Eric Asimov has his 20 under $20. What if you want to spend just a touch more? A whole new world of very interesting wines opens up. Here is my current top 5 list in the $20-$30 range: 1. Le Rocher des Violettes, Montlouis-sur-Loire Sec “Negrette”, 2014 - $24.99 The Central Loire, with its great Cab Francs and Chenin Blancs, is becoming super trendy these days. Happily, pricing remains remarkably reasonable. Natural wine producer Le Rocher des Violettes is very much one of the trend-setters, and the wines are gorgeous! 2. La Salle de Chateau Poujeaux, Moulis en Medoc, 2007 - $29.99 Here we apply two rules to finding value in Bordeaux: look to second wines, and look to over-looked vintages. This is pretty remarkable: a fully mature Claret that makes it into our price range (though only just). 3. Wind Gap, North Coast Red Blend “Soif”, 2015 Where are the $20 something bottles from California that are just fun and easy to drink? There just aren't enough around, but this one, from primarily Valdiguie, is excellent. 4. Savary, Chablis, 2014 - $24.99 It's hard to get enough 2014 Chablis. The Savary is my go-to in virtually every vintage, and it's especially good in 2014. Crispy, sea-shelly goodness. 5. Colombera & Garella, Coste della Sesia, 2013 - $20.99 Nebbiolo, Croatina and Vespolina from the Alto Piemonte, up above Barolo/Barbaresco. This wine just oozes fresh mountain minerals and light red cherries and is incredibly food friends -- it's a red wine you can even enjoy with fish!
Calabretta's library releases of traditional, old-vine Nerello Mascalese have been one of the wine community's favorite wines–and values– since the 2001 hit our shores a few short years ago. But it turns out Calabretta makes another wine, one for easy-drinking everyday pleasure that's at least as great a value. It's a wine you can just drink, without having to think about it too hard or spend too much money. Logically, they call it "Cala Cala," which means "Gulp Gulp." Normally, such wines are young-vine blends made from the most recent vintage in a very fresh style, probably made entirely in steel. But Calabretta isn't your run of the mill winery; remember, the last Rosato they released was 10 years old at the time! No, the Cala–drinkable as it is– takes a different approach: a blend of three vintages, the oldest being 2005 and the youngest 2009, it does have some young vines in the blend, but plenty of old vines too. There's some steel, but also some big old botti (large wooden barrels) too. The economics of this wine baffle us. How can anyone hand-harvest old vines and then wait a dozen years to sell the wine for just a few dollars a bottle? All we can do is shake our heads...and then take another gulp gulp.
For years, we have been advising that Sancerre should be added to your list of must-cellar categories. I recently had the privilege of attending a vertical tasting of Gerard Boulay's single vineyard Sancerre "Clos de Beaujeu", going back almost 60 years, including the last bottle of 1959 in Gerard Boulay's personal cellar. It was truly gratifying to experience such stunning confirmation of our advice. It's funny, but followers of Boulay have a tendency to overlook the wine from this Clos. Of Boulay's three single vineyards, it has the least name recognition. This is surely because his other vineyards, Mont Damnes and Le Grand Cote, are also made by the famous Cotat cousins. And let's face it, it's "common wisdom" that Monts Damnes is the greatest site in Chavignol (the goat cheese village where you find the great names of Sancerre: Vatan, the Cotats and Boulay). But Doug Polaner, who imports these wines and hosted the tasting, made the point that Mont Damnes is really quite a warm site due its perfect southern exposure. This may have been great in the cool vintages of the 1950s, but in today's warmer years you might prefer cooler sites like the Clos de Beaujeu, which is oriented south and east, towards the gentle morning sun. More importantly, the Clos de Beaujeu is Boulay's old family property. He added Mont Damnes and Le Grande Cote in 2004; any wine from Boulay older than that must come from the Clos de Beaujeu. So if we're going to drink bottles of Boulay going back to 1959, then it's got to be a vertical of Clos. The Babies We started with 2015s through 2011. 2015 was a warm vintage and this was a ripe wine. But here the advantage of the Clos's "coolness" was clear, as this certainly was not at all over-ripe and really seems to have great potential. 2014 is truly great white wine vintage in the Loire. The Clos was massively structured and perhaps the least ready of any wine presented today. 