Monday, January 31, 2011

A Blind Tasting of Kermit Lynch Wines at East Beach Wine

The local shop East Beach Wine was hosting its weekly tasting, and this week's tasting was especially compelling. Six wines, blind, from various regions in France, all imported by Kermit Lynch. Not only is that a slam dunk as far as overall quality, it's also a challenging prospect as the selections are fairly diverse.

We were not going into this double blind, though. It was essentially single blind as we were given lists of varietals and regions to pair with each wine. The varietals were Cabernet Franc, Grenache, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscat, while the regions were Bordeaux, Loire, Burgundy, Rhone and Beaumes de Venise.
  • 2009 Domaine Daniel Chotard Sancerre - France, Loire Valley, Upper Loire, Sancerre

    Melon, citrus, high acid, minerality, medium body.
    Guess: Loire/Sauvignon Blanc. Actual: Loire/Sauvignon Blanc.

  • 2008 Domaine Lucien Boillot et Fils Bourgogne - France, Burgundy, Bourgogne

    Floral, spice, mushroom, light/medium body, cranberry, pepper, slight cow pasture, linear flavor, mild tannin.
    Guess: Burgundy/Pinot Noir. Actual: Burgundy/Pinot Noir.
    Flavor and weight had potential as entry level Loire Cab Franc, but floral and spice aromas definitively pointed towards Burgundy. If Cru Beaujolais was a choice, though, it would have been a tougher call between Burg/Bojo.

  • 2008 Kermit Lynch Selections Côtes du Rhône - France, Rhône, Southern Rhône, Côtes du Rhône

    Jammy, lavender, low-acid, bitter finish, unstructured.
    Guess: Rhone/Grenache. Actual: Rhone/Grenache.
    Commented this tasted cheap relative to other wines in tasting; indeed it was. Definite pass, very mediocre wine.

  • 2008 Domaine les Pallières Gigondas Les Racines - France, Rhône, Southern Rhône, Gigondas

    Perfumed, medium/full body, medium/low acid.
    Guess: Rhone/Grenache. Actual: Rhone/Grenache.
    Very rich wine. Aromatics suggested Burg/Pinot at first, but flavors eventually pointed to a much warmer climate. Reminds me of how CA Pinot is often Grenache-like IMO--throw a full-bodied Cali Pinot in and I'm stumped!

  • 2007 Château Aney - France, Bordeaux, Médoc, Haut-Médoc

    Grass/bell pepper, dark fruit, earthy flavor, full body, medium acidity.
    Guess: Bordeaux, Cab Franc. Actual: Bordeaux, Cab Franc.
    This one was the most obvious red in the tasting. It had to be CF, and nothing else could have been Bdx. Bought it.

  • 2006 Domaine de Durban Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise - France, Rhône, Southern Rhône, Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise

    Floral, honeyed, sweet, full body
    Guess: Beaumes de Venise/Muscat. Actual: Beaumes de Venise/Muscat.
    Had to be Muscat given the options. Figured a dessert wine appellation would be the odd man out, so we went with Beaumes de Venise.

Success! But without the list of regions this would have been an intractable problem. Cab Franc, Pinot and Grenache can be surprisingly similar if grown in similar climates (say entry level Chinon vs. Burgundy, or California Grenache vs. Pinot), so the appellation laws in France regulating variety were a big help assigning varietal to palate character I'd expect from a given climate.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Some Thoughts on Terroir

I definitely agree that terroir exists: all the aspects of the growing environment affect the character of wine grapes. It's pretty easy to show on a fundamental level just by comparing varietal wines from disparate climates made by the same producer. QED. Even different exposures in the same vineyard can be remarkably different. Heck, I bet grapes from one side of a vine vs. the other would have distinct character, especially if one side gets superior sun exposure. That certainly applied to my tomato crop last year where one side of the vine burned in the hot sun, while shaded fruit ripened beautifully. I've also heard anecdotally that growers occasionally harvest one side of a vine before the other due to differing sun exposure.

There are two areas where interpretation of terroir often loses its grounding. The first is attribution of characteristics of the finished wine to specific qualities of the vineyard or growing region. For example, I view Brettanomyces expression as terroir-specific in the sense that the yeast strain likely depends on the region, and the chemistry of the wine derived from the terroir in a given vintage will affect the expression of the yeast. But winemaking choices undeniably are also a factor in this specific example. Linking very specific characteristics directly to the soil composition is dubious at best when the mechanisms are complex. For example, calcareous soil apparently facilitates cation exchange due to the alkalinity of the soil. It's not just a case of the roots taking up calcium cations because they are nearby.

