18 December 2008


Winemaking[1], for most of its best practitioners, is more about passion than it is about money. And a good thing, too, since – as the saying goes – the only way to make a little money in the wine business is to start with a lot of it. Even in good times, many of the most famous names are far, far less wealthy then their fame…or their prices…might lead one to think. And a surprising number of wineries of acknowledged excellence operate under the near-yearly specter of imminent ruin. One ill-timed hailstorm, one misstep in the cellar, and it’s all over.

Unfortunately, we’re in the midst of one hell of a financial hailstorm, and we’re going to see a lot more of this and this in the near future. Good people – whether they make extraordinary wine or not – are going to find that they simply can’t afford another harvest. Dedicated importers and retailers will shut their doors. Wine-savvy restaurants will stack up the tables and chairs one last time, and for good. It’s going to be ugly, probably for a good long while.

I have no words of comfort here. I can try to support those about whom I am most afraid with my purchases, and so can others, but the sad fact is that consumers are hurting as much as anyone, and thus the inevitable reality is that not everyone will be saved. When we come out the other end of this long, dark tunnel, the world of wine is going to look very different, and perhaps rather barren.

[1]And grape-growing.

13 December 2008

Theise me

Were it not for genius importer Terry Theise, many Americans would have no idea that there were Champagnes other than the biggest, most heavily-marketed names. He was certainly, many years ago, the majority of my introduction to the concept of grower-producer bubbly. And yet, despite his efforts, most people still don’t know these wines, and continue to slog through underperforming industrial sparklers best-known for the color of their labels or their low, low holiday pricing (though in my opinion, such wines are still grossly overpriced for what they are; someone has to pay for those flashy promotions, after all). I don’t mean to damn all major-label Champagne, because some of it is very, very good. But far too much of it isn’t, and one pays for name, reputation, and global availability rather than what’s in the bottle.

These wines – all sparkling, mostly Champagne, but with two foreign interlopers from another of Theise’s favored locales – draw plenty of critical acclaim, and are of regularly high quality, but what’s always most interesting to me is their individuality and their difference. Champagne – at least the non-vintage sort – has (as its major marketers would have us believe) long been about consistency, and the big producers, whether industrial or not, achieve this with careful blending of young and older stocks. Smaller growers can rarely afford the sources, the expense, or the storage capacity to do the same, and the result is greater site-specificity and a variation more akin to that of vintage Champagne. For those who value a wine’s ability to surprise as much as it’s ability to satisfy, for those who value terroir as much as the winemaker’s art, this is an incalculable benefit. And here’s another: by exploring such wines, you’re not only upping both the quality and value of your bubbly, but you’re supporting a wine culture more connected to its land than its advertising budget.

Schloss Gobelsburg Brut “Reserve” (Austria) – A blend of pinot noir, riesling, and grüner veltliner. Wet and sour with green pear and apple. Finely beaded, with hints of gunshot. Leafy. Powdery, ground-level dust and extremely sour watermelon come to dominate the finish, like a too-old Jolly Rancher (but dry). Fairly complex, long, and very tart. (12/08)

Bründlmayer Brut Rosé (Austria) – Pink and soft, with electrified crystal flowers that re-soften on the finish. A bit girly in its pinkish Hello Kitty-ness. Spun candy on the finish. Frothy. I’m not a fan. (12/08)

[label]Pierre Gimonnet Champagne Cuis “1er Cru” Brut Blanc de Blancs (Champagne) – Striking nose of rainforest rocks and humidity. Huge lemon brioche (sprinkled with grapefruit shavings) on the palate. There’s excellent balance between bitterness and acidity. Massively long and frankly gorgeous, with skins dominating right now, and a very trebly midpalate that I expect to mellow with a little age. (12/08)

Pierre Peters Champagne à Le Mesnil-sur-Oger “Grand Cru” Brut Blanc de Blancs “Cuvée Réserve” (Champagne) – Heady toast and pastry, ripe lemon, and Granny Smith apple. Very powerful with a fine baring of its minerality on the finish. The nose is just a little weird…an odd mix of youthful and advanced characteristics that don’t quite gel. Perhaps in time. (12/08)

Goutorbe Champagne à Aÿ Brut “Cuvée Prestige” (Champagne) – Granadilla, crustacean cream, and paper over a chalky bedrock. Very spare and cylindrical in form, with a wall of minerality. Unfortunately, it never fills in, and never achieves any suggestion of grace. (12/08)

Jean Milan Champagne Oger “Grand Cru” Brut Blanc de Blancs “Spécial” (Champagne) – Delicate, with fine-grained crystals. Crisp but fullish acidity, ripe lime, and lots of molten metal…which hardens on the finish, driven through like a ramrod. Long and in need of time, despite the presence of lovely hints of maturity dancing around the aromas. (12/08)

[label]Jean Milan 2002 Champagne Oger “Grand Cru” Brut Blanc de Blanc “Sélection Terres de Noël” (Champagne) – Beautiful. Soft golden complexity, with a hint of curry dusting exotic flowers and heirloom apples. Very pure and gentle. Extremely long, eventually getting around to showing apples in every possible form, from flower to juice. Gorgeous. (12/08)

Gaston Chiquet Champagne “1er Cru” Brut “Tradition” (Champagne) – Wind-swept and cold, with rinds and hard-edged quarts. Frothy. Unconvincing in this company, and I’m surprised, because this is a wine I usually like. (12/08)

Marc Hebrart Champagne à Mareuil-sur-Aÿ “1er Cru” Brut “Cuvée de Réserve” (Champagne) – Brioche, yeast, mixed apples, and hints of stone fruit over paper. A bit frothy. Persistent. Just OK. (12/08)

A. Margaine Champagne à Villers-Marmery “1er Cru” Brut (Champagne) – At first, a perfect blend of fresh apple, grape, and sweaty yeast, with sharper slashes of lime sorbet later on. And then, it turns into a cherry-lime rickey. Vivid to the extent that it suggests neon, but clean, strong, and exceptionally long. One for the cellar, for sure. (12/08)

A. Margaine Champagne Brut Rosé (Champagne) – Ripe red cherry and cereal. Very balanced. Laser-like purity that softens just a touch more than I’d like as the wine lingers. Long, though. Steady-state. There’s potential here, but probably not enough to reach the pinnacle. (12/08)

Chartogne-Taillet Champagne Brut “Cuvée Sainte-Anne” (Champagne) – Very red-influenced, with ripe strawberries, rose hips, and leaves. Simple-seeming fruit is quickly followed up by waves of complex minerality (chalk seems to be the dominant component), and the finish is abundant with jewels and glitter. Very nice. (12/08)

René Goeffroy Champagne “1er Cru” Brut “Expression” (Champagne) – Almost minty, but at least herbal. Buzzes with electrically-charged freshness and static. Full of lovely gentility. Red-tinged fruit, but sprightly rather than deep. Fun. (12/08)

[label]René Geoffroy Champagne “1er Cru” Brut Rosé “de Saignée” (Champagne) – Sweet-glazed biscuit, fresh red fruit (strawberry, mostly…including the seeds). Pure and complex. There’s a fine foundation of stones ground into gravel, and a lovely, drying, mineral component to the finish. Very, very good, but far from its peak. (12/08)

Jean Lallement Champagne Verzenay “Grand Cru” Brut (Champagne) – Mist-shrouded but heady, with suggestions of animalistic wildness. Sauvage, perhaps, and that’s not something I’ve ever said about a Champagne not made by Selosse. Intense lemon-loam (as opposed to lemon-lime), clementine. Turns a bit unctuous as it broadens, and the finish is a bit of a disappointment in its lack of length. (12/08)

Jean Lallement Champagne Verzenay “Grand Cru” Brut “Cuvée Réserve” (Champagne) – Crushed strawberry and rather bodacious red cherry, leaves, and thyme. Smells fruit-sweet. Sizeable. Rolling watermelon rock candy on the finish, and then the tactile sensation of frozen metal to which one has unwisely stuck their tongue. I can’t quite figure this one out. (12/08)

Aubry Champagne à Jouy-les-Reims “Grand Cru” Brut Rosé (Champagne) – Tart cranberry somewhat overwhelms a core that leans more towards red and black cherry; this is a wine that leads with its acidity, and never takes its foot off the sour pedal. And is that hollyberry? Sharp and linear. Not really my thing; it’s more like an intermezzo that it is a beverage, though I suppose with the right accompaniment it could sing. Maybe an edgy berry dessert? (12/08)

12 December 2008

The thyme of our lives

[jean-baptiste sénat]“The man in black.” That’s my scribbled-down description of the winemaker we’ve come to visit, and it fits; he is, in fact, dressed head-to-toe in the color of night. Dark clothing, to befit a dark wine.

Minervois is a known name, thanks to a lot of hard work on the part of a relatively small number of dedicated producers, importers, and retailers, but it’s most definitely not a well-known name, and the search for greater affirmation is a long, uphill struggle against the forces of multinational marketing. It doesn’t help that a lot of the wines that carry the name never really rise above mediocrity…though given the lack of acclaim and monetary reward that follows those that do, the desire to put in the necessary work has to come from somewhere other than the hope of remuneration.

