19 April 2007

Kill the wabbit (Cataluña/Pyrenées/Roussillon, pt. 4)

[dried stuff](The original version, with many more photos (including pictorial essays on La Boqueria and the Cathedral of Santa Eulàlia), is here.)

16 October 2006 – Barcelona, Spain

La Rambla – This busy, heavily-touristed pedestrian avenue is filled with rolling street carts selling everything from cheap, logoed tchotchkes to live chickens and bunnies. No, really: bunnies. Does one walk around the rest of Barcelona with a freshly-purchased chicken tucked beneath one arm? Do tourists stuff a few in their carry-on luggage for later consumption? Or is this the land-based equivalent of a “catch-your-own” fish restaurant?


La Boqueria – Food markets just don’t get much more famous than this. Perhaps the Rialto in Venice, or (going back a few years) Les Halles in Paris. In more modern, organized terms, San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza might come to mind. But when a shed full of food vendors becomes a destination for even non-foodie tourists, labeled in every guide book as a “must-see” sight, it’s clear that critical mindshare mass has been reached.

Viewed objectively, the market isn’t all that much different than major markets anywhere else. There’s produce, fish, meat, cheese, bread, wine, oil, some specialists…the usual array of products, tilted (as one would expect) towards local specialties. The only real differentiator is the striking ubiquity of ham. It’s mostly Ibérico, of course, with Serrano taking a strong second place, and then a handful of alternate appellations filling in the corners. What registers and overwhelms, however, is the amazing variation within each category…different cuts, different producers, different preparations…that makes it a little difficult to decide where to start. And given the staggering price of Ibérico, some guidance would be welcome. I curse my unusual unpreparedness, but anticipate the taste of last-minute cramming as I collect several pricey parcels of porcine pleasure.

Aside from ham, the majority of vendors seem to sell produce, which is itself strongly dominated by fruit in lieu of vegetables. There are a few exotics which we resolve to acquire tomorrow, on our way out of the city, but little that’s completely out of the ordinary for a food-focused traveler. Fish vendors exhibit their usual regional specialization, and though we won’t have the opportunity to buy any, we spend a long time studying the options, comparing and contrasting them with other Mediterranean markets we’ve visited. Meat in its muscular form is equaled in quantity by what some euphemistically label “variety meats,” though here the “variety” is rather larger than what we’re used to. Clearly, these are people who love their “parts” an offal lot. (Sorry.) Cheesemongers, on the other hand, seem to sell as much foreign product as domestic, which is a little dismaying (and since we’ve had most of the domestic products on offer, we’re fairly disappointed in the options), but the massive range of domestic oils is proportionally exciting.

Inevitably, staring at food for an hour or so makes us ravenously hungry. Many vendors offer various snacks and tastes, and those on a tight budget could probably assemble a fine graze from these nibbles, but there are tapas bars within the market that are neither pricey nor ill-thought of. Several of the recommended options are already closed for the day (and many vendors have shuttered as well; we’re here pretty close to the local lunch hour), but one bustling counter is still open, and we grab seats the moment they’re available.

Kiosko Universal – There’s an odd sort of Africa-in-Florida, “Livingstone, I presume” theme park style to the signage here, which is a little strange. But the food is authentic enough…fresh, as intensely-flavored as it is simply-prepared, and served with frank rapidity…and the price can hardly be beat. We sample flawless squid with potato “fries” (not crisp, but – like the tentacle segments – drenched in zippy olive oil), fried artichokes dusted with a vivid, complex sea salt, and a stunning row of baby clams bathed in even more oil. But the “killer app,” as such, is octopus gallego in its spicy sauce (though it is, once more, soaked in oil…not a bad thing in any of these three cases, but a little repetitive); the texture and taste are truly definitive. I wash it down with three glasses of a crisp, light, refreshing wine (probably a Penedès, but I don’t ask and they don’t tell), and feel absolutely exhilarated at the end. We’ve done the adventurous, and tonight we’ll do the higher-end, but here’s yet another important side to the ravenous Barcelona food culture. In a way, it just might be our favorite of the three.

We continue our stroll down La Rambla all the way to the broad expanse of the waterfront. It’s a beautiful day, and we pass some time on a short cruise of the harbor; a fairly boring procession of passenger and cargo ships, with only the rise of Montjuïc and the distant ridge of Tibidabo breaking the industrial scenery. At least we get to sit for a while.

[old man against wall]Barri Gòtic – From the waterfront, the entrance to Barcelona’s oldest district is a little forbidding, with tiny, dark alleys featuring neither businesses nor signage. It’s a little like Venice without the water (or the lulling quiet). But soon enough, we emerge into brighter areas: sun-lit golden-brown plazas milling with visitors, and narrow passageways lit up by the glow of commerce and enlivened by the bustling noise of passersby.

The city’s principal cathedral, Santa Eulàlia is oddly situated, hemmed in on all sides by auxiliary and connected buildings, and without a truly grand façade in most directions. Its one ornate face – the front – is masked by scaffolding. Inside, things are grander, with the usual soaring architecture and lovely cloisters (in the middle of which are fenced a rather chatty gaggle of geese, for reasons that remain unclear to me; perhaps they’re guarding the fountain). The nearby Basílica de Santa Maria del Mar is darker, quieter, and much more ethereal, like something out of a distant time. Every whisper and foot shuffle is amplified and echoed (the church is renowned for its acoustics), and the contrast between the two houses of worship is striking and wonderful.

Gaig – The entrance to this luxurious and much-praised establishment immediately throws one into a trichromatic otherworld of white, black, and blood red. But what it lacks is any sort of food whatsoever. That’s because it’s a hotel lobby…stark, spare and highly designed (like so much else in this strikingly visual city). When we arrive, it’s empty. We hesitate, uncertain. Are we in the right place?

As if on cue, a hostess descends the lobby’s grand staircase, escorting us upstairs to the restaurant’s crescent-shaped dining room, itself a dark wonderland of red and white (but mostly red). It’s not ornate, exactly, but rather fashionable in the vaguely minimalist, modernistic vein of our two previous evenings’ restaurants; what differs is that the color is overtly “aggressive” to an extent I’m not sure many restaurants would venture. I picture a bull, a matador, a cape. I feel the warm onrush of freshly-slaughtered livestock. I smell the intense fruit of a vivid red wine. It’s rather captivating, and the mood is instantaneously rendered. It’s invigorating, enlivening, exciting.

Unfortunately, imaginary wine isn’t all we smell.

