Saturday, May 30, 2009

WN: Domaine de la Butte 2006 Les Perrières

Back to my comfort zone: a Cabernet Franc from Bourgueil. The producer is Domaine de la Butte, which was acquired in 2002 by Jacky Blot according to the blog Jim's Loire. Apparently Jacky Blot had previously produced only white and rosé wines, though judging from this bottle, he's doing great work with his reds as well.

The Domaine de la Butte 2006 Les Perrières is one of four cuveés that Blot produces. The basic bottling is Le Pied de la Butte, which comes from the portion of the vineyard with the lowest quality. Les Perriéres, meanwhile, is a notch above Le Pied de la Butte, but a notch below Le Haut de la Butte in the pecking order. The best section of the vineyards produces Mi Pente. If you're interested, the above link to Jim's Loire provides significantly more information on the exposure and soil that define each of these sites in the vineyard. But the context here is most important: this is a mid-priced, mid-level wine. Anyone can make a great wine for $50 per bottle buying top fruit, selling off barrels of wine in bulk that didn't turn out as desired, and hiring expensive consultants, but it's the really excellent producers who can put together a worthwhile wine in the $15-$25 range.

I must admit, the flavor profile and aromatics of this wine are exactly what I like in just about any wine. There's a certainly clarity and purity of fruit expression on the palate, yet the bouquet offers a variety of aromas that make you think "how'd that get in the bottle?" Most prominent on the nose is a big whiff of leather. There's also a bit of tar as well as some sweeter notes of blackberry and tobacco. One is hard pressed to find any hint of herbaceousness here, which is somewhat disappointing in the context of a Loire Cab Franc. But the funky elements provide the desired complexity, preventing the wine from being entirely fruit driven like some ripe Loire reds can be.

There's a certain New World quality to the sweetly berried palate. There also seems to be a hint of oak flavor that adds a little astringency to the finish, yet nicely rounds out the wine as a whole. The finish has a very intense dark chocolate and coffee component, which I've also tended to find more often in California wines based on Bordeaux varietals with a fair amount of oak influence. What makes this work so well, though, is the contrast of the sweeter fruit with the bitterness on the finish. It's absolutely delicious. The body, acidity and tannins are all moderate at this point making this an enjoyable wine to drink in its relative youth.

This is a wine with a heart of darkness. Dark fruit, dark smells, and dark flavors. Yet there's also a degree of refined elegance to it. It's not rustic, nor is it a bruising wine that envelops the drinker with power. It's an excellent wine that's also a superb value, and certainly suggests Domaine de la Butte is a producer to seek out in the future.

Score: 89-92
Price: $22 from Wine Library

Monday, May 25, 2009

Paso Robles, Land of Medium Alcohol

My girlfriend and I went on an somewhat improvised trip to Paso Robles for the holiday weekend. Although we did a fair amount of careful selection prior to the trip, my expectations were not extremely high. My naive impression of Paso Robles is that the wines are generally big, alcoholic and jammy. As it turns out, that's generally not the case, and many of the best wines, ambituious pricing aside, have a surprising degree of elegance.

Now, there was some bias to our selection criteria. We avoided wineries that were heavily focused on Zinfandel and Syrah (or should I say Shiraz) since more often than not the names of the varietals are taken as license to produce exaggerated wines. We also focused on wineries west of Highway 101, particularly those in the Templeton Gap, which funnels cool coastal air inland and is especially windy in the afternoon. There is a noticeable temperature gradient between Templeton just south of Paso Robles and the north end of town. Winemaker Dave Caparone, whose vineyards are situated at the north end of the city and are ideally suited for producing heat-loving Italian varietals, commented that it's not uncommon for temperatures to vary by 15 degrees across the growing region.

Running the listed numbers on a non-trivial sample of wines purchased this weekend, the mean ABV was 14.41% and the median was 14.40%. My personal sweet spot is in the 13.5% to 14.5% range, and it seems we weren't overly seduced by the biggest wines we tasted. In general we tasted blind to the listed alcohol level, and "alcohol discrimination" based on the label was not a factor in our purchases, though I think we did engage in a bit of "alcohol activism" when it came to Caparone Winery's modestly ethanol-ated wines. (At $14 per bottle for hand-made classically proportioned wine, it's more of an insane value play than anything else.)

