Bordeaux was my gateway drug…

I fell in love with wine in 1988 with a bottle of Bordeaux. It was no ordinary Bordeaux. It was a bottle of 1964 Cheval Blanc, the pearl of St Emilion, that someone brought along to a family Thanksgiving dinner. I had picked a bottle of generic Barton & Guestier St Emilion at my neighborhood liquor shop and the person sitting next to me (the one who brought the Cheval),  remarked, without a trace of condescendence “Oh look, we both brought wine from the same village”. It took one sniff to realize that these were not remotely comparable. The Cheval’s aromas were intoxicating yet subtle. Notes of faraway spices were layered in the precise berry and shaved pencil aromas and the finish had an elegance I had never experienced before. I was hooked.

Early on I was able to taste many excellent, mature bottles of Classified Growths, which were pretty inexpensive then and learned to appreciate the beauty of older wines, the magic that happens in a bottle as gently ages in a cellar.


Bordeaux was my gateway drug to many other wine regions of the world, but also a region I often came back to because of the great quality of the wines and the diversity of its terroirs. Over the past decade or so however, the top Bordeaux have pretty much priced themselves out of the market and there is now a perception that a good bottle of Bordeaux HAS to be expensive to be good. The truth is many “lesser” Bordeaux today are achieving the same level of quality of Classified Growths of decades past. Vineyard practices (organic farming, green harvesting) have greatly improved and cellar management as well and I find myself drinking many everyday Bordeaux on a regular basis and finding them often better than their Classified Growths from years ago.

Here’s a (small) list of excellent Bordeaux priced from $12 to $35 that compare in quality to Classified Growths:

RIGHT BANK (Predominantly Merlot and Cabernet Franc based)

Chateau Gigault (Premieres Cotes de Blaye)

Cote Montpezat « Cuvee Prestige » (Cotes de Castillon)

Château La Vieille Cure (Fronsac)

Château Fonbel (St Emilion)

Château d’Aiguilhe (Cotes de Castillon)

Château Moulin Haut Laroque (Canon Fronsac)

Château Jean Faux (Bordeaux)

LEFT BANK (Predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot based)

Château d’Escurac (Bordeaux)

Château Brillette (Moulis)

Château Lanessan (Haut Medoc)

Château Gazin-Rocquencourt (Pessac Leognan)

Château d’Aurilhac (Haut Medoc)

Château Brown (Pessac Leognan)

St Estephe de Montrose (St Estephe)

Château Lillian Ladouys (St Estephe)


If you would like to sample some of those wines, stop by this Saturday from 4 to 7pm. We’ll have a selection open for you.




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An Embarrassment of Riches from the Mosel

4935733440_6dcdd777b3_bWeingut Max Ferd. Richter is of the Mittelmosel’s oldest, most traditional estates, this 430-year-old property is run by the knowledgeable, affable Dr. Dirk Richter.   Vinification happens in traditional 1000 liter Mosel fuder and is quite minimalistic, with temperature control being the only concession to modernity.    Richter owns parcels in a good dozen or so of the area’s best vineyards and makes many, many different wines.  It was a real joy to be able to pick three, at three different Prädikat levels, representing two of his best sites, to offer you.

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Brauneberger Juffer-Sonnenuhr Riesling Auslese 2013  375ml – $24.99

The aromatic profile of this wine is characterized by the juxtaposition of fresh tropical and citrus aromas and botrytis-derived flavors of saffron and toffee.   This is a full, intense, and unapologetically ripe Auslese with thrilling acidity and mineral structure.   An excellent companion to a cheese course or foie gras.  In its exuberant youth, this wine is bringing lots of joy now, but I can’t wait to see how it develops with ten to twenty years of bottle age!

The Brauneberger Juffer-Sonnenuhr consists of the lower portion of the Brauneberg hill, nearest the river, which provides a warming effect from the reflected heat.  This site was a noted vineyard as early as 1788, when a visiting Thomas Jefferson proclaimed it his favorite. This is a classic full-south facing Mittelmosel site and the village owes its name (the “brown mountain”) to the high iron content in the soils.

