28 November 2007

Where critics fear to tread

[map]As I predicted the moment I finished tasting the wines, posting notes on a Washington Wine Commission tasting led to an angry blowback. Mostly from one impassioned winemaker, but also from a few anonymous snipers. As I know this sort of thing gets passed around amongst otherwise busy wine industry folk (“can you believe this guy?”), I’m sure I haven’t yet heard the end of it, either.

There’s nothing surprising about this…in fact, it’s the norm for critics of all stripes. If there’s one blessing about the wine field, it’s that the criticisms tend to be coherent and well-written, rather than the incomprehensible gibberish that, say, music critics receive on an hourly basis; I know, I’ve been one. Other than a few letters to the editor, the general public doesn’t usually get to see this sort of thing. But that’s all different now that everyone and their sister has a blog. Unless comments are turned off (and frankly, that’s not a terrible idea for an opinion-monger), everyone gets to see the criticisms, the counter-criticisms, and (usually) the arguments that follow. Though others may disagree, I tend to believe that transparency is a generally positive thing. So if I post notes, and there’s a consensus out there that I’ve missed the boat, I think it’s worthwhile to have that response where readers can see it.

In case you’re wondering – and you’re probably not – there are actual consequences to criticism, and not just those claimed by those whose products are being criticized. Critics get uninvited to tastings when they post negative notes. They lose access to resources – winemakers, PR agencies, trade commissions – which can be very helpful in “getting it right,” or at least getting a broader picture; this lowers the overall quality of wine criticism, but it’s probably an inevitable result of the necessarily antagonistic producer/critic relationship. I doubt, for example, that the WWC will be eager to invite me to their next Boston event, and I doubt a lot of cellar doors will be open to me on my next trip to Washington. It can even make everyday life difficult, as criticizing a local restaurant or retailer makes it very, very difficult to patronize that establishment (which, in the latter case, makes it hard to buy wine). And it can get even worse. Though it seems hard to fathom, I’ve actually received physical threats over things I’ve written. So has my family. It’s an ugly world out there, sometimes, with some ugly people in it. Thankfully, this WWC-related tiff (and I should note that, at least to my knowledge, I’ve heard nothing from the fine and generous people at that commission) was nothing like that. It was just regular old criticism, which almost seems like a relief when compared to other possible responses.

So how did I know that there would be an angry mini-mob after I posted those Washington notes? Well, as long-time writers know, there are three critical “third rails” in the wine world. One is Champagne, because those massive marketing and advertising budgets have to count for something. “What is the source of your personal hatred for Veuve-Clicquot?” cried one devastated agent after a negative review…not even in print, but on an online wine forum. (Answer: I don’t have a personal hatred for V-C. I just don’t think the wines are what they should be, and the yellow-label Brut is incomprehensibly popular given its low quality.) The second is any critic more successful than yourself. Because you will be accused of jealousy, and of insufficient experience, and both the human shields and (too often) the critics themselves will snippily crush you like an insignificant bug on their way to another few months of mutual back-slapping. It’s simply not worth it, and in any case no one cares about critics critiquing critics except…critics. Talk about inside baseball…

And the third? The third is domestic wine. Outside of Champagne, you can write anything – no matter how harsh – about a foreign wine, and only on a rare occasion will you hear a complaint harsher than “well, I liked it, and I think you’re wrong.” But criticize a domestic wine, and you will hear from everyone. The criticism will sometimes be personal, but even if it’s not, it will be defensive and more than a little angry.

So why is that? Well, part of it is an ongoing reaction to years of “European wines are better because they’re better” sniffing from critics around the world. And that’s understandable. No one should seriously question that domestic producers are capable of making truly world-class wine, or that many of them already do. Too many don’t, but that’s no different than anywhere else. However, very few critics actually make that claim anymore, even subconsciously. A lot of the defensive response from the domestic wine industry is actually rooted in attitudes that are, for the most part, of the past. Which is not to say that there aren’t still Europhile palates out there…after all, I’m one, and the East Coast is rife with them…just that critics, even if they’re Europhilic, have a duty to be fair to wines they don’t necessarily like. And I think, for the most part, they fulfill that duty. Oenophilic anti-Americanism should be a non-factor, but in some cases we’re still waiting for the producers to catch up.

Another part of it is because too many critics aren’t actually critical. Especially with writers local to wine regions, the appeal of boosterism is difficult to ignore (though there are many skilled exceptions). Some publications even insist on it; I’m writing for one now, for example, that doesn’t want too much negativity in its pages (which might explain why so much of it ends up here). Local cheerleading is helpful because it doesn’t pit you against the people you’re going to see on a daily basis (and that you’ll need to see to do your job well), and it can lead to book-writing opportunities, which is one of the very few semi-lucrative outlets for wine writing. Plus, as noted earlier, being critical is a reliable way to be cut off from the gravy train of samples, meals, trips and other largesse. Given that a large number of critics make this choice for entirely understandable reasons, it’s not surprising that the ones that are actually critical stand out like a very sore thumb.

