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