26 April 2006
A word of advice, though: the buttermilk panna cotta with candied kumquats is disappointing.
25 April 2006
Full reports will follow, in time. For now, a few quick highlights of the first few days:
Edmunds St. John is a winery I love (and, it should be noted, Steve Edmunds is a friend of mine), so it was a lot of fun on Sunday to taste a selection of wines he's trying to clear from his inventory. What was less fun: the $10/bottle price tag for everything. I mean, I'm happy to get such good wine so cheaply, but it always makes me sad to see these marvelous wines linger unsold when so much over-manipulated junk flies off the shelves. Steve's wines are honest and speak of their grapes and their terroir in simple, clear voices. They deserve a bigger audience. One highlight from the tasting: the performance of the Edmunds St. John 1999 Sangiovese Matagrano, a wine I have tasted dozens of times and never much liked. On Sunday, it was singing with pure sangiovese character -- not Tuscan, but interesting in its own right -- and I was forced to wonder if I'd misjudged it all these years.
Another winery at the tasting, Harrington, is producing a lineup of site-specific pinots that are nicely drinkable; relatively unspoofulated, fruit-forward, and different from site to site. They're a touch pricey, but then that's the rule with pinot noir, and in any case I'd be happy to have a one specific bottling -- the 2003 Birkmyer -- on my table anytime.
The Clos Roche Blanche 2004 "Pif" is a step back to a different style of winemaking, something that's increasingly hard to find in these slick, winemaking-by-committee days. A glass at The Slanted Door was fabulous, all untamed red and black fruit, zippy acidity, and sharp tannin waiting for a big plate of food to slice through like a finely-honed knife. Gorgeous stuff.
A16 has its detractors, but the restaurant was top-notch last night. The wine list must be a slog for those not willing to expand their horizons, because it's almost relentless in its focus on Southern Italy's more obscure wines (though a few domestic bones are thrown to the unadventurous), but we loved it. And the food is just marvelous. Reservations are tough, but definitely worth the effort.
Finally, I tasted something new -- or at least new to me -- yesterday at the always-fun Hog Island Oyster in the Ferry Plaza Marketplace: a domestic vermentino. Several glasses of an Uvaggio 2005 Vermentino from, of all places, Lodi (!) were crisp and green-fruited, showing fine potential for this unusual-to-these-parts grape. To tie this missive in a neat bow, Steve Edmunds has planted some vermentino, and I expect the results to be extraordinary in time. But while we wait, give this one a shot. It's fun.
Hopefully, there's more to come.
20 April 2006
The “offline” – a gathering of online wine buddies for the purpose of the overconsumption of wines that would probably have been better left to their own devices – has a distinctly regional component that goes beyond the character of its participants. It has, instead, to do with the nature of the venue. Privileged areas where BYO is encouraged – California, New Jersey, even otherwise wine-hostile Pennsylvania – have virtual free reign of the available cuisines and price ranges. But those who live where BYO is discouraged, or even illegal, must make do with either surreptitious “I know the owner” sneaking or the short list of dives and near-dives – usually Italian or Asian – that allow such bacchanals.
The benefit to the restaurants that allow, or even encourage, offlines are less than clear. Yes, such groups tend to tip very well. On the other hand, rowdy groups of drunks take up tables for hours, make a fearful mess, and often scare away potential drop-in customers. And the much-vaunted (by wine geeks) “word-of-mouth advertising” can’t amount to much; is there really a great clamor for BYO-friendly restaurants outside the oenophile community?
Thus, the venues that persist in their embrace of those who offline are often cherished by their habituates, sometimes all out of proportion to their objective quality. So it is with King Fung Garden, a dive to end all dives on one edge of Boston’s tiny Chinatown (the original venue, a former gas station and occasionally – if unkindly – known as “The Red Café” to certainly Old School MIT types, is a virtual paragon of wonderful dive-itude, with its shoebox size, red vinyl booths, and frequent lack of midwinter heating).
It’s not that the food is bad at King Fung. On the contrary: for dirt-cheap Chinese, it’s not bad at all, especially in the context of Boston (where Chinese food does not reach the levels of, say, San Francisco, or New York). A few Peking-style ducks, a few appetizers and sides (hold the spice, please) and most winos are perfectly satisfied. The focus, after all, is on the wine and the crowd itself. Dissenters exist, and even fans can get tired of the same food, over and over again. But for $17/head (the actual total of a recent bill; we left $30 each), how much quality and variety can one really expect?
So, when King Fung announced that they were opening a branch (cleverly named “King Fung Garden II”) in Brookline, eager offliners were all atwitter. (Or perhaps it was just MSG withdrawal.) One group of diehards was determined to be the first to break in the new digs, to blaze a new chow foon trail, to explore new horizons in lo mein.
That group: Joe “Rollbar” Perry, Charles “Hold Still & Cough” Weiss, Tim “Sure, Go Ahead, Blame Me” Tanigawa, Paul “Remains There Anyone On the Planet Who Has Not Heard My Lillie Von Schtupp Joke?” Winalski, David “Will Drive Anywhere For Riesling” Bueker, out-of-town guest Jake “Multi-faceted Geek” Parrott, Jake’s guest Martin (who wears a “what the hell am I doing here with these freaks?” expression for much of the evening), and me, your not-so-humble narrator.
The evening starts entertainingly enough, as we file into a bright white, hospital-like room notable for its near-absence of tables and chairs. In one corner, original King Fung stalwart Doris has set up a few tables of the folding variety (she adds a third when the wine payload of the first two renders them unstable and unusable), but otherwise we are just as much a sideshow for a steady procession of takeout customers as a hardy collection of wine dorks. One member of Boston’s finest even gives our table a long, amused look. We wonder if – shades of a well-known Tom Troiano Port-fest in days long-passed – he’ll be waiting for us when we emerge.
Along with Doris, our waitstaff for the evening appears to be the youngest member of the King Fung family. And I do mean youngest. Joe muses that the last time we saw him, he was in his mother’s arms and (he gestures) “about this big.”
“But Joe,” I retort, “at the time, so were you.”
Our young server takes our orders, then – despite being only five feet from the kitchen and despite the fact that there’s no one else in the restaurant at the moment – bellows a long rant in Cantonese, which eventually peters out to “never mind” in English. He then, rather sullenly, takes the order back to the kitchen himself. It’s adorable.
