Hippo Manchester
December 8, 2005

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Wine: What it means to miss N.O.

Taste of the vine sparks memories of another time

By Tim Protzman  tprotzman@hotmail.com

I’ve been thinking about New Orleans lately, specifically the Hotel Monteleone. It’s a place I’ve never been in, but its huge iron and neon sign casts a 1920s shadow over the French Quarter. I’ve been thinking about it because I’ve revisited an old favorite wine, Chateau Montelena. These two instances, 2,200 miles apart, are forever linked in my mind.

Shortly after my last visit to New Orleans I opened the wine list in a restaurant and discovered Chateau Montelena. Even though these two aren’t spelled the same there’s some quirky connection in my brain that triggers memories of the other whenever one appears. A travel ad or news of the hurricane brings a thought of the beef tournedos and the Montelena Cabernet. Conversely, a trip to the wine store and a glimpse of the black-and-white label ushers in the remembrance of the great view of the French Quarter from my 19th-floor hotel room, and the heavy hotel sign that in the Louisiana night stood illuminated by red neon light.

Chateau Montelena makes premium wines, but not cult wines. This is good news for most of us little wine people because we can actually get a chance to taste it, rather than read about it. And it’s not that expensive, compared to say Grace Family Vineyards, wines which are sold only to about 500 people on an ultra exclusive mailing list. You can buy a bottle online too — if you’re willing to spend $300. Which makes the price of some of Chateau Montelena’s newest releases and absolute bargain at $35.99.

The Chateau was started in 1882 (it says so on the label) and has been in production continuously. In 1976 their chardonnay was judged in Paris, and actually beat some of the top Burgundy Grand Crus. This event put California at the top of the wine map overnight.

In 2003 the winery pushed to have the Calistoga area of Napa Valley named as a separate American Viticultural Area. AVA’s are geographical areas where 85 percent of the grapes in the labeled bottle are grown. For instance, if I grow grapes in Terre Haute, Ind., and I make a wine with 50 percent of the grapes from Chicago, then I can’t say it’s a Terre Haute AVA. This is to prevent some wineries from using a more prestigious and marketable AVA name when less than 85 percent of the wine grapes are grown in that territory.

The Calistoga AVA is still pending approval from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Chateau Montelena makes chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel and a riesling which is sold at the vineyard. Their premium-tier wines are the Estate Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel.

The Chateau Montelena 2003 Chardonnay is a smooth finished wine with a touch of oak which counterbalances the slight pineapple and lemon notes and adds the perfect amount of acidity to the finish. It retails for $30-$35 dollars a bottle, and while not cheap, it has little in the way of artificial taste that some Californians seem to thrive on. It pairs well with anything really, but try it with penne in a vodka cream sauce if you want to get rough with it.

The 2002 Estate Zinfandel has a bit of a kick to it, but it seems to soften at the finish. Why do zinfandels seem to be getting more monstrous all the time? I’d like to be able to not use the word “jammy” to describe them sometime. This wine begs for a plate of antipasto under a grape arbor. Rustic, yet fresh with minimal laboratory tastes. $28.49.

Chateau Montelena’s 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon has just the right amount of merlot blended in to make it perfect. It wouldn’t win in a blind tasting with a Château Léoville-Poyferré from the Saint-Julien appellation, but it’s half the price. Elderberry, cassis and that elegant layered finish make this one thoroughbred bottle.

I haven’t tasted the 2001 Chateau Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, (because it’s $122.99 a bottle) but this is a serious Californian wine. If you can afford it, this is their signature product.

Unfortunately, none of these wines appear on the Hotel Monteleone wine list.