Next Thursday is the third in November, which means the celebration of the new vintage and the sprouting of signs proclaiming “Le Beaujolais nouveau est arrivé” at a retail outlet near you. But we don’t have to wait until then to taste the new vintage, thanks to our friends down under. Sure, it’s cheating a bit since they have a six-month head start, but this year’s Sauvignon Blancs from New Zealand are already reaching our shelves.
And since there are so many Sauvignon Blancs from New Zealand now, it’s easy to forget the one that came first and introduced us to the brash, grassy-herbal style and that bold flavor that seems uniquely New Zealand. (Some call it gooseberry, others say it’s “cat’s pee,” neither of which I’ve ever tasted, so I can’t vouch for it.)
Cloudy Bay ignited the trend for New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc in this country, and then became scarce and expensive. Quite frankly, at $25 it is more expensive than competitors that are its equal. But Cloudy Bay is still delicious and focused on coaxing the true expression from the grape and its terroir. Many of its imitators seized on the American enthusiasm for New Zealand wines and pushed the grassiness and the mystery flavor over the top. Such wines fight with each other, like T.O. and the Philadelphia Eagles. The 2005 Cloudy Bay is an excellent reminder of why we fell in love with New Zealand in the first place. All those qualities are there but held in perfect balance, an ensemble working together.
If you live in the Washington, New York or Chicago areas, or in south Florida or California, you’ve probably heard radio ads extolling French wines. These are part of the first major U.S. promotional campaign by the French wine industry and Sopexa, the French trade association for promoting food and wine products. So what’s the big deal? Well, isn’t it sort of a given that French wines are good? Why the need to promote them?
“A lot of people recognize that French wines are great, but on the other hand there’s an idea out there that French wines are all expensive and there are no value wines to compete with Australia and California,” says Sheri Sauter, the Durham, North Carolina-based Master of Wine and perky spokesperson for the campaign.
The promotional blitz is meant “to connect with consumers and remind them that French wines are good and let them know that the French are also aware of the American consumer’s need for great everyday wines for the dinner table.”
In recent years, the French have lost market share in the United States and Britain to Australian and American wines. The French are also still stinging from the anti-French sentiment of two years ago in the buildup to the Iraq war, when French wines were ceremoniously poured into sewers and toilets by American “patriots.”
Sauter chose 45 wines for the campaign, emphasizing value pricing, a geographical mix, and modern labeling and packaging (including varietally labeled wines and bottles with screw caps) to show that France doesn’t just make expensive wines for old fogies. You can find out more about the campaign and the wines, as well as how to enter Sopexa’s contest for a free trip to France, at http://www.wines-france.us .
Vintage wine at its best is an expression not only of place, but also of time. So 1954 must have been a very good year, at least in Coonawarra. That was the first vintage for Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine that helped establish Coonawarra as one of Australia’s premier wine regions. The area’s red soil gives wines great structure and minerality, as well as the ability to age.
The winery is now celebrating 50 vintages of its Cab, and the current winemaker, Sue Hodder, recently toured the U.S. with a selection of vintages. The ’54 featured good acidity and surprising fruit for a wine so old, while the ’58 showed tawny, earthier flavors and was well past its prime. After being opened awhile, the ’54 also tired and showed its age, but what most impressed me was the similarity of its initial burst of enthusiasm to younger wines from the ‘70s, ‘90s and the ‘aughts. The ’94 and ’96 were especially superb, displaying floral notes and a sensuous, lush texture.
The 2001, the vintage in current release, tasted more familiar, probably because I’m used to drinking wines before they have a chance to really strut their stuff. (After all, I’m a lot more interesting than I was in my youth, and people who underestimated me back then will probably never know.) Even the 2002 and the 2004, a barrel sample, showed similar character to their predecessors despite being bigger and brawnier. These are wines of restraint – ripe fruit flavors without the excessive wallop of alcohol so much in vogue these days.
If you can find the 2001, I urge you to buy several bottles, because you will want to restrain yourself and let some lie still for a decade or so. It’s well worth the investment, because the winery’s restraint extends beyond the style of the wine to the price – a modest $20.