Moments after being seated, a table just across the narrow room – a hirsute older man and two female companions, both of whom look rather dramatically younger than him – seems to be finishing off the last of their meal. The women light cigarettes…no real problem, and it’s hardly uncommon here, though one young lady goes through eleven of them while carrying on a 90-minute conversation on her mobile…and the man lights a cigar.

And another.

And another.

At first, it’s only a mild irritant. It does fill the room with its intense, overpowering aroma, but we assume it will be over soon – who chain-smokes cigars? – and concentrate on our menu. Amuses arrive in the form of breadsticks with a saline anchovy “dip,” which we nibble to great satisfaction as an accompaniment to apéritifs of flowery cava and shockingly good Manzanilla (the identities of which I do not acquire, unfortunately).

More amuses follow: peanut crisps, little balls of cod, other small bites and tastes…each a focused statement of purity and flavor. We’re given menus, but less than a minute later, a waitress arrives to take our order. She seems highly put out that we’re not yet ready. Do they actually hope to turn our table this evening? In any case, and somewhat inevitably, we choose a tasting menu, a wine from the extravagant (albeit adventurously-priced) list, and settle back to await our meal. And to wonder if we’re going to be battling cigar smoke all night.

The early service issues don’t immediately abate, however. We sit…nursing the dregs of our apéritifs, shoveling the crumbs of our amuses to and fro, waiting for our first course. Or for someone to take our wine order. Either would be welcome, at this stage.

Twenty-five lonely minutes pass.

The mildest possible blood sausage is the first course to (finally) arrive – just a morsel, and as refined as one could imagine from this thoroughly rustic ingredient – with quail egg and a creamy sauce that provides delicious contrast to the frank sanguinity of the sausage.

Muga 1998 Rioja “Prado Enea Gran Reserva” (Center-North) – What I actually order is the ’96, but they bring this without apology, only explaining that they’re out of the earlier vintage after I inquire (which, in halting Spanish, is not rapid enough to stop them from opening the wine). I’d actually prefer to make another selection in this case; however, the retrieval of this wine – which doesn’t arrive until after we’ve completed our first course – takes long enough that I shrug and let it go, figuring I’d rather have a wine on the table than wait any longer. Unfortunately, my original instincts prove well-founded. This is tight, tannic and oak-laden, with obvious fruit (that only emerged after extended aeration) and spiky acidity. By the end of the night, there’s a little more spice to the fruit. Of course this is a wine meant to age, but right now it’s obvious and more than a little clumsy, and had I known that the ’96 was unavailable, I’d have ordered something a little more advanced.

Then: a pretty but simple course of scallops and artichokes that, with the excellence of its ingredients, manages to very nearly define both elements. But the next course, a shockingly good filet of sea bass with basil oil, is even better, and once again a cream sauce provides counterpoint.

[cathedral chandelier]By now, the cigar smell is actively irritating. My eyes hurt, my throat is dry, and I’m beginning to lose the aroma of both food and wine. Which is a shame, because the fourth course – a bit of a signature here – is pure decadence: cannelloni stuffed with some sort of rillettes-like meat-based substance, with a black truffle cream sauce. It’s ecstasy in every bite, a culinary climax on a plate. If there’s a niggle, it’s that it’s the third course of the last four to feature a cream-based sauce.

…and we have now reached the limits of our tolerance, as señor lights his fourth consecutive postprandial cigar. Isn’t this sort of like shotgunning Cognac? I feel nauseous, and Theresa’s eyes looks like they’ve been through a funeral. Desperate, we ask if there’s any way to move farther away from the offending table…a request which they quickly oblige, but that only helps a little bit; cigar smoke is hard to escape. Still, a little respite is better than none at all, and there’s not much the restaurant can do about it in any case.

Foie gras is next, and it may be the best I’ve ever eaten. (Do they make it locally, I wonder?) It’s served with a neon-red fig that tastes of strawberry (which works) and a sugary, mint-flavored candy (which doesn’t). This is followed by a loaf of rich suckling pig…soft on the inside, crispy on the outside…served not in a cream sauce, but with a sort of apple cider/applesauce purée. However, to nitpick once more, the texture of the pig is highly reminiscent of the cannelloni stuffing.

Desserts commence with a “deconstructed” crema catalana presented as custard with a foamy center – and only token caramelization – served in a martini glass. I don’t really see the point. What follows is a little orgy of chocolate: bitter, intense mousse and a clean, direct stack presented in puff pastry. Honestly, both desserts are disappointingly timid, and – other than the quality of the chocolate – a letdown at the end of such a grand meal.

As is my custom, and determined not to let the smoke “win,” I ask them to surprise me with something interesting from their selection of liquid desserts. They come up with a wine I could swear I’ve tasted before.

Mas Estela Garnatxa de l’Empordà “Estela Solera” (Cataluña) – Sweet roasted nuts and caramelized orange with toffee, burnt coffee, and a thick, heated edge. The finish is watery, and the overall effect is decidedly average. And one more thing: the wine – from a newly-opened bottle – is almost opaque with sediment, which would seem to be a minor service flaw, though of course it has no appreciable effect on the taste.

So, the verdict. It has been, in most important ways, a terrific meal…excellent by most standards. And yet. And yet

The service has been off all night. The early timing problems eventually settle themselves into an efficient routine, and our move to another table is carried out with aplomb, but in any case the meal is far too quick; less than two hours for seven courses, and that with nearly a half-hour delay at the beginning…it all adds up to about ten minutes per course, which is unacceptably accelerated for a meal of this magnitude. Other meals in Barcelona have been quick, to be sure, but given the expense and richness of this food, one hopes for something more respectful of the cuisine. This bothers us more in the aftermath than in the midst, but that is almost solely a function of the oppressive cigar smoke, for which the restaurant is not responsible; the meal would have been just as speedy were the cigar-mainlining patron not in attendance.

Beverages have also been a problem. In addition to the wine-related service issues, water has been rather grudgingly supplied, and then sloppily sloshed about the table when served. It seems there’s a sort of schizophrenia at work, wherein some elements of the restaurant are as comforting, luxurious and elegant as one could want, and others are haphazard and indifferent.

But the food…oh, the food. Apart from the most minor complaints about textural repetition, it is exquisite. In France, perhaps, we’d adore this meal for its adventurousness, but here in Cataluña we question its reluctance…fair or unfair though that contextualization might be. Separated from those expectations, however, there’s no denying either the quality of the ingredients or the skill in the kitchen, and it’s important to remember that the rejection of tradition is not, in itself, an inherent virtue. The restaurant is, in the main, truly excellent. Still, it must be said: of our three meals so far, I prefer both Cinc Sentits, and especially Hisop, to this establishment.

