Saturday, December 27, 2008

WN: And Now Back to Cabernet Franc . . . .

First things first. Appellation America has a great article titled Terroir Denied: Give Cabernet Franc a Chance that unabashedly argues that with a 15:1 ratio of Cabernet Sauvignon to Cabernet Franc planted in Napa, there is undoubtedly land better suited for Cab Franc being wasted to grow mediocre Cab Sauv. It's a great read and I wholeheartedly agree. Just try finding any wine, even a blend, with a significant portion of Cabernet Franc. You'll have a much easier time finding a mediocre Cabernet Sauvignon that's overpriced because of the varietal, appellation, or both.

What really caught my attention, though, was a quote from wine maker Doug Fletcher: "Cabernet Franc is more in the Pinot Noir camp, in that climate affects the character of the wine more than, say, Merlot is affected by the weather." This is a statement that can neither be proved or disproved, but I have noted that Cabernet Franc is extremely versatile and is quite adept at expressing differing styles. I've had one Cab Franc from the Loire that was incredibly dry, structured and tannic. It was clearly a muscular wine built for aging. A different cuvee from the same producer in a different vintage, however, was much more nimble and had a moderate body. Different soil and different weather conditions made a huge difference between two wines from the same producer. Buttonwood Cabernet Franc from the Santa Ynez Valley, meanwhile, does tend towards a more fruit forward style with rustic tannins, but still gives a hint of the earthy qualities Loire Cab Franc provides.

But what really put the Pinot Noir analogy into perspective for me was the Iron Horse 2005 Cabernet Franc. This was a wine that, stylistically, appropriated the best qualities of an elegantly styled Pinot Noir while at the same time expressing the varietal clearly. The translucent ruby color suggested a medium-bodied wine true to the varietal. The bouquet offered up a handful of ripe raspberries just on the verge of being candied, but without crossing the threshold into Skittles land. And yet there was that unmistakeable undercurrent of fresh and minty herbs. Throw in some roses and you've got a winning bouquet, though the 16% Petite Verdot in the blend might have been largely responsible for the floral aspect. It was definitely warm climate Cabernet Franc as the fruit/veggie balance was decidedly tipped to the fruit side, but Cab Franc it was. As good as the bouquet was, the palate was even better. The tannins were moderate, and the body was silky with just enough heft to be seductive. There was no rusticity or clumsyness; it was a pure charmer that carried its 14.5% ABV gracefully. I know this wine aged in oak for quite a while, but it is just seamlessly integrated. And yet it gets better. This wine has excellent acidity that, while higher than the norm, is perfectly in balance. Thus, it makes your mouth water when you first sip and lingers well after you've swallowed. Iron Horse is best known for its sparkling wines and cooler-climate Burgundy varietals like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, so perhaps it's no surprise this producer would execute a Cab Franc in the voluptuous, nuanced style of a perfectly extracted Pinot so well.

Unfortunately, this is the last vintage of Cabernet Franc Iron Horse will be producing. I'll be visiting Iron Horse in Sonoma after Christmas and they have already sold out of the 2005 Cab Franc. It turns out the T-bar-T vineyard where Iron Horse sources its Cab Franc has been sold to a Napa winery, Kathryn Hall Vineyards. Could it be a case of terroir being denied? Keep an eye on the 2006 vintage and beyond to see if Kathryn Hall keeps the Cab Franc vines alive or decides to produce more Cab Sauv in the flashy, extracted Napa style. (Edit: Hall Winery has commented below that they plan to keep producing Cab Franc from T-bar-T indefinitely and that their varietal Cab Franc wines sell out quickly due to an avid following.)

Score: 91-94
Price: $30 from the winery, but sold out

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

WN: Tasting a Couple of Obscure Varietals: Aglianico & Bonarda

It's been a while since I've had an obscure varietal. Tasting Chards and Syrahs is about as anti-obscure as you can get. Fortunately I got back on track with the Villa Carafa 2004 Sannio Aglianico. Aglianico is a dark skinned grape grown in southern Italy and was the varietal used in Falernian wine, the most desired wine in early Rome. The wine this varietal produces is typically described as being dark garnet, tannic, acidic and rich. I have tasted one Aglianico previously, but it was a cheap $5 wine that tasted like a generic inoffensive fake-fruity wine. I figured I'd have better luck finding some varietal expression at a slightly higher price point.

