Monday, October 22, 2007

A Renaissance for California Syrah

After last weekend's late harvest of summer, fall returned today with the bite of wind, chill, and rain. Why not open a Syrah, then?

Then again, why a Syrah at all? Few wines piss me off more than Australian Shiraz and Californian Syrah. The grape's one of the greats, but it's far too easy to pay far too much for overly extracted, overly alcoholic, sugar-ridden fruit bombs that reek of heat. The Cola-Cola simplicity of these monsters is particularly infuriating, which is why I usually turn to the Rhône and sometimes the Languedoc for my Syrah.

But I took a risk on the 2002 Renaissance Syrah from their organically cultured, own-rooted, very low yield, high-elevation (1700'-2300') loam-and-granite vineyard in the Sierra Foothills. Matt Kramer claimed that their 2003 "Vin de Terroir" Syrah is "intense yet balanced... a very great syrah, the sort better associated with the likes of Hermitage and Côte-Rotie than California." Kramer's palate is reasonably in line with mine, so I decided to order that wine, which is made for extended aging, along with a 2000 Cabernet and this 2002 Syrah. A bit of a risk at $30 a bottle, but it's less than many gross Californian Syrahs.

Let me tell you, I'm going to be ordering more soon. The "basic" 2002 blows away every California Syrah I've ever had. Warm blackberry scents and chalky aromas promise beauty, and that beauty plays in spades in the mouth: for all its power and concentration, it's delicate. The tannins are smooth but they grip the far reaches of the tongue, while the acidity keeps the mouth watering. There's not much to say about fruit here — there's plenty of it, black and blue both, but fruit is not the point. Balance and delicacy is the point. At the same time, it's meaty, minerally, and just a bit peppery.

For all this beauty, the acid core is MIGHTY, and it could use another year, or three, or ten — who knows? — to deepen further. More evidence: on the second day it actually began shutting down. I love that! I love it when a wine, like a person, shows it has a mind of its own. I'm looking forward to checking in with the Renaissance Syrah again in a few years, to see what's on its mind then.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Dal Fari Schioppettino at Bluebird

It's been oddly warm this weekend — the National Weather Service says it's been Chicago's warmest October since 1963 — and I rode to the grocery store and back this evening in shorts. And though I had a decent sized bag of groceries on my back, I decided to stop by Bluebird, a new wine bar / gastropub here in Wicker Park (I decided the tofu wouldn't go bad in the bike bag... We'll see).

The space is cool, with exposed brick walls behind the bar, rough wood planks reclaimed from a barn on the opposite wall, and Douglas fir from Wisconsin pickle tanks surfacing the bar and the tables. Small plates are the order of the day, many of them featuring bacon, and they have a good selection of fancy-pants beer. The wine list emphasizes biodynamic wines, befitting the theme, but the spell woven was broken when I saw the prices. Too many South American wines were going for $8-$12 a glass, and there were almost no French selections, which stupefies me.

I ended up going for the Dal Fari Schioppettino Colli Orientali del Friuli 2004. Even at $11 (!) for one glass, I have to say that this one was worth it this one time. It's an excellent, peppery, high-acid red that seems like it was dosed with bay leaf, tarragon, licorice, wild strawberry, and the aforementioned pepper. It reminded me of a Trousseau from the Jura, or maybe a light-bodied Counoise from the Languedoc, and it would go well with a huge array of foods — it certainly performed nicely with a Spanish sheep's milk cheese.

Now I face a quandary. Do I go back to Bluebird and pay $11 for just one glass, or do I head over to the local evil retail wine warehouse and grab a whole bottle for $19, as their web site advertises? The trick answer is neither. Instead, I will seek a third way, and trawl the small good-guy shops for a bottle at $25 or less. But I liked the Dal Fari Schioppettino way too much to settle for just one glass.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Waiting for Lafage

So I opened a 2004 Domaine Lafage Côte Sud Vin de Pays des Côtes Catalanes last night and man, was I disappointed. Simple and sadly sour — quite bad, really, even for a $10 wine.

Tonight, it's actually a decent glugger. This Roussillon-grown wine may be 60% Syrah, 30% Grenache, and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, but the sharply fruity nose features tobacco and olive, like a Loire Franc, and juicy black fruits amble over the palate, followed by a touch of spice and some tannic grip. Sediment! It ain't filtered. Now I'm happy, if also happy I dropped no more than a Hamilton.