One excellent espresso later, we stagger out into the cool Barcelona night. Smoke clings to our clothes, our hair and our lungs. Thankfully, the next time I’ll need my nice jacket is two full weeks away; by then, the smell might have diminished. But upstairs, through the hotel’s prodigious windows, we can see our puffing tormenter, lighting up yet another stogie (perhaps his sixth or seventh). From a distance, at least, one has to admire his stamina.

8 – This bar, on our hotel’s roof deck but featuring almost no view whatsoever (aside from the dark Barcelona sky), is open until…well, that very much depends. On a busy night, with the hotel fully booked with a nightlife-oriented crowd, it might stay open until the very wee hours it advertises. But now, in the off-season, our bartender clearly prefers to make an early night of it (“early” being defined, Barcelona-style, as somewhere around 2:30 a.m.). I share quiet poolside recliners and the near-silence of the late-night Eixample with a small table of young French tourists, sipping the overly sweet succulence of some local brandy and almost blindly scribbling in my journal. It’s a peaceful way to end the evening. And – blessedly – smoke-free.

14 April 2007

TN: Arturo

[barrels]Finca Sandoval 2002 Manchuela “Salia” (Central Spain) – Medium-bodied and smoky, with earth-infused black fruit. Restrained and soft, but quite supple and tasty. A bottle tasted a few weeks earlier was a little more alive and less yielding, though it could be the context. (12/06)

TN: Bobby Castilla

Vinicola de Castilla “Señorio de Guadianeja” 1990 La Mancha Tempranillo “Gran Reserva” (Central Spain) – Old, sweaty oak, malted milk chocolate and rum. This is a big, heavy wine with decent acidity, very drying tannin (which feels like it comes primarily from wood), and an unpleasant finish of wood-derived vanilla and chocolate. A victim of its winemaking. (12/06)

TN: Bury Goldwater

[vineyard]Goldwater 2005 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Herbal and grassy. This gets past the underripe chile pepper and most (though not all) of the slightly underripe bell pepper, but doesn’t swing the other way into tropical sweetness, which is good. There’s some pear residue, which helps smooth things. That said, it’s a bit on the wan side. (4/07)

TN: Willi the wimp

Willi Schaefer 2004 Riesling 01 05 (Mosel-Saar-Ruwer) – Simple, showing pith and lemongrass with a faint, edge-of-the-palate sweetness. There’s not much more to be said about this wine, really. (4/07)

TN: Little weisshauses for you & me

[soil]Colterenzio “Prædium” 2005 Pinot Bianco Weisshaus (Alto Adige) – Stones, water, rocks, sun and gravel, with only the faintest hint of lime-flavored tonic to intrude on the geologic exhibit. Despite all this minerality, it’s somewhat soft on the midpalate. Call it Minerality Lite. (4/07)

TN: Freisa crane

Tenuta Migliavacca 2005 Monferatto Freisa (Piedmont) – Fabulously aromatic, with bursts of ripe summer berries and their spring flowers, dustings of freshly-ground pink and white peppercorns, and hints of mincemeat on the finish. Insistent acidity brings the wine into completely harmony with food. A delicious wine, with plenty of structure, and though I’d like to age some, it’s going to be hard to stay away from it in the interim. (4/07)

TN: Play that funky music, white wine

[bottling machine]Albrecht Crémant d’Alsace Brut Blanc de Blancs (Alsace) – Grapefruit rind, apple skin and bright light, focused with laser-like intensity in each bubble. There’s no complexity here, but there’s fine precision. (4/07)

TN: Bach up

Trimbach 2004 Riesling (Alsace) – Strong and balanced. Transparent molten steel and crisp, ripe apples cascading down a waterfall to a rocky end. Long and intense, with absolute clarity. I’ve said it before: the best yellow-label riesling in years. (4/07)

TN: Morgon words

JM Burgaud 2004 Morgon Côte du Py “Vieilles Vignes” (Beaujolais) – Frowning black fruit, mixed wild mushrooms, crushed and soil-ridden flowers shudder under the steady drumbeat of deep-toned contrabass structure. It’s pretty, but masculine; approachable, but ageable. It’s quite a wine. (4/07)

JM Burgaud 2005 Morgon Côte du Py “Vieilles Vignes” (Beaujolais) – Structure built upon structure, with only the blackest, night-shadowed hints of bitter chocolate cherries and blackberries peeking through the heavy metal bars in which they’re encaged. Throbbing but forbidding, and in no mood to be opened anytime soon. (4/07)

Guignier 2004 Morgon “Réserve Vieilles Vignes” (Beaujolais) – Clipped and trimmed about the edges, which is a shame. At the core there’s a slick, dark-earth/dark-berry juiciness and some light but firm tannin, but there’s just not much else going on here. I’m not sure I see a future…or a present. (4/07)

TN: Race for the Cure

[vineyard]Joguet 2003 Chinon “Cuvée de la Cure” (Loire) – Ripe, leaf-tinged blackberry…plucked from the wild with fruit, flower, leaf and branch intact…over a firm bed of black earth and decaying, morel-infused autumnal forest bed. There’s plenty of structure here, but it’s smooth and ripe, and this would seem to be a wine meant for aging. Nicely formed. (4/07)

TN: Kill the ox

Le Clos du Tue-Bœuf 2004 Touraine “Le Guerrerie” (Loire) – This producer’s reds almost always smell slightly corked to me, but those much more experienced with the wines insist that it’s not TCA. In any case, this is gauzy, musty and somewhat overcast, with angry but whip-skinny black fruit snarling and spitting acid and little lashes of bitter tannin at anyone brave enough to approach. It’s a “difficult” wine, but aside from that strange cork-like aroma, I think I like it. Certainly it needs age, in any case. (4/07)

TN: Payral tax

[château]Daulhiac “Château Le Payral” 2003 Bergerac “Héritage” (Southwest France) – Meaty and raw…perhaps almost feral…with chewy black fruit wrapped in a tannic sheath, overripe wood ear mushroom, and a finish that oscillates between frenetic dancing and martial goose-stepping. It’s a little tannin-dominated, but aside from that all the elements are in place for medium-term aging. (4/07)

TN: Jean David Jingleheimer Schmidt

[label]Jean David 2004 Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages Séguret “Les Couchants” (Rhône) – To be honest, this smells more like a ripe Loire cabernet franc than a Séguret, though there’s a hint of dark, brothy meat liqueur hanging around in the background. Otherwise, it’s slicked-back mélange of herbs and chunky earth, with a fine-grit polished structure but little generosity. The finish and nose aren’t much, either. Eh. (4/07)

TN: How dry is my valley?

