When I began my journey through the world of wine, walking the aisles of a wine shop could be quite daunting. Sure, I was familiar with the basic “grocery store” wine varietals–pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, etc.–but expanding my horizons proved to be a challenge. I didn’t really learn to appreciate wine, and understand its true quality, until I started exploring Old World wines and their seemingly endless range of “unfamiliar” grapes.

I was inspired to branch out from the basic varieties while I was reading The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil. The book is aptly named and highly recommended, as it provides a useful introduction to this sprawling subject. The chapter that first persuaded me to search for a “new” wine was about the French region of Beaujolais. I was intrigued primarily because I thought the name sounded funny, but I was also lured by MacNeil’s description of the gamay-based wines and the people of Beaujolais. Thus, my journey began…

Another step in my journey occurred when I transitioned from California cabernet sauvignon to Bordeaux. The well-known, internationally grown cabernet sauvignon is a powerful and full-bodied wine with rich, complex characteristics, but it offers a rather different expression when used in the wines from Bordeaux.

If you’re looking to break out of your own comfort zone, the following list of stepping stones might help you figure out your next move.

If You Like Pinot Noir, Try:

Gamay
Grown predominantly in the aforementioned Beaujolais region, just south of Burgundy, gamay is a light-bodied red with floral aromatics and a palate of bright cherries and raspberries. Depending on its age, the wine can also show more woodsy tones such as forest floor, mushrooms, and dried fruits. While certain crus (such as Morgon or Moulin-à-Vent) can often display more serious power and noticeable earthy notes, my favorite style of Beaujolais tends to hail from regions (such as Fleurie) noted for their lighter, fresher style.

Schiava
Typically grown in the northeastern part of Italy known as the Alto Adige, schiava is another fantastic variety that pinot noir fans should try. Light ruby in color, schiava offers a bouquet of candied cherries and strawberries along with distinct smoky and savory notes. The wine is great served with a slight chill on a hot day.

Cabernet Franc
Cabernet franc is for those who want a little more “oomph” in their wine without getting into a fuller-bodied style. Initially, I was confused by cabernet franc and tended to avoid it; to me, it seemed like a lighter wine that longed to be big and bold, like a child in a Superman costume. It can have earthy, spicy tones that are typical in full-bodied wines, yet also contains the red-fruited flavors and bright aromatics common in lighter wines.
Cabernet franc can be found all over the world; however, it truly shines in the Loire Valley, particularly in the sub regions of Chinon, Bourgueil, and Saumur-Champigny. Cabernet franc is distinguished by the presence of a chemical compound called pyrazine, which gives the grape a vegetal, green-bell-pepper-like quality. (Fun fact: Cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc are the parent grapes of cabernet sauvignon.)

If You Like Cabernet Sauvignon, Try This:

Nebbiolo
It was a bottle from the legendary Cannubi vineyard in Barolo that taught me what the term “ethereal” means. I had heard the descriptor thrown around before, but had never experienced a wine that fit the profile–until I had my first great bottle of nebbiolo. The grape thrives in Piemonte’s Langhe region (home to Barolo and
Barbaresco) and produces a structured wine with red-fruit characteristics and prominent tannins. When young, they are plush with fruit and stronger tannins, but when aged, they often have pronounced notes of leather and coffee, with earthy aromatics, soft, enveloping tannins, and a long finish. At its best, nebbiolo offers a balance of power, elegance, and “heavenly grace” that few grapes can match.

Tempranillo
Rioja and ribeye–what else needs to be said? Tempranillo provides the foundation for Rioja wines, a region in the northern part of Spain. With the influence of American oak barrels during the aging process, Rioja wines tend to have smooth tannins and expressive notes of coffee, leather, cocoa, plum, vanilla, and tobacco. When young, Rioja can be sturdy with tannins; as they age, they become more refined, with supple tannins and an increasing amount of spice and herbaceousness.

Aglianico
If cabernet sauvignon is Superman, aglianico is the Hulk–massive, brawny wines with robust tannins and a smoky, meaty profile. Aglianico can be unforgiving and aggressive when in its youth, but with time, it evolves into a complex, dynamic wine loaded with dark fruit. It has an earthy, rustic, almost dusty feel to it with notes of pepper, smoked meat, coffee, and dried fruits.

