Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The 100 Point Scale is now the 100* Point Scale

Robert Parker has done it again! The man who popularized the 100 point scale had added an * to wines tasted from barrel that comprise the greatest he's ever tasted. Because of grade inflation, it's really a 10 point scale anyway--90 to 100--so you gotta give the man credit for attempting to decompress things. Eventually 100 will be the new 90, though, and in a few years I figure we'll have this:


Sunday, April 25, 2010

It's the skins, dammit

I was pondering about which grape varieties I enjoy most, and a certain theme emerged. It wasn't a typical connection like region or country of origin, though. I realized most of the wines I really enjoy come from thin, or at least thinner, skinned grapes. Based on the sort of information a good wine book or even a Wikipedia article can offer, some common thin and thick skinned grapes are as follows:

Thin Skin - Pinot Noir (pictured top left), Nebbiolo, Grenache, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Sangiovese

Thick Skin - Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah (pictured lower left), Petite Sirah, Petit Verdot, Mourvedre, Tempranillo

If I had to choose several varieties to take to a desert island, I'd probably choose Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo, Cabernet Franc and Mourvedre. Mourvedre I like for its funky, rough character, but the other three I like for their aromatics, transparency, and grace. So, is a thin skin part of what makes a grape capable of expressing its terroir and achieving elegance?

Certainly a thin skin does not imply a wine will be spineless. Nebbiolo is both incredibly acidic and tannic, for example. But it does seem to me that these thin skinned wines are less about fleshy extract and mouth coating body than the Syrahs and Cabernets of the world. They seem to be more transparent if not ethereal, although they also seem to be difficult varieties that struggle to find that sweet spot. Too ripe, and their frame can't support the fat. Not ripe enough, and they're dilute. Pinot Noir is the classic example of a grape that requires a very specific environment to achieve greatness.

On the other hand, sturdy grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah can be expressive of their terroir and vintage. But more often than not their power, not their expressiveness, is optimized. Even in their more reserved forms, though, it seems these grapes aren't quite as aromatic.

Is it the skin to juice ratio and the sorts of phenolics that thin skinned grapes produce? Or is it the treatment their fickle nature necessitates? Either way, it's these thin skinned grapes that most often surprise and amaze me in a glass.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

TN: Two New World Cab Franc Based Wines

My survey of the 'Great Havens Closeout of Aught Nine Thru Aught Ten' continues with the Havens 2005 Bourriquot. If there's one thing I've learned so far, the Havens closeouts are inconsistent. Some are stunning (2006 Hudson Syrah), and others make me wonder how they were priced at $40 originally (2005 Hudson Syrah). This one was a big winner, and from a structural and flavor standpoint, doesn't get much better for me.

The second wine here, a MacCallum 2005 Cabernet Franc, is another fine example of inconsistency. I had one bottle a year ago that was delicious, though it probably showed signs of a mild Brett infection in its leathery aromas. This bottle had gone full blown Brett bomb and simply was dull. A Pinot and a Syrah blend from this producer ranged from not good to undrinkable, so the Brett cocktail in a bottle presented here wasn't too surprising.
  • 2005 Havens Wine Cellars Bourriquot - USA, California, Napa Valley
    Wow, this is right up my alley. Popped and poured (found out after decanting a different wine that it was corked, so this one went directly into the decanter). Does NOT need a day of decanting, certainly hits its stride after an hour or so. Nice funky sweet toe jam and leather aromas with some mild herbaceous smells in the background. A dark bouquet, and bouquet is the word since this is very integrated. On the palate there is a viscous, buttery mouth feel. But this is not an extracted, sticky mouth-molesting wine. Really on the medium bodied side despite the viscosity. Good acidity with copious yet very fine tannins, this has tons of structure in a curiously subtle way. Moderately sweet fruit and bloody iron flavors. Leather and dark chocolate with a hint of bell pepper on a very long, lingering and dry finish.

    If you got this on closeout, this is the best QPR I've yet found. Props to Vaynerchuck on this. Not everyone's style, but this is Cab Franc New World/Old World fusion magic for me. Drink, hold, whatever, this is killer juice. Won't be confused with a Chinon, but has that savory, earthy Cab Franc edge that few California wines can do right.

