30 December 2007

Robert Parker, time-traveller

Though he's managed -- for a change -- to avoid referencing his much-beloved '47 Cheval Blanc, Robert Parker has a remarkable palate memory for a man in his seventies.

In reference to the never-ending controversy over whether the full-throttle Aussie wines (on which he used to bestow zillions of points and dramatic, albeit untested, aging curves) will age, Parker writes:

The best of the big Aussies will age quite well..remember all the negative comments when Penfold's Grange was launched 50 years ago

No, I don't. And neither do you, Mr. Parker. Because you were 7 years old, or maybe 8, when the wine was released.

There's no history to these wines on which to base an opinion on aging, and there's no real foundation of wines in this style from which to deduce an opinion on aging, either. So a critic -- any critic -- has to make a guess. Now, I'm all for a critic defending his or her reasons for a guess. And certainly, given the breadth and depth of his tastings, Parker should be able to defend his position. But all too often he doesn't, instead preferring to simply argue from authority (a logical fallacy, though not the most egregious one), savage anyone with a contrary opinion, or...as in this case...accord all of recorded wine history to his lifetime.

Will the wines in questions age? Well, of course, it depends on which wines you're talking about...but in general, I have no idea. I'm quite sure many of them last for a long, long time (with those fearsome levels of dry extract, how could they not?), but whether or not they will develop interesting tertiary characteristics at some point in the distant future...well, we're all going to have to wait on that.

24 December 2007

Happy holidays

If you're currently standing around telling your friends and family how much they've disappointed you this year, then ignore this message. Otherwise, happy holidays (in whatever form you're celebrating them...even not at all), and best wishes. The oenoLogician hopes everyone is drinking well.

And if not, he's determined to do so for you. He feels it's the least he can do, you know...

19 December 2007

Pretty in pork

[osterberg]After a post-rain evening stroll around St-Hippolyte, enjoying the views up the slope to Haut-Koenigsbourg, we arrive back at our gîte to find it full of Germans. Apparently, there’s a party downstairs in the caveau, and the courtyard is filled with Mercedes and BMWs. To judge by the noise, they certainly seem to be having a good time.

Léon Beyer 1993 Riesling Les Écaillers (Alsace) – From 375 ml, and a gift from the owner of our gîte, who apparently has quite a stock of them; he gave us another one the last time we stayed here. Unfortunately, this – like the last – has seen its day come and go. It’s quite faded, with oxidation and stale wax predominating. The acidity is vivid, and at the very heart of the wine there’s some nice apple skin and white plum, but it’s just too sour and old to be any good.

With a “light” dinner of bacon spätzle and veal (OK, OK, there’s a salad too…but it’s dressed with bacon fat), we need something a little better. Unfortunately, there’s no gewurztraminer at hand, and the closest thing I can find doesn’t really substitute very well. It’s fine on its own, but no match for the food.

…continued here.

18 December 2007

Red soil at night

[terre rouge vineyards]A tasting of and dinner with the wines of Bill Easton (Domaine de la Terre Rouge), hosted by Bill Easton himself at Oleana in Cambridge, MA. This was mostly a social event, and so the following notes will be comparatively light on the wine geekery, other than the notes.

I’m the last to arrive, thanks to Oleana’s difficult parking situation, and the rest of the attendees have started with a little Prosecco at the bar. We move to the table while I catch up.

Adami Prosecco di Valdabbione “Sur Lie” (Veneto) – Tart and papery. Segmented, and the lack of cohesion renders the wine a little flat. Unserious Prosecco is fine, even welcome, but it needs to taste alive. This tastes like it’s attempting some sort of profundity, but if so it’s a failure in that regard. It simply comes across as deadened. (5/07)

Easton 2005 Sauvignon Blanc (Sierra Foothills) – Big and aromatic…is that a little creamy leesiness?...with a surplus of ripe gooseberry and some fat to the texture. The cream and its accompanying butter are deceptive, as the wine doesn’t go through malo, but the ripe greenness reasserts itself on the finish. This drinks like sauvignon blanc aromatics wedded to a viognier texture (though without the heat that so often plagues the latter). Interesting, though unmistakably New World.(5/07)

…continued here.

