Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Like so many French wine regions, it’s fun to say out loud – tres sexy, n’est-ce pas? – yet the average American has absolutely no clue about where it is or what its wine tastes like. Let’s lift the veil of mystery. First of all, Châteauneuf-du-Pape is an ancient town in the southern Rhône Valley. If you were to travel north, up the river from its silt-filled mouth at the Mediterranean Sea, you’d pass Arles and Avignon. Just before you hit Orange, there it is on a high bank about three clicks east of the riverbank: an ancient town of 2,000 people, dominated by the remains of a castle. How ancient, you ask? Well, the Romans colonized the region two millennia ago, when the mouth of the Rhône was several miles north of its present location. The ruins of their public buildings can be found all over this part of the valley, including a kickass amphitheater near Orange. See it smack dab in the middle? The Romans planted wine grapes here, too, and it was a great spot for it: rocks, stone, sand, limestone and clay soil and a warm, dry Mediterranean climate. The village probably dates from the 10th century, but it comes by its name because Pope Clement, who was French, transferred the papacy from Rome to Avignon in 1309. He spent a lot of time at Châteauneuf-du-Pape over the next few years and died nearby in 1314. Editors note: for a beautiful, quality representation of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, give the Domaine de la Vieille Julienne 2010 a taste. This legendary estate produces some of the world's best juice and the 2010 is no exception. Drinking young, big and full of grippy tannins, this drop packs a haymaker of dark fruits. Drink now or age it for a few more years. Subsequent French popes also favored the place. Pope John XXII built a large summer residence in town in 1333, the ruins of which still dominate the skyline today. Hence the name: Châteauneuf-du-Pape means “the new castle of the pope.” Though the papacy moved back to Rome in the late 1300's and the castle fell into ruin, the already well-established winemaking tradition continued. By the late 1700’s, Châteauneuf-du-Pape had earned kudos for the quality of its wines, which reportedly combined the best qualities of the Languedoc and Bordeaux. Like the rest of Europe, the vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape were destroyed by Phylloxera. In fact, the destructive pest struck here first in 1866 and laid waste to almost everything. By 1880, only 200 hectares of vines remained in the entire appellation. Growers who had prospered for generations went bankrupt. Vineyards were abandoned. It took decades for the area to recover, partly because the wine was being sold at low prices and it wasn’t considered worth the effort to replant. From about 1900-1920, negociants used Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine mainly to add color and backbone to more desirable wines from Burgundy. Editor's note: the Domaine Roger Sabon 2015 is all tart-fruit raspberry on the front and minerality on the back. A charismatic yet elegant take on Châteauneuf-du-Pape, this is an excellent version for both experts and novices alike. The softer tannins won't leave your mouth cottony yet finishes with enough pleasant brute force where laying it down for a few more years will serve you well. In 1924, Châteauneuf-du-Pape applied for official appellation status. It took 12 years for the fussy French wine brain trust to grant it. That sense of being dissed by the wine establishment has persisted over the decades, and Châteauneuf-du-Pape once had a reputation for being a bit of a rustic bad boy. Its red wines (about 95 percent of total production) were considered full-bodied but rough around the edges, and its three dominant varieties – Grenache Noir, Syrah and Mourvèdre – were traditionally not as valued as the characteristic grapes of Bordeaux and Burgundy. In recent decades, though, the area has joined France’s big-boy ranks, with high scores from many judges and rising prices to match. Other nearby regions, such as Gigondas and Vacqueyras, are well regarded, but Châteauneuf-du-Pape is universally acknowledged to be the best wine region in the southern Rhône. The reds share certain traits: red and black cherries, strawberry, kirsch, black pepper, ripe raspberry and garrigue (the quality of the herbs found locally). Its textures can be luscious, big and fruit-forward when young; two or three more years in the bottle gives them silkiness and finesse. Some can be left in the cellar for 8 to 12 years. Editor's note: throw this Domaine Giraud 2015 in your cellar (or wherever you keep the good shit). This fancy fruit and herbal drop has some power behind it. Although totally drinkable now, let it calm down for a few years to soften up the biting finish. Otherwise a great show-off wine to represent the region. The appellation of Châteauneuf-du-Pape is 3,231 hectares in size. It’s about 8.5 miles long and 5 miles wide, delineated by the city of Orange with its Roman ruins in the north, the town of Sorgues to the south, the Rhône River to the west and the A7, a major highway, to the east. About 13,750,000 bottles of Châteauneuf-du-Pape are produced every year, most by small, family-owned estates.
