Bringing back an old friend: The Wines of Chile have reached a new level

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Way back in the dark ages of wine retailing (circa: 1970s), fine wine shops had Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne. Chile was nowhere to be found and even California was an afterthought. As the years went by and California gained prominence with the Judgement of Paris, Chile got into the marketplace with its cheap Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlots. Often found in sale bins, these became the drinking wines of budget conscious wine imbibers. I drank so much of these bargain basement wines that I ended up throwing the whole class into the “good value” category. As an active retailer in San Francisco in those days, the wines of Chile gave me something “to stack high and let them fly.”

This is no longer the case. While Chile took a back seat to Australian Shiraz and Argentine Malbec, producers started to find the right fit with varieties and vineyards, including Chile’s flagship variety, Carmenere. This wise move is still working its way into the hearts and minds of international wine consumers. More exciting is the work being done with cool climate Sauvignon Blanc from Casablanca and mineral-like Chardonnays from Limarí, not to mention major statements being made with Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and blends. While the country is still known for value wines, production over the past decade proves it shall be known for quality as well.

Jake Pippin, USA Market Manager for Wines of Chile, recently presented an array of a dozen top Chilean wines that would measure up with top wines from anywhere in the world. So while I cut my teeth on cheap Chilean Merlot in the 1970s, I know have been introduced to some of the world’s very top wines and they are Chilean. It is time for Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne and yes, the Napa Valley to share the spotlight; the Chileans are making a huge statement. Isn’t great to revisit an old friend and see how they have evolved into something greater? Here is a trio of super fine Chilean wines that will bring you up to speed on where Chilean wines are today.

The 2014 Errazuriz Wild Ferment Chardonnay, – rich and creamy, but with a zippy layer of minerality to keep it fresh
The 2012 Calcu Cabernet Franc  – yes, Cabernet Franc can shine here, with earthy, peppery spice and dried fruit character
The 2012 Los Vascos Grande Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon – classic producer with a classic, quality Cabernet – it says Chile and Cabernet in a concise, easy-drinking way.

From Burgundy with love: Appellation Bourgogne

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To most lonely and dedicated wine souls, Burgundy is the greatest challenge of all. One taste of a Montrachet or Romanée-Conti and one is doomed for a life of endless searching, and the painful reality of never-enough-money to even sniff wine’s Holy Grail. Even village wines cost more money than most mortals can spend. So it comes down to this: rare, ultra-expensive wines are often difficult to pronounce and harder to locate, even if one has reconciled the cost of the wine. It is no wonder that so many consumers have been chilled out of this precious wine region. Yet Burgundy, well aware of this situation, has begun to market wines that we all can afford.

Bourgogne Chardonnay and Bourgogne Pinot Noir is now the ticket back into Burgundy and provide the world with not just delicious and affordable wines, but wines that can be found in the marketplace. Wine experts freely admit that Burgundy is the birthplace of quality Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. While both varietals (more chard than pinot) are widely grown throughout the world, history and research always begin here. Bourgogne is now the appellation that delivers the flavors of the varietals, as well as the characteristics of Burgundy at an affordable price.

Over the last 20 years, I have been most impressed with Bouchard Père et Fils and how their continued growth to make better and better wines. The current 2012 Bourgogne Chardonnay and 2012 Bourgogne Pinot Noir are excellent representatives of this category and of these varietals. One doesn’t always have to break the bank to enjoy the wines from this land that stretches from Dijon to Lyon. This pair of wines are from Burgundy with love.

Make Way for the 2013 Rombauer Chardonnay

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With the highly-anticipated release of the 2013 Rombauer Chardonnay, I got to thinking about how this varietal became what it is to the US wine drinking public. Like Cabernet Sauvignon, domestic Chardonnay kicked into high gear in the 1970s and really it has never looked back. When I started my competitive wine judging career in the late 1980s, judges felt rewarded when a competition gave them Chardonnays. It was the most coveted category in those days because it was the hot new superstar. Now, decades later, Chardonnay is the best-selling wine varietal in the United States because it is so consistently good.

At all price points, from under $10 to the-sky-is-the-limit, Chardonnay performs well. And not just those from California, but from all over the world, this wine clearly attracts the whole range of consumers.

