I taste up
to a thousand wines each year, so it's impossible to do justice to all,
or even a significant portion, of them. I love wine from all over the
world, so I've tried to give you a sampling of some of those that I've
especially enjoyed from different countries and regions within those countries.
I've also tried to cover a wide price range, knowing a $25 bottle of wine
may be a bargain to one and an extravagance to another. This is by no
means meant to be a comprehensive list, but there should be a wine here
to suit nearly every palate, pocketbook, and meal. Enjoy!
One of my favorite white wine categories, this is one of the few areas
where you can still get a real bang for your buck! New Zealand Sauvignon
Blancs, with their bracing acidity and gooseberry-melon fruit flavors
are some of my favorites. Huia, Brancott, Wairau River, and Seresin are
among my favorite producers.
are plenty of good domestic Sauvignon Blancs to be had as well, and most
are fairly inexpensive. I especially like the efforts from both Chateau
St. Michelle and Columbia Crest in Washington State. Both are loaded with
plenty of varietal flavors and have a nice crisp acidity. Fetzer's Echo
Ridge Sauvignon Blanc from Mendicino County is a winner with tart melon
and herbal flavors, and it too is easy on the pocketbook.
Of course, France's Loire Valley is ground zero for Sauvignon Blanc. The
most common labels you'll encounter will be Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume.
In general these wines are much leaner, most acidic with much stronger
mineral notes than their New World counterparts. For many, they're an
acquired taste. For me, they're heaven with shellfish. Look for Pasal
Jolivet, a very reliable source of Sancerre, and La Doucette, the pinnacle
(and priced accordingly) of Pouilly-Fume.
I can't honestly say I'm a big fan, but if you have the means (about $40
at Costco) definitely try Far Niente.
not put through a second, or maloactic fermentation like most New World
Chardonnays, so it's considerably brighter in tone with ripe tree fruit
flavors that resonate on the palate. It's also a good candidate for aging
if you can keep you hands off of it now, that is.
Over in Sonoma, I really like the Kendall-Jackson's Great Estates lineup
of Chardonnay. KJ offers three: A Sonoma Valley Bottling, a second from
Arroyo Seco in Monterey County, and a third from vineyards throughout
The Arroyo Seco is the biggest and boldest of the bunch. It's great for
those who love their Chardonnay gushing with tropical fruit. The Monterey
County offering is a bit tamer, but still packs plenty of punch. Last,
the Sonoma Valley bottling, primarily from vineyards in the southern part
of the valley, is my personal favorite with apple and pear notes and nice
crisp acidity. They're not cheap, ranging from $25-$30, but in today's
Chardonnay marketplace, they offer real value for their flavor.
Though I'm not in love with Chardonnay as a category, I do adore Chablis.
The northermost region of Burgundy, which is the home base of Chardonnay,
brings a whole new character to Chardonnay. They're a lot leaner, with
considerably more acidity and strong mineral and flint notes thanks to
the limestone soils. LaRoche is my favorite producer. Try any of their
many excellent offerings with mussels or scallops and you just might have
a food and wine epiphany.
The rest of Burgundy, is home to the most famous Chardonnays in the world.
They're just not called Chardonnay. Rather, they carry names like Batard-Montrachet,
Chassange Montrachet, Puligny Montrachet, Meursault, and Corton-Charlemagne.
They also carry price tags higher than most DVD players. Wines from these
tiny villages in Burgundy produce unquestionably the greatest, most age-worthy,
complex, and ethereal Chardonnay in the world, their small supply and
high price make the best difficult to obtain and afford. I would suggest
looking elsewhere for a Burgundian Chardonnay experience. Look for wines
from Rully, Mercurey, Pernand-Vergelesses, or Montagny, which can, in
the hands of the right producer in the right vintage, approach the flavors
and aromas of the great white Burgundies at a fraction of the cost. Louis
Jadot, Joseph Drouhin, Olivier Leflaive, Louis Latour, and Faively are
dependable sources of these wines. Start small, but dream large, and beware-once
you've had a few really good white Burgundies, you just might be hooked,
and that's an expensive, if rewarding, proposition.