17 December 2007

A bone in the nose

[clivi bottles]A tasting of and dinner with the wines of I Clivi, hosted by Mario Zanusso (from the winery) and Jeannie Rogers (the importer) at her restaurant Il Capriccio, in Waltham, MA. And a note: there is an extensive tasting at the winery, from November of 2007, that will eventually follow these notes. Stay tuned.

When I arrive, Mario is not long off the plane, and to be honest he has that telltale dazed, glassy-eyed look that inevitably follows such voyages. He’s sipping on a restorative martini, which wouldn’t necessarily be my pick-me-up of choice, but he manages to remain fairly alert until the tail-end of the evening.

For the first twenty minutes or so, it’s just me and Mario, so we chat for a while about matters various and sundry. He explains that his wines have “some similarities with Hermitage blanc,” though they’re much lighter in feel. Still, weight is an issue, and last year’s 16% tocai (despite being picked two weeks early) was a signal that warmer global temperatures aren’t going to leave Friuli unchanged. Clivi has had to modify their pruning techniques to lower ripeness, which has slowed down the grapes a bit, leading to a better balance.

In the near future are two hectares of ribolla gialla, but for now there are ten hectares of their own grapes, with some additional grapes purchased, and a total production of between 25,000 and 30,000 bottles.

Eventually, the other guests arrive, and we move to the table. With a procession of Il Capriccio’s typically excellent fare, we taste quite a lineup of wines. Here are the notes, interspersed with Mario’s commentary.

…continued here.

16 December 2007

Gypsies, crabs & thieves

[milan cathedral]Gypsies crowd in on all sides. I’ve got one hand over the pocket with the coins, another in the air, poised to strike. My wallet, thankfully, is safely tucked in a pouch under several layers of clothing, but I’d rather the predatory groping not start (maybe if they looked like last night’s cabbie…). What I haven’t been able to stop is the pressing-in, the rapacious closeness that’s intended to precede the actual theft.

Finally, I’ve had enough. I start shoving. Hard. “Get away from me,” I hiss, pulling my hand back once again and balling it into a fist. But it’s no use. They’ve seen this act before, and they outnumber me.

…continued here.

12 December 2007

Jewel of denial

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

The world of wine is full of connections, and our second stop on this day is directly connected to our first: Daniel Schwarzenbach is (or perhaps, as of this writing, was) part of the winemaking team at Kahurangi Estate. What a difference a venue makes!

We’re met in a slick tasting/café facility by Greg Day, the owner. He takes us on a brisk tour of the facilities…and I do mean the facilities, as the majority of Day’s narrative is about tanks, bottling lines, barrels, vineyard purchases and total tonnage, with a good deal of marketing-speak thrown in for good measure In other words, not the stuff one usually hears at a quality-oriented winery, though to be fair Day is the business side of things, and not a winemaker. Kahurangi (the Maori word means “precious jewel” or “treasured possession,” among other things; there’s a certain aptness to that) is much more a smooth commercial operation than most places we’ll visit on this trip, and this character comes through very clearly in its lineup; the primary quality of Kahurangi’s wines is a lack of overt flaws. I suppose that’s rather the point, but it’s also somewhat uninspiring.

It’s also a shame, as Kahurangi holds an interesting distinction as the owner of the oldest vines on the South Island: a tight collection of riesling planted in 1973. In other words, not old at all by European standards, which helps point out just how adolescent the local winemaking culture really is. In addition to the estate vineyards (twenty-six acres), there is also the leased Five Oaks Vineyard (thirty acres) that, at the time of our visit, has not yet been fully utilized. Still, overall, Kahurangi buys more grapes than it owns. Most are from the Moutere sub-region of Nelson, though the appellations on each bottling tell the tale. Along with the standard palette of regional varieties, there’s a small trickle of montepulciano (that, unfortunately, we don’t get to taste). A slight majority of the wines are exported (mostly to Australia, the U.K., and the U.S.), and the winery employs screwcaps on all but the 30% of exports headed for the conservative markets of mainland Europe.

Kahurangi Estate 2004 Riesling “Reserve” (Moutere) – We start by tasting the old-vine flagship, which leads to a concern that everything will be downhill from here. (As it turns out, not an entirely unjustified fear.) There’s green-leafed apple and concentrated steel – the latter mostly apparent on the finish – amidst a mild overlay of residual sugar. A bit of petrol is also present. The wine shows a fair amount of intensity, but it’s not a consistent expression. One suspects that more could be done with these grapes, but then that assumes an inherent strength of the terroir about which I am ignorant.

