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)

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Wine, In Korea

I traveled to Busan, Korea last week for a conference. After fulfilling my formal obligations early in the trip, I did take a moment to look around for a nice glass of wine. There was some Korean Cabernet Sauvignon available at a reception for the conference one evening. It was a light, drinkable wine with a slightly rustic sweaty saddle aroma. Nothing special, but decent enough and not spoofulated. Later that night I sought out dinner, hoping to find a place with a decent wine list. I ended up, somewhat accidentally, at a sort of luxury buffet that had a variety of immaculately plated international foods in addition to Korean cuisine. However, only a house wine was available by the glass. This one turned out to be rather oaky and hollow with a bland nose. I’m guessing it was something cheap from Chile or maybe Australia.

So it seems the international style has its name for a good reason. In fact, judging by the price of wine at the hotel where the conference was held, European-style wine is treated as a luxury good. Perhaps it was a function of location, but most bottles were at least double the price I’d pay in the US. Many ordinary Mondavi wines I’d find in a supermarket were extremely expensive, for example. I suppose this serves as first-hand anecdotal evidence as to why well-known regions are so highly priced. These wines, like those from Burgundy and Bordeaux, are luxury goods from Europe all the way to Asia. Not surprisingly a variety of luxury brands from Europe like Dior and Vuitton (probably owned by LVMH, the conglomerate that controls Dom Perignon Champagne and d’Yquem) were also fairly prominent.

Something else I realized drinking a Starbucks espresso drink—yes, coffee it seems has an international style as well—is that these sorts of drinks are remarkably similar to heavily oaked, highly extracted wines. There’s creamy sweetness on the mid-palate, viscous texture and extremely concentrated bitterness that’s offset by sugar and dairy additions. The typical local coffee was much less concentrated, leading me to think the ultra-dark, high concentration coffee drink is largely an invention of the American palate. In fact, this sort of high-octane coffee was labeled as “Coffee Americano.” It makes me wonder about the coffee drinking habits of American wine producers and drinkers.

The epilogue here was rather predictable: some Vin de Pays Merlot named Les Terroirs on my flight back across the Pacific. If anything, this wine suggested the effect of multiple terroirs is multiplicative instead of additive. Just as a blend can be more than the sum of its parts, it seems it can also be far less as well. Mathematically, if terroir is less than 1, then the product of many of these terroirs is much less than 1. And there you have it: quality = (terroir)^n, where n is the number of terroirs and terroir > 0. Or you could just say airline wine is plonk.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Magnificently Bad Values

A couple days ago, I came across a rather critical article from the Wall Street Journal's wine columnists concerning several First Growth Bordeauxs from the 2006 vintage. The authors outright panned the wines, at least in the context of costing close to $600 a bottle. To put this in context, these folks consider a $50 bottle of wine one they "might actually drink and enjoy for no particular reason" instead of "a wine that falls into the dreaded save for a special occasion" category. If critics who would drink a $50 bottle of wine without reservation on a Wednesday night are playing the poor value card, that's saying something.

One excerpt is particularly trenchant:
Keep this in mind: When you buy a young first growth, you are truly on your own. If you drink it now and don’t like it, the wine’s supporters, not to mention the people who sold it to you, will say that you simply drank the wine too young and you don’t understand young wines (your fault); if you drink it in five years and don’t like it, they’ll tell you it’s going through a dumb period (your fault for drinking it in its awkward adolescence); if you drink it in 10 years and don’t like it, they’ll tell you that you must have stored it badly (yep, it’s your fault). So let’s be clear: These wines aren’t great. They aren’t worth the money. It’s not that they are young and it’s not that they will be in a dumb period when you open them years from now and it’s not that you will have stored them badly. They’re just not worth buying.
I have my own thoughts on rich winos rationalizing otherwise ordinary wine based on its reputation or price. But when it comes "straight from the horse's mouth" as they say, there's a real impact in the statement.