On another continent in another hemisphere, the Australians make some awfully nice Chardonnays as well, and though most aren't really my cup of tea, there are many exceptions to the rule. Rosemount, who's Diamond Label is a perennial favorite, produces some
outstanding Chardonnay. Look for the Roxburg and Show Reserve in particular.
Geoff Merrill has a deft touch with his Owen's Estate and Geoff Merrill
Reserve Chardonnays out of South Australia, and perhaps my favorite of
the lot is Penfold's Yartarna Chardonnay. It's their highest end white
wine offering, and it's one awesome bottle of Chardonnay gushing with
layer upon layer of rich, ripe fruit, buttressed with toasty oak, and
held together by bright acidity. It's a handful, and it'll cost you a
handful of cash.
Those in search of a Chardonnay with a little less oak and vanilla characteristics might also look to Chardonnay-Semillion blends. Semillion is a grape native to the Graves region of Bordeaux, but the most compelling Semillions are made in Australia where you will also find the oldest plantings of the grape. Not surprisingly, the Aussies do a great job blending Semillion with Chardonnay. Lindemans has a a very good and very affordable version, as does Penfolds. In this hemisphere, you'll have to head to the Pacific Northwest and check out our friends at Columbia Crest again. Their version is light, fruity, and inexpensive.
Okay, I know I just talked about Semillion in Chardonnay blends, but Semillion's
great on its own too.
They're fairly hard to find and rather esoteric, so I'm not going to spend
a lot of time here. But, if you're looking for a change, check out the
Lindemans Hunter Valley Semillion or Penfolds Adelaide Hills Semillion-both
from down under. In the U.S., the pickings are pretty slim, but Clos du
Val's Napa Valley Semillion is awesome. All three are medium-bodied with
really interesting melon, pear, and citrus notes. None offers too much
in the way of oak, and they're all extremely flexible with a variety of
to France's Northern Rhone Valley, Viognier has captured the fancy of
grape growers and winemakers the world over. Wine drinkers, while slow
to catch on at first, are now riding the Viognier wave as well. Still
a bit on the inconsistent side, New World Viogniers are improving in quality
with each passing vintage. My personal favorites in California are Bonterra
Vineyards, an organic operation in Mendicino County, R.H. Phillips, not
far from Sacramento in California's Central Valley, and Windmill Estates
out of Lodi. All three offer great varietal character of honeysuckle and
sweet summer flowers, medium body, and long fruit and floral finishes.
And, if you really want to take a walk on the wild side, try the Alban
Viognier from Santa Barbara County. Offering gobs of fruit, a huge nose
of spice and flower, and a rich mouthful of racy flavors, this is no blushing
Viogniers from their native Rhone Valley are labeled Condrieu and Chateau
Grillet, two appelations in the Rhone. Bottlings from both areas can be
exceptional and exceptionally expensive. They can be worth it and they
can be a major disappointment, so stick to the best producers and the
strongest, most recent, vintages. Look for Chapoutier, Guigal, and J.L.
Chave and don't buy anything more than two years old as the delicate fruit
and floral flavors generally start to dry out rather quickly.
You can find other Viognier in France outside Condrieu and Chateau Grillet
simply labeled Viognier. The price will be much lower and the quality
most often follows. Still, there are some good values offering Viognier
that actually tastes like Viognier. Two of my favorites are from Georges
Duboeuf, "The King of Beaujolais." Duboeuf bottles an oaked
and unoaked Viognier, which vary in price only by a dollar or two. Both
are very good examples of the varietal with lovely flavors and aromas,
good balance, and a clean, crisp finish.
Another great alternative to Chardonnay, you'll find a lot of Pinot Gris
coming out of Oregon these days.
