Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Another Cannonau From Sardinia

Ambito 2007 Cannonau di SardegnaPinot noir is frequently described as a "difficult" grape. That makes sense — it's literally thin-skinned, fussy in the vineyard, and requires the right conditions (and guiding hand) to yield a wine that's simultaneously deep and graceful. Grenache is never described as difficult, but in its own way it strikes me as just that. Grenache may grow easily and be found at a variety of latitudes in warm climates around the world, but it too requires the right conditions (and guiding hand) to yield a wine that's simultaneously deep, graceful, and transparent. I mean, not everyone in the Rhône is Château Rayas, right?

Grenache — called garnacha in Spain and cannonau in Sardinia — is typically a juicy grape, and a lot of times this means the fruit will be very forward, plush, simple, and often blowsy. So it's often blended with other grapes to provide acidity, lift, depth, and additional interest. But as Rayas proves, grenache can have all these things on its own if all the conditions are right.

I'm not going to tell you that the $17 2007 Ambito Cannonau di Sardegna produced by the Cantina Sociale della Vernaccia has the depth or grace of a $100+ bottle of Rayas Chateauneuf-du-Pape, but I will tell you that this wine, as with the (only) other Sardinian cannonau I have tried, is plenty more transparent than your typical bottle of varietal grenache. Heck, I reckon that even noted grenache-hater Lyle Fass would appreciate this. Yep, it's juicy and imbued with dark, slightly-baked fruit, but it's neither plush nor blowsy. Instead, it's restrained by a strong undertow of juicy anise, bitter pith, wild herbs, and firm, dry earth. It'd be great if it was more structured, but it definitely features a nice slap of acidity.

My attempts to learn more about this wine have been frustrated. The producer's web site mentions nothing about the Ambito and US importer Selected Estates has zip on any of the producer's wines. So I've no idea how the grapes were raised or if this was aged in tank, concrete, and/or oak (although obviously not much of the latter, if any). What I can tell you is that it was terrific with a cashew and herb-laden pasta and I'm pretty sure it would be even better with lamb.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Difficult, But Surprising

2002 Bea Rosso de VeoI hit Avec with a few friends last Friday night and spotted a wine from Bea I'd never heard of before: the 2002 Rosso de Véo. I immediately made a few assumptions. First, I assumed that the 2002 vintage in Umbria was less than optimal, as I knew was the case in the Piedmont, the Southern Rhône, and in many other European regions south of the 47th parallel. Next, I assumed that as it was bottled as a rosso, it would be a sangiovese-driven wine. Third, I assumed that since this was a Bea, it would be well worth drinking no matter the vintage or the exact composition.

Well, two out of three ain't bad. As it turns out, the vintage was indeed terrible, plagued with rain and hail, which the Beas dealt with by salvaging the grapes they could salvage and bottling the entire output as a declassified vino da tavola rather than producing their typical range of DOCG and DOC wines. So sagrantino is in the driver's seat here, augmented by montepulciano and sangiovese. But I didn't guess that on Friday, as it lacked the muscular tannins and assertive black pepper character typical of sagrantino.

Which is not to say the wine itself was lacking. The Beas themselves describe the vintage as "difficile, ma sorprendente," and had I known beforehand all they had to go through to produce this wine, I would have said the same thing, because I thought this wine was glorious, with a depth you don't expect from rain-diluted grapes. The structure here comes more from acidity than tannins, but what lovely acidity to frame the cherry fruit and slightly meaty notes. With its generosity and its silky, lithe body, the wine was effortless with our food, from the house-made sausages to the pan-roasted salmon to the snail polenta. The entire experience seemed effortless and generous, thanks to the hard work in both the kitchen and in the winery.

The Beas' achievement here is all the more remarkable as they did not (and never do) add sulfur, yeast, stabilizers, or external enhancers of any kind. They work hard and do not believe in shortcuts. The results speak for themselves. I am normally loathe to purchase $50+ wine at retail, let alone stock up on several bottles for the long-term, but with the Beas making a deeper and deeper impression upon me, I now know what I need to do.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Drinking Subzero

With the wind chill making it feel like -3 Fahrenheit, is there any better time to be drinking Muscadet? Well, it's what I've been drinking the last few nights — specifically, Henri Poiron's 2008 Domaine des Quatres Routes Sèvre-et-Maine. The only background info I've found on this wine comes from Jim's Loire, and then only that this domaine (of the two that are Poiron's) is sited on schist, a bit unusual for this granite-dominated appellation.

When I first opened it I thought it a dead ringer for a Chablis, but soon enough the seashell characteristics turned into the more quintessentially Muscadet characteristics of lemon and salty rocks. It shows good concentration and weight, and for all its clean, acidic snap it's a pleasantly warming wine, just the ticket for an absurd cold snap.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The First 2008 Pinots From Oregon

Last year I speculated that 2008 could be an interesting vintage in the Willamette Valley, as the long-range forecast called for a cool and dry summer. It turned out to be just that. In fact, winemakers were concerned that the delayed budbreak and the cool conditions combined would not allow the grapes to ripen properly, particularly if rain hit during harvest.

Not only was there no rain at harvest, but Indian Summer conditions allowed the grapes to ripen evenly and well. Winemakers were ecstatic about the potential quality.

I've now tasted two 2008 Willamette Valley pinots — both of them, coincidentally, made from certified biodynamically grown grapes — and things are indeed looking good, especially as the acids in both these wines are particularly nice. Montinore Estate aims for translucent purity, and if their 2007 was too light and tart, thanks to that challenging and wet vintage, their 2008 Estate Pinot Noir is just right. It's fresh and lively, with really nice acidity, nifty cherry fruit, and a light sprinkling of earth. I dig its vibe. It should deepen over the next year but it's fine to drink now. And at $19 a bottle, I like it even more! (Sidenote: these guys also make an excellent and quite dry gewurtztraminer.)

The 2008 Select Pinot Noir from Brick House Vineyards is really impressive, if painfully young — it's prickly, almost carbonic at first, and this will require some time to settle down. As with the Montinore, I'm really impressed by the quality of the acidity, as it's strong and robust but not brittle or thin. There's good depth to the fruit, and that red Ribbon Ridge earthiness is screamingly pure. I know that "elegant" is one of the most overused words in the wine world, but I can't think of a better one to sum things up. Give it some time so it can let it all hang out. (Sidenote: these guys also make a terrific gamay.)

Thursday, November 26, 2009

My Decanter (or, Anticipation)

Decanting Baumard's 2005 Cuvee le PeonHappy Thanksgiving, everyone. I'm hosting a gaggle of people and I've been merrily planning and cooking for the last several days. For example, I've already made the broth for the mushroom risotto, baked the Indian sweet potato pastry spirals, cooked the fiery sweet potatoes which I'll broil right before the meal, and made the Indian-spiced bean and vegetable salad. Later today, I'll make another vegetable salad (daikon, carrot, and green bean, blanched and julienned and dressed with a soy-based sauce), squash stuffed with bacon and apple, and tofurkey. Hey, I like tofurkey!

While these dishes may not sound traditionally Thanksgiving-ish, they are earthy much like the more traditional fare. So I still need to serve earthy, medium-bodied wines, just as I would for a more obviously traditional feast.

To that end, I've lined up the gorgeous 2002 Dirler Schimberg Pinot Gris, the elegant 2005 J.K. Carriere Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, and for those who want a more full-fruited red wine, the 2006 Domaine Gayda Chemin de Moscou, which is a Vin de Pay d'Oc from a 200m high vineyard in the Malepere appellation north of Limoux (see Google map) that's 55% syrah, 40% grenache, and 5% cinsault. We'll actually start the meal with a shot-sized pour of Isastegi Basque cider to accompany an arugula salad, and then at the close of the meal, I'll serve the 2005 Baumard Cuvée le Paon, a botrytised Layon wine that Baumard makes in only the best vintages. (Backup wines in case of extra guests or cork taint: Carriere's 2005 Chardonnay and the lovely 2008 Tenuta delle Terre Nere Rosso from Mt. Etna.)

The Carriere pinot has great structure and acidity and I will definitely need to decant it a few hours before the meal. The Paon, however, really needs a decant — it's outrageously young and the Baumard house style is reductive — so 12 hours ago I decanted it into... an old glass coffee carafe that I salvaged from a dead coffee maker. Yep, that's my decanter. It's perfect: it's wide, easy to clean, features a pour spout that makes double decanting a snap, and was absolutely free. And it of course works. I'm happy to report that some of the Paon's cavity-inducing baby fat has been shed and it's growing deeper and more complex, with excellent acidity and those quiet and remarkable tones of bitter herbs that I love in chenin.

