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Prime South Africa: a Q+A with Ross Toombs of Meridian Prime

For at least the third year in a row, I told myself THIS would be my year of Southern Hemisphere wines. I would shift away from my Euro/California preferences and discover all kinds of new delights from Australia, New Zealand, Chile. Carmenere and Central Otago, here I come!

Well, we’re more than halfway through the year and so far it’s been a mixed bag. A quick look at my Delectable profile shows that only 10% of my wines hail from down South. But. One of my favorite meals of the year so far was at the Musket Room, an homage to all things New Zealand with a menu and wine list that punch way above their prices. One of my few southern Westchester wine refuges is Bar Lees, an Australian joint in Mamaroneck. And a few months ago I met Ross Toombs, a fellow Pelhamite who imports wine from his native South Africa. He started his import business, Meridian Prime, 3 years ago, and works with a number of up-and-coming South African producers. He was kind enough to answer a few questions about his work and what’s new with South African wines (which, really — did I mention this already? — I need to drink more of.)

 

Being in the wine industry is obviously a fantasy career for many people. What do you love most about what you do?
I love being responsible for ensuring that the passion of the all the people making the wines (not just the winemaker) are transferred to everyone we interact with.  I also love seeing the look of surprise and joy on the face of someone trying one of our wines for the first time. That is a gift that we keep getting and it makes it all worthwhile.

What is the biggest misconception about your job?
The biggest misconception is that it is quick and easy to bring another wine into the portfolio. The work to get a new wine to market is immense — but rewarding in itself.  Another misconception is that the startup importer/distributor can’t take on the big guys head on and win. It is possible to act big without being big.

Why should people drink more South African wine?
The South African wine industry — and the country itself — is so unique in so many ways. These characteristics are captured in the wines themselves which are, like the country and the people, complex, beautiful and bold without being overbearing.  South African winemakers have found an amazing balance between New and Old World wine styles (most often in the same glass).

Aside from your own, what wines are you most excited about drinking now?
I am most excited about drinking other South African wine producers that are hoping to be in the US market. There are some truly outstanding wines which American consumers would be lucky to have on their tables. For the wine adventurer South African wines provide an oasis of untapped gems.

What’s the most remarkable wine experience you’ve ever had?
Starting an import and distribution business has been that remarkable experience.  For me it has been about meeting the amazing people in the industry as much as the wines themselves.  With the wines I never anticipated the incredible experience that comes from drinking a glass of wine that captures the passion of the people you’ve met who made the wine. I wish everyone could meet the people that toiled in the vineyards, the cellars and the offices to get the wine all the way to your table. When you know these people and how much effort and skill goes into the process,  every glass becomes a celebration of the collective achievement in getting a wine into the market.

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What I Learned at VinExpo

VinExpo, one of the world’s largest wine trade shows, welcomed nearly 50,000 visitors last month — including yours truly. See below for a list, in no particular order, of what I learned from my whirlwind trip.

Warm climate wine producers have the coolest booths.

While the Piedmontese and the Burgundians took a low-key approach to their stands, not so the Corsicans:

Corsica

Corsica VinExpo

the Lebanese:

Lebanon VinExpo

or the Brazilians:

Brazil VinExpo

Gamay is full of surprises.

I know my way around a cru Beaujolais, but I was still (very pleasantly) surprised to taste the wines of Joseph Burrier. The wines are subtle and focused, and Burrier — a 6th generation winemaker — was chock-full of quotable observations. One of my favorites: “the key with Gamay is to avoid vulgarity.” There was nothing remotely vulgar about these wines. They’re the Audrey Hepburn of cru Beaujolais. Graceful, elegant and unadorned. My favorites were the 2011 Saint-Amour “Côte de Besset,” refined and delicate, and, at the other end of the spectrum the 2001 Fleurie les Colonies de Rochegrès. Here it is, on the right, next to one of its younger compatriots. (You know the tasting starts getting real when the winemaker pulls out the unlabeled bottles.)

Bourrier_Fleurie

The very name Fleurie puts these wines at a disadvantage, says Burrier, as it inevitably prompts drinkers and even writers (ahem) to call these wines floral, charming, and unserious. He uses older vintages like this one to prove that Fleurie has a serious side. The wine is indeed drinking nicely now, and falls into what I think of as “October” wines.

Marketing can’t beat Mother Nature.

The boosterism that pervades events like this was no match for the cold (literally) hard reality of the weather. It was raining cats and dogs — or perhaps just cats if this whimsical sculpture installation was any indication:

Cats

In all seriousness, the horrible weather blanketing western France cast a pall on things. It remains to be seen how much the deluge will end up affecting the vintage, but, as they say in PR, “the optics were not good.”