The wines start oddly and slowly, though we do break our usual King Fung tradition by having at least one white left to taste when the food starts to arrive. Must be the unfamiliar surroundings.
Baumard 1992 Savennières (Loire) – Drying and oxidized, with hints of stewed asparagus. Mostly dead.
“This isn’t dead,” complains Jake.
“I said ‘mostly dead.’”
Jake retastes. “OK, you’re right. Mostly dead.”
Gunderloch 2004 “Dry” Riesling 03 05 (Rheinhessen) – Under screwcap. Acidic and very tight, showing some slate and no little sulfur. I feel that this should be more interesting than it is.
Guido Cocci Grifoni “Podere Colle Vecchio” 2000 Marches Bianco (Marches) – Acidic butter. Something went wrong with this particular bottle, according to the person who brought it.
JJ Prüm 1999 Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Kabinett 15 00 (Mosel-Saar-Ruwer) – Overwhelmingly, undrinkably sulfurous. Holding my nose, I find a bit of minerality just beginning to emerge on the palate, but otherwise, this is like drinking a factory full of matchsticks.
Henschke 1995 Semillon “Louis” (Edna Valley) – That’s the Edna Valley in Australia, by the way. Fig jam, pear skin, and nice (if sweaty) minerality with a zingy top note. Very nice, and ultimately my favorite white wine of the evening…which is surprising, not just because it’s Australian, but because it’s Australian and I brought it. Well, there’s a first time for everything.
Nikolaihof 1997 Vom Stein Riesling Smaragd (Wachau) – Still difficult, showing chalky minerality, but otherwise tighter than a drum. Hmmm.
David muses that we’re an all-male group this evening. Joe responds, “well, Amy was supposed to come, but when she saw that we were all guys, she wimped out.”
This amuses both David (“she could have worn the bikini”) and me (“she could have been the center of attention…you know, like Theresa”).
“I told her that, but she said, ‘look, I know you guys, and there’s no way I’d be the center of attention. It’d be the wine, then obscure facts about the wine, then stories about people who aren’t even there, and only then would it be me.’”
We pause, agree that she’s probably right, and move on to a verbal subdivision of South Africa’s Stellenbosch region.
Talana Hill 2003 Chardonnay Paradyskloof (Stellenbosch) – Jake proves his outsider status by bringing a chardonnay. When he mentions having brought a cabernet as well, we’re about ready to boot him unceremoniously streetward, until he clarifies that he means cabernet franc. Oh, well, OK. All is forgiven. And for a chardonnay, by the way, this one isn’t bad at all: ripe red berries and Calimyrna fig. Pretty.
Edmunds St. John 2001 Los Robles Viejos (white) Rozet Vineyard (Paso Robles) – Thick, spicy peach and honeysuckle with minerality underneath. It’s in a pretty stage right now. However, I take the remnants home, and on the second day (despite sitting in the fridge) it has undergone a secondary fermentation in the bottle. So if you’ve got it, be wary…or at least, be quick about the drinking.Update: the winemaker informs me that this wine was sterile-filtered, which should have rendered a secondary fermentation an impossibility. I'm at a loss to explain this.
Heger 2003 Pinot Noir “sonett” 20 05 (Baden) – Also under screwcap, which causes Jake to double-decant the wine (“I don’t trust the Germans not to screw up the sulfur with a screwcap”). Strawberry, raspberry and gamay-like sprightliness with a little granite underneath. Like many German pinots, this would be a perfectly lovely wine were it half its actual price.
Jake chooses this opportunity to wax aphorismic: “I’ve been to the mountain, and I’ve seen all the people who didn’t make it to the mountain.” A few moments of confusion later, we all agree that neither Buddha nor Sun-Tzu are in immediate danger of displacement, and proceed to the next wine.
C&P Breton 1989 Bourgueil Grandmont (Loire) – Late-released, with the schmancy modern packaging. Gorgeous aromatics of earth and dried cherries, with a silky texture. Still youthful. Marvelous, despite the cult-Bourgueil pricing.
Ravenswood 1997 Zinfandel Teldeschi (Dry Creek Valley) – Glue. There’s heavy VA, but mostly this smells and tastes like glue. Sheesh.
Redondèl di Paolo Zanini 2003 Teroldego Rotaliano (Trentino) – Huge purple grape fruit with ripe mint juice. Completely lurid.
The wine is starting to flow fast and furious, and the conversation is getting more sub-referential by the moment. Here’s an example (identities excised to protect the guilty):
“I went to the funeral of one of the Seven Mules.”
“The ones that protected the Four Horsemen.”
“Of Notre Dame, or of the Apocalypse?”
“So who’s the Harlot?”
(several people at once) “Heidi Peterson Barrett!”
Amy’s reasons for absence have never been so clear.
Bouchard P&F 1995 Le Corton (Burgundy) – Dark black earth-encrusted truffle and blackberry with hazelnut and spiky acidity. Long and ostensibly still developing, but a little strange overall. Almost good, perhaps a victim of the bad Bouchard era, or perhaps just in an awkward stage.
Hudelot-Noellat 1994 Romanée St-Vivant (Burgundy) – Rough, rustic cherries with a strange, indefinable imbalance. Fun, but very much a country cousin of an RSV…not in a bad way, necessarily, but also not entirely what one might expect.
Boiron “Bosquet des Papes” 1995 Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe “Cuvée Chantemerle” (Rhône) – Smoky meat liqueur expanding to something a little fruitier on the finish. Still, the wine is a bit difficult at the moment, and might just need some time – or better company – to arrange itself.
At this point, someone pipes up with the following: “I had a nightmare where Pierre-Antoine Rovani was there in his stupid tan cap going ‘eygh eygh eygh eygh.’” This outburst presents a problem for the narrator, because its author wants no part of it, yet no one else is willing to take credit for it either. We resort to a game of chance, and Tim (to his dismay) draws the short chow foon noodle. So send your angry letters Tim-ward.
Marcarini 1998 Barolo La Serra (Piedmont) – Stunning from the first moment, showing the classic tar and roses alongside tart blackberry leaves and beautifully-textured graphite-like tannin. Still not entirely integrated, but promising much.