OK, it's time to start the last of my cooking — no time to lose! Happy Thanksgiving to all of us.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Loire Transmitted Via Baudry and Puzelat ca. 2007

My cat doesn't like having a dog in the houseAfter I fell in love with dry and demi-sec Vouvray some years ago, I was driven to learn more about Loire chenin, and so I crossed the river to Montlouis and went downriver to Savennières. I began reading about reading about the nearby appellations, and soon enough my palate was making loop-de-loops throughout the Loire. Hello, Bourgueil, hello, Chinon, pleased to meet you. I was initially more intellectually engaged by Loire reds than emotionally engaged, but then I found some that changed that dynamic, although doubtlessly my palate became more open to these wines simply by virtue of exposure.

The rains of 2007 in the middle Loire did not necessarily cause dilution, but acid and tannin levels are typically lower than in the more structured vintages that surround it, and people more experienced than I say that 2007 Loire reds are early drinkers compared to 04, 05, 06, 08, and (it is thought) 09. That is, while my favorite producers' wines are transparent in every vintage, the wines from 2007 will likely express the terroir and the vintage more quickly and are less apt to last. I continue to put this received wisdom to the test.

Thierry Puzelat Le Telquel (lot 2007)
It's now more common for American shoppers to see Loire reds made from grapes other than cabernet franc, and among the 500,000 cuvees that Thierry Puzelat makes, both with his brother under the Clos Tue Boeuf moniker and on his own, is this 100% gamay, a negociant bottling sourced from a variety of vineyards in the central Loire. Back in August of 2008, Mr. McDuff reported that there was "no mistaking it for anything other than Gamay" due to its pure and bright red fruit. With a further year's evolution under its skinny belt, I actually could mistake this for something other than gamay, but I would not, I think, mistake it for anything but the Loire.

Certainly with its nose of black cherry, smoke, roasted barley, black olive, and worcestershire sauce, I wouldn't peg this as Beaujolais — the olive note in particular recalls, say, Saumur, although the barley and smoke notes push this wine closer to the Clos Roche Blance 2007 Gamay. The Telquel is fairly concentrated and the texture is more rustic than refined, and driven by robust cherry-tart acidity. There's plenty of primary, non-sweet fruit on the palate — tangy plum, mostly, with a hint of olive — yet it's just starting to turn autumnal, with aspects of dried leaves and brown earth minerality.

Is this an expressive early drinker? You betcha. I suspect the acidity will seem harsh after the fruit fades but I expect this to drink very nicely over the next 6-12 months.

Bernard Baudry Chinon Les Granges 2007
Baudry's entry-level Les Granges, per the excellent profile at The Wine Doctor is "a wine produced from 6 hectares of vines planted on alluvial sand and gravel soils on the banks of the Vienne between 1985 and 1988; when the Vienne bursts its banks the vineyard can flood, and Baudry has been known to undertake pruning from a rowing-boat." Um, wow.

Les Granges is meant for early drinking — at least by Baudry standards. I'm not sure whether this sees oak or not. The Baudry web site mentions nothing about oak aging, but I've read elsewhere that it is aged in older, more neutral oak. It hardly seems to matter, as I am consistently bowled over by the purity, elegance, and transparency of M. Baudry's wines (even the 2003 Les Grézeaux was astonishingly elegant given the crushing heat of the vintage).

My rule of thumb is to wait three years before opening better Loire cabernet franc, a rule that even this meant-for-early-drinking wine validated to some degree, as it was fairly tight when first opened. But no worries: over the course of the evening it slowly revealed aromas of coffee, smoke, candied ginger (!), sweet black cherry, and especially iodine. It also became very expressive on the palate, as the flavors of cherry, graphite, and blackcurrant are nicely framed by (and integrated with) both acidity and tannins. Finally, there are fine, pure, iodine-rich minerals on the medium-long finish.

It's a mystery to me why I don't have more Baudry in my life. I think that's a mystery I should solve.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

If Acid Is Your Crack

Seguinot-Bordet Chablis 2007If acid is your crack, then set down that glass of Muscadet, stuff $20 in your pocket, and find the friendly local dealer who has a bottle of the 2007 Domaine Seguinot-Bordet Chablis to sell you. "Nervous" barely begins to describe it — it's more like electric. Zap!

You may want to pick up some mussels on your way home and steam them with butter, for this is a delicate wine that's easily overwhelmed by heartier fare. For example, I tossed sauteed onion and ginger into quinoa and the wine worked well with this dish, but it got lost when I paired it with roasted vegetables (potato and carrot), even though I did a simple prep of olive oil, salt, and pepper.

That surprised me a bit, as the wine has a chalky, smoky top note of caramelized lemon peel that I thought would work well with the roasted veggies. It's also creamy on the palate — the acidity isn't tart or underripe — and rich in iodine, particularly on the long and poised finish. It also has great structure. But for all its smoky exuberance, it's definitely delicate, at least at this point in its young life.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Zinfandel Counterprogramming

It's a shame that zinfandel, a grape that even when rendered well does not make my favorite wines, is subjected to so much abuse by too many California winemakers. Most of these wines strike me as way overripe and overblown, and I've tasted a few that go even beyond that, as if they were chaptalized with blackberry pancake syrup. Too few producers, such as Ridge, produce more balanced renditions.

I'm happy to say that Graziano made a balanced 2004 from the Eddie Graziano Vineyard, where the grapes are grown organically. Black pepper is far and away the dominant characteristic here, and that's because the fruit is not big and bruising and overripe. The wine does have one big flaw: per the fact sheet (PDF) it was aged in 30% new, heavily-toasted oak barrels, which gives it a sweet polish that obscures the ruddier aspects of the wine much like cellophane obscures your grandma's nice couch. (And now I want more than ever to taste the Dashe L'Enfant Terrible.) But even so, this went well with spinach lasagna and a cheddar-inflected risotto cake.

Better yet and cheaper still ($14) is the 2006 Monte Rosso Primo Rosso, also made by the "Graziano Family of Wines," which is a blend of zinfandel, nebbiolo, carignane, sangiovese, and negroamaro. Its slightly sweet tannins are balanced by slightly tart orangey acidity, while the medium-bodied mouthfeel is soft yet nicely structured. There's a nice zing of black pepper to compliment the generally red-fruited flavors (esp. currant), while a darker note of slightly bitter licorice provides a welcome complication. In other words, it's more interesting and complex than its big brother, and it worked well with enchiladas.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Reds in the Finger Lakes

Watkins Glen, Finger Lakes NYI visited a friend in Ithaca recently and we hit a couple of wineries on the southeast shore of Seneca Lake before we hiked up Watkins Glen (pictured at right). Our timing was great: we were swamped by heavy showers during the wine tasting, but the skies parted before our hike, just as we'd hoped.

The Finger Lakes is of course known for its riesling, but it's tougher to ripen reds adequately in this climate, and whatever the effects global warming might have, the region is still subject to periods of bitter cold in the winter and hot, humid conditions in the summer. Nevertheless, the two wineries we hit both focus on reds.

Up first was Shalestone Vineyards, who proclaim that "red is all we do." Despite their specialty, I was distinctly underwhelmed, as their entire lineup — from the cabernets to the merlot to the pinot to the meritage — tasted exactly the same: simple yet vague, with the barrel influences overcoming whatever terroir / varietal expression there might have been. The one exception was their Synergy blend that's 50% syrah; it was so short that it tasted like nothing at all.

Our experience at Damiani Wine Cellars was considerably better. I'd tasted their 2006 Meritage previously, thanks to a generous gift from my friend, and I'd admired its balance, its Loire-like weight, its lightly spiced minerality, and the way it hadn't been knocked up by oak or overextracted. During the tasting here I walked around the winemaking facility and saw that Damiani do use new French oak, but the oak doesn't overwhelm any of the wines. I was particularly pleased with the pinot noir, as every one in the lineup, from the $8 2006 (simple yet tasty) to the $32 2007 Reserve (more substance and complexity), drank as true pinot, with the light weight and refreshing, savory/sweet cherry aromas I look for. Interestingly, Damiani claims that their vineyard includes limestone as well as slate, which likely helps matters (or does for the reds; I found their semi-dry riesling dull).

As an aside, I received a press sample of the 2007 Heron Hill Blaufrankish Reserve from the Keuka Lake area back in July. Matured for 18 months in mostly Hungarian oak (70% new) and described by the winery as "opulent" and "hedonistic," I found that it announces itself on the palate with a blast of brisk, orangey acidity, sweet-tart flavors of pomegranate and mulberry, and a hint of white pepper and minerals. These elements are integrated, yet somehow they sing the same high note; even over three nights of tasting the wine felt one-dimensional rather than complex, and its thin orange-and-mulberry acidity seems to overrule the other characteristics. This wasn't an off bottle, but it seems strange that others seem to have had a different wine than I experienced.

Anyway, the rest of my Finger Lakes trip was pretty cool. We hiked in dramatic shale gorges, waved at Carl Sagan's house from afar, and had a couple of low-stress and delicious meals at the Pourhouse in Trumansburg, where I discovered the excellent Southern Tier IPA. Cheers to Ithaca!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Green Shoots?