Kahurangi Estate 2004 Riesling (Moutere) – Lots of petrol here, with tart and zingy grapefruit and a hint of pear. Starts strong, finishes very flat. Eh.

Kahurangi Estate 2004 Sauvignon Blanc (Nelson) – The 2004 vintage was rife with problematic and/or nonexistent ripening, and this wine (harvested under 20 brix) is no exception. indeed, there’s a definite Serrano chile character to the grassy, leafy, lime rind palate. Underripe, for sure.

Kahurangi Estate 2004 “Unwooded” Chardonnay (Nelson) – No wood…and no malo, either. This is the estate’s biggest seller. Unfortunately, the wine is aromatically dead. Crisp, malic apple dominates the palate, along with greengage plum, but there’s just not much here. It’s inoffensive enough, I suppose.

Kahurangi Estate 2003 Chardonnay (Moutere) – 70% malolactic, and subjected to a mix of barrels and staves, showing clove-spiced apple with a good deal of orange juice on the finish. Basic and pleasant enough in this style, though without anything else to say.

Kahurangi Estate 2003 Chardonnay Mt. Arthur (Moutere) – 100% American oak (which is strange, as I’ve written elsewhere in my notebook that Day claims to use all French oak…no doubt one entry or the other is an error). Sweaty banana with other tropical aromas, crisp on the midpalate and then bitter and resinous on the finish. It’s woody, to be sure, and though there’s certainly fruit, the wood imprint here is off-putting more for its character than its quantity.

Kahurangi Estate 2004 Gewürztraminer (Moutere) – 18 grams/liter residual sugar; the result of a deliberately stopped fermentation. Thick, oily peach and orange give this wine a syrupy texture, and a decided lack of acid (though a trace is noticeable at the very tail end of the finish) adds to this quality. There’s a touch of skin bitterness as well, which isn’t uncommon for gewürztraminer. Drinkable.

Kahurangi Estate 2003 Pinot Noir (Nelson) – Slightly dirty, showing plum and blackberry on a tart, juicy palate. This sharpens, over-focuses, and turns bitter and tannic on the finish. A shame, as the wine was – for a moment at least – building towards actual quality.

Trout Valley 2004 Pinot Noir (Nelson) – This is the second label of Kahurangi, and bottled one month previous to our visit; Day muses that it might end up as a Kahurangi-labeled wine after all, though I don’t know if this actually happened or not. Pretty and floral, with a dusty flower pollen texture. There are minor suggestions of underripeness, but mostly this is crisp and food-friendly, though not much else can be demanded of it.

Trout Valley 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon (Nelson) – Eucalyptus, thick blackberry, walnut and bark. Strange, but not as bad as I might have predicted. I guess that’s praise…still, I suspect Nelson is not the right climate for cabernet.

Kahurangi Estate 2003 “Late Harvest” Riesling (Moutere) – From the oldest vines on the property. Gravel and diesel, with sweet lemon, ultra-ripe apple, and lilies. Botrytis is clearly present on the finish, to the extent that the wine begins to tip over into the realm of rot, but otherwise this is balanced and long-finishing, and unquestionably the best wine in the entire lineup.

Kahurangi Estate 2002 Sauvignon Blanc (Moutere) – Zingy, showing capsicum and minerality with a tart, grapey quality. Which would all be fine, except that there’s also a generous serving of canned peas along for the ride…not an unusual fate when one ages a sauvignon blanc that probably wasn’t meant for aging.

Five Oaks 2004 Sauvignon Blanc (Moutere) – Ripe apple, green plum and lemon. Ripe and rather fine. Why is this so much better than most of the rest of the Kahurangi sauvignons? The difference is rather dramatic.

A commercially satisfactory tasting, albeit an uninspiring one. Thankfully, we’re on our way to another appointment. Will it be any different?

As it turns out, we have no idea…

08 December 2007

Critics: perhaps not so fearful

Other bloggers are commenting on the meta-issues raised in this piece. It's vitally important for those in the wine industry -- or all consumers of wine media, really -- to remember that any wine writer or critic's audience is the reader, not the producer.

06 December 2007

To the ends of the author

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

A warning: the delicate of constitution may want to skip ahead to the first wine note.