King Estate is the unquestioned leader in the category, producing both
a regular and reserve bottling. The reserve is clearly better, offering
more intense fruit flavors and a much longer finish, but for an everyday
drinking wine, try the front-line King Estate Pinot Gris with a roast
chicken. It might become your house white.
Across the pond, Pinot Gris's home is in the Alsace region of France.
Here, old vines and low yields can produce wines of incredible depth and
complexity. I've had very few Alsacian Pinot Gris's that I didn't like,
but two producers that stand out from the pack are Schlumberger and Trimbach.
Both offer excellent choices at a variety of price points. Schlumberger's
versions tend to be riper and a bit more intense, while Trimbach opts
for a more elegant style. Try em side by side and make your own
Of course, Italy produces an ocean of Pinot Gris. There, it's called Pinot
Grigio. Americans love its light, quaffable style, and it's generally
pretty light on the pocketbook as well. For pure summertime, deck-sipping
value, you can't go wrong with Bolla. If you'd like something with a little
more stuffing to it, Santa Margarita is the brand for you.
One of the greatest but most fickle grapes in the world, Pinot Noir continues
to be the Holy Grail for grape growers and winemakers. At its zenith,
Pinot Noir can produce wines of depth and complexity rarely found in wines
from any other grape. Burgundy, the birthplace of Pinot Noir, is home
to the vast majority of these expressions. Unfortunately, Red Burgundies
are most often made in miniscule quantities while bearing huge price tags.
Some are worthy of the price but many others will leave you wondering
what all the fuss is about. My suggestion is to look for wines from reliable
suppliers such as Joseph Drouhin, Louis Jadot, or Louis Latour, and importers
such as Robert Haas's Vineyard Brands, Robert Katcher, and Kermit Lynch.
More times than not, if the wine sports one of these labels or logos,
you'll be pleased with what's in the bottle.
Domestic Pinot Noir can vary widely in style and consistency, but there
are many worth seeking out in California and Oregon. Starting in Oregon,
I again, like the style and value of King Estate, which offers a number
of different Pinots. Other Oregon favorites include Sokol Blosser and
Domain Drouhin, run by Joseph Drouhin's daughter, and Ponzi. Vintages
can be a bit of a crapshoot in Oregon and prices are usually fairly high,
so make sure you're buying in a good vintage. Both the 1998 and 1999 Oregon
vintages were excellent for Pinot Noir.
California offers a wide range of Pinot producers from Mendicino County in the north to Santa Barbara County in the south. La Crema, which is one of only a handful of wineries to produce wine in the Sonoma Coast appellation, is a good source of Burgundian-style Pinot. Beringer makes a nice single vineyard Pinot Noir from Carneros in the very southern tip of Napa, and Robert Mondavi's Reserve bottling has long been among my favorites. In Santa Barbara County and the central coast, I've long enjoyed the wines of Sanford and Au Bon Climate, Sanford being the more traditional and Au Bon Climate often pushing the envelope to extract a maximum amount of ripeness, spice, and flavor.
Where to begin? It seems almost every wine producing country in the world makes Cabernet, and rightly so, as Cabernet is the undisputed king of red wine. In the U.S., the Napa Valley is the leader in the production of great Cabernet. Through the years, three of my favorites have been: Beringer Private Reserve, Far Niente, and Freemark Abbey's Bousche bottlings. All three are exquisite and expensive. In this stratosphere, you might try Freemark's Napa Valley bottling-a great value for a very good pedigree.
Chimney Rock and Clos du Val, both from the Stag's Leap District, are
outstanding, and for perhaps the best bang for your buck in Napa, try
St. Supery's Cabernet from Dollarhide Ranch. Oh yeah, Villa Mount Eden
also makes a Grand Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from all Napa Valley vineyards
that'll knock your socks off.