The vignoble of Minervois is visually and functionally hardscrabble, and that probably doesn’t help in the elevation of spirits. Staring at a field of rocks from which gnarled vines struggle to emerge and plump up a few angry grapes isn’t like gazing over the verdant plains and hillsides of certain other regions, nor are many vines neatly trained into efficiently-pickable rows. One can see the work that will be necessary, and the heartbreak that sprouts from the earth, and the indifference that droops from the leaves, in every beaten-down vine. And yet the region is absolutely carpeted with vineyards. That’s a lot of despair to crush, press, and ferment. But it’s a way of life, and that’s not easily abandoned.

Thankfully, there are a few producers who put in the necessary work, and their truculent, embittered vines have decided reward the attention with a grudging but admirable harvest of quality. Jean-Baptiste Sénat is one such producer.

…continued here.

10 December 2008

Hurry boy, she's waiting there for you

[simspon statue]Well-stuffed and liberally liquored, we feel ready to brave the winds and head back to the hotel. Or so we think. Just a few blocks from our destination, it feels like a hurricane has arrived. Theresa thinks she sees something blow out of a woman’s bag, and turns to tell her.

“Hurry! Catch it!” The woman is pointing across the road. The abrasion on my eyes is profound, and I can’t quite see what she’s looking at.

Suddenly, Theresa pipes up. “My glasses!”

And there in the middle of a busy street, describing a ten-foot diameter circle in a constantly-swirling cyclone of wind, are her glasses. They skip and glide across the ground, a mere wisp of color against the asphalt. Cars pass over them, uncaring, and still they blow. Seeing a brief break in traffic, I leap out to try and stop them with my foot, but they lift and hurtle skyward…then plummet back to the earth. A truck approaches, honking.


…continued here.

08 December 2008

Oregon, going, gone?

[vines at Bella Vida winery, Willamette Valley, Oregon]Marketing. It’s really not my thing. I’m mostly immune to it, and though I am as frequently awed by its most adept practitioners as I am repelled by their best work, I’ve no discernable skill at it.

So it’s somewhat amusing to me how often I get asked, by those who make and sell wine, for an opinion on how they might a better impression on the market. Usually, but not always, it’s a foreign concern wishing to sell more – or at all – in the States. In fact, I just got back from South Africa, where this question was much on the minds of many of the winemakers with whom I swirled and spat.

While I was traveling, Thad over at Beyond the Bottle invited my comment on a piece he’d written, itself a follow-up to a winemaker’s thoughts on how to market a decidedly non-foreign wine region: Oregon. Since this is a place I’ve actually been, and a state that produces a rather larger number of wines that I like than is the norm for other domestic sources, I took a special interest in the topic. Herewith, then, a few thoughts from a someone who knows nothing about marketing. And what could be more valuable than that?

The contrast between the two essays to which I’ve linked is interesting, even though they cover some of the same ground. On one hand, we have a winemaker talking about wine as a niche (some would argue luxury) product and how to market that product to a knowledgeable audience. His idea is to find the hook, the mnemonic, the attention-grabbing uniqueness that will move his state’s wines into the public consciousness. And he suggests their fundamental “Oregon-ness” as that hook.

Thad Westhusing, on the other hand, takes a broader view, examining everything from wine tourism to price points in an effort to wrestle the problem to the ground. But neither he nor Hatcher really question the latter’s assertion that Oregon and the associations to be made with that place are the path to sales glory.

That may be, and I find thoughts with which to agree from both, but I think they’re missing the key point. The problem is pinot noir.

Oregon, for better or worse, has hitched its wine fortunes to this supremely expressive but finicky and expensive grape. Though there’s pinot gris, chardonnay, pinot blanc, a little sparkling wine (question: why not more?), and the occasional outlier variety, the consumer is, first and foremost, presented with a range of pinot noirs as the representatives of Brand Oregon. It’s a sort of marketing monoculture, and while it’s taken for granted in the Old World and frequently codified in Europe’s stringent appellation laws, it’s somewhat of a rarity in the anything-goes New. Most New World regions plant a diverse range of varieties (many of them, alas, painfully unsuitable for the terroir) and then let the shifting winds of popular taste do the marketing…or, when necessary, the winnowing.

The problem with doing it the other way – the Oregon way – is that success or failure are entirely subject to the public appetite for one specific product. Now, it happens that we’re still in the boom years for pinot noir, and whether one identifies it as a continuing post-Sideways effect or something else, the fact is the public loves its pinot. However, it must be noted for the record: not nearly as much as it loves its chardonnay or pinot gris/grigio.

Given that, shouldn’t Oregon be going gangbusters, since they’ve got pinot noir to sell and an allegedly avid market to sell it to? Maybe, but…well, see, there’s a problem. Oregon’s not the only modern monoculture in town. There’s the Central Coast of California, which has been around for a while but which has really exploded into the public wine-drinking consciousness over the past few years (and that is attributable, in large measure, to the aforementioned movie). There’s the Central Otago in New Zealand…and in that same country, Martinborough and the Waipara/Canterbury region.

So what’s the calling card of the Central Otago? Pinot noir. The Central Coast? Pinot noir. Martinborough? Pinot noir. The Waipara? Pinot noir (and riesling). What’s previously-monocultural Marlborough, widely known for it’s sauvignon blanc, planting a lot of these days? Pinot noir. How about Germany, the still-beating heart of rieslingdom? They’re making a big name for themselves these days among a subset of the wine geek set with their spätburgunder…a/k/a pinot noir. Meanwhile, the Russian River Valley, long a source for succulent pinot noir, hasn’t gone away. Nor has the Anderson Valley. And there’s still that other place…what’s it called?...oh, yeah. Burgundy. They make just a bit of pinot noir there, still, and despite centuries of fame and reverence, many commentators think it’s only getting better.

But why should pinot noir be a special problem? It’s not like people have any trouble selling chardonnay from pretty much every grape-growing region in the world, right? Didn’t I just say that there was an ever-escalating demand for pinot?

Sure, but the grape carries some baggage. It’s notoriously fickle on the vine, and when it does grow well, it requires careful shepherding and lowish yields to show its quality. That means that wines made from it are almost always going to be expensive versus other varieties. Cheap pinot noir is, with very, very rare exceptions, either dismal or – pumped up by the steroidal winemaking much-employed by the industrial set, and yet the primary source of cheap pinot – grossly unrepresentative of the variety and its qualities.

Moreover, its nearly unparalleled (among red grapes, with only nebbiolo as a serious contender) ability to reflect site-specificity results – as it always has in Burgundy – in a small blizzard of single-vineyard bottlings, regular and reserve bottlings, and/or differently-named blends. In other words, where cabernet might be responsible for a wine or two at a given winery, pinot noir can sometimes fill a case. Without duplication.

So where does that leave the pinot noir producer? Holding a dozen fairly expensive wines, each produced in relatively small quantities, and having to convince an already-saturated market of their quality when they’ve got similarly-priced options of quality from all over the globe, plus a few centuries of wine culture nagging that for the same amount of money they could be drinking “the real thing”: Burgundy.

In Oregon, or in fact anywhere the grape is grown, I suspect the urge to “buy local” trumps other factors (and the ability to visit and taste before purchase helps this along). Certainly that’s what they do in Burgundy, as well as all the other regions I mentioned earlier. But selling the wine at home…that’s not the marketing challenge, is it? The challenge is selling the wine elsewhere.

For example, consider Boston, this author’s current hometown. It’s a very Europhile market, as I’ve noted before, and a lot of very good New World producers have unsuccessfully beaten their skulls against the seemingly closed door of our avid wine culture. But even for those local consumers who are willing to explore beyond their beloved Burgundy, the available options quickly move beyond staggering to merely bewildering. Felton Road or Belle Pente? August Kesseler or Arcadian? Ata Rangi or Patricia Green? Not to mention the fact that there’s always the “…or d’Angerville?” option lurking in the background. They’re all pretty much the same price here, after all, and while they all have enticing qualities, only the truly pinot-obsessed will want to fully explore the full range on a regular enough basis to qualify as a reliable source of sales. That subgroup, repeated across hundreds of communities, may be enough to escalate a few wineries’ sales, but it’s not enough to accommodate all of them.

So what’s the solution for Oregon? I don’t know (remember: Marketing ’R’ Not Us). I don’t think that grubbing up pinot noir and planting…I don’t know, lagrein…is the answer. Because the wines are quite good, or at least they can be in capable hands, and if they think selling pinot is hard…. I’m not sure that selling “Oregon-ness” is the answer either. New Zealand tried that with their “the riches of a clean, green land” campaign, and I don’t know that it made much of a difference in their wine sales (though it has helped tourism, by all accounts…and it would probably help more were New Zealand not a zillion miles from everywhere). Further, I’m not sure this is the differentiator some might want it to be. Vermont – much closer to my market – is full of crunchy earth-mother environmental goodness and beauty, not to mention a wealth of fine agricultural products, but it doesn’t make me want to drink their wines, and I don’t think the stuff they are really good at (e.g. cheese) is pushing Vacherin Mont d’Or off, say, New York shelves; it remains a niche product for a niche, local market that knows and has regular access to that product.

Also, I’m not sure tourism is the answer. Wine regions everywhere point at Napa and ask, “why can’t we have that?” Well, first, I think much of Napa would very much enjoy it if someone else would take the tourists for a while. But the obvious thing is that Napa benefits almost immeasurably from its proximity to San Francisco, just as the newer California tourist hotspot of the Central Coast benefits from its proximity to Los Angeles. Portland is a nice city, but it’s certainly no San Francisco or L.A.

