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The Successful Collector – By Julian Hitner ~ Wine education for us all – decanting wine ~ Saturday, September 1st, 2012

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

There are many thoughts on decanting—the act of pouring wine out of the bottle and into another glass vessel. While many traditionalists hold to the idea that all red wines and even certain whites should always be decanted, others believe decanting to be an unnecessary procedure, one that should only be carried out under the strictest of circumstances.

At any rate, there are really only three reasons to decant. The first is to rid the wine of sediment, the undesirable solid components that have built up over time (most apparent in older wines). The second is to raise the temperature of the wine—important when the bottle has been taken out of a cool damp cellar. The third reason is to aerate the wine in order to enhance its aromas. For the vast majority of wine lovers, this is the most common impetus for decanting, as most us do not regularly serve twenty-year-old bottles.

But what are the steps for undertaking a proper decanting, particularly for aeration? First and foremost, check to see of your decanter is clean, that you do not smell anything coming from the inside the bowl. Once this is established, make sure you have all your other tools at the ready, namely your corkscrew and a clean cloth. A few wine glasses are also advisable.


Using the miniature knife on your corkscrew, cut the foil on the top of the bottle. Once you have carefully uncorked the wine, pour half an ounce into one of your wine glasses to taste the wine for yourself; we do this to make sure the wine is clean and devoid of faults. If you are satisfied the wine is clean, you are almost ready to decant. But before you empty the entire contents of the bottle into the decanter, pour in only an ounce and then swish the decanter around in a circular motion. This will ‘season’ the decanter and make the introduction of the rest of the wine less of a shock. Once this step is completed, pour this ounce out into your wine glass, or drink it if you feel so inclined. While it will not taste as good as what is to follow, there is no sense in wasting it.

Decanting Wine

Finally, you are ready to decant your wine. Holding the bottle comfortably in your hand, gently pour the remaining contents into the decanter. Most sommeliers tend to hold the decanter in their hands while carrying this out, while others prefer keep the decanter on the table. Both ways are perfectly acceptable.

As you are pouring, decant the wine more vigorously if you believe it will benefit from a more aggressive aeration. Be sure to continually use your clean cloth to wipe off the lip of the bottle after every pour, otherwise small amounts of liquid will dribble to the bottom of the bottle and onto your hands, and eventually the table.

Lastly, distribute the contents of the decanter liberally into your glass and those of your companions. In the end, the fruits of one’s labours are most enjoyed when partaken by all.

Click here for a few gems from the 1 September 2012 Vintages Release 

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The Successful Collector – By Julian Hitner ~ Wine education for us all – Viognier ~ Saturday, August 4th, 2012

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

From oblivion to stardom:

The newest grape to be admitted into the pantheon of France’s greatest whites, the rise of Viognier has been astounding. But not accidental. Were it not so difficult to cultivate, wine lovers would probably have discovered it sooner. But such as it is, this was not to be, and it has only been over the last dozen years that Viognier has become so successful.

Georges Vernay Condrieu

It originally hails from the Northern Rhône, grown to perfection in Condrieu. The best examples are truly unique, all perfume and creamy headiness, with stunning aromas of ripe apricots, nectarines, lemon blossom, white flowers, and honeysuckle. These days, however, Viognier is found in many other winegrowing regions worldwide, performing best in places warm enough for it to properly ripen.

Aside from Condrieu and the single-estate appellation of Château Grillet (also located in the Northern Rhône), in the rest of France the vast majority of Viognier is grown in Languedoc-Roussillon. Many such bottlings are well priced and refreshing. It is also grown throughout various parts of Italy and Spain, though quality here will vary from the appreciable to the undrinkable.

Yalumba Virgilius Viognier

In the New World, Viognier is planted just about everywhere. In Australia, some of the best offerings are just as seductive as the finest Condrieus; while those of California have been steadily gaining in both quantity and quality. Viognier is also found in Chile, Argentina, South Africa, New Zealand, and even Canada.

It is also interesting to note that Viognier is being increasingly used as a blending component with various red grapes, most notably Syrah/Shiraz. Fermented at the same time (known as ‘co-pigmentation’), adding around 5% Viognier contributes both aroma and finesse to the wine, as well as enhances its colour. In the Northern Rhône appellation of Côte-Rôtie, this practice has been commonplace for decades, and is also on the increase in places like Australia and California.

Calera Mount Harlan Viognier

But Viognier shall always be celebrated as an unblended white wine par excellence. Served at around 10-12°C, its texture should always be soft and enveloping, with a finish to both match and compliment the initial flavours detected. Most Viognier will not age more than a few years, and is one of few dry wines that actually performs better as an aperitif. However, if food is a must-have, herbed lemon chicken will probably do nicely. Just be sure the wine’s creaminess—its wonderful perfumed creaminess—is not hindered.

Click here for a few gems from the 7 July 2012 Vintages Release 

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The Successful Collector – By Julian Hitner ~ Wine education for us all – Valpolicella ~ Saturday, July 7th, 2012

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

Quintessentially Italian:  The most important DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) (or subregion) in the Veneto, Valpolicella is one of the most famous light-bodied reds in Italy. Located right above starry-eyed Verona, in many ways Valpolicella might remind drinkers of Chianti: easygoing, fresh, and carrying that extra degree of acidity that’s so important with food pairings.

Quintarelli Valpolicella Classico

And like Chianti, there are regrettably more bad versions than good. At the top end, Valpolicella is just as complex and meaningful as any great Italian wine. At bottom, however, the commercial versions often taste artificially sweet, underripe, and excessively acidic. Fortunately, there are nowadays many bottlings, relatively inexpensive, which provide much satisfaction. Most of these hail from the Classico (or heartland) part of the region, with vines located on the best parts of the hillsides.

Tedeschi Valpolicella Classico

According to regulations, Valpolicella must be made from 40-70% Corvina Veronese, 20-40% Rondinella, and 5-25% Molinara, with the option of up to 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Negrara, Barbera, and Sangiovese (as well as a few others). Excepting the very best bottlings, the oak influence in Valpolicella is minimal. Basic versions are usually aged for up to a year in Slavonian oak casks, while those labelled ‘Superiore’ require longer maturations. Here, the primary aim is freshness and a reasonable upgrade in complexity, not tannic extraction or more powerful flavours.

Zenato Valpolicella

Indeed, the key to appreciating good Valpolicella is discovering its gentleness and easygoing attitude. When young, aromas should include fresh cherries, red plums, light savoury nuances, cedar, underbrush, and the slightest hint of almond bitterness. On the palate, the ideal Valpolicella should emphasize these flavours while maintaining as fresh and rejuvenating a disposition as possible. Most Valpolicella should be served between 10-12°C. Though the best examples can be cellared for up to ten years or more, basic versions should be drunk young. Food pairing options are diverse, though pasta dishes (especially lasagna) and light game birds (especially Cornish hen) are a few personal favourites. When in doubt, just follow your own taste buds.

Click here for a few gems from the 7 July 2012 Vintages Release 

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The Successful Collector – By Julian Hitner ~ Wine education for us all – Rosé wine ~ Saturday, June 23rd, 2012

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

What’s all the blush about?  

What is rosé? Is it a red wine or a white wine?

Truth be told, it’s a little of both. With several exceptions, most rosé is made from red grapes using white winemaking methods.

There are two common ways of making the ideal summer sipper. The first is to simply crush the grapes and let them ferment with the juice for up to three days in stainless steel vats, after which the juice is ‘run off.’ Fermented at cool temperatures the same way white wine would be, the result is a very pale red (or pink) wine with a discernible white wine personality.

Chateau d’Esclans Garrus Rose

On the other hand, most of the world’s finest rosés are produced using the saignée method. This is a little more complicated. Instead of immediately crushing the grapes, they are left relatively unbroken to chill and macerate for up to two days, after which they are fermented like any other white wine; any ‘free-run’ juice is then drained from the vat and eventually bottled. Not surprisingly, this is more labour-intensive, and quality will depend on the experience and/or talent of the winemaker. Isn’t this always the case?

