Monday, November 30, 2009

WN: Braunstein 2004 Leithaberg Rot

The Braunstein 2004 Leithaberg Rot has a lot going against it, which is probably why I found it several months ago on sale for $20. It's priced at 20 Euros typically, which translates to about $40 for us Americans. Rot just doesn't sound sexy even though all it means is red. Meanwhile, the wine consists of 75% Blaufränkisch and 25% Zweigelt. What kind of rot-blooded American would drink anything other than Zin, Cab or Chard? Blaufränkisch also goes by the aliases Lemberger, Blauer Limberger, Frankovka, Franconia, and Kékfrankos, just to name a few. How are you going to abbreviate it to one syllable for sale to the masses if you don't even know what to call it? And do the masses even know what an umlaut is?

In short, we have a rot wine made from a varietal that sounds like a stinky cheese. That's a recipe for a discount, regardless of quality. Since I like value and exploring unfamiliar wine regions--in this case it's Leithaberg in the eastern-most Austrian state of Burgenland--this one was a no brainer.

I didn't know quite what to expect from this wine. Blaufränkisch, according to its Wiki, is a late ripening grape that makes a dark wine with fruity and spicy flavors. Other sources compare it to Merlot and Gamay Noir, and suggest it makes a good introductory wine due to its medium body, lighter tannins and fruit-forward flavors. (Aside: I'm not so certain about the latter statement as new wine drinkers are often most attracted to powerful, oaky wines with varietal names like Cab or Chard or unstructured, slightly sweet wines like Charles Shaw, YellowTail or any generic Pinot Grigio.) Zweigelt, meanwhile, is a cross of Blaufränkisch and St. Laurent that is supposedly more cold hardy and ripens earlier. Since it tends towards high yields, it may produce a pedestrian wine without hard work in the vineyard.

As it turned out, the descriptions were pretty much on-target. The wine was dark in color, but had the medium body and light tannins of a good Pinot Noir. It definitely was not a beginner's wine, though. While there were aromas and flavors of cherries and raspberries, tobacco was the most prominent component of the wine. It was most obvious in the bouquet and the finish where it added a savory layer of complexity to the fruit forward attack. The acidity was medium low, but appropriate for the weight of the wine. There was also a light impression of high quality oak that added some mid-palate presence, yet was wholly complementary.

Wines labeled with the Leithaberg appellation, according to their website, must express their terroir, avoid the international (Parkerized) style, and possess balance and elegance. Having read their PR copy after tasting the wine, I'd have to say that it's 100% true. Not only did this wine express a unique character, it's flat out good.

Even at $40 full retail price, this wine would be fairly priced. I feel like I practically stole it for $20. It's essentially a better and more mature version of the 2007 Pied de la Butte I recently tasted. Then again, I love the tobacco of a good Cab Franc, and I love the supple elegance of a good Pinot Noir. This wine brings both of these qualities together. I'd even hazard to guess that if given more age, the fresh tobacco aromas might evolve into an even more complex cigar box bouquet, though it might come at the expense of some of the delicious fruit this has now.

The Braunstein 2004 Leithaberg Rot is a stunning, awesome wine. I'm adding Leithaberg to my list of regions like Chinon, Bourgueil, Bierzo and Mount Etna that can produce superior medium bodied wines of terroir without the exorbitant prices Burgundy or California will often demand. Everyone should put down their glasses of over-extracted Napa Cabs and go out right now to try something from Leithaberg. If you can find it!

Pros: Tobacco, Red Fruit, Medium Bodied, Balanced, Elegant, Deep, Complex, Seamless, Long Finish
Cons: None
Decant: Yes
Price: $20 from K&L Wines
QPR: Excellent (out of Poor, Mediocre, Fair, Good or Excellent with Fair denoting expectations were met for the price point)

Thursday, November 26, 2009

TN: Cimarone 2007 3CV Bank

Cimarone is a new producer in the recently created Happy Canyon AVA located in the eastern end of the Santa Ynez Valley. The Cimarone 2007 3CV Bank is their entry-level wine made with estate fruit from Three Creek Vineyard. Based on the blend of 47% Cabernet Franc, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Syrah, 4% Merlot, 3% Malbec, and 3% Petit Verdot, this wine looks like it consists primarily of the fruit that didn't maker the cut in their luxury cuvée, Le Clos Secret. Regardless, I like to try the lower level wines to get a sense of a winery's style, and this wine also provided a good chance to re-visit something I tried previously.

