31 May 2006

TN: Yet another night in Vermont (bored with these titles yet?)

Champalou Vouvray Brut (Loire) – Very, very dry, with scalding desert sand carrying only a memory of faded white flowers. A bit extreme. (5/06)

Codax 2003 Albariño Burgáns (Rias Baixas) – Wet, juicy-fruity melon and grapefruit with good acidity but a sticky, almost gummy mouthfeel. Not bad, but it would benefit from more brightness. (5/06)

Trimbach 2001 Gewurztraminer (Alsace) – Restrained and possibly a bit closed, with dry lychee juice and pear skin braced by a touch of tannin and fairly good acidity. Needs some time to reemerge with smoky, bacon fat and cashew characteristics. (5/06)

30 May 2006

TN: One more night in Vermont

Trimbach 2003 Pinot Blanc (Alsace) – Simple light apricot and sweet lemon flavors. Dry. Heavier and more difficult than usual, which could be an artifact of the vintage. (5/06)

Weinbach 1999 Riesling "Cuvée Théo" (Alsace) – Pure essence of iron with a bright sheen of Granny Smith apple. It builds and expands with air, and may be about as good as it's going to get. (5/06)

Porter Creek 2004 Carignane Angeli "Old Vine" (Alexander Valley) – Big, fruity and relatively acidic, with a lot of adorable doofus qualities. In other words, not particularly sophisticated…but then, one doesn’t look to carignane for sophistication. (5/06)

Tablas Creek 2001 Côtes de Tablas Red (Paso Robles) – Full-bodied roasted berries and dark, sun-drenched soil with an undertone of leathery tannin and squeezed meat textural discontinuities. Very interesting, with a long future still ahead of it. (5/06)

Umathum/Peck “Zantho” 2001 Zweigelt (Burgenland) – Dusty and dry, with elegant pencil shavings and a high-toned blackberry juice character. It’s fairly restrained, and can be easily overwhelmed by aggressive food. (5/06)

29 May 2006

TN: Two nights in Vermont

Monarchia 2003 Pinot Gris (Budai) – In case you were wondering, Budai is in Hungary. And yes, this is my first Hungarian pinot gris. It’s loaded with petrol, with vague hints of anise and pine needle underneath. The weight is good, and so is the acid (was 2003 not as steamy in Hungary as it was in Western Europe?), but there’s not much flavor of more than academic interest.

Cazes “Blanc de Lynch-Bages” 1997 Bordeaux Blanc (Bordeaux) – I feared this might be over the hill, but instead it has matured into a lovely little wine. Strong honeydew melon and ripe grapefruit with little zingers of lime, green apple and green plum are introduced by a pleasant notion of sweet oak, and good acidity supports the entire effort through a long, crisp finish. I think it’s probably at peak now.

Jamet 1996 Côte-Rôtie (Rhône) – Lovely and aromatic for the first fifteen minutes or so, but after that it closes in on itself, leaving a slightly less welcoming shell of hardish tannin, smoked meat and a manageable amount of brett. The wine’s not unpleasant at the moment, but I suspect there’s better things in its future.

Edmunds St. John 1993 Syrah Durell (Sonoma Valley) – Very tight and closed at first. Harder than nails, in fact. But as it airs, it starts to blossom, showing deep-toned blackberry and leather with dark black earth, rosemary pressed into the leaves of an ancient tome, walnut oil and little hints of unidentifiable spice. Masterful wine in the full glory of its maturity.

[El Grifo]El Grifo 1998 Malvasia Dulce (Lanzarote) – Not as vivid as it was in its youth, but with all sorts of sun-drenched yellow fruit with a slight rounding-off of the edges towards caramelized pineapple. Fun.

Bottex Vin du Bugey-Cerdon “La Cueille” (Ain) – Drier than usual, with mineral-laden raspberries and a dusty leaf finish. Delicious, but a little different.

Porter Creek 2004 Zinfandel “Old Vines” (Sonoma County) – Very woody at first opening, but this quickly fades under a throbbing pulse of boisterous fruit. Blackberry, boysenberry, black raspberry, black cherry – all the songs you know and love, played at top volume – with enough acidity and just a hint of tannin to lend it some support and rhythm. A delicious, drinkable zin, though possibly not for the long haul. 15.1% for those who care, though it’s not at all hot…just big.

Voyager Estate 2002 Shiraz (Margaret River) – Heavy leather, black plum, blueberry and blackberry with fuzzy, thick tannin and a little bit of acidity. Fruit-forward, but structured and relatively balanced, with obvious aging potential.

27 May 2006

TN: Brandlin wash

[Franus]Franus 1999 Zinfandel Brandlin (Mount Veeder) – Quince pie and coal dust. Still quite structured, with hints of dried leaves and suggestions of toasted blackberry liqueur, plus a forcefully whispered notion of acidity. This it maturing nicely, and far better than it was in its youth.

A true old-vine zin (the vines were planted in the twenties) from an extreme terroir that's often derided for producing undrinkably structured cabs. Young zins from this property are not much fun, but they do have the structure and stuffing to age, and while Franus does dabble in wood to the detriment of the wine, there's so much goodness inherent in the fruit that it can outlast tomfoolery in the cellar. Alcohol: 14.8%. Closure: cork. Web: http://www.peterfranus.com/.

25 May 2006

TN: Good sec

[Payral]Daulhiac “Château Le Payral” 2004 Bergerac Sec (Southwest France) – Tastes like sauvignon blanc – green, fresh and zippy – with fine-powder, almost dusty minerality (something in the granite family, it appears) and a dry, but intense, finish. A nice, good value wine. (5/06)

Actually, it’s a blend of sauvignon blanc, sémillon and muscadelle (proportions unknown). This makes two delicious Bergeracs I’ve had this year, both of them fine values. Why don’t I own more of these wines? Alcohol: 12%. Closure: cork. Importer: Violette. Web: http://chateaulepayral.over-blog.com/.

24 May 2006

TN: The Blair necessities (New Zealand, pt. 24)

(The original, with better formatting and a quite a few photos, is here.)

How dry I am

The road to Cromwell, which any Queenstown-based wine tourist will take again and again, is a study in browns. Dry tussock covers rocky, rust-colored hillsides and abandoned, dust-covered mining shacks in a long, undulating roller-coaster ride through Desiccationland, with only the sharp turquoise rush of the Kawarau River and an occasional brushstroke of greenery to break up the monochromism. Fascinating at first glance, sure, but by one’s sixth trip along this half-hour thrill ride the beauty has been replaced by a dull weariness, due also in part to the unrelenting difficulty of the drive.

At journey’s end, however, there is respite. Cromwell’s history is tied to mining, but it’s reputation is based on fruit. It used to be fruit of the eating kind – and in fact a giant multi-hued fruit sculpture greets visitors to the town in all its lurid glory – but that image is quickly being replaced by its position as the geographical and functional center of the exploding Central Otago wine industry. And indeed, fertile and well-watered plains do inhabit the immediate area, with fruit stands along the highway selling wide-ranging collections of rather extraordinary produce…though the customers, perhaps inexplicably, seem to be busloads of primarily Japanese tourists.

Grapes, however, have different needs. And thus, it’s back into the dry and desolate hills that one goes in search of vineyards. The Bannockburn area, just southwest of Cromwell and even drier-looking than the Queenstown-Cromwell road, features a rather striking number of cut-from-the-rocks wineries. And out near the end of one dusty country track is one of the best.

[Felton Road vineyard]The hole story

On our last visit to Felton Road, we’d simply dropped by the tasting room for a quick sniff’n’spit. But that’s a less than satisfactory way of assessing the winery, as their best bottlings sell out so quickly and invisibly that the casual visitor will hardly even be aware of their existence. This time, we arrive armed with an appointment, and are met by Blair Walter, the Felton Road winemaker. Walter is friendly, talkative, and casual, and like most winemakers with his philosophical bent, immediately leads us not into the cellar, but into the vineyards. As we walk, he gives an overview of the area and its history.

As I’ve mentioned before, the Central Otago is as young as it is explosive, but remains the province of smallholders with only 30-40 hectares of total plantings, and as of yet no large companies. “There will always be a lifestyle element to the winemaking,” notes Walter, whose employer has been in the vinous game only since 1992. Yet there are signs that all this explosive growth is finally slowing; while land purchased for $10,000 an hectare has recently sold for ten times that, new plantings are tapering off (though the continuing work of bulldozers and the presence of wire-tied stakes on dozens of nearby hillsides superficially indicates otherwise). And while there are always new players, most of the region’s recognizable names started their work at about the same time, are approximately the same age, and possess similar oenological and viticultural training. Walter himself has worked and studied all over the world, with a special focus on quality pinot noir locales in Oregon, California and Burgundy.

We stroll down a neatly-ordered row of vines, much more tightly-trained than the sprawling bush-type viticulture visibly practiced at many neighboring wineries, while Walter runs down his agricultural philosophy. There’s deep concern at Felton Road regarding issues of soil, mesoclimate, clone, rootstock, and proper site/grape integration, and to this end the property has been turned into somewhat of a polycultural laboratory (one vineyard, called Cornish Point, is almost entirely given over to a systematic study of clone/rootstock combinations and European-style row spacing). Cover crops are employed, though early plantings of chicory proved too aggressive, and replanting to grass, rye, and triticale proceeds apace. Walter also notes that it nearly impossible to grow grapes without irrigation in this area, due to exceedingly low rainfall (which, when it does arrive, tends to be sluiced away by the deep gullies that crisscross the region), and that trials combining grass cover crops and reduced irrigation only resulted in lower-quality grapes; nonetheless, as little irrigation as possible is practiced. The lack of rain is paired with a general lack of fog, which means rot is rare, and this allows the winery to practice organic viticulture in its mature blocks; younger vines sometimes receive herbicide treatments.

As we talk, we arrive at a deep rectangular hole in the midst of one row, a hazard that could prove fatal to an bleary early-morning vineyard worker on a tractor. I, myself, am inclined to edge away from it, but Walter quite literally climbs right in and starts pointing out features. This is a crater with a purpose: to show the surprisingly deep root penetration achieved by what are fairly young vines, and to simultaneously allow a little deep soil analysis along the way. The subsoil does look properly dismal and forbidding, with river sands atop clay, though Walter notes that there are surface differences between the different blocks: here, schist gravels, and across the driveway that bisects the estate, windblown loess.

Felton Road makes marketing copy of its intention to produce site-revelatory wines, and so I ask Walter if the block-designated bottlings (one riesling, one or two chardonnays, and two pinots) come from specific subplots. He pauses to consider for a moment, then acknowledges that they do tend to come from predictable areas within vineyards, but that he’s “not yet ready to call the game,” especially because constant experimentation expands and contracts these areas on a yearly basis. Some vineyards have proven less than satisfactory due to simple mistakes in row alignment; “yeah, that one’s wrong” remarks our host, pointing across the property. Others have defined roles – Walter refers to the more dramatically-sloped vineyards at the estate’s upper edges as mostly providing “structure” – and still others await their eventual destiny as the viticultural experiments continue unabated. Walter believes that the very beginnings of terroir influences can be seen, and is certainly doing (in concert with viticulturist Gareth King) as much as anyone to field-research the issue, but also that it will take a long, long time before anyone in the region is ready to say much that’s definitive about what sites, clones, rootstocks, and methodologies seem best.

We leave the sunny warmth of the vineyard as the conversation turns to the current vintage; the poor fruit set in evidence elsewhere is once again on display here. Walter calls 2005 “late” and agrees that the set is poor, but says that the grapes left over should be concentrated, if somewhat rustic.

A pinot puzzle

Inside the winery, we assemble at a small table behind the tasting room for a brief sit-down examination of the wines, while discussion turns to matters of winemaking philosophy. Felton Road’s vineyards have what Walter describes as a tenuous hold on “ideal” ripeness, and both under- and overripeness are a constant concern. It’s the latter anxiety that most intrigues. Certainly the region is highly capable of producing blockbuster pinots to rival any New World behemoth, the evidence for which is on display at several other area wineries. But Walter isn’t so inclined, and proceeds to detail a litany of things that also don’t interest him: high-alcohol fruit bombs, overt oak, “heavy” winemaking, the philosophy of reserve wines, “Parker points,” heavily-crafted wines, fruity and upfront quaffers, and beverages made primarily to satisfy a price point. He has been encouraged by certain high-profile neighbors to double the price of his top pinots (one would presume so that said high-profile neighbors don’t appear to be the tallest poppies in the field, ripe for a good populist scything), and has flatly rejected the notion; he’s quite happy to sell wines for what he considers a fair price representative of their quality and demand, and sees no reason to have a boutique-priced “superstar” wine just to prove that he can produce one.

That said, the block bottlings – especially the pinots – do operate in what most people would identify as the “boutique” sphere. They’re sold primarily via a mailing list (which, inevitably, has a waiting list), though such things apparently work differently in New Zealand: people tend to make the list, stick with it for a few years, and then drop off, which means a high churn rate. This is an occasional blessing for Walter, who is unafraid of sacrificing quantity to preserve quality even if it makes a large portion of the aforementioned mailing list unhappy, but it does also reveal one important facet of the market for higher-end Kiwi product. “The top wines of the region, and of New Zealand, can’t be sold primarily by mailing list,” says Walter, comparing them to their American counterparts, “because in general, New Zealanders aren’t wealthy enough to support that many lists.” As a result, a full 60% of Felton Road’s sales are to overseas customers (mostly the UK, Australia, the USA, Japan, Hong Kong, and Singapore).

The costs of exporting, of course, leads to Felton Road’s pinots playing – at least in the USA – in a price range higher than a large percentage of the top California and Oregon pinots, not to mention a large portion of high-quality village and premier cru Burgundy. This brings up another fundamental quandary in the marketing of high-end New Zealand pinot: who does one sell it to? Lovers of ultra-ripe pinot have plenty of domestic sources with lower prices, and will likely be dissatisfied with the more elegant, restrained products of producers like Felton Road. On the other hand, devotées of elegant pinot tend to think of Burgundy first and foremost, more often than not to the near-exclusion of other regions. The pinots of Oregon are a better stylistic comparison, but there one sees one relatively small wine-producing region competing with another for a very small niche market. So where does New Zealand, and especially the highly-reputed Central Otago, fit in?

Walter and I talk about this for a good long while, to no good conclusion (though it would be inaccurate to say that Felton Road has trouble selling its wines). At the recent Central Otago Pinot Noir Celebration, with heavy international attendance and Jancis Robinson as a particularly enthusiastic guest of honor, affection for the best wines of the region was obvious. The key is to get that appreciation to the greater public. Walter is “intrigued” by the palates of several critics who seem to have a potential affinity for the style of wine he produces, and I immediately suggest that he should turn the attention of the region’s slowly-assembling cooperative marketing efforts towards Allen “Burghound” Meadows. Walter laughs, because Jancis apparently gave him the same suggestion at the 2005 Celebration. (It is with much amusement that I note, many months after this visit, that Meadows is the guest of honor at the 2006 version of this event. I hope he likes what he tastes.)

A sip off the old Block

After all this conversation, we finally get down to the business of tasting. Owner Nigel Greening briefly bustles into the room just as we’re commencing; he’s sweating profusely and quite obviously in the middle of no fewer than a dozen tasks. He chats very briefly (though amiably), then bustles out with an empty box and a chattering phone in tow. Walter seems fairly uninterested in talking about cellar processes, primarily because there aren’t any of any special note: grapes are destemmed, gravity is employed where possible, hand-plunging is practiced, and fining and filtration are eschewed. But really, the wines are as non-interventionist as one could wish while still working “clean,” and – as our tour up to this point has made abundantly clear – his real focus is on what’s going on in the vineyard.

We start with a trio of 2004 rieslings. The vintage featured a wet spring, but the rest was “pretty decent,” with high sugars due to late picking. Walter ultimately concludes that it was “not spectacular,” though on the following evidence I’m forced to wonder how much better his best riesling can get.

Felton Road 2004 “Dry” Riesling (Central Otago) – 12.5% alcohol, from a bottle that’s been open for three days, and is probably better for it; wind-blown dust and dried apple skin aromas with white plum skin and juicy acidity. Quite strong and vivid, with clear aging potential.

Felton Road 2004 Riesling (Central Otago) – 9.5% alcohol, and very slightly off-dry. Shyer on the nose, showing fine-grained sand, a smooth but flattish palate, and a very long finish tart with lemon and Granny Smith apple. Solid and ageable, but not as good as the dry version – or maybe it just needs to be open for a few days.

Felton Road 2004 Riesling “Block 1” (Central Otago) – Fuller-bodied than both previous bottles, and rich with a blend of powerfully ripe red apples and excellent acidity countered by light sweetness, then finishing long, full-bodied, and balanced. Terrific.

Matters may well change here over the medium-term, for the estate’s riesling vines will be grafted from Geisenheim to Allan Scott clones in the near future. Nonetheless, this is an entirely solid lineup of rieslings, from a region that probably doesn’t devote as much attention to this grape as it should (instead wasting endless time on largely indifferent pinot gris and the ever-ubiquitous chardonnay). And speaking of which…

Felton Road 2004 Chardonnay (Central Otago) – Mendoza clone, from stainless steel. Nut oils and rotten orange with a strange, slightly oxidized and stale finish.

Felton Road 2003 “Barrel Fermented” Chardonnay (Central Otago) – Clove, spiced tangerine and nectarine with denser stone fruit and pear on the palate. A better wine, and perhaps more evidence that most chardonnay really does benefit from a certain measure of wood.

Walter would like more riesling & chardonnay, though expansion on the red front will be limited: currently around 6000 cases of pinot are produced, and only a bit of growth (to around 8000 cases) is under consideration. Personally, I’d rather he reversed those estimates. I’ve never found the chardonnays here to be uniquely compelling, though that’s not to say that they aren’t sometimes good. It’s just that nothing is being said with this cliché grape that isn’t said just as well elsewhere, even within New Zealand.

Felton Road 2003 Pinot Noir (Central Otago) – Richly-flavored, with strawberry, light tannin and smoky graphite in beautiful balance. Elegant, long and luscious; both pure and expressive yet intense enough to be clearly of its place.

Felton Road 2003 Pinot Noir Block 3 (Central Otago) – A stronger nose, showing more exotic Asian-influenced aromas…especially including star anise. More structured than the regular bottling, with both smooth tannin and firm acidity, lots of earth and an intriguing bitter orange seed note. Complex and long, with great ageability.

Felton Road 2004 Pinot Noir (tank sample) (Central Otago) – Ten days from being bottled, and just barely done with its malolactic fermentation, showing sweet red fruit, plum, and slightly hard tannin.

Pinot is unquestionably the star of the Felton Road portfolio, and the Block bottlings (3 and 5) richly deserve their sought-after status. They are clear candidates for the pinnacle of New Zealand pinot noir production, though they stake this claim at one extreme end – the elegant and delicate, and dare one say “Burgundian” end (though all such descriptors are, of necessity, relative and contextual) – and there are many who might consider the wines to lack force and concentration versus their preferred paradigm. But while there might be many other possible expressions of this most responsive of black grapes that will draw justifiable praise, even from me, I cannot in good conscience say that I know of a better New Zealand pinot noir.

23 May 2006

TN: Cosmo

[Cosmic]Clos du Paradis “Domaine Viret” 1999 Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages Saint-Maurice “Cosmic” (Rhône) – Earth – alive and organic – with strips of well-worn leather, sun-dried berries and a dusting of Provençal aromatics (including just a hint of spice), plus resolved tannins. It’s still fairly full-bodied despite the obvious integration of tertiary elements, but with the tannin having softened so much I’d start keeping a close eye on it; for most people it’s probably drinking at or near its best right now.

A blend of grenache, mourvèdre and carignan (rimarily the first of that trio), made in what the importer calls a more oxidative style, by which he means something more upfront and accessible than the rest of Viret’s often highly-structured offerings. However one views the cosmocultural regime behind this wine’s creation, the results have been uniformly successful since release (the “current” vintage, though it’s no longer quite so current, is the 2000). Alcohol: 14%. Closure: cork. Importer: Louis/Dressner/LDM. Web: http://www.domaine-viret.com/.

22 May 2006

TN: Vouvray & vin cuit

[Moncontour]Moncontour Vouvray Brut (Loire) – Waxed chalk and the sap from fresh white spring flowers, with a slightly aggressive froth. Tasty, if fairly direct and a little over-weighted.

Domaine Les Bastides Vin Cuit “Selon la Vieille Tradition Provençale” (Provence) – Tart old plum and dried apple with balancing sweetness, minerality inhabiting some mysterious realms between quartz and charcoal, and a smoky, old English drawing room complexity layered over the top of everything. Exotic and delicious.

20 May 2006

TN: Not from Bolivia

[romorantin]Gendrier “Domaine des Huards” 2002 Cour-Cheverny (Loire) – Intense to the point of mild shock, though identifying the source of the intensity is less easy; there’s a vivid red apple component that leans into the realm of iron, an oxidative facet that expresses itself more like some sort of fruit-based wax, an ultimately dominant days-gone-by aspect, and a lot of sheer, planar minerality. What does that all add up to? I have no idea, but the wine’s really good. (5/06)

Cour-Cheverny is made from romorantin, a grape that is virtually unknown outside the appellation. (Actually, as far as I know, it is unknown outside the appellation, but I know as soon as I assert that someone will come up with an hectare in Bolivia or something.) I’m assured that these wines age nicely, though to be frank the bad versions are never worth saving, and the good versions are so evocative and unique that they rarely escape my inquisitive corkscrew for very long. Alcohol: 12.5%. Closure: cork. Importer: Jon-David Headrick. Web: http://www.gendrier.com/.

John's Roast Pork (Philadelphia, PA)

John’s Roast Pork (14 Snyder Ave., 215.463.1951) carries a heavy burden: a few years ago, it was labeled the producer of the best cheesesteak in Philadelphia. It’s an appellation I won’t argue with, though the steak is different than the other prime contender (Tony Luke’s): a soft sesame seed roll, a different meat/bread ratio (in favor of the meat), and much less grease. The quality of the beef, however, can’t be denied; in its raw state, it looks like they’re throwing thinly-sliced prime strip on the grill, and the steaks from here remain the only ones I’ve ever eaten that leave not even the tiniest morsel of unchewable gristle. In any case, thumbs way up for the cheesesteaks, but one can legitimately disagree on whether or not they're actually "the best."

That said, no cow-derived hoagie can compete with what John’s really does well, which is the classic South Philly pork sandwich. It’s the most flavorful meat you can possibly imagine, and with sharp provolone (and other toppings as one desires) is a true work of the sandwich art. It’s an absolutely breathtaking way to take a few months off one’s life. Only a difficult location, between a dubious strip mall and a chemical plant, keeps this joint from being packed to the gills on a daily basis (and yet, it's quite busy), but everyone should make the pilgrimage. This is heaven on a roll.

19 May 2006

TN: Searching for Barliman Butterbur (New Zealand, pt. 23)

[Arthur’s Point]294° and sunny

Four weather forecasts, four mistakes.

Not that we’re complaining. Most of the forecasts have been for heavy rain, and we’re happy to have missed the larger part of the precipitation. One immediately suspects mountain effects, as the jagged peaks of the Remarkables have gained new dustings of powdered sugar snow each morning, and now similar white-flecked pinnacles are starting to appear on the ranges to the west and north.

Anyway, today’s predicted clouds and cold rain have taken on the guise of warming sunshine and bright blue sky, and despite yesterday’s chill the immediate post-dawn weather is just warm enough to consider wearing shorts. We’re up early for something we do surprisingly little of on vacations, especially considering how much of our summers back home are built around the activity: a round of golf at the Queenstown Golf Club, a course on the Kelvin Heights peninsula, crowned by the rich golden-brown pyramid of Cecil Peak and surrounded by the sapphire-blue waters of Lake Wakatipu. We’re the first ones out today, and the course is – for the greater part of the morning – ours.

QGC is an inexpensive public golf course, and as such isn’t exactly in pristine shape. That said, it’s a lot better than Ringa Ringa Heights (though perhaps that’s not saying a lot), and all it really needs to improve is a good overseeding and more tightly-mown greens. Still, the views can hardly be surpassed, and a few hours walking such a beautiful golf course is in no way time ill-spent.

The Little Nell of the Southern Hemisphere

We lunch back at our rental, making quick work of a composed salad full of semi-local fishy delights and a decidedly local bottle of wine.

Gibbston Valley 2003 Pinot Blanc (Central Otago) – Shy on the nose, showing crisp apple and pear with light minerality. Dry, sharp, and surprisingly intense (structurally), but not as generous as it was in the Gibbston Valley tasting room. It probably just needs decanting, but the bottle doesn’t last long enough for us to find out.

Theresa takes a midday nap – such are the luxuries afforded by long vacations – while I wander the streets of Queenstown in search of a few gifts. The change in the town vs. just a few years earlier is striking, with construction thrown up on every available hillside and a bevy of trendy new shops slowly crowding out the more rough-hewn adventure-oriented and knick-knacky storefronts that had still held sway on our previous visit. Pizza and pasta dives have largely been replaced by middle-class restaurants, touristy swag has given way to jade-, opal- and paua-hocking jewelers, and functional (though sleekly-designed) adventure-wear shops are met in equal measure by the sort of upscale “hey-look-we’re-‘roughing-it’” clothing boutiques one can find in most any area where looking the part is as important as the activities represented by the outerwear. There’s also a good deal of Lord of the Rings merchandise; some of it tasteful and familiar, some of it shockingly inappropriate (“the Lord of the Rings four-wheeler off-road tour & commemorative Andúril replica”), and there is a still-low key but obviously emergent focus on the viticultural output of the nearby Central Otago wine regions. I note a few restaurants and wine bars worthy of further exploration, the locations and prices of local internet cafés, and return home to pick up my well-rested wife.

(Continued here)

18 May 2006

TN: Singing rat

Casa Vinicola “Tayerle” 2005 Vermentino “Troubadour Blanc” (Sonoma Coast) – Kiwifruit and grass, with a touch of Midori liqueur and a lot of fresh, briny and somewhat sticky textural elements. Decent acidity. Ever so slightly heavy, but a rather remarkable achievement in California vermentino.

Vermentino is grown around Italy – Liguria and Tuscany have noteworthy plantings – but the vermentino most people know is from Sardinia; a full-bodied, flavorful companion to lusty fish preparations. (There’s also a Corsican form – in fact, it’s the #1 white grape on Corsica – that’s just one Kermit Lynch-imported wine away from utterly unknown in the States.) This wine was a recommendation by Steve Edmunds of Edmunds St. John, who’s experimenting with his own plantings. Based on these and other results (a lower-key offering from Uvaggio) there’s potential in California for this overlooked grape. Alcohol: 13.2%. Closure: extruded synthetic. Web: http://www.casavinicola.net/.

TN: An (almost) noteless idyll

Sometimes, it’s nice to put away the tasting notes for a while. Wine enjoyment is about many things other than the analytical, and it’s important to remember that (such remembrance is often catalyzed by a good glass of something-or-other). Furthermore, a brief hiatus from notation can help recharge the analytical batteries.

So, with a few days and nights on the Jersey Shore with the family, I managed to taste –well, drink – a dozen (maybe more) wines of which I have nothing other than the most general impressions. There was a pleasant Spanish white blend that included some verdejo, and then a varietal verdejo that carried a rather nasty burnt grass streak. A Prá Soave Classico Superiore was soft but ultimately forgettable, while a Sicilian grillo was full of lusty – if alcoholic – and sun-drenched lemon. There was a rather dramatic Slovenian rebula (a/k/a ribolla gialla), as well; possibly the only wine on which I’d taken a comprehensive tasting note. And quite a few others I’ve forgotten.

On the red side of things, there was less variability, but also less excitement. A Rosso Cònero was full-fruited and tasty, while a corked Taluau 2004 St-Nicholas-de-Bourgueil was followed by another with zippy green fruit; both were better than a too-soft Filliatreau 2004 Saumur-Champigny “La Grande Vignolle.” Others fade into distant memory.

From there, the family festivization moved to Philly. A classically South Philadelphian Italian red sauce joint offered a Fazi Battaglia 2003 Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico (you know, the one in the fish-shaped bottle), which was overripe, and a Duca di Salaparuta “Corvo” 2002 Rosso, showing the usual thudding nero d’avola.

(The careful reader will notice that the notes are getting more specific. That’s the aforementioned battery-recharging. I don’t just make these things up, you know.)

Finally, over dinner at a suburban BYO, it was time to once again re-engage those briefly-dormant notation skills and take two wines to task:

Guillemot-Michel 2000 Mâcon-Villages (Mâcon) – Sweet chanterelle and delicate honeydew with a touch of botrytis-like candied apricot. Sweetly-pretty, and prettily off-dry, but surprisingly agile moving from apéritif to table. Lovely right now, though those who want more complexity (and are willing to sacrifice some fruit in the process) will want to keep waiting.

Banti 2000 Morellino di Scansano Riserva “Ciabatta” (Tuscany) – Dying under the weight of its wood, which is a bit surprising as there’s not that much of it. But sangiovese doesn’t always handle wood that well, and here’s an example of what happens: nasty toast and char aromas dominate some rather harsh black fruit. Better at release, pretty unpleasant now.

13 May 2006

TN: TCA trifecta

Occasionally, it happens: a bad run of corked wines. This is, if I recall correctly, the third time I've hit three in a row. Certainly I'm due some sort of karmic payback at this point. (But if people wonder why I'm so vociferously pro-screwcap...well, here you go...)

Cinquin “Domaine des Braves” 2002 Régnié (Beaujolais) – Corked.

Cinquin “Domaine des Braves” 2002 Régnié (Beaujolais) – 2nd bottle. Corked.

Raymond Quenard 2004 Chignin Mondeuse (Savoie) – Corked.

Producteurs Plaimont “Les Vignes Retrouvées” 2004 Côtes de Saint-Mont (Southwest France) – Fresh-cut melon and dried clay. Simple, direct and pure, not to mention a fine bargain.

11 May 2006

TN: Wines from No. 9 Park

Notes from last night's dinner at Boston's finest restaurant, with friends and business partners. As usual, the wines were extraordinary.

Aubry Champagne Rosé Brut (Champagne) – Soft but vivid strawberry and raspberry with a deep, throbbing undertone of mushroomy earth; much of the complexity of more aged Champagne is here, but paired with the lovely, elegant fruit of a young rosé. This is absolutely gorgeous.

Villa Bucci 2001 Verdicchio dei Castelli dei Jesi Classico “Riserva” (Marches) – More restrained than a previous bottle, at least at first, with a mélange of airy nuts, seeds and leaves only emerging from the oak’s dampening effect after a good deal of aeration. When they do, the wine shows rich, swirling complexities involving dried stone fruits, lightly-buttered whole wheat toast and freshly-ground grain; all silken-textured and ever-emergent.

Koehly 2001 Riesling Altenberg de Bergheim (Alsace) – At first opening, this is no more than a stiff breeze over corrugated metal sheeting, but in time it expands to show peach, crystalline minerality, a light dusting of coriander, and an even stronger, more steely mineral core with a delicate, non-intrusive sweetness balanced by firm acidity. Long, structured, and quite ageable; a terrific riesling.

Edmunds St. John 2001 Syrah Bassetti Vineyard (San Luis Obispo County) – Less forbidding but no less massive than the last time I tasted it, with exuberant leathery blueberries and a thick coating of mink-like tannin. It’s heavy, to be sure, but it’s structured and possesses a thudding, ponderous balance. All it needs is time, really, but in the meantime, when an aggressive yet food-friendly wine is required, this fits the bill.

Bologna “Braida” 2005 Brachetto d’Acqui (Piedmont) – Easygoing strawberry and red plum froth, with hints and suggestions of graphite powder and a better, more serious structure than this fun and delicious little number probably require. Just hints and suggestions, though; the essential joy of this wine remains intact.

10 May 2006

TN: Two from Piedmont

Vitivinicola “Dessilani” 2001 Colline Novaresi Spanna “Riserva” (Piedmont) – Very tight at first. After about a half-hour of air, strong dark fruit and somewhat heady floral notes emerge, with a biting layer of thick (but ripe) tannin that carries a lot of palate impact. Oak plays a supporting role, but it’s definitely noticeable, and ultimately this wine exhibits something of a fight between the traditional and modern styles, but it would seem to have the stuffing to age in either case.

Spanna is nebbiolo, according to local Piedmontese tradition, though the appellation Colline Novaresi is a relatively new invention. This has always been a solid value wine, though as recently as a decade ago it was decidedly more traditional. The introduction of barriques, for which Dessilani exhibits quite a bit of enthusiasm, has obviously changed all that, and while they haven’t yet let the wood get completely away from them in this wine, it’s easier to drink but ultimately less interesting than it was in the past. Alcohol: 12.5%. Closure: cork. Importer: Bedford International. Web: http://www.dessilani.it/.

[Barbera d’Alba Vigna Roreto]Orlando Abrigo 2004 Barbera d’Alba Vigna Roreto (Piedmont) – Raspberry, red cherry and strawberry dressed up in ill-fitting finery and dragged against their will to some ultra-formal event, where they’re completely overwhelmed by their environment. The stink of toasty, caramelized mushrooms and vanilla fills the air as well, though I don’t know if this is from oak or just invasive winemaking. Worse, there’s nary an indication that this wine ever had much acid, which would seem to be a tragedy for a barbera, and while it’s perfectly acceptable as an anonymous anything-from-anywhere wine, it’s not much use as a barbera d’Alba.

Barbera can handle a certain amount of new wood, as various Californian versions (and even a few of the Piedmontese offerings) have demonstrated, but when it lacks acid, it lacks much purpose. The high-acid versions of yesteryear are almost a memory on international shelves, and that’s a shame, because while traditional barbera was never a cocktail wine, it served a very useful purpose at any table where food was well-acidified by tomatoes: marinara, red-sauce pizza, even a simple caprese. And what fills that gap now? Nothing. All we’ve got is wood, and slick international sheens, and unending oenological tedium. Alcohol: 13.5%. Closure: cork. Importer: Arborway. Web: http://www.orlandoabrigo.it/.

09 May 2006

TN: Lothlórien (New Zealand, pt. 22)

[Dart River lagoon]The Road to Isengard

“Daaaaaaa-daaaaaaa-da-da-daaaaaaa…da-da-daaaaaa-da-da-daaaaaa-da-da-daaaaaa…daaa-daaa….” The song enters my head, unbidden, and forces itself all the way to the tip of my tongue. Only a tremendous force of will keeps me silent. I glance at Theresa, and she at me, the simultaneous repression evident on both our faces. We grin, then burst into in the grandiose theme music from The Lord of the Rings, managing a few bombastically off-key measures before dissolving into fits of hysterical laughter.

We’d been warned. Twisty, at times precarious, and almost impossibly scenic, the Queenstown-Glenorchy road carries extra baggage these days; a rather striking portion of Peter Jackson’s magnum opus was filmed in this area. Worse, this is a fact immediately obvious to even the most casual observer; every expansive vista and secluded hollow is eerily familiar. I say “worse” because the aforementioned impossible scenery scarcely needs another way to distract the unwary driver from the task at hand. The road describes a long series of irregular swivels, hugging the rocky shores of Lake Wakatipu, then rising far above the water into steep, tree-covered slopes before plunging lakeward once again. After a sharp northern turn, the trees fade to be replaced by the smooth, grassy slopes of the Richardson Mountains, rising up several thousand meters to meet a cold, grey sky.

“It’s distracting,” the locals advise. “You’ll want to pay attention to the road.” I’m learning how right they are. Especially with my wife sitting next to me, now quietly humming a different theme from the movie. I shrug, capitulate and join her.

The Great River

I’m not sure if it would be uncharitable to describe Glenorchy as a frontier-town exurb of Queenstown, but as it doesn’t appear that a resident can survive without frequent trips to the markets of the bigger “city,” I think the characterization is accurate. But what Glenorchy lacks in infrastructure – though it is not without businesses, though most seem oriented towards the feeding, watering, and bedding of tourists – it makes up for in sheer enticement. It is, in one sense, the end of the road (the paved road, at any rate) that brings one to Queenstown, and it perches tantalizingly close to the end of the Milford Sound access road. Close, that is, but not touching; it is emblematic of the modern New Zealand symbiosis between commerce and environmentalism that the twenty-mile bridge, road, and tunnel system that would make the Queenstown-Milford journey a quick hour and a half (rather than at least four) remains unbuilt, and is likely remain so. Any other country would probably do it in a heartbeat, but not this one. Convenience would be…well, convenient, but it would be a tragic shame to spoil the remote beauty of this location.

As for us, we’re in Glenorchy for another of those seamlessly integrated tourist experiences that New Zealand seems to have perfected, wherein multiple modes of transportation are woven into a tapestry of activities that accommodate all levels of interest, adventurousness and athleticism. After our long, emotionally overwhelming day at Doubtful Sound, we’re up for no more than a half day’s excitement, and so after a early (and chilly) lunch under grey and gloomy skies, we make our way through Glenorchy’s few but well-ordered streets to the headquarters of Dart River Safaris.

Elsewhere in the region, jet boating is an activity built around speed and implied danger. Boats on the Shotover and Kawarau Rivers spin and skid at shocking speed, clattering over rocks in four inch-deep water and narrowly careening under low-hanging branches and away from razor-sharp shoreline cliffs. Here on the Dart River, it’s less about adrenaline and more about sightseeing. To be sure, there are face-soaking spins and perilous near-misses of both rock and branch, but the epic hour-and-a-half ride gives both speedy and still opportunities to gaze at the incredible scenery. The river itself is barely up to the name: a few meandering rivulets of churning turquoise glacial runoff over rocks and sand – certainly not deep enough for anything except these shallow-hulled speedsters – but the valley it describes cuts a deep and dramatic angle between the Richardson and Humboldt Mountains, and high riverbanks show that, during the springtime runoff, the aquatic story must be a very different one.

It’s early autumn right now, however, and it’s cold. We bundle up, take our seats, and with a ear-piercing roar head due north, into the teeth of the wind. Our driver stops, periodically and usually after one of those trademark jet boat spins has soaked us all in icy droplets, to point out some key feature of the landscape. Half of them are purely geographic, but the other half are – inevitably – somehow related to The Lord of the Rings.

“See that hillside there? That’s the backdrop for Isengard.”

“Remember when the Ents attacked Orthanc? That’s the edge of Fangorn right there.”

“That really pointy mountain…the one with all the snow on it…that’s Zirak-Zigil, where Gandalf smoked the Balrog.”

I can’t help but feel momentarily sorry for those on the boat who have no idea what he’s talking about. That said, of all the phrases I never expected to hear outside the confines of a fetid, acne-infested basement game of Dungeons & Dragons, “smoked the Balrog” must be very near the top of the list. In my mind, I see the opening to The Two Towers, and – digital creatures aside – it is in fact exactly as he describes it. Years ago, pulling into the Grand Canal of Venice, I’d felt like I was in the midst of an elaborate and impossible movie set. Here, I have that feeling again…except that it is the entire country that is the set.

The music wells up once again. Thankfully, no one else can hear me humming over the roar of the boat’s engines.

The Old Forest

We continue our race upriver, the snow-draped peaks of the eastern and western ranges looming ever closer, occasionally stopping for a brief and slow-paced detour into some crystalline-emerald pool away from the bubbling froth of the river, to simply enjoy the (relative) silence. Near the end of the trip, however, disaster strikes…or rather, it strikes our companion boat, which gets stuck on a midstream rock. Their driver jumps into the frigid waters in attempt to dislodge the vessel. No luck. Some negotiation ensues, and soon several passengers have joined him in an attempt to move the boat, which eventually succeeds. I wonder what level of compensation would be required to get me into that water, and fervently pray that I won’t have to find out. I do ask our driver what happens in situations like this.

(Continued here, with an extensive photo essay from the Dart River…)

05 May 2006

From Bugey to Bruges

Peillot 1999 Roussette du Bugey Montagnieu Altesse (Ain) – 95% dead. What’s left isn’t worth drinking, either.

These wines are delicately perfumed and utterly delicious when young. But they’re not meant to age much, and this was a cellar orphan that deserved a better fate. Oh well. Alcohol: 12%. Closure: cork. Importer: Louis/Dressner/LDM.

P&N Reverdy 2004 Sancerre “Cuvée Les Coûtes” (Loire) – Strikingly intense slate shavings over razor-sharp grapefruit. Long, balanced and throbbing with power. Terrific Sancerre.

A single-vineyard Sancerre from a good vintage and a good producer is usually going to represent some sort of paradigm for sauvignon blanc, and this wine is no exception. Fans of the boisterous Marlborough style will point to the zingier fruit of the New Zealand versions, but this wine is no less intense, it just expresses its intensity in a different mode. It’s also worth noting that the Marlborough sauvignons universally considered to be the best are those with stronger minerality at their core. Alcohol: 13%. Closure: cork. Importer: Weygandt-Metzler.

Collard “Château Mourgues du Gres” 2004 Costières de Nimes “Les Galets Rouges” (Languedoc) – Rustic, with sun-baked garrigue and light red fruit notes, plus an unquestionably touch of the barn. Medium-light bodied (for a Languedoc wine), and clearly for drinking soonish, but quite fun and versatile with food.

Mostly syrah, with some grenache, mourvèdre, and carignan, and a fairly pure expression of a disappearing wine style: the un-spoofulated Languedoc red.Alcohol: 14%. Closure: cork. Importer: Weygandt-Metzler. Web: http://www.mourguesdugres.fr/.

Castillon & Fils “Château l’Ermitage” 2004 Costières de Nimes “Via Compostelle” (Languedoc) – Slick and modern, and also very tight at first, but eventually showing intense, leathery syrah characteristics (hints of blackberry and tar, strong but fuzzy tannin, a bit of post-afternoon sweat) and a long finish. It’s a highly updated expression of this appellation, but a fine one with enough individual characteristics to stand out, and the balance and potential to age and develop for a half-dozen years.

100% syrah, and definitely spoofulated (cold soaked, micro-oxygenated), though not at all in an unpleasant way. The techniques take the rusticity out of the wine and replace it with a bit of anonymity, but at the same time ageability and overall complexity increase. Alcohol: 13%. Closure: cork. Importer: Ideal. Web: http://www.chateau-ermitage.com/.

