Mario Andretti, Mick Fleetwood and Joe Montana are just as few of the celebrities who have attached their names either to wineries or wine labels. Now, two of the presumed frontrunners in the 2016 United States Presidential election, Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton, are following suit with their own labels, featuring specific bottlings aimed at attracting the votes of specific demographic groups.
Later today, Bush will attend a media conference at which Jeb’s Jugs will be introduced. The wines will be offered in 1,500-ml. bottles (often referred to as jugs) and will be priced so as to be affordable to low-income households — always a challenging demographic for Republican candidates.
“If we can get lower-income voters drinking more, perhaps we’ll be able to convince them to vote Republican in 2016,” said a spokesperson for the Bush campaign.
Wines in the Jeb’s Jugs line will be made from grapes grown in vineyards owned by large corporations and harvested mechanically. Keeping the target audience in mind, the wines will have fun names that salute family members, including Wouldn’t Be Prudent Primitivo, Mission Accomplished Alicante, and Don’t Mess With Momma Merlot.
Although no official announcement on the Hillary Clinton wine project has been made, Clinton herself has been dropping hints during recent speaking engagements.
“Isn’t it about time we had a wine made by a woman President?” she proffered on Sunday.
An appearance on Monday included this observation: “I sure do miss the good wine we used to have during my husband’s administration.”
While Clinton’s public proclamations thus far have only hinted at an impending wine project, documents obtained by journalists are far more specific.
One suggests that all of the wines must be made from grapes grown in vineyards that are sustainably farmed and “with complete respect for the environment.” Vineyards that receive government subsidies also would be preferred.
Another document outlines possible wine types and their target audiences, accompanied by rough sketches for possible labels. Among the wines being considered:
Official announcements on their new wine ventures are expected from the Bush and Clinton campaigns soon.
By Bob Johnson
When there’s someone with the last name of Goode involved in a winery, or any business, for that matter, all kinds of marketing opportunities present themselves.
In the case Sonoma County’s Murphy-Goode Winery — established in 1985 by Tim Murphy, Dale Goode and Dave Ready — “The Goode Life” was adopted as a slogan, and the wine club was dubbed Goode & Ready. Murphy and Goode were the farmers, and Ready was the marketing guy who helped developed the winery’s fun-focused personality.
Now, three decades later, Goode is gone (he passed away in 2013 at age 79), Dave Ready Jr. is the winemaker, and Murphy-Goode is under the broad umbrella of the Jackson Family Wines Collection.
Ready learned a lot about wine from his father, and after working a crush at Murphy-Goode, his destiny was sealed. A winemaker’s palate is not something that should be wasted, and Ready had it. In 1997, he became Murphy-Goode’s assistant winemaker, and four years later, the “assistant” part of the title was eliminated.
Ready has said, “You need to let the wine show what it has in its soul.” That philosophy is apparent in Murphy-Goode’s collection of four 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon releases, three from the winery’s home base in Sonoma’s Alexander Valley, and one from Knight’s Valley, an appellation that straddles northern Sonoma and Napa counties.
The “Alexander Valley” wine was made from grapes grown in two blocks of the Terra A Lago Vineyard, which is owned by Ready’s long-time friend, Val Peline. The “Terra A Lago” bottling features wines from Ready’s favorite block of that vineyard. The Knights Valley Cab has been dubbed “Poker Knight,” and is quite distinct from the Alexander Valley Cabs. And the “Single Deck” Cabernet comes from a single block of the Alden-Ellis mountain vineyard.
Alexander Valley has an ideal environment for growing Bordeaux varietals such as Cabernet, and while Murphy-Goode has a large portfolio of wines at various price points, it is the Cabs that truly shine.
For the 2012 vintage, the “Alexander Valley” Cab is soft and approachable and ready to enjoy now. The “Terra A Lago” figures to be in its prime in four to six years. The “Poker Knight” combines the more powerful nature of Napa Valley Cabs with the more immediate accessibility of the Sonoma side. Finally, the “Single Deck” Cab is tightly wound and built to age. You can read our reviews of these wines here.