There will be more detailed notes coming soon, but several wineries are worth mentioning at this point. Tablas Creek is exceptional and one could easily mistake their top cuveés as French wines, from the balance and structure, to the earthiness, to the hints of Brettanomyces. Villa Creek also tops my list, in particular because they produce wines like La Boda in a decidedly more Old World style, while others like Badger and High Road are New World in a good way with their ripe Syrah and skillfully integrated creamy oak flavors. Windward Vineyards produces balanced, feminine Pinot Noir with distinctive, seductive earthy and mineral qualities. Caparone Winery, meanwhile, blows everyone else away on experience and value with its Nebbiolo and Aglianico, and really reminds me of the sort of small, unpretentious, honest producer Kermit Lynch would seek out in France.

Mourvedré is proving to be one of my favorite varietals on the Central Coast. It sets late and ripens late, meaning it's exceedingly hard for any winemaker to turn it into a fruit bomb. Its tendency towards gaminess, red fruit and earthy qualities makes it a sort of bizarro Pinot Noir (like Cabernet Franc is at times) with a hearty edginess. Perhaps by itself it's a bit rustic, but blends heavy in Mourvedré like Tablas Creek's Esprit de Beaucastel and Villa Creek's La Boda were the most aromatically complex, layered and well-proportioned wines we tasted. The Syrah-based blends, meanwhile, were most often heavy, thick and ungainly. Italian varietals were also quite successful in the warmer areas, though we tasted less of these than the seemingly ubiquitous Rhone varietals. I generally found the Bordeaux varietals like Merlot and Cabernet to be simple and somewhat dull in their monolithic expression of red fruit.

More to come soon . . . .

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Don't Shoot the Message

We've all heard to old adage don't shoot the messenger. The bearer of bad news shouldn't be held accountable for the news itself. But what if the roles are reversed? Say, you like the message, but find the messenger a bit abrasive? That in a nutshell is wine ideologue Alice Feiring.

She characterizes her message as one in favor of diversity, beauty and natural complexity in wine. Her blog states:
I'm looking for the Leon Trotskys, the Philip Roths, the Chaucers and the Edith Whartons of the wine world. I want my wines to tell a good story. I want them natural and most of all, like my dear friends, I want them to speak the truth even if we argue. With this messiah thing going on, I'm trying to swell the ranks of those who love the differences in each vintage, who abhor homogenization, who want wines that make them smile, think, laugh, and feel sexy. For better or worse, it seems as if I am a wine cop traversing the earth, writing and speaking my mind, drinking and recommending wines that are honest.
In other words, she seeks and praises wines that display individual character. She is opposed to over-the-top, unbalanced fruit bombs that fail to exercise any restraint or express anything honestly or profoundly. Naturally she is a proponent of wines from the Loire Valley.

Unfortunately, she also has a penchant for taking extreme positions in the interest of stirring up controversy. It's never enough for her state her position. She's always on the offensive looking to lob a Molotov cocktail at her opposition. Her recent entry on California Pinot Noir includes this gem:
That morning there was a rumor that Cali Pinot was getting better. Frankly, I think they should pull out the vines and start all over, but that is obviously an unpopular point of view.
Although her criticism may fairly apply to a rather large proportion of California Pinot Noir, lumping every single producer in every appellation into this category is pure non-sense. Certainly a proponent of terroir such as herself should recognize there are genuine differences between Santa Rita Hills and Anderson Valley, for example. If she adores Burgundy, that's certainly something to write about. But hating something for being not-Burgundy and whipping up a harsh generalization is simply scandal mongering. An organoleptic description coupled to her opinion instead of a diatribe would help illuminate what it is Ms. Feiring loves or loathes in a particular wine.

There is a certain irony here is that an individual who fervently defends wines of nuance and substance often veers into the realm of polemic. It unfortunately seems that Ms. Feiring's criticism is often both shrill and self-righteous, as evidenced by her choice to subtitle her book "How I Saved the World From Parkerization." Whether or not one buys into the theory that one critic dominates an entire industry, it's a bit egotistical for any one person to anoint herself the leader of the insurgency.