The bouquet reflects the contributions of both Cabernets with cedar, dried herbs and currants front and center. Barrel aromas of toast and caramel, fortunately, are secondary and not too distracting. Tasted blind, I might well have pegged this as a Chilean Carmenere based on the nose. The flavors are typical of an oak aged Bordeaux blend with dark fruit and moderate weight on the mid-palate. Unfortunately, the finish is poor. It's harsh, somewhat medicinal and a little hot. While the wine is not overly tannic, I can't help but think it's over-extracted because of the bitter, herbal flavors that linger.

I really liked this wine when I tasted it a few months ago. I think this confirms what I've always thought: a small taste is very different than a full glass or two. A taster can only pick up several aromas at once, thus more than a few sniffs are required to unlock all of a wine's aromas. Moreover, the harshness of a highly extracted wine usually becomes more pronounced with more sips. Upon further review, this just isn't more than an average wine despite the lovely earthy aromatics. Many $15 to $20 Chilean wines offer similar qualities, but simply taste better.

Pros: Earthy Aromas, Dark Fruit, Moderate Tannins
Cons: Harsh Finish, Some Obvious Oak, Over-extracted (?)
Decant: Yes, mainly to avoid sediment
Price: $22 from Tastes of the Valleys
QPR: Poor/Mediocre (out of Poor, Mediocre, Fair, Good or Excellent with Fair denoting expectations were met for the price point)

Monday, November 23, 2009

TN: Pascal Janvier 2008 Cuvée du Rosier

Get ready, here's another Kermit Lynch import: Pascal Janvier 2008 Cuvée du Rosier. The varietal of record here is Pineau d'Aunis, which has all manner of bizarre characteristics ascribed to it such as the flavor of pure pencil lead and Pinot Noir spiked with Pine Sol. Moreover, the wine hails from the Loire appellation of the Coteaux du Loir (that's not a typo, Loir has no 'e' in this version), an apparent ellipse of vineyards nearly due north of my beloved Chinon and Bourgueil.

Clearly, this is not going to be your typical tasting experience. Here are my notes:
Whoa! This wine defies numerical ratings, it's in its own orthogonal space. The bouquet resembles a good Beaujolais. There's tart red fruits like pomegranate and cranberry. Then pepper and meat. The flavors are very much cranberry-like, too. Tart red fruit attacks, then the bizarre finish sweeps in. It reminded me of retsina, the Greek wine made with pine resin. While it was weird to me, it didn't make me shudder. There are dusty tannins despite the rosé-like weight and color of the wine.

There was also a slight tongue tingle, maybe due to in-bottle fermentation. Decanting will get rid of this. This would be a flaw in a generic wine, but I suspect in the curious world of 'vin naturale,' this is a feature. Regardless, the purity of this idiosyncratic wine was impressive.
Strange yet not cringe-worthy sums it up. My girlfriend felt differently, however, so this is not going to be a general crowd-pleaser. It's a food wine, for certain, as it is intensely dry and mineral-laden in nature. And I have a suspicion that very little sulfur dioxide was used, which likely means each bottle will be unique like a snowflake. In-bottle malo-lactic fermentation can yield a slight spritz of carbon dioxide as well as meaty aromas, thus I suspect there might have been a bit of ML taking place.

Flawed? Unique? Memorable? Bizarre? Fascinating? Brilliant? Welcome to the outside of the box. I'm not sure I'd want to live there as some wine geeks do (see Feiring, Alice), but it's an interesting place to visit. I think I'll take 20% new French oak and sulfur dioxide before bottling 90% of the time. This is for that other 10% of the time.