Brauneberger Juffer-Sonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese 2004 750ml – $26.99

One of the great things about working with an estate with as long a history as this one is that they can usually be counted on to have some older wines that they’ll occasionally offer for sale.  We were lucky enough to get a few cases of this sumptuous 2004.  This wine is starting to develop edelfirne, that sandy-rainwater-petrol aroma typical of aged Riesling, but also wonderful candied apricot, pear, transitioning to marzipan and burned sugar on the finish.  Lots of savory, stony complexity, with the residual sugar really starting to integrate.  I brought this bottle to a favorite wine bar of mine for a light supper (they have a very generous corkage policy) and it paired effortlessly with numerous small plates, from chicken liver mousse to Cotechino di Modena.

Veldenzer Elisenberg Riesling Kabinett 2013  750mL – $21.99

The wine offers expressive scents of yellow fruits, peach, quince, tar and licorice. It starts off as rather refined and zesty on the palate, yet gains in intensity and cream in the rich, fruity and honeyed finish.  An excellent aperitif or mid-afternoon refresher, don’t hesitate to keep this wine open in the fridge to enjoy over the course of three or four days.

The Elisenberg, wholly owned by the Richter family, is planted on grey slate with bits of clay and quartzite.  Despite full Southern exposure, this site has an exceptionally cool micro-climate giving the wines an almost Saar-like textural delicacy.  Hang time is very long (this wine was harvested in early November, after the Auslese in this offer), and resulting in trademark notes of blueberry and blackcurrant, very unusual in Mosel Riesling. This vineyard was planted in 1815 and was named after Queen Louisa of Prussia. (The Mosel was at the time a Prussian possession).  This is the only 2013 from this site.

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Barrique: Chasing Unicorns

unicornThe two questions that I most often hear are, what makes a great wine and what is my favorite wine? In my opinion there is no direct answer. But, what I can say is that when I have talked to wine lovers about their favorite wines, they have often told me about an entertaining story or special moment that complemented the wine. One of the great legendary wines is Chateau Latour 1961 from the Pauillac region of Bordeaux. This wine is Cabernet Sauvignon based and when available on the auction market, collectors will do just about anything to buy it.  Other wines that are always in high demand, commanding some of the highest prices in very limited qualities, are Henri Jayer “Cros Parantoux” from the Village of Vosne Romanee made from Pinot Noir, and of course the kings of all kings Domaine de la Romanee Conti “La Tache.”

All of these wines have a special name within the wine community. If you go on some blogs, or if you are on social media, you might see a picture of a rare bottle with the hashtag #UnicornWine.  Recently the term “Unicorn Wine” has been trending like fire.  Often you will see the picture of a limited production wine with some kind of caption claiming it to be the best wine ever.

latour latache crosparantoux

I am not sure how I feel about this.  Is it simply the best wine just because it is rare and there is a limited quantity? Or is it perfectly structured? Or, are you having a great moment sharing it with your friends and family.  I truly believe in the placebo effect in the sense that if you present someone the label and you actually convince them that it is the greatest and rarest wine in the world they probably will convince themselves that it is.

A perfect example of this was when I was given a glass of wine to blind taste. Now mind you the only thing that I knew about this wine was that it was red, and nothing else. After a few moments of smelling and tasting it I was really confused. I knew it was certainly Pinot Noir but did not know if it was a Pinot from France or a Pinot from the Willamette Valley of Oregon. I announced my conclusion and I said that it was a Pinot Noir from the village of Morey Saint-Denis from a classified 1er Cru Vineyard. However, there was another side of me that thought that it could be a Pinot Noir from Oregon. The person who gave me the wine asked me what I thought of it and I responded that it was well made with lots of fruit and a good amount of oak and it could use some more bottle aging.  He asked me what I thought would be a fair price for the wine in a retail shop and I told him not more than $175.

When the wine was revealed my face turned red and my mouth dropped. It was Domaine de la Romanee Conti “Romanee Saint Vivant” 2006. A million thoughts went through my head. One of them was did I actually taste this wine correctly or was someone playing a joke on me? Please keep in mind on average this bottle of wine retails for about $1100 so how could I possibly make that type of conclusion? The truth of the matter was that I was judging the wine for what was in my glass and nothing else; I gave my honest assessment and opinion.

The point of this whole story is that we get too involved with the rarity of the wines, seeking out wines that no one can get their hands on.  Instead, we should be enjoying wine for what it is, not what the label says.  Some of the greatest wines that I ever had involved a special moment with my friends and family over a great conversation. Wine, to me, is like music when you hear a certain song it should remind you of a specific time in your life.  The same thing can be true for wine: the next time you have a glass, the smell and taste should remind you of a magical moment and that just could be your own personal Unicorn Wine.

