and flashy; one is best with certain foods, one is perfect for sipping by the fireplace. They’re all wonderful; I don’t play favorites.
But if I were stranded on a deserted island with one bottle of wine, it would have to be an elegant, refined, exceptional Pinot Noir.
Pinot is the great king of Burgundy, where it has thrived for hundreds of years. From the heralded vineyards in the southern part of the Côte de Nuits come the most elegant, complex and wonderful wines of this type, and arguably the best wines in all of France and perhaps the whole winemaking world. But alas, these wines are not cheap; in superior vintages the top Burgundies sell at auction for thousands of dollars a bottle.
So, as usual, we turn to the good old US of A to provide us with some reasonably priced but quality wines. California cornered the market on pinot for quite some time in this country. From Mendocino all the way to Santa Barbara, this grape has earned a stellar reputation for fruit forward, wonderfully approachable wines. Some of these may not be wines of amazing structure, especially around Monterey and along the coast; but they are affordable and universally appealing. Many California pinots, however have earned extremely high praise from enthusiasts all over the world, including the folks at Wine Spectator who named Kosta Brown Pinot 2009 the best wine of 2011. So Cali gets most of the attention, as usual. But recently the success of pinot noir from Oregon has oenophiles’ heads spinning. In Willammette Valley especially we’re finding intriguing wines of amazing depth and complexity that, some argue, rival even the great Bourgogne. Critics have heralded 2008 Oregon’s best vintage thus far and it appears it’s only getting better.
In Germany, pinot is called spatburgunder. In my experience, these aren’t typically wines of great distinction, but are interesting and quite approachable. Pinot is one of the parents of South Africa’s hybrid pinotage, which is gaining some momentum here due to a rise in quality imports. We’ve also recently discovered some pinot from New Zealand that is worthy of praise. At quick glance, then, it seems pinot noir can grow almost anywhere. But the best environment for pinot involves warm days, cool evenings, lots of fog and a great deal of talent and patience in the vineyards.
Now, with this finicky grape, you really get what you pay for. If you spend ten bucks on pinot, expect a light, fruity wine reminiscent of Kool-Aid at best, cough medicine at worst. If you spend a bit more, you earn a little depth and complexity. One you cross the twenty-five dollar threshold, there is a dramatic improvement. It’s an unfortunate but very real part of life with this spectacular but variable grape.
It’s also important to note: this grape is probably the truest expression of terroir. That is, these wines are completely different depending on from where they came. In northern California, look for mostly fruit forward, elegant wines with soft, silky tannins. In central and southern Cali pinot is heftier, more robust, spicy and even sometimes a bit sweet. In Oregon, pinot is more delicate and subtle, driven by earth tones and hints of tea leaf and truffle. New Zealand’s versions are known for their minerality and high acidity. In France, all the best components come together to create wines of amazing depth and distinction.
Pinot is probably a sommelier’s favorite grape as it is the most versatile wine for pairing with food. Its low tannins, high acidity, and elegant balance make it the perfect match for many cuisines. Its best counterparts include meatier seafoods like swordfish or salmon, pasta, duck, and of course, anything with mushrooms.
- $10-15: Angeline, Cartledge & Brown, Gunther Schlink, Oyster Bay
- $15-30: Saint Gregory, Byron, Melville, Maysara, Coopers Creek, Sineann, Luca, Capiaux Cellars, Cashburn
- $30-60: Merry Edwards, Louis Jadot Beaune Clos du Ursules, Ata Rangi, Domaine Serene Evenstad, Patz & Hall Hyde Vineyard, Loring Clos Pepe
- $60-100: Domaine Louis Latour Corton Grancey, Domaine Faiveley Gevrey Chambertin, Kosta Browne, Martinelli
- Before you die: Domaine Romanée-Conti
I get that you want sweet wine that tastes like Welch’s. And I understand you don’t care. At all. But seriously. Asking me which of Barefoot or Yellow Tail Moscato is better is like asking a butcher who deals with prime cuts of beef from grass fed cows which can of spam you should buy.
