Saturday, December 13, 2008

Two Satisfying Piedmont Reds

I can't afford to drink the greatest Piedmont reds with any consistency — I have but three bottles of Barolo stashed away — and even the barberas from producers like Giacosa and Giacomo Conterno are special treats. Still, I'm not willing to settle for a simplistic wine; even a modestly priced dolcetto or barbera needs to be more than just juicy and vibrant. So I'm glad I recently found one of each variety that hit their typicité marks and still deliver that something extra at around $15.

Vivalda Massimiliano Monferrato Dolcetto d'Asti 2006
I've been too often disappointed by dolcetto to invest much time finding the better examples, but this one happens to be quite nice. Vivalda grows their fruit in Nizza Monferrato and vinifies the wine simply, using steel exclusively. I was a bit surprised to learn this, for the cherry fruit in the '06 dolcetto purrs rather than shouts and is balanced by a somewhat complex earthiness. The mouthfeel is complete. If you're serving risotto or truffle-flecked pasta and you don't have a Barolo handy, you could happily pop this cork instead.

Tenuta Arnulfo Barbera d'Alba Costa di Bussia 2006
Tenuta Arnulfo's vineyard is sited within Barolo near the commune of Monforte d'Alba. While Monforte soils are typically Helvetian, the soil at Arfulfo is mostly calcareous Tortonian marl. Arnulfo does not specifically state that this barbera comes exclusively from estate-grown grapes (the label says "estate bottled by..."), but barbera is planeted to a few hectares there and it wouldn't be unreasonable to assume that some proportion of the wine is made from these grapes. Whatever the source, this cask-aged barbera is young, juicy, and vibrant, with soft yet structured tannins, but there's more going on here than simple vitality, for the subtle earth, cola, and spice notes suggest nascent elegance. These subtler pleasures make all the difference, and I'd love to track this over the next two years.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

BYOB Excursion 2: Coast

Many moons ago several of us went to Coast to eat sushi, drink wine, and celebrate my friend Kyle's birthday. What is it about women and sushi? We were some of the only men in there, and it's a pretty large restaurant. Maybe I should be asking why the men were so few. The sushi was fresh, the ingredients creatively assembled, the tempura perfectly light and crisp (I usually avoid tempura), and of course you can bring any damn wine you please.

Huët Le Mont Demi-Sec Vouvray 2002
By the time I had arrived the boys had already opened this to sip in the waiting area. I would have placed this third in line, but I sure as hell wasn't going to refuse a glass. Not surprisingly, this was pretty tight and had only begun to open by the time we polished off the bottle, but even so it showed gorgeous purity, with lovely acidity, just a hint of sweetness, and long, gorgeous minerality. This youngster's really gonna be something someday.

Soutiran Grand Cru Champagne Brut n/v
Undoubtedly the wine of the night for me and for my dining companions, who oohed and ahhed as we noshed on light and crunchy vegetarian maki. I have no idea which vintage this was based upon, nor do I know the disgorgement date, but in any case this Ambonnay brut, which is dosed at 10.6 grams, was perfect. The bready / yeasty notes were not overly toasted one whit, and they were perfectly integrated with the chalky red and white fruit. The mousse was full and elegant, while the cut was marvelously precise. The energy here was phenomenal. The grapes (60% pinot noir, 40% chardonnay) for the Soutiran are not subject to chemical fertilizers or pesticides.

Chateau Carbonnieux Pessac-Léognan 2004
This is the wine I would have had us start with. Following up the Soutiran with this trim and reserved wine could have been disappointing, but the Carbonnieux had no problem holding its own. It was green-gold rainwater in the glass, so right away you can see that a light hand was used during the oak regime. The hay and apple aromas were somewhat muted, yet the balance and presence here is impeccable. The citrus and minerals on the palate were nicely sustained, and it paired nicely with the heartier plates we ordered. Still, if I had more of this, I'd wait another three to five years to let this develop further.

Austin Hope Rousanne 2004
We ended the night with this late-ish-harvest rousanne from Paso Robles producer Austin Hope, who sources the grapes from the Santa Lucia Highlands. In retrospect, we should have waited to digest our meal before moving on this this 4th bottle, as it was too big and heavy coming on the heels of the food and wine that had preceeded it. In fact, if I was to do this all over again, I would have paired this with braised pork and not have brought it at all to a sushi joint. Ah, but nothing ventured, and all that.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Still More Benefits From Red Wine

A new study has confirmed that red wine yields even more benefits than previously thought, per this article in The Onion.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Thanksgiving and CRB Gamay

Clos Roche Blanche Cuvee Gamay 2007The 2007 Clos Roche Blanche Cuvée Gamay took me over the moon on Thanksgiving. I roasted a boneless turkey breast (adapted from a Rachel Ray recipe, of all things) and reduced the crap out of some apple juice for the gravy, while my friends made black eyed peas with mushrooms, scalloped corn, green bean casserole, and sweet potatoes. Excepting the sweet potatoes, which were loaded with brown sugar and marshmallows, the CRB was brilliant with everything.

The wine was able to express its personality clearly without overshadowing, or being overshadowed by, the food. The dishes were earthy, peppery, and naturally sweet, and so was the wine. Just as importantly, the Cuvée Gamay had the structure and body to stand up to all that rich food and the acidity to refresh the palate and power me toward the next bite — it was so easy to keep going without feeling blurry or loaded down. Think of running hand in hand with someone who's running barely faster than you: you're in sync and pulled forward simultaneously.

Beyond its energy, what really got me were the subtle wood smoke tones, which rung as clearly on the palate as they did on the nose, and they ultimately made the experience great rather than simply appropriate and delicious. I'm guessing that the smokiness arrives courtesy of Clos Roche Blanche's flint and limestone soil, but what I don't have to guess is what I'll be serving with Christmas dinner.

Monday, November 24, 2008

I Second Best Wishes to Joe Dressner

Per Brooklynguy, I am hoping the best for Joe Dressner, who has been diagnosed with a brain tumor.

This has been a crazy year for cancer; so many of my friends parents have been treated for cancer. And my best friend has been in labor for the last 36+ hours. What the hell is going on???

Sunday, November 23, 2008

A Perfect Thanksgiving Wine

Note I said "a" perfect Thanksgiving wine, not "the" perfect Thanksgiving wine. There are so many wines, especially white wines, that are great for a meal of turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, yada yada. Off the top of my head, a lightly oaked white Burgundy, say, or a Vouvray vin tendre, or a leesy Chablis, or a lithe (neither rich nor sweet) Alsatian pinot blanc. You get the idea: wines that marry ballast and body with mineral-driven clarity. I hate the grandma stank of gewurztraminer, typically, and contra Eric Asimov I personally find that sauvignon blanc rarely fits with Thanksgiving fare, unless we're talking about the classic white Bordeaux blend of sémillon and sauv blanc.

Ah, but I babble. To the subject! On a lark last night I picked up the 2003 Vega de Ribes Penedès Sasserra Malvasia de Sitges to bring to a friend's house for dinner. Whereas a high proportion of malvasia is made into sweet wine, the Sasserra is dry, and despite its high alcohol content (14.5%) I hoped it would pair well with nibbles before the hunks of steak landed on our plates.

We actually got much more than we bargained for, which was immediately apparent when a complex yet nuanced array of yellow characters — flowers, lemon, honey, peach, almond slivers, and minerals — hit my nose. It's equally nuanced on the palate, assertive but not aggressive, and the creamy, slightly soapy body is balanced by grippy acidity, herbal tones, and a clean mineral energy that broadens on the finish. At $35 this isn't for everyday sipping, but on the other hand it's not an everyday sipper.

Malvasia de sitges is a very rare subvariety of Malvasia that is identical to malvasia delle lipari and a handful of other (also rare) subvarieties, and its name comes from its "hometown" of Sitges, the cosmopolitan Catalonian beach resort city — although I've no idea where within the Penedès region the grapes for the Sasserra actually come from.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Re: Our Lini So Nice!

Lini LambruscoMy experience with Lambrusco comes mostly from watching Riunite commercials as a young'un, so you'll pardon me if I was confused by the word "Labrusca" used for the NV Lini Lambrusco Bianco Labrusca. The Oxford Companion says that vitis labrusca is a Latin name for certain American grapes, and I was nonplussed by the idea of any Italian producer using such discredited grapes, even in a region as (overly) scorned as Lambrusco.

As it turns out, labrusca is, according to Lini importer Domenico Valentino, "the Etruscan name for Lambrusco which comes from the Latin labrum, meaning 'edge,'" as the Lambrusco grapes historically grew at the edges of the Etruscans' cultivated crops. And indeed, Lini uses only indigenous grapes, here 80% lambrusco salamino (the grape bunches apparently look like small salami) and 20% lambrusco sorbara, which is reputedly the finest of the 60 subvarieties of lambrusco. No contact with the grapes' red skins is allowed during fermentation and the bubbles are derived from the Charmat process.

