27 January 2006
26 January 2006
Frick 2004 Chasselas (Alsace) – Vague pear and leafy citrus cream aromas gain weight and substance on the palate, with a little bit of the necessary Alsatian spice along for the ride. It’s a light wine, but with enough presence to move the wine from its usual role as apéritif to a supporting role as a food companion.
As I’ve noted before, chasselas isn’t a grape with a future in Alsace. Those that succeed – Schoffit comes to mind, and then there’s JosMeyer – mostly do so due to sheer weight, rather than balance. Frick, however, achieves the lightness and elegance that the wine should possess, with just enough palate weight to make things interesting. As for the spice, I have a Master Sommelier friend who claims that chasselas is the most terroir-revelatory grape in the world, mostly due to its varietal absenteeism. This wine doesn’t make the case either way, but it does show that the revelation is at least possible in Alsace. Alcohol: 11.5%. Biodynamic. Closure: crown cap. Importer: Violette.
Labouré-Roi 2000 Gevrey-Chambertin (Burgundy) – Broad-shouldered and hefty at first uncorking, with pretty but slightly clumsy aromatics in the red fruit-and-dried-leaves range, buffeted by some structural density. With air, however, things grow inexorably more vegetal and disjointed, and while the structure remains the aromatics fall away. I guess the lesson is: drink it really, really fast.
Never a producer on the tip of anyone’s tongue when it comes to quality red Burgundy, though occasional plaudits are supplied for value. This wine, which relies very much on the proper integration between aromatics, fruit and structure, fails where lighter, more “feminine” Burgundies from this négociant occasionally succeed. Alcohol: 13%. Closure: cork. Importer: Palm Bay. Web: http://www.laboure-roi.com/
25 January 2006
The second is Hot times by the Bay, and it's a SF-based quickie...though it does include encounters with winemakers Mike Dashe and Steve Edmunds, plus a rather painstaking few hours with the portfolio of CA distributor West Coast Wines, in which I manage to make a few new enemies across the length and breadth of California.
What makes No. 9 Park the best restaurant in Boston?
The first few times I dined at No. 9, I wasn’t impressed. (These were free lunches dinners, paid for by various wine entities.) The food was too restrained, the atmosphere a little too stuffy, and the then-new restaurant had yet to achieve a comfort level; everyone seemed to be trying so hard, to so little effect. But it didn’t take long for my impression to change, and I think it paralleled some sort of final confidence hurdle at the restaurant. Suddenly, “restraint” was understated brilliance. The service was no longer stuffy, but as formal or relaxed as the diner preferred…and the adjustment was made with that amazing sort of ESP that the best waitstaff possesses. And the wine list, full of brilliant moments without consistency in the first few months, found its groove.
Those who seek a culinary experience with a strong “wow” factor usually do not, and probably never will, like No. 9. Chef Lynch will occasionally hit on a particular flavor combination with surprising palate impact, but her true skill is in drawing forth the fundamental essence of ingredients, then blending them in subtle ways; familiar enough to be comforting, but deft enough to entice. It’s not “exciting” cuisine, and it’s certainly not trendy, but it is the practiced art of excellence. Influences are pan-European and American, but most clearly Italian, and Lynch’s great affection for pasta is frequently put to good use (just try to resist the special offerings during white truffle season)
The décor is subdued, riding a line between “formal” and “power” (the latter may derive from the restaurant’s next-door proximity to the State House) but without frills; a simple space that calms. Sound is absorbed well in the side and rear dining rooms, though the bar (open for drop-in business, with a more limited menu available) can be noisier. As for price…it is by no means an inexpensive restaurant. I feel that it’s well worth the tariff, and one can easily eat more cheaply in the bar or by careful wine selections (see below), but the full No. 9 experience is best supported by a willingness to spend what’s required.
Special mention must be made of the wine list. Wine director Cat Silirie has done something rather remarkable for a restaurant of this caliber and at this price point. There are few big-ticket Bordeaux and only a small handful of big-name California cabernets. Instead, Silirie pursues her love of crisper, more aromatic wines – riesling, grüner veltliner, chenin blanc, nebbiolo, gamay and…most of all…pinot noir – whose elegance and delicacy is a much better match with the food. Further, she has a keen eye for value, and the prices on this list are far, far cheaper than one would ever expect. One way she achieves this is through careful and extensive tastings of wines from what would otherwise be mindlessly-rejected off-vintages; Silirie finds the overachievers in each region and puts them on her list, giving her diners early-maturing wines from fantastic terroirs at much-lowered prices. Silirie remains one of the very few restaurant wine people anywhere to whom I will cede the selection of wines. The level of recommendation that implies cannot be overstated.
Boston, Cambridge and environs have a lot of Indian restaurants. Probably too many; while few are actively bad, almost none are actually interesting. Some have vague specialties or regions of influence, some have better (or worse) décor, and many rest too comfortably on a constant inflow of student-heavy business. Until recently, the best Indian food in the Boston area was – somewhat inexplicably – in the white bread suburb of Arlington, at Punjab. But while Punjab achieved superiority though better flavors and spicing (and the occasional introduction of a slight digression on tried-and-true dishes), it broke little new ground.
Then Tamarind Bay came along, and changed everything.
Not only is the menu full of exciting new dishes (that is, “new” in the local context; places like London have had this level of cooking for ages), but the cooked-to-order nature of things at Tamarind Bay makes everything several orders of magnitude more vivid and intense. (Obviously, “cooked to order” means something different in an Indian restaurant than, say, a French joint…but the key is flavor bases that aren’t merely repurposed from dish to dish, and an actual attempt to work as to-the-moment as one can given the cuisine.) Plus, there’s even a decent little wine list – try the Sula Chenin Blanc from, of all places, India – and a nice selection of digestifs, which is almost unheard of at Indian restaurants.
Tamarind Bay is probably most adept with tandoori cookery (which also means many of their breads are top-notch), but after working my way through a rather large portion of the menu, my two favorite dishes remain the appetizer-sized chotta bhutta kali mirch (baby corn coated with a zingy black pepper sauce and served with an intensely-infused olive oil) and the transcendant lalla mussa dal (black lentils slow-cooked with spices to an almost unbelievable complexity of flavor and texture).
The downstairs location is a touch claustrophobic, but the space is a notch more elegant than most Indian restaurants (save, perhaps, Kashmir on its better days). This is a restaurant that deserves even more patronage than it already receives.
24 January 2006
Domaine Aucœur 1999 Régnié “Cuvée de Vernus” (Beaujolais) – Like a previous experience with the 2002 version, this is definitely dominated by its acid, but unlike that bottle the generously-matured raspberry and tart cherry fruit here is both spicy and rich, if unquestionably thin. It needs the right food (something that can battle back the acid), but it has rewarded aging better than the younger ’02…though that said, it is true that the wine was more complete and balanced in its youth.
Domaine du Dragon 2004 Côtes de Provence “Hautes Vignes” (Provence) – Dull as invisible toast, with anonymous kinda-sorta red berry aromas and a faded, weak-kneed structure supporting the slightest of bodies. The only thing that’s not dull is a kick of volatility.
A blend of syrah and grenache, from a domaine that seems to do better as a venue for self-contained holiday apartments than as a winery, with…oh, heck, who cares? The wine’s just not interesting enough to deserve further analysis. Alcohol: 13%. Importer: Arborway. Web: http://www.domainedudragon.com/.
23 January 2006
Like what, you're moved to ask (amidst the stifling of yawns)?
Well, restaurant reviews, for one thing. The current dish may indeed appear here from time to time, but as various travelogues and narratives from the past appear at oenoLogic, reviews of restaurants and food purveyors appear right along with them. The dining section's where you'll want to look if you're having hunger pangs.
On the other hand, if endless lists of tasting notes subdivided by country are your thing (and really, who wouldn't be excited by that?), you'll want the regional archives in the tasting notes section. This will grow as the months pass and more and more of my old notes, scattered around various databases and fora on and off the 'net, are properly repackaged and repurposed in scintillating red and white burgundy. (See, it's the color scheme...oh, never mind.)
Finally -- and this material has appeared here on the bloggy and vertical-minded version of oenoLogic -- a lot of semi-well-thought-out and highly-debatable verbiage on the meta-issues of wine writing and wine criticism can be found in the mis-named faq (mis-named because the author asked the questions, and then answered them; this doesn't count as schizophrenia, does it?). Read, sleep, repeat.
22 January 2006
Granges-Faiss “Domaine de Beudon” 2003 Dôle (Valais) – Very restricted at first, and at no point is it a particularly easy wine to warm up to. Tight aromatics, like grated and rusty iron on a high mountain gale, with dark and somewhat dusty fruit attempting to swallow itself in a dark pit of minerality. The tannin is ever so slightly edgy, but otherwise things are in balance here. At the moment, this wine is all razor-sharp squared-off edges, blocks, and geometric shapes; one wonders if time will help it integrate. For those who adore minerality (like me), it should be a bonanza, but it’s just so difficult at the moment...
