Thursday, February 26, 2009

Sémillon My Way

Since Eric Asimov recently complained about the dearth of sémillon in the US, I figured this would be a good time to check in on two sémillon-based whites from Renaissance: a varietal bottling and a Bordeaux style blend of sémillon and sauvignon blanc.

I share Eric's complaint. Yep, I've been subjected to candied, stanky, pineapple-rotting-on-rainforest-floor white Bordeaux and faux Bordeaux, but in its minerally and elegant forms, I dig the way the creamy body of sémillon joins the grassy attack of sauvignon. And done right, a touch of aging in oak enhances rather than masks these qualities.

It would be absurd to compare a Pessac-Léognan with these Sierra Foothills wines. Vines planted in humid, gravelly Graves will of course yield something quite different than vines planted in decomposed granite marl in the high elevation, semi-arid hills northeast of Sacramento. Besides, Renaissance aims for balance, restraint, and transparency on their own terroir's terms, and that's just what we get.

Renaissance Carte d'Or 2007
Though a year younger than the below varietal bottling, this blend of 60% sémillon and 40% sauvignon blanc is easier to appreciate in its youth, thanks to a fruitier attack, a rounder profile (at 14.2% abv, it's two degrees above the sémillon), and the immediacy of the sauvignon. Part of the immediacy is conveyed to the nose, which like the 2006 Carte d'Or shows soft, grassy notes. But you might be surprised that the sauvignon also delivers white pepper and ginger spice to the palate, a quality that was obvious when I tasted young, unblended sauvignon from barrel last fall. As with the 2006 bottle that I liked so much, this marries sweet juicy peach flavors with savory herb notes, medium body with a round mouthfeel, and minerals and spices that last quite nicely on the tangy finish. It's a nice wine to drink with simply prepared fish.

Renaissance Sémillon Vin de Terroir 2006
Varietal sémillon is rarely giving in its youth. With time, it's apt to show herb, smoke, and honey characteristics, although attention must be paid to determine how it will evolve. And as Renaissance make wines with an eye toward the far horizon, it's doubly true for this wine, which rolls stones across the palate and clocks in at a mere 12.3%. Currently the aromas convey quite subtle notes of lemon, smoke, and almond. The wine's true character comes out on the long and mineral palate, where the creamy yet lifting body resolves into nicely focused flavors of meyer lemon, nuts, dried green herbs, and ginger zest. (If you're looking for fruit cocktail, look elsewhere.)

As to its future, the wine's complete presence is promising. The acidity and the minerals provide excellent structure and the wine is particularly full at midpalate without being fat; this is not a wine that will fade soon. That's fortunate, as it needs time to show greater depth and complexity. But from what I can tell, the future is promising.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Nominated for the 2009 American Wine Blog Awards

2009 American Wine Blog FinalistI was very surprised to learn this morning that my blog was picked as one of the four finalists in the American Wine Blog Awards' "Best Wine Reviews on a Blog" category. Many thanks to McDuff for nominating me in the first place and I'm honored that the judges plucked this blog from the obscure depths and placed it alongside much the better-known nominees in this category: Bigger Than Your Head, Good Wine Under $20, and Vinography.

So now the final voting begins. Cast your vote by March 4 for your favorite!

By the way, if you're visiting for the first time and wondering where to get started (if not at the top), here are some recent hits:

2005 Fèlsina Berardenga Rancia

I was lucky enough to taste the 2005 Fattoria di Fèlsina Berardenga Chianti Classico Riserva Rancia at the same Italian wine event where I tasted the De Forville Loreto. Fèlsina is often considered one of the top estates in Chianti, but they stand apart from the crowd particularly as they grow sangiovese — and nothing else. No cabernet, no merlot, no nothin' but sangiovese. And they grow it organically.

Fèlsina bottles a standard Chianti Classico, a Riserva, and this top-of-the-line Rancia, a word that corresponds to "estate" or "ranch" and not "rancid" (whew!). The Polaner web site explains that the grapes for this wine come from vines at least 50 years old and that Fèlsina protects their vineyard's integrity when replanting by using only old “massale” selections from their top old vineyards. So the estate's future would seem to be sound.

It's the present that has my attention right now, though, and so to the wine.

Two false alarms sound first, for the Rancia is rather darker than I'd expect from a traditionally-made Chianti Classico Riserva and the vanillin on the nose says "barrique." Yet the wine is neither adulterated nor overoaked, and with significant air, I find it transparent and gorgeous. First, I get a snootful of violets. Perfect. Moving to the palate, the sweet cherry fruit on the attack demonstrates beautiful lift; the flavors then resolve into really nice citric bitterness, with dusty red earth, serious tannins, and a silky mouthfeel. The depth here is very impressive and the minerality comes through. Although it's already complex, I'd recommend waiting a good five years on the next bottle for additional complexity and tannin resolution.