But there’s something else at work, too, and I’ve never been quite sure how to identify it. Some domestic winemakers and winery owners just can’t seem to abide any criticism. Is it the classic American sense of entitlement? An oddly anti-capitalist over-personalization of the market, where the product becomes conflated with the person, and thus criticism of the former is incorrectly taken as criticism of the latter? Is it somehow related to the high prices of domestic wines (which, given equivalent history and quality, often sell for much more than their European counterparts…discounting currency effects, of course, though even then American wines are expensive), wherein so much money is riding on each bottle that negativity is more keenly felt? I don’t know, and I’m not going to play armchair psychologist and guess. All I know for sure is that it’s a known phenomenon, and I (and, one presumes, other critics) deal with it every time I’m negative about a domestic wine.

There’s more to this issue, too: the nature of criticism, the purpose of negativity, the use and abuse of language. But this is already far too long for a blog post, and so I’ll have to leave those issues for another time. Meanwhile, I’ve got angry correspondents to deal with.

27 November 2007

Wyndham Estate - a shiraz tasting

[bottle]Wyndham Estate 2006 Shiraz Rosé “Bin 505” (Australia) – Not a saignée, but rather a wine from grapes dedicated to this purpose, with the must chilled and a relatively cold fermentation. It’s simple, with clean, minty cherry dominating, and it’s full-bodied without being over the top, with a wet finish and good acid balance. Enjoyable. (9/07)

Wyndham Estate 2005 Shiraz “Bin 555” (South Eastern Australia) – This is Wyndham Estate’s biggest seller, and the goal is a “ripe” character…one that I don’t think they achieve. I also have a bit of a history with this wine: a negative note many years ago on one of the online wine fora caused a blizzard of hate mail from one dedicated but obviously underworked 555 lover. And now? Chocolate-covered paper, flat and dull, then turning soupy on the finish. Tannin is a minor component. This wine just isn’t interesting, at all. (9/07)

Wyndham Estate 2004 Shiraz “Show Reserve” (South Eastern Australia) – Aged in American oak, and it shows in the soft coconut wood influence. It’s big. Strawberries and plums are prominent, with chocolate and a warming, spicy component that turns to oak dominance on the finish. This is a well-made wine, but not my style. (9/07)

Wyndham Estate 2003 Shiraz “Black Cluster” (Hunter Valley) – This is the first release of a wine intended to be “iconic,” from older vines. There is no ’04, but there is an ’05 and there will be an ’07 (thought to be the best of the bunch thus far), while a decision on the ’06 had not yet been made at the time of this tasting. Here is a much more serious style of shiraz, though still commercially accessible, with deep fruit showing blackberry, blueberry, plum and apple-crisped acidity, dark earth redolent with black truffle, and a little meat and leather in the picture as well. Very solid and nicely done. (9/07)

Wyndham Estate Sparkling Shiraz “Bin 555” (South Eastern Australia) – Blueberry and sweet plum with licorice candy. It’s too sweet for me (25g/l residual sugar), a berry dessert with a little tannin, but as dessert I suppose it’s OK. I just think dry versions are so much more interesting. (9/07)

Disclosures: many, in this case. Lunch, drinks, and post-drinks drinks (not a typo) paid for by the winery and/or its PR agency.

18 November 2007

Wayward Washington

[vineyard]In September, I was approached by the Washington Wine Commission. Boston, it had been decided, was a target expansion market, and they were taking the opportunity to assess the landscape and show a few of their wines to the locals.

My thoughts on the landscape assessment are here, and now – after a bit of a travel delay – I present the notes from a lunchtime tasting a few days later. The question, as asked then and repeated now, is: how will these wines distinguish themselves from everything else on the market? Will they show definition and difference? Or will they be, for the most part, the standard Bordeaux-influenced blends, with heavily-managed tannin and the lush smoothness of new oak…a style that is already done very well in countless other locations?

Woodward Canyon 2006 “Dry” Riesling (Columbia Valley) – Ripe honeydew melon and honeysuckle with fig and Golden Delicious apple. Despite the label, it doesn’t taste entirely dry, but that could be a mere inference from the extremely ripe, almost boisterous palate. There’s a touch of heat on the nose, but otherwise this manages to pair intensity and balance fairly well. It is big, however. (9/07)

O S Winery 2006 Riesling Champoux (Horse Heaven Hills) – Extremely dry, showing Makrut lime, candied ginger and an aluminum core. Long, with dominant structure, but there’s a worrisome Styrofoam element to the finish. (9/07)

San Juan 2006 Siegerrebe (San Juan Island) – Even though the winery is perfectly entitled to use the name of its geographical location, there’s just something…I don’t know, jarring…about seeing “San Juan” on a wine from the Pacific Northwest. Well, whatever, let’s get back to the important stuff. Green elements (gooseberry, asparagus) vie with spice here, and there’s no lack of acidity. Beautifully weird. Or weirdly beautiful. Certainly not a crowd-pleaser, though I’m not sure why that’s important. (9/07)

DeLille 2006 “Chaleur Estate” Blanc (Columbia Valley) – A sauvignon blanc/sémillon blend. Fig, peach rind and dried yeast, with pit bitterness and lurid nut oils drizzled over the top. Far too thick, and (blessedly?) short. (9/07)

