Wednesday, December 30, 2009

TN: Weinert 2003 Mendoza Malbec

No picture for this post. But the Weinert 2003 Mendoza Malbec still deserves a note despite less than ideal circumstances for formal tasting. I picked up a bottle in Pennsylvania for a family dinner featuring roasted red meat. While Argentine Malbec is usually a safe choice with its soft tannins and ripe, plummy fruit, this bottle was surprisingly complex if not a bit challenging. In fact, while I've been shying away from Malbec recently, this bottle has me thinking there's more out there beyond monolithic fruit bombs.

The nose had an intriguing mix of musty leather and cedar. While the bottle indicated 3 years of oak aging, a little e-digging revealed the aging takes place in large, neutral oak casks. Thus, the oak was held in check. The wine was medium to full-bodied with plenty of ripe red fruit on the mid-palate. Yet there was serious depth to the persistent finish that has coffee-like flavors as well as some mildly astringent oak tannins. Its age gave it an overall mellow impression.

Even though we drank from small, shallow glasses, the bouquet was effusive. With better stemware, I'm certain this wine could be stunning. It's a sort of cross between Old World funkiness and New World opulence. Weinert is definitely a producer to watch for given its approach. Not only do they practice extended aging in neutral oak, but they also bottle age before release as the 2004 Malbec is their current release. I love producers that have the guts (and capital) to put their wine on the market when it's actually ready. This holds doubly true for those that can mix a bit of rusticity with riper fruit.

Pros: Complex, Medium/Full Bodied, Balanced, Ripe Fruit, Strong Earthy & Funky Bouquet
Cons: Slightly Astringent Tannins
Decant: Yes
Price: $20 from Pennsylvania Wine & Spirits
QPR: Good (out of Poor, Mediocre, Fair, Good or Excellent with Fair denoting expectations were met for the price point)

Monday, December 28, 2009

Revisiting Zins

It's no secret I don't drink a lot of Zinfandel. The popular style relies too much on jammy, raisined fruit, high alcohol and generally exaggerated characteristics. In my mind, this unbalanced approach looks a lot like this in the form of a polar plot:
However, since I've had more Bierzos than Zinfandels, California's 'native' grape, I figured it was worth re-visiting the local favorite. I picked one out that was recommended because of its more elegant approach. As shown above, it was much more acidic than my archetypal mental picture and also less over the top full bodied (due to high alcohol and extract). While better balanced than most Zins, it still was fairly one dimensional and a bit tart, albeit fresh.

So I'm still looking for that elusive medium bodied Zin brimming with complexity. This one was a fair value for the price, though.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

WN: Domaine Terrebrune 2004 Bandol

I'm a bit surprised Jeff at Viva la Wino hasn't reviewed this one yet since K&L Wines was closing it out recently and it's from an awesome little appellation in Provence along the Mediterranean coast of France. Domaine Terrebrune 2004 Bandol is 85% Mourvedre with Cinsault and Grenache rounding out the blend, and is imported by Kermit Lynch (another reason why I'm surprised Jeff hasn't hit this up). Let me begin by saying Mourvedre is one of the greatest grape varieties. It intrinsically is a bit meaty, gamy and and earthy and ripens late, thus even in warmer southern climates it can make a complex, balanced wine on its own. Furthermore, it's one of the most age-worthy reds because of the high level of antioxidant phenolic compounds present in its skins. Finally, because it was nearly wiped out by the vine louse Phylloxera, it only was replanted in its spiritual home of Bandol to any serious degree beginning in the mid-20th century. It's an underdog and one of the few varietals that can make a balanced wine in a warm if not hot climate.

Chances are this wine was in an intermediate phase between youthful exuberance and sage old wisdom. It was a bit aromatically ungiving, but did yield that characteristic animal funk (my girlfriend said chicken coop, but it was more gamy to me) as well as roasted herbs, chocolate, smoke and burnt caramel. Definitely not a fruit bomb, though not excessively rustic, either. It was surprisingly non-rustic and polished on the palate as well, medium to full bodied and showed a classy high-quality oak presence on the mid-palate (probably because large 50-60 hecto-litre barriques are used for aging instead of the popular 225 litre Bordeaux-style barrels). There were dark fruit, coffee and herb flavors and a very pleasing, lingering finish. Both tannins and acidity were present structurally, but neither was angular and stuck out. In particular, the tannins were rounded instead of drying despite being fairly copious.

While I was expecting a wine that was tannic and rustic, what I found was a refined wine that still showed a good bit of character. This opened up in the decanter, and given its balance and structure, I'd bet it would age gracefully. Unfortunately, K&L has sold out of this already. That it showed up on sale was a bit odd in the first place since it had a high critical rating, though perhaps the less-heralded 2004 vintage detracted a bit from its potential luster for collectors.

Incidentally, I will admit to a positive bias towards Mourvedre. If I were to make a second blog, it would definitely be devoted to Mourvedre. I'd even go so far as to say a lot of the Central Coast Syrah should be replaced with Mourvedre, assuming the vines are suited to the vineyard. My girlfriend was less bullish on this wine, using terms like chicken coop and medicinal, so your mileage may vary.

Pros: Balanced, Mildly Funky, Medium-Full Bodied, Refined
Cons: Somewhat Tight Aromatically
Decant: Yes, opened up with air exposure
Price: $23 from K&L Wines
QPR: Good/Excellent (out of Poor, Mediocre, Fair, Good or Excellent with Fair denoting expectations were met for the price point)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Wine Styles, Graphically Speaking

As I mentioned in my original post on plotting wines using structural descriptions, I think it's potentially a good way to give a sense of balance, style and especially intensity. As an example, here are three hypothetical wines, each of which would be considered balanced:
Wine A represents a powerful young wine with lots of stuffing, and is probably the sort of wine that critics would love. While consumers sometimes suggest that critics will rate flabby wines highly, based on the few highly rated wines I've tasted, more often the wines are simply packed with lots of everything. This isn't the only path to quality, though.

Wine B represents a slightly mellower wine, either because it has a bit of age or is simply made in a style that stresses complexity or finesse over raw power. A younger wine with these characteristics likely is the epitome of what critics score in the high 80s. Personally, this would be my choice as the white hot intensity of the previous wine tends to lead to palate fatigue.

Wine C represents a balanced wine that's pretty much boring. There's nothing offensive, but nothing impressive, either. For me this epitomizes a solid, mass-produced 'grocery store' wine. Balanced, yes, but lacking concentration, aroma and flavor. One could do worse, though.

I'd probably find the first wine over the top and fatiguing, especially with food. The last wine just wouldn't be that interesting. Wine B probably would be my choice. But each type has its supporters. There's no right or wrong in taste, only preference.

Monday, December 21, 2009

WN: Domaine de la Chevalier 1996 Bourgueil Les Galichets

A 13 year old Bourgueil? Yes: Domaine de la Chevalier 1996 Bourgueil Les Galichets. So what if Cab Franc isn't considered an aging wine like Cabernet Sauvignon. Terroir usually trumps the grape variety anyway. I doubt many mid-priced Cali Cabs are much good at 13 years.

Upon first pour, what I noticed was how mellow the flavors were, yet at the same time lively. There was very refreshing acidity, which explains the vitality, along with mature tannins. While the wine showed plenty of raspberry and currant-like fruit, a refined herbaceousness had the largest impact on the wine's profile. The nose had a grassy aroma that I've tasted before in both Bourgueils and Chinons (more on this later). Additionally, the finish showed a spicy herbaceousness on the finish that was unique and delicious. Some wines have medicinal, herbal flavors, but this was different. It was pure and lingering instead of muddy and overbearing. Although there was a little leather, it was a relatively small component given the age and appellation. This wine was more than just hanging on at 13 years. It was in its prime, well-resolved yet very much alive.

What really sticks out to me is the particular 'brand' of herbaceousness in this cuvée. This grassy aroma, with an odd hint of lemon zest, showed up almost identically in the 2007 Baudry Les Granges and 2007 Breton Galichets. Galichets translates to gravel, and all three of these wines were made from fruit grown on gravel terroir. (I am uncertain if the Breton and Chevalier Galichets are the same vineyard, or simply the same soil type). I'm beginning to think this particular herbaceousness is unique to Cab Franc grown in gravel. I've commented previously that I prefer the limestone and clay terroirs more, and I think it's because the innate green nuance of the variety shows differently, more as fresh tobacco and bell pepper than cut grass.

