Monday, November 28, 2005

The Gift of Wine

The king of meme over at basic juice has launched yet another challenge to blogdom...pick a wine from your cellar and give it to someone. If you are as lucky as myself, the potential recipients far outnumber the bottles gathering dust in the basement.
Most of my friends know where I live, and my penchant for opening things. So in the spirit of the season I re-invite one and all for some Christmas joy.

So I will limit this gift to blogdom as the ‘why’ is almost more interesting than the ‘what.’ There are many worthy recipients out there so I have chosen two bottles. Beau, cuz he’s so damn cute, gets the magnum of 1996 Chablis, La Moutonne. As an almost full throttle, brett digging Europhile, Beau warrants a bottle of french, and a classic. Encompassing two grand crus (Vaudésir and Preuses), this epitomizes classic cool climate Burgundy. Raised in 100% stainless (after 2001 they began using a bit of oak), and at 10 years old, it should be perfect for the fisherman’s feast. What does it taste like now? No clue but I can’t wait to find out.

My second bottle goes to Huge. Now, while I tend to disagree with most of what he espouses, I find his perspective at least grounded in reason, and always with enough humour to make even his most obscene denunciation palatable. So I offer up one of my favorite of favorites, one of my last Fleurie 2003 from Métras. Widely considered one of the best plots of land in Beaujolais, this wine is a product of one of the masters of the ‘vin de nature’ movement. Indigenous yeasts, no enzymes, no tartaric acid (it’s natural acidity is staggering considering the vintage) and of course, super low sulfite. This means it is a bit reductive and is a bit aromatically challenged, but with a passage in carafe, it should satisfy the most fruit oriented wine lover.

For me, it is the best example of purity in winemaking and I would like nothing more than to crank back a bottle with his Hugeness… and find something new to argue about (like Hockey Huge?).

Thursday, November 24, 2005

The Unity of a Grape and a Terroir
The Mosel, Riesling, and St. Urbans-Hof

I make no bones about it, I love German Riesling. If I win the lotto my first ridiculous expenditure will be to add the Mosel tap right next to the Hot and Cold.

I asked one of my confreres cavistes if he had tasted anything great from Germany recently. He smiled and said all of it. There exists an incredible consistency amongst the better winemakers in the region. In the best examples there is a naturally razor-sharp tension between acidity and richness, minerality and fruit. After a difficult 2003 vintage where the razor was definitely dulled and the Rieslings were too rich, it was a pleasure to taste a couple of classic 2004’s where words like aerian, fresh, steely and opulent could be tossed between smiles. Damn do they drink well.

With owner and winemaker Nik Weis present, it was time to learn about why German reisling is so consistently fantastic. He passionately believes in all aspects of the terroir,: temperature, soil, rainfall patterns. How else could aromatic and taste characteristics be so consistent when Mosel winemakers work in such diverse ways? At St. Urbans-Hof, great care is taken in the vineyard to ensure that the wine reflects the character of the land on which it is grown. The wines quality lies in the authenticity of its origin. Organic fertilizers are utilized in order to maintain the natural balance of the soil. Most importantly, yields are kept at low levels in order to achieve intense and well-structured wines. For optimal flavor development, leaves are thinned and grapes are harvested as late as possible to allow for maximum ripening.

Weis works two main vineyards; Ockfener Bocksteinm whose blue slate lends itself to lively, mineral Reislings and Piesporter Goldtröpfchen whose heavy slate and horse-shoed southern exposure lends itself to smokier, richer and more herbaceous wines. Here’s the rundown.

Riesling QbA 2004, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer ($17.50..importation)
A wonderful aperitif wine, this QBa showed notes of kafir lime and other citrus notes, with the expected smoky minerality on the finish.

Riesling Kabinett Ockfener Bockstein 2004, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer ($22…importation)
Slightly richer than the Qba, which is more to my taste, and with more complex and softer fruit flavours. Lemons, limes, peaches and lychee and again grounded with gun-flint slate.