Bodegas Riojanas “Monte Real” 1994 Rioja “Gran Reserva” (Center-North) – Gorgeous, sweet-textured red fruit (cherries and plum juice) and gritty tannin. Pretty…no, make that exquisite. Finally, after zillions of attempts, Joe produces a Rioja that I like. I feel like marking the date on the calendar.
Charles brings forth a dessert wine that has David scrunching up his nose, apparently doing a Mark Squires imitation. “It smells like a melon that’s been pissed on by a cat.” What’s this marvel of varietal expression, one might ask? Mark would probably be the first to guess.
Köster-Wolf 2002 Scheurebe Alzeyer Römerberg Eiswein (Rheinhessen) – This wine is obviously the product of some sort of accident between several trucks, trains and carts all carrying a variety of tropical fruit, leaving a sticky residue of lime leaves and banana skin. It’s fun, but admits to no further exploration.
And with that, King Fung Garden II is duly christened. Joe packs up a few gallons of unwanted duck soup and enough chow foon to stuff a horse, Charles departs (once more foiled in his monthly attempt to demonstrate the use of his elbow glove), and Doris is left to glumly survey the mess that surrounds our table.
But for lacquered duck, we’ll be back. Oh yes. We’ll be back.
19 April 2006
Dinner with friends. As always, the best quotes of the night have been stripped of their context and presented for the
edification confusion of all.
von Schubert’schen Schlosskellerei “Maximin Grünhäuser” 2001 Riesling Sekt Brut 35 04 (Mosel-Saar-Ruwer) – Sharp iron and aluminum filings with loads of desert-like tartaric acid and dry white pepper. Extremely dry.
St. Innocent 1999 Brut (Willamette Valley) – Soft, frothy and simple sorta-fruit flavors. Not their best wine.
“The first one or two times you see the cops beat someone up, it’s kinda cool.”
Hiedler 1997 Langenloiser Schenkenbichl Weissburgunder “Maximum” (Kamptal) – Creamy apricot seed with a drying, leafy and somewhat shortish finish. Nice, but only just.
“I did notice that your head was a different shape when you walked through the door.”
Popp 2004 Rödelseer Küchenmeister Silvaner Kabinett Trocken 042 05 (Franken) – Green leaves, light tomato skin and a white pepper-dusted paper finish. Medium-crisp, with drying acidity tending towards the grapefruit part of the citrus spectrum. Enjoyable.
“Who moved my cheese?”
“You didn’t actually just say that, did you?”
Genovesi “Domaine du Bagnol” 2004 Cassis “Marquis de Fesques” (Provence) – Salted leaves and banana rind with bitter melon and a tight cord of minerality. A touch dense, but then that’s not unusual for Cassis.
Jamek 2002 Ried Klaus Riesling Spätlese Smaragd (Wachau) – Intense, ripe, sweet apple (complete with blossoms and leaves attached), spiced powdered sugar, and a finish that builds towards the huge. There’s no hurry here.
“All this time I thought it was ‘Rock Me I’m a Dumbass.’”
Rolly Gassmann 1999 Sylvaner Weingarten de Rorschwihr (Alsace) – Spiced white plum and sweet green apple with honeydew and ripe heirloom tomato around a steel core. Decidedly off-dry, but one of the best sylvaners I’ve ever tasted.
“Did you ever try putting a ham in from of them?”
Selbach-Oster 2004 Zeltinger Himmelreich Riesling Kabinett Halbtrocken 006 05 (Mosel-Saar-Ruwer) – I somehow got interrupted in my notetaking here. I wrote: vivid and nervy, with dry iron flakes and light hints of fruit, but neglected to draw any conclusions. I seem to remember thinking it was OK.
“You are not Morg, you are not Imorg.”
Christoffel 1995 Ürziger Würzgarten Riesling Auslese *** 12 96 (Mosel-Saar-Ruwer) – Intense creamed apple leaf and strawberry bark with fat blood oranges and vivid acidity. Really gorgeous right now, but probably not yet showing everything it has to offer.
Giacomo Conterno 1994 Barolo Cascina Francia (Piedmont) – Corked.
Juge 1999 Cornas “Cuvée C” (Rhône) – Slightly fruity (blackberry and black cherry), with makrut lime juice and heady sloshings of meat liqueur.
“It’s a cheese traditionally served with phlegm.”
Domaine de la Terre Rouge 1995 Syrah (Amador County) – Menthol and strident black fruit. Simple, and a bit treble-toned. Somewhat of a doofus wine, but enjoyable in its idiom.
Rieussec “Carmes de Rieussec”2002 Sauternes (Bordeaux) – Spiced plum, grown sugar and baked apple in a silky-syrupy nectar of decadence. Spiced, caramelized oak adds to the complexity.
18 April 2006
Wake in heavenly peace
All is dark. The sky is an unbroken shroud of blackness into which the invisible outlines of mountains seamlessly melt. A few street lamps surround themselves with enveloping spheres of light, but otherwise the deep night remains unbroken.
All is silent. A lone truck Dopplers by, lit only by the flashes of isolated lamps, and in its wake a perfect stillness returns to the night.
All is anticipation. The weather is uncertain, the journey long, the destination unexplored.
It’s five a.m. We lock the door behind us, and disappear into the night.
Put me in coach
At half past six, the first blue-grey traceries of a gloomy morning cast Queenstown’s Steamer Wharf into chilly silhouette. We’re assembled amongst other early-risers at the Real Journeys office at one end of the usually bustling town, which this morning is still and quiet except for the rumbling and wheezing awakenings of coaches…like the one we’re about to board. It’s shaped like a wedge and done up in the company colors, with seats that ascend toward the rear of the bus along tall, clear windows, and an amusing rear exhaust grate with dozens of kiwi-shaped holes. Employees, themselves still working through their first few cups of degrogging coffee, assure us that the forecast is as opaque as it was the other three times we’ve dropped by to ask (which is as close to passive-aggressivity as a Kiwi will ever get). There’s nothing to do but board the coach.
The seats are comfortable enough for a long ride, and our part-Maori driver Paul – an affably friendly man who nevertheless tends to both ramble and pause at the oddest mid-ramble times – introduces us to the journey we’re about to undertake, giving us both the mythological and geographic history of our path and its destination. The road south of Queenstown is as rainy and gloomy as it is twisty, though the perilous turns along the eastern shore of Lake Wakatipu seem less stomach-churning in a large vehicle (that said, I wouldn’t want to be traveling in the other direction with our bus in speedy approach).
