Value from the vine.
Article By: Sandy Block, MW
It’s no surprise perhaps that with all of the economic upheavals we’ve experienced, the first half of 2OO8 has seen some dramatic shifts in long term wine consumption trends. Whether or not we are in a recession or heading into one, it’s indisputable that the dollar is at one of its weakest points historically against most major world currencies, and that the cost of energy has risen dramatically with no end in sight. Inflation is threatening. The wine market directly reflects these uncertainties. One of the most impactful developments is that a sustained multi-year growth pattern in the percentage of the total US market that imported wines constitute has ground to a halt. This turnaround actually started in the fall of 2OO7. There are isolated pockets of strength in the import segment, but by and large, we are drinking more domestic wine – as in California. With imports experiencing volume declines of approximately 7% in the early part of the year, the result is an overall market that is dead flat after several successive years of expansion. Digging deeper, it appears there has been a shift from the restaurant sector, which is down slightly, to retail, which has seen growth in the 3 to 4% range that actually outpaces the gains made in 2OO7.
Overall perceptions of “value” seem to be driving the market.
Consumers are still drinking wine at the same rate but they are steering away from whatever strikes them as overpriced. Simultaneously, and related to the value attraction, is the appeal of discovery. This is one reason why Argentina remains so hot, bucking the downward import wine trend, with substantial sales increases of over 3O% so far in 2OO8. As conspicuous consumption begins to recede, Argentina’s reputation for providing deep value, particularly with Malbec, has stood it well. It’s just established enough but also has an exotic aura that fulfills the consumer’s desire for adventure and exploration. So along with the market’s newfound value orientation, there appears to be a parallel willingness to experiment more with unfamiliar varietals. This may partially represent a generational pattern, as the so-called millenials come of age. Today we have the first generation of Americans to hit the market whose families were wine savvy. As a result of this beneficial exposure, which is far greater than that of their predecessors, the younger demographic is more confident and keeps pushing the market away from comfort zone wines towards a new embrace of experimentation and diversity. What’s hot are categories positioning themselves as the “smart buys”, the strongest value propositions. If they’re a bit edgy that is a plus as well.
The following twenty wines are my highly recommended list of what is, or should be, hot in 2OO8. Each was tasted in a blind context, and each fits a stylistic niche that will continue to generate excitement as we navigate through murky economic waters. The question might arise of why, if we are drinking more domestic wines relative to imports, is there only one American wine on the list, and that one is not even from California. It relates to the value concept. Despite currency weakness, for the wines that appeal to my palate in a more moderate price range, California is still not competitive.
LA POEMA BRUT, CAVA, NV
There is a lot of forgettable Spanish sparkling wine on the market (although apparently 1O% less than last year), but this is one of the real stars. Bone dry, with baked bread aromas and a crisp, lemony apple flavor profile, it’s a great wind down wine after work. And the bottle is ultra-classy, always a plus for a sparkler. $12
LOUIS BOUILLOT, CREMANT DE BOURGOGNE, NV
If we’re importing less Spanish bubbly, France is in free-fall this year; much of the loss is in Champagne, however, and this is an amazing substitute for less than half the price. Featuring a beautifully soft, gentle texture, with vanilla, light herbal accents and a toasty finish, this is a great choice for a poached filet of sole served in a creamy sauce. $16
MARCEL GIRAUDON, BOURGOGNE ALIGOTE, 2OO6
This is made from Burgundy’s other white grape. Aged substantially on the lees, Aligote can be a bit harsh, but this bone dry wine has a delicate floral, citrus aroma and lovely round textures, balanced by subtle mineral accents. It would be ideal with a shrimp cocktail. $15
A TO Z PINOT BLANC, OREGON, 2OO6
Our lone American winner is a very round textured Pinot Blanc that has traces of mineral, white pepper and tropical fruit essences on the nose. It’s slightly sweet, with a cooked apple, peachy flavor and smooth ripe flavors lingering on through the finish. A bit oily on the palate, it’s great with curries and other spicy dishes. $13
DOMAINE DU HAUT MORLU, SAUVIGNON BLANC, TOURAINE, 2OO7
Once you get a bit off the beaten path, the Loire Valley continues to amaze with its amazing values. Why pay twice the price for Sancerre, when a wine like this bone dry, grapefruity, mineral and salt-accented beauty is available at half the price? Great cut, or “nervosite” as the French would say, with vegetal and green papaya undertones. $11
