ENGAGING THE SENSES

An Oregon pinot noir has scored a stunning victory at the world's most prestigious wine competition, winning one of only 16 Platinum Best in Show medals at the Decanter World Wine Awards (DWWA). It's not only a well-deserved recognition for a very fine wine, it illustrates an important expansion of the world's wine palate.

The British wine magazine Decanter stages the annual competition of wines from around the world. There are a lot of wine competitions, but for vintners everywhere the Decanter World Wine Awards is generally considered the most prestigious and most comprehensive. This year, more than 16,500 wines were entered for the blind judging by 240 wine experts from dozens of countries, a group that included 64 of the world’s 340 Masters of Wine and 26 Master Sommeliers. To win a medal of any sort from this illustrious group is considered a great honor. To be one of only 16 wines (less than .01% of the entrants) to receive a Platinum Best in Show Award is remarkable.

The Decanter World Wine Awards Best in Show pinot noir from Domaine Serene. But good luck finding a bottle! (Photo: Domaine Serene)

Even more remarkable in this pantheon of wine greatness is to find that the 2016 Best in Show pinot noir over £15 (US$21), a category dominated by wines from Burgundy since the competition’s inception, is Domaine Serene Winery Hill Vineyard 2012 Pinot Noir from Oregon. Coincidentally, the award comes in a year when many of us are celebrating the anniversary of the 1976 “Judgement of Paris” tasting that saw chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon from California beat some of the finest wines of Bordeaux (red) and Burgundy (white), in the process turning the French wine community on its ear.

There are several gratifying points to this stunning showing by Domaine Serene, a winery that has, for many years, been considered one of the best in Oregon. The greatest plaudits, of course, go to the winery for making such a great wine, a wine that the Decanter judges singled out for its, “well-integrated nose of licorice, tobacco, mocha, raspberry and cherry [with] some toasty oak notes too.” The judges went on to say, “The palate has a real density of jammy fruit, enhanced by oak spice and tannic structure, and a soft refreshing acidity that carries beautifully through to the finish.” Well, that certainly sounds delicious.

I am equally intrigued by what this award says about the judges, because to recognize an Oregon pinot for its high quality and not to infer the wine succeeded because it successfully imitated a Burgundy is to illustrate an opening of palates. Masters of Wine and Master Sommeliers are trained on Burgundy. For decades, Burgundy has been held as the pinnacle of pinot and to make this judgement (and mind you, many, many judges had to agree before a Best in Show award was conveyed), we are seeing that wine experts around the world are getting more universal palates. This means being more open to a variety of wine styles and seeing quality in many guises.

It is also rewarding to know that wine writer, educator and merchant Stephen Spurrier, who organized that important Paris tasting in 1976, is also the chair of the Decanter World Wine Awards this year. He said, “We only award medals to wines in which consumers can have the utmost confidence … The DWWA’s sole purpose is to recognize and reward quality.”

Winery Hill Vineyard, surrounding the Domaine Serene Winery (Photo: Domaine Serene)

Kudos to the hard working judges at the DWWA and congratulations to Domaine Serene for a stunning job. This award in no way denigrates all the great Burgundy in the competition (many received medals), nor is it at the expense of other New World areas producing pinot noir (for which there are several). This is a celebration of one particular wine in one particular vintage. Now, the battle begins to try to find a bottle of it! The wine was released last year exclusively to the members of Domaine Serene’s wine club, so this is a rare bottle indeed. For most of us, we can taste something similar by purchasing a bottle of the similarly acclaimed Domaine Serene 2012 Evenstad Reserve Pinot Noir – it sells for about $90 a bottle. It, and several other bottlings from Domaine Serene (I particularly like the affordable Yamhill Cuvée) are widely available at the top South Florida wine shops.

There were many surprises at the Best in Glass Wine Challenge last month, among them the number of wines our sommelier-judges voted gold medals and the geographic range of the medal-winning wines – for details see my blog post from May 25.