Of course, as if to prove the authors' point, a wine snob with a decidedly anti-American bent follows up in the comments with the following statement (among other choice words):
To slate these magnificent wines when your credentials are having worked as a journalist on race issues, seems to me to be arrogant in the extreme. Bordeaux first growths, together with many quality French wines, are the product of painstaking trial and error, research and investment spanning several centuries. It is a tradition for which new world countries, including the US, have since paid handsomely to import. In the last 10 years there hasn’t been even a mediocre vintage, they have all been magnificent. Their prices follow demand, so demand is high and the rest of the world can't be wrong.
There you have it. If a $600 wine isn't worth its price, you're the problem, probably because you aren't French. In fact, stratospheric prices simply reflect a correction to the historically low prices of the previous century. Also, the weather is always good in Bordeaux and every vintage is better than the previous. In a word, magnificent!

Rich winos say the darndest things. Which reminds me, I've been meaning to link to an amusing discussion in the online altar of Parker worship, Mark Squires' Bulletin Board. The topic: What is the most difficult wine to lay your hands on (at release) but not overpriced? Well, it doesn't take long before one uber-snob unleashes an all-star list of wines that cost $100s if not $1000s per bottle. Tongue in cheek? Perhaps. But I suspect this fellow would get along with the above Bordeaux fan who is convinced you can't lose paying a thousand dollars per liter for fermented grapes.

Indeed, rich wine snobs do say the darndest things. I think I should make this a regular feature, one that will always be magnificent.

WBW #61: A Meta-Post "At the Source"

Having just noticed there's an applicable Wine Blogging Wednesday this month concerning tasting at a winery titled At the Source, I've decided to make a meta-post to fulfill the assignment. Below are links to my posts about wine tasting trips in 2009:

Santa Ynez
Paso Robles #1
Paso Robles #2
Santa Barbara County #1
Santa Barbara County #2
Russian River Valley/Dry Creek/Alexander Valley #1
Russian River Valley/Dry Creek/Alexander Valley #2a
Russian River Valley/Dry Creek/Alexander Valley #2b

I apologize if this seems a bit lazy, but trust me, taking notes and writing the posts required both time and effort. It would certainly make me happy if someone who hasn't seen them yet found them helpful, insightful or just plain entertaining.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

TN: R & B Cellars 2006 Cabernet Franc

The R & B Cellars 2006 Cabernet Franc features fruit from El Dorado, an appellation east of Sacramento in the Sierra Foothills, produced at a small winery located in Alameda, across the bay from San Francisco. In a best case scenario, I'd imagine high elevation Cabernet Franc to be similar to Mendoza Malbec, demonstrating a supple fruit-driven profile with smooth tannin that differs from its more rugged if not rustic French counterparts. Although the varietal, unfamiliar yet promising appellation and small producer make me want to like the wine, this just wasn't my cup of tea.

There were two major problems from my perspective. First, the aromas and flavors were dominated by dried fruits. My girlfriend was insistent on dried figs, but for me anything dry, be it a raisin, a prune or a fig doesn't have any business in a wine. Second, there was too much oak. The secondary aromatic components were barrel aromas, while vanilla cream and tooth-pick like astringency were very prominent in my mouth. After the initial fig and cream flavors, the palate became hollow and dominated by oak tannins. There was no "flavor arc" here; everything was monolithic and one-dimensional. The one virtue, I suppose, was its medium body.

While I'm not a huge proponent of un-oaked reds, the producer noted the wine was aged for 14 months in 60% new oak. This was too much of a potentially good thing for this wine, at least for my palate. Combined with the lack of freshness in the fruit components and minimal Cabernet Franc varietal character, I didn't find much to like here. An added non-bonus is the use of a rubber cork, which is not good for long-term aging. So if you want to try giving the oak time to integrate, the wine will probably oxidize before that happens.

This was quite a disappointment with many common California wine idiosyncrasies present: too much oak, over ripe qualities, and no varietal character. Fortunately, I recently upgraded my stocks of Loire Cabernet Franc, thus I'll be tasting in a more Old World direction in the near future. Although Chinons and Bourgueils can have their own trappings, too much oak or lack of freshness shouldn't be an issue!