Chateau d’Aqueria Tavel Rose

So in what places is the best rosé produced? In France, great rosé can be found throughout virtually all southern winegrowing regions, particularly Provence, Languedoc-Roussillon, and the Southern Rhône Valley (most notably the Tavel appellation). In each case, the wine is typically a blend of Grenache, Cinsault, Syrah, and Mourvèdre; though the style may vary depending on grape blends and the level of extraction involved. Delightful rosé can also be found in theLoire(the best made from Cabernet Franc), Burgundy (particularly the commune of Marsannay), and even Bordeaux. Spain and Italy also produce their fair share, under the names ‘rosado’ and ‘rosato,’ respectively. In each case, local grapes are commonly used, though Spanish versions are often more reliable, especially those made from Garnacha (Grenache).

In California, white Zinfandel was all the rage in past decades, crafted using the saignée method but with a much shorter maceration. However, the past ten years have seen white Zinfandel give way to darker-coloured, fresher, and much more potent styles. Many of these are crafted using whichever grapes the specific region is most famous for, or from whichever grapes are most widely available. Other than this, generalizations are hard to make, rosé is now so widely produced. Large-scale producers can be found throughoutCalifornia,South America,Australia,New Zealand, andSouth Africa. In each case, they will often taste much stronger and more extracted than their European counterparts, as well as possess a much darker colour. Not surprisingly, smaller producers with a good reputation are the ones to watch out for.

Most rosé can be easily enjoyed on its own, either as an aperitif on the summer patio or as an accompaniment to all sorts of dishes. While it may seem surprising, rosé pairs amazingly well, not just with seafoods and creatures formerly feathered but a wide assortment of foods. The ideal serving temperature is anywhere between 6 and 8°C. Just remember one thing: excepting champagne versions, rosé does not age. Particularly on this account, it is indeed neither a red wine nor a white wine.

Click here for a few gems from the 23 June 2012 Vintages Release.

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The Successful Collector – By Julian Hitner ~ Eastern Languedoc – quality catching up to quantity ~ Saturday, June 9th, 2012

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

Unbelievable potential – For French wine collectors, there’s a new neck of the woods to explore, and it’s the eastern Languedoc. Part of the Midi—the gigantic, crescent-like stretch of vineyards spanning the Franco-Spanish border to the mouth of the Rhône—the eastern part of the Languedoc, while not considered an ‘official’ region unto itself, has finally begun to emerge from its long slumber to take its place among the fine winegrowing regions of France.

Montpeyroux Vineyards

And not a moment too soon. For most of its history, the eastern (and western) part of the Languedoc has been the source of vinous France’s most significant problem: a bottomless wine lake where producers, gathering their grapes and taking them to the local co-operatives, make millions of hectolitres of mostly bulk wine that simply cannot be sold. Fortunately, this is beginning to change. Nowadays, some of the best wines of the eastern Languedoc are being crafted by ardent, small-scale growers that have cast off their co-operative affiliations and begun making their own wine, usually in small quantities, from the best grapes possible. Armed with a commitment to excellence, these individuals have begun taking advantage of the extraordinary growing conditions of the most prized locations in the eastern Languedoc, with extraordinary results.

Domaine de l’Hortus

But what are these locations, or subregions (subdivided even further to specific terroirs), that have only recently gained so much attention? One of these is picturesque Pic-St-Loup, whose hillsides are now almost completely planted with vines. About 25km north of Montpellier, sunny conditions, relatively high altitudes, and cool nights make for some of the most characterful, lavender-laden wines of the Midi—not surprising when considering the rugged, scrub-patched terrain of the landscape. Here, most wines are blends of Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvèdre, with old-vine Carignan and some Cinsault also constituting some immensely pleasurable, deeply coloured, and fully flavoured wines. For collectors, the best bottlings of the Pic-St-Loup, while not inexpensive, seldom fail to both captivate and reward proper cellaring for over a decade, sometimes much more.

Another stunning subregion is Terrases du Larzac, located just north of Clermont-l’Hérault. This is where some of the most intense, long-lived wines of the Eastern Languedoc are produced, especially from the terroirs Montpeyroux and St-Saturnin. Like Pic-St-Loup, wines are typically a blend of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre (limited to 75% individually), though Cinsault and Carignan are also permitted in lesser quantities. Once again, high elevations, sunny skies, and geologically diverse soils play no small part in aiding growers’ efforts.

Mas Champart Saint-Chinian

Just as important are the two most significant stand-alone appellations of the region, of which St-Chinian is probably most familiar. Situated northeast of Béziers in the foothills of the Cévennes, vines are often grown at altitudes more than 1,970ft (600m), with Syrah planted mainly on schist; while vines at lower elevations are planted on an unusual mixture of purple clay and limestone deposits. All the usual suspects are plentiful: Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Carignan, and Cinsault; plus a growing number of quality whites crafted from Roussanne, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, and Vermentino. St-Chinian acquired appellation status in 1982, with Berlou and Roquebrun allowed to append their names to the appellation as of 2004. The best wines are often the sturdiest of the eastern Languedoc, and have little difficulty aging for up to a decade or more.


Just to the east is Faugères, also granted AOC status in 1982. With soils comprised almost entirely of schist, this is natural winegrowing country; yet the appellation has had a much harder time building its reputation. Still, this hasn’t stopped top properties from crafting incredible, cellarable wine, which must contain a minimum of 20% Syrah or Mourvèdre. Up to 40% Carignan may also be used, with Grenache and Cinsault also permitted. In 2005, whites crafted from Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, and Vermentino were granted appellation status.

And this is only the tip of the iceberg of new place names to memorize, the eastern Languedoc is that much of a hotbed. Better late than never, I say.

 Click here for a few gems from the 9 June 2012 Vintages Release 

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The Successful Collector – By Julian Hitner ~ Collecting French Wine – Part II (Rhône and Champagne) ~ Saturday, May 26th, 2012

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

Collectors and top regions of France: For most French wine collectors, the most prestigious winegrowing regions of France are Bordeaux and Burgundy. What follows is more open to debate. Some would say the Rhône Valley takes the bronze medal, others Champagne.

Of the two, which is better is difficult to say, the wines of each region are so different stylistically. The Rhône, divided between north and south, plays host to some of the greatest full-bodied red wines of France, complimented by an increasing smattering of fine whites. Champagne, on the other hand, while coming across as a one-trick pony, is anything but. The world’s undisputed mecca for premium sparklers and one of the most addictive types of wine in existence, to understand and appreciate the many nuances between one great champagne and another is one of life’s noble pleasures.

And yet, it’s probably a safe bet that most French collectors have far more Rhône wine in their cellars than champagne, especially when considering the heightened price of a standard bottle of bubbly. Sheer selection is another factor. There are far more Rhône wines of different type than those in Champagne. On this score, the Rhône even has vague similarities to Bordeaux.

Guigal La TurqueIn the Northern Rhône, where Syrah is the only permitted red grape, there are four appellations of critical worth. Closest to Lyon are the steep slopes of the celebrated Côte-Rôtie, where Syrah may be blended with up to 20% Viognier—in reality most producers use much less. Combining ruggedness with finesse and long-term aging potential, the most lauded examples tend to hail from the Côte Blonde and Côte Brune, of which the three single-vineyard labels of Marcel Guigal are must-haves: La Mouline, La Landonne, and La Turque. Aside from Guigal, other outstanding domaines/négociants include Gerin, René Rostaing, Chapoutier, Joseph Jamet, and Bernard Burgaud. Other respected operations include Ogier, Jean-Michel Stephan, Clusel-Roch, Château de St-Cosme (Gigondas-based), Tardieu-Laurent, and Gilles Barge.

Georges Vernay CondrieuSouth of Côte-Rôtie is Condrieu. On the verge of extinction fifty years ago, the speciality here is Viognier, a grape which has practically exploded in popularity over the past fifteen years. Though nowadays planted in just about every major winegrowing nation on Earth, few would dispute that those of Condrieu are best, particularly those sourced from single vineyards. Top producers, many of which also make excellent wines from neighbouring Côte-Rôtie, are Georges Vernay, Guigal, René Rostaing, Pierre Gaillard, Yves Cuilleron, and François Villard. There are at least several others, along with Château Grillet, a single-estate AOC located within Condrieu.