[animated wine glass]Nalle 2004 Zinfandel (Dry Creek Valley) – Coconut-spiced cherries with a gravelly texture and juicy acidity. This is still very young, but while it’s balanced enough to age, I can’t imagine anyone being able to keep from opening it. It’s just too much fun. (4/07)

TN: Drunk Monk

[bottle & glass]North Coast Brewing “Brother Thelonious” Abbey Ale (California) – Strong and insistent, with caramelized apples and nuts, but the insistence eventually becomes harassment, and then everything just leaves. Someone forgot to finish this. (4/07)

TN: Harold & Maudite

[label]Unibroue “Maudite” (Québec) – Dark, raisined and slightly smoky, with good weight and balance, plus a peppery complexity and a long, smooth finish. (4/07)

10 April 2007

53 bottles of wine on the wall (Alsace/Paris, pt. 5)

[rolly gassmann](The original version, with more photos, is here.)

29 March 2006 – Rorschwihr, France

Rolly Gassmann (1, rue de l’Eglise) – Tasting rooms have a purpose, and that purpose is often the unloading of branded trinkets and oenodoodads on unsuspecting tourists. Wine – poured by the $15 taste in logo-etched glasses – often becomes little more than a lubricant for commerce. Not all tasting rooms are like this, but far too many are, especially in the New World.

In Europe, and especially at the more traditional producers, this paradigm often veers precipitously to its opposite. Wine is the focus (and indeed, the selling of “My Parents Went to Alsace & All I Got Was This Lousy T-shirt”-type paraphernalia would be scandalous), but the breadth and depth of the options can be more than a little overwhelming for the tentative novice. Old World winemaking families, especially those that helm their own tasting rooms, may appear reserved at first blush, but are often willing to open a lot of wine. And so there’s a sort of vetting process that goes on in such encounters; casual drop-in visitors interested only in a few bottles for the week or a souvenir for the suitcase will limit themselves (and be limited by the winery) to what they know, bottom-feeding their way through basic varietal or appellation-wide bottlings, while more informed or enthusiastic visitors will hone in on the higher-end, terroir-delimited and/or aspirational wines, for which they will usually be rewarded by a greater willingness to uncork the good stuff.

But for the serious student of wine, this potential bounty can lead to problems. Nowhere is this made more painfully obvious than in Alsace, where there are four major and a half-dozen auxiliary varieties made at virtually every property, in bottlings ranging from varietal to village to lieu-dit to grand cru, plus blends of every composition, sparkling wines, late-harvest and ultra-late-harvest wines, and occasionally even ephemera like vins de paille. Bigger négociants and cooperatives sometimes do all these things under multiple labels at multiple price points. Thus, only the timid or the pressed-for-time will spend much less than an hour at even the most humble establishment. And there’s a good reason that few delve into the dark and chilly world of barrel tasting in this region: at some wineries, this could take a week of tongue-numbing work.

To us, this all sounds like a perverse sort of fun. As long as the wines are good, we figure, let’s keep ’em coming. At Rolly Gassmann, however, we may have finally met our match.

The cellar is easy to find…tucked right behind Rorschwihr’s small church…and the proprietors – elderly mother and son, this morning – are as diminutive as the legend that precedes them (some have compared them to hobbits, though we see no sign of hairy feet). The winemaking son is currently leading a large group of culinary & sommelier-school students (all of whom look like they’d be too young to drink in the United States) though an informative tasting, and so we spend our first half-hour with his mother. To her expected question – “what would you like to taste?” – we give the answer that seals our fate: “oh, whatever you have open.” As she starts pulling bottles from cases, tables, racks and closets, we realize that it’s going to be a long morning. A long morning.

Rolly Gassmann 2004 Sylvaner Weingarten de Rorschwihr (Alsace) – Ripe and concentrated tangerine, with tomato hovering around the perimeter. Fresh-tasting at first, it begins to edge towards synthetic on the finish.

Rolly Gassmann 1999 Sylvaner Weingarten de Rorschwihr (Alsace) – Creamed corn and botrytis-like peach infusion, with a lovely but dangerous balance tilted towards thickness. Impressive.

Here are two completely different takes on this oft-maligned grape…or, perhaps, one take and a bonus object lesson on the underrated ageability of Alsatian sylvaner. The ’99 is interesting enough that it comes home with us, the better to fool all and sundry in blind tasting after blind tasting.

Rolly Gassmann 2004 Terroir de Châteaux Forts (Alsace) – A blend…mostly gewürztraminer and auxerrois. Sweet corn and cream with a ripe, starchy spice coating that provides a sort of structure, plus a quartz-like minerality. I think this needs a year to two to integrate more completely, but it’s nice enough now.

Rolly Gassmann 2004 Pinot Blanc (Alsace) – Spiced soda water, grassy and crisp. This feels almost zingy or frothy (though not actually perlant), though as it builds and expands on the finish, thing smooth. Ultimately, it’s not all that interesting.

For a blended wine, the Châteaux Forts isn’t bad. It relies on two grapes that have fairly similar and compatible structures, rather than on a misguided attempt to brighten otherwise heavy gewürztraminer with underripe riesling; a tactic that’s employed at many other houses, and rarely to good effect. As for the pinot blanc…truthfully, Rolly Gassmann does better with its traditional blending partner auxerrois, as the following wines will demonstrate.

Rolly Gassmann 2002 Auxerrois (Alsace) – Dried pear with a thick, soft finish.

Rolly Gassmann 2002 Auxerrois Rotleibel de Rorschwihr (Alsace) – Lightly sweet spiced pear with an intense, drying finish; virtually the reverse of the previous wine’s organoleptic arc. Aspirational and very likely ageable.

Rolly Gassmann 2001 Auxerrois Moenchreben (Alsace) – Vividly spiced baked apple. This wine has incredible presence, but unfortunately, the finish is disappointingly short. The ’02 Rotleibel is on the way up; this is on the way down.

Rolly Gassmann 1997 Auxerrois Moenchreben (Alsace) – Completely given over to spice at this stage, with an incredibly creamy texture but still-present acidity lurking in the background. Wonderful, and fully mature.

Auxerrois always brings the spice – less-fruity pinot gris is a typical characterization – but it can easily decline into sugar and flab, which is one reason it’s so often paired with the thinner, less flavorful, but crisper pinot blanc. When encouraged towards balanced ripening, with an unblinking eye on the preservation of acidity, it’s capable of standalone quality…though perhaps not extended ageability.

Rolly Gassmann 2004 Riesling (Alsace) – Wet river stones with a very, very dry finish. Thirst-ravaging. Very impressive for a basic varietal bottling.

