Sunday, March 29, 2009

WN: Descendientes de J. Palacios 2006 Petalos

No sooner had I opened a bottle of the Descendientes de J. Palacios 2006 Petalos than Eric Asimov of the New York Times had published an article on the wines of Spain's Bierzo region. While I'll still stake claim to this "discovery" as my own, the word is out. Bierzo is chic; so chic in fact that the New York Times is raving about it. And if Petalos was not quite good enough to crack the top ten of Asimov's list, then how how good must those in his top ten be? This wine was easily the best Spanish wine I've had--though all my Spanish purchases have been in the under $20 range--and also has to be one of the best quality to price ratio purchases I've made.

I actually "discovered" Bierzo browsing through the Wines of the Times archives. Yes, once again Eric Aimov got there first, as he typically does when it comes to interesting wines from Old World regions. The distributor of Palacios' wines, the Rare Wine Company, can give you a pretty good idea about what is different about Bierzo. The images on their website with the caption "an extraordinary terroir" offer a pithy summary. The indigenous varietal of Bierzo is Mencía, a grape that is often compared to both Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir. Well, if you tell me that Cab Franc's Spanish cousin is in the bottle labeled Bierzo, then that's something I'll have to try. With the added factor that Bierzo's Mencía is grown from century old bush vines on steep hillsides, Bierzo became a must-try.

My first attempt, the 2006 Cuatro Paso Bierzo, was a partial success. It was unique, but ultimately lackluster. The 2006 Petalos, though, was an absolute blockbuster in comparison. When I think budget-friendly Spanish wines, two "R" words come to mind: ripe and rustic. Typically ripeness and rusticity are on the high end of the scale. But not so with the Petalos. It's a modern, polished wine that maintains a balance between ripe, concentrated fruit flavors and secondary flavors. The bouquet consists of slightly rustic berries, dry or dusty mountain vegetation, and just a little meat and spice in the background. There's not too much going on, but what's there is captivating and the wine is also still relatively young to have loads of complexity. The flavors are immensely concentrated, as one would expect from old vines, but it's more of a concentration of minerality than fruit. Though the wine gained weight and roundness as it was decanted, I still had the impression of drinking pulversized rocks. The wine ended with a long, slatey finish fueled by copious, yet soft tannins and mouth-watering acidity. I suspect that oak aging helped to round everything out; but whatever oak influence is there has integrated itself well. Perhaps most impressively, this wine was highly concentrated without carrying around the typical baggage of jammy fruit and high alcohol.

My only complaint might be that I never found the floral aromas suggested by the name Petalos. But who can really complain about a well-made wine with just a hint of attractice rusticity that oozes character? Probably the most comparable wine I've tasted is the Bedford Thompson 2000 Cabernet Franc, though this was not a typical Cab Franc based on my past experience. Both wines were made from grapes grown in hilly, mountainous regions, had similar degrees of concentration, and showed a definite dusty underbrush character. One might also compare Bierzo Mencía to old vine Grenache or Zinfandel because of the intensity and structure of the wine. The 2006 Petalos, though, really defies pure comparison because it seems to have a little bit more terroir to it and a little less over the top imbalance than similar analogs.

The 2006 might be a bit hard to find, but the 2007 vintage of Petalos is readily available now--I've already picked up a few bottles of the current vintage. I could see this as a broadly appealing wine that has something to offer to such disparate groups as Zinfandel fanatics and "terroiristes."

Score: 90-93
Price: $18 from Winelibrary

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

WBW #55: A North vs. South Cab Franc Faceoff (WN)

At last, a Wine Blogging Wednesday open-ended enough that I can post on Cabernet Franc without needing to do any extra shopping to find the right wine. North versus South, easy. Representing the North, in the red corner, we have the Domaine Lagrange Tiphaine 2006 Touraine-Amboise Clef de Sol, hailing from a latitude of 47° 22' by the city of Tours in the Loire Valley of France. Representing the South, also in the red corner, we have the Yorkville Cellars 2006 Rennie Vineyard Cabernet Franc, hailing from a latitude of 39­­° 19' in Mendocino County, California.

And the winner is . . . . neither! Both wines had a number of positive qualities and expressed varietal typicity, but rather fortuitously for the topic of the month also showed weaknesses typical of their climates despite Mendocino being one of the more northern growing regions in California. The result is essentially a draw, particularly since I wouldn't buy either wine again at the prices I paid.

