Tuesday, February 24, 2009

WN: Frederic Mabileau 2006 Les Rouilleres

From the moment I poured the Frederic Mabileau 2006 Les Rouilleres into my decanter, I had a positive feeling this was going to be a delicious, fun wine: there was that unmistakable sweet, sweaty aroma of farm animals. No, a sheep hadn't pooped in the wine. This was wine with some serious in your face Brettanomyces funk. Definitely not a wine for everyone, especially if you like your wine as processed as Velveeta cheese, but the bouquet conjured up an image of picking ripe cherries in a country orchard with jasmine simultaneously in full bloom, some dry underbrush under foot, and a horse stable a few hundred meters in the distance.

But let me take a step back before I wax poetic further about why such a seemingly idiosyncratic wine is so very very right. Frederic Mabileau is a producer based in Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgeil, a small appellation in the Loire Valley across the Loire River from Chinon and adjacent to Bourgueil to its the west. The Loire Valley is to Cabernet Franc what Burgundy is to Pinot Noir. If you want authentic Cab Franc, the Loire is the go-to option.

Of course, if you can't stand Brett, the Loire might not be your preferred destination. But the interesting quality I've found in several Loire Cab Francs is that the animale funk is entirely in the bouquet; the flavor of the wine remains unspoiled. Often times a funky nose is simply a precursor to similar shenanigans on your palate. But this was not the case with the '06 Rouilleres. As usual, the rustic nose gave way to a clean, cherry-driven attack with moderate acidity and just enough tannin to sustain the finish. This is an aromatic wine with floral qualities in the driver's seat, and livestock, herbs and ripe berries in the backseat that nonetheless has the body and even elegance to seduce.

And if that's not enough intrigue, there's also an utter lack of oak worth highlighting. A disturbing proportion of American red wines are simply abused with oak to the point that the vanillin leached from the barrel dominates every other aroma and flavor. Some folks get it right and treat oak like one would treat salt while cooking, as a seasoning to complement other flavors. Ideally, oak adds a bit to the aromatics while also adding some tannins for structure and to lengthen the finish. But far too many producers simply oak the crap out of everything in sight, then ask questions later. Well, Mabileau didn't mess around with this cuvee: it was aged in stainless steel and bottled only lightly filtered. What you get is the pure fruit in all of its glory with whatever Brett decides to tag along in the bottle for the cross Atlantic trip. This wine absolutely oozes character and craftsmanship, and is also a great value. Superb stuff that somehow manages to be both rustic and polished simultaneously.

Score: 90-92
Price: $14 from Winelibrary

Saturday, February 21, 2009

WN: Alma Rosa 2006 Santa Barbara County Chardonnay

The Alma Rosa 2006 Santa Barbara County Chardonnay is the entry level Chardonnay of Richard Sanford's new venture following the breakdown of his partnership in his namesake Sanford Winery. I picked this out for my parents since they were visiting and I wanted to share a nice, but not overly expensive example of what California Chardonnay can be in the hands of a producer who is sensitive to his terroir and the expression of his fruit. Basically, this is Chardonnay for the Chard Oh No! crowd. Incidentally, this also turned out to be Wine Enthusiast's #4 wine of 2008, garnering a stratospheric rating of 94 points.

As much as I love Alma Rosa, I didn't enjoy this wine enough to agree with Wine Spectator's appraisal. That said, this was an excellent Chardonnay produced in a style nearly opposite that of the ultra-creamy, buttery, smoke and vanilla style. It's a very rich, round fruit forward style, but not an overdone wine that bears little resemblance to the fruit from which it was born. The ABV is a moderate (for California) 14.1% and doesn't show through at all. The bouquet had just a hint of smoke and vanilla in the background behind layers of tropical fruit. Think pineapple with a little mandarin orange. The acidity (which was preserved by foregoing malolactic fermentation) was nonetheless firm and served as a nice counterbalance to the opulence of the fruit. The only quality keeping me from adoring this wine was a little awkward bitter tang on the finish.

The bottle actually lasted to a second day. Sadly, the wonderfully hedonistic attack had mellowed significantly to a more mineral quality and the bitterness on the finish was more pronounced. However, the bouquet had evolved to reveal an intense honeysuckle aroma almost reminiscent of a Viognier. I preferred the day one profile, but there was enough stuffing there to allow some interesting evolution once open. All said, I think I prefer the 2007 vintage, which I tasted recently at the winery. The '07 has a pH of 3.12, significantly lower than the 3.44 pH the '06 vintage sports, and I think I liked the more muscular mineral quality of the current vintage. Regardless of vintage, this is definitely one I'd recommend, especially since it'll set you back less than an Andrew Jackson.