The best thing a wine region can do – and this is the advice I’ve always given, when asked – is to get into the desired market and really work it. That means sending the best and brightest to whatever places have been targeted and keeping them there for a while, or at least promising they’ll be back every few months. Work the retailers and the restaurants, and maybe even the press (most of the non-national wine press doesn’t really move much wine, but sometimes every little bit helps). Do some public dinners, which I think are absolutely critical in creating demand and name recognition. Plant representatives at stores’ regular wine tastings. Do the big wine fairs, and while there do tutored tastings.

And make it about more than just the individual producers. Yes, by all means, sell the names on the labels. But everyone who makes wines from its grapes benefits if some critical mass of people who know how to pronounce “Willamette” correctly is reached, and for that to happen everyone – or at least a large enough subset of everyone – has to work together to push all the categories that need pushing: pinot noir, Brand Oregon, whatever appellations are involved, and individual wineries’ products.

This is all marketing 101, I’d think, and yet it’s surprising how hard it is to get people to leave their wineries and saturate their target market. The farmer mentality, maybe, and non-corporate winemaking doesn’t leave a lot of down time for travel. What helps is government money, but in its absence wineries – many of which make much less money than the average consumer might think – have to do it themselves. If that means voluntarily pooling resources, then that’s what it means.

Otherwise, I see little hope. Major critics have been giving perfectly fine ratings to Oregon wines for years, and yet not enough has happened. There’s going to be no Sideways 2: Wasted Weeks in the Willamette. California – hopefully – isn’t going to tip its vines into the ocean and make beachfront out of Fresno, nor are New Zealand (and Germany, and Burgundy) going away. Words, print ads, flashy handouts…they aren’t going to get it done. The wines need to be under the noses and in the mouths of potential consumers.

Oregon needs a hook, yes. But the hook it needs is the one in a hotel room, on which its best winemakers and marketing gurus hang their jackets as they make their case to a new market, customer by customer.

01 November 2008

Wine Blogger Manifesto, #5

There's no reason a blog has to be serious. But if you want to be taken seriously, act seriously. This doesn't mean you can't be funny, or consciously vapid, or light-hearted, or antagonistic, or anything else a blogger might want to be. But authority is not handed out at request. For example, the right to be contrary and not be judged as merely reactionary is earned through effort and experience, not by the act of being contrary.

31 October 2008

Idea log

[questioning brain]It will surprise no one that I’ve had a political discussion or two over the last few weeks. And it’s probably also no surprise that one of them got me thinking about wine. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the role played ideology.

There are a number of ideological stances one can take in response to wine. This is true whether you’re a producer, in the trade, or a consumer…and in fact, those ideologies often run in parallel lines through those three groups. For example, consumers with a given philosophy often patronize the wines of retailers, importers, and producers who share that philosophy.

What do I mean when I refer to wine ideologies? Here are a few common examples, though by no means is this an exhaustive list:

  • “natural” wine is superior
  • “natural” winemaking is anything but
  • biodynamic viticulture is better
  • biodynamic viticulture is mystical hooey
  • organic viticulture is preferable
  • organic viticulture is marketing
  • all that matters is what’s in the glass
  • wine is wine, no matter how or where you drink it
  • wine is meant as a companion to food
  • quality is not inherent, but is a product of context
  • there are objective standards to wine on which experts can agree
  • taste is subjective
  • quality is determined by price
  • quality is determined by terroir
  • sulfur is bad
  • the abandonment of sulfur is lunacy
  • screwcaps are the answer
  • only real cork belongs in a wine bottle

…and so forth. One immediately notices that a good number of these ideologies are fundamentally incompatible. And yet, they are passionately-held, each of them, by very serious wine folk. How can this be?

It is likely true that some ideologies are, in fact, nonsense. And that others are justified primarily by their marketability. And that still others are only held because their holder fails to understand (or denies) evidence to the contrary.

I’m not interested, here, in discussing which ones are valid or not. Instead, having been brought to this musing by considering the positive and negative effects of ideology in a political context, I’m interested in whether or not the very concept of ideology is worthwhile, especially from the standpoint of the consumer.

Long-time acquaintances are undoubtedly sputtering in their biodynamic Muscadet right now, objecting thusly: “oh, sure, you’re a fine one to talk about the negatives of ideologies, Mr. Everyone-has-a-bias, and Serious-is-not-a-philosophy, and Alcohol-is-a-conceptual-problem, and No-really-everyone-has-a-bias.” (OK, maybe no one actually talks like that. At least, I hope not.) And it’s true: I have ideologies, and while I feel I’m open about them in a way unfortunately few critics and writers are, I would never presume to deny them.

Despite this, might ideologies be a profoundly mixed blessing?

Let’s start with the positives. I’m a firm believer that wine – that is, wine worth thinking or writing about, wine worth more than a tossed-back glass after a hard day at the office – can be about more than a gut-level, caveman-like response to the pure pleasure it brings as it fills your mouth and gets you just a little bit more drunk than you were a moment ago. That, in itself, is an ideology, and one certainly not shared by everyone. But it’s a basic, foundational ideology, without which I couldn’t – and wouldn’t – write about wine for a living or for fun.

Based on that foundation, then, one can immediately see the appeal of sub-categorical ideologies. Especially those reinforced by experience. If, on balance, wines self-identified as biodynamic, or “natural,” are appealing to me more often than is the norm across all wines, I as a consumer have a ready-made shopping list, even if the brands on it are unknown. Or if I find the modern obsession with ripeness to be fundamentally deforming, I now have a ready-made list of wines, and perhaps even places, to avoid. The mere existence of these ideologies, coupled with the knowledge of how to apply them, makes my life as a consumer a more efficient one. And it reduces the number of times I’ll waste my money on something I was destined to dislike.

Other philosophies can be similarly-examined for their benefits, which accrue not just to the consumer, but to other entities as well. An organic producer has a ready-made audience, while a low-sulfur producer a smaller but proportionally more fanatic one. An importer with a portfolio of luscious liquid “hedonism” from warm, fertile regions – big explosions of velvety fruit layered with toasty new wood – has a reliable market, as well.

Of course, the temptation is – as with any ideology, in any field – to mistake preference for objectivity, projecting hierarchies outward from the person onto the thing itself. This isn’t to say that there cannot be objective value in certain ideologies; organic viticulture may indeed be better for the environment, low-sulfur wines could be easier on the body’s biochemistry, screwcaps might maintain a wine’s intended form better than other closures. But most ideologies aren’t like this. They’re philosophies that emanate from subjective preference, codified and thus eminently arguable, but no less subjective for the force and structure of them. And that’s where we run into trouble.

It is perfectly reasonable to prefer one wine to another for stylistic reasons. If those stylistic reasons are directly attributable to philosophies, and that preference reliably extends to other examples, then it is similarly reasonable to connect the preference with the philosophy, and thus to prefer one philosophy to another. In fact, I know of no one who does not do this, to a greater or lesser extent, even within the narrow field of wine appreciation.

The problem arises when the ideology becomes more important than the object of the ideology. There exist more than a few winemakers, tradespersons, writers, and consumers who cannot free their response to a given wine from the boundaries of their ideologies. Sometimes, they won’t even try a wine because of how it’s made, where it’s from, or what it represents. More often, they’ll take a taste, but final judgment has been rendered before the first sniff.

It needs to be made clear that this does not make said victim of their ideology a bad person, nor does it make them useless as an observer or commentator on wine. In fact, many of the most successful critics and writers in the wine field are absolutely laden with ideologies. But note that word: victim. The trap of ideology is that is closes the mind and the palate, while calcifying in such a way that the subjective eventually becomes canon. Wines that fall outside the strict borders of the ideology are tarred as heretical, rather responded to with reasoned dislike.

Don’t believe me? Ever heard someone dismiss a Burgundy just because it was a Burgundy, and thus already known to be a lousy value, thin, and rife with biological flaws? I hear it all the time, and with unfortunate frequency from a number of California winemakers and their fans. (Worry not: some Burgundians can and do return the favor.) Ever read a writer or importer decry a wine for using non-indigenous yeast before they’ve even tasted it? Or their control-freak opposites mocking the very concept of indigenous yeast and the oenological negligence it represents? Ever heard someone respond positively (or negatively) to a wine tasted blind, and then completely change their tune when they find they’ve been had by their ideology-tweaking friends? Of course you have. And so have I.

I think this is a shame, and something to be resisted. There are good wines out there made in a way I’d probably prefer wines weren’t made, and if I can’t leave myself open to the possibility that I might enjoy them, I’ve not only lost something important, I’ve prevented myself from ever finding that important something. There are surprising experiences left for the experiencing, but they’ll never be experienced if I refuse to experiment. There are beautiful places and people in the world of wine who I will never meet should I be unwilling to accept what they do on their, rather than my, terms.

More generally, the inability to adapt to one’s circumstances is a dangerous trait, both intellectually and socially. Should friends not be able to enjoy a wine they like without receiving a philosophical lecture in return? It sounds unfathomably rude, but I’ve heard wine ideologues who couldn’t help themselves. Should one stubbornly cart one’s preferred wines around the world, refusing to drink local wines because they’re ideologically insufficient, becoming the oenophilic version of one of those people who brings their own condiments or desserts to a restaurant?

