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Champagne: V is for Vilmart

Vilmart Champagne
I can admit to being a bit finicky and quite opinionated about Champagne. My strident feelings bubbled (hee hee) over at the uncritical stance many of my colleagues have towards Grower Champagne. (As opposed to negociants who often purchase grapes or juice to blend into their Champagne, growers own the land, harvest the grapes, and make the wine. You can tell a Grower Champagne from a negociant by looking for the tiny “RM” at the bottom of the label versus “NM”, respectively.) While most of my favorites are from growers, I felt that the discussion surrounding these Champagnes, sometimes affectionately referred to as (seriously) “Farmer Fizz”, and the larger houses seemed to cleave in an all-too tidy “us versus them” dichotomy. Just because a Champagne house is big (or owned by a large company) doesn’t mean it’s bad or that Grower Champagne is good solely based on heartstring-tugging sentimentality. Part of my stance on this issue I will admit comes from my penchant to be a contrarian, but I like to judge and recommend Champagne based on the most important criteria: taste.

But lest you think I sit around all day guzzling Fortune 500 Champagne, I must tell you about my new favorite producer. And it happens to be a grower. (“You liberal hippie!”) Tasting the Champagnes of Vilmart was a game-changer for me; they are simply the finest producer of the loveliest sparkling wines.

I’ll address the rosé first, the Cuvée Rubis. Wowzers! It’s as beautiful to look at as it is to drink. Sometimes there is a bit of hesitancy on the part of people to try rosé Champagne; but for bubbles fanatics like myself, they are often the most memorable and pleasurable. The Rubis teases out flavors of every red berry fruit you can imagine, from the sweet to the tart, with a rich finish that’s like a dollop of some yet-to-be-discovered, otherworldly creamy goodness.

The 2004 Grand Cellier d’Or is a stunner. Like Krug (which is in my mind the gold standard of Champagne; the 1996 may be the best wine period I’ve ever had), Vilmart ferments and ages the still wine in barrels before transforming it into Champagne. This process gives the wines a richness and complexity that does a gorgeous dance with Champagne’s natural acidity and liveliness. Somehow the Grand Cellier is both substantial and ethereal at the same time.

So what Champagnes are you looking forward to enjoying this holiday season?

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Muscadet Built for the Cellar

Pepiere Muscadet Clos des BriordsAs a lover of the bracing whites of France’s Loire Valley, my introduction to Muscadet (made from the Melon de Bourgogne grape) was a welcome delight. And if you love oysters and (like me) have a budget far from unlimited, Muscadet is the ultimate bivalve wine. It’s the kind of wine you want to drink ultra-fresh and well-chilled. At least that’s what I thought until I was introduced to the Pepiere Muscadet Clos des Briords.*

Produced from vines planted in 1930, the Clos des Briords defies the typical profile of your everyday light and crisp Muscadet. It has remarkable depth and length and is certainly well-suited for the cellar. Last night I enjoyed a magnum (with friends; not by myself) of the 2005 and it was lovely. I feel slightly guilty for opening it up so soon, but the pleasure of enjoying it with friends washed away any misgivings.

If you are starting to cellar wine, or already do so, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better value in a wine you can easily lay down for a decade. And nothing is more fun than pulling a big bottle out of the cellar; magnums rule!

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*I must give praise and a lifetime of thanks to my former Triage sales rep, Tom, for introducing me to this wine and the fact that I could get it in magnums! Go have a pizza at his place in Seattle.

Viognier is Voluptuous

Lovely French ViognierIs there a wine that smells better than Viognier? It reaches its aromatic pinnacle in a tiny little sliver of the French wine world, Condrieu. This Northern Rhone appellation produces Viognier with truly ethereal properties: fragrant like blossoming fruit trees, with a textured richness recalling some kind of nectar only accessible to mythological gods or hummingbirds.

Condrieu and other transcendental white wines, unfortunately, come at a steep price. So I was thrilled to reacquaint myself with a lovely French Viognier that hints at Condrieu but at a third of the price. The Domaine Rougié Viognier is just a pretty, pretty wine to drink and requires no accompaniment other than a corkscrew and a glass. OK, maybe some butter-poached lobster and a fennel and apple salad. And a hot date.