So why did I like this aged Chevalier Galichets more than the young Breton Galichets? I'm not certain, but the aging has rounded the edges off. In particular, the herbaceousness seemed more refined and mellow instead of biting and intense. Although this wasn't my favorite style of Franc, it was a really nice find at peak maturity with excellent provenance for the price.

Pros: Mellow Herbaceousness, Medium Body, Lively Acidity & Fruit, Mature Tannins, Balanced
Cons: A Bit Grassy
Decant: Maybe, not much development
Price: $25 from Vinfolio
QPR: Fair/Good (out of Poor, Mediocre, Fair, Good or Excellent with Fair denoting expectations were met for the price point)

Friday, December 18, 2009

Wine Flaws

After having a Pinot Noir a few weeks ago that had wickedly aggressive acidity, I've come to think about what constitutes a wine flaw. This was a Pinot I've tasted before, and at least in the tasting room context it was much more harmonious. Maybe I just wasn't paying attention that day and was seduced by its incredible aromatics. Or maybe some bacteria or yeast went to town and caused the acid in that one bottle to go nuts.

In this context, I'm thinking about bottle flaws, the stuff that goes wrong after the wine goes into the bottle. When entering notes into Cellar Tracker, one has the option to tag a bottled as flawed. I didn't do this for this Pinot, though. I wrote that it smelled good, but had mouth puckering sourness. I'm aware there are a variety of "technical flaws" like volatile acidity, overwhelming Brett and in-bottle fermentation. But to be honest, in a communal setting, I don't think a wine should get a pass for these sorts of flaws. If it's corked or heat damaged, that's beyond a vintner's control, and that's a flawed bottle. Technical flaws point to a flawed wine.

It's the latter case where I think consumers should take a stand and describe or rate a wine as they experience it. A lot of vintners seem willing to compromise consistency in order to pursue stylistic goals, whether its minimal sulfite addition or ultra ripe fruit with a high pH reducing the efficacy of sulfites. I'm sure there are also cases where the vintner simply doesn't know his wine in unstable or has been careless at some point. For example, if a winemaking choice or mistake leads to every other bottle going overwhelmingly Bretty, a vintner shouldn't get a pass. Unless Brett was the vintner's goal, it means the wine was not stable going into the bottle.

The communal aspect is important. A major critic has to be careful about trashing a whole vintage based on one bottle. But we as consumers can give feedback on a bottle by bottle basis. One neg rep isn't the be all end all. Many honest consumers eventually will determine whether there was an isolated problem or a systematic one, as was the case with the Sierra Carche controversy.

Anyway, this is just something to think about. If you browse Cellar Tracker ratings, you'll sometimes see bad bottles of highly rated wines given a pass as flawed for non-bottle reasons. I don't think it always occurs to people that the wine was rated very young, and often a producer may have a limited track record with respect to how their wine holds up. The very things that make it exciting young--effusive ultra-ripe fruit, new oak, residual sugar, low acidity, ultra soft tannins--may be compromising its long term stability. Critics guesstimate how well a wine will do in the bottle, but it's up to us as 'end users' to take the actual data.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

TN: Jo Pithon 2005 Anjou Les Pepinieres

It's taken me a while to get here, but finally I tried a Loire Chenin Blanc, the Jo Pithon 2005 Anjou Les Pepinieres. Much like Cabernet Franc, Chenin Blanc is considered an inferior varietal outside of the Loire Valley. Inside the Loire Valley, however, it can produce dry, off-dry, sweet, sparkling and even Botrytized dessert wines in a variety of styles that only Riesling can match in terms of versatility. Top appellations include Savennieres, Anjoy, Vouvray, Jasnieres and even Chinon, where a small amount of Chinon Blanc is made from Chenin Blanc.

This wine is an experience. When first opened, it smelled honeyed like a dessert wine, but also showed some acetone-like volatile acidity and a brown color suggesting oxidation. Not to worry: it seems this producer employs oxidative winemaking techniques. Since the wine had already met plenty of air, I figured decanting wouldn't hurt. With some of the VA blowing off, the bouquet acquired a honeyed, musky aroma with banana nut bread and spiced rum showing up as well. I'm guessing there's some Botrytis involved here, as well as some isoamly acetate accounting for the banana aromas and oxidation causing the 'nut' in the banana nut bread. Whatever the case may be, this was awesomely unique and funky smelling. The palate, however, was essentially dry despite the dessert-like aromas. The flavors were nonetheless rich and mouth-coating, yet paradoxically weightless due to the acidity. There was the strange sensation of not feeling the acidity up front, then mouth watering on the long, minerally finish.

I'm guessing the volatile acidity level or oxidation might have crossed the threshold into being a 'technical flaw,' but this was just a pleasure to drink. This is a white wine for a red wine drinker that doesn't rely on excessive ripeness and oak like a Cali Chard to add depth. I'm sure there's some oak and ML involved here, but it's all integrated and well balanced. Tons going on for the price.

Pros: Complex Honeyed Bouquet, Rich, Weightless, Long Finish, Minerality
Cons: Volatile Acidity, Oxidation
Decant: Yes, to open up bouquet
Price: $21
QPR: Good (out of Poor, Mediocre, Fair, Good or Excellent with Fair denoting expectations were met for the price point)

Monday, December 14, 2009

Graphical Representation

I've been a bit agitated recently with the subjectivity of tasting notes. One man's raspberry is another's black cherry, after all. I'm an advocate of structural descriptions like acidic, tannic, and full bodied, just to name a few, as opposed to description by analogy like naming very specific smells and flavors. But the question is, how does one best convey these structural terms?

Ann Noble's Aroma Wheel
offers a great starting point:

While there are specific aromas listed, aromas are grouped into families such as fruity, herbaceous, woody and so on. The broader families are what I'd term as structural descriptors, as opposed to analogous descriptors. However, the aroma wheel doesn't paint a full picture because it only addresses smells.

To bring flavors and mouth feel into the picture, I've come up with a polar plot representation that I'm hoping will offer a relatively straight forward graphical depiction of a wine. It's still subjective, of course, but it largely dodges terms that rely heavily on individual experiences:
The 9 (it could be more or less, certainly) structural categories are:
Body - A measure of weight or viscosity, ranging from light bodied at the smallest radius to full bodied at the largest radius.

Aroma - The strength of the aromas, with a very 'tight' wine having a small amplitude.

Fruity - The presence of fruit character, ignoring whether it's blackberry, cherry, citrus and so on.

Herbaceous or Earthy
- These are sort of arbitrarily grouped, but represent the strength of aromas and flavors of bell peppers, mushrooms, veggies, leafy stuff and basically anything that grows or come from dirt.

Funky - This encompasses meaty, barnyardy and sulfrous aromas and flavors or even aromas like ethyl acetate (nail polish remover smell) that could be considered flaws. It's kind of a measure of umami, as well as generally unexpected qualities that are neither fruit nor veggie.

Floral or Spice - Again, an arbitrary grouping to limit the number of categories, but I think of these as both 'high-toned' aromas.

Oak - This category includes vanilla, toast and certain spice aromas as well as the occasionally astringent woody flavors and mid-palate weight resulting from barrel aging.

Tannin - Purely a measure of the intensity of mouth-drying tannins, though there is some ambiguity as tannins can be astringent, soft, sweet, fruity and so on depending on their source and maturity level.

Acidity - This is how sour a wine tastes, as well as how mouth watering it is. The more sour, the higher the acidity and the larger the amplitude plotted.
Here I've plotted a 'stereotypical' Parkerized wine and an Old World wine as an example. The graphical representation really highlights that the modern, California style wine stresses fruit, oak and density in the mouth, while a typical French or Italian wine will often be focused upon aromatics, earthy and funky qualities, and acidity. It also suggests the two styles are near polar opposites in terms of acidity, funkiness, fruit expression and use of oak.