We stop in Mossburn – desolate except for one dimly-lit convenience store/café, clearly only open to serve the biological needs of passing coaches full of tourists – for a bathroom and sustenance break, and we begin to identify our problem fellow travelers; those who linger a bit too long, those who make the purchase of a bottle of water an inexplicable drama, those who ignore instructions to re-board the bus. Our ten-minute break becomes twenty.
Low-hanging clouds drizzle and spit sheets of rain for another hour. But then, just as we’re pulling into the haphazard hamlet of Manapouri, the clouds lift and brighten. While they continue to obscure the surrounding mountains, they no longer release more than brief bursts of precipitation. “Well,” I say to Theresa, “if we can’t see anything, at least we won’t get wet doing it.”
Real Journeys has another facility here, on the shores of Lake Manapouri, and it’s already abuzz with people delivered by coaches not unduly delayed by the dizzying wonders of Mossburn’s roadside cafés, who fill the warm interior seats of a surprisingly small boat and leave the stragglers from our coach to fill in the edges. We shrug and ascend to the top, bundling ourselves tight against the biting and misty morning air. Chugging away from the dock, our lake-crossing ferry makes slow and cold progress through a nearly-invisible inlet, emerging into the lake’s wider middle just as the clouds lift a little bit more. Now we can see halfway up the mountains (though we have to make frequent visits to our ship’s heated interior to survive the view). It’s as if we’re traveling through the lower half of an unfinished painting, with nary a revealing tease of the artist’s loftier intentions.
However, by the time we get to West Arm, the lake’s western terminus and the home to a rather jarring forest of electrical towers, the weather is looking decidedly better. Everything is brighter, warmer, more inviting, and the views now include the occasional glimpse at a towering mountain peak. We board another coach – still driven by Paul – and head up the shockingly non-precarious dirt road known as the Wilmot Pass. Impossibly steep mountains, heavily forested before rising further into waterfall-necklaced outcroppings and pearl-white tongues of snow, surround us in the distance, while mosses and ferns of every description form a lush embankment along scraped roadside walls. At the peak of the road, we disembark for pictures, and everyone soon crowds towards one particular sight. The moss-encrusted skeleton of a tree points towards the jagged blue line of a distant body of water far, far below us. It’s a picture we’ve seen so many times before – in guidebooks, on the web, on others’ travelogues – that it could easily be anticlimactic were it not for its shocking visual drama. But at long last, we’re finally here: Doubtful Sound.
14 April 2006
Texier 2000 Mâcon Bussières (Mâcon) – Simple dried pineapple with hints of melon and grapefruit rind and a touch of fading, mushroomy earthiness. This is a friendly wine just leaving its middle age, and while it has lasted in fine balance, it did not reward aging by developing further complexity.
A lot of people adore the aromas and flavors of young chardonnay. I’m not one of them. It’s either too simplistic and boring au natural, or it’s tarted up with butter from its malolactic fermentation and slathered with layers toasty/spicy barrel makeup. The virgin or the whore, to borrow a characterization, with neither a complete and interesting individual. There are exceptions, but they’re occasional at best. What usually makes chardonnay interesting is its ability to bring forth its complexities and its terroir through careful aging, as so many wines from up and down the length of Burgundy (including Chablis and the Mâcon) have shown…though New World winemakers can, from the right sites, achieve this as well. Here, we have a wine that lasted…it endured six years of aging without showing either the face under the makeup or wrinkled skin over old bones…but did not age, in the sense that it did not develop and reveal hidden strengths and characters within. It’s important to understand this difference, but it’s also important to recognize that this does not devalue a wine; there is most definitely a place for wines that are upfront about their intentions from the moment they’re released. This – though it wasn’t clear to me at release – was one of them. Alcohol: 12%. Closure: cork. Importer: Louis/Dressner/LDM. Web: http://www.eric-texier.com.
13 April 2006
The Farm on the hill
It’s not often one has to teeter on the edge of a disintegrating cliff just to taste a few mediocre wines. But that’s the inevitable amuse bouche at Chard Farm, and while the entrance is heart-stopping in its precariousness (and, it is to be admitted, beauty), the driveway and its vistas are by far the best thing about a visit.
The Kawarau River, in its gorge far below, fairly glows in opaque yet brilliant turquoise. And from the steep slopes of the vineyards surrounding the winery, it is indeed a beautiful sight. It’s not so beautiful, however, on the twisty little goat path protected from the cliff above by…well, nothing…and the river below by a precarious few inches of dirt. Beyond all reason, this was – at one thankfully long-passed time – the major eastern road to Queenstown. Somehow, I don’t think it would be quite the tourist center it is were that still the case. Either that, or a shocking number of visitors would fail to arrive.
The winery’s tasting room is, as last time, dark and a little gloomy, and not quite set up to handle more than four visitors at a time without elbow-bumping chaos…though it fairly steadily hosts more than that during our visit. Still, it’s got undeniable character, and the behind-the-counter staff knows their stuff. Too bad there’s not that much to say. Chard Farm produces a decent range of wines centered around a mix of site-specific and blended pinots, though the full range of the latter are never on general offer, and while the results are interesting from the perspective of terroir, as wines they’re just not that exciting.
(Continued here, with tasting notes included…)
12 April 2006
Bottex Vin du Bugey-Cerdon “La Cueille” (Ain) – Strawberry Kool-Aid for adults, frothier and more sudsy than usual, with a fine particulate texture churning away into the ether. Fun, fun stuff, though not quite as fun as it usually is. Too much froth, not enough pretty pink fruit?
In these Louis/Dressner-dominated parts, this is the “other” Bugey-Cerdon (after Renardat-Fache), and usually the less fruity, more soil-driven of the two. This bottle seems a little different. It’s gamay, mostly, with some poulsard as a rule. And it’s about as pure a summer quaffing wine as one can possibly find. Alcohol: 8%. Closure: cork. Importer: Lynch.
Trimbach 2000 Gewurztraminer (Alsace) – Lychee, wet and sticky cashew, canned peach syrup, and crystalline quartz-textured spice with a mineral edge and a faintly animalistic haze (more sweat than stink). Off-dry, but quite food-friendly.