Chave HermitageFurther south, skipping St-Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage for the moment, we come to Hermitage. Crafted to 100% Syrah, for both collectors and enthusiasts red Hermitage is one of the most esteemed wines in France. Covering a mere 134ha and comprising just over 12 different vineyards (or climats), Hermitage is to Syrah what Chambertin is to Pinot Noir: the Old World-wide benchmark for practically every other wine of similarity. With more depth, concentration, structure, vitality, and durability than most other wines, great Hermitage is a force to be reckoned with.

Even the whites are monumental. Crafted from Roussanne and Marsanne, the best examples can keep just as long as the reds, in some cases longer. Top producers of red and white versions include Jean-Louis Chave, Chapoutier, Paul Jaboulet Aîné, Marc Sorrel, Guigal, Tardieu-Laurent, and Ferraton. Other producers worth noting are Domaine du Colombier, Caves de Tain-l’Hermitage, plus a few others.

Similar to Hermitage are the reds of Cornas. Connected to the southernmost boundaries of St-Joseph on the left bank of the Rhône, only red wines crafted to 100% Syrah are produced here. Like Hermitage, these are powerful, immensely ageworthy wines, crafted from steep slopes and differentiated primarily by their heightened ruggedness and slightly less sophisticated disposition. Oftentimes reasonably priced, top names, many with plots in other appellations, include Thierry Allemand, Auguste Clape, Jean-Luc Colombo, Paul Jaboulet Aîné, Tardieu-Laurent, Vincent Paris (formerly Robert Michel), and Courbis.

While these are the Northern Rhône’s four most prestigious appellations, the best of Crozes-Hermitage and St-Joseph should not be overlooked. In both cases, Syrah is the only permitted red grape, though a small percentage of Marsanne and/or Roussanne may be added. A small amount of white wine from these two grapes is also made. In all, the best examples make for sturdy, increasingly exceptional wines. Once again, top producers/négociants often have plots in other appellations: Pierre Gaillard, Yves Cuilleron, François Villard, Domaine Combier, Courbis, Paul Jaboulet Aîné, Chapoutier, Guigal, Tardieu-Laurent, Gilles Robin, and Pierre et Jérôme Coursodon.

Beaucastel Hommage a Jacques PerrinCompared to the Northern Rhône, the Southern Rhône is far larger, more diverse, and offers just as many collectables. Here, Châteauneuf-du-Pape leads the way, where thirteen grape varietals are permitted: Grenache (plus Grenache Blanc), Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Vaccarèse, Counoise, Muscardin, Terret Noir, Roussanne, Picpoul (plus Picpoul Blanc), Clairette, Bourboulenc, and Picardin. For the most part however, the classic blend is Grenache (predominant), Syrah, and Mourvèdre.

Chateau La NertheAlong with Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie, Châteauneuf is the most lauded appellation in the Rhône Valley, its top reds among the most absorbing, most powerful offerings in France. Even the whites can be excellent. Top producers, some with holdings in other appellations, include Clos des Papes, Château de Beaucastel, Château Rayas, Château de la Nerthe, Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe, Henri Bonneau, Domaine de la Janasse, Domaine Grand Veneur, and Domaine Bois de Boursan. Others to watch out for are Chapoutier, Tardieu-Laurent, Clos du Mont Olivet, Domaine Chante-Cigale, Domaine Clos du Caillou, Domaine de la Vieille Julienne, Domaine de Sénéchaux, and a whole host of others.

Domaine Santa Duc Prestige des Hautes GarriguesAfter Châteauneuf, Gigondas has spent the last forty years carving out a remarkable reputation for itself. Like its more illustrious neighbour, the blend is a classic combination of Grenache (max. 80%) accompanied by a minimum of 15% Syrah and Mourvèdre, plus other grapes. Indeed, the best wines nowadays give top Châteauneufs a run for their money. The list for top producers, many with plots in other appellations, is growing: Domaine de Santa Duc, Château de St-Cosme, Domaine Raspail-Ay, Domaine du Cayron, and Domaine St-Gayan. Other producers/négociants of note include Perrin & Fils (Château Beaucastel), Tardieu-Laurent, Domaine du Pesquier, Guigal, and Domaine Brusset.

Rounding out the trio of top Southern Rhône appellations is Vacqueyras. Granted AOC status in 1990, Vacqueyras has become something of a hotbed for both collectors and general enthusiasts in search of great value wines with very good concentration and aging potential. The blend is similar to Gigondas: Grenache (predominant) paired with Syrah, Mourvèdre, and sometimes Cinsault. Several producers, both local and from other communes, to look up are Perrin & Fils, Tardieu-Laurent, Clos des Cazaux, and Domaine de la Monadière.

Domaine Gourt de MoutensAfter these appellations, premium choices for collectors become sparser; yet there are several other appellations on the rise with increasing numbers of serious producers. In most places, the GSM-blend is largely the same. In Rasteau (granted full AOC status in 2010), producers like Domaine Gourt de Mautens, Château La Soumade, and Domaine des Escaravailles are turning heads. The appellation is also known for its excellent Vin Doux Naturels, fortified wines crafted entirely from Grenache. Other appellations collectors may want to explore are Vinsobres, Beaumes de Venise (most famously known for its Muscat-based fortifieds), and the best Côtes du Rhône-Villages, such as Cairanne (also known for great Vin Doux Naturels), Plan de Dieu, and Massif d’Uchaux.

But then there’s Champagne, unique among French winegrowing regions in that there is but one speciality: sparkling wine. Were it to end there, Champagne would probably be lost in a sea of more diverse regions in other parts of France.

Dom PerignonBut Champagne is special. The wine is special, and the reason relates to overall quality. While many other places in France and around the world make sparkling wine, the yardstick for effervescent supremacy is set by the best bottlings of champagne. Combined with its status as the drink of choice for celebration, there is simply no other sparkling wine that enjoys the same pre-eminence and esteem.

Louis RoedererAt the top of the pyramid, champagnes known as ‘vintage cuvée prestige’ are the priciest. Aged for at least 36 months on the lees (oftentimes many times longer), these are the top bottlings produced by the best houses, the most famous versions synonymous with luxury, indulgence, and affluence. The most renowned of these include Dom Pérignon (Moët & Chandon), Cristal (Louis Roederer), La Grande Dame (Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin), Sir Winston Churchill (Pol Roger), Belle Epoque (Perrier-Jouët), and Comte de Champagne (Taittinger). Other equally esteemed, sometimes pricier, items include Clos de Mesnil and Clos d’Ambonnay (Krug), RD and Vieilles Vignes Françaises (Bollinger), Dom Ruinart (Ruinart), Grand Siècle (Laurent-Perrier), Blanc de Millénaire (Charles Heidsieck), Cuvée William Deutz (Deutz), and Cuvée Paradis (Alfred Gratien). While there are others, these are widely considered the crème de la crème, capable of lasting at least several decades, sometimes much longer.

Yet vintage champagne often represents better value for money. Produced by the same houses with the same minimum time on the lees (again typically a great deal longer), there is a growing tendency to overlook vintage champagne in favour of either ‘house’ wines (more on this in a moment) and vintage cuvée prestige. Personally, I can think of no greater sacrilege, as the best vintage champagnes are often just as compelling as their pricier, more illustrious counterparts. In addition to those already mentioned, great houses to seek out are Jacquesson, Billecart-Salmon, Jacques Selosse, Gosset, Drappier, Henriot, Joseph Perrier, Bruno Paillard, and Lanson. And let’s not forget Salon (owned by Laurent-Perrier), one of the most luxurious, priciest champagnes of them all. Not surprisingly, wines of this calibre can keep for at least a decade, sometimes two or three times as long.

Jacques Selosse InitialeThen come the ‘house’ wines, non-vintage bottlings that represent the vast majority of all champagne produced, aged at least 15 months on the lees. Normally popped open shortly after purchase, the choice of producers is enormous. With a growing number of small growers nowadays bottling their own wine instead of selling their grapes to the large houses, selection has never been greater, not just non-vintage versions but single-year wines and even vintage cuvée prestige labels. In addition to the major houses, alternate operations and smaller-scale growers to seek out are Ayala, Larmandier-Bernier, Pierre Gimonnet & Fils, Philipponnat, Egly-Ouriet, Alain Thiénot, Serge Mathieu, Vilmart, and Tarlant. There are many hundreds of others.