Taurasi is a great region for aglianico, and where I discovered the grape’s enormous potential. Generally speaking, I would look for bottles with more than eight years of age on them, although some winemakers do produce lighter, more approachable styles of aglianico slated for near-term enjoyment.

At Paul Marcus Wines, we always have a selection of each of these varieties, so feel free to check out our online shop or give us a call to learn more. We’re always happy to help you find that right bottle–and to assist you in your own journey through the world of wine.

Nestled in the Alps along the Swiss border, Lombardia’s Valtellina valley has a winemaking history that dates back more than 2,000 years. Chiavennasca (the local term for nebbiolo) is the star of Valtellina’s show, where steep, terraced vineyards and a distinct subalpine climate (loads of sunshine tempered by cool currents) produce some of Italy’s most unforgettable wines.

The terraced vineyards of ArPePe

The Pelizzatti family has been making chiavennasca in this locale for more than 150 years. However, that legacy was in serious jeopardy when, in 1973, Guido Pelizzatti fell ill with cancer. As a result, his four children decided (some reluctantly, some not) to sell the family brand, with disheartening results.

“The brand was destroyed by overproduction,” Guido’s granddaughter Isabella told Wine Spectator a few years ago. “It became a crap wine.”

It was Guido’s son Arturo Pelizzatti Perego who decided to take action and restore the family name. In 1984, he founded a new winery that he named for himself–ArPePe–and eventually bought back the old family cellars. (A sort of “revenge” against his siblings, Isabella called it.) Not only did he help revive the family legacy, he also was instrumental in Valtellina’s renaissance that continues to this day.

When Arturo himself succumbed to cancer in 2004, his daughter, Isabella, and her two brothers took the reins, and today, ArPePe remains the benchmark producer for these singular Alpine nebbiolos. Traditionalists to the end, ArPePe makes wines that prize grace, elegance, finesse, and complexity over oak-driven power. Their wines, crafted with meticulous restraint, bob and weave and dance and jab–no need for a knockout punch when you have that kind of style and sophistication.

The bulk of ArPePe’s grapes come from family-owned vineyards in Valtellina’s prestigious Grumello and Sassella zones. Grumello, where the winery is built directly into the slopes, features a bit more clay in the soil, accentuating the richer, fruitier notes of nebbiolo; south-facing Sassella has shallower and more craggy terrain, highlighting the grape’s minerality.

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We are quite fortunate to be carrying five different ArPePe bottlings at Paul Marcus Wines, all boasting 100 percent chiavennasca (nebbiolo) grapes. The 2016 Rosso di Valtellina utilizes grapes from both Grumello and Sassella, and it packs a lot of depth and character into its light and lively frame. It’s rather impressive for an “entry-level” wine.

Moving up the ladder we have two Valtellina Superiore offerings: the 2015 Grumello Rocca de Piro and the 2015 Sassella Stella Retica. These cuvees get their grapes from 50-100-year-old vines and undergo long maceration periods before spending 18 months in large barrels and at least two years in bottle prior to release.

Finally, we have two Valtellina Superiore Riservas: the 2009 Grumello Buon Consiglio and the 2009 Sassella Rocce Rosse. These Riservas spend close to five years in large casks before mellowing in bottle for another three years. Herbaceous, earthy, flinty, and floral, these vibrant, red-fruited gems deliver the entire package and show beyond a doubt how dynamic and multilayered Alpine nebbiolo can be.

Nearly two decades after Arturo’s passing, his motto still lives on: “il giusto tempo del nebbiolo,” which means “the right time for nebbiolo” and is indicative of his family’s passion for (and patience with) their beloved chiavennasca. For more information about the extraordinary, hard-to-find wines of ArPePe, please visit us at the shop.

Cellaring wine has appealed to me since the earliest days of my wine journey. I’ve been putting away wine for about 40 years, and it just dawned on me recently–now that I’m in my 70s, it might be a good idea to start drinking my cellar.