Since I've been critiquing standard tasting notes, I guess I ought to propose an alternative. Well, here it is. I'll be using these polar plots with my notes to offer a graphical representation of each wine I post here. I'll be interested to see how this little experiment turns out. My thinking is that at the very least it may make it easier to justify the use of terms such as balance or complexity. Chances are if you see a curve that's more spiky than round, a wine is not balanced and probably lacks complexity as well. Meanwhile, a mundane wine may have a round shape to its plot with small amplitudes, indicating that it's balanced but provides little of interest to the taster.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Graphite

Graphite, unlike quince and toast (a.k.a. pain grillé), is not something one typically tastes. And yet it's a fairly common tasting note descriptor. Well, you can taste it, but you'd really need to go out of your way to do it. There's plenty of precedent for non edible descriptors like barnyard, flint, smoke, cedar and so on. However, graphite is nothing more than carbon bonded in sheets. The reason anything smells is because of volatile compounds such as esters. When your compound is bonded together into a crystal, you're not going to smell much of anything.

It appears likely that graphite as a wine descriptor is related to other terms such as #2 pencil lead, pencil shavings and even cedar. After all, most people experience graphite as a component of pencil lead (though lead is a misnomer since pencils no longer contain any lead). But it turns out that graphite isn't even the proper description for the writing part of the pencil. It's graphite and China clay, which has kaolin in it. Kaolin, apparently, has an earthy, metallic aroma.

Yet most people don't smell the kaolin by itself. It's usually ground up with the cedar wood part of the pencil and mechanically volatilized. Thus while pencil shavings have a distinct smell, they're neither lead, graphite, kaolin or cedar individually. They a mix of kaolin, cedar and perhaps the yellow paint or other impurities in the clay,

In sum:

Graphite = WRONG. It smells of nothing, is not readily tasted, and what smells in pencil shavings is just about everything else.
#2 Pencil Lead = WRONG. It's overly specific, and pencils aren't made from lead anyway.
Pencil Shavings = OK. Between the cedar and mechanical volatilization, there's a very obvious and unique aroma associated with it.
Cedar = OK. Even as a chunk of wood, it is distinct and very aromatic.

It seems in the interest of unnecessary degrees of specificity, the wine world has rather ironically added a term with an ambiguous meaning to its lexicon. What good is a descriptor if it has no commonly understood meaning? Ask several winos what graphite actually means in the context of wine, and you'll likely get several different answers. This is a case where everyone would be better off if the pretense were to be dropped. Wine is already complicated enough between the appellation system, hundreds of varietals, stylistic preferences and myriad terroirs that it's wholly unnecessary to invent meaningless descriptors. Let's stick to the logical ones: metallic, earthy or even, yes, pencil shavings.

Monday, December 7, 2009

TN: Chateau Nenine 2006 Cotes de Bordeaux

The Chateau Nenine 2006 Cotes de Bordeaux is a blend of 40% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Franc and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. It's also inexpensive and available at Trader Joe's.

It's not terrible, but not interesting, either. The nose is tight, with only Bretty band-aid and some metallic cherry aromas. I don't often call a wine thin, but this wine qualifies. There's just not much intensity to the flavor. It's mostly a medicinal cherry flavor anyway, so maybe that's a good thing. On the finish there are drying tannins and little else.

On one hand, this isn't over-extracted and over-oaked in the way a cheap California wine would be. But it's equally boring. An unstructured fruity wine from Spain or Southern France would be far better at this price point.

Pros: Not Offensive
Cons: Thin, Dull, No Finish, Hollow mid-palate
Decant: No
Price: $8 from Trader Joe's
QPR: Mediocre (out of Poor, Mediocre, Fair, Good or Excellent with Fair denoting expectations were met for the price point)

Thursday, December 3, 2009

TN: Alexander Valley Vineyards 2007 Cabernet Franc

The Alexander Valley Vineyards 2007 Cabernet Franc is a bit of a rarity in California; it's a mid-priced Cab Franc. AVV, located as one would expect in the Alexander Valley AVA (pictured to the right of the neck of the bottle), is a fairly large independently owned producer, and they seem to be known as a reliable producer that offers good values. Maybe that qualifies AVV as the rough equivalent of an unclassified chateau in Bordeaux. I've tasted their Cabernet Sauvignon and definitely felt it was unexpectedly honest, elegant and complex wine for the price, albeit not the most structured Cab. Their Cab Franc also fits that bill pretty well.

The nose was pretty tight. Despite the low amplitude, the pitch was correct for a Franc: tobacco, cedar and currant with barrel influence in the background. The taste was even better with good freshness and an elegant, seamless quality to it. It was a medium bodied wine with moderate extraction, and it showed a pleasant chocolate-like bitterness and light dusty tannins on the finish. There was a certain juiciness to the wine giving it a more fruit-forward impression than its French cousins, but it nonetheless had decent balance and structure.

Looking at the wine's data sheet, AVV notes 14% ABV, 6 g/L TA and 3.53 pH. For a California Franc, those are great stats. Often California Francs tend towards very high alcohol and poor acidic structure, yet still show a lot of bell pepper aromas. This wine hits that sweet spot of medium acid, medium alcohol and moderate herbaceous nuance. Perhaps it's less aromatically complex and structured than a Chinon, but it seems a nice reflection of its own terroir. Certainly it's not over-oaked, over-extracted or over-manipulated like so many CA wines in this price range.

Pros: Balanced Earth and Fruit Expression, Fresh, Elegant, Medium Body
Cons: Tight Aromatics, Lacking Some Complexity
Decant: Yes, to open up aromas
Price: $21
QPR: Fair/Good (out of Poor, Mediocre, Fair, Good or Excellent with Fair denoting expectations were met for the price point)

Monday, November 30, 2009

WN: Braunstein 2004 Leithaberg Rot

The Braunstein 2004 Leithaberg Rot has a lot going against it, which is probably why I found it several months ago on sale for $20. It's priced at 20 Euros typically, which translates to about $40 for us Americans. Rot just doesn't sound sexy even though all it means is red. Meanwhile, the wine consists of 75% Blaufränkisch and 25% Zweigelt. What kind of rot-blooded American would drink anything other than Zin, Cab or Chard? Blaufränkisch also goes by the aliases Lemberger, Blauer Limberger, Frankovka, Franconia, and Kékfrankos, just to name a few. How are you going to abbreviate it to one syllable for sale to the masses if you don't even know what to call it? And do the masses even know what an umlaut is?

In short, we have a rot wine made from a varietal that sounds like a stinky cheese. That's a recipe for a discount, regardless of quality. Since I like value and exploring unfamiliar wine regions--in this case it's Leithaberg in the eastern-most Austrian state of Burgenland--this one was a no brainer.

I didn't know quite what to expect from this wine. Blaufränkisch, according to its Wiki, is a late ripening grape that makes a dark wine with fruity and spicy flavors. Other sources compare it to Merlot and Gamay Noir, and suggest it makes a good introductory wine due to its medium body, lighter tannins and fruit-forward flavors. (Aside: I'm not so certain about the latter statement as new wine drinkers are often most attracted to powerful, oaky wines with varietal names like Cab or Chard or unstructured, slightly sweet wines like Charles Shaw, YellowTail or any generic Pinot Grigio.) Zweigelt, meanwhile, is a cross of Blaufränkisch and St. Laurent that is supposedly more cold hardy and ripens earlier. Since it tends towards high yields, it may produce a pedestrian wine without hard work in the vineyard.

As it turned out, the descriptions were pretty much on-target. The wine was dark in color, but had the medium body and light tannins of a good Pinot Noir. It definitely was not a beginner's wine, though. While there were aromas and flavors of cherries and raspberries, tobacco was the most prominent component of the wine. It was most obvious in the bouquet and the finish where it added a savory layer of complexity to the fruit forward attack. The acidity was medium low, but appropriate for the weight of the wine. There was also a light impression of high quality oak that added some mid-palate presence, yet was wholly complementary.

Wines labeled with the Leithaberg appellation, according to their website, must express their terroir, avoid the international (Parkerized) style, and possess balance and elegance. Having read their PR copy after tasting the wine, I'd have to say that it's 100% true. Not only did this wine express a unique character, it's flat out good.

Even at $40 full retail price, this wine would be fairly priced. I feel like I practically stole it for $20. It's essentially a better and more mature version of the 2007 Pied de la Butte I recently tasted. Then again, I love the tobacco of a good Cab Franc, and I love the supple elegance of a good Pinot Noir. This wine brings both of these qualities together. I'd even hazard to guess that if given more age, the fresh tobacco aromas might evolve into an even more complex cigar box bouquet, though it might come at the expense of some of the delicious fruit this has now.