For the most part, this wine lived up to its advance billing. The bouquet was a great combination of crushed flowers, minerality, earth and blackberries. I was kind of hoping this one would bring some good barnyard, too, but it offered more freshly plowed dirt than cow pasture. The palate turned out to be a bit thin, though. The acidity was relatively high while the tannins were moderately low. A modest 13.5% alcohol level and good acidity led to a smooth, lingering cranberry infused finish. In the end, the palate didn't live up to the lively bouquet largely because of the light body. But the varietal itself is definitely worthy of further investigation and this wine in particular would go well with a meal that calls for a dry, palate-cleansing red. The fact that it's not alcoholic, cloyingly fruity or sweet and finishes smoothly while offering a bit of character places it in a favorable position in my book.

Score: 85-88
Price: $15 from Wine Library

The other half of bargain offered in the title of this post comes by way of Mendoza, Argentina. Mendoza is well known for its Malbec with other Bordeaux varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon garnering most of the remainder of the attention. Bonarda, though, seems to have carved out its own niche and is either the most or second most widely planted grape in Argentina (depending of what you read). It's rumored to have been brought to Argentina by Italian immigrants, though genetic testing has linked it to the Savoie region in southeastern France. And if that's not confusing enough, Bonarda is known as Charbono in California where it is currently out of favor. It's supposed to produce a hardy, tannic yet fruity wine that's relatively low in alcohol despite the grapes requiring a longer growing season. Given that it's not a blockbuster grape like Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah that makes jammy wine, it's no surprise that its share of the market here is relatively slim.

Fortunately, Altos las Hormigas has sent us Colonia las Liebres 2006 Bonarda from the southern hemisphere. I didn't take careful, thoughtful notes on this one, but it was definitely a pleasant wine for the price. The nose was very floral with a honey component while there was also a taste of honey without any of the accompanying sweetness one might anticipate. It's definitely a fruit forward style as one would expect given that this wine saw no oak when it was aged. All in all, it's a solid bottle of wine for the price that offers a little rustic character of its own while retaining a nice balance of fruit, alcohol and structure. It's definitely a re-buy.

There's one more twist though that adds to the entertainment value of this wine. It's bottled unfiltered, so in addition to the fermented juice, you'll get the chunky portions of the grape must as well. Most wineries filter their wine for two reasons. First and foremost, the left over material can make a nice home for spoilage microbes. If there's not sufficient care taken in adding sulfur dioxide prior to bottling, there can be significant bottle variation depending on which bacteria or yeast succeed in colonizing the wine. The second reason is simply marketing. Americans are used to processed food that's virtually anticeptic. If we saw what went into a hot dog, chances are we wouldn't eat it. So most wineries do their best to suck out any particulate matter that would make their wine seem "dirty." In reality, they rob the wine of flavor, but if Americans cared more about flavor than homogeneity, there wouldn't be an Applebees in every town. At any rate, it's refreshing that a producer would dare to market a wine that virtually demands decanting and flies in the face of the typical mentality at the under $10 price range. I was pretty careless when decanting this bottle and ended up with some great sediment in my glass as a souvenir after the last glass.

Score: 84-87
Price: $9 from Cost Plus World Market

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Blind Tasting: How Two Buck Chuck Won Its Flight

I'm part of a group of about 20 or 25 people who get together regularly to taste wine and the occasional beer. Our latest tasting was an ambitious one. We had a blind tasting with one flight of six Chardonnays and one flight of six Syrahs ranging in price from $2 to $20. As a control of sorts, Charles Shaw (Two Buck Chuck or 2BC) Chardonnay and Shiraz were included in their respective flights.

Charles Shaw is the big wild card in blind tastings of wines at the lower tier of the price spectrum. First, the variation from bottle to bottle (or bottling to bottling) is significant. One week you may find a $2 bottle that drinks like it cost triple the price. The next week you may find one that tastes overpriced. Charles Shaw is produced on large scales and undoubtedly there are also leftover lots purchased from other winemakers. Multiple bottlings from a mixture of lots will not usually yield consistent results.

Regardless, Two Buck Chuck Chardonnay and Shiraz have both fared well at times in wine competitions like the California State Fair and the International Eastern Wine Competition. I observed this phenomena on a smaller scale recently when tasting a 2BC Shiraz and McWilliams Shiraz blind. Both were unimpressive mass-produced wines, but the 2BC edged the McWilliams based on not having an overt chemical smell. The one thing 2BC has going for it is reasonable balance. The wines do tend to be a little sweet, but also don't have high alcohol levels or unpleasant flavors. They're generally innocuous, albeit unexciting.