Since 1982, Rombauer Vineyards in the Napa Valley has produced one of the state’s most sought-after Chardonnays. In all channels, from retail to restaurants, Rombauer is a leading performer. Because of its crowd-pleasing style and inviting flavor profile, it’s the perfect wine to sip on a sunny deck or serve to wine-loving guests.

I serve Chardonnay often because my family, friends and neighbors enjoy it, and Rombauer is one my top choices. The new release 2013 Rombauer Chardonnay, made from the winery’s estate-grown grapes in the cool climate Carneros District is another winner. It shows ripe tropical fruit and high quality oak in admirable balance. The 2013 vintage was nearly ideal in northern California and without question, this Chardonnay benchmark shows it.  Let’s celebrate the release of the 2013!

A Trio of Top California Chardonnays

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On Thursday, May 22nd, the 5th Annual Chardonnay Day will be here and the burning question is… what will be in your glass? If one wants to get maudlin, it was only four decades ago when Chardonnay was not on the menu. If you asked any retailer in the early to mid-1970s, “what is your best-selling white wine?,” you can be sure the answer would not be Chardonnay. No, the most sold white wine of that era was California Chablis (which in fact, was not Chardonnay at all). We have come a long way!

To some folks (perhaps those in the ABC – Anything But Chardonnay – crowd) Chardonnays taste entirely too similar, and to some extent I would agree. Wineries have become so adept at producing well-made wines that it can be hard to distinguish one from another. Yet differences do exist and the hallmark of the finer producers is high quality and consistency. Over the last half-dozen years, three  successful California Chardonnays that have exhibited these traits include  MacRostie Sonoma Coast, William Hill Estate Winery Napa Valley and Mer Soleil Reserve. What makes them the darlings of the industry is that they have found a place in the market and stayed true to producing wines of high quality and consistent character.

The William Hill Estate Winery Napa Valley is rock solid in its makeup. Drawing from Napa’s cool Carneros and warmer St. Helena regions, the wine exhibits fine core fruit notes and a warm and balanced palate. When I am looking to feed my friends lightly grilled prawns, I often reach for a Sonoma Coast chardonnay and no one does it better than MacRostie. A bit subtler than the aforementioned  William Hill, MacRostie deftly defines the crisp nature that this AVA is apt to show. On the bold and powerful side, I recommend the Mer Soleil Reserve. Creamy and layered, one could easily pair this wine with organic roast chicken (I am a big fan of organic chicken because the flavors are sweeter and more distinctive). This trio ranks among my best choices in the marketplace, and may make one wonder: was Chardonnay always this good? Let’s dial back to the early 1970’s and take a look at the varietal’s place in the market.

One of California’s greatest wine books, The Fine Wines of California by Hurst Hannum and Robert S. Blumberg, published in 1973, listed 32 Chablis (from California) and only 20 California Chardonnays, including, Buena Vista, Chalone, Cuvaison, Hanzell, Charles Krug, Llords & Elwood, Robert Mondavi, Parducci, Simi and Stony Hill. Yet the real story in this era was that Americans were still drinking California Chablis. From 750 ml (called fifths at the time) to 4.0 liter bottles, California Chablis was the show. But Chardonnay’s time was about to come.

As a retailer in the 1970’s, I started moving away from Chablis, instead offering our customers the likes of Beaulieu Vineyard, Simi and Kenwood Vineyards. Over time I moved the clientele to Cuvaison, Chalone and Spring Mountain, among others. The “everyday” group consisted of fresh, frisky and fruit forward wines and the upper tier brought wines into the French Burgundy tier. Chardonnay enjoyed such a great launch pad at this time; it eventually became the white wine that ran the business. As the industry grew up, wineries such as Sonoma-Cutrer and Kistler Vineyards took a bold step and modeled their works after the Old World epicenter of Chardonnay, France’s Burgundy region. Yep, those high-priced vineyards that only the French and American wine aristocracy could pronounce.  Puligny-Montrachet was not in the common vernacular at that time.

Chardonnay, the most important white wine in the world, is ready to party. What will be in your glass on Thursday, May 22nd, The 5th Annual Chardonnay Day? I already have a few bottles in the fridge ready for action. Look forward to sharing some tasting notes with you then!