This Viognier inspired me to pull my well-worn copy of Jay McInerney’s Bacchus & Me; his musings regarding “The Cult of Condrieu” make everything I’ve just written seem as passionate as a parking ticket. And he has a very logical justification for why you should shell out good money for this most fragrant of white wines: “Perfume is much more expensive, and it’s not potable.”

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(Oh, and the 02-09-2009 on the label is the date the grapes were harvested. Provincial American that I am, I wondered why they would pick grapes in February. Then it dawned on me that I was an idiot.)

(And when I say Viognier is voluptuous I’m thinking Rita Hayworth in Gilda)

Label Lust: Hugo Sparkling Rosé

The Hugo

I’m not above admitting that a flashy wine label gets my attention; I appreciate some thought, graphic design, and artistry wrapped around a bottle. It’s nice to have a little sizzle on the outside and deliciousness on the inside, no?

The Weingut Markus Huber “Hugo” Rosé Sparkling (or Sparkling Rosé?) is a true delight. These pink bubbles from Austria are a blend of Zweigelt (a traditional Austrian red grape that I have previously noted a fondness for) and Pinot Noir. I first had a glass of the Hugo at my new favorite restaurant, La Bête, and was charmed by its freshness, elegance, and style. With two of my wine industry brethren in tow, we naturally had to order a bottle. The only thing more clever, playful, and fun than the label of this great bottle of pink bubbles was this trio of dudes at La Bête. We held court at the bar, ate delicious food, gabbed with fellow patrons, and create more than one inside joke. Drinking bubbles just makes everything that much better.

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Big One-Liter Austrian Wines: Ready for the Holidays

1L Austrian Wine For Thanksgiving
Though I recently gave a compendium of Thanksgiving picks, I overlooked a couple of my favorites. The theme for my Thanksgiving drinking enjoyment will be this: Austrian wines in one-liter bottles. For under $15 you can get 33% more wine than the standard, puny, insignificant 750ml bottle.* Both of the wines, the Hofer Gruner Veltliner and the Brundlmayer Zweigelt, are notable for their lightness and moderate alcohol. I would venture to say that anyone who likes crisp, dry, unoaked wines would enjoy the Hofer. And with Beaujolais and Pinot Noir being such popular Thanksgiving reds, I think the Zwiegelt would play nicely with those wines; it’s a lighter-style red that will help you wash down the overflowing bounty of the holiday table.

I don’t know what the origin is of the 1L bottle versus the 750ml or why Austria seems to have cornered the market on them (though I have seen German wines in this size). All I know is that I love drinking them and they will please a large, thirsty crowd. And the icing on the cake (the stuffing in the turkey?) is the Hofer is sealed with a bottle cap. How fun is that?
The Hofer Gruner: Bottle Cap Top
I guarantee this will facilitate conversation around the table. (Like the time a customer at a previous job said to me about the Hofer: “This beer is flat.”)

Happy Thanksgiving everybody!

(*If these bottles were 750mls I’d still feel they were a good deal at the same price. Therefore, I am getting an extra third for free. At least that’s how my math works.)

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Thanksgiving Picks: Unveiled

Thanksgiving Wines
Yup, it’s that time of the year. Roll out the Thanksgiving picks! Though I will be detailing numerous selections from near and far, I’d like to point out that there is no correct or, better yet, no incorrect wine to serve during this holiday meal. Whether you’re having turkey with all the traditional fixings, a standing rib roast, a vegetarian feast, or take-out Chinese, here’s the best wine to drink: The one you like.