Note: Yes, the bottle has a screw cap, or more correctly, a Stelvin closure. Screw caps have a bad reputation, but don't taint wine with TCA like cork, are better for the environment, and seal more effectively than other synthetic closures. So get over it; you'll be seeing a lot more premium wine with a screw cap in the near future.

Score: 86-89
Price: $17.50 from Vinhus in Solvang

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

WBW #54: Produttori del Barbaresco 2006 Langhe Nebbiolo (WN)

The topic for this month's Wine Blogging Wednesday is "A Passion for Piedmont," and this turned out to be pretty convenient since I had recently ordered a bottle of Nebbiolo, the Produttori del Barbaresco 2006 Langhe Nebbiolo. Other than tasting a Barolo and a Nebbiolo d'Alba at a local wine shop a few weeks ago, Nebbiolo is a grape I haven't come across much despite its noble reputation. The Barolo and Nebbiolo d'Alba I tasted both were very tannic and acidic, with the Barolo clearly being the wine built to age due to the overwhelming structure it possessed. Based on price and general drinkability, the Nebbiolo d'Alba, with its kitchen spice bouquet and less punishing tannins, was clearly the one to buy for immediate drinking.

Since I love wines with ample structure in a medium bodied package with more than simple fruit to offer on the nose, I was optimistic this Langhe Nebbiolo would offer a profile similar to the Nebbiolo d'Alba. I was not disappointed. The Produttori del Barbaresco was a translucent red color, much like a Pinot Noir. This perhaps shouldn't be all that surprising since both Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir are "pigmentationally challenged." Acidity and hearty tannins abound in this Nebbiolo, and this is where you realize that you're drinking something vastly different from a Pinot Noir. The body isn't thin, but it certainly isn't heavy, either. The nose is mostly red cherry with high-toned floral accents and just a hint of the kitchen spice that was so intriguing about the Nebbiolo d'Alba. This is what I'd call a muscular, lean wine with no excess fat. It was a bit tough at the start, but rounded out with more time in the decanter. The finish also was quite nice. I think this is a better food wine than a stand alone sipper, but there is such purity and character to it that it can hold its own. Although I'm sure you can do better at higher price points, this one really hit the QPR button for me as it offered quality and character at a very modest price.

Score: 87-89
Price: $15 from Wine Library

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Out with the Buttonwood, in with the New

My girlfriend and I have decided to drop the Buttonwood Winery club membership. It's not so much a matter of no longer liking their wine as wanting to explore different wines. However, their current vintage of Marsanne was definitely not up to par (watery, metallic), while their Syrah Rosé is also not as good as last year's. We have a few of their reds tucked away and are ready to move on, at least for a while. Another shipment of three reds would be too much of one thing even though I like their rustic, Old World approach and varietal Cabernet Franc.

Perhaps most importantly, the synthetic closures they employ really don't cut it, and I've been disappointed by a few library wines that seemed to have aged rather hastily. Their current run of '04 reds could definitely use some time to evolve, but that's too risky with a rubber cork. When a winery's library wines may be past their prime and their current releases aren't bottled to age, there's a severe consumption conundrum.

So we'll be on the free agent market for a while. Longoria Winery is the top contender for a cellar club membership, but this will be a good excuse to try out a few new places we haven't visited yet.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

WN: Iron Horse 2007 Rosé de Pinot Noir

I picked up the Iron Horse 2007 Rosé de Pinot Noir after Christmas at the winery. I liked just about everything I tasted at Iron Horse and praised the winery effusively about a month ago on this blog. But sometimes when you return to a wine you enjoyed in the context of tasting at a beautiful estate winery, it doesn't quite live up to the memory.

This rosé actually topped my expectations as a dual Valentine's Day and parental visit selection, however. The color was a fairly dark cherry red for a Pinot Noir rosé, though it would not have been mistaken as regular Pinot Noir. Poured from the bottle at home, the bouquet was every bit as good as it was on a crisp morning in the Green Valley. I found the desired watermelon, strawberry and cherry aromas as well as a high toned floral aroma that unfortunately I don't have the words to describe. The balance of flavor and structure was superb. At 13.5% ABV, the alcohol lent body without being overtly noticeable. The palate was full and fruit-forward, yet had a light acidic tingle on the attack and finish. This is one of those rare wines with a seamless arc of flavor that makes your mouth water, then has a finish that just goes on and on. It's not really built to age, but it's so delicious and complete that it's amazing that it costs under $20.

