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Have you ever been to New Zealand? Me, neither. When we lived in Shanghai, China, my husband tried to convince me to visit the Land of Kiwis. A lovely vacation could be had, rife with lush landscape, magical mountains and charming burgs. No way, I said. Sound strange? I agree. Perhaps it was the intoxicating draw of nearby South East Asia (Burma! Thailand! Vietnam! Laos!) or the brain-bending effect of babies and toddlers in my life (those would be my children) but my personal goal, in our five years of “R & R” vacations from Shanghai, was to avoid English-speaking nations. So no Australia, no New Zealand.
I regret that, now. Because I missed out on the wines.
Ignorance is bliss, right? Let me put that in a gentler way, via my favorite line from a Famous French Philosopher called Henri Bergson who once wrote: “The eyes only see what the mind is prepared to understand.” A good paraphrase, in my wine situation, would be, “the tongue only tastes what the mind is ready to understand.”
So until very recently, when some fine New Zealand wines, along with their winemakers, came to me in the form of a master class tasting right here in Chicago, I had no idea what I was missing and I didn’t care, either.
Blame it on France. I love French wines. When I sip that nectar, it’s like mainlining Gallic sophistication. And I’ve certainly gone beyond the call of duty to get that glow. Like moving my husband and two somewhat recalcitrant teens for one whole year to the town of Bordeaux where I studied at (and miraculously graduated from) a prestigious French wine school at the university there. More on those wine-soaked adventures soon but let me just put it this way, for now: A year in Bordeaux, plus a loving passion for France (see my first post for more on that amour) had clasped my taste buds firmly in golden handcuffs.
I’ve tried to loosen the French grip with California wines to no avail, because most of the good stuff is beyond my budget and I haven’t found any value wines I like (yet). The Kiwis, though, had better luck.
Flowered shirts, faded jeans, fuzzy hair and baby blues. Those are the first things my eyes noticed about the Kiwi winemakers at the recent New Zealand wine tasting in Chicago. The casually dressed, sky-eyed winemakers were friendly and hale, with the tempered patience of those used to explaining that their country, from the top of the North Island to the bottom of the South Island, is as long as from Manhattan to Miami. That New Zealand’s Marlborough region is perfect for growing Sauvignon Blanc grapes and the Central Otago region (aka Hobbit country) for Pinot Noir. That the country’s modern fine wine industry first blossomed in the 1980s, just over 30 years ago. (There’s good Kiwi wine info on this website, if you care to delve in.)
I was surprised to learn New Zealand’s fine winemaking tradition is so young. By contrast, California wines were already winning gold medals at the 1890 Paris Exhibition. And although the modern era of California winemaking began in the 1950s, California wines have gained world renown since the Judgment of Paris in 1976, where the American wines beat the French at a famous blind tasting.
This wasn’t the Judgment of Paris, but it was a real awakening for my taste buds. I won’t go into detail here, but as I look at my wrinkled scribbles next to the list of white wines we tasted, I see words like this: “so different,” “exotic,” “mango, lychee,” “wow,” “not too oaky,” “full, amazing.” The Pinot Noir reds, I wrote, were full of taste (“hair on their chest,” I noted) yet well balanced. In sum: “Delicious. Not California, not France.”
Indeed, after tasting some very, very fine wines, my biggest takeaway was this: given New Zealand’s combination of good terrain, experienced winemaking and grapes from aging vines (good terrain + more experience + older vines = better wine, in general) are Kiwi winemakers positioned to occupy that sweet middle ground between stuffy, hidebound Old World and brash, braggy New World? Between France and California? Are they building a better wine business on the lessons of their predecessors?
If only I had a crystal ball. In the meantime, I thought I’d continue my research for you by purchasing a couple bottles of New Zealand wine at Walgreens.
Yes, you read correctly. Walgreens. Where our parents would go for a coke or a milkshake or a grilled cheese sandwich at the soda fountain. Where we go today to fill our prescriptions or buy a gallon of milk. If you live in Chicago, the home of Walgreen’s, you may have noticed your local store has gotten a spiffy makeover in recent years. In my town, we even have a L.E.E.D-certified “green” Walgreens (no pun intended) with two real windmills in the parking lot.
Unfortunately, my suburban Walgreen’s hasn’t beefed up its wine selection like the downtown Chicago stores have. So I headed to the flagship store on State and Randolph in the Chicago Loop, where I learned the New Zealand winemakers had made a splash with an in-store tasting while they were in town.
And there, among the “Cupcake Chardonnays” and Franzia boxed wine, I found a whole case of New Zealand bottles (Sauvignon Blanc whites and Pinot Noir reds, mostly) going for just north of $20 each.
Not only did I find the wines, but I had, in marketing speak, a fantastic wine buying experience. The store is airy, modern, sleek. I found the wine section immediately, thanks to nice signage. Jermaine, casually stationed in front of the deli-like wine area (they even sell good cheese), greeted me with a huge smile. With his bow tie and J Crew-ish button-down shirt, Jermaine could be France’s coolest black dude, if he spoke French. Instead, he showed me right to the New Zealand wine section, where I bought a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc white and a bottle of Pinot Noir red made by the winemakers I’d met at the Chicago tasting. See my tasting notes, below.
