25 August 2010

How sweet it is

Alsace might be getting it right. For a change.

Faced with disastrous sales -- a recent visit included a lot of producers' shrugs and "our American market is dead"-type laments -- and an increasingly sugary regional identity, the time has apparently come to do something about it.

Rémy Gresser, a forward-thinking winemaker who doesn't share the ludicrous fetishes of some of his peers and is now in a position of regional influence, thinks there should be sweetness indicators on bottles. He's absolutely right. Because aside from Zind Humbrecht's indice, there's no way to know what one is getting unless one knows the stylistic preferences of the producer (and even then, it's easy to go wrong).

Global warming has a lot to do with this; look at Alsace's varietal range and then look at where else those grapes are planted. In almost every case, Alsace is the hottest and driest member of the club, and it's not exactly getting cooler or wetter. But there's a lot of blame to be assigned to ripeness-loving critics and writers, as well. The desire for the gargantuan points (and prices) achieved by Zind Humbrecht or Weinbach has led to a lot of long-hanging viticulture without corollary concentration or the sense of balance occasionally achieved by the former and more regularly achieved by the latter, and that means a lot of wines that aren't pleasantly off-dry or easy-to-drink soft, but instead are just sugary and leaden. This has been a disaster for the region, as sales demonstrate.

Sweetness labeling isn't going to save Alsace, but it certainly won't hurt. What's more, I suspect it will have an unintended effect: faced with the prospect of labeling nearly everything they produce as sweet, more than a few wineries are going to rethink the absence of dry wines in their stable and (re)start producing some. This, too, can't hurt.

(It's possible that this isn't actually an unintended effect. Gresser may very much intend this exact outcome. Good for him, if so.)

I fear that, over the long run, Alsace -- like many other regions -- may be forced to consider rethinking their traditional varieties in favor of something more climate-appropriate. How much sweet gewurztraminer and sweet pinot gris does the world really need, after all? But in the meantime, this represents unquestionable progress. I only hope the producers heed the message of the market and join in.

11 August 2010

What the hell are we flighting, flor?

[flor, © Arnaud 25 via Wikimedia Commons]It’s all about context.

Oxygen is the enemy of wine. Open a bottle and it starts to die, right then and there. The demise may take minutes or long, lingering days, and there may be some interesting…maybe even salutary…effects along the way (certain components kick their respective buckets faster than others), but the fact is that exposing a wine to oxygen is signing its death warrant.

This is as true in the winery as it is in the bottle, and a lot of modern winemaking is about going to elaborate lengths to keep wine and oxygen as far apart as the Montagues and Capulets. The failure to do so turns out about as well as that literary pairing did, albeit without quite so many balcony dramatics. Careful pumping from one container to another, topping up barrels the instant they show a little airspace, bottling under a blanket of oxygen-repelling gas…it’s all part of the basic repertoire.

Sure, there are a few ambered-in-time wine styles – colheita port comes to mind – in which a little bit of oxidation can be expected, but what in the distant past used to be the norm is, today, little more than a historical artifact. These days, when someone mentions oxidation it’s almost always negative…as with the vexing scourge of prematurely-oxidized white Burgundies. And oxidation isn’t the only worry. For in the cellar, oxygen also encourages the growth of unwelcome micro-beasties that will work their own nefariousness on the wine.

Ah…but it’s all about context.

One of the colonizations encouraged by excess in-barrel oxygen is yeast…or at least, a certain type of yeast. Finished with the busywork of turning sugar into poisonous (to them) alcohol, they retreat to the surface, lay back, and commence as much of a sunny post-work bask as yeast cells can enjoy within the darkened confines of a wine barrel. Their cousins join them, pulling up a very tiny beach chair and cuddling close. And soon enough, there’s an enveloping film of recumbent Saccharomyces doing what the winemaker could (or would) not: separating wine from oxygen. Oh, those poor unicellular Romeos and elemental Juliets, they just can’t catch a break…

And then…a bunch of chemical stuff happens. I’m not going to bore anyone (least of all myself) with the details, especially since I’d just be cribbing others’ barely-comprehensible work, and I’d still probably get it wrong. The important thing is that, under certain controlled conditions, this layer of yeast – one that in most situations would mean liquid refreshment for the winery drain – leads to something particularly interesting. The geographical center of such controlled conditions is the region of Spain in which Sherry is made. There (and in other Spanish regions practicing similar techniques) the yeast is called flor, from the Spanish word for “flower.”