The second issue concerns creation of a hierarchy based on superior terroir. Some people seem to assume there is some "uber-terroir" that intrinsically is superior to others. (Sean Thackrey frames this more forcefully as "viticultural racism.") While there clearly are vineyards and regions that cannot produce balanced grapes (CA Central Valley, large stretches of N. Africa), assigning value to high-quality regions is a pointless task. Much of the coastal CA wine growing terroir is subject to lots of sunshine, large diurnal flux, and low humidity. That produces more fruit driven wines in part I believe due to lower fungal pressure than is the case with continental climates typical in France. That is legitimate terroir expression; whether that is more or less interesting than an earthier, lighter bodied wine is a matter of personal taste.

Ultimately, I think you could substitute "uniqueness" for "terroir expression" when considering whether a wine is worthy. If a wine is not unique, then there is no need to buy a specific cuvee at an elevated price point. It needs some sort of differentiation. When a producer allows some compelling aspect of the grapes and fermentation to show, usually that passes as both "terroir expression" and "uniqueness." It's circular logic that I oppose: "this wine is great because it expresses its superior terroir, and the terroir is superior because it is expressed in great wine." It's a fallacy, pure and simple, and an unnecessary one at that. There are genuine differences expressed in wine, and both aesthetic and economic factors contribute to their valuation. There's no need to invent additional justification to enjoy something for what it is.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

TN: Tablas Creek 2006 Côtes de Tablas Blanc

I was shopping at my local Von's, just a typical weekend trip to load up for the week, when I decided to hit the restroom. Right across from the restroom, I noticed a rack with wines at 50% off. About half the wines on the rack were Tablas Creek, much to my surprise!

The Tablas Creek 2006 Côtes de Tablas Blanc is the first wine I've tried from this hidden stash. While the acidity isn't especially strong, there's a refined texture that belies the modest ambitions of this wine. Who would have thought a white wine built to drink young would be delicious at 4 years of age? Young CdT Blancs I've tasted have been very 'in your face' and somewhat imbalanced to my taste, so this was a mild surprise to say the least. This was listed at 13.5% ABV and sealed with a Stelvin closure (screw cap), by the way. My suspicion is these two factors in no small part helped this wine to evolve pleasantly in the near-term.
  • 2006 Tablas Creek Côtes de Tablas Blanc - USA, California, Central Coast, Paso Robles

    This is one of those silly accidents--bought half price in a grocery store bargain bin. I was optimistic since this has a stelvin closure, and indeed there's no sign of oxidation. Dried apricots and an interesting petrol component I often associate with central coast Grenache Blanc on the nose. The palate is full, creamy and rounded, though there is no obvious oak--seems to be the viscosity of the Viognier and Roussanne at play. Very refined impression, no rough edges, seams or heat. Medium-low acidity. Seems like a baby Esprit Blanc more than anything else if you ask me, not a bombastic drink two years ago Viognier blend--go figure!

    59% Viognier, 32% Marsanne, 6% Grenache Blanc, 3% Roussanne

Friday, January 21, 2011

TN: Chanteleuserie 2008 Bourgueil Cuvée Beauvais

I preferred this to the '08 Baudry Grezeaux in my last post. While it's more herbaceous and 'basic' as far as Chinon/Bourgueil go, the balance is much better. At the sub-$20 price point, definitely this is a buy and seems to have upside as well. While this isn't going to light the room on fire right now, I'm very appreciative of the typicity and balance.

On a side note, this is from sloped, tuffeau-based terroir according to Kermit Lynch's blog. While I can't speculate on causation, definitely I'm correlating my Loire Cab Franc preferences strongly with calcareous soil types.
  • 2008 Domaine de la Chanteleuserie Bourgueil Cuvée Beauvais - France, Loire Valley, Touraine, Bourgueil

    Really nice, very typical Cab Franc. High toned florals are underlined by deeper bass of tobacco aromas with some fresh cherry. Light-medium body with medium acidity. Fresh red fruit on the attack, a little roundness to the middle. There's a definite iron mineral note. Finishes with earthy, savory tobacco and olive. More standard Loire Cab Franc than the '08 Baudry Grezeaux, but balance is much better. Nice dusting of tannins on the finish to firm it all up.