When it comes to Murphy-Goode’s Cabs from 2012, we would suggest this marketing slogan: “It’s All Goode.”
By Bob Johnson
Being a California native, I love songs about my home state. And, as you know, I also love songs about wine.
Of course, my definitions of “California songs” and “wine songs” are quite broad. The songs don’t have to actually be about California or wine; they just need to mention them in some way.
Near the turn of the millennium, Nora Guthrie, the daughter of legendary folk singer/songwriter Woody Guthrie, was sharing some of her dad’s uncovered and never recorded songs and lyrics with Billy Bragg and Wilco. That resulted in an album called “Mermaid Avenue,” which included a real gem: “California Stars.”
Looking back, at the time, I did not recognize it for what it was: that most rare combination of a California song and a wine song. It’s quite likely I didn’t even listen to the lyrics. I just liked the music and the easy, toe-tapping beat.
It was only a couple years ago, when I saw Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band in concert, that I started putting 2 and 2 together and actually getting 4. For an acoustic interlude during his otherwise straight-ahead-rock-and-roll concert, Seger sang “California Stars.” He introduced it as “an old Woody Guthrie song,” which didn’t strike a chord with me, but once I heard the first few notes, I knew exactly what song he was starting to play… and I’m pretty sure a big smile must have crossed my face.
Here was one of my favorite singers ever singing one of my favorite songs ever.
For the first time, I actually listened to the lyrics:
I’d like to dream my troubles all away
On a bed of California stars
Jump up from my starbed and make another day
Underneath my California stars
They hang like grapes on vines that shine
And warm the lovers’ glass like friendly wine
So, I’d give this world just to dream a dream with you
On our bed of California stars
And only then did I realize that this was a wine song in addition to a California song.
Hey, I never claimed to be the smartest bulb in the light standard… or the brightest star in the California night sky.
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Check out the first version of “California Stars” that caught most of our ears — by Billy Bragg and Wilco — here.
Then see what you think of Bob Seger’s rendition, performed live, here.
By Bob Johnson
State Street is “that great street” not just in Chicago, as Frank Sinatra sang, but also in Santa Barbara, where countless boutiques, restaurants, coffee houses and inns line both sides of the north-south thoroughfare.
One block to the east, paralleling State Street, there’s a fun destination for wine lovers in the 800 block of Anacapa Street in the Presidio neighborhood, next door to the long-established Wine Cask restaurant.
If you look across Anacapa Street at the Wine Cask, then look to the left, you’ll see individual tasting rooms for three Santa Barbara County wineries: Au Bon Climat, Margerum and Grassini.
With time to visit only one on this particular day, we opted for Au Bon Climat’s Jim Clendenen Wine Library. “ABC” was one of the first Santa Barbara County wineries that really got it right back in the 1980s, but it had been a few vintages since I’d last tasted Clendenen’s handiwork. I’m happy to report that the wines I tasted under the Au Bon Climat and Clendenen Family Vintners labels were flawless and flavorful, each filling a niche both in the winery’s product line and on one’s dinner table.
Under the Clendenen Family Vintners label, the 2012 Sauvignon Blanc ($18) was clean and crisp, an ideal foil for shellfish, while the 2012 Chardonnay known as “The Rip” (named for Clendenen’s dog; $25) was easy drinking and seemingly crying out for some Original Recipe KFC.
The Au Bon Climat wines were bigger, richer and much more complex. The 2011 “Pioneering” Chardonnay ($35), made entirely from Bien Nacido Vineyard fruit, was honeyed and toasty, with butter-kissed apple fruit in the finish. The 2010 “La Bauge” Pinot Noir ($30) is another in a long line of ABC Pinots from Bien Nacido that have helped cement the idea that “California Burgundy” not only is possible, but delicious. And the 2009 Los Alamos Vineyard Pinot Noir ($35) showed off plenty of ripe fruit, earth and spice, with soft tannins that provide for immediate enjoyment — no cellaring necessary. The Chardonnay would match nicely with chicken Alfredo, while the Pinots would pair well with roast beef or grilled salmon.