The Clef de Sol doesn't quite qualify as a stand-alone Cabernet Franc; it's 65% Cabernet Franc and 35% Malbec. Blackberry, iron-like minerality, a little cow pasture, forest floor and black pepper are all present in the bouquet, which in retrospect seems most indicative of the Malbec in the blend. There is no vanilla or woodiness on the nose; this wine probably saw little if any oak aging. Unfortunately, the interesting, pure aromatics do not lead into a particularly enjoyable taste. The wine is mouth-puckeringly tart like grapefruit juice. There's no oak flavor, the wine is fully dry, the alcohol is low and the finish is clean yet slightly ashy. However, I couldn't get past the overwhelming acidity on the attack and mid-palate. It's one of those circumstances that's a pity. I like this style of wine, but a lack of balance does in any wine regardless of whether I like the approach or not.

The Yorkville Cabernet Franc offers essentially the polar opposite on the palate. Although the alcohol level is similarly moderate at 13.4%, the acidity is low at 3.78 pH and the tannins are very light. The sweetness from a bit of residual sugar, 5 g/l (2-3 g/l is around the sensory threshold), thus ends up being the dominant impression on the mid-palate and finish. The bouquet, however, is lovely and very typical of a Cabernet Franc from a warmer growing region. Black cherry, blackberries, chocolate covered jalapenos, a little piney freshness and roses combine to provide a multi-faceted and intriguing nose. There is (yet again) no overt sign of oak, though the wine was barrel aged. In sum, this is a good wine made in style that I prefer, but also has a flaw in the flavor that detracts from the overall impression.

The Clef de Sol and Yorkville Cab Franc are in some sense mirror images of each other reflected across the 43° 20' latitude mark. Both have intriguing aromatics and the winemakers have made an effort to express the fruit with purity and clarity. Neither is particularly tannic. The more northerly wine, though, has very high acidity, which is most typical of grapes grown in cooler climates. The more southerly wine, meanwhile, is lacking in acidity (the slight residual sugar is most likely a wine making choice that is more noticeable because of the low acidity), a characteristic more common in warmer climates. One wine is overwhelmed by its structure, while the other is let down by the lack of structure.

Neither wine is necessarily a bad wine, and I like the approach both producers are taking in expressing the fruit. But both approach the $20 price point and at that price I usually expect better overall balance in a wine.

Domaine Lagrange Tiphaine 2006 Touraine-Amboise Clef de Sol

Score: 79 - 83
Price: $19 from K&L Wine Merchants

Yorkville Cellars 2006 Rennie Vineyard Cabernet Franc
Score: 81 - 85
Price: $17 from wine.woot

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Taking Stock in Varietals

My personal tastes are always developing, if not shifting outright. A few years ago, for example, I would have taken a greasy Carl's Jr./Hardees burger over sushi. Similarly, it seems that my tastes in wine are moving away from purely powerful wines to lighter wines with some finesse. I've gotten to the point where I'll even willingly drink a white wine on occasion.

Here is my current "stock" report on a few of the more common varietals:

Cabernet Franc: Rising

I do sometimes want something other than Cab Franc. But the more Cab Franc I drink, the more I find that it's a varietal capable of an incredibly diverse array of expressions. Nonetheless, it's almost always highly aromatic and offers a multitude of floral and herbal qualities.

Cabernet Sauvignon: Dropping

If you want a wine that can age for a decade, there's no question Cab is King. But in my price range most Cabs are too heavily oaked, too thin, or otherwise boring. There are much better value plays than Cabernet Sauvignon in the $20 range that will also keep you from falling asleep from boredom.

Grenache/Garnacha: Holding steady

Some of the old vine Grenache I've tasted has remarkable concentration and complexity. More importantly, it seems that the varietal hasn't become popular enough to be corrupted. Still, nothing new to report here.

Malbec: Dropping

Malbec was a big hit about a year ago. Low acidity and silky tannins are a big reason why. But most if not all Malbecs I've had recently haven't had much more going for them other than a lot of fruit. Good, easy drinking wine, but lacking depth on the nose and overall complexity.

Merlot: Holding steady

I don't hate it, but I don't actively seek it, either. And I haven't encountered any wines recently that have shed new light on the varietal. Bad wine makers try to make it like cheap Cab or simply end up with something resembling cough syrup or a Shiraz. Good wine makers highlight the red fruit and medium body. Nothing new here.

