Bonaval Cava Brut Nature MV
Look, I’m not saying this is the best value sparkling wine out there, but I’m not saying it isn’t. I am definitively saying that it’s the best value Brut Nature sparkling wine around, which is admittedly not a terribly high bar to clear but only because there are barely any affordable Brut Nature bubblies out there.
To understand the rarity of such a wine, we have to get a little technical. Nearly all sparkling wines, from the cheapest gunk to the finest Champagnes, have a little added sugar syrup to balance them. It’s traditional and a fine, usually necessary practice. When the grapes are of exceptional quality, though, sometimes adding that sugar syrup isn’t necessary, and the wines are labeled as Brut Nature. It’s a rare practice, usually reserved for more expensive wines, and definitely isn’t common in Spain’s best known sparkling wine, Cava. But leave it to Bonaval, Spain’s very first Cava producer, to push the envelope.
The nose indicates right away this is not an ordinary Cava, with a yeasty, rounded character full of lychee, peach, and Asian pear instead of the sharper citrus ordinarily associated with Cava. If you don’t serve this too cold and let it open a bit, there’s even a bit of wet stone that comes out. A rush of fine and persistent mousse greets the palate, followed by concentrated tropical fruit that mellows to pears and fresh fennel underpinned by woodsy, mushroomy, even slightly smoky layers. It’s a crush of flavor, but the heavy-ish body more than handles it. But here’s the thing: Despite all that intensity, this is dry. I mean just barely fruitier than a good Eastern European mineral water dry. It’s a shock if you’ve never had a Brut Nature wine, but in a bolt-from-the-blue kind of way that’ll have you searching out other examples.
The best part? Even though this is rare and of very high quality, this is nothing you need to save for a special occasion or even a meal. It’s just the thing to drink all by itself. If you want a little snack alongside, some olives and almonds sure are good with this, and it’s my new go-to take-out sushi wine, but just give this a decent size wine glass (no flutes on this; you’ll kill the aroma) and that’s all the pairing you need.
Domainé Saint-Lannes Gros Manseng, Côtes de Gascogne 2016
Côtes de Gascogne is a weird appellation. It’s a good one, but this is more brandy country than wine country; it’s the home of Armagnac, and the grapes grown here are mostly geared toward its production. The region’s wines are usually good value whites that taste like simple sauvignon blanc, and hell yes there’s a place for them; at about nine bucks a bottle, I drink them all the time. Every so often, though, a producer steps out and wants to do something different, and the results can be head turning, as is, I imagine you’ve surmised by now, the case here.
Nobody will mistake this for sauvignon blanc, not with a heady, creamy lemon, passion fruit, fig, and apricot nose like this. It is…not shy. There’s some grass and chalk, and even a flinty thing that’s reminiscent of Pouilly-Fumé, but this is totally its own thing. The palate pretty much echoes the nose, but adds an interesting trace of salt to the easy drinking, medium body. You’ll want some food with this one, and do not serve it very cold. Enjoyed barely cool, it’s tasty with richer foods like curries, linguine with clam sauce, trout amandine, or, well, you get the idea: This needs cream or butter. Like in the Pork Chops with Brown Butter and Gremolata recipe on the back page, for instance. That’ll do the trick nicely.
Viña Maitia Pipeño, Aupa, Valle del Maule 2016
Not that you’d know it from the glut of generic wines they make from relatively recently imported French grapes like sauvignon blanc and cabernet sauvignon, but Chile’s wine history is impressive. Since the 16th century when the Conquistadors paid them a visit, they’ve made wine in their own ways, chiefly from the old país grape (currently very hip thanks to sommeliers’ obsession with Canary Islands wines, where the grape is called listan negro). Most distinctive among these is pipeño, in which grapes aren’t crushed but rather smashed repeatedly over a metal grid called a zaranda, with the juice falling into traditional concrete or ancient wooden fermenters.
Of course this rich history and unique kind of wine was completely ignored and written off as “rustic” until French natural wine legends like Marcel Lapierre showed up to make wine there about ten years ago to instantly make it cool, raising the profile to the point where they’re finally available outside of Chile. Refreshing red berries, clean rose petal, and traces of savory herbs are lively but not forceful which is perfect for this kind of wine, which falls somewhere between rosé and red in style. As such, it can be enjoyed like you would either of those: Chilled with smoky barbecue or spicy Spanish chorizo and firm cheeses, or at cellar temperature with a burger or simply roasted salmon. Food is hardly necessary with this – I usually just knock this back by itself – but it’s the kind of wine that’s going to make you hungry, so why not?
Château d’Oupia Carignan, Les Hérétiques, Pays de l’Hérault 2016
I’ve been waiting for the opportunity to introduce you to this wine, since it’s a significant one for me and I suspect will be for you too. This is the wine that showed me that inexpensive wines are capable of distinction and terroir. That’s also what this producer did in the Languedoc, proving that great wines could be made in that previously maligned (for good reason) part of France by taking the novel approach of growing on hillsides and keeping yields low just like they do in, um, every other great wine region in the world. Not to discount the late André Iché’s gumption, since he was looked at as a bit of a hérétique himself (and yes, that’s the origin of the name of this) when he started doing this, but come on. I’m not alone, either; this is a gateway wine for a lot of the wine-obsessed, and still a frequent tablemate because it goes with and does everything. Fish and chips, pizza, standing rib roast, nachos, salami and provolone sandwiches (OK, especially those), grilled brats and peppers, chicken tinga tacos, for a special occasion, snuck into the movies, just because you want wine, as the fourth bottle opened at a particularly lively (or in desperate need of enlivening) dinner party, chilled, room temp, from a glass, from a plastic cup, as a sangria base, in the dead of winter, on the hottest day of summer, for breakfast, lunch, dinner, fourthmeal, death row meal…it does not matter. This is your wine. I’ve quite literally had well over 100 bottles of this in my life, will have at least 300 more, and have road tested it in all of the aforementioned scenarios (except the death row meal; they’ll never be able to prove it was me). Trust me and the many who’ve been forced to share a glass of wine with me: It works.