  • 2005 MacCallum Cabernet Franc - USA, Washington, Columbia Valley, Yakima Valley
    Very strong diaper in need of changing bouquet. Lavender incense and mentholated foot cream in the ambient environment added complexity to the straight up poopulation of the wine. Soft, extracted and creamy quality on the palate with some mousiness present. Easy to drink, but the Brett infection is quite rampant here. Good in the proper context. See above for said context. I still liked it.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Does all Brettanomyces taste the same?

This gets bandied about a good bit by New World winemakers: all Brett tastes the same. And, you know what, I think they're right, at least when it comes to New World fruit. I've yet to find a Bretty American wine that tastes like anything other than band-aids and medicine with the occasional bit of screechy acidity.

Yet when it comes to Old World Brett-bombs, the aromas tends towards horse sweat and straight up barnyard, though these often seem to have elevated acidity as well. The question is, what is driving this different expression? Is it a different strain of Brett? Or are different nutrients in the must or finished wine leading to different expression? Or is it just a byproduct of my own limited sample size or even my own internal biases?

Regardless, I side with the California winemakers who view Brett as a pest. It masks varietal and regional expression. This is only a wild, unfounded hypothesis, but I suspect the higher sugar levels in New World fruit as well as the carbohydrates from new oak provide the fuel for this monolithic sort of Brett expression. While Brett is rather common in 'dirty' Old World wines, the limited use of new oak and lower sugar levels likely limit or alter what Brett produces. It'll suffice to say that I'd love to see a systematic study of 4-EP and 4-EG (Brett byproducts) levels for a variety of starting conditions such as Brix, varietal, and so on.

In the mean time, New World and Old World, don't stop what you're doing. I'll look for something clean from the New, and something dirty from the Old. Dirty New or clean Old just ends up being boring.

TN: Yellow Wine, Palmina 2008 Tocai Friuliano Subida

Here's a yellow wine (vin jaune) from Santa Barbara. I'm a bit skeptical of the idea since it's so unorthodox. White grapes are fermented as one would do with red grapes, and usually this is down in a hands off fashion with minimal intervention. So no sulfur dioxide, no filtration, nothing.

The Palmina 2008 Tocai Friuliano Subida pulls it off spectacularly, however. I'm often concerned about the stability of low or zero sulfur wines like this when they go through the distribution chain. Since this came directly from the tasting room, there's no question this is as intended. Perfect provenance, and a stunning 'outside the box' wine.

2008 Palmina Tocai Friulano Subida Honea Vineyard - USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Ynez Valley
Crazy wine: Friuliano fermented on skins, aged sur lees, bottled unfined and unfiltered with no SO2. Cloudy, yellow color. Nose of summer. Pears, lychees and floral hoppy aromas. Intense! Palate is a bit flat and bitter at first, then opens up to show more of a pear/melon flavor with a bit more acidity present. Maybe a bit off-dry. Bitter phenolic bite remains, but it becomes complimentary. Really great with some funky, earthy cheeses. Quite the food wine. 12.3% ABV, though it has nice body.

Unique, very well made wine. I can't imagine a professional critic scoring this well over 90, but they tend to only favor whites with lots of oak. This is so impressive. The Cliftons are really redefining what is possible in California.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

TN: Blind Chardonnay and Pinot Noir

Our local wine shop held a blind tasting of Santa Barbara and Burgundy Chardonnay and Pinot Noir last week. Six wines were tasted in pairs, with one Santa Barbaran and one Burgundian in each set. The first pair was Chardonnay, with the remaining two Pinot Noir.

Wine #1 - Tropical, citrus, almonds, some caramel & vanilla, hot finish, medium acidity, some minerality. My guess: California Chardonnay.

Wine #2 - Super toasty. Lighter, more acid, less body, dry, lean and clean. Toast oak. My guess: White Burgundy.

Results - I was right. #1 was Daniel Gehrs 2008 Unoaked Chardonnay ($12) and #2 was Olivier Leflaive 2007 Bourgogne Les Setilles ($21). Interestingly I had some sense the first wine was oaked, but clearly it was not. Still, the tropical fruit in #1 and the acidity and body of #2 helped me get this set right.

