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.