Rolly Gassmann 2001 Riesling “Réserve Millésime” (Alsace) – Light petrol skips across a thin palate, akin to Bas-Rhin riesling from a too-cold site. There’s good persistence, but I’m not sure what’s inside will be worth the wait.

Rolly Gassmann 2004 Riesling Silberberg (Alsace) – Chewy and leafy, with a sharp, piercing, almost needle-like malic acidity.

Rolly Gassmann 2003 Riesling Silberberg (Alsace) – Thinner than the above-notated ’04, with more leafiness, a keening mint aroma, and a short finish.

Rolly Gassmann 2000 Riesling Silberberg de Rorschwihr (Alsace) – Wet, ripe, balanced and juicy. Is this simply a result of the vintage, or do wines from this terroir always flesh out this much as they age? Some of the best rieslings of the region do exactly that, but they almost always have more identifiable intensity in their youth.

Rolly Gassmann 2001 Riesling Pflaenzerreben (Alsace) – Tonic water, limestone and slate, with mixed apples bouncing around. Stemmy to the point of bitterness of the finish, but intriguingly so. This is edgy and potentially controversial, but I think the quality’s there.

Rolly Gassmann 1999 Riesling Pflaenzerreben (Alsace) – Softer than the ’01, mostly due to elevated sugar. Short and weird, which wouldn’t be an uncommon showing for a ’99…but the minerality is also completely absent, which is a little surprising.

Rolly Gassmann 1996 Riesling Pflaenzerreben (Alsace) – Sulfurous, with acid lashing at a banana residue. Ungenerous, and showing signs of further thinning and drying in the future.

Rolly Gassmann 1997 Riesling Kappelweg “Vendanges Tardives” (Alsace) – Crushed flowers and almonds with a heavy, seemingly botrytis-influenced finish that flattens and then disappears. It’s decent enough now, but there’s not much of a future.

Rolly Gassmann 1997 Riesling Pflaenzerreben “Vendanges Tardives” (Alsace) – Crushed chalk and limestone with lemon rind and grapefruit. Balanced and smooth, with a long finish redolent of botrytis. Give this one another two, three years, then drink up.

The winery is so close to the hallowed riesling grounds of Ribeauvillé and Bergheim that one expects proportional quality, but in fact the rieslings here are the weakest of all the varietal subcategories. The problems could be site-related, or they could be that here – virtually alone among all the wines – are found the only real explorations of a drier, more austere, higher-acid style that’s prevalent elsewhere in this pocket of the northern Haut-Rhin. Normally, that would be a blessing for my palate, but I’m not sure Rolly Gassmann’s strength lies in dry wines. Certainly almost everything else (on the white side of things, at least) carries identifiable residual sugar, and usually to the wines’ benefit. Minor anecdotal evidence for this theory can be found in the late-harvest rieslings, which – though still not up to the quality of the rest of the portfolio – show more of the generosity and intensity required to carry riesling through its often screechily acidic youth.

Rolly Gassmann 2002 Pinot Noir Rorschwihr (Alsace) – Light and rough, with raspberry seeds and discarded apple cores soaking in a dried-out old wood stew. Definitely on the wan side.

Rolly Gassmann 2000 Pinot Noir Rorschwihr (Alsace) – Ripe red cherry and bark soda poured over earth, with graphite-textured tannin. The finish is sharp and thin, showing mostly the acidic side of highly-underripe strawberries. A nice wine, though it ends a little clipped, and while I think it might cohere with a little more time, it may just as easily turn shrill.

Rolly Gassmann 2001 Pinot Noir Rodern (Alsace) – Bigger than the two previous wines, with strawberry, apple blossom and elevated tannin. This would seem to be the first pinot with any aging potential, though one wouldn’t want to wait too long.

Rolly Gassmann 1997 Pinot Noir “Réserve Millésime” (Alsace) – Souring, with stinky, baked fruit predominating. This is, unfortunately, the fashion in which so many Alsatian pinots live out their final days…unless they’ve been overwooded, in which case the result is even more unpleasant.

Rolly Gassmann 1997 Pinot Noir Rodern (Alsace) – Spicy, quince-dominated mincemeat. Concentrated. Quite nice, and showing a deeper and broader “pinosity” than is normal for the region. Blame the vintage if you wish, but this is nicely done.

Rolly Gassmann 2003 Pinot Noir “Réserve Rolly Gassmann” (Alsace) – Dense vanilla and black cherry cola notes, with a thick, almost impenetrable finish. This is very nearly fashioned in the modern style – dare one muse that an Alsatian pinot can be internationalized? – but not in an offensive, over-the-top way. I don’t know how authentic it is, but there are (rare) times when artifice can qualitatively trump authenticity, and the 2003 vintage is as good a time as any to explore that notion…especially when the recalcitrant subject is pinot noir from Alsace.

It’s not often that one gets to try a serious lineup of reds in this region, and much less a largely terroir-designated one…but then again, in most cases that’s something for which to be profoundly thankful. Here’s a procession that, predictably, supports my theory that Alsatian pinot tends to be at its best in the very vintages that louse up other varieties…’97 and especially ’03, for example. Producers still have to avoid the temptation to polish and char the wine with barriques, but the raw materials from ultra-ripe vintages can provide the best opportunity to make something that is more than a regionally-favored curiosity. All that said, the best pinots from the region are almost always sparkling, and the second best tend to be pink.

Rolly Gassmann 2004 Muscat d’Alsace (Alsace) – Lime flowers and apple blossoms. Light and fun. I bet this would expand with food.

Rolly Gassmann 2004 Muscat Moenchreben (Alsace) – Mineral-driven and strongly akin to riesling, which Alsatian muscat can sometimes be from the right terroir. There’s structure and intensity here. In other words, it’s more ageable and “serious” than the previous wine, but also much less fun. That’s a tradeoff sometimes worth making for the sake of variety, but preferences will differ.

Rolly Gassmann 2003 Muscat “Vendanges Tardives” (Alsace) – Luscious, sweet pear and apricot with zingy spice accents. It’s thick, but with good, enlivening acidity. Lovely. VT muscat is a rare beast, mostly because it’s tough to get the grapes to hang that long without auxiliary damage, but when successful it’s completely grin-inducing. Laughter may even result, under certain circumstances.

Rolly Gassmann 1997 Muscat Moenchreben “Vendanges Tardives” (Alsace) – A funky nose followed by incredible waves of spice. Long and complex, with even more aging potential and more of everything than the 2003. The aroma is the only thing that gives pause; when a muscat goes funky, it’s usually a sign that it’s passing its drink-by date.