So, how did Two Buck Chuck fare on this night? Pretty well. I had the 2BC Chardonnay ranked 1st out of 6 and actually thought it was a $16 wine. I correctly identified the 2BC Shiraz as costing $2, but I still had it ranked 3rd out of 6. To put this in perspective, though, none of the wines were exciting enough that I'd buy them to drink again. More importantly, the Charles Shaw wines were among the few wines that were reasonably balanced.

Out of the six Chardonnays, one was extremely hot and basically undrinkable. Four other Chards were in the fashionable California style with a buttery, viscous mouthfeel, a hint of residual sugar, and a subdued apple and vanilla sort of bouquet. I prefer my white wines to have more crisp acidity and citrus or floral aromatics (i.e. Sauvignon Blanc), and only one of these four, the Edna Valley 2007 Chardonnay, struck a good balance between freshness and the California style. The Two Buck Chuck was the one wine that stood out as different, and in a good way. There was no heat and the wine had a good level of acidity. The nose was citrusy and floral, and there were no overpowering "off" smells. It's now not so surprising that Charles Shaw Chardonnay could win a major wine competition. In an ocean of self-immitating bland mediocrity, Two Buck Chuck's pleasant simplicity and balance stand out.

The Syrah/Shiraz situation was pretty dire as well. Three of the wines were extremely hot, albeit drinkable. One of these, which turned out to be the Yellow Tail, also was noticably sweet. The Two Buck Chuck, despite what I noted as a "wet dog" smell, still beat these three by being relatively balanced and pleasantly fruit forward. The top two wines were nothing spectacular with the 2nd place wine being highly-oaked, yet tasty for this style and the 1st place wine being a fruit bomb without high heat. Other than the Yellow Tail and the 2BC, the Syrahs came from a local retailer who regularly pushes high alcohol fruit bombs in his newsletters. Given my preference for balance and elegance, the lack of a really enjoyable wine from this source is not too surprising.

Perhaps the most amusing result of the tasting was my 5th rated Chardonnay, which I predicted cost $2, turned out to be a $19 Chardonnay from Blackjack Ranch. I've tasted at their winery in Santa Ynez and thought the wines seemed overpriced. It turns out tasting blind backed up this impression! Rather interestingly, the most expensive Syrah, also from Santa Barbara County, came in 5th in its flight. Santa Barbara County may not be the best place to look for good value.

All in all, I think this tasting confirmed what I already suspected. I don't like California-style Chardonnay and I don't like Aussie-style Syrah. Low acidity, a buttery moutfeel and a vanilla nose just don't work for me in a white wine. Noticable alcohol (or worse, the kind that hits you in the sinuses), to my palate, is a major flaw. Clearly, I'd rather have a simple wine like a Two Buck Chuck than a more intense, extracted one if it has a ton of alcohol fumes.

Tasting notes with points assigned at the time are below. I usually assign a score after two glasses, so the "calibration" is probably a little off. In other words, wines that would have pissed me off over a longer time period by being bland or sweet weren't in front of me long enough to draw my ire. In terms of ranking amongst the flights, though, the scoring is OK.

Butterfield Station 2006 Chardonnay: Prediction, $5. Actual, $6. Hot! Nose of alcohol, apple and paint thinner. Viscous with no finish. 70 points (note: this might have been a generous score)

Thomas Fogarty 2006 Skyline: Prediction, $12. Actual, $16. Malolactic characteristics, vanilla, pear, buttery. Some smoke/tar aromas. 83 points (note: this was unoaked but did undergo malolactic fermentation)

Charles Shaw 2007 Chardonnay: Prediction, $16. Actual, $2. Tropical fruit, spice, honeysuckle. Crisp acidity. 86 points. (note: this is probably a generous score as well)

Calina Reserva 2008 Chardonnay: Prediction, $7. Actual, $7. Toejam and spice bouquet. Sweet, buttery and flabby. 79 points. (note: not sure why I didn't hate this one)

Blackjack Ranch 2006 Chardonnay: Prediction, $2. Actual, $19. Blah. Hot, sweet and grassy. 76 points.

Edna Valley 2007 Chardonnay: Prediction, $18. Actual, $12. Good funk on nose. Vanilla and spice. Balanced. 85 points. (note: probably the class of the bunch as it's nicely perched between the simple 2BC style and the buttery California style)

Yellow Tail 2008 Shiraz: Prediction, $9. Actual, $8. Alcohol. Cotton candy and metallic bouquet. Sweet. 78 points.