But the flower doesn’t just bloom in Spain. It’s also embraced in the Jura region of France, in which vin jaune (yellow wine) is the most famous name amongst a varied, yeast-enveloped genre. There, flor is called voile, which means something like “veil,” “shroud,” or “curtain.” And then there’s Sardinia, with its vernaccia di Oristano, and…well, no need for a complete dossier on flor’s worldwide peregrinations. Enough to know that it’s not just restricted to Jerez and its neighbors.

The French term for the yeast in question raises an interesting question however: what is flor’s role in varietal and site expression? Like fortification, botrytis, bubbles, sans soufre winemaking, and the extended macerations of the orange wine set, is what it adds to the organoleptic palette subverted by its masking, equalizing effects? Do flor-affected wines achieve an asymptotic similarity, or do grape and site still shine through? Perhaps flor itself differs from wine to wine?

These are provocations that can’t be argued into submission, but rather need to be explored by tasting. And the Impresario of Orange, towering (literally) New York wine eminence Levi Dalton – the man responsible for last year’s orange wine bacchanal – is just the man to do it. It is thus that a group of wandering seekers after a babe in swaddling yeasts assemble at Alto, Dalton’s swanky new Manhattan restaurant digs, to find out. Florty-nine wines…each one flor-affected, flighted and sequenced in a controlled setting which will highlight what they do and don’t reveal from behind their veils.

It’s all about context, after all.

Oh…and there’s food. Selected from some of the hits of the flor repertoire but taking a few chances, filtered through Alto’s northern-Italianate leanings (more or less; note the cheesy interloper at the end), and mostly highly-restrained and low-impact, which serves the wines – if not always the food – well.

sausage-stuffed olive, branzino tartare, spiced marcona almonds

capesante dorate e agrodolce di uva
seared scallops, toasted marcona almonds, golden raisin agrodolce

garganelli amatriciana
hand-made pasta quills, pancetta, slow-cooked tomato ragù, basil

sgombro alla griglia
lightly grilled mackerel, fava purée, hen of the woods mushrooms


And so, flortified and sustained, we forge florward…into a walk-around tasting of finos and manzanillas.

El Maestro Sierra Fino (Jerez) – Very salty and fierce, slashing and hacking away at the already well-infused remains of a raw olive pit. Bitter. With food, this is pretty exciting; without it, there’s hurt. (8/10)

Gutiérrez Colosia “Juan Sebastian Elcano” Fino (Jerez) – Dirt, sand, sourness, and rancidity. The worst wine in the room, and by a fair measure. The real first man to sail around the world deserves better than this, doesn’t he? (8/10)

Perez Barquero “Gran Barquero” Fino (Jerez) – Nuts and old citrus oils, with a molten candle-wax texture. Smooth and elegant. (8/10)

Toro Albalá “Eléctrico” Fino (Jerez) – Bitter green olive and lemon pith. Rectangular in form. Not very interesting, but OK. (8/10)

Dios Baco Fino (Jerez) – Perfumed, elegant, and somewhat feminine in form. Flowery. Fills out and lengthens on the finish, though the alcohol becomes more pointed. (8/10)

Lustau “Jarana” Fino (Jerez) – Sweet watermelon and strawberry. Kind of a fluffy fruit bomb. Not what I want. (8/10)

Lustau José Luis González Obregón Fino del Puerto (Jerez) – Flat-textured. Sand and gravel in planar form. A little weird, but there’s complexity in that weirdness. (8/10)

Valdespino “Inocente” Fino (Jerez) – Lavish, complex, and well-seasoned with various salts and peppers, yet elegant at the same time. Earth-driven, in a grey-toned way. Very impressive. (8/10)

Equipo Navazos “La Bota de No. 15” Fino (Jerez) – Starts texturally lush but quickly turns solid, its dark metals ending in squared-off edges. Seems not to be all it could be. Good but disappointing, I’d call it. (8/10)