Pinot Noir: Rising

Pinot might be the biggest mover for me. At first I was unimpressed by the high prices demanded by a grape that rarely makes a wine that tackles your mouth like a linebacker. But I'm increasingly seduced by the long finish and site-specific expression that well-made Pinot Noir can demonstrate. It never ceases to amaze me how two Pinot Noirs from the same vintage and producer but different locations can almost drink like two completely different varietals.

Shiraz: Dropping

OK, I've never really liked Shiraz. But the more excessively alcoholic and over-oaked wines I taste, the more I'm reminded of the Australian take on Syrah. Shiraz in this context I view as hot-climate Syrah. Now, I'm sure there are good, balanced Australian Shiraz' out there. But most of the stuff in the under $20 price range is downright offensive.

Syrah: Rising

By Syrah I mean cool-climate Syrah, not the Aussie version of the varietal. I was starting to think that all Syrah/Shiraz was a cocktail of blueberry jam and pure ethanol. But tasting Syrah from cooler regions has given me a new perspective on the varietal.

: Holding steady

Again, there are some intense old vine examples to be found. But there are also a fair number of unbalanced fruit bomb cocktail wines. It's just not a grape that excites me, though some producers make some pleasantly concentrated, structured Zins.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Grade Inflation and My Rating Scale

I've noticed that I'm posting a lot of 90+ point wines lately. However you decide to set up your semi-arbitrary 100 point system, usually 90 (but not 89 or 91, of course) is a magic number that divides very good from excellent. Have I been engaging in rampant grade inflation?

Maybe, but probably not. I tend to post only wines that I really enjoyed on this blog. There just isn't much point in bashing a wine I didn't enjoy. It's much more constructive to give an accurate stylistic description of a wine that maybe will get someone to try something new or different. There are so many bad wines to hate upon that it's not worth any one's time, unless he or she is a paid critic, to create an encyclopedic list of plonk. The ratio of good to bad wines is small, and there's greater value in pointing out the few good ones than steering people away from a few bad wine.

Furthermore, the wines I drink are self-selected. I tend to know something about what I buy. I pretty much know that a $15 Australian Shiraz will be pretty deplorable and borderline undrinkable based on my own likes and dislikes. That's not to say I don't accidentally pick out wines I hate. But for the most part I tend to match my selections to my tastes on a macro level, and to my meal or mood on a micro level. If I was being given a random selection of wines to review, I'd have many more negative comments to make.

Finally, my overall rating are subjectively based on the sort of "matrix" I've shown to the right. In terms of the bouquet, I tend to look for a combination of fruit, floral, earthy, vegetal, spicy and funky aromas that add dimensions of complexity to the wine. I'm not put off by barnyardy Brett aromas, though if that's all I can smell the wine is essentially one dimensional. Vanilla from oak is also nice in small quantities, though again that should not be the dominant aroma. Rotten or sulfide based aromas are a definite flaw in my book. The smell of alcohol or (vinegar-like) volatile acidity is also a big demerit.

As far as how the wine tastes, I'm looking for wines that have a good burst of flavor on the attack, sustain well on the mid-palate, then finish with a pleasant, lengthy aftertaste. Excessive oak or alcohol flavors are flaws and can be deal breakers if too far out of balance. Bitterness or tartness, especially on the finish, is not desirable. Wines that taste sweet also are not to my taste, though certain styles are supposed to be sweet. I'm particularly interested in the balance of acidity and tannins. Wines with "good" acidity are a bit mouth watering without tasting really sour. I appreciate a wide range of tannins from nearly imperceptible to mouth-coating, but the key is that the tannins should not be too astringent or bitter. Quality, not quantity, is the key. Concentration of flavor is also important in that I do not like wines that taste watery. But extreme concentration is not desirable if it comes at the expense of elegance, particularly on the finish.

The third corner of the triangle is entirely subjective. Here I'm looking for a wine that has some individuality. Creamy oak, for example, rarely tastes truly bad. But oak is a flavor that is rather ubiquitous. Extremely fruity wines are delicious, but again taste and smell pretty much alike. In some sense individuality is synonymous with complexity. But it also means to me that the wine has combinations of flavors, aromas and textures that are not found in your average wine. The wine isn't over-processed or over-manipulated, and the varietal or region in which it's grown are somehow reflected in the finished wine. So I'm looking for some idealized, Platonic expression of typicity, but with a unique imprint. This plays a huge role in the enjoyment of a wine for me; it tends to leads into conversation and thoughtful discussion about the wine.