Laforge Estate 2006 Syrah: Prediction, $18. Actual, $11. Herb, caramel and vanilla. Lots of oak tannins. 84 points. (note: I though this was most expensive based on the amount of oak and suspect this one needs a decant or some age to let the oak settle down. Probably the best value, and typical good stuff from Southern France)

Qupe 2006 Syrah: Prediction, $4. Actual, $15. Alcohol and tar. HOT! Less oak. 71 points. (note: definitely overpriced)

Strong Arms 2006 Shiraz: Prediction, $4. Actual, $11. Hot!!! Caramel. 67 points.

Charles Shaw 2007 Shiraz: Prediction, $2. Actual, $2. Raspberry, tar and wet dog nose. Moderate tannin, good acidity and good mid-palate. 82 points. (note: definite funk on the nose, but was still refreshing compared to the previous two wines)

Woop Woop 2007 Shiraz: Prediction, $15. Actual, $12. Blackberry, clove, spice and a little alcohol. A likeable fruit-bomb. Pretty tannic. 86 points. (note: pure fruit, but pretty one-dimensional Aussie style)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

WBW #52: Viña Maquis 2004 Maquis Lien (WN)

Wine Blogging Wednesday #52 is conveniently right up my alley. The subject: Chilean Value Reds. A Venn diagram of my typical drinking preferences and the red wines Chile has to offer would look something like this:

That's not to say most of what I drink is Chilean wine, but that I usually buy wines that are under $20 dollars and have a little something there to pique my interest. Chilean producers seem to be hitting the mark in this respect. They're usually neither excessively fruity or herbaceous, and have decent structure. That's far more than you can say about most domestic offerings at that price point. Chile also has its own signature varietal, Carmenère, that was introduced from France before phylloxera virtually wiped out the varietal in Europe. I haven't had a really great Carmenère, but it usually makes a decent earthy wine and may be even better as a blending grape.

For WBW #52, I've selected the Viña Maquis 2004 Maquis Lien. I tried the the 2005 Calcu from the same producer a few months ago and was not overly impressed as it came across as both herbaceous and hot. I can handle more green bell peppers and pickle juice than most in my wine, but the Calcu was too one-dimensional in this respect. The bigger problem was the un-integrated alcohol as it replaced any nuance that might have emerged on the finish with heat.

The 2004 Maquis Lien, a blend of 50% Syrah, 23% Carmenère, 12% Cabernet Franc, 8% Petit Verdot and 7% Malbec from the Colchagua Valley, is a bit better than its cousin, but still misses the mark by a bit. There was quite a bit of precipitate in the bottle suggesting the winemakers limited the fining and filtering prior to bottling. The nose is like pure blueberry juice, which is an aroma I usually get from Syrah. There's also earth and a savory, meaty component to the bouquet. So far so good. But there's also that unmistakable ethanol aroma. Unfortunately, the heat carries over to the palate. The wine is fruit-forward on the attack and mid-palate, then unleashes the kind of pure heat on the finish that you catch in your sinuses. OK, that's a bit of hyperbole, but this wine does not carry its 14.5% alcohol particularly gracefully. That's unfortunate since there's a solid backbone of structure with dry, tough tannins to prop up the fruit.

It's a bit frustrating in the end because this one is very close to being a great wine. There's some good depth to it and it's not a completely one-dimensional wine. But the lack of balance knocks this one back a few notches. Future vintages are likely worth trying as Viña Maquis develops its viticultural techniques. I'd bet that right now at least some of their grapes are reaching sugar ripeness before phenolic ripeness, leading to some of the rough edges like herbaceousness, hard tannins and heat. If they're overcropping or not managing the vine canopies properly, these are issues they'll likely address over time.

Score: 81-84
Price: $14 at Cost Plus World Market

For a superior alternative for roughly the same price, I'd recommend the Marques de Casa Concha 2005 Merlot. It has some earthy, herbal notes and a hint of tar to complement ripe dark fruit as well as a healthy dose of oak aging. And, most importantly, it is balanced. It's a Merlot that absolutely blows away fruit-bomb California Merlots (i.e. the sort of Merlots that Miles was bashing in Sideways) at the same price point. Just give it some time in a decanter first to let it breath and it'll drink like a wine that costs twice as much.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

It Ain't Easy Being Green

Next to pimpin', the least easy thing is being green. This is especially true for wine. Wines that smell or taste vegetal are largely unloved. A recent email from one of the local wine shops pretty much sums it up:

"We just finished tasting some truly regrettable South American reds that we guarantee will never appear on our shelves: they smelled like weed-whacking day at the La Brea Tar Pits. Pyrazines (compounds in grapes that impart greenish characteristics) were the apparent culprits. Bordeaux varietal grapes from Chile are frequently afflicted by these vegetal-tasting beasties."