Knowing all the above beforehand, I still would not have expected such an unusual and terrific wine. Seriously, I've never had anything like it. The Labrusca is creamy and fresh and gentle, with a sublime mousse, but most exciting is the barely-sweet and quite savory nuttiness, which recalls fino sherry in that regard. I associate nuttiness with age and/or oxidative wine making, but this wine is totally fresh, and while I do not believe that Lini is a natural wine maker, there's nothing confected about this wine. If Hugh Johnson himself came for dinner I'd proudly serve this as an aperitif, but as it has the cut and presence for prosciutto and fresh egg pasta, I could pop this open for dinner — as I indeed did, sans HJ.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Is Beaujolais, Is Not Beaujolais

The esteemed Marcel Lapierre raises a plush and beautiful Morgon that you and I both love. The 2007 Marcel Lapierre Vin de Pays de Gaules is a quaffable gamay from grapes grown (I think) just outside the Beaujolais appellation — hence the Vin de Pays label. I was disappointed after I first unscrewed the cap, as it came off as simple cherry juice, but as with any well-made Beaujolais it just needed a bit of time, for by night two some savory notes of clove, cinnamon, and cardamom join the cherry fruit. I would even go so far as to say this light-bodied wine is seductively light-hearted, charming me with silly jokes and looking at me straight in the eyes.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Chéreau Carré's 2002 Le Clos Muscadet

I have good news and bad news about Chéreau Carré's 2002 Le Clos Muscadet.

The good news is abundant. Any wine imported by De Maison Selections is no less than good, and this one is undeniably terrific. Bernard Chéreau has crafted a concentrated, elegant wine that's everything a great Muscadet should be. The grapes are grown on the schist and orthogneiss soils of the Chateau l'Oisiliniere, fermented solely with indigenous yeasts, and aged on the lees for 31 months. Six years after harvest I have the privilege of drinking this with a pan-fried halibut filet, with which it's perfect. Smoky minerals hit my nose and on the palate Muscadet's hallmark lemon zest and lemon fruit notes are in perfect proportion to the salt, the acidity, and the smoky minerals. The touch of creaminess on the palate makes this truly elegant.

The bad news is the price. I paid $30, and the suggested retail is $40. Most of you reading this will know that Ollivier's Clos de Briords is priced in the mid-teens and I'd put them toe to toe. And the Granite de Clisson ($20) is even better than the Le Clos. I would love to experience this wine again and again, but alas, the price.

I should mention that Chéreau's Comte Leloup de Chasseloir comes from 100+ year old pre-phylloxera vines planted on limesone and is supposed to cost $20. If I find it at a touch less the price, I'll definitely check it out.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

A Campaign Promise Fulfilled

I promised that I would drink the 2002 Huët Vouvray Petillant Brut on election night. In fact, I'd been saving it for a year for just that night. But I didn't follow through. Instead, capital-H History called, and I celebrated with 150,000 of my fellow Chicagoans at the Barack Obama rally in Grant Park.

I opened the Huët the following night instead. So let's just call the promise fulfilled.

This is an uncommon wine of uncommon beauty, an expression of chenin blanc I've never quite had. I could spend a lot more time with many more bottles to fathom its depths. That night, and the next, I found an aroma that reminds me of mustard seeds sauteed in clarified butter. The nose also showed deep honey wax and spiced apples. The mousse was fine and luscious, the yin to the precise acidity's yang. An astonishing depth unfolded over the long finish: the round texture gave way first to subtle bready notes and then to layers of salty minerals, zingy ginger, and at its core, a platonic ideal of green apple.

The Petillant Brut was everything I wanted it to be and everything I expected it would be. But until I actually experienced it, I couldn't really know it or feel it.

It's like the moment when Obama officially won Virginia. Yes, I expected the victory, but only when he had actually won the former capital of the Confederacy did the full weight of history press down upon me. Days later, it is still pressing.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Two For a Recession

Recent conventional wisdom had it that $15 is the new $10. But during a severe recession, $10 is the old $10. So here are two priced under $10 that put a lot of bang into my buck.

Monte Palma Rueda 2007
This 50/50 blend of verdejo and viura costs a mere $8 and it performs above its price point. If some Ruedas are saddled with obnoxious, even nasty residual sugar, most are of the clean-and-inoffensive camp. This is a notch above that, with its round body and suggestions of tropical fruit joined to crisper notes of apple and citrus as well as some interesting herbaceousness. For those who argue that Rueda should be based solely upon Spanish varieties rather than be blended with sauvignon blanc, this wine will probably reinforce your point.

Antigua Cava Mendoza Malbec 2006
Most Argentine malbecs are overextracted and sweet for my taste, but this is a dry and earthy malbec with lovely smoke overtones on the nose. It's medium bodied and its refreshing acidity showcases red fruits on the palate. To close, there's some nice spice on the finish. It's a complete and satisfying package that costs only $9.

Saturday, October 25, 2008


I've been feeling indecisive about a lot of things in the last few weeks, and likewise I've placed all manner of wine on my table. Take, for example, the three disparate reds below.

Albet i Noya Tempranillo Penedès Classic 2006
While Albet i Noya subjects the biodynamically-grown grapes for this wine to carbonic maceration and eschews oak entirely, this is nicely structured and not at all overly fruity. That syrah comprises 10% of the finished wine has something to do with this, but it's primarily due to its acidic spine. It's quite affordable ($14) and should go well with a variety of foods, from cold soup to grilled meats.

Vini Biondi Outis 2002
The volcanic soils on the slopes of continually-erupting Mt. Etna are extremely young and very black, so you'd be excused for presuming that the wine would also be black and brash. Instead, the 2002 Outis is red-fruited and quite the elegant number. Now, it helps that this nerello mascalese-based blend (some nerello cappucino is here) is sourced from 2,000 foot elevation vineyards, and so we get a quite acidic wine with chalky and smoky red fruit aromas and mineral-laden sour cherry and strawberry flavors. This very good food wine needs air and there's still a lot of life left in it.

Jean-Louis Chave St. Joseph Offerus 2004
If this is my favorite of the trio of wines mentioned here, just know that I'm a sucker for ageable syrah that's simultaneously rustic, elegant, and deep. I first drank this 18 months ago and it continues to evolve slowly but surely, and I recommend a good decant if you want to drink this in the near future. While the stemmy, almost gritty tannins have an elbow-throwing charm when first opened, only by night three are they fully integrated into a wine of structured, masculine elegance. It has a great spine of acid and minerals, the tannins are briary, and the grilled meat and blackberry notes are great on both the nose and the palate. If I can find a few more bottles I'll sock 'em away.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

J.K. Carriere Pinot Noir 2005

I love it when my informed guesses turn out well. Over a year ago I tasted the 2004 vintage of J.K. Carriere's "standard" Willamette Valley Pinot Noir — which is sourced from vineyards up and down the valley — and I was impressed to the point that I bought several bottles of the 2005, the vintage that was available. Until now I'd never actually tasted the 2005, but I can tell you right now that I'm glad I stocked up.

2005 was a genuinely cool vintage and if the vintage trends toward elegance, this wine follows through. Now, I can describe this as aromatic and well-structured, and I can tell you that it serves up a kaleidoscope of rhubarb, cola, cherry, strawberry, orange rind, damp red earth, and mineral characteristics, and I can say that the acidity is prominent and the tannins are just beginning to melt into the wine. But what you really need to know is that this is excellent with all kinds of food, from fresh heirloom tomatoes to a savory pasta, and on the third night open it was still truckin'. It's the kind of wine that gives Oregon pinot a good name.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Visit to Renaissance, Part 4 - Clos Saron

After the barrel tasting (see part 3), I was essentially finished with my visit to Renaissance. But I wasn't finished with my visit. You see, winemaker Gideon Beinstock also runs his own winery, Clos Saron, and he generously invited me down to his home vineyard.

I say home vineyard because his home and his vineyard are on the same few acres of land. No prizes for the genius who guesses the source for Clos Saron's Home Vineyard Pinot Noir.

Wait, pinot noir? In the blistering heat of the Sierra Foothills? Ah, but this is where the story gets interesting. But then, Gideon Beinstock is himself interesting. An Israeli native, he spent the 80s in France, where he worked with several winemakers. In California he was an assistant winemaker and then winemaker at Renaissance. The first wine that is "his" is a 1991 cabernet sauvignon.

Beinstock prefers to drink wines that are coming down from their plateau, when, as he says in his slightly pan-European-accented English, "they have nothing left to hide." He needs wine to be honest, although even when a wine is honest, he wants it to be more than that. I paraphrase here: "The first sip of a wine might be delicious, but what comes next?"

Back to that pinot noir thing. While we are now but one mile and a ridge away from the Renaissance vineyards, it turns out that the mesoclimate here is quite cooler. Whereas Renaissance is rarely hit with frost — the rampaging frosts of 2008 being a notable exception — it is a significant, yearly threat at Clos Saron. Beinstock explains that this 1,600 foot elevation, northeast-facing slope greets not one but two cool air streams that are funneled around a hill. He can look out his window in the morning and see a Y-shaped pattern of frost in his vineyard where the two air streams join.

Remarkably, the vines are planted on their own roots. When Beinstock and his wife Saron moved in, the site was already planted to cabernet sauvignon, and yet the grapes did not perform as well as they might. In 1995, then, he grafted pinot noir onto the vines (originally planted in 1980), then in '99 planted two more acres. Remarkably, these latter vines aren't yet producing much, as Beinstock forces them to compete with the grasses. The man has patience.

