Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio: Still The One

Once again, Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio has snagged the number one spot as the top selling luxury wine brand in the United States. In the latest report by Wines Vines Analytics, Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio smoked the competition among wines that are priced at $20 per bottle or more. Sales for Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio topped $36.5 million, nearly double that of Decoy, the #2 wine brand made by Duckhorn. California’s giant Central Coast region only registered a single luxury top seller with Justin (at #8). All the other 18 brands were from Napa or Sonoma counties.


The wine sales figures tracked the 12 months prior to June 1, 2014 and represented off-premise sales, that is, sales of wine that are not meant to be consumed on-site, such as purchases made at grocery and retail outlets, including wine shops. Restaurant and bar sales were not included.

The story of Santa Margherita’s success is itself remarkable. Virtually unknown to American consumers until 1979, the stateside success of Pinot Grigio in general – and Santa Margherita in particular – has been ascribed to one man, the maverick wine importer and vintner, Anthony (Tony) Terlato.

On a trip to Italy to discover the next great thing in wine, Terlato tasted a Pinot Grigio in a Milan hotel that rang his bell. Terlato did his homework, ditched his other plans and drove to Alto Adige, the country’s premier winegrowing region for Pinot Grigio. There, in Italy’s northernmost wine region at the southern border of Austria, as he dined alone in a Portoguaro restaurant, Terlato ordered all 18 Pinot Grigios on the wine list.

Terlato was soon joined by the restaurant’s proprietor and together, the two men tasted through the 18 wines and considered how they paired with different foods. The winner: Santa Margherita.

When Terlato learned that his new tasting partner knew the Santa Margherita winery owner, he struck out to meet the company president the very next day, and inked a deal to be Santa Margherita’s sole importer by evening. (Read about this amazing man’s life and career in his 2008 book, Taste: A Life in Wine.)

The first vintage to hit American shores and stores was the 1979. By 1999, 530,000 cases of Pinot Grigio/Gris were sold in US supermarkets alone, which grew to nearly three-quarters of a million cases by the next year, a 40% increase. By 2009, Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio had been voted the top imported wine of any color in fine restaurants for the 14th year in a row by Wines & Vines.

The secret to the enduring success of Santa Margherita might have seemed obvious to Tony Terlato at first sip in Portoguaro. As with Santa Margherita’s version, a well-made Pinot Grigio is light on its feet, refreshing, and food-friendly. Good Pinot Grigio has delicate aromatics and bright acidity, delivering clean, minerality and fruity flavors on the palate that can range from crisp golden apple to citrus, stone and more delicate tropical fruits. Some versions offer a taste of honey, herbs, quince or pear. The best are energetic and happy wines, never brooding or boring.

Both versions of Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio are raised in stainless steel to preserve freshness. The Santa Margherita Alto Adige is more perfumed and complex with delicate spice notes. As might be suspected, the Alto Adige bottling is pricier than the more widely distributed Valdadige (available for about $16 at Costco and Total Wine, among others). Both are highly recommended.

If you find yourself pining for Pinot Grigio as your go-to wine, you’re in luck. Costco's Kirkland Signature 2013 Pinot Grigio from Italy’s northeasternmost Friuli region is a lip-smacking quaffer. For about $7, you can enjoy this refreshing, minerally white with tasty citrus and peach flavors – and it’s a screwcap. Even better, it clocks in at only 12.5% alcohol. Now that's amore

Summer is the perfect time to explore Italian Pinot Grigio. Like other Italian wines – and Italian white wines in particular – Italian Pinot Grigio goes swimmingly with food. Shellfish and other lighter fish and fish dishes are natural partners, as are salads, vegetables, rice, pasta and most lighter dishes that can be brightened by a squirt of lemon. Think pasta frutta di mare, halibut, seafood risotto, calamari or sushi. Sara Moulton shares a great recipe for creamy clam open ravioli to go with Santa Margherita’s Pinot Grigio.

In another post, we’ll look at Pinot Gris from Oregon, Alsace and other winegrowing regions. Like Syrah/Shiraz, Pinot Gris represents the same grape variety as Pinot Grigio but oh, what a difference the terroir makes.


Let us know about any Pinot Grigios you’ve enjoyed lately in the comments.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

La Rioja Wine Touring: CUNE

Nothing quite prepares you for wine touring in northern Spain’s La Rioja region. Not years of winery hopping all along California and the Pacific Northwest to Mendoza, Argentina. Not even Italy and France, which have their share of winemaking quirkiness and peculiar centuries-old traditions that somehow culminate in heavenly juice.