Dôle tends to be a blend of pinot noir and gamay. I don’t know the particular makeup of this wine (which is brought in by one of the smartest people in the Boston-area wine scene, Jeannie Rogers of Il Capriccio in Waltham), but it is so mineral-driven that it’s hard to really identify the varietal characteristics of either. I can say, however, that I’d very much like to visit the vineyard, which seems to be about the most spectacularly-situated I’ve ever seen. The only caveat: if anyone wonders why more Swiss wine isn’t consumed in this country…well, check out the price: $26.95. Yes, those vineyards must be incredibly hard to work, but that’s a pretty hefty tariff for an appellation almost no one knows. (This is not to say that the price is unreasonable, just that it’s high.) Alcohol: 12.6%. Biodynamic. Importer: Adonna.
21 January 2006
Métaireau 2004 Muscadet Sèvre & Maine “Sur Lie” “Petit Mouton” (Loire) – All the briny seawater one could want. Unfortunately, this wine arrives in stages: brine, then sweaty/leesy aromatics, then a semi-acrid sort of flatness, and each is less appealing than the first. It’s a fine match with the right food (acid-enhanced bivalves, for example), but it needs that food, because otherwise it’s a bit difficult to drink.
Since this is Métaireau’s young vines cuvée, it’s probably best to not attack it too strongly; he is certainly capable of better work, as evidenced by his other wines. But melon de bourgogne is already a light-aspected grape, and it needs to be of better natural quality to bring out the potential of good Muscadet. I wonder if this wine might not have been better in its natural, non-lees-aged form. Alcohol: 12%. Importer: Boston Wine.
Unión Viti-Vinícola “Marqués de Cáceres” 2001 Rioja “Vendimia Seleccionada” (Center-North Spain) – Awful. Horrible. Wretched. Dead and decaying hamster guts slathered with dill-infused chocolate are not what I’d call appealing, except perhaps to vultures and other carrion-eaters. Stay far, far away.
Tempranillo never had it so bad. This found-everywhere bodega does produce some drinkable wines, but they underachieve at all points. This wine is particularly dismal. Avoid it like the plague. Alcohol: 13%. Importer: Vineyard Brands. Web: http://www.marquesdecaceres.com/.
20 January 2006
A cut below
A sweaty man with a machete approaches us. Bits of vegetation cling to the honed edge of the machete, and the bright midday sun sparkles on his sunglasses (and the beads of perspiration that surround them).
“Martin?” We eye the machete warily.
“Yeah. I’ll be right up. One more row.” He retreats, putting blade to leaf with a practiced vengeance. We shrug, return to our lunch, and wonder if he might not prefer to shower before he joins us. But hey…his giant knife, his call.
Nibbles and sips
We’re sitting on the restaurant patio at Stonyridge Vineyards, nibbling on a fantastic assortment of appetizers – raw tuna, green-lipped mussels, fairly decent local cheeses, slab bacon, something that may or may not be prosciutto but possesses all of its qualities – and waiting for someone from the winery to join us for lunch and a short tasting. Proprietor Stephen White was supposed to be our guide, as he was last time we visited, but he’s caught in a net of red tape on the mainland, trying to acquire an Indian visa, and so we’ve been passed to the actual winemaker of record.
Stonyridge is widely considered the best of Waiheke Island’s ever-emergent wine industry, though there are some relatively new contenders…and, as one might expect, a few naysayers. The dominant complaints seem to be that the wines are too expensive (or at least too expensive for the value they represent), and the always-classic “the wines aren’t what they used to be.” We’ve returned after a few years’ absence to see if we can justify or refute any of those complaints, though of course our experience is no substitute for years of careful tasting.
With our platter of goodies, we sample a few glasses of wine from the café’s rather extensive (Stonyridge-produced) wine list:
Stonyridge 2003 Riesling (Marlborough) – Crisp green apple, ripe melon, quartzy minerality and great acidity. A little underripe on the finish, but there’s striking fullness and length to this wine, plus a gorgeous balance; the minor sin of mild greenness can be forgiven. It’s not a delicate riesling, however.
Stonyridge 2004 Chardonnay Church Bay (Waiheke Island) – Balanced and soft, with oak-infused stone fruit. Pretty, but…well, chardonnay is chardonnay, and it takes a real effort to distinguish one from another. It’s pleasant, but no more.
A sizzling slab of flavorful and wonderfully rare beef arrives, accompanied by a decidedly Provençal-styled variation on ragout. Just as I’m threatening my ex-cow with the steely blade of a knife, winemaker Martin McKenzie appears tableside. Without his machete, praise Bacchus.
18 January 2006
JF Becker 2001 Riesling Kronenbourg (Alsace) – Flawlessly structured and perfectly evocative of site, showing fresh white flowers and crushed seashells around a generous core of fleshy malic acid. All the components are here for an excellent ager.
The terroir signature of this wine very strongly suggests the grand cru Schoenenbourg, though with a more piercing quality than that occasionally fluffy vineyard produces; it’s marl to the Schoenenbourg’s siliceous soil (albeit over marl). This commonality isn’t a surprise, as the Kronenbourg is contiguous with the Schoenenbourg, wrapping around the hillside vineyard fronting the pretty road from Riquewihr to Zellenberg with a generally southeast-facing aspect. In fact, one of the prettier vineyard walks (or drives, if you’ve got the nerve) in this area of the Alsace vignoble is to pass around Riquewihr and up the hill, turning right just before you enter the more severe slopes and following the narrow path until it emerges right in the middle of the Schoenenbourg. From here, you’ve a view southward that provides that classic “islands of civilization in a sea of vines” look so indicative of Alsace; and, of course, there are few towns to compare to Riquewihr. Continue on this road, which turns as it enters the Kronenbourg, until you’re overlooking Zellenberg and the flat Rhine plain, then take the right turn and descend to the main road. It’s simply beautiful. Alcohol: 13%. Organic. Importer: Ideal.
17 January 2006
Wine writers are not doctors, lawyers, accountants or politicians, so any discussion of ethics is of an import several orders of magnitude below its more crucial applications. Nonetheless, ethical considerations do play a role in shaping the personality and work of a writer – and, especially, a critic – and those considerations are worth exploring in some detail.
Are ethics necessary?
On its face, it seems a silly question; of course ethics are important. But it’s worth asking: are they really? Is anyone truly harmed by an unethical wine writer?
Leaving aside the issue of the writer’s own karma, the answer is: no, unless the writer is both unethical and malicious. To the otherwise-unarmed-with-context consumer of wine writing, there’s no functional difference in negative outcome between information based on inethics and information based on ignorance; both are entropic within the greater context of wine, but it is oenoLogic’s experience that the latter is a much, much greater problem than the former. A parallel argument concludes with a similar lack of damage to the subject of the writing in question; again barring the presence of actual malice, ignorance and inethics are inseparably entropic.
What ethics instead provide are a framework for battling back the two actual dangers of unethical writing: momentary or predetermined malice, and the purchased writer…plus other, somewhat less important failings. Battling back, that is, but not eliminating; human nature is such that any writer, no matter how ethical, is subject to momentary (though recoverable) failure at any time. This is not something we should concern ourselves with overly much, as writers remain human and subject to the accordant frailties. To expect writers to be otherwise is to desire the impossible. What should be expected is a thoughtful and open examination of ethics and consequences on the part of a writer, and frequent re-examination thereof…especially on the occasion of a lapse.
Ethics vs. responsibility
Ethics, as framed by the consumer of wine writing, are often characterized as responsibilities: the duties of the writer to his or her readers. This is a limited and ultimately incorrect view, but since it exists it is necessary to address it.
All that the writer is really responsible for are the fundamental underpinnings of wine writing (covered here). Consumers of wine writing are responsible for their own expectations, though of course a writer who fails to respond to enough consumers’ expectations is going to be an unsuccessful writer. The writer is not responsible for the individual ethical beliefs of consumers, primarily because such beliefs are myriad and frequently contradictory, and secondarily because the adoption of external ethics is a poor substitute for thoughtfully-conceived personal ethics in which the writer actually believes. A writer who is constantly responsive to the external ethics of consumers will be a writer who is forever on the defensive, forever explaining and disclaiming and arguing until the writer’s own ethics are deformed by the debate itself.
A better term for what must exist in the writer-consumer relationship is trust. The consumer must trust that the writer is informed by their own ethics, and the writer must do as little as possible to strain that trust.
“The appearance of impropriety”
Formal ethical codes, and certainly those so often applied to journalists, place great importance on the external. This is done for a theoretically wise reason: institutional trust in journalism is predicated on the belief of the consumer that the motivations of journalism are, no matter how temporally negative, ultimately noble. As a society we desire a free press, but as humans we are uncomfortable with the anarchy of true freedom, and distrustful of any class or group that seems to exercise it. We want journalists to abide by rigid codes of ethics because we all live under various collections of codes and laws, and thus we have difficulty relating to or accepting those who operate with more potential freedom.
On the other hand, we can all see how well this is working out for journalists. Only politicians (who have their own extensive set of ethical guidelines) are viewed with more suspicion and mistrust. To repeat what I see as the key issue: the problem with external codes is that they are not fundamental to the writer. They work to eliminate environments for impropriety, but they do not address the desire for impropriety. Only a personal code can do that.