Iron Horse wines are generally not cheap. But this is the third Iron Horse wine I've regretted not buying or buying more of for the future. I left the winery with only this rosé; I probably should have splurged on a couple of bottles of this as well as their estate Pinot Noir. If you have a chance to buy just about any Iron Horse wine, buy more than one while you can. It's a purchase that you'll be hard pressed to second guess. I'd love to have a few more bottles of this rosé for the warmer months, but since it's sold out at the winery I'll have to be a bit creative if I want to stock up.

Score: 91-93
Price: $18 from Iron Horse Winery

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Blind Tasting, Fun with Numbers and Some Cab Franc

A recent news article about the inconsistency of wine competition results that Jamie Goode commented upon in his blog has put me in a bit of an analytic mindset. In short, a rigorous study found that not only were judges wildly inconsistent from year to year, but also tasting the same wine from the same bottle at different times in the same competition. I've been to a couple of blind tastings recently with a large quantity of inexpensive wines tasted back to back. This strikes me as not all that dissimilar to the sort of situation a judge at a wine competition encounters. Without doing any serious statistical analysis, I figured it would be worth looking at how my own ratings stacked up plotted against price.

The plot on the left shows the results of two separate tastings of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Shiraz/Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. There were about six examples of each wine ranging from $2 to $20 in price with the exception of Cabernet Franc, which was only sampled twice. I've included a trend line that averages the score of multiple wines sampled at a single price point. The most interesting and obvious feature in this plot occurs at the $2 price point consisting of Charles Shaw (aka Two Buck Chuck) Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon. Although my written notes include a few qualitatively negative descriptions such as "wet dog" for the Shiraz, "sweetish, mold/funk" for the Cabernet and "flabby" for the Sauvignon Blanc, the average score was 82.75 with a standard deviation of 3.59. A score in the low 80s from my perspective means more or less that a wine is simple, easy to drink and has no really obnoxious flaws. It seems that the Two Buck Chuck is consistently mediocre based on these tastings, which is a pretty good accomplishment for $2. Although I wouldn't buy Charles Shaw even as a cheap daily drinking wine because it's essentially boring, its light body, low alcohol and minimal to non-existent oaking seem to endow it with a mysteriously consistent innocuous quality that allows it to outperform wines with more serious imbalances like excessive alcohol heat and over-oaking.

The second most obvious feature is that there really is no strong trending of the data towards higher scores at higher price points. If you exclude the Charles Shaw data as an outlier, you might argue that there's a slight positive correlation between scores and price. The $12 to $14 range does appear to do better than the lower price range, but the scores at $15 and above simply have wildly large deviations from wine to wine. Part of the explanation might be traced to my qualitative notes on these wines. Those that I rated especially poorly typically had too much obvious alcohol content. Over-oaking and flabbiness were also common complaints, though these flaws tend to make me indifferent to a wine whereas high alcohol and the sinus burn that follows induce outright hate regardless of other merits. I suspect that the $10 to $20 range is where producers start to have grapes that are ripe enough to reach high alcohol levels and where producers start putting money into oak treatment. In most cases, though, I'd rather have a simple, light wine than an overdone wine. Less ripe grapes with less oak tend to work well for me in a cheap wine. Nonetheless, hypothesizing aside, there just isn't much of a price to enjoyment correlation among the wines I tried in these two blind tastings.

Maybe the only really telling result is that the mean score over all 26 wines was 80.12 with a standard deviation of 6.64. In fact, only 5 wines scored better than 85 points and one of those was the only wine that I selected. In my personal ratings 86 points is the threshold where I tend to consider a wine worth buying if the price is reasonable. I simply was not excited by many of these wines, though the majority were serviceable.