19 October 2006 – Andorra la Vella, Andorra

It’s not anything I ate last night, because I was already sick at that point. It’s not something I ate yesterday at La Boqueria, either – even though it seems the most likely candidate – because I was already beginning to get sick as I sat down to lunch. Which means it’s either from the previous day’s visit to La Boqueria or, almost incomprehensibly, that smoke-filled night at Gaig.

Can’t I just blame it on the guy with the cigar?

Whatever it is, it’s the worst food poisoning I’ve ever had. Or, the shortest and strangest virus I’ve ever had. It started two days earlier, with body aches and a throbbing head, then a nose emptying itself in rivulets. That’s gone now, and I miss it. Because in its place…

Well, let’s leave it at this: 23 iterations of the same, um, activity later, our lovely hotel suite has run out of one specific but very useful type of paper product. A call to the front desk – thank goodness they speak English – provides the supplies for 15 more identical activities, as I wait against hope for this particular symptom to abate. Given my issues, and my near-complete lack of sleep as a result, I’m thankful that we don’t have a long or difficult drive today.

Oh, wait…

Somewhere in the Pyrenées The road from Andorra la Vella finally works its way free of clinging commerciality to rise and wind along desolate mountainsides haphazardly strung with power lines and spindly chairlifts. The temperature drops to somewhere around freezing as we ascend, and the wind feels more solid than gaseous. And then, a descent…we’ve chosen the open-air road, rather than the somewhat quicker tunnel…until, without ceremony, we’re in France.

The only thing that changes is the signage. Catalan, at least for a time, is left behind.

And here, I meet a well-known problem head-on. Or, I guess, the other end-on. For France, whatever its other positive qualities, must be the most backward of any otherwise developed Western country when it comes to sanitation facilities. Cafés, bars, restaurants, the occasional public restroom…it doesn’t matter where I stop, there’s never anything better than a powerfully malodorous chasm in the ground. No paper products. And never any running water. How could the Romans, two millennia ago, be more advanced in this area than modern-day France? More relevantly, how can the French stand it? Remind me to keep an eye on who handles my cheese.

Having assured by…various actions…that I will never be invited back to certain towns along our route (sadly, Foix – which is rather pretty – is one of these villages), we finally come to a stop, laying out a small picnic of various incarnations of Ibérico, some Spanish cheeses, and a little wine. But not too much. Liquid is not my friend at the moment.

Albert de Sangenis “La Xarmada” 2001 Conca de Barberà Criança (Cataluña) – A blend of syrah, cabernet sauvignon and mourvèdre. Good, if basic, and done in the international style, with all the required elements present. It’s pretty dull, but it’s at least wine on some sort of mindless level.

St-Savin, France – The roads along the northern border of the Pyrenées – whether D, N, or autoroute – are virtually devoid of traffic. And by the time we get to the latter, even the scenery’s not that interesting: gentle, rolling farmland, with the mighty snow-capped mountain ranges too far to the south to provide much backdrop. We stop on the outskirts of Lourdes for some supplies (not knowing what’s available at our remote destination), and delve into the increasingly precarious roads leading south into the mountains. Finally, we come to a very small village clinging to a hill…its town hall doubling as a post office, its local bar, an artist’s studio, and one country-style restaurant the only local businesses…and we’ve, at long last, ended our drive. Various parts of my body offer a sincere thanks.

Our gîte is cozy, and the owner leaves us a little homemade jam to brighten our stay. It’s a downstairs apartment, so there are fewer windows than there otherwise might be…a shame, since the scenery is among the finest I’ve seen outside New Zealand.

Theresa puts together a terrific salad of fat duck breast (extracted from local ducks used for foie gras production) with figs, plus cheese. Our lunch wine has faded underneath its structure, but I don’t know that we’re carrying any wine that will stand up to figs. I open another anyway, which is a mistake.

La Viña la Font de la Figuera “Sequiot” 2004 Tempranillo (Valencia) – Horrid, undrinkable, over-manufactured swill. After a few sips, this gets poured down the drain.

Oh well. At least I have my health.

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.

10 October 2007


oenoLogic is on hiatus for a while. The oenoLogician is recharging his batteries in Italy, gorging himself on lardo and truffles, not to mention ribolla gialla and nebbiolo. And gaining weight. Most assuredly, gaining weight.