The Braunstein 2004 Leithaberg Rot is a stunning, awesome wine. I'm adding Leithaberg to my list of regions like Chinon, Bourgueil, Bierzo and Mount Etna that can produce superior medium bodied wines of terroir without the exorbitant prices Burgundy or California will often demand. Everyone should put down their glasses of over-extracted Napa Cabs and go out right now to try something from Leithaberg. If you can find it!

Pros: Tobacco, Red Fruit, Medium Bodied, Balanced, Elegant, Deep, Complex, Seamless, Long Finish
Cons: None
Decant: Yes
Price: $20 from K&L Wines
QPR: Excellent (out of Poor, Mediocre, Fair, Good or Excellent with Fair denoting expectations were met for the price point)

Thursday, November 26, 2009

TN: Cimarone 2007 3CV Bank

Cimarone is a new producer in the recently created Happy Canyon AVA located in the eastern end of the Santa Ynez Valley. The Cimarone 2007 3CV Bank is their entry-level wine made with estate fruit from Three Creek Vineyard. Based on the blend of 47% Cabernet Franc, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Syrah, 4% Merlot, 3% Malbec, and 3% Petit Verdot, this wine looks like it consists primarily of the fruit that didn't maker the cut in their luxury cuvée, Le Clos Secret. Regardless, I like to try the lower level wines to get a sense of a winery's style, and this wine also provided a good chance to re-visit something I tried previously.

The bouquet reflects the contributions of both Cabernets with cedar, dried herbs and currants front and center. Barrel aromas of toast and caramel, fortunately, are secondary and not too distracting. Tasted blind, I might well have pegged this as a Chilean Carmenere based on the nose. The flavors are typical of an oak aged Bordeaux blend with dark fruit and moderate weight on the mid-palate. Unfortunately, the finish is poor. It's harsh, somewhat medicinal and a little hot. While the wine is not overly tannic, I can't help but think it's over-extracted because of the bitter, herbal flavors that linger.

I really liked this wine when I tasted it a few months ago. I think this confirms what I've always thought: a small taste is very different than a full glass or two. A taster can only pick up several aromas at once, thus more than a few sniffs are required to unlock all of a wine's aromas. Moreover, the harshness of a highly extracted wine usually becomes more pronounced with more sips. Upon further review, this just isn't more than an average wine despite the lovely earthy aromatics. Many $15 to $20 Chilean wines offer similar qualities, but simply taste better.

Pros: Earthy Aromas, Dark Fruit, Moderate Tannins
Cons: Harsh Finish, Some Obvious Oak, Over-extracted (?)
Decant: Yes, mainly to avoid sediment
Price: $22 from Tastes of the Valleys
QPR: Poor/Mediocre (out of Poor, Mediocre, Fair, Good or Excellent with Fair denoting expectations were met for the price point)

Monday, November 23, 2009

TN: Pascal Janvier 2008 Cuvée du Rosier

Get ready, here's another Kermit Lynch import: Pascal Janvier 2008 Cuvée du Rosier. The varietal of record here is Pineau d'Aunis, which has all manner of bizarre characteristics ascribed to it such as the flavor of pure pencil lead and Pinot Noir spiked with Pine Sol. Moreover, the wine hails from the Loire appellation of the Coteaux du Loir (that's not a typo, Loir has no 'e' in this version), an apparent ellipse of vineyards nearly due north of my beloved Chinon and Bourgueil.

Clearly, this is not going to be your typical tasting experience. Here are my notes:
Whoa! This wine defies numerical ratings, it's in its own orthogonal space. The bouquet resembles a good Beaujolais. There's tart red fruits like pomegranate and cranberry. Then pepper and meat. The flavors are very much cranberry-like, too. Tart red fruit attacks, then the bizarre finish sweeps in. It reminded me of retsina, the Greek wine made with pine resin. While it was weird to me, it didn't make me shudder. There are dusty tannins despite the rosé-like weight and color of the wine.

There was also a slight tongue tingle, maybe due to in-bottle fermentation. Decanting will get rid of this. This would be a flaw in a generic wine, but I suspect in the curious world of 'vin naturale,' this is a feature. Regardless, the purity of this idiosyncratic wine was impressive.
Strange yet not cringe-worthy sums it up. My girlfriend felt differently, however, so this is not going to be a general crowd-pleaser. It's a food wine, for certain, as it is intensely dry and mineral-laden in nature. And I have a suspicion that very little sulfur dioxide was used, which likely means each bottle will be unique like a snowflake. In-bottle malo-lactic fermentation can yield a slight spritz of carbon dioxide as well as meaty aromas, thus I suspect there might have been a bit of ML taking place.

Flawed? Unique? Memorable? Bizarre? Fascinating? Brilliant? Welcome to the outside of the box. I'm not sure I'd want to live there as some wine geeks do (see Feiring, Alice), but it's an interesting place to visit. I think I'll take 20% new French oak and sulfur dioxide before bottling 90% of the time. This is for that other 10% of the time.

Pros: Fresh, Dry, Light Body, Food Friendly
Cons: Potential Bottle Variation, Difficult/Weird Resinous Finish
Decant: Yes, allows CO2 to dissipate
Price: $17 from K&L Wines
QPR: Fair (out of Poor, Mediocre, Fair, Good or Excellent with Fair denoting expectations were met for the price point)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

TN: Marcel Lapierre 2007 Morgon

The Marcel Lapierre 2007 Morgon is the first Beaujolais I've consumed as more than a sip at a tasting. There are two things I know about Beaujolais. First, the varietal of record is Gamay Noir, which is treated like Pinot Noir's red-headed step-cousin. Since I like underdog stories--Cab Franc being treated as Cabernet Sauvignon's wacky uncle instead of its distinguished father is my classic favorite--there's some appeal on those grounds. The second fact I've learned is Cru Beaujolais, labeled by its sub-appellation (like Morgon), is an entirely different beast than the Village or Nouveau wines one might find in a grocery store.

This cuvée, imported by the master wine finder Kermit Lynch, is the same one made famous by Dirty South Wine's 101.85 Silent Ferret Whistle! rating. It's a lighter bodied wine that shows a purity of fruit and freshness of acidity that simply cannot be found in a domestic wine. It's not tannic, and the weightlessness carries over to the finish. While I like a bit more meat on the bone, so to speak, it's the transparency that's so compelling. This is most apparent on the nose, which is a complex stew of earth, pepper, cherry and floral aromas. I get the feeling vintage, varietal and terroir are all being presented unencumbered by external influence.

This wine receives no sulfur, I think, so storage and provenance are vital. What makes it transparent also makes it delicate. While this is probably not a re-buy, I'll be looking for this in future vintages. I'd really, really dig this if it had a little more weight and depth to complement the freshness and purity of expression. Maybe not quite a Silent Ferret Whistle! for me, but it's at least a Pregnant Bull Moose Call if not a Steel Drum Gamelan Fusion.

Pros: Minimal Oak Influence, Fresh, Transparency of Expression, Complex Aromas
Cons: Lack of Depth to Flavors
Decant: Maybe
Price: $22 from East Beach Wine
QPR: Fair (out of Poor, Mediocre, Fair, Good or Excellent with Fair denoting expectations were met for the price point)

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Beer Equivalency

Drinking wine in an analytic way has helped me put beer styles in better perspective. Take for example India Pale Ale (IPA). I used to love IPA, but I've come to realize that they're generally poorly balanced. And yet they represent a beer drinker's beer, much in the same way a Napa Cab would be a wine drinker's wine. IPA's tend be high alcohol, which gives them a degree of robustness not found in lighter beers, but what's usually most noticeable is the hops. Some IPAs are extremely bitter and almost metallic tasting because of the hoppiness, and are aromatically dominated by the hops as well. This represents almost a one-to-one correlation with a highly, extracted, high alcohol, heavily oaked Napa-style wine. Here there's bitterness and aromatics dominated by oak influence, as well as tannins from both fruit and oak that drown out any nuance.

I'm no expert, but Double (Triple?) IPAs and Russian Imperial Stouts seem to be the most extreme examples in the genre. Certainly I'd go to these as man beers, especially because of the effects of the elevated alcohol. But given that brewing offers the flexibility to combine virtually any ingredient to add flavors and aromas, it almost seems a waste to focus on power at the expense of complexity.