This doesn’t mean that one has to change, or even lower, their standards. Not at all. As I noted before, I believe wine is about much more than whether or not it tastes good. It’s right up there in the header: “wine is liquid, wine is life, wine is emotion, wine is thought.” (I might add that it’s art and science, as well. And it gets you tipsy. And it tastes good.) Matters of philosophy, practice, and execution are, to someone who feels as I do, important. And if wine as anything other than a commodity is to survive and prosper, it needs ideologues at every stage of its existence.

But it’s crucial to remember that we do not drink the ideology. We drink the wine. And if we don’t, we’re drinking the Kool-Aid.

(image used thanks to a Wikimedia Commons license)

14 October 2008

The singing ship, sanguine

[reflection]For a chain hotel not exactly known for its luxury, [this] is more than serviceable, though it’s crawling with businesspeople and has to turn several desperate latecomers away at the front desk. There’s a bar in the lobby, and a really impressive breakfast buffet in the restaurant across the hall. I mean really impressive: six kinds of charcuterie, five kinds of cheese (including the ubiquitous gjetost), various herrings, anchovies, caviar (though only the squeeze-tube kind) pickled vegetables and salad greens, creamy “salads” that only a Scandinavian or Minnesotan could love, fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, cut fruit, yogurt, cereals and muesli, fair coffee, fine tea, juices, several kinds of milk, three preparations of (real) eggs, terrific bacon, sausages, meatballs, mini-waffles, jams and spreads, a huge block of excellent salted butter, and an assortment of five or six fresh-that-morning breads (most some variation on whole grain, and many with seeds) that is rather breathtaking in its quality. As a result of this early-morning bounty, at hotel after hotel, I’m able to avoid eating lunch anywhere in Norway…which, given that in some places a bowl of fish soup and a beer can cost nearly $100, is a very, very good thing.

…continued here.

06 October 2008

Fraternity management

[vineyard]6σ 2006 Sauvignon Blanc Rooster (Lake County) – The stainless steel cuvée. Very dry and steely, with grass and acidity. Hard-edged and severe, even tooth-stripping on occasion. Persistent, which is promising, but I think this would benefit a great deal from some richness and additional complexity. Lees, perhaps? (6/08)

6σ 2006 Sauvignon Blanc Michael’s (Lake County) – 100% French oak, which dominates the wine despite not being all that heavily-layered. Lots of acidity, still, but with the toast and stale butter notes the wine is exceedingly awkward and ill-composed. (6/08)

6σ 2005 “Cuvée Pique-Nique” (Lake County) – Cabernet sauvignon, merlot, petit verdot, and cabernet franc. Green syrup and coffee, with good structure but a rough ride through a choppy palate and an underripe finish. (6/08)

6σ 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon (Lake County) – Intense cassis, cedar, graphite, and chocolate-covered fruit candies stewed with freshly-plucked herb leaves. In some ways it’s classic, in others confected, and there’s a bizarre lactic element that throbs forward on the finish. The most promising of the reds, but still with a long ways to go. (6/08)

6σ 2005 Tempranillo (Lake County) – Chocolate and black pepper with bitter tannin. Far from ripe in any aspect of fruit or structure, and pretty vile as a result. (6/08)

Il communication

Mionetto “Il” Prosecco (Veneto) – Light, mildly sweetened paper. Simple and relatively clean. (6/08)

Mionetto Prosecco Brut (Veneto) – Bright lemon, crisp ripe apple, and a drying finish. The powdery texture shatters and sparkles late on the finish. Fair. (6/08)

Mionetto “Sergio” (Veneto) – Full and rich…perhaps also sweeter than some…with lightly-spiced pear. Thick and complex, but freshness is sacrificed as a result, and there’s actually a bit of heat on the finish. (6/08)

Mionetto “Il” Rosato (Veneto) – Plum, blood orange, strawberry, and old raspberry pushed past its ideal maturity. Heavy and deep. Quite striking, and very much a light red wine more than it is a sparkler. (6/08)

Mionetto “Il” Moscato (Veneto) – Very sweet and extremely simple. (6/08)

02 October 2008

Everyday Tariquet

[chateau]Domaine (and Château) du Tariquet is known for its brandies more than its wines, but due a worldwide slowdown in demand for Armagnac, that’s changing. The winemaking history of this estate better-known for its spirits follows directly from market difficulties for the region’s best-known product, Armagnac. In the seventies and eighties, vineyards were planted to supplement brandy production.

To maintain the crispness of the very light grapes used in these wines, trucks bearing dry ice-cooled tanks are sent to the vineyards. Machine-harvested grapes are destemmed on-site, start macerating on their skins in these tanks, and six to ten hours later are put through a gentle pressing (taking care to avoid breaking the seeds, which releases some very green tannins). A slow, cold fermentation takes place over the next few weeks, and wines are subsequently held in tanks and bottled to order. This is industrial viticulture, yes, but there is very little mucking about with the results, and the low prices reflect the process.

NB: the distinction between “domaine” on the table wines and “château” on the Armagnacs comes from AOC regulation; only appellations so designated can use the latter word on their labels, and the table wines are only entitled to vin de pays status.

Domaine du Tariquet 2006 Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne Ugni-Blanc/Colombard (Southwest France) – Very crisp green apples. Clean, sunny, and nice with drying skins on the finish. (3/08)

Domaine du Tariquet 2006 Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne Sauvignon Blanc (Southwest France) – Linear, to the point of pure two-dimensionality. Simple grass braced by acidity. Eh. (3/08)

Chenin blanc was apparently once widely planted in Gascony, but lost to phylloxera, and remains highly susceptible to disease even now.

Domaine du Tariquet 2006 Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne Chenin Blanc/Chardonnay (Southwest France) – Apricot and grapefruit, with good acidity and a hint of minerality. Long and balanced, and bigger than most of this lineup. A nice wine. (3/08)

Domaine du Tariquet 2006 Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne Chardonnay (Southwest France) – This wine sees six months in barrique; half new, half one year old. Some cream drizzled over light, crystallized peach. Short finish. Just OK. (3/08)

The next wine was the result of an accident. Rushing to complete a harvest before oncoming rains, one tank full of grapes was unintentionally left in the vineyards. When it finally arrived the next day, there was no room in the fermentation tanks for the grapes to rejoin their brethren, and so this somewhat unusual blend was created.

Domaine du Tariquet “Côté Tariquet” 2006 Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne Chardonnay/Sauvignon Blanc (Southwest France) – Intensely fruity, with some apparent residual sugar (seven to eight grams), apple, and good acidity. In the context of this appellation, a powerful wine. (3/08)

Château du Tariquet Bas-Armagnac “Classique ***” (Southwest France) – This is the entry-level Armagnac. Raw wood, leafy, and creamy. Chocolate and caramel over pecans and hazelnuts. Lush and seductive, with a long finish. It lacks the more complex and subtle characteristics of better Armagnacs, and it’s a bit dessert-like in character, but it’s quite pleasant. (3/08)

Disclosure: wines provided by and lunch paid for by importer and/or producer.

01 October 2008


Aren't you a wine blogger? Where the hell are all the tasting notes?

Yes, I like to ask myself questions and answer them. I feel better-prepared that way. And, they're over here.

Farewell to Eden

[sunset]In customs, we’re greeted by our first sarcastic Aussie, something for which I’ve been gearing myself up after five weeks of New Zealand-esque pleasantry.

“Are you bringing any agricultural products into the country?”

“Just some wine.”

(looking up) “Oh, no. No, no. You can’t bring Kiwi wine into Australia.” (looking over his shoulder, yelling) “Jim, we’ve got two for the lockup here!”

And so it goes. There’s non-sarcastic concern about millimeter-sized bore holes in the wooden bowls we purchased in Nelson, however, and for a while it looks like they might not let them through. Eventually, they relent…after much peering and a few waves of some sort of magic electronic wand. We emerge into the baggage claim area at last, eager to get into the city and begin a new stage of our explorations.

So where’s our luggage?

…continued here.

Wine Blogger Manifesto, #3

The first duty of the wine blogger is to accuracy. The second is to truth. And yet, the most important thing a blogger can be is interesting. This is a fundamental and occasionally unresolvable tension, but it must be confronted with every post.

25 September 2008

Whisky in the jar

A tutored tasting of Gordon & MacPhail Scotch, with Michael Urquhart.

The firm of Gordon & MacPhail isn’t a Scotch producer, principally (though they do produce a little), but instead buys unfinished or partially-finished spirits, then ages and bottles them to their own specifications; not unlike some of the old-guard négociants of Burgundy. One trigger for this sort of production model was – as with so many matters alcohol-related – Prohibition, from which many distilleries never recovered. Since then, even more of the famous old names have closed up shop (80 remain), but given the aging profile of single-malt Scotch, just because a distillery shutters doesn’t mean that there’s no whisky to sell. And that’s where Gordon & MacPhail comes in…though they their own versions of still-operating distilleries’ production.

One barrier to the U.S. market remains, and that’s our insistence on the 75 cl bottle; much Scotch comes in 70 cl form, which is illegal in the States for reasons that would only make sense to bureaucrats.

Urquhart prefaces the tasting with a brief rundown the characteristics of two kinds of Scotch barrels, about which much is made in modern Scotch-making circles: bourbon casks bring toffee and caramel characteristics, while Sherry casks enhance fruit.

And then, with few other preliminaries (it’s late in the day, and everyone’s tired from a full weekend of wine tasting) we’re on to the whisky. Prices are approximate.