Wine #3 - Volatile acidity, mild funk, light body, earthy/toasty flavor, rough finish, some tannin and minerality. My guess: $10-$15 (cheap) Red Burgundy.

Wine #4 - Cali Pinot 'perfume', full body, little structure, chemical finish. My guess: $20-ish California Pinot Noir.

Results - Again, I got them right. This one was fairly straight forward. #3 was Laboure-Roi 2006 Maximum Bourgogne ($16) and #4 was Babcock 2008 Pinot Noir Santa Rita Hills ($20). The body, funky and earthy qualities in #3 and the aroma and missing structure in #4 made the differentiation easy. Neither was very good, though.

Wine #5 - Favorite of the tasting. Metal, flowers, high acid, good tannins, toasty/earthy, fresh plums, light. My Guess: Red Burgundy.

Wine #6 - Volatile acidity/glue, pepper, dusty rocks, floral, earthy, tannic, My guess: California Pinot Noir.

Results - I missed this one completely. #5 was Rusack 2007 Pinot Noir Santa Barbara County ($29) and #6 was Bouchard Pere & Fils 2007 Bourgogne Reserve ($26). I was convinced the alluring, high-toned aromas and elegant, structured profile of #5 had to be French. And #6 was simply some poorly made example from California. In retrospect, I probably should have associated plummy fruit with California. In my defense, the lab numbers on the Rusack Pinot (Alcohol: 13.7%, pH: 3.49, TA: 0.672 g/100ml) are atypically restrained and acidic for a California Pinot Noir.

The bottom line is out of these six wines, only #5 is something I'd buy. If these two Red Burgundies are representative of what one can find in the $15 to $30 range, I'd simply avoid this region if looking for mid-priced wines. Both wines had mild flaws and off flavors, though perhaps they'd be better food wines than the California Pinot Noirs. But I doubt it. The bottom line for me is that for an expensive varietal like Pinot Noir, buying lighter styled domestic wines is probably the way to go. Any Burgundy has to be imported, which knocks the price up significantly. That means you're probably paying $20 for a wine that would cost $10 in France. $10 domestic Pinots are similarly mediocre in my experience. Buying domestic is greener, and more of what you pay is actually for the quality of fruit and wine making.

Monday, April 12, 2010

TN: The Paring and Jonata Wines

Local wine shop East Beach Wine held a tasting of The Paring and Jonata, a Santa Ynez producer owned by the same people behind ultra cult wine Screaming Eagle. I was definitely a bit skeptical given the prices--up to $125 per bottle--and the Parker hype--90 to 96 points depending on the cuvee. But the second label, The Paring, is more sensibly priced for a new producer in the $20 to $25 range. Moreover, their Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are sourced from such vineyards as Sanford & Benedict, Bien Nacido and Solomon Hills, while their estate vineyard sits in Ballard Canyon. Ballard Canyon is not all that well known at this point, but there are some serious producers like Stolpman and Rusack sharing the canyon and there's good reason to think this location has the right soils and micro-climate to produce high quality Bordeaux varietals.

As for the tasting, I'm not 100% sold, but there are a few caveats I'll mention below.

The Paring 2007 White Wine - $20. Mostly Sauvignon Blanc with about 20% Semillon. Honeysuckle, orange blossom, toast, citrus and herbaceous aromas. Acidic, but full bodied. Hot finish that's not very pleasant.

The Paring 2008 Chardonnay "The Hilt" - $24. Cream, toasted nuts, citrus. Crisp and acidic, full body, fresh. Good finish. 1/3 new oak used.

The Paring 2008 Pinot Noir - $25. Smoke dominates nose. Earth and chocolate on palate. Good weight in mouth, medium-low acid.

The Paring 2006 Red Wine - $24. Intense borderline jammy cherry-berry aromas typical of region with mild herbs. Full body, dry finish with earthy/herby flavors. 52% Cab S, 42% Merlot, 6% Petite Verdot.

Jonata 2007 La Poesia Pinot Noir - $85. Bottle just opened. Very tight, no nose other than hint of caramel. Good weight and flavor, medium acidity. Fine, but not showing much.

