If you enjoy trying small samples of a lot of different wines and don't mind a bit of a frenzy, there's hardly a better way to get this sort of educational exposure than to wangle an invitation to a trade tasting.
A trade tasting is a display of wine samples hosted by an importer or distributor to give commercial customers a taste of what's new. Even if you're not "in the trade" of buying and selling wine, chances are that if you have a good relationship with a local fine-wine retailer with whom you're a steady buyer, you can arrange an occasional invitation to an event of this type.
It was my pleasure to get in on such a tasting this week, when the excellent Cincinnati-based importer/distributor Vintner Select came to town to show local wine buyers and restaurateurs samples of more than 50 new arrivals from Italy, France, Spain and Australia, as well as a cross-section of its fine California portfolio.
The scene at Louisville's Blue Dog Bakery (which provided delicious goodies from pizza to paté and, of course, first-rate artisanal breads) was crowded and noisy. One of the difficulties of this kind of tasting can be a distracting environment that makes it tough to spend much time in deep analysis of each wine. But I soldiered on, and came home with a PDA full of brief notes on more than 40 new wines, which I share with you today.
Prices given are my unofficial estimates, approximating what you might expect to pay based upon the distributor's wholesale price.
Vintner Select distributes wines in Ohio, Kentucky and parts of North Carolina; many of its imports are also represented in other parts of the U.S. by other regional importers such as Skurnik in New York and North Berkeley in California.
Note that some of these wines are recent arrivals, so it may be a while before they show up on retail shelves. To find vendors and compare prices, plug in specific wine names on Wine-Searcher.com:
Italy - Marc de Grazia
Il Palazzone 2002 Rubio ($15)
Mostly Sangiovese, this wine is from Umbria but shares the style of neighboring Tuscany's Chianti with a profile of ripe cherries and a touch of earth.
Il Palazzino 2002 La Pieve Chianti Classico ($22)
Good fruit and singing acidity come together in a fine Chianti that's young but drinking very well.
Sassetti - Pertimali 2002 Rosso di Montalcino ($27)
A little shy on the nose but structured very well, with a good balance of fruit and acldity.
Le Terrazze 2002 Rosso Conero ($16)
Spicy cherries and plums, lots of brown spice and lemon-squirt acidity make this a good food wine.
E. Pira & Figli 2001 Chiara Boschis Barbera d'Alba ($27)
Meat, smoke and barnyard character make for a rustic wine on the nose, with sweet fuit more apparent on the palate.
La Spinetta 2001 Pin ($54)
A "cultish" blend of Barbera, Nebbiolo and Cabernet from a respected Piemonte producer, this is a big, "international" wine, with oak a bit too evident for my tastes. Sweet fruit and violets meld with heavy tannins on the palate, suggesting that cellar time may be a virtue.
Clerico 2001 Arte ($45)
A Nebbiolo-Barbera blend from Piemonte, perfumed sweet fruit and oak. Although I like Marc de Grazia's wines in general, they do tend toward an oaky, international, "Parkerized" style, as this and the previous wine suggest.
La Spinetta 2002 Barbaresco ($90)
Very pretty, black fruit and violets. Tannic, young, but already drinking well, the flagship bottling from the respected Barbaresco producer Giorgio Rivetti, with his trademark rhino on the label.
Casanova di Spinetta 2002 Toscana Rosso ($20)
La Spinetta's Giorgio Rivetti has a new Tuscan estate, where he fashioned this excellent "mini-Super Tuscan," predominantly Sangiovese.
Ripe and juicy, a crowd-pleasing style built on a good, solid acidic structure. I'll be buying more of this goodie.
My old friend David Schildknecht, Vintner Select's French importer, presided at this table and modestly accepted congratulations on his recent appointment as contributor for Austria, Germany, Eastern Europe, and North America east of the Rockies in Robert M. Parker Jr.'s Wine Advocate.
Marc et Roger Labbé 2004 Abymes Vin de Savoie ($9)
Peachy, prickly and gulpable, a delicious value favorite from the French Alps.
Boudin 2003 Chantemerle Chablis ($22)
Juicy apples, rich and ripe, very atypical Chablis in the "California" style that's typical of the hot and super-ripe 2003 vintage throughout France.
Javillier 03 Meursault les Tillets ($54)
A delight from a favorite white Burgundy producer. Rich, clean, pure fruit over stony minerality.
Egly-Ouriet non-vintage Brut Tradition ($45)
Highly carbonated, foamy mouthfeel, appley and crisp. Good minerality, but 75% Pinot doesn't really manifest itself in this Champagne.
Chateau Haut-Guiraud 2001 Côtes de Bourg ($14)
Spicy red-berry fruit, plushy for a Bordeaux. Fine value.
Hervé & Cyprien Arlaud 2003 Bourgogne Roncevie ($22)
Ripe, fruit-forward and tannic. Good Pinot if not typical Burgundy, another "Californicated" 2003.
Gérard Raphet 2003 Givrey-Chambertin 1er Cru Lavaux St. Jacques ($76)
Lovely, ripe strawberries. Big fruit, juicy and sweet. Atypical again, but one of the most stylishly handled 2003 Burgundies I've encountered. Priced well above everyday level, but I love it if somebody else is pouring.