The concept of “appearance” as the problematic factor is, in itself, a widely-held fallacy. Certainly what matters is the actual impropriety, not whatever public face one does or does not put on it. Focusing on mere appearance encourages a secretive environment of non-disclosure, which is no good for the consumer or the writer. And, as has been so often noted through scandal after public scandal, it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up. Fair consumers can forgive admitted impropriety. What they rarely forgive is the attempt to hide it.
Ethics, then, must discard the baggage of externally-applied expectations of responsibility and misguided focus on appearances, and concentrate on the core fundamentals, which can be summed up in three questions:
- What is fair?
- What is right?
- How do fairness and rightness serve the aims of the writer, the consumer, and wine writing in general?
Ethical dilemmas in wine writing
Some of the problematic ethical areas within wine writing are specific to the field of criticism. Some are specific to journalism in general. None, however, are specific to wine writing; what’s important is identifying the commonalities and differences between different subfields of these practices, and discerning what’s sensible in the specific discipline of wine writing. Herein, an attempt (subject to future expansion).
It is manifestly unwise for a writer to make things up. It is even more unwise to deliberately employ mistruth. Fictionalization for the purposes of entertainment is fine as long as the practice is obvious and transparent to the reader, but any intrusion of fiction into informational or critical practice is a betrayal of the necessary trust between writer and consumer.
If a truth is negative, this does not preclude or mitigate its importance. It is fine if a writer wants to avoid negativity altogether, but it lessens the importance of the writing, it lessens the role of such writing in the greater context of wine in general, and it leads to dangerous opportunities for the replacement of negativity with untruth. This latter impulse, especially, must be fought.
judgment with (or without) expertise
Bafflingly to some, this is not an ethical concern. This is a practical and professional issue. Without question, it is preferable for a writer – and especially a critic – to possess contextual expertise before issuing judgment or characterization. It is not unethical for a writer who lacks such context to do so. It is merely silly and unrewarding in its extreme forms, and of lesser utility in its milder forms.
This, too, is not an ethical concern, but one of practice and professionalism. What it means is that many – consumers, occasionally, but more often producers and those who move and sell wine – want writers to have wide and deep experience with any given subject, and to have that experience shared to its fullest extent. But there remains no ethical obligation of context or expertise, and if someone who has never tasted a Bordeaux wants to issue an opinion on Bordeaux based on an insufficiently large sample, that is their right undiminished by ethical concerns. Again, however, it is poor practice and of minimal utility.
Of all the ethical bugaboos that plague wine writers, the issue of free samples – their existence, their acceptance, and their use – is the one that simply will not go away. This is so because certain high-profile wine critics make a great and trumpeting noise about them, drawing bright and clear lines between themselves and the allegedly unethical masses who do not adhere to their particular practices. This is unfortunate, for even a cursory examination of the issue shows that much of the debate over the inethics of samples depends on the selective use and misuse of definitions.
A free sample is just what it seems to be: wine not paid for by the writer, with the implied corollary that such wine would require monetary compensation were the receiver not a writer. Wineries and the entities that represent them supply samples for the obvious reasons: exposure and coverage. Yet a sample takes many forms, and too often some of those forms are dismissed (as inconvenient) by those who which to paint themselves as ethical paragons.
Unquestionably, a free bottle of wine is a free sample. This applies whether the bottle is opened or closed. It applies whether the bottle is shipped to the writer’s home or office, or handed to the writer by someone else. It applies whether it is poured in a convention center by an importer or distributor, by a retailer in a store, by a sommelier in a restaurant, by a winemaker or waiter at a special wine-related meal, by a tasting room employee at a winery, or in fact by anyone else, anywhere, for any reason not caused by transfer of money equal to the wine’s value from writer to provider. But it doesn’t end there. A glass, a pour, or a barrel sample at any press & trade event, winery tour, or one-on-one meeting is also a free sample; these events are seldom completely open to the public, not all wines are willingly poured for those outside the trade and press, and the level of access required for such opportunities is rarely similar to that required by the general public.
So, for example, is it correct for a writer who tastes barrel samples at wineries to claim that they do not accept free samples? Only if each and every barrel sample would be equally available to any member of the general public. Since this is rarely the case, the answer is usually: no, it is not. Similarly, is a writer who has region-wide tastings in a hotel room organized for them (and paid for by someone other than the writer) free of the “taint” of samples? No. For a writer to claim they do not accept free samples, the writer must pay for each and every drop of wine that passes their lips (an exception may, but very probably shouldn’t, be made for pours provided by family and friends). While I am open to correction on this point, I do not know any wine writer who meets this criterion. Not one.
Obviously, the core issue is that it is very difficult for any other than the extremely wealthy to practice informed criticism in this fashion (which leads to several fundamental difficulties; see the essay on independence for a careful expansion of this point). For some writers, the way out of this dilemma is to differentiate between modes of solicitation. A writer may choose to not solicit samples – that is, to not request them – but to accept those that are freely offered. Alternatively, a writer may choose to accept samples only in certain forms: press/trade tastings “yes,” winemaker dinners “no,” etc. Obviously, at this point the writer has abandoned any pretext of denying that they accept samples (no matter how much they may protest to the contrary), and is simply picking and choosing among associated ethical challenges (special access, free food) that accompany the wine itself. On this, see below.
Ultimately, the hue and cry over the existence of samples can fairly easily be shown to be a vast forest of misapprehension among consumers, grown from seeds of distrust planted by well-meaning but misleading writers who wish to highlight their ethics in opposition to others. This is an unfortunate situation. None of this is to say that the question of samples is not important, merely that it is in no way as significant as it is made out to be by certain self-aggrandizing critics.
other forms of largesse
Wine writers enjoy – if they wish to – all manner of invitations to special access and complementary booty associated with the world of wine. Access can range from simple distributor- or importer-arranged tastings to which press and trade are invited, to lunches and dinners hosted by sales representatives or winemakers, to exclusive and rare tastings in the cellars of famously private wineries. Food is a frequent accompaniment to such events. Gifts of wine-related tchotchkes are common. And, of course, everything up to and including the infamous junket is available to the writer who wishes to take advantage of such opportunities.
As with samples, bright lines are hard to draw. Writers who claim to reject hosted wine dinners can often be seen nibbling on the snack trays at larger press & trade tastings, rendering their professed standards merely a matter of price, not of principle. Some writers accept gifts of wine but not of, say, t-shirts; others practice the opposite standard. Junkets are particularly problematic; the nearly unparalleled opportunities for education are coupled with the clear and obvious expectation of follow-up coverage flowing from such a large expenditure.
All of this, however, is cause and not effect. Surely the crucial issue is not the form or the value of the gift itself, but the result of the gift, and how it affects the writer’s subject, approach, and conclusions. Ethical codes that focus on the former are really trying to address the latter. Yet the potential for abuse does not inherently flow from the gift, but from the inethics of the writer, and so removing the gift does nothing to modify or combat the ethical failings that produce potential abuse. In fact, it may make it easier to hide abuse under a veneer of ethical behavior. Again, we return to the material difference between appearances and actual ethics; one matters, the other is simply window-dressing.
The cult of critical anonymity worships principally in the restaurant world, but because wine is so often associated with food, some adherents to the cult have turned their attention to wine criticism and demanded similar practices. This is a mistake.
Wine is not like a restaurant meal, where the key factors that shape it can be modified at will and in the moment. Wine – with one exception, which will be covered in a moment – is a fixed product…bottled and sealed and inalterable by any monetarily-involved entity thereafter (except negatively, as with a distributor who doesn’t protect their wines from the damaging effects of heat). In this, it is like a CD or a toaster oven, the criticism of which requires no anonymity on the part of the critic, and the criticism of which carries no expectation of anonymity on the part of the consumer. That is the methodology that should apply to wine criticism.
The one exception is, of course, before a wine is contained within a sealed container. A barrel sample – thieved straight from the barrel or contained within a temporary receptacle – can indeed be altered by an entity sufficiently inclined to do so. (To be completist on this point, this exception could also apply to bottled wine especially produced for critical review; that is, not part of the regular for-sale production line.) The potential abuse is in the power of the entity providing such a sample to misrepresent the product under consideration. A winemaker can pour the best among multiple potential samples, or pour an entirely different wine, for example…or, more nefariously, can provide a specially-concocted sample tailored to that critic’s known biases. (A few – very few – critics angrily insist that such “critic cuvées” don’t exist. Usually, those critics are those with the most to lose if their judgments are called into question, or perhaps they are merely willfully naïve. In any case, the key point as it relates to a discussion of ethics is not whether or not these doctored samples exist, but that they can exist, and their potential existence applies to the one instance where critical anonymity may in fact be preferable.)
It may be seen that many of these potential ethical dilemmas hinge solely on the ability of the writer to manage potential corrupting influences. The goal of formal codes of ethics is to enforce independence – to forcefully separate the writer from their subject – in order to maintain the aforementioned appearance of impropriety. But, as I hope I’ve demonstrated, the important word in that phrase is not “appearance,” but “impropriety.” And while it is not enough to simply declare one’s independence (all too often, this is presented as a misguided synonym for objectivity), the path of trust between writer and consumer can only be walked by the writer who puts into actual practice a code of ethics that create a recognizable shield of independence. And on that subject, we leave the realm of ethics and enter the difficult, but real, world of methodology.