Pros: Fresh, Dry, Light Body, Food Friendly
Cons: Potential Bottle Variation, Difficult/Weird Resinous Finish
Decant: Yes, allows CO2 to dissipate
Price: $17 from K&L Wines
QPR: Fair (out of Poor, Mediocre, Fair, Good or Excellent with Fair denoting expectations were met for the price point)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

TN: Marcel Lapierre 2007 Morgon

The Marcel Lapierre 2007 Morgon is the first Beaujolais I've consumed as more than a sip at a tasting. There are two things I know about Beaujolais. First, the varietal of record is Gamay Noir, which is treated like Pinot Noir's red-headed step-cousin. Since I like underdog stories--Cab Franc being treated as Cabernet Sauvignon's wacky uncle instead of its distinguished father is my classic favorite--there's some appeal on those grounds. The second fact I've learned is Cru Beaujolais, labeled by its sub-appellation (like Morgon), is an entirely different beast than the Village or Nouveau wines one might find in a grocery store.

This cuvée, imported by the master wine finder Kermit Lynch, is the same one made famous by Dirty South Wine's 101.85 Silent Ferret Whistle! rating. It's a lighter bodied wine that shows a purity of fruit and freshness of acidity that simply cannot be found in a domestic wine. It's not tannic, and the weightlessness carries over to the finish. While I like a bit more meat on the bone, so to speak, it's the transparency that's so compelling. This is most apparent on the nose, which is a complex stew of earth, pepper, cherry and floral aromas. I get the feeling vintage, varietal and terroir are all being presented unencumbered by external influence.

This wine receives no sulfur, I think, so storage and provenance are vital. What makes it transparent also makes it delicate. While this is probably not a re-buy, I'll be looking for this in future vintages. I'd really, really dig this if it had a little more weight and depth to complement the freshness and purity of expression. Maybe not quite a Silent Ferret Whistle! for me, but it's at least a Pregnant Bull Moose Call if not a Steel Drum Gamelan Fusion.

Pros: Minimal Oak Influence, Fresh, Transparency of Expression, Complex Aromas
Cons: Lack of Depth to Flavors
Decant: Maybe
Price: $22 from East Beach Wine
QPR: Fair (out of Poor, Mediocre, Fair, Good or Excellent with Fair denoting expectations were met for the price point)

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Beer Equivalency

Drinking wine in an analytic way has helped me put beer styles in better perspective. Take for example India Pale Ale (IPA). I used to love IPA, but I've come to realize that they're generally poorly balanced. And yet they represent a beer drinker's beer, much in the same way a Napa Cab would be a wine drinker's wine. IPA's tend be high alcohol, which gives them a degree of robustness not found in lighter beers, but what's usually most noticeable is the hops. Some IPAs are extremely bitter and almost metallic tasting because of the hoppiness, and are aromatically dominated by the hops as well. This represents almost a one-to-one correlation with a highly, extracted, high alcohol, heavily oaked Napa-style wine. Here there's bitterness and aromatics dominated by oak influence, as well as tannins from both fruit and oak that drown out any nuance.

I'm no expert, but Double (Triple?) IPAs and Russian Imperial Stouts seem to be the most extreme examples in the genre. Certainly I'd go to these as man beers, especially because of the effects of the elevated alcohol. But given that brewing offers the flexibility to combine virtually any ingredient to add flavors and aromas, it almost seems a waste to focus on power at the expense of complexity.

