ben o'donnell

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Blogs  :  Mixed Case: Opinion and Advice

Where the Big Reds Grow

Michel Chapoutier, Dave Phinney, Jean-Luc Thunevin and others are mining an obscure region in France for bold yet affordable reds

Posted: March 26, 2013  By Ben O'Donnell

If you're a fan of big, ripe, concentrated reds nowadays, you can expect to get slugged with equally muscular prices. In the span of a decade and change, longtime aficionados of Napa, Bordeaux, even Piedmont and Châteauneuf, have seen prices fly away, often out of reach.

There is yet one place, in France no less, where intense reds pop for as little as 10 or 15 bucks. "This region has been forgotten for 50 years," Michel Chapoutier said. "You can have some of the best soil in France and probably in the world." Could this be the next great region for red wine in France? "Oh, I am absolutely certain about that," he said. "Absolutely."

If you haven't guessed, we were talking about the Roussillon region, known in the United States as sidekick to the massive Languedoc zone in the south of France, with Roussillon reaching the Spanish border. Rhône power player Chapoutier has been snapping up plots around Roussillon for 15 years or so now, most of which go into his Domaine de Bila-Haut label. The wines run about $10 to $25, depending on the subappellation.

Blogs  :  Mixed Case: Opinion and Advice

What's Your Oldest Wine?

I'll start …

Posted: February 28, 2013  By Ben O'Donnell

There are some superlatives virtually everyone in a community of enthusiasts locks up in a bejeweled memory box, to be opened and shown off on occasion. Your fastest mile, if you're a runner. Your SAT score, if you're a try-hard. If you're a wine freak, one superlative you can trot out is your oldest wine, a snapshot of a different world of wine than we inhabit, less and less likely to be revisited as bottles fade and disappear.

The oldest wine I've ever drunk was a 1947 Porto Rozes. This was at the Dînner des Grands Chefs that Relais & Châteaux puts on every year; last winter's was in Manhattan, and 45 chefs cooked at stations around the perimeter of the ovoid Gotham Hall while guests ate in the middle. Daniel Boulud, Gary Danko and Jean Georges Vongerichten manned the stoves. Waitstaff paraded out cradling child-sized bottles of Pommery. The Port needed no fanfare, being the age of India, Israel and the CIA.

Perhaps there's no substitute for the real thing in this case. (I previously recommended bargain alternatives to Châteauneuf and Champagne from their kin terroirs: Lirac, across the Rhône, and Burgundy's "Golden Gate.") But as I told Sauternes lovers on a $20 budget, sometimes the real thing is just the thing for your wallet.

News & Features  :  News

Labeling Cold War Heats Up Again

Diageo and consumer advocacy groups have reignited decades-long efforts to beef up beverage-labeling standards, triggering renewed fear of over-regulation among wineries

Posted: February 22, 2013  By Ben O'Donnell

Blogs  :  Mixed Case: Opinion and Advice

The World's Most Exclusive $20 Wines: Napa Cabernet

If you want the real deal, find the wineries that run lean, drive assertive deals with their growers and don't get caught up in the hype

Posted: February 12, 2013  By Ben O'Donnell

"I spent 10 years down in the Central Coast," Harry Hansen, head winemaker at Sterling Vineyards in Napa Valley, said. "I made Paso Robles Cab, I made Central Coast Cab, and it's always tough to sell your wine against Napa Valley Cabernet. There are just some things that are so good that even if you pay a little bit more for them, they're worth it."

Perhaps there's no substitute for the real thing in this case. (I previously recommended bargain alternatives to Châteauneuf and Champagne from their kin terroirs: Lirac, across the Rhône, and Burgundy's "Golden Gate.") But as I told Sauternes lovers on a $20 budget, sometimes the real thing is just the thing for your wallet.

News & Features  :  News

New York Restaurants Sue Storage Facility for $2 Million of Wine in Hurricane Limbo

Two Keith McNally restaurants have demanded the release of 1,600 cases of wine held at a storm-plagued cellar, which has filed for bankruptcy

Posted: January 30, 2013  By Ben O'Donnell

Blogs  :  Mixed Case: Opinion and Advice

The World's Most Exclusive $20 Wines: Classified Sauternes

For some regions, it seems darn near impossible to find a bottle under $40, but the crafty shopper can get a taste of the greats for much less

Posted: January 22, 2013  By Ben O'Donnell

Walkaround wine tastings and by-the-glass pours are a bit like movie trailers. You catch a glimpse of what to expect. Probably you can even tell whether you like it enough to buy a ticket. But to see the full picture, so to speak, you need to see how the wine drinks with food, how it develops in the glass and the cellar. You need multiple screenings.

Unfortunately, when tickets start at around $40, "moviegoing" becomes an expensive hobby. For many wine regions and styles in the world, this is about the entry-level price for a bottle in the U.S. market. But it's possible to get a sense of the techniques in the vineyard and the winery, the grapes, the quality of the vintages and even a bit of the terroir of the greats without dropping more than $20 on a bottle-benchmarking on a budget. In an earlier post, I recommended crémant de Bourgogne from Burgundy's "Golden Gate" as a cousin to Champagne and Lirac for a taste of what Châteauneuf-du-Pape is all about.

I'm going to take a slightly different tack here. You can benchmark on a budget for Sauternes by drinking ... Sauternes.

Dec. 31, 2012 - Jan. 15, 2013 Issue  :  Books

A Wine Lover’s Library

New books include personal memoirs and a must-have reference

Posted: December 31, 2012  By Bruce Sanderson, Kim Marcus, Ben O'Donnell, James Laube

News & Features  :  News

Top Stories of 2012

Real Housewife wine, Bordeaux troubles, a mysterious death, a high-profile counterfeiting case and Amazon's return to wine sales. The year in wine was tumultuous, to say the least

Posted: December 28, 2012  By Ben O'Donnell, Dana Nigro

Blogs  :  Mixed Case: Opinion and Advice

How Do They Do It, Part 2: Meet the People Who Make $500 Wines, $10 Wines—And Everything in Between

It takes a vision—or a few dozen of them—to turn thousands of acres into millions of bottles. The stakes are high, and plenty can go wrong

Posted: December 27, 2012  By Ben O'Donnell

At the Penfolds Nuriootpa winery in Barossa, you can crush 22,000 tons of grapes. At Chateau Ste.-Michelle, 2.8 million cases of wine go out the door every year. If you are Peter Gago or Bob Bertheu, head winemakers at Penfolds and Ste.-Michelle, respectively, how do you even process and track so much stuff, let alone make it good?

"That's why God created Microsoft Excel, I guess," replied Bertheu. I asked four winemakers who head up large-to-massive operations that produce dozens of different cuvées in all price ranges, from $10 quaffers on up to the storied $600 Penfolds Grange. In my previous post on the subject, I gave a sense of the scale of the task and wrote about how the four keep tabs on their growers and grapes through harvest. Now I'll explain how they juggle as many as 52 different wines at once.

News & Features  :  Wine in History

Iron Ladies of Champagne

When it was unheard of for Frenchwomen to run big businesses, these visionaries introduced nearly every innovation in Champagne-making this side of bubbles

Posted: December 20, 2012  By Ben O'Donnell

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