Abeja 2005 Chardonnay (Washington) – Smoky and very ripe, with cantaloupe and Calimyrna fig. Quite woody, though there seem to be pleasant enough materials underneath. The finish is blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, which is unfortunately par for the course with such wines. (9/07)

[vineyard]Columbia Winery 2006 Viognier (Yakima Valley) – Light aromatics at first, followed by a thoroughly hollow midpalate. The finish is classic and varietally true to its peach flower/honeysuckle destiny, but there’s just not much else to enjoy here. (9/07)

Di Stefano 2006 Sauvignon Blanc (Columbia Valley) – Fig, cucumber and white rose. Round and ripe, with good acidity, yet it also seems softened…normally, I’d guess with a tiny bit of aging in wood, but that doesn’t seem otherwise indicated here. Pretty nice. (9/07)

As noted, I’m a little more enthusiastic about the prospects for the whites than the reds. Not just because I think the whites are better – the reds are probably “better” from a modernist standpoint, which means they’re less to my taste – but because they have a better chance at standing out in the Boston market, which is Europhilic and unkind to a surplus of big, fruity, oaky reds made over and over again from the same few grapes. And then again, maybe not: my fellow diners were, for the most part, only willing to taste whites if forced to do so, preferring to spend the majority of their time with the more famous reds.

l’Ecole No. 41 2005 Merlot Seven Hills (Walla Walla Valley) – Buttered toast with dark blueberry jelly, ripe and leathery tannin, plus a finish that disappears from the inside out. Rather soupy. Not very good, but not horrible. (9/07)

Pedestal 2004 Merlot (Columbia Valley) – All toasty wood and brioche, no fruit or character. I’m told that über-consultant Michel Rolland had a hand in this. Certainly I’m no great fan of his ever-expanding portfolio, but his wines are almost never this horrid. (9/07)

Leonetti 2005 Merlot (Columbia Valley) – Big, spicy wood with a chewy yet lush texture. The quality is obvious, as is the seductive nature of the wine, but despite the overtly apparently quality, the wine is thoroughly anonymous. It could be from anywhere, made from anything. So what’s the point, exactly? (9/07)

Cadence 2003 Klipsun (Red Mountain) – 82% merlot, 18% cabernet sauvignon. Balanced fruit, big but ripe and pretty, that softens to a somewhat silky cotton candy texture on the finish. So close, but yet so far… (9/07)

buty 2006 Merlot/Cabernet Franc (Columbia Valley) – Technically, that’s 61% merlot, 39% cabernet franc. Espresso and chocolate with dark blueberries and a very concentrated, liqueur-like, but (weirdly, given those descriptors) not entirely overblown aspect. However, there is one significant flaw, and that’s the heat. It’s there on the nose, it’s there on the palate, and it positively burns on the finish. If you like a little brandy in your Fronsac, this is the wine for you. (9/07)

[vineyard]Nicholas Cole 2003 “Camille” (Columbia Valley) – 47% cabernet sauvignon, 38% merlot, 15% cabernet franc. Dark and structured, with blackberry and blueberry ruined by green, tarry notes. There’s a medicinal quality as well. This is a strange mix of New World fruit bomb and Old World greenness, with none of the positive qualities of either. (9/07)

Col Solare 2004 (Columbia Valley) – 80% cabernet sauvignon, 17% merlot, 2% cabernet franc, 1% petit verdot. Cedar and smoke, with simple fruit. Long and relatively balanced, supported by good structure, but it dries out on the finish. It’s as if the wine just gives up. (9/07)

Hedges 2005 “Three Vineyards” (Red Mountain) – A cabernet sauvignon/merlot blend. Tobacco and dark fruit dusted with black pepper. Tannin wavers between leather and more strident bitterness. There are some balance issues here, that age will help but probably not ever truly resolve. (9/07)

Fielding Hills 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon Wahluke Slope (Washington) – Eucalyptus, blueberry and blackberry with a chocolate/coffee underbelly and myrtille liqueur on the finish. But that’s not all…there’s an herbal Chartreuse element to it as well. Perhaps blessedly, the finish is rather abrupt. A weird, weird wine. (9/07)

Pepper Bridge 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley) – Reasonably balanced (or so it seems at first), showing coffee and toasted spice amidst the over fruit. Very, very thick. This might otherwise be considered promising, but there’s an unmistakable burn that eventually overwhelms everything. (9/07)

Woodward Canyon 2003 “Estate” Red (Walla Walla Valley) – 44% cabernet franc, 41% merlot, 14% cabernet sauvignon, 1% petit verdot. A classic blackberry and tobacco nose bodes well. But then: flowers and nutmeg. OK, if it must, but then: extreme wood and nasty weeds on the finish. And hot. Scaldingly hot. Yeesh. (9/07)

[barrels]McCrea 2004 “Sirocco” (Washington) – 40% grenache, 30% mourvèdre, 25% syrah and 5% counoise. Bubblegum and strawberry over gravel. The fruit is sweet, light and fun. Don’t ask any more of it and you’ll be reasonably pleased with this wine. (9/07)

