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.