Lageder “Tòr Löwengang” 2004 Pinot Bianco Haberlehof (Alto Adige) – Striking red apple skin and dark iron minerality, firm and Teutonic with splashes of crisp and intense ripe fruit. Very, very good.
The world of pinot blanc is a generally dim one, with most of the best examples from other regions – specifically, Alsace – much improved by 50/50 blending with auxerrois to lend weight, spice and impact. Here, however, the pinot blanc is a pristine vessel for the expression of the Alto Adige’s often shocking minerality. Alcohol: 13%. Closure: cork. Importer: dalla Terra. Web: http://www.lageder.com/.
Donaldson Family “Main Divide” 2002 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough/Canterbury) – The bright green sauvignon flavors are starting to relax a bit, showing more of the aged soda and dried green fruit flavors of this lightly-blended (10% sémillon) wine. It’s sharp and distinct, but melts on the finish with pleasantly vegetal notes.
The Donaldson’s “other” winery is Pegasus Bay, and that’s where all the critical action is. But there’s an important place for well-priced everyday wines as well, and Main Divide satisfies that need from a combination of purchased grapes and younger, not-ready-for-prime-time estate grapes. The little bit of sémillon adds a bit of welcome complexity. Alcohol: 13%. Closure: cork. Importer: Meadowbank/Empson. Web: http://www.maindivide.com/.
Ridge 1997 Lytton Springs (Dry Creek Valley) – Vanilla- and anise-scented sweet American oak essentially covering a thinning layer of blackberry and boysenberry fruit juice. This would appear to suggest further aging, but as the mild tannins in this wine are starting to bite a bit, I think Draper’s advice to drink now-ish is probably wise.
80% zinfandel, 15% petite sirah, 2% carignane, 2% mataro, 1% grenache. Paul Draper’s back label notes here rather strongly allude to a difficult year, and anytime he recommends drinking a Lytton Springs in its first five years of life, you know he’s not pleased with the results. What I wish is that he (and his working winemaker) had been a little less aggressive with the oak, because I’m not sure the wine handled it all that well. The Lytton Springs vineyard produces some of Ridge’s most structured, long-aging wines in good vintages, so this remains a bit of an anomaly. Alcohol: 14.9%. Closure: cork. Web: http://www.ridgewine.com/.
Storrs 1997 Zinfandel Lion Oaks (Santa Clara County) – Intensely concentrated “zinberry” fruit, heavy on the dried wild blackberry, wild blueberry and olallieberry (tending towards, but not reaching, the jam stage), with the receding memory of structure at the circumference. There’s still some acid, though, and this ends up being crisp and delicious, though in a narrow-focused way. I think it’s probably time to drink this, though it seems in no danger of fading quickly away.
When this wine is good, it’s very good…but it’s not good every year. The joys of a marginal climate, I guess, which would be a more European than Californian model for vineyard siting. This one has aged very nicely, but then it was always a good Lion Oaks; in recent years, the winery’s Rusty Ridge zinfandel has shown more consistency and more reliable “oomph,” which is (after all) what most consumers want from their zinfandel. Personally, I like both. Alcohol: 14.2%. Closure: cork. Web: http://www.storrswine.com/.
El Grifo 2002 Malvasía Dulce (Lanzarote) – From 500 ml. Sun-infused sweet golden melon with spiced peach pulp and baked lemon-apple brightness, soaked with concentrated but not overbearing sweetness. Just beautiful.
The moonscape viticulture on this remote Canary Island is almost impossible to believe. Not only is the soil weirdly black, but the low-slung vines are planted in individual pits to protect them from the searing and blasting winds. Why anyone would choose to make wine in such an environment is beyond me, but given the results we can be glad they do. Alcohol: 11.5%. Closure: cork. Importer: Ordoñez/MRR Traders. Web: http://www.elgrifo.com/.
Bisol Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Crede Brut (Veneto) – Quite dry and unfriendly, showing mineral bitterness and strident tones of rindy citrus. I’m not sure if the wine is angry at me or I at it, but either way it’s not a worthwhile exchange of ideas. Or maybe it’s just too dry.
Single-site Prosecco is an admirable thing, and this one is from clay with marine subsoil, and definitely shows more mineral-driven characteristics than many of its simpler brethren. It’s a shame, then, that I don’t like it more. Alcohol: 11.5%. Closure: cork. Importer: Vias. Web: http://www.bisol.it.
Donaldson Family “Main Divide” 2002 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough/Canterbury) – Lemon-lime giving way to ripe asparagus (not a bad thing) and leafy, late summer-sweaty aromas with a tonic undertone. Finishes a touch heavy, but very nice otherwise.
Marlborough and Canterbury don’t look that far apart on a world map, but in New Zealand distances there’s just one (sensible) road between the two, and it’s neither a wide nor a straight one. The Marlborough component of this wine must thus make its way down one of New Zealand’s endlessly perilous-but-beautiful roadways to the winery’s main facility just north of Christchurch, and one wonders what this sort of transport – common in New Zealand, actually – does to the grapes. There’s no obvious damage here, and I suspect that if the Donaldsons could make a worthwhile Canterbury-only sauvignon they would, but this is the sort of thing that leads wineries down the road of expansion. Not, to my knowledge, in the cards for the Donaldsons, but one never knows. Satellite winemaking facilities are springing up all over Marlborough. Alcohol: 13%. Closure: cork. Importer: Meadowbank/Empson. Web: http://www.maindivide.com/.
Thomas-Labaille 2004 Sancerre Chavignol Les Monts Damnés (Loire) – The first young Thomas-Labaille I’ve liked in what seems like forever. There’s intense white-toned minerality here, with green apple acidity and illuminated green grape and almost-ripe red cherry flavors, but the dominant characteristic here is the bleached stone quality. Fantastic and perfectly balanced, though definitely one of the more strong-willed Sancerres out there.
Green and rather insipid characteristics are what so many people dislike about sauvignon blanc, and most Sancerre is no exception. Part of the enthusiastic embrace of New Zealand’s wild and zingy style was a reaction to just this phenomenon. But while Sancerre can be molded into a Marlborough-style mold (as several modernistic winemakers have proved), its best examples have always been something quite different: transparent windows on the soil. Here’s an example of the latter, coming from what most acknowledge as Sancerre’s best vineyard. Alcohol: 12.5%. Closure: cork. Importer: Louis/Dressner/LDM.