Gordon Brothers 2003 Syrah (Columbia Valley) – Mint and blueberry, tight and twisted and hollow. Or perhaps fallow. Either way, there’s almost nothing here. Bad bottle? (9/07)

Gramercy Cellars 2005 Syrah “Lagniappe” (Columbia Valley) – Lush and ripe, but overly toasted and too buttery, with a texture like well-worn velvet throws on a long-used sofa. Turns sickly in the finish. A shame, too, as there are a few promising aromatics hanging about. (9/07)

Amavi 2005 Syrah (Walla Walla Valley) – Strongly fruity, showing blueberry, black cherry and blackberry with a dense overlay of spice and chocolate. There’s a hint of thyme on the finish. Good weight and decent (but only just) structure make this a reasonably solid wine. (9/07)

And so, as I feared, the reds are decidedly not my sort of thing. Do they say anything unique about Washington? The best of them say “we can be just like everyone else” and preach the gospel vinous conformity that’s currently sweeping the wine world, and the worst of them…well, they say something unique about Washington, but unfortunately they rather strongly suggest that the wineries aren’t yet ready for prime time.

I’ve had better wines from Washington, so obviously selection is, at least in part, an issue. And certainly, my preferences play into it as well. But this…was an unconvincing tasting. Others, with different palates, will be more enthusiastic. I wish all those involved luck. They’ll need it.

13 November 2007

The beautiful hack

[foggy foothills]The original version, with more photos and better formatting, is here.

The reduced-cost meal plan

For me and many others, vacations start with a plane. A long, uncomfortable trip in a cramped seat, the better to not quite succeed at achieving much-needed sleep after a few marathon, and thus sleepless, sessions of packing and preparation. The usual hassles and inanities of the security theater to which airline passengers are nowadays subjected. And, of course, the food. Oh, the wonderful airline food…

Today, on a Northwest Airlines flight that seems dragged from its early-eighties mothballs, it’s some sort of anonymous meat puck with accompanying slop. I think the latter might be gravy, but it’s unclear. Add some long-stewed canned tomatoes and a plop of watery applesauce, and the recreation of public grade school cafeteria cuisine would be complete. Thankfully, there are the excellent accompaniments – rock-hard roll, airy butter whip, mass-market “cheddar,” heavily-browned iceberg lettuce with oil from a squeeze packet, sugary and preservative-laden “cake” – to make up for the main dish’s deficiencies. To wash it all down, of course, there’s wine. Wine of a quality that can only be described as the perfect foil for the foil-wrapped food.

Doña Domingo 2006 Chardonnay (Colchagua Valley) – Sweet and vile. More descriptors would require keeping this wine in my mouth longer, a possibility too horrifying to contemplate.

Santa Domingo “Casa Mayor” 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon (Colchagua Valley) – Stewed herbs and residual sugar. This isn’t just horrible, this is an actual crime against nature and all that is good and decent in this universe. Among the worst wines I have ever tasted.

And thus, I discover a new use for cinnamon Altoids: flavor-obliteration. Only a few dozen are required, though the queasy feeling in my stomach never quite goes away.

The long and the tall of it

As our plane starts its decent into the lush green lagoon otherwise known as The Netherlands, the man in the seat next to me strikes up a conversation. He’s wearing a…festive…ensemble of yellow cardigan and bright pink pants, and at about 5’9” must be a veritable dwarf among his countrymen. His flawless and idiomatic English is a fine introduction to the next few hours of my life, at the Schiphol airport, where virtually every advertisement, sign, and conversation is almost completely devoid of any other language. It’s all just as well for me, since I don’t speak a single word of their language, but it’s a little displacing as well.

And yes, the people are tall. The legends do not lie. Stealing an appreciative glance at an attractive passing teen that happens to be a good six inches taller than me is a strange feeling. I wonder if they sell lifts at duty-free?

I’m hungry – no surprise after that horrid excuse for a trans-Atlantic flight – and somewhat bored with my three-plus-hour layover, so I wander around the airport’s commercial interior looking for food. Noodle Bar strikes some sort of comforting chord deep within, and I enjoy a perfectly passable pork miso ramen (chief complaint: a little sweeter than I’d like, though that could be the miso talking). However, for the first time I also feel the painful sting of my country’s ridiculous currency, ladling out $23 for a bowl of soup and a bottle of water. Ugh.

Dressed for access

Fortified and less cramped, though still feeling short, I descend to some godforsaken bowel of the airport, where a sharp increase in volume and a general decrease in personal altitude indicates the presence of Italians. Lots and lots of Italians, in fact. They, like me, are milling around a locked door that separates us from the gate that leads to my next flight, a flight that leaves in less than thirty minutes. Well, it is one way to secure an airport…

Thankfully, the gate finally opens and we – my wife, fresh from a week of conferences at various locations around The Netherlands, has joined me – board. There’s still English in the air (mostly from Dutch business travelers), but plenty of smooth, sophisticated Italian coming from impeccably fashionable mouths. Indeed, Milan is our destination.