In the time of Covid, I’ve had fewer opportunities to open old bottles with friends or at restaurants. Well, my daughter came out here for a three-week visit in December and wound up staying for three months. (I guess the food, wine service, and weather are better here than in New York.) And now we had the quorum we needed for exploring the cellar.

Wines generally begin their lives with a lot of fruit and vivacity, but they can be somewhat simple. With age, they begin to develop more definition and evolve into something more complex–kind of like people.

One of the best cellar wines I’ve had so far was the first one I uncorked. It was the 2008 Vietti Barolo ‘Rocche di Castiglione.’ I caught this wine at the perfect time. It still had a lot of its youthful fruit, but it was entering the phase where it starts to take on secondary flavors; warm, lively, maturing nebbiolo flavors and aromas of tar, roses, violets, and red berries. Some of the other nebbiolo-based standouts we opened were the 2004 Sottimano Barbaresco Riserva and the 2006 Ovello from Produttori di Barbaresco.

I cellar a lot of Barolo and Barbaresco, and PMW currently has two great vintages in stock: the warm, open, and friendly 2015s and the slightly more delineated and complex 2016s. Laying down some of these wines will be tremendously gratifying, and we offer several single-vineyard expressions from Sottimano, Produttori, and other esteemed producers.

The wines I cellar the most, however, are reds from Burgundy, and not surprisingly, it was those I turned to most frequently. The 2002s are great, period. The Serafin Charmes-Chambertin was a true jewel. They have been drinking exquisitely since day one, and sadly I have exhausted most of mine. The best of the Burgundy I opened–on my birthday, to boot–was the 1999 Bachelet Charmes-Chambertin. It still had years left on it–truly astounding.

The powerful 2005 Burgundy wines, on the other hand, have been a mystery. On release, they were gorgeous–abundant fruit, structure, aromas, and power, a drinker’s paradise. And yet they closed up; for 15 years, they have been unyielding. Thankfully, they are just starting to reemerge.

The 2009s were highly acclaimed upon release and later criticized somewhat for their abundant fruit but lack of acidity. I opened a couple of 2009s, and they seemed to achieve a steady bearing with lots of fruit and a harmonious mouth feel. The 2009 de Montille Volnay 1er Cru ‘Les Taillepieds’ was an absolute knockout.

The 2010 vintage is an unconditional classic–light in color and mouth feel, yet they have a tension that lengthens the palate exponentially. I opened my first 2010 the other day: the Bitouzet-Prieur Volnay 1er Cru ‘Pitures.’ It was exquisite, and it made me anticipate drinking more from this superb vintage.

At PMW, we have plenty of cellar-worthy red Burgundy in the store from the likes of Sylvie Esmonin, Frederic Esmonin, Joseph Voillot, and Domaine de Montille. In general, I like to give red Burgundy about a decade of aging before popping them, depending on the vintage.

Every once in a while, you drink a wine that absolutely transports you to a space that goes beyond the glass. That happened the other night with the 2011 Lafon Meursault 1er Cru ‘Perrières.’ This white Burgundy had me groveling in the Perrières vineyard and inside the cellar walls. In the real world, the wine was the essence of butter, stone, mineral and integrity. The finish lasted for one minute.

An assortment of Rhones also made the cut. The 1990 Gallet Côte-Rôtie was still fresh with lively, gamey syrah flavors. The graceful 1998 Pignan Châteauneuf-du-Pape had a surprisingly light-to-medium mouth feel, although I wish I had opened my very good 1989 Jaboulet Hermitage ‘La Chapelle’ a few years ago. I was really looking forward to my 2000 Chateau Rayas Châteauneuf, but it was corked. Bummer!

Single-vineyard expressions from Sicily’s Etna Rosso DOC, featuring the wonderful nerello mascalese varietal, also benefit from time spent in the cellar. I describe these wines as a cross between nebbiolo and pinot noir. Many of you are familiar with the entry-level wines from PMW-approved producers such as Benanti, Graci, and Terre Nere, to name a few. The single-vineyard examples are very powerful and fruity at first, but after four or five years of aging, they turn into complex, smooth, yet grainy gems.