Were I planning a Santa Barbara weekend around these three tasting rooms, this would be my plan:
After that, you’re on your own. I’d probably opt for a nap, or you could walk off that Jessica Foster Confections chocolate with a long stroll on State Street — a great street that’s only a block away from a fun street for wine lovers.
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The tastings rooms of Au Bon Climat, Margerum and Grassini have their own “suite numbers” at 813 Anacapa St. in Santa Barbara.
For hours of operation and other information, call Au Bon Climat at 805-963-7999, Margerum at 805-845-8435, and Grassini at 805-897-3366.
By Glen Frederiksen
Our journey through the world of wine, from our first eye-opening sip and epiphany over three decades ago, has taken us to many wine regions and down many a dusty wine trail.
When we began this wine blog more than three years ago, it was partly to tie together much of what we have experienced and written about over that long, winding road. Naturally (and hopefully!), there are many more experiences to be had, and this is the bulk of what we are now chronicling.
But there are many switchbacks while on the wine roads, as we follow our passion. Paths will be crossed more than once, and we have the opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with old friends.
So it was when we recently had the opportunity to meet up with Michael Trujillo, President and Director of Winemaking at Sequoia Grove Winery in Napa, Calif.
Trujillo has become one of the winemaking giants in the Napa Valley over the past two decades. Arriving in the valley while on spring break from college, he fell in love with the verdant valley and laid-back lifestyle. He left his Colorado birthplace and returned to Napa shortly thereafter, and made it his new home.
His first job was at a large vineyard in the south end of Napa Valley that would become Domaine Carneros. There, he had the opportunity to meet and work with such titans of the wine industry as Tony Soter, Mike Grgich and others.
He then took a job at Sequoia Grove winery, located on Highway 29 in the heart of the Napa Valley. There, owner Jim Allen and his brother Steve Allen exposed Trujillo to all facets of wine production, from the vineyard to the bottling line.
The consulting winemaker at Sequoia Grove at the time was Andre Tchelistcheff, perhaps the most iconic vintner America has known. Under the tutelage of his new winemaking friends, Trujillo began taking extension courses at U.C. Davis in the Enology department.
Using the Sequoia Grove wine facilities, he started his own label, Karl Lawrence wines. He also consulted with other wineries, most notably Herb Lamb Vineyards. By 1998, Trujillo had been appointed Assistant Winemaker at Sequoia Grove and, in 2001, with the retirement of founder Jim Allen and the sale of the winery to the Kopf family, Trujillo assumed the reins of winery president. Today, the Sequoia Grove winery is making wines that rival those of many of the better-known estates in the valley.
We at Wine Lines first crossed paths with Sequoia Grove in the late 1980s. On one of our early visits to Napa Valley, as we were driving north on Highway 29, we stopped in at the rustic tasting room surrounded by three towering sequoia trees (thus the name of the winery).
We were impressed by the quality of the Chardonnay and especially the Cabernet Sauvignon — so much so, that we purchased our first full case of wine there.
The wines we fell in love with were the 1985 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and the Estate Reserve Cabernet. These were our epiphany Napa Valley Cabs. Over the next decade, we continued to stop in on our frequent trips to the Napa Valley, and also sought out the wines at local wine shops.
By the turn of the millennium, our wine muse had led us to open a wine shop, the High Desert Wine Emporium in Victorville, Calif. We looked for wines not found in the local supermarkets — wines that were sought after by wine geeks (which we were). Among the labels we stocked were Karl Lawrence and Herb Lamb Vineyards, both crafted with Michael Trujillo at the winemaking helm.
Yet over all those years, we had never chanced to meet up with Trujillo. So, during Trujillo’s recent visit to Las Vegas, we were enthused to finally shake his hand and put a face to the winemaker behind the wines we had been enjoying for years.
Wine tasting notes…
2013 Sequoia Grove Chardonnay, Napa Valley
Ah! Our noses and palates took a trip down memory lane with each sniff and sip of this wine. It is delightfully perfumed and aromatic, mixing together sweet, almost honeyed, impressions of tropical fruit and pear with notes of butter, brioche, and vanilla. Showing a nice balance in the mouth, these flavors carry through to the finish and persist. Think of this as a fine Burgundy, but with the plumpness of California fruit. A perfect foil for snow crab legs dipped in butter.
