Like many people, I’m starting to buy more wine online, which is a new one for me. (There are LOTS of new things happening lately, aren’t there? I’m not a fan.) In yet another unusual pattern, I clicked on an Instagram ad for Firstleaf wines, checked out the pricing and the wines, and made an impulsive purchase of 6 bottles: three whites and three red. Today I will tell you about the whites, and in a week or so I hope to tell you about the reds.
2018 Ophidian Sauvignon Blanc, South Africa
I was… dubious about this one, but if I’ve drunk a South African Sauvignon Blanc, I certainly don’t remember it well. Chenin Blanc is the white wine variety I associate most closely with South Africa, for good reason: it’s the most widely planted grape there, followed closely by Cabernet Sauvignon.
But Sauvignon Blanc isn’t super-hard to grow, and sometimes displays really distinctive character depending on the vineyard’s terrior, so I figured it was worth seeing if this wine fell more in the French tradition, the New Zealand tradition, or other.
According to the Wine Enthusiast in 2017, “Many Sauvignon Blancs from South Africa combine herbaceous notes and rich fruit.” I’m sure that could be true, but what got my attention about this wine was the creaminess on the nose, and the acidity which provided structure but not bitingly so. (My notes were: good bones but not in a knobbly way.) While Firstleaf was eager to tell me about the effusive citrus I’d be smelling here, I got a lot more tropical fruit — more of a mango/maguey situation, albeit possibly with a little lime squeezed over — than citrus-for-days. Happily, the acidity was enough to keep the tropical aspect from tripping over its train and falling into indolent lushness. I thoroughly enjoyed this wine, which stayed interesting to sniff and taste for three days in the fridge.
2018 Lazy Breeze Grüner Veltliner, Edna Valley California
I frequently think of Grüner Veltliner as the whippet of white wine varieties. You know whippets: spare, lean to a fault, and nearly vibrating with nervous energy? Grüners can be like that: the wine version of a splash of ice water to the face. Whew! I’m awake now!
Originally from Austria, Grüner can serve up some unusual aromas: white pepper, celery, lentil (yum, right? feeling like opening a bottle yet?), and then your more typical wine-smells of citrus, peach, spice, and mineral. The wine can apparently age as well as Chardonnay and Riesling, but I’ve never been lucky enough to taste an aged Grüner.
I’ve also never had one from Edna Valley, which is a personal favorite California region for Pinot Noir. And it’s actually quite rare to find Grüner Veltliner grown in the US, even though it’s one of the most popular food wines out in the rest of the world. So! Anticipation!
Y’know, it was pretty darn good? Lime, lime, celery, lime, and celery. But not.. like, bad celery, you know? Good celery. There was a great minerality on the nose as well, which moderated the vegetal and citrus notes. This is definitely a whippet wine — no fat anywhere, and it’s quivering with acidity and VIM! but in a refreshing rather than nerve-wracking way. I enjoyed drinking this bottle over a few days as well. A night or two in the fridge (ok, maybe just one, the news was particularly disturbing those nights) did not do this wine any harm. Good stuff, would drink again. Went well with the Lays Barbecue potato chips I was snacking on for while, but would also be great with spicy Thai or Vietnamese food, or a brisk Veracruzana seafood cocktail, vuelve a la vida-style.
2019 Chanme Mechant Grenache Blanc, Pays d’Oc, France
My friend Kellie loves a Grenache Blanc. I’m… less enthusiastic, but well-disposed to be pleased. Firstleaf really wanted me to know they were proud of this one, and put a “92” sticker on it, letting me know it was award-winning. Ooh la la!
Don’t put too much stock in wine awards, friends — it’s not super-hard to find a wine contest that is willing to give out a gold medal or five, if you try hard enough. It’s not a BAD sign, but also needn’t make you weak in the knees.
Grenache Blanc is getting popular in the US I guess, as a full-bodied white wine that isn’t Chardonnay, which got too popular for a while? Grenache/Garnacha is from northern Spain originally, but is grown widely in France as well, and is used as a blending grape in the Rhone Valley, where they make very interesting white blends with grapes like Marsanne, Roussanne, and Viognier. Grenache Blanc usually inhabits the role of the drab in that lineup of blowsy, dramatic characters, so I suppose it’s cool that folx are finally putting the spotlight on Grenache Blanc itself. You go, GB!
This wine is plush. They oaked it, they gave it malolactic fermentation, they stirred the lees… this wine got the works. It’s heavily perfumed, with lots of cream and white flower scents, followed by peach (and also PEACH, and did we mention the peach?) on the nose, and a lot of body. Only 13% alcohol according to the fancy wine card they put in my shipment (that sounds snide, but I actually like that they send literature), but it tastes like there’s more alcohol in there — this thing has some heft. It’s not flabby, but it’s… fleshy. Ample. Rubinesque? Maybe not quite.
Drink this with pasta alfredo, fried fish, butter chicken, and maybe, just maybe, a paprikash? (Maybe not. That might be a bridge too far.) Of the three, this is the one I would be least likely to buy again, but I will say that it’s probably a much more affordable full-bodied & floral overperformer than single-variety Viogniers or Roussannes. So! Maybe I would buy it again if I had a rich meal to put it with. Or French Onion Sun Chips, which I might try with it tomorrow. I’ll let you know how it goes. Update: YASSSS the French onion sun chips are a perfect compliment to this wine. I’m not trash; you’re trash.
A first look at Firstleaf
The pejorative term for a company like Firstleaf is a “juice mill.” They buy from estates or wineries that have extra juice on their hands, and bottle it under their own label and sell it directly to consumers, neatly sidestepping the absurd American three-tier system for alcohol sales. I drink a fair amount of Trader Joe’s private label wine (now that I’m no longer “in the business” and have to buy my wine retail), and 90% of the time I find it to be an excellent value and very drinkable. I’ve never been one to buy from this kind of mail-order private label house, but heck, it’s a global pandemic! Try new things!
So far, so good? These last three wines are an *excellent* value at the discount price they gave me for my first order, which averaged out to about $6.50 per bottle. From now on, it looks like I’ll pay about $12-14 per bottle, which is still a good price for this quality of wine. Their offerings are not monolithic, and so far the wine has been consistently interesting. Does it express terrior? Is it the expression of place in a glass? Mmmmm no. Does it engage my intellect as well as my senses? Sure! Will I order from them again? Not sure yet! Stay tunes for my notes on the reds. 🙂