Here's where it gets interesting, though. Pyrazines (or more specifically methoxypyrazines like 3-isobutyl-2-methoxypyrazine) become less prevalent in grapes as they ripen. In California, where grapes can be harvested late in the fall because growers don't have to be concerned with rain diluting the fruit, wines typically have almost no pyrazine aromas or flavors. It's perhaps unsurprising that a California-based retailer whose newsletters praise extremely fruit-forward wines from California, Spain and Australia would find pyrazines unpleasant. The question is whether these wines were truly under-ripe or if they just were slightly "green" in stark contrast to most of what this retailer stocks.

There's obviously no way to answer this question, but it does highlight the thin line between herbaceous, vegetal wines and herbal, earthy wines. Humans are very sensitive to pyrazines, and a little bit can make a big impression. However, individuals' thresholds vary. One person may not detect any pyrazine, while another will in the same wine. One person's wine with a hint of forest floor may be another person's wine that smells like bell peppers in a vegetable garden. Just as a little Brettanomyces can add some smoke or leather to a bouquet while a lot just smells like wet band-aids or manure, a little pyrazine is a complexing agent while a lot makes a wine a one-dimensional veggie-bomb.

The Young Winos of LA have a pretty amusing take on their first experience with a Cab Franc from the Loire. In short, they found a cornucopia of bell peppers. Interestingly, in another tasting note, they describe the Hughes-Wellman 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon as initially smelling "musty, with some forest floor notes, but no fruit" and tasting "a bit unripe" despite "a finish that lasted forever." Without having tasted either of these wines, I nonetheless get the impression that the presence of pyrazines (or the lack of pure, overt fruitiness) came as a surprise to these bloggers. I don't think this is an odd reaction for most wine drinkers who are accustomed to the New World California style of wine that skews towards very phenolically ripe grapes (with the accompanying high sugar/alcohol levels).

However, I don't think this should be the case. A list of varietal characteristics for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc almost always includes green bell pepper. Cabernet Franc in particular is singled out for its herbal or sometimes overly vegetative qualities. Part of this reputation likely stems from the fact that the early-ripening Cab Franc is often grown in cooler climates where even it struggles to fully ripen before harvest. But the Cab Franc grape itself has a thinner skin than Cabernet Sauvignon, and tends more towards a medium-bodied red fruit profile than a full-bodied black fruit profile. My hypothesis is that the fruit is simply less assertive, producing very herbal aromatics even in ripe Cab Franc. For me, ripe Cab Franc is equal parts raspberry, red cherry, damp earth, tobacco leaf and herbs. But even Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot benefit from a hint of pyrazine as long as it's not dominant.

I suppose my take on pyrazines is that often the most interesting and complex wines have a hint of bell pepper that when in balance should come across as more of an herbal or leafy aroma. Wine drinkers shouldn't shy away from this component even if it comes across as a surprise at first. A little pyrazine in a Bordeaux varietal often indicates an elegant, balanced wine with good acidity and a moderate alcohol level. And if more winos gained appreciation for this flavor profile, Cabernet Franc would deservedly have a larger fan base.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The 1947 Cheval Blanc and the 100 Point System

Most regular wine buyers are familiar with those "shelf talkers" that extol the virtues of a wine with a pithy description ended by a score on the 100 point scale pioneered by wine critic Robert Parker. There are undoubtedly wine drinkers who chase points and won't buy anything that scores under the magic 90 point threshold. Those who aren't chasing points, though, tend to have strong negative feelings about the scoring system. In particular, the anti-point crowd maintains wines that tend to be high in alcohol, excessively fruit driven, dense, extracted, heavily oaked and generally unbalanced tend to garner the highest scores. These are wines that can't pair with food and will grab your attention with sheer power, not finesse.

Find any wine blog and this topic has been pretty much beaten to death. Given my preference for balanced wines with more than just fruit and alcohol to offer, I do tend towards the anti-point side. However, points in conjunction with a good stylistic description can be helpful as long as you understand there's no fundamental difference between an 88 and a 90 point score.