Rosebank (Gordon & MacPhail) “Connoisseur’s Choice” 16 Year Old (Lowland) – Refilled Sherry casks, triple-distilled, 46% alcohol, $70-80. Apple flowers, light and fuzzy, with a clean, simple nose. The palate introduces tropical fruit and apricot skin, but remains simple and clean. Just OK. (2/08)

Benromach (Gordon & MacPhail) 21 Year Old (Speyside) – First-refill Sherry casks, $110. Paper and old furniture turned to ash, toffee, espresso dust, and raw wood, with a finish of apple that hints at cider. Long and lingering, with hints of bitter chocolate at the very end. Complex. (2/08)

Glen Grant (Gordon & MacPhail) 21 Year Old (Highland) – Sherry casks, $110. Coconut and rough wood, baking spices (nutmeg and clove), and while it’s harsh without the mellowing effect of a little water, it eventually turns beautiful and rather supple, showing mixed chocolates, hints of fruit, and toffee cream. Very nice. (2/08)

Glen Grant (Gordon & MacPhail) 1965 (Highland) – Sherry casks, $175-200. Sour peat, humid wood, and summer leaves. Then there’s lemongrass, full-bodied spice and chocolate, followed by a finish of smooth apricot and orange. Round and full, with intensity, complexity, and passion. Stunning. (2/08)

Caol Ila (Gordon & MacPhail) “Connoisseur’s Choice” 1982 (Islay) – Sherry casks, 46% alcohol, $150. Peat smoke, iodine, dried meat and the leather that used to enclose it, with exotic flowers and confiture (mostly Mirabelle plum, but there’s Rainer cherry and peach as well). Unbelievably good, and for me the star of the tasting, though a very strong argument could be made for the Glen Grant 1965 as well. (2/08)

Lochside (Gordon & MacPhail) “Connoisseur’s Choice” 1991 (Highland) – Refilled bourbon casks, 43% alcohol, $65-70. Pastry with coffee residue, like the last dregs of a morning stop in a Parisian café, then espresso, stale toffee, almonds, hazelnut, and the drying, slightly acrid smell of flor. Flor? Yes, flor. A very dry style. Weird. (2/08)

Benromach (Gordon & MacPhail) “Organic” (Speyside) – One of the first organic whiskies. $55-60, 43% alcohol. Toffee-coated apples dipped in maple syrup, pinapple, banana, and lush milk-chocolate sweetness, with orange-chocolate candies on the finish. This is too simple-minded for me. (2/08)

Flowers in the Adriatic

[piazza dell’unita]It’s a gloomy, rainy morning. And I’ve discovered yet another problem with our hotel: the pillows are rock-hard, and my right ear feels flattened and numb. I look around our cobweb-filled room lit by the dismal grey gloom, decide that dismay is no way to start the day, trudge to the bathroom wrapped in a blanket to keep out the penetrating chill, and turn on the hot water.

It takes about ten minutes to arrive, though when it does, it’s blessedly beyond tepid; at least there’s a heat source somewhere in this hotel. Breakfast is no less dismal; despite a few house-made jams, the selection consists of crusty but flavorless bread, American cereals, bland bolognas (calling them salume would be more than they deserve) and cheeses, and canned fruit. Even the coffee isn’t good. In Italy. We leave the hotel discouraged, our mood as grey and soggy as the weather.

…continued here.

Wine Blogger Manifesto, #2

My responsiblity is to myself and to my readers. Not to producers, importers, distributors, retailers, restauranteurs, PR agencies, or marketing entities.

13 September 2008

Separate wines, worlds apart

[upended bottle]I just got back from a trip to Norway and Denmark, and other than a fun night with some wine geeks in Bergen, wine was only occasionally on the menu. Not that it wasn’t available. In fact, many of the restaurants at which I dined had wine lists astonishing for their breadth and depth. Unfortunately, there was another astonishing thing about them: price.

The way wine is monopolized and, more importantly, taxed in the Scandinavian countries means that “everyday wine” doesn’t really exist as a category. Sure, the wines that would fit the bill elsewhere are technically available, but at shocking markups. $85 for Trimbach’s yellow-label riesling. $82 for the Hugel “Gentil.” And so forth. Naturally, the weak dollar doesn’t help, but even a strong dollar wouldn’t put much of a dent in these prices, and neither country is exactly cheap to begin with.

There’s a pair of silver linings on the edge of this gilt cloud, however, and one is that more expensive wines are not priced by demand, as they are in most competitive markets. Thus, the $75 Burgundy that shoots up to $300 in the States after a high score from some critic not only stays at its release price (albeit one higher than $75), but isn’t impossible to source, either. (Though there are limits to this; even in the monopoly systems, there are favored customers and “off-list” wines that end up in the hands of a chosen few.) The other is that restaurants seem fairly willing to cellar wines for a time, which means that while a 2005 version of a $20 wine may be a ridiculous $110 on a wine list, the 1990 version of that same wine may be only a few dollars more, making it commensurate – or even a value – compared to a similar wine on an American wine list.

The Bergen winos’ response to all this was to claim, only half-jokingly, that they “can’t afford to drink anything but the best.” I lived there, I’d be forced to do the same; anything else would be economically foolhardy. And it’s not like drinking really good wines is something to be upset about.

But I admit that I would miss the other kind of wine. The kind of everyday, non-intellectualized stuff that has, historically, formed the foundation of traditional wine-drinking cultures. I’m not just talking about the increasingly anecdotal jugs of local Côtes-du-Rhône that lubricated the equally anecdotal French peasantry, but about the wines both artisanal and industrial that form the bulk of what most people buy and drink on a daily basis.

I would miss this sort of wine because a daily glass (or two…or sometimes three) is, for me, a fundamental part of my enjoyment of a meal. Not all food embraces wine, and not all meals allow consumption, but its presence is always to be preferred to its absence.

Perhaps more importantly, I would miss these wines because I firmly believe they put the better bottles in their proper context. Yes, it’s possible to drink only great wines, and I know people outside Norway who do. In fact, I know people who refuse to drink anything other than the best of the best. I can’t fault them for doing so, but this behavior just isn’t for me. Not only do I enjoy the simple pleasures of humble food and wine in their proper context, but I find that I appreciate the qualities of better wine more keenly when those experiences have a broad and deep foundational perspective. The components and interweavings that make great wines great are all the more obvious when the alternatives have been internalized. And those who drink only the superstars can, occasionally, lose perspective on what they drink, fixating on the niggling details but losing sight of the fact that they are quibbling over degrees of greatness.

I don’t know if there’s much impetus to change, as both countries seem to have well-entrenched beer cultures that satisfy the needs of the lower end (and in Denmark, at least, some really extraordinary things are happening with that beer; watch this space, eventually, for information on one of them). But I do know that I was happy to uncork a bottle of something uncomplicated and moderately priced when I returned home. I’d actually drank better wines on the rare occasions I’d imbibed in Scandinavia. But there’s such a thing as comfort wine, you know.

30 August 2008

Short hiatus

I'm going where there's no wine -- no, not prison -- so the current hiatus will be extended for little while longer. Don't forget to water the plants and feed the cat in my absence.

07 August 2008

Grüner or later

[vineyard]A tasting of grüner veltliners from the Terry Theise portfolio, hosted by the ever-quotable importer himself. A few of his nearly-endless bons mots are interspersed amongst the tasting notes.

“It never matters how much a wine tastes, it matters how it tastes.”

Nigl 2006 Kremser Freiheit Grüner Veltliner (Kamptal) – From loess. Showing the barest pérlance, and very pale. Celery, grass, yellow melon, bright golden summer squash, and raw green beans; this is the full vegetable garden writ drinkable, with a buzz and fizz to it. Excellent, somewhat forward fruit gets cleaner as the finish progresses, and though it ends up tasting fairly basic, it’s a fine representative for the grape, and a very nice value. (2/08)

“Flies like a Nigl.” Pause for laughter. Instead, there’s one small groan (from me). “No?”

Jamek 2005 Achleiten Grüner Veltliner Federspeil (Wachau) – Corked. (2/08)

“If it stinks up your house when you cook it, [grüner] is what you drink with it.”

Jamek 2005 Achleiten Grüner Veltliner Federspeil (Wachau) – From microschist and granite with a heavy topsoil. Theise calls this “a pensive introvert,” and he’s dead-on. The merest suggestion of a light straw color, the aromas are difficult to perceive…perhaps there’s a little salted, raw celery, but that’s about all. The palate is vegetal (that’s not a negative), dense, and sticky, with a long, dry, floral finish redolent of apple blossoms. Acid and a light, tannin-esque element emerge late, along with a grated – and slightly grating – pepper note, but this wine is slightly imbalanced in favor of fruit over structure. Better integration and form emerge with air, so perhaps all it really needs is time. Based on its current performance, however, I’m not positive that time will do it unmitigated good. (2/08)

“If sauvignon blanc and viognier had a filthy weekend, and their evil spawn was loosed upon the world, [grüner would be the result].”

Bründlmayer 2005 Loiser Berg Grüner Veltliner (Kamptal) – From schist, microschist, and slate. A few bubbles form on the rim. Light yellow, with the color of hay and straw. The nose is particular (asparagus, zucchini, melon skin), somewhat fruity and lush, but directed, though there’s a faint petroleum note. Despite size and lushness of its own, the palate is beautifully balanced, though there’s a warm character deep into the finish, which melts like smooth liquid pear. In the wine’s immediate aftermath, this turns to clear, clean, dry water with a bit of skin tannin. Very promising, and clearly a wine equipped for its future. (2/08)

“Sometimes, [wine terminology] crosses a rickety suspension bridge between reality and metaphor.”