Happy Holidays,

Yannick Benjamin ​

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Oregon’s Greatest Vintage?

pruning2012 was a remarkable year for Oregon Pinot Noir, and I am rather proud to say so.  As some of you may know, I worked as a cellar hand at Penner-Ash Wine Cellars that harvest.  Moving from Colorado to Oregon, I expected a damp and wet fall with typical “Portlandia” rain. However, 2012 gave me the exact opposite.  After an even ripening period from April to July, the crucial moments leading up to the harvest clinched the deal with little rain and plenty of sun. Personally, I have many fond memories of soaking in these sunny fall days while riding my road bike in the Willamette Valley just before picking commenced.

The reviews for 2012 have started to roll in, and the wines are tasting excellent. The fruits of this incredible weather show clean berries and delightful concentration. At Le Du’s, we are going to be working with a select number of great wines from this vintage come January 2015. To kick this off, we have a great bottle in the shop that I highly recommend:

Arterberry Maresh Dundee Hills 2012 $29.99arterberry
A seamless interweaving of plump red cherry and raspberries with roses, red earth, and oriental spice. Guided by a bright acidity and fine polished tannins, Maresh’s wine is silky and long lived with a persistent and elegant finish.  The real charm here is the pairing of judiciously ripe fruit with gentle techniques in the cellar. Maresh lets the fruit and the vintage speak for itself.   

Third generation winemaker Jim Maresh grew up on the family farm where Pinot Noir vines were first planted in 1970.  He learned the trade from his grandparents, and is an ardent champion of their tradition. Jim gives us a taste of old school Oregon Pinot, accented by careful work in the vineyard and a truly minimalist approach in the cellar The wine is graceful and seamless, but it still showcases the plush fruit of 2012.  Bottom line: Maresh’s Dundee Hills is an effortless and delectable expression of this vintage. cart

The Vineyards: Maresh works intimately with seven vineyards in the Dundee Hills to create this selection: Maresh, Juliard, Weber, Ana, Gehrts, Winderlea, Folie Hill. An overarching feature of these vineyards is the famous volcanic Jory Soil, quintessential to the appellation.



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Your Weekend Wine Read: A Holiday Guide to Bubbles!

Sparkling wine is surely one of the most misunderstood categories in the vinous universe.  Since I started working in wine, not a week has gone by when I haven’t had some variation of the following exchange:

“Hi!  I need to pick up a Champagne.”

“No problem!  Did you want actual Champagne or a sparkling wine?”


I always feel obnoxious asking that question and I promise I’m not trying to parse words just to make some sort of snootified point.  Champagne has become a byword for anything sparkling but it means something very specific, in style, region, price-point, and overall flavor.  This isn’t to say non-Champagne sparkling wine is lacking.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  Just as Champagne has seen a renaissance in the last twenty years (more on why below), the range and quality of options when looking for bubbles not from the Champagne region of France has never been more impressive.  With all those things in mind, and considering December is prime time for Bubbleheads, I thought I’d lay out the differences of the different options.



Ok, Obvious beginning. But Champagne is the mothersource.  And, quite onestly, there has never been a better time to love France’s great contribution to celebration, N ew Year’s, and rap videos.

(Not So) Simple Truths:

Champagne is expensive.  It’s an extremely labor intensive process which can and does yield near-magical results.

Champagne only refers to one region in France made in a very specific way (Méthode Champenoise).  If it’s not made in the region of Champagne, and not made according to the exacting standards of the Méthode Champenoise, it cannot legally be called Champagne.

Most Champagne is classified as Non-Vintage.  This is, in fact, a blend of many different vintages, usually towards the idea of creating a consistent house style.

Vintage Champagne comes from a single, presumably exceptional, vintage.

Tête de Cuvée is a Champagne house’s top wine, almost always from a single vintage.

Grower Champagne refers to Champagne made by the same people who farm the vineyards.  Champagne has been, historically, dominated by large Maisons who own some land but mostly get their grapes from contract farmers (there are over 19,000 independent vignerons in Champagne).  The 20th century saw the rise of a handful of vignerons turned producers, crafting often unique and compelling expressions of their particular terroirs.