Riesling Spätlese Piesporter Goldtröpfchen 2004, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer ($31..importation)
The winner of the tasting and where that Mosel tension was the most obvious. The Piesporter terroir offers up slightly duller though more complex and smokier aromas. An almost ethereal mouth feel. Outstanding.

Riesling Auslese Ockfener Bockstein 2002, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer ($50…importation)
Dense and creamy in texture, this has concentration and lushness accenting the apricot, lemon, ginger and mineral flavors. Still, it never gets heavy or cloying. Fine length

Monday, November 21, 2005

Confluence (#3...the net)

Follow the link to Lenn's site for a complete list of the junk you might be drinking.. let's get labelling!
The Confluence (a 2nd thought)
Terroir, the Role of the Winemaker, and the Label

I am still intrigued as to how the idea of terroir is rejected by many (most?) New World winemakers. Mr. Stehbens of Katnook was no different (see previous post). So what replaces the terroir model in terms of a unifying force amongst this school of vignerons? In his analysis of the direction of Australian winemaking, he repeatedly emphasized the need for his winemaking brethren to be true to the character of the grape, or ‘varietal integrity.’ The danger as he sees it is that if the trend continues, Australian wines will no longer need to be identified by cépage, rather they will be simply labeled ‘Big Aussie Red.’ His fidelity to the cépage is so strong that he excludes even the idea of blending (even if grapes like Petit Verdot can be used to supplant some of the usage of tartaric acid).

So if varietal distinction is important, and terroir is not, then that leaves human intervention as the defining influence on the eventual character of any bottling. There is no denying that wine is a human construct, however, here is where the most important distinction lies between the ’terroirists,’ and those who deny its importance. For winemakers like Stehbens, it is he who ultimately defines the character of his wine while the terroirists believe that it is the temperature, soil, indigenous yeasts and other classic terroir influences. They are simply there to coax the whole process along, limiting in fact as much as possible the influences of human intervention.

Stehbens and his compatriots are part technicians, part artists, part scientists and 100% god. Any and all interventions are ok as long they approach their personal model of what they want their wine to be, even if it means the negation of the influences of growing conditions inherent in the use of acids, commercial tannins and yeasts. He even maintained that he often describes the final product to his winemakers even before the grapes are picked.

Both of these approaches can make good, distinctive, personalized wines. But as a consumer, I would like to know more about what goes in to making the wine that I am drinking. If I want to know what was used to make my Doritos and Coke, I just have to look at the package. Is it not time for the wine industry to do the same? I would love to know not just about the chemical interventions and exact sulfite content, but also the exact blend, both by the grape of by millisème. I would make a nice change from the three paragraph blurb on the back label that tells me what I should smell and taste, and whether or not some Gomer believes that this bottle is really a great ‘chicken wine.’

I can figure that one out for myself.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The Confluence
Damning Overmanipulation of the Juice

For those of you who read this blog on a regular basis, you know that I have a bias for certain types of wines. It is the articulation of why I like or dislike certain styles of winemaking that has eluded me, or at least in a comprehensive ‘Weltanschauung’ sort of way. But this has changed.

At a recent tasting of Australian, Coonawarra-based Katnook, and in the presence of senior winemaker Wayne Stehbens, all these discussions about organics, natural wines, style versus terroir, and so forth reached a focal point, in my glass. It started with the whites.

The three Sauvignon Blancs were all theoretically perfect (gooseberry, vegetative notes, crispness). But I found both the acidity and the mouth feel somewhat off, especially when offset by the richness of the wine. When asked about the challenges of growing Sauvignon Blanc in extremely warm climates, Stehbens waxed the virtues of adding tartaric acid, and of aromatic yeast strains which can handle the high alchohol content of the wines. All this is to preserve what he calls 'essential varietal integrity!?!# ' But the question is then, if Loire and other cool climate regions set the standard for what Sauvignon Blanc should be, and the only way to achieve this model is through what I see as pretty rock and roll interventions, either the standard must be changed to a warm climate model or simply don’t grow Sauvignon in such unfriendly climatic conditions.

