2000-01 January 2000 Newsletter

january 2000 Newsletter

Wines evaluated last month: 218 Rejected: 194 Approved: 24 Selected: 2
Hard to believe we survived all the hoopla, but I guess there really wasn't any doubt. We're kicking off the end of the Millennium with two very diverse offerings. The Mark Ridge Merlot is solid as a rock. Outstanding flavors here in a varietal that is sweeping the nation for its easy drinkability. As usual, Mark Ridge comes through with an intensely varietal offering showing grace and ageability along with immediate pleasure. It's a great offering with which to continue the celebration. I don't think you could get any further away from a California Merlot than a Pinot Blanc from Alsace. Here we get the delicate nuances and soil-driven complexity of a grape that is a minor player every where else. This long, narrow strip of a viticultural area however, which has changed country affiliation three times in the last century, produces Pinot Blancs worthy of star status. This one is right up there with the best. In case you didn't know, Alsace started as a French area, was taken by the Germans WW I, returned to France afterward with the same scenario played with WW II. Planning meal around both wines featuring our sumptuous recipes sounds too good to be true. But fear not! It is too good. And it is true!

Domestic Selection

Fads come and go, but Merlot looks like it's here to stay. It's one of the most popular red wines in the country and for good reason. Cabernet Sauvignon is usually made in a much more tannic and rougher style. You simply can't make Merlot like that. It wants to be softer, plummier and yummier on release than most Cabernets ever thought of. And therein lies the answer. If you want a red wine that you can buy today and drink tonight, Merlot is it. We've featured wines from Mark Ridge in the past and each one has been very well received. This small, value-oriented venture is located in Sonoma, one of California's greatest wine areas, but is not limited to using grapes from there. They source the best grapes from the areas that grow them best. In this case, the majority of the grapes came from the cool mountains of Monterey, a much more hospitable location than some of the hotter regions of Sonoma. Located about 75 miles south of San Francisco, Monterey is one of the state's coolest wine districts. By far the best wines here are Riesling, Pinot Noir and Merlot. Unlike most of California, Monterey is so cool, that many of the grapes simply couldn't ripen. After years of experimentation, this area is producing some startling wines that are worth the wine lover's attention. The Rieslings have always been first rate, but, look for the future to be in Merlot as a few producers are already wowing more than a few wine lovers and worrying more than a few producers from other areas. Because of its popularity, Merlot is one of the most expensive grapes to buy in California. The best ones are even more. Mark Ridge deals in small lots of grapes and carefully blends them to make a whole which is much better than the sum of its parts. Most of the good Merlots hover around $15 to $20 and up. We'll match this one with any of them.
Merlot, 1998 Mark Ridge
Bright cherry and earth tones blast from the glass taking on some spice and mineral in their wake. Clean, bright finish makes it a winner with cannelloni recipe on page 6.
Beginning to develop, but will improve. Serve Cool.

Imported Selection

Located in the northeast corner of France, along the German border, Alsace specializes in white wines. It is 70 miles long, barely 2 miles wide and covers about 31,000 acres of vines. Its best wines tend to be dry, minerally and often compared to German wines as they share a few common varieties, namely Riesling. That's where the comparison stops, however. While the best Germans have appreciable levels of sweetness, most wines of Alsace are dry. Alsace is best known for a its extracted Gewurztraminer and dry, minerally Riesling outside of France although it is the Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris which are favored by its countryman. Wines from this area are very distinctive and highly favored by wine aficionados. Alsace used to be one of the best values in France. Unfortunately, the word finally reached the states and we've seen prices more than double the past 10 years. We can't argue too loudly though, since Alsace still provides us with some of the best food-friendly wines in the world. Pierre Sparr is located at the foot of the Vosges mountains in the village of Sigolsheim. The entire village was destroyed in World War II and rebuilt to its current stature. By Alsace standards, Sparr is a midsize winery at 130,000 cases per year. Wines have been made here since the 6th Century, however Alsace is a relatively new region as far as formalizing its boundaries and limiting the production to assure quality. Sparr is one of the oldest, having been founded in 1892. Pinot Blanc should be called something else when grown here (actually it is, the label says "Pinot Blanc d'Alsace to distinguish it from all others). In most parts of the world, this grape is big and bold, often oak treated and couldn't be distinguished from Chardonnay on a bet. The producers of Alsace want none of this. Their Pinot Blancs are dry, minerally and often showing the earth from which the grapes were grown and beautiful fruit and acidity for any challenging dish.
Pinot blanc, 1998. Pierre Sparr
Pee-noe Blonk Pee-aire Sparr
Classic mineral and banana hints in the nose with ripe white grape and flecks of quince. Full and rich on the palate showing a lovely mid-palate and a tingling finish. First rate with the cassoulet recipe on page 6.
Perfect now. Will complex and improve for a year or two. Serve cool.

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Continuing our voyage through Italy, this month we take on a fascinating voyage to the Northeastern regions.
Northeastern Italy starts east of Lake Garda with the Veneto region and spreads to the region bordering Austria (Trentino-Alto Adige) and that adjoining Yugoslavia (Friuli-Venezia Giulia).
In the Veneto, there is no shortage of viticultural areas, but those of any importance are in the west of the region, starting at Lake Garda, and well within striking distance of Verona. Soave and Valpolicella are household names and sell in vast quantities but, even here, there's more to them than their simple image conveys.
Soave and Valpolicella were first produced just on hill sites. As they became more popular, cultivation spread to the surrounding plains, to the detriment of quality. Wines now coming from the hilly heartland are labeled Classico. Their quality is several notches up from basic, so it is a distinction well worth noting. In addition, the Classico wines of top Soave producers are so fine that they redefine the terms for examining these household names.
Valpolicella can reach heights of distinction and concentration that would surprise many. A super-Valpolicella, called Amarone, and is made from Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara grapes that have been left to shrivel and dry out for three months or more between the harvest and pressing. The water evaporates, the juice is concentrated, and after a slow fermentation, a big, powerful, alcoholic, intense wine emerges. Occasionally the fermentation is stopped before all the sugar has been converted to alcohol and the resultant sweetish wine is called recioto. Producers sometimes beef up their ordinary Valpolicella by letting the recently made wine ferment again on the lees of Amarone. This process is called Ripasso and usually represents a midpoint between the delicate Valpolicella and the massive Amarone.
The Garganega grape gives Soave its almondy character and bitter almonds aftertaste. Bianco di Custoza is similar but has a little more fruit and zip, the result of being made from other grapes together with Garganega. A large number of producers are exploiting the blend to obvious good effect. Near Vicenza are the vineyards of Breganze, turning out a smart range of wines, mainly from grape varieties originating in France such as Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc.