Our van pulled up to the Bossier Inn & Suites on Diamond Jacks Boulevard in Bossier, Louisiana. As the driver parked in front of a nondescript block of a building surrounded by nothingness, an uneasy feeling washed over me. But, a trust in my itinerary at this travel writer conference eased my anxiety a bit. And then I walked inside.
Parallel to its exterior, my first reaction was to turn around and question whoever coordinated this visit. But this restaurant, Lucky Palace, was what people raved about — especially the wine list. So, how could I dismiss it based on its looks? The culinary offerings alone were intriguing: Asian-Cajun fusion, which translates to alligator in a stir-fry, as it turns out, among other Louisiana delicacies. But the wine list is what turned Lucky Palace around in my mind.
Although informed the owner was a Master Sommelier, he wasn’t. But, he had a sophisticated, expert palate and knew how to pair world wines. Kuan Lim’s story began with a trip from San Antonio with his wife. They stopped at the Bossier Inn & Suites along the way, but ended up staying for 16 years and counting.
It could not have been the surrounding beauty of the hotel, but perhaps he saw potential for making his mark in an area lacking a top-rate wine list. In fact, Lucky Palace has been awarded several Wine Spectator Awards of Excellence. Lim isn’t shy about stocking wines with a cost upward to $350 a bottle, a paradox even if his Chinese restaurant is considered gourmet.
We began with a seriously delicious glass of blanc de blanc (Pol Roger, Reserve, Brut, NV), paired with crawfish rolls that set the tone of sheer pleasure in an evening that ensued with laughter, travel stories and the company of all walks in the field of travel writing: bloggers, speakers, part-time wanderers, and print, online journalists. The social media enthusiasts among us clicked away, and we all cajoled each other and happily drank together. Our pairings continued with salted duck eggs that looked like a southern-style hush puppy, but were not, and we consumed whole shrimp, Chilean sea bass, and of course, that alligator with garlic sauce, paired with a 2011 Bourgogne Blanc, Dupont-Fahn, Chaumes des Perrieres, Burgundy.
Next, a perfectly balanced 2010 Domaine Faiveley, Mercurey, Burgundy, accompanied a plate of roasted duck on scallion pancakes, and Cantonese crispy T-Bone. I passed on the braised oxtail. Ending the tasting menu with a glass of Madeira, Broadbent, 5 Years Reserve was brilliant, especially when served with sensational sesame balls stuffed with peanut butter sauce. They went fast.
During the remainder of my stay in the Bossier/Shreveport, Louisiana area, like an inside secret, each time we drove past the billboard advertisement for Lucky Palace, I couldn’t help but grin like a Cheshire cat. Visit http://www.Lucky-Palace.com if you don’t believe me.
Two weeks before my dinner party, I opened up a bottle of 2010 William Hill Estate Napa Valley Merlot ($30) and enjoyed a glass with friends and appetizers before going out to dinner. I forgot how much I loved this plush, velvety wine, so the next time I found time, I opened up two more bottles of William Hill wines.
But first, I wanted to try a new wine brand to my palette: Verde Sole 2012 Pinot Grigio, which I also used in my recipe for chicken picatta, and a Verde Sole 2012 Petite Sirah, both made from grapes grown in the Sierra Foothills of California. Vitone Family Wines brings these wines to New England, thanks to Christian Vitone.
Vitone has an impressive resume, starting in the business at age 14 making wine with his grandfather, and as national distributor for Southern Wine and Spirits in 1998. Founded in 2010 after some time spent working alongside Francis Ford Coppola at his winery, as well as his Parisian style Cafe wine bar, Vitone’s passion was realized.
I can honestly say that the two wines opened were a pleasant surprise, beginning with the pinot grigio. This wine was served with brie cheese, proscuitto and mozarella, and after I raved about the taste, even the red-only wine drinkers among us had to try it out. And they loved it as well. I’m impressed. And before the guys finished the bottle of petite sirah, I enjoyed a glass of this wine made with grapes from Miraflores Winery. Yes, it was complex, and yes, it was smooth as silk. The addition of a bit of petite sirah port made a significant standout. I would purchase both wines again and again, and not only because the label is “Gatsby”-esque, which I love, but because these wines are as elegant as their labels. So, where can you purchase your own bottles (around $18)? Click here.
I’ll be trying out a few more Verde Sole varietals soon, so stay tuned for more. In the meantime, visit www.VitoneFamilyWines.com for more information.
The next bottle opened was a 2010 William Hill Estate Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($40) that once again proves winemaker Ralf Holdenried’s talent. Impressive and made with grapes from one of the best estates in Napa Valley, the added petit verdot, petite sirah and pinch of merlot really stunned everyone of us … even the white wine-only drinker who tasted a glass. If you’re looking for a wine that offers a full expression of cabernet character, this is the one to splurge on.