CAVES DE SAUMUR, “LES ANDIDES” CHENIN BLANC, SAUMUR, 2OO7
While we’re in the Loire, the coops there can make some outstanding value priced wine. Chenin is one of my latest flames, and this wine illustrates what can be done with the grape in a cool climate in the right, chalky soils. With pear and sweet herb aromas, it is tart, honeyed (but dry) and mineral-like on the palate. Enjoy on a hot day with a seafood salad. $1O
MARC KREYDENWEISS, ANDLAU RIESLING, ALSACE, 2OO5
There’s more and more Riesling being enjoyed and this is a classic style that is distinctly Alsace: quite tart, bone dry, with citric, sour apple intensity. Made at a biodynamically run estate, it has smoky, earthy spice accents and undertones of pear and lemon. Intriguing, precise in structure and delicious! $24
PEGASUS BAY RIESLING, WAIPARA, 2OO6
A stunner from one of New Zealand’s best kept secrets, this wine is right on the borderline of sweet and dry. It’s got baked apple, floral and oily earthy aromas, with rich but intensely tart and fruity apple/lemon flavors. There’s also a touch of truffle oil and lemon peel to accent the finish. A great choice for smoked fish. $2O
HUGEL GEWURZTRAMINER, ALSACE, 2OO6
This is a love it or hate it grape and lately there are more converts than ever. Deep and dense, with golden raisin, hot spice and slightly gamey aromas, the wine’s unctuous texture and lingering anise undertones make it a wonderful match with Thai cuisine. $25
JEAN FRANCOIS MERIEAU, “LE BOIS JACOU” GAMAY, TOURAINE, 2OO7
The scorned grape of Beaujolais can make something wondrous in the Loire Valley if handled with care. With aromas of toasted herb, pine and mocha, this is light to medium bodied red with persistently bright cherry fruit, very low tannins and lingering tart flavors. Red wine with fish, anybody? $13
GAMAY “SELECTION”, COTEAUX D’ANCENIS, 2OO7
Quite purple in hue, with heady aromas of cinnamon, brown sugar, wildflowers, bacon and baked cherries (yes, it is that complex for the price), don’t be misled by the modest price.
It’s the proverbial great house in an obscure neighborhood: ripe, tart and intense. You can chill this a touch and serve it with soups, salads or most any brunch fare. $9
REILLY’S “OLD BUSHVINE” GRENACHE, CLARE VALLEY, 2OO5
This is another often disrespected grape that when done correctly just dazzles my palate. Australia’s had its challenges on the American market lately (negative growth in 2OO8) but this wine, with its leafy, red berry, cooked meat aromas, is not your typical easy quaffing Aussie. Very luscious, with soft berry, layered, almond and chocolate flavor essences, it is so thick you can eat it with a spoon. Rich, but with soft easy tannins. $16
FIREBLOCK “OLD VINE” GRENACHE, CLARE VALLEY, 2OO4
How is this different from the above? It’s even softer in style, with some of the same flavors and aromatic features. There is a bit more floral and anise-like character, but also a chocolate and smooth, juicy red fruit character. This is one to drink outdoors, but don’t serve it too warm. $2O
ATTECA OLD VINE GARNACHA, CALATAYUD, 2OO5
In Spain’s it’s “Garnacha”, but the same principles apply. Low yields and old vines equal concentration and intensity. This has a persistent licorice and black cherry note, with chocolatey berry flavors accented by red pepper. It’s a stunning mouthful of rich, velvety fruit for the price. $18
ROSS “LIGHTS OUT” SHIRAZ, BAROSSA VALLEY, 2OO6
Unless we forget how good Shiraz can be in our embrace of the more obscure Grenache, this wine is a vivid tasting reminder. Opaque and purple tinted, with smoky roasted black fruit and fig aromas, it’s got lush roasted coffee bean accented flavors and moderately grippy finish. This kind of wine is what the Shiraz phenomenon started way back when. $17
TILIA MALBEC, MENDOZA, 2OO7
Made at a winery owned by the famed Catena family, this luscious, creamy style red is what Malbec is all about. Slightly chocolatey, with black cherry and spice over raisiny dark fruit flavors. Wow! $11
BUDINI MALBEC, MENDOZA, 2OO7
This sensual wine has a slightly floral, plummy aroma, with some vegetal spice layered onto the dark chocolate bar flavors. There is a lot of rich oak influence, but very mild tannins. A wine for the grill. $11
DON MIGUEL GASCON MALBEC, 2OO8
Dense, dark and jammy, with raspberry and coffee notes, this is the product of another Catena family winery. The intense dried fruit impression and powerful extracts offer a substantial texture compared to the two lovely, more velvety Malbecs listed above it. $12
VILLA POZZI, NERO D’AVOLA, SICILY, 2OO6
Complex and rich, with meaty, root-vegetable aromas, accented by mint and sage. A very satisfying mouthful of dark red fruit flavors, this originates in what may be Italy’s most overlooked region. Sicily is capable of making great value reds in the right places and this is evidently the right place. $1O
RENOTO, IGT SICILY, 2OO6
An intriguing blend of the native grape Nero d’Avola and Syrah from seaside Sicilian vineyards this wine has intensity written all over it. With smoky tomato and plum compote aromas, it’s jammy and concentrated and full of raspberry fruit but has mild, moderate tannins. Enjoy with grilled chicken. $12