Wednesday, December 30, 2009

TN: Weinert 2003 Mendoza Malbec

No picture for this post. But the Weinert 2003 Mendoza Malbec still deserves a note despite less than ideal circumstances for formal tasting. I picked up a bottle in Pennsylvania for a family dinner featuring roasted red meat. While Argentine Malbec is usually a safe choice with its soft tannins and ripe, plummy fruit, this bottle was surprisingly complex if not a bit challenging. In fact, while I've been shying away from Malbec recently, this bottle has me thinking there's more out there beyond monolithic fruit bombs.

The nose had an intriguing mix of musty leather and cedar. While the bottle indicated 3 years of oak aging, a little e-digging revealed the aging takes place in large, neutral oak casks. Thus, the oak was held in check. The wine was medium to full-bodied with plenty of ripe red fruit on the mid-palate. Yet there was serious depth to the persistent finish that has coffee-like flavors as well as some mildly astringent oak tannins. Its age gave it an overall mellow impression.

Even though we drank from small, shallow glasses, the bouquet was effusive. With better stemware, I'm certain this wine could be stunning. It's a sort of cross between Old World funkiness and New World opulence. Weinert is definitely a producer to watch for given its approach. Not only do they practice extended aging in neutral oak, but they also bottle age before release as the 2004 Malbec is their current release. I love producers that have the guts (and capital) to put their wine on the market when it's actually ready. This holds doubly true for those that can mix a bit of rusticity with riper fruit.

Pros: Complex, Medium/Full Bodied, Balanced, Ripe Fruit, Strong Earthy & Funky Bouquet
Cons: Slightly Astringent Tannins
Decant: Yes
Price: $20 from Pennsylvania Wine & Spirits
QPR: Good (out of Poor, Mediocre, Fair, Good or Excellent with Fair denoting expectations were met for the price point)

Monday, December 28, 2009

Revisiting Zins

It's no secret I don't drink a lot of Zinfandel. The popular style relies too much on jammy, raisined fruit, high alcohol and generally exaggerated characteristics. In my mind, this unbalanced approach looks a lot like this in the form of a polar plot:
However, since I've had more Bierzos than Zinfandels, California's 'native' grape, I figured it was worth re-visiting the local favorite. I picked one out that was recommended because of its more elegant approach. As shown above, it was much more acidic than my archetypal mental picture and also less over the top full bodied (due to high alcohol and extract). While better balanced than most Zins, it still was fairly one dimensional and a bit tart, albeit fresh.

So I'm still looking for that elusive medium bodied Zin brimming with complexity. This one was a fair value for the price, though.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

WN: Domaine Terrebrune 2004 Bandol

I'm a bit surprised Jeff at Viva la Wino hasn't reviewed this one yet since K&L Wines was closing it out recently and it's from an awesome little appellation in Provence along the Mediterranean coast of France. Domaine Terrebrune 2004 Bandol is 85% Mourvedre with Cinsault and Grenache rounding out the blend, and is imported by Kermit Lynch (another reason why I'm surprised Jeff hasn't hit this up). Let me begin by saying Mourvedre is one of the greatest grape varieties. It intrinsically is a bit meaty, gamy and and earthy and ripens late, thus even in warmer southern climates it can make a complex, balanced wine on its own. Furthermore, it's one of the most age-worthy reds because of the high level of antioxidant phenolic compounds present in its skins. Finally, because it was nearly wiped out by the vine louse Phylloxera, it only was replanted in its spiritual home of Bandol to any serious degree beginning in the mid-20th century. It's an underdog and one of the few varietals that can make a balanced wine in a warm if not hot climate.

Chances are this wine was in an intermediate phase between youthful exuberance and sage old wisdom. It was a bit aromatically ungiving, but did yield that characteristic animal funk (my girlfriend said chicken coop, but it was more gamy to me) as well as roasted herbs, chocolate, smoke and burnt caramel. Definitely not a fruit bomb, though not excessively rustic, either. It was surprisingly non-rustic and polished on the palate as well, medium to full bodied and showed a classy high-quality oak presence on the mid-palate (probably because large 50-60 hecto-litre barriques are used for aging instead of the popular 225 litre Bordeaux-style barrels). There were dark fruit, coffee and herb flavors and a very pleasing, lingering finish. Both tannins and acidity were present structurally, but neither was angular and stuck out. In particular, the tannins were rounded instead of drying despite being fairly copious.