And just when I thought the rosé bubble was about to burst, along came...frosé. The French upstart was showing many of the signs that it was about to jump the shark. Albertson’s and other garden-variety supermarkets were featuring huge rosé displays near checkout counters. The price of Miraval, suavely marketed in happier times by its owners, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, was creeping ever skyward. Neighborhood restaurants were offering more than one rosé by the glass, often charging the same prices for this throwaway wine as they would for good-quality chardonnay. But then some wiseguy/girl mixologist tried freezing it, mixing it with a tasty liqueur, and viola! A new summertime concoction was born. Frosé first appeared last summer. This summer, it’s everywhere. At Daniel Boulud’s Bistro Moderne in Manhattan last month, we tried an elegant variation of the drink, and we noticed it at many Manhattan bars. Orange County, California mixologist Gabrielle Dion has come up with a version for the bar menu at Broadway, a popular Laguna restaurant that features the cuisine of Top Chef finalist Amar Santana. Dion combines two ounces of Blackbird Rosé with Cappelletti Aperitivo, strawberry-rhubarb jam, lemon and grapefruit oils. Many recipes I found online recommend puréed strawberries and a little sugar to sweeten everything. Another frequent point of advice is to use a stronger, darker rosé. “This is NOT a moment for that nearly clear, Whispering Angel kind of rosé. Look for Pinot Noir or Merlot rosés,” Bon Appetit advises. A couple of recipes even call for a little vodka to strengthen the concoction. We recently tried Bon Appetit’s frosé recipe and found it hassle-free and tasty: 1 750 ml bottle hearty, bold rosé (such as a Pinot Noir or Merlot rosé)½ cup sugar8 ounces strawberries, hulled, quartered2½ ounces fresh lemon juicePour rosé into a 13" x 19" pan and freeze until almost solid (it won't completely solidify due to the alcohol), at least 6 hoursMeanwhile, bring sugar and ½ cup water to a boil in a medium saucepan; cook, stirring constantly, until sugar dissolves, about 3 minutes. Add strawberries, remove from heat, and let sit 30 minutes to infuse syrup with strawberry flavor. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a small bowl (do not press on solids); cover and chill until cold, about 30 minutes.Scrape rosé into a blender. Add lemon juice, 3½ ounces strawberry syrup, and 1 cup crushed ice and purée until smooth. Transfer blender jar to freezer and freeze until frosé is thickened (aim for milkshake consistency), 25–35 minutes. Blend again until frosé is slushy. Divide among glasses. Bon Appetit says that frosé can be kept fresh for a week. It would never last that long in my icebox...
Don’t be afraid to admit it: you’re a red wine snob. You’re cuckoo for cabernet, super-fond of Super Tuscans, mad about merlot. In the summer, it can get pretty lonely out there, can’t it? Picnics and parties are an endless round of buttery chardonnays, sweet rieslings and (God forbid) rosé, which you dismiss as little more than pink Kool Aid with a bad aftertaste. I’m here to help. There are a number red wines that drink perfectly well in warm weather. Many somms use a simple rule when recommending summer reds: stick with the thin-skinned grapes. The most common ones are pinot noir, grenache, sangiovese and tempranillo. Nebbiolo is also a thin-skinned grape, but it doesn’t behave like one. It’s the main ingredient in barolo and barbaresco. It’s powerful, tannic and hard to tame. But the other four can be fashioned into light-bodied, fruit-forward wines that often benefit from being chilled or at least served at what I can “northern European room temperature” – 60-65 degrees Fahrenheit. Pinot noir The most popular wine in the light-red world. For summer, stick with Burgundian-style pinot – light in color and body, often barnyard-ish and funky when you sniff it, dominated by cherry notes and very light on tannins at the end. The Burgundy region of France is obviously the first choice for pinot noirs, but Oregon and New Zealand also make excellent Burgundian-style pinots. In California, the northern regions produce the best light-bodied examples of pinot: Anderson Valley, Russian River, the Santa Lucia Highlands. ($19, BUY HERE!) Go for the 2015 Cloudline Pinot Noir from Willamette Valley - THE region for Oregon pinots. Granacha A Spanish grape that also does well in France’s Southern Rhône Valley, where it’s called grenache. It’s the backbone of Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines. But they’re often pretty meaty; far better in summer to go with lighter Côtes du Rhônes grenache. Or, if