Kiwis. Wine. Walgreen’s. Imagine that.
A red and a white from Marlborough, New Zealand
Purchased at Walgreen’s on Randolph and State in Chicago
Vavasour Pinot Noir 2011
$19.99 (on sale from $23.49)
I could tell this Pinot Noir was going to have flavor, because it had a limpid, garnet hue. (If Pinot Noirs are pale, they usually taste bad.) The scent reminded me of juicy cherries and it was fresh and lively on the tongue, with a touch of bitterness giving way to mild licorice. This is an honest wine, but not fine like the Vavasour Felix Pinot Noir 2010 I loved at the wine tasting. (The price isn’t the same either; the Felix is over $30.) I’m hopeful for future vintages, though, as the wine I purchased is perhaps from younger vines. However, at around $20, I think this Vavasour is overpriced in its category for now.
Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2013
A pale pear hue with slight fizz around the edges hints of a lively taste in this Sauvignon Blanc. The nose is huge, juicy grapefruit and the taste is really dry, with a nice acidity that makes your mouth water. I wouldn’t drink this one alone, but it would be terrific with a creamy fish dish. There’s a long finish turning to peach. I totally enjoyed the Cloudy Bay 2000 vintage at the wine tasting and so I’m guessing this wine will become softer around the edges as it matures. But if you’re going to open this 2013 now, I think you could find an easier drinking Sauvignon Blanc elsewhere that would be lighter on your wallet.
Good deeds call for good wines. Squealing kids, talkative presenters, pompous panelists, committee conversations, the event cash box. Keeping a lid on all that, without offending, can be challenging. Unless you’re my friend T.
T is one of the smartest people I know. An unassuming former university professor who speaks Italian, she’s also a mom, wife and devoted daughter plus – and this role awes me most – the elected president of our local school board. That’s the volunteer equivalent of climbing Mount Everest, in my book. A very, very good deed, because it involves more than love and passion. It takes brainpower.
Speaking of brainpower, French writer Alexandre Dumas (of The Three Musketeers fame) once called wine the “intellectual part of the meal.” So when T told me she loves oaky chardonnay, I was surprised. To most wine experts, oaky chardonnay is the adult equivalent of, well, Lunchables. Or Tab. Or Doritos (my favorite food, just ask my kids).
Oaky “big bottle” Chardonnay mostly comes from industrial batches of wine that have been in contact with oak for so long that the vanilla flavors from the wood mask the grape’s natural taste. Or, if it’s a more sophisticated, smaller batch wine, the tannins from too much oak can leave a dry feeling in your mouth.
As my husband put it, “oaky chardonnay is like a woman with too much makeup on.” In response to that, I’m sure T would say, “what’s wrong with a little makeup?”
To put it mildly, Chardonnay is a touchy subject in wine circles. So here I’m offering two good takes on Chardonnay: oaked and un-oaked. You choose. I’m done passing judgment on people’s choice in wine. And I think T would welcome either one after the next school board meeting.
Two good Chardonnays
White Oak Chardonnay 20II
$24 on White Oak Winery website
In general, California Chardonnays are oaky wines. Those from Russian River Valley are less so and better balanced, I think, than those from Napa Valley. I enjoyed this rich, buttery Russian River Valley Chardonnay at The Stained Glass, a wine bar and bistro in Evanston, IL but you can also buy it from the company website (above).
Ardèche Chardonnay 2012
$9.99 at Binny’s
French Chardonnays are traditionally less oaky. Most come from the expensive Burgundy region, but this well-made value Chardonnay is from the nearby Ardèche hills. With aromas of honey and almond plus full peach taste without sweetness, this is my go-to Chardonnay, all year round. The perfect “nice glass of white.” At a very nice price.
You never know when a terrific underdog wine will arise. Say you’re playing tennis with your buddies. After a year or so of weekly matches, you know each other pretty well. Everyone happens to love wine and possesses a competitive streak, along with more than one expensive bottle squirreled away in his basement. (I say his, because these are my husband’s tennis friends. I do yoga.)
Let’s get together for a bottle of wine! the buddies say, after one game. By the next week, this simple idea has morphed into, well, a wine competition. Calendars are consulted; a date is chosen. Each player arrives at our house with his favorite red wine. Each bottle is carefully wrapped in aluminum foil. Each guest has an array of empty glasses before him or her. (I say her because the spouses have joined for this game.) It’s time for some serious serving.
Serious serving, in this case, calls for a blind tasting. That’s fair play in wine competitions. Because I don’t know about you, but if I were to spy, say, Pétrus on the label (and trust me, at over $2,000 a bottle, I’m still waiting!) I might favor it over another wine I’m judging, despite my very best effort to remain calm and objective. Thus the aluminum foil bottle wrapping.
After much swirling, sniffing and sipping, here’s how the game played out:
Player #1: Château Magdelaine, St. Emilion Grand Cru, 1999, ~ $80. One of my favorite Bordeaux “mostly Merlots” in the world: elegant red fruit, silky on the tongue, soft tannins. Dreamy.