06 October 2007

You cannot be serious!

[caged bottles]

I got into a discussion the other day about the word "serious" in relation to wine. The person who used the word was setting it in opposition to what he termed "quaffable"; specifically, Beaujolais was the latter, while Burgundy and Bordeaux were the former.

There was some objection to both characterizations on my part -- the best cru Beaujolais is hardly quaffable, while the worst mass-market Burgundy and Bordeaux are hardly serious -- but it got me thinking about how I might actually apply the word "serious" to wine, were I to do so.

The first, and most obvious, use would be a characterization of the wine in the glass...a stern, solemn wine that lacks any sense of joy, frivolity or fun. And indeed, many a top Bordeaux might qualify. This isn't to say that one can't derive joy/frivolity/fun from such a wine (drinking will to that to a person), only that the wine itself doesn't bring those characteristics to the party. Or any party. This sort of wine doesn't party.

But that's not what the person who originally used the word intended. He was talking about something else, a quality that might otherwise be identified as "noble" or "fine" vs. something more prosaic. I understand this use of the word, but I don't endorse it, because it smacks of faith in hierarchies over intrinsic qualities. While I might agree that, on balance and for my palate, certain wines regularly reach greater heights than other wines, I think to imply that the best efforts among that latter group are somehow "unserious" is to unwisely and unfairly denigrate their qualities. I'm not arguing for vinous socialism, nor am I embracing the often-abused refrain "all that matters is what's in the glass" as a way to take down the high and mighty of the wine world, I just think that to divide up the world of wine into "serious" and "unserious" categories is dangerously reductive thinking. The qualities of individual wines really do matter. "Serious" wines are to be found everywhere, not just where one expects to find them.

So if my interlocutor was using the word in a fashion I didn't like, how would I use the word? For me, a serious wine is:

  • A wine made to the highest quality possible given the restrictions in place. These include terroir, cépage, climate, typicity…any or all of which may or may not be legally mandated…and more external concerns like available money, etc. The wine would be made without marketability or price point as the primary consideration, though this is not to say that they can’t be strongly considered; winemaking isn't a charitable pursuit.
  • A wine that is “serious” in intent, made to be the best it can be and not something merely acceptable or only good enough for uncritical quaffing. This doesn't, however, mean that serious wines can't also be quaffable. For example, the best Bugey Cerdon or brachetto d’Acqui can be serious, if they’re made with maximum care and attention. Both are, obviously, “fun” wines. But they’re made with a seriousness of purpose and a laser-like focus on quality, not simply because winemaking is what Dad and Great-Great-Great-Grandad did for a living, or because any idiot can sell Central Coast pinot (not true, of course) given the success of Sideways, or because there happens to be a perceived market for a drinkable $10 Bordeaux and a supply of grapes to fill that market.
  • It's also important to note that these requirements say nothing about style. A serious wine might be resolutely traditional or employ every modernizing trick in the book. Again, it’s the intent that matters.

The opposite term -- unserious -- would apply to wines that are made with a primary consideration other than the highest possible quality. This would include price-point wines, wines made with compromises (which is not necessarily a value judgment) along the way, and wines made simply because they’re fun, or experimental, or in any non-qualitative way entertaining (e.g. Marilyn Merlot).

There's a need for both types of wine, serious and unserious, in our modern marketplace. Who wants to be serious all the time? But it's important to understand what seriousness really is. It's not a pedigree, or a shockingly elevated price, or a reputation, or a bunch of points, or even the chorused acclaim of the oenogeek masses. It's an expression of passion and skill, fired by intent, and given birth in a glass.

04 October 2007

Universal sufferage

[label]Minnesota wine. The very idea is absurd. And yet, the lure of a trio of wines from Alexis Bailly of Hastings, Minnesota is, on a recent visit to the homeland, ultimately irresistible. “Where the grapes can suffer” is a frequently-appearing tagline on the labels, and having grown up in Minnesota, it certainly fits. Frankly, one has to have a severely masochistic streak to even attempt winemaking in the land of 10 trillion mosquitoes and endless sub-zero days.

See oenoLog for the gory details...which, actually, aren't that gory, though the results are unexpected.

27 September 2007

No fun allowed

[wine snob]If you ever want to suck all the fun out of wine, get together with a bunch of wine lovers.

Let me back up...