Pol Roger Blanc de BlancsBut the choices hardly end here. Not to be discounted are the styles found within the three categories, two of which pertain to the type(s) of grapes used. One of these is Blanc de Blancs, champagne made only from Chardonnay. Sourced mainly from the Côte de Blancs south of Épernay, this is my favourite type of champagne—stylish, refined, and texturally brilliant. Another type is Blanc de Noirs, made only from Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier. Krug Brut Blanc de NoirsSourced at its very best from grapes grown throughout the Montagne de Reims and the Vallée de la Marne, Blanc de Noirs are usually rounder and fruitier, the best examples just as extraordinary as their counterparts. Then there is rosé champagne, made one of two ways. One is to craft a blend of still white wine (predominant) with a small quantity of still red wine. The other way is the saignée method, whereby the clear juice of red grapes is left to macerate on its skins for a short time—this is more expensive and difficult to correctly accomplish. Either way, rosé champagne is oftentimes more expensive than the white versions, and on occasion just as magnificent. However, most champagne is crafted from both red grapes and white grapes, via varying proportions of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier.

Veuve Clicquot Demi-SecWithin these categories are levels of sweetness, the amount of sweetening agent, or liqueur d’expédition, added during the dosage stage of production—this occurs right before the wine is corked and ready for release. Most champagne is crafted in the brut style, or to near-full dryness (3-15g/l of sugar). However, over the past dozen years there has been a growing demand for champagne crafted with no liqueur d’expédition in it whatsoever. Such wines may contain one of five names on the label: brut zero, brut nature, brut sauvage, ultra brut, or extra brut (the very latter may contain 0-6g/l of sugar). Another popular style in certain parts of the world is demi-sec, champagne containing up to 8% sugar (or 33-50g/l). Though there are other levels of sweetness, these three are nowadays the most prevalent.

Such are the most important qualitative levels and stylistic differences to understand in Champagne, plus the best producers to seek out. Which brings us back to our original question: for collectors, what is the most prestigious winegrowing region of France after Bordeaux and Burgundy? Is it the Rhône Valley or Champagne?

Indeed, the Rhône offers more types of wine. However, from a position of quality, an average bottle of NV champagne is much more expensive than a standard bottle of Côtes du Rhône (though the former is much more expensive to produce). Even so, most would agree that overall quality in Champagne is higher than in the Rhône. But as collectors, we’re not dealing with average bottles, are we? We’re dealing with benchmarks, not with benchwarmers.

And in so doing, a stalemate is reached. For who would contend that a bottle of Salon is any less grand than a bottle of Guigal La Turque? Not I, and certainly not any self-respecting French wine collector.

 Click here for a few gems from the 26 May 2012 Vintages Release along with several others.


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The Successful Collector – By Julian Hitner ~ Brunello di Montalcino – Sangiovese at its greatest ~ Saturday, April 28th, 2012

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

An Italian icon:  The greatest wine of Italy? While subject to debate, we can all be certain of this: other than Barolo and Barbaresco, along with the best of Sagrantino di Montefalco, there is no greater single-grape wine than Brunello di Montalcino. Crafted from 100% Sangiovese Grosso, the local strain of the grape, Brunello has fast become one of the most prestigious, most admired, and most sought-after premium Italian wines by collectors and enthusiasts.

Brunello vineyards

But would it surprise readers to learn this was not always the case? In fact, back in the 1970s few people had even heard of Brunello, and Montalcino was one of the poorest villages in this part of Tuscany. This only began to change in the 1980s, when an increasing number of producers began taking better advantage of the regional terroir of the area. Protected from summer storms by Monte Amiata, rising 5,600ft (1,700m) to the south, the conditions under which Brunello is produced are decisively different to the more northerly winegrowing regions of Tuscany, the weather much warmer and precipitation much lower.

Sangiovese Grapes

Soil compositions are also different. Containing lower quantities of the famous galestro—schist-based, or friable shaly clay—deposits found throughout much of Chianti Classico between Florence and Siena, soils throughout Brunello tend to contain higher traces of limestone marl, or alberese, as part of their makeup. Additional constituents also vary considerably throughout each unofficial ‘subzone’ of the denominazione. Brunello di Montalcino was also one of the first demarcated regions to be granted DOCG status in 1980.

Brunello di Montalcino Map

Today, with over 2,000 hectares now under vine, distinctly different styles of Brunello have begun to emerge within the subzones. North of the Montalcino village, where soils are based largely on limestone and clay, wines are not as powerful as those further south, but represent some of the most fragrant, elegant Brunellos produced. This is also due to the high elevation of the vineyards, which rise even higher south of the village, up to 1,640ft (500m). This is where some of the most prestigious operations are clustered, with Biondi-Santi, the most well-known Brunello producer, effectively leading in price.

Biondi Santi

Here, soils are more calcareous, lending greater acidity and minerality to the wine. However, one must remember that many producers will blend grapes from multiple areas to craft a more homogenous, qualitatively ‘streamlined’ type of Brunello. Though single-vineyard Brunellos are on the rise, grapes blended from multiple areas remain the norm.

Speaking of multiple areas, there are still a few other subzones worth mentioning. One of these is located in the southeast corner of the DOCG, around Castelnuovo dell’ Abate. Here, winegrowers enjoy an unusually diverse composition of soils from different geological epochs. While temperatures are warmer, elevations of up to 450m result in wines of especial complexity and breeding—both highly sought-after in the best Brunellos. Similar conditions can be found around Tavernelle, where vines are grown at lower elevations.

In contrast, vineyards around Sant’ Angelo in the deep southwest must contend with the hottest, driest conditions of the DOCG. At relatively low elevations, this is where Brunellos of distinctly powerful, ‘streamlined’ disposition are made—think Castello Banfi and Col d’Orcia, wines of high fruit concentration and alcohol.

Pieve Santa Restituta Sugarille

At present, these are the most established unofficial subzones of the Brunello denominazione. While there has been discussion of making them official, the likelihood of this is remote. The reasons are the ones you’d expect: red tape, political bickering, and petty jealousies—all deadly obstacles in a place like Italy.

But this hasn’t deterred winegrowers from striving to improve quality. From developing better clones of Sangiovese Grosso to seeking out the best sites, not just from the unofficial subzones but other areas such as the northwestern parts of the DOCG, the possibilities for crafting better Brunello seem endless.

Even now, the bar is set pretty high. While all Brunellos, harvested at a maximum of 45hl/ha, must be crafted from 100% Sangiovese Grosso and aged for at least 2 years in oak and 4 months in bottle (6 months for Riserva), the wine may only be released to the public 5 years (6 years for Riserva) after the harvest.

Fuligni Vigneti dei Cottimelli

When young, the taste of a Brunello may remind one of a finely crafted Chianti Classico Riserva, only with more depth and complexity. Aromatics are also oftentimes similar: dried wild black cherries, red plums, cedarwood, chestnuts, herbs, roasted meats, leather, Chinese black tea, and spice. In contrast, those aged in greater quantities of French oak barriques will show less cedary/savoury overtones and more mocha, vanillin, and fresher black fruits. While the choice of stylization will depend on the producer, all Brunellos ought to possess great structure, firmness, texture, and breadth.

A great Brunello should also age extremely well, better than virtually any other type of Sangiovese-based wine. After a decade in the cellar, its youthful flavours normally give way to a bouquet more dependent on cedar and wild game, complimented, if not dominated by, dried red fruits, cigar box, tobacco, and all kinds of spices. These are typically the most common types of notes to detect in a well-aged Brunello, the best of which can easily keep for over twenty years.

Of serving prerequisites, Brunello, which should always be decanted, is best enjoyed at temperatures around 15-17°C. Food pairing options are numerous: grilled and cured red meats plus wild game of all types are often quoted as being top choices, along Pecorino and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheeses, dried fruits, and fresh breads with olive oil. Others argue that the greatest Brunellos are best enjoyed on their own. Ultimately, there is no right or wrong approach.

