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.