Schloss Gobelsburg 2005 Steinsetz Grüner Veltliner (Kamptal) – From tertiary gravel (with large rocks) topped by loess. Colored the deepest yellow, with a tinge of greenish-gold, and smelling of grass, cactus, and white peppercorns, backlit by throbbing green and yellow light strobes. The palate is huge and slightly hot, delivering a wallop of strawberries and lentils ground into a powdery texture. Is there a bit of residual sugar? The finish is long and writhing, and bursts with yellow pepper. Weird, but good. (2/08)

“‘Great’ is reserved for riesling.”

Alzinger 2005 Steinertal Grüner Veltliner (Wachau) – From gneiss. Light gold with tinges of green. Coriander, cedar, and a vague sort of bell pepper dominate the nose, but the palate veers off in a different direction, retaining the spice but adding a good deal of freshly-cut peach. Thick and incredibly dense, with a balanced heat on the finish (it reminds me of Bas-Armagnac in the way it warms the wine), and a suggestion of long, slightly sweet melon lingering later on. I’m slightly concerned by the early impression of heat, but otherwise the wine is in fine form. (2/08)

“In 2006 everything received a two-class upgrade.”

Schloss Gobelsburg 2006 Lamm Grüner Veltliner (Kamptal) – From a loam/sandstone/gneiss vineyard that Theise calls “the Montrachet of grüner veltliner,” carrying 14% alcohol and 3-4 grams of residual sugar. Visually solid, with a faint greenness intruding on a medium-deep yellow core. Aromatically breathtaking, bringing together creamy vanilla, smoky charcoal, and a rich, autumnal iron character. The palate is similarly creamy (both texturally and with the actual impression of fresh cream) and thick, with makrut lime and lemon curd that brace and churn all that density, yet add only complexity rather than dissension. The finish is lush and flawlessly balanced, even with the clear influence of softening residual sugar. Majestic. (2/08)

“Grüner veltliner is great…for a business with a piss-poor business sense.”

28 July 2008

Boca, resurrected

[logo]Christoph Künzli of Le Piane doesn’t sound like an Italian winemaker. In one sense, he isn’t – he’s from Switzerland – but in the more important sense, he is. Some forty minutes north of Milan’s Malpensa airport, Künzli makes wines from an appellation only the most dedicated oenophiles have heard of (Colline Novaresi), and one that’s even less-known to anyone who doesn’t live there: Boca.

No, it’s not a retirement community in Florida.

One among a string of nearly-forgotten appellations along the northern limits of Piedmontese viticulture (the best-known of which – barely – is Gattinara, but that also includes Lessona and Bramaterra), Boca is a nebbiolo-dominated area that was both famous and one of Italy’s largest in the 19th century, but has since fallen into oblivion as the region’s workers left wine for the factories of Torino.

A chance meeting with an old local winemaker led to Künzli taking over an acre of land, which took three years to work into shape (machines doesn’t work on Boca’s difficult terrain, and many of Künzli’s older vineyards are still planted with the maggiorina training method, making hand-harvesting a necessity). Since then, other plots have been added. Some are old vineyards in need of similar resurrection, while others are new plantings on old, abandoned sites. In the end, around fifty plots (many of them small) were sold, and now form the core of Le Piane’s vineyards, though many of them are quite a few years from being able to supply grapes.

The soil is volcanic rock, over which there’s a layer of gravel, and while the subsoils abound with the sort of complex minerals that vines love, there’s no chalk (which is common elsewhere in the Piedmont, especially where nebbiolo is grown).

Commercial yeasts are used for the Colline Novaresi wines (“vespolina goes volatile with indigenous yeasts,” insists Künzli).

Le Piane 2004 Colline Novaresi “la maggiorina” (Piedmont) – Old vines, 50% nebbiolo, 35% croatina, uva rara, and vespolina, in stainless steel. Mineral-driven to such an extent that I feel like I’m drinking a red riesling. Very dry. Full of dark fruit dust and tart acidity. Very masculine and hard, with a long finish. A striking wine. (3/08)

Le Piane 2003 Colline Novaresi (Piedmont) – From 100-year old pre-phylloxera vines, and a blend of 70% croatina and 30% nebbiolo. Lush orange blossom and stone fruit, balanced except for the vintage’s signature tannin, but dried out on the finish by that same tannin. (3/08)

Le Piane 2004 Colline Novaresi (Piedmont) – Showing (or perhaps revealing) more dirt than the 2003, with a little bit of well-ridden horse, but not what anyone but the most averse would call bretty; the overall impression is more like that of iron-rich blood. Very interesting floral aromatics, with great balance and a longer finish finely delineated by acidity. Very promising. (3/08)

[bottles]Le Piane’s Boca wines are around 85% nebbiolo and 15% vespolina, grown between 1200 and 1500 feet (the highest nebbiolo vines in the already altitudinous Piedmont). Yeasts are indigenous, though why the volatility noted in the Colline Novaresi wines doesn’t affect the vespolina in Boca goes unexplained. Thirty days of skin maceration in open tanks, with hand punchdowns, are followed by three years in Slavonian oak (none of it new), then another eight months in bottle.

There are nine parcels under production in Boca, mostly young vines, with another ten acres on the way. Vines are propagated by a mixture of massale, selection from Künzli’s own vineyards, and some clones from the university. Künzli is hesitant about some of the older clones from his oldest vineyards (though he does get some older material from Valtellina), believing that his new vine material is superior, meaning that it’s “the qualitative equivalent” to the old vines despite a lack of maturity.

Le Piane 2000 Boca (Piedmont) – Beautifully aromatic, with flowers (rose-dominated) and a pretty finish. Just starting to soften, but there’s plenty of life ahead. (3/08)

Le Piane 2001 Boca (Piedmont) – Tighter than the 2000, with its floral aspects glimpsed through the gauze of a semi-closed stage. Tart cherries and massive minerality form the foundation and core of this wine, with graphite-textured tannin. Really terrific, and promising many, many years until maturity. (3/08)

Le Piane 2003 Boca (Piedmont) – The fruit of the ’00 and ’01 takes on a sweeter, more strawberry-like character here, with big tannin and a dense, somewhat shortened finish. I don’t think this will live up to the promise of more balanced vintages, but it might have an earlier appeal. (3/08)

For now, Künzli is pretty much a one-man show in Boca, at least in terms of non-local attention, though he expects this to change in the future. Though the vineyards employed by Sella (in Lessona and Bramaterra) never fell so out of favor as those of Boca, the projects strike me as having some similarities: one dedicated producer out to rebuild the reputation of forgotten land on the strength of their unique expressions of some of the world’s most aromatically and structurally fascinating grapes.

The wines are represented by Adonna Imports of Waltham, Massachusetts. Prices range from the low teens for “la maggiorina,” to around $40 for the Colline Novaresi and $50+ for the Boca.

Disclosure: wines provided by producer and importer, some food provided by importer (who also owns the restaurant in which this tasting occurred).

21 July 2008

Doux date

[vineyard]North of Bize-Minervois, the rocks scattered throughout the seemingly endless vineyards that carpet this region turn white, glinting in the relentless downpour of the southern French sun. This, according to oenophile cartography, is where Minervois turns into St-Jean-de-Minervois, and the deep, powerful reds of the former become the perfumed, rich, muscats of the latter.

Continued here, and including a tasting at Domaine de Barroubio.

19 July 2008

Olive me

[mapua bay sunset]The Nelson area has a lot of eateries, including one frequently-lauded establishment a few steps from our front door. But the locals I’d consulted had arrived at near-universal agreement: Flax (Mapua Wharf, Mapua) is the best of the bunch. And so, we choose it for our final restaurant meal in New Zealand.

Some choices one might like back.

…continued here.

09 July 2008

Screw it

[cork]In some quarters, the long-running closure debate rages on. It shouldn’t. It’s almost over.

How can I make this claim? Do I have access to some new research that no one else has seen? No. Here’s the deal: the screwcap is almost universally acknowledged to work flawlessly (or very, very nearly so) over the short term. Most wine is produced for, and consumed in, the short term. Thus, there is no logical reason for any wine made for near-term consumption to be closed with anything but a screwcap. The only resistance remains adherence to tradition (though this must include the wonderful “tradition” of a taint rate that runs between 2 and 8%, depending on the sample) and fear of the market, especially in Europe. Both understandable reasons, despite the science, but the tide is turning even on Old World shores, and more and more short-term wines are being shipped under screwcap, especially for export markets.

Thus, the entirety of the unanswered question rests on the shoulders of long-aging wines. And here, one can forgive any producer for being confused. There’s an ever-growing body of evidence (most of it from Australia, though that’s changing) that white wines age beautifully under screwcap. And, in fact, where one sees adoption of the technology in the Old World, it’s mostly for longer-aging whites: rieslings, white Burgundies, etc. (One wonders if the market-killing premature-oxidation problem among white Burgundies might be solved in a stroke by the adoption of a different closure. It certainly couldn’t hurt, at this point.) For red wines, the anecdotal evidence is thinner, and certainly more long-term studies would be extremely valuable.