Egly-Ouriet Champagne Brut There's a lot of economic pain in our future but I'm hoping we've started to turn the corner for real. Industrial production is "growing seriously fast," the dollar's decline will increase prices on imported wine but help US manufacturers and the workers they employ, and several people I either know or encountered just found jobs in the last week.

To celebrate a good friend's newfound employment, we opened a bottle of Egly-Ouriet Champagne Brut "Les Vignes de Vrigny" 1er Cru, which is 100% pinot meunier from 40 year old vines — quite unusual. This is a joy to drink, a wine of real cut and verve. It's autolytic, with aromas of toasted hazelnuts and salted crackers (not the bread or brioche found in many Champagnes), but I also smell yellow flowers, chalk, and pears. It's beautiful, creamy, and long, with the racy acidity driving red fruits down the sides of the tongue with lovely cut and precision. The mousse is full, fine, and alive. This spent 40 months on the lees and was disgorged November 2008, so likely there's a lot of fruit from 2004 in here.

Going way downscale, I recently bought a terrific bottle of the 2004 Agricole Vallone Salice Salentino Vereto Riserva for just $11. Wine in Chicago seems to be more expensive than everywhere else on the planet (among other things, we have the highest sales tax in the nation), so you can probably find this for less. This medium-bodied wine shows bright cherry fruit, solid acidity, and some zingy pepper notes that showed great with pizza. The 10% of the blend that's malvasia nera is used to soften the wine; the other 90% is negroamaro. It's nice to find an affordable, everyday wine with real character and life.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Malvasia From the Piedmont

Casalone MonemvasiaNow here's something interesting: a totally dry white malvasia produced in the Piedmont. Malvasia bianco is widely found in warmer "Mediterranean" regions — it's relatively common in southern Italy and in Portugual, for example — and it's often used to make sweeter wines, such as Madeira.

Malvasia bianco (there are red sheep in the malvasia family) is known to travel inland and north somewhat. For example, Lopez de Heredia uses a small proportion of malvasia in their white Riojas, and it's found to some small degree in central Italy. The Oxford Companion to Wine even says that "The finest dry white varietal Malvasia is made in Friuli," and it's certainly news to me that any malvasia is grown there.

Casalone claims that their Monemvasia is produced from grapes initially imported from the Greek village of Monemvasia by the Venetians in the 13th century. This sounds more like marketing than literal truth to me, but this non-DOC, non-vintage (but surely young) wine sure tastes like a malvasia grown in the sandy soils of Monferrato. For one thing, it's all peachy and aromatic like a larger-framed (if less creamy) arneis. For another thing, it has a certain subtle je ne sais musk that's totally crisp and and is clean and dry on the finish.

This works well with a variety of raw and cooked vegetables and would probably be great with prosciutto and cantaloupe.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Griffin or Jackalope?

JackalopeWhat's the difference between a "white pinot noir" and a rosé of pinot noir? It's a difficult question to answer, given that many labeled as white have a pinkish hue and even perform like rosé, and the techniques for making such wines are manifold. And some wineries may simply want to avoid the term rosé for marketing purposes.

The amount of maceration time may be a good place to start. If the juice was macerated with the skins for a few hours, then it's probably a rosé. If the juice was separated as quickly from the skins as possible during pressing, then it's probably safe to call it a white, regardless of its final color.

Of course, I'm not a winemaker and I've surely oversimplified the matter, so anyone who wants to clarify (or complexify) matters should weigh in.

On the other hand, I am a wine drinker, and I can tell you I've never had a rosé of pinot noir that resembled the 2005 Dirler Pinot Noir Cepage Pinot Noir. I cannot find any information about how, exactly, this wine was made, but Dirler is my favorite Alsatian producer* and if they make it, I'll buy it. Still, I was taken aback by this wine's distinctiveness.

It's the color of rose petal-macerated cantaloupe drippings, quite lighter in color than most rosés, and its nose really sets it apart; it reminds me of the more delicate style of skin contact whites such as those made by Paolo Bea. I smell apple skins, dried strawberries, freshly sliced oranges, and fresh tarragon. It's beautifully complex on the palate, with an extremely subtle earthiness that haunts the red fruit, musk melon, apple, herb, and Xmas spice flavors. And if that weren't enough, the Cepage Pinot Noir has a mouthcoating viscosity that's practically weightless, and the finish is fresh, perfectly balanced, subtly mineral, and very, very long.

I wish I knew more about how this wine was made. But if more knowledge would enhance my awe, I'm more than happy to just have the awe.

* Caveat that I've really only tasted from a handful of Alsatian producers

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Stems and Seeds Again

 Luca Ferraris Grignolino d'AstiAin't talking 'bout no reefer, I'm talking about the 2007 Luca Ferraris Grignolino d'Asti. What an interesting wine — what with all the seeds that are apparently present in the grignolino grape, this is a tannic little number. Yet the Ferraris is delicate and stony like a Moulin-à-Vent. And then yet again, there's very little fruit here. There are suggestions of orange and cherry, but only suggestions.

The nose is quiet and mysterious, showing mere hints of bitter greens and underbrush; wines that come from sandy soils are often well-perfumed, but not this one. It's sure forceful on the palate, though. The acidity is strong yet fine, and there's a distinctive stemmy bite. The stemminess is in fact its calling card. The lovely tannins are reminiscent of raisins, both slightly sweet and slightly bitter. Again, echoes of fruit, not the direct experience. Still, the wine is nicely balanced and so expressive that I hardly miss the fruit.

Ferraris (who makes a terrific ruchè, by the way) recommends this with light, non-fatty fare. For me, this worked well with a basic homemade pizza. I should also mention that my experience with this wine was exactly — and I mean exactly — the same on night two as it was on night one. No better, but definitely no worse. Unless it was imbued with some sort of magical anti-oxidation mojo, I'll chalk it up to the acid structure and toothsome tannins.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Zinfandel Unbound

As if to prove that California wines can be, should be, and sometimes actually are complete, I am enjoying the 2003 Caparone Zinfandel. A mucklet of sediment splats onto my countertop when I pop the cork, and as I pour I see that the wine suggests fall, a pale rose petal color that foreshadows brown. It even smells slightly autumnal, like a redwood forest on the coast, an aroma that plays well with the smell of fresh red berries, cherry medicine, tar, wood smoke, and black pepper. As I breathe it in I think of a potlatch in a plank house, which in turns makes me think I should have paired this wine with smoked salmon rather than grilled pepper steak, although that was a nice match.

Too many zinfandels founder on the shoals of thinness on the starboard side and, more often, cloying obsequiousness on the port side (pun intended). The Caparone quietly, effortlessly, sails up the middle of the strait. It serves up nice cherry fruit, bright acidity, brown earth, good presence and depth at midpalate, and solid structure. As with the (even better) Caparone aglianico it's not complex but it is complete, nicely priced in the mid-teens, and at 13.3% abv plays well with food. Even more importantly, it's comfortable in its own skin; it is not tamed; it is unbound.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Giving Napa a Chance

Cornelia was dutiful; that was the trouble with her. Dutiful and good: 'So good and dutiful,' said Granny, 'that I'd like to spank her.' She saw herself spanking Cornelia and making a fine job of it.
— "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall" by Katherine Anne Porter

I rarely give Napa wines half a chance. I am — shall I admit it? — prejudiced. As in, I presume, prejudge. They're apt to be hot, overoaked, overripe, blah blah blah. This has too often been my experience, but my experience is limited.

I felt it was time to confront my prejudice. To experience more.

So I shelled out the clams on a 2004 White Rock Claret, a sustainably-grown blend of 60% cabernet sauvignon, 20% merlot, 15% cabernet franc, and 5% petit verdot from north- and west-facing vineyards in the Napa foothills in the Stag's Leap Range. "We have never used pesticides," say the Vandendriessche family on their web site, and "avoid the use of herbicides." I'm also pleased that the wine bottle is not overly heavy.

Craig Camp recently noted that "cabernet franc is packed with umami," and that "its 'umami' effect on cabernet sauvignon cannot be overstated. A dollop of cabernet franc 'lifts' the nose and expands the finish on many a cabernet." That's certainly the case here, as this is a very well balanced wine that delivers a wide range of aromas and flavors with, yes, umami characteristics. I find licorice, cocoa, soy sauce, mint, tobacco, blackberry, and even a subtle high note of cranberry. The nose is both sweet and brothy, and it's quite velvety and rich on the palate but not at all heavy, thanks to its low yet still fresh acidity, and this shows an admirable streak of brothy minerality on the finish.

This White Rock Claret is darn tasty, and as it's not at all hot, overoaked, or overripe, I'm pleased that it overruns these prejudices. In fact, I think there are many lovely things about this wine.

So why am I not excited? One problem is that it lacks depth; all the action is on the front of the palate. Another is that the lovely fruit and umami characteristics are nicely integrated but they do not become more than the sum of their parts. Flavor and texture is emphasized at the expense of structure. And then there's the fact that the mouth turned swampy on night two — there goes what structure was there.