The mid-flight food is an improvement, though the bar has certainly been lowered as far as it can go.

Errors in yellow

Milan-Malpensa always feels smaller than it actually is, and the memories crowd ’round. This was the port of entry for my initial visit to Italy, many years ago, and that first tentative exploration comes flooding back…the excitement, the wide-eyed wonder, the edge of linguistic fear. But this time, I’m better-armed, with a head full of Pimsleur and a confident attitude.

Inevitably, then, I completely mangle my first interaction…buying bus tickets for central Milan. Not exactly a difficult sequence of phrases, true, but my old bugbear – a closed-mouth and under-pronounced Midwestern upbringing – rears its inaudible head, and while the vowels are intact, the consonants come out in a decidedly non-Italian mumble. Thankfully, enough is communicated to get us on board.

Deposited at the massive and forbidding Milano Centrale train station, we scan our surroundings. Where are we, exactly? The GPS unit we’ve brought in lieu of a pile of maps and endless Google printouts is less than helpful, taking an inordinately long time to acquire a satellite signal, and we can’t see a street sign from where we’re standing. Theresa trudges off in search of better directions. While she’s gone, I give it some thought, and realize we’re on the wrong side of the station. When she returns, we start the long walk, dragging heavy bags and a (blessedly) empty wine shipper around the seemingly endless station perimeter, underneath a Hitchcockian swarm of birds, and to our destination.

The Hotel Méridien Gallia (which, during our stay in the city, I will repeatedly refer to as “l’Hotel Méridien Gialla,” to the confusion and consternation of taxi drivers) is a beautiful, stately establishment, with rooms almost unimaginably large on the European scale. Better yet, they’re almost sinfully underpriced for their quality. A massive, lush bed with beautiful old curtains to mask light from the windows, high ceilings, a large and lavish bathroom…this is a room that should go for twice what they’re charging. Not that we’re going to complain. Perhaps it’s the location, though the usual worries about station-side hotels at night don’t really seem all that bad based on our single evening’s explorations. The staff is helpful and friendly, and one concierge (Paolo, who seems to work 16-hour days based on his near-constant presence) is indispensable, booking the train tickets for the next state of our journey when it became clear (despite all evidence to the contrary) that it was impossible for me to do so from the States.

We don’t have a great deal of time before our dinner reservation, which is just as well for me, as I’m still moving through a haze of time displacement and airline cabin confinement. Theresa, long-adjusted to European time, is fresh and lively; this is the complete reverse of our usual first-night travel situation. Soon, we’re bustling downstairs to grab a taxi, having decided to avoid the unfamiliar subway at night.

Our driver, to my surprise and delight, is a stunningly beautiful woman with a deep, sexy voice. I’m beginning to like Milan a great deal. Theresa just laughs and says, “I told you so,” referring to the people. However, she retains her conviction that, by tomorrow’s departure, I will have had my fill of the city. We’ll see.


Around and around, on increasingly tiny streets suffused with that beautiful, dusky golden glow that many of the wealthier Western European cities take on at night, we go, occasionally rumbling across tram tracks and stones, then snaking down narrow alleys. From time to time, we pass a majestic edifice or a stately piazza, but for the most part we’re hemmed in…almost embraced…by the city’s bending streets.

And then, after what seems like a much longer drive than expected, we’re here…a tiny sign over a small doorway on a largely empty street. At the exchange of euros, our driver gives me a cool, distant, expressionless assessment. So like a model. (Is that her day job? I’ll never know.)

The Osteria dei Binari (via Tortona, 1) comes highly recommended by many trusted voices, and as soon as we enter we feel a surge of confidence…because the place is empty. If we’re the first diners at 8:30, that means that most of our fellow diners will be locals. We’re escorted to a fine table adjacent to the (empty) outdoor patio in the restaurant’s funky, elegant-clutter interior, and given a pair of well-worn menus and a wine list, which we peruse as the usual preliminaries – bread, grissini, olive oil – arrive.

Years ago, a Piedmontese friend with whom I’ve since lost touch introduced me to the glories of thin slices of salty pork fat. And thus, lardo from Arnad is an obvious, heart-healthy first choice. Theresa opts for an incredible prosciutto served with a creamy mozzarella that seems more like burrata in disguise. We then share the night’s specialty, a truly definitive and wholly flawless risotto of porcini…the absolute highlight of the meal.

Everything up to now has been perfect. But the meal takes a slight downturn with the secondi, thereby demonstrating an assertion that is, largely, a truism outside a small few Italian regions: most foreign diners would be better-served by stopping with their primi, or at least skipping ahead to formaggi and/or dolci.

Actually, “downturn” is a bit harsh. The problem is less one of quality than it is of expectations; palates raised on and used to American- or French-influenced fish and meat cookery will find much in the traditional Italian repertoire bland and, frequently, overcooked. My costoletta alla Milanese, for example, is perfectly authentic and, for a pounded and breaded veal chop, perfectly tasty. It’s just a little boring. True, the potatoes served with it are an over-crisped mess akin to canned shoestrings, but I ignore them. Theresa’s branzino with an overlapping envelope of zucchini is moist, tasty, and far better, though again it’s her least favorite dish of the evening.