16 January 2006
Cantina Tramin 2001 Lagrein (Alto Adige) – So aromatically deadened that I worry about TCA for a few minutes after uncorking. But, not so. Just another wine completely muffled by an ill-advised vacation in barrique-land. There’s nothing here but the winemaking.
Lagrein is a grape that doesn’t get much respect. And it’s not shown much, here. What should be aromatically and structurally individualistic might as well be bargain-basement merlot shipped off to the nearest supermarket. What a waste. Alcohol: 12.5%. Importer: Winebow. Web: http://www.tramin-wine.it/.
14 January 2006
It’s a rare traveler in wine country that will be able to avoid the lure of another ubiquitous dangling fruit: the olive. Wherever there are grape presses, there tend to be olive presses (save in the coldest of viticultural climes), and one of the most delicious accompaniments to the blood of the vine is the essence of the olive, extracted into viscous, greenish-gold sunlight.
At the lower end of the twisty, hill-ascending road that leads to our villa, Rangihoua Estate is an irresistible drop-in visit. We’re just a bit early for proper business hours, but the door’s open, and proprietress Anne Sayles finishes up a bit of backstage work and sets up an interesting tasting for us, featuring the estate’s four extra-virgin oils (two varietals and two blends), some delicious local bread which she warms in an oven, and a snacky preparation of cured and citrus-enhanced olives. Having done a little bit of professional olive oil evaluation, I always find the process fascinating in comparison to wine tasting. The functional similarities are obvious, but the descriptive palette is completely different, and there’s an inherent limitation on the exercise itself which doesn’t usually apply to the world of professionally-expectorated wine: only the strong of stomach can endure more than a few ounces of swallowed oil.
Rangihoua is, itself, a solution to a problem: what to do with the olives on the Stonyridge winery property that were, year after year, simply falling to the ground? Anne, then a Stonyridge employee, and her husband Colin decided to make a go of oil production (with a little bit of a nudge from Colin’s stint in Tuscany), and just a few years later are making oils that are gathering quite a bit of national attention, and even the first stirrings of international interest. Their olive sources are primarily 1000 or so trees near the property (including the aforementioned Stonyridge groves), supplemented with plantings all over Waiheke Island.
Rangihoua Estate 2004 Koreineki (Waiheke Island) – Smooth and silky, showing apple notes and a light, almost tannic bite on the finish. A pretty oil.
Rangihoua Estate 2004 “Waiheke Blend” (Waiheke Island) – Zingy, raw olive flavor with some midpalate bitterness and a brisk, sharp finish.
Rangihoua Estate 2004 Picual (Waiheke Island) – Peppered celery and a green, chlorophyll character with lemon rind and an undercurrent of minerality. Really striking and individualistic; our favorite of the bunch.
Rangihoua Estate 2004 “Stonyridge Blend” (Waiheke Island) – Raw peanut, pine nut, and more “oily” than the previous three, with a high-toned finish. This would seem to need food to tame its wilder qualities.
Anne, eventually joined by Colin, gives us a brief tour of their clean, modern facility, which has – and will probably need, given current trends – plenty of room for future expansion. We leave with a pair of oils and some of the olive mixture, weaving our way through a maze of ducks (different breeds, all of them) wandering the expansive yard and parking lot.
A moldy digression
Bread, wine, cheese and olive oil: the holy quadrity of Mediterranean staples. On the other side of the world, New Zealand needs a little help with two of them.
13 January 2006
Aucœur 1999 Morgon “Cuvée Jean Claude Aucœur” (Beaujolais) – Fully mature, showing sun-dried strawberries and raspberries under a smooth, autumnal haze. Gorgeous, dried fruit-flower aromatics and a narrow core of black truffle complete a wine that, at maturity, has only a hint of pinot; the terroir and the gamay speak most clearly here. Very nice.
Not all terroirs in Beaujolais can be relied upon to age, but Morgon is one that tends to; in fact, it was an aged Morgon Côte-du-Py at Les Maritonnes in Romanèche-Thorins, way back in the days of my honeymoon, that opened my eyes to the beauty of these wines after some age. The problem is, of course, that they often taste so good young. Alcohol: 13%. Importer: Violette.
12 January 2006
Terroirs vary in the Alto Adige, but the overwhelming regional influence on virtually the entire palette of grapes is one of Teutonic austerity carried on metal and stone. As a lover of minerality in wines, I’m strongly drawn to this characteristic. What too often happens, however, is that the wine itself is not up to the structural challenge. Thankfully, that’s not the case here. Alcohol: 13%. Importer: Lageder USA. Web: http://www.lageder.com/.
It’s time to say it as clearly as possible: big pinot noirs must be eradicated from the earth.
No longer is it enough to embrace them as some sort of “alternative expression” of wine. No longer will their misguided individuality be tolerated. No longer will the excuse that they are “representative of their place” be permitted. No longer can wine lovers everywhere sit idly by while something they’ve paid a lot of money for is rendered utterly useless by the misdirected dabblings of their producers.
Why have we reached this point of conflict? It’s simple: the super-sized pinot has infected the home soil, the motherland, the cradle of civilization. Outsized pinots have now worked their insidious evil in Burgundy itself. Burgundy! Imagine!
Oh, sure, I hear what you winemakers are thinking. “Who are you to say what I should do with my pinot?” Well, Mr. Arrogant Winemaker Dude (or Chick), I am the representative of wine lovers everywhere, who will no longer tolerate these abusive horrors of modern technology that waste our time and our money. We have had enough, and we demand change! Smaller pinots, now!!
Why, just last night, I took one of these monstrosities from a box. Try as I might, I could not encompass its fat-bellied girth. No food, no apéritif, no amount of mitigating technology could reduce its size. I pushed, and wiggled, and bent…but it simply would not fit in any part of the cellar.
Wait, you thought I was talking about the wine? No, no…
It’s the bottle size. Damn it, these things are way too big. What are we supposed to do with these keg-shaped monstrosities, anyway? They don’t fit in wine racks…or if they do, they tilt and slide into precarious positions, their flabby midsections intruding into nearby slots and rendering them equally unusable. They don’t stack, because there’s not a flat surface anywhere on the bottle. And lifting a dozen of them is all it takes to give your average oenophile a permanent wrist injury. What are they made of, lead crystal instead of glass?
Sure, there are occasional producers elsewhere who use oversized bottles. Huet. Turley. Others. But in the world of pinot noir, the disease has grown beyond spot infections into a full-blown plague. Next thing you know, we’ll have 750ml wines in 1.5L bottles, with a solid half of the total volume made up of hand-crafted stained glass studded with lead weights; $30 for the wine, $125 for the bottle, 75 pounds each and in the shape of a llama. People will need forklifts to move a case from their car to their cellar, and retailers everywhere will be nursing spinal injuries. Cellars will start to resemble glass topiary. And Wine Spectator will have a whole new thing to photograph.
It has to end, I tell you! Join me now in eradicating the scourge that is destroying a grape we love.
Down with big pinots!
11 January 2006
André Blanck 2002 Riesling Schlossberg “Vieilles Vignes” (Alsace) – Two bottles tasted, with consistent notes. Clean, wet industrial metals with dried grapefruit rind and a slightly acridity. It’s full-bodied and hollow at the same time; not because it lacks a midpalate, but because it just doesn’t “say” much of anything. Perhaps age will improve things.
The Schlossberg, a grand cru vineyard situated above the towns of Kientzheim and Kaysersberg (and a very pretty, if rough-hewn, slope), is best known for its rieslings…less so for its gewürztraminers…but it’s a site I’ve never entirely warmed to. There’s a force to the wines similar to those from Brand (another grand cru vineyard), but it too often seems that the force overwhelms complexity and nervosity. It’s not a producer-specific problem, because the site is worked by producers of varying styles (Weinbach, Mann, Sparr and Paul Blanck are the most famous), but while the wines are often very, very good, they rarely reach the pinnacles of certain other sites. It could just be personal preference at work, of course; most others seem to adore these wines, and it would be hard to argue persuasively against the high quality of the best Schlossberg rieslings of Weinbach and Paul Blanck. But I wonder if there isn’t something about the combination of searing sunlight (common to the entire south-facing band of vineyards here, including Altenbourg and Furstentum) and cooling air coming down from the Vosges via the Lapoutroie gap (Schlossberg is tucked right up into the Vosges foothills) that knocks these wines a little off-kilter, at least for my taste. Alcohol: 13.5%. Importer: Vineyard Road.
Bollinger Champagne Brut “Special Cuvée” (Champagne) – Two bottles tasted, with fairly consistent notes. Smoldering fall leaves and roasted cherry skins with fat peach and spice jar aromas and a thick texture offset by smooth pétillance. This is one of those rare NVs that actually needs age to come together; it’s a little hedonistic right now…almost slutty, in fact…and could use a little more refinement. That will come in time.
I admit it: I am an unrepentant Bollinger fan. I love pinot-dominated sparkling wine, and something about the combination of grapes, soils, and blending skill at Bollinger just tickles my Champagne fancy. I do wish the wine wasn’t so expensive, which causes it to be decidedly less than a house Champagne for me, but the quality is undeniable. Alcohol: 12%. Importer: Paterno Wines International. Web: http://www.champagne-bollinger.fr/.