Domaine Réméjeanne 2003 Côtes du Rhône-Villages "Les Genevriers" ($22)
Another old favorite that turns up on steroids in the 2003 vintage. Pure raspberries, ripe and fresh, julcy and sweet.
Le Roc des Anges 2003 Côtes du Roussillon-Villages ($30)
Meat, smoke, leather and ripe red fruit.
Domaine du Dragon 2003 Côtes de Provence Cuvée St.-Michel ($16)
Cherries and plums, tight but balanced.
Spain - European Cellars (Eric Solomon)
Gramona 2004 Penedes Gessami ($15)
Muscat adds a splash of Sauvignon Blanc, but the Muscat dominated with attractive grapefruit aromas leading into fresh, grapey fruit with crisp acidity for balance.
Arrazu 2003 Artazuri Navarra ($11)
Garnacha character shows in an appealing blend of raspberries and white pepper on the nose and palate.
Les Alcusses 2002 Roure ($18)
Black cherry and "barnyard" for a touch of rustic character in this tasty Tempranillo blend.
Elvi 2003 Makor ($20)
Red fruit and earthy red clay mix in this rather strange blend of the indigenous Spanish grapes Utiel and Requena from wine maker Sarah Perez. It's a kosher-for-Passover "mevushal" wine, a heat treatment that satisfies religious ritual but, in my experience, does little to enhance quality.
Castaño 2002 Solañera Yecla ($15)
A blend of Monastrell (Mourvedre) and Cabernet. Warm, plummy, a bit pruney, but good acidity holds it together.
El Seque 2002 Alicante ($30)
Mostly Monastrell. Extracted, intense, black cherry fruit and steely acidity, on the "international" side.
Closa Battlet 2002 Priorat ($45)
Raspberry Grenache fruit is framed by forward, somewhat intrusive new oak, but there's fine Priorat minerality beneath, waiting for a little cellar time to bring it out.
Cinnabar 2002 Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay ($30)
Smoky, rich, full, a big but stylish take on California Chardonnay.
Alban 2003 Edna Valley Estate Viognier ($36)
Varietal character is a bit overtaken by oak. Better on the palate, peachy and full-bodied.
Lane Tanner 2003 French Camp Vineyard San Luis Obispo Syrah ($24)
Bright and ripe, bold Syrah fruit in good balance.
Bonny Doon 2001 California Le Cigare Volant ($36)
The original "Rhone Ranger," Randal Grahm's California homage to Chateauneuf-du-Pape, is very pretty, perfume and fruit. Good balance, more "Rhonish" than I recall from earlier iterations.
Robert Sinskey Vineyards 2001 Merlot Los Carneros ($30)
Black fruit. Cherries and chocolate, excellent structure and balance, a Merlot that might have made the Sideways guy change his attitude.
Robert Pecota 2002 Kara's Vineyard Napa Cabernet Sauvignon ($45)
Fine, well-balanced Cabernet character; tannic, young but impressive.
Rabbit Ridge 2002 LPR Russell Family Vineyard Reserve ($34)
A blend of Zinfandel, Primitivo, Petite Sirah and other grapes, but Zin takes the lead role in its luscious bramble fruit, raspberries and blackberries. Jammy but beautifully structured, outstanding.
Selby 2002 Sonoma County Bobcat Zinfandel ($35)
Loads of fruit, big but refined. Nice.
Qupé 2003 Central Coast Syrah ($18)
Ripe fruit, good balance. A value treat.
Edmunds St. John 2003 Bone-Jolly El Dorado Gamay ($20)
Fresh berries, juicy, a whiff of meat. Gulpable.
Talbott 2002 Logan Monterey Pinot Noir ($22)
Red fruit, herbs, lots of spice and cola. Idiosyncratic but pleasant.
Havens 2001 Napa Merlot ($27)
Big, rich and powerful - the 14.5% alcohol shows. Good balance, though, in another serious Merlot.
Laurel Glen 2001 Sonoma Mountain Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($60)
A beauty from a personal favorite California producer, showing very well today in spite of its youth, with black fruit and sleekly muscular structure over firm but palatable tannins.
Paras Vineyards 2000 Mount Veeder Napa Cabernet Sauvignon ($100)
Classic old-style California Cabernet. Outstanding. Not a cheap wine, and not easy to get ... Vintner Select received just a few cases of a wine that's usually available only from the winery.
These two top Australian selections were tucked in at the end of a line of Californians.
Dutschke 2002 Willow Bend Barossa Merlot-Shiraz ($25)
Fruit-forward, good structure, an unexpected blend of varieties, but it works.
Torbreck 2003 The Struie Barossa Shiraz ($50)
Black plums and menthol in a big but balanced package. Torbreck is one of my Australian favorites, and The Struie is perhaps the point at which bargain price and value meet in its portfolio.
I regret missing the table at which Robert Whale's Australian imports were presented, as it included such Ozzie favorites as Plantagenet, Coriole and Parker Coonawarra Estate.