April 16, 2009


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Parallel wines
The Top Ten and the alternates
By Tim Protzman food@hippopress.com

From the looks of it, New Hampshire’s not a Blue State. It’s not a Red State. It’s a white state, but only by a little bit.

Of the 10 top-selling wines purchased in New Hampshire six were white, four were red. The top-selling spirits were Vodka (five different brands), whiskey, Bourbon, rum and Spiced Rum, which was the number one best-seller. This tells me that New Hampshire’s not really a martini state, that college students and the younger drinkers like Captain Morgan, and that there are probably some really good punches being mixed across the state.

The wine sales tell me a different story. It’s a story of brand loyalty. A story of habit. A story of diminished variety and choice.

It is nearly impossible for every state to offer a complete line of wines that encompass every growing region in the world. There’s just not enough shelf space, money or importers. The great thing about New Hampshire is that with a little hard work and effort, every wine has a chance to make it to the big show, the big dance, the New Hampshire Liquor Commission Stores.

Nothing can be all things to everybody. Even Wal-Mart. But the bright spot is that New Hampshire has really great product lines. I’d like to see more depth on Burgundies; give me some lesser-known appellation like a Morey St Denis, more boutique Oregon Pinot Noirs like Eyrie (although the fact they carry a complete line of L’Ecole No. 41 is phenomenal), some nice Rieslings from German in the $20 range and a premium range of Piedmonte and Rhone wines. And where are my Barolos and Barbarescos? New Hampshire is an affluent state; certainly it can support a few Bruno Giacosas. Or maybe have the stores specialize. Nashua could offer an extensive Australian selection along with the usual suspects, while Hooksett could be your South African connection. 

But I think the number-one reason the Commission can’t offer every wine that’s ever been made or will be made from now until eternity is that it’s engaged in commerce.

As it was so aptly put to me by Charles, the scion of a prominent Massachusetts media family, who turned his love for wine from an emotional hobby-like phase into a professional business venture by opening a liquor store: “The reason I don’t have a 2000 Petrus or even a La Fleur Petrus [their second label] is I’m running business, not a museum. You mooks will never have the money to buy the Petrus, and it’s doubtful you have the $68 to $134 for the La Fleur. I can’t take $800 and tie it up on one bottle that may or may not sell. So I move eight cases of Yellow Tail Shiraz instead.”

Chuck is the one reason I started to cellar my wines. Anything on sale, special, extraordinary or different gets bought in duplicate — one to drink and one to keep. Because what you find in your neighborhood store is influenced by sales numbers, not by some Wine Speculator quality report.

Now the wines. I tasted the top 10 best-selling wines for the last 12 months and came up with some Amazon.com type suggestions — “If you liked Little Women, then you’ll love Dean Koontz’s Darkest Evening of the Year.” 

These suggestions don’t imply the Top Ten Wines aren’t any good. This is only a guide for people who are looking to head deeper into the Wine Experience and don’t want to take a blind leap of faith.

The Top Seller: Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay, $11.99. A really nice wine from a great vineyard that still cares about quality, even though they sell a boatload of wine. My friend Jose was totally enraptured with the reserve merlot, calling it one to the greatest wines he’s ever tasted. If you like this wine, try Michel Redde Sancere, $20.99. This wine will make a totally different impression than the chardonnay. No butter, less sugar and more acid. Minimal oak. This is Sauvignon Blanc from loamy, chalky soil. The Kendall-Jackson’s like a hot chocolate compared to lemonade-like Sancerre.

#2: Clos du Bois North Coast Chardonnay. People mistake Clos du Bois for a little boutique winery even though it passed that mark years ago. Suggested replacement: Clos Pegase Chardonnay from Carneros, $24.99. Clos means walled-in vineyard in French. The Pegase will present more minerals and less butterfat, but a touch more oak.

#3: Cavite Pinot Grigo. Italian table wine that’s approachable and fun. Alternative: Benton Lane Pinot Gris from the Willamette Valley, $17.99. A little more sugar, lower alcohol content and the ability to pair harmoniously with more foods.

#4: Woodbridge Chardonnay. This one comes in the larger-format 1.5-liter bottle, but it’s a decent wine for casual entertaining. Understudy: Chateau St. Jean Fume Blanc, $9.99. Lighter, and a little more money, this wine presents layers of flavor, not just one uniform taste throughout.

#5: Yellow Tail Chardonnay. I don’t associate Chardonnay with Australia, but the Aussies are undergoing tremendous change and consolidation in their wine industry. That includes non-traditional varietals. Second in command: Black Swan Riesling 1.5-liter format, $13.99. Riesling is showing a huge uptick in acreage planted in South Australia. Australian Riesling just might be our next merlot.

#6: Yellow Tail Shiraz. Savior wine: Perrin Gigondas, $20.99 This is mostly Grenache with a Shiraz twist. See how they made this wine in the Old World and open a new door to the past.

#7: Woodbridge Cabernet Sauvignon. You howl at the moon with: Ridge Lytton Springs Zinfandel, $34.99. It’s red, luscious and dense. Presents blackberry, elderberry and Hi-C Very Berry. This is so different from the Woodbridge it’s like flying first class vs. Greyhound.

#8 & #9: Two merlots, Blackstone and Yellow Tail. Escape wine: Flora Springs Merlot, $17.99, from Napa Valley. I used to work out at the boxing gym in my town. It was cheap and full of out-of-shape flabbies like me. Then I went to a big gym and was so intimidated I couldn’t shower in front of the chiseled buff boys. That’s how you’ll feel when you try Flora Springs — you’ll think, “Now I know merlot!”

#10: Toasted Head Chardonnay. Keep drinking this one — it’s one of the few you’re tasting that can be called “fine wine.” Substitute: Pahlmeyer or a Batard-Montrachet. Hey, if you drink the best-quality wine on the Top Ten list, you can afford $100 for a life wine experience.

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