by marisa finetti
What makes a wine great? Many spend an enormous amount of time tasting in pursuit of the answer. The delicious journey is compelling, confounding and seemingly incapable of quenching the thirst of a wine enthusiast. But a wine is not merely great just because it tastes good. Realizing its greatness means not only understanding the aesthetics behind wines of prominent merit, but also moving beyond what we like to explore, beyond the comfort zone. Sommeliers can help navigate the journey to eventually lead one to the final hallmark of greatness, which is wine’s ability to evoke emotion.
Deep within La Cave—Wine & Food Hideaway inside Wynn Las Vegas, sommeliers Mark Hefter and Richard Gallen carefully turn the pages of the restaurant’s wine list in search of their favorite wines. The list of 400 labels and 50 wines by-the-glass make it challenging because, like many lists, each bottle of wine is curated carefully; each one special in its own way, each one with a potential to be anyone’s favorite. How they came to choose their top wines, which are not necessarily the most expensive, has all to do with a wine’s greatness for not only their personal palates, but for the pleasure of their guests.
Starting with Champagne, director of wine Hefter chooses Jacques Selosse.
“Maybe the coolest guy in Champagne,” Hefter said.
He speaks of Anselme Selosse, the Champagne producer, who also is considered a pioneer in biodynamics in Champagne. Selosse, in his very own words, describes himself as, “a peasant, indigenous, who prefers the monks’ way.” Yet Selosse inspired a new generation of grape growers to produce their own bubbles from grapes grown in their own vineyards, rather than sell to big Champagne houses. He also produces some of his Champagne using the solera system of winemaking, commonly used for sherry. It is not so common in Champagne production, whereby perpetual blending of vintages results in an increasing complex cuvee.
After providing this backstory, Hefter said Selosse’s hundred-percent chardonnay “Initial” blanc de blanc on the wine list, while it has not been vinified using the solera system, is a rarity in its own right and that a total of only 48 bottles come to Las Vegas. He acquires six of them.
“I usually describe it as a great wine with bubbles,” said Hefter. “I consider it separate from what people think is Champagne; definitely a richer, full-bodied style. I like it with heavier dishes because it has this great weight, and it’s still Champagne with searing acidity.”
Moving on to the next wine that emerges from La Cave’s cellars is a varietal that was saved from extinction. Until the discovery of Malagousia in the 1970s in Greece, nobody had heard of this indigenous aromatic white varietal. The vigorous vine had survived from the days when viticulture was abandoned in the area during the 1940s Greek Civil War. Winemaker Vangelis Gerovassiliou of Greece helped rescue this silky variety from one remaining vine that was growing on an old arbor in the coastal town of Nafpaktos.
“Domaine Gerovassilou Malagousia (2012) has got such a floral nose to it, and it also goes great with the menu of our small plates. It’s versatile but still unique, and it’s got a ton of character,” said Gallen, who recommends pairing this Greek white wine with the fettuccine, with lemon herb vinaigrette and tomatoes, from the vegan menu. “The lemon from the Malagousia pops with this dish.”
Then, Gallen and Hefter peruse their fingertips north to Friuli, Italy, for orange wines. Orange wines are white wines made from grape juice that is left to mingle with its skins for a while. This results in turning the wine orange in color, ranging from golden, to copper, to deep amber.
The wine’s voluptuous and complex characteristics are even more impressive than its rich hue. The combination of its white-wine flavor and red-wine structure makes it excellent for pairing with food.
“As far as orange wines go, you can’t describe it. It doesn’t taste like anything else. It’s like red wine trapped in a white wine’s body,” said Hefter. “I love this wine with duck and other oily meats.”
Hefter recommends Gravner Ribolla Gialla, 2005.
Wine producer Josko Gravner is perhaps the person most responsible for reintroducing orange wines, which is a style of wine made in Georgia that dates back to the earliest wines in history. Once a producer of easy-drinking white wines, Gravner became disillusioned with modern winemaking practices and instead invested in a qvevri, a traditional Georgian clay vessel used for fermenting and macerating white wines on the skins. The results are wines spiced with earthen honey and dried fruit flavors, and a ripple with minerality and tannin.
Within the fertile valley of California’s Alexander Valley is Skipstone, which lies on an amphitheaterlike vineyard and also happens to rest on one of the state’s most active fault lines. Organic and sustainable farming practices allow the grapes to express the natural complexity and balance of their terroir, using the earth’s natural resources to enhance the health of the vineyards, while eliminating the use of chemicals.
The 2012 Oliver’s Blend is a blend of cabernet sauvignon and its paternal kin, cabernet franc. Hefter often recommends Skipstone to those who are searching for California cabernets.
“It’s a great go-to when someone is talking about big names in California. There is so much complexity to it while still being bold, without being just fruit juice.”
A wine selection simply can’t be complete without a Grand Cru Burgundy. Maison L’Orée Corton Grand Cru 2009 is borne out of an ambitious project by famed sommelier Rajat Parr, who has an affection for the wines of Burgundy, France.
Guided by Parr’s palate and knowledge, Maison L’Orée offers small quantities of hand-selected wines from Parr’s favorite vineyard sites in Burgundy.
“Someone comes in and wants a pinot from the U.S., and we say, try the people who inspired everyone in the U.S.,” said Hefter. “This one shows a little bit of age; this one has florals, like rose petal, truffle, mushroom. It’s pinot noir, but also has some tannin structure, elegance, punch and great fruit quality that’s also a great value.”
“Bartolo Mascarello is a figurehead for traditional Barolo,” said Hefter. “Mascarello’s Barolo 2007 is probably one of my favorite wines on the list.”
The Nebbiolo grape is often associated with possessing characters of tar and roses, along with other earthy flavors.
“This one has great pinot noir aromatics, with the cool winter warm spices, along with a once over-steeped tea, which has now turned into great Earl Grey. If I could drink anything, it would be the Barolo … or Champagne.”
During the past two decades, a new wave of modernist producers has emerged in the Piedmont region, revealing different personalities of the Nebbiolo grape. However, like many great winemaking regions of Europe, Barolo possesses a glorious past that a handful of pioneers continue to protect. Among these true artisans is Mascarello, who still has a cult following despite his passing in 2005.
“Barolo is something you’ll drink with food, and the ultimate pairing is to make the food better and wine better,” said Hefter.
That’s what makes La Cave, with its wine list and menu of small plates, a perfect hideaway to explore the palate. Shareables range from oven, garden and grill selections, as well as dishes for vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free diners. Hefter and Gallen recommend choosing the food and then allow them to bring the wines that pair best with it.
“We are more interested in having more breadth than depth,” said Hefter of their wine list. “Always looking at how we can work with great, small, ‘boutiquey’ producers, we are able to put interesting wines on the list … maybe even get people out of their comfort zone.”
And this is, assuredly, the delicious path on which to embark to discover the answer of what makes wines so great.