I had both the 2010 and 2011 Terre Nere Etna Rosso ‘Guardiola’ recently, and they were marvelous. Upon release, the 2010 offered a big mouthful of fruit that lacked definition, but it developed into an Etna Rosso that resembled a seamless Burgundy. The 2011 drank well young, but had also developed quite well over the course of a decade.

Yes, the joys of cellaring require patience–not to mention a cool, dark place–but the payoff is definitely worth it.

An oxymoron? Mutually exclusive? Magical thinking? No, affordable Burgundy really is a thing.

Of course, it is nearly impossible to buy a quality bottle of Gevrey-Chambertin or Puligny-Montrachet for $30 or $40. But improvements in winemaking (with perhaps an assist from climate change) have dramatically increased the quality of wines from less-renowned areas of Burgundy. And though we now taste many fine examples of pinot noir and chardonnay from a wide range of locales, Burgundy remains, for many of us, a unique delight and still provides the greatest expressions of these two grapes.

Here are a couple of whites and reds between $20 and $50 that exhibit the distinctive pleasure and beauty of excellent Burgundy without breaking the bank. Fair warning: They may whet your appetite for some of those more special-occasion wines previously mentioned.

Whites:

2019 Seguinot-Bordet Petit Chablis ($21)

The young and talented Jean-François Bordet comes from a family that has been making wine in the area since the 1590s (19 generations). The wine is classic–vibrant, lively, and textured (but no oak), boasting the distinctive, sea-fossil minerality that makes Chablis and Petit Chablis so unlike any other chardonnay from Burgundy or elsewhere.

2016 Marc Colin Saint-Aubin 1er Cru ‘Les Castets’ ($49)

For now, the Saint-Aubin appellation–nuzzled up next to Meursault and Chassagne in the southern part of the Côte de Beaune–still flies under the radar of many Burgundy lovers, but don’t expect that to continue for much longer. Here’s what Marc G. had to say after recently enjoying a bottle of the 2016 Colin: “After opening with a hint of reduction, it blossoms into an immensely satisfying, superbly balanced combination of fruit and freshness. Grab your crab crackers, and go to town!”

Reds:

2017 Maurice Charleux Maranges 1er Cru ‘Les Clos Roussots’ ($33)

This jewel comes from one of our great longtime friends, Charles Neal, who imports a remarkable selection of wines from France that just about always offer an exceptional price-to-quality relationship. (He’s also written a definitive book about Armagnac and remains a knowledgeable and gifted music writer.) Maranges is the southernmost appellation in the Côte de Beaune and is beginning to enjoy recognition as an area that delivers first-rate, generously flavored wines deserving of greater attention. Les Clos Roussots is a parcel from south/southeast vineyards at about 1,000 feet. It is a delicious example of the lush, full-fruited wines of the area. All of the Charleux wines are worth seeking out, including the newly arrived 2017 Santenay 1er Cru ‘Clos Rousseau’ ($36), made from 30-year-old vines and offering a touch more minerality from the limestone soils.

2018 Faiveley Mercurey ($35)

Given the prices of Burgundy, it’s rare that I can say, “We have trouble keeping this in stock.” But that has been the story with this wine–multiple customers coming back for multiple bottles, or cases. Mercurey, in the Côte Chalonnaise, south of the Côte de Beaune, can produce wines of great strength and character that bear a resemblance to Pommard. So far, 2018 is proving to be a lovely vintage for red Burgundy, and this charmer from Faiveley shows what both place and vintage have to offer. It has classy, expressive, upfront fruit notes that make the wine immensely appealing right now, but also enough backbone and grip to let you know that there is more to be revealed with another few years in the bottle.

As always, keep an eye out for exciting new arrivals over the next few months, especially as more of the stunning 2018 reds start rolling in. For instance, we’re awaiting the 2018 Auxey-Duresses from organic grower Agnes Paquet, a darling of the three-star Michelin somms in France. Also new in the shop is the 2018 Domaine des Rouge-Queues Santenay ($49), a dark-fruited, earthy, yet supple pleasure.