The soils here are considerably different than at Renaissance. There: granodiorite and a thin layer of clay loam. Here: alluvial layers of clay loam and granodiorite coexist with volcanic material toward the top of the property, and then toward the bottom of the slope we find a thick layer of volcanic ash as well as quartz. As Gideon pointed out the ash near a reed-filled hole, he noted that John McPhee's book Assembling California, which masterfully conveys the region's ultra-complex geology (I read it a while back), practically begins its narrative in the nearby area. Regrettably, man contaminated the area: when he dug to plant the 1999 vines, he found oil spills and machine parts, so this was probably an old manufacturing site or mill. Fortunately, the soil is almost returned to complete health, thanks to a biodynamics regime. This regime has also encouraged native grasses to return to the site, supplanting an invasive species.

One thing that Clos Saron does have in common with Renaissance is the extremely low yields, with 2008 clocking in at a mere 0.75 tons per acre! Now, some of this is due to the 2008 frost, which was quite bad, but Beinstock aims to keep yields low, regardless. One interesting point he makes about low yields is that, contrary to common belief, they do not increase body and richness. Rather, they increase aromatic intensity. Something to consider when you're drinking a Parkerized bottle of liquid road tar.

As at Renaissance, Beinstock irrigates minimally, ferments solely with native yeasts in open-top wood fermenter, and eschews sulfur at bottling. Likewise, here he pushed ripeness levels up in 2004 as an experiment; although having had to add water to the 2004 vintage with regret (not that I'd know it tasting the wine), he thus returned to his previous standard for ripeness, wherein the grapes are harvested at no more than 26 brix, and often less, with no need to adjust alcohol levels in the winery. The pinots clock in a just over 13%.

Home Vineyard Pinot Noir 2006
I will not describe any American pinot as "Burgundian." Just because a pinot is restrained and more earth-driven than fruit-driven, it is still its own thing, and hopefully expressive of its terroir. Still, I wouldn't fault anyone for using the adjective here, as this elegant wine is driven by earth and minerals, although it's hardly bereft of red fruits. It is also a very pure wine. It does need time, as the tannins and the finish are not yet resolved, and so has yet to become completely itself. But this is already very impressive. The vineyard is planted to a multitude of clones: 115, 113, 777, Pommard, Wente, and a few others.

Texas Hill Road Vineyard Pinot Noir 2006
Beinstock also farms the nearby Texas Hill Road site, which I did not visit. This wine is a darker animal than the Home Vineyard, with blacker fruit on the nose and palate. It has more power and less grace than the Home Vineyard bottle, but its earthy funk has its own beauty. The vineyard is planted exclusively to the 115 clone. Regrettably, a combination of frost, hail, and humidity destroyed 100% of the crop in 2007 and frost also affected the 2008 crop.

Syrah Heart of Stone 2004
Beinstock farms this syrah on Renaissance property. Now, whatever the drawbacks of having harvested later than is Beinstock's usual practice, this is actually a very pretty wine, with (as the name suggests) terrific minerality; you will not find "gobs" of fruit and/or baked characteristics. A la a Côte-Rôtie, viognier was added to the tune of 4%.

Holy Moly 2003
The first sip of this GSM (58% grenache, the rest evenly split between syrah and mourvedre) was so fruit-driven. Beinstock and I then started talking about the Loire (he is also taken by the way chenin blanc is expressed in the Loire Valley), at which point I admired two of his '71 Coteaux du Layon, and then I took another sip — but it was so tannic and structured, I thought he had poured the next wine. "Well, you've tasted a lot of wine today," said Beinstock. And it's true: though I had been spitting all day, I am not used to tasting so many different wines in a single day. So in addition to being easily distracted at the best of times, I was likely suffering from palate fatigue. I regret I must take this entire note with a grain of salt.

Black Pearl 2004
This is a blend of syrah, cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot, and sauvignon blanc (!). Beinstock likes to use petit verdot for its richness and spiciness, while the sauv blanc adds freshness and aromatic interest not unlike the role that viognier plays in the Heart of Stone. This vintage is ripe and very nice, but the 2006 vintage tasted from barrel struck me as deeper and more interesting.

By then the sun was setting and we said our goodbyes. As I drove my rented Versa back to Nevada City, I popped Rollerball's clamorous, shimmery new disc into the CD player and I rolled past rocky, green and gold hills. I thought about the good day, and the goodness of the day. I would return if I could and I will if I can...

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Visit to Renaissance, Part 3 - Barrel Tasting

After completing the tastings from bottle (see part 2), John Brooks and I drove back up to the winery to taste from barrel. We were greeted by Shawn, the cellar master, whose wine revelation came from tasting a 1988 Beaucastel. Now he gets to work hands on with many of the Rhône varietals that Beaucastel uses alongside the Bordeaux varietals.

As you can see from the photos, Renaissance ages much of their wine in barrique. Most barrels are 2-4 years old, although there's a smattering of both neutral and new oak. But they also have some old German oval barrels as well, which if my memory is intact was used for aging riesling in the old country, although Renaissance is not afraid to use them for cabernet and syrah.

Shawn was kind enough to run around during a busy time of year — the cabernet and syrah had only been harvested from the Granite Crown the day before — and as the barrel tasting session was quick, my notes were sparse. So I apologize for the brevity. Anyway, I only use proper nouns below when I am sure that I was tasting what will end up as-is in bottle.

semillon from 2008
Still cloudy like glacier water, as you'd expect from a wine just put to (neutral) barrel, this is already showing very well: it has terrific acidity and the minerality is strong.

sauvignon blanc from 2008
Renaissance no longer bottles a varietal sauv blanc, to the dismay of their older customers. And considering the length and spice I found here, could I blame them? I have a feeling that the Bordeaux blend, the Carte d'Or, will really be something in '08.

cabernet sauvignon slope 1 from 2008
I'll just admit right now that I can't say anything insightful; I am too inexperienced to taste such a young red to know where this is going. But it did strike me as good material. Sourced from slope 1, which I understand is not a source for the top bottles.

Syrah Vin de Terroir 2006
This stuff is absolutely phenomenal, with great balance and depth. This needs plenty more time, but already I'm getting violets for days on the nose.

Clos Saron Black Pearl 2006
Renaissance winemaker Gideon Beinstock has his own label, Clos Saron — more about this in the next post — and the Black Pearl is a blend of cabernet, syrah, a bit of petit verdot for richness, and possibly some other grapes (Beinstock has used sauvignon blanc in the past for this blend). This is a beautiful and multidimensional wine: like a great short story, I can come at this from many directions, although the minerality stood out for me.

Cabernet Sauvignon Vin de Terroir 2005
There's a lot to chew on here; my response to this is intellectual for the time being. It certainly has the potential for great harmony, as everything is in its place. Though it may not be released for many years, I will eagerly seek this out.

Granite Crown 2005
This cabernet/syrah blend is more approachable now than the above cab, and it's beautiful stuff. The licorice notes that are not uncommon in Renaissance wines are already apparent. It seems to me, based upon this wine as well as the '99 Le Provencal, that these Granite Crown blends are earlier drinkers when compared to the Premiere Cuvee or Vin de Terroir bottles. So stuff that info in your back pocket and keep it handy. Unless, of course, I'm wrong.

Up next: a visit to Gideon's own winery and vineyard, Clos Saron. It may be but a mile away from Renaissance, but it has its own story...

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Visit to Renaissance, Part 2 - The Tasting

Renaissance vineyards - looking down on semillon and syrah
Here we go with the tasting. As I mentioned in Part 1, Renaissance holds back many of their wines for years prior to release, which allows us to drink history. The practice also reflects the values of patience and generosity.

I was talking to Shahar, the new vineyard manager, as he finished his lunch with his toddler. As we discussed the winery's conversion to biodynamics and the difficulty in finding cow horns, his happy toddler kept plucking noodles from her bowl and placing them on his plate, giggling all the while. She wasn't playing with her food as much as she was having fun feeding daddy.

What follows are wines that reflect that generous spirit.

After speaking with Shahar at the winery, marketing manager John Brooks and I drove down to the tasting room. Midway through the tasting, we were joined by winemaker Gideon Beinstock. All the below were tasted from bottle and most were opened at least a few hours prior to tasting but not, to my knowledge, decanted.

Though each wine is distinct, the hallmarks of nearly every Renaissance wine, white or red, are: sane alcohol levels, excellent acidity, and most importantly, sustained chords of tensile minerality that become both deeper and louder over the wines' long lifespans. The mineral expression is particularly true (in all senses of the term) in the syrahs and the cabernets.

Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé 2007
As I mentioned previously, Renaissance makes low alcohol wines naturally, despite the climate, and here we have a wine that clocks in at a mere 12.4 degrees. A foxy note joins peach fruit, and with its good minerality and acidity, it drinks like a white, with excellent presence on the midpalate. I was unable to taste the '06 rosé, which a la Bandol had a significant proportion of mourvedre, but apparently it was quite a different beast.

Carte d'Or 2006
As you'll see in the next post, I was extremely impressed by the 2006 reds I tasted in barrel; my good feelings about the vintage extend to this Bordeaux-style blend of sauvignon blanc (60%) and semillon (40%). The grassy notes here are soft and there's just a hint of brown spices on the finish; even more exciting is a concluding note of ginger. It's really well-balanced and long-lived on the palate, and it hits but 13.2% abv. Wish I could have tried other '06 whites.

Roussanne 2004
This impressive wine leaves a broad impression in the mouth, but it's absolutely balanced. It's nutty but not waxy and it tastes quite young and fresh, with yellow orchard fruits predominate. Beinstock feels this will age for 10-15 years. 2004 was a warm vintage, and I am all the more impressed that this wine displays such balance.

