Best wishes to all my readers for a happy, healthy, prosperous and wine-rich 2018! Beginning a new year is exciting. Why? Because even if you’ve learned everything there was to learn about wine in 2017, this marks a new vintage year. And in the wine world, things can change dramatically from one year to another.
For example, while quality wines from northern California from 2016 may be highly desirable, the 2017 harvest — much like the 2015 vintage — was cursed by wide-ranging wildfires in wine country. My advice: While not all vineyards and wineries were blasted by the fast-moving fires or blanketed by the thick smoke, many were. To be safe, avoid northern California wines from 2017.
That’s my bit of wisdom for the new year. Now let’s check on some questions I have received from readers over the past couple of months. When I do get an email — or in one case here, a phone call — with a reader’s question, I answer it as quickly as I can. I also ask if I may use that question in a future column.
WINE OF THE MONTH
J Vineyards & Winery Cuvee 20
The wine: Crisp, dry, Champagne-style sparkling wine
The grapes: 49 percent Chardonnay, 46 percent Pinot Noir, 5 percent Pinot Meunier
The source: Sonoma County, California
The verdict: Although a tad late for New Year’s Eve quaffing, here’s my suggestion to launch 2018 in style. If you like good Champagne you probably will love this bubbly beauty from J, one of California’s finest sparkling wine producers. Although legally this cannot be called Champagne, because it does not come from that famed region in France, this one is made the same way as Champagne, and from only the grape types permitted by the Champenois. The tiny bubbles explode in the mouth with a toasty, nutty flavor. And that flavor lingers. The Cuvee 20 celebrates J’s 20th anniversary of making bubblies. Good dry sparklers are perfect with just about any food. But I sampled this one with a simple grilled swordfish steak with garlic lemon butter and highly recommend going the seafood route. This is truly a fine wine at a reasonable price.
The price: About $40
The first inquiry came by phone two days after the caller’s birthday in November.
Question: For my birthday I was given a bottle of wine. I really do enjoy good wine, and the person who gave it to me said it was superb and to put it away for a special occasion.
I’m not very good doing research online so I thought you might be able to tell me about it. It’s a red Bordeaux, Chateau Pichon Lalande from 2010. What do you think?
Answer: I think you have a very generous friend with good taste. Pichon Lalande is one of the well-respected wines from the Pauillac region of Bordeaux’s Left Bank. It is a Second Growth, with only the cluster of First Growths exceeding it in Bordeaux’s quality rankings. It is a lovely wine ... with a caveat. The 2010, according to The Wine Enthusiast magazine, is “... full-bodied, endowed ...” and is “... a somewhat different style than most readers are used to.” In simple terms that means the wine’s tannins are strong, but the flavors and overall structure are in balance with the tannins. Keep this wine for another five years before opening. Store it on its side, in a cool place, away from drastic changes in temperature or vibrations. This one’s a winner! BTW: One respected wine retailer I contacted lists this wine for $200.
Q: I was talking with my brother who’s a wine lover ... I call him a wino and he loves it. I told him I had enjoyed a red Italian wine called Rosso di Montalcino at a good restaurant in Atlanta. He scoffed and said if I wanted the really good Montalcino the only choice is Brunello di Montalcino. What’s the difference?
A: First don’t call your brother a wino, call him a wine snob. He’s right that Brunello di Montalcino, one of Italy’s finest red wines, is of higher quality than the Rosso. But smart wine buyers will chose the Rosso’s quality-to-price ratio. Both come from Tuscany, around the village of Montalcino. The Brunello is big and bold and is made from a variant of Tuscany’s famed Sangiovese grape; that variant is called Brunello, or “the little dark one.” Brunello must age four years before it can be released. Brunello Riserva gets five years. Rosso di Montalcino comes from the same grape, but from younger vines, and it gets only one year of aging. It gives a hint of what a good Brunello can be, but it is lighter-bodied than its big brother. If you like the Rosso, priced from $15-$25, you’ll probably love the Brunello at $40-$50.
Q: I’m just getting to know about wine and have one question. Do wines really get better with age?
A: Sometimes they do, most times they do not. Why not put away a bottle of White Zinfandel for seven years, open it and get back to me. Only high quality red wines, or fine dessert wines, such as those from Sherry and Oporto, get better with age. Ninety percent of the wines on the shelves should be consumed within a year ... most get consumed within 48 hours.
Used to be, when only wealthy folks could afford good wine (translated: Bordeaux or Burgundy) the wines were made to be put away to mature and allow all the little goodies in the wine to get to know each other and make nice. Today, wine makers generally craft their wines to ensure a steady cash flow. Buy that 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon, put it away for six months, drink it and come back for another one. Few white wines get much better with age. There are exceptions, of course. Chardonnays priced at $65 and up most likely could use some time in bottle ... but only a year or two. Same goes for white Burgundies (also made from the Chardonnay grape).
Randall Murray is a Gainesville-area resident. Have a question about wine? He can be contacted at email@example.com. His column publishes monthly.