Rolly Gassmann 2003 Muscat Moenchreben “Sélection des Grains Nobles” (Alsace) – The rarest of all Alsatian wine types, capable of being produced no more than a handful of times per decade by some fanatic winemaker. And, usually, priced accordingly…but when it’s this good, it’s all worth it. Lusciously sweet apple of stunning intensity, with a finish of incredible length. And yet, for all this concentration and almost physical effort, the wine retains a beautiful precision. Heartbreakingly pretty and almost painfully lovely.

The “freak” vintages of 1997 and – even more so – 2003 have to be good for something, other than an improvement in the quality of the local pinot noir, and here are a few anecdotes in support of an alternative beneficiary. SGN muscat is one of those semi-legendary wines that people here talk about, but that almost no one has ever tasted. This may seem counter-intuitive because sweet muscat is so prevalent elsewhere, but a large majority of that is fortified and/or stopped fermentation product, not true ultra-late-harvest wine. And certainly, botrytized muscat remains the ultimate rarity, at least here; apparently, the necessary rot almost never sets in before the grapes shrivel and die, and when it does it’s almost never the good kind. But ultimately, what really sets these wines apart is the minerality and structure that comes with the terroir.

Rolly Gassmann 2004 Pinot Gris (Alsace) – Spiced pear, with nice acidity and a good overall balance. Textbook. In fact, this wine might be the illustration.

Rolly Gassmann 2004 Pinot Gris Rotleibel (Alsace) – Drying pear skin with a surplus of granitic minerality. Crisp. Nicely done, and mid-term ageable.

Rolly Gassmann 2002 Pinot Gris Brandhurst de Bergheim (Alsace) – Tight pear and apple wrapped with minerality and skin tannin. Though it’s an odd thing to say about Alsatian pinot gris, which tends towards flab even in the best of hands, this may be a touch over-structured. Time could help.

Rolly Gassmann 2001 Pinot Gris Rotleibel de Rorschwihr (Alsace) – Sweet, botrytis-like fruit with spice and soda, plus unmistakable chile de arbol on the finish…a character I’ve never even conceived, much less tasted, in pinot gris. Fascinating.

Rolly Gassmann 2002 Pinot Gris “Réserve Rolly Gassmann” (Alsace) – Intensely ripe, with Anjou pear joined by concentrated red cherry, red apple, and a forceful iron core. On the other hand, all this energy comes somewhat at the expense of the wine’s balance, with is tilted towards power and away from precision. This may age, but it’ll need careful watching. It’s certainly impressive.

Rolly Gassmann 2001 Pinot Gris “Vendanges Tardives” (Alsace) – Rubber on the nose, and then a semi-tropical fruit fiesta elsewhere: pear, banana, apricot, mango and papaya. Very smooth. A little more acidity would be welcome, but there’s a lot that’s good about this, especially for near-term drinking.

Rolly Gassmann 1997 Pinot Gris Rotleibel “Vendanges Tardives” (Alsace) – Gorgeous, sweet and spicy, with a long finish. A huge wine, full and generous but at a lovely intersection between its upfront, youthful fruit and the emergent structure underneath. It will certainly hold longer, gaining dried fruit and spice at the expense of generosity; in other words, further aging must be judged on the basis on personal preference.

Rolly Gassmann 2000 Pinot Gris Rorschwihr “Vendanges Tardives” (Alsace) – Sweet apple and iron, with hints of botrytis and a really seductive texture. Very ageable. This is an infant, but it’s going to be outstanding some day.

Rolly Gassmann 2003 Pinot Gris Brandhurst “Sélection des Grains Nobles” (Alsace) – Luscious. Ripe peach and strawberry/pear syrup dusted with five-spice powder form the incredibly sticky core of this lower-acid, somewhat slutty wine. It’s just stunning right now, and while I can’t help but think it will age a little while despite the problematic acidity (sugar and dry extract can carry these things a long way, based on past experience), there’s also a very slightly attenuated finish to deal with. So here’s the final call: near perfection now, but a dicey prospect for the future.

It stands to reason that an Alsatian domaine dealing in structured but off-dry wines would excel with pinot gris, and that’s borne out here. The core of its regionally varietal character – spiced pear, always – is intact, and there’s (usually) supporting acidity, but what’s most exciting about these wines is the range of terroir expressions. Some might argue – not without justification – that not all these terroirs are ideally left unblended. This is something that would be applicable to the whole Rolly Gassmann range, in fact. And maybe that would be a helpful criticism if the winery’s primary goal was merely an increase in its success percentage. But here’s why that won’t happen: they clearly enjoy making all these different wines. Some years will benefit certain terroirs and grapes, and others will direct their benefits elsewhere, and I think that uncertainty and difference are a great part of the appeal for the Gassmann family. But more on this point later.

Rolly Gassmann 2004 Gewurztraminer (Alsace) – Wet and thick, with peach skin and tepid cashew. Disappointing; even a basic gewurztraminer should have more oomph than this.

Rolly Gassmann 2001 Gewurztraminer (Alsace) – Sweet lychee and other spiced fruit. Simple and direct. As a basic varietal bottling, this is more successful than the 2004.

Rolly Gassmann 2002 Gewurztraminer Oberer Weingarten de Rorschwihr (Alsace) – Gewurztraminer isn’t usually a grape that allows its varietal characteristics to be subsumed, and yet here we have gravel, quartz, and rolling river rocks absolutely pummeling juicy-but-sweet lemon fruit. This is a gewurztraminer? It’s very, very tasty for those of us who like to drink our planet’s foundations in convenient bottled form, but it’s definitely out of the ordinary.

Rolly Gassmann 1999 Gewurztraminer (Alsace) – Quite sweet, showing peach, pear and lychee juice. Pretty and fun, though clearly for immediate drinking.

Rolly Gassmann 2001 Gewurztraminer Stegreben de Rorschwihr (Alsace) – Intense lychees with their skins (and skin tannins) intact. Complex, structured and long. Very good, with enough power to enjoy now, and the balance and integrity to age.

Rolly Gassmann 1999 Gewurztraminer Haguenau de Bergheim (Alsace) – Wet and a bit hollow, with sweet banana skin wrapped around nothingness. This is a fairly typical performance for gewurztraminer of this vintage, unfortunately.

Rolly Gassmann 1998 Gewurztraminer Keppelweg de Rorschwihr (Alsace) – Spiced pear, peach and lychee dressed with nut oils. The finish brings out an anise note. Intriguing, and absolutely delicious right now.