To give a more concrete example of how this triangle factors into scores, here's a rough key.

0-50 = Not wine.

50-69 = Varying degrees of serious flaws ranging from undrinkable to highly off putting.

70-74 = Flawed, but drinkable.

75-79 = Drinkable, but extremely bland, confected or possessing a minor flaw/imbalance.

80-84 = Good, balanced all around wine, but lacking complexity/uniqueness. Also could be an "interesting" or really tasty wine with some moderate degree of imbalance. This could be a wine that really "lights up" one corner of the above triangle, yet doesn't do much on the other two vertices as well.

85-89 = Very good all around wine that may be a bit one-dimensional or maybe has a really good bouquet, but isn't quite that delicious or wine tastes great, but doesn't have wonderful aromatics. Wines in this range usually must show some typicity and/or individuality unless they are absolutely delicious. A "two corner of the triangle" wine would be something that typically falls in this range.

90-94 = The whole package. Great aromatics, delicious flavor, structured, balanced and showing a lot of character. Elegance is necessary here. Very hard for a wine without individuality to do this well unless it is just mind-blowingly delicious. Generally must be a wine that hits upon all three vertices of my tasting triangle.

95-99 = A rare wine that has everything going for it. Perfectly aged, complex, elegant, powerful and so on. Something that changes your world view. I've tasted nothing yet I'd rate here.

100 = Perfect wine, your dream wine. Impossible to achieve.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Worldwide Recession + Wine = ?

By now most people have caught on that economy is in an ever accelerating downward spiral. I've been lucky in that I've been relatively insulated from the mess. But disturbingly large numbers of folks are losing their livelihoods and homes. Perhaps this is a trite subject to approach in light of all the problems out there, but I'll take a stab at speculating about what the current economy means for those still with disposable income to spend on upscale booze.

The most noticeable change as a consumer is that you simply do not need to pay full price right now. Not everything is steeply discounted, but there should be no problem finding interesting wines if you aren't committed to a particular style, region or producer. Wine is one of the most "overpriced" commodities available in the sense that even the most premium of bottles rarely costs more than $20 to produce. Demand and the distribution chain end up at minimum doubling the price paid by the consumer relative to the actual cost of production.

The worrisome side, though, is that independent retailers and producers may not be able to absorb the lower price points for premium wine. By volume, there's little doubt that wine retailers do most of their business selling inexpensive wine. But the ultra-premium wines are hugely profitable because of their ridiculous mark-up. It may be the case that selling the insanely priced wines is allowing creative retailers and producers to offer the interesting, but less profitable wines that are pretty darn entertaining to drink. My greatest fear is that businesses that teeter on the edge of failure because they attempt to be more than profit centers will either fail or be consumed by larger businesses. Ultimately this could mean less choice for the consumer (and really this sort of thinking should apply to all retailers; Wal-Mart will survive this recession while many smaller businesses will struggle).

The big guys can and should adjust, however. Napa and Bordeaux have been, paraphrasing James Conaway's The Far Side of Eden, bottling their arrogance at exorbitant prices largely because of a price bubble akin to the housing bubble in California. This is of course not true of every producer, particularly those that have been established for some time, but when the average price for a Napa Cabernet Sauvignon is around $40, the economics are a little out of balance. Entrepreneurs flush with cash from a bull market have been flooding into prestigious wine regions, buying or planting vineyards to be run by the most respected vineyard managers, hiring famous winemakers who have the ear of influential critics, then selling exorbitantly expensive bottles under their own name. An interesting local example is Jonata, a new enterprise in Santa Ynez from the owners of a Napa "cult wine" that priced its inaugural vintage in the $100 range and received glowing reviews from certain important critics.

I do not often wish ill upon individuals, but these are the sorts of enterprises that I'd love to see fail spectacularly. The great wines of the world earned their reputation and prices after decades if not centuries of success. They have track records of positive results and have shown the capability to age well. It simply makes no sense that wines produced as an exercise in egotism by both proprietor and consumer should immediately be compared to the great wines of the world. The market has supported these sorts of wines thus far. But one can only hope that these gaudy emblems of conspicuous consumption will be culled significantly in the near future.