Last, but certainly not least, we opened a 2010 William Hill Estate Napa Valley Bench Blend Cabernet Sauvignon ($45). It didn’t matter that it was getting late, and it didn’t matter that we were full. This wine was aged predominantly in new French oak barrels, and it’s sophistication in plush taste and mouthfeel is realized whether it’s the beginning or end of the evening. And this limited edition wine was made with 100 percent cabernet sauvignon grapes from Napa Valley’s best blocks. We drank it to the very last drop.
Whenever I open a bottle of MacMurray Ranch pinot, I know I’m in for a treat. And this wine never disappoints. Let’s begin with the white:
MacMurray Ranch 2012 Russian River Valley Pinot Gris ($20) will only enhance with a bit of aging. It’s good right now, though, especially with pasta parmigiana with homegrown garden tomato sauce and sauteed zuchini flowers that will soon enough be plentiful at your local farmers market. Expect flavors of pear, baked apple, dried fig and white peach in this fruit forward wine with the rich mouthfeel.
Next, a few reds:
MacMurray Ranch 2011 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($28) is a mix of lavender and mushroom from the barrels, with an elegant fruit character that includes raspberry, cherry, red currant and boysenberries. The cool climate of the Russian River Valley is why this grape works at peak performance, and the 2011 vintage proved cooler than normal. What this means? The grapes matured even slower, adding more flavor as wine. I’ll open a bottle and enjoy on my deck now that the weather permits.
MacMurray Ranch 2011 Central Coast Pinot Noir ($23) is a bottle to get while there’s still some left. The 2009 Central Coast pinot noir sold out. This wine is down to earthy tones with a hint of sage. Open this bottle to aromas of raspberry and flavors of red currant and mild herbs from expert viticulture and barreling techniques. These grapes were destemmed, but not crushed, and prior to fermentation were cold soaked for a few days. Added to the winemaking technique were quality grapes from a wonderful 2011 vintage in the Santa Lucia Highlands.
Last year, Louis M. Martini Winery celebrated 80 years in the wine-making industry, more specifically, in making distinctive cabernet sauvignon wines. Today, Martini wines are the first to be selected when included on wine menus in many restaurants, and I am no exception to ordering a bottle whenever I see it on the list. For every bottle I’ve ever had the pleasure to taste, Louis M. Martini wines have never disappointed me or my oenophile entourage. Especially the cabs.
Here are 3 cabs to try:
#1 – Louis M. Martini 2010 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($34)
Crafted with grapes from the Eden of wine country’s Napa Valley, the smooth, velvet texture of this wine leads to earthy tones and an aroma of mocha delights. Enjoy this with beef roast or a plate of risotto with artichokes and mushrooms. I know I did. Kudos to the areas of Napa Valley where these grapes were harvested: Calistoga, Oak Knoll District, William Hill Estate Vineyard, Sage Canyon Vineyard and Ghost Pines Vineyard, and to third-generation winemaker Mike Martini for adding a bit of merlot, petite sirah, petite verdot and syrah grapes to enhance this wine’s complexity.
#2 – Louis M. Martini 2010 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($30)
This decadent dark purple Sonoma County cab offers a strong vanilla and undertone of leather, which is the essence of its time spent in the barrel. I enjoyed this with a plate of quinoa pasta and meatballs, but it would have been better with earthy dishes of wild game or red meats. Coming from a cooler than normal 2010 growing season, these grapes took their time to mature, which adds an intense flavor and tannin development. Enjoy,enjoy, enjoy.
#3 – Louis M. Martini 2011 Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon ($18)
I brought this bottle of wine to a dinner party, where it was enjoyed with a serving of beef brisket, carrots, garlic mashed potatoes and great company. Everyone loved this cab and considered it to be perfection. The touch of merlot and hint of petite sirah adds to this wine’s dark fruit characteristics and structure. Perfection in a bottle.
It is estimated that 200 glasses of Australia’s most prominent wine, Hardys, are consumed each day around the world. Hardys is also the most recognized Australian wine in the world, yet, in the U.S., this brand of wine has been all but non-existent — until now.
Expect to be smitten by Australian chardonnays and pinot noirs in particular.
A family account
The history of Hardys began 160 years ago, when Thomas Hardy arrived down under from an English farming family in the countryside near Devon. Upon his arrival in Australia, he became involved with cattle and the “butchery business,” feeding hungry miners in the gold fields of Victoria. Just over a year later, his profits were utilized to purchase land South of Adelaide on the banks of the River Torrens, an area later known as “Bankside” and the origins of Hardys winery and wines.
Thomas’ sons were involved in the business, prompting the name change to Thomas Hardy & Son in 1887. Only one son, Robert, became a winemaker. Hardy’s cousin, Thomas Hardy Nottage became involved in 1884, helping to build the success of Hardys wines, managing McLaren Vale Vineyards of which the Nottage Hill tier of wines is named in his honor.
