Hyperdirected Oenophiles

Burghound, For the Love of Port, and other great niche wine sites.

A burgundy is poured.

It is good to be a wine drinker these days. Without question, there are more quality wines being produced in more places than ever before; our Riedels runneth over. But what if, in the face of this rising tide of quaffable South African shirazes, Argentine malbecs, and New Zealand pinot noirs, you find yourself fixated on the wines of just one region? No apologies needed: It’s often the case that as wine enthusiasts gain experience and develop their palates, their interests narrow and they zero in on particular regions, wines, or grapes. And paradoxical as it may seem amid this glut of good wines, there’s probably never been a better time to be a hyperdirected oenophile. Not only does the Loire maven or the Champagne buff have more wines to choose from nowadays; niche interests are being catered to journalistically as never before.

Recent years have seen the advent of a number of Web sites and Web-based publications run by writers and critics specializing in individual wine regions—offering views and reviews ofBordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, the Rhône Valley, the Loire Valley, the Mosel Valley, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, California, and points in between. Wine writing has traditionally been a generalist’s pursuit, so what accounts for all the self-pigeonholing? It is one part opportunity, one part necessity. Thanks to this global quality revolution, there are more wine-growing areas than ever that merit undivided attention, and the Internet has given wine journalists a cheap and easy platform from which to peddle that kind of particularized knowledge. But because of the Internet, there are also probably more people than ever writing about wine. Anyone with a computer and a corkscrew can be a critic now; offering regional expertise is a way of standing out in an increasingly crowded field.

So who are the regional gurus worth following? Allen Meadows is the best-known and most successful of them, and his reputation for excellence is richly deserved. A California-based former banker, Meadows publishes a quarterly e-newsletter called Burghound, which as the name suggests focuses on the wines of Burgundy. A longtime Burgundy nut, Meadows launched his publication in 2001. His timing was propitious: the region was flourishing as never before, lots of consumers were becoming interested in its wines, and there was a pressing need for comprehensive coverage. Burghound now has around 7,500 subscribers (Meadows charges $125 per year for subscriptions, which includes unlimited access to his 50,000 tasting notes) and is widely recognized as the go-to guide for the wines of Burgundy—the place to not only get the skinny on new releases from the likes of Dujac and Mugnier, but to learn about up-and-coming producers and to receive detailed information on issues of concern to Burgundy aficionados, such as the “premox” mystery. Meadows spends four months of the year in Burgundy, sampling new vintages and revisiting older ones. He just took the specialization a degree further by self-publishing a book about Vosne-Romanée, the most acclaimed of Burgundy’s wine villages. The Pearl of the Côte is a beautifully designed, exhaustively researched tome that underscores why Burgundy is the most maddeningly arcane but ultimately rewarding wine region on the planet. It is truly porno for winos (particularly the last section, a sip-by-sip account of an epic tasting that Meadows attended of the fabled Domaine de la Romanée-Conti—some guys have all the luck).

If you prefer big, lip-smacking Rhône wines to dainty Burgundies, you should acquaint yourself with the work of British writer John Livingstone-Learmonth. For nearly 40 years, Livingstone-Learmonth has made the wines of France’s Rhône Valley the focal point of his journalism. If he is not the progenitor of regional specialization, he’s certainly one of its pioneering figures. For my taste, there is no better or more erudite source for all things Rhône, and many Rhône winemakers seem to agree. Four years ago, Livingstone-Learmonth launched a Web site called drinkrhone. Although most of the content is subscriber-only ($65 a year), the home page includes monthly digests with news from the Rhône and other morsels and reflections, as well as travel tips. His signature achievement is his book The Wines of the Northern Rhône. Published in 2005, it is an amazing reference manual featuring in-depth looks at all the appellations in the northern part of the Rhône (Côte-Rôtie, Hermitage, Cornas, etc) and insightful profiles of scores of individual producers.

In contrast to Meadows and Livingstone-Learmonth, American wine writer Peter Liem resides in the region he’s made his bailiwick, Champagne. A senior correspondent for Wine & Spirits magazine and widely admired for his elegant, cerebral essays, Liem moved to Champagne in 2006 in order to indulge his passion for bubbly and to gain more intimate knowledge of the wines and the people and the vineyards responsible for them. For a time, he had a popular blog titled Besotted Ramblings. Last year, he abandoned it in order to focus on his online, subscription-only site called ChampagneGuide.net ($89 per year), which consists of producer profiles, tasting notes, articles, and a blog. It is a great time to be focusing on Champagne: The grower Champagne movement, with its emphasis on single-vineyard and single-village wines, is redefining what Champagne is about and has turned the region into arguably the most dynamic viticultural zone in the world. Liem sounds cautiously optimistic about his prospects. “There is probably a bigger potential audience for dedicated Champagne coverage now than there was 10 years ago,” he told me via e-mail, “due to a growing number of consumers who are willing to think about Champagne as real wine and not just as an apéritif or party beverage.”

Not all the specialty sites require you to part with cash. Jacqueline Friedrich is a transplanted American who has made France’s Loire Valley her home and her area of concentration. A former New York lawyer, Friedrich moved to France in 1991. Five years later, she published a book called A Wine and Food Guide to the Loire, which became essential reading for anyone with an interest in the “Garden of France,” as the Loire is known. In 2006, she established a free Web site offering inside dope about the Loire. It is a somewhat chaotic site—the Internet equivalent of a ramshackle French farmhouse—but is a great destination for on-the-ground reporting from the Loire, which, like Champagne, is a hive of experimentation and innovation these days.

French wine regions aren’t the only ones getting close-ups. Roy Hersh, who lives in the Seattle area, has long been recognized among wine discussion board types as an authority on port, the famous fortified wine from Portugal’s Douro Valley. Five years ago, he launched his own Web site called For The Love of Port, which in addition to offering a trove of port content includes coverage of Madeira and other Portuguese wines. A pair of Riesling fanatics put out a quarterly online newsletter called Mosel Fine Wines, devoted to the wines of Germany’s Mosel Valley. There are also interesting sites focusing on South African, Australian (not one but two), and New Zealand wines and, closer to home, the wines of New York state and Washington state.

So is all this fragmented information good for the grape nuts? I believe it is. The deeper you immerse yourself in the wine world, the more you appreciate its intricacies. As retail shelves continue to fill up with quality cabernets and syrahs made in places that were hardly on the viticultural map a generation ago, it is only getting more complex. There’s a lot to be said for the “long-tailing” of wine journalism, for the kind of niche coverage that people like Meadows and Livingstone-Learmonth provide. Is there still a place for generalists? Wine Spectator and The Oregonian, Kramer covers the wine world in its entirety with admirable intelligence and brio. But he's also done some excellent regionally-focused work. His 1990 book Making Sense of Burgundy is a classic, and he's also published books about California and Italian wines. He's now out with a new volume called Matt Kramer on Wine, a collection of essays. It's a terrific, thought-provoking book that, among other things, charts the evolution of what has become a very dynamic wine culture in the United States. It also includes an illuminating profile of famed Italian winemaker Angelo Gaja. The story was commissioned in 1991 by Robert Gottlieb, then editor of The New Yorker. By the time Kramer submitted the article, Gottlieb had been replaced by Tina Brown, who promptly spiked it. But Kramer was at least able to console himself with a 100 percent, $15,000 kill fee. Man, those were the days”>  Speaking as one, I definitely hope so, and I do think there is value to both perspectives—the tight shot and the wide view. Whether smitten with one region or more inclined to spread the love around, serious oenophiles should always strive to be broadly conversant in all things vinous. Wine geekery requires nothing less.

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