While I was expecting a wine that was tannic and rustic, what I found was a refined wine that still showed a good bit of character. This opened up in the decanter, and given its balance and structure, I'd bet it would age gracefully. Unfortunately, K&L has sold out of this already. That it showed up on sale was a bit odd in the first place since it had a high critical rating, though perhaps the less-heralded 2004 vintage detracted a bit from its potential luster for collectors.

Incidentally, I will admit to a positive bias towards Mourvedre. If I were to make a second blog, it would definitely be devoted to Mourvedre. I'd even go so far as to say a lot of the Central Coast Syrah should be replaced with Mourvedre, assuming the vines are suited to the vineyard. My girlfriend was less bullish on this wine, using terms like chicken coop and medicinal, so your mileage may vary.

Pros: Balanced, Mildly Funky, Medium-Full Bodied, Refined
Cons: Somewhat Tight Aromatically
Decant: Yes, opened up with air exposure
Price: $23 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)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Wine Styles, Graphically Speaking

As I mentioned in my original post on plotting wines using structural descriptions, I think it's potentially a good way to give a sense of balance, style and especially intensity. As an example, here are three hypothetical wines, each of which would be considered balanced:
Wine A represents a powerful young wine with lots of stuffing, and is probably the sort of wine that critics would love. While consumers sometimes suggest that critics will rate flabby wines highly, based on the few highly rated wines I've tasted, more often the wines are simply packed with lots of everything. This isn't the only path to quality, though.

Wine B represents a slightly mellower wine, either because it has a bit of age or is simply made in a style that stresses complexity or finesse over raw power. A younger wine with these characteristics likely is the epitome of what critics score in the high 80s. Personally, this would be my choice as the white hot intensity of the previous wine tends to lead to palate fatigue.

Wine C represents a balanced wine that's pretty much boring. There's nothing offensive, but nothing impressive, either. For me this epitomizes a solid, mass-produced 'grocery store' wine. Balanced, yes, but lacking concentration, aroma and flavor. One could do worse, though.

I'd probably find the first wine over the top and fatiguing, especially with food. The last wine just wouldn't be that interesting. Wine B probably would be my choice. But each type has its supporters. There's no right or wrong in taste, only preference.

Monday, December 21, 2009

WN: Domaine de la Chevalier 1996 Bourgueil Les Galichets

A 13 year old Bourgueil? Yes: Domaine de la Chevalier 1996 Bourgueil Les Galichets. So what if Cab Franc isn't considered an aging wine like Cabernet Sauvignon. Terroir usually trumps the grape variety anyway. I doubt many mid-priced Cali Cabs are much good at 13 years.

Upon first pour, what I noticed was how mellow the flavors were, yet at the same time lively. There was very refreshing acidity, which explains the vitality, along with mature tannins. While the wine showed plenty of raspberry and currant-like fruit, a refined herbaceousness had the largest impact on the wine's profile. The nose had a grassy aroma that I've tasted before in both Bourgueils and Chinons (more on this later). Additionally, the finish showed a spicy herbaceousness on the finish that was unique and delicious. Some wines have medicinal, herbal flavors, but this was different. It was pure and lingering instead of muddy and overbearing. Although there was a little leather, it was a relatively small component given the age and appellation. This wine was more than just hanging on at 13 years. It was in its prime, well-resolved yet very much alive.

What really sticks out to me is the particular 'brand' of herbaceousness in this cuvée. This grassy aroma, with an odd hint of lemon zest, showed up almost identically in the 2007 Baudry Les Granges and 2007 Breton Galichets. Galichets translates to gravel, and all three of these wines were made from fruit grown on gravel terroir. (I am uncertain if the Breton and Chevalier Galichets are the same vineyard, or simply the same soil type). I'm beginning to think this particular herbaceousness is unique to Cab Franc grown in gravel. I've commented previously that I prefer the limestone and clay terroirs more, and I think it's because the innate green nuance of the variety shows differently, more as fresh tobacco and bell pepper than cut grass.

So why did I like this aged Chevalier Galichets more than the young Breton Galichets? I'm not certain, but the aging has rounded the edges off. In particular, the herbaceousness seemed more refined and mellow instead of biting and intense. Although this wasn't my favorite style of Franc, it was a really nice find at peak maturity with excellent provenance for the price.