Fino is sort of the poster child for flor-influenced wine, and so here is an early demonstration of something that will become increasingly clear as the tasting continues into other regions and realms: while it’s not really possible to mask flor’s influence, the extent to which it’s pushed into a supporting rather than leading role has a lot to do with how positively I respond to a given wine. I should note that come to this tasting with an unfortunate disposition against Sherry – I can appreciate it, but I very rarely love it – and I wonder if someone with more affection for the genre might feel differently, preferring more equilibrium between yeasty and grapey elements. On the other hand, here and in the flight that follows, my favorite wines are those that I’d expect to favor based on reputation, so maybe it’s less an issue of picking the most interesting wines than it is properly appreciating the more typical, middle-of-the-road expressions.

La Cigarrera Manzanilla (Sanlúcar de Barrameda) – Rusty seawater, thick and chunky. Moody and dark. Difficult to like, or even to approach. (8/10)

Argüeso San León Clásica Manzanilla (Sanlúcar de Barrameda) – Bright lemon rind, salted stones, and riesling-like metal shards. An inner light lifts this into the realm of refreshing. (8/10)

Pedro Romero “Aurora” Manzanilla (Sanlúcar de Barrameda) – Very fruity (seriously: raspberry and peach, not typical manzanilla descriptors, at least in my experience). Decidedly different and somewhat giggly. (8/10)

Hidalgo “La Gitana” Manzanilla (Sanlúcar de Barrameda) – Direct and overtly fruity, melding stone fruit and Rainier cherries with peaches and just a little bit of minerality. The training wheels need to come off, and soon. (8/10)

Dios Baco “Riá Pitá” Manzanilla (Sanlúcar de Barrameda) – Structured and full-bodied but beaten down by overt sourness and what appears to be light oxidation. Lifeless, really. (8/10)

Lustau “Papirusa” Manzanilla (Sanlúcar de Barrameda) – Leafy and barky, with an omnipresent snowflake shower of apricot skin. Medium-toned and average. (8/10)

Valdespino “Deliciosa” Manzanilla (Sanlúcar de Barrameda) – Spiced berries and dark fruit dominated by minerality. Complex and rather fantastic, albeit showy. (8/10)

Equipo Navazos “La Bota de No. 16” (Sanlúcar de Barrameda) – The bones are evident, but that’s appealing here, as the plump intensity draped about the skeleton just adds interest. Long, spicy…and dry, dry, dry. Really excellent. (8/10)

Equipo Navazos “La Bota de No. 10” (Sanlúcar de Barrameda) – Heady, dark fruit edging towards cherry, with a saline structure and thick, persistent intensity on the finish. Very impressive. (8/10)

The manzanilla-fest starts slowly, but more approachably than the finos, and then pretty quickly builds towards the same qualitative conclusion as the last flight. I know which producers will be on the shopping list: the same ones that were before the tasting. But a few have dropped off in the interim.

Montagut “Mendall” 2007 “Vinyes Arrencades” (Cataluña) – Apple and honeysuckle. Mead-like. Or maybe it’s dandelion wine? There’s a bit of skin to it, so perhaps it’s neither. Quite interesting. (8/10)

Vevi 1954 “Golden” (Castilla & León) – Spanish speakers would know this as the “Dorada” bottling (why it was so arbitrarily and Ibérico-handedly translated I don’t know), done in solera and made from verdejo (with cameos from viura and palomino) in the Rueda. Sweet and short, blowing itself out early in a soft burst of bronzed banana. Fun and very appealing…while it lasts, which isn’t long. (8/10)

Strictly speaking, the Vevi probably would have been better nearer the end of this meal, alongside the vernaccias, but that would have orphaned the Mendall. Perhaps they’re better left here, as an interesting interlude or a palate reset before delving into much narrower and more directed realms of flor – or rather, voile – expression. Florward march, voilenteers…