On an unrelated note, a couple of beers I tasted from Telegraph Brewing Company in Santa Barbara showed an unexpected aroma: funk. As in Brett funk. This was present in both their California Ale and Stock Porter. I know they produce one beer, a wheat ale, intentionally using Brettanomyces yeast. They also note the California Ale is "fermented with a unique yeast strain that accentuates the hoppy spiciness, while also imparting fruity and subtly tart flavors." Maybe I'm reading too much into this, but Brett produces acid in the process of fermentation and when allowed to dominate the fermentation produces sour ales. Is the "tartness" from a "unique yeast strain" really referring to a controlled, secondary contribution from Brett? The brewery also writes that the "aromas are spicy and earthy, reminiscent of the rich agricultural valleys surrounding Santa Barbara." A euphemism for animale funk, perhaps?

The Porter meanwhile is aged in Zinfandel barrels, so that's another potential source of Brett. Furthermore, their beers are bottle conditioned, which I take to mean there are fermentable sugars and yeast that continue the fermentation in bottle. You can be sure that if Brett's around, it'll assist in the bottle conditioning since it's a very robust micro-critter.

Anyway, these were complex, medium bodied beers. Whether the Brett was intentional or introduced from ambient sources (barrels, another beer), it added a little attractive rusticity that one rarely finds outside the wine world. Now if only wineries could figure out how to co-exist with Brett. Right now, at least in the US, it's treated like the plague. Maybe brewing in relative micro-quantities allows one to manage Brett where in the less controlled fermentation of grapes it might run completely rampant, however.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

TN: Domaine de la Butte 2007 Pied de la Butte

The Domaine de la Butte 2007 Pied de la Butte is the second wine I've tried from this producer, with the first being a 2006 from a different portion of the Domaine's vineyards. I enjoyed the 2006 Perrieres, but the Pied de la Butte sees no barrel aging and is from the potentially tougher 2007 vintage.

The verdict: I really liked this wine. The nose is very green, as was the case with two other 2007s I've tried from the Loire Valley, but it came across as fresh tobacco, not weediness. Maybe I was in the right mood this time, or maybe this was a different sort of green than the other 2007s showed. Either way, it seemed to fit. The palate also seemed better balanced, with the high acidity offset by deeper berry flavors. In fact, the wine tasted slightly off-dry to me, a balancing technique often employed with high-acid white wines. Since the vigneron Jacky Blot is known primarily for his Chenin Blanc, which is made in a variety of styles with residual sugar, I wouldn't be surprised if he left a little RS to offset the tart acids. The finish rounded everything out with more earthy bitterness, tobacco and a dose of young tannins.

While not a deep wine, I enjoyed the mix of greenness, richness and freshness. At $16, this would be a re-buy for me. It might even be an interesting experiment in aging to see if the fresh tobacco takes on more of a cigar-like quality in time. If age dries out fruit flavors, why not tobacco flavors as well? Aging questions aside, Domaine de la Butte is on my "buy on sight" list now.

Pros: Tobacco, Rich Yet Acidic, Earthy Finish
Cons: One-Dimensional Bouquet
Decant: Yes, tons of sediment in bottle
Price: $16 from K&L Wines
QPR: Good/Excellent (out of Poor, Mediocre, Fair, Good or Excellent with Fair denoting expectations were met for the price point)

Friday, November 6, 2009

How (not) to sell a budget Shiraz (?)

I'm on the mailing list of one local wine shop whose marketing emails generally seem to border on self parody. They're always pitching a Shiraz or Chardonnay because of its intensity and richness using terms straight out of the Parker lexicon, and the price is always around $15.

Maybe the owner sincerely likes these wines, but given that the emails tend only to pitch a single wine, more often than not I get the impression they're very profitable wines they can sell in quantity. Gotta stay in business. I get it. But this latest email, which I'll break down below, is simply over the top. Names are removed to protect the innocent. The email starts with a perverse flourish, then snowballs from there:
Vintages (and size) both matter.
Ed: What is this, a male enhancement commercial?

[Wine Name Redacted] 2008 Shiraz...$11.99

I've been a fan of [Wine Name Redacted] since the first vintage I tasted, about four years ago. Made by the talented [Winemaker Redacted], this uber-value has achieved a new, unexpected level of succulence and overtly hedonistic flavors in the 2008 vintage.

Ed: Great, hedonistic AND ultra-value. No mention of balance or elegance, however . . . .

Tangled up in blue

This olfactory-encompassing Aussie stains the glass, the palate and beyond. Your dental hygienist will berate you at the next cleaning because traces of this purple/black beastie will permanently darken your smile. If you spill it anywhere at home, plan on reupholstering the sofa, tearing out the carpeting and burning any clothing it accidentally soaks into. Handle with care...

Ed: I get it, this wine is so over-extracted it will wreck everything in its path. Sounds like a great selling point!

It's well worth the danger

South Australia keeps producing and sending us these powerhouse Shiraz (Shirazes?), and we gladly savor them, especially in this thrifty price range.

[review snipped . . . .]

This Aussie will give you a purple grin without looting your bank account!
Ed: Finally, a positive selling point. While this wine will ruin your teeth, clothing, carpet, sofa, human relationships, and potentially give you a massive hard-on, it won't rob you at gunpoint.

And you wonder why I'm cynical about cheap Aussie Shiraz?

Monday, November 2, 2009

TN: Buttonwood 2002 Cabernet Franc

The Buttonwood 2002 Cabernet Franc is 100% varietal Cabernet Franc, labeled at 13.6% ABV. Sounds like a nice combo in theory, and it also works out well in practice. Buttonwood is a Santa Ynez producer primarily of Bordeaux varietals, and what makes them interesting is a unique attractively rustic "house style" combined with the majority of wines priced at under $20. Their reds receive extended aging in older barrels, which imparts a character to their wines that most producers with their 18 months in 50% new oak sort of regimes don't achieve. I think they do lose some varietal character due to their "house style," but the wines are nonetheless individualistic.

This wine opened up with the "Buttonwood funk" as I call it based on tasting a variety of their wines. I'm guessing it's some form of Brett or microbially produced aroma, but it's definitely not your garden variety barnyard smell. Once the wine opened up herbs and currants were also noticeable, but the house style funk remained most prominent. Middle-weight blackberry flavors backed by appropriate acidity showed on the palate. What I liked most, though, were the coffee and earth flavors on the lingering finish and the copious, mature tannins. This is not an overly complex or elegant wine, but it's true to itself and its age has rounded off a few of the rustic edges.

I purchased this wine as part of a vertical including the 2001, 2002 and 2003 vintages for $14 per bottle. This was my favorite bottle of the three, and taken individually or together they represent a great value. The only caveat is that they're bottled with synthetic corks, and I know these aren't good for long-term aging. Buttonwood expects you to drink their wines on release, basically.

Pros: Rustic House Style, Pleasingly Bitter Finish, Mature Tannins
Cons: Not Complex
Decant: Yes, develops with air
Price: $14 from Buttonwood Winery
QPR: Excellent (out of Poor, Mediocre, Fair, Good or Excellent with Fair denoting expectations were met for the price point)

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Quince

I've seen quince used as a descriptor in tasting notes fairly often, especially with respect to white wines. Thanks to the new local Whole Foods (i.e. Whole Paycheck), I got a chance to try to a quince for just a bit more than the price of an apple.

The quince is an interesting fruit. It looks like a pear, but is a bit more spherical in shape just like in the Wikipedia image. Tastes like a pear, too, but is somewhat crisp in structure like an apple, and more acidic like a citrus fruit. The real surprise, though, is that it's as tannic as any Cabernet you'll ever taste. Despite being juicy, it simply dries your mouth out as the tannins lock down on your proteins. I now understand why it's not found at your everyday grocery store. Just like the Brits' other favorite fruit, the currant, it's not something one just picks up and chows down on.