Everyone at PMW loves Burgundy, and we strive to curate our selections very carefully to offer attractive options from various climats–and at a range of prices. At the highest level, Burgundy can be an almost otherworldly experience (in more ways than one). But thankfully, we can defy some conventional attitudes about the area and show that reasonably priced, quality Burgundy is not a fantasy.

Fragrant, robust, and hearty, Moroccan chicken stew offers a festival of flavors for the palate. Although there are endless variations to this tongue-tickling dish, most involve rubbing your chicken pieces with a combination of spices (turmeric, cumin, coriander, and paprika, for instance), then braising the chicken slowly in a broth with garlic and onions. Toss in some mixture of potatoes, pearled couscous, or rice, and you’re on your way to a one-pot feast.

Although your instinct might be to reach for a white wine, I find I prefer the accompaniment of a vibrant red to bring out the myriad flavors–specifically, a younger, lighter-bodied syrah from the Northern Rhone. Fresh and spicy, with a hint of earthiness, a supple syrah will stand up to the meal without overwhelming it.

Take the 2016 Christophe Pichon Saint-Joseph, for example. Made from grapes grown on granite soils, which helps to preserve acidity and brightness, this elegant, approachable syrah shows minimal oak influence and is relatively low in tannins and alcohol, making it an ideal match. If you want to go for something with a little more body, the 2018 Alain Graillot Crozes-Hermitage manages to be lifted and lively while offering a fuller, darker-fruited profile. For a special treat, bring home a bottle of the 2018 Pierre Gonon Les Iles Feray from one of the region’s most revered producers–savory, medium-bodied, and gorgeously scented.

If you’d rather stick to white, well, the Northern Rhone has you covered there, too. Rich and aromatic, the white wines of the region tend to meld appealingly into the flavors of Moroccan chicken (more than complementing them), and these whites are an especially good idea if your recipe calls for a prominent fruit component (raisins, dried apricots, or preserved lemons are common ingredients).

The 2016 Jean-Louis Chave Selection Saint-Joseph ‘Circa,’ made with 100 percent old-vine roussanne, offers orchard-fruit creaminess along with an intense floral streak. Mostly marsanne, with about 20 percent roussanne, the 2019 Alain Graillot Crozes-Hermitage Blanc is fermented in a combination of oak and steel, and it has more noticeable elements of citrus and herbs.

Of course, the wines of the Northern Rhone are just some of the options that will play nicely with your Moroccan chicken stew. (Did I hear someone say amontillado sherry?) Call or visit us at Paul Marcus Wines to discover a wide range of other choices to complete your repast.

If you don’t know Clos du Tue-Bœuf, you should. This esteemed Loire Valley estate, run by brothers Jean-Marie and Thierry Puzelat, is named in honor of the lieu-dit “Le Tue-Bœuf,” first mentioned as far back as the Middle Ages. The wines produced from that specific site were favored by nobles such as King Henry III of England and later the French King Francis I.

Amazingly enough, the Puzelat family itself can trace its roots in this area all the way back to the 15th century! Today, the Puzelat brothers show their respect for these ancestral lands by farming organically and crafting wines with zero oenological additions. That being said, these “natural” winemakers produce wines that are unbelievably clean–a true testament to their knowledge of the terroir and their know-how in the cellar.

Now part of the Cheverny AOC, the Tue-Bœuf lieu-dit (named vineyard) sits on the clay and flint soils that make up the south- and southeast-facing hillsides overlooking the Beuvron (a tributary of the Loire). The Puzelats augment their 10 hectares of estate fruit with grapes from the neighboring Touraine appellation. At Paul Marcus Wines, we’re currently featuring a number of white wines from Clos du Tue-Bœuf:

2018 Le Brin de Chèvre
Made from the obscure menu pineau variety–which almost disappeared due to the difficulty it has ripening–this chenin-like wine offers a bouquet of similarly obscure tropical fruits. Star fruit, dragon fruit, green papaya, and kumquat rind all make a debut here, and the glossy feel of the wine on the palate is reminiscent of quality Vouvray.