The children are our future.

Tasting and drinking a lot of  wine was great, but the best part of my trip was meeting the next generation of France’s wine professionals, from sommeliers to winemakers and everything in between. A young couple who had abandoned their life in Paris to start a winery in Savoie focusing on indigenous grapes. One sommelier with the extremely quixotic, and extremely worthy, pursuit of introducing French people to wines from around the world. (Not an easy task. One Parisian diner, upon seeing Vega Sicilia on his wine list, asked, “they make wine is Spain?”) A Bordeaux winemaker who took as much pride in his Bordeaux Supérieur as his Pomerol. France’s obsession with rules and bureaucracy has a way of sucking the life out of its brightest young people, so it’s beyond encouraging to see all this dynamism and creativity.

 

 

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Morellino di Scansano: The Kinder, Gentler Side of Sangiovese

I was running late and feeling desperate. My friend’s dinner party had started 20 minutes ago, and here I was in an unremarkable wine store on an unremarkable corner of the Upper East Side scanning the shelves for a palatable wine at a palatable price. Next to the Chiantis was an under-$20 bottle of Morellino di Scansano, a name that was then unfamiliar to me. Good enough. It ended up being a happy gamble, a delicious, affable wine that everyone liked. Since then, I’ve always felt like Morellino was my trusty little friend and special secret.

Well, the cat’s out of the bag. A lot of investment has poured into Morellino di Scansano, situated in the Tuscan coastal region of the Maremma, and it earned DOCG status in 2007. The promotional machine is very much up and running, and a delegation of winemakers and local representatives were on hand for several events in New York this past week.

They were emissaries of quiet Italian elegance, where one tosses a Loro Piana sweater over one’s shoulder just so, and the winemakers speak of organic farming in perfect, British-accented English. (Although they’re not afraid to let down their guard. When I asked one winemaker what he thought of Italian food in New York, he admitted that “if I cooked pasta this way at home, I would be — how you say? — shot.”)

The wines are similarly mellow. They’re required to be at least 85% Morellino (that’s Sangiovese to you and me), but the remainder can be any number of varieties, including Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, or local faves like Ciliegiolo. You won’t find the bright assertiveness of Chianti or stately grace of Brunello di Montalcino here: Morellino is their kinder, gentler cousin. From the lineup of 8 wines offered, my favorites were the 2010 Poggio Argentiera Capatosta and the 2008 Fattoria Mantellassi Riserva Le Sentinelle. The former has the liveliness and structure that lesser Morellinos lack, while the latter makes a case for the wine’s darker, more brooding side. Both were exceedingly food friendly, and it would be tough to think of a tomato-based pasta sauce/burger/grilled pork chop they wouldn’t work well with. While the prices have climbed since my first encounter with Morellino — the wines are now in the $20-$30 range — their accommodating, up-for-anything nature has not.

Shopping for Wine: If You Love it, Buy it

If you’re an avid reader of lady magazines and blogs, you will recognize this frequent piece of shopping advice: don’t wait until the last minute before a big event to buy your super-special outfit. Desperation shopping rarely leads to good decision-making.

The same holds true for wine. One of the biggest differences I notice between the JV and the varsity wine drinker is that the former is much more likely to buy a wine just for a specific meal or occasion, whereas the latter picks up a bottle that interests her, whether or not she knows when or how or with whom she’ll drink it. To continue the fashion analogy, the same thinking that prompts someone to buy, say, a pair of crystal-studded pair of Giuseppe Zanotti platforms

Zanotti

with no clear idea of where she’ll wear them is what compels someone like me to buy a bottle of late-harvest Gewurztraminer here, a half case of Lambrusco there, and why not some Poire William while I’m at it? Just like the most fashionable person you know has the perfect outfit for everything from a summer BBQ to a night out with Beyoncé, the hard-core wine lover has just the right thing to serve her finicky mother-in-law, as well as the ideal bottle for her too-cool-for-Cab sommelier friend. If you’re looking for New Year’s wine resolution guidance, I’d suggest you adopt a similar stance and do as the fashion mags dictate: if you love it and can afford it, buy it.

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Accepting Amarone

We all have our prejudices. For whatever reason, I’ve always had a “thing” against Amarone. Too big. Too overwhelming. Too difficult to match with food. I appreciated that it’s a bit of an oddball wine, made in an oddball fashion — the grapes are dried before they’re fermented, concentrating the flavors in the wine — but that was the extent of my admiration.