Bornard 2006 Arbois Pupillin Melon “le Rouge queue” (Jura) – Pointedly volatile but otherwise shy, aromatically; it could be that the reticence highlights what would otherwise be submerged volatility. Peachy, pretty, and rounded. Very fresh. If there’s flor influence here, I can’t detect it, despite being assured by all involved that there is. In a tasting of non-sous voile Jura whites, this wouldn’t stand out. That’s not a criticism, just an observation. (8/10)

Bornard 2005 Côtes du Jura Savagnin “les Marnes” (Jura) – Forward fruit and huge acidity. Very juicy, with a gummy texture despite all that acid. Shouldery. (8/10)

Puffeney 2005 Arbois Savagnin (Jura) – Here’s an interesting twist: mint, lily, apple blossom. Intense, balanced, and unreasonably long, turning more orange-ish and succulent as it lingers. There’s some volatile acidity to deal with, but it’s manageable. (8/10)

Puffeney 2003 Arbois Savagnin (Jura) – Dusty and dense, with both the texture and some of the form of an orange wine, but also with the fatness of the vintage. Thick, spicy, and shocked with electric tangerine that – alas – doesn’t make up for insufficient acidity. Direct, and yet holding something back. This is good for a 2003, and (as the lengthy note indicates) it’s hardly without interest, but it’s neither typical nor qualitatively above-average. (8/10)

Puffeney 1999 Arbois Savagnin “Cuvée l’Oubliée” (Jura) – Stone fruit and copper with a beautiful texture. Incredibly interesting, with depths and hidden hollows in that depth, then crannies in those hollows; the finish is almost Mandelbrotian. Gorgeous. It is not, one must caveat, representative of normal Arbois savagnin. It’s special. (8/10)

Puffeney 1999 Arbois “Cuvée Christelle” (Jura) – A deft but somewhat acrid nose soon loses itself in flowers, mold, and volatile acidity. Powdery. Too weird for me. (8/10)

Here endeth the first flight, in confusion and disarray. A slow start, a peaking middle, and then a jumpy trio of eccentricities. As for enveloping mold characteristics, they’re too voileatile to pin down in this set of wines. Onward...

Macle 2006 Côtes du Jura (Jura) – Almond and metal-armored apple in its woody, post-ripened stage. Deep and rather thoughtful. With that apple, steel, and a (contextually) brittle acidity, it almost seems to have spent some time in riesling’s classroom, learning a lesson here and there but rejecting a more encompassing imposition of form. It’s…different. (8/10)

Ganevat 2005 Arbois “Cuvée de Garde” (Jura) – Windy and difficult on the nose, but the palate makes up for it with an excess of expression. Wet metal, walnut (without bitterness, though), and stones. Angular. (8/10)

Ganevat 2002 Côtes du Jura “La Combe” (Jura) – A little stewed and short, with the alcohol out of balance and to the fore. I ask a few fellow tasters who’ve previous experience with the wine (David Lillie is one, so it’s not like I’m asking random passersby) if this seems to be an intact bottle, and they assure me it tastes as it has. In the absence of that assurance, I’d have thought something was wrong with this bottle, and that something was heat-related. Whatever the cause, it’s not very good. (8/10)

Gros “Domaine de Montbourgeau” 2001 l’Etoile “Cuvée Spéciale” (Jura) – Lots of acid and even more metals, haphazardly piled atop one another with flash but without cohesion. Vibrant and piercing. It’s a very particular wine, and it will leave you a little breathless along the way. “Good” isn’t really applicable. It’s liquid iconoclasm. (8/10)

Gros “Domaine de Montbourgeau” 2005 l’Etoile Savagnin (Jura) – Very flor-dominated, with a complex stew of high-toned quivering and a waxy interior. Mineral, long, and linear. There’s not much else to it, but I wonder if it’s not just too young to strut. (8/10)

Gros “Domaine de Montbourgeau” 2004 l’Etoile Savagnin (Jura) – Gravelly, moldy, and bitter, with obvious volatile acidity. Short, twisted, and difficult. What happened here? (8/10)

Another pause for us to collect our breath and scrape our tongues. Again, the wines are all over the map both stylistically and qualitatively, but some common threads are starting to appear in the weave. First, the acidity, which is affected by yet manages to stand somewhat apart from varietal influence: here and in other wines it’s a planar, nearly impenetrable, and yet paper-thin wall of zing rather than an integrated partner in the structural framework. Second, there’s a tendency towards volatility that might escape notice for the non-freakishly sensitive (which, alas, I am). Third, and perhaps most relevant to the subject of our study, there’s a way in which flor seems to grasp the wine’s aromatics and structure in a loosely-gripped fist. In return, there’s a payback of textural complexity, but the wine has to work to earn everything else. Some can’t escape the clench and end up dominated by that external envelopment. But those that do seem more alive and in-motion as a result of the energy required for the escape.