I've made a lot of terrific friends through wine. All over the world, in fact. Almost to a fault, they have been kind, generous, hospitable, and generally wonderful to be around. And I say that even though I've seen most of them at their potential worst (that is, with a hefty load of alcohol in 'em). Lord knows they've seen me that way. It's not always pretty.

In fact, one of the things I miss most about the breakup of the old wine forum paradigm is the loss of a central meeting place for the world's wine geeks to connect. Some of my best experiences ever have been via meetings facilitated by the online wine universe, and I cherish and nurture those relationships even more now that the virtual vinosphere has splintered into hundreds of different, special-interest and single-language sub-fora.

One form of these social interactions is called the "offline," wherein online wine folk congregate, usually over dinner, at a venue that allows (or even encourages) BYO. People bring bottles -- usually far too many -- they open them, they taste, they drink, they spit, they eat, and they chat. And it's a hell of a lot of fun. (Of course, there are other forms of interaction as well. There's the dinner, which isn't unlike any other dinner except for the fact that it usually involves more food and wine than any reasonable human being should consume in a single sitting. And there's the structured (or semi-structured) tasting, in which the bottles are brought with a purpose, often a thematic one.

So how do offlines go wrong? By including the "wrong" people. Despite the deluge of wine, what makes these events fun is the crowd itself. Why sit at a table with people you don't like, whether over wine or a profound debate on Kant and aesthetics? It's pretty simple, and the general rule of inviting people you'd like to drink wine with and letting Bacchus take his course has, for many years, fed the engine of the offline without incident. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, fun. How could it not be?

And yet, to read this, you'd think that not only everyone was wrong at offlines, you'd think that the entire institution was broken for a lack of constitutions and bylaws. Except that...damned few of these whiners and anal-retentive snobs actually get it. It's not about the wine. (A formal tasting; that's about the wine. If you want to have one of those, go right ahead. But don't call it something it's not.) It's about the people, the camaraderie, the fun. It's not about the size of your bottle or the girth of your wallet. It's not about sucking every last bit of enjoyment from what is, after all, the ultimate social beverage. And it's certainly not about living your wine life like some pointy-headed dictator, whining and bitching and crying when everything doesn't turn out to your organoleptic and economic advantage.

Why would anyone drink with these people?

22 September 2007

Tasting notes

A lot of them, and yet always more to come -- don't tell my liver doctor -- on oenoLog.

21 September 2007

Memory, cheapened

Years ago, I had a favorite restaurant in Boston. I don't know if it was the best restaurant in Boston (that honor has, for a long time now, belonged to No. 9 Park), but it was most certainly my favorite. I not only went every chance I could get, I sent all and sundry there whenever I received a request for advice. (Which, in those days, happened quite often.) And I'd take as many guests there as I could, every one of whom was exceedingly impressed.

The restaurant was one of a (then) very rare breed of authentically Italian outposts in the overtly Italianate (but even then gentrifying) North End of Boston...one that didn't just rest on the easy profits of overly-familiar red sauce, pasta, veal scallopini and the like. The chef had a point of view, and also a hook: he eschewed butter and cream as foundations for his cuisine, which lightened it sufficiently for him to work an authentically Italian, yet also fundamentally modern and experimental, magic with his food.

But while the food was excellent, it wasn't what kept me coming back.

The wine list, too, represented a particular mindset (it was also constructed by the chef). Missing were the mainstream but ever-so-boring Chiantis and pinot grigios of most of its neighbors. In their place were obscure bottlings from DOCs even the reasonably wine-savvy had never even heard of, much less tasted...wines often made from grapes virtually lost to history save for the fanatic traditionalism of a few growers.

But it wasn't the wine list that kept me coming back, either.

On nights when it wasn't too busy -- in other words, not on weekends -- the chef would gleefully participate in what is my absolute favorite kind of dining: the surprise tasting menu. Diners would tell him what they didn't eat (or, in some cases, enter a special request for something...rabbit, for instance), and he'd construct a series of dishes and matching wines that were regularly astounding in their perfection. Not "great" cuisine with all the cultural baggage that implies, but food and wine perfectly-executed with both art and passion.

I used to love those meals. I used to live for those meals.

But, as tends to happen, one day the restaurant closed. Insiders and recipients of insider gossip (I was one of the latter) saw it coming for a while, due to factors pretty much unrelated to food or customers. And so I made sure to go back one more time, to pay a sort of homage to a chef who'd fed me so well for so long.