Syrah 2004
In this vintage (and to a lesser extent 2003) Beinstock experimented with pushing up ripeness levels before harvest. The result is what you might call a "delicious vintage" — the wines are tasty, and they are neither overripe nor bereft of terroir, but the fruit envelops the mineral backbone like a pelt. It's quite a good wine, but I still want to pluck the fruit out of my glass to get to the bones. Beinstock says "I went too far," and since the 2005 vintage Beinstock again picks grapes at 26 brix or less; and he feels that 24.5 brix is the perfect level of ripeness here. In contrast, many California producers pick at 28, 29, or even 30 brix.

Mediterranean Red 2004
I smell a raspberry patch here, stems and all. I also smell some heat, but there's no heat on the palate, and this softly peppery blend of grenache (54%), mourvedre (26%) and syrah (20%) has a fair amount of tannins and structure.

Claret Prestige 2000
2000 is a vintage with a lot of fruit and richness, but as I noted last month, the wines are quite structured and, with its robust acidity and mineral frame, this long-lived wine demands further aging. Just terrific stuff. If only right bank Bordeaux were typically this good.

Cabernet Sauvignon Vin de Terroir 1999
John Brooks thinks this is perhaps the most elegant of Gideon's reserve level cabernets, and certainly I swirled and sniffed and swirled and sniffed this beguiling wine for some time, trying to get a handle on what it's all about. Even now, at nine years old, it's still young, fresh, and just beginning to exhibit its deeper nature. Behind the lovely black and red fruit, layers of clove, gravel, and earth keep unfolding on the finish. Interestingly, the wine's tannic structure sat toward the front of my mouth and not toward the back. No new oak was abused during the making of this wine. Note: "Vin de Terroir" is the label that Renaissance gives to their very best site-specfic wines, be they cabernet, semillon, or syrah. The grapes for this wine were sourced from slope 16 near the top of the mountain.

Le Provencal 1999
Renaissance now makes a line of wines labeled Granite Crown, which is typically (but not always) a 50/50 blend of cabernet and syrah. This was the first such blend and in this vintage was labeled Le Provencal. The nose here is rich, soft, and trends to blueberry-laden port. There's still plenty of structure here, but this wine is almost fully evolved.

Merlot 1997
I rarely take to even terrific merlot as it lacks the structure I seek. But this wine, which has 10% cabernets franc and sauvignon blended in, has structure in spades. The nose is dominated by dust, cranberry, musk melon, and mulberry. It's very drying on the palate, even if it was aged in 2-4 year old barrels, and it demands food.

Cabernet Sauvignon Premiere Cuvee 1995
This top-level cabernet was released in September 2007 — it took that long to come around. And what a wine it is, with the legs to last many more years. This has a lot of earth, gravel, and dry red dust notes, but in contrast to the above merlot, it's not at all drying. Rather, there's a hidden richness here, and it is a very elegant wine, with great balance and length. Again, no new oak was abused here. And you wanna know what's really crazy? The alcohol clocks in at 12.7 degrees. Yep.

Sauvignon Blanc Late Harvest 1991
We now enter the pre-Gideon Beinstock era; this was made by his predecessor, Diana Werner. This is very fresh tasting and it would be silly to leave this until after a meal, as it's so light on the palate with subtle ginger and brown sugar notes that you could easily pair this with a cheese course, if not a rich entree. Oh, and this was just released this last year! Astonishing.

Riesling Late Harvest 1985
Back in the day Renaissance made its name with late harvest dessert wines, including this beerenauslese-level riesling. Gideon notes the irony, however, that their sauvignon blanc has proven to be longer lived than their rieslings. This is very advanced in aged. It's still pretty tasty and the sugars are well-integrated, but this very dark wine lacks the required acidic snap and has little steam left (an overly long cork often resulted in an incomplete seal, which of course does not help with aging).

The tasting from bottle thus concluded, Brooks took me back up to the winery to taste from barrel, which I cover in part 3.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Visit to Renaissance, Part 1

On the road to Renaissance
In late September I flew into Reno, drove a rented car over the harsh Donner Pass, and wound my way through the semi-arid hills of the low Sierra to the hamlet of Oregon House, California. As The Pretenders' "Brass In Pocket" blasted from a Chico-based radio station, I reveled in the fact that I was in the middle of nowhere on my way to somewhere — the Renaissance Vineyard and Winery, the producer of some of the most distinctive and sometimes astonishing naturally-made wines found in the New World.

Anyone who has followed this blog knows that I'm interested primarily in French and Italian wines and rarely interested in California wines; and yet since tasting the revelatory 2002 Renaissance Syrah last year, I have been drawn to this producer. The cabernet and claret I tasted since then confirmed that this was a producer I needed to understand better. Thus, the visit.

More than a decade ago Renaissance made a commitment to producing terroir-driven wines by uprooting more than 300 acres of vines and focusing on the best 45 acres. So as you turn a corner and are greeted by a steep, terraced hillside that Matt Kramer aptly said, "looks like Hermitage," there are few vines to be seen; and in fact marketing manager John Brooks had to point out to me the cabernet and syrah vines at the 2,300 foot crest of the hill, the should-be-famous Granite Crown (although their best wines are often labeled "Premiere Cuvee" or the block-specific "Vin de Terroir" — "Granite Crown" is the name of a blend). Hidden from view were still more red grapes as well as white grapes such as roussanne, semillon, and sauvignon blanc. But more about these later.

Thanks to the gracious hospitality of John Brooks and winemaker Gideon Beinstock, I was able to spend five hours (!) touring the vineyards, discussing their viticultural and winemaking practices, and conducting tastings from both bottle and barrel. In fact, there's so much to say that I'll document my experience over four separate posts.

The soil at Renaissance
First things first: the site and the terroir.

This is an undeniably harsh land. The soil here is a thin clay loam and the rocky, decomposed granodiorte is sometimes only inches thick above bedrock. Look at that red soil, at that scrub! The vines here work hard. And if deep-rooted conifers cover many nearby hills, wine grapes are stressed by heat and low rainfall. Irrigation is a necessity. Happily, a spring burbles endlessly from the winery's property, which allows Renaissance to not only nourish their well-tended gardens but to also irrigate their vineyards without drawing from the highly stressed regional resources — as testified by a nearby reservoir, down to sad bones.

Still, Renaissance never use irrigation to plump up their wines like so many Hollywood starlets. Some vintages are rich with fruit, some are not, but are balanced in any case. Most reds clock in at 14% alcohol or less, and even some dry whites only hit the high 12s. What's the secret? I asked winemaker Gideon Beinstock. Even with the cool nights afforded by a high elevation site, how can you avoid high alcohol levels in such a hot climate? "We just pick before 26 brix," was his reply. Ain't no reverse osmosis here, my friends.

The people of Renaissance adhere to the principles of minimal intervention. They practice organic viticulture, use native yeasts exclusively, and add 35 ppm of SO2 at crush only — none at bottling. Few of the barrels are new; most are two to four years old; many others are neutral. Moreover, Renaissance began converting to biodynamics last year and expect to be fully practicing by next spring. And if that weren't minimal enough, they sold their bottling line last year and now bottle all their wines by hand.

Now, as I mentioned, this is an undeniably harsh land, and in the best years the yields are typically only 1 to 1.5 tons per acre. But due to a rare spring frost, yields in 2008 were reduced by up to 80% (!). Still, I was able to taste some 2008s just committed to barrel. And Renaissance executes the rare practice of releasing wines only when they're ready — some wines from the 1990s are only now being released — so we have the blessing of being able to taste history. More about this in part 2.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

J.K. Carriere's 2006 Releases

After trodding the dirt on Parrett Mountain, J.K. Carriere winemaker Jim Prosser led us back to the little white barn where he makes his Willamette Valley wines. Now, I started seeing a fair amount of high-end 2006 Oregon pinot on the shelves a year ago, but Prosser prefers to wait longer than most. His early drinker, the $24 Provocateur, was released back in May, and only as of September 21 did Prosser make available his 2006 Willamette Valley Chardonnay and his standard-bearer, the 2006 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir.

Now, 2006 was the second-hottest vintage ever in Oregon and you might expect rich, opulent fruit, for that is what dominates so many 2006 Oregon pinots. This, happily, is more classic, and even downright reserved. As with all Prosser's wines this is built for age and I simply have to reserve judgment; suffice to say that the elements are here and the boysenberry and cherry fruit is nicely balanced with the acidity, the earth notes, and proper (though hardly hard) structure. I'm looking forward to popping this starting three years from now, though it might need still more time.

I'm not so reluctant to judge the Chardonnay. As I wrote yesterday, it's eerily reminiscent of a good village-level white Burgundy, and if this wine will last for (at least) five years, I'm pretty dang enthusiastic about it right now. The wine was whole cluster pressed and cold barrel fermented (using only wild yeast) in neutral oak only — so fear not, my Parkay-phobic friends, this wine will not invoke any naughty scene from Last Tango in Paris. Its fleshy round body is shot through with lovely acidity and a quiet minerality, which gives it focus, while the flavors of fresh pears are accented by brown baking spices. Prosser made but 90 cases of this, so if you want to check it out, do so soon.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Parrett Mountain's Red Red Dirt

You know, one day I'm telling you that I'm off to Oregon and California, and short days later I'm telling you I'm back. It would seem unremarkable, except for the interceding bank failures, financial system collapses, and Sarah Palin interviews. Ominous.