2013 was nice and citrusy, open and relaxed, a real pleasure. With the 2012 I felt like we moved up a notch in terms of maturity. This was a wine that was just leaving its youth behind, with fully open-knit fruit and some evolved flavors just starting to emerge. It made me want to drink more Sancerres from this vintage. Many 2011s have a green streak that is rather mean, and sadly the 2011 Clos was no exception. There was some debate about whether this first line-up was too young to drink. After all, these are not bistro Sancerres, designed to be drunk right away for fresh fruit. They are serious and structured wines. But to me they really are delicious young. Only the 2014 was too structured to really be a pleasure at this point. But this does not mean that the wines were already offering up everything they had. The Children It was in the next flight that more was revealed. This took us from 2010 to 2005. Now, the intense aromatics of young Sauvignon Blanc had calmed down, and the more terroir-sided flavors of the wine asserted themselves. By the time we got to the 2007, someone in the audience who clearly does not like these wines too youthful declared "this is the first wine that is ready to drink". The 2007 was great. It was a cool vintage, with a green side that seemed much more nicely integrated than the 2011 (hopefully this is where the 2011 is headed). It was perhaps readier to drink than the 2010 and 2008 (both tremendous vintages that seem to have great potential), or the 2009 (a very ripe vintage), but of those three vintages only the 2009, to my taste, still really needed more time to come into balance and provide pleasure. 2006 and 2005 were two warm vintages: the 2006 tasted a little lazy and unfocused to me, but the 2005 was beautiful, with a lovely quality that the Boulays described as "acacia honey". They said this was typical of the terroir. Now it was natural for the discussion to turn towards what kind of vintages age well. Cool vintages or warm vintages? Both, answered the Boulays. The warm vintages age on fruit and alcohol, the cool vintages age on acidity. So far, cool vintage seemed to have a slight edge. We kept tasting. The Teenagers 2004 was stony and herbaceous. 2003, the year of the canicule, offered a lot...up until the finish, where the imbalance of the freaky vintage was on full display. 2002 was a great Loire Valley vintage and this was a beautiful and harmonious wine that could easily develop further. 2001 was another outlier, this time because it is the one example of the wine that Boulay has ever made that underwent malolactic fermentation. Up until that 2001, it was possible to debate whether or not each wine was yet at its peak. But from 2000 on, all the wines had clearly reached the summit. So, like so many wines I like to drink, these Sancerres seem to be ideal to drink at around 20 years old. The next flight had five wines right around that age-point, and it was magnificent. The Grown-Ups Both the 2000 and 1998 were all harmony with a touch of that acacia honey. Lovely! 1999 was a surprise favorite for me, with a crazy basil note and incredible depth. 1997 is a special wine that had some of the residual sugar you find in Vatan or Cotat; I couldn't taste the sugar, but the wine had a richness to it that stuck out. The 1996 was an amazing wine: a magical combination of truffles, acacia, and more. Boulay explained that 1996 was a cool year and they harvested very late. The grapes were intensely sweet when they were pulled from the vines. Wow! The Grand Parents Now, if you happen to get through that 20 year summit, no worries! The next and final flight proved that these wines, at least from good vintages, could go the distance. The 1995 was that moment where Sancerre converges with Grand Cru Chablis. Remember, Chavignol possesses the same kimmeridgian soils as Chablis, and this becomes more and more evident as the wines age. The 1989 was sheer magic. It's the kind of wine I would love to be able to open again and again for friends and customers, as it proves so decisively how vital it is to let some of these great Sancerres get old in your cellar. The 1985 wasn't exactly a sloucher either, and it stood out for a crazy smoky note. The After-Life Sometimes you get to the end of a vertical, and you find that the last wine is tired. But in the best verticals, the highlight comes at the very end. That was the case today, with the 1959, the greatest Sancerre I have ever tasted. When a wine is perfectly aged it becomes beautifully seamless. It is hard to say exactly where one flavor ends and another begins. It is hard to distinguish acidity from fruit. All the parts have come together, but in a way that preserves the range of details and flavors in the wine. The 1959 was just like that. Yes, if you squinted, you could taste truffles, apricots, and that acacia. There was the basil note that I picked up in the 1999. But really, everything had come together so beautifully that the wine had moved beyond and above the realm of these sorts of tasting notes. It had reached a higher plain. What an amazing tasting, and what a great finale. Special thanks to the team at Polaner (including Doug, Tina and Whitney) and of course the Boulays! Go here to see the wines from Boulay that we have in stock.