Most importantly, even at its peak the wine feels tame. Imagine if James had never crawled into that giant peach: his life would have been circumscribed by Sponger and Spiker. The White Rock Claret hits its marks but is not unbound. It's so dutiful that I'd like to spank it.

Maybe it's just me. Maybe I'm just Granny Weatherall here, unappreciative, "tying up in hard knots." And she was, in the end, wrong about everything. I'm calling 'em like I see 'em, in any case.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Dinner at Taxim

Naoussa, by RobW, from a Flickr album, Creative Commons licenseWork's been pretty stressful lately, so I decided to treat myself to a dinner at Taxim. Rustic, ageless cuisine pulled into the 21st century by a young guy who visited every corner of Greece to understand the old ways? I was intrigued, and I hoped that Taxim's anti-orthodox (lower case o) sensibility would help pull me away from the chaos.

My hopes were fulfilled. The food was, in fact, pretty damn great. Well, the roasted peppers (piperies) were sweet and spicy and little more, but the other plates had a lot more going on. For example, the baba ghanouj-like melitzanosalata had more complexity and balance than I've experienced from any baba; its creamy earthy depth was very fulfilling. And while we've all had spinach pies, the prassopita, which featured wild leek, fresh dill, and garlic encased in an incredibly flaky phyllo dough, again provided a lot of depth. But the crowning (small) dish was the koukia me kavourma, fresh fava beans tossed with lamb confit and house-made (!) yogurt. I was tempted to order a year's supply. The balance between the sweet, the tart, and the savory flavors was fantastic.

I accompanied my meal with two glasses of wine. The first, the 2008 Zoe rosé from Domaine Skouras, was fresh and vibrant, an excellent pairing with all the dishes. Served cold, I mostly tasted sweet strawberry and raspberry fruit at first, but it gained depth as it warmed, and it took on more savory, herbal, and tart notes. It's a blend of agiorgitiko (St. George) and moscofilero. Less successful was Domaine Karydas's 2005 xinomavro from the Naoussa appellation west of Thessaloniki. My server (who was otherwise great) erroneously compared it to a pinot noir, but in fact it was more like a dull, overextracted Montepulciano d'Abruzzo. Perhaps the bottle had been open too long, as both a quick search of the internets and a look-see in the Wine Atlas suggests this should be better. The Wine Atlas even says that well-made xinomavro "can acquire a bouquet as haunting as all but the finest Barolo."

Maybe next time. In any case, I will always have my koukia me kavourma.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Infanticide Is Painless

grilled tunaLately I've been opening some nice bottles before their time. Willful infanticide, yes, but I've been in the mood to drink great wine and I've been wanting to conduct a real-world test on how the wines are holding up and how they will likely evolve, rather than rely on received wisdom, no matter how well-informed that wisdom might be.

Château Pradeaux Bandol 2003
I'm well aware of this wine's typical lifespan — due in part to the mourvèdre grape's ability to resist oxidation, but largely due to Pradeaux's traditional, uncompromising winemaking regimen — but I figured I figured I should check in to see how this wine weathered the heat of 2003. Would this be an early drinker?

Um, no. Turns out this is classic Pradeaux, and you'd never know this came from a hot vintage. Which isn't to say it's impenetrable, for behind the wall of tannins this 6 year old shows great beauty, with a spicy, smoky nose of blackberries, pepper, grilled meat, and subtle hints of lavender and fresh green herbs. The balance, structure, and acidity here are impeccable, and if the tannins are rough and grip the tongue even on the fourth night sampled, the texture shows great grace and layers of purple flowers, silky cherry (fresh and dried, sweet and tart) and blackberry fruit. So, still tight, but complex and complete; it's definitely showing what it will become, particularly if given the ten-plus additional years it deserves.

Huët Le Mont Demi-Sec 2002
Why oh why does one of my favorite wines in the world have to be corked? Gah! And I had prepared an ahi steak with oil, salt, pepper, crushed cumin seed, and Italian salsa verde (flat parsley, oil, caper, and lemon zest) for the occasion. Instead, we waited another 20 mins to fire up the coals as we chilled down a bottle of...

Dirler-Cade Riesling Grand Cru Spiegel 2004
While I've never had a Trimbach, Dirler is my Alsace superstar, as their biodynamically-raised wines are so well proportioned, without the rock-em sock-em richness and residual sugar that so many other Alsatians bring to the table. That said, on nights two and three this shows a lot of baby fat and banana stank; in that respect it's not at all like the non-cru Bollenberg 2004, which has not one ounce of fat.

Before and after that awkward phase, though, this has an unbelievable combination of intensity, clarity, and purity. On the nose, a cornucopia of orchard and tropical fruits tumble onto acres of mountain stone; meanwhile, the farmer next door refills the kerosene tanks in his pickup truck. This is true even when the glass is empty. The body is very creamy and feels full on the tongue yet floats above it; it's warm and friendly yet delicate and poised; I'm thinking Grace Kelly or Michelle Obama. It's completely dry and very precise, with great structure, while plush fruit and filigreed minerals haunt the long finish.

My ultimate verdict: wait another five years before opening, then serve with a poached something-or-other in buerre blanc — this Spiegel was slightly overwhelmed by the fleshy tuna.

Renaissance Cabernet Sauvignon Première Cuvée 1995
Whereas many producers' tête de cuvées come from extra-ripe grapes or are lavished with expensive new oak, Renaissance does none of that. Instead, they pick and raise their best lots much the same way they raise their basic wines and let the terroir speak.

This isn't quite infanticide to drink this now. It's more like cutting a man down in his 30s (chilling enough, don't you think?). But over the course of three nights, this wine, which is 24% merlot and a mere 12.4% abv, proved that it will just get better. It kicks off with intense aromas of plum pudding, beef broth, black pepper, gray sea salt, blackberries, blueberries, and spice cake. It's structured yet velvety (more velvety than the "standard" 1995 cabernet), with a preliminary attack of sweet black fruit quickly giving way to bold tannins and a more austere rendering of the fruit. A note of cherry rings on the bright, brothy finish, and its spiciness is quieter compared to several other Renaissance wines, although a white pepper note lingers with the tannins for some time.

This is elegant and balanced, and the little bit left on night three shows a slight melting of the tannins and hints of blackcurrant and dried fruit on the palate. Although this was really good with the lamb that I grilled, it would have been even better had I decanted it 24 hours before serving.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Skin Contact High

CoenobiumI come to praise mildness and not to bury it. It's obvious that "gobs" of anything in wine can, like ultra-hot 5 alarm sauces that some people insist on dumping over their food, obscure subtler flavors, destroy balance, and/or mask that there's no there there. But while I am certainly tuned in to balance, it's still easy to latch onto relatively strong characteristics — great stoniness, zesty acidity, etc. — as a hallmark of distinctiveness and somewhereness.

I think that's perfectly legitimate, but there are other wines that are entirely mild, with no particularly strong characteristics, that are nevertheless unlike any other. The 2006 Coenobium from the Monastero Suore Cistercensi, a convent located 60 km north of Rome, is just such a wine.

This blend of verdicchio, grechetto, and trebbiano toscano is a really lovely skin contact wine that's light on the skin contact. It's yellow and barely greenish, not orange. I think that's pretty cool, because while some skin contact whites hit you over the head, this stainless-fermented wine is both delicate and full. In fact, it's not unlike the Bea Santa Chiara in that regard (although the Bea is deeper, fuller, and still more delicate, if nearly twice as expensive), and when I found out that Giampiero Bea both consults the sisters and designs the label, I wasn't too surprised. Somebody's a good Catholic, and I ain't complaining.

Have you ever had a wine that tastes like apple skin consommé? Until now, I haven't. And this is what I mean when I say the wine is both mild and distinctive. It's clean rather than oily, but there's a quiet and almost brothy undercurrent of richness here. Apple is the primary fruit, yet there's a mild and juicy vegetable (celery?) in here somewhere, too. It's long and well-defined on the finish, and the aromas linger in the glass long after the last sip. It's great with fish, but I'd definitely serve this with any food that could be described as mild, complex, and savory. Egg pasta with mushrooms sauteed in butter and herbs, yes indeed...

Monday, July 20, 2009

Jacky Preys's 2007 Fié Gris Touraine

The internets are alive with the sound of people clicking onto Bernard's great post on how Jackie Preys essentially resurrected the fié gris grape from oblivion. Click over to it now if you haven't already.

I drank the very nice 2005 vintage a few years back and was fortunate to find the 2007 over the weekend.

Fié gris is a cousin of sauvignon blanc and while the grape skins are rose-colored, the must runs clear: this is a white wine. And as it happens, Preys's grapes are grown in flinty silex soils, and so yes, there is some resemblance to a Pouilly Fumé. But fié gris is a weighter grape and sheds all hint of gooseberry aromas as it warms.