MSRP: $28 (February 2015)
Wine Lines rating: 92
2011 Sequoia Grove Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
In the glass, it shows an opaque, deep crimson color. The nose is already integrating the fruit and wood components, with a nice interplay between the polished leather, mocha, clove and cedar from the oak and the boisterous red cassis and raspberry fruit. The fruit carries through on the palate, showing all soft and velvety, before fine-grained tannins poke through near the finish. This wine is a delight to drink now, and should provide pleasure over the next eight to 10 years.
MSRP: $38 (February 2015)
Wine Lines rating: 91
2010 Sequoia Grove ‘Cambium’ Red Table Wine, Napa Valley
Cambium is an interesting word to name this wine. It refers to the actively growing layer of a plant or tree between the inner wood and the outer bark. Essentially, these are stem cells in plants — cells from which all other, more differentiated cells will arise. In other words, the building blocks of a grapevine. This is a proprietary blend of the best building blocks — er, barrels — of Bordeaux red varietals produced in a vintage at Sequoia Grove. The 2010 vintage’s opaque deep crimson hue lightly stains the glass. Its uplifted, floral nose (from a large dollop of Cabernet Franc) shows dark flowers, mocha, graphite, and minerality, all cloaking the tightly wound black and blue fruit. This is a wine that would benefit from mid-term cellar aging, allowing the fruit to bubble to the surface. Patience will be rewarded in a decade or so.
MSRP: $140 (February 2015)
Wine Lines rating: 94
If you want more information about Sequoia Grove winery, tasting room hours, tour information, ordering information, or wish to email them, here is the contact information:
Sequoia Grove Winery
8338 St. Helena Highway
Napa, CA 94558
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THE ANDRE TCHELISTCHEFF CONNECTION
By Bob Johnson
Mike Trujillo makes no secret about the influence Andre Tchelistcheff had on his winemaking style — a style that Tchelistcheff taught almost by osmosis.
“He taught me how important it is to really get in touch with the vineyard — the grapevines, the grapes and the land,” Trujillo says. “[The concept of] terroir pretty much gets thrown out the window today; everybody thinks that oak is terroir.
“The interesting thing is that when a problem or a challenge came up, he never told you what to do. He didn’t teach science; he taught art — winemaking from the gut. Many times, he’d just leave me [in the vineyard or cellar] to figure things out.”
At times, that could be scary. In 1989, a notoriously challenging year weather-wise in Napa Valley, it was a skill that proved to be the difference between making dreadful wine and exceptional wine. (There wasn’t much in-between that vintage.)
“You just had to be in the vineyard every day,” Trujillo explains. “We’d taste the grapes, sometimes twice a day, and you could just taste the dankness coming on. We caught it early, and got our grapes harvested in time while most other wineries waited it out and ended up with fruit that wasn’t great.”
Trujillo drew on that experience in dealing with the problematic 2011 vintage.
“The veteran winemakers fared okay,” he says. “They knew what to do, both in the vineyard and in the cellar. With a vintage like that, you just have to let up on the gas a little bit, and you can end up with a pretty, sexy wine.”
Part of the process involves invoking techniques and practices that result in wines that have what Tchelistcheff called “a perfect flow. And when it has that flow, whether it’s a red or a white, it has the potential for aging.”
Adds Trujillo: “I wouldn’t be bashful to say that our 2011 Cambium could go a good 10 years in the bottle, and still be drinking nicely.”
The Tchelistcheff influence can also be seen — and tasted — in Sequoia Grove’s Chardonnay which, unlike most other California Chardonnays, does not undergo malolactic fermentation.
“Andre never wanted us to do M.L. and we never did,” Trujillo says. “To bring up the creaminess and the nuttiness [associated with the M.L. process], it’s actually the grape clones, oak and lees working in combination with one another.”
Trujillo says that he thinks about his old friend and mentor every day, but especially when he’s facing a challenge in the vineyard or cellar.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said to myself, ‘What would Andre do?’”