But is it possible that high scoring wines are supposed to be unbalanced and attention grabbing? A recent Slate article on the 1947 Chateau Cheval Blanc suggests this may be the case. (Cheval Blanc, incidentally, is a blend of Cabernet Franc and Merlot that is one of the few "great" wines dominated by Cab Franc.) This article perhaps puts the whole Robert Parker 100 point wine rating system in context. A universally respected "great" wine (whose reputation predated Robert Parker's influence as far as I know) ended up with both high alcohol (14.4%) and perhaps some residual sugar, yet lacked in acidity. In fact Robert Parker refers to it as port-like and vinegar-like (volatile acidity is what you get when acetobacter make vinegar) in his description where he rates it 100 points:

"Having a 1947 Cheval Blanc… made me once again realize what a great job I have. The only recent Bordeaux vintage that comes even remotely close to the richness, texture, and viscosity of so many of these right bank 1947s is 1982. What can I say about this mammoth wine that is more like port than dry red table wine? The 1947 Cheval Blanc exhibits such a thick texture it could double as motor oil. The huge nose of fruitcake, chocolate, leather, coffee, and Asian spices is mind-boggling. The unctuous texture and richness of sweet fruit are amazing. Consider the fact that this wine is, technically, appallingly deficient in acidity and excessively high in alcohol. Moreover, its volatile acidity levels would be considered intolerable by modern day oenologists. Yet how can they explain that after 47 years the wine is still remarkably fresh, phenomenally concentrated, and profoundly complex? It has to make you wonder about the direction of modern day winemaking."

It appears that such a wine was an anomaly 6 decades ago. But now that grapes are being grown in warmer climates where grapes have high sugar levels at phenolic maturity and winemakers can regularly achieve high levels of extraction from very ripe fruit, perhaps this is now closer to the norm. Since the bar has been set, though, I can see why the now relatively common "big" wines regularly could garner such high praise (i.e. lots of points).

Maybe "great" wine isn't supposed to pair with food. And perhaps since "great" wine is so expensive you won't get much more than a glass out of it sharing with friends or at a larger tasting, palate fatigue from what would be considered a lack of balance is not an issue. Maybe 50 years from now, when hot climate wines dominate the market place, wines with moderate alcohol levels and balance will be praised as "great" wines as they will be the anomalies from top producers during vintages with unexpectedly moderate weather.

From my perspective, then, all is good and well. I know that an Aussie fruit bomb Shiraz rated at 93 points is not being rated in terms of balance, but in terms of some idealized imbalance. I'll leave those wines to point chasers with more money than taste and go buy myself a Cab Franc for half the price that I'll enjoy doubly as much.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Thanksgiving Red Redux

This has been a good Thanksgiving weekend. There's been some relaxation, some socializing, and of course some eating and drinking (made all the better by the fact that we weren't hosting).

Here's a run down of the red wines from the weekend tasted at various junctures. The nice thing about a big get together, wine-wise, is you can sample an open bottle, then pour a full glass if you like it. As the day goes on, even the less interesting wines are finished off by those who are less picky or just are "thirstier."

Abadal 2006 Cabernet Franc-Tempranillo: A blend of 60% Cabernet Franc and 40% Tempranillo from Catalunya in northeastern Spain. This was a "real" wine as evidenced by the ample precipitate in the bottle. The bouquet was dominated by the Cab Franc giving it more of an herbal and wet forest character. The palate was very dry, and the finish was firmly tannic. Not a wine that I loved, but definitely one with a sense of purpose and identity that probably would have been better in a few years.

Score : 85-89 out of 100

Carmody McKnight 2005 duets: This was a stunner with prime rib at Thanksgiving. This wasn't a wine I picked out, but it might as well have been. It's a Bordeaux blend of about 2/3 Merlot and 1/3 Cabernet Franc from a small winery in western Paso Robles on the Central Coast. Once again Cab Franc did the heavy lifting on the aromatics, while a healthy dose of barrel aging enhanced the structure of the wine. This was a rare wine where the oak complemented ripe fruit instead of masking it. Not over-oaked, not overripe, just an immense wine that nonetheless was true to the varietals in the blend.

Score : 91-94

Lafond 2006 Pinot Noir SRH: Lafond Winery, somewhat surprisingly, is not some gimmicky attempt at putting a famous name on a mediocre bottle of wine. Lafond is a serious winery based in the Santa Rita Hills (SRH) appellation of Santa Barbara County that focuses primarily upon Chardonnay, Syrah and Pinot Noir. The 2006 SRH Pinot is a balanced, elegant expression of the grape. The acidity, tannins, oak influence, and alcohol (13.8%) are all harmoniously balanced, making this a wine that pairs well with food or can hold its own for sipping. The nose provides a little cinnamon, mint and strawberry. It's fruit-forward, yet not made in the bruising style of many Santa Barbara Pinots. I'm not a huge Pinot fan largely because of the exorbitant prices it demands, but this one was worth the $24 price for a special occasion.