Jonata 2006 La Alma Cabernet Franc - $125. Tight, bottle just opened. More accessible than previous wine. Shows almost jammy cherry and berry with great jalapeno accent. Fine tannins show on mid-palate. Dark chocolate and herbs on long finish. Structured and needs time or air.

I was a bit disappointed to catch the last two wines on freshly opened bottles. Robert Parker rated the Cab Franc a 95 and called it the best Cab Franc in California. Is it the Screaming Eagle of Cabernet Franc? Perhaps. It wasn't showing great today, but the ripeness and structure seem spot on as it's a bit green and a bit jammy yet neither herbaceous or flabby. I'd probably buy 3 or 4 bottles of Longoria Blues Cuvee or Evidence, which are also Cab Franc based with similar flavor and structural profiles, for about the same cost. On the flip side, The Paring Red Wine was a solid value that competes on both price and quality with its peers in Santa Barbara.

An interesting side note is that the 'heavy hitters' in the tasting lineup weren't as expressive as the less expensive wines. While part of this is the structure of the wines (Jonata is built to last, The Paring is built to drink now), I can't help but think much of this has to do with the wines be treated on equal footing. All were popped and poured. There was no special glassware, decanting or ceremony for the more expensive wines. If you take away the ceremony (and, even better, the labels), the perceived differences between wines in different price ranges tends to vanish. That said, I'd still like to see what the Jonata wines would do with a proper decanting as that's how I'd drink any wine costing more than $15!

Winemaker Matt Dees made sure to point out The Paring wines are designed as food wines, while the Jonata wines are "California style," which I take to mean big, ripe and structured. Dees seems like the quintessential nerdy sort of winemaker. I mean this in a good way. He's not full of hot air, and seems like he's more of a technical sort of winemaker. There may be plenty of bluster behind the brand, but it looks like there's the right sort of guy handling the nuts and bolts of it.

Bottom line, I didn't really care for the whites on both stylistic and quality grounds. The reds were good top to bottom, though the Paring Pinot seemed pretty monolithic in its toasty, smokey aromas and flavors. The Cab Franc in particular has plenty of substance and is both true to its region and varietal, though the structure was too imposing to say much more than it's well-made with plenty of potential.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

TN: Chinon Blanc that's Chenin Blanc

Say it five times fast: Chinon Blanc is Chenin Blanc. They grow mostly Cab Franc in Chinon, but it turns out that the folks at Couly-Dutheil can make a pretty mean Chenin Blanc, too.

  • 2008 Couly-Dutheil Chinon Les Chanteaux - France, Loire Valley, Touraine, Chinon
    Excellent! Lychee, apple and a touch of honey on the nose. Lychee is a bit obscure, but it smells just like those dried lychees I sometimes find at Trader Joe's. Good body, but also zingy and fresh. Seriously long finish, first driven by white stone fruit, then developing minerality. Rubber cork, so drink now. It's too good to wait on anyway.

  • Jeff at Viva La Wino has also tasted this wine. And of course see The Wine Doctor for detailed notes on this producer.

    Monday, April 5, 2010

    TN: A Chinon, a Bourgueil, and a St.-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil

    Here are three recent Loire Cab Francs. If you're interested, The Wine Doctor is the go to source on Alliet and Mabileau. I preferred the Alliet Chinon of the three below, but my girlfriend found it to be too barnyardy. I've yet to find a barnyard I didn't like, and for whatever reason it works well in Loire reds. They don't seem to get the off flavors and truly rancid aromas that Brett-infected wines from the New World develop. Just like a washed rind cheese, they are stinky yet still taste delicious. Not that the Mabileaus had no funk, but their structure lagged significantly behind the Alliet.

  • 2006 Philippe Alliet Chinon - France, Loire Valley, Touraine, Chinon
    Oh yeah, this is the stuff, so true to its Chinon origin. The bouquet is definitely horsey with a sweet horse sweat quality that's fairly dominant. There are some herbal notes notes, but this is all about the farmyard perfume. On the palate it's medium bodied with excellent structure. Drying but not overwhelming tannins. Juicy acidity. One that draws you back to sip a bit more. It's a food wine, but also a meal in itself as it has savory meaty flavors and a full serving of fruits and veggies. Very minimal oak here, seems quite traditional. Nice finish with some minerality, but really carries on the savory and earthy flavors.