But there’s also a pair of unanswered questions: how much oxygen does a wine need to age, and when does it need it? (It’s useful to define our term here: “age” would, to most people, mean “age in a way similar to that of the best cork-finished wines to which we’re accustomed.” If screwcaps allow 10-year wines to go 40 years before they achieve a similar end-state, that’s to the credit of the closure, but less useful to the consumer without a multi-generational cellar from which to draw.) The problem for winemakers is that the research on this point is cloudy and contradictory.

It has long been believed, by some, that corks allow a gradual transfer of oxygen. “Not so,” said cork manufacturers in the past, when they wanted to assure people of the efficacy of their products despite persistently unmanageable cork taint. And “not so,” said the inventors of synthetic corks, who – after research – determined that the “perfect” seal was what they wanted to emulate (though it’s worth noting that all synthetic corks fail over the short- or medium-term, breaking their seal and allowing oxygen to enter the bottle). More recently, a groundbreaking Australian study came up with an answer of “not exactly,” demonstrating that while some corks did indeed prevent the transfer of oxygen, others allowed it at greatly varying rates. And most recently, a study in Bordeaux found that corks do allow oxygen ingress, at a much less variable rate than found in the Australian study.

The Bordeaux study was funded by a cork producer, and thus its conclusions need to be viewed with mistrust until verified by independent study. The safe conclusion is that there’s no actual conclusion, as yet, from the research. But I think we can do better than that by simple thought experiments, while we wait for the research to achieve surety.

We absolutely know one thing about oxygen: a lot of it is very bad for a wine. Open a bottle, pour half of it into a wide-bottomed decanter, and let it sit. How does it taste after a day? A week? A year? Twenty years? That’s a bottled wine in the presence of a lot of oxygen.

And we know one more thing about oxygen: very little of it does very little. “Do you want to open the bottle and let it breathe?” is, as most wine folk know, a useless question: the dime-shaped portion of wine exposed to air in the neck of an uncorked bottle does nothing to change the wine in the times usually under consideration. This is why young wines are sometimes decanted: to accelerate the effect of oxygenation.

Or consider old bottles. Which are, at auction, the most valuable, controlling for vintage, producer, and cellaring conditions? The ones with the least ullage (the space between the bottom of the cork and the top of the wine). It is believed, and supported by nearly all the tasting evidence available to us over the decades, that low-ullage bottles (that is, those that are closest to their original fill) are the best-preserved; there are occasional exceptions, but they’re rare. High-end producers, though not with closures on their mind, support this notion during their periodic forays into bottle reconditioning, wherein an old wine is quickly uncorked, refilled with a quantity of that wine from their cellar or other bottles of the same wine (or, in some cases, a younger wine), and then sealed with a fresh cork. What purpose to this practice other than to reduce the nefarious influence of excess oxygen, and to replace a closure with a high rate of physical failure before that failure becomes catastrophic?

Moreover, if there’s ullage in a bottle, then something is getting out. And not just oxygen. This is physical evidence that some corks are massively permeable (or allow transfer between their surface and the interior of the bottle; an important difference if you’re a cork producer, but a completely unimportant difference if you’re the producer or owner of the bottle in question; either way, the closure has failed to preserve the wine).

[disassembled screwcap]So we know a lot of oxygen is bad, and a tiny bit of oxygen is meaningless over the short term. The questions, then, are: what about a tiny bit of oxygen over the long term, and what about no oxygen at all?

Some wine chemists have long argued that aging is an anaerobic process, that wine doesn’t need oxygen to do most of what it’s going to do. Newer thinking on this question is a little less certain, and suggests that the tiny amount of oxygen trapped in three places: 1) the wine, post-bottling, 2) the headspace (the gap between the wine and the bottom of the closure) [edit: it's worth noting that this oxygen is usually forced out; a process known as sparging], and 3) the cells of the cork itself, might be all the oxygen a wine needs to age. In practice, steps are taken to remove much of this oxygen in question at bottling, but some remains. However, if the cork is shedding oxygen into the bottle, then a cork really doesn’t provide a barrier against oxygen; if oxygen can move across (say) 35% percent of the cork, what’s to stop it from moving across 100% of the cork, other than the vagaries of the cork’s cellular structure? (I don’t want to dismiss this last point too easily. Cork is from a tree, not a lab, and as such will always exhibit variation; the “natural” quality touted by producers is also the principal source of its physical variability.)

But what about no oxygen at all? Can wine age in a hermetically-sealed container? How about one in which an amount of oxygen similar to that of a cork-finished wine is provided? We just don’t know yet, but early evidence suggests not. We do have some evidence that closures that permit absolutely no oxygen transfer (screwcaps with certain types of liners, for example) can lead to reductive wines, the eventual fate of which we don’t yet know. This problem seems to be preventable by changing a few minor aspects of bottling chemistry (that is to say…and with no little irony…modifying techniques that were designed to protect a newly-bottled wine from the effects of excess oxygen). But this can happen to cork-finished wines as well, and that it doesn’t do so 100% of the time is yet more evidence that corks are variable in their ability to move oxygen around.

We also know that, despite the claims of the Bordeaux study, corks can vary a lot in their ability to let stuff in and out, based again on the evidence of variable ullage in old bottles. Whether or not that study was funded by cork producers and tainted (no pun intended) as a result, the simple fact of the matter is that it only covered three, not thirty or more, years of aging. Minor variations in oxygen transfer can and, sometimes, do become major ones over long periods of time. And as I’ve already noted, the effectiveness and qualitative supremacy of screwcaps over the short term is well-established, so it’s really only these long-aging wines about which we’re currently concerned.

So if we don’t know, but suspect, that an absence of oxygen is no good, at least we do know that as little oxygen as possible seems to be ideal…based, as noted before, on the ullage in old bottles. The choice before us is this: a little oxygen at bottling plus a little oxygen over a long period, or a little oxygen at bottling plus no oxygen at all over a long period.

Given this, isn’t the only question the one asked earlier? How much oxygen does a wine need to age, and when does it need it? Once this is known, and given the continued existence of both cork taint and physical cork failure and/or variability, what reason – other than tradition and fear – is there to continue to use “natural” cork? For – and this is a major point – screwcap liners can be selected for permeability. Once we know “the number” (which may be different for different types of wine), we can tailor closures for that result; something that we’re unlikely to be able to do with corks, unless they cease to be a natural product.

There’s no blame to be assigned to a winery who wants to wait for the evidence before making a switch. Were I making a pricey wine with a reputation to preserve, I’d probably do the same, despite the large number of New World producer’s who’ve made the change already, and are betting their futures on the screwcap. But the evidence will eventually come, despite a several-decade interim period…a period in which we will continue to suffer cork taint, physical cork failure, and cork variability. At some point, this question will be decided, and the screwcap – though by that stage it could just as easily be another alternative closure with similar properties – will emerge the scientific victor.

Cork & screwcap photos used under the terms of a Wikimedia Commons license.

06 July 2008

Fanfare for the Cormòns man

[prosecco vines]There’s a woman at the front desk. She looks surprised to see me. Very surprised. She doesn’t speak any English, so I proceed in my halting Italian. It turns out that my reservation is complete mystery to her. I produce a confirmation email. She stares at it, no doubt convinced it must be fake, or that some detail must be wrong. Except that her name is at the bottom of the email, which makes denying its existence or accuracy somewhat difficult. As the silence lengthens, I begin to have one of those classic traveler stress experiences, in which the possibility of being without lodging starts to sink in. Given the complete lack of other apparent guests, I wouldn’t normally worry…except that strewn across the counter are pamphlets for what appears to be a very major jazz festival. Said festival is this week, and the hotel appears to be the place where all the bands are staying.

The woman disappears into a back office, apparently checking her computer for electronic evidence that I haven’t faked this email, perhaps in concert with Slovenian border guards or something. Then she returns for what must be her tenth fruitless scan of the reservation book. Finally, I can’t take the silence anymore. In Italian: “do you have a room for me or not?”

…continued here.

29 June 2008

Gulls, guests, & gewürztraminer

[tahunanui beach]Something I’ve noticed about long trips: there’s time for parallels and patterns. On a short jaunt, there’s only the headlong rush of moving and doing. The luxury of stepping back and considering is an expensive one at a clip, but relatively inexpensive when there’s nothing but time. Here, on Tahunanui Beach, our thoughts return to Onetangi. It seems so long ago…everything was laid out before us, all was possibility, and it was impossible to know what might happen, or how things might turn out. Now, very close to leaving these shores, the possibilities are now memories. We know what’s happened, and we know how things turned out. Nearly everything is behind us.

…continued here.

24 June 2008

A cute angle

[ste-chapelle window]With a heavenly slab of foie gras poached in Banyuls (thankfully free of any suspiciously white sauces), I ask our somewhat munchable sommelière if there’s a glass of Banyuls that might go better with it than our Condrieu. I don’t get one. Instead, she launches into a mini-soliloquy, explaining that what I really want is a dry red wine. Well, no I don’t…but she does seem convinced. I finally consent. It’s just as well she doesn’t return to inquire after the pairing, because it’s awful. We appear to have lost the love, the hottie sommelière and I.

…continued here.

10 June 2008

To preserve & protect: a defense of the AOC

[storming of the Bastille]When the oft-benighted INAO denied Jean-Paul Brun the appellation for his 2007 Beaujolais “l’Ancien” (story here, follow-up here, and in French here), it didn’t come as much of a surprise. The lowest-quality French appellations – those that produce oceans of mediocrity – are notorious for this sort of thing, in which low-quality producers (often, but not always, cooperatives) punish their leading lights in order to preserve the notion that their own insipid products represent the “status quo.” Such actions, alongside inexplicably silly lawsuits against those who dare to tell the truth about the appellation, don’t exactly slow the steep decline in the region’s reputation.