Even on a less-exclusive scale, a large number of wines are being produced in the style (but not necessarily quality) of the above ego driven wines. That means low yields of very sugary, super-ripe grapes and lots of new oak. In most of California where the growing season is typically long, warm and sunny, there really isn't much sense in trying to make your grapes ultra-ripe. You can get balanced fruit without extreme measures. All of these measures to "dress-up" the wine, in my opinion, make it worse yet also cost more. Smaller producers may actually end up making better wine when they have to be cost-conscious. If they stop over-managing their vineyards and buying costly new barrels so regularly, they'll likely be making wines with lower alcohol and less oak pollution.

Of course, wineries will likely turn to other measures, like oak planks or oak dust to retain the oak flavor at a lower cost. Or they'll over-crop vineyards in regions less suited for grape growing to get more cheap juice at the expense of quality. It's probably more of a pipe dream that a contracting economy will reign in excess without resulting in producers cutting corners in some unsavory manner. What's going to happen will happen. There will be some form of contraction taking place. I'm crossing my fingers that the fat will be cut. But I won't be surprised if ultimately the cuts are to the bone.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

WN: Bedford Thompson 2000 Cabernet Franc

I've been meaning to visit the Bedford Thompson Winery for a while. Their tasting room is about a 40 minute drive away and they produce a curious mix of varietals including Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Mourvedre, Grenache, Syrah, Petite Sirah, and, my personal favorite, Cabernet Franc. Only in California will you find a single vineyard growing such a diverse group of grapes originating in not only Burgundy, the Rhone, and the Loire, but also Germany! But there's still more to be said about the non-conformist choices this winery has made. According to their website, their current releases all date back to the 2000, 2001 and 2002 vintages. Most wineries in the Santa Barbara area are around the 2006 vintage at this point.

Despite all the intrigue surrounding Bedford Thompson, I'll have to hold off on visiting for a bit. But I did get to taste a bottle of the Bedford Thompson 2000 Cabernet Franc this weekend. This was not your grandma's Cab Franc. This was the sort of Cab Franc that could only come from a unique location in California. If I would have guessed the varietal in a blind tasting, I surely would have pegged this wine as a Syrah. As much cognitive dissonance as this generated, I nonetheless thoroughly enjoyed this wine. I think to be fair the 2000 Cab Franc must be described not as a varietal wine, but as a product of its terroir.

The bouquet opened up with a salvo of blueberry jam. Given the varietal and the age of the wine, this was utterly surprising. Blueberries are just about the last fruit I typically associate with Cab Franc. And while I don't have extensive experience with older wines, jammy fruit is not what I've found in the past. What elevated this wine from pure fruit-bomb to something interesting was the secondary aromas. There was a little meatiness and some espresso. There was also a dried underbrush aroma, like the kind of mountain sage you'd find nestled amongst the chaparral in Santa Barbara. The typical leafy herbaciousness was not present, but in its place were aromas that I could easily associate with a vineyard in the foothills of a mountain range. Also not present was alcohol on the nose. Typically jammy fruit begets alcohol, but here there was just concentrated fruit.

The attack is lush and filled with still more blueberries. But, surprisingly, the acidity and tannins make their presence known. This is not simply a soft, flat, fat fruit wine. The tannins are soft and well-balanced, while there's a great mouth-watering yet creamy finish sustained by the acidity. The alcohol, which was listed at under 14%, was not at all noticeable despite the intense concentration of the fruit. On the pure deliciousness scale, this wine was way up there. Although 8 years past vintage is a significant period of time, the wine had no bricking along its meniscus in the glass and seemed as if it still had quite a bit of life in it. I think if I had tasted this wine in its youth, it probably would have been good, but limited in depth due to the jammyness of the fruit. The winemaker deserves huge kudos for releasing this wine when it had settled into a lively yet balanced profile.

My suspicion is that these grapes are grown in a special vineyard. The varietal is not expressed so much as the location. There seems to have been a Faustian deal made to achieve such intensity of fruit without having high alcohol and deficient acidity at the same time. There's something interesting, perhaps very special, going on with Bedford Thompson and my curiosity is piqued. Could it be that these folks know they have intense wines with the structure to age and are releasing their wines after 7 to 8 years just to prove a point?

Score: 89-92
Price: $22 from Vinhus in Solvang