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 Click here for a few gems from the 28 April 2012 Vintages Release along with several others.

Note to readers: In my last column, on vintage port, it was written that 2005 was a widely declared vintage. That information was incorrect, as many of the best houses, in point of fact, decided not to declare; instead opting for single quinta bottlings. Apologies for the error.

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The Successful Collector – By Julian Hitner ~ Vintage Port ~ Saturday, April 14th, 2012

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

What you need to know:   Made only in the best years, vintage port is special. Like claret or champagne, it is the benchmark by which all other fortified wines of similar type are judged. It has always been this way. It will always be this way.

But how did it get this way? Compared to other types of fortified wine, what makes vintage port so special? Logically, the best way to begin is to briefly examine the history of port as a whole, how this remarkable type of wine came to be developed, and how this development eventually resulted in a strict set of standards regarding its production; making vintage port one of the most esteemed fortified wines in the world.

The history of port, vintage or otherwise, dates back to the seventeenth century. During this period, when France and England were constantly at war, thirsty Brits turned to Portugal, a nation with which they had historically been on good terms, for their wine. Their attention quickly turned to the as yet untamed inland area of the Douro, attracted by its powerful wines that seemed an appropriate substitute for their favourite red wine—claret.

Dow's 2007 Vintage Port

However, in order for the wine to survive its Atlantic journey back to England, it was soon discovered that adding brandy to the wine helped stabilize it. This discovery is attributed to a Liverpool wine merchant, who sent his sons to Portugal in 1678 to purchase wine for distribution in England. At the town of Lamego, they came across a wine-producing monastery whose abbot added brandy during fermentation, thus killing off the active yeasts and making for a strong, perceptibly sweeter style of red wine.

Just as important, in 1703 the Methuen Treaty between England and Portugal was signed. Under the terms, Portuguese wines were granted lower duties than those of France or Germany; and it was not before long that port became one of the most widely consumed types of wine throughout England.

Warre's 2007 Vintage Port

Likewise, it was only a matter of time before specific, identifiable levels of quality began to emerge. In 1756, a series of measures were established by Portuguese authorities to regulate the production and sale of port, with specific boundaries drawn up delimitating the area where port vines could be cultivated. At the time, these extended to the Tua tributary of the Douro (now as far east as the Cachão da Valeira), the easternmost portion of the Cima Corgo—the most prestigious subregion in which port is produced. Each vineyard was also eventually graded from a system of A to F, determined by altitude, location, yield, soil, inclination, and orientation; along with the age, density, training, and the types of grapes cultivated on it.

Fonseca Vintage Port

Today, the best vintage port is sourced from the most renowned of these vineyards, from soils composed primarily of schist, a type of slate-like metamorphic rock. In baking hot summer conditions, when temperatures often exceed 35°C, in what can only be viewed as defiance against nature vines seem to thrive. The best of these for port production have been identified as Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo), Tinto Cão, and Tinta Barroca.

Graham's 2003 Vintage Port

Harvested by hand, grapes are traditionally placed into square woven cane baskets and then brought to the winery. At this point, grapes likely destined for vintage port are then placed into large stone troughs, called lagares, to be treaded by foot. Alternatively, this may be more cheaply accomplished by devices referred to as ‘robotic lagares,’ which imitates the gentle pressing of the human foot and thus prevents the pips from being crushed and releasing bitter-tasting phenolics into the wine. With fermentation already partially underway, the wine is then transferred to another lagar or vat.

When fermentation has reached the halfway mark, neutral grape spirit, called aguardente, is added to the wine, causing the fermentation to cease. Transferred to vat (usually stainless steel), it will remain here until the spring following the harvest, when the wine will be transferred downstream to the port lodges of Oporto, or across the river to those located in Vila Nova de Gaia. Here, a decision will be made whether or not to ‘declare’ a vintage. If the wine is deemed good enough, it will then be blended and aged in wooden barrels for a minimum of 22 months (max. 31) and then bottled for release. At its simplest, this is how vintage port is made.

Quinta do Noval 1994 Nacional Vintage Port

As a general rule, vintage port is only produced in the best years, totalling about three vintages per decade. However, with better cultivation methods, modern technologies, and climate change, the best houses are nowadays declaring with much greater frequency. In the eighties, ’80, ’83, and ’85 were widely declared. In the nineties, these were ’91, ’92, ’94, and ’97. Then, in the twenty-first century a record five vintages were widely declared by the greatest port houses: ’00, ’03, ’05, ’07, and ‘09—each one of impeccable quality and character.

For most connoisseurs, vintage port has no business being drunk young. While such wines are often delectable in youth, many drinkers find them too ‘compact,’ tannic, and drenched in their own youthful flavours for their own good. The aromas and flavours at this stage, however, have become increasingly beguiling with better viticulture and winemaking: brambling black fruits, dark chocolate, mahogany wood, fruitcake, forest floor, walnuts, mint, and sometimes flowers—just to name some of the more common aromas one might possibly pick up.

Croft 2003 Vintage Port

All the same, a minimum of twenty years’ aging or longer can be much more beneficial. Carefully decanted, aged vintage port represents the epitome of patience recompensed. By this time, the best examples, adequately softened, tend to bask in their own mellowness and richness, their beguiling youthful aromas replaced, if not complimented, by more mature perfumed notes of cedarwood, dried fruits, tobacco, and exotic spices. The best examples can often survive more than a century.

As for food pairings, the classic accompaniment to vintage port is cheese, preferably saltier, crumblier versions like Stilton or Roquefort; while dark chocolate, walnuts, dried figs and apricots, and caramel-coated ice cream all partner terrifically. Usually served after the main course of a meal, vintage port is best enjoyed at temperatures around 16-18°C.

Just remember: when decanting old bottles of port, the cork tends to crumble and disintegrate. When this happens, most people tend to put the wine through a filter to rid the wine of cork sediment. However, the use of port tongs makes this unnecessary. Simply heat the port tongs over an open flame, such as a gas stovetop, until they are as hot as possible. Then attach the tongs around the upper part of the bottle, above the liquid but under the bottom end of the cork, for about a minute. Using a wet rag, grasp the top part of the bottle, which should then cleanly crack away. Your vintage port is now ready for decanting. Like all great wines, a little extra effort goes a long way.

Click here for a few gems from the 14 April 2012 Vintages Release along with several others.

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The Successful Collector – By Julian Hitner ~ Collecting French Wine – Part I (Bordeaux and Burgundy) ~ Saturday, March 31st, 2012

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

Collectors and top regions of France:  Not all wine buyers are the same.

In the Information Age, where everything and everyone is divided—and then subdivided—into unique demographics and groups, there isn’t one type of wine buyer, but many. However, to list them all here would be impossible, not to mention superfluous. For the purpose of this column, our subject is wine collectors and, with special emphasis, top regions and estates to buy from.

Speaking of which, what are collectors? And how do their wine buying habits most significantly differ from others?

At its simplest, a wine collector is a buyer that seeks out fine wine, usually to cellar for the long term. Types of wines purchased? While not a prerequisite(!), usually ones with higher prices and top critics’ scores, sourced from very specific regions in countries throughout the world.

But what are these countries and regions? And is there one country whose regions stand out above the rest?

For most collectors, this would be France. The reasons for this are complex. Some have attributed it to France’s having identified and categorized its best winegrowing regions and most famous wines so early on—a by-product of French culture, whose standards in gastronomy remain in essence unmatched. Others have pointed to the remarkable types of terroir found throughout France, as if the French were meant to lead the world in fine winegrowing since time immemorial.

Whatever the case, collectors are the beneficiaries.

Of regions, Bordeaux and Burgundy vie for top spot. On the Left Bank of the Gironde, the Cabernet-blends of Margaux, St-Julien, Pauillac, and St-Estèphe are most lauded. On the Right Bank, the best Merlot-dominant wines of St-Emilion and Pomerol are eagerly sought out. In Pessac-Léognan, the finest Cabernet-dominant reds and Sauvignon-centric whites are increasingly the talk of the wine world. And let’s not forget Sauternes and Barsac, where collectable stickies crafted predominantly from Sémillon are the order of the day.