Player #2: Dominus Estate, Napa Valley, 2010, ~ $200. In a fortuitous coincidence, this “mostly Cabernet” wine happens to have the same owner as Château Magdelaine (above). So we were able to taste the California expression of this famous French vineyard owner’s respectful approach to bringing out a grape’s personality. With a cherry-cedar scent, sweet-full flavor and smooth finish, this delicious wine is, well, power in velvet.
Player #3: Château Pesquié Quintessence, Southern Rhone Valley, Côtes du Ventoux, France, 2010, ~ $22. This “mostly Syrah” looked like rubies, smelled like raspberries and cherries, had a light faintly spicy touch on the tongue followed by rugged warmth that lingered in the mouth. According to one player: this smells like California but tastes like France!
After the final serve we unwrapped bottles, compared notes. The players agreed: each anonymous wine was the best competitor in its class. But what a surprise when we learned the winner’s price.
Game, set, match: Château Pesquié Quintessence 2010. At around $23 a bottle, I’d call that an upset, just in time for the French Open this weekend.
Château Pesquié Quintessence 2011
I’ll throw it down right away: the beautiful, well-balanced 2010 vintage (see above) is sold out. But many Syrah lovers will like the 2011 vintage, although it’s too strong for my taste. Dark purple-red. Ripe berry nose with heavy flowers, like lily-of-the-valley. Spice and sweet fruit jam in the mouth. Dry, green tannins with a long floral finish. At 15.5% alcohol content, you may need a nap after this one. Made in France but tastes like California. Sunshine in a bottle.
My friend Katie has a tradition. Every Sunday evening she battens down the hatches, "shutting out the night," she says, and uncorks a bottle of crisp, fruity sauvignon blanc. Then she starts dinner, pouring a glass of her favorite wine for her husband and for herself. With four kids, community work and a traveling spouse, Sunday evening is often the only time she can gather her family around the table. I think of Katie most every Sunday winter evening around 5 pm as I pull the shades against Chicago's snow and bluster.
This is my first weekly blog post, and I'm dedicating it to Katie and to all those who find fellowship and community around a glass of wine. Men and women who consciously simmer down and slow the velocity of their lives when they hear the soft pop of a cork.
But also, mes amis, I promise to give you all a real Weekly Drink at the end of each post – my weekly wine pick, that I buy and try for your imbibing pleasure. Because the purpose of wine, I truly believe, is pleasure. Chosen carefully and consumed thoughtfully, wine offers a taste of place. A touch of adventure. A balm for the soul.
Now that's worth gathering for.
Each Weekly Drink pick will be easy on your wallet, mostly around $10 a bottle, well balanced, well-made and worry free. I've done the research so you can raise your glass.
Over the past three decades, I've raised my glass often. Wine has been a pleasurable window onto other worlds and a sometimes not-so-pleasurable window into myself. It seems strange, this love of wine, because my Iowa parents never drank. Except for when mom accidentally ordered Sangria on a Chicago weekend trip. ("This is good fruit juice!")
For me, it all began in Paris, where I met my husband during my junior year of college.
“You’ll have a glass of wine, won’t you?” he asked on our first date, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. We were having lunch at the Bar de la Croix Rouge, shoehorned behind a corner table at the tiny Left Bank café.
“Bien sûr,” I said. Of course I would have wine. This was France, after all, and it was high time I graduate from unshaven legs and poetry to high heels and wine.
He ordered a quarter carafe of rouge. I can’t remember what kind but it must’ve been cheap, given our student budgets. I do recall, though, how easily my French boyfriend chose this over that from the wine list. In a casual way, the way boys back home would have chosen PBR over Miller Lite.
There was more. Like how generously he filled my glass before serving himself. The way he absent-mindedly sniffed and nodded before taking the first sip of wine. And how he didn’t touch his glass again until our open-faced pâté and pickle sandwiches arrived.
So in addition to evidence of my boyfriend’s unselfish nature, I also experienced wine’s natural role in French mealtime – kind of like liquid bread, and certainly not an “alcoholic beverage” subject to harsh regulation or a strictly enforced drinking age.
Since then, a love of wine has bound us together, as they say, for better and for worse, for richer and for poorer, through diapers and college applications. Thirty years later, I thought of Katie as we uncorked our Weekly Drink last Sunday. It's not a sauvignon blanc. But I think Katie will like this wine anyway, because summer is finally here. And this is the perfect warm weather white.
Cline Viognier North Coast 2012
Purchased at Whole Foods
- $9.99 on special
- $12.99 regular price
A fresh, citrusy white wine made of a grape called Viognier ("Vee-Oh-Knee-Ay"). From California's Sonoma Valley. Serve lightly chilled.
This wine's pale watery hue reminds me of transparent topaz. When you smell it, you get a mash up of peach and honeysuckle. That's the characteristic scent of Viognier grapes in California wine. But then you take a sip and surprise, surprise. In your mouth it's not sweet. Instead, it's clean and zingy, kind of like pink grapefruit. A happy summer wine.
Find other wines by Cline Cellars here