you want to save some green, go with Spanish granachas, which often have more backbone than their French counterparts. Run with a 2015 La Maldita Garnacha. A summery version of the grape with bright acidity, lighter fruits, and silky texture. ($11, BUY HERE!) Sangiovese From Italy’s Tuscany region. Makes an excellent, all-purpose barbecue wine. Some are blends; Montefalco Rosso, an inexpensive mélange of sangiovese and sagrantino, carries delicate flavors of strawberry, tart cherries and white flowers. Most Chianti is made with 100 percent sangiovese grapes. It’s medium bodied, with crisp acidity and light tannins. The 2012 Arnaldo Caprai Montefalco Rosso will do very well. A nice representation of the blend. ($22, BUY HERE!) Tempranillo Another light-bodied Spanish grape, medium ruby in color. It delivers tastes of cherry, plum, tomato and sometimes dried fig, with mild to medium tannins. New World tempranillos from Argentina, Mexico and the U.S. usually deliver more fruit than their Spanish counterparts – a taste profile highlighted by cherry and tomato sauce, followed by tannins and earthy notes. Crianza rioja tempranillo, which spends a minimum of one year in casks, has long been prized by fans of the grape because it finds a sweet spot of quality and price – it often tastes more expensive than it is. Let's pop open this 2012 Crianza by La Rioja Alta Finca San Martin. It's fresh yet mature, energetic yet refined. ($15, BUY HERE!) Beaujolais Made in France, generally from the Gamay grape, it’s a wonderful wine for summer barbecues. It’s not at all tannic and has a strong acid backbone, and it’s ready to drink as soon as it’s put in the bottle. But if you’re tired of the late-summer Beaujolais habit, consider a similar grape that’s unjustly overlooked: Austria’s Blaufränkisch. It can be spicy and juicy yet elegant and structured – and it’s seldom expensive. Before you ease into the adventure that is Blaufränkisch, let's roll with Georges Duboeuf's take on a classic Beaujolais. ($22, BUY HERE!)
“Aketta roasted crickets and cricket powder are a flavorful, resource-efficient and nutrient-dense way to ingest edible insects”, according to the...chirpy...folks at Aketta (sorry, I couldn’t resist). The first time I read that sentence, I had a tough time getting past the words: “ingest edible insects.” I once swallowed a grasshopper when I was five, but that was on a dare. And, like I said, I was five. Why would sensible adults, grown-ass people like you and me, put an insect, live or dead, in our mouths and chew it? Nevertheless, that was the assignment. More specifically, the assignment was to open the packets, taste the damn crickets, then try to decide what kind of wine to pair with them. That’s the kind of important consumer-oriented work we do here at ILTG, folks – and believe me, we’re not paid enough for jobs like these. I still can’t get my wife’s words out of my head right now: “A cricket is just a cockroach that sings at night!”. OK, so I lied. I once tried chapulín (dried, pulverized grasshopper), but it was on the rim of a very tasty margarita, and that irresistible flavor overwhelmed any insect-y aftertaste. I sampled the chapulín by itself, and it wasn’t bad: salty, crunchy, perhaps a faint hint of dried grass. Same with the crickets. Keep in mind that you’re not just chomping on an unadulterated bug here – these little mofos come in flavors like Texas BBQ, Sea Salt & Vinegar and Sour Cream & Onion. The coatings tend to dominate, so keep that in mind when you pair them with wine. (And, really, who wouldn’t want to?) The Texas BBQ works perfectly with a gutsy Zinfandel. I’d go with something classy from Turley ($78, BUY) in Paso or Davis Family Vineyard, which makes a superb old vine zin sourced from Russian River vineyards. Sea Salt & Vinegar seems like a natural fit for something a little more exotic, such as a manzanilla sherry, with its salty notes picked up from the maritime climate along Spain’s southern coast. Valdespino’s Deliciosa would work like a charm. Sour Cream & Onion is buttery, creamy and a little spicy. You could go with an old school chardonnay to match the butter – Rombauer ($36, BUY) would be the ticket. Sour Cream & Onion is also the flavor that allows the snack’s essential cricket-ness to come through a bit in the form of grassy, herbaceous undertones. I’ve got the perfect wine for that: a bottle of Merry Edwards’ fabulous Russian River Valley Sauvignon Blanc. Really, I can’t think of anything better than a glass of this superlative winemaker’s magic white wine to wash down a heaping helping of crickets. Learn more about Aketta and their deep catalog of cricket foods on their website.