JJ Christoffel 1995 Erdener Treppchen Riesling Auslese ** 10 96 (Mosel-Saar-Ruwer) – Beautiful creamed iron dust and long-decayed pollen with hints of lemon-strawberry custard. Firm and well-structured, very sweet, and lacking just a bit of the edge that would push it into the stratospheric realms of riesling. But it’s still excellent.
Everyone’s waiting to see what’s going to happen to this venerable house now that it has changed hands. In the meantime, there remains a decent supply of older Christoffels from which to taste the real genius at work among the former ownership. Upper-level auslesen are rarely my favorite style of German riesling; I find “normal” auslesen (which are getting rarer by the year) to have better balance and verve, and full-on beerenauslesen to have more of the sweetness one wants in a true dessert wine. This two-star auslese, however, has always retained a certain poise despite the sugary palate weight, and for that I’ve gone to it time and again when needing a well-aged riesling to convert the uninitiated. Alcohol: 8%. Importer: Terry Theise/Milton S. Kronheim/J&H Selbach. Web: http://www.moenchhof.de/.
Dubourdieu “Château Graville-Lacoste” 2003 Graves (Bordeaux) – Fruity gooseberry and lemon-lime with Granny Smith apple and a boisterous, attention-grabbing personality…only once it has your attention, it has very little to say.
Bottle after bottle, this wine reminds me of a New Zealand sauvignon blanc rather than a sauvignon/sémillon blend from the more restrained soils of Graves. Blame 2003. Alcohol: 12%. Importer: Kermit Lynch.
Papin-Chevalier “Château Pierre-Bise” 2002 Côteaux du Layon Rochefort Les Rayelles (Loire) – Stunning waxy/creamy chalk and honeysuckle with the most flawless texture of liquid silk and an endless, clean finish of delicate white nectarine and spice. Beautiful, with a long, long road ahead of it.
If you haven’t stocked up on 2002 Loires, you’re going to be sorry. Exquisite dessert wines of this quality are rare on the ground, and this particular botrytized chenin blanc does something the category rarely does: it tastes fantastic right out of the gate. Let me be clear about this: buy as much as you can afford, and then buy some more. Alcohol: 12.7%. Importer: Louis/Dressner/LDM.
Roederer Champagne Brut “Premier” (Champagne) – Full-bodied and red-fruited, though with a significant offset of ripe and sweet lemon, showing less assertive but cleaner and more focused than the Bollinger.
I’m not the only one to have occasionally expressed a preference for this house’s Mendocino County products over its authentic Champagnes. No doubt the effortless international market for Cristal, a cash cow if there ever was one, reduces the motivation for producing high-quality wine. Nonetheless, this is a fine Champagne for the short term; another pinot-dominated wine that is less of a dominating presence at table than the previously-noted Bollinger. What it lacks is a sort of forward-looking complexity; the apparent effort to achieve something beyond pleasant bubbly. Roederer Estate in California is unquestionably less elegant and clumsier in its fruit-forward expression, but at least there one gets the clear sense that aspirational winemaking is at play. Alcohol: 12%. Importer: Maisons Marques & Domaines. Web: http://www.champagne-roederer.com/.
Charles Heidsieck 1996 Champagne Brut Rosé (Champagne) – Funky and very difficult, with some very advanced sweaty yeast notes coupled with tart red cherry and a somewhat indolent effervescence. It might just need more time.
Rosé Champagne walks a fine line, trying to retain its regional elegance and precision while embracing the powerful influences of blended red wine. It doesn’t always succeed, at least in youth (which is why the remarkably consistent Billecart-Salmon Rosé is so justifiably famous), and here’s an example of how it can fail. And yet, all the components are there, and from a solid house like Charles Heidsieck, one would expect ageability to take care of some of the current issues. Alcohol: 12%. Importer: Remy Amerique. Web: http://www.charlesheidsieck.com/.
Clos du Paradis “Domaine Viret” 2000 Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages Saint-Maurice “Cosmic” (Rhône) – Well-knit roasted plum and strawberry with hints of bubblegum, lavender and earth. Direct and to-the-point, though more complex than most wines of that description, with the potential for some limited aging but very little upside in doing so.
This remarkable winery produces a stunning lineup of differently-blended and sited wines from Saint-Maurice (home to them and a co-op, but no one else of note, at least on my last visit), all of which are rather forceful and (occasionally) impenetrable for a virtually-unknown village in the Côtes-du-Rhône. Plus, they’re expensive (again, in the context of an unknown appellation). What this means is that introducing the uninitiated to the domaine is problematic. The U.S. importer fought this by introducing this export-only cuvée, a grenache-dominated and “friendlier” product to provide immediate, and lower-cost, enticement on U.S. store shelves. I don’t know if the plan is working or not (the other bottlings still seem to be difficult sells), but I do know that I’ve bought cases of this wine in both its vintages. The ’99 was slightly better, but this is a quibble; good wine is good wine. Alcohol: 14.5%. Cosmocultural. Importer: Louis/Dressner/LDM. Web: http://www.domaine-viret.com/.
Clos-Fourtet “Martialis de Fourtet” 1997 Saint-Émilion (Bordeaux) – A beautiful wine at the beginning of its full maturity. Moist leather and dark, dried berries are coupled with dried thyme and pencil shavings (both the graphite and the cedary wood) in a beverage of elegance and balance. There’s still moderate and unresolved tannin, but the fruit is so nice right now that it might not be wise to wait too many more years.
I don’t drink a lot of merlot, but of course a good St-Émilion or Pomerol isn’t just a “merlot.” 1997 was a less than heralded vintage, but carefully selected bottles are drinking really nicely over the earlier term; perhaps few show any real notion of classic balance, but that hardly renders them undrinkable. The problem, as ever for Bordeaux, is that lesser wines from off-vintages (“lesser” by the definitions of the market, not qualitatively) are a very difficult thing to sell in a worldwide market where someone has always had an excellent year, and where fun and accessible wines are strewn like litter across the landscape. The Bordelais could compete more successfully if the wines were cheaper, but we all know that’s never going to happen. And so, we have wines like this: only the devoted (or the unwary) would buy them, and all but those few will miss out on the potential pleasures such wines can provide. Alcohol: 12.5%. French bottling. Web: http://www.closfourtet.com/.
Dow’s 1986 Single Year Tawny Porto “Reserve” (Douro) – Juiced plum candy and spiced figs with raw cane sugar squeezings and touches of cinnamon. Sweet, crisp and enticing, but without some of the extra complexity found in previous vintages of this wine.
I’ve often heard that the “English-owned” Port houses resist the term “colheita” (which is what this is; a vintage-dated tawny Port), but I haven’t done enough of a survey to verify the truth of the matter. What I do know is that this wine, in an earlier vintage (1982), is the one that opened my eyes to the lusciousness of aged colheitas, which are almost always cheaper and more accessible than their vintage-dated ruby brethren. Certainly, as pre-aged wines, they don’t require such overwhelming patience; one can just uncork and drink, and yet one isn’t getting a simplistic fruit bomb, but a delicious combination of tertiary wine complexities and spicy barrel influences. Alcohol: 20%. Importer: Premium Port Wines. Web: http://www.dows-port.com/.
10 January 2006
Bisson “Ü Pastine” 2003 Golfo del Tigullio Bianchetta Genovese (Liguria) – Spring-like stems and bursting white flowers with a pollinated and swamp-rush sort of sun-drenched vegetal fetidity. It’s yummy, but strange, and turns monotone with the wrong food. Something light and retiring is in order here, I think.
I confess to knowing absolutely nothing about this DOC, which is situated around the town of Chíavari just east of Genoa. I also confess to knowing nothing about this grape, which is unimportant enough to draw no more than a mere non-descriptive mention in Jancis Robinson’s Vines, Grapes & Wines and no mention at all in Anthony Hawkins’ Grape Glossary, yet appears to be one of those almost-extinct Italian varieties saved only by the fervor of a single producer. For that alone, it’s worth preserving, though the wine itself is quite interesting and worthy of further study. Alcohol: 13%. Importer: Rosenthal.
A holiday week dinner at Boston's justifiably-renowned No. 9 Park, with an eclectic selection of wines from the restaurant's brilliant wine director, Cat Silirie
Chartogne-Taillet Champagne Brut Rosé (Champagne) – Gorgeous, silky-creamy preserved apple and black fruit with yeasty complexity and pleasant minerality, both of which build and roll through the midpalate and finish. Beautiful Champagne in motion.
This is one of those grower-producer Champagnes that one hears about so often, and it’s also one of the best. There’s something more indefinably soulful about these vs. the big industrial names. Try it for yourself.
Alain Guillot Crémant de Bourgogne Blanc de Blancs (Burgundy) – Simpler and more direct, showing a character that’s either off-dry, botrytized, or possibly both (though I suppose it could also be an excess of leesiness), with straightforward grapefruit and green apple characteristics..
Crémant, a sort of catch-all French term for “sparkling wine not from Champagne” (though there are other possible terms as well), sells like crazy in France, but is a hard sell elsewhere. Primarily, this is because the wines – though unquestionably cheaper than Champagne – don’t really measure up. There are exceptions in each region, but those are also the wines that usually get snapped up by the local market. As for this particular crémant: other than the fact that this producer is situated in the Mâcon, and thus the grapes for this wine are likely to be from there, I know absolutely nothing about this bottle. Web: http://www.vignes-du-maynes.com/.
