There are those who suggest that the moment that wine went wrong when it became more than just what a few family members could manage to carefully wring out of a few acres. Wine’s romance and magic tends to be bound up in a picture of how wine gets made that increasingly does not accurately portray the reality of today. And with good reason. The world of wine is bigger and more complicated than the local villages it grew up in, and there is both room and reason for there to be many size, shapes, and strategies for wineries throughout the the world.
Having said that, some of my favorite wines are those that are the products of just such an ethos — one man or woman, their vines, and the final product a purely a result of their labors, skills, and passions. These kinds of wines are truly magical not only for their quality, but for the heritage that they evince.
These days, like it or not, most of us live in a different world, and that goes for winemaking, too. The global marketplace makes possible the creation of brands — symbols of experience and quality that are larger than just the efforts of one person, or one family. Both dangerous and powerfully seductive at the same time, brands can be guideposts to wonderful experiences or they can deafen us to reality, masking something lousy in a wrapper of blinding expectations.
The world of wine is full of brands that fall everywhere along the spectrum of wonderful to shameful. Some are even the modern incarnations of families that once operated at the intimate, rustic level that characterized all winemaking only a mere sixty or eighty years ago. E. Guigal represents just such a transformation, from Etienne Guigal’s tiny winery in Ampuis to it’s modern incarnation as major grower and negociant.
The dichotomy between the modern reality of the global marketplace and the intimate romance of the world’s finest wines might not look like a business opportunity to most people, but John Hunt’s successful career building and selling companies (one to Starbucks, one to AOL) hasn’t exactly been run-of-the-mill either. Hunt, a long time wine lover, looked at the state of the wine world and decided the time had come for its first truly global wine brand.
In retrospect, the idea that became Oriel Wines was incredibly simple: find top winemakers in the best wine regions around the world, have them get their hands on top quality grapes, make the wines, and sell them under one simple name. Of course, you could build a business with this premise that was all marketing hype and no substance. Or you could take the idea to its logical extreme, and do exactly what you said you would: have talented people make great wines in small quantities just like they would if they were making the wine for themselves, and not a global brand. Today Oriel Wines includes 29 different wines made in exactly that fashion.
When I first heard about Oriel a couple of years ago, I fully expected it to be a marketing exercise and little more. But when a couple of boxes of the wines showed up a couple of months ago, I was quite pleasantly surprised to not only recognize the names of some excellent winemakers on the bottles, but also to taste the excellent traces of their talents inside. The wines are not always excellent, but they are usually very good, and occasionally outstanding. What’s more, the wines are often available at very attractive prices.
While Oriel may not conform to the traditional notions of artisan winemaking, to dismiss them as only a marketing concept would be to do them a great disservice. And would also mean that you’d miss out on some great wines.
Full disclosure: I received these wines as press samples.
2004 Oriel “Palatina” Riesling Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Germany
Light gold in the glass, this wine has a nose of wet slate and unripe pear aromas. In the mouth it is crisp and bright, with flavors of unripe pears, flowers, meyer lemon and hints of paraffin as the wine finishes. Dry, bright, and nicely balanced, the wine only lacks a bit of depth and complexity that would take it from great to stupendous. Score: around 9. Cost: $20. Click to buy.
2006 Oriel “Mana” Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand
Pale gold with green highlights, this wine has a classic nose of gooseberry aromas tinged with cat pee. In the mouth it is bracing with acidity. Crackling limestone, kiwi, and gooseberry flavors race around the palate leaving airy residues of green grass and green apple flavors dangling from the edges of the mouth. Very true to form, and quite delicious. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $20. Click to buy.
NV Oriel “365” Prosecco, Valdobbiadene, Italy
Light gold in the glass with medium fine bubbles, this wine smells of freshly cut hay, ripe pears, and honey. In the mouth it is honeyed and a little flabby, not having the acidity it needs to offset the sweetness. Not a particularly successful effort. Score: between 7 and 7.5. Cost: $20. Click to buy.
2006 Oriel “Femme Fatale” Rose, Bordeaux, France
Light ruby in color with orange highlights, this wine smells like orange peel, rosehips, and apple skins. In the mouth it is smooth and silky with flavors of hibiscus, crushed stones, and redcurrants. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $20. Click to buy.
2005 Oriel “Jocunda” Red Blend. Gigondas, Rhone Valley, France
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine has a shy nose of black plum with hints of lavender. In the mouth it has soft tannins that taste of well worn suede. These wrap around flavors of cassis, wet sawdust, and wet dirt. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $35. Click to buy.
2005 Oriel “Les Paves” Red Blend, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Rhone Valley, France
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of sour cherry, oiled leather, and sawdust. In the mouth it is soft and round with flavors of cherry, wet earth, leather and forest floor. Moderate finish. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $40. Click to buy.
2006 Oriel “Midnight Rambler” Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford, Napa
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of ripe black cherries, cassis, and cola. In the mouth it is glassy and smooth with light tannins that wrap around a core of cassis fruit with notes of cola and cedar. Somehow this wine is not as deep or complex as it should be, and ends up being merely pleasant and a bit flat. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $35. Click to buy.
2006 Oriel “Jasper” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
Light ruby in color, this wine has a nose of dried cherries and raspberry jam that has a slightly cooked fruit character. In the mouth it is juicy and tart with flavors of raspberry jam and cranberry sauce that linger in a nice finish that has a light green herbal quality. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $30. Click to buy.
2003 Oriel “Etereo” Nebbiolo, Barolo, Piemonte, Italy
Light to medium ruby in color with a hint of brick on the rim, this wine has a nose of dried cherries and dried rose petals with hints of fig and cedar. In the mouth it has lovely acidity with lightly tacky tannins that are smooth as suede and wrap around flavors of dried cherries, roasted figs, cedar, and coffee and vanilla. There is a hint of heat on the finish. Score: around 9. Cost: $75. Click to buy.
2004 Oriel “Sygnet” Shiraz, McLaren Vale, Australia
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of prunes and dried cherries. In the mouth it is velvety with a character that is mostly based on dried fruit — prunes, figs, and dried cherries. Unfortunately this gives a slightly baked quality to the wine that is unappealing. Score: around 7.5. Cost: $75. Click to buy.
2002 Oriel “VQM” Cabernet Sauvignon, Maipo Valley, Chile
Medium ruby in color, this wine has a nose of bright black cherry fruit with a beautiful note of roasted figs and smoked meat. In the mouth it is velvety with soft, smooth tannins and rich, juicy dried cherry, espresso, black cherry, and cassis flavors that are perfectly dry and poised with great acidity. This wine is aging beautifully and will clearly develop more in the next 5 or more years. Lovely. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $17. Click to buy.