Opaque deep crimson color. In the nose, there is a sharp blueberry tang that mixes with raspberry and blackberry fruit. All of this is shaded by notes of lavender, cedar, and spicy oak, followed by a kiss of milk chocolate. Prominent, fine-grained tannins provide a youthful chewiness. Try paired with smoked brisket, barbecue tri-tip, or grilled vegetables.
MSRP: $30 (March 2015)
Wine Lines rating: 89
Opaque purple/black color. Who says you couldn’t make great Cabernet in the Napa Valley in the challenging 2011 vintage? This is an impressive effort. Aromas of roast coffee, polished leather, fresh cassis, boysenberry, black cherry, and licorice entice the nose and promise much. That promise is kept on the palate, where ample fleshy fruit has a velvety texture. After mid-palate, medium-grained tannins apply some youthful grip. There is enough going on here in the bottle to provide drinking pleasure over the next decade and beyond. For now, splash decant this wine for at least an hour prior to serving.
MSRP: $100 (March 2015)
Wine Lines rating: 92
Nearly opaque dark ruby color. Savory scents of dried herbs, celery stalk, and spiced berry fruit lead to an initial juiciness on the palate that then dries out towards the finish. This red is well-suited to pair with grilled lamb, duck, or other savory meats with a side dish of roasted root vegetables.
MSRP: $38 (March 2015)
Wine Lines rating: 87
By Bob Johnson
You’re not likely to see the red wine most closely associated with Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley — Zinfandel — ever made in the Bordeaux region of France. But there’s a good possibility that Dry Creek Valley could become increasingly known for red Bordeaux varieties.
“We have a climate that closely mirrors Bordeaux, with longer days of sunshine and cooler nights than Alexander Valley or Napa,” notes Bill Smart, Director of Marketing and Communications for Dry Creek Vineyard.
Napa Valley, of course, is California’s “Bordeaux capital,” while Alexander Valley more often than not is cited as Sonoma County’s equivalent. And while Alexander Valley certainly produces some wonderful Cabernet Sauvignon bottlings, what the Stare and Wallace families of Dry Creek Vineyard want people to know is that Dry Creek Valley has just has much “Bordeaux potential” as Alexander Valley.
“This is the second generation’s handprint on the winery going forward,” Smart says. “While we’re certainly still about Zinfandel, we also want people to know how good the Bordeaux varieties can be in Dry Creek.”
It is something of an uphill battle. Because of Zinfandel’s long history in Dry Creek Valley, it is a variety that is embraced by a vast majority of the appellation’s wineries — most of which are relatively small, with no national footprint. So even if great Bordeaux-style wines can be made there — and they can, as smaller estates such as A. Rafanelli, Lambert Bridge, Mill Creek and Michel-Schumberger have demonstrated over the years — getting them into the hands and wineglasses of consumers poses a real challenge.
Thus, it’s up to estates such as Dry Creek Vineyard and Pedroncelli Winery, which do have significant distribution, to take on the bulk of the legwork and educational efforts.
During a recent visit to Dry Creek Vineyard, we sampled three Bordeaux-inspired bottlings from the 2012 vintage, all boasting “Dry Creek Valley” on their front labels. One was the estate’s signature red blend called “The Mariner,” one was a Merlot-based wine that included four other Bordeaux varietals, and one was a wine that now is more closely associated with Argentina than France: Malbec. Our reviews:
2012 Dry Creek Vineyard ‘The Mariner,’ Dry Creek Valley
Most red wines suggest four or, at best, five individual aroma or flavor impressions. More often than not, these impressions present themselves individually: first a whiff of mushrooms, then a note of charred wood, then some type of fruit, and perhaps a finish somewhat reminiscent of dark chocolate. But the 2012 vintage of “The Mariner” is more like an orchestra whose members have been playing together for years. There are plenty of aroma and flavor nuances — blackberry, black raspberry, black cherry, cassis, herbs, baking spices and, yes, dark chocolate — but they are seamlessly integrated. No extended solos in this vinous orchestra of 56% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, 8% Petit Verdot, 8% Malbec and 3% Cabernet Franc; rather, a harmonious whole. This may be the best “Mariner” yet.