Patricia Green 2002 Pinot Noir “Estate” (Yamhill County) – Initial whiffs of brett eventually fade a bit; those with an extreme aversion to brettanomyces will never embrace this, while those who enjoy a very mild amount of funk in their bass will probably enjoy the results. Anyway, there’s also vivid but elegant frothed strawberry and red cherry fruit, with hints of cranberry darting in and out of the mix, and a long, pleasant finish that leads to the barest suggestions of earthiness. A surprising effort from a New World producer in its mimicking of an Older World style, and while it’s not at the top rank of Oregon pinots, it’s certainly worth a second look.
Ms. Green calls this wine big; I’d quibble with her assessment in the context of Oregon pinot, though maybe she’s using the context of her own products. It’s certainly fruit-forward (which you’d expect from Oregon pinot), but there’s a certain restrained simplicity to the package that doesn’t admit to the excesses of the concentration-at-any-cost crowd that infests the New World of pinot these days (nor does it get buried in a tide of new wood, another egregious sin). Despite the minor flaws here and there, I rather like this wine. It has a certain sweet innocence to it, despite the slick packaging. Alcohol: 13.5%. Closure: cork. Web: http://www.patriciagreencellars.com/.
Bonny Doon “Ca’ del Solo” 2003 “Big House Red” (California) – Silly and insubstantial when first opened (for, it must be admitted, pouring into a stew), but a day by itself works wonders on the body and integration of this wine. After some alone time, it shows ripe mixed red fruit with some chunky purple grape skins and a fresh, balanced structure. The wine is good, but it’s an excellent bargain.
Mass-produced wines of this sort aren’t always as consistent as one might expect. Grape sources change, and as the costs of the raw materials goes up but the desire to maintain a price point remains, sacrifices must be made. This represents a bit of a return to form, at least based on my tastings (and this wine is a bargain staple among several of my relatives, so I get to taste it on a regular basis), with some of the recent hollow acidity being replaced by something of more weight and substance. Plus, the whole conceit behind the name and labeling is just hilarious. Alcohol: 135%. Closure: screwcap. Web: http://www.bonnydoonvineyard.com/.
11 April 2006
A hardy laurel
Paradigm-defining winery or tourist trap? Neither? Or maybe a little bit of both? That’s the operative question at Gibbston Valley, one of those rare wineries pioneering and privileged enough to share its name with its location, and an unquestioned catalyst for the explosion of Central Otago wines onto the international scene. As with virtually all other wineries in this area, their reputation is derived from pinot noir; their version has been a muscular, forceful wine (especially in the guise of the “Reserve”) with unquestioned aging potential.
However, that’s just part of the Gibbston Valley equation. There’s a heavily-staffed and immense tasting bar, a largish gift shop, an excellent and very busy restaurant, a cheesery, guided tours of the cave…all it needs is some sort of adventure ride. It’s a sort of wine country “lifestyle theme park” that one finds in California’s trendier appellations, and it’s ideally located to suck up busload after busload of tourists from Queenstown and surrounding locales.
The problem, of course, is that the support of a full-fledged tourism industry can be distracting when it comes time to actually make the wine that is the property’s “raisin d’être”. Not every winery can handle an operation of this scope and remain committed to top-quality product. Furthermore, the buzz in New Zealand wine circles is definitely trending towards the negative; laurel-resting is one of the more charitable characterizations I’ve heard, and some of the talk has been much more critical than that. The pervading feeling is that Gibbston Valley has remained motionless while watching producers old and new make qualitative leaps beyond its best efforts. And while a sum total of two visits (one on our previous visit to the area, and now this one) is no way to offer adjudication of the debate, it is perhaps another datum to add to the cauldron of opinion.
(Continued here, with tasting notes included…)
10 April 2006
We need a drink
With ten days ahead of us, and a nicely-equipped kitchen here in our Queenstown vacation rental, we’ve got certain needs. Travel essentials and food will come later. Right now, however, we’re in search of something even more fundamental: something to drink. With wineries just down the road, there’s no better time than now…and no better way to shop than to taste before buying, hopefully learning something along the way.
Five definitions of central
Of all the wine regions of New Zealand, the Central Otago is the source of the highest hype to output ratio. This is not to suggest that the area’s exploding reputation is built on a pile of horse manure, but rather to note that, 1) there’s just not that much wine, 2) what wine there is, is produced in fairly small quantities, 3) quality wines and producers make up a typically small percentage of the overall total, and 4) the entire region is very, very young.
Throughout the length and breadth of the Central Otago, freshly-tilled fields and new plantings are spreading like kudzu across often-difficult hillsides and slopes. This means that quantitative issues are being addressed as rapidly as possible, but it doesn’t necessarily say much about quality. Especially given that the reputation of the region is based almost entirely on the massively fickle pinot noir grape, the road ahead is going to be much like the road today: filled with eager but insufficient young contenders and a growing sense of entitlement-without-justification. The wines may sell themselves to the curious, but they won’t do so forever. The Central Otago does show many signs of becoming one of the world’s great pinot noir regions, but it is not there yet, and only a continued commitment to quality over commercialism will allow it to achieve the status it may well deserve.
Adding to the confusion is the geographical haphazardness of the vignoble. “The Central Otago” is actually somewhere between four and seven distinct regions, depending on how one wants to classify vineyards, and they are not close to one another. Cromwell, an historic mining town turned agricultural center thanks to a highly-reputed fruit industry, is slowly finding its niche as the geographical “center” of the area’s disparate vineyards, but unfortunately the town itself doesn’t possess immense tourist appeal, and many visitors to the area will instead choose to stay in Queenstown, at one extreme end of the region and necessitating a lot of long and twisty drives to reach most worthwhile wineries.
Local vineyards are probably most sensibly grouped by their terroir (which is how one gets to the number seven), but in such a young region with a barely emergent wine culture, it’s far too early to make definitive statements thereto, except in the most preliminary sort of fashion. Thus, I prefer to group the vineyards in terms of geography for the time being, especially as this is how most visitors will experience them. Five distinct locales form the basis of a complete tour of the Central Otago: Gibbston, Wanaka, Cromwell, Bendigo, and Alexandra. This classification, I should add, rests on the following caveats: 1) Wanaka has very few vineyards, 2) technically, the Cromwell Basin comprises Cromwell and Bendigo, and the latter has only vineyards…no wineries, 3) Alexandra could perhaps more properly be called Clyde/Alexandra, as most of the vineyards are closer to the former than the latter, and 4) the Cromwell area is, by experienced local growers and winemakers, the site where further subdivisions are most often made, leading to distinct identifiers that include Lowburn, Bannockburn, Pisa Range and Pisa Flats.