It's interesting to consider that, while the correspondence isn't exactly one to one, a British palate might well describe a pear in terms of its relationship to a quince. Just as I imagine that a currant in a tasting note represents some sort of earthy, exotic blackberry, I'll imagine a quince as a pear-like fruit with other qualities added to it. Good to know when trying to decode the obscure language of a tasting note.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

TN: Bedford Thompson 2001 Cabernet Franc

The Bedford Thompson 2001 Cabernet Franc is a rarity in quite a few ways. It's the current release of Bedford Winery despite being 8 years past vintage and is labeled at 13.8% alcohol. These are remarkable numbers in California where boutique wineries churn out new vintages 18 months or less after harvest with ABVs regularly above 15%. Furthermore, since winemaker Stephen Bedford is no longer associated with Thompson Vineyard (located in Los Alamos between Santa Ynez and Santa Maria on the map to the left), there won't be much more of his Thompson Vineyard Cab Franc, though I don't know for sure what will be his final vintage. Thompson Vineyard in fact has yanked all of its Cabernet Franc due to poor yields, so there will be no more Thomson Vineyard Franc from anyone at a certain point.

On to the wine itself: this is a delicious tobacco bomb! The nose exudes cigar box aromas, and the finish is layered with tobacco as well. The bouquet also shows dried fruit like prunes and dried brush like sage. In a young wine dried fruit is a sign of over ripeness, but in an older wine like this, it's more likely the evolution of the wine's fruit providing this profile. Certainly the flavors aren't pruney; in fact, the fruit is subtle and earthy flavors are more prominent. Hearty tannins are also evident, but clearly have softened to the point they are complementary. According to a local wine shop owner, Bedford's wines were extremely tannic in their youth. I'd figure this wine has reached a nice point for drinking in the near term.

Unlike nearly all California wine, this is an amazing QPR at $24 from the winery given its age and quality. While I usually like a bit more fleshy fresh fruit on the mid-palate, this wine is exactly what it should be. There's tobacco from the varietal expression, and port-like notes due to the age. We shared a bottle over 3 or 4 hours, meaning it was something to be savored bit by bit. No point score can quantify incremental enjoyment of this sort.

Pros: Intense Tobacco & Cigar Box, Aged Port-like Aromas, Balanced Acidity & Alcohol, Earthy, Long Finish, Mature Tannins
Cons: Slightly Hollow Mid-palate
Decant: Yes, more fruit emerges with air
Price: $24 from Bedford Winery
QPR: Excellent (out of Poor, Mediocre, Fair, Good or Excellent with Fair denoting expectations were met for the price point)

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Cab Franc: Bad Varietal, or THE Worst Varietal

The Toronto-based Globe and Mail's wine writer decided to write a polite missive on the non-virtues of Cab Franc about ten days ago, which I found via several degrees of separation through Jim's Loire and Dr. Vino. While the author Beppi Crosariol ultimately offers his readers three selections of Cabernet Franc, he first unleashes a litany of criticism directed towards the varietal. His criticisms:
  1. [Cab Francs] resemble red sangria that has been steeped with bell peppers and unlit cigarettes instead of fruit.
  2. It comes on strong with a green, stemmy quality that suggests the grapes just didn't get ripe enough.
  3. All the people I know who rave about Chinon and Bourgueil are wine geeks, the kind of people who champion varieties nobody else does precisely because nobody else does. You can find many of these same people downloading unsigned artists to their iPods.
Where do I begin with these wrong-minded, ignorant statements? Maybe I should first note that I don't have an iPod. But I am a fan of such unsigned artists as Beethoven, Brahms and Schubert, especially when performed by the unsigned performers of a major symphony orchestra. Clearly my preference for esoterica in the pantheon of Western art music must transfer over to my taste in wine. No one has heard of Beethoven, after all, much lest Brahms or Schubert.

Getting that disclaimer out of the way, it's important to clarify what Cabernet Franc is and isn't. Jon Bonne of the San Francisco Chronicle and Eric Asimov of the New York Times know what it is. Beppi Crosariol does not. Loire Valley Cabernet Franc is much more closely aligned with Burgundy Pinot Noir than Bordeaux Cabernet despite the Loire and Bordeaux's shared usage of the varietal. The Loire, like Burgundy, is a more marginal climate than Bordeaux. That means one must be acutely aware of vintage as a poor vintage will be especially problematic, and a great vintage absolutely revelatory. Furthermore, cuvées are vinified and bottled based on their vineyard or terroir. Bordeaux has terroir of course, but the chateau and appellation are the major differentiators. Loire Franc must be understood in terms of producer, terroir, appellation and vintage, meaning you cannot generalize at all and need to dabble a good bit to have anything worthwhile to say.

The one partially accurate statement Crosariol makes is that often Loire "grapes just didn't get ripe enough, which is usually the case. It thrives in relatively cool climates, but unless it's left to ripen long into autumn, it can remind you of what the sage critic Robert Parker describes as yesterday's plate of green beans or asparagus." This is the essence of a marginal climate. The northern-most climate possible is generally the best for Cab Franc. The cool temperatures moderate alcohol levels, while the long summer days provide excellent sun exposure for phenolic development. Because the sugars are moderated by climate, one can achieve long hang-time in the fall for superior flavor development of the fruit provided the weather cooperates. Unfortunately, the weather doesn't always work out. Or growers pick early simply to avoid the complications brought on by rain. However, this does not justify any sort of generalization. This is why, just as with Pinot Noir, knowing the producer and vintage are so important. But even if you gamble blindly on a Chinon or Bourgueil, it shouldn't set you back much more than $15. In the world of wine, that is a rather small tariff for something that may be sublime albeit inconsistent.

Finally, I must comment on bell peppers and tobacco in Cab Franc. I like both, but usually I find tobacco is a riper, refined expression of the varietal. Bell pepper is more primary, less developed. It can get ugly, though, as sometimes Cabernet Franc is simply outright weedy. I don't appreciate this under-ripe expression. But aromas of cigars and capsicum are for me heavenly, and quite consistent with ripe Franc. Just as some people love jam, raisin, vanilla and other candy-like aromas in their wine, I like certain plant-like aromas, especially peppers and tobacco. Similarly, Pinot Noir is often praised for its expression of mushroomy forest-floor aromas, as well as sage or feral elements depending on terroir and producer. How does one objectively value a mushroom over a bell pepper or tobacco leaf? I honestly do not know.

This begs the question, why write an article about something you are both ignorant of and dislike? Crosariol should stick to Napa Cabs, like the mass-produced Napa Cellars '06 Cab he praised with the following note:
"The aroma is intense and inviting, presaging a ripe, jammy profile on the palate that's just short of raisin-like, with hints of dark chocolate and blackberry. The flavour is impressive, though a technical taster might deduct some points for so-called varietal character; to me it tastes as much like a zinfandel as a cabernet."
Clearly, if your preference is for dessicated, overripe fruit with heavy-handed oak treatment, you have no business discussing Loire Franc. I'm occasionally up for an over-extracted Napa style oak and fruit bomb. But I wouldn't waste much blog space on the topic. It's not a style that I find particularly serious, and making generalization would only be an insult to the minority of Napa producers who opt to make age-worthy wines with savory nuances and classic fruit expression. At least I know raisin, chocolate, vanilla and high alcohol are not varietal characteristics of Cabernet Sauvignon, even if they are expressed in many cocktail wine styled Cabs.

It's not that differing tastes bother me. It's that a certain taste--I'll call it the Parkerized taste--is considered superior. The cult of Parker for some reason feels the need to denigrate that which isn't engineered to its template. Parker himself doesn't do this, and he is respectable in his consistency. But his palate has somehow inspired a cottage industry of mimicry. Thankfully, Loire Cabernet Franc cannot be Parkerized.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

TN: Abad Dom Bueno 2005 Bierzo Roble

Mencia from the Bierzo region in northwestern Spain is one of my favorite varietals. Even when it doesn't make great wine, usually the wine still shows unique character. What that character is, though, seems to be open to debate. I've seen comparisons to Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir and even cool-climate Syrah. The one constant seems to be that wines like the Abad Dom Bueno 2005 Bierzo Roble are available for less than $20 if you look for them.

This Bierzo is a parodoxical mix of rusticity and international flavors. The bouquet has an intense ferality to it, expressing both farm animal barn funk and raw meat aromas. The label states that there were no sulfites added, meaning a wine like this is especially susceptible to bottle variation and weird, Bretty aromas. For many people, this nose will inspire a love/hate reaction. The flavors are a bit more mundane with creamy oak and oaky tannins fairly noticeable. While I don't really like un-oaked reds, this seemed a little clumsily assembled. But the overall balance is still pretty good, with the acidity and medium body in particular making it pretty versatile. It's a supple yet structured wine, though the finish isn't especially remarkable.