Bisson 2003 Cinque Terre “Marea” (Liguria) – Rushing mountain waterfalls full of minerality and midsummer bursts of ripe green fruit. 2003 has rendered this wine slightly less unique, but more fun to drink; a fair tradeoff, though I wouldn’t want to make it every year.
The Cinque Terre, not unlike the Côte d’Azur, has a bit of reputation for overpriced yet underperforming wines. This one isn’t exactly cheap ($24 or so), but neither does it underperform; less hot vintages are more enticingly floral/mineral, and there’s something unique and interesting here that’s worth the extra tariff. The grapes are vermentino, bosco and albarola, with extra time on the lees to add body and complexity.
Les Crêtes 2002 Torrette “vignes les toules” (Vallée d’Aoste) – Begins stale and cranky, but develops into an individualistic stunner, with raw iron blocks and vividly floral mixed berries. Fragrant and seductive, but not particularly feminine, this is a wine that takes some time to get to know, but rewards the effort a hundredfold.
Mostly petit rouge (a grape virtually limited to the Valle d’Aosta), grown in moraine, calcareous and sandy soils. One of the more unique wines I’ve tasted over the past year, and in fact I’m not sure I’ve ever tasted anything like it. Web: http://www.lescretesvins.it/.
Clos de Haute-Combes 2002 Juliénas “Cuvée Prestige” (Beaujolais) – Classic violet berries in agrodolce with a fairly firm, if not at all powerful, structure and a really gorgeous finish. Beyond food friendly; perhaps food-enrapturing, instead.
I’m not sure why I’ve been drinking so much Juliénas lately. Random chance, I guess. This one is decidedly prettier than either of the two Grangers recently consumed, and in fact is pretty much everything a person could want from cru Beaujolais.
Meix-Foulot 2000 Mercurey “1er Cru” (Burgundy) – Less pretty and a little sluttier than previous vintages, though it would be especially churlish to call it anything other than tasty. There’s some very slightly grating tannin that looms over the fruit a bit, but this should be a good deal of nice drinking over the short term.
A blend from premier cru multiple vineyards (Saumonts and Ropitons, one site advises), from a solidly consistent producer of lighter-styled Burgundy at a not-unreasonable price. That, in itself, is a major accomplishment.
Pibarnon 2001 Bandol (Provence) – Texturally lighter than the previous three wines, with funky horse sweat and vine-rotted, shriveled fruit; it’s good, but it’s a little hollow and shrill for the usual mourvèdre (and, probably brett) stink, and I wonder if it might not be in a difficult phase.
Mourvèdre can get stinkier, and it can get more forceful, but it achieves its personal pinnacle of a rustic sort of elegance in Bandol, the only Provençal appellation to really do much on the international stage. This wine’s a little odd, but one thing I’ve found to be true of Bandol is that the wines are almost always better with age. Web: http://www.pibarnon.fr/.
Schrock 2002 Ruster Ausbruch (Neusiedlersee-Huggenland) – Very thin at first, with clean but obvious crystallized citrus aromas. With air, however, it fills out to show lovely, fuller-bodied spice and sorbet characteristics with a succulent peach-candy finish.
An ausbruch must be made from shriveled, botrytized grapes picked at an exceedingly high level of ripeness. What this usually means is that the spicy/creamy botrytis notes overwhelm everything else; this isn’t a bad thing, but simple botrytis doesn’t have to be as expensive as these wines usually are. In this case, it’s the varietal characteristics of the pinot blanc and pinot gris grapes that first emerge, to be followed by the additional complexity of noble rot. This is a worthy accomplishment in itself, even though this bottling is far from the best that Ms. Schröck can do. Web: http://www.heidi-schroeck.com/.
Ferreira 1997 Vintage Porto (Douro) – Big, fruity, tannic and obvious; there is the very slightest hint of emerging spice, but fundamentally this is way, way too young.
I usually consider drinking young vintage Port a complete waste of time and money, and this wine does little to change that predisposition. There are plenty of fresh-tasting, blended ports if one craves berried exuberance, and tawnies from simplistic blends to majestic colheitas available if one wants instant complexity. But young vintage Port is rarely other than monolithic, so unless one’s purpose is evaluative, why waste the wine? Web: http://www.sogrape.pt/.
Pierre Ferrand Cognac 30-year “Sélection des Anges” (Cognac) – Unbelievable aromatics of barrel spice and long-aged fruit with very little intrusive heat; goes down much, much lighter than one might expect, then fills and warms again on the finish, with elegantly lingering touches of bitterness. Just beautiful.
I never used to like Cognac, thinking it wan and simplistic next to the Bas-Armagnac I preferred. Then an enthusiastic young salesperson came to Boston, showing the Ferrand and Gabriel & Andreu lines, and everything changed. Here were real digestifs, with character and differentiation and (pun intended) spirit. Plus, they remain underpriced vs. a universe of oversold but undermade “name” brands. What’s not to love? Web: http://le-cognac.com/pf/.
This is the “early-picked” (October, which is not exactly early) dry Jurançon at this estate (see here and here for notes on one of the moelleux bottlings), made from justifiably under-appreciated gros manseng and just bursting with quality. Sometimes, terroir really does work its magic, but the skill of the producer has something to say here as well. Alcohol: 13%. Importer: Arborway. Web: http://www.cauhape.com/
08 January 2006
Granger 2002 Juliénas (Beaujolais) – Too small to be a fruit bomb – perhaps a fruit “poof” – with dainty red fruit and a sweet grin. There’s never much more to it than that, however. Furthermore, given that another recently-consumed bottle of this wine was entirely different, some blame has to be assigned to the variability of the synthetic cork seal.
See the previous note for not-very-much information on this wine. As for the cork, early demises and variability are an unfortunate side-effect of even the best synthetic corks (and this is one of the better ones; extruded, not molded). Removing the TCA threat is a worthy goal, and these corks do accomplish that, but they bring an even more loudly-ticking time bomb of their own. A shame, really. Screwcaps (and crown caps) are still the most promising of the various alternatives to cork. Alcohol: 13%. Importer: Rosenthal.
San Alejandro “Las Rocas” 2001 Garnacha “Viñas Viejas” (Calatayud) – Insistent strawberry and plum pit with dried roadside tree bark, a warming palate impression, and a decent amount of support and structure. Whether this wine is falling apart or closing down is anyone’s guess at this point, though the emergent heat hints at the former. On the other hand, it is a fairly hot-climate red, and some obvious alcohol isn’t necessarily a reason for anxiety. Still, I’ll drinking most of mine sooner rather than later.
There’s been controversy about this wine – multiple bottlings leading to one critically-heralded version and another that’s apparently not up to snuff – but this purchase (a multi-bottle lot) was unquestionably one of the good set, and even though it’s not the full-fruited monster it was in its youth, its still a fun and good value quaff. Alcohol: 14%. Importer: European Cellars.
05 January 2006
Tablas Creek 2003 Rosé (Paso Robles) – Neon lavender squeezings, concentrated strawberry preserve, wood spice, and tongue-numbing alcohol.
As much amazing flavor as they’ve packed into this wine, 14.8% is just way too much alcohol for a rosé. I don’t know if they’d consider it (probably not), but a spinning cone might indeed be the answer. Nonetheless, I’m sure this is a hit among the bigger = better herds. 64% mourvèdre, 28% grenache, 8% counoise. Alcohol: 14.8%. Web: http://www.tablascreek.com/.
(Short excerpts from a longer narrative, which can be found here.)
Château de Fieuzal 1993 Pessac-Léognan (Bordeaux) - Full of pine needles and silty peat moss dust, with something in the licorice family – I proceed through fennel, anise, and pastis before finally arriving back at fennel fronds – with a brassy, tinny aspect.
Mumm NV Champagne Crémant de Cramant Blanc de Blancs (Champagne) - Of indeterminate age, but most definitely not a new release. Smells like a Dairy Queen chocolate shake, though there’s also a malted element to it and perhaps something more custardy from the Ocean City boardwalk would be a more appropriate descriptor. On the palate, there’s some bitter lemon and stingingly tart apple to balance things out, but the overall impression is of a sugary, confected ball of barely-bubbly strangeness.
Chapoutier 1989 Hermitage Blanc “Chante-Alouette” (Rhône) - Lemon peel and peanut oil on the palate, but nothing at all on the nose. It’s less than half a wine, though this performance doesn’t really surprise me from Chapoutier.
Chave 1996 Hermitage Blanc (Rhône) - Manzanilla sherry, creamy puréed earth and chestnuts, but nothing on the palate.
R. Lopez de Heredia “Viña Tondonia” 1989 Rioja “Reserva” “Viña Gravonia” – Still vivid and – say it ain’t so – possessing something that might easily be labeled fruit, which I point out should necessarily exclude it from our evening. Nonetheless, it’s nice, showing baked pear, baked peach, and a bright, spicy finish. By far the liveliest wine of the night so far.