Rolly Gassmann 1999 Gewurztraminer de Rorschwihr “Vendanges Tardives” (Alsace) – Very crisp for a VT, but peachy-fruity as well. It’s a bit simple-minded, and I don’t really see it getting much better with age.

Rolly Gassmann 1996 Gewurztraminer Oberer Weingarten de Rorschwihr “Vendanges Tardives” (Alsace) – Heady, thick and frankly edging towards lurid, with lychee skins and an otherwise satiny texture. The finish is long and flawlessly balanced. Impressive.

Rolly Gassmann 1998 Gewurztraminer Stegreben de Rorschwihr “Vendanges Tardives” (Alsace) – Pure and balanced, with a blend of lychee, apple and peach buoyed by fantastic acidity. One to watch in the future, of which it should have great experience.

Rolly Gassmann 2001 Gewurztraminer Brandhurst “Vendanges Tardives” (Alsace) – Very structured, but while the apple-skin acidity and fruit are nicely balanced, the wine is massively, perhaps almost painfully, sweet. This could be epic perfection someday, or it could be a short-lived clunker. At this stage, it’s too hard to tell for sure, though I think I’d bet on the former.

Rolly Gassmann 1997 Gewurztraminer Brandhurst de Bergheim “Sélection des Grains Nobles” (Alsace) – Ungenerous, with a moldy character dominating. I wonder if it might be mildly corked, but no one else agrees with me. So it’s just bad, then, with rot having overtaken all else. Avoid.

Rolly Gassmann 1997 Gewurztraminer Oberer Weingarten de Rorschwihr “Sélection des Grains Nobles” (Alsace) – Incredibly intense, showing spiced lychee and apple-dominated acidity. Surprisingly balanced. Wow. This is, especially for a ’97, a masterwork.

Rolly Gassmann 1994 Gewurztraminer Stegreben de Rorschwihr “Sélection des Grains Nobles” “Cuvée Anne Marie” (Alsace) – Very, very, very sweet, showing those overdriven red fruit characteristics than can be coaxed from extremely ripe white grapes: red and Rainier cherries, mostly, though there’s also the expected lychees and thick botrytis influence. It’s extremely long, but there’s a very slightly worrisome rubber tang to the finish. In a young wine, I’d excuse it, but after a decade of age, I’d strongly consider drinking up.

Rolly Gassmann 1989 Gewurztraminer “Sélection des Grains Nobles” (Alsace) – Molten iron and steel. Fully-realized, integrating all the typically lush varietal characteristics into a metal-driven, complex whole. The finish is shortening, so I’d drink this one soon.

This is a fascinating collection of gewürztraminers. Some are just a little sweet, others are diabetic nightmares. Some show simple varietal purity, others bring in all sorts of complexing elements from terroir and/or age. Some are flawed, others are brilliant. But what stands out most is that over half of them are labeled as late-harvest wines. It could be successfully argued that this reflects the sugar-dominated disposition of the domaine, but I prefer an alternative explanation: these are wines that, at many other houses, would simply be the regular, non-VT releases…massive walls of unexpected and unwelcome sugar when opened at table. Labeling these wines vendanges tardives is – whether intended or not – a consumer-friendly gesture, one that helps clarify the morass of variably sweet wines that currently infect Alsace, to its commercial detriment. Such clarity from other producers would be most welcome.

So…53 wines. 53! Four hours (four hours!) after our arrival, my tongue, my palate, my nose and my mind are almost numb. It’s not the sheer number – I semi-regularly taste two or three times this many at big walk-around tastings – but the intensity, the sugar, and the concentration necessary to pick out subtle differences in a long procession of varietally-identical wines. The sugar and acid, especially, work together to bring a throbbing ache to my teeth. But the question is: did we learn anything? Well, with this many wines, it’s almost impossible not to.

In the face of all these site-labeled wines, an interesting fact can slip by even relatively experienced tasters: there are no grand crus here. This is partially explained by the fact that Rorschwihr possesses no such designated vineyards of its own (the nearest candidates are the Gloeckelberg in Rodern and the Altenberg de Bergheim and Kanzlerberg near Bergheim), but certainly this house has had the opportunity to purchase a few plots were they so inclined. That they haven’t speaks to a relentless regionalism…perhaps even a vinous xenophobia…and a stubborn determination to make the best from sites of which they have a deep, almost ancestral understanding.

With so many wines, there’s bound to be inconsistency…and there is. The only constants are residual sugar (except for the rieslings, in which is it either absent or not overt, and of course the pinot noirs) and the very difference that defines terroir-revelatory winemaking. Varietal integrity is usually respected, with the occasional outlier, but the qualities of these wines do indeed come from their sites. Nothing is happening in the cellar…or in the vineyard…to deform in an effort to achieve some sort of stylistic grail, a practice that is on display at more than a few famous wineries in the region. These are pure, honest expressions of grape and place. And if you don’t like a particular wine? They’ve got just a few more from which to choose…

As we purchase a half-dozen bottles and prepare to leave for a long-delayed lunch, I note the craziest thing of all in a morning filled with craziness of a most satisfactory nature: according to the price list, there are wines we missed. Well, save them for next time. If we start early enough, we should be able finish before midnight.

02 April 2007

TN: Sock it to me

[label]Argyle 1998 Brut Knudsen (Willamette Valley) – On the off-dry side, or so it seems – it could just be the extremely ripe fruit, which tends towards pear, grapefruit and strawberry – with a thick texture. There’s a bit of brioche, and a counterpoint of shaved Buddha’s hand pith. It’s a nice bubbly, but I think it could use some more age, to tame the rather exuberant fruit. (3/07)

TN: Aÿ, aÿ, aÿ

[vineyard]Roger Pouillon Champagne à Mareuil sur Aÿ “1er Cru” Brut Rosé (Champagne) – Overwhelmed by volatile acidity, so that the fresh strawberry fruit that would otherwise dominate turns awkward and clumsy. (3/07)

Egly-Ouriet Champagne Grand Cru Brut “Tradition” (Champagne) – A soft sea breeze over brioche, with black cherries at the core. There’s great acidity, but a big, aggressive body flashing neon banana leaves dominates all else. The wine grows from softness to sharpness as it finishes. Good, but a little showy. (12/06)

TN: Oster-izer

[vineyard]Selbach-Oster 2001 Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Riesling Kabinett 17 02 (Mosel-Saar-Ruwer) – Light lemon curd and ripe Granny Smith apple. There’s emergent creaminess – a sign of maturity – with good balance, and while everything’s very intense right now (an artifact of the vintage), it’s a fine time to start drinking this wine. (3/07)

