A recent wine tasting in Cary was one of just six stops on Frederick Wildman & Sons' Grand Tour 2008. A large slice of their portfolio was represented, with many of the winery owners on hand to pour and discuss their wares. It was a wine-lover's dream to speak with Etienne Hugel of Alsace's Hugel et Fils, and Patrick Leflaive of Burgundy's Olivier Leflaive Freres.
Like seemingly everything else, the cost of imported wines (Wildman's bread and butter estates are French) is increasingly expensive here. Somewhere along the chain—grower, importer, local distributor, retailer—there needs to be serious consideration of profit cutting to make these wines more affordable. This is already taking place, but it may not be enough. When non-vintage Pol Roger champagne costs $68 and Jaboulet Crozes Hermitage (Domaine de Thalabert) costs a cool $50, buyers think twice about whether to "invest."
The booming economies in Asia, India and the Middle East assure prestigious wineries of eventual sales. There will never again be enough true Champagne to go around—even though the growers are expanding their vineyard lands in a 10-year-long experimentation process. Name brand estates such as the Rhone's Paul Jaboulet Aine are known commodities that may well be able to still succeed with such price increases. But unlike Champagne, there are other Syrah-based wines spanning the globe that can provide a comparable product for less. There are limits to loyalty. Many wines are simply priced out of reach for many Americans, and keeping the U.S. market on the radar is both farsighted and necessary. When the dollar rebounds, the estates that shut us out may well pay for their short-term gains.
What to do? Well, at least get the best wines for your money. Here are my favorites from the tasting. Some are still decent value. Others merit their stiff sticker—if you can afford it.
2006 Ca' Bianca Gavi, $20
A grassy, brisk and mouth-cleansing white. Puts many Sauvignon Blancs on the back burner. Squeakily cleansing with broiled shrimp.
2006 Re Manfredi Bianco, $23
An oddity. Almost sweet, quasi-oxidized nose. Generous, fruit-gushing and unique. Softly dry, I can taste it with a bouillabaisse or any stewed fish.
2007 Arboleda Sauvignon Blanc, $16
Stunning Sauvignon with waves of straw, herbal scents and a touch of celery. As fresh as fresh can be. Fine value.
2006 Nino Negri Ca' Brione, $39
A blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and skinless Nebbiolo (!), this white is easily appealing yet beautifully structured. Big bodied and different, it would be an exceptional white for lobster bisque.
2006 Pascal Jolivet Attitude, $20
Vibrant, new-mown hay, flinty Sauvignon Blanc in a direct, pinpoint style. What most people love about Loire whites—burstingly joyful with broiled fish. Great buy.
2006 Pascal Jolivet Pouilly-Fume Indigene, $78
Remarkable expression achieving the potential in Sauvignon Blanc. Fabulous nose with telltale smoky texture and succulent mouth feel. A wondrous wine. Less austere than its comparable competitor, Didier Daguenot's Pur Sang.
2006 Christian Moreau Chablis Ier Cru Vaillon, $48
Expansive, with mineral-rich generous texture and a smooth entry. Pure, expressive, charmingly ripe fruit.
2006 Chablis Grand Cru Valmur, $87
Wow! Lemon-vanilla intensity that doesn't quit. A creamy, indulgent palate that's perfect in its richness/ balancing acidity equation. Engulfs your senses. Fabulous chardonnay.
2006 Chateau Fuisse, $40
Pouilly Fuisse's most famous address does not disappoint in 2006. Its famous label almost makes it taste better! Rich, honeyed, lithe nose with light oak underpinnings. Superb mouth feel, excellent acid balance with a calm, seductive Kim Novak delivery. Superb value.
2006 Olivier Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet Ier Cru Champ Gains, $95
The kind of wine one dreams of drinking regularly. Fabulous, seamless, vital fruit, gushing with lemon curd in a quasi-oily, balanced pleasure package. Seemingly effortless.
2006 Hugel et Fils Riesling, $24
Spring-like nose of flowers, spice and a hint of petrol. (I wonder if concentrated Riesling might help the gasoline crisis?) Dry, crisp finish follows a mouthful of fruit basket goodness.