In fact, beyond the flint, the aromas of fresh corn, lemon oil, and herb butter (lots of yellow here) aren't terribly sauvignon-like, and they make me think I should drink this with grilled corn! Lacking that, I dredged and pan-fried a cod filet last night, squeezed some lemon on top, and served it with both a green salad and an avocado-potato salad which was also seasoned with lemon juice. The medium-bodied and nicely layered fié gris paired well with everything, particularly the coriander-dusted fish, but it even coexisted with, rather than fought, the tomato in my green salad. The aromas translated nicely to the palate, and it finishes with a long, lemony tingle, a savory root vegetable note (celeriac? jicama?), and clean yet buttery minerals. Nice stuff. Hats off to Jacky Preys! And hats off to Bernard for all the great stories and pictures.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

A Pebbly White Bordeaux

Some people are acid hounds. Some people are fruit freaks. I'm a minerals guy (better term than "rocker"), which is why I liked the 2007 Château Moulin de Launay Entre-Deux-Mers, a snappy little white Bordeaux that's chock full of 'em.

The Greffier brothers produce at least two wines, this Moulin ("mill") de Launay and a Tertre ("mound") de Launay. They farm a sum total of 75 hectares, 45% of which are planted to semillon, 35% to sauvignon blanc, and 20% to muscadelle. Since I can't find any info on this wine's exact composition, let alone find out the general differences between the two wines and sites, let's just run with these proportions as a guide to what's inside the bottle. After all, no one grape seems to dominate, and this unoaked, completely dry wine shows clean pear fruit, a hint of dry grass and herbs, and good zip on the palate, with subtle notes of cinnamon and ginger. And then there are minerals on the finish, a clear quiet stream running over a bed of rounded pebbles.

I brought this over to a friend's last night and it actually worked well with a nicely herbed bison burger, and certainly it was a good match with the green salad and roasted corn. It also worked well on its own, as I finished a few sips as we watched "Waltz with Bashir," but now I'm afraid I'm leaving this blog post on a somber note...

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Two American Rosés

I snapped the photo at right last September at J.K. Carriere's new, to-be-planted vineyard site in Oregon's Chehalem Mountain AVA. It's appropriate for two reasons. One, the weather in Chicago this 4th of July is not unlike the weather seen at right: cool and cloudy. Two, I'm celebrating America's birthday by writing about two dry American rosés from 2008.

"Oh, rosé," you say, contempt welling into your eyeballs, "that's soooo 2006." Kidding. You know that I know that you drink rosé whenever you damn well please. And I know that you know that I drink rosé all year long, except during the darkest winter. If you're reading this blog, you're down with rosé (probably).

American dry rosés often resemble their red counterparts by erring on the side of fruit. I like minerals. I like spice. I like taut acidity. I like fruit, too, but I don't want it to muddle or obscure the other things that I like. Fortunately, I can find what I like.

J.K. Carriere Pinot Noir Glass 2008
Winemaker Jim Prosser sourced the grapes for this native-yeasted, barrel-fermented rosé from three organically or biodynamically farmed vineyards and says he "utiliz[es] lees addition and incorporat[es] Champagne methodologies from 100 years ago to strip color and broaden an earthy mid-palate, similar to a rosé Champagne from that era…without the bubbles."

I've never had a Champagne made prior to the mid-90s, so I can't directly confirm that, but I can tell you that this very pale and very, very dry rosé sings of sweet cherry, musk melon, grapefruit, and floral aromas in the mezzosoprano range. The acidity cuts a tin can like this and the palate shows soft minerals for days, while white pepper waltzes with demure cherry flavors on the long finish, which I totally dig. It's not particularly complex at this time, but it has the acid structure to go there. I have one bottle left, so we'll see...

Renaissance Rosé North Yuba 2008
Whereas J.K. Carriere produces 100% pinot noir rosé year after year from sourced grapes, Renaissance culls from their estate vineyard exclusively and is willing to radically change the composition from year to year. Whereas the 2007 rosé was based primarily on cabernet sauvignon, the 2008 (which, full disclosure, I received as a press sample) is 63% syrah and 37% cabernet sauvignon. But like the Carriere wine, this was vinified from organically-grown grapes, fermented with native yeasts (albeit in steel rather than barrel), and aged for a spell in oak — in this case, for 16 weeks in neutral German oak ovals.

This has the color of a watermelon Jolly Rancher but not its characteristics. Instead, it's a food-worthy rosé that's dry and spicy, with aromas and flavors of dry grassland, cherry, cantaloupe, and pepper. It's structured, its robust acidity is refreshing even after the wine warms to room temperature, and the finish balances fruit and minerals over 30-plus seconds. It's good partner with pasta tossed with leek, onion, and garlic, and damn, I wish I had more of this. Alas, with 2008 being a year of disastrous frost, Renaissance could only summon 57 cases.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Corked or P.Moxed?

I opened a bottle of Vincent Dauvissat's 2001 Chablis recently and I was looking forward to trying it, particularly as I've never had his classic wines. It was ruined! But was it corked, or was it prematurely oxidized? I couldn't tell.

Now, I have problems identifying corked wines from the get-go; it typically takes me anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes to really know if a wine has that wet newspaper / cardboard smell, as opposed to mustiness that might just blow off. But I get there. As for p.mox'ed wines, I would expect it to taste flabby and tired, but I'm not sure I've truly encountered such a beast (as opposed to a wine that's over the hill).

This Chablis should still be drinking very well, but it was flabby, although not particularly dark. On the other hand, there was a damp and rotting smell, but it was the smell of rotting fruit, and not the smell of rotting paper. To add to the intrigue, the cork was a bit stained, although not egregiously so. Should I blame heat damage rather than TCA or p.mox? I'm at a bit of a loss. Or rather, I'm at a lot of a loss, as no matter the cause, I had to pour what should have been a beautiful wine down the drain.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Sagrantino Love at a Cookout

Ahhh, it's finally summer. For real. You'd think I'd bring a crisp white to a warm weather cookout but, ever the contrarian, I brought the 2006 Domenico Pennacchi Colle di Fontivecchie Umbria Rosso instead. It was a big hit. Noses dove into bowls, mine especially. "This is just stupid good," said my friend Erin, which sums it up if you're into the short version.

The longer version is that this somewhat mysterious wine — neither the producer nor the importer seems to have a web site, and the Chicago distributor has minimal details on theirs — is a damned spicy wine that's made of 30% sagrantino, 25% montepulciano, 25% merlot, and 20% ciliegiolo. The latter grape is a parent to sangiovese and my Oxford Companion says it's named for its cherry-like flavors and aromas. But it's the spicy sagrantino that really makes this wine.

This shows good red fruit, pleasingly brisk acidity, and most remarkably, a delicate red earthiness. Like I said, I had my nose stuck in the glass all night, and the notes of jalapeño, black pepper, earth, and cherry were complex, well-integrated, and lovely. It's medium-bodied — it's not at all light — but it's light on its feet, and it totally worked for a summer bbq. For one thing, the refreshing acidity never weighed me down despite the summer heat. For another, it went well with everything from grilled asparagus (really!) to grilled burgers to peppered halibut steak to earthy blue potato salad. Yes, I'm a pig polite, I ate a bit of all the above.

This drinks great right from pop and pour but has enough acidity and tannic structure to go for a few more years, or at least to go with the burgers you grill, like, tomorrow. (Meanwhile, if you know anything about this producer, give us the 411 in the comments section.)

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Demi-Sec Faceoff #4: Foreau vs. Schwibinger

It's time for another Demi-Sec Faceoff! In this corner we have an '01 spätlese from the Rheinhessen's own Fritz-Josef Schwibinger, and in that corner we have Philippe Foreau's '02 demi-sec from Vouvray.

As a recap, my intent in conducting these faceoff tastings is not to declare winners and losers or otherwise place disparate wines into competition. Rather, my intent is to celebrate how distinctive, lightly sweet wines can, in their own unique ways, work so well at the table when they're balanced by acidity and minerality.

That said, I distinctly prefer one of these wines over the other.

Weingut Fritz-Josef Schwibinger Niersteiner Ölberg Riesling Spätlese 2001
The grapes from this wine come from the highly regarded 2001 vintage and are harvested from the steep, southeast-facing Ölberg vineyard, which is located smack in the middle of the most highly thought of part of the Rheinhessen. Whereas the Mosel is all about slate, this is sandstone-and-clay country; the "Roter Hang" (Red Hill) is named for its iron-rich soils.

Can we credit the sandstone for this wine's pillowy texture? Someone with more knowledge than I would have to weigh in about that; I can only describe what I smell and taste. This large-bodied yet nicely proportioned spätlese has a decent amount of acidity to match its soft texture, and this shows good presence across the entire palate. The aromas and flavors are both on the powdered sugar / tropical / banana side of things and as that might suggest this is broad rather than precise; the modest shot of minerality here is buried under some rather thick fruit.

