Hershey festival worth its weight in chocolate bars

Once again the Wine Festival in Hershey delivered a phenomenal experience during its 90-minute VIP tasting. For $95, attendees got to sample wines that cost as much by the bottle.

The annual May event never fails to deliver epiphanies of the vinous persuasion, especially when one makes a point of trying a producer's "bread and butter" offering against its prestige bottling. Therein lies the eye-opening side of this wine event.

For sure, you could spend 90 minutes just sampling those wines with the high price tags (and many do), but when you stop and compare the tiers, you learn where true value lies.

Heitz Cellars presented their 2006 Napa Valley Cabernet. A very nice combination of sun-dried cherry, cola and dark chocolate ($42). The 2006 Martha's Vineyard, however, was all that and more. It had a depth and breadth lacking in the standard offering. There was mint and anise and layer upon layer of texture and flavor. It ran $150 a bottle, and you tasted every penny.

Joseph Phelps Vineyards was another producer that knew how to stair-step the quality pyramid. The 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon at $55 was a lovely dark chocolate-covered sun-dried cherry, but the Insignia at $160 was mind-boggling. Complex, multi-faceted with notes of sassafras, malt and wild berry, in addition to the chocolate and the cherry. And the texture … hedonistic.

These two producers could honestly justify their upper-tier price tags.

For the first time in two years, Roederer Cristal ($250, the prestige bottling) held its own against the more modestly priced NV Brut ($50), in quality. The wines were quite stylistically different (apple and lemon curd vs. toasted nuts, respectively) and both were very good.

But $250 is a big chunk of change to drop for a single bottle when you could purchase five bottles of the NV and enjoy it equally. For me, the latter just makes dollars and sense.

But, in the champagne arena, what really impressed was the champagne house of Duval Le Roy. The NV Brut at $35 is a steal for true champagne. It was rich, round, toasty and creamy; definitely a more masculine style of bubbly and totally delicious. Hunt for it. It's at the lower end of its category in price and at the upper end with regard to quality.

A couple of surprises

Shafer's "Relentless," a Petite Sirah/Syrah blend, was just magnificent. Full of fresh, vibrant black fruits with a dusting of exotic spices all coupled with a thick, satin texture; it just screamed "more," ($60). Pop it on a night of accomplishment. Pop it at a board meeting. Pop it after an acquisition. Every sip screams "success."

Perrier Jouet Grand Brut NV ($45) showed notably better than it has in a few years … so full of ripe apple and pear fruit. It was fat and lush. And the prestige bottling of PJ Belle Epoque, both the blanc at $140 and the rose 2004 at $300, were deliciously chiseled and high-tensile strength. The bloom is back on that blossom.

And well, yes, Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2011 from New Zealand ($27) should cost less than it does.

You should put Hershey on your wine calendar for 2013 (first Friday in May). It's worth its weight in more than chocolate bars.

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