Yet if we are doomed, that is our future, not our present. So it's as good a time as any to celebrate dirt.
Coriander at J.K. CarriereYes, it was a great trip. Between a baby shower, a birthday dinner, and sundry visits with friends and family, I only had so much time for wine. But I made a special, specific visit to the Renaissance Vineyard & Winery in the Sierra Foothills — more about this soon — and prior to that, in the northern reaches of the Willamette Valley, I dropped by J.K. Carriere to check out their just-released 2006 pinot and chardonnay, that latter of which is eerily reminiscent of a really good village-level white Burgundy.

But prior to tasting the wines, we — I, my family, and other admirers of J.K. Carriere's natty wines — went to a 700 foot elevation site on Parrett Mountain to mark the groundbreaking of their forthcoming winery and vineyard.

As my sister's dog Coriander (above) discovered, the red Jory soil is the same as you'll find in the nearby Red Hills of Dundee, and it likewise stains your shoes like makeup. Less typical are the many cobblestones here. Winemaker Jim Prosser remarked that he had considered encouraging the formation of a trout pond, but the site is so well-drained that even after a heavy rain there was no runoff collected in the divot at the base of the slope. It's two to four feet down to bedrock across the 40 acre property.

Five years from now, when our economy will surely be back on track, Jim Prosser will harvest the first of his own grapes. In the meantime, we will muddle through, and Jim will do somewhat better than that with fruit from dry-farmed vineyards as diverse as Temperance Hill, Shea, Momtazi, and Anderson Family.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Off to Oregon and California

To the west coast I go; and what visit would be complete without visiting a few wineries? On Sunday the 21st J.K. Carriere will release their "regular" 2006 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. Even better, they are celebrating the groundbreaking of their new vineyard site on Parrett Mountain. I will be there to help them break ground.

Later in the week it's off to the Renaissance Vineyard & Winery in the Sierra Foothills. For an idea of what I'll experience there, see the post on Wine Terroirs, complete with many pictures. I'm very excited for my visit in general and I'm looking forward to tasting some new releases. Of course, this is Renaissance, so among their newest releases are a 1992 Riesling Late Harvest, a 1996 Cabernet and their 2002 Granite Crown, which is a blend of syrah and cab.

This post reminds me that I forgot to tell you about the 2000 Renaissance Claret Prestige, which exemplifies what it means to be a living wine.

On day one, strong graphite, cassis, tobacco, lavender, and blackberry jam aromas leap from the glass. But pay attention and you'll also find sage, cumin, and black pepper. It's tannic, yet it has almost bracing acidity, with deep, thick, sweet flavors of blackberry and cassis. Nothing overcooked or jammy here; it's a pure wine with a lot of structure —and yet after all these years, it still needs time.

A lot of time, actually. On day three, the wine's inherent minerality has only begun to emerge, and tons of rich fruit are still in the foreground. Promisingly, a hint of worcestershire joins the purple and black characteristics. Yep, this wine's life is just beginning.

Interestingly, this is a blend of 24% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc, 15% Sangiovese, 12% each Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon, and 6% each Syrah and "miscellaneous" grapes. Not your typical claret, eh? And yet the Claret Prestige does resemble a naturally-made right bank 2000 Bordeaux — or at least make you think it's what one should be like. In any case, it's quite nice with pork in a balsamic reduction.

I'll post a full report upon my return.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Two 2006 Italian Reds

Sorry for the spotty posting. As always, though, I have some things to say about wines that are anything but spotty; in this case, two 2006 Italian reds. I didn't deliberately hunt down either the vintage or the country. Instead, it was like they came to me.

Carpineto Chianti Classico 2006
Carpineto may have a modernist reputation, but that doesn't mean they produce New World lookalikes. Rather, this is fresh, balanced, and honest Chianti Classico that flashes its charm subtly. The spicy, earthy aromas hit me first; it's a moment later that I notice the layered sangiovese aromas of fresh and dried cherry, lavender, and thyme. On the palate the energy is simultaneously vigorous and relaxed, with lovely acidity and velvety tannins, and over the next few years I'd drink this with anything this side of shellfish.

Canaiolo makes up 10% of the blend and all the grapes are dry farmed. The fermented wine is aged in cask for six months.

Giuseppe Nada Dolcetto d'Alba Casot 2006
I am not a label whore, but the drab rose printed on the Nada labels suggested a drab wine. Now I feel dumb, because this is the finest dolcetto I've ever had (not that I've had tons, but still...)

This traditionally-styled, single-vineyard dolcetto has all the bright red fruit you'd expect, yet its depth and complexity is top of the pops. With each sip its many layers of fruit, earth, and savoriness are driven by refreshing acidity and supported with substantial, well-structured, fine-grained tannins. It was almost a shame that my friends and I drank this with a mundane pizza — even if it was a good pairing.

This wine was $18 and so good for its price that I rushed out to buy Nada's 2001 Barbaresco Riserva (also from the Casot vineyard) for $32. I've no doubt it was money well spent.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


I had written a rant on John McCain's spoofulated campaign, which is now predicated on ginning up phony outrage and distracting us with tinkling shiny objects, but I removed it. This man says it best.

I am, by the way, saving my only bottle of the Huet 2002 Vouvray Brut Pétillant for election night in hope of a good outcome. Something deep, grounded, and alive, without excess frothiness. It should pair well with victory.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Is Italian, Is Not Italian

As if anticipating the cooler weather to come, I recently opened two reds that I'd normally pair with the heartier fare of autumn. This is actually par for me — I think of the wines I'll want in the coming season, then anticipation turns quickly into action. (The equal and inverse result: I have a few leaner whites and rosés that are begging to be drunk soon, but I'll get to those soon enough...)

Ferrando Nebbiolo di Carema White Label 2003
You will learn a lot about the Carema appellation generally and Luigi Ferrando specifically if you read importer Neal Rosenthal's Reflections of a Wine Merchant. I'll let you read Rosenthal's personal perspective on your own, but suffice it to say that Carema is a tiny, 40 acre appellation that lies in the steep, slate-strewn hills of subalpine Piedmont. Nebbiolo is the grape, but, as Rosenthal puts it, "[it] is an elegant and graceful wine with a subtle tenacity that is breathtaking... Ferrando's Carema does not have the force or tannic presence of its regal brethren, Barolo and Barbaresco; but there is a balance and energy within this wine that gives it punch and staying power."

Staying power? Yes, I should think so. Ferrando's Black Label is a reserve bottling made only in the very best vintages; this is the regular White Label release, and even so, five years on it is only beginning to mature. For now, it requires a serious decanting at the very least, what with its rock-ribbed acidity and still-resolving tannins. There's a serious sour cherry component here and behind its armor there's the suggestion of depth. I'll wait at least five years to open my next bottle, after which this will be very, very good.

Palmina Mattia 2004
Half a world away and one vintage on comes this refosco-dominated blend from Palmina, the Santa Barbara-based winery that's dedicated to growing Italian varietals. Refosco is a high-acid red grape indigenous to Friuli and Slovenia and, in Palmina's able hands, it is no less acidic or refreshing. In fact, this deep purple wine's acidity was unyielding on its first night, but it showed nicely on night two. The acidity is energetic and the tannins are fine-grained yet substantial, and so the aromas and flavors of plum, graphite, dried herb, currant, and smoke are simultaneously bright and dark.

Plum? Graphite? From refosco? No, that would be the 30% cabernet franc and 15% merlot talking. Refosco speaks of acidity and pepper, and the Mattia pairs well with both peppered fresh heirloom tomato and spicy pork sausage. Although it's showing some depth now now, this should catch fire in the next few years.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Jean-Paul Brun's 2007 Beaujolais Blanc

I am just over the moon about the 2007 Domaine des Terres Dorées (Jean-Paul Brun) Beaujolais Blanc Chardonnay. I know that's a mouthful / eyeful, but at the end of the day, it's just Jean-Paul Brun's most recent chardonnay.

Many of you know Brun as a leader among natural wine makers and that he has run afoul of the French certifiying organization INAO for making red Beaujolais that is maybe a little too natural, a little too distinctive, and a little too good. For example, he uses almost no SO2 and eschews the industrial yeast employed by most Beaujolais bottlers that turn their oversugared, gamay-based wines into banana-scented plonk. Brun makes the good stuff.

But I am talking now about his Beaujolais Blanc, made from 100% chardonnay.

Brun's unoaked chardonnay is unusually interesting, complex, and delicious for a wine this affordable, which I nabbed for $17. Peaches, cream, hay, sage, toasted almonds, and fruit blossoms make themselves known on the nose. These characteristics are nicely integrated on the palate and joined by well-structured citric acidity, a creamy texture, beautiful brown spices, and pure, gorgeous minerals on the long finish. It frankly reminds me more of a Rorero Arneis than many a white Burgundy. Whether you agree with that or not, you may well agree that this is fabulous stuff for short-term drinking (the plastic Nomacork further ensures, I think, a somewhat brief drinking window).