I had the chance to challenge my opinions a few weeks ago, when I was invited to a tasting of 2001 Amarones made by some top, family-owned producers. These are wines that need a lot of time to develop, so even the 2001s were a bit rough around the edges. As a whole these wines are big, tannic, and dry. They also feature some unusual, striking flavors(the phrase “chocolate covered craisins” made more than one appearance in my tasting notes). I loved the chance to taste these wines. I loved hearing about them from the people who made them — or, at the very least, the sons and daughters of the people who made them. The 25-year old son of one producer said his father only just started letting him pick the grapes for their Amarone, because it requires so much expertise and care.

I admire these wines more than ever…but I just don’t like them. They don’t move me. Nor do I see how they would really fit into my life — I don’t think I’d enjoy them much on their own, and there are plenty of other big, intense wines I’d turn to for food matching first. So basically, Amarone is the vinous equivalent of this:

 

I mean, amazing shoes, right? I just can’t see myself wearing them.

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Why The Cool Kids Don’t Like Bordeaux (But I Do)

If you follow wine media, you probably saw this article on Bordeaux from New York Times wine columnist Eric Asimov. If you didn’t, here’s the quick summary: the cool kids don’t like Bordeaux. It’s too Robert Parker. Too corporate. Too expensive. In our quest for the newest, the most “natural,” the most biodynamic, the most idiosyncratic wines, the stodgy châteaux on the banks of the Gironde seem hopelessly passé.

I get it, really I do. But. Wine lovers rejecting Bordeaux is akin to Americans hating on George Washington. It’s an integral part of wine’s history, its mystique, and its hold on our imaginations. Plus a lot of it tastes really, really good.

I was fortunate to experience this first hand a few weeks ago, when Snooth Editor-in-Chief Gregory Dal Piaz opened a few choice Bordeaux for a group of wine writers. The line up included:

 

1986 Cos d’Estournel (a little stern, but likeable)

1989 Cos d’Estournel (velvety and seductive, if a bit hollow)

1986 Lynch-Bages (corked, alas)

1988 Château Meyney

1989 Château Meyney (my favorite of the bunch – well-balanced, highly drinkable, and remarkably fresh)

1990 Château Meyney

No single wine was perfect, but each offered a snapshot of what Bordeaux can offer: elegance, balance, structure and, of course, longevity. Old-fashioned virtues, I guess, but ones that every wine lover should learn to appreciate.

Besides, without Bordeaux, what would the cool kids have to rebel against?

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What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Wine

Back in grad school, I wrote a paper on the “dop” system. During apartheid, South African vineyard workers were regularly paid in alcohol. The results were predictably horrific.  While no longer as common as it once was, this practice still exists. Its consequences are, quite literally, passed on to future generations: many farm laborers are women, and the Western Cape suffers from one of the highest rates of fetal alcohol syndrome in the world.

I thought of all this a few weeks ago, when Human Rights Watch released a depressingly familiar report on human rights violations in South Africa’s wine industry. It was a hot topic among wine people when it came out (see, for example, the post and comments here) and as I followed the debate, something struck me: this was the first time I’d ever heard wine folks talk about the people who actually work in the vineyard. We spend a hell of a lot of time obsessively analyzing pretty much everything else, from rootstocks to yeasts to soil composition, so our silence on this topic is notable.

And it’s not an insignificant point, especially for Americans. According to the Oxford Companion, “few reasonable observers would dispute a claim that [California's] clandestine, 600,000-member Mexican labor force constitutes CA’s greatest asset in the competitive arena of international fine wine production.” This workforce is not only large and hard-working, but also incredibly skilled and efficient. (No wonder producers were able to replant to Pinot Noir so quickly after “Sideways” came out.)

And if we’re really serious about the whole “natural wine/great wine is made in the vineyard” thing, then we need to talk to the people who are actually doing all the vine- and grape-coddling we wax rhapsodic about. The more I drink and study wine, the less I care about a given winemaker’s “philosophy” (talk is cheap) and the more I care about execution (how exactly does grafting work, anyway?) As wine writers and educators, my compatriots and I owe it to you to delve deeper here — and as wine consumers, you owe it to yourself to understand and appreciate all the hard work that goes into your glass.