The next few wines are a bit of an interlude, starting on-topic but soon darting afield.

Berthet-Bondet 1998 Côtes du Jura Savagnin (Jura) – Buttered bronze, deep copper, empty silver. I can’t quite get past the midpalate void, but the perimeter is certainly shiny. (8/10)

Loye 1989 Arbois (Jura) – Salted nuts. Simple, forward, and fruity. Kind of a yawn. (8/10)

Campadieu “Domaine La Tour Vieille” Vin de Pays de la Côte Vermeille “Memoire (d’Automnes)” (Roussillon) – A gorgeous texture (is that oak, though? it does a good impression if not) with cinnamon and nutmeg (again: wood?) plus other spices deeper in the blend. Stands a little too apart in this crowd for proper analysis, I think, but I’d welcome another go in a different context. (8/10)

Causse Marines 1996 Vin de Table “Mysterre” (Southwest France) – More conformity to INAO edict would make this a Gaillac, I’m told. Powdered salt, mixed citrus rinds and skins, and a weird Styrofoam finish. Too bad...it was just getting strange. (8/10)

More glasses are added, until we’re all protected behind a solid wall of glittering crystal fortifications, and then the most focused and relentless assault of single-notion wines commences. It will be quite educational, if not necessarily enlivening.

Clairet “Domaine de la Tournelle” 2002 Arbois Vin Jaune (Jura) – Deep, with brittle acidity and a hard, sandpapery texture. There’s a sort of lingering nothingness to the finish. Closed, or just not very interesting? (8/10)

Clairet “Domaine de la Tournelle” 2001 Arbois Vin Jaune (Jura) – Despite a pillowy aspect to what “fruit” there is, the acidity is razored. In fact, I mention the acidity three times in my scribbled notes, so it must have impressed me. What appears to not have impressed me is anything else about the wine, because the acidity is all that I write about. So: the acidic pillow. It might be a great band name, but it’s not a great wine. (8/10)

Macle 2002 Château Chalon (Jura) – Pine-Sol™ and waves of acidity, both traditional and volatile. Frankly, this is actively repellent, though some of that is my personal issue with VA. (8/10)

Berthet-Bondet 2003 Château Chalon (Jura) – Grapey but otherwise subtle. Reminds me of a smoked apple tart. Interesting. (8/10)

Berthet-Bondet 2000 Château Chalon (Jura) – A goopy froth of diffidence. Small and short. (8/10)

Gros “Domaine de Montbourgeau” 2000 l’Etoile Vin Jaune (Jura) – Pear and metal with big acidity and persistent intensity. A diagonal wine. Hard to ignore, but you must tilt your palate in the correct direction. (8/10)

Gros “Domaine de Montbourgeau” 1999 l’Etoile Vin Jaune (Jura) – Sweet with acrid intrusions. The finish is bitter. Weird and old-tasting. I’d be tempted to ascribe this generalized failure to the bottle in the absence of a second sample. (8/10)

Puffeney 2002 Arbois Vin Jaune (Jura) – Intense, with great balance. Metal, pear, and layers of compressed leaves. Striking and sophisticated. Very, very good. No…brilliant. My absolute favorite of all the non-Spanish wines, and by a significant margin. (8/10)

Puffeney 2000 Arbois Vin Jaune (Jura) – Powdery to the point of being toothsome, with a quinine aroma and a complex, amaro-like bitterness (that is, melding bitter/sweet/herbal components). More interesting than good, though it’s certainly not bad. (8/10)

