Houston native and executive wine editor of FOOD & WINE, Ray Isle, took the stage for the day’s final wine session with a mischievous twinkle in his eye as he takes the stage to present Superstar Wines at the Austin Food & Wine Festival. He worked the audience with casual professorial grace and easy wit. The standing room only crowd eagerly drank up every drop of information he shared about the discovery of fantastic wines.
“There are about 230,000 wine brands available in the U.S. When you walk into a wine store and look at a wall of wine, it’s hard to know what to pick,” he said. “The people who work in dedicated wine shops are typically obsessive about wine. They didn’t go into this business to become a millionaire. It might cost a dollar more to buy wine at these shops, but it’s really worth it to buy wine from someone who cares enough to select really good wine.”
Buying guides, scores and wine shop smarties are great ways to get introduced to new wines. “Once you know what you like, drink what you like, and then branch out from there. There is no need to be a wine expert. Just have fun,” he said.
Each year the magazine publishes its pocket size Food & Wine 2013 Wine Guide buying guide, which profiles 500 top wineries around the world and their benchmark wines. The wines for this session were selected from that guide and had to meet two other criteria; they had to be readily available in Texas, and they had to be Isle’s favorites.
“These are cool wines and wineries. The tasting line up gives us an around the world view of different styles,” said Isle.
The first wine was a prototypical New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Dog Point Vineyard 2012 Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough. It had strong grass, jalapeño juice and grapefruit citrus flavors with strident acidity that gives it lightning strike zip. The un-oaked, crisp white wine sells for about $20 and would be a great accompaniment to fried chicken.
Wineries in California have been making great wines with traditionally French blends. Qupe Marsanne 2011 Santa Barbara County is a classic northern Rhone white blend made with Marsanne and Roussanne grapes. It’s a richer wine than the previous one with scents of hay, honeysuckle and pears along with ripe pears, melon and lemon zest flavors. Grilled fish would find a friend in this $20 white wine.
Next up, Isle compared Pinot Noir from California and the Burgundy region of France. The Melville 2010 Pinot Noir, Estate, made in the Santa Rita Hills, jumped out of the grass with rich ripe fruit scents, soft tannins, and juicy strawberry jam flavors. At $25, this is a solid value for food-friendly California Pinot Noir.
The birthplace of Pinot Noir wines, the Burgundy region of France, is the home to Bouchard Pere & Fils 2008 Beune du Chateau Premier Cru. In France the goals is to have the wine express the place where its grown rather than the hand of the winemaker, which results in wines that typically have more mineral flavors than U.S. wines. This Premier Cru didn’t disappoint with aromas of raspberry and dust with limestone, juicy raspberry and dried herb flavors. While a bit more expensive at $34 a bottle, this is still a relative value for Burgundy wine.
On to the northern region of Piedmont in Italy for the Vietti 2008 Barolo made from the Nebbiolo grape. Many burgundy drinkers love Nebbiolo as the thin skin grape also tends to express the area where it’s grown. This fresh crisp wine has big cherry flavors. Barolo is very high tannin giving it an astringency and structure that lets it pair wonderfully with fatty foods like alpine cheese and risotto. Typically you can’t touch most cru Barolo for under $70, but the Vietti is a good bargain at $55. It is available at Whole Foods Markets, Austin Wine Merchant as well as other shops around Austin.
Isle finished the session with a bold, juice La Jota Vineyard Co. Howell Mountain Estate 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa valley. The winery was started in 1890 on a Mexican land grant on top of Howell Mountain. It has a generous berry and vanilla flavors, solid tannin structure and rich, lush texture like a velvet robe on your tongue and bellowing alcohol. Unlike some big name California Cabs that sell for hundreds of dollars, this one is only $75.
At the end of the session, the crowd wasn’t eager to leave and dozens swarmed Isle to ask more questions. It was clear the appreciative audience couldn’t get enough of this year’s Austin Food & Wine Festival.
Disclosure: I was provided a press pass to cover the festival.