They are both made 100% from Nebbiolo grown in the Langhe. But Barolo and Barbaresco are clearly not the same wine. What's the difference? The easy answer is the legal one: Barolo and Barbaresco are two different DOCs. They are located in slightly different parts of the Langhe (see the map below). There are slightly different rules that they have to follow -- for example Barolos have to be aged for 38 months, of which at least 18 months are in barrel, while Barbaresco only requires 26 months, of which 9 must be in barrel. Barolos have to hit 13% alcohol and Barbarescos only 12.5% I guess that sort of thing is great to know for your WSET exam, but it doesn't get you into the heart and soul of how these wines are distinct. Hopefully this list of five key differences will help you do that: 1. Climate Barbaresco is warmer than Barolo. This is partly thanks to one simple fact clearly visible on the map above: Barbaresco has a river (the Tanaro), and Barolo doesn't. If you know anything about German wine, you know how important rivers are. They reflect heat and keep vineyards warm. That may sound like a small thing, but the impact is big. Barbaresco typically harvests a full week earlier than Barolo. Even in a normal vintage this will affect the physiology of the grape, with Barbaresco achieving ripeness with a higher degree of acidity and Barolo achieving ripeness with a higher degree of phenolic maturity. Every now and then, the difference can go be particularly significant. In 2010, Barbaresco was harvested shortly after rainfall, and the grapes were slightly dilute. In Barolo, the grapes had a week to dry out before harvest, and it ended up being one of the greatest vintages in a generation. 2. History Barolo is like Bordeaux, while Barbaresco is more like Burgundy (so many B regions!). Barolo emerged around 50 years earlier than Barbaresco, with several large firms that supplied the royal family of Savoie, in nearby Torino, who went on to become the kings and queens of unified Italy. To this day, Barolo remains a larger-scaled, more commercial DOC (although there are several very important small-scale producers). Barbaresco, meanwhile, is dominated by small farmers. It's smaller overall, making only on-third or so of Barolo's total production. And it's broken up into lots of small holdings. Many of them are so small that they cannot operate as a commercial winery. Instead they belong to a coop. The most famous one is the Prodouttori del Barbaresco, which operates in the commune of Barbaresco. The neighboring commune of Neive, also in DOC Barbaresco, has its own, lesser-known cooperative. Barolo also has a not-so-well-known cooperative, and plenty of small producers. This bifurcation isn't black and white. But hang out in the Langhe and you'll quickly see the difference. Towns like Barbaresco and Neive are sleepy and low-scale. Towns in the Barolo DOC have plenty of big producers with tasting rooms and so forth. It's no Napa, but it's very different from Barbaresco. 3. Soils Barolo geeks may know the familiar division of the Barolo DOC into those villages with soils from the Helvetian era, and those from the Tortonian era. (If you're not familiar with it, please check out this exceptional map from our friends at Italian Wine Merchants.) Very generally, looking at a map of the DOC, villages from the left-hand side have Tortonian soils and produce a light-colored, highly perfumed Nebbiolo, while on the right-hand side you have Helvetian soils (which by the way are now properly called Serravallian), where you have deeper color and more powerful wines. Villages like the the Commune of Barolo have both soils and so are half-way between. The reality is a little more complex than this (we are talking about an extremely geologically complex part of the world, which is probably why the wines are so good!), and there is a third era that is also present in the Langhe called Messinian. Messinian soils are mixed in with Tortonian soils in the villages