overachieving wines in underperforming categories

Friday, September 28, 2012

If you’ve been writing and reviewing wines as long as I have, certain personal prejudices (let’s be kind and call them conclusions) are inevitable. One such group I call the “underperforming categories.” These are certain classes of wines which by virtue of origin, grape and price may conveniently be seen as comparable. The underperformers are those groups in which a high percentage of the wines are simply overpriced.

Here are two examples. Along with my description of the group failings, I am happy to recommend a wine or two that overperform. The recommended wines are not just better than their sub-par peers; they are truly outstanding wines.

Group number one would be Italian pinot grigios. How many chain restaurants feature these wines on their lists, and how often do they charge a ridiculous amount of money for a small glass of some watery plonk? Even if you buy by the bottle, it’s tough to find anything above the swill level for under $18. Here are two inexpensive wines that rise well above the norm.

The 2011 Giocato Pinot Grigio is technically Slovenian, being produced just across the border in a region where the boundary lines between the countries are essentially meaningless as far as viticulture is concerned. It’s pure pinot grigio, 12.5% alcohol, all stainless, bright and crisp with the zip and zing that comes from natural acidity and a certain lively minerality. Imported by Largo Wines and distributed by the August Wine Group, suggested retail is $11.

The 2011 Banfi ‘Le Rime’ Pinot Grigio has not yet been reviewed and is not even posted on the winery website, but a bottle showed up a week or so ago and I tasted it with the Giocato. Interestingly, the Le Rime is made in Tuscany, and labeled simply Toscana IGT. No fancy appellation here! But the juice is solid, fruity and full, with a peachy cast. There is another version of this wine that includes chardonnay in the blend, but the pure pinot grigio version is the one to buy. Suggested retail is $11. Both of these wines are screwcapped for freshness and protection from TCA.

Group number two hails from the other side of the pond. Napa Valley Bordeaux varietals and blends priced between $30 and $50 at retail are often a source of consternation to me. Granted, I don’t live in Napa and do not have access to the many limited bottlings offered locally by smaller producers. I have no doubt there are some really good ones. But tasting through the stuff that is nationally distributed, by brand name wineries, it is almost universally disappointing. For those kinds of dollars you can find some darn good wines from almost anywhere else. Start with Spain, Italy and France. Move into Argentina and Australia. Toss in Washington just because...

Well, here’s one shining example from Napa as well. Chappellet has re-christened their Napa Valley Mountain Cuvée, naming it Cervantes. The 2010 is a blend of 50% cabernet sauvignon, 35% merlot, 9% petit verdot and 6% malbec. Alcohol is just under 15% and the suggested retail is $32. This is seriously good – dark and muscular, with plenty of fruit power but underlying strength from focused tannins and sweet oak. It drinks well right now but could probably be cellared for a decade or more. The name, I am told, comes from the individual who originally surveyed the land now held by Chappellet on Pritchard Hill, more than a century ago. The wine does him proud.

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