Wines that I tasted outside of these two blind tastings tell an entirely different story. The plot on the right shows score versus price on a quasi 100 point scale (a non-100 point scale has been tweaked to look like a 100 point scale) with the price plotted logarithmically. There's good reason to plot the price on a logarithmic scale. Robin Goldstein, author of The Wine Trials, and his collaborators assumed that price grows exponentially with quality in a fairly rigorous study of how tasters rate wine in comparison to price. This is a very reasonable model since a $100 wine is not ten times better than a $10 wine or even twice as good as a $50 bottle. (Incidentally, Goldstein found that there was actually a slight anti-correlation between price and scores assigned in blind tastings by non-professionals, particularly in the under $20 per bottle price range where most of the data was collected, which seems eerily similar to the results I saw in my scores.) If you assume this sort of exponential price model, then ratings plotted against the logarithm of price should result in a straight line. Indeed, the data trends to nearly a perfect straight line except at the lowest price points.

Of course, it is important to point out that these were all wines that I selected to taste one way or another, and particularly above a certain price threshold (say $10) I tend to be selective in terms of buying wines produced in styles that suit my taste. Additionally, these wines were not tasted blind. If anything, this data suggests I'm willing to pay more for wines that I like or at least expect to like. It may also be true, though, that if I pay more for a wine, I'm more willing to be forgiving towards a small flaw. I also tend to taste wines at home over several hours and use a decanter, which is vastly different from tasting blind where a taster typically gets one taste right after the bottle is opened. A wine that improves with air time simply will not perform its best under these conditions.

Regardless of the potential methodological flaws in my "study," what suggests the results are not complete bunk is the realistic variance of scores in the dozens of data points. Some of the more expensive wines around $20 performed quite poorly, while some inexpensive $10 wines scored quite well. While I suspect price does influence my non-blind scores, clearly other factors such as style and quality more strongly influence my personal ratings, especially when I can sample a wine over an extended time period.

Before wrapping up this post, I'll add a couple of Cab Franc reviews from the last blind tasting I attended. I haven't had any Franc content on this blog in a while and am quite overdue. In the interest of disclosure, I knew which wine was the Buttonwood 2004 Cabernet Franc because I brought the bottle and immediately recognized it based on the characteristic bouquet and style of the wine.

Happy Canyon 2007 Chukker: This is a blend of 70% Cab Franc with 15% Merlot and 15% Cabernet Sauvignon. The nose is suggestive of Cab Franc with candied raspberries and some forest floor. But the taste of this wine was almost comically bad. Miles described a particular Cab Franc in Sideways as "hollow, flabby and overripe" and he might as well have been describing this wine. It was sweet and utterly lacked any tannic or acidic structure. I've tasted this wine before and that time there was some spritz when I opened the bottle suggesting there was some in-bottle fermentation. It certainly tasted like it was loaded with residual sugar, so this seems plausible. Regardless, this wine drank like cough syrup and had only the slightest resemblance to Cabernet Franc. I rated this 77 at the tasting probably because the bouquet was decent, but I suspect drinking more of this wine would have caused the score to plummet out of sheer exasperation. Not good at $15 or any price for that matter.

Buttonwood 2004 Cabernet Franc: This wine was dark and tannic. There were the typical floral, leathery, earthy and mushroomy qualities, but the fruit was dark as night. There is much more black currant than red fruit in this vintage than others I've tasted from Buttonwood. The body is not particularly heavy, but the acidity and tannins are both relatively high, which again seems specific to the vintage. This actually drank more like a serious Cabernet Sauvignon than any of the actual Cabernet Sauvignons, most of which were too jammy or oaked to express the varietal. Rated 88 at the time which I think is a fair score. This wasn't the purest Cabernet Franc expression, but it was one of the few honest, well-made wines in the entire blind tasting. Recommended, especially if you like a little rustic edginess to your wine.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Cam the Man: Cameron Hughes Wine

A few years ago, a man named Cameron Hughes had a great idea. Buy up super premium wine that would ordinarily end up on the bulk market and ultimately blended into not so premium wine, then put it in a bottle as is with his Cameron Hughes label on the bottle. Or, even better, if the wine was bottled but unlabelled, just slap a Cameron Hughes label on it. If the sale of a winery led to orphaned wine, he'd be there to buy up the leftovers. If a product line ended, Cameron Hughes would be there, too. If a winery just needed to raise capital or clear inventory, he'd also be there.

There's a name for this sort of middle-man wine trader, a negociant. This is actually quite common in Europe, but Cameron Hughes was the first negociant in America to really tap into the premium market and start bottling the unadulterated good stuff under his own label.