And, in fact, after our secondi we’re served – without prompting – a plate of some of the freshest, most intense parmigiano Reggiano I’ve ever tasted. We devour its salty/creamy deliciousness down to the last crumb, leaving no room for dessert.

The wine list is long and reasonably regional, though as befits an international city there’s an inclusive pan-Italian feel to it.. The wine service is exquisite, with a beautiful tableside decanting (over a beautiful old candle) and an entirely proper rinsing of glasses.

Dessilani “Collefino” Spumante (Piedmont) – The house pour, this sparkling wine made from Greco is simple, floral, clean and quite nice. I could drink a lot of this and not notice…a mixed blessing, to be sure…but in a more contemplative setting it might be possible to discover something beyond these surface impressions.

Vajra 2000 Langhe Freisa “Kyè” (Piedmont) – Upon ordering, the sommelier suggests that the wine is closed (thus initiating the elaborate decanting ritual described above), and he’s right…this gets markedly better as the evening progresses. Grapey and purple, but quite firm, showing berries and black dirt with a gritty, almost angry complexity. The acidity is fine-grained and precise, though a bit sharp until the wine begins to unfold. Ultimately very pretty and versatile (in its response to different accompaniments), with plenty of development yet to come.

Gaja Grappa di Barbaresco (Piedmont) – Extremely elegant and smooth, which is (to my mind) a dangerous thing for a grappa; complexity must be there in force when the edges of this otherwise fiery elixir are shorn. There’s a surplus of floral and spice aromas but a general absence of a definitive foundation, to the extent that it’s highly reminiscent of some of the more internationalized Langhe blends from this house. In the end, elegance remains its primary quality.

By the time we leave, the restaurant is packed to and beyond its gills, reaching a point where it almost seems overcrowded (our peripheral table helps mitigate this effect). The service is uniformly fabulous, and – as we’ve always found to be the norm in this country – the language is Italian-until-you-need-help (with an unknown meat’s identity, for example), which I consider an enormously welcoming gesture. My closing espresso is dark with just the right edge of bitterness. Overall, this restaurant seems a very fair value, though I don’t know that I’d go so far as to call it cheap…after all, this is Milan. We leave happy, satisfied, and tired (me more than Theresa), and pile into a taxi for the ride back to the hotel.

“The Hotel Méridien Yellow” I firmly announce (in Italian), drawing a confused and questioning glance from the driver. Visually, he’s not quite up to the standard of our previous chauffeur, but one can’t have everything. I give him the address instead. As we once more bump and careen around the city’s narrow streets, he suddenly nods, and softly but audibly mutters “Gallia.”

Oh, yes, right. Well, there are some things with which Pimsleur cannot help, and jetlag is one of them.

12 November 2007

Faith restored

[domaine gresser]The original version, with more photos and better formatting, is here.

30 March 2006 – Andlau, France

Domaine Rémy Gresser – A bit shaken by our experience at Kreydenweiss, but re-fortified by lunch, we head back to Andlau for a drop-in tasting at the house of Gresser. The eponymous winemaker greets us, as warmly as one is ever greeted in Alsace (the actual warming almost always comes later; it’s that German/French tension in their natures), and we sit down for a surprisingly deep and conversational tasting.

Gresser, like most terroir-focused winemakers, spends a long time speaking about the local rocks as he pours each wine, and frequently refers to an informative map detailing the varying subsoils of the deep-bottomed “bowl” around Andlau (in actual fact, it’s shaped more like a test tube). It’s a sort of wonderland for the terroirist, with each delimited site offering something different. As we talk, we taste. And taste. And taste.

Gresser 2004 Pinot Blanc (Alsace) – Unlike most such-labeled wines, this one is actually 100% pinot blanc, and free of the thickening but occasionally overpowering qualities of auxerrois. And it shows in the wine’s fresh, tangy apricot nature. Light and pleasant, with no aspirations of being “pinot gris-lite.”

Rémy calls Alsace “Anglo-Saxon apart from the food, but French in the food.” Thinking on giant piles of sauerkraut with pork, flammenküche, presskopf, and other delicious but sturdy local indelicacies, I think to question this point…then think better of it, and let him continue with the tasting.

Gresser 2003 Riesling (Alsace) – Classic. Green apple, drying minerality and sharp acidity. Absolutely, unwaveringly classic. And, inexplicably, a withering breed in these ripeness-über-alles times. How was this achieved in 2003? I don’t get to ask, because we’re very quickly on to the next dozen wines…

Gresser 2004 Riesling Andlau (Alsace) – Vivid. Fresh daisies, showing wet gravel refreshed with river water and flecked with iron. Balanced, crisp, and sternly beautiful.

Gresser 2003 Riesling Kastelberg (Alsace) – From Steige schist. Windblown gravel and mineral dust, with great acidity for an ’03 (and fine acidity in any case). Full-bodied but very nice, extremely dense, and long. There’s a…well, for lack of a better term, a “deep blue” taste to this wine, or at least that’s the mind in which it puts me. Highly ageable.