    Edit: Pencil shaving/fresh cedar characteristics (not oak). No impression of sweetness; all savory and fresh.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

TN: Bernard Baudry 2008 Chinon Les Grézeaux

Given how much I loved the 2007 version of this cuvee, this was a letdown. Definitely this is an ambitious wine with more depth, especially aromatically, than a rank and file Chinon. But right now the acidity is really out of whack to the point of eclipsing the rest of the palate. Will it come around? That's a question for more experienced tasters. I did find it odd how high the acidity was despite the minimal herbaceousness--usually these qualities scale together.

I must admit, though, that the 2007 Grezeaux was a personal outlier in some sense. I have not generally liked gravel-based Cab Franc from the Loire, so perhaps that was the exception, not the rule.
  • 2008 Domaine Bernard Baudry Chinon Les Grézeaux - France, Loire Valley, Touraine, Chinon

    Great typical nose--leather, musk, underbrush and a hint of tobacco. Unfortunately, the acidity is sharp and unyielding. Light body. This is all pomegranite and grapefruit, with a bit of pith on the finish. Very angular though not overly tannic. Minimal oak influence, no heat. The herbaceousness that Chinon can have is definitely well in check, but the acidity is a few notches too high for my comfort. Much preferred the 2007 which was a fruit bomb in comparison (at least in Chinon context).

Monday, January 17, 2011

Wine Movie: Blood Into Wine

I'm inherently suspicious of celebrities or other simply rich people who jump into making wine, even if out of passion. It's like any other field: proper training and experience are vital components of success, though often celebs simply outsource the work to others with the necessary background. Thus, I approached the documentary Blood Into Wine with some suspicion. It presents the story of Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan's (pictured on the right) winery Caduceus, located in the Verde Valley of Arizona.

The documentary, however, peels away various misconceptions I had going into it. Just as one might expect Arizona to be blisteringly hot--it's not at higher elevations where Keenan farms--I'd expect Keenan to be kind of a stuffy, obnoxious guy thinking he is running some modern day wine plantation. He's not, though sometimes a bit of overconfidence shows. In reality, he's down to earth about his approach. Most impressively, he has joined forces with Eric Glomsky, a professionally trained winemaker. Glomsky isn't simply his wine-monkey, though, not by a long shot. There's a give and take evident, and Keenan views Glomsky as a mentor, not an employee.

Glomsky actually steals the show at times with his passion for the 'terroir' of Northern Arizona. He has a clear distrust for the wine establishment's hard-wired belief that certain regions and styles are inherently superior. Much to his credit, Keenan also does not go around name dropping famous producers or regions much, nor does he seem concerned that his wines are not imitating those of other regions. In fact, when James Suckling (pictured on the left) compares Keenan's wines to various reference points, Keenan rather visibly seems annoyed. The blog HFF delves into this subject a bit more deeply, and is definitely worth a read. Suckling comes across, unsurprisingly, as a pompous snob; out of all wine critics, he is probably the one who most fully personifies the typical wine snob stereotype.

There are definitely some running gags intended to bring levity to the proceedings, but fall a bit flat. In sum, though, I came away with a positive view of Maynard Keenan James and am especially interested in tasting Verde Valley wines at some point. This is a very good wine documentary that balances nerd appeal with more broadly accessible material. Additionally, it's worth adding that Caduceus' wines have dropped in price recently. When I checked out the price list over a year ago, it was kind of outrageous for wines with no track record. The wines are still not cheap, but they are more in line with what I'd expect for a younger wine region. It's not that I don't think the wines could command a premium eventually. Rather the market is competitive, and it's probably smart to get the wine into folks' hands to try rather than make it just a collectible.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Are There Objective Wine Faults?

While wine enjoyment is primarily about personal preference, there are certain 'faults' that are identified in the wine trade. Most have to do with intent--still wine shouldn't have spritz, dry wine shouldn't taste sweet, etc. Brettanomyces and its funky byproducts often fall in this group as well, though opinions vary. Oxidation is generally not good, but there are nonetheless oxidative styles of wine that are well-liked. Even volatile acidity (VA, similar to a bit of vinegar) has its place, especially in dessert wines.

I believe there are some faults, though, that have a purely physiological basis. Hence they are essentially objective; there is no context where noticing them is good. The only issue here is that not everyone has the same sensitivity--witness a debate about a wine being corked and this becomes clear. Here I'm thinking of a hypothetical scenario where a person is presented with two identical wines except for the fault--one that is clean, the other that has been dosed with the offending chemical. Assuming the chemical was in sufficient concentration to be smelled, virtually any person would prefer the clean wine.