 

 

 

2018 Cheverny Blanc ‘Frileuse’
The name “Frileuse” means “little cold one” and references the frost-prone vineyard that sits at the very top of the Puzelat estate. The cuvée is made from a third each of fié gris (a historical name for a softer, pink-skinned clone of sauvignon), chardonnay, and sauvignon blanc. Expect Anjou pear, sweet meadow grass, and minerals. Open this one a couple hours before you serve it, so it can relax and show you all its colors.

 

 

 

2018 Romorantin ‘Frileuse’
Made from vines in the chilly Frileuse site that are as much as 110 years old, this is a dense and powerful wine with notes of almond, fennel, and orchard fruit. It will reward both those who wish to cellar it and those of us who have a little less patience–but please be kind, and decant it.

 

 

 

 

For a taste of this producer’s red wines, stop in to pick up either the 2019 ‘La Guerrerie,’ a blend of two-thirds côt and one-third gamay, or the 2019 ‘La Butte,’ a single-varietal gamay from 50-year-old Touraine vines.

I have a warm, soft spot for Cesanese d’Affile. This lesser-known red varietal from Lazio really resonates with me for a number of reasons. Cesanese has a particularly deep-red translation of soil to fruit, as well as an herbal-tinged flavor profile and a texture that strangely reminds me of a rustic pinot noir. Sounds delicious, right? It is. Think plums, pomegranates, and cranberries, combined with floral aromas of juniper and spice.

Cesanese is quite versatile at the table, able to stand up to heartier roasted meat dishes (think leg of lamb or porchetta) while also able to handle simpler fare like cheese and olives. You can put a little chill on it, too, if the weather warrants such a thing. I might even go out on a limb and say Cesanese d’Affile is one of the more versatile red grapes out there. This late-ripening varietal is equally at home with pizza, anything tomato-centric, garlic aioli, or just a hunk of cheese and a beloved companion.

Cesanese d’Affile thrives in the red, volcanic hills of Olevano Romano, a commune just southeast of Rome by about 25 or so miles. (There is also a distinct, larger-berried clone found in this region, known as Cesanese Comune, which doesn’t quite possess Cesanese d’Affile’s complexity or refinement, but might be used to add richness to a blend.) This is hillside and even mountainous country by some standards. The 450 meters of elevation and a wide diurnal temperature variation (the shift from daytime high to nighttime low) give these wines an incredible lift, both aromatically and on the palate.

My absolute favorite examples of Cesanese d’Affile come from Damiano Ciolli and his partner, Letizia Rocchi. The Ciolli family vineyards sit in a natural amphitheater with a southerly exposure and include seven hectares of Cesanese d’Affile, with some of the vines being close to 70 years old. They craft two incredible bottlings, both from 100 percent Cesanese d’Affile: the younger-vine, concrete-aged Silene and the old-vine, oak-aged Cirsium riserva. Silene and Cirsium are names of local wildflowers that grow abundantly between the vines. These wines are so honest and pure; they bring immense pleasure every time I drink them.

 

 

Speaking of undiscovered red varietals from Italy, we have some intriguing options currently in the shop:

2018 Vignai da Duline Schioppettino
From Venezia Giulia, this is a gorgeous wine with subtlety and elegance. Wonderfully black-fruited and earth-driven, with notes of plum and spice, it’s eminently drinkable, yet serious and thought provoking.

2017 Tasca Tenuta Regaleali Perricone ‘Guarnaccio’
This obscure Sicilian red grape, sometimes compared to barbera, deserves more attention. It leans toward the darker side of the flavor spectrum, with a bit more of an earthy edge.

2019 Chessa Cagnulari
A new addition to our inventory comes from Sardinia, and it offers an herbaceous, dark-fruited intensity buoyed by a chord of smoke-tinged salinity. Fire up the lamb and fennel stew!

There’s this phrase that always bugs me, and I find it all over wine bottles and web pages: “Winemaker XYZ believes that wine should be made in the vineyard…” Really? Then why’d you spend all that dough on the winery? So why pay attention to the “winemaker” when we could talk to the vineyard manager? Are they really denigrating their own profession?