Gresser 2003 Riesling Wiebelsberg (Alsace) – From grès des Vosges. Floral, with white roses in wet rocks. The sharp minerality is spiky and glassy, though shattered, and this wine gives little else of itself. Wines like this need nothing but time, and though it will probably never reach the heights of the Kastelberg, it will probably live longer and better than that wine.

Gresser 1999 Riesling Mœnchberg (Alsace) – From fossilized calcaire. Odd floral and celery notes at war, with dry walnut and a grating texture. To call this wine “difficult” would be an understatement. It seems like the sort of ungenerous, eroded shell of a wine I would have predicted from many ’99s as they aged, but since I don’t believe I tasted this in its youth, it would be presumptuous to draw a direct connection in this particular case.

Gresser 1985 Riesling Mœnchberg (Alsace) – Rémy serves this blind and makes me guess the year. I don’t recall my specific guess, but it’s somewhere in the early nineties. Not only am I more than a half-decade off, the wine has already been open for two days (at cellar temperature). It’s striking still, showing pine flowers and cedar, plus an intense forepalate that gently softens into a lingering finish full of gritty minerality. Still, drink it if you’ve got it.

Gresser 2004 Muscat Brandhof (Alsace) – From calcaire. Crisp, with apple blossoms and a vivid acidity throughout. This builds on the palate, showing more Alsace than muscat over its length.

Gresser 2004 Pinot Gris Brandhof (Alsace) – Pear skin and juice from ripe examples of the fruit, with a long, solid core of iron and steel around which runs a steady but thin stream of lemon and grapefruit. Incredibly long-finishing and crisp. I’ve not encountered a pinot gris of this structure and form in quite some time. It’s decidedly different, especially now, but I love it.

Gresser 2002 Pinot Gris Brandhof “Vieilles Vignes” (Alsace) – The old vines, in this case, are around 45 years of age. Fatter than the previous wine, though by no means blowsy, with spiced pear and intense, ripe red apple, strawberry and red cherry. Normally, I associate those sorts of red fruit characteristics with very high-quality pinot gris, but in this case the finish is shorter than I’d like, and the acidity not quite what I’d want either. Still, it’s a very good wine; I’m simply hoping for more from this vintage and these vines.

Gresser 2004 Gewurztraminer Kritt (Alsace) – From graves soil. Crisp lychee and cashew oil with fresh rose petals floating about. The finish is slightly charred, with some alcohol apparent.

Gresser 2001 Gewurztraminer Andlau (Alsace) – Spicy and lurid, with lychee (more skin than fruit) lending a drying finish. This, like the 2003 riesling, represents a classic, older style of the grape that is harder and harder to find in these sugar-hunting times. It’s not a great gewurztraminer by any means, but it is a perfectly typical one, and the sort of amenable wine one wants at table.

Gresser 1997 Gewurztraminer Mœnchberg “Vendanges Tardives” (Alsace) – Prickly petroleum-spiked juice, with a decidedly different mélange of papaya, tamarind and quince. Perhaps some strawberry as well. I’ve never tasted anything like it. Structurally, it’s long and acidic, and this – perhaps predictably – is done more in the true late-harvest (rather than simply sweet) style that used to be the norm in Alsace, though it does carry 30 grams of residual sugar. A bracing, almost shocking version of this most ubiquitous of Alsatian late-harvest wines.

Gresser 1998 Gewurztraminer Andlau “Sélection des Grains Nobles” (Alsace) – Creamed cashew and rose jam dusted with white pepper, the latter of which defines the initial texture of the wine. Dense, rich and spice-laden, with flakes of steel throughout. This is a terrific, balanced wine of intensity but also – and more importantly – of style. The finish is incredibly long, as it should be. Brilliant.

Gresser 2000 Riesling Mœnchberg “Sélection des Grains Nobles” (Alsace) – Racy ripe apple of shocking density, very sweet (120g residual sugar), but with acidity of a density more than matching the sugar. There’s an apple cider quality to the acidity that grows on the long finish, during which are also introduced elements of lemongrass, Makrut lime, and a shower of iron flakes. Magisterial.

As drop-in visits go, this has to rank among the finest ever. These are wines of both modernity and classicism; the former represented by the flawless execution of the necessary viticultural and oenological techniques required to preserve their quality, the latter by the mostly dry-finished focus on the intensity of each wine’s core, rather than an easy fallback on the showy trappings of lushness supplied by excess sugar at harvest. These are also wines of presence and site-differentiation, with clear ageability. With showy new labels introduced in 2004, this is a winery that has long been of good quality, but appears to be interested in ascending to the next level. Time, and marketing, will tell.

10 November 2007

Bach in black

(The original version, with more photos and more compatible formatting, is here.)

[vines]At a picnic table surrounded by vineyards, on a beautifully sunny day, the Blackenbrooks lay out their history. Starting with the fact that “Blackenbrook” isn’t really their name. Or rather, it is, but only from a certain point of view…

Daniel Schwarzenbach, Swiss but a twenty-year veteran of New Zealand, has an odd hybrid accent…is it Swiss cadences but Kiwi verbiage, or the other way around?...while his wife Ursula (they met at a pinot noir tasting), newer to these green lands, sounds somewhat more Old World. Their young son, still drowsy from a mid-morning nap, doesn’t say much of anything.