It took a while to get this idea off the ground, but now Cameron Hughes had bottled over 100 "lots" of wines in his Lot Series. Each "lot" originates from a particular region or (anonymous) winery. They're never backblended with lesser wine, so what you see is what you get. If you buy a Cameron Hughes Lot 75 Oak Knoll Cabernet, you know you're getting Cab from a sub-appellation in Napa, probably from a single producer.

Now, as awesome as paying $12 for wine that would cost $30 in its "native" bottle sounds, there are some drawbacks. Cameron Hughes keeps costs down by constantly moving inventory. He bottles then sells the wine at a pretty quick pace. However, some wines really do need some time in the bottle to integrate. Many upper-end producers (i.e. the ones who orphan their wine occasionally) age their wine extensively in new oak and would bottle age even after barrel aging. So in many cases you'll be buying a wine that is very young. But if you can let it rest or decant a young Cameron Hughes wine, you'll typically get something that outperforms the price.

In other cases, the wine really wasn't up to par to go into a $30 bottle. But even in those circumstances you're not going to get a bad deal paying $10 or $15 per bottle. The bottom line is, at the very least, you will get expensive tasting wine since it was made using costly methods even if there's some moderate imbalance in the finished wine.

Here a few Cameron Hughes wines I've tasted over the last year.

Cameron Hughes Lot 95 2007 Chilean Meritage: This is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Carmenere. The nose is perfumed with some nutmeg. This one was a bit surprising in that is was ready to drink immediately out of the bottle. There's little structure, but it's an amiable, easy drinker that's right for the price.

Score: 83-85
Price: $8

Cameron Hughes Lot 75 2006 Oak Knoll Cabernet Sauvignon: This is a textbook example of what a really oaky, young wine tastes like. It smells like vanilla and cedar planks. It tastes like oak, and the oak tannins are mouth coating and almost creamy in texture. However, the wine is very smooth and has a nice lingering finish. There's some good juice underneath the oak, though, and maybe in a year or two more fruit will be showing. This is a style that many people would love even at this juncture, and a great example of why you don't need to pay $30 for a Napa Cab in this style. Buy this, sit on it for a year or two, and you'll definitely have something good if not very good (especially if you like oaky wine).

Score: 84-86 (but could definitely develop for the better)
Price: $12

Cameron Hughes Lot 64 2005 Red Wine: This is an everything but the kitchen sink blend of Tempranillo, Carignane, Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Verdot. It took about 2 hours of decanting for this wine to emerge, but at that point it was kickin. It started with some tar, them some floral and herb aromas. The palate had a mix of blueberry, chocolate and coffee. The tannins initially were a bit bitter, but the wine softened as it aerated. There's a ton of structure there, too. Definitely was one to buy young and cheap, then sit on. Too bad I only had one bottle!

Score: 85-87 (and again could definitely develop for the better)
Price: $10

Cameron Hughes Lot 51 2004 Mendoza Malbec: This was a great find. Plummy fruit and violets on the bouquet, and a soft subtle impression on the palate. My notes at the time indicated it had a "minerality" and tasted like "liquid velvet" because of the seamlessness and soft tannins. In retrospect the bouquet was pretty shy, but this just tasted really good and was rather elegant.

Score: 89-91
Price: $12

Cameron Hughes Lot 49 2004 Priorat: This is a blend of Grenache, Carginan and a handful of Bordeaux varietals. If you've tried an old vine Zinfandel, now imagine that with a little leathery/barnyardy Brettanomyces and volatile acidity (VA). This wine immediately out of the bottle was pretty harsh on the nose, probably due to the vinegary VA blowing off. After a couple of hours the brooding concoction came into focus. Now there was ripe aggressive berry and leather at the forefront with mocha and herbs in the backgrounds. The wine had an ultra concentrated ripe berry flavor with persistent drying tannins and great acidity on the finish. It's really a fun wine that's a bit primal (instead of elegant), and a wine that came together nicely over time. This one might develop positively with some more time as well.

Score: 88-92
Price: $20

Cameron Hughes Lot 25 Sparkling Wine: I've had this on several occaisions and haven't been disappointed. This is a top-end Napa sparkling wine made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir using the traditional methode champenois. It's about 10 years old now and has a yeasty, bready nose. The bubbles are refined and small, which is what I prefer in a sparkling wine. The palate is dry with good acidity, which again are requisite for a good sparkling wine in my book.

Score: 88-90
Price: $20 (or even less at Cost Plus)