This happens to me again and again. Just last week, a 2004 Domaine Gauby Les Calcinaires Côtes du Roussillon Villages — no, the phenomenon is not limited to Roussillon 2004s — started bland. It took 48 hours to show its stuff, eventually piping savory talc and marzipan notes (Les Calcinaires, mais oui!) onto my palate. The blackberry flavors turned jucier, while spice notes emerged where none had been before. As it's roughly equal proportions of Grenache, Carignan, Syrah, and Mourvèdre, that is more in line with what I was expecting. This cost barely north of a Jackson, but was worth it in the end.

Good things come to those who wait, or at least to those who wait before pouring a wine down the drain on its first day.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Vouvray vs. Mosel: 2005 Demi-Sec Faceoff

I am assuming we all have a story of the day everything changed, when wine went from being an enjoyable commodity to being something more important. In my case, it was when I walked into a wine shop two years ago and asked the merchant what would go best with a wheel of Humboldt Fog cheese. His answer: "You should try a Vouvray. It will change your life."

Little did he know.

When I matched that cheese with a fairly humble 2002 Yves Breussin Réserve, my eyes rolled back in my head at least twice. It was the shock of the new; my whole body buzzed. My atoms never realigned as they were.

My obsession with Chenin Blancs from the Loire Valley continues to metastasize. Sec, vin tendre, demi-sec, moelleux — bring 'em on! If you ask me if I want a Chenin from the Vouvray, Savennières, Montlouis, or Layon regions, my answer will be, "Yes, please." I used to be content to buy one bottle at a time of a Huet, a Chidaine, a Baumard. Now I buy two at a time. And yet, I think, wouldn't a third bottle really help me track the wine as it evolves? We all know where this is heading.

Strange, then, that my admiration for the nerve, versatility, honesty, and transparency of Loire Chenin Blanc did not sooner translate to an admiration for the (quite different) nerve, versatility, honesty, and transparency of German Riesling. Chalk it up to my prejudice, ignorance, and carelessness. "Riesling — isn't that the wine of rich old Englishmen and young Americans raised on Coke?" Ah, but I know better now, with a special nod to the passionate Terry Theise and his insightful, grab-you-by-the-lapels catalogs.

With the leaves turning and temperatures falling, my thoughts turn to more serious whites. Let's have a few, shall we? For better comparison, these are both food-friendly, lightly sweet table wines from the brilliant 2005 vintage. Both will improve with age; these are snapshots destined to take on sepia.

Dr. H. Thanish Brauneberger Müller-Burggraef Juffer-Sonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese Mosel 2005
A draught of this is like a breath of mountain air, light and clean; and as the lychee and baked apple flavors resolve into lime on the finish, the wine starts pressing down on the tongue, the way a masseuse leans into your back with the heel of his hand. Not that you'd mistake that weight for anything heavy, or big, but it's persistent. White spice emerges against pasta with pinjur, while the sweetness, the acidity, and the food-friendly alcohol levels (9.5%) are that eggplant-and-tomato sauce's perfect dance partners.

François Chidaine Vouvray Le Bouchet 2005
Now this, by contrast, has weight. Yet it's a baby. It's so young. It's NASCENT. There's not much obvious about this organically grown demi-sec Vouvray, but pay attention to this quiet child and you might think he (Lorie Chenins are never macho but always male, in my mind) is a prodigy. Time will tell. Meanwhile, this happy baby is well-tempered and curious and not fussy. Telltale Loire beeswax hits the nose. Rich but nascently lifting notes of fig, pear tart, tangerine, and cinnamon-dusted baked apples consume every sense and resolve into an unmistakable note of ruby red grapefruit, whether or not it's confronted with spicy stir fry flavors — which which, of course, it pairs very well. Interestingly, the sweetness quickly spreads beyond the front of the tongue and resolves into an impression of flaky pastry. Give it a few years and this fucker is going to FLY.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

The Pride of Muscadet

I hate oysters. I'm not big on clams, crabs, or shrimp. I enjoy mussels and a lightly cooked scallop, but I very rarely eat them. So why the heck do I embrace Muscadet?

Ah, Muscadet, that bilgey briny little number, a dry white wine to be drunk but not thought about — to be seen and not heard, as it were, as you devour a plate of shellfish. Cheap and inexpensive. Fresh but not deep. Praised (lightly) by Hugh Johnson as an "appropriately watery" drink of "neutral limpidity."

Well, nuts to that! Hazelnuts, specifically, with a dollop of honey (shades of its Loire compatriots made from Chenin Blanc) and hints of lemon pulp. Citrus flowers scattered on a bed of rocks. Yes — complexity! And as with whites from other Atlantic-abutting regions such as Getariako Txakolina and Rías Baixas, a prickle of CO2 and a distinct oceanic salinity transmit vivid coastal images — I tip this fresh pale wine into my mouth and I see myself walking on the Oregon coast at sunset, the wind chapping my face as saltwater races up the beach, only to gently recede into the next wave. (I'm usually not cheezy and sentimental; forgive this honest trespass.)