Old wine bottles in the cellars of CUNE winery in La Rioja, Spain.


La Rioja is where mildew and modernism co-exist. By morning, visitors can course through the city of Laguardia’s old and musty labyrinthine underground tunnels and cellars and segue to a spectacular lunch that afternoon at a futuristic architectural wonder and Michelin-starred winery restaurant that is as modern as modern gets.
The City of Wine Marqués de Riscál in Elciego, Spain designed by Frank Gehry includes the winery, a luxury hotel and two award-winning restaurants.

The Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España, better known stateside as CUNE, is a fifth-generation winery in the heart of Rioja Alta that has fine-tuned the balance between the old world and the new. Founded in 1879 by the two Real de Azúa brothers, the winery is situated at the old train station that connected historic Haro, the first town in Spain to have electricity, to Bordeaux. The French connection revolutionized Spanish winemaking at the end of the 19th century when Bordelais winemakers, seeking new winegrowing terrain following the decimation of their vineyards by Phylloxera, were welcomed by the Spanish with whom they shared new winemaking techniques and expertise, especially regarding oak aging.

The CUNE winery includes a barrel room designed by Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel that lacks traditional columns to support the roof, thus providing an open design that allows for more efficient and easier barrel movement and management.

Alexandre Gustave Eiffel’s cellar at CUNE winery in Haro, La Rioja, Spain.


Today’s CUNE red wines include a Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva, aged at least 3, 4 and 5 years total, respectively, which occurs both in barrel and bottle according to the regulations for this DOCa (Denominación de Origen Calificada, Spain’s highest quality designation). Red wines are exclusively made from Tempranillo, Garnacha (red Grenache), Graciano and Mazuelo, also known as Carignan. The CUNE rosé, called rosado in Spain, is made from 100% Garnacha.

Monopole is CUNE’s white wine, made mostly with Viura (Macabeo) and small amounts of floral Malvasia and Garnacha Blanca (white Grenache). Produced since 1915, Monopole is Spain’s oldest white wine brand. Its freshness and versatility with food have made Monopole a popular wine choice at both our Cooking with Class wine pairing dinners and at the school’s sister restaurant, Cork & Fork.  

The Imperial label is a CUNE classic that is made only when the vintage is declared as exceptional. Made only as Reserva and Gran Reserva wines and aged in new French and American oak, Imperial is now more highly sought after than ever since the 2004 Gran Reserva was named the 2013 Wine Spectator top wine of the year.

At a recent tasting at the winery, a group of us chipped in for a bottle of the 2007 Imperial Gran Reserva. With its spicy black cherry fruit, the wine demonstrated Tempranillo’s classic age-worthy and food-friendly acidity with notes of tobacco and leather. At 13.5% alcohol, the wine showed impeccable balance and was a special, savory treat to share with new friends.

The 2007 vintage was ranked as muy buena (very good) in La Rioja – we agreed.  


Since 1994, CUNE also makes Real de Asúa, a tribute to the winery’s founding brothers. Made from 100% hand-picked Tempranillo, Real de Asúa is fermented in small oak casks and aged in French oak barrels.

Other CUNE labels are Viña Real, Pagos de Viña Real and Viñedos del Contino, all from Rioja Alavesa. The Vina Real winery near Logroño, inaugurated in 2004 by King of Spain Juan Carlos I, is considered one of the most modern in Spain. In contrast, Viñedos del Contino is situated in a 14th-century manor, the first château-style design in La Rioja, along with some of the oldest indigenous Graciano vines.

When conditions are right for the development of Botrytis, CUNE also produces a small amount of Corona, a semi-sweet wine.

Now that more people are familiar with CUNE and Imperial, remember that in vintage years that are considered good but not exceptional, the grapes that would have gone into the Imperial Reserva and Gran Reserva bottlings are used instead to make the CUNE Crianza, which we proudly serve at Cooking with Class and Cork & Fork. Those wines might be some of the best values from La Rioja.


Stay tuned for more Spanish wine and travel tips coming soon. We’re also cooking up some new surprises for you at our next Cooking with Class food and wine pairing dinner on Sunday, May 25th at 6 pm – hope to see you there.