The reds are easier to dissect. Typical of warm climate Cabs and Shiraz, they are fruit driven (no Brett here, my friends), but I again find the ensemble heavy, over-oaked, lacking cut and too sweet. That is not a surprise as I don’t particularly like that style but many do and I can respect that. What did surprise me was that the reds were also boosted by both tartaric acid and commercial tannin. If as a result of this manipulation the acidity is too high, then Potassium Sorbate is added. Are these standard interventions for most warm weather winemakers? I always believed my dislike for this style was simply the sugar, texture and wood, but could it again be the artificial acids and tannins? Are there new world winemakers who do not have to manipulate their wines in this way?

While this is damning to a certain extent of modern viticultural techniques, it is by no means limited to New World wineries (the French and other Euro wines regions often use chapitalization to boost sugar levels rather than pruning to get maximum ripeness in weaker years, and I am sure more than a few grams of tartaric acid were used in the 2003 vintage). But because the varietal model seems to remain European, the climatic challenges of California, Australia and South America make these types of interventions necessary to follow that model. Can we taste these interventions? Should the new world winemakers seek out new models so that the wines need not be manipulated and adjusted in a way that attempts to negate one of the primary influences on its character (the weather)?

For me, winemaking is an art.
And over the years I have been fortunate enough to taste thousands upon thousands of wines.
And in the end the most fantastic superlative that I can throw at a wine that I love is ‘purity.’
That’s enough.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

What to drink with Condrieu

My favorite blogger and wine drinking Utahonian, Beau at basic juice inquired as to how I would match Villard's Condrieu, Desponcins. This got the motor churning. With it’s heady, soft aromas, relatively low acidity and super creamy texture, Condrieu lends itself to plates on the richer side of the spectrum. Lobster cooked in beurre montée with ginger highlights, firmer fish like tuna and halibut in cream sauces, sweetbreads with a hint of sweetness in the sauce, smoked duck in a salad with truffle oil (particularily the Cuilleron wines), and in terms of cheese, those semi firm which accent creaminess, moderate salinity and nuttiness. Québec cheeses like Riopelle or Migneron come to mind. Some people say it can tough cold fois gras but I tried it this summer and found it got buried by the richness of the plate.
So what would I pair with the Desponcins? To borrow one of Anne"s creations, I would love to try it with pan seared scallops (unilateral), and served on thin slices of roasted beets, sautéed wild mushrooms with a ginger, mushroom foam. Any ideas?

Monday, November 14, 2005

A Couple of Condrieus
Head to Head with Villard and Cuilleron

As Sauvignon is to Sancerre so Viogner is to Condrieu, often copied but rarely accomplished. The combination of being a tiny appellation which uses a grape which requires relatively severe restrictions on yields make Condrieu expensive, and limited. In fact, I bet most people have encountered more Northern Rhone Viogner when assembled with Syrah in Cote Rotie than in it’s pure Condrieu form. It also has the sole particularity of being the most expensive white in France that is best appreciated in youth, when it’s almost inexistent acidity is still perceptible.

Francois Villard and Yves Cuilleron are best buddies and partners with Gaillard in ‘Les Vins de Vienne.’ Both in their early 40’s, they are considered among the rising stars in the Northern Rhone. On Tuesday, I had an opportunity to drink their 04’s with them…and get a mini clinic on the finer details of making great Condrieu.

Condrieu 2004, Deponcins, Francois Villard ($85...importation)
The winner of the tasting, this is Condrieu at it’s finest. It had a delicate yet remarkably complex nose of honey, peach, pear, flint and with just the right dose of fresh oak (45% new barrels). The mouth was rich and creamy, and I was surprised how it’s minerality added to it’s freshness. I won’t even talk about length. Purity was the word that kept coming to mind. I guess the kids will have to eat lentils for another week.