This is a nicely-made wine and certainly this is tasty and balanced. But if I'm going to spend $27 on German riesling, I'd prefer something with more cut and verve, particularly when served with food. This just shows too much overt banana for my taste, at least for now. Over time, as the overt fruit qualities begin to recede, perhaps this will be a better dining companion. But today, it shoves up against, rather than dances with, food such as goat cheese and spicy, vegetable-driven Asian stir frys. This was true over the several days I sampled this.

Foreau Vouvray Demi-Sec Clos Naudin 2002
I believe that most observers consider 2002 the best vintage in the Loire of the past ten years, and Foreau is considered one of Vouvray's very top producers. So I came to this wine expecting a lot.

I got everything I could hope for and more. This wine shows remarkable — remarkable — precision on night one. Everything is in its place: the aromas of apple and honeydew and lychee and beeswax, the fine acidity, the diamond-edged structure, and a sweetness level that resembles a sec tendre more than many a demi-sec. The minerality really stands out on the endless finish and is subtly redolent of chalk, cocoa powder, and spring herbs.

Over the course of several days the remaining wine broadened and lost some of its precision; the beeswax / honey aromas came on more strongly and the apparent sweetness level rose just a notch, although the wine remained firm and complete, and its presence across the palate never flagged.

Given the low apparent sweetness level, you could pair this with a wide array of foods. Think duck in a citric reduction, or a lighter protein in beurre blanc, or just a simple grilled fish — not to mention a slightly aged chevre. Ahhhh...

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Paolo Bea's Santa Chiara Bianco

A friend turned 30 (oh, to be 30 again!) so I flew to NYC to help him celebrate. During this brief trip we went to August in the West Village for some dinner. Everything about the experience was terrific. We were ushered to the covered atrium out back and sat under a gorgeous, pale blue sky; the potted grasses lining the room lent a rustic feel without overdoing it. Correspondingly, we were served lovingly cooked food at reasonable prices. The wine list was tended with equal care, and they even served our amazing bianco at roughly 55 degrees — ahhh, perfect.

The wine in question was the 2006 Paolo Bea Santa Chiara Bianco, which is a blend of malvasia, grachetto, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, and garganega. Slap me silly and call me names, but I didn't know that Bea made a bianco; I'd only seen his rossos and have only had his "entry level" rosso — but it was fabulous, and the sommelier encouraged us to try it given that I already loved his rosso. He even told us that if we didn't like it, we could select another bottle, and the staff would drink the Bea at the end of the night.  (A rather amazing offer, but then, they'd get the wine...)

Sadly for them, my friend and I hogged the whole bottle. With a wine this fascinating, how could we not? I'd describe it as being halfway between a full-bodied Roussillon blanc and a Tondonia reserva, if that makes any sense. It's a very dark, sherry-colored wine, yet it's only slightly (and deliberately) oxidized. On the palate it's delicate rather than obvious or aggressive, and it finishes with terrific minerality.  It was frankly awesome with my bone marrow crusted cod, which was oh so tender under its delicate crust, and it also worked really well with our starter of roasted beets and goat yogurt panna cotta.  The wine was not inappropriate with my friend's duck carbonara, but it was slightly overcome by it, if that tells you anything about the weight and delicacy of this wine.  I must have this wine again!

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Ruedafication of Rioja

Sauvignon blanc and chardonnay are now officially allowed in the Rioja DOCa. "With these new varieties we are trying to make Viura more fruity and fresh as that is what consumers want."

Actually, that should be some consumers want fruity and fresh white Rioja, just as some television viewers want to watch Maury Povich.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Three Recent Values

Wow, I have not been keeping up on the blogging like I should. Here are some notes on a few good values I've had recently until I can get a more coherent article together.

Willow Crest Pinot Gris Yakima Valley 2007
A lot of pinot gris in the Northwest, and when it's done well, I really like it for its spicy orchard fruits. In too many bottlings, though, it lacks the zip and the verve I look for. So I wasn't expecting a lot from this $10 bottle, which is grown in Washington state's Yakima Valley — quite far from Oregon, where most domestic pinot gris is made. But this wine hits all the marks for Northwestern pinot gris. It has those pear and spice flavors, a hint of smoke in the aroma, fresh acidity, medium weight, and good balance. So it outperforms many $15 bottles of this type.

Château d'Assas Coteaux du Languedoc Cuvée Classique 2006
It's lovely to find a $13 red from the Languedoc that shows good balance, character, and weight without any trace of heat or overripe fruit. I feel somehow that the universe is being kind to me. This blend of syrah, grenache, and mourvèdre shows aromas of violet, blackberry, clove, and orange zest. The palate's where this really shines, as brisk, citric acidity helps lift this full bodied wine over the palate, while the minerality, solid tannic structure, and black fruits show good staying power on the finish. Oh, and it's only 12.5% abv.

Domaine des Aubuisières Vouvray Cuvée de Silex 2008
We're getting to the $17 price point now, but it's hard to find a decent Vouvray for less. Happily, this is much better than decent. Bernard Fouquet makes this wine in the sec tendre ("tender dry") style, with just enough residual sugar to temper chenin blanc's high acidity. This is an extremely satisfying bottling, with slightly smoky aromas (that'd be the silex talking), gorgeous acidity, and minerality up the wazoo. The fruit is pure and creamy and suggests flavors of apple, pear, and grapefruit; the latter fruit is particularly prevalent on the finish and "talks" perfectly with the flinty minerals and gingery spice. If I had three arms, I'd give this three thumbs up. And given the great acid structure here, this should age very nicely.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

On Balance, A Very Good Montepulciano

Balance, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, is achieved when a wine's "alcoholic strength, acidity, residual sugar, tannins, and fruit, complement each other so that no single one of them is obtrusive on the palate." If I lustily second this notion, I think that the term "balance" can extend beyond those characteristics, and when you find a wine that exhibits a more unusual notion of balance, while fulfilling its classic definition, well, that's when you've found something distinctive and perhaps even exciting.

Take the 2006 Moroder Aión Rosso Conero — and at $16 a bottle, I'd happily share some with each of you. The montepulciano grapes that make up the entirety of this bottling are grown organically in a national park sited in the Marche within sight of the Adriatic, and you wouldn't be wrong if you assumed that it has much in common with other such wines in this region that are unmolested by oak. For example, it's refreshing and lively, with fresh berry flavors, delicious hints of zesty citrus and spices, and a subtle element of tart cherry on the finish. And yes, it's balanced in the classic sense.

But there's something about the body and the texture that sets this wine apart. The body is plush with dark fruit and the texture is velvety, yet these characteristics are somehow svelte. It's a substantive wine that should pair well with meats, but thanks to the orangey acidity and subtle black minerality it shows an insouciance that helps it show well with lighter fare such as casual fish dishes and vegetarian pastas. In fact, I'm scratching my head wondering what this wouldn't pair well with, short of bivalves on the one side and dessert on the other. That's the balance I'm talking about.

Importer WorldWide Cellars says that "Aión" is the Italian word for "boredom" spelled backwards. Seems appropriate.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Two Northern Rhone Syrah

I know I'm repeating myself, but I get slightly irritated when people criticize blowsy new world pinot noir-based wines as syrah-like. As in, "If I wanted a syrah..." The thing is, a self-respecting syrah can often be an elegant wine in its own right, no matter that it's darker (in all senses of the term) than a self-respecting pinot noir. It can simultaneously posess brawn and delicacy in equal measure. And when it's grown in granite-based soils, the wine can take on cool, stony, spicy tones that resonate.

That, at least, is what I hope for. I don't always get it.

Domaine Vincent Paris St. Joseph 2006
St. Joseph, the Chile-shaped appellation that lines the western side of the Rhône for 40 miles, has the steep granite terrain that can produce terrific syrah, but it also contains slightly less favorable terroir as well, which figures given how enormous this region is. I don't know where Vincent Paris sourced these grapes, exactly, but Polaner says the vineyards are "predominantly granite based."

Unfortunately, this wine is overly rough and rustic. Its aromas of cooked stone (which foreshadow a bit of heat on the palate), blackberry, and meat become more pronounced on the palate. The acidity is a bit rasp-making and the finish is focused on the middle front of the palate — it's distinctly absent toward the back. I call that wildly out of balance. I'd also say it's overly tart. Over four days I confirmed that this was simply not good, particularly at $30. Vincent Paris is a highly regarded producer, so I'm not sure what the deal is here.

Domaine Belle Crozes-Hermitage Les Pierrelles 2004
Let's hop over to the east bank of the Rhône to the plateau of Crozes-Hermitage. According to the Kacher Selections propaganda, "The Les Pierrelles vineyards are located below Hermitage and are covered with small calcareous/limestone granite pebbles." The grapes are 50% destemmed and 25% of the oak casks are new. I'd never had this producer's wines before, and I wasn't sure what to expect, particularly as 2004 doesn't have the best rep, and also because the wines that come from this appellation can, in my experience, be slightly dull.

