Thursday, April 27, 2006

Ode to Nilay *

01, Vougeot Premier Cru, Les Cras, Vougeraie

Like a child who got out of bed an hour too early, one senses that this bottle was still half asleep; not tired, just cranky. I know this bottle intimately; violet tinged, seductively fragrant like all great Vougeot, black strawberries mixed with dampened earth and stones. But the first glass disappointed, its beautiful qualities subverted by a brooding acidity. I swirled my glass a dozen or so times, trying to cajole away the glumness. It was my birthday and all should be perfect, and my impatience was aggravating the situation. So I walked away, reminding myself that even the best of characters sometimes require their own time to show themselves. They are what they are and not what you want them to be. That is what makes ‘uniqueness’ a desired quality even with its inherent imperfections. And ever so slowly, I got the hint of a smile, and Tuesday’s version of Les Cras opened up, with all the depth and elegance I have come to appreciate from this great Burgundy.

*Craig quoted Randall about ‘the points,’ about ‘somewhereness,’ and about literary descriptions, and nobody does that better than Nilay. Let’s hope that imitation is still a sincere form of flattery.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Art of the Assemblage
Blending in the Fields of Bergerac

If there exists a single practice that unites the often disparate perspectives on winemaking, it is the blend. While most wine drinkers associate blending with the mixing of different grape varietals, blending also includes the mixing of wines made from different vineyards, wines that have received different types of vinification, wines from different casks or barrels, and even wines from different vintages.

If there exists a number of different types of blends, the reasons for blending are far fewer. Vintage blending is a useful tool if the winemaker wants to maintain a somewhat consistent flavor and have as little variation as possible from year to year. Varietal blending can act as a safeguard against weaknesses in one of the chosen grapes caused by problems during the growing season. But the most obvious reason to blend is to add complexity. The most skillful winemakers can mix once disparate elements so intimately and harmoniously that the components lose their original definition. It is the art of the mix.

All the above mentioned techniques involve mixing one ‘finished’ or fermented wine with another. However, there are a few mix masters who have taken the concept to the vineyard and use a technique of co-plantation, actually pre-mixing the grapes in the fields. Future partners grow side by each, and are harvested and vinified together. My first contact with a winemaker who uses this technique was Jean Michel Deiss, whose Alsace blends are so extraordinary that his grand cru Schoenenbourg was the first to receive ‘grand cru’ designation, an honor formerly bestowed only on single varietal wines. His Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