Condrieu 2004, Les Chaillets, Vieilles Vignes, Yves Cuilleron ($85..importation)
Cuilleron’s vineyard is just south of Villard but the soil composition has a touch more clay. They both work in similar fashions in the chai and use almost the same barrels (though Cuilleron uses a touch more new oak), yet the style of Les Chaillets is markedly different. With less schist in his granite soil, his wines do not have the same minerality and thus feel a little heavier in the mouth. I found this bottle didn’t support the new wood as well. Nonetheless , this is still a magnificent beverage. It has much more smoke with riper fruit, moving into dried apricots and with an impression of residual sugar. I had an opportunity this summer to drink a bottle of the 03 with everything from cold fois gras to a truffle-laced veal chop (it was best with the beurre montée lobster).

Condrieu 2004, Petit Côte, Yves Cuilleron ($60..importation)
No new oak and while at first I found the Cuilleron smokiness distracting, it all comes together in the mouth. Like les Chaillets, it had a sweet wine feel without the sugar and while it lacked the fruit of his grand cuvee, it had a creamy almond taste that went on and on. Great length and depth and very, very ripe.

Condrieu 2004, Grand Vallon, Francois Villard ($60..importation)
At first I found the aromas of pears, honey suckle and peaches a step above that of Cuilleron, but without the grounding minerality of the Desponcins, it lacked a touch of depth and thus comes in a close second to La Petit Côte. Still a beautifully crafted wine, I fear it might lack the substance to do the job with a plate of food in front of you.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Why Not More Petit Verdot?
Sette Ponti Makes the Point

Once again I was confronted with the jesus grape of warm climates. Tired of jube jube fruit bombs, those heavy and chewy new world cabs that scream for just a touch more acidity? Well open your arms and embrace the Petit Verdot. While only a minor player in Bordeaux (where it only fully ripens in the best of years), I have come across it in California, Spain and now Italy, and more than a few warm weather vintners have remarked to me how difficult it is to over-ripen. Call it the acidifier, the structurizer, the fresherizer, call it what you will, but yesterday, it was the vintage savior (saver). To read more on this check the review for the Poggio Al Lupo

Lunch was with Francesco Cirelli, estate manager of Tuscany based Tenuta Sette Ponti. Alongside the Arezzo based Sette Ponti, they also own vineyards in Sicile (Feudo Maccari) and straddling the Toscane coast( Poggio al Lupo). I was impressed with the whole catalogue, especially with the judicious choice of grapes for the blending. Many of these wines will be available to us Quebecers in the coming months, so watch out for them.

Thanks Pierre for yet another class tasting.

Morellino di Scansano D.o.c., 2004, Poggio Al Lupo ($29..importation)
A blend of 75% Sangiovese and 25% Alicante and aged in stainless, this wine set the tone. Perfect ripeness, hints of violets, tobacco leaf and a ton of dark fruits, all wrapped around a remarkably soft tannic structure, this is a well crafted wine. I loved it’s ‘un-oakiness.’

Toscana I.g.t., Crognolo 2002, Sette Ponti ($40...saq)
A 90-10 Sangiovese-Merlot mix, this is the first decent Toscane 2002 that I have tasted. As they did not make their top wine Oreno in 02, all the best grapes went into the Crognolo. While it still falls slightly into the void, it has a superb texture. With notes of licorice, bitter chocolate and red fruits, this soft and silky wine is ready for a Sunday roast beef.

Toscana I.g.t., Crognolo 2003, Sette Ponti ($40...saq)
This time 90-10 Sangiovese-Cabernet, this is an explosive beast of a wine. I found it remarkably well balanced for an ’03, not too over ripe and with just an impression of residual sugar. I fear it might descend into the cooked fruit thing if kept too long so I would suggest a short stint in the cellar and then bring on the pepper steak.