With just a few exceptions, the most esteemed wines, or estates, in the Médoc are part of the 1855 Classification. In Margaux, the eponymous First Growth Château Margaux leads the way, closely followed by Château Palmer. Other must-haves are Châteaux Rauzan-Ségla, Brane-Cantenac, Kirwan, Giscours, d’Issan, Malescot-St-Exupéry, and Cantenac-Brown. In St-Julien, the greatest estate, and First Growth pretender, is Léoville-Las Cases, followed by Châteaux Ducru-Beaucaillou, Léoville Barton, Gruaud Larose, Léoville-Poyferré, Branaire-Ducru, Langoa Barton, Talbot, St-Pierre, and Beychevelle.

Châteaux Latour & Lafite Rothschild

In Pauillac, the three First Growths of Châteaux Latour, Lafite Rothschild, and Mouton Rothschild are among the most fought-over wines at auctions and en primeur campaigns every year. These are closely followed by the likes of Pichon-Comtesse and Pichon-Baron, Lynch-Bages, and Pontet-Canet; which, in turn, are closely matched by Châteaux Grand-Puy-Lacoste, Duhart-Milon, and Clerc Milon. Also stockpiled by collectors are wines from Châteaux d’Armailhac, Haut-Batailley, Batailley, and Haut-Bages Libéral, to name but several of the best estates in most collectors’ opinion.

In St-Estèphe, Château Cos d’Estournel nowadays heads up the company, with Montrose consistently hot on its heels. Other estates collectors routinely watch out for are Calon-Ségur, Lafon-Rochet, and Cos Labory.

Then, there are the Médoc estates not included in the 1855 Classification. In St-Estèphe, the most esteemed names are Châteaux Haut-Marbuzet, Phélan Ségur, and Les Ormes de Pez. In Pauillac, these are Pibran and Fonbadet. In St-Julien, Château Gloria stands out. In Margaux, Châteaux Siran, Clos des Quatre Vents, and Marojallia each have their own followers.

Châteaux Sociando-Mallet

As if this wasn’t enough, a few estates outside these four appellations, in both the Médoc and Haut-Médoc, are also greatly acclaimed. In the former, top châteaux are Sociando-Mallet and Potensac. In the latter, Poujeaux and Chasse-Spleen, both based out of Moulis, are seldom overlooked.

Châteaux Ausone

On the Right Bank in Merlot-dominant St-Emilion, choices are almost as prolific. At the very top of the St-Emilion Classification (last revised in 2006), Châteaux Ausone and Cheval Blanc, the only two estates granted Premier Grand Cru Classé (A) status, are both universally revered. Next in line are those of Premier Grand Cru Classé (B) status, of which Châteaux Angélus, Pavie, and Figeac routinely rank highest in terms of veneration and price. Other collectibles of equal official status include Beau-Séjour Bécot, La Gaffelière, Magdelaine, Pavie-Macquin, Troplong Mondot, and Bélair-Monange (formerly Bélair). Rounding out the ‘B’ category are Châteaux Canon, Clos Fourtet, Beauséjour (Duffau-Lagarrosse), and Trottevieille.

However, some of these names are often outshone by wines of Grand Cru Classé ranking or lower. La Mondotte, a single-vineyard wine owned by Stephan von Neipperg, along with Grand Cru Classés Canon-la-Gaffelière, Tertre-Rôteboeuf, Pavie Decesse, and Monbousquet; plus garagiste operations Valandraud, La Gomerie, and Le Dôme are just such examples. Other St-Emilions of similar, slightly less expensive disposition are Grand Cru Classés Larcis Ducasse, L’Arrosée, Destieux, and La Couspaude; as well as Grand Cru estates Bellevue-Mondotte, Gracia, Rol Valentin, and Moulin St-Georges. There are at least a dozen others.

Châteaux Petrus

Over in Pomerol, where there is no official ranking, collectors also have their hands full. More talked about than drunk, Château Petrus is widely considered the Holy Grail of claret collectibles, matched/surpassed in price by Château Le Pin. Then, there are all the other estates Pomerol is famous for. From a standpoint of quality and price, the most sought-after are Châteaux Lafleur (almost as expensive as Petrus), Trotanoy, Vieux Château Certan, L’Eglise-Clinet, L’Evangile, and La Conseillante. Other star estates of considerable acclaim include La Fleur-Pétrus, Hosanna  (formerly Certan-Giraud), Clinet, Latour à Pomerol, Clos L’Église, Certan de May, Le Gay, Le Bon Pasteur, and Gazin. Not to be left out, La Providence, La Clémence, Petit Village, Beauregard, Rouget, Nenin, and Bourgneuf all command serious prices. All of these, plus several others, are arguably considered the greatest collectibles in Pomerol.

Châteaux Haut Brion

In Pessac-Léognan, where the best whites, crafted from Sauvignon Blanc (usually predominant) and Sémillon, are as highly valued as the best reds (crafted largely along Médoc Lines), certain favourites emerge. Sparring for top honours annually, First Growth Château Haut Brion and leading Graves Cru Classé La Mission Haut-Brion lead the way—both the red and white versions are treasures. Pricewise, these two estates are followed by the reds and whites of Cru Classés Pape Clément, Haut-Bailly (red only), Smith Haut Lafitte, and Domaine de Chevalier. Other red/white estates routinely on collectors’ circuits are Châteaux Malartic-Lagravière, Carbonnieux, and de Fieuzal. In the Graves AOC, Château Branon is very expensive.

Châteaux d'Yquem

Next come the stickies of Sauternes and Barsac, of which the legendary Premier Cru Supérieur Château d’Yquem is considered unbeatable. After this are the best of the Premier Crus, usually Châteaux Climens (second only to d’Yquem), Rieussec, Suduiraut, Coutet, and Lafaurie-Peyraguey; Château de Fargues and Raymond-Lafon, both non-classified, are also considered gems. Other Premier Crus of high regard are Châteaux Guiraud, Sigalas Rabaud, and La Tour Blanche. Of the Deuxièmes Crus, Doisy-Daëne and Doisy-Védrines are must-haves.

Indeed, the choices of collectable clarets seem endless. However, when collecting Bordeaux, quality and price at time of purchase, while both paramount, are not the only factors at play. Nowadays, collectors have an extra reason for laying their hands on the best bottles: investment.

A relatively new trend, many collectors seek out specific clarets from great vintages that, having been scored highly—usually by very specific critics—will likely increase in value over the long term. Such wines are often bought be the case, to be sold down the road. As blue chip investments, some analysts have referred to such wines as ‘alternative investments,’ much like jewellery or works of art.

To a lesser extent, the same goes for Burgundy, where the world’s greatest Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays are produced. Here, however, collectors already have their hands full in just trying to memorise the best vineyards and domaines.

For white Burgundy fanatics, the most highly prized are the Grand Crus and best Premier Crus of Puligny- and Chassagne-Montrachet, Meursault (only Premier Crus), Pernand-Vergelesses and Aloxe-Corton (Corton-Charlemagne), and Chablis. There are a few others, but these are the standouts.

Joseph Drouhin Montrachet

In Chassagne-Montrachet, the Premier Crus of Caillerets, Ruchottes, and Morgeot are usually considered best. In contrast, shared between Chassagne- and Puligny-Montrachet, the Grand Cru of Le Montrachet has long been considered immortal, closely followed by Chevalier-Montrachet and the more variable Bâtard-Montrachet; the seldom-seen Bienvenues-Bâtard-Montrachet and Les Criots-Bâtard-Montrachet are also both potentially stunning. In Puligny-Montrachet, Premier Crus Les Pucelles, Les Caillerets, Les Folatières, Les Combettes, Les Perrières, and Clavoillon are all considered superb. In Meursault, Les Perrières and Les Genevrières lead the way, closely followed by the upper parts of Les Charmes; Les Poruzots and Les Gouttes d’Or are also superb. In Pernand-Vergelesses and Aloxe-Corton, the finest examples of Corton-Charlemagne are often lauded as some of the greatest of white Burgundies. Finally, in Chablis the Grand Crus of Les Clos, Les Preuses, and Vaudésir, to name but three favourites, all have an earnestly loyal following.