High Levels of Mercaptans: A mercaptan is used in natural gas (at very low concentrations because most people are so sensitive) to give it a stinky aroma. Skunk spray also has several different mercaptans. The fact that mercaptans are a defense mechanism suggests they are almost universally offensive. I suppose some rotten cabbage, skunk, or rubber tire could be complexing at very low levels. But I doubt many people would find skunk-cabbage wine pleasing if presented with a non-skunky version of the same wine.

TCA/corked wine: At low levels, it seems simply to flatten a wine. At high levels, it's like a moldy basement. I don't think TCA could ever be a positive feature. Humans are programmed to generally avoid eating mold, and without fail when a corked wine is compared to a non-faulty version, the clean version is almost universally preferred.

Are there others? Geosmin, a byproduct of moldy grapes, is sometimes mentioned. But often enthusiasts enjoy earthiness, and moldy grapes can also give rise to certain 'noble' styles. I think what I describe as seaweed and like as a complexing aroma probably is also related to moldy grapes. I purposely left out volatile sulfides (non-thiol sulfur compounds), though, as these seem to be double edged swords, often contributing to varietal character lit black currant in Cabernet.

It does make me wonder about Brettanomyces byproducts. From an evolutionary standpoint, it makes sense that humans would avoid moldy and skunky smelling foods. So why not cow pasture smelling foods? Feces are not good to eat, hence people are repelled by the smell. But it seems at low to moderate levels if you did the thought experiment--one clean wine, then the same wine with some 4-EP--the latter might be preferred, though probably only by enthusiasts.

This is what makes this question tricky. If horse sweat and barnyard can be acquired tastes, what's to stop skunk and moldy rag? Farmyard is more positively evocative, and to me has a nice rustic and agrarian connotation. But does everyone feel this way? Maybe burning rubber tire and stewed cabbage are nostalgic for a person who grew up on a cabbage farm next to a tire manufacturing plant.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

WN: Charles Joguet 2005 Chinon Clos du Chêne Vert

There are some wines that simply are gripping for one reason or another. The Charles Joguet 2005 Chinon Clos du Chêne Vert was one such wine for me. It's everything I love about Chinon that can be summed up in two words: rustic elegance. As paradoxical as this sounds, I have no other way to sum up wines such as these. They are unassuming in weight and often funky, yet have a special harmony and complexity.

All the pieces are here: a great vineyard, a great vintage, and a top producer. The Clos du Chêne Vert (roughly translating to the Enclosed Vineyard of the Green Oak) is on the north bank of the Vienne River and has clay and silico-calcareous soil. There is a lot of characterful, yet simple wine made from sand and gravel soils in the Loire. But it's these sloped vineyards with clay and limestone that produce special wines that marry the regional and varietal character to depth and structure.

Interestingly, while this wine did show some of the characteristic "farmyard" stink--think horses and cow pastures--of the yeast Brettanomyces, in a certain way this enhanced the wine. I do not know the reason behind it, but this funk seems to be a regional expression. Brett can and does ruin many wines with what I'd describe as band-aid and antiseptic flavor that tastes identical regardless of varietal or region. Yet here it is different, and I'd argue it's an expression of terroir in some sense. While it is not the earth or countryside that is locked in the wine, some combination of the indigenous yeast strain(s) and chemistry of the Chinon fruit yields a typical funk to the finished wine.
  • 2005 Charles Joguet Chinon Clos du Chêne Vert - France, Loire Valley, Touraine, Chinon

    Epic Chinon. It's not really a powerful wine, but needed a good hour in the decanter to open up. At first has barnyard, menthol and cassis aromas. (OK, there's some Brett here, but it is more fertilizer/soil than the band-aid/medicinal Brett typical in CA--seems to be a Brett strain or expression specific to the Loire.) Medium bodied with medium high acidity on the palate. Chalky tannins. A mix of blackcurrant, tobacco pomegranate and chalky mineral flavors. All of these just linger on the finish, and there's no heat or weird off flavors. Tobacco and minerality were more pronounced over time. This is not going to be everyone's cup of tea, but this is amazingly concentrated Chinon Cab Franc that is a straight beam of awesome in my book. Nowhere near mature, either, though it oozes class right now.