For all the body this wine has, its subtler charms were, to my surprise, lost when I paired it with a creamy walnut-and-basil pasta dish. I mean, everything was quite nice and no one lost a limb or anything, but next time I'll pair it with a white fish.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Two California Syrahs

Syrah is the most abused grape. Yes, chardonnay is too often the Switzerland of white wines and cabernet sauvignon is in many hands merely a weed. But syrah is different. Outside of Australia, which churns out oceans of sweet and/or overbaked shiraz, the grape is typically the product of the artisan producer. And yet too many of these wines, particularly those from the new world, are little more than blueberry pancake syrup.

The best syrahs, though, can do what almost no other red wine can do, which is marry elegance and power into a succinct package, and transmit terroir with transparency. In short, they can be profound.

I drank the following 2005 California syrahs with relatively high expectations and at the end of the day I honestly didn't expect to play good cop / bad cop. Really, I only thought I'd be talking about how the two wines differ. But they really illustrate qualitative differences.

Rhys Alesia Syrah Fairview Ranch 2005
Given the praise that Eric Asmiov lavished on Rhys's pinot noir, I went ahead and bought a few bottles of both the 2006 pinot and the 2005 syrah that Rhys makes from purchased grapes and bottles under the Alesia imprint. I haven't opened the pinot but I did open the syrah, the grapes from which were grown in decomposed granitic soil in the Santa Lucia Highlands. I found it disappointing, to say the least. It's incredibly funky when first popped and the wood wasn't yet well-integrated, but the non-existent finish was the bigger problem. These issues were somewhat resolved by day two, and a nice spice note emerged, but the sweet-tannin-and-blueberry-juice character of this wine remained simplistic.

Now, this syrah actually has plenty of acidity, (probably) thanks to the cool-ish climate of the Santa Lucia Highlands, and soil seems right for syrah. Whatever the issue, this is a disappointingly simple wine. Although as so many California syrahs plain old suck, it does OK when graded on a curve.

Lavoro Syrah Sonoma Coast 2005
Without a doubt the best new world syrah I've had comes from the Renaissance Winery, who grow their syrah (organically) in the granitic soils of the Sierra Foothills. That said, the new Lavoro winery has released a syrah that, along with Reininger's 2003 Walla Walla syrah, is a pretty close second. At $45+ it's a special treat.

The Lavoro has muscle, sinew, and grace. It's well balanced, with minerality, acidity, and spice accompanying the smoky black fruit, and even a hint of red currant shows itself subtly. It's fermented as well as aged in oak, yet the wood is well-integrated, and it's very nice with grilled pork, grilled fish, and even green salad. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, a food-friendly Sonoma syrah!

But wait — there ain't no granite in the Sonoma Coast AVA! And the climate might just be hotter! So why is this so much better than the Alesia? Perhaps its the in-barrel fermentation regime, which the winemakers claim yields a wine that "is unparalleled in silkiness and texture." Or perhaps the quality is due to the iron-rich volcanic soils. Or maybe it's the climate. I can't really say...

I do have one caveat about the Lavoro: it started to fade after 48 hours. So unlike Renaissance's syrahs (let alone a traditionally-made Cornas) I wouldn't expect to cellar this past 2012. Nevertheless, Lavoro affirms that the new world can produce syrah of restraint and character as well as power. I'm glad to add another such syrah to my list.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Oddities From Oregon

Vinifera grapes are not indigenous to the United States. Your pinot, your syrah, your chardonnay cuttings were all imported from Europe at one time or another. But why stop at these? Why would an American winemaker not graft still other varietals into her vineyards? The obvious answer is the marketplace — if you struggle to pay the bills bottling a hallowed and well-known grape like riesling, bottles bearing words like aligoté and arneis are surefire financial black holes.

And yet there are American winemakers who, bitten by one bug or another, insist upon cultivating obscure varieties despite the marketplace. There are even those wineries like the Santa Ynez-based Palmina that are almost solely dedicated to producing wines from refosco, malvasia, and other grapes that would draw a blank stare from most of us. So at the end of the day, I admire the dogged persistence of a winemaker who wants to do more than what is expected of him, who wants or needs to pursue his obsessions.

Here are a few whites I've experienced this summer from Oregon producers who have branched off from the more common pinot gris and chardonnay. Despite my admiration for the winemakers' willingness to embrace the different, not all the below wines are successful. Too many of them lack typicity and terroir — a problem typical of new world wines. That's not to say that these issues cannot be overcome in future releases. And one wine in particular is very good.

La Bête Aligoté Newhouse Vineyard 2005
I start with the saddest report. This Oregon producer actually sourced the aligoté — the other white Burgundian grape — from the Yakima Valley in Washington. It's yellow like watery piss, with blurred orchard fruit and oak on the nose; I presume that oak chips are to blame. It's unbalanced and flabby, with an unpleasant woodiness on the finish. As Charlie Brown might say, bleah!

Adelsheim TF (Tocai Friulano) 2006
Adelsheim produces a fascinating, killer pinot blanc but this tocai friulano — called TF to sidestep confusion with grapes actually grown in northeastern Italy — is not killer. It's a perfectly OK wine, but you'd never mistake it for the crisp yet substantial native wines that can pair so well with honeydew and prosciutto. It actually struck me as just generic, decent-quality white wine. Adelsheim is a good producer, though, so perhaps it's only time before they get this right.

Reustle Grüner Veltliner Prayer Rock Vineyards 2006
Have you ever heard of an American grüner before? Neither had I. It comes from the Umpqua Valley, well south of the Willamette Valley (it qualifies for Southern Oregon appellation status), and it's a good wine. Sweet and slightly smoky aromas of apple, pear, and citrus zest lead to flavors of the same, with the emphasis slightly on Meyer lemon. It has a nice round body, with clean and soft acidity, good presence on the midpalate, and a subtly persistent finish. So what's the problem? I discern no terroir, no special sense of place, or even varietal typicity. This is more like a pinot blanc than a grüner, as it's completely lacking the characteristic white pepper and young green vegetable notes. Still, it's a good teens-priced wine.

Ponzi Arneis Willamette Valley 2006
Arneis was nearly forgotten or extinct when, back in the '60s, Bruno Giacosa rescued it from obscurity, and it performs very well in the sandy Piedmont soils north of Alba. But though the Dundee Hills are somewhat distant from northern Italy, and though the soils are red volcanic soils rather than sand, Ponzi's arneis displays varietal typicity. Not only does it display the peaches and cream characteristics of a Rorero, it has a zingy spice (due, perhaps, to its whole cluster pressing) that really livens things up. Soft hazelnut and almond aromas add interest. Finally, it's clean on the palate and its sustained finish helps it match well with greens and other cold vegetables.

I should mention a few other Oregon wineries trodding less-worn paths — the tempranillo and albariño wines from Abacela deserve a post of their own — but these mentions will have to wait. Meanwhile, leave a comment about your own experience with oddities from the new world.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Sparking Aglianico? What the...

You and I both know that sparkling wines are made in every corner of the wine world, and yet the origin of some of these wines still surprises me. Take, for example, the 2004 Cantine del Notaio La Stipula Brut Rosé. I do not deliberately seek out sparkling wines from southern Italy, let alone vintage-dated bubblies made from biodynamically-grown aglianico sourced from the Aglianico del Vulture appellation. So when one presents itself, how can I pass it up?

The La Stipula is made using the "Metodo Classico" and certainly the cork popped with a good deal of force. In the glass this pretty, rhubarb-colored wine bubbles aggressively, and you'll get a snootful of aerosolized wine if you're not careful. It's worth the risk, though, to inhale the earthy and tart aromas of cherry, strawberry, and (yes) rhubarb. The mousse is creamy on the palate, and again the soft earthiness prevails, with enough sweet-tart fruit to balance things out, as well as some lovely spice and minerals on the finish. I wouldn't say that I'm licking a volcanic rock here, but the dark minerality that's typical of Aglianico del Vulture comes through in this bright wine.

Moreover, it's actually tannic, which makes a mockery of the producer's advice that we drink the La Stipla as an aperitif — it demands food. On the first night it was a nice great match for baked sea bass, creamy polenta, and a green salad, while on the second, it went well with spicy Thai curry.

All this said, this is not a particularly deep wine, and at this price (almost $40) certain grower Champagnes would be a better choice for many occasions. But if you're looking for a unique bubbly that showcases its terroir honestly, and if you're going to serve it with a meaty fish — again, this was terrific with the baked sea bass — this is a fine choice.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Mad About Mad Men

I just started watching the first season of Mad Men on disc and it's sucking me right in. All the actors are terrific and some are great, but my favorite so far is John Slattery, who plays senior partner Roger Sterling. My upstairs neighbors must think I'm a loon, because any time he's onscreen I'm howling with laughter — his timing is perfect as he delivers lines like, "Consider the product: He’s young, handsome, a Navy hero. Honestly, it shouldn’t be too difficult to convince America that Dick Nixon is a winner." Obviously you have to see it to believe it, but that leads me to my point: what are you waiting for?

Saturday, August 2, 2008

A Few Summer Whites

Like all y'all, I've been drinking whites for the season — and not a single sauvignon blanc is among them! Here are a few that I have had.

Fattoria La Torre Montecarlo 2006
Never heard of Montecarlo? Neither had I. Turns out this is Tuscany's smallest DOC and, according to the Oxford Companion, it's best known for its "international" plantings. This white wine is a blend of (mostly) Italian and (some) French varietals — 60% Trebbiano, 15% Vermentino, 10% Pinot Bianco, 10% Sauvignon Blanc and 5% Roussanne, to be exact — and the wine is Demeter-certified to boot. It also happens to be terrific. Aromas of dried herbs, nuts, and tropical fruits waft subtly from the glass. In the mouth it's round yet precise, with the body for grilled fish, the fruit and brown spice to match the accompanying peach salsa, and the herbaceous acidity to stand up to a green salad. It's also excellent with dry and salty cheese.

