A Saturday morning that starts with Veuve Cliquot before noon usually means one of three things: A very wealthy friend is getting married. A very wealthy friend is getting divorced. Or it's time for the every-other-year Vintner Tasting at the Charlotte Wine & Food Weekend. Since I don't have wealthy friends – I have many friends, but none of us is rolling in the kind of dough that doesn't involve a pie – it must be the third one. And I didn't actually drink the Veuve. OK – I took a swallow or two. Champagne is one of the few wines I find almost impossible to swirl and spit. All those bubbles just beg to live. But the Veuve Cliquot table was a convenient place to start, sort of what chefs would call an amuse bouche – something to get me into the spirit while I took a quick stroll to make my list of must-try and can-skip wines. (Yes to King Estate, J. Lohr, Honig, Clos Du Val, Mollydooker, Saintsbury, Pride Mountain, Tablas Creek, Fiddlehead, Flora Spring, Blackbird, Trefethen and Silver Oak. No to ... nope, not going there. Every wine is somebody's favorite.) I've been going to the wine and food festival's Vintner Tasting since the years when the whole thing fit under a tent in the parking lot at Bonterra in Dilworth. This year it moved to the echoey atrium in Gateway Village, across from Johnson & Wales. Large wine-tasting events are too packed to allow more than a quick study. You get a sniff, a sip or two, and then it's time to move to the next set of bottles and let somebody else have a chance. But a few things stood out:
Merlot is definitely back. After tough years that culminated in that punchline in the movie “Sideways,” merlot makers are swinging back to greatness. I found several examples – Pride Mountain, Flora Springs, Blackbird Vineyards and Silver Oak's Twomey, all pouring classic versions that were meaty, earthy and spicy. Scott Killette, a distributor for Blackbird Vineyards, said it wasn't my imagination. After several years when so much merlot was being made that a lot wasn't very good, “people are putting better product in the bottle.”
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Dry roses are out there. I look for them every year in early summer, but this year, I've been having trouble finding something to love. I came across several, including a Spanish version, 2007 Artazuri, that was 100 percent garnacha, and a Sicilian version, 2006 Regaleali Le Rose from Tasca d'Almerita, that tasted like steely strawberries.
North Carolina wasn't the only place struggling with tough weather last year. I found Kathy Josephs, the winemaker for Fiddlehead, at an amazing lineup of Niepoort tawny ports. She had snuck away from her own table to taste them because she was getting in the mood to leave for Spain the next day. While we worked our way through a major lineup – 7-year-old tawny, '95 Colheita and 2000 Quinta do Passadouro Porto – she filled me in on life in the Santa Rita Valley in California. Big losses to frost last year, big losses to frost this year. Sort of like here, where we had frost and drought. Joseph was surprisingly upbeat about it all. Before you can put the juice in the bottle, you have to get the crops out of the field. “It's farming,” she said with a smile and a shrug. “It's real farming.”