Pros: Mellow Herbaceousness, Medium Body, Lively Acidity & Fruit, Mature Tannins, Balanced
Cons: A Bit Grassy
Decant: Maybe, not much development
Price: $25 from Vinfolio
QPR: Fair/Good (out of Poor, Mediocre, Fair, Good or Excellent with Fair denoting expectations were met for the price point)

Friday, December 18, 2009

Wine Flaws

After having a Pinot Noir a few weeks ago that had wickedly aggressive acidity, I've come to think about what constitutes a wine flaw. This was a Pinot I've tasted before, and at least in the tasting room context it was much more harmonious. Maybe I just wasn't paying attention that day and was seduced by its incredible aromatics. Or maybe some bacteria or yeast went to town and caused the acid in that one bottle to go nuts.

In this context, I'm thinking about bottle flaws, the stuff that goes wrong after the wine goes into the bottle. When entering notes into Cellar Tracker, one has the option to tag a bottled as flawed. I didn't do this for this Pinot, though. I wrote that it smelled good, but had mouth puckering sourness. I'm aware there are a variety of "technical flaws" like volatile acidity, overwhelming Brett and in-bottle fermentation. But to be honest, in a communal setting, I don't think a wine should get a pass for these sorts of flaws. If it's corked or heat damaged, that's beyond a vintner's control, and that's a flawed bottle. Technical flaws point to a flawed wine.

It's the latter case where I think consumers should take a stand and describe or rate a wine as they experience it. A lot of vintners seem willing to compromise consistency in order to pursue stylistic goals, whether its minimal sulfite addition or ultra ripe fruit with a high pH reducing the efficacy of sulfites. I'm sure there are also cases where the vintner simply doesn't know his wine in unstable or has been careless at some point. For example, if a winemaking choice or mistake leads to every other bottle going overwhelmingly Bretty, a vintner shouldn't get a pass. Unless Brett was the vintner's goal, it means the wine was not stable going into the bottle.

The communal aspect is important. A major critic has to be careful about trashing a whole vintage based on one bottle. But we as consumers can give feedback on a bottle by bottle basis. One neg rep isn't the be all end all. Many honest consumers eventually will determine whether there was an isolated problem or a systematic one, as was the case with the Sierra Carche controversy.

Anyway, this is just something to think about. If you browse Cellar Tracker ratings, you'll sometimes see bad bottles of highly rated wines given a pass as flawed for non-bottle reasons. I don't think it always occurs to people that the wine was rated very young, and often a producer may have a limited track record with respect to how their wine holds up. The very things that make it exciting young--effusive ultra-ripe fruit, new oak, residual sugar, low acidity, ultra soft tannins--may be compromising its long term stability. Critics guesstimate how well a wine will do in the bottle, but it's up to us as 'end users' to take the actual data.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

TN: Jo Pithon 2005 Anjou Les Pepinieres

It's taken me a while to get here, but finally I tried a Loire Chenin Blanc, the Jo Pithon 2005 Anjou Les Pepinieres. Much like Cabernet Franc, Chenin Blanc is considered an inferior varietal outside of the Loire Valley. Inside the Loire Valley, however, it can produce dry, off-dry, sweet, sparkling and even Botrytized dessert wines in a variety of styles that only Riesling can match in terms of versatility. Top appellations include Savennieres, Anjoy, Vouvray, Jasnieres and even Chinon, where a small amount of Chinon Blanc is made from Chenin Blanc.

This wine is an experience. When first opened, it smelled honeyed like a dessert wine, but also showed some acetone-like volatile acidity and a brown color suggesting oxidation. Not to worry: it seems this producer employs oxidative winemaking techniques. Since the wine had already met plenty of air, I figured decanting wouldn't hurt. With some of the VA blowing off, the bouquet acquired a honeyed, musky aroma with banana nut bread and spiced rum showing up as well. I'm guessing there's some Botrytis involved here, as well as some isoamly acetate accounting for the banana aromas and oxidation causing the 'nut' in the banana nut bread. Whatever the case may be, this was awesomely unique and funky smelling. The palate, however, was essentially dry despite the dessert-like aromas. The flavors were nonetheless rich and mouth-coating, yet paradoxically weightless due to the acidity. There was the strange sensation of not feeling the acidity up front, then mouth watering on the long, minerally finish.

I'm guessing the volatile acidity level or oxidation might have crossed the threshold into being a 'technical flaw,' but this was just a pleasure to drink. This is a white wine for a red wine drinker that doesn't rely on excessive ripeness and oak like a Cali Chard to add depth. I'm sure there's some oak and ML involved here, but it's all integrated and well balanced. Tons going on for the price.