Having said that, it is my duty to point out the wines that make me happiest around a large table of contentious, loud, and sometimes embarrassing (mostly me) family members. Naturally sparkling wines come to the forefront. Not only are they seriously underrated food wines, what’s more festive than popping a few corks and knockin’ down some bubbly while you watch football (if you’re lucky) or get pressed into kitchen duty (if you’re not so lucky)? My first two picks: Prosecco from Italy and Cremant from France. The Adami is a perfect way to start your day and the Antech is a gorgeous rose at a give-away price. And if your feeling a bit celebratory, the Voirin-Jumel Champagne is my new go-to. It’s an all Grand Cru fruit, grower Champagne (the people who own the vineyards make the wine), and a Blanc de Blancs. I like the style of Blanc de Blancs: all Chardonnay and they always seem to be a bit livelier and crisper than their red grape-blended counterparts.
Thanksgiving Wines
I have a real fondness for the white wines of Northern Italy and the above are three perennial favorites. All are very dry, elegant, and fantastic with everything from seafood to poultry and vegetables. And, with my well-documented penchant for the obscure, I like drinking wines made from the Kerner, Arneis, and Cortese grapes, respectively.
Thanksgiving Wines
Though we just hit the Beaujolais Nouveau season, I’d like you to turn your attention to Cru Beaujolais, especially from the justifiably-hyped 2009 vintage. These two from Dominique Piron are gems; I’d proabaly choose these Gamays over any Pinot Noir in the same price range. A slam-dunk!
Thanksgiving WinesFor the last three years I’ve had these two wines from South Africa’s Mulderbosch on the table. Love the Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé and the dry Chenin Blanc. Great labels, screw caps; I like how they look on the table. It’s not often you have a rosé made from Cabernet that is this pale and light; really nice stuff. The Chenin is lovely; has wonderful ginger notes and a little bit of weight and richness for fall cuisine. And even though we’re pushing December, rosés are a great food wine year-round and are probably the only wine that can hang with the cranberry sauce.

Finally, lest you think I am an unrepentant foreign wine snob, here are a couple picks from one of my favorite Washington wineries, Syncline. Tiny production Rhone-style wines (and some Gruner Veltliner and Pinot Noir to boot), they have wonderful balance and are not overdone with sweet oak and pumped-up alcohol levels.
Thanksgiving Wines

So what will you be drinking on Thanksgiving?

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2005 Saint-Estèphe: Heavenly Bordeaux

2005 Bordeaux
Not to throw salt on the wound, but if you missed out on our Bordeaux Extravaganza last night (8 reds, 1 white, 1 Sauternes) you should be kicking yourself. The stars of the show were two offerings from the much-hyped 2005 vintage; now I’m beginning to understand why everyone went nuts over it.

The duo that stood out were the Calon Segur* and the Cos d’Estournel. Calon Segur has always been a favorite of mine; I’ve carried a torch for it ever since drinking a bottle of the 1999 with my coworker, Jeff. (Thanks, dude.) Impeccably balanced and elegance personified, the only thing that could keep me away from a bottle is knowing that it needs more time to develop. Buy now and tuck it away for five years. The Cos was remarkable for its concentration yet, for a wine with such depth, was not overwhelming on the finish. Hide a few bottles for another decade. (Coincidentally, I happen to know a place where you can store them.)

And although this was all about the reds, the white and Sauternes that were bookends to the tasting were pretty extraordinary. The white was a 2000 Carbonneiux Blanc, which at 10 years was no shrinking violet. It had a nice richness and texture from the bottle age but retained a lot of freshness. Behold the power of the Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc blend! I think I need to dedicate a future World’s Most Underrated Wines post wholly to White Bordeaux.

The Sauternes, the 2006 Coutet, was a revelation. Golden deliciousness but with lively acidity on the finish; great sweetness but very nimble. I um, think I need to dedicate another World’s Most Underrated Wines post to sweet wines in general.

*Tayrn Miller may have said it better while live-tweeting from the tasting:


So would you like to know about our next big tasting? Let me know in the comments!

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I Love Esoteric Wines: Moscatel Seco

Moscatel SecoI’ve always been a fan of Spanish whites, especially Verdejo, Viura, and Albariño. These wines are all great porch-pounders and crush it with seafood. Recently I was presented with the 2008 Botani Moscatel Seco and was intrigued; I’ve only seen sweet versions of Spanish Moscatel, which I’m guessing is why they make a point of putting “Seco” (“Dry”) on the label.

I was pleasantly surprised to read that the Botani is a collaboration between Jorge Ordonez and the late Alois Kracher. Most famous for legendary Austrian sweet wines, it was exciting to find out Kracher was involved in making dry whites in, of all places, Spain.