Meinklang Grüner Veltliner 2007
Here's another Demeter-certified wine, and at $13 it's a very good value. It definitely puts the "green" in grüner, thanks to its qualities of fresh herbs, cucumber, pea, and tart green apple. It needs just a bit of time to round out — it was most expressive at the end of night two, with some peach, cardamom, and cinnamon beginning to emerge. There are a few curves on its body, but the emphasis is still on its mineral and acid-driven spine.

Willakenzie Estate Pinot Blanc 2006
A bit of a mixed bag, this one. On the one hand, it has an endlessly fascinating nose of fruit blossoms, peach, apple, pinto beans, and stone. The acidity has vavoom and the mouthfeel is full and creamy, and the finish is long and peppery. On the other hand, the finish is also slightly and off-puttingly metallic, and a bit of heat lingers.

Sylvain Langoureau Saint-Aubin 1er Cru En Remilly 2006
White Burgundy a summer wine? You must think I'm foolish to say so, and yet its weight and grace are appropriate for the season. I served this with grilled fish, with which it went very well. This receives an artful touch of barrel toast — it's subtly smoky and nutty — but this does not interfere with the generous pear and apple aromas. The pure minerality keeps on humming on the finish and it's nicely balanced with the fruit and the cinnamon-inflected spice. While this particular south-facing vineyard is just a grape toss away from Chevalier-Montrachet, Saint-Aubin is in the mind's eye tucked into the back folds of Burgundy and its reputation, to the extent it has one, is as a place to look for good values. With this experience, now I see why.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

BYOB Excursion 1: Mado

Zug was in town so we went to Mado, a new Wicker Park joint that does the whole "the farmers just brought us produce this morning and we'll cook it up simply" thing. I know a lot of foodies are just so over the whole concept but it's ultimately a traditional approach to food that I find extremely satisfying, if done with care and a dash of creativity.

Another reason I chose Mado is that it's BYO. I am increasingly attracted to BYO restaurants because while I am a haphazardly decent cook, I simply haven't the talent to frame certain wines the way they should be framed. And so I kick off the premiere of what should be a semi-regular series, the BOYB excursion.

Case in point: a 1997 Domaine du Closel Savennières Clos de Papillon should be reserved for a good meal, and so I brought it with appetizers in mind. At 11 years old this wine is performing very nicely, thank you very much, as you would expect of a well-made Savennières from a highly-regarded vineyard. It's amber colored and its honeyed nose tricked my friend into thinking this would be a sweet wine; and while it's anything but austere, it's not sweet. It is a full, almost rich wine with characteristics of overripe pear, honey, porcelain, and wool, and it performs beautifully on the palate, with a slight prickle of ginger and a poised, elegant finish.

Our delicious appetizers framed the wine very well. The Closel was good with our cold carrot soup, very good with the coddled farm egg, zucchini and almond dish, and absolutely beautiful with the waxy yellow and green beans that were tossed with basil and lemon. Zug loved the coddled egg best, whereas the ultra-fresh, snappy dish of beans was my favorite.

Up next was the main course, and for this we pulled out the 2006 Damiani Meritage from the Finger Lakes region of New York. I've never had a Finger Lakes wine, as they're exceedingly rare in Chicago, but I would have thought that the first one I'd try would be one of the area's vaunted rieslings. Instead, Zug brought this Meritage — 42% cabernet sauvignon, 33% merlot, and 25% cabernet franc — all the way from his hometown of Ithaca, so it would have been churlish to have not to open it for our entrees.

You wanna know something? I like Damiani's Meritage better than 95% of the west coast red blends I've had. It's lean, polished, full of character, and most impressively, very well balanced. Its juicy, sour cherry and red berry attack resolves into cassis and graphite on the midpalate, and well-integrated oak provides a hint of spice on the finish. Its acidity is so fresh and lively that it actually reminds me of a good Barbera, and the wine ended up overshadowing my decent yet rather basic hangar steak and gorgonzola polenta. It was somewhat better with Z's better cucumber-festooned white fish fillet.

A side note about the alcohol levels here. The Meritage is but 12.9%, which certainly contributes to its old school claret feel. The Closel pushes it at 14.7%, yet it too is balanced, and not the least bit flabby or hot.

Despite my unexciting steak, I give a big thumbs up to the entire night. Really, I am still thinking about those waxy beans. Oh, and I snuck out the unfinished wines at the end of the night — both do quite nicely on day two with pasta with pesto, and both should drink well over the next five years.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

What I Can't Tell You, and What I Can

I'm listening to a new album that's odd and noisy and so beautiful in spots that it makes me misty. I can't tell you what it is, since it's a leak from the Internets, but I promise I'll actually buy it when it is released this fall. As a former record label owner, I can be trusted... at least on this score.

What I can tell you is that I drank a few glasses of the 2006 Schloss Gobelsburg Grüner Veltliner Gobelsburger tonight with a potato salad. It's beautiful, but I'm actually thankful it's not so beautiful that it makes me misty, lest I turn into some kind of puddle. Anyhoo, this terrific entry-level GV smells of Chinese peapod, spiced pear, yellow apple, stainless steel, and rainwater. On the palate it's lithe yet mouthfilling, as the creamy body compliments the clean acidity and slightly salty finish. And oh yes, the classic GV white pepper dances on the tongue as well. An umami character is nascent; wait a few years to bring on the mushroom notes. I should like to pair it with anything this side of a steak, although Indian food gets a special nod.

I can also tell you that I'm working on a site redesign. The wines I like are distinct, and I at least attempt to write in my own voice; so while Blogger's templates are nice, I'd like the web site to look like its own thing, too. The new look is coming shortly. The cat picture stays.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Demi-Sec Faceoff #2: Chidaine vs. Keller

It's time for another demi-sec faceoff, following the one from last October. In one corner we have François Chidaine's 2005 Les Bournais from Montlouis sur Loire, and in the other corner, we have Klaus-Peter Keller's 2006 Riesling Spätlese from the Rheinhessen. Gentlemen, put your gloves on.

François Chidaine Les Bournais from Montlouis sur Loire 2005
The Les Bournais is a young vine cuvee from Chenin Blanc grapes planted in 1999. Chidaine apparently feels that this is perhaps his best terroir in Montlouis, and the clay and limestone soils found here are more akin to Vouvray than the clay and silex typically found in Montlouis (source: Peter Liem). In fact, the name of this type of limestone is bournais, so don't forget to tell your friends. Chidaine grows all his grapes organically and yet prefers to not label his wines with this information.

The Les Bournais is a BIG wine from a big ripe vintage, and at first its astonishing 47 grams of RS dominates the palate in a single-minded attack. I may call it a demi-sec, but most people will call it sweet. It needs time, so I sampled it over four days. By the end of this period, it had turned into a deep, smoky, honeyed wine with considerable heft; it was almost crunchy, as if I were biting into honeycomb. If it's not as precise or deep as a wine made from older vines, it's anything but flabby. The finish is most impressive, long and golden, the pear, almond, hazlenut, apple, and honeydew flavors lingering beautifully.

Weingut Keller Riesling Spätlese Rheinhessen 2006
Whereas Weingut Keller was previously known for its sweeter bottlings, young Klaus-Peter Keller took over from his father in 2001 and has hence made it his mission to craft exceptional dry riesling. He's been so successful, in fact, that his Grosse Gewachs (great growths) and his cult G-Max bottling command stratospheric prices and are in such demand that mere mortals like myself may never lay eyes on them, say nothing of nose and tongue.

Fortunately, Klaus-Peter still crafts off-dry and sweet wines that are more readily available. This one, his basic spätlese, is golden, pure, and precise, with lovely texture from entry to finish. The filigreed sweetness on the attack is completely integrated with the pure, appley acidity, with a mouthfeel that's full without being heavy or viscous. One of the interesting things is that it doesn't have the minerality that his dry wines apparently do, but I didn't notice at first, as the finish is nonetheless clean, long, and fully-present. What was readily apparent to me is that it didn't have the lime twist on the finish that I often find in slate-driven Mosels, and indeed, Keller's vineyards in the Rheinhessen are of clay and limestone.

So who's the winner? The answer, my friend, is that you are, should you choose either of these beautiful wines, and doggone it, people will like you. As with all things, the question is of utility and context.

The Les Bournais is a big, big wine and in the short term I'd decant well ahead of time, then pair this with a great chevre (Humboldt Fog, anyone?). In ten years the sweetness will surely be less overt, the sugars integrated, and thus ready for richer main courses that feature cream sauces, braised meats, or carmelized vegetables. Keller's spätlese is more ethereal, more filigreed, and less sweet than this Chidaine bottling, and in the short term it is more flexible at the table; you could pair this with summery dishes, Asian cuisine, or cold meats. Of course, it will be just as long-lived as the Les Bournais, and it will also gain plenty of complexity over time.