R. Lopez de Heredia “Viña Tondonia” 1987 Rioja “Reserva” “Viña Tondonia” – The color…well, basically, there’s no way to describe the color other than “fill the cup, please.” Sour plum, blood orange blossoms and dried flower petals mark a long, complex, and surprisingly pretty wine. Pretty, but with a lot of depth, and probably the best wine of the night.
R. Lopez de Heredia “Viña Tondonia” 1976 Rioja “Gran Reserva” “Viña Gravonia” – Dark brown, with caramel laced with cidered apple and baked potato. It’s juicy and long, with pretty decent acidity, but it’s also rather heavy and thudding, and I find myself going back to the ’87…as does the rest of the group…leaving a lot of this brooding and mud-colored wine still resting in its decanter.
Ramonteu “Domaine Cauhapé” 2001 Jurançon “Symphonie de Novembre” (Southwest France) - Tasty but “off” in comparison to an earlier bottle, and I wonder aloud if it isn’t some of that “romantic and traditional” cork variation that we all know and love (at least it’s not also-much-beloved cork taint). There’s very slightly oxidized sweet spiced peach, bitter skins and light botrytis spice with a balanced, drying finish…but all the lushness of this wine is under some sort of shroud.
Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 1999 “Finale” (Waipara) is much better, showing creamy sweet tangerine, orange, spicy wood and noble rot influences, and a luscious balance and texture.
04 January 2006
Bias is a difficult subject among critics, because the word carries a lot of negative baggage that most would prefer to avoid. But understanding the concept and its fundamental role in criticism is vital to a successful dialogue between critic and consumer.
Bias is natural
All humans have biases. Those that claim to be free of bias are either remarkably self-unaware or attempting to con their audience. How can the fundamental human trait of preference be abandoned just because one puts finger to keyboard?
Bias is good
That fact-focused reportage exists is good. That opinionated reportage exists is also good. The important thing, always, is that bias be open and acknowledged; little is more dangerous to the truth than stealth bias.
On the other hand, criticism cannot, by its very nature, help but be stuffed to the gills with bias. After all, criticism is a statement of opinion, and opinions are shaped by personal experience and personal preference in equal measure. Critics must accept, reveal, and revel in their biases…and audiences must accept and correctly interpret those biases. Only in this fashion can a useful communication of ideas transpire between critic and audient.
What critics must not do is pretend they are free of bias…or worse, claim that their biases are objective truth. The more authoritative a critic becomes, the greater this danger, and the more it must be guarded against; not only by the critic, but also by a wary audience. Beware the critic who decries others preferences while holding their own immutable. They have lost their way.
Biases at oenoLogic
I do not pretend that it is possible to iterate all potential biases, for I do not believe it is possible to know all the inner workings of one’s mind. (And even if it were, who would want to?) Nonetheless, there are biases that are clear and known to me, and I think it best to reveal them here. Readers should consider these biases the context under which all my writing – critical and otherwise – should be considered.
I believe very strongly in the importance of terroir, and will nearly always prefer wines that are of their place to wines that are not.
Native grape varieties are preferred to imported and “international” grape varieties, because tradition and diversity are valuable (though not all-important).
Minimal intervention is preferable to deformative intervention. It is unquestionably true that there is no such thing as non-interventionist, but it is equally unquestionable that there are degrees of intervention.
Ripeness is not a goal without limit. Nor am I afraid of green aromas in wines. Underripeness is no estimable goal, but “riper” is not a synonym for “better.”
Wine is “just a beverage,” wine is a product of agriculture and chemistry, and wine is a work of art. I do not consider those statements to be in conflict.
Extreme levels of anything are off-putting. I am extremely averse to obscene levels of alcohol, fruit, and oak. I am somewhat averse to obscene levels of tannin and acid. I am indifferent to the presence of residual sugar, pending a consideration of the wine’s balance. Conversely, I am extremely averse to the absence of acid, and not at all averse to the absence of anything else.
The complexity of mature wines is, when achievable, preferable to the exuberance of youthful wines. This does not mean that I don’t like youthful exuberance, only that I find my emotional and intellectual responses to it inherently limited. Nonetheless, the majority of the wine I drink is youthful and, in some measure, exuberant.
Sweet wines must have balancing acidity. I tend to prefer sweet wines unmarked by new oak aromas, but there are many exceptions to this tendency.
I am strongly predisposed towards earthy and mineral characteristics.
I am not particularly averse to volatile acidity, though I am sensitive to it. However, I have a fairly strong adverse reaction to certain wines rife with it (e.g. traditional Amarone). I am somewhat at a loss to explain this.
I am not averse to mild levels of brett, but will soon tire of a wine overwhelmed by it.
I am somewhat put off by strong new oak influence, though there are exceptions.
Winemakers should produce the wine their terroir indicates and not practice deformations to conform to someone else’s standard. Corollary to this, however: not all grapes and techniques are equally-suited to all terroirs, and the mere physical ability to grow a variety or make a style is not, by itself, an unquestioned (or unquestionable) good.
Complexity is almost always preferable to power. Power is, by itself, boring.
Grapes have characteristics that should be respected. Terroirs have characteristics that should be respected. Winemakers have signatures that should be respected. However, the best winemakers subvert their desire for respect to the demands of grape and terroir.
“All that matters is that it tastes good” is a useless and childish way of approaching wine appreciation, and of even less utility when it forms the foundation of criticism.
A wine that requires food to show its full quality is not inherently less good than a wine that is complete when consumed by itself. (It is not inherently better, either.)
Winemaking techniques designed to mitigate deficiencies in the source material are to be viewed with suspicion. None invalidate the resulting wine, but as these techniques become cheaper and more ubiquitous, it is worthwhile asking if at some point they become fundamentally deformative.
The better-funded the winery, the greater the responsibility for producing quality wine.
Changing a wine’s style to fit the vagaries of fashion or the tastes of powerful critics is an understandable reaction – bankruptcy and starvation are not estimable goals for winemakers, and philosophical purity doesn’t pay the bills – but this rarely leads to a superior product, and contributes to the entropic decay of wine as a natural product (that is, a literal product of nature).
“The hand” (the influence of man) is more important than “the land” (natural factors) in determining a wine’s character, but the best wines reveal more of the latter than the former.
Wine can be fun. Wine can be serious. Wine can be mindless. Wine can make you think. Wine can make you feel. The best wines are those that embrace more, rather than fewer, of these concepts.
03 January 2006
The gift of morning
Mornings just don’t get much more beautiful than this one. Sun, blue sky, warm – but not too warm – air, and the freedom to do anything, everything, or nothing. Such freedom and its world of possibilities are truly a gift. Inspired, we express our gratitude for the gift of complete freedom by wolfing down several bowls of muesli and fresh fruit.
After all, what good is freedom if you’re not regular?
As we pack the car for relaxing, first-day-of-vacation beach slothfulness, Cliff (our host) emerges from his house toting a folding beach chair. “Here, you’ll want this,” he offers. Just then the phone rings; it’s Auckland wine writer (and friend) Sue Courtney, checking to see if we’ve arrived intact. And once more the refrain: New Zealanders are unbelievably nice, and though we should no longer be surprised by it, we are. Perhaps it’s the gift of the land they inhabit; a treasure in itself, and fertile ground for the cultivation of luxuries both prosaic and extravagant. Perhaps it’s remoteness from the more guarded, selfish centers of “modern” culture. Or perhaps it’s just the people, who approach life with an unstudied innocence that chips away at one’s cynicism and world-weariness. Either way, it’s exceedingly hard to be unhappy when it seems that an entire country is looking out for your well-being.
One with Onetangi
Onetangi Beach is a long, straight stretch of white gold gently lapped by a greenish-blue sea. Today, it’s completely empty, save for a few lonely seagulls. We park our car on the crumbling strip of sand-infused dirt between a narrow frontage street and the beach, park ourselves right in the middle of the sand, and begin the flesh-roasting process (though to be honest, we’re covered in enough high-octane sunscreen that a deep, dark tan seems unlikely). There’s no traffic, very little wind, only the soft murmur of waves, and even the gulls are mostly silent. It’s a little eerie, but it’s also profoundly relaxing, and every last bit of real-world tension drifts softly away, collected and carried to sea by the gentle motion of the tides and the winds.
We exchange brief naps and quickly restorative dips in the ocean, and oscillate between soft, sun-slowed conversation and the sweet silence of isolation. When hunger finally starts to gnaw, we climb back up to a street-side picnic table and unfurl a spread of garlicky green-lipped mussels and Ferndale “Brie” (absurdly simple, definably “cheese” but with no additional character beyond the bare fact of it) with a wine perfectly suited to the day and the location.
Onetangi Road 2004 Rosé (Waiheke Island) – Juicy raspberry goodness that’s big and slightly hot, but despite the slightly overweight character it’s a really fun, full-fruited summer quaffer. It will get you tipsy, though. I suggest a post-lunch layabout on an isolated beach.
There are no shops or hotels here, just a clean and functional public changing room/bathroom combination, but there is a manageable breadth to the waterfront, and so we decide to stroll from one end to another. Low-hanging trees shadow water-etched rocks on one end, boulders which conceal a collection of tidal pools and, behind, tiny little beach alcoves to which a few sun-bronzed locals have retired…perhaps fleeing the masses (which, today, are…I presume…us). At the beach’s opposite end, tangled vegetation supports a teetering cliff onto which a quiet, leaf-dimmed bungalow has been perched. And still, the great length of the beach remains empty. OK, it’s a work day, but come on…where is everybody?