Last year she actually helped make some California wine, and her blog posts were very telling. In one post she writes:
I did not get into the vat with the Sagrantino grapes that day. I had been late and Kevin -– the Kevin Hamel of Pellegrini — had taken care of it. I was upset — Kevin hadn’t realized how attached I had become to the task. He scolded me a bit. “I know you originally were going to make wine at Eyrie Vineyards and create your own wine,” he said. “”Here it’s a group effort — and I feel that you’re a little disconnected.”
In another she worries about high sugar levels:
The wine was going to have reasonable natural acidity, which would add freshness. But the high sugars not only could create high alcohol but put us in danger of something called a stuck fermentation — a situation that occurs when the yeast gobbling the sugar peters out before the wine ferments to dry. Correcting that problem might lead to heavy duty intervention — which I wasn’t happy about — in what I was hoping would be a natural wine. But we had to pick from the lesser of evils.
The impression I take away is of an individual who has very strong personal preferences, if not an uncompromisable philosophical position, but is admittedly far removed from the actual process of winemaking. This perhaps is what makes her proselytizing most difficult to stomach. It's as if it had never occurred to her before that winemakers may not have perfect raw materials, and that they often make compromises despite their best efforts. Moreover, techniques that are effective in one climate or geography, may not be well suited for other regions. Chaptalization, the common practice of adding sugar to wine to boost its alcohol level, would hardly ever be a consideration in California, just as water or acid addition would make little sense in most of France.

I don't like manufactured wine, either. Gigantic, soupy 16% alcohol wines also aren't my cup of tea. Dull industrial wine or ultra-ripe, super extracted wines are made by choice. That's fair game, and that's my point: technology is not an inherent evil, but its use can be. On the "natural" side of the debate, Brettanomyces, a native yeast that gives wine a range of funk from leather to outright manure, is also not inherently evil, for example. Or if a wine is exposed to too much air, it will take on an oxidized quality. Too much technological manipulation or too much Brett or too much oxygen exposure generally will, however, make a one-dimensional wine. The problem is not black and white. It is technicolor, and the discussion needs to move away from simple arguments like "darker and more extracted is better" or "natural, hand-made is better." Is it too hard to imagine that certain modern techniques in the hands of an educated, sensitive winemaker can assist in achieving natural expression? I appreciate Alice Feiring's message, but often wish it could be conveyed in a more nuanced, less ideological manner.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Inland Sea Wines: Cabernet Franc with a Midwestern Flavor

The internet is a wonderful place. Where else can you get to know folks from halfway across the country who have an avid interest in Cabernet Franc and even go so far as to grow and produce Cab Franc? Somehow through this twisted series of tubes Michael Amigoni, owner of Amigoni Family Vineyards in Centerview, Missouri and proprietor and winemaker of Inland Sea Wines in Kansas City, Missouri, found this blog and said hello. He's been gracious enough to share his expertise on Cab Franc viticulture in Missouri, which is particularly helpful for those like myself with a very Cali-centric view of the wine world. As much as I try, I'm still based in California, and it's an uphill battle getting out of the bubble.

Certainly many of the most intriguing qualities of Cabernet Franc are extrinsic. Cab Franc is produced in many locations where the "brand name" grapes simply won't grow. It also attracts vintners who are willing to take a risk and are driven by passion. Although I haven't tasted Michael Amigoni's wine, I have little doubt that he falls into the category of a quality-conscious, passionate Cabernet Franc advocate. His vines are grown in limestone soils, which are often cited as a primary factor in the quality of Burgundy Pinot Noir as well as the best cuveés of Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley. He also uses only the best American barrels when aging his wines.

I posed a series of questions for Michael and below are his informative and very thorough responses.

Q: How receptive are your customers to Cabernet Franc and dry wines produced from Vitis vinifera grapes in general? The Midwest in my mind is associated with American style lager--Budweiser is based in St. Louis after all--and either fruit wines or wines made from indigenous varietals like Norton.

A: Most of all wineries in Missouri and in the region normally grow hybrids or grapes like Norton (native grape) primarily for their cold hardiness and rot resistance. Our Cabernet Franc fans are mostly wine lovers that don’t like the off the beaten path tastes from these varieties and would buy wine from outside the region. Now they have a choice to drink locally produced and grown vinifera wine and the support has been overwhelming. We have chosen to go through the extra efforts of growing vinifera by employing techniques such as winter hilling to protect graft unions, precision spraying for disease protection, and tricks of the trade from over 10 years of growing vinifera. Our biggest problem right now is ramping up production to support our demand. Luckily I have some growers now that I consulted on their vineyard establishment that are going to give me a boost in production of Cabernet Franc. The world would be a better place if everyone drank Cab Franc!