of Verduno and La Morra, and to some extent the village of Barolo itself (which is pretty much a jumble of everything). It's in the villages of Verduno and La Morra that you get the most feminine and aromatic wines in all of Barolo. Guess where else you find this particular geologic mix? In Barbaresco. You can also think about this in terms of plain old limestone. There is limestone everywhere in the Langhe, but in Serravallian soils you find more of it, and in Tortonian era soils you have less. The rule of thumb in the Langhe is that the more limestone in the soils, the bigger and more structured the wines and the longer-lived they are. No surprise, the village of Serralunga has the most limestone, and in DOC Barolo the village of La Morra has the least. Guess where there is even less limestone than in La Morra? The commune of Barbaresco (Neive actually has a little more than La Morra, but it is still at the low end of the limestone spectrum for the Langhe). So basically, Barolo has soils that range from those that produce lighter wines to those that produce bigger and more structured wines. Barbaresco's soils sit at just one end of that spectrum, and it's the lighter end. Here's a little chart to help you visualize: 4. Taste The wines do taste similar. It is hard to decide whether a wine is from Barolo or Barbaresco in a blind tasting. And if you look at a bunch of tasting notes from experts or folks on cellar tracker, you will notice a lot of similar notes appearing for both wines, mostly cherries, porcini, fennel, roses and tar. However, taste enough of these wines, and you start to notice patterns. Barbaresco tends to be lighter, softer, more floral and more approachable in its youth. Take a look above at where Barbaresco falls on the Langhe spectrum of soils.They say that Barolo is the "king" and Barbaresco is the "queen", and this is why. With enough experience, you'll start to notice other patterns. In Barolo I get more green herbs, like sage or rosemary, and more minerals. In Barbaresco, more spice, and sometimes a darker, earthier note, especially on the finish, and sometimes more licorice. But this varies within DOCs, and these things overlap extensively. The only way to figure it out for yourself, of course is to get drinking. Ideally, you can drink the wines side by side, or if not then within a few days of each other. And take advantage of producers that work in both DOCs (Castello di Verduno is a good one), so that you can see how the wines taste differently when they are made in the same cellars with the same methods. 5. Marketplace Availability in the US market is driven by the economic structure described above, where Barbaresco is one-third the size and dominated by coops and small farmers and Barolo by larger grower/producers. Far more Barolo is exported than Barbaresco, and so in your typical U.S. retailer you'll find a lot more Barolo At the "collectable" end of the market, Barbaresco is dominated by the "Gs", Gaja and Giacosa, both of whom make some of the most expensive wines in all the Langhe. In Barolo, collectors have typically sought wines from the "big four" of Conterno, Bartolo Mascarello, Giacomo Mascarello and Giuseppe Rinaldi. There, the issue is more supply than price, with the exception of the very expensive (but still fairly priced!) Monfortino. Americans, though, are broadening their horizons and are increasingly looking at a host of smaller producers in both DOCs. In Barbaresco, you might look at Cascina delle Rose or Serafino Rivella, and in Barolo, producers like Elvio Cogno or Massolino. And in Barbaresco, do not overlook the Produttori, which makes some of the best values in collectable wine from anywhere (check out this post on that very topic). In short, although the two DOCs have a different kind of presence in our marketplace, it's not something that we need to worry about as consumers seeking out the best wines, as there is no shortage of great options -- and great values -- in both places!