One of the biggest quirks on an already very quirky wine list was that the most expensive wine on it was not an old Chianti Classico Riserva, not some rare Amarone, and not some cultish Gaja. It was from Piedmont, but it was no prestige Barolo or Barbaresco. Instead, it was the Coppo Mondaccione, made from the increasingly obscure but wonderful freisa, and often considered the most "serious" among all the grapey and boisterous expressions of the grape.

So on my last visit, as the restaurant's consistent brilliance drew to a close, the chef gave me a gift. Whether it was a thank you for the scores of diners I sent there, or for my own patronage, or from a sense of wine and food camaraderie, or as a gesture of friendship, or maybe just because he didn't want to carry the inventory to closure, I was presented with a pristine bottle of Coppo 1995 "Mondaccione." I put it in the cellar, and waited. Because it needed time, and because I hoped that maybe I could drink it with the chef who gave it to me.

Years passed. The chef moved on, and eventually re-entered my dining life in another role. But I forgot about the wine. One night, many years later, we managed to have the chef over for dinner, and while getting the dime tour of the cellar, he identified the wine as the one he'd gifted so many years ago. I moved it to a different rack, thinking that I'd open it for him the next time we got together.

But then, other friends -- excellent, close, wine geek friends -- decided to leave Boston for the Southwest. And so, we hosted a little blowout dinner for them, and the Mondaccione got opened.

Inevitably, it was corked.

When people ask me why I'm so passionately anti-cork, this is the sort of thing I tell them. Because this wasn't just a (reasonably pricey) wine, twelve years old and theoretically definitive in its idiom. That, though at some cost, could be replaced. This was a wine that meant something to me. It had aged...at Coppo, at the importer's and wholesaler's warehouses, in the restaurant's cellar, and finally in mine...for a long time. And it was full of memories. And from the moment of bottling, it was ruined by a faulty piece of tree bark that cost the winery a few cents, at which price the scandalously indifferent cork producer managed to make some sort of profit.

This morning, as I poured it down the drain, the memories smelled of moldy cardboard, and the meaning was choked off in a wringing tourniquet of fungal nastiness.

Damn you, cork. Damn you.

Monks, meat & mountains (Cataluña/Pyrenées/Roussillon, pt. 6)

[montserrat rain]
From the over-touristed heights of Montserrat to the mountain-shrouded strip mall that is Andorra, we chase (and are chased by) the rain, all the way into the Pyrenées. Thankfully, there's a carnivorous reward at the end of it all. Although, given subsequent events, I wonder about the value of the reward.

Anyway, read on...

19 September 2007

Walla welcome

Let's start off gently, shall we? I'll leave the harsh criticism for another day. Though I assure you: it will come.

I had a meeting the other day -- brief, over water and coffee rather than wine -- with two representatives from the Washington Wine Commission. Boston and environs are one of their target markets for expansion, and they wanted to do a little information exchange...get their message to me, and let me give them some local knowledge of the market and a few of the key players within it.

Personally, even though I have fairly strong Europhilic tendencies when it comes to wine, I welcome the effort. Other than the mass-market stuff brought in by Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Crest and the like, we don't see much Washington wine here. Oregon does better, with a fair sampling of the lowbrow and the more interesting stuff on the shelves (or allocated in the back room), and of course through sheer size and inertia California does the best, but for whatever reason, we don't see much (in fact, very close to any) of the higher-quality, artisanal stuff. That's a shame.

On the other hand, I wish them luck, because it's going to be a tough sell. Which, it's worth noting, I told them as clearly as possible. Boston is, itself, a very Europe-facing wine market, both figuratively and literally. We welcome some measure of European obscurity -- this is, at least the last I've heard, still the number one domestic market for Alsace, we've long had a very solid Portuguese underground, and there's not quite so much focus on Tuscany on Italian shelves as there is pretty much everywhere else -- but domestics are a tougher sell.

It's not just Europhilia, though. Our asinine anti-shipping laws, bought and paid for by the greedy wholesalers (oh, now just watch the invitations to their tastings roll in), keep a lot of the cultier, mailing-list-only wines completely out of the market...at least for those unable or unwilling to use one of the usual but time-consuming work-arounds. So if the wines aren't on the shelves and aren't in the private cellars of wine geeks, it's hard to build up much of a market interest in them. And with the rapid contraction of distributors in this market, there are fewer potential buyers than ever; the small, focused distributors tend to have almost exclusively European portfolios.