MSRP: $45 (February 2015)
Wine Lines rating: 91
2012 Dry Creek Vineyard Merlot, Dry Creek Valley
Like “The Mariner,” this wine was crafted from five Bordeaux varietals. The blend: 82% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Franc, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Malbec and 2% Petit Verdot. Because there is a much more significant portion of Merlot, it’s a much softer wine, one that shows off Dry Creek Valley’s iron-rich soils in its succulent mouthfeel. A nice mix of red and dark fruits co-mingle with a dusty note, making this an exceptionally food-friendly wine. Roasted chicken with garlic mashed potatoes, anyone?
MSRP: $25 (February 2015)
Wine Lines rating: 89
2012 Dry Creek Vineyard Malbec, Dry Creek Valley
Malbec’s “place in life” originally was as a minor blending grape of Bordeaux. But late in the 20th century, it gained star status in its adopted home of Argentina, specifically in that country’s Mendoza growing region. Dry Creek Vineyard likes to include Malbec in its Bordeaux-inspired blends, and also crafts a varietal bottling — for the 2012 vintage, a total of 247 cases. It’s 100% varietal and 100% delicious, a real savory wine with a char element and noticeable minerality, joined by blackberry, black cherry and a mélange of other dark fruit notes. This dark, dense wine needs to be accompanied by a thick steak in order to truly strut its stuff.
MSRP: $38 (February 2015)
Wine Lines rating: 90
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Ironically, Dry Creek Vineyard made its name on a Bordeaux varietal — a white Bordeaux varietal: Sauvignon Blanc. And it continues to craft wonderful renditions to this day, in addition to benchmark bottlings of Zinfandel and one of California’s best varietal Chenin Blanc wines.
A few notes on some of these additional wines that we sampled during our visit…
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It should be noted that Dry Creek Vineyard has something of a secret weapon in its pursuit of quality across the board: winemaker Tim Bell.
“Tim is big on walking and mapping vineyards — almost like a geography lesson,” Smart says. “He’s a big plant guy, and sometimes he drives our vineyard management company nuts. He’ll tell them, ‘I want these three rows picked… leave these three… then pick these next three.’
“Tim is very creative and artistic, but also an I’s dotted and T’s crossed kind of guy,” adds Smart. “And you need that kind of attention to detail when you’re working to take your wines to the next level.”
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Dry Creek Vineyard
3770 Lambert Bridge Rd.
Healdsburg, CA 95448
Note: For archived formal reviews of Dry Creek Vineyard wines dating back to the 2007 vintage, click here.
Chianti is an old land, and this is an old post, taking literal months to think through a whirlwind tour of Tuscany — and to digest the full experience, food, wine and culture.
What is Chianti?
Well, there is a definition according to the region’s authorities themselves, which seems to offer up a strict set of guidelines. But as we will see, those guidelines can play out differently in different places. There is more than a “bit” of wiggle room, even in Chianti Classico. Chianti wine is first and foremost wine made in Chianti, and the authorities tell us that:
Other fundamentals and other requisites concern the ampelographical base—or the types of grapes that can be used in the preparation of the wine. The rules provide for a minimum ratio of 80% for Sangiovese, the typical red variety of the zone. Along with the Sangiovese, other red grapes of the area can be used in a maximum percentage of 20%. These grapes include natives like Canaiolo and Colorino as well as “international” varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, all recommended and/or authorized for the production zone. Among the principal sensory characteristics indicated by the production rules, there is the ruby red color that can become at times intense and profound, depending upon the wine’s origin. The odor offers floral notes of violets and irises combined with a typical character of red fruit. The flavor is harmonious, dry and sapid with a good level of tannin that fines in time, becoming soft and velvety. Other requisites requested include a minimum alcohol level of 12 degrees for young wines and 12.5 degrees for the Riserva.
A quick analysis of these guidelines gives us an initial picture of a lithe, drinkable, sanguine wine, originating from the native Sangiovese grape and perhaps a scattering of local field varietals. Flowers and raspberries dominate the palate, and at 12 percent alcohol, it’s quite sessionable.
That is Chianti… or is it?
A more pointed analysis would highlight that the guidelines only specify 80 percent Sangiovese, and that the authorities allow international varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. 20 percent of either varietal is enough to change the structure and personality of the wine into something much more forward. It’s more robust, perhaps showing oak and age-worthiness. And because the guidelines only specify a minimum alcohol… it can climb higher, into the 14-15 percent range sought by many consumers, especially those in America.
So which is the real Chianti?
Our mid-September trip to Castello di Gabbiano showed us a full range of Chianti wines, from acid-driven, chuggable table wine at Dario Cecchini’s steakhouse to serious reserve bottlings like the Castello’s “Belleza,” which earned the mark of “Gran Selezione.” The Gran Selezione is a new moniker created by the Chianti Classico authorities to designate the most prestigious wines in the region. A panel of winemakers and region experts grades submitted wines on taste and overall character, approving only the “best.” As a whole, the new practice is a clearly bold move to bolster Chianti’s claim as a region producing high quality wines … and to appease to an international export market that demands high-scoring, slightly bigger wines than the kinds of Chianti wines brought to U.S. shores years ago.
And oh, those wines. Straw-covered bottles and served alongside crockery thin-crust pizza, or Americanized Italian red-sauce dishes on checkered table cloths. They were nothing to write home about, and that’s part of the problem for many regions like Chianti that used to produce such inferior wine for export. On the one hand, some of traditional Chianti wine has always been a little lighter, more like good Beaujolais or Loire than ultra serious Napa or Bordeaux. And as in places like rural France, there has always been a culture of table wine or home-made wine, which wasn’t ever intended to compete in magazines for top awards. Moreover, the Chianti region historically viewed wine and food as nearly inseparable — both originate from the terroir of the region. The downside is that, at export, these lighter Chiantis earned a reputation for being second-rate, downgrading the region as a whole. New winemakers and large holding companies believe Chianti has the potential to be a world class region, and so they’ve taken it upon them to produce something different… more developed, bigger, riper. And as in many places around the world, this generation of winemakers and companies is doing so through the use of modern technology and winemaking techniques, to get the most from grapes while meeting international demands. It’s smart business!
But again, that brings us back to our original question… what is Chianti?
At the Castello, I tried several times to push winemaker Federico Cerelli on the question, urging him to elaborate on his vision and what motivates him to make the kind of wine that he does. I wanted to get at the soul of Chianti wine, at least from his perspective. He is a very smart, personable winemaker, and he clearly knows the kind of wine he wants — and needs — to produce, to achieve the results he and his employers want.
Parsing that last sentence out, Federico is, at his core, a modern winemaker. He is well-trained, and the latest releases from Castello di Gabbiano all have a level of quality derived from that training. Looking at the range of wines and Federico’s influence on the winemaking of Castello since coming on board and since the the property was purchased by the Australia-based Treasury Wine Estates, there is a progressional blending of New and Old World attributes as the wines increase in price. The reserve wines, including the Gran Selezione “Belleza,” have an enhanced mouthfeel and gravitas that exudes a certain richness, aging and “proper” correction. You know these are good, ripe, balanced wines. They are well-made and display a consistent value-quality proposition.
For this, Federico and the Castello team should be congratulated, for they accomplished the very rare feat of producing good wine at affordable prices, and secondly, producing good wine that many people will enjoy. One thing gives me pause, though, or at least raises the specter of the original question again — that the wine I enjoyed most at Castello wasn’t a reserve bottling, but the standard Chianti Classico, which is lower in alcohol and lighter overall. And, in discussing that fact with the Castello’s chef, Francesco Berardinelli, we seemed to be in general agreement that the cuisine of Chianti harkens back to these kinds of wines, although there is a clear time and place for more expressive, age-worthy bottlings.
So, what is Chianti? Is it a lighter, more local style? Is it something increasingly worldly and serious? Is it old-fashioned? Is it modern? Is it more natural? Is it more corrected/influenced?
Chianti, as it turns out, is all of these things. The beauty is that we, the consumer, can select a Chianti for every occasion.