Wednesday, October 28, 2009

TN: Bedford Thompson 2001 Cabernet Franc

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Cab Franc: Bad Varietal, or THE Worst Varietal

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 22, 2009

TN: Abad Dom Bueno 2005 Bierzo Roble

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 18, 2009

A Franc Vertical Sings the Blues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 10, 2009

TN: Charles Joguet 2006 Les Varennes du Grand Clos

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

TN: Curran 2007 Grenache Blanc

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 4, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 3, 2009

TN: Benanti 2005 Etna Rosso di Verzella

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

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

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

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