Pros: Medium Body
Cons: No Varietal Character, Lacks Freshness, Over-Oaked, Hollow Mid-palate & Finish
Decant: Doesn't make much difference
Price: $22 from Wines & Makers
QPR: Poor (out of Poor, Mediocre, Fair, Good or Excellent with Fair denoting expectations were met for the price point)

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Upon Further Review, Not So Great

My girlfriend and I re-visited a tasting room was had patronized well over a year ago. We've both become more adept at tasting wines since then and have tried a broader array of wines as well. The results were instructive. While I don't want to go out of my way to knock this place--it's a tasting room in Solvang that sources most if not all of its fruit from outside of Santa Barbara County--it's pretty remarkable how mediocre the wines were. And most of them were priced close to $30 per bottle, if not higher.

The whites were somewhere between off-dry and sweet, which we'd noticed on the previous visit. I think we actually skipped most of those since we didn't want to taste sweet wines, but this time we gave a few a try. The thing with sweet wines, which for me is anything with 10 g/L of RS or more, is they almost always taste good. But unless they have acidity and complexity like a Riesling to back it up, the nectar-like qualities tend to dominate everything else and hide flaws that would be apparent in a dry wine. This yummy and sweet flavor profile is something you can come by pretty cheaply, though. And that's what really got me on these wines. A couple were decent with nice blowsy, super-ripe aromatics, but there was nothing to them that really justified a $20 to $30 price tag.

The reds, which we'd liked previously and noted as tannic and powerful, turned out to be equally disappointing. There are certain aromas and flavors I''ve become adept at picking out: bell pepper, vanilla, cherry, barrel toast, barnyard and a few others I'm probably missing as well. Bell pepper, I like. Excessive toast, I dislike. Yet there's one other thing that I loathe, raisin and prune aromas. Unfortunately, just about every red here was exceedingly raisiny. I like fresh fruit flavors, but can tolerate some jamminess if there's other stuff going on. Once it reaches the raisin point, there's just nothing I can like about the wine.

The thing that really gets me about this place is that they're located in a tourist town and seem built to cater to that mentality. It's easy to trick a novice looking for a souvenir into spending too much on an overripe wine. Quite simply, their wines are overpriced for what they offer, even if some taste pretty good. It's all the more frustrating when one sees where they sourced the grapes. Their Petit Verdot is made from Sierra Foothills grapes, while several others simply bear a Central Coast or California appellation. That's not to say that good grapes only come from well-known regions, but chances are they're not paying very much for the grapes they put into the $30 bottle of wine.

If they're not paying much for the fruit and the wines are nothing special, then why is the customer paying a high price? Because the sell "premium varietals" in a tourist town where a lot of people who drop in for a tasting will likely associate the high price of a luxury good with quality. One to avoid if you know what I'm talking about.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Cabernet Franc from Eastern Santa Ynez

I've been a big fan of Cabernet Franc from Los Alamos in the western portion of Santa Barbara County. But I hadn't come across a decent Cab Franc (at least in my price range) from the eastern reaches of Santa Ynez. The sub-region known as Happy Canyon reputedly is well-suited for Bordeaux varietals, though, and thus should produce Cab Franc more in line with St. Emilion than Chinon. However, my only prior experience was with the unsatisfactory Happy Canyon 2007 Chukker.

A few tastings from last weekend offered a much better picture of what Happy Canyon is capable of producing. In fact, the Happy Canyon Vineyard 2008 Chukker, which I learned is styled after a youthful and fruity Beaujolais yet made primarily from Cab Franc instead of Gamay, showed much better than past vintages I've tasted. Part of it was probably tasting it closer to its spring release since it's not built to age, but it's simply much fresher and less cloying than previous versions. It's a definite success as a wine to be consumed much like a rose during the summer. The price is fair around $15.

I also enjoyed the 2006 Piocho from Happy Canyon Vineyard. It's a blend of 50% Cab Franc, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 5% each of Merlot, Malbec and Petite Verdot. While the aromatics are a bit simplistic and tilted towards the jammy red fruit end of the spectrum, there's a good hint of roasted herbs and peppers in the background. There's also robust tannic structure that could use some age to resolve. While the pro critics aren't fond of pyrazines, a wine as fruit-driven as this is enhanced by a little green from my perspective. Although it's a round, crowd pleaser, I'd hope with age the fruit would recede a bit to show more of these secondary qualities. It's fairly priced at $30 for the '06 vintage if you're a fan of the style.