I’m not a “wine snob.” People who prefer attending major league baseball games aren’t sports snobs. Those who settle in with Tom Clancy or a classic Mark Twain aren’t considered book snobs. Seeing a show on Broadway does not make a person a theatre snob. An individual who is more inclined to gaze in amazement at a Monet rather than a child’s fingerpainting is not an art snob. These are all hobbies that require a similar appreciation for their respective crafts, as well as an understanding that the better quality items inevitably have bigger price tags. A wine enthusiast, then, hardly deserves the judgmental label we have been subjected to.
I appreciate wine of all kinds, from the humble table wines of Tuscany to the extravagant Chateaux of Bordeaux; from New Zealand’s racy sauvignon blanc to delicate pinot noir from the Russian River Valley; from a juicy grenache from the hills of Spain to Dom Perignon and absolutely everything in between. And yes, sometimes I am willing to pay more for a more unique or prestigious bottle. But these extravagant occasions are rare, and I deserve a luxury every now and then the same as any hobbyist. Mostly I enjoy the experience of an exceptional bottle of wine, regardless of its price or origins. Do I generally enjoy a fifteen dollar wine more than a four dollar one? Yes. Because it tastes better. Given the choice between USDA choice ground beef or a prime bone-in filet mignon, I would likewise choose the latter, even if it means spending more. It tastes better. I also prefer Cold Stone to Dairy Queen, freshly ground Columbian coffee to stale generic, Sashimi grade tuna to a can of Chicken of the Sea, as well as my dad’s homemade lasagna to Chef Boyardee. It’s not because it costs more. It just tastes better.
I resent hearing degrading comments from those who are unappreciative of wine as an art form. I hear them all the time. I am no more a snob than the gentleman who spends 60k on a luxury vehicle or the young lady that carries a four-hundred dollar purse. That man gets to work every day safely, the same as I do. But his car is more comfortable than mine and has hands-free bluetooth capabilities. And as far as I’m concerned, the woman’s designer purse holds her wallet and makeup just as well as a cheap vinyl bag from Target. But she likes the way it looks, its prestige gives her confidence and the color compliments her shoes. So I don’t judge them; I don’t call her a purse snob. They are entitled to spend their hard earned money on something they value and appreciate. Why am I not entitled to the same?
Not long ago at a staff meeting, one of our sharp-tongued managers cried “Cool climate syrah is for CLOSERS. The rest of you can go sell shitty Australian stuff.” He was right. Cali syrah is a tough sell. Even customers who are open to domestic choices are leaning more toward syrah from Washington, thanks to the likes of Barnard Griffin, Owen Roe, and K Vintners. Nobody knows what to expect from this varietal in California.
Recently Decanter Magazine published an article about California syrah’s identity crisis. While not altogether cutting-edge, I found the article poignant and topical. It’s hard to find consistency in style in syrah from the Golden State. Some are rich, opulent and flashy; some are elegant and nuanced. It’s even more difficult to find consistency in quality. Sure, there are stars: Alban, Stolpman, Qupe, Herman’s Story, Beckmen and, of course, the cult classic Sine Qua Non. But many, if not most, are one dimensional and disappointing, especially considering the average bottle price is much higher than that of cab, merlot or even pinot.
I think it will be a very long time before CA syrah develops its own identity. People can’t help but compare it to Rhône. Look how long it’s taken American Pinot to step out of Burgundy’s shadow. And that’s a freaking shame, because some vintners in Cali make wines that are true expressions of both the varietal and the terrior. But with syrah, it’s rare. But it is amazing.
Stop sending me paraphernalia with the cases of wine I order. I am not spending my time hanging your shit on shelves or putting stuff on the necks of bottles. Do your own merchandising.
No, I do not sell the wine you had on your cruise in Mexico/the Bahamas/the Mediterranean. No, I can’t find it and order it for you. Try one of the 6,000 that are distributed in the Midwest.
Also, if a wine you drank is the best memory you have of your $1500 vacation, you should probably just stay home next time.
Not a wine for every day but an incredible powerhouse of a Barolo. Especially impressive for what’s considered an average year in Piedmont. And still not ridiculously priced regardless of its noble vineyards. Although I think I tasted it at least six years before it’s prime. 95+ points across the board.