This particular wine was one of the NYT's favorites in a recent Bierzo tasting and their top QPR. I'm also a fan, though the oak and lack of sulfites make this somewhat idiosyncratic. It's certainly a fascinating wine, even if a bit inelegant.

Pros: Animal Funk, Balanced, Supple, Medium Body
Cons: Noticeable Oak, Potential for Bottle Variation
Decant: Yes
Price: $18 from K&L Wines
QPR: Fair/Good (out of Poor, Mediocre, Fair, Good or Excellent with Fair denoting expectations were met for the price point)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

A Franc Vertical Sings the Blues

Since we were picking up our quarterly shipment from Longoria Wines, we had a chance to taste a handful of wines during the afternoon in Santa Ynez last weekend. As is usually the case, Longoria had a little shindig going on at their tasting room complete with music, appetizers, and library wines. Since they were releasing the 2007 Blues Cuvée, the 1998, 2001 and 2002 vintages of the Blues Cuvée were being poured along side the current vintage. The Blues Cuvée started as a Cabernet Franc varietal wine delivered in stealth under the guise of a proprietary blend. Gradually it came to include larger portions of other Bordeaux varietals, especially Merlot. In the past several vintages, Syrah has been added to the blend, while the sources of Cabernet Franc and Merlot have shifted from the warmer parts of Santa Ynez to the cooler climes of Alisos Vineyard in Los Alamos.

Although the 2007 Blues Cuvée (31% Cab Franc, 27% Merlot, 24% Syrah, 18% Cabernet Sauvignon) was poured last in the vertical, I'll start by saying that it's very young and barrel aromas are still noticeable. Tasted blind, I would be disappointed with this flavor profile. But knowing the aging capacity of Longoria's wines, it's clear this wine needs a few years in a dark, cool spot to come together. The pieces are all there: ripe fruit, complex aromas, refreshing acidity, concentration, depth and moderate tannins.

The 1998 Blues Cuvée was the most evolved of the quartet. While it wasn't exactly tired, the red fruit was starting to lose a bit of its verve, and tobacco and herbal notes were becoming fairly prominent. This was a blend of 88% Cabernet Franc and 12% Merlot from the period where Longoria was blending it as a varietal Franc.

The 2001 Blues Cuvée, in contrast, was quite vivacious and fresh. The cherry and raspberry aromas were very lively, though they had almost pie filling character. Maybe this was due to the age of the wine, or perhaps it's due to the fruit sourced from the warmer portions of the valley. Nonetheless, the flavors has a good freshness and the finish showed a layer of pleasant bitterness not present in the 1998. Could it be the 6.5% Malbec added to the 63% Cab Franc and 30.5% Merlot? Other features I liked included a seam of tobacco percolating underneath the fruit and copious yet mature tannins. This was my personal favorite.

The 2002 Blues Cuvée (54% Cabernet Franc, 46% Merlot) provided a similar profile, but seemingly was the most tannic of the four wines. The fruit sources are split almost evenly between cooler Alisos Vineyard and warmer Westerly Vineyard, and I'm tempted to attribute the structure to the cooler climate fruit. But who knows, it could also be the vintage character.

Seeing how the older vintages have aged, I'll be excited to try the 2006 and 2007 versions again in a few years. The addition of Syrah and different fruit sources begs many questions that can only be answered with time and the contents of a bottle.

One other Franc blend we tasted elsewhere was the Rusack 2006 Anacapa (75% Cabernet Franc, 20% Merlot, 5% Petite Verdot). I have to say, this is a very nice wine, but at $40 (vs. $28 for the Blues Cuvée) it's not an especially good value. Rusack's estate vineyards are in the warmer zone of Ballard Canyon, and the Anacapa has the same sort of profile as the '01 and '02 Blues Cuvées. There's plummy red fruit and a nice herbal note as well as a layer of coffee-like bitterness on the finish. However, most of the fruit was sourced from Lucas Vineyard, and I'm not certain where this vineyard lies as Lucas & Lewellen have a lot of land under vine throughout Santa Barbara County. It's a refined wine and I wouldn't be surprised if it held up well (the pH is 3.49), yet it does seem to have a very 'drink now' profile.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

WBW #62: Catherine et Pierre Breton 2007 Bourgueil Le Galichets

With the theme of this Wine Blogging Wednesday being "A Grape By Any Other Name," my natural inclination given that my blog is Cabernet Franc based is to write about Breton from the Loire Valley in France. My wine choice: Catherine et Pierre Breton 2007 Bourgueil Le Galichets. Just to clarify, Cab Franc is called Breton in the Loire, while the Bretons are well-respected vintners based largely in Bourgueil, a village in the Loire. Even if I don't get bonus points for this double, certainly the Bretons do for working with their namesake grape. And just to add another potential layer of confusion, the wine is labeled by the Bourgueil appellation where only Cabernet Franc is grown. Although Cabernet Franc is written on the label of this bottle, typically Bourgueils are simply labeled by their appellation, not their varietal.

In many ways this is a typical Loire Breton/Cabernet Franc, but it is not necessarily the best exponent of the varietal. Its most obvious difficulty is its bracing acidity. While this paired nicely with goat cheese (spread on the Breton crackers pictured above, leading to a rare Breton producer/wine/food triple play)--creamy foods and acidic wines generally have a nice synergy--by itself the wine has a sour streak. I'm no huge fan of cocktail wines that are meant solely to drink without food, but a food-only wine is equally limiting in its own way. On the other hand, the dry finish, lighter body and dusty tannins do make the wine fairly approachable and versatile as a partner to food. Another barrier is not-so-subtle herbaceousness on the nose. While there are complex cured meat and subtle cherry aromas, a distinct weediness going beyond dried herbs or even bell pepper is prominent. Jeff of Viva La Wino enjoyed this particular cuvée from the Bretons, but this experience is more similar for me to my other recent 2007 Loire venture. 2007 was a challenging vintage, and it does seem that perhaps the fruit is evanescent as others tasting the same wines found them less green several months ago. Thus, I'm rather pessimistic about the 2007s in general.

I must say I'm not a big proponent of this style of Cabernet Franc. Green is good, but without fruit or other complementary aromas, it is rather monolithic. Deeper, more structured wines seem capable of carrying more herbaceous qualities. But in a lighter bodied, crisp wine like this one, simple fruit is preferable. One other factor worth noting is that the closure used is a synthetic cork. I'm not a big fan of these as they're the worst option available for long-term aging due to high oxygen ingress. I don't see much benefit to aging this particular wine, though, so the point is rather moot. If the intent is a drink-young wine, then the rubber stopper is a good choice since there's no chance of TCA contamination.

Pros: Approachable Tannins, Light Body, Food-Friendly
Cons: Herbaceous, High Acid
Decant: Maybe
Price: $19 from K&L Wines
QPR: Mediocre (out of Poor, Mediocre, Fair, Good or Excellent with Fair denoting expectations were met for the price point)

Saturday, October 10, 2009

TN: Charles Joguet 2006 Les Varennes du Grand Clos

We tasted the Charles Joguet 2006 Les Varennes du Grand Clos at the weekly event at a local wine shop, and the first thing my girlfriend wrote down in our notes was, "what wine should taste like." It couldn't have been said any better. This is a Chinon that captures the Cabernet Franc varietal in its essence, managing to both be elegant and rustic simultaneously, beautiful yet masculine.

The bouquet, yes, it's all there. Ripe red and black berries, but not jam are evident. At 13.5% ABV this is a very ripe wine by Chinon standards, yet right in that sweet spot judged against the rest of the world. Everything else is in its place: tobacco, rose petals, animale funk, black pepper and just a hint of bell pepper. Textbook. The medium bodied wine delivers a seamless palate with ideal acidity so it's fresh but not overly tart. The finish is pleasing, lingering, though the tannins are still quite gripping at this point. At this point it's no crime to drink this wine, but it should improve as the tannins integrate.

Les Varennes du Grand Clos is the 3rd cuvée in the Joguet stable, ranking behind the Clos du Chene Vert and Clos de la Dioterie. The domain suggests this cuvée is ready at 3-4 years of age and can last up to a decade. Having tasted this same wine 7 months ago, I'm inclined to trust those suggestions as it was more tightly wound previously. Coincidentally, Jim's Loire recently posted a nice article illustrating sorting work being done this year at Domaine Joguet.