Today, the family’s involvement continues with William (Bill) Hardy, who has worked as winemaker and ambassador for the Hardy family’s famous brand for the past 40 years and counting.
Ready for the U.S.
With the cultivation of vineyards throughout the west, north and south, in Queensland, New South Wales and Tasmania, the maturing of 2012 vines and the complexity gained in blending grapes from these various areas gives Australian wines the cutting edge, ready for resurfacing in the U.S.
“My position as chief winemaker, as is the Hardys’ tradition, has always been taking fruit from whole regions and making blends and/or single regional wines or blends from regions to get the consistency of star quality,” says Paul Lapsley, who has 27 winemakers working under him.
Lapsley has recently toured throughout the U.S. to represent Accolade Wine Group, which bought the Hardys brand from Constellation in 2011. This group includes Hardys Nottage Hill and Tintara McLaren Vale brands as well as Hardys.
“When Constellation bought us,” says Lapsley, “the industry was at its peak.”
Before a tsunami of events occurred in 2007, such as a weak world economy, a rising Australian dollar and oversupply of a particular mainstream Australian wine, as a whole, the Australian wine industry suffered. Wine and spirits maker, Constellation Brands stepped in and paid a price of 1.2 billion dollars for Hardys, selling 80 percent of the company for 290 million dollars, losing one billion and writing off 700 million in assets.
After dipping out of the American market for a while, he says, “We struggle every day with building the reputation of Australian wines.”
Hardys was bought by a private equity company who knew how to run a business, beginning with reducing the 750 labels down to a much more manageable 200. The company was renamed Accolade Wines, with Hardys as the main wine brand.
What makes Hardys successful is its ability to garner grapes from its seven wineries all over Australia, Tasmania being the “lovely jewel, the mini crown, so to speak,” says Lapsley.
Given its unique position in Australia’s winemaking history, its considerable vineyard/winery holdings across Australia’s most prized winegrowing regions, and the worldwide recognition for Hardys as one of Australia’s most storied wine brands makes Hardys well poised for the current resurgence of Aussie wines in the U.S.
By recognition and volume alone, Lapsley says, “We’re about to get back on track with America.”
With this comment, he shares a rare release 2008 Hardys Shiraz – named the 160 year anniversary bottle, selling for $200 a bottle. This shiraz is all about hand harvested grapes that hail from McLaren Vale, Clare Valley and Frankland River ancient vines aging 50 to 100-plus years, and the wine can be cellared for 15 to 20 years. It’s a dense red, opulent wine, full-bodied with flavors of dark chocolate, licorice, blackberry and dark plum. Its French oak barrel aging gives it an overlay of mocha and vanilla.
“We’re not saying our shiraz is a Rhone style,” says Lapsley, “but we say it has finesse.”
It’s a really exciting time for Australian wines.
Part of the Commonwealth of Australia, Tasmania, located south of the continent, is one of the reasons Australian wines are making resurgence in the U.S. According to Lapsley, chardonnay and pinot noir are the hottest wines on the market today, thanks to a move to Tasmania vineyards 20 years earlier.
“That made the difference in quality,” says Lapsley. “And in sparkling wine as well.”
Humbled by Australian wines of the past, Hardys chardonnay is the stepping stone to a more complex chardonnay grape grown on vineyards in Western Australia. It offers more of a melon flavor, heading toward citrus and tropical. At the end of the day, it’s a $13 bottle of wine simply taken out of the fridge and enjoyed.
As for the medium bodied 2012 Nottage Hill Pinot Noir ($SRP $13) with soft tannins and a flinty background, Lapsley explains the process: “We don’t try to overdo it. We treat these grapes in the Burgundian manner, naturally fermenting with techniques on lees. It’s not a wine that needs a lot of oak.”
Fortunately, wine is no longer about high alcohol. You won’t see a bottle of Hardys wine with 15 percent alcohol or more.
“We as winemakers never liked that style,” says Lapsley. “If you look at our wine style over the years, it’s about elegance and finesse.”
Ten million cases a year are exported to the U.K., where Hardys has been exporting for nearly 130 years. The U.S. is next on the radar, especially due to the fact that the states are now the biggest wine market in the world. The Hardys brand is one to watch as it makes its way to the U.S. You can rest assured this Australian wine is on the savory edge, representing the newest styles of winemaking with grapes grown in a cooler climate, ultimately attributing to great structure and a rise in the U.S. from down under.
Not to be taken too seriously, Lapsley quips, “At the end of the day, it’s just fermented grape juice.”
Hardys wines currently sold in the U.S. include:
– Nottage Hill wines ($13 SRP)
– William Hardy range ($17 SRP)
– Tintara McLaren Vale wines ($19 SRP)
– The Hardys Winemaker’s Rare Release Shiraz 2008 ($200 SRP) is also available in very limited quantities