Puffeney 1996 Arbois Vin Jaune (Jura) – Weirdly ashen with spiny acidity. Difficult. I feel like I’m missing something that I might have noticed were my palate not fatigued by this point, but maybe I’m not and there’s just not that much here. (8/10)

I normally count myself a fan of both vin jaune and Château Chalon, albeit I rarely get to taste the latter due to cost and general non-availability. As a result, looking over my collection of notes comes as rather a surprise. Palate ennui? Perhaps, but I don’t notice in the text a devolving reaction to the wines’ similarities, which would be the usual fatigue effect. Instead, there’s an increasingly persnickety spotlight on various flaws and imbalances, and to say that those flaws and imbalances aren’t – to my palate – present is not right either. Without extensive retasting, it’s hard to say much more. I only like three of these wines, and truly love only one. But wow, do I love that one.

In retrospect, I wonder if the serving order doesn’t negatively affect these wines. Not the order within the flight, but the fact that they come after the less-reputed gaggle of wines in the last flight. Reputation doesn’t always equal greater size or concentration, and in fact the previous bunch certainly features more showmanship and overt statement-making. These wines, while largely of a piece within their respective appellations (my notes elide some of the similarities), are quieter…while, at the same time, in more congenial agreement with each other. It is ever the “curse” of such wines that they do less well the more peers they are forced to converse with, and I do suspect the combination of breadth and serving order is at least partly to blame for my dissatisfaction with the lineup.

As for veils, curtains, and shrouds, there’s certainly a consistency to the wines in terms of the acid/volatile aromatic relationship. If that’s the voile, then it’s most definitely on display here. But while my favorite wine in the group is (again) the one that layers the most on top of that shroud, I also like a few wines that attempt more playful, interpretative, contrapuntal dances with their veils.

The dinner’s finale is a somewhat amusing one, as our chief server (not Levi, it should be noted) attempts to tell us that the Comté in front of us is Italian and (he thinks) from Puglia. I’m all for his nationalistic boosterism, but…seriously, now. (He does return later, someone red-faced, to admit that it is, in fact, actual Comté. It’s also more than a little wan and flavorless for a Comté, but that’s a separate issue.)

Contini Vernaccia di Oristano “Antico Gregori” (Sardinia) – Honeyed Pink Lady apple cider and pollen. Ripe. Appealing. (8/10)

Contini 1987 Vernaccia di Oristano “Riserva” (Sardinia) – Restrained. Pine nuts and a brittle, snap-crackle honeycomb character. Very pretty. (8/10)

Contini 1985 Vernaccia di Oristano “Riserva” (Sardinia) – White chocolate-covered mandarin oranges. The finish is a bit abrupt, which might indicate progress down the path of lingering demise. (8/10)

These are delicious, though they don’t have the seriousness of purpose or complex subtlety of many other wines I’ve experienced this evening. They taste – it might be more accurate to say that they feel – more like regular dessert wines than they seem part the yeast-enveloped category. But they’re a nice way to finish the meal.

And so, did I learn anything? Did I florge a new understanding, pull back the veil, open the curtains? More importantly, did I make enough stupid jokes and puns utilizing the subject of the tasting?

The answer: yes, I learned something. I learned that, no matter how good the wine, I’m still not a Sherry aficionado…though I have even more confidence that when I do purchase the category, I’m looking for the right labels. I learned that I like the flor show (NB: that’s Levi’s pun, not mine) more in isolation and counterpoint than I do en masse…a lesson not dissimilar to the one I learned at last year’s orange wine festival.

And as for flor? What strikes me in retrospect is not so much some ineffable commonality of aroma, but of structure. With the expected exception of the hotter years, there’s a very brittle and unstable, yet inexorable, character to these wines’ acidity that really marks them…across places, grapes, and categories. It’s not the high and full-throated acidity of (say) an old-style riesling, but it’s nonetheless impossible to ignore. More than the aromatic and textural changes wrought by the veil, it stands as a sort of signature.

A signature, signed with a florish.

Disclosures: none that matter. The Berthet-Bondet 1998 Côtes du Jura Savagnin and the Bornard 2006 Arbois Pupillin Melon “le Rouge queue” were supplied by me and purchased at a friendly discount from The Wine Bottega in Boston.