Score : 87-90

Red Diamond 2005 (?) Cabernet Sauvignon: I'm actually not 100% sure on the vintage. But odds are it wouldn't really matter. This is a mass produced Cab that aims to be likable instead of interesting. It doesn't smell or taste like Cab and it has a definite burst of sweetness suggesting human intervention before S. Cerevisiae has finished the fermentation. Non-descript, not bad, not good.

Score : 75-79

Santa Barbara Winery 2005 ZCS: Santa Barbara Winery is the second label of Lafond. The 2005 ZCS is a promising blend of Zinfandel, Carignan and Sangiovese. An almost effervescent peppery quality punctuates the finish, which is supposedly a hallmark of Zinfandels. This was a first for me picking this up in a Zin. However the bouquet was sort of half rubbery and half rotten. Interesting, but not great. Maybe some decanting would have given the funk a chance to dissipate or develop.

Score : 80-84

Bodegas Primicia 2001 Rioja Reserva: This is 100% Tempranillo from Rioja, Spain's most historically respected appellation. The Reserva designation requires at least a year of barrel aging and three years aging total before release (though the reserve label is used more liberally outside of Spain). This wine was a big winner. The vanilla of the oak comes through in the bouquet but is complemented by spice, a little barnyard/Brett, coffee and rose. The mature tannins are mellow and the finish is smooth. Although this is not a big wine, it is a sophisticated and complex one. This is definitely a wine with its own identity that scores on every level.

Score : 89-91

Sunday, November 23, 2008

WN: BenMarco 2006 Malbec

As wonderful as it would be, one can't drink Cabernet Franc all the time. There just isn't that much of it around in the first place and it would eventually get a little boring. Fortunately South America is a big help as a producer of tasty wines that won't destroy your credit card. My latest venture south of the equator was the 2006 BenMarco Malbec.

Malbec, like Cabernet Franc, has a role as a blending grape in Bordeaux that lags significantly behind Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in importance. And like Cab Franc, Malbec is prominent in certain appellations in the Loire Valley of France where it's sometimes bottled as a varietal wine. Curiously enough both Cab Franc and Malbec go by other names in the Loire, Breton and Cot, respectively. Unlike Cabernet Franc, however, Malbec is white hot. Like branding iron on a longhorn's behind hot.

Argentinian Malbec in particular has earned a reputation as a great value wine in the US. The Mendoza Valley is ideally suited for growing wine grapes on their original rootstock, which isn't possible in the majority of wine regions where Phylloxera has been introduced. Additionally, many vineyards are at altitude and the climate provides a long, relatively dry growing season that provides grapes every opportunity to ripen perfectly. From past experiences, I've found mid-priced Argentinian Malbecs to be almost like liquid silk.

The BenMarco 2006 Malbec was no different. It's a seamless wine. You sip, the plummy flavor envelops your mouth, then it tapers off every so slowly. The tannins are perceptible, yet very fine grained. There's good mouth-watering acidity, too, to balance out the ripe fruit flavors. Another big plus was the information provided on the bottle. The grapes were grown at about 3000 feet above sea level, there's 10% Bonarda blended with the Malbec, the wine was bottled unfined and unfiltered, and the wine was aged in 50% new barrels and 50% one year old barrels. That's much more useful and honest than a bunch of hyperbolic adjectives that typically are a bunch of lies dreamed up by a marketer.

The one sticking point on this wine is probably the barrel aging. The use of 50% new oak barrels makes a definite impact on the wine. This Malbec didn't taste like pure oak and the subtle oak tannins likely added to the nice finish. But the bouquet was very closed, which is a characteristic I notice in many wines I know have spent a lengthy period in new oak. The aromas of the grape are suppressed, while hints of secondary aromas like vanilla, mocha and smoke from the barrels are about all you can extract. The result is a wine that smells good, yet doesn't really have its own character.

Fortunately, I have a second bottle which I'll try in a year or two. It may just take some time for the fruit to re-emerge and for other nuances to develop. As it is, this is a very enjoyable, technically perfect wine, but a wine that doesn't have much individuality. For $15, though, it's a superb value and you'll be hard pressed to find any wine in that price range with such sophistication.