Pros: Complex, Classic Varietal Expression, Perfectly Ripe, Medium Body, Balanced, Funk & Green Accents
Cons: Tannins Still Integrating
Decant: Yes, shop owner said he opened bottle 2+ hours in advance of tasting
Price: $30-$40
QPR: Fair/Good depending on price (out of Poor, Mediocre, Fair, Good or Excellent with Fair denoting expectations were met for the price point)

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

TN: Curran 2007 Grenache Blanc

The Curran 2007 Grenache Blanc is the Rhone white for fans of Riesling. I haven't had many Grenache Blancs, so the best I can do is compare it to other varietals. The Curran version is suggestive of a hypothetical mix of Viognier and Riesling. Perhaps Viognier isn't a great comparison; Viognier is usually reminiscent of apricots and honeysuckles. Grenache Blanc is more reserved, and this version was quite focused on pears and apples. But they do both share the same oily viscosity and tendency towards floral expression.

What really made this wine sing was the bracing acidity and hint of kerosene that is typical of Riesling. The initial attack gives the impression of being slightly off-dry, but the acidity, as it would for a Riesling, clears the palate and unleashes a long, minerally finish. Topping it all off is a very light dusting of tannin that barely exceeds the threshold of detection.

I don't write about many white wines, but this is one of the rare white wines that shows the complexity and depth of a red wine. It's just that the amplitude of the components is toned down. Usually whites for red drinkers take the buttery Chard route, using the grape as a substrate for myriad winemaking tricks. But Kris Curran's approach is more sensitive, and it's clear she is exceedingly talented at coaxing profound expression from her grapes.

Pros: Aromatic, Crisp, Long Finish, Minerality
Cons: Slightly Flabby Entry
Decant: Maybe
Price: $23 from Curran Wines
QPR: Fair (out of Poor, Mediocre, Fair, Good or Excellent with Fair denoting expectations were met for the price point)

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The greatest Cab Franc? I sure hope so . . . .

The 2005 vintage of Clos Rougeard has just landed in the US. None other than the superlative Charles Joguet is quoted, "there are two suns. One shines outside for everybody. The second shines in the Foucaults’ cellar." The Foucalt brothers are the proprietors of Clos Rougeard.

I have never tasted a Clos Rougeard. In fact, the $40 to $100 price tag, depending on the cuvée, is a rather massive impediment (assuming you can find any in the first place). But virtually everything I have read suggests the wines of Clos Rougeard are one of the greatest expressions of Cabernet Franc in the world. Given that 2005 was an especially great year in the Loire, if you can find it, it might be worth the splurge.

It's instructive to compare what one can buy from different regions at similar price or prestige levels. Sea Smoke, the local cult Pinot Noir producer, has three cuvées with varying levels of new oak priced from about $40 to $100. Interestingly, the breakdown of oak regimes and pricing is nearly identical to that of Clos Rougeard. But in one case, we're talking about young vine cuvées from a new winery that's been in business for less than a decade. Their original winemaker has moved on, though they're probably still one of the better producers in the appellation. In the other, we're talking about old vine cuvées from a producer whose history spans generations. It's a family-run winery and hell would likely freeze over before a Foucault quit to work for a less-reknown competitor.

It's also fun to imagine what $50 gets you from, say, Napa, Bordeaux or Burgundy. Something good, one would hope, but nothing that would be held up as an exemplar of its region or varietal. The "best" Cabernet Sauvignon (Latour?), Merlot (Petrus?) or Pinot Noir (DRC?) is likely to cost several thousand dollars, especially if it is a 2005 from France you are discussing.

OK, as you might have guessed, I broke down and bought as little as I could. I'll let you know how this turns out in a decade. Maybe if Sea Smoke lowers its prices to acceptable levels (and stops with the mailing list/manufactured demand scheme), I can quaff some of those while I wait for the Clos Rougeard to come around. Ha! Just kidding, there are plenty of Chinons and Bourgueils I have earmarked for short to intermediate aging that don't cost an arm and a leg.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

TN: Benanti 2005 Etna Rosso di Verzella

Quite simply, this is a mind-boggling QPR. The Benanti 2005 Rosso di Verzella hails from the slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily. Wines from such a southern region typically are dense and alcoholic, but the extraordinary elevated volcanic terroir lends itself to an unusual wine. If this Benanti is at all typical, these wines, which are generally a blend of the indigenous varietals Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio, possess an ethereal and supple quality quite similar to Pinot Noir.

The bouquet of this wine is constantly shifting, hard to pin down, which I tend to find more often in traditionally oriented wines from the Old World. While I think it possessed some volatility, though not enough to suggest a flaw, the nose has Sangio-like ripe cherries, a little leather and smoke, capsicum, dust and floral notes. Nice bouquet, but an even better palate. The entry shows juicy cherry flavors with good viscosity like a New World Pinot, then evolves into a warm blanket of supple earthen pleasure. There was a certain silken quality that one only finds in very good Pinot Noir and, on occasion, Cabernet Franc. Seamless is the word, and balance is its natural complement. The acidity is a bit on the low side from my perspective, yet this medium-bodied style that relies on subtlety doesn’t really need an aggressive acidic counterpoint like a massively fruity wine would.

Imagine a cross between a Bierzo and a Pinot Noir, and this is what you get, but for a mid-level Bierzo price of $16, not a $40+ Pinot price tag. This is one of the best wines I’ve had at this price point. Rarely does a wine achieve finesse, characteristic expression, and outright deliciousness under $20. Often you get one or two, but not all three qualities. This wine would hold its own with wines double if not triple or quadruple its price, in my opinion.

Pros: Supple, Balanced, Earthy, Medium Body, Complex
Cons: None
Decant: Yes, it kept improving with time
Price: $17 from K&L Wines
QPR: Excellent (out of Poor, Mediocre, Fair, Good or Excellent with Fair denoting expectations were met for the price point)

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

TN: Bernard Baudry 2007 Les Granges

I love bell pepper as a secondary aroma in wine. In fact, if I open a Cab S or Cab F and smell no pepper, I'm usually a little disappointed if not depressed. The Bernard Baudry 2007 Les Granges certainly has bell pepper as a secondary aroma. But it is secondary to a virtual medley of all things green: geranium, asparagus, freshly cut grass and medicinal herbs. The bouquet was unfortunately reminiscent of a mass-produced, over-cropped Chilean wine. There was a brief period during decanting where black cherries and raspberries were really evident, but the green medley rapidly eclipsed the fruit.

The flavors, however, are significantly less herbaceous and show no medicinal qualities. While it's a lighter bodied wine, there's a nice balance of fruit and earth with fresh acidity and grippy tannins. The flavors are quite "homey," sort of comfortable like sitting on a couch in the living room. There's even a decent lingering finish provided by the tart acidity.

I should leave open the possibility of an "off" bottle since most of the cellar tracker notes suggest much more fruit. Maybe this bottle was slightly corked or already had shed all of its youthful fruit aromas for some reason. Still, I'm doubtful there was a TCA flaw simply because the wine evolved while open, and corked wines, aside from smelling like a damp, moldy basement, only seem to become more obvious over time.

Bernard Baudry is considered a star in Chinon. This is the first 2007 I've tried from Chinon or Bourgueil. It's not a good sign when a top producer (apparently) struggles with ripeness in what has been characterized as a problematic vintage. Though the 2006 vintage is unheralded, I haven't come across any wine with such under-ripe aromatics. I purchased a few other 2007s to test, but this looks like a year to approach with caution. Given how quickly the 2007s followed the 2006s, which probably suggests producers saw little point in barrel aging their basic cuvees, it'll be a while before the more promising 2008s show up. With the 2005s mostly sold through, 2006 looks like the safer option in Chinon and Bourgueil at the moment.

Pros: Lively Acidity, Approachable Tannins, Light Body
Cons: Overly Herbaceous Bouquet, Evolved Poorly w/ Aeration
Decant: Yes, but only briefly
Price: $15 from K&L Wines
QPR: Mediocre (out of Poor, Mediocre, Fair, Good or Excellent with Fair denoting expectations were met for the price point)