Friday, July 11, 2008

My Little Hondarrabi

Just a quick little note here on a red Txakolina — yes, a red Txakolina! — from Gorrondona. If you've experienced a Txakolina it's probably been one of the whites, which feature Atlantic salinity and usually a prickle of CO2. And they're lovely and affordable, not unlike Muscadets.

This wine, though, is made from the red hondarrabi beltza grape and it's terrific. The grapes are not only farmed organically, but they're culled from 150 year old pre-phylloxera vines. The end result is a wild, brambly wine that delivers pure and precise dark cherry and loganberry fruit, earth and minerals, and a clean but racy acidity. Yes, I know that "racy" borders on the cliché, but there's a lot of energy here, and this wine walks that knife edge between wild and civilized, encapsulating the positives of both without any of the negatives. Lovely stuff.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Surprise, Surprise; or, Learning My Lesson Again

In the spirit of Rational Denial, a lovely new blog that Brooklynguy turned me on to, I like to experiment, to keep wines open for a few days just to see what happens. So you'd think that I wouldn't be surprised when a wine sheds its baby fat and turns from big fruit to something more complex and elegant. But it just ain't so, as it's a lesson I apparently need to learn again and again.

The 2006 Emilio Bulfon Pecòl Ròs La Santissima, a red blend from Friuli, simply didn't impress me the first two nights it was open. Sure, it showed plenty of licorice, cardamom, earth, and plum on the nose, but for all its crazy indigenous varietals — it's a blend of piculit neri, refosco, fogiarin, and cjanòrie — its big, forward, spicy fruits and lack of structure made me think of merlot, and it didn't impress me in the way of Bulfon's racy, varietal bottlings of piculit neri and fogiarin.

I skipped this on night three and on night four (tonight) I figured I'd just have to toss it. Not so fast! The Pecòl Ròs still has that big black smell but it's more refined on the palate, the acidity more overt and racy, but what's particularly nice here is the briary earthy tannins that coat the tongue. All in all it's a more interesting and balanced wine, and it's proving itself an able partner with pork pan-fried with flat parsley, garlic, and sage.

Now, would I buy the 2006 Pecòl Ròs again? No. Among other things, I still prefer Bulfon's straight-up piculit neri, which has more acidity and more distinct characteristics of cinnamon, rose petals, and earth, and which happens to be cheaper to boot. There are other, more interesting reds for less money, and judged on its own merits, this wine is good rather than very good. But the experience makes me more likely to investigate Bulfon's other wines rather than less, and it reminds me (again) that wines are alive, and spending even two days with one is — as with a person — often not enough to know it.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

WBW 47 - S is for a Surprising Salento

The silly theme for this month's Wine Blogging Wednesday is, um, a letter. The letter S. As in "Today's episode of Sesame Street was brought to you by..." At first I thought this was lame, a cop-out, but then grew to embrace it, as it could mean just about anything I wanted it to mean — and I am nothing if not free range (read: Animal is my hero).

I toyed with the notion of "S is for Silent S," because tonight I had Chidaine's 2005 Les Bournais from Montlouis Sur Loire, and it's a terrific demi-sec from young vines that went beautifully with my creamy, walnut-flecked pasta. But I decided to hit a twofer instead: "S is for a Surprising Salento."

Perrini Salento Rosso IGT 2004

Salento photo
Salice courtyard photo by Nuez
You've undoubtedly seen Salice Salento in your local wine shop, probably on the cheap rack. These wines are frequently value-driven reds made from Puglia's native negroamaro grape. Given that Italy's boot heel gets hot, hot, hot, you'd be right to assume that most wines from this region are large framed, easy drinking reds made for early consumption, although one twist on this formula is that Salice Salentos can also have a stemmy / herby / spicy interest to them as well.

All this said, this tank-aged, organically grown blend of negroamaro and primitivo is surely unlike any Puglian wine I've ever had, given its brownish tint, its middleweight profile, and its very fresh acidity. It's a bit disjointed at first but everything smooths out with air. The mature nose features lavender, cinnamon, anise, lemon rind, and plum, and these characteristics are joined by blueberry and cranberry on the palate. This makes for a considerably more interesting wine than any Salice Salentino I've ever had. The tannins are smooth, and the wine finishes with decent structure and length.

So why the jump in quality over your regular wine from Salento? The first obvious answer is the Perrinis' dedication to organic viticulture. But the grapes are also grown on hillsides near the sea, which subjects them to temperatures cooler than those found in much of the flat Salento peninsula. Furthermore, as explained on the Polaner Selections web site, the Perrinis built an underground cellar, which as they say was "a necessary outlay to make truly subtle wines as opposed to the often too-heavy-handed fermentations of the native red grapes." Score another one for temperature-controlled fermentation.

All in all, this was a nice surprise from Salento. And now, I return to my Le Bournais...

Monday, June 30, 2008

Coupla White Rhones

I quite irresponsibly skipped out on posting for the recent WBW white Rhône event, so here are the notes I meant to post way back when. Each are around $14 and are good values.

Philippe Faury St. Joseph Blanc 2004
Philippe Faury makes a clean and lovely Côte-Rotie, and that's an apt description for this 60% Marsanne, 40% Roussanne St-Jo blanc. That said, the wine is just short of exciting. Pear's the fruit here, and soft nutmeg and apple skin comes across as well. Medium-bodied and nicely focused on the palate, with good length, and I'd pair this with white-fleshed meats.

Auguste Clape Saint-Péray 2005
You probably know Auguste Clape as one of Cornas's leading vignerons, and I certainly have loved the very limited experiences I've had with his distinctive syrahs. Now color me impressed by this golden beauty. It's 100% marsanne and it showcases a rich nose of honeycomb, banana, baked apple, and lemon, but while full-bodied, it's elegant rather than over the top. It shows great presence at the midpalate and an acidity that purrs throughout the long finish. The soft brown spices, marked by coriander in particular, are beautiful. I'd love to see what becomes of this wine in two years.

I was hoping to report back on the Abacela's Estate Grown Viognier from 2007, launched straight outta Southern Oregon's Umpqua Valley, but the bottle I tasted may have been in shock, as it showed none of the life of the previous two vintages. Fortunately I have one more bottle left, so I give it another month or two before making a somewhat definitive statement.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

An Interesting 2008 in Store for Oregon?

I'm a big fan of the National Weather Service's web site and troll it daily. It seems the NWS is predicting a cooler and drier 2008 than normal in Oregon. And excepting one brief heat spike in May, the Willamette Valley has also had a very cool spring. Rainfall has been average in most months, but in McMinville, rainfall was quite a bit lower than normal in February and May.

Provided the vines don't get too water-stressed — and yes, many good vineyards there are dry farmed — this could be an interesting vintage, particularly for those of us who prefer the cooler vintages.

Monday, June 2, 2008

A Dark Day in Illinois

Crap! I wasn't paying attention and June 1 has come and gone. That was the day that

HB 429 [took] effect. The new law [strips] Illinoisans of their right to have wine shipped to them from out of state wine merchants... "Illinoisans will lose access to tens of thousands of wines that are not made available in Illinois by its wine distributors or retailers so that the profits of a very small group of very powerful wholesalers can be protected," said Tom Wark, Executive Director of Specialty Wine Retailers Association.
So sadly true. I believe in buying locally, or at least in buying my Loire wines locally (I ain't gonna buy no Illinois wine, bub!), whenever possible. But the fact is, there are many, many wines that are simply not available to me. The wines imported by Jenny & François? Not distributed in Illinois. The wines imported by Petit Pois? Not distributed in Illinois. And so on. Sure, I am generously allowed a few cases of wine direct from American wineries, but there is more to life than American wine. And unless and until all current-release imported wines are distributed here — and I eliminate rare back vintage wine of domestic or foreign origin that's sold online, just to be generous — the Illinois wine buyer is cut off from experiencing all s/he can experience; and the money pocketed by out-of-state agents will probably not otherwise flow to in-state agents.

So won't this simply increase the likelihood that Illinois distributors will pick up such at-the-margins wine? Hardly. Distributors are consolidating, merging. That's not a healthy environment for marketplace diversity, certainly not in the short term.

Boo-hoo, right? Well, you gotta look at how this legislation was passed — and as Mr. Wark notes, "What we are seeing is political payoff to alcohol wholesalers for the more than $6.3 million they've contributed to Illinois state political campaigns since 2000." Sounds spoofulated to me.

Before I get off my soap box, I have one more thing to say. How do we know that wholesalers paid off our legislators? We know thanks to Barack Obama. His "legislation, passed in 1998, banned most gifts by lobbyists, prohibited spending campaign money for legislators’ personal use and required electronic filing of campaign disclosure reports... The disclosure requirement 'revolutionized Illinois’s system,' said Cindi Canary, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform."

Did Obama's legislation stop the payoffs? No. But it does make it easier to hold the responsible accountable; and that is why, in the AP article, names are named and amounts are listed, e.g. "One Senate sponsor of HB 429, James Clayborne, Jr., has received $85,000 from alcohol wholesaler interests since 2000, including $15,000 since the legislation was introduced."

That Obama made a choice not only to sidestep the corruption endemic to Illinois (and no, he didn't do a thing for that Rezko guy) but to help expose it tells you a lot about who he is. Even if he does prefer beer!

(PS - the odious Ken Starr represents the the Specialty Wine Retailers Association in a legal capacity. My support of the association's argument is in no way an endorsement of his own fetid puritanism of yore. What, were all the other lawyers taken or something? Sheesh.)