Score: 88-91 out of 100 (though more of 88 on this night for me)
Price: $15 at Costco

Scoring disclaimer: Scores are based on the "typical" 100 point scale, though I've included a range since there's uncertainty in any human rating where context and expectations can influence the results.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Buttonwoods and Corks

Last weekend was a Buttonwood weekend, to be sure. My girlfriend and I are members of precisely one wine club, that of Buttonwood Farm Winery in Santa Ynez. If price were no object, then we might opt for a winery that sell its wines at a higher price point, or multiple wine clubs for that matter. But Buttonwood has a lot going for it: a varietal Cabernet Franc, a consistent "house style" that eschews the current fashion for massive, super fruity and oaky wines, and no wine over $22.50 (for club members). There's also a consistent aroma in their wines which I suspect might be a hint of Brettanomyces, but that I'm happy to simply chalk up to terroir as it's a smell that I find curiously enjoyable in the context of the wine. Buttonwood may not have any wines capable of producing an epiphany, but its wines do have a distinct character and a sense of purity unencumbered by heavy oak treatment or other manipulation. This is quite an accomplishment at such a modest price.

Friday night we revisited the Buttonwood 2003 Cabernet Franc. This was the wine that got me started on Cab Franc. My palate has evolved since first tasting this wine, but it held up surprisingly well to the evolution of time, both in terms of the contents of the bottle and new experiences in the taster's mind. What I hadn't noticed originally was a little bit of sweetness hanging in there. But everything that I've learned I like in a wine was there: mellow tannins, well-integrated alcohol, an acidic backbone, herbal and earthy tones, red cherry and raspberry flavors, and a subdued floral characteristic. This was a pleasurable, balanced wine that never tired the palate.

Saturday we went to the vineyard to pick up the November wine club shipment and to taste a vertical of their Bordeaux-styled Trevin, a blend of Merlot, Cab Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon. The tasting was actually held inside their winery and featured the 1997, 1999, 2000, 2002 and 2003 vintages of Trevin. What stood out most, perhaps, was that the 1997 vintage seemed fresher than either the 1999 or 2000 vintages. Perhaps not coincidentally, I noticed after tasting the vertical that the '97 Trevin was the only vintage finished with a natural cork. Every vintage after '97 was sealed with a synthetic cork.

Having read "The Science of Wine: From Vine to Glass" by British wine expert Jamie Goode, I'm aware of the pros and cons of different closures. Natural cork provides a nearly ideal seal, but can often taint wine with TCA, giving it a moldy, musty smell. Synthetic corks are taint-free, but don't seal as well as natural corks, allowing wine to oxidize more rapidly. Screw caps offer perhaps the best of both worlds, but aren't as aesthetically appealing and can't be applied in a bottling line that is set up for cork closures.

Thus, my suspicion is that Buttonwood's wines may not be ideally suited for long-term bottle aging because of their choice of closure. However, Buttonwood tends to release its red wines 4 to 6 years after harvest, with a significant chunk of that time devoted to barrel aging. They're usually ready to drink upon release because they've had some time to settle down. In fact, the winery website notes that they stopped using natural cork because of excessive TCA taint, and are less concerned with the potential problems of synthetic corks because most consumers drink their wine within a year of purchase.

I suppose I'll follow their lead. If the wine is ready to drink upon release, then I'll certainly be happy to enjoy it in the short term!

Monday, November 17, 2008

From Franco Files to Cab Franco Files

This blog has had a slightly inauspicious beginning. I had hoped to give it the ever so clever title of "The Franco Files" only to discover that title had already been taken by a blog that's been edited exactly once, in the year 2006. But "The Cab Franco Files" is ever so nearly as clever, and probably is a little less ambiguous in alerting the reader to the fact that this is a wine blog.

If you haven't guessed it already, I will be giving a lot of love to my varietal of choice, Cabernet Franc. It's a somewhat obscure, eccentric and misunderstood varietal, but in my mind it's kind of the bizarro Pinot Noir. Pinot Noir receives much deserved praise for its delicate nature and potential for bouquets of spice, cinnamon, red berries, cloves and a whole range of non-fruit derived aromas. Cabernet Franc, though perhaps not as noble and aristocratic as Pinot, typically produces a wine that's lighter in body than its offspring Cabernet Sauvignon, can similarly provide myriad non-fruit aromas like herbs, violets and mushrooms on a wet forest floor in addition to raspberry and cherry flavors. Cab Franc often offers the same degree of aromatic intensity as a white wine with the structure of a red wine. When done well, Cab Franc is a sensory experience to fully appreciate, and I'll look to give this grape the exposure it deserves.

Although Cabernet Franc will be a focal point of this blog, there'll be plenty of non Cab Franc content as well. I'm not a wine professional, but a relatively new yet enthusiastic and curious wine amateur. I'll be sharing tasting notes, interesting bits of esoterica, and any wine science or history that I come across during my imbibery. I'm always looking for varietals off the beaten track, so hopefully I can also give exposure to varietals even lesser known than than my beloved Cabernet Franc.