Sicilia I.g.t., Saia 2003, Feudo Maccari ($40..importation)
100% Nero D’avola, this is another big, juicy wine. Slightly monolithic as is often the case with unblended Nero, it showed above all sweet red peppercorns with firm, and slightly rustic tannins. I would love to see it in a couple of years or perhaps blended with a little Merlot.

Toscana I.g.t., Poggio Al Lupo 2003 ($78.. importation)
73% Cab, 20% Alicante with 7% Petit Verdot. The best European 2003 that I have tasted to date. It made me thing of a Roc de Cambes (Bordeaux) with it’s combination of elegance and rusticity. Think of biting into a perfectly ripe bunch of grapes and you get an idea as to how fresh this wine tasted. Soft and juicy tannins, it went on and on. And why was this 03 so damned good…? Mr. Cirelli acknowledged the Petit Verdot.

Toscane I.g.t, Oreno 2003, Sette Ponti ($75…saq)
50-50 Sangiovese cabernet, I found it over ripe and a bit too ‘meaty.’ Here is another victim of the heat of 2003. One got the sense of the care that was taken in putting the wine together but for me, but it lacked the acidity and freshness of the Lupo. I would love to try a 2001 to get a sense of what it is like coming from a more typical vintage.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

A New Adventure in Wonderland
(Through the Wine Glass)

It started much like the last one, following a tardy but well dressed rabbit down a hole and falling into a pool of tears. As she splashed about, an oyster floated leisurely by, his shell replete with fennel and muscadet. ‘Which way to shore, kind sir?‘, she inquired. ‘It is a ways away but hop on board,‘ he replied. And as she made herself comfortable, 3 radish colored horses surfaced to pull the new found friends towards the Aussie shore. ‘Their names are Verdelho, Chenin and Sémillon, and in their Element they can be a bit fresh.’ he snickered.

‘So have we arrived?’ she asked, but she found herself alone once again. Another queer place she thought to herself, eyeing a gathering of fattened, muscovy ducks next to a forest of celery and butternut squash. ‘Just in time for the race,’ they called to her. ‘And did you bring the prize?’ Alice in despair put her hand in her pocket and pulled out all she had, a sweetly spiced sapote. ‘Queen Constance will love it!’ they rejoiced, as a spicy, muscat scented mist began to fall against a rich and opulent sky.

As if in a trance, Alice spun about only to come face to face with the Rabbit, dressed as if it were time for the hunt. Seeing Alice, he sped away, down one hole and up through another. She followed, through a patch of tomatoes and wild mushrooms until she reached the edge of a cliff. ‘Welcome to the Main Divide,’ read the sign and as Alice peered precariously over the edge, she saw the rabbit floating on a proscuitto chip, happily awash in a sea of Pinot.

Licking her lips she decided to retrace her steps. As she pulled herself from the hole she came upon an old friend, the Cheshire cat. He recounted a fantastic tale of a wild, chipoline crowned deer who lived in a field of caramelized cauliflower and roasted onion. Each night it would sing it’s sweet song as the sky turned cabernet red. ‘Le Bonheur,’ she sighed, as she imagined this powerful yet subtle juxtaposition.

Falling into a wonderful dream, she imagined another life, on an island home to white foxes. Against the backdrop of the translucent sea of Sauvignon, she tended to pannacotta goats who grazed in fields of pears, celery and liveche. The refreshing scent of mint, walnuts and flowers sent Alice into a deep sleep, content in having found such simple pleasures in such a strange and wonderful land.

authors note: in response to the overwhelmingly consistent email theme that I recieved, no, while I do not have any problem with hallucinogenics and other recreational drugs, I was relatively straight when writing this. This is simply an introduction to one our tasting menus.. try and figure out the menu by the clues...maybe we should do some sort of contest... hmmmmm.