But Belle pulls a nice one out of the hat: this Les Pierrelles is an elegant syrah with an unusually light footprint. The aromas are classic Northern Rhône: coffee, blueberry, cold stone, and cold grilled meat. It's smooth in the mouth, with peppery blue fruit and a subtly long minerally finish. This becomes more intensely spicy on the second night, and the tannins become a bit more burly. I could quibble at the price, which like the Paris is also $30, but I'm frankly not in the mood to quibble.

Monday, May 4, 2009

When Does 100 Equal 2000?

Redortier 2000 GigondasI'm nerdy to the point that I will plan social events around political happenings, so when my friend Shawn invited me for pork roast, steamed edamame, smashed taters, and Obama "100 days" news conference, how could I refuse? The only question is what I'd bring to drink. I went with lots of zeros that added up to much more than zero.

Chateau Redortier Gigondas 2000
Redortier is a somewhat unusual in the pantheon of southern Rhône producers. For one thing, they avoid all oak, even old neutral foudres, in favor of cement tank, as Etienne de Methon feels oak is "detrimental to grenache," according to this Chadderdon propaganda. For another thing, syrah is a very high 40% of the blend — and the rest is grenache, no mourvedre.

This wine shows medium body, good acidity, a good measure of raspberry fruit, dried leaves, a hint of pepper, and a fine-grained tannic structure. All these characteristics are well-integrated and they deliver complexity to the palate. I was actually a bit surprised that this wine tasted so fresh, and if it lacks the rustic, marrow-laden power of a Cayron, I'm OK with that. This relatively high-elevation Gigondas shows its own unique character.

I actually prefer Redortier's 2003 Beaume de Venise, as it has just a touch more sap and presence and weight than this Gigondas, but I have no room to complain. This went very well with all the food — yep, even the edamame — and I could easily see drinking this with everything from pasta to fish to steak, and be more than satisfied.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Ho-Hum vs. Humdinger in White Burgundy

My cat may ignore white Burgundy — he prefers beer and will happily if naughtily lick the lip of any open bottle — but I do my best to keep these wines in my orbit. With Burgundy's endless numbers of producers, most of who produce wines from a large number of climats, it's difficult for me to wrap my brain around the region. So my approach is to take it slow and tackle just a few producers at a time.

Domaine Jean Touzot Mâcon-Villages Vieilles Vignes 2007
Between the vintage and the fact that this reasonably priced ($15) Mâcon is sourced from old vines, I had hopes that this wine would show good energy and character. Alas, this fell a bit flat. It's clean and unoaked and hardly fat, but there's just not a whole lot going on — it's neither energetic nor voluptuous, neither creamy nor precise. Noblet's lightly oaked Mâcon at the same price point is a much better bet, as is Thévenet's unoaked Mâcon that costs just a few bucks more.

Unfortunately, I can't find any usable information online about this producer or his methods.

Yves Boyer-Martenot Meursault Les Narvaux 2005
This is a big step up from the Touzot in neighborhood and price (close to $40), and given that it's also from a different vintage and is aged in oak, it doesn't seem quite right to pair these two reviews.

But I'm going to go with it, anyway, because while the sweet kiss of oak gives this wine notes of cream, nuts, and a hint of tropicalia, this is fabulously transparent and precise. The nice long finish of pear, lemon, coconut, and stones fades ever so slowly to a pure and clean tone of mineral and acid energy. That energy seemed to flag a bit on the second night open, but it came roaring back on nights three and four. Provided this doesn't fall prey to the dreaded prem-ox problem that reputedly afflicts too many white Burgundies, this should hold up for quite some time.

The Narvaux vineyards are high on the Meursault slope, just above the 1er cru vineyards. The Skurnik web site tells us that Yves Boyer ferments using only wild yeasts and that roughly one-third of the oak barrels are new.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

One Day Late for Earth Day

I'm a pretty green guy — never owned a car, ride my bike to work, buy organic produce, drink mostly natural wines, blah blah blah — but even I'm a bit startled by how Jim Loire is going on an absolute tear over the use of chemical weedkillers in the Loire (see here, here, and here, to name just a few) and compares such weedkillers to Agent Orange. Really, he puts Alice Feiring to shame — a compliment, by the way.

But what's most startling is this post wherein it's noted that when it comes to "wine regions using herbicides as the only mean of weed management (in percentage of the whole area)," the Loire is actually worse than Bordeaux. So many of the higher-profile Loire wines we get here in the States (Huet, Puzelat, Joly, Domaine St. Nicolas, Clos Roche Blanche, the list goes on) are made naturally that I never would have guessed...

On a related note, I'll point you toward Dr. Vino's latest update on the carbon footprint of wine as it travels from point to point. I don't swallow the conclusions whole because A) he makes no attempt to determine what percentage of wine shipped from California is delivered via more efficient, green-friendly train vs. the assumed truck and B) makes no attempt to include ground transport in Europe, just an assumed boat ride from Bordeaux. Nevertheless, his work is valuable as a starting point for thinking about how wine drinkers can consider their footprint.

Moving away from wine entirely, I wish I'd known sooner about Nike Grind, a pretty cool recycling initiative that turns shoes into track and playground surfaces. I'll be taking my worn sneakers in for recycling soon!

By all means, though, lay into me for refusing to buy green-friendly boxed wine. Ain't gonna happen.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

An Eyrie's Autumnal Length

The Eyrie Vineyards 2002 Reserve Pinot Noir2002 is an oft-hyped vintage for the Willamette Valley, but is it even true, and what do people mean when they say it?

I dunno about the first part of the question, as I don't have enough experience with the vintage. I can tell you that I'm skeptical of vintage guides. Many observers rank the warm (err, hot) 2006 vintage in the Willamette Valley considerably higher than the cool 2005 vintage. I, on the other hand, find that the 05s are not only apt to be fresher and more transparent than the forward 06s but also deeper. Even when the fruit in the 2006s isn't slightly cooked, gobs of fruit can smother elegance.

The 2002 vintage was warm and dry but lacked heat spikes, while September rains refreshed the grapes prior to harvest, so the rap on these wines is that they are (or were) both full and structured, with good acidity. True?

The Eyrie Vineyards Willamette Valley Reserve 2002
I of course can't make judgments about the vintage overall from just one wine. Besides, in their pursuit of very quiet elegance the Letts are the exception in Oregon and not the rule. What I can tell you is that this reserve wine, which comes from vines that were at the time 35+ years old, shows a gorgeous autumnal depth that is, yes, full and structured, and I've never had a finer Oregon pinot noir.

As you can see in the above photo, this seven year old is showing brick-to-orange colors at the rim; not shown are the aromas of dried cherries and dried flowers. But there's nothing tired about this wine, and it shows tremendous if quiet energy on the palate. It's downright silky and everything is in harmony, from the graceful acidity to the light earthiness to the dried fruit characteristics. Moreover, the wine shows excellent presence at midpalate, great length, and X factors of elegance and complexity that are difficult to describe but simple are.

Between its autumnal characteristics and the fact that it's drinking so well right now, I'm hesitant to say you can or should hold this for a particular amount of time, although the energetic acidity suggests you can hold for some time. Eric Asimov would be the better guide here, and his relatively recent experience with Eyrie reserves at ages 19 and 28 suggests that holding is hardly a problem.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Dirler Riesling Bollenberg 2004

Dirler Riesling Bollenberg 2004I am generally skeptical of effusive happy talk, so I'll just warn you in advance that I have had a series of remarkable wines that can only encourage purple prose.

For example, I cast as cold an eye as possible on the Dirler Riesling Bollenberg 2004, but all I could think was, "How can such a ridiculously beautiful, delicate, and multifaceted wine not be from a grand cru vineyard?" Dirler is a producer that never boarded the residual sugar train and while not austere, this frankly doesn't even show a lot of fruit. What this does show is an elegant and classic minerality. That is, it doesn't taste particularly eccentric, nor is the acidity particularly sharp. Rather, it's a dry and remarkably transparent wine with great length that pairs brilliantly with a wide variety of food, from pan-seared pork to steamed green beans.

The nose shows crisp green apple along with subtle hints of petrol, melon, and cow milk cheese. OK, there is a rush of fruit to the palate at first, but this is one of those rare cases where delicacy is aggressive, as the fruit is quickly supplanted by that gorgeous, filagreed, and very long minerality, courtesy the pink sandstone that surrounds the village of Bollenberg.

On the other hand, the white orchard fruit does show prominently when paired with a firm, slightly aged, and deliciously creamy goat cheese from the Pyrenees called chabrin. I thought of this wine when I smelled the cheese in the store, yet I got more from the pairing than I bargained for.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

A Visit to Terroir

Guillaume in Terroir - is he posting something to his new blog?Why yes, you silly bean, I in fact did visit Terroir when I was in San Francisco. It was a windy and gorgeously sunny Friday afternoon — days in the city hardly get better — and after walking the Mission and then perusing a lot of art downtown (the SF MOMA, the fabulous Crown Point Press gallery) I was ready for a glass or two. So I trotted down Folsom to pay the boys a visit.