2001 Riesling "Vendage Tardive," $90 (estimate)
Extraordinarily sweet, generous and soul searching. This wine is so extracted, like a hundred pounds of desiccated flowers, yet still refreshing and lithe. Remarkable and just about perfection.
2001 El Coto, "Coto de Imaz" Reserva, $27
Fabulously fragrant. A ripe Rioja with forward, briary yet warm Tempranillo fruit. A bit short on the finish.
1998 Baron de Ley Rioja Gran Reserva, $46
Deep, earthy with the dried berry and leathery fruit component typical of the region's best. Calm and unshowy. Delicious tonight.
2006 Castello Monaci Maru, $15
The Negroamaro grape as grown in Apulia. Maru means "dark" in the local dialect—and so it is. Dried fruits and tobacco in the expressive nose. Full flavored but not tiring or overripe. Tasty stuff. Best buy.
2004 Re Manfredi Aglianico, $34
Rich yet elegantly fragrant. A super-ripe wine with plummy fruit, big tannic structure and warm flavors that will continue to evolve. Drink 2010-15.
2001 Re Manfredi Serpara, $50
Single vineyard Aglianico. Less rustic than its baby brother (see above). Big wine but silky smooth with extracted finesse. A beauty from Campania.
2003 Melini Chianti Classico Riserva "La Selvanella," $33
Particularly good, supple, smooth and balanced. A touch of raspberry in this energetic Sangiovese, surrounded by the suppling extra year in oak. Textbook.
2004 Nino Negri Vigneto Fracia, $46
Nutty and ripe with the inherent cherry sweetness and light of mountain Nebbiolo grapes. As structured and flavorful as Barolo but with lighter color and top of the sinuses airiness. When it's good it's a marvel. Drink 2012-19.
2005 Hugel et Fils Pinot Noir "Jubilee," $45
This Alsatian Pinot is nothing short of sensational. A great vintage has produced the pure essence of the ephemeral qualities that make Pinot so cherished. Perfect medium body and explosive nose and flavors. As a benchmark, it's a bargain.
2005 Trapiche Iscay, $49
This blend of Merlot and Malbec sends out a most inviting nose of chocolate covered fruit and a strong sense of "terroir." Delicious red in the modern, fruit-forward style. Shows the impeccable potential of Chile's best vineyards and high-end wine making techniques.
2004 Sena, $80
One of Chile's first top-notch Bordeaux-styled reds. Well-structured with deep fruit and expressions of black currant, black pepper and licorice. With a super long finish, it is a layered delight and will reward short-term cellaring. (Better than the very good 2005.) Drink now to 2012.
2006 Nicolas Potel Savigny Les Beaune Ier Cru, "Les Hauts Jarrons," $50
Full throttle, chocolaty and very drinkable. Gorgeous, elusive Pinot Noir nose with more solidity and flesh than one expects from this appellation. A rather nice surprise. Good value.
2006 Nicolas Potel Volnay "Vielles Vignes," $52
Deep, reflective bouquet of ripe, dashing Pinot. Dark berry and beetroot nose and flavor. Substantial and delicious already.
2006 Nicolas Potel Bonnes Mares, $135
Ethereal, transcendent aromas of Pinot identity and uniqueness. Bonnes Mares can be the most gently persuasive of red Burgundies and then kick in with grand mouth texture and dashing flavors. The Lafite-Roschild of the Côte d'Or. Will be drinkable in the near term: 2010-20.
Churchill 10 Year Old Tawny Port, $34
Not a venerable Port house (founded in 1981), Churchill nevertheless contains all the elements of quintessential Port style and authenticity. I was charmed, after tasting 100 other wines, by this gorgeously fresh yet decadent style. It is alive and yet soulful and reflective. Nutty, leathery yet bursting with sweet fruits, it is a great way to top off any evening.
Wildman's portfolio remains, pound for pound, among the very best serving our nation. The name practically guarantees a good experience. Its expansion into Italian wines is street-smart and welcome. However, I sense that the American ship, while still afloat, has some ballast that needs to be begrudgingly reduced. There seems precious little room for the new semi-luxury. Wines over $40 are out for many consumers, whereas the well-to-do are quite comfortable at $65 and up. This middle ground ($40-$65) may become that unfortunate wasteland of either too much or too little. Most of us are slaves of the economy, needing relief from any sensible quarter—and that includes the price of wine.