Another element I touched on in the blog post and want to expand on here are the wineries that had multiple gold medal wines. Two wineries garnered four gold medals each at BIG and they are an interesting contrast. Castello Banfi is a large and well-known American-owned winery in Italy making more than 11 million bottles of wine each year at its several properties embracing more than 7,000 acres of vineyards (as a point of reference, Manhattan island is just over 8,000 acres). The other four-medal winner, called Proemio, is a mid-sized winery making about 660,000 bottles, (or 55,000 cases annually) founded just 13 years ago in Mendoza, Argentina.

La Pettegola Vermentino, a crisp and flavorful alternative to pinot grigio and sauvignon blanc [Photo: Castello Banfi]

The four Banfi wines that won gold medals include two white wines (San Angelo Pinot Grigio and La Pettegola Vermentino, both from Tuscany) and two reds, a “super-Tuscan” blend called Belnero and a fruity red wine from Piedmont, L’Ardì Dolcetto. Of the four, the most interesting to me are the vermentino and the dolcetto, both made from grapes that are under-appreciated by the public but wonderful food wines (and thus perfect for the by-the-glass emphasis of Best in Glass). Vermentino makes a crisp, fruity wine that has more personality than most pinot grigios and is not as pungently aromatic as many New World sauvignon blancs. If you like either pinot grigio or sauvignon blanc, Banfi’s vermentino is definitely worth a try – it is reasonably priced (just under $20), makes a splendid aperitif and with, its crisp freshness, goes very well with many foods.

From its name, you might at first think the dolcetto grape makes a sweet wine (dolce is Italian for sweet) but it invariably produces a medium bodied, fruity and dry red wine that is the very essence of charm in a glass. In fact, quite the opposite of being sweet, there is sometimes a very slight bitterness that accents the grape’s fruitiness and the wines seldom are aged in oak, so they have mild tannins and can be drunk fairly young. This, of course, is the perfect recipe for a wine you would want by the glass, perhaps as an aperitif or with a light first course, before you pull out a bottle of a heavier red for the main course.

L’Ardì Dolcetto, a dry and fruity red from Italy’s Piedmont [Photo: Castello Banfi]

What I like most about dolcetto is its “drinkability.” It’s a wine for everyday enjoyment rather than wine for a special occasion (though any occasion with a bottle of dolcetto strikes me as pretty special anyway). I think what our judges liked most about the L’Ardì Dolcetto is the combination of quality and price – to get a bottle of elegant red wine for $14 is a good thing indeed. This dolcetto is one of those wines that’s good for a group dining out because it pairs well with so many foods, and of course, as our judges attest, it is lovely by the glass.

With the wines of proemio we are operating in a different sphere – a more unified style and a more focused range. That’s understandable because proemio (the name comes from the Medieval Spanish word for prelude) is a smaller property with a much smaller portfolio. What that portfolio clearly offers is a consistent level of quality and a consistently affordable price point. The winery’s focus is evident in the wines that won gold medals: two malbecs, one aged in oak and one aged without oak, a cabernet sauvignon and the Grand Reserve Winemaker's Selection red blend. With prices for the malbecs and cabernet hovering around $10, our judges found these wines irresistible in blind tastings.

Proemio is a relatively new property, founded in 2003 by Marcelo Bocardo, a winemaker who began his career making bulk wine (inexpensive wine sold in large containers or to other wineries). He went on to create a thriving business exporting grape juice concentrate from Argentina to Japan and then used his business acumen to create a winery using some of bulk wine skills with higher quality fruit. The results certainly showed up in our blind tastings. With only a short period in oak (or no time at all for the unoaked malbec), the two malbecs and the cabernet have charming, youthful fruit while the winemaker’s reserve blend of malbec, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah, with 18 months aging, shows a bit of mature complexity.

While each individual wine has its strengths, the fact these two properties each won four medals also illustrates an important point for us consumers: consistency. We can take this kind of showing as a confirmation of the brand as well as the individual bottles. Here, on the VeritageMiami website, we have all the gold and silver medal-winning wines listed so you can begin your own explorations.

Proemio’s blend of malbec, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and syrah hits the sweet spot where quality and value intersect [Photo: Proemio Wines]