Gibellini “Tenuta Pederzana” 2004 Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro (Emilia-Romagna) – Rough-hewn purple berry slushie, with zingy acidity, lip-staining tannin and a delightful froth of bubbles. Soda for adults…but adults who own a good toothbrush…and more fun every time I drink it.
“Oh, even I know that wine,” remarked my non-wine drinking mother over the holidays. Well, no she didn’t…which is lambrusco’s problem. Too many sickly-sweet versions in decades past have pretty much ruined the reputation of this grape. But if zinfandel, Chablis and even Soave can be resurrected, why not lambrusco? Yet to call this a “serious” lambrusco would also be missing the point; little about good lambrusco is “serious” in the manner of, say, a fine Bordeaux. That’s what makes it great. Alcohol: 11.5%. Importer: Ideal
Zusslin 2004 Chasselas “Vieilles Vignes” (Alsace) – Skins, very light lees, and mildly milky beige earth. It takes work to make chasselas interesting, and I don’t know that the requisite work has been done here.
Chasselas is a grape without much of a future in Alsace. New plantings are prohibited on grand cru sites, those that exist can’t carry the names of their crus (though some producers resort to semi-arcane codes to get the information out there), and there’s not much of a market for it outside Switzerland (where they mostly drink their own chasselas anyway). So it takes a special sort of monomania to grow and vinify the grape. But chasselas needs something special to make it more than alcoholic water, and most of the best terroirs are already being better-used by grapes that are, probably, of greater inherent worth. It’s a dilemma without an apparent solution. Alcohol: 12%. Biodynamic. Importer: Violette. Web:http://www.valentin-zusslin.com/.
Roussel & Barrouillet “Clos Roche Blanche” 2002 Touraine Cabernet (Loire) – Not-yet-blended red and black berries with ripe but hard tannin and a chewy, food-devouring texture. It lingers and lingers on the finish, getting more balanced all the while, so one (rightly, in my estimation) expects ageability. And this is important: it plays much more nicely with the right cuisine. Thick slabs of animal work best.
It initially seems to important to know whether the “cabernet” of the label implies a varietal cabernet franc, which would be typical for the Loire, or a cabernet franc/cabernet sauvignon blend. However, one must ask: is it really all that important? Certainly the father-and-son grapes aren’t going to be so wildly different that the distinction is vitally important in this case. This producer makes a host of varietal and semi-varietal wines from the soils of the Touraine, and while not all of them are at the same level of quality, this is one of their more reliable performers…and from an excellent vintage in the region. I’d recommend stocking up.Alcohol: 12%. Importer: Louis/Dressner. Organic.
S. Stefano 2004 Moscato d’Asti (Piedmont) – The usual perfume truck crashed into the usual flower shop, but this time there was a fruit stand in the way. This is decidedly on the fruitier side of moscato d’Asti, and also decidedly less lithe; it’s thick and sweet enough that one could easily confuse it for a higher-alcohol muscat were it not for the sudsy bubbles. It’s tasty enough, if perhaps a bit lurid, but I’m not sure this is the correct goal for moscato d’Asti.
Like the above-mentioned lambrusco, moscato d’Asti carries the baggage of a bad reputation. Except that this one is particularly mis-applied. First, Asti is a place, not a grape or a wine style. Second, despite the generally low quality of Asti Spumante (the wine that leads to the lousy reputation) on U.S. store shelves, the only inherent difference between that and moscato d’Asti is the alcohol level. That said, the general industrialization of producers of Asti Spumante is, indeed, to blame for the aforementioned low quality. All of this is a grand shame, because moscato d’Asti is one of the most delightful beverages anywhere; pure fun in a glass. And while this example doesn’t show all its potential qualities to the fullest potential, a chilled glass of moscato d’Asti is – except at its very, very worst – never a bad thing. Alcohol: 5.5%. Importer: Clicquot.
02 January 2006
Aucœur 2002 Régnié “Cuvée de Vernus” (Beaujolais) – Tart raspberry, underripe red cherry and apple with acid-spiked sheets of rusty iron. This is starting its downslope, and giving way to the powerful acidities within, but it was fun while it lasted.
Régnié is one of the ten crus of Beaujolais, and according to most observers I’ve talked to one of the least definable; the wines have to be taken on a bottle-by-bottle basis. This is a wine I’ve liked a great deal, and I admit to surprise at the downturn; it was never a blockbuster gamay, but it was fairly solid and balanced, and three years isn’t that old. Serve it with tart food, however, and things should be OK.
Alcohol: 14%. Importer: Violette.
Beaumont 2004 Lirac Blanc (Rhône) – Stone fruit: the cocktail version. It doesn’t require a colorful paper umbrella, because everything’s fairly restrained rather than fruit salad-y, but this texturally sticky-silk wine is rather a mélange of varied fruits uncomplexed by more interesting characteristics. As with many Southern (and Northern) Rhône whites, interest may develop with age, but I’m not sure this wine has the structure to support much aging.
Despite being right next door to Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe, Lirac is – along with its west-of-Avignon partners Tavel and the villages of Chusclan and Laudun (the latter duo more north than west) – somewhat of a forgotten stepsister. Despite sharing with its neighbors a healthy grenache component, the reds from this appellation always seem more like syrah and/or mourvèdre to me. I’ve had very few rosés, and I believe this is one of the first domaine-bottled whites I’ve tasted. The grapes may include clairette, bourboulenc, grenache blanc, ugni blanc, picpoul, and the usual trio of Rhônish white grapes: viognier, marsanne, and roussanne. While I don’t know the specific cépage of this wine, I suspect the lack of greater complexity is due to the blend being dominated by the grapes at the former end of that list (which is required by law), rather than the latter. Or maybe it’s just not an ideal terroir for whites. More research is needed.
Alcohol: 13.5%. Importer: Vineyard Research.
Dashe 2002 Zinfandel (Sonoma County) – Unlike another recently-consumed bottle, this one has chosen to cower under a tight sheen of coconutty oak. There’s big, generous zinberry fruit underneath it all, but the performance of this wine is a touch inexplicable. Finishes with the expected blackberry liqueur and black pepper residue, though it’s important to note that this wine isn’t hot or boozy.
Mike Dashe used to make wine at Ridge. That should be enough to convince anyone of the potential quality of his zins (which make up the majority of his portfolio). If not, try this: Mike and his wife Anne are dedicated Francophiles; even with zinfandel, the monster truck of wine grapes, they do work to achieve balance in all that they do. (NB: Anne should be a Francophile, since she’s French…) Finally, they’re friends of mine. OK, maybe the last isn’t exactly a selling point, but I thought I’d throw it out there. It may help explain my enthusiasm for these wines, which are as big and bold as anyone could want, but rarely over the top (note: “rarely,” not “never”), and my confusion as to why Dashe isn’t more popular. Anyway, what we’ve got here is a lower-cost blend from some of the single-site wines the Dashes work with, designed for earlier drinking but – surprise, surprise – built for a little aging as well.
Alcohol: 14.1%. Web: http://www.dashecellars.com/.
Zusslin Crémant d’Alsace Brut “Prestige” (Alsace) – Tight and unyielding, showing the barest hints of tart fruit and a featureless grey wall of industrial steel.
Valentin Zusselin et fils is a producer in Orschwihr about which I don’t know a lot, though I have tasted the wines both in Alsace and in the States, at their local importer’s tastings. This is not my favorite of their various wines, but I do encourage seeking out the others.
The Alsatian biodynamic crew’s wines share a restrained, difficult quality that with every passing year becomes ever more undoubtedly an outgrowth of the methodologies, and the argument that these issues are resolved by superior aging seems to me to only be borne out about half the time. I have no idea why biodynamics might be less successful in Alsace than elsewhere, though from both theoretical and practical standpoints it is difficult to fault the viticultural practices, and biodynamics are rarely paired with poor or abusive vinification. Elsewhere, I have heard theories (upon which I personally have no opinion as yet) that already-stressed vines don’t respond well to biodynamics, yet except on certain truly difficult sites, it’s not my impression that the grapes of Alsace are particularly stressed; in point of fact, the range of Germanic and Burgundian transplants seem often to have a fairly cushy lifestyle in the hills, slops and plains of the region. All of this summarizes to a big “I don’t know what’s wrong,” I agree, but I don’t know, and I’d love to. Any theories?
Alcohol: 12.5%. Biodynamic. Importer: Violette. Web: http://www.valentin-zusslin.com/.
Granger 2002 Juliénas (Beaujolais) – Dense and tannic. Dark berries land with a militaristic thud on the palate, and only some vividly floral aromatics and backpalate acidity mark this as Beaujolais at all. An ager, though I wonder if there’s enough fruit to meld with the structure.
This is another producer with which I don’t have much experience. After tasting this wine, I’m a little surprised, though I suspect the constant focus by local gamay fans on the wines brought by Kermit Lynch and Louis/Dressner may obscure the consistently good work done by Rosenthal in my market. Anyway, there’s much here worthy of deeper study, and I will attempt to sock a few of these away to continue the “research.”
Alcohol: 13%. Importer: Rosenthal.