Lettie Teague, wine columnist at The Wall Street Journal, has a new book out that is a joy to read for many reasons. It’s unpretentious, as if Lettie has popped over after work to give you a few wine tips. Yet it’s also full of insights bound to make wine shopping and drinking way more interesting. We caught up with Lettie in her office not far from Wall Street, just before the press party for Wine in Words.
Lettie, one takeaway from Wine in Words is that people tend to overpay for high-profile wines just as they overpay for hot stocks. What are some lesser-known but high-quality wines we should look out for?
Lettie: There is a big shift now toward wines made from lesser-known, indigenous grape varieties. Wine drinkers are seeking what is unique to a region, not necessarily wine made from a grape like Cabernet Sauvignon that’s grown all over the world. I guess you could say it’s a move away from globalization.
What’s driving this is that there are some great, relatively obscure wines out there from local varietals that haven’t been planted elsewhere. For example, in the Mt. Etna region of Sicily, the chief local grapes are the Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappucio, grown at high elevation on the sides of an active volcano.
Wow. I guess you do really need to try these before they get too hot!
Lettie: Ha! Seriously, a top Mt. Etna red can be reminiscent of a Barolo or a northern Rhone red and yet Etna reds are much more reasonably priced. A good example is the 2004 Calabretta that’s on the market right now. It’s 11 years old and costs around $30. This is a wine that’s released late – when the producer deems it ready to drink – much like a Rioja. Another Mt. Etna producer I like very much is Tenuta delle Terre Nere.
In Wine in Words, you mention Chablis is “a wine that collectors covet but one that mere mortals can actually collect.” What should people look for?
Lettie: First of all, buy the real Chablis, made from chardonnay grapes grown in Chablis, a sub-region of Burgundy — not the ersatz ‘California Chablis’! The soil of Chablis is limestone, full of fossils and minerals and even oyster shells dating back to when Chablis was underwater. The real Chablis has a truly distinctive flavor: it’s flinty, minerally and very dry. A few of my favorite producers are Dauvissat, Raveneau, Christian Moreau and William Fevre. With the exception of Raveneau, who has a cult-like following, these wines are fairly easy to find and a good value.
What do you consider to be “emerging markets” for wine?
Lettie: I think Australia is a re-emerging wine market, as it comes out of a major crisis — or actually a series of crises, fiscal and meteorological (drought, fire, etc.). Among the wines worth noting are the Aussie Rieslings produced in places like Clare Valley north of Adelaide. This Riesling is bone dry, minerally and savory. Also of interest are the more restrained Shiraz wines from Clare Valley as well as the Yarra Valley east of Melbourne. These valleys cool down considerably at night, creating great conditions for Riesling and refined Shiraz.
There are also some Greek white wines that are exceptional values. I’m researching – aka drinking – a lot of Greek whites for my column next week.
What do you find world-class in Washington State?
Lettie: I think Merlot from Washington tops any other “new world” Merlot. Washington growers always tell me how great their Cabernet Sauvignon is. But while many, many other places grow great Cab not as many have great Merlot. Andrew Will used to make world-class Merlot in Washington, but he has now incorporated it into Merlot-Cabernet blends. Pepper Bridge Winery and Abeja winery, both in Walla Walla, make Merlots worth seeking out.
In whites, Washington is justifiably well-known for its Rieslings, by producers like Chateau Ste. Michelle. Again, I wish producers out there would focus also on Chenin Blanc, which I think could do very well in Washington’s cooler climate vineyards.
What type of wines do you yourself gravitate to?
Lettie: One place I continue to be drawn to is the Loire valley in France. There are some truly great wines made in the Loire, notably the Chenin Blancs from Vouvray by producers Domaine Huet or Jacky Blot. Collectors don’t chase after Loire valley Chenin Blancs like they do the Burgundies, and that’s just fine with me.
I assume you’re serving a Loire wine tonight at the press party?
Lettie: No, actually, but we will be serving Chablis. That should pair well with the predicted 50-mile-an-hour wind, rain – and hail!