Here in Nelson, they live on a pleasant, secluded estate full of young vines, and youth is the principal quality demonstrated by their wines, though there’s much inherent promise as well. On the premises are pinot gris, riesling, gewürztraminer, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, pinot noir, and a little montepulciano, though I never find out where the latter grapes end up. The focus here is clearly on the aromatic grapes most commonly associated with Alsace, plus pinot noir (planted in, but most definitely not associated with, Alsace). Most everything exists in multiple clones, as befits this sort of exploratory project.

The Schwarzenbachs’ vineyards are currently spread through two of Nelson’s sub-regions, with a third coastal source on the way. Soils are clay and gravelly clay. Everything is hand-worked, fruit is thinned twice (dropping 20% each time) and subject to sorting trays in the vineyard at harvest, pruning and canopy management are done with an eye on air movement (to help avoid spraying), and the end result is fruit at about 6 tons per hectare (8 tons/hectare for sauvignon blanc).

In-winery work is fairly standard. Yeasts are, for now, inoculated, but Daniel hopes to move away from this in the future. All wines are under screwcap. The recipe here is both familiar and basic, but despite the innocence of youth, the wines already show a certain individuality vs. their regional counterparts. That’s a positive sign.

Blackenbrook 2004 Sauvignon Blanc (Nelson) – Clean and crisp, with intense acidity lent just enough support to create a balanced wine. Aromas come in the form of green apple, passion fruit, light but ripe red pepper, pear juice, and dried pineapple. In other words, this wine straddles two commercially-relevant styles – the crisp, peppery sauvignon that made New Zealand’s sauvignon splash, and the more modern fruit salad version – merged with élan. It has some length, too, so it just might last for a few years. This doesn’t particularly stand out among New Zealand’s many sauvignons, but it is more deftly done than most.

Blackenbrook 2004 Pinot Gris (Nelson) – Far too many New Zealand versions of this ubiquitously-planted grape are indifferent, at best. In an attempt to avoid such indifference, this wine sits on its fine lees for a while…not an uncommon technique, but one that helps add character and weight when the fruit is of sufficient quality. However, 2004 was a difficult vintage for this grape, and harvest occurred on the 4th of May despite an ardent desire to let the fruit hang longer. The result is still pretty good, and I’d like to see what could be done in a better vintage. There’s light pear and light residual sugar, good yeasty/leesy weight, and a fair amount of floral spice lingering about. It finishes a little sticky, though.

There are two styles of chardonnay here, the better to satisfy both restaurants and the conflicting desires of different markets.

Blackenbrook 2004 Chardonnay (Nelson) – Half barrel-fermented and half in stainless steel, taken off its lees at blending and allowed 100% (spontaneous) malolactic, followed by aging in 30% American oak. Light and open, showing cream, apricot and a lot of really fresh orchard fruit. Light- to medium-weight, with a little butter and wood spice, and then nice floral notes emerge on the creamy finish. Quite balanced and pleasant, handling its oak well but never heading over the top.

Blackenbrook 2004 “Barrel Fermented” Chardonnay (Nelson) – Grapes picked at 24 brix. 100% oak here…60% new, with 90% of both types of wood sourced from America, with the remaining 10% only older French barrels. The wine spends 9-10 months in wood. 100% malo. The nose is full of intense clove, cinnamon and creamy ripe orange and peach, with a caramel note intertwined. Big and ripe on the palate, showing more peach, this time braced with slightly crisper apple. Intense, full and lush, this cleans up its act a bit on the finish, which is crisp and juicy. A very good wine with aging potential, and the likelihood that it will handle its wood well over that period.

St. Jacques is Blackenbrook’s second label, but in reality both of the following pinot noirs were picked the same day; the principal difference is clonal, with the St. Jacques coming mostly from New Zealand’s ubiquitous 10/5, and the regular sourced from Pommard and Dijon variants (there are eight different noir clones in the estate’s various vineyards). Grapes here are picked and vinified clone-by-clone, and in the end the divergence is obvious.

St. Jacques 2004 Pinot Noir (Nelson) – As with the pinot gris, a later harvest was hoped for, but the onslaught of precipitation prevented that. Light plum and earth, blueberry, thyme and other herbs, with a light impact supported by only a little tannin. Fresh, fruity and fun, this is a wine of friendly immediacy, but little future.

Blackenbrook 2004 Pinot Noir (Nelson) – Gorgeous floral aromatics pair with light red and purple plum, anise liqueur (not a dominant element) and graphite-infused cedar on the palate. Gritty but ripe tannin, smoothed-over and perhaps a little shorter than one might prefer, with the tannin still fairly obvious on the finish. Despite this, the wine is fresh and lively. A good effort.

Oh, and as for the name? As any German-speaking reader will already have divined, “Blackenbrook” is a fairly literal transliteration of “Schwarzenbach” into English.