CINCINNATI -- Planning to hit the 27th annual Cincinnati International Wine Festival this year?
The grand tasting event runs March 8-10 at the Duke Energy Convention Center and can be an ideal opportunity to sample some amazing vintages. But it does require some pre-planning.
I caught up with Kevin Hart, owner of Hart & Cru, a wine concierge service that matches wines crafted with integrity with their "forever homes." Hart caters to well-heeled oenophile collectors of the esoteric as well as those who just find themselves thirsty for something special to drink with Monday night meatballs.
Along the way he has developed a keen knack for knowing exactly what we want to drink. He's also on a first-name basis with most of the international wine industry glitterati, making him an ideal guide to help us narrow down exactly what's worth tasting at the festival.
"Most people's palates start getting fatigued after 20 to 25 wines, and when there are hundreds of bottles open, you need to know what you're going there for," he said. "Put together a game plan for the first hour and then spend the rest of the time just tasting and enjoying the festival.
"There's going to be a lot of wine there and that can be daunting. If you're attending to taste the newer releases, look at the floor set and do that first -- it's the best way to taste what you already love. But if you're a newbie, look for unique varietals. Don't just taste all cabs."
When pressed for an example of a lesser-known varietal, Hart is quick to suggest chenin blanc.
"It's one of the great (white) wines of the world right now. It can have depth and richness or be really light on its feet. It can be vibrant and lifting or really serious."
Here's what Hart has to say about nine wineries he wouldn't want you to miss, whether you're a novice or a seasoned pro:
Domaine Antoine Jobard
"Winemaker Antoine Jobard is a Burgundian legend. His 2013 Meursault "Les Tillets" (100 percent chardonnay) is a benchmark wine and always a good reference point from which to start."
"When pinot grigio is done right, it can be amazing. Felluga's 2015 Pinot Grigio "Mongris" Collio Goriziano really focuses on quality in a sea of big production pinot grigio."
Domaine Tempier (located this year in the special tasting room)
Hart says, "93 percent of all wine sales come down to about eight varietals. Being able to taste other grapes (in this case mourvedre, syrah, and cinsault) produced by iconic wineries like Domaine Tempier gives a much more nuanced view of what terrior (the flavors imparted by specific regions) is all about. Their 2014 Bandol "Cuvee Cabassaou" from Provence is one of my personal favorites."
"Located on the Conca d'Oro (Golden Shell) of Tuscany, La Massa is recognized as one of the best vineyards in the entire region. Their 2015 Tosso Toscana is a somewhat international blend of sangiovese, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and alicante bouschet but tastes entirely of location, location, location."
"Syrah is a sommelier favorite and there is much character in the grape when grown by top producers. Domaine Faury farms steep vineyards along the Rhone river in the northern part of the valley on pure granite soils. Some of the vines for their 2015 St. Joseph, Rhone date back to 1979. It's truly a world class example of syrah."
Duhart Milan Rothschild
"Tasting one of the wines included in the 1855 Medoc classification is always a learning experience as the commune of Paulliac is one of the most historic and recognized wine regions in the world. The property is classified as a fifth growth, but overall their 2012 Pauillac hits all the classic flavors of what Left Bank cabernet sauvignon-heavy wines should be."
"While Italians LOVE true Champagne from France, a few producers set out in the 1960s to compete with the world-renowned French region for sparkling. Ca'del Bosco was one of those original properties who pushed the limits on the quality of sparkling wine in Italy. Their NV Cuvee Prestige Brut, Franciacorta from Lombardia (75% chardonnay, 15% pinot nero, and 10% pinot bianco) deserves the respect of wine lovers and should be put on a pedestal with the best of them."
"The owner of this urban winery in OTR, Kate MacDonald, believes in the heritage of Old World varietals. Skeleton Root's 2014 Norton (made with 100% norton grapes) is indicative of MacDonald's commitment to make a stellar local wine--the fruit is sourced from just outside Lexington. Only a few years into her new endeavor, her wines keep getting better and better."
"Pinot noir is one of the hardest grapes to grow in the world. The Flowers 2016 Pinot Noir from Sonoma Coast is grown only a few miles from the cool Pacific Ocean on high hills above the fog line and is proof of the winemaker adage that 'great wines are grown in the extremes.' Pinot noirs from the Sonoma Coast are some of my personal favorites and those from along the ocean are especially vibrant expressions."
For more of Kevin Hart's signature picks from top-notch wineries, check out Hart & Cru's charity event in conjunction with the Cincinnati International Wine Festival at Sartre OTR on March 7. The evening will spotlight young Californians bent on reintroducing classic techniques to contemporary winemaking -- think Hirsch, Lieu Dit, and Wind Gap. It's a chance to sample up to 25 wines (many priced at $40 and up) for $50 and an ideal kickoff to your wine-soaked weekend.