For every new wine discovery I make there's typically a dog or three. Professional wine tasting is a dirty job, but someone's got to do it so that you don't have to.
For my International Wine Cellar publication, I spend nearly four months a year on the road, in the cellars. My colleague Josh Raynolds and IWC contributors in Europe similarly spend a lot of time underground. Usually we visit individual wineries and taste one-on-one with the winemaker: the visits are time-consuming but to my mind the best way to get inside a wine. Occasionally we do group tastings as well, in order to sample wines we might otherwise miss, and this can make for a really grueling session.
One time I showed up for a group tasting of To-Remain-Nameless Valley wines where I had been led to believe there would be about 75 samples waiting for me; in fact there were close to 200. I hunkered down for an all-day tongue-lashing. In the end, though, it wasn't the marathon I feared. I didn't need to swirl and spit my way through many of the wines on the table because one sniff was enough to tell me that a scary percentage of them had serious flaws - high volatile acidity, crude oakiness, oxidative aromas.
Figure that those 200 bottles staring me down are not unlike the myriad choices in front of you at your favorite wine shop. How can you really know what's in a bottle before you pop the cork. Market competition has grown so fierce that there's more well-made wine on the retail shelves than ever before, but let's face it, the odds are still against you.
That's why consumers seek out critics they can trust, particularly when they're venturing into unfamiliar territory for their purchases. You don't need a wine pro if you know just what you want, but if, on the other hand, you're open to new flavor and aroma sensations and prefer trying something different rather than sticking with old favorites, we can tell you which wines to avoid and which to sample - in tasting notes that are (we hope) specific, comprehensive, and written in Actual English. If we're doing our job, we give you sufficient data to select wines you're likely to get a kick out of. We describe, you decide.
Here are some of our favorite recent finds, all of them excellent values in their price ranges.
Deep ruby. Textbook syrah aromas of dark berries, cracked pepper and violet, with a smoky overtone. Pliant blackberry and blueberry flavors pick up a licorice nuance with aeration and show very good intensity. Finishes with very good cut, repeating the licorice and floral notes.
Very pale color. Captivating aromas of lemon cream, nectarine, papaya, cinnamon, mace and smoky oak. Dense and lush on entry, then sweet but shapely in the middle, with vibrant flavors of pineapple, peach and spices. Surprisingly sappy acidity gives this wine terrific verve and grip. Spreads out to saturate the palate without leaving any impression of weight. I would call this Burgundian, but it's really chardonnay in its own distinctive style—and one of the best examples of the variety I've yet tasted from Argentina.
Bright violet. Sexy, expansive aromas of black raspberry and cherry preserves, with floral and spicecake nuances and slow-mounting minerality. Energetic, mineral-driven red and dark berry flavors show alluring sweetness and a suave floral overtone. This seamless, pure Beaujolais finishes with excellent clarity and lingering floral and red berry notes. As delicious as it is right now, I'll bet that it will be even better in a few years and will hold for a good while after that. Cheysson's wine is raised in cement and stainless steel tanks and never sees wood.
Region: South Africa
(49% semillon, 38% sauvignon blanc and 13% viognier; done in stainless steel) Very pale bright yellow. Fruit-driven aromas of lemon and tropical fruits complemented by honey and lifted by grapefruit zest and wild herbs. Rich, fruity and nicely concentrated, with a silky texture enlivened by sound acids and lemony grip. The ripe lemon and grapefruit flavors are deepened by an element of leesy complexity. Finishes with good grip and thrust. A great value.
Very pale yellow. Intriguing aromas of lemon, minerals, menthol and white pepper; reminded me a bit of grüner veltliner. Then tactile and supple but dry, with good density and an almost sauvignon-like tang to the flavors of minerals, ginger and flowers. Should make a very flexible wine at the dinner table. This is made from the more minerally Mendocino clone of torrontés, not the Salta clone.
(70% grenache and 30% syrah; all done in concrete) Bright ruby. High-pitched aromas of redcurrant and cherry, with complicating notes of rose, spicecake and minerals. Taut and energetic, offering sappy red fruit flavors and a sexy floral pastille quality. Silky tannins add shape to the spicy, incisive finish. This is drinking very well now.
(70% tempranillo, 20% garnacha and 10% mazuelo and graciano, aged in a blend of 60% French and 40% American oak, all new): Glass-staining ruby. Exotic, oak-spiced red berry and cherry aromas, with hints of mocha and rose. Round and seamless in texture, offering sweet raspberry and cassis flavors with a touch of bitter chocolate. Supple tannins sneak in on the finish, which features notes of ripe dark fruit and baking spices.
Region: South Africa
Medium straw-yellow. Lovely perfumed lift to the aromas of citrus peel, nectarine, nutty oak, marzipan and spices. Harmonious acidity gives cut to the nectarine, citrus and sexy oak flavors, with a hint of minerality contributing grip. Still a bit youthfully tight but seems a bit more showy early on than previous vintages. Finishes subtle and long. This was aged in 40% new and 60% one-year-old French oak for a year.
Dark ruby. Deeply pitched dark berries and dried flowers on the nose, with a brighter red fruit quality emerging with air. Spicy raspberry and blackberry flavors coat the palate, with zesty acidity providing lift. This shows good heft for an '08. Offers expansive, alluringly sweet dark fruit and floral notes on the finish, leaving a gentle spicy note behind.
(from the estate's oldest syrah vines) Opaque dark ruby. Compelling aromas of blackberry, smoked meat, Szechuan peppercorn, crushed rock and pastrami spices. Powerful, savory flavors of crushed blackberry and smoked meat are given energy and definition by the site's limestone soil. With aeration, the meaty quality was increasingly overshadowed by fresh, pure black raspberry and blackberry fruit. There's plenty of dusty tannins and structure here for aging. Idiosyncratic and long on personality, more Rhone in style than California.
(from 100-year-old vines planted on sandy soil): Full red-ruby. Brooding
aromas and flavors of dark berries, black cherry, bitter chocolate and
licorice. Sweet and intense, with a creamy old-vines texture enlivened
by firm acidity. Boasts excellent density and mid-palate energy,
dusting the entire palate on the aftertaste. This would be great now
with a pepper-encrusted steak. Sadly, these old vines, planted by
Italian settlers at the turn of the 19th century, are rapidly
disappearing for simple economic reasons, as the land in and around
Oakley, which is within the San Francisco Bay Area, is more valuable
for housing and retail businesses.
(from 120-year-old vines): Deep ruby-red. Fascinating nose combines crushed blackberry, pepper, licorice and violet, plus a whiff of tree bark typical of mourvedre. At once suave and dense, with terrific depth and creaminess to the flavors of sweet dark berries, coffee and chocolate. This silky, highly concentrated wine tightens up on the finish, showing palate-saturating persistence and a firm tannic spine for further development in bottle. My sample retained its freshness and grip for 72 hours in the recorked bottle.
Since 1985, Stephen Tanzer and his team of renowned, widely published regional experts have spent months of every year on the wine trails of the world, having their passports punched and tasting tens of thousands of wines annually, the best of which are reviewed in the independent, critically acclaimed, bimonthly International Wine Cellar (IWC).
Many wines featured in Second Tuesday will be selected from past, current and upcoming issues of the IWC. But Stephen and associate editor Josh Raynolds will also include superb recent discoveries that would otherwise slip between the cracks of IWC coverage.
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