Q: Having attended college in Iowa, I'm familiar with the extremes in weather in the Midwest. Hot and humid summers, thunderstorms in the spring and fall with hail and strong gusty winds, and wind chills well below freezing in the winter are all par for the course. What kinds of challenges does the weather provide in the vineyard? Do you have to worry more about mold because of the humidity and periodic rain during the growing season? Is hail a significant threat to your yields?

A: Weather is always challenging. I have big airblaster that we have to crank up and use every two weeks. Humidity is a challenge and we have spreadsheets that conduct our precision spraying. Haven’t had any hail so far.

Q: Does growing in Missouri have any unexpected advantages relative to the semi-arid, Mediterranean climate that's prevalent in much of California?

A: I think the Cab Franc picks up a good amount of minerality and richness from the rich soil here. We have a unique Cab Franc taste that is winning over some fans.

Q: What influenced your choice of Missouri oak to age your Cabernet Franc?

A: We here in Missouri have the advantage of being near the best American Oak. I am using the same barrels as Silver Oak. They own a cooperage near Columbia, MO and I have made friends with the owner’s son and he gets me the barrels with the Silver Oak toast level. These barrels are better than World Cooperage barrels from the Ozarks grown trees.

Q: What qualities do you feel identify your 'terroir'?

A: Limestone rock base, rich black dirt soils, and hot hot summers that the Cab Franc loves. Low magnesium uptake is graduated with Epsom salts (Mg Sulfate). I have two terroirs, one is more cool and other more wind, drainage and slope. We will bring out two bottling of Cab Franc, one Stealth Ridge block, the other To Kati block. Both different, both lovely.

Q: What qualities differentiate the wines from Stealth Ridge (note: Stealth Ridge Cab Franc vines are pictured above) and To Kati (pictured below)? Is Stealth Ridge the block you describe as "more wind, drainage and slope?" Were the terroir-defined cuvees of Chinon like those of Charles Joguet an inspiration to you?

A: Chinon is very terroir driven in that some of the land is more flat and some is hilly. The land in Stealth Ridge is very much a south sloping ridge that gets lots of sun and is primarily planted to 332 clone. The contoured land of To Kati is higher elevation then Stealth Ridge. This section has 214 clone and is able to ripen before Stealth due to the increased heat that is given from the lower moisture and elevation of the land.

Q: You mention growing both a Bordeaux (332) and a Loire (214) clone of Cabernet Franc. Do you notice any major differences in these clones, both in the vineyard and the finished wine?

A: Yes, 214 more velvet and blueberry notes. 332 more fruity, more pinot noir like. I like the 214 Loire clone better. I do have a small planting of the Spring Mountain clone, probably from Pride vineyard.

Q: Does the expression of the 214 and 332 clones in your vineyards match your expectations prior to planting?

A: Yes, the expectations of Cab Franc prior to planting was a wine that was “earthly” and had expression of the soil, with 332 it is very much the case. The clone 214 was more expressive of violet and fruit than the 332 with the last harvest.

Q: What other vinifera grapes do you think perform best in your region? You also grow Mourvedré, which seems somewhat unexpected given how distant Provence and the southern Rhone are from Bordeaux and the Loire Valley in France.

A: Cab Franc by far is the best vinifera for this region. Mourvedre seems to do really well and to my surprise, the Petit Verdot is really good for this region. The acid in PV seems to not fall as much in comparison to CF in a typical warm year. The acid can fall down to upper 4 grams per liter or lower 5 grams per liter. We have to add acid back to 6.5 grams per liter to retain our old world style of lower pH wine.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

How did I miss this one?

I came across a great Cabernet Franc article from the San Francisco Chronicle by Jon Bonné today, and I can't believe it took me nearly six weeks to find it since it had been published. It has all the makings of a blockbuster Cab Franc article. Without giving away every delicious detail, here a few of the highlights:

- An obligatory reminder that Franc is the progenitor of Cabernet Sauvignon.
- A top Washington winemaker quoted saying, "[Cabernet Franc] has a texture, a mouthfeel, a silkiness that Cabernet Sauvignon doesn't have, period. And it has a complexity that you don't get in Cabernet Sauvignon."
- The suggestion the Cab Franc is like Pinot Noir in its delicacy and complexity of expression.
- Mention of Chinon producer extraordinaire Charles Joguet.
- A tribute to the breadth of regions that Cab Franc calls home.
- Discussion of varietal characteristics and their dependence on terroir.
- The misunderstood underdog card is played several times.
- Some ego stroking for Franc aficionados.