My latest online obsession is a website called SommSelect. Its concept is simple: a well-connected sommelier recommends one wine every day for your consideration. The parameters vary crazily – sometimes it’s a $10 steal, sometimes it’s an $80 Bordeaux that drinks like a prized grand cru priced at hundreds of dollars more. The site is well organized and sharply written, with an air of cocksure authority. (Hey, it's a legitimate word, look it up.) That's not surprising, considering its author: Ian Cauble. Does that name ring a bell? He was one of the four wine geeks in “Somm,” the 2012 movie about the trials and terrors of studying to pass the incredibly challenging Master Sommelier exam. Cauble, who grew up in Huntington Beach, was the dude you loved to hate. Pushy, nervous, a fast talker, he stayed up all night poring over his flash cards and drove his fellow test-takers crazy with his anxiety. He failed (the success rate is around 5 percent) but retook the exam the following year and was triumphant, thank God. I would have worried about the boy’s sanity if he'd failed again. Ian Cauble Now 36, Cauble hasn’t stood still since becoming a big wheel in the somm world. He launched SommSelect in 2014 and it took off, expanding to several thousand clients and 10 employees. The roots of SommSelect I asked Cauble how he came up with the idea, since the last time I checked in on him he was the U.S. brand ambassador for Krug, the French champagne maker, and seemed headed for a more straightforward career. “My friend Brandon Carneiro noticed these flash sites online that sell wine every day,” Cauble said. “It was often heavily discounted wine that was distressed inventory – a $90 Napa cab that was going for $19.99. Of course, when you taste them they taste like shit. Brandon said, ‘Let’s take your brand as a somm and just select some of the greatest wines of the world. They don’t all have to be expensive. But they have to taste good.’ So that’s how it started.” Most of the wines Cauble selects for SommSelect are between $20 and $50 a bottle, and they’re usually European, reflecting his own taste for French and Italian wines. Cauble estimates only 10 to 20 percent of his choices are from California and Oregon. SommSelect includes the price of shipping on any order over $100, which means ordering two or three bottles usually puts you over the top. Sample collection of SommSelect wines Cauble’s site offers some benefits for members. “We have a wine club called the Somm Six, which is six wines selected by me – three whites and three reds. That’s $199 per month. And then we have the Blind Six. It’s fun to get a glass of wine and guess where it’s from. It’s really a blind-tasting education kit. Most people who buy it are wine consumers who are curious. It’s $199 per month too. The bottles are usually about $32 to $35 retail.” Stop. Ruining. Nature. Cauble is also a fan of organic winemaking, as reflected in his choices. “Most of what we look for is organic or biodynamic. The most important part is they’re reducing the use of chemicals and pesticide. I’m a believer in removing chemicals from the winemaking process. You’re killing natural things that produce a symbiosis – fungi and other important elements. Nature is a lot smarter than chemistry in the lab.” Cauble said it isn’t just his own preferences that led him to emphasize European wines. He feels that the people who use SommSelect appreciate his expertise because they’re not secure in their knowledge of Old World labels and varieties. “A lot of people already have knowledge and a trusted source on where they can buy California wine and what to buy. No matter where you come from in America, you have a pretty good idea what Napa cabernet sauvignon and Santa Barbara pinot noir taste like. But most Americans don’t have a vetted source for European wine. It’s a complex place. For example, in Burgundy there are two main grapes, chardonnay and pinot noir, but each village has several producers. Not all are good. So consumers want someone to kiss the frogs so they don’t have to.” “Frog kisser.” I dare Cauble to put that on his business card.