On an unrelated note, a couple of beers I tasted from Telegraph Brewing Company in Santa Barbara showed an unexpected aroma: funk. As in Brett funk. This was present in both their California Ale and Stock Porter. I know they produce one beer, a wheat ale, intentionally using Brettanomyces yeast. They also note the California Ale is "fermented with a unique yeast strain that accentuates the hoppy spiciness, while also imparting fruity and subtly tart flavors." Maybe I'm reading too much into this, but Brett produces acid in the process of fermentation and when allowed to dominate the fermentation produces sour ales. Is the "tartness" from a "unique yeast strain" really referring to a controlled, secondary contribution from Brett? The brewery also writes that the "aromas are spicy and earthy, reminiscent of the rich agricultural valleys surrounding Santa Barbara." A euphemism for animale funk, perhaps?

The Porter meanwhile is aged in Zinfandel barrels, so that's another potential source of Brett. Furthermore, their beers are bottle conditioned, which I take to mean there are fermentable sugars and yeast that continue the fermentation in bottle. You can be sure that if Brett's around, it'll assist in the bottle conditioning since it's a very robust micro-critter.

Anyway, these were complex, medium bodied beers. Whether the Brett was intentional or introduced from ambient sources (barrels, another beer), it added a little attractive rusticity that one rarely finds outside the wine world. Now if only wineries could figure out how to co-exist with Brett. Right now, at least in the US, it's treated like the plague. Maybe brewing in relative micro-quantities allows one to manage Brett where in the less controlled fermentation of grapes it might run completely rampant, however.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

TN: Domaine de la Butte 2007 Pied de la Butte

The Domaine de la Butte 2007 Pied de la Butte is the second wine I've tried from this producer, with the first being a 2006 from a different portion of the Domaine's vineyards. I enjoyed the 2006 Perrieres, but the Pied de la Butte sees no barrel aging and is from the potentially tougher 2007 vintage.

The verdict: I really liked this wine. The nose is very green, as was the case with two other 2007s I've tried from the Loire Valley, but it came across as fresh tobacco, not weediness. Maybe I was in the right mood this time, or maybe this was a different sort of green than the other 2007s showed. Either way, it seemed to fit. The palate also seemed better balanced, with the high acidity offset by deeper berry flavors. In fact, the wine tasted slightly off-dry to me, a balancing technique often employed with high-acid white wines. Since the vigneron Jacky Blot is known primarily for his Chenin Blanc, which is made in a variety of styles with residual sugar, I wouldn't be surprised if he left a little RS to offset the tart acids. The finish rounded everything out with more earthy bitterness, tobacco and a dose of young tannins.

While not a deep wine, I enjoyed the mix of greenness, richness and freshness. At $16, this would be a re-buy for me. It might even be an interesting experiment in aging to see if the fresh tobacco takes on more of a cigar-like quality in time. If age dries out fruit flavors, why not tobacco flavors as well? Aging questions aside, Domaine de la Butte is on my "buy on sight" list now.

Pros: Tobacco, Rich Yet Acidic, Earthy Finish
Cons: One-Dimensional Bouquet
Decant: Yes, tons of sediment in bottle
Price: $16 from K&L Wines
QPR: Good/Excellent (out of Poor, Mediocre, Fair, Good or Excellent with Fair denoting expectations were met for the price point)

Friday, November 6, 2009

How (not) to sell a budget Shiraz (?)

I'm on the mailing list of one local wine shop whose marketing emails generally seem to border on self parody. They're always pitching a Shiraz or Chardonnay because of its intensity and richness using terms straight out of the Parker lexicon, and the price is always around $15.

Maybe the owner sincerely likes these wines, but given that the emails tend only to pitch a single wine, more often than not I get the impression they're very profitable wines they can sell in quantity. Gotta stay in business. I get it. But this latest email, which I'll break down below, is simply over the top. Names are removed to protect the innocent. The email starts with a perverse flourish, then snowballs from there:
Vintages (and size) both matter.
Ed: What is this, a male enhancement commercial?

[Wine Name Redacted] 2008 Shiraz...$11.99

I've been a fan of [Wine Name Redacted] since the first vintage I tasted, about four years ago. Made by the talented [Winemaker Redacted], this uber-value has achieved a new, unexpected level of succulence and overtly hedonistic flavors in the 2008 vintage.