Guilhaume and Luc are extremely friendly as well as knowledgeable. And sweet beard of Zeus, they pour Vin Jaune by the glass! When I asked how wines by Tissot compared to those from Puffeney (Tissot's Vin Jaune was the first of his I'd had), they explained that while Tissot's wines may be more strictly natural, Puffeney's are more transparent and delicate. In any case, I loved my tasting pour of the 2000 Tissot Vin Jaune and its beautiful, complex nut notes. If that weren't enough, they also gave me a tasting pour of a fino sherry from Gran Barquero, a beautiful and very dry wine of typicité that, unusually, has no spirit added!

Did I know that the Bretons made a dry sparkling Vouvray? I did not. It wasn't complex, but it was pure and minerally. Did the Sirch schioppetino they recommended to pair with salume work out? Why yes it did. Had I ever tasted a red wine from the Canary Islands made of a grape called listán negro? No, and I was surprised that this fresh and spicy little number reminded me of northern Italian reds like teroldego; it wasn't at all hot or clumsy. Yep, these guys know how to pick 'em, and they do so in a really nice space, which is just the right mix of comfy, clean, and rough.

Good thing I don't live in SF; I'd lose my shirt in this place. I'm talking major bailout funds, people. Better, after a fashion, to just read Guilhaume's new blog The Wine Digger from afar.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

2006 Crochet Sancerre with Pasta Fagioli

Berry Falls in Big BasinI visited a friend in San Francisco, and among other things we camped overnight in Big Basin Redwoods State Park. I'm in pretty decent shape but hiking up and down and up and down the Santa Cruz Mountains left my calves feeling a bit sore even two days after the fact. So when I returned to Chicago, I decided to feed them a nice plate of noodles and beans pasta fagioli. I had a meyer lemon handy so I dressed the fagioli in herbs and lemon juice and popped open Lucien Crochet's 2006 Sancerre.

I rarely drink Sancerre, or any sauvignon blanc for that matter, so I was inclined to compare it to the '07 Vacheron I so recently adored. But I thought the better of it (different vintage and all that) and decided to let the Crochet stand on its own delicious merits.

Lucien Crochet Sancerre 2006
According to importer Neal Rosenthal, Crochet sources his "basic" Sancerre from a variety of vineyards, harvests the grapes manually, ferments exclusively in steel tank, and avoids malolactic. In 2006 this led to a wine that ably straddles the gooseberry-grass divide and, more importantly to my palate, is simultaneously creamy and precise.

The aromas suggest lemon and white flowers, while delicate hints of smoke and chalk add intrigue. On the palate the wine is quite ripe but also firm, zesty, and energetic. This shows great poise and the minerality on the finish is pure, clear, and fairly long. Interestingly, I found that a great white pepper note emerged when paired with the lemony — and well-peppered — pasta fagioli.

In other words, the 2006 Crochet fulfilled one of my essential wine commandments: that wine be self-posessed and true but marry well with an appropriate pairing. And at the end of the day — or at least at the end of a hike — what more could I ask for?

Speaking of commandments, happy Easter and Passover to all y'all...

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A 2007 Spätlese Trocken From Huff

HuffEric Asimov and crew just reviewed several 2007 German spätlaesen but I want to tell you about a dry (trocken) wine I had earlier this month. Not only is it terrific in its own right, at well under $20 it's considerably cheaper than the modestly sweet examples that the NY Times panel focused on, and spectacular given the price.

Georg Gustav Huff Niersteiner Hipping Riesling Spätlese Trocken 2007
The name's a mouthful, but so is the wine. This hails from the esteemed Niersteiner Hipping vineyard, about which I unfortunately know little, except that it's a steep, ESE-facing vineyard in the heart of the Rheinhessen. You'll find a more comprehensive discussion on the terroir of the vineyards near Nierstein at The Wine Doctor.

You may know that 2007 is considered a "spätlese vintage" in Germany, as in many cases the spätlesen are extraordinarily balanced. I unfortunately have no experience with Huff's trocken prior to this one, but I can tell you that this wine has lovely aromas of green apple, ripe peach, and smoky gray sea salt. The palate more than equals the nose: it is simultaneously rich, fruity, dry, precise, delicate, and complex. Subtle — but not shy — notes of herbs, smoke, lime, and rocky minerals join the party on the finish.

The presence at midpalate is particularly impressive, and with its fruit and body this paired well with a cracked pepper-heavy quinoa pilaf. The real question is, what would I not pair this with? Thanks to its beautiful fruitiness, minerality, and complexity, the Huff Spätlese Trocken is a food lover's dream: it should pair very well with everything from spicy Thai takeout to complex, fastidiously prepared cuisine, from ultra-fresh vegetarian dishes to cured or grilled meats.

The only caveat here is that it's bottled with a plastic cork, so drink up.

Friday, March 20, 2009

BSG Bubbles

President RoslinTonight's series finale of the new Battlestar Galactica marks the end of an era. Gotta have some bubbles to help wipe away our tears and to accompany all the deliciously evil acts that we'll undoubtedly witness. My friends need something deliciously drinkable and the bottle can't be too expensive — we're gonna watch TV, for cryin' out loud — but I'm not willing to sacrifice depth.

The Château d'Orschwihr Crémant d'Alsace is the perfect solution!

The bottle I drank earlier this month was fresh and alive and subtle. It's aged on its lees for three years, which gives it a lot of creamy depth. Apple, nuts, yeast, and poached pear show up on the nose — lovely stuff. The mousse is robust and fine, sweet crunchy white fruit shows on the attack, the palate is creamy, and it all finishes with subtle toast and toffee notes along with a vivacious minerality and lingering apple cider acidity. Unfortunately there's no info on composition or disgorgement dates ("L. 9002" is in tiny print on the back, if that means anything) but in any case, this $20 sparkling wine is a fabulous value and just what I need.

Goodbye Kara Thrace, goodbye Adamas Lee and Bill, goodbye President Roslin, goodbye Caprica Six, goodbye goodbye goodbye. We'll be raising a glass to y'all.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

WBW 55: North vs. South, Chablis vs. St. Aubin

It was difficult to meaningfully fulfill the North vs. South theme of Wine Blogging Wednesday 55. It sounds simple: Wine Case asked us to focus on "vinegrowing climate" and compare "how more northerly and more southerly vineyards produce different results with the same grapes."

And thus the challenge. If I can find a syrah from the Northern Rhône easily enough, can I find a pure syrah from the same vintage from the Languedoc or the Southern Rhône? How can I measure the effects of climate if the winemaker in the more northerly vineyard picks her grapes at much higher brix than the winemaker down south? Mesoclimate is more important than macroclimate, but even on a larger scale, everything's upside down in places like California: traveling north to south, Mendocino is warmer than Rutherford, which is warmer than Carneros, which is warmer than Santa Cruz, which is warmer than Sta. Rita Hills.

My solution was to compare somewhat similarly styled wines from the same vintage from two appellations that experience meaningful climate differences: Chablis and Saint-Aubin. Chardonnay is grown in both places but Chablis is a slightly cooler region, with July temperatures at least one degree F cooler than in the Cote d'Or. Rain is also more prevalent at harvest. (Of course, the Kimmeredgian chalk of Chablis isn't the same as Saint-Aubin's limestone, and in contrast to the Saint-Aubin the Chablis I consumed saw no oak, but let's just move forward, OK?)

2006 was a low-acid vintage in both the Cote d'Or and Chablis. If the wines weren't blowsy, they were atypically round and ripe, and men better than me say you have to choose carefully with the 2006 whites. But both these wines were successful examples of the good side of 2006.

Domaine de Chantemerle Chablis 2006
I really dug this. It has a beautiful nose of lime, orchard fruits, chalk, and smoky gray sea salt — the Chablis terroir really comes through. The wine is zesty and creamy in the mouth, but there's plenty of taut acidity to power the lemon and Fuji apple fruit to the back of the palate, leaving a pure, mineral energy in its wake. This does fade a bit quickly at midpalate but this is otherwise a complete wine. This'd be perfect with light fish.

Sylvain Langoureau Saint-Aubin 1er Cru En Remilly 2006
I admit that I drank this last summer, but I think the notes apply. This Langoureau, like the Chantemerle, is neither fat nor blowsy, and it also shows a pure minerality that really hums on the finish. Still, its frame is larger, in part because this received an artful touch of barrel toast — it's subtly smoky and nutty — and in part because the fruit is inherently more generous. The finish also shows cinnamon-inflected spice, which is quite different from the higher-toned finish of the Chantemerle.

In sum, while both wines are minerally and transparent, the Chablis shows a tautness that the Saint-Aubin does not, while the latter shows more voluptuous fruit and brown spice on the palate. One is not "better" than the other — each is excellent in its context. But the best I can tell, they do show the north-south climate difference fairly well.

Given that both wines are ultimately from northerly latitudes, it seems right to conclude with this video from Antipodean superstars The Bats. Just scroll back to the top of this post to see it — appropriate given that so much about this theme is, or can be, upside-down.