Happy Canyon Vineyard is owned by the Barrack family, who also own the Second Growth Chateau Lascombes in the Margaux district of Bordeaux. Their winemaker Doug Margerum is involved in several other projects in the Santa Barbara area, including another Happy Canyon producer, Cimarone. I tasted two Cimarone wines, the 2006 Clos Secret and the 2007 Three Creek Vineyard Bank. The Clos Secret is essentialy the same blend as the Piocho, but with a larger proportion of Petit Verdot and no Merlot. Thus, it's not surprising given the same winemaker and similar blending practices that Cimarone's Clos Secret shows many of the same qualities as Happy Canyon Vineyard's Piocho. It did seem less structured, however, and the $40 price tag, reduced from an eye-popping $60, is rather optimistic for a new producer in this economy.

The 2007 Three Creek Vineyard Bank provided my favorite variation on the Happy Canyon Cab Franc blend theme. It's 47% Cab Franc, 35% Cab Sauv, 8% Syrah, 4% Merlot, 3% Malbec, and 3% Petit Verdot. Made in an approachable style, it provides a nice mix of fresh fruit flavors with enough structure to hold its own as a serious red wine. Perhaps it's a function of vintage, but it's less jammy and shows more delicate floral and plum aromas. The flavor arc is what I'd think of as "classic," with lively fruit complemented by good acidity evolving into a supple finish. I'd love to see if the '07 Clos Secret goes in this direction as well, supplementing balanced fruit with the structure to age. Regardless, the '07 Bank is a good value at $22.

In sum, Happy Canyon Cab Francs show no lack of ripeness, though it seems complexity and overall balance are still a work in progress. I don't think Happy Canyon will displace Los Alamos as my preferred local Cab Franc enclave, but there's plenty going on with the varietal that's worth following. With a little less in the way of ultra-ripe fruit qualities, the Piocho and the Clos Secret could be stunning wines. This might just be a case of nature delivering the goods in a given vintage.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

TN: Hitching Post 2006 Generation Red

From the folks who brought you the Highliner Pinot Noir of Sideways fame comes the delicious Hitching Post 2006 Generation Red, a blend of 38% Cabernet Franc, 33% Merlot, 23% Syrah and 6% Refosco. Sometimes blends are the leftovers that don't fit anywhere else, but there's a definite logic to this blend. The Cab Franc comes from the cool-climate Alisos Vineyard on Los Alamos where Cabernet Franc (and also Syrah) typically reach excellent maturity without extremely jammy or alcoholic qualities. The Merlot is grown in warmer areas of the Santa Ynez Valley that should offer very fruit-driven flavors. Heading back to the cooler hillsides of Los Alamos, the Syrah is sourced from White Hawk Vineyard. Finally, a dash of the earthier and more structured Italian varietal Refosco is added from the famed Bien Nacido Vineyard. In theory, there should be ample fruit, earth and structure to be found in this wine.

I've had this wine twice, and the first time herbal and pepper aromas, likely from the Cab Franc, were fairly prominent. This time the wine showed an array of virtually every red and blue fruit. Initially there's an explosion of raspberries, then blackberry, blueberry, currant and cherry follow. While this sounds like a fruit-bomb, there's a nice freshness to the fruit that lifts it above the rank and file wines of this sorts. The acidity and tannins are sufficient to provide structure, yet not intrusive, which was probably the winemakers' goal since this wine is meant to be served young at their restaurant. The finish tops it off with a little chocolate, but it's mainly the fruit that sticks around.

This isn't hugely complex, but the fruit is layered and the flavors are seamlessly integrated into the medium bodied wine. No heat or heavy oak drop in uninvited on the party. For my palate, this is a top exemplar of a youthful, fruit-driven wine.

Pros: Fruit Forward, Accessible, Well-Integrated, Deftly Blended, Good Structure & Balance
Cons: Not Very Complex
Decant: Not necessary
Price: $18 from The Hitching Post
QPR: Good (out of Poor, Mediocre, Fair, Good or Excellent with Fair denoting expectations were met for the price point)