Hayes & vines
We start our winery tour in Gibbston, which can easily be split into two sub-regions: Gibbston itself, about a half-hour’s winding drive from Queenstown, and – closer to town, at an intersection that takes one to the charming old gold-mining center of Arrowtown – Lake Hayes. Overall, the area gets more rain, and much cooler temperatures, than most of the rest of the Central Otago sub-regions, and it is primarily for this reason that a lot of blending from other areas goes on. Sometimes it’s quite open, other times it is not. But all those undesignated grapes up in warmer and dryer Bendigo are going somewhere…
08 April 2006
Trimbach 2000 Gewurztraminer (Alsace) – Succulent ripe peach juice with bits of rose jam and lychee syrup. Off-dry, but with enough acidity, bitter melon rind and minerality to sustain the sugar. Maturing nicely, though I’m not sure I’d wait much longer to drink this.
Trimbach prefers to keep things on the dry side, but the rampant sugar levels of even marginally ripe gewurztraminer grapes make that a difficult task. In a toasty vintage like 2000, “difficult” becomes “impossible,” and the choice is between making a wine with residual sugar and gewurztraminer-flavored vodka. Still, this wine obtains much of its body from fairly high alcohol (don’t believe the label) and its impact from the usual fat, love-’em-or-hate-’em gewurztraminer aromatics, so in reality the wine achieves neither a refutation of sugar or an avoidance of overt alcoholic mass. And yet, it’s still tasty. Alcohol: 13% (but almost assuredly much higher than that). Closure: cork. Importer: Diageo. Web: http://www.maison-trimbach.fr/.
C&P Breton 2002 Bourgeuil “Nuits d’Ivresse” (Loire) – Well, if one’s nights are indeed going to be filled with intoxication, this would be a good way to go about achieving such a state. Rough, herb-filled and wet black earth with indelicate traceries of animal leavings, showing a wetly acidic chewed blackberry and dirt palate with a fine-grained powder texture and a long, supple finish. A really spectacular wine with a particularly particulate manner, and while I don’t know if it’s supposed to age or not, I know that it’s balanced enough to hint at the possibility of doing so. If, that is, one can keeps one’s lips off the bottle.
There’s another reason not to age this wine, as well: it’s one of those trendy “unsulfured” wines that seem to be barreling out of the Old World in record numbers.. This is an especially big thing in France, wherein wines are not dosed (or are just barely dosed) with protective sulfur at multiple stages during the winemaking process. That sulfur works well as a wine preservative is unquestioned. That it gives a few people bad headaches and worse is also unquestioned, though this is (by the best evidence) a very, very tiny number of people (despite the “sulfite” warnings on U.S. wine labels, which mostly serve to needlessly bewilder people who have aversions to anthocyanins or histamines, or have simply consumed too much wine in a single sitting). But the European fetish for unsulfured wines is a dangerous one for foreign – and even domestic – consumers, because it requires absolutely flawless transport and storage conditions from grape to glass in order to avoid unwanted secondary fermentation and other types of spoilage. Such conditions are pursued by many worthy concerns within the wine distribution chain, but just one broken link – for example, one truck with its interior AC off on an 80-degree afternoon – can ruin everything. I’m very much in support of unsulfured wines in theory (and this one is a beauty), but in practice I think that perhaps such experiments might be better reserved for the wines’ local markets, where storage/transport conditions are a daily and verifiable fact of life. Alcohol: 12%. Organic. Closure: cork. Importer: Louis/Dressner/LDM.
07 April 2006
Chased by dinner
Teeming fleets of titi (last night’s dinner) surround our ferry, winning the speed contest and then either skidding to a stop on the waters of the Foveaux Strait or circling back for another go. No wonder they’re so chewy. Our captain explains that they’re after their sole meal: the fish churned up in our catamaran’s wake.
No wonder they’re so fishy.
A stunningly beautiful, sunny, and warm morning heralds our departure from Stewart Island, with the low fire of the sun blazing a sizzling gold across the remarkably still waters of the Strait. Long black strips of muttonbirds upon the water bracket our passage, and we receive occasional visits from one of the smaller cousins of the albatross family. The morning is as peaceful as it is nostalgic, and under clear skies, we can see Mt. Anglem – Stewart Island’s tallest peak – jutting towards the northwest with a necklace of cloud, and to its north the rough and rocky southern coast that is our destination.
Back in Bluff, our rental car roused from its rest and our bags once more stowed in the trunk, we shake off rusty driving muscles and begin a dreary drive northward towards Invercargill. The city itself is rather architecturally shiny, with a clean glow of urban renewal that kicks the sand of modernity into the face of its remoteness from…well, just about everywhere. I’m not sure it’s fooling anyone, though. It looks well worth a stroll, but we’ve got many long miles ahead of us today, and we – somewhat regretfully – leave the visit for another time.
The depths of higher ground
Route 99 starts just north of Invercargill, and describes a beautiful and – for New Zealand – surprisingly uncomplicated and drivable arc around the southwestern corner of the South Island, hugging the ocean for the greater majority of its length. We stop when the mood strikes us – a stroll to admire the perfect roundness of wave-eroded stones at Colac Bay and Pahia Beach, an overlook to admire the surprisingly nearby spur of Mt. Anglem and the low expanse of the uninhabited mass of Stewart Island, a pause to appreciate the endless sapphire of the sun-glinted ocean and the infinite sky reflected in it – and drive with contemplative speed in between. At Te Waewae the road turns decisively north, leaving the ocean for a drive full of solitude and growing majesty, the unapproachable peaks of Fiordland to the west and a less forbidding ebb and flow of mountain and farmland plain to the east.
The gentle breezes of the oceanside morning are gone, replaced by a variably gusty wind that is, at times, difficult to handle on particularly exposed stretches of road. We take a short, restorative break at Clifden, admiring the rough-hewn span of an historic bridge crossing the power-generating Waiau River (here little more than a wide, gentle stream), then turn down a dirt road for a half-hour westward diversion into Fiordland National Park and to a likely picnic spot.