Ed: Great, hedonistic AND ultra-value. No mention of balance or elegance, however . . . .

Tangled up in blue

This olfactory-encompassing Aussie stains the glass, the palate and beyond. Your dental hygienist will berate you at the next cleaning because traces of this purple/black beastie will permanently darken your smile. If you spill it anywhere at home, plan on reupholstering the sofa, tearing out the carpeting and burning any clothing it accidentally soaks into. Handle with care...

Ed: I get it, this wine is so over-extracted it will wreck everything in its path. Sounds like a great selling point!

It's well worth the danger

South Australia keeps producing and sending us these powerhouse Shiraz (Shirazes?), and we gladly savor them, especially in this thrifty price range.

[review snipped . . . .]

This Aussie will give you a purple grin without looting your bank account!
Ed: Finally, a positive selling point. While this wine will ruin your teeth, clothing, carpet, sofa, human relationships, and potentially give you a massive hard-on, it won't rob you at gunpoint.

And you wonder why I'm cynical about cheap Aussie Shiraz?

Monday, November 2, 2009

TN: Buttonwood 2002 Cabernet Franc

The Buttonwood 2002 Cabernet Franc is 100% varietal Cabernet Franc, labeled at 13.6% ABV. Sounds like a nice combo in theory, and it also works out well in practice. Buttonwood is a Santa Ynez producer primarily of Bordeaux varietals, and what makes them interesting is a unique attractively rustic "house style" combined with the majority of wines priced at under $20. Their reds receive extended aging in older barrels, which imparts a character to their wines that most producers with their 18 months in 50% new oak sort of regimes don't achieve. I think they do lose some varietal character due to their "house style," but the wines are nonetheless individualistic.

This wine opened up with the "Buttonwood funk" as I call it based on tasting a variety of their wines. I'm guessing it's some form of Brett or microbially produced aroma, but it's definitely not your garden variety barnyard smell. Once the wine opened up herbs and currants were also noticeable, but the house style funk remained most prominent. Middle-weight blackberry flavors backed by appropriate acidity showed on the palate. What I liked most, though, were the coffee and earth flavors on the lingering finish and the copious, mature tannins. This is not an overly complex or elegant wine, but it's true to itself and its age has rounded off a few of the rustic edges.

I purchased this wine as part of a vertical including the 2001, 2002 and 2003 vintages for $14 per bottle. This was my favorite bottle of the three, and taken individually or together they represent a great value. The only caveat is that they're bottled with synthetic corks, and I know these aren't good for long-term aging. Buttonwood expects you to drink their wines on release, basically.

Pros: Rustic House Style, Pleasingly Bitter Finish, Mature Tannins
Cons: Not Complex
Decant: Yes, develops with air
Price: $14 from Buttonwood Winery
QPR: Excellent (out of Poor, Mediocre, Fair, Good or Excellent with Fair denoting expectations were met for the price point)

Sunday, November 1, 2009


I've seen quince used as a descriptor in tasting notes fairly often, especially with respect to white wines. Thanks to the new local Whole Foods (i.e. Whole Paycheck), I got a chance to try to a quince for just a bit more than the price of an apple.

The quince is an interesting fruit. It looks like a pear, but is a bit more spherical in shape just like in the Wikipedia image. Tastes like a pear, too, but is somewhat crisp in structure like an apple, and more acidic like a citrus fruit. The real surprise, though, is that it's as tannic as any Cabernet you'll ever taste. Despite being juicy, it simply dries your mouth out as the tannins lock down on your proteins. I now understand why it's not found at your everyday grocery store. Just like the Brits' other favorite fruit, the currant, it's not something one just picks up and chows down on.

It's interesting to consider that, while the correspondence isn't exactly one to one, a British palate might well describe a pear in terms of its relationship to a quince. Just as I imagine that a currant in a tasting note represents some sort of earthy, exotic blackberry, I'll imagine a quince as a pear-like fruit with other qualities added to it. Good to know when trying to decode the obscure language of a tasting note.