Trimbach 2001 Pinot Gris Ribeauvillé “Réserve” (Alsace) – Pear crystals and melted aluminum with a strong dusting of Alsatian spice and nerve. Very slightly off-dry. This is probably ready to drink, though it won’t fall apart over the next few years either.

Trimbach’s label nomenclature and classification scheme are fairly simple, yet opaque to the uninitiated. Here’s how it breaks down: yellow-labeled bottlings are from a combination of estate and négociant fruit. Wines labeled “réserve” come from estate fruit, usually from vineyards around Ribeauvillé. Gold and black labels indicate estate fruit from grand cru vineyards (Trimbach has philosophical and marketing objections to the Alsatian grand cru system, and thus doesn’t use them, even when they could). And finally, white labels indicate their top bottlings: most late-harvest wines (though late-harvest versions of the gold-label wines will remain gold-labeled and carry differentiating shoulder strips), special one-off bottlings, and the inimitable Clos Ste-Hune. Alcohol: 13%. Closure: cork. Importer: Diageo. Web: http://www.maison-trimbach.fr/.

Mont Marçal 2000 Cava Brut “Reserva” (Cataluña) – Leaden, papery and slightly resinous. Utterly boring.

I know cava. Cava has, in the past, been a friend of mine. Mont Marçal, you are no cava. Alcohol: 11.5%. Closure: cork. Importer: Classical. Web: http://www.mont-marcal.com/.

Nora 2004 Albariño Rías Baixas (Northwest) – Simple, juicy quaffing wine, full of light tropical/stone fruit and a sticky texture somewhat assuaged by slightly unintegrated acidity. Fun.

Albariño is a grape capable of complexity and even, if the right steps are taken, a certain tropical beach sort of profundity (though this is rare). But it can also be pure, fruity fun, and that’s the direction in which this wine is headed. A colorful umbrella wouldn’t be out of place. Alcohol: 13%. Closure: cork. Importer: Ordoñez/MRR Traders.

Bonny Doon “Ca’ del Solo” 2003 “Big House White” (California) – Mixed citrus with slight spiky, lime-spritzer acidity and a mildly confected finish. Good party wine, but don’t peer behind the curtain. Tasted from two bottles, with consistent notes.

These fun, inexpensive wines – which come in red and rosé versions – are leading the charge of the screwcaps into higher-end but still everyday American wine drinking. With the exception of the red, which can exhibit real quality from time to time, that’s often their principal quality. Then again, that’s nothing at which to sniff. Alcohol: 12.5%. Closure: screwcap. Web: http://www.bonnydoonvineyard.com/.

Germain-Saincrit “Château Peyredoulle” 2001 Premières Côtes de Blaye Maine Criquau “Vieilles Vignes” (Bordeaux) – A soft, rather delicately-constituted distaff cousin to a Bordeaux…which is, of course, pretty much what this wine is meant to be. Slight, graphite-like tannin and cedar chest with classic pencil, dried cassis, and tobacco aromas…but everything through gauze and haze, as if seen only dimly…though the finish is long and lovely enough. It might be worth aging this a bit, to see what happens, but no matter what the raw materials will always be thinly-scattered.

The Premières Côtes de Blaye are on the right bank of the Gironde, which suggests that they’re mostly merlot, with cabernet sauvignon in a supporting role. That’s true here. Value, rather than quality contending with the famous names elsewhere in Bordeaux, is the operative word here. Alcohol: 13%. Closure: cork. Importer: Ideal. Web: http://www.vgas.com/peyredoulle/peyredoulle.htm.

Aucœur 2002 Régnié “Cuvée de Vernus” (Beaujolais) – Bright red fruit and gravelly minerality. Tart and short, with little life ahead of it, but in a good place right now…with the right food (meaning: something rich and fat that this little wine can slice through).

I’ve written about this wine before, and there’s not much more to say. Alcohol: 12.5%. Closure: cork. Importer: Violette.

Goracci “Tenuta Roccaccia” 2004 Bianco di Pitigliano “Superiore” (Tuscany) – Light, flighty, slightly bitter and ultimately tilting away from pleasurable towards insipid. The dandelions and lemon are nice, but one would like a little more. Or at least I would I can’t always speak for “one.”

Trebbiano toscano and chardonnay, not showing either to any great effect. Alcohol: 13.5%. Closure: molded synthetic. Importer: Montecastelli. Web: http://www.tenutaroccaccia.it/.

Cantillon “Organic” Gueuze (Belgium) – As always with Cantillon, sharply and sourly acidic, showing intense cherries and plenty of brett. There’s more here, though: complex dustings of pepper, mixed mineralities, perhaps even a bit of paprika. This is about as authentic as lambic gets, though it will most certainly not be for everyone.

Cantillon is the most obsessive and traditionalist of all Belgian breweries, and their products are both masterful and controversial as a result. I’m a fan, but even I don’t love everything they do. Still, one can’t say they understand Belgian beer without trying these marvelous creations. Closure: cork. Organic. Importer: Shelton Brothers. Web: http://www.cantillon.be/.

04 May 2006

Guigal 2001 Crozes-Hermitage

Guigal 2001 Crozes-Hermitage (Rhône) – Well-sweated leather and bright raspberry acid without the raspberry (except as a lingering memory of its presence) with a slightly fruity-vegetal tannin that’s not at all unpleasant…though it probably could be a little less green. The density increases with air. A nice, basic, almost introductory Crozes-Hermitage for early-term drinking.

Guigal’s quality has undergone a bit of an upsurge in recent years, with both better cellar and vineyard work and a more strict reliance on traditional typicities. That makes this wine (100% syrah from an overly-expansive vignoble) a bit of a find, since Crozes-Hermitage is pretty much the most dismal of the well-known Northern Rhône appellations; of what’s commonly available, only Graillot does reliably excellent work. This isn’t anywhere near the quality of Graillot’s wine, but it’s quite good in its own fashion, and shows its terroir to solid effect. Alcohol: 12.5%. Closure: cork. Importer: Ex Cellars. Web: http://www.guigal.com/.