There's plenty of good Cabernet over in Sonoma too. A great value there
is the Gallo of Sonoma Cab, which, for $10 or so, gives you a real mouthful
of authentic Cabernet fruit. Kendall-Jackson's Great Estate's Cabernet
from Alexander Valley is loaded with high tone fruit, glycerin, and spicy
Chateau Souverain in the Dry Creek Valley has long been a source of high quality, reasonably-priced Cabernet, and Geyser Peak, one of Souverain's neighbors in Dry Creek, does a great job with a knockout Reserve Cab.
Of course, the benchmark for all Cabernet Sauvignon is Bordeaux. Bordeaux has been producing great Cabernet-based wine for centuries, and it remains no less true today. One thing that has changed is the ability to find good Bordeaux at a good price. That's why I hesitate to recommend any Bordeaux as the best are prohibitively expensive and the less expensive are often widely erratic. Still, on an entry level try Chateau Greysac or Chateau Plagnac. On the next level, give Chateau Meyney, Chateau Pibran, or Chateau Tayac a try. And, if money's no object, what the heck are you reading this for?
There are a lot of nice Cabernet Sauvignons out of Chile. But while many of those nice Cabs used to be in the $10 range, sadly, that's no longer the case. Still, there's plenty of good Chilean Cabernet at fair prices if you shop around. I've always enjoyed the Cabernets from Santa Rita, especially the Reserva and Medalla Real. Both offer real Cabernet punch at a fair price. Concha y Toro, Chile's largest wine producers, scores big with its Don Melchor Reserve Cabernet. Caliterra produces a very nice Cabernet from the Maipo Valley, and for $8, you can't beat the Cabernet Sauvignon from Calina.
Although Shiraz is definitely the red wine grape of choice in Australia,
the Aussies still produce a fair amount of Cabernet Sauvignon, and much
of it is quite good. In my opinion, the best Cabernets down under come
from South Australia's Coonawarra and Barossa Valley regions. In Coonawarra, Wynns is my favorite producer, hands-down. Their black label Cabernet, at around $15, is perhaps one of the best Cabernet Sauvignon values, and their John Riddock Reserve Cabernet, at a considerably higher price, is among the truly great Cabs in the world. Penley, a small producer, also turns out some stellar Cabernets and Cabernet blends from the Coonawarra. In the Barossa Valley, meantime, the best of the best is undoubtedly Penfolds. Their 707 Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the benchmark Cabernets of Australia, and the 407, sort of a "baby 707," is usually pretty darned close to its dad at a much lower price. I also have to put in a mention of Tahbilk, an historic winery in the new Nagambie Lakes area of Victoria. I recently had a bottle of their Reserve Cabernet, and it was among the best Cabernet I've had in years. It's very limited production and it's not cheap, but if you love Cabernet loaded with dark berry fruit, currant and dark chocolate undertones, and a finish that last 30 seconds or more, this is a wine you have to try.
Merlot, like Cabernet Sauvignon, is native to Bordeaux, but the Americans
have taken to it like a duck to water. Often purported to be softer, rounder,
and less tannic than Cabernet (even though that's not always the case),
Merlot continues to be a very popular category among U.S. wine drinkers.
Unfortunately, the Merlot hype has often exceeded actual Merlot quality.
However, there's a lot of good to very good Merlot made in America in
both Washington State and California. In Washington, look for the reasonably
priced offerings from Columbia Crest and the Merlot from Covey Run. Both
wineries offer Merlots with ripe fruit flavors and hints of chocolate
and vanilla at very fair prices. There must be more than 500 Merlots produced
in California, so it's definitely "caveat emptor." Napa and
Sonoma are your best bets for good Merlot. Some dependable names to look
for include: Beringer, Markham, Rutherford Hill, Cuvaison, Stags' Leap,
Swanson, Arrowood, and Fritz.