No, they don’t mean that. They mean it’s preferable to have grape juice that’s already got all its elements in balance than it is to have grape juice that needs some “adjusting” in the winery–that having to “correct” your numbers in the laboratory isn’t the optimal approach to making great wine. When they write, “Great wine is made in the vineyard,” they’re saying the vineyard produces grapes so perfect that no fancy laboratory winemaking trickery is necessary.

Then you wonder: Surely, that is so uncontroversial it hardly needs mentioning, but it must warrant mentioning if so many do. And perhaps it is because the vast majority of wine made in the world is made the opposite way. With non-artisan wine, the grapes are just raw material that will be broken apart and adjusted as desired. If farming costs can be lowered, great; any shortcomings in the grapes can be corrected later. (The horror…) Industrial production may be necessary, but we should be very thankful that we have, and have access to, handmade wines from all over the world, including right nearby.

At PMW, we get to taste a lot of extremely fine syrah. We have many examples from the great sites of the Northern Rhone valley, the ancient terraced granitic slopes that produce Côte-Rôtie, Cornas, Saint-Joseph, and more. Against this standard, it’s a challenge for a Californian wine to stand out and make a claim for itself–in terms of excellence and value.

Right now, we have two local expressions of syrah that I’d like to highlight, wines that hold their own against any made elsewhere. They are beautifully ripe, “pop” with black fruit and earth aromatics, and coat the palate and linger. And both come in at less than 13 percent alcohol, which means they were farmed with intention and a sure hand. Neither relies on hidden sugar, or oak, or any “additions.” There’s no winemaking trick here, just really good fruit.

Jolie-Laide has established itself as one of California’s premier (tiny) wineries. Their wines are made in small quantities, and the demand for them is strong, so we don’t get much to sell. Their 2018 Halcón Vineyard syrah, from 2600 feet up in the Yorkville Highlands AVA in Mendocino, is a beauty. At 12.5 percent alcohol, it offers texture, flavor, and weight that would delight even a crusty Frenchman.

Jolie-Laide being excellent isn’t shocking; they’ve now got a 10-year track record. Newcomer Darling Wines, however, is a surprise. The 2019 Flocchini syrah, made in the southern portion of the Petaluma Gap AVA, not far from San Pablo Bay and in the path of constant winds, is a baffling wine. It’s one thing to get perfumed voluptuous fruit (that’s easy in this state); it’s another to have your wine come in at 11.9 percent alcohol, with all the virtues that brings. (That lightness encourages another glass.) It’s really a treat to get both in the same wine.

These two wines prove California can grow great grapes (syrah included) and put them in the hands of thoughtful winemakers.

Whether you’re looking to enhance your Valentine’s Day dinner or simply toast with a loved one, Paul Marcus Wines has a range of sparkling wines from which to choose. Here are a few of our favorite bubbly bottles.

Filipa Pato & William Wouters ‘3B’ Extra Bruto Rosé (Portugal – $18)
Portuguese native winegrower Filipa Pato and Belgian chef/sommelier/restaurateur William Wouters are both wife and husband and partners in wine in the central Portuguese region of Bairrada. This lovely sparkling rosé is a blend of local Bairrada varieties baga and bical (hence the name of the wine) made in the Traditional (i.e., Champagne) Method. It’s their Valentine to all of us: affordable, delicious, and bone dry.

 

 

 

Antica Casa Scarpa Spumante Brut Rosé (Italy – $21)
Piemonte in Northwest Italy is not the first place that comes to mind for sparkling wines, but here we are: a creamy yet dry, easygoing yet distinctive spumante made from the rare local variety albarossa. Marvel at the sexy, pale-salmon color and the minimalist, elegant label–then pop, pour, and love.

 

 

 

 

Kobal Blaufränkisch Bajta Pét Nat Rosé (Slovenia – $24)
For you kinkier couples, here’s an unfiltered, cloudy pétillant-naturel (fizzy from fermentation finishing in the bottle). If just saying “Blaufränkisch Pét Nat” gets your juices flowing, then this is the Valentine fizz for you. Electric-pink color. Juicy, yeasty, fruity, exuberant; the opposite of serious.