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Double Dip THIS: Budget Wine Solutions for the Recession, Part Deux

So it looks like Recession #2 might be upon us soon, people. With my own personal double dip recession in effect, what with the new twins and all, I’m kind of freaking out. One thing I am not worried about, however, is my wine consumption. There are all sorts of relatively painless ways to economize on wine, which I will kindly share with you:

1. Box it up. There are some good box wines out there (even the New York Times thinks so), and ounce for ounce, they represent a great value. Serve it up in this adorable “vin de maison” carafe so people will think you’re charming, not cheap.

2. Ditch the glass. Yes I know, many restaurants have amazing wine-by-the-glass selections. But how many times have you gone out with a friend, drunk a few glasses between the two of you, and realized you could have gotten more wine, for less, if you had just ordered a bottle? Find a happy compromise on a wine you’ll both enjoy and opt for the full bottle.

3. Put a cork(age) in it. Bring your own bottle and pay the restaurant’s corkage fee, usually around $25. Of course, this makes the most sense when you have a pricier bottle to share. If you want to bypass the corkage fee, I’ve found that Asian and Middle Eastern restaurants are pretty flexible about letting you bring  your own booze. Another option: scout out brand-new restaurants that don’t have their liquor licenses yet.

4. Try something new. A lot of the wines at the fringes of the wine store (ie, not California, France or Italy) can offer really great values. Portuguese whites are cheap and super-refreshing, and sherry is, pound for pound, one of the best value wines around. It’s also high in alcohol and served in smaller portions, so if you’re entertaining, a little goes a long way. Grab that can of Planter’s peanuts in the cupboard, fish out those olives from the back of the fridge, ask a friend to bring over some dried sausage or cheese, and call it a tapas party.

5. Be honest. Now is not the time to pussyfoot around. Tell the wine store salesperson or the sommelier exactly how much you want to spend. You may feel cheesy about it, but being straightforward will actually make their job a lot easier.

6. Free tastings. Every wine store worth its salt has ‘em. They’re a great way to new wines and avoid disappointment. (Even a $10 wine is a crappy value if you don’t like it.) If you taste something you like, make sure to tell the salesperson, so she can recommend similar wines in your price range.

7. Befriend a pregnant or nursing wine blogger. OK, so this one is a little specific. But when I was pregnant, and during my brief breast-feeding phase, I was mostly tasting, rather than drinking. I relied on friends to finish the bottles. I’m just sayin’, don’t be afraid to be opportunistic.

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Why Can’t We Eat Like Grownups?

Now that I’m a parent, nights out are going to be very few and far between. Which means every evening my husband and I do get to spend out of the house needs to be pretty damn special. Of course, the food and wine should be excellent. But more than anything else, it needs to be an opportunity for me to feel like a bona fide adult. One who has made the effort to change out of spit-up covered yoga pants and, for a few hours at least, has no desire to discuss poopy diapers or sleep schedules or how expensive Enfamil is. (Very, by the way.) I have vivid memories of my mom at her vanity table, spraying Private Collection on her wrists and putting on her pearl and diamond earrings. This lady was getting ready for a night out. There would be drinking, there would be smoking, there would be adult conversation, there would be all kinds of grown up goings-on I wouldn’t understand. It was mysterious, and thrilling.

The thing is, if I wanted to have a night like that at a restaurant in New York City in 2011, I would have no idea where to go.
Read the rest of this entry »

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Is Alcohol Level Really That Important?

A favorite topic these days among wine folk is alcohol level — that is, are wines getting too alcoholic? Blame climate change (remember, warmer weather=riper grapes=more sugar=more alcohol), blame Robert Parker, blame the American palate, blame Fox News, but many think that the end result is too many wines with elevated alcohol levels. (Check out this post on alcohol levels and balance in Pinot Noir for an informative, if inside-baseball-ish, take on the matter.)

It’s true that overly alcoholic wines are no fun to drink: they’re not great with food, they lack subtlety — and they can make for an unpleasant morning after. But I wonder if people are making too much of the matter, with a slightly obsessive focus on the alcohol percentage number. That number can be helpful, but fixating on it can be misleading. Context, as they say, is all. Last week, I opened up a 14.5% Rhône blend from California that hit you like a blunt instrument: it was dull, massive, and sure to cause a headache. It was an expensive wine, a gift, and I weirdly felt obligated to finish it. Drinking it (over the course of a few days, of course) felt like a chore. Tonight, however, I cracked open a 14.5% Rhône blend from Australia that had me wanting one more sip, then another, and yet another. Sure, it’s a big wine, but it wears its size well, and with elegance. It’s the difference between:

and

I’m all for less of the former and more of the latter, but it’s the artistry and the effort, not the number, that makes the difference.

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