Capitalizing on America's seemingly insatiable thirst for Merlot, Chile planted a lot of it, and continues to do so. Chile's climate is well suited to the production of pleasant, light, quaffable Merlots, and there is an ocean of those from which to choose. I'd like to steer you toward a handful of wineries doing more-wineries producing Merlots of serious quality, depth, and presence. For something of this nature, look for the Santa Rita Reserva Merlot, the Casa Lapostolle Merlot, especially the Cuvee Alexandra, Caliterra's Merlot and the Errazuriz Don Maximiano Reserva Merlot.
Syrah, a French grape with roots in the Rhone Valley, is becoming more
and more comfortable here in the United States. Led by a group of wineries
and winemakers known collectively as "Rhone Rangers," Syrah
offerings and Syrah quality in America has grown exponentially.
California's Central Coast from Santa Barbara to Paso Robles, Sonoma County, and the Napa Valley offer your best bets for Syrah, with the Central Coast region leading the way. I've always liked Qupe's and Ojai's Syrahs from here, but lately, the hottest producer has to be Alban, which produces a massive, decadent Syrah that's definitely not for the faint of heart. Rosenblum, which bottles a number of different Syrahs from a variety of areas, has a terrific offering from the Central Coast should you run across that one. And, keep an eye on Seven Peaks, a joint Australian-American venture that will get better with each passing vintage.
Sonoma County is probably a close second in the Syrah sweepstakes. Two
of my favorites come from wineries in Sonoma's Dry Creek Valley-the Geyser
Peak Reserve Shiraz (they've got an Australian winemaker, so they call
it Shiraz rather than Syrah) and the Clos du Bois Alexander Valley Reserve
Shiraz (they don't have an Australian winemaker but they call it Shiraz
anyway). Cline and Ridge also bottle wonderful Syrah from Sonoma County
as do a host of others. Also, although it's actually in Mendicino County,
Bonterra's Syrah from organic vineyards is quite tasty and very Rhone-like.
In the Napa Valley, Lewis is on a roll when it comes to Syrah with some
of the best offerings in the state.
Neyers and Swanson also make very good Syrah from Napa. Both are worth
seeking out. Last, but certainly not least, is the Stags' Leap Syrah,
which offers a full-bodied no-holds-barred style.
As mentioned, Syrah is native to France's Northern Rhone Valley where
it is the only grape allowed by law to be bottled bearing the appellations
of Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, Cote-Rotie, Cornas and St. Joseph.
Wines from Hermitage, Cote-Rotie, and Cornas often produce the best Syrahs
in the world, and they carry the subsequent price tags. Values can be
found in wines from St. Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage, but stick to the
best producers as wines from these areas can be diluted and disappointing.
Chapoutier, Guigal, Jaboulet, and Chave are all producers of pedigree
The Australian's versions of this classic French grape are a category
unto themselves. Generally offering more pepper and spice and way more fruit than the French could even imagine, Aussie Shiraz can be a real mouthful. Their fruit-forward style and generally reasonable prices have made Australian Shiraz one of the fastest growing categories here in the U.S.. And, while it's true Shiraz like Rosemount's Diamond Label, Banrock Station, McPherson, and others give Americans plenty of bang for the buck, these entry level Shiraz bottlings offer only a glimpse of what Australian Shiraz can really be. You simply haven't lived until you've sampled a Grange, St. Henri, or Magill Estate Shiraz from Penfolds, a Michael Shiraz from Wynns, the Dead Arm Shiraz from d'Arenberg, the Eileen Hardy Reserve from Hardys, Rosemount's Syrah Balmoral, or Leasingham's Classic Clare. These wines, and many others, represent the pinnacle of Australian Shiraz and some of the best red wine in the world. None of these is cheap or easy to find, but if you really want to experience Australian Shiraz at its best, these are the names to look for.
The great noble red grape of Italy's Piedmont region, Nebbiolo is the
lone grape in two of the world's greatest wines: Barolo and Barbaresco.
