Ever wonder if you really need to spend a lot of money on an unusual bottle of wine? “How much is that bottle?” you ask your favorite wine retailer, and when you hear the answer, you swallow hard and you haven’t even tasted the wine yet. In addition, you may have never heard of the region or producer and that will make you hesitate as well. But then you remember your reaction when you took a sip, or watched someone else approach pure joy when they tasted a spectacular and expensive wine. That type of wine transmits a sense of place, geography, even soil, and a feeling of rarity that is special. To capture that experience in our area and buy that bottle, there are a number of local options, shops that offer that unusual bottle of wine, especially if you want to try something totally different.
The independent wine shop manager spends a large part of his or her day considering and tasting wines from every vineyard locale and price range possible. They find wines that are unusual, often expensive, but worth the money. They will carry a wine that is a “tough sell” for the ordinary wine buyer, but would put a smile on their face if someone gave them that bottle. If you ask these professionals for a wine to splurge on, this is what you would hear.
Barbara Bjorn at Susan’s Fine Wine & Spirits in Santa Fe has two unusual responses to the question, and the first, a white, is really off the grid. Her choice is the Castell d’Encus Ekam 2013. This steely wine comes from vineyards at a 3,000-foot elevation. It is mostly Riesling, a varietal you would never associate with Spain, with some Albariño. It seems incongruous until you remember that the location, the Catalan region of Spain in the Pyrenees Mountains, is not a “hot spot” in terms of weather. For a red wine, she offers, without hesitation, a Merlot in the $80 range, Hourglass Blueline Merlot 2013 from a vineyard south of Calistoga in Napa near the Silverado Trail. This response is unusual because Merlot is not a varietal that a customer will normally request, but in the right hands, made with grapes from the right soil, the varietal can produce a wine that excels. It will have a subtle softness, an elegance, and reflect that elusive character, minerality. The soil for the Blueline Vineyard is known as Cortina and is marked by decomposing volcanic ash deposited in an alluvial fan of soil from the Dutch Henry Canyon on the eastern side of Napa Valley. This vineyard transforms the often-boring Merlot grape and puts a stamp of extraordinary Napa distinction on the resulting wine.
At another shop, in Pojoaque, 15 minutes north of downtown Santa Fe, Mark Spradling at Kokoman Fine Wines & Liquors likes a unique varietal blend from a small family winery, again in Napa Valley. Krupp Brothers ‘The Doctor’ 2012 at just under $100 a bottle is a blend of Tempranillo, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, with a bit of Petit Verdot and Malbec. The vineyards for this wine range from 1,300 to 1,800 feet in elevation on the east side of the Valley. The wine has concentrated power in the mid-palate and a complex finish that opens with decanting. It is slightly less intense than you would expect from the vineyard at that elevation, perhaps because of the unusual use of Tempranillo in the blend. For the white wine, he stays in Napa and is especially keen on Failla Chardonnay Hudson Vineyard 2013. Around $60 a bottle, this difficult-to-find single vineyard Chardonnay combines austerity and nuance with a delicious touch of tropical fruit flavors. Here, the proximity of the vineyard to San Pablo Bay and its influence of cool air and fog make the vineyard special. During the winemaking, the winery uses wild yeast for fermentation with a minimal amount of new oak for aging, emphasizing freshness and acidity in the finished wine.
For Brian Bargsten at Arroyo Vino, the recent string of good Burgundy vintages—even 2011 and 2012—is a compelling reason to look at this region. Customers often assume that a Burgundy will disappoint them. “The argument that you need to wait too long (for the wine to soften) or the wines are too austere no longer applies,” Brian says. “The last ‘challenge’ was 2007 and the 2014 and 2015 vintages are excellent.” As he points out, in 2016, many vineyards were devastated by hail, which can have a drastic effect on quality and quantity. This is yet another reason to look at examples from 2014 and 2015. His red wine pick comes from a small family producer that is relatively unknown, the Arlaud Aux Chezeaux Premier Cru 2014, around $100 a bottle. Grand Cru and Premier Cru Burgundies, designated and controlled as such, according to a strict classification system in France, are always 100% Pinot Noir. They are the finest Pinot Noirs on the planet. This wine has a deeper, darker almost savory character with incredible aromatics of spice and fruit and great aging potential. This is a very old-style traditional family producer that even continues to use horse ploughing for their vineyards. For white wines, Brian stays in Burgundy, and looks at its northern-most section. “Chablis is a forgotten category” he says, “and the 2013 and 2014 vintage wines from Christian Moreau are fantastic.” Brian even posted on Social Media that the Christian Moreau Chablis Vaillons Premier Cru 2014, around $50 ,“is everything a Chablis should be.” The wine is dry and elegant with all the classic hallmark flavors of chalk and flint.
For another “ultimate” we talk to Jon Paul Leos at La Casa Sena Wine Shop. He loves Barolo, a red wine called “the king of wines, the wine of kings” from Northern Italy. It is made from 100% Nebbiolo, considered one of the greatest red wine grapes. As it ages, a wine made from Nebbiolo can look like Pinot Noir and have the tannin levels of Cabernet. But these tannins are often called “fine grained,” and are different from Cabernet. The flavors and varietal taste are distinctive. The 2004 Roberto Voerzio Cerequio Barolo at just under $300 a bottle has beautiful notes of rose petal and spice because it ages beautifully. Thinking of celebrations, Jon Paul enthusiastically says, “It almost smells like the holidays.” It is rare to find a wine like this over 10 years old, and that explains the cost. Instead of suggesting a white wine, his pièce de résistance is a three-liter of Krug Grande Cuvée for $1270 a bottle. This bottle, the equivalent of four bottles of wine, is called a Jeroboam, and would be an experience for six or more people. Krug is regarded by many as the best traditional Champagne house, especially for a richer, Pinot Noir-based style of Champagne. The wine has an extended period of resting on the lees, during and after secondary fermentation, producing the ultimate full-bodied and toasty bubbly. Of course, as Champagne ages, it may even lose a little effervescence, but that does not detract from the extraordinary richness and complexity the wine gains from that aging in the bottle. (As a side note, the cutting edge professional will often drink Champagne like this out of large round Burgundy glasses, instead of the traditional “flutes,” to emphasize and display that richness and bouquet.)
This list would not be complete without a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and a dessert wine. Tasha Zonski-Armijo at Jubilation Fine Wine & Spirits in Albuquerque went to the store’s vault to find some special wines that are not easy to find elsewhere. The Spottswoode 2011 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon at $159 a bottle may not come from the most esteemed vintage, but Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate gave it a 94 point rating and described it as “certainly set for another 20 years of deliciousness.” This family estate produces world class Cabernet and the wine is a beautiful rendition of elegance for that varietal. As a grand finale, also from their vault, she likes Chateau d’Yquem 2003 Sauternes at $339.00 a bottle. This white Bordeaux dessert wine is a wine lover’s dream come true and will provide the epitome of a pairing for savory cheeses, pastries and pies.
I continue to repeat my mantra, “Consult the pros at independent wine shops.” It was interesting to see how quickly they responded when asked, “What would you personally like as a gift? What is an under-appreciated, but exceptionally fine wine?” It almost goes without saying that these shops all offer less expensive or less unusual alternatives to the wines listed above. But if you want to celebrate an occasion or give something as a gift that is truly out of the ordinary—this is a sure-fire way to up your winter wine game.
Kokoman Fine Wine & Liquor is at 34 Cities of Gold Road in Santa Fe. 505.455.2219.
Susan’s Fine Wines and Spirits is at 1005 S. St. Francis Drive in Santa Fe. 505.984.1582.
Story by Philip de Give