Of course, there is an ever-increasing list of very high-quality producers in Beaujolais, names like Lapierre, Coudert, Tête, Foillard, Desvignes…and yes, Brun…that are well-known to enthusiasts. Will they be next under the INAO’s guillotine? It seems likely. The difficulty in France is that unlike Italy, where marketable alternatives for wines that fall outside the DOC system have long existed (and in fact, have been strengthened by updated laws), the loss of a French appellation makes a wine virtually unsaleable. A certain measure of salvation comes from the export markets that know and love these wines, and a little bit more from the ultra-naturalist wine bars and shops that are so currently trendy in France (most of the leading lights of the appellation practice highly traditional viticulture and/or low-manipulation winemaking), but there’s no getting around the fact that this is a hard blow to farmers, most of whom are not exactly bathing in liquid diamonds.

While producers can and do run afoul of the INAO for actual violations of the appellation’s technical rules (grape type and source, alcohol level, residual sugar, etc.), cases like Brun’s are due to the most subjective step in the agrément (the granting of the appellation), the committee of a winery’s alleged peers that tastes wines to see if they conform to the appellation’s norms. One can immediately see the problem here: personal bias cannot help but enter the equation. Petty jealousies matter, especially between penny-scraping defenders of mindless tradition and successful quality producers, few of whom are known for tempered opinions regarding the former group. And especially in France, the showy, somewhat internationalized market in which a “star” winemaker plays often breeds resentment in those struggling to sell their grapes to the local cooperative at ever-decreasing prices. It’s a foolproof recipe for exactly what’s happened to Brun and so many others before him, and it’s somewhat of a surprise that it doesn’t happen more often.

It’s easy, and correct, to call such events a failure of the overly-restrictive theory behind the legally-defined appellation as practiced in France. Some think that the solution is to strip appellations of all non-geographic restrictions. Thus, a Beaujolais could be any wine that came from within the confines of Beaujolais, no matter the grape, color, or form. This would bring French wine law into accord with most New World laws, and let the market rule the future. Others favor less extreme measures, but still advocate the elimination of many restrictions and prescriptions in appellation law.

I think this is a mistake.

The problem is that many, perhaps most, people have the wrong idea about the purpose of a legally-defined appellation. Blame for this can be laid squarely at the feet of generations of French winemakers who have promoted it as the top element in a hierarchy, or as a guarantor of quality. It is neither of those things (which makes Italy’s codification of this notion in their allegedly superior DOCG designation – the “G” stands for “garantita,” or “guaranteed,” – preposterous on its face).

A legally-defined appellation has nothing whatsoever to do with quality, and the only thing it guarantees is identity; that is, a product that carries an appellation must have the properties defined by that appellation, whether it be wine (Vosne-Romanée), cheese (Roquefort), or chicken (poulet de Bresse). The granting of a Bordeaux AOC does not mean that a given wine is good, it means that it satisfies a certain set of objective criteria that have nothing to do with subjective quality. It also does not mean that the wine is better than a vin de table, but worse than a Bordeaux Supérieur or a Pauillac. Yet that is what many people have been led to believe.

[INAO logo]Narrowly-defined appellation law could, and perhaps should, restrict itself to scientifically-measurable, objective criteria. Grapes, minimum (or maximum) alcohol, color, form (still/sparkling/sweet), harvest date, soil type, approved and disapproved viticultural and cellar techniques, etc….and eliminate the tasting panel. But would this solve the problem?

Yes and no. It would prevent inexplicable decisions like the one capriciously denying Burn the appellation for a sample of a wine already granted the very same appellation several times. But it is still a restriction, and a harsh one, on what Burn may or may not do. The question must be asked: why is it necessary to limit Burn’s freedom in any fashion whatsoever?

Libertarians and free-thinking New World winemakers are no doubt shouting “yes!” Here’s a counter-argument: because defined appellations have great value. Not so much for the producer, but for the consumer.

The proper way to think of an appellation is as an indication of typicity. That is, the way in which a wine satisfies expectations as to its character. There is nothing to criticize, and everything to praise, in a labeling system that gives the consumer information about the wine within. Of course, no labeling system is perfect, nor can this information be useful without a context of knowledge, but it’s certainly useful to know that, between a Muscadet and a Margaux, one is much more likely to be appreciated with oysters than the other. Or that, given a red Hermitage of recent vintage, there are consequences to opening the wine before it has matured, consequences (decanting, the right food to combat tannin) that must be dealt with to achieve the maximum possible enjoyment.

An appellation as an indicator of character is as clarifying as the knowledge of the consumer allows it to be. The novice may well find that the Muscadet/Margaux differentiation is enough for their satisfaction, while the aficionado may enjoy the fine-grained differences between Chiroubles and Régnié, or Morgon and Moulin-à-Vent. If the appellation is stripped of restriction and meaning, however, such indications cannot be. A Margaux that is, today, a blend of (mostly) cabernet sauvignon and merlot cannot tomorrow be a sparkling viognier, and after that a late-harvest gewürztraminer, without hopelessly confusing customers. Just look at the minor chaos created by simpler confusions, like the level of residual sugar in “dry” Alsatian wines, and multiply that confusion a hundred-fold.

Further, appellations preserve diversity. It is true that not all appellation-preserved wines can currently be assessed as worthy of preservation, but it’s important to remember that things change. As they have, for example, in Beaujolais. The dedicated French supermarket shopper may despair of finding anything worth saving from the region, but the savvy oenophile knows that there’s quality to spare if one knows where to look. That upsurge in quality is, for the most part, a fairly recent occurrence. But had the authorities given up on Beaujolais, no matter how justifiably, and demoted it to vin de pays or worse, would we know the names of the qualitative revolutionaries? Almost certainly not.

[yin yang symbol]In a trend-chasing wine world, appellations codify tradition (which is, after all, what typicity attempts to express). They don’t necessarily preserve quality tradition, but that’s situational; in regions where quality is the tradition, Brun-style problems don’t occur. Appellations mandate the use of grapes that would, in the face of the pure market, be ripped up for ever more endless acres of cabernet, merlot, chardonnay, pinot noir, and the few other well-known, seemingly infinitely-saleable grape varieties that already litter our shelves. They preserve the sharp brine of Muscadet, the delirious spice of Furstentum gewürztraminer, the rocky heights of the Scharzhofberg, the fierce brood of Taurasi, and the rustic smile of Bugey Cerdon, without all of which our world of wine is diminished

So, appellations must be preserved, just as they preserve that which we would otherwise lose. But what they must not be – and this is the critical point – is the final appeal. The crime against Brun is not that he made a wine that the INAO (rightly or wrongly) found atypical, it’s that this finding damaged him. Brun should be allowed to “opt out” of the appellation system and its implied promises of authenticity and identity without suffering economic harm. Current French law doesn’t allow him to do that, but it should. In an ideal world, Brun may choose to make wines within the appellation system, and thus benefit from the information that those designations provide to the consumer, but may also choose to make wines outside that system…wines that are merely Beaujolais by another name, or wines that are as fanciful as his imagination allows (and Brun has quite an imagination). Thus, Brun gains immunity from the jealousy and petulance that would do him economic harm.

One might ask: why a potentially confusing dual system, rather than simply scrapping the most problematic aspect of the agrément, the tasting panel? The argument for the panel’s preservation is that for appellations to have value along the lines that I’ve indicated, they must actually identify typicity. And I don’t know of any way to assess typicity besides tasting. The potential for problems could be greatly mitigated by ensuring that tasting panels are not composed of one’s immediate peers; for example, no one who makes Beaujolais should sit on the Beaujolais panel. This will require some means of assessing qualifications, but certainly France and other countries that grant similar appellations have enough qualified tasters to suffice.

The appellation system has both good and bad aspects. Scrapping it (or hobbling it) is an enticing course of action, but benefits producers (who gain freedom) at the expense of consumers (who lose coherence). And fixing it, in a country as conservative about its traditions as France, seems a venture doomed to failure…or, worse, repair that exacerbates the problem (look at Germany’s attempts to update its own wine law, for example). Instead, why not a minor tweak to the foundation, plus the addition of a worthy counterpart that does not in any way damage the unquestioned marketing power of the AOC? One which heightens the value of the appellation to the consumer and preserves tradition, but which sets the producer free to benefit from both tradition and unfettered experimentation? Everyone benefits. And our world of wine is enhanced.

30 May 2008

Monein changes everything

[sign in pau]It’s a miracle we’re here at all. I can only conclude that “fun” in the Languedoc involves moving signs around so that non-locals can’t find anything. Time and time again, signs point exactly in the opposite of the true direction, and eventually we end up navigating by feel and landmark, keeping the massif of the Montagne d’Alaric firmly on our right. This works until we lose sight of it, after which there’s a lot of stopping to check the Michelin map, driving to the next town, stopping to check the Michelin map…

There’s a rustic charm to the area, despite its navigational vandalism. Historic sites are strewn like litter, and with a few exceptions, villages seem not to have changed for centuries. And vines? They’re everywhere.

…continued here, and featuring a visit to Jurançon’s Domaine Cauhapé.