Pros: Complex Honeyed Bouquet, Rich, Weightless, Long Finish, Minerality
Cons: Volatile Acidity, Oxidation
Decant: Yes, to open up bouquet
Price: $21
QPR: Good (out of Poor, Mediocre, Fair, Good or Excellent with Fair denoting expectations were met for the price point)

Monday, December 14, 2009

Graphical Representation

I've been a bit agitated recently with the subjectivity of tasting notes. One man's raspberry is another's black cherry, after all. I'm an advocate of structural descriptions like acidic, tannic, and full bodied, just to name a few, as opposed to description by analogy like naming very specific smells and flavors. But the question is, how does one best convey these structural terms?

Ann Noble's Aroma Wheel
offers a great starting point:

While there are specific aromas listed, aromas are grouped into families such as fruity, herbaceous, woody and so on. The broader families are what I'd term as structural descriptors, as opposed to analogous descriptors. However, the aroma wheel doesn't paint a full picture because it only addresses smells.

To bring flavors and mouth feel into the picture, I've come up with a polar plot representation that I'm hoping will offer a relatively straight forward graphical depiction of a wine. It's still subjective, of course, but it largely dodges terms that rely heavily on individual experiences:
The 9 (it could be more or less, certainly) structural categories are:
Body - A measure of weight or viscosity, ranging from light bodied at the smallest radius to full bodied at the largest radius.

Aroma - The strength of the aromas, with a very 'tight' wine having a small amplitude.

Fruity - The presence of fruit character, ignoring whether it's blackberry, cherry, citrus and so on.

Herbaceous or Earthy
- These are sort of arbitrarily grouped, but represent the strength of aromas and flavors of bell peppers, mushrooms, veggies, leafy stuff and basically anything that grows or come from dirt.

Funky - This encompasses meaty, barnyardy and sulfrous aromas and flavors or even aromas like ethyl acetate (nail polish remover smell) that could be considered flaws. It's kind of a measure of umami, as well as generally unexpected qualities that are neither fruit nor veggie.

Floral or Spice - Again, an arbitrary grouping to limit the number of categories, but I think of these as both 'high-toned' aromas.

Oak - This category includes vanilla, toast and certain spice aromas as well as the occasionally astringent woody flavors and mid-palate weight resulting from barrel aging.

Tannin - Purely a measure of the intensity of mouth-drying tannins, though there is some ambiguity as tannins can be astringent, soft, sweet, fruity and so on depending on their source and maturity level.

Acidity - This is how sour a wine tastes, as well as how mouth watering it is. The more sour, the higher the acidity and the larger the amplitude plotted.
Here I've plotted a 'stereotypical' Parkerized wine and an Old World wine as an example. The graphical representation really highlights that the modern, California style wine stresses fruit, oak and density in the mouth, while a typical French or Italian wine will often be focused upon aromatics, earthy and funky qualities, and acidity. It also suggests the two styles are near polar opposites in terms of acidity, funkiness, fruit expression and use of oak.

Since I've been critiquing standard tasting notes, I guess I ought to propose an alternative. Well, here it is. I'll be using these polar plots with my notes to offer a graphical representation of each wine I post here. I'll be interested to see how this little experiment turns out. My thinking is that at the very least it may make it easier to justify the use of terms such as balance or complexity. Chances are if you see a curve that's more spiky than round, a wine is not balanced and probably lacks complexity as well. Meanwhile, a mundane wine may have a round shape to its plot with small amplitudes, indicating that it's balanced but provides little of interest to the taster.

Thursday, December 10, 2009


Graphite, unlike quince and toast (a.k.a. pain grillé), is not something one typically tastes. And yet it's a fairly common tasting note descriptor. Well, you can taste it, but you'd really need to go out of your way to do it. There's plenty of precedent for non edible descriptors like barnyard, flint, smoke, cedar and so on. However, graphite is nothing more than carbon bonded in sheets. The reason anything smells is because of volatile compounds such as esters. When your compound is bonded together into a crystal, you're not going to smell much of anything.

It appears likely that graphite as a wine descriptor is related to other terms such as #2 pencil lead, pencil shavings and even cedar. After all, most people experience graphite as a component of pencil lead (though lead is a misnomer since pencils no longer contain any lead). But it turns out that graphite isn't even the proper description for the writing part of the pencil. It's graphite and China clay, which has kaolin in it. Kaolin, apparently, has an earthy, metallic aroma.