The only real negative is that every wine in the tasting notes with the exception of the Lang & Reed North Coast Cabernet Franc is priced rather extravagantly. I'm certainly not going to argue that there is a correlation between price and quality. But many of the French producers listed (without accompanying tasting notes) at the very end of the article offer high quality entry level cuveés for around $20 that typically display Cabernet Franc honestly and purely, albeit often in a decidedly more rustic style.

If you desire a world class Cabernet Franc with only the best barrels or vineyard blocks selected and a generous impression of new French oak from a producer with a proven track record, then $40-$60 is going to be your lower boundary in terms of pricing regardless of whether the producer is French or American. But one can find good Cabernet Franc under $30, though like with Pinot Noir the $15-$30 price range is not easy to navigate with a perfect success rate. This is where critics can be most helpful. At higher price points quality is more consistent, and reviews mainly serve to differentiate stylistic qualities for the consumer. It's generally more helpful, however, for a critic to differentiate good from mediocre where there are many more options and greater variances in quality, namely the mid-price range.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Seedy Underbelly of Cheap Wine

Importer Kermit Lynch's book Adventures on the Wine Trail, in an attempt to de-romanticize the pristine image consumers often have of wine, relays several anecdotes about the art of blending in Burgundy. One vignette describes how a tanker truck went from village to village in Burgundy acquiring wine and the documents indicating each wine's point of origin. However, when the tanker truck "blend" was bottled, every bottle bore the label of the most well respected village that was most likely to fetch the highest price at market. Lynch also mentions that negociants, the middle men who bring the finished wine from cellar to bottle, often had a "house style" that trumped the sort of vineyard to vineyard distinctions one typically finds in Burgundy. It turns out that some negociants--perhaps those who weren't fully satisfied with the tanker blend--mixed bulk wine from Algeria, which was much higher in alcohol, fruitier and generally more robust, with the more delicate, nuanced Pinot Noir of Burgundy to produce a more enticing blend reminiscent of a sturdy Rhone wine.

Although major producers now are more careful to control what goes into bottles bearing their names, these sorts of tricks are still employed. Take for example the American equivalent of Burgundy, California Pinot Noir. Anyone who has seen the movie Sideways knows Pinot Noir is a varietal capable of reaching great heights. However, Pinot Noir, more than most varietals, is rarely very good at moderate prices. It only grows well in very specific locations, and because it is generally lighter bodied than other popular red wines, it's harder to mask deficiencies without introducing a gross imbalance to the wine. Although Pinot Noir wine traditionally is made from 100% Pinot Noir, a producer legally can have as little as 75% Pinot Noir in a blend and still call it Pinot Noir. Yes, the trick of Burgundian negociant "blending" is alive and well in California.

A local retailer advertised RedTree 2008 Pinot Noir via email recently. It had received good press recently from a major wine magazine and was priced to move at $8 per bottle. So how do you make really good Pinot Noir at $8 per bottle? With tea bags of oak chips and generic red blending wine of unknown provenance, of course! It's a win for the consumer if a wine is both good and inexpensive. But it's also a case of deceptive marketing when a consumer buys a Pinot Noir that's really a well-engineered red table wine that meets the varietal Pinot Noir standard. To me it's akin to those fruit juice drinks that have illustrations of real fruit on the bottle, but are 15% juice and 85% high fructose corn syrup water. Pinot Noir sells by name alone, and smart marketers know it's good business to label intelligently in a fashion that's perfectly legal. It's tricks of the trade like these that make me wary of any varietal wine in the sub-$10 range. The wine surely has 75% of the varietal in it, but beyond that the producer is looking to make something that will meet the expectations of the largest number of customers. Good for quality table wine. Bad for any varietal or regional expression in the finished wine.

I noticed another slightly less nefarious, yet equally fascinating detour brought about by the wheels of commerce today. A well-respected Rhone producer has an inexpensive wine they sell under the label La Vieille Ferme. This label has a picture of a chicken on it and sells for $7 per bottle at a local wine shop. Trader Joe's, meanwhile, sells wine from the same Rhone producer for $5 a bottle with the exact same appellations designated on the respective red, white and rosé wines. They go by the name La Ferme Julien and display a picture of a goat. Searching around the web a bit, it appears the same wine goes into these different bottles. One is widely distributed and well received by professional critics, while the other it seems goes exclusively to Trader Joe's. By the transitive property of wine labels, I'm going with the one that costs 28% less as an easy drinking wine for a hot Saturday afternoon.