  • 2007 Frederic Mabileau Bourgueil Racines - France, Loire Valley, Touraine, Bourgueil
    This followed the '06 Alliet Chinon and probably suffered from the comparison. Grassy (typical of '07, especially sand/gravel terroirs), animal funk, berries and cream on the nose. Soft and creamy on the palate with spicy green notes and citric flavors. Easy to drink and while not flabby, had less structure than I'd hoped. This is good, just not as edgy as I like my Loire Franc.

  • 2006 Frederic Mabileau Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil Les Rouillères - France, Loire Valley, Touraine, Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil
    Bouquet of black cherry, roses, herbal/grassy/tobacco. The herbaceous note seems typical of gravel/sand based Franc. Nice balance on the palate. Medium acid, cherry flavor. Shows earth and olive as well. Mild drying tannin on finish with some medicinal flavor and herbaceous spice. Not much length. Good, right for the price, but not super vibrant or deep. Probably better sooner than later.
  • Friday, April 2, 2010

    NWR: Orange Trash

    I'm starting a new type of post: Not Wine Related or NWR for short. To kick off this new topic heading, I've developed a new derogatory term for the Paris Hilton, Kardashian sister, JWoww inspired crowd of reality TV wannabes: Orange Trash.
    This refers to the color of their skin after a spray tan or other badly rendered tan from a non-sunlight source. If you've been to SoCal, then you know what I'm talking about.

    Normally I only encounter Orange Trash when going wine tasting in Santa Barbara. On the weekends hordes of loud, dumb, inebriated Angelinos pile into limos and buses and head north to taste wine. Often the occasion is a bachelorette or birthday party. So the ordinary level of extreme narcissism and selfish behavior is amplified for the special day. Hey, it's her party, and she can do what she wants. It does not matter that dozens of people are annoyed by her insobriety and projectile vomiting.

    Unfortunately, Orange Trash made an unwelcome appearance when my girlfriend and I went out to dinner at a great local restaurant, Julienne. This is not an every day experience for us since, well, it's friggin' expensive. But it's worth it since the dishes are French inspired yet based on local ingredients (i.e. your escargot will be a sea snail instead of a land one), and the wine list is well-thought out and relatively reasonably priced (2x retail, when many local restaurants exploit the tourist crowd with 3x markups). This is virtually the only place you'll find with a by the glass list that is unique, varied and well-matched to food. Instead of insipid crap like Chalone Pinot and KJ Chard, there are French wines imported by the likes of Kermit Lynch.

    But I digress. This is supposed to be NWR. No sooner had we sat down with a glass each of Palmina 2008 Malvasia Bianca and a Fouet Cremant de Loire than a group of four ill-mannered, drunken harpies were seated at the table next to us. They clearly had been to some happy hour as evidenced by their shrill, loud voices. This gaggle of Orange Trash belonged more appropriately in a Dennys on an LA-based reality show than a really fine SB-based restaurant. Highlights of their low class antics included breaking a wine glass with a ring that flew off a finger (which comically resulted in one of the 'ladettes' getting doused in wine) and a discussion of crotch tattoos. They weren't interested in any of the food as it was apparently too challenging for them. One was particularly adamant that she would never pour her own wine and expected someone to always pour it for her.

    The one positive note is that the Chateau La Roque 2007 Coteaux de Languedoc Vielles Vignes Mourvedre, a Kermit Lynch important, was so deliciously engrossing I nearly forgot about our ill-bred neighbors. But let's be honest. People with manners that bad don't belong in a fine restaurant. Perhaps we need to go back to a time where dress codes or expectations of polite behavior kept low class folks like this out of classy establishments. There's a time and place for everything. When the whole restaurant stares you down because of your drunken screeching, you should be sober enough to realize it's not the time or place.

    Eventually the Orange Trash left to go dancing. I pity the fool who took any of them home that night. He'll probably be needing a good dose of antibiotics after getting his junk examined at the clinic. Actually, no, I don't pity him. He's probably just as obnoxious, ignorant and wasted as the Orange Trash girls. He just had the sense to pound a Big Mac at McD's before chugging five Bud Lites at the club.