TN: Take this job and Schoffit

Schoffit 2002 Chasselas “Vieilles Vignes” (Alsace) – Pine needles and zingy green grapes. A bit short and low-acid, nonetheless. But there’s fine clarity, which is not always something one finds from Schoffit chasselas. (12/06)

TN: Gris belt

[vineyard]Sparr 1997 Pinot Gris Brand (Alsace) – Weird nose…rubber and stale metal girders. But then normalcy returns, with sweet Asian pear laden with spice. Lightly sweet dandelion syrup dances on the finish. This shows many of the signs of a wine that is on the precipice of complete disintegration, so drink up. (12/06)

Kientzler 2001 Pinot Gris Ribeauvillé “Réserve Particulière” (Alsace) – Extremely dry in the house style, with a flowing river of molten metal coursing over mineral-salted pear dust sifted from a grinder. Long and powerfully intense; those that mistake sugar or alcohol for power should be given this as an object lesson. (3/07)

TN: A Marckrain's gonna fall

Laurent Barth 2004 Marckrain (Alsace) – Spicy banana leaf and skin, with a thick pear forepalate, then acid and raw metal emerging on the finish. However, the wine’s on the abrupt side, and there’s the general muddling that is so endemic to blends in Alsace, a mixing and shading of varietal character that is rarely to the wine’s credit. (3/07)

TN: The Haardter they fall

[label]Müller-Catoir 1998 Haardter Mandelring Scheurebe Spätlese 21 99, fuder 9830 (Pfalz) – Thyme, cat pee, asparagus, grass and grapefruit with spicy acidity. Just a year ago, this was tropical and massively sweet. Now? It’s produce aisle soda. (3/07)

TN: The pope's new white

Perrin “Château de Beaucastel” 2001 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc (Rhône) – Flat and moderately oxidized at first, with cashews, roasted spices and toasted white and green peppercorns emerging. Then: shiitake mushrooms. The finish is monotone and as flat as the nose. It’s like a sun-baked, dry oloroso without the extra character. And yet, somehow, it’s mildly appealing. (12/06)

TN: Bachelet pad

Bachelet 2002 Côte de Nuits-Villages (Burgundy) – Beet, extremely ripe red cherry, concentrated blood orange. In other words, the classic aromatic profile of a Central Otago pinot. This isn’t a criticism, just an observation. And in any case, the palate diverges significantly: earth, juiced shiitakes, and mixed cherries. The finish is a little on the short side, but this is a lovely wine, ripe but complex enough. (3/07)

TN: Mr. Beau Chambolles

Hudelot-Noellat 1993 Chambolle-Musigny (Burgundy) – Beets and roasted garbage with a lovely aftertaste of stewed sewage. This isn’t just dead, this is a victim of some horrible assault. Call CSI. (12/06)

TN: Savigny the best for last

[map]Jadot 1993 Savigny-les-Beaune La Dominode (Burgundy) – Old dust on a cedar chest, with sharp strawberry and squirty lemon-drop adding much brightness to the palate. The finish is deeper, with black trumpet mushrooms, black and red cherries, and even a bit of tar…followed by more dust. Drink up. (12/06)

TN: Pégau my heart

[label]Feraud “Domaine du Pégau” 1989 Châteauneuf-du-Pape “Cuvée Réservée” (Rhône) – Black pepper, dark blueberry-infused leather and meat juice, with a strong undercurrent of iron-rich blood. Fantastic balance. The wine pulses and squeezes the palate, a heartbeat of stunning Châteauneuf character. Stunning. And, for those who are interested, ready to drink…though I don’t think there’s any danger of immediate declination. (3/07)

TN: Tondonia deaf

Lopez de Heredia “Viña Tondonia” 1970 Rioja “Gran Reserva” (Center-North) – Wet mildew and sharp red cherry-laced acidity on a bed of spore-ridden late autumn leaves. The finish is strongly reminiscent of bare earth, with a few hungry worms wriggling their way towards the last scraps of food. Is this a positive note, one might be inclined to ask? I don’t have an actual answer to that question. (12/06)

Compañia Vinicola del Norte de España “Cune” 1982 Rioja “Gran Reserva Imperial” (Center-North) – Still very primary, with graphite-textured structure and good acidity supporting raspberry and red cherry fruit. Everything is not only in separate rooms, the rooms are walled off from each other and the doors are bolted. This needs a lot more time. (12/06)

TN: A Fleurie of inactivity

Brun “Terres Dorées” 2005 Fleurie (Beaujolais) – Thick to the point of solidity and massively reductive, with the aroma of a wine-soaked cork worming its way in there. With 24 hours of air, there’s brutally dark blackberry fruit over tar and asphalt, and the tiniest bit of generosity on the finish, but things are still reductive and generally screwed up tight. Traditional Madiran is more generous in its youth. Don’t even think about opening this anytime soon. (3/07)

TN: Nalle in the family

Nalle 2003 Zinfandel (Dry Creek Valley) – Bright red fruit struggling to get out of a weirdly soupy, difficult set of restraints. There’s a hint of cooked fruit as well. This is very likely heat-damaged, because the performance of the wine certainly isn’t typical for Nalle. Source: New Hampshire state liquor store, Nashua. (3/07)

TN: Only ESJ knows

[label]Edmunds St. John 2002 Syrah “The Shadow” (California) – Earthen mushrooms, mixed nuts, smoke and dark, dark fruit with bracing acidity. Really good, but it will really reward some cellar time. (12/06)

TN: VT, vini, vici

Trimbach 1998 Gewurztraminer “Vendanges Tardives” (Alsace) – Molten crystal and liquefied roses with a drizzle of aluminum and a fine, diamond-facet acidity. This is closing up. It’s less sweet than many regular Alsatian gewürztraminers these days, but it has much better balance than so many of its sticky younger brethren. Let it age. (3/07)


Gantenbein 2000 Pinot Noir Beerenauslese (Graubünden) – Strawberry and obese peach with heavy cream around a flabby “structure” of drippy steel, leaves and makrut lime juice. Very, very, very sweet with only a tiny fraction of the necessary acidity. The finish smells a bit like an armpit, but it’s so short that the impression is fleeting. Grossly out of balance, but it might make a fine fruit syrup to drizzle on your morning berries. (3/07)

TN: Pieropan and Tinkerbell

[vineyard]Pieropan 2001 Recioto di Soave Classico Le Colombare (Veneto) – Pecan, orange rind and sweet apple cider with tons of nutmeg-and-clove spice, plus fantastic acidity. A wine so delicious one wants to laugh out loud, just for the sheer joy of it. (12/06)