Washington will have to be careful, too. The big, ripe, woody reds that so impress certain critics will not be a showstopping success here (not that they need to be; they sell very well without our help). Leaner, more...well, let's be honest: more "Old World" wines will do better. And perhaps the best option of all is to push non-chardonnay whites. Riesling, in the form of "Eroica," has done well (though note that it has done so primarily through its German connection; there's that Europhilia again), and other rieslings could be successful. Sémillon is a difficult grape, but there's potential for success there as well. Among the reds, it seems to me that syrah (which is better known for a general aversity to oak, a fact I'd hope Washington state winemakers embrace) would do better than cabs and merlots, but I'm not an expert in such things. I was given a cabernet franc to taste (haven't yet), so maybe there's potential there. And, of course, there's always interest in an expansion of the varietal palette past the handful of big-name grapes...grapes that far too many places produce already. Washington may indeed have something unique to say with, for example, a cab/merlot blend, but there'll be an extra burden of convincing to sell it in this market.

Overall, and as always, the wines will succeed or fail on their merits and their pricing. But the key will be to get them in front of consumers in the first place. Alsace succeeds because certain key figures visit to push their wines, year after year. I'd expect to see Washington put on a lower-end push at next year's Boston Wine Expo, and then bring the better stuff to a dinner at the Boston Wine Festival. Perhaps Nantucket. I'd expect to see them in the market, collectively or individually, showing the wines to trade and press at other times of the year (the frenzy around the previous two events, when everyone is in the market and wants the same fifty tasters' attention, is hard to cut through).

As for that cabernet franc, I'll report back as soon as possible, over on oenoLog.

18 September 2007

Big changes

For instance, me actually posting something to this long-dormant blog. Now that's a change.

The old method of posting tasting notes in four places (two versions on the parent site, one here, and another on one of the zillions of wine fora out there) is, ultimately, unsustainable. Or it's too much work. Or I'm just lazy. (This isn't a poll, by the way.) In any case, why post notes hither and yon, carefully constructing categorized archives that grow decreasingly useful as they're populated, when Blogger has the lovely meta-tagging feature you'll find at the bottom right?

I appear to have mastered the rhetorical question.

Anyway, the big change is this: there's now a little brother to this blog. oenoLogic has given birth. Or cloned. Or asexually budded. (I'm a little unclear on the whole blog procreation thing.) It's called oenoLog...and you're not wrong in thinking that that's a spectacularly un-clever name. What it is, however, is utilitarian, and that's a pretty good description of the new blog. See, it's going to be tasting notes. Nothing but tasting notes. So if that's your thing, that's your place. If you find endless, non-contextual tasting notes about as exciting as cement, however, best to go elsewhere. I'm not going to judge. Well, maybe in private...

So, regular tasting notes are going to disappear from this blog, and also from the parent site. (Or, more accurately: they're going to stop accumulating additional content. Though if anyone can tell me how to move old notes from one blog to another without retyping or copy/pasting everything, I'd be eternally grateful.)

So what's going to appear in their place? Well, on the non-bloggy site, the long-form travelogues and articles (for print and otherwise) will remain, as will dining commentary and a guide to regional coverage there and elsewhere. Pretty much everything else will go into stasis; it'll still be there, free for the Googling, but the links to it will slowly disappear.

And how about here? Well -- and I know this is a radical plan -- I'm going to turn it into an actual blog. You know, with commentary and links and unnecessarily personal musings. OK, not so much of the latter. Mostly short-form stuff, though my oft-cursed loquacity will occasionally triumph. (For example, consider how long this simple announcement has taken to get to the point.) And there will be teases to the travelogues and longer-form stuff on the grandaddy site (notice how it keeps changing identity? oenoLogic has its own definition of "family values"), too.

What it all means: tasting notes may still appear here, but only if they're contained within a different framework than a stand-alone note. Otherwise, whether it's a shopping list or the latest outrageous campaign of hate against some downtrodden supermarket wine, oenoLog is the place to be.

Got all that? Good. Now, could someone please explain it to me? I'm hopelessly confused.