Yet most people don't smell the kaolin by itself. It's usually ground up with the cedar wood part of the pencil and mechanically volatilized. Thus while pencil shavings have a distinct smell, they're neither lead, graphite, kaolin or cedar individually. They a mix of kaolin, cedar and perhaps the yellow paint or other impurities in the clay,

In sum:

Graphite = WRONG. It smells of nothing, is not readily tasted, and what smells in pencil shavings is just about everything else.
#2 Pencil Lead = WRONG. It's overly specific, and pencils aren't made from lead anyway.
Pencil Shavings = OK. Between the cedar and mechanical volatilization, there's a very obvious and unique aroma associated with it.
Cedar = OK. Even as a chunk of wood, it is distinct and very aromatic.

It seems in the interest of unnecessary degrees of specificity, the wine world has rather ironically added a term with an ambiguous meaning to its lexicon. What good is a descriptor if it has no commonly understood meaning? Ask several winos what graphite actually means in the context of wine, and you'll likely get several different answers. This is a case where everyone would be better off if the pretense were to be dropped. Wine is already complicated enough between the appellation system, hundreds of varietals, stylistic preferences and myriad terroirs that it's wholly unnecessary to invent meaningless descriptors. Let's stick to the logical ones: metallic, earthy or even, yes, pencil shavings.

Monday, December 7, 2009

TN: Chateau Nenine 2006 Cotes de Bordeaux

The Chateau Nenine 2006 Cotes de Bordeaux is a blend of 40% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Franc and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. It's also inexpensive and available at Trader Joe's.

It's not terrible, but not interesting, either. The nose is tight, with only Bretty band-aid and some metallic cherry aromas. I don't often call a wine thin, but this wine qualifies. There's just not much intensity to the flavor. It's mostly a medicinal cherry flavor anyway, so maybe that's a good thing. On the finish there are drying tannins and little else.

On one hand, this isn't over-extracted and over-oaked in the way a cheap California wine would be. But it's equally boring. An unstructured fruity wine from Spain or Southern France would be far better at this price point.

Pros: Not Offensive
Cons: Thin, Dull, No Finish, Hollow mid-palate
Decant: No
Price: $8 from Trader Joe's
QPR: Mediocre (out of Poor, Mediocre, Fair, Good or Excellent with Fair denoting expectations were met for the price point)

Thursday, December 3, 2009

TN: Alexander Valley Vineyards 2007 Cabernet Franc

The Alexander Valley Vineyards 2007 Cabernet Franc is a bit of a rarity in California; it's a mid-priced Cab Franc. AVV, located as one would expect in the Alexander Valley AVA (pictured to the right of the neck of the bottle), is a fairly large independently owned producer, and they seem to be known as a reliable producer that offers good values. Maybe that qualifies AVV as the rough equivalent of an unclassified chateau in Bordeaux. I've tasted their Cabernet Sauvignon and definitely felt it was unexpectedly honest, elegant and complex wine for the price, albeit not the most structured Cab. Their Cab Franc also fits that bill pretty well.

The nose was pretty tight. Despite the low amplitude, the pitch was correct for a Franc: tobacco, cedar and currant with barrel influence in the background. The taste was even better with good freshness and an elegant, seamless quality to it. It was a medium bodied wine with moderate extraction, and it showed a pleasant chocolate-like bitterness and light dusty tannins on the finish. There was a certain juiciness to the wine giving it a more fruit-forward impression than its French cousins, but it nonetheless had decent balance and structure.

Looking at the wine's data sheet, AVV notes 14% ABV, 6 g/L TA and 3.53 pH. For a California Franc, those are great stats. Often California Francs tend towards very high alcohol and poor acidic structure, yet still show a lot of bell pepper aromas. This wine hits that sweet spot of medium acid, medium alcohol and moderate herbaceous nuance. Perhaps it's less aromatically complex and structured than a Chinon, but it seems a nice reflection of its own terroir. Certainly it's not over-oaked, over-extracted or over-manipulated like so many CA wines in this price range.

Pros: Balanced Earth and Fruit Expression, Fresh, Elegant, Medium Body
Cons: Tight Aromatics, Lacking Some Complexity
Decant: Yes, to open up aromas
Price: $21
QPR: Fair/Good (out of Poor, Mediocre, Fair, Good or Excellent with Fair denoting expectations were met for the price point)