So, yes, I pay attention to Muscadet, because winemakers like Marc Ollivier and importers like Louis/Dressner do. Ollivier, for example, hand-harvests old vine produce and ferments with natural yeast, yielding wine of great purity. Louis/Dressner then bring in Ollivier's wines and many other fine Muscadets as well, allowing we Americans to easily purchase them from local merchants.

Every white-fleshed fish turns this young man's fancy to Muscadet. But it will almost always be one from the subregion of Sèvre et Maine, the best zone in Muscadet, and it will always be sur lie — aged on its lees, its dead yeast, which deepens the wine. But no matter how deep, it will be subtle, so I avoid pairing it with strong-flavored food. The liberal use of garlic, for example, repels Muscadet as if it were a certain count from Transylvania.

A few facts before I launch into the tasting notes. First, Muscadet is made from the Melon de Bourgogne grape, which Burgundy rudely outlawed in the 16th century as other societies have outlawed nude beaches — as an eyesore and an embarrassment. After its sad trek westward to the Loire Valley, 17th century Dutch traders encouraged growers to cultivate this exile as a base wine for fortified concoctions whipped up in Rotterdam or wherever. Only now, it seems, is Melon de Bourgogne getting its due, sort of, even if it doesn't have "gobs of fruit," high alcohol, or attendantly high scores in wine rags. Lift that chin up, little guy, you have everything to be proud of!

These three wines are from 2005, a great year in Muscadet, and all can be found for around $12.

Chateau La Bidière Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie 2005
This is clean but round, with orange blossom aromas, good acidity, and a nice finish. This typifies Muscadet in my mind — not profound, maybe, but very fresh and very satisfying.

Domaine de la Pépière Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie 2005
Here's a Marc Ollivier production, and it's a step up from the La Bidière. Honey, minerals, a hint of lemon curd and salinity, and perfect mouthwatering acidity. The shape in the mouth is a zen stone, the finish is long and gorgeous, but above all, the purity is unbelievable.

Clos des Briord Cuvée Vielles Vignes Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie 2005
This is a subtle and truly elegant wine. The beeswax/honey/clover chord is a soft, pulsing drone atop a wash of saline breeze. It's well balanced and my mouth kept watering long after a swallow, even though there's nothing remotely tart about this wine. Honey, hazlenut, and lemon play in a rock garden on the finish. Terrific with tender tilapia draped in a dry rub. This was also raised by Marc Ollivier to be an upstanding member of society. Welcome it into your home soonest.

By the by, Louis/Dressner say that good Muscadet can age for 10 or even 30 years! This, too, goes against Muscadet's reputation. But as L/D have been right where others have been wrong, I'm inclined to believe them. I surely won't wait 'til 2035 to drink my remaining bottle of Clos des Briord, but I will wait a little while to test the assertion.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Ruchè: Late Entry for WBW 37

I didn't start this blog in time to "go native" for Wine Blogging Wednesday #37. If I had, I could have told you about a fantastic wine made from an Italian grape called Ruchè.

I seek out indigenous varietals of all stripes. The winemaker that spurns more marketable varietals to grow a Romorantin in Cour-Cheverny, or a Godello in Valdeorras, or a Ruchè in the Piedmont, is apt to be doing this out of passion, an important ingredient of quality. Second, the flavors are apt to be both unique and specific, to have something to say. I want to hear that voice, spoken in its native tongue.

The Luca Ferraris Bric d'Bianc Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato 2006 I had back in April is a wine with something to say.

But wait, it this really an indigenous wine? According to Gleave (by way of the Oxford Companion to Wine), the locals believe that Ruchè originated in Burgundy. Is only out of ignorance that we could believe it to be indigenous? Depends on what the meaning of is is, I suppose.

Whatever the case, this is a spicy and beautifully aromatic medium-bodied wine. The first draught shoves crushed blackberries, baking spices and a hint of bramble up the nose, while Bing cherry and dried herbs show up in the long, velvety, filling mouth. It's equally velvety on day two, but the blackberry aromas stitch into something deeper, subtler, more savory, but equally intoxicating. The tannins and fresh acidity are modest, substantive, and balanced; it's an excellent food wine.

Luca Ferraris aged this wine for 9 months in large, 25 hl oak casks.

I bought this on Cellar Rat's opening day, and the proprietor told me that in 15 years of buying wine, he had only sold three Ruchès. Well, I sure as hell had never heard of the grape or the Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato DOC, but after tasting this, I hope to hear still more of it soon.