But could I blame you for wanting to drink this now? Hardly! Just be sure to give it a healthy decant before you dive into it and a wild boar ragu.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Good Crazy, Bad Crazy, and Just Plain Bad

Good crazy: via Decanter, it seems the Terre d'Asti is sponsoring a literary competition for pieces describing "the affinities between the Grignolino grape and football." Submit your piece by April 11. You know you want to!

Bad crazy: also via Decanter, the French government has told its citizens that they should not drink wine. At all. "The Ministry of Health has published guidelines which advise, 'The consumption of alcohol, and especially wine, is discouraged'" (emphasis mine). The ministry cites a study showing a large increased risk of throat and mouth cancer from consuming small amounts of alcohol, though the study is being disputed by others.

Image created by - click for articleAnd in just plain bad news, political web site notes that beer sales plunged dramatically in Q4 2008. Sure, the hit to wine was pretty slim — sales were down 1.6% for wine, compared to a stunning 14% drop for beer — but the portent for wine sales in Q1 2009 is anything but encouraging.

That said, if people stop buying Hahn Monterey Pinot Noir, that can only be a good thing. This was served at a dinner party I went to last Saturday, and that shit is nasty, with a really artificial-feeling mouthfeel, like something was added to increase glycerin levels. I suspect something worse than plain old oak chips. It quite literally made my stomach churn. I'd never say this to my friend who brought it (and sadly, it's his new favorite wine) so let's keep this thought between you and me, eh?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

WBW 54: A Passion for Piedmont

De Forville nebbioloBarolo! Dolcetto! Asti, Alba, Langhe! This could be a cheer for the Piedmont, which more than any other wine region in the world — outside of the Loire, of course — showcases a stunningly diverse, interesting, and high-quality array of soils and grapes and wines. I adore so many of these wines when raised with care, from flirty Moscato d'Asti to zen-like Barolo, that it was difficult to choose the ones to drink and write about for the McDuff-hosted Wine Blogging Wednesday 54, "A Passion for Piedmont."

So what to choose? I waited for a door to open. It did, and behind that door was a single vineyard Barbaresco from De Forville. And as I stumbled upon De Forville's Langhe Nebbiolo, I opened that door as well.

Importer Neal Rosenthal doesn't have a whole lot to say about De Forville in his book Reflections of a Wine Merchant, beyond noting that the Anfosso family makes majestic wine. The DeForville family (who would eventually merge with the Anfossos through marriage) started growing nebbiolo in the 1840s, and as was common back in the day, they sold their wine wholesale in barrel. It took them nearly 100 years to start bottling their wines, although the DeForvilles must have done so before many of their peers, particularly considering that Barbaresco wasn't recognized as an appellation until 1964.

The winemaking at De Forville is traditional: used casks rather than new barriques, racking rather than micro-oxygenation, restraint rather than rotofermentation, and so forth. And thank the gods, for I don't want soft, bashed fruit that occludes acidity and dirt. Piedmont nebbiolo should demand that I meet it halfway, seduce me with its perfume but not yield easily to a first impression. It should hit the head and the heart, and demand to be scrutinized and loved in equal measure. If Marlene Dietrich were being bottled, the Anfossos might be the ones bottling her.

De Forville Langhe Nebbiolo 2005
Let's start off with the young'un, which at under $20 is a very good value. Over two days this proved to be lovely and meaty, smooth and substantive. The aromas are deep and satisfying, a subtle yet complex melange of garam masala, strawberry, rose petal, and rare steak. The wine is lively on the palate, with plenty of cherry fruit, brisk acidity, complete front-to-back presence — it's particularly full at midpalate — and a decently long finish. It only has enough tannin to provide good structure (your tender cheek flesh is safe) and tar and leaf notes show up subtly only on night two. The big surprise here is the resemblance to certain Loire cabernet franc. In fact, if I drank this blind beside Bernard Baudry's entry level Chinon, I might not be able to tell the difference. Crazy.

De Forville Barbaresco Vigneto Loreto 2001
Everything that could be good and true in a single vineyard Barbaresco is found here. I could stick my nose in the glass for days, as this goes beyond the telltale roses and tar aromas, with a complex and mysterious depth of fruit, earth, and hoisin sauce. It may be a cliché to say a wine's aroma is haunting, but in this case it's true. On the palate the Loreto balances a silky and sweet presence with excellent structure and great lift, and the flavors include Indian spices, umami notes, black cherry, and leather. The tannins are most ferocious on night three but they re-integrate on night four. Every sip on every night showed terrific length and great grace. At $45 this may be a rare treat, but it's also a rare beauty.