California wines keep getting better and better. 2016 was no exception. I did some serious wine drinking in 2016, people. And it was for you, of course -- all for you. Sure it was. (Full disclosure: I spat most of it out. I am a professional.) I also traveled up and down my fair state of California, marveling at the 130 or so wine regions (I didn't get to all of them, of course). There is a huge diversity of choice in this state, one of the world's great viticultural treasures. Here is my list of some of the best california wines - prices vary from $17-$170. A few trends These are things that have been happening for a while, but in 2016 they seemed to break through big-time. 1. More rule-breaking blends: Artisanal winemakers, especially on the Central Coast, are crossing traditional boundaries more frequently in their red (and less frequently white) blends. You’ll find varieties from Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhône thrown together; zinfandel and other Italian and even Spanish varieties are sometimes added to the mix. 2. Fewer fruit bombs, more balance: Younger winemakers in particular are harvesting their grapes slightly less ripe. This keeps alcohol levels lower and eschews manipulation once the grapes have been squeezed. The result is wine that is less fruit-forward and showy but more balanced, complex, individualized, food-friendly and age-worthy. Donum Estate 3. The rise (and rise and rise) of Pinot Noir: Once a light, mid-priced alternative for cabernet haters, California pinot from Anderson Valley, Sonoma, Russian River, Santa Lucia Highlands, Santa Rita Hills and many other cool-climate AVAs is flooding the market. Yet prices are reaching Napa cabernet level: $50, $60, $70 … yikes. And the style, especially from the southern AVAs, is distinctly Californian: heavy and extracted, not light and Burgundian. We make anti-Oregon pinots here. 4. Rosé is here to stay: The French started it, but California winemakers have embraced the summer pink wine tradition wholeheartedly. The domestic version is often a tad sweeter than bone-dry Provencal rosé, and many winemakers depart from the customary Rhône varieties to make rosé from pinot noir and other non-Rhône grapes. Field Recordings 2008 Chenin Blanc 5. Unusual grapes are appearing: Chenin blanc, which has all but disappeared in California, was a surprise hit for artisanal Central Coast winemaker Andrew Jones of Field Recordings. Others winemakers are finding a market for such un-California grapes as vermentino, tannat, alicante bouschet, fiano and valdiguié. For the California AVA to keep an eye on... 6. Paso Robles is a respectable (dare we say world-class?) producer of Bordeaux: In September, Wine Advocate graced Paso winemakers with impressive scores. Those scores included 98 points for Daou Vineyards’ 2013 Patrimony and 96 points for its 2013 Soul of a Lion. Yet Paso’s best are not Napa clones: they have softer tannins, their own distinct terroir, and often much more petit verdot in the blend. And they’re less expensive than Napa cabs, too. Daou 2013 Soul of a Lion The year's best Here are the best 25 California wines that I tasted this year. I don't go all Wine Spectator with this list. I list the wines alphabetically, not in terms of quality. Really, isn't it silly to say "this Bordeaux is better than that sauvignon blanc"? I didn’t discriminate by price, region or type. Some of these babies are easier to find than others. Before you get all up in my piece with accusations like, "No Pinot Grigio -- how dare you!" let me remind you that I tasted a lot of other great wines this year that weren't from California, okay? For practical reasons, I confine myself to the place I know best when making a list like this. If you want to peruse my tasting notes, you can find them here. Top 25 California Wines of 2016 Byron 2014 Nielson Santa Maria Valley Chardonnay, $23 (90 points) Calera 2013 Jensen Vineyard Mount Harlan Pinot Noir, $90 (96 points) Castello di Amorosa 2012 La Castellana Super Tuscan Napa Valley Red Wine ($98) Chalk Hill 2015 Estate Bottled Sauvignon Blanc, $33 (92 points) Cliff Lede 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap, $78 (93 points) Donum 2013 Carneros Single Vineyard Pinot Noir, $72 (92 points) Duckhorn 2014 Decoy Pinot Noir, $25 Franciscan Estate 2015 Equilibrium White Blend, $22 Frank Family Vineyards 2014 Carneros Pinot Noir, $35 (91 points) Geyser Peak 2013 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, $19 Giornata 2015 Fiano, $17 (90 points) Gundlach Bundschu Mountain Cuvee 2012 Sonoma County Red Wine, $19 J. Lohr Riverstone 2014 Arroyo Seco Monterey Chardonnay, $14 (92 points) MacRostie 2014 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay, $25 (90 points) Ramey 2013 Russian River Valley Chardonnay, $38 (90 points) Rombauer 2015 Sauvignon Blanc, $25 (90 points) Rosenblum Cellars 2013 RC10 Rutherford Zinfandel, $42 (93 points) Sans Liege 2013 Offering, $29 (91 points) Saxum Vineyards 2013 Broken Stones Paso Robles Syrah, $148 (95 points) Wente 2015 Morning Fog Chardonnay, $15 ZD 2015 Chardonnay, $42