Lake Hauroko is the deepest lake in New Zealand. It is unquestionably one of the prettiest we’ve ever seen, with unbelievably clear waters flawlessly reflecting the surrounding forest of peaks, yet transparent below the surface to the very limits of sight. We dine on a half-submerged dock, finishing odds and ends from our island sojourn with a little bit of wine from much earlier in the trip.
Kennedy Point 2004 Sauvignon Blanc (Waiheke Island) – Shy, with gooseberry and grapefruit but showing decidedly less vivid than either the version tasted at the winery or a previous bottle. I’m not sure what’s up here. Low-level taint would be the natural suspect, but this wine’s under screwcap. Multiple bottlings? Another sort of taint? Barometric pressure? Gremlins?
North of the lake, winds pick up strength as the landscape becomes more recognizable as that of Fiordland: distant snow-capped peaks framing impossibly steep glacial lakes, and all around hilly, rocky fields good for nothing except meager grazing. At Blackmount, the wind is so strong that we can’t even open our car doors without a careful realignment of the automobile. A looming sense of altitude grows to the west, and begins rising in the north and east as well. Sudden emergence into the sparse civilization of Manapouri allows us a much-needed refueling break, and we rest by the cool waters of the town’s namesake lake – one with which we’ll become much better-acquainted in a few days – for a few minutes, enjoying the bizarre juxtaposition of icy mountaintops and waving palm-like fronds on the lakeshore. There are even a few intrepid beachgoers today, though the beach itself is an uncomfortable jumble of ground-up glacial rocks.
Primed for the last stretch, we slowly drive the few kilometers north to Te Anau, completing a full circuit of the Southern Scenic Route that was begun four days ago in Dunedin. From there, the roads are familiar, as we turn eastward through the semi-mystical un-town known as The Key, then turn northward again at Mossburn. It is, after all, the only road. Here, lofty green and brown waves of grassland are consumed in neck-stretching wonder, first by the vertiginous skyscrapers of the Eyre Mountains to the west, and then the aptly-named Remarkables on the east, as the mountainous slopes plummet at last towards the icy mirror of southern Lake Wakatipu.
Our road winds and twists, as difficult for its death-defying drops and turns as for its breathtaking scenery, and we stop as frequently as possible to admire views that are becoming increasingly familiar as we snake northward. And finally, around one last gut-churning bend, we see the growing sprawl of Queenstown, nestled against its protective hillside. We are, at long last, here.
06 April 2006
Villa Bucci 2001 Verdicchio dei Castelli dei Jesi Classico “Riserva” (Marches) – Intense seaside stones and salt-kissed greenery with a vivid citrus-melon core, under a softening and lightly spicy gauze (from the oak). An extremely elegant, sophisticated wine, though it is a bit less food-friendly than normal verdicchio as a result.
Verdicchio is unquestionably the leading grape of the Marches region of Italy, though wines from montepulciano and vernaccia garner the only DOCGs in the area, and it probably deserves a better reputation than it has. This is, no doubt, due to the general international indifference towards Italian white wines. It’s a shame, and wrong-headed, for with careful selection there’s an awful lot to like about the broad range of Italian biancos. Here, Villa Bucci is taking a slightly different path, sexing up their native variety to appeal to more jaded international tastes. Unlike most such efforts, which bury the underlying wine in a dreary haze of oak, this one is a rousing success. It’s not cheap, however, which will limit its success somewhat. Alcohol: 13%. Closure: cork. Web: http://www.villabucci.com/.
Schleret 2003 Pinot Gris Herrenweg (Alsace) – Lightly spiced pear through a thick filter. Disappointing.
Schleret is known for working in a lighter, more elegant style than many of its Alsatian brethren, but of late lightness and elegance have turned to something even less substantial. Pinot gris is rarely the most exciting of Alsace’s “noble” quartet (riesling, pinot gris, gewurztraminer, muscat), but it’s certainly more exciting than this. Things need to improve at this house. Alcohol: 13.5%. Closure: cork. Importer: Rosenthal.
Ferngrove 2003 Shiraz (Frankland River) – Big, chewy and a little overripe and overdone, with powerful blackberry jam and boysenberry syrup flavors turning to vinyl and char on the finish. Too much.
Western Australia (which is where the Frankland River appellation is) has a reputation for wines with less “oomph” than the more famous products of Barossa, Hunter and McLaren. This is, depending on one’s tastes, a good or bad thing (for me, it’s good), but it has always been possible to overachieve in such a way that the products become less distinguishable. Here’s an example of that in action; a W.A. wine that thuds and thunders on the palate like a wine from Australia’s southeastern corner. Alcohol: 14.5%. Closure: cork. Importer: American Wine Distributors. Web: http://www.ferngrove.com.au/.
Laurent Barth 2004 Sylvaner (Alsace) – Decidedly off-dry, like a purée of ripe green zebra tomatoes bathed in a light celery root syrup. Full-bodied for sylvaner, definitely less severe than usual for this grape, and fun to drink.
Tomato. For better or worse, it is the primary organoleptic indicator for Alsatian sylvaner, though I haven’t noted that the character makes the grape particularly amenable to tomatoes as a food pairing. And no matter where it’s grown, it’s tough to do much more than crisp, clean and vegetal with it; sylvaner is, like carignan, one of those grapes that appears to need just the right combination of soil, vine age and winemaking to overachieve its way beyond mediocrity. Alcohol: 12.5%. Closure: cork. Importer: Vineyard Research.
Internaz “Barone Cornacchia” 2003 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo (Abruzzi) – Blocks of light black and dark red fruit hewn from an earthy quarry, with refreshing acidity and light notes of game and pepper. Good, simple, Old World fun.
Montepulciano is frequently confused for sangiovese, no thanks to Tuscany’s Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (made, at least in part, from the latter), both on the vine and in the glass. But it has its own character – sometimes a bit like sangiovese’s less cultured country cousin, other times like its more manly older brother – when not over-spoofulated. This wine is a fine bargain for everyday drinking, in case you’re looking for such things. And who isn’t? Alcohol: 13%. Closure: cork. Importer: Ideal. Web: http://www.baronecornacchia.it/.