As for food, what would you not want to pair with these nebbioli? Well, I would avoid spicy, sweet, and bitter foods (neither an Asian noodle salad nor a green salad were particularly good matches) in favor of meaty, earthy, savory foods. Think hard cheeses, meats cooked any which way, mushroom-based dishes, risotto, and pasta. The wines were wonderful with a pork chop marinated in sage and orange juice and also paired nicely with a simple seared tuna steak.

Of course, with wines this good, I'll pair the food to the wine, not the reverse.

Monday, February 2, 2009

2007 Domaine Vacheron Sancerre Blanc

I picked up some Humboldt Fog and asked myself, "What to drink?" The obvious answer, for me, is a slightly demi-sec Vouvray, which makes for a magical pairing. But this time I opted for others' obvious answer: Sancerre.

Over the years I've given little attention to Sancerre blanc given my lack of enthusiasm for sauvignon blanc in general. But as Jim Budd notes, "the Sancerres that are worth drinking completely transcend Sauvignon Blanc’s two-dimensional varietal character... [and] often have a thrilling minerality and precision of flavour."

Domaine Vacheron delivers exactly that. Now, you should read Jim's post on his September 2008 visit to Domaine Vacheron, but I'll summarize a few key points. The Vacherons implemented a biodynamics regime a decade ago and their vineyards' soils are composed equally of silex and limestone. In recent years they have backed off the extraction levels and also now use fewer small barrels in favor of 600 L vats, and have even changed the pruning system for new plantings, eschewing the Guyot system in favor of cordon so as to reduce yields. They don't stop experimenting, thinking things through, and above all doing everything they can to emphasize terroir.

Given the wine's ability to age, the very pale 2007 is obviously very young, and it was tightly wound, if deeply aromatic, when first opened. I got calcerous lemon, slightly bitter grapefruit pith, and energetic salty minerals. A strong and pure spine of acidity provides excellent structure, but again, you are at arm's length from the wine's core essence. But by night three the body becomes rounder, even creamy, without losing an iota of its weightlessness, acid precision, or salty drive, and the elegant, multilayered alfalfa and lemon cream notes really sing on the long finish, particularly at midpalate.

This is a delicate wine, and my spicy vegetable soup overwhelmed it, but once it had evolved it was indeed fantastic with the Humboldt Fog. It should also be great with steamed bivalves or light, grilled whitefish. Decant now or cellar for later — preferably both.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Two Surprising Bordeaux With Pizza

American Flatbread pizzaI typically pair pizza with Italian reds. What could be more appropriate with an herbed, zingy, mushroom-laden pie than a fresh, earthy, acid-driven, modestly-priced rosso of the kind found up and down the boot?

Still, there's a world of reds in the world, and no need to turn a good idea into a foolish consistency.

I recently took a risk on two red Bordeaux. I say "risk" because I rarely find red Bordeaux acceptable, let alone interesting. We too often get soupy spoof at the higher end and hollow, industrial plonk at the low end. So I assure you that my expectations were exceeded by the following two wines, in the latter case dramatically so.

Château Lamarche Bordeaux Supérieur 2006
What could you possibly hope from a $16 red Bordeaux? Well, maybe you could hope for, but not expect, a claret — a good, solid, everyday drinker. And yet, here this is: a claret! The '06 Lamarche Bordeaux Supérieur is ripe but dry, soft yet structured, with refreshing acidity and a decent shot of minerality. No excess oak, no apparent spoof. And while the Fronsac-based Lamarche's ripeness and dark color is modern, it clocks in at a relatively old-school 13% abv. I drank this with an American Flatbread pizza and found the experience satisfying.

Chateau Tourte des Graves 2005
The 2005 Tourte des Graves was fantastic. In fact, it was kind of a shame to pair this wine with our ho-hum delivered pizza. This is a classic Bordeaux in the classic sense of the word classic. Its firm, masculine tannins and lovely acidity buttress a core of deep dark fruit, especially blackcurrant, but it's the gravelly minerality that really stands out (yes, this is a true Graves, so go figure). Completing the package are some nice smoke and spice notes that hold on the long finish.

This 2005 Tourte des Graves — 66% merlot, hand-harvested, and though matured in 50% new oak for 15 months, maquillage-free — drinks more like 13.5% than its purported 12.5%, but that's no vice in this lovely, balanced wine, and I expect it'll become still deeper and more complex in the next several years. At $28 I consider this a great value.