Often referred to as the king and queen of Italian red wine, Barolo and
Barbaresco offer some of the most interesting, complex, and delicious
wines in the world. A combination of markedly improved viticulture and
a string of magnificent vintages has lifted Piedmont and its royal court
into the upper echelons of the wine world.
Sadly, great, good, or even mediocre Barolo and Barbaresco don't come
cheap. Single vineyard bottlings can easily top $100 a bottle, and the
wines of Angelo Gaja, who no longer bottles his wines as Barolo and Barbaresco
but by their proprietary names, are in the range of $200-$300 per bottle.
Don't lose faith, though. You can still find very good Barolo and Barbaresco
for $30-$60 a bottle.
It's not cheap, but at least it will give you a sense of how awesome these
wines can be. For a classic Barolo or Barbaresco, you just can't beat
the wines of Pio Cesare. They've been making wine in Piedmont for over
100 years and own some of the best vineyards in both Barolo and Barbaresco.
Their front-line Barolo and Barbaresco, both blends from a series of vineyards,
offer the best of both expressions: crushed violets, leather, sweet delicate
berry fruit, and spices. The Barolo is a bit fuller-bodied, but I'd be
hard-pressed to pick a favorite of the two. Bruno Giacosa is another "old-school"
Barolo and Barbaresco producer and a particular favorite. And, if you
seek a more fruit-driven modern style, there are plenty of those to be
had as well. Two names to look for are Paolo Scavino and Vietti. Scavino's
"Bric del Fiasc" is always a treat, and Vietti's "Lazzarito"
has plenty of ripe fruit supported by toasty oak. Try any of these with
mushroom risotto and get ready for a terrific food and wine experience.
The other great red grape of Italy, Sangiovese provides the backbone for
Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino along with many of the so-called "Super-Tuscans,"
wines bottled under their proprietary names featuring blends of International
grapes as well as indigenous varietals. Let's start with Chianti, which
many believe to be the most classic expression of Sangiovese. The best
Chiantis are usually found in the category of Chianti Classico Riserva-Chianti
Classico being the region and Riserva indicating a wine of higher quality
and longer aging. Most often blended with small amounts of other grapes
such as Canaiolo, Cabernet Sauvignon, or even Syrah, Chianti Classico
Riservas are nonetheless primarily an expression of Sangiovese. The best
are medium-bodied, loaded with briary fruit, chocolate, and leather, and
racing with crisp acidity. The acidity and weight is why Chiantis in general
and Chianti Classico Riservas in particular are perhaps the greatest wines
in the world to pair with any pasta in a tomato-based sauce.
I have many favorite producers, but I would recommend in particular: Antinori,
Frescobaldi (they're based in Chianti Ruffina not Chianti Classico, but
they're wines are terrific), Ruffino, Brolio, and Monsanto.
In Southern Tuscany, you'll find the second most famous expression of
Sangiovese in the vineyards of Brunello di Montalcino. There's no blending
of the grapes allowed in Brunello. They're 100% Sangiovese and must be
aged a minimum amount of time in both the cask and the bottle to be labeled
Brunello. The wines are more intense and more expensive than most of the
wines of Chianti, and the best wineries in the best vintages can produce
some of the greatest wines in the world. The largest vineyard holder in
Brunello is Castello Banfi-owned by Americans John and Harry Mariani.
Banfi produces a classic, riserva, and single vineyard Brunello-all of
which are good to excellent. My personal favorite in Brunello, though,
is Il Poggione. A hidden gem, Il Poggione has been making wine in Brunello
for more than 100-years. It's classic Brunello di Montalcino is terrific,
and the riserva is out of this world. And, if you're looking for something
even more affordable, try Il Poggione's Rosso di Montalcino. Often called
a "baby Brunello," the Rosso is released sooner than the Brunello.
It's a little lighter, but still carries the class and pedigree of Il
Poggione and Brunello di Montalcino.