Buying Guide:

10 out of 10 times, you’ll find me coming down firmly on the side of the farmer/winemaker.  Across the wine world, small producers consistently produce at a much higher quality level than massive concerns.  Champagne, however, is an interesting exception.  There is a much smaller gap in quality between the big houses and the tiny, artisanal growers.  If I were to list my top ten Champagnes, I’d bet it would be a split between large houses and small-scale vignerons, a statement I could never make for any other wine region.

Champagne, for me, is first and foremost about pleasure.  The key question in selecting the right Champagne is what kind of pleasure are you looking for?  Refined?  Intellectual?  Sumptuous?  Decadent?  Do you want the subtle, aristocratic leanings of a Pol Roger or the full fruit of a Charles Heidsieck?  Are you intrigued by the cerebral complexity of a Jacques Lassaigne or the endearing largess of a Pierre Peters?  A glass of good Champagne should light you up.  My advice is don’t cut corners.  If you don’t want to spend the money, there are a lot of other options out there (more on that below).  In Champagne, you get what you pay for and the only thing you should absolutely insist is your experience is special.

Cremant (and Things like Cremant)

(N2ot So) Simple Truths:

Without getting into the confusing fact Cremant used to mean something different (it was a less fizzy style of sparkling wine), these days it means Sparkling wine made in the Méthode Champenoise in France but not Champagne.  Thus, you have Cremant de Bourgogne, Cremant de Loire, etc.  It’s important to remember one of the factors which make Champagne so sublime is the use of noble varietals (aka grapes which possess the potential for greatness).  In the case of Champagne, it’s Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and, to a much lesser extent, Pinot Meunier.  With Cremant de Bourgogne, you have Chardonnay and Pinot.  With Loire, it’s usually Chenin Blanc.  These are grapes which, in their still form, produce some of the most compelling wines in the world.  It stands to reason the sparkling would be the same.

In Loire, in particular, there are some very compelling sparkling wines.  Many of the top bottlings are in a style called Petillant.  This, like Mousseux or the artist formally known as Cremant, are made with a lower atmosphere of pressure, thus are less aggressively effervescent.  There is also an interesting sub-category called Petillant Naturel where the secondary fermentation (the process which makes the bubbles) is actually happening in the bottle, up to the moment of cork-popping.

There are also some high quality examples of American sparkling wine, many of which are made with the same cares as their French brethren.

Buying Guide:

Cremant (and Things like Cremant) are excellent alternatives to Champagne.  The best examples sell for the price of the cheapest Champagne.  The only Caveat Emptor is not all wines in this style are created equal.  While there is no need to spend anywhere close to Champagne money, you should still be wary of suspiciously cheap Cremant.



(Not So) Simple Truths:

Cava is Spain’s answer to Champagne….sort of.   It is made in the same method as Champagne.  This is to say it undergoes a secondary fermentation through the addition of yeast/sugar then the process of riddling (where the bottle is slowly turned so the dead yeast cells gather in the neck where it can be easily removed then quickly corked).  This is where the similarities end.

Cava is not aged in bottle as long as Champagne.  It is also not a specific geographic region but rather a style which can made in many, highly variable areas.  There is, with a very few exceptions (Raventos being the most dynamic example), also not the tradition of quality or the same level of terroir.  The grapes are also different.  Macabeu, Parellada, and Xarello pinch hit for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.  While there are certainly compelling attributes to the former, they can never match the potential of the later.

All this being said, it should be noted there is a movement, led by Pepe Raventos, to make a new appellation (Conca del Riu Anoia) meant to codify and elevate Spanish sparkling.

Buying Guide:

Cava is the sparkling wine for big parties.  It’s great for all sorts of Brunch-related mixed drinks (Mimosa, Bellini, etc.).  It is generally a very good value.  Globally, there is a very wide range of quality levels (this is a nice way of saying there is an ocean of barely drinkable Cava in the world) but most of the Cava you’ll find in the United States is decent to good.  Generally, expect straightforward, crisp, and very drinkable.


(Not So) Simple Truths:4

Prosecco is made in a totally different style than everything else we’ve covered thus far.  It is made in a method called Charmat.  Instead of the secondary fermentation occurring in the bottle, it happens in giant stainless steel tanks.

Prosecco generally has a lower degree of alcohol and a softer effervescence.  There is often, though not always, additional sugar present.  Even when the wine is technically dry, it will often feel sweeter than other sparkling styles due to its fruitier nature.