100% carignan, the workhorse grape of the Minervois region from which this hails, but there’s a twist. Half of this is made like most red wines: Pressed, racked off, fermented, voilà. The other half is made via carbonic maceration, a method where grapes are fermented in their own skins and the juice runs free for a soft, fruity, and incredibly aromatic poundable delight. It’s dark, yes, but the black fruit positively glows with typical southern French spice, pepper, violets, and some scrubby herbs to give it cred. There’s just enough texture in the light-ish body to handle Big Food, but not so much to say that tannins are in any way a defining feature. The finish ain’t exactly lengthy, but as they’re wont to say in the tech industry, that’s not a bug, that’s a feature: The short finish keeps you coming back for more and eliminates palate fatigue. It’s a stone classic that remains a bit of an insider’s secret somehow. Fine; more for us. May this lead you to explore as many wines as it has a generation of wine freaks before you.
Primitivo Quiles Monastrell, Cono 4, Alicante 2014
As wine’s popularity continues to spread throughout the United States, which is obviously a good thing, the huge market we represent has had one seriously deleterious effect on world wine culture. Regions that once had traditional if sometimes idiosyncratic styles (like the pipeño in this bag) are abandoning them to make wines more familiar in style to the fruit-loving American palate. Resisting this trend against all financial sense is Primitivo Quiles, who stand as one of the last producers of a sweetish wine called Fondillón. Made from late-harvested monastrell (same grape as mourvèdre in France), oxidized and kind of port-like but not fortified with brandy, Primitivo Quiles’ Fondillón is the last example of that unique wine available outside its home in southeast Spain’s Valencia region.
That Fondillón is delicious, and you should try some immediately (and with Valentine’s Day coming up, there’s no excuse not to have some dessert wine on hand), but it is not exactly Weekday Wine for most of us. Enter Cono 4, Primitivo Quiles’ dry wine that’s got a lot in common with Fondillón but is something for the table, which is even more unusual. The name of the wine refers to the gigantic old wooden Conofor fermenters used to make this, which lend that slight oxidative quality that one doesn’t see in any dry red table wine of which I’m aware. If that sounds odd, I assure you it doesn’t taste that way. If this weren’t made from the burly, somewhat fearsome monastrell grape, that oxidation would overpower the inky, gamy, earthy, herbal black fruit and subtle licorice with a raisiny quality you sometimes get from cheap zinfandel or Aussie shiraz, instead of opening up those dense flavors to match the surprisingly open-knit texture and balanced acid here. It’s big, no question, but everything here is just so, and it’s hard to imagine someone not loving this. It’s something you’ll want with food to taste its best, and a smaller glass with about a half an hour of air is preferable, but don’t fuss too much if you’ve got pot roast, braised lamb shanks, or, most traditionally, paella waiting. This’ll rise to the occasion.
Domaine Santa Giulietta Corse 2015
In all my years in the wine biz, the single most surprising development isn’t the rise of rosé – we all loved it too much for that to not happen – it’s the arrival of Corsica as a major player on the ultra-fine wine scene. It only took them more than 2,500 years of making frankly terrible stuff to finally flip the quantity-quality ratio the right way around, but once they did…wow, did the quality go up. As did, go figure, the prices, in some cases to $350 or more per bottle for wines that were twenty bucks not even a decade ago, a fact I point out to my wife whenever another case of some obscuro microproduction wine lands in our already overcrowded cellar; “Hey, it’s an investment!” Unfortunately I’ve already acquired an unshakeable taste for Corsican wines, so I spend more time than I should hunting down the few remaining affordable examples of the good stuff for us, and now, for you as well.
There’s a reason that Corsica and other so-called “island wines” are finally having their moment. Whether from Corsica, Sicily, Greece, the Canary Islands, Sardinia, or Cyprus, the islands’ sunny weather, lush herbal vegetation, rocky soils, and strong sea winds give them a flavor that’s all their own. In Corsica, where most reds are made chiefly from the niellucciu grape (an individualistic clone of sangiovese brought to the island millennia ago), strong spice aromas and flavors stand out among the classic salt, herbs, dark earth, and dried flowers. Domaine Santa Giulietta’s red is very much in that classic vein, but more youthful and generous than Corsican wines often are. Chalk that up to the use of grenache and syrah, as well as the use of stainless steel over wood or traditional concrete fermenters. This allows bright and ripe red berry and tart cherry fruits to dominate over Corsica’s usual black fruit, and gives a warmth to the spice that matches the soft, medium body and lavender that comes in toward the finish to bring this in for a soft landing. Nice by itself, even with a little chill, but grilled vegetable skewers, eggplant parmigiana, pasta alla norma, or even hummus and pita really improve it.