The Botani was also a geographic discovery.  The grapes are grown on the slopes of the town of Almachar. It’s not an area I am familiar with, and when I did a quick search I found an idyllic photograph. Wowzers! It’s funny how right it is that this wine comes from this place: I couldn’t dream of a better view to soak up nor a better wine to drink up. This wine is all blue skies, billowy clouds, and clean, thoughtful structure.

So are you a fan of Spanish whites? What are some of your favorites?

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The World’s Most Underrated Wines Part I: Loire Cabernet Franc

Breton Cabernet Franc
France’s Loire Vally is home to many of my most-cherished whites, like Sancerre and Vouvray, but lately I’ve been on a kick for the reds, especially Cabernet Franc. Breton is one of my favorite producers and this lineup of 2009s did not disappoint. These are medium-bodied wines with some tannin but have moderate alcohol and oak influence. They may be the ultimate food wines; I could see enjoying Loire Cab Francs with everything from salmon to chicken to pork to beef to…you get the picture. Extremely versatile, they’re the Swiss Army Knife of red wines.

My favorite of the lot, pictured on the left, was La Dilettante. It actually undergoes carbonic maceration, the process which makes Beaujolais so damn gulpable and thirst-quenching. I find myself wishing it was July and I had a slightly chilled glass of this delightful Cab Franc, while sitting under the shade of an umbrella, eating burgers and dogs. (YES!) I can’t think of a wine that’s more fresh or fun than this charmer.

But since summer is long gone and we’re approaching the second half of November, I’d say Loire Cab Franc deserves a place at your Thanksgiving table. I have a few more Turkey Day selections that I’ll detail in an upcoming, ubiquitous post that will be delivered with aplomb, enthusiasm, and vigor!

So what wines do you feel are underrated?

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Tasting The Legend: Dal Forno Romano

Tasting the Legends
It’s not often that you get to cross a dream wine off your tasting wish list. It’s even less often that you get to cross off three in one night. And it’s the rarest of rare occasions that all the wines are from the same producer. That night was Wednesday and winery was the incomparable Dal Forno Romano.

Hailing from the Veneto in Italy, Dal Forno Romano wines demand that you totally recalibrate your perception of Valpolicella. The wines are painstakingly made through minuscule yields and a perfectionist’s mindset. Massively rich, concentrated, and yet somehow not over-the-top, these Valpolicellas will cellar for many, many years. If you are going to drink them now, I would say two hours in the decanter would be a minimum. (And I wouldn’t blame you if you drank them now; they are extremely difficult to resist.)

If it wasn’t enough to try two vintages of the Valpolicella, we were treated to the 2003 Dal Forno Romano Amarone. Whoa. What a wine! A little richer and denser that the Valpolicella, it had some of those lovely dried fruit characteristics that are the hallmark of Amarone. And like the Valpolicella, the Amarone is remarkable for its balance, especially considering the concentration and alcohol content. This wine doesn’t just strive for perfection, it’s knocking on the door.

Just when I thought I would run out of superlatives, the wine of the night (for me) arrived: The 2003 Dal Forno Passito Vigna Sere. Like the Amarone, it’s made with dried grapes, but it’s sweet. To call it the finest sweet wine I’ve had doesn’t seem to quite do it justice. I have to put it among the finest wines I’ve ever had, period. Having some blue cheese with it takes it into the stratosphere. I am loath to use words like “awesome” or “amazing” to describe anything because both words are so epidemically overused to be meaningless. (“That taco was awesome!” Awesome? Really? It inspired awe?) But if last night I heard any or all of these wines being described using either of those words, you’d probably notice me nodding my head in agreement and thinking, “Yes. Yes they are.”

Chris Zimmerman of Vias
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Chris Zimmerman from Vias, the company that imports Dal Forno Romano and many other excellent Italian wines. Chris led us through a “Visions of the Veneto” seminar that proved his knowledge of Italian wines is only matched by his passion for them. And I’d be truly remiss if I didn’t mention the lineup of wines before the Dal Forno Romano, which were very impressive. We started with two Suavia Soaves, the unoaked 2008 Montecarbonare and the barrel-aged 2006 Le Rive. Fans of Chablis and White Burgundy, respectively, need to get a hold of these gems. And the Le Salette Amarones that followed were outstanding; made in a very refined style appropriate for the dinner table.

So what wines are on your wish list or which ones have you crossed off?

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