Buying Guide:

While there are certainly advocates for more “serious” Prosecco, I, for one, relish its utter lack of self-regard.  Prosecco should be light, easy, fresh, and fun.  There are variations in quality, of course, but, like Cava, most of the Prosecco you’ll find in the States will be decent to good (though if you’re paying less than $10 for a bottle, be at least a little suspicious).  Prosecco is perfect for gatherings.  Throw Prosecco on a table and watch the bottles disappear.

Of course, there are number of sparkling styles I haven’t mentioned (Sekt and Lambrusco come immediately to mind) but I hope my little guide will help make your sparkling choices easier, now and in the future.


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Tis the Season for Rosé Champagne

pinkIf I had to pick one drink for the rest of my life, ask me on most days and the answer would be Champagne.  There is such wonderful plurality of styles, from briny, borderline austere wines seemingly purpose-built to accompany oysters, to dense, structured wines that can carry a whole meal to its completion, that I can’t imagine ever getting tired of Champagne.

Laherte Frères Brut Rosé “Ultradition” – $45.00

The Pinot Meunier-based Laherte Frères Ultradition Rose has a vividly detailed core of luscious red fruit (no doubt owing to the addition of 10% barrel-raised red wine). This wine is stylishly fragrant, introducing itself with notes of nutmeg and allspice that unfold into lush raspberry, orange peel, and tangy pomegranate.  Intensely ripe but with wonderful balance and energy.

pressThe Laherte family has been farming in Chavot and the surrounding villages since 1889.  Like many growers in the area, they embarked on a large scale modernization program in the 20th century, but when winemaker Thierry saw what pesticides, herbicides, and high-tech steel tanks were doing to his wines, he scrapped most of it and went back to basics.  Fruit is pressed immediately in two large basket presses, and vinified in small lots, usually in old barrels, to nurture the personality of each individual parcel of vines.é

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Lagrein: Italy’s Best Kept Secret

“The 2012 Alto Adige Lagrein Joseph (in a screw-cap bottle) opens to a dark, inky color and chewy aromas of black fruit, prune, dried blackberry and cherry liqueur. Those bold fruity tones add a raw and chunky feel in the mouth and the Lagrein grape adds its own unique boldness and natural extraction to the finish. A brief moment of tannin tightness gives it a gripping texture.”  –Wine Advocate

Hofstätter Lagrein Alto Adige 2012​  $21.99 

Greetings and Happy Holidays!

It only felt like yesterday when I took a part-time position as a sommelier at the legendary restaurant Felidia located on the Upper East Side in early 2003. Previously I had only worked in classical French restaurants and was working full-time at Atelier in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel on Central Park South.  I took the position at Felidia to increase my knowledge of Italian wines.  I was taking wine classes at the Sommelier Society of America and our instructor announced that Felidia Restaurant was looking for a part time Sommelier on the weekends. I knew that it would be a huge sacrifice to take on because I would be working every day.  But, I knew that it was an opportunity that I could not pass up.

Felidia’s Wine Director David Weitzenhoffer (who is now the owner of AI Selections Import Co.) taught me that there was much more to Italian Wines than just Nebbiolo and Sangiovese. He introduced me to the wines from the Alto Adige and Friuli that were completely foreign to me. Unique indigenous varietals such as Teroldego, Schiava, Ribolla Gialla, and Lagrein were all new territory for me, but I was stimulated because they were so different and unfamiliar.

One grape that really impressed me and my customers was Lagrein. It was always a great value and offered a round mouthfeel with dark black fruits and a bit of spice similar to what you would get from a Syrah. It went exceptionally well with the rustic Italian food that was beautifully prepared by Fortunato Nicotra (who is still there and is NYC’s best kept secret).

For such an unusual grape, though, it produces congenial, straightforward wines that can be deliciously plummy, earthy and chewy, dark and full-bodied but not heavy, with a pronounced minerally edge.” — Eric Asimov, The New York Times

I recently tried our J. Hofstätter Lagrein 2012 from the heart of the Alto Adige located in the hillsides of Tramin-Termeno. Here, some of the Lagrein vines reach altitudes of 800 meters above sea level. The winery was founded in 1907 by Josef Hofstätter and is now overseen by the fourth generation: Martin Foradori Hofstätter (does that middle name remind you of another Alto Adige winemaker you know?). This wine immediately made me think of the holiday season with all of its beautiful spices, full-bodied roundness, and generous flavors of blackberries and currants. The wine is so versatile that it pairs well with many types of foods such as pasta, red meats, but it is still soft enough for a Christmas turkey.


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