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.