 

 

 

 

Bénédicte & Stéphane Tissot Crémant du Jura Extra Brut Rosé (France – $34)
Here’s another romance-and-wine couple, carrying on their families’ traditions in the beautiful, pre-Alpine eastern French region of the Jura. Their sparkling rosé is 60 percent pinot noir along with 20 percent poulsard and 20 percent trousseau. It’s a bit darker in color and body than the other wines here–more for the (candlelit) dinner table than the pre-prandial couch. If you lusted over the Albert Finney/Susannah York eating scene in Tom Jones, then this may well be your Valentine wine.

 

 

 

André Clouet Champagne Brut Rosé No. 3 (France – $53)
Yes, this is the choice to really impress your Valentine–or simply to celebrate each other’s love of the best and of each other (not in that order, of course). It’s an all-pinot noir rosé from the aptly named Champagne village of Bouzy, in bubbly and elegant yet still hedonistic form. The wine tastes like the label looks: filigree and fine, opulent and impeccable, Grand Cru and gourmandise.

If you stroll into Paul Marcus Wines with $100 to spend on a bottle, you will walk out with a stunning, perhaps even unforgettable wine. Most customers, of course, don’t have that kind of loot, but fear not. For less than $50, you can certainly find a memorable, first-class wine to savor and appreciate. Next time you need to put an exclamation point on a special occasion or simply satisfy a connoisseur’s high standards, consider these standout wines.

2007 López de Heredia Rioja ‘Viña Tondonia’ Reserva ($49)
The standard-bearer in Rioja, Don Rafael López de Heredia first planted his famed, limestone-rich Tondonia vineyard on the River Ebro more than 100 years ago. This reserva spends about six years in large barrels, plus another handful in bottle before release. The 2007 version–75 percent tempranillo, 15 percent garnacha, and filled out by graciano and mazuelo–is a wine of both depth and subtlety, with finely honed tannins and pleasant notes of tobacco and spice. Aging potential of Tondonia wines is often measured in decades, not years.

 

 

2019 Domaine Huet Vouvray Sec ‘Le Mont’ ($47)
There’s a certain charm you find in a Vouvray sec that is difficult to replicate–a balanced richness that seems unique to the chenin blanc of that appellation. Those in the know say that 2019 might be one of the best vintages this venerable producer has ever seen. This bottle is already capable of delivering immense pleasure–steely, stony, and energetic, with only hints of the opulence it will deliver over time. When that lush, waxy fruit comes to life over the next 10 years, watch out!

 

 

2019 Girolamo Russo Etna Bianco ‘Nerina’ ($42)
Considered in some circles to be the “Chablis of Sicily,” the Etna Bianco DOC, featuring the carricante grape, produces wines that are dry, racy, and mineral-driven. Russo’s Bianco uses only 70 percent carricante, rounded out by an assortment of Sicilian varieties. Aged on the lees in a combination of steel and wood, the result is textured and intense, yet bright, with a volcanic edge and luxuriously long finish.

 

 

 

2016 Badia a Coltibuono Chianti Classico Riserva ($39)
There is something immediately gratifying about this sangiovese (mostly sangiovese, anyway, as this house, which dates back to 1846, still makes a point of adding a little dash of indigenous Tuscan grapes to the blend). This pretty riserva, which sees two years of oak, doesn’t try to do too much–the oak influence is understated, producing an appealingly red-fruited, medium-bodied wine that displays remarkable freshness and finesse.

 

 

 

Hidalgo Wellington Palo Cortado VOS ($38)
Without a doubt, this is one of the best values we’ve found in the world of fine sherry. Although the VOS label indicates a 20-year sherry, its average age is probably closer to 30. What I love about this refined palo cortado is that, despite its long oxidative aging, it manages to retain more than just remnants of its former life as a manzanilla. There’s still a sharp, saline tanginess that perfectly complements the nutty, butterscotch elements. Get yourself some jamón Ibérico and Manchego cheese, and you’ll be in business. Or, after dinner, sip it as a “wine of contemplation.”