For red Burgundy connoisseurs, the choices are even more varied. By price, the best Grand Crus and Premier Crus of the Côte de Nuits, located between Beaune and Dijon, tend to attract the most serious collectors. From south to north, the most lauded Grand Cru and Premier Cru vineyards are located in the villages of Nuits-St-Georges (Premier Crus only), Vougeot, Chambolle-Musigny, Morey-St-Denis, and Gevrey-Chambertin. Within Beaune and throughout the rest of the Côtes de Beaune, the finest Premier Crus in Pommard, Volnay, Meursault (listed as Volnay-Santenots), and Chassagne-Montrachet are also much in demand.

Grand Crus La Romanée-Conti

In Nuits-St-Georges, the Premier Cru of Les St-Georges is ranked highest, followed by Les Vaucrains, Les Cailles, Les Porrets, and Aux Boudots. In Vosne-Romanée, both Grand Crus La Romanée-Conti and La Tâche, both solely owned by Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, are among the most expensive wines in the world; while the best examples of Le Richebourg and Romanée-St-Vivant often outstrip demand. Not to be outdone, the Grand Crus of La Romanée and La Grande Rue, respective monopolies of Domaine du Comte Liger-Belair and Lamarche, are nowadays prohibitive in claim. On a much more variable level, the same can be said of the best wines of Grand Crus Les Grands Echézeaux and the even more variable Les Echézeaux. Finally, the Premier Crus of Aux Malconsorts, Les Suchots, Les Beaux Monts, Cros Parantoux, and Aux Brûlées routinely sell for small fortunes when denoted by case.

Comte de Vogue Musigny

Heading northward to the next commune, in Vougeot the Grand Cru of Clos de Vougeot is world famous; though collectors are well advised to stick with only the best, most reliable producers. In Chambolle-Musigny, the Grand Cru of Musigny, a top collectable, is widely considered the most seductive of red Burgundies; in the same village, the Grand Cru Les Bonnes Mares is also remarkably extolled, while Premier Crus Les Amoureuses, Les Charmes, Les Fuées, and Les Cras are all greatly admired. In Morey-St-Denis, wines from the Grand Cru of Clos de la Roche take top honours, followed by Les Bonnes Mares (a tiny part), Clos de Tart, Clos des Lambrays (a virtual monopoly of Domaine des Lambrays), and Clos St-Denis. The Premier Crus of Clos de la Bussière, Les Charmes, and Monts Luisants also possess collectable attributes.

Armand Rousseau Chambertin

In Gevrey-Chambertin, wines from the legendary Grand Cru Chambertin vie with La Romanée-Conti, La Tâche, and the finest Musignys for consideration as the most omnipotent of all red Burgundies. On occasion, those of neighbouring Chambertin Clos de Bèze also merit the same adulation. Then there are the remaining seven Grand Crus of the commune. Though subject to debate, most view Mazis-Chambertin, Griotte-Chambertin, and Ruchottes-Chambertin as the next best three, followed by Charmes-Chambertin, Latricières-Chambertin, Chapelle-Chambertin, and Mazoyères-Chambertin. Of Premier Crus, Clos St-Jacques is in a league of its own, while Les Cazetiers, Lavaut St-Jacques, and Les Varoilles are all ranked highly.

Lafarge Volnay Clos de Chenes

South in the Côte de Beaune, there remains a bevy of lighter-styled selections for which this particular part of Burgundy is famed. In Beaune, top Premier Crus collectors routinely watch out for are Les Grèves, Clos de Mouches (lower slopes for Pinot Noir), Les Fèves, Les Teurons, Les Marconnets, and Clos du Roi. In Pommard, the best parcels of Premier Crus Les Epenots and Les Rugiens are hugely adored. In Volnay, Premier Crus Clos des Chênes and Les Caillerets are infallibly seductive. In Meursault, the Premier Cru reds, on occasion excellent, are labelled as Volnay-Santenots. Skipping Puligny-Montrachet (no reds allowed), in Chassagne-Montrachet the most collectable reds generally hail from La Boudriotte, Morgeot (also known for great whites), and Clos St-Jean. As with all other communes, there are invariably too many vineyards to list.

La Tache

Yet surprisingly, once getting past all the top vineyards to memorize, there are far fewer famous domaines and négociants to account for when compared to Bordeaux, as virtually all winegrowers have plots in multiple vineyards. Still, to help readers out, many labels of the crème de la crème have been included in this column possible.

And yet, Bordeaux and Burgundy are but the tip of the iceberg. For many collectors, no cellar would be complete without a proper selection of wines from the Rhône and Champagne, not to mention all the other regions that make France the greatest winegrowing nation in the world. But such regions, I am afraid, would take up far more than the one sentence I have left—which I shall simply conclude by raising my own glass, filled with claret, to the two titan regions of the French winegrowing world; without you, there’d be no point.

Click here for a few gems from the 31 March 2012 Vintages Release along with several others

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The Successful Collector – By Julian Hitner ~ Pauillac – Ground zero for collectors ~ Saturday, March 17th, 2012

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

Not just three First Growths:

Lafite. Mouton. Latour. By this measure alone, Pauillac should be considered the most significant appellation in Bordeaux. And rightly so. For claret collectors, there is no other place where there are three—count them, three—châteaux of such grandeur, such luxury, such expense; where compromise is forbidden, where the standard of each wine, each and every vintage, is scrutinized to obsession.

But this column is not about the First Growths. To discuss them here would take up too much space, and other estates would not get their fair shake. No, this article is about Pauillac, that is, the commune, its terroir, and the many other non-First Growths that comprise it.

At its simplest, Pauillac is one of four world-famous appellations on the Left Bank, bordered by St-Julien to the south and St-Estèphe to the north. With around 1,215 hectares (ha) of vineyards, the traditional blend is predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon, backed up by Merlot and small amounts of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Exact percentages shall vary from château to château.

At its finest, Pauillac is the most ‘Bordelaise’ of all claret. According to Hugh Johnson, “It is the virile aesthete; a hypnotizing concurrence of force and finesse.” For claret lovers, the wines of Pauillac represent the epitome of all that is illustrious about Bordeaux.

Though neither as flattering nor as powerful as top St-Emilions or Pomerols, a great Pauillac is the most commanding of clarets, particularly in terms of intensity, weight, dimension, flavour, and aging capacity. When young, a typical Pauillac should exhibit forthright, inviting aromas of currants, blackberries, plums, black cherries, toasted oak, moderate mocha, pencil shavings, vanilla, and spice. These are the most common scents I have often had the pleasure of detecting in a young Pauillac. As it matures, the same wine should exhibit more cedary overtones, laced with cigar boxes, tobacco, savoury nuances, and dried fruits. On the palate, generosity of the most important elements is key: body, flavour, finesse, structure, length—all of these should be of the best sort. A Pauillac should never taste green (underripe), coarse, lean, loose, or excessively acidic. Such traits, undesirable in most wines, are inexcusable here.

Granted AOC status in 1936, the boundaries of Pauillac are fairly easy to follow. Bordering the Gironde to the east, Pauillac is separated from St-Estèphe to the north by the Jalle du Breuil—a jalle in the Médoc is a stream. The same partially applies in the south, where the Ruisseau de Juillac divides part of the commune between Pauillac and St-Julien; while the southwest borders of the appellation, along with the entire stretch of its western boundaries, are demarcated by specific vineyards. It should also be noted that there are a few vineyards allowed to be named Pauillac just beyond the official boundaries of the appellation.

Like much of the Left Bank, the soils are based largely on gravel deposits, mixed with aeolian sands and clay (even limestone in the case of Lafite), which rise to form mounds, or croupes, in the landscape. These are among the closest geographical features that resemble hills in the Médoc, and constitute some of the most valued vineyards in Pauillac. Not surprisingly, most of these are owned by the First Growths, though Château Pontet-Canet also possesses vineyards that rise to 100ft (30m)—Argentinean heights by Médoc standards. More than anything, these mounds, along with nearby streams, provide vineyards with invaluable drainage in times of excessive rainfall, such as during the troublesome 2007 vintage.

Just as important is Pauillac’s geographical situation. Located in a maritime climate, temperatures here, like the other major appellations of the Left Bank, are largely moderated by its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean. This provides for mild winters and warm summers. At the same time, Pauillac is protected by the forests of the Landes du Médoc to the west from strong Atlantic salt winds and excessive precipitation. Finally, its proximity to the Gironde helps stabilize day/night-time temperatures and helps reduce the risk of frost.

But it takes more than great physical terroir to make great wine. What remains is the human element, the devotion of estate owners toward crafting the most outstanding wines possible. This is where Pauillac is particularly special, for few châteaux in Pauillac could ever be accused nowadays of slacking off, at least virtually none included in the 1855 Classification.

When the 1855 Classification was established, eighteen estates in Pauillac were included. These are divided into three First Growths, two Second Growths (Châteaux Pichon-Longueville Baron and Comtesse de Lalande), one Fourth Growth (Duhart-Milon), and twelve Fifth Growths (Châteaux d’Armailhac, Batailley, Clerc Milon, Croizet-Bages, Grand-Puy Ducasse, Grand-Puy-Lacoste, Haut-Bages Libéral, Haut-Batailley, Lynch-Bages, Lynch-Moussas, Pedesclaux, and Pontet-Canet).

But after the First Growths, which ones are the best? Which are the estates whose wines most excite us collectors, us keen Bordeaux admirers?

While personal taste does play a role, not to mention status within the 1855 hierarchy, there are arguably four châteaux that stand above the rest. Going by price, the first of these is Château Pichon-Comtesse (84ha). Bordering Château Latour (66ha) and possessing vineyards adjacent to St-Julien, this is generally considered the most ‘feminine’ of Pauillacs, offering more fragrance and finesse than is typical of the appellation. Each year, whenever I have an opportunity of enjoying this wine, it is oftentimes impossible to tear myself away from my glass.

Sometimes, however, its neighbour across the road crafts superior claret. This is Château Pichon-Baron (70ha), one of the most archetypal Pauillacs of them all. With one of the most beautiful châteaux in Bordeaux, Pichon-Baron seems to be getting fuller and sturdier with each passing vintage. And with continuous investment under its present owners, its future is well ensured.

Of equal acclaim is Château Lynch-Bages (100ha). A Second Growth in everything but title, Lynch-Bages is a perennial favourite amongst Pauillac lovers and collectors. For decades, this incredible Fifth Growth has performed brilliantly even in poor years. Like Pichon-Baron, it is quintessential Pauillac, and refuses to rest on its laurels. Indeed, recent vintages seem to have witnessed a tightening-up of its structure and greater attention paid toward exacting greater complexity. The ’09 was the best Lynch-Bages ever.

Not to be outdone, Château Pontet-Canet (79ha) has improved by leaps and bounds over the past dozen years, nowadays matching Lynch-Bages for price, if not in quality. For me, Pontet-Canet has become one of the more magisterial of Pauillacs—seamlessly concentrated, refined, and extremely smooth. Its flavour profile and texture are also unique, but this may have more to do with the location of its vineyards; the estate is located in the northern half of the commune. Along with Château Guiraud in Sauternes, this exceptional Fifth Growth is also the only Classified Growth to be certified biodynamic.

After these four wineries, the style becomes a little less weighty, as does the price. Still, the profile largely remains the same, making for wines of unmistakable prowess, pedigree, and focus. On the top rung is Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste (55ha), yet another Fifth Growth placed at least two notches below its class. Owned by the same family as Château Ducru-Beaucaillou in St-Julien, this is a wine worth collecting year after year. Full-bodied, elegant, and ‘Pauillac’ to the core, it is seldom overpriced.

Next comes Château Duhart-Milon (67ha). Owned by the same family as Château Lafite Rothschild (the two châteaux are adjacent), prices for this wine have soared over the past several years. It was acquired by Lafite (100ha) in 1962, and essentially had to be rebuilt from scratch. With no expense spared, the wine now possesses a certain ‘iron grip’ one cannot help but adore. Before the price becomes totally unreasonable, collectors should stock up.

In the same vein, Château Clerc Milon (32ha) has a similar background. The estate was acquired in 1970 by its neighbour Château Mouton Rothschild (82ha), and like Duhart-Milon the vineyard had to be rebuilt from scratch. Once again, no expense was spared, and today the wines are better than ever: harmonious, finely balanced, and taut. Unlike Duhart-Milon, prices have remained steady.

After these three estates, we arrive in my opinion at the next tier of Pauillacs. These are châteaux that, while not on the same substantive level as their more expensive counterparts, are nonetheless fully capable of providing immense pleasure. One of these is Château d’Armailhac (50ha). Purchased in 1933 by its neighbour Mouton Rothschild, at claret tastings it is often shown alongside Clerc Milon. Often the lighter of the two, the wine typically contains a higher percentage of Cabernet Franc. Both the ’05 and ’09 are exquisite.

In contrast to d’Armailhac, Château Haut-Batailley (22ha) is about the most typical of Pauillacs one can find at this still-excellent of level of quality. With familial connections to Ducru-Beaucaillou, one might be surprised to learn that its wines are usually tastefully priced. Indeed, ‘taste’ is the operative word, for few young Pauillacs are as inviting or as gloriously mellow as a tall glass of Haut-Batailley.

Similar in style is its neighbour Château Batailley (55ha). Like Haut-Batailley, though bordering St-Julien, there is nothing ‘St-Julien’ about it. But any general similarities to Haut-Batailley end there, for Batailley is definitely the more tannic and reserved of the two. But the quality is there, and the wine ages extremely well. Sadly, the past decade has witnessed too many occasions where the wine has been overpriced. Before this, the wine was a staple for Pauillac lovers everywhere. A shame this has ended.

Now and then, the same can be said of Château Haut-Bages Libéral (28ha). With vineyards bordering Château Latour, quality has steadily risen over the past dozen years. Classic Pauillac with an extra dimension of fragrance on occasion, Haut-Bages Libéral often does well in blind tastings. However, prices in top vintages can be dissuading.

Rounding out this tier, we turn to Château Grand-Puy Ducasse (40ha). A real beauty in the best years, this estate continues to suffer from an identity crisis. This hasn’t been helped by decades of poor quality, which only began to be remedied in the mid-1990s. Recent vintages, however, have shown what can be accomplished here. When done right, these are excellent mid-weight Pauillacs.

Now for the remaining estates. To be fair, it would be of grievous error to dismiss these châteaux as unworthy of praise simply because they are being mentioned last. Over the past decade, some have worked hard to improve quality. And nowhere has this been more evident than at Château Lynch-Moussas (55ha). Under the same ownership as Batailley, standards have quietly risen apace since the mid-1990s. In the best years, Lynch-Moussas now represents excellent value for money. Its ‘Pauillac’ affiliations are self-evident, this in spite of possessing vineyards east of the commune.

Château Pedesclaux (12ha) has also shown promise. The smallest of the Classified Growths in Pauillac, its principle market has traditionally been Belgium, but has recently begun appearing more regularly elsewhere. The lightest of all Pauillacs, this estate has shown notable improvement since the late-1990s. As prices have remained reasonable, this is a good introductory wine for enthusiasts just beginning to learn about Pauillac.

Last but not least is Château Croizet-Bages (28ha). Neighbouring Lynch-Bages, recent improvements have not gone unnoticed. At best, the wines are appropriately tannic, ‘Pauillac’ in disposition, and age well. If prices were lower, I’d probably seek it out regularly.

Such are the estates that make Pauillac great, the wines that collectors aggressively pursue year after year, along with a handful of non-Classified Growths (ex. Château Pibran). Such wines represent the epitome of excellence in winemaking in this part of Bordeaux. They are the benchmarks by which so many wines from around the world, crafted from the same grapes, are both cultivated and judged. In short, they are the reason why Pauillac, ground zero for collectors, is so exalted and famed.

Click here for a few gems from the Vintages 17 March 2012 Release along with several others

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