Memorable wines can be affordable
By Randal Caparoso
I recently saw a documentary on Jimi Hendrix, and I thought surely, no musician, then or now, has come close to expressing as much passion and creativity with the rock guitar.
I think the same thing when I listen to Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald collaborating on "They Can't Take That Away From Me." The young Billie Holiday slipping and sliding on "I'll Get By," or Patsy Cline tearing the country ballad apart and seamlessly putting it back together again in "Leavin' On Your Mind." All monumental works, never to be duplicated again by anyone, no matter how good.
That's how I think of the great wines of the world, which come from monumental vineyards. Like artistic geniuses, the great vineyards are forces of nature that can never really be duplicated. No matter how hard anyone in, say, California or Australia may try, you just can't equal the incredible combination of power and sumptuousness found in the cabernet sauvignon-based red wines from Chateau Mouton-Rothschild in France's Bordeaux region. The same thing for the merlot-based wine from Bordeaux's Chateau Petrus, and the pinot noir based red from Burgundy's Romanee-Conti. These are originals, like Louis, Ella and Patsy.
Among white wines, connoisseurs swear that Burgundy's Montrachet, planted exclusively in chardonnay grapes, is like no other; and it is a similar, natural (or almost supernatural) convergence of slope, soil, climate and countless other factors that make the Bernkasteler Doktor on Germany's Moselle River the finest Riesling vineyard in the world.
Ah, but therein lies the rub: Only so much is produced from each of these great vineyards each year, and it is the connoisseurs who have driven up the prices of single bottles of these wines $100, $200 and often $300, even when the wines are young, for something so wonderfully intense yet smooth.
But this doesn't mean you can't find reasonably priced wines that come close to the originals in respect to power, elegance, balance and intensity. Just as Clapton and Stevie Ray have often made us forget Hendrix, and a Diana Krall or even fledgling Norah Jones tickle our fancy in lieu of Billie and Ella.
So what I did was ask a young, bright Honolulu sommelier named Roberto Viernes, of Neiman Marcus's Mariposa restaurant, to help me come up with a list of wines that come closest to recalling the greatest wines of the world, figuring that his taste would provide a good counterpoint to my more jaded palate. My only stipulation was that the wines retail for less than $35. In fact, most of the following are between $20 and $30:
Best Montrachet-like white Roberto thinks of Montrachet as exacting the purest, most concentrated not necessarily the biggest and most opulent expression of the chardonnay grape, and so his choice of the most Montrachet-like wine under $35 is the Robert Talbott "Sleepy Vineyard" Chardonnay from California's Monterey County. He also likes the note of terroir, or earthiness, in the Talbott, distinguishing it from other California chardonnays.
My choice of the most Montrachet-like white under $35 would be the Au Bon Climat (often called "ABC") "Le Bouge D'a Cote" chardonnay from Santa Maria Valley near Santa Barbara. The chardonnays by ABC are often misunderstood (and therefore underrated) by American critics precisely because they are so tightly crisp and stony, suggesting a subtle strength and silky concentration more akin to a Montrachet than the usual pack of ripe, heavy, oak-laden chardonnay styles normally produced in California.
Best Bernkasteler Doktor-like white Roberto and I agree that there are no rieslings grown outside Germany that come close to the great, lusciously perfumed and silken white wines of Doktor, which are at their best when vinified with some degree of sweetness, especially when labeled as spatlese (late-picked), or as auslese (special-picked). We also agree that elsewhere along the Moselle River there are some highly underrated vineyards producing wines that nearly equal the Doktor in quality and stature.
Roberto's choice would be the Brauneberger Juffer Riesling produced by Reichsgraff von Kesselstatt, which he describes as having the raciness, generosity of sweet fruit and slate-like, minerally quality of great German riesling. My own predilection runs towards the Urziger Wurzgarten by Weingut Monchhof, which to me, defines the incredibly lithe and delicate (like little girls dancing), yet powerfully fruity, flinty, tropical, almost amorous "spice garden" qualities (like women of sophistication) of these harrowingly steep riverside vineyards.
Best Chateau Petrus-like red Everyone loves Chateau Petrus the juicy essence of merlot like everyone loves J. Lo, but only the rich and/or famous seem to seem to have the inside track on the two of them. Roberto's poor-man substitute for Petrus would be the Luna Vineyards Merlot from Napa Valley, which he cites for its plush, smooth, luscious taste that never seems to be overbearing. I'll take the less highly touted, but phenomenally deep, lush, satiny smooth Cuvaison Merlot from Napa like liquid Billie!
Best Chateau Mouton-Rothschild-like red Here, Roberto and I diverge a bit. His choice is the Mouton-Clos du Marquis from St. Julien in Bordeaux. It is the "second wine" (i.e. less expensive/not as good) of Chateau Leoville Las Cases. Robert likes the Mouton-Clos du Marquis' true "breed," and I respect him for that. But I still would take him to task because the distinctive characteristic of Mouton-Rothschild among all other Bordeaux reds is its unabashedly strong, masculine, black-curranty concentration of cabernet sauvignon flavor. Neither Leoville Las Cases nor its second wine are as emphatically "varietal" in this sense.
However, when you go to California's Napa Valley, you find lots of Mouton-Rothschild wannabes, reveling in the sheer power of the cabernet sauvignon grape. In my mind, the most worthy of these always has been the Beaulieu Vineyard Georges de Latour Private Reserve cabernet sauvignon deep, strong, decidedly masculine, but always with a sense of balance and textured elegance recalling classic Bordeaux.
Best Romanee-Conti-like red Roberto is as brash as he is original, and so he chooses the Felton Road Pinot Noir from Central Otago in New Zealand as having an intensity of berried fruit and lush palate feel recalling the fabled $300 bottlings of Domaine de la Romanee-Conti. I agree that New Zealand recently has come a long way toward producing a Burgundy-like red wine, but close can be a mile or a foot. To me, the kiwis are closer to a mile, whereas in California, pinot noir specialists are at least within putting range. My choice would be the Costa de Oro "Gold Coast" Pinot Noir from Santa Maria Valley in Santa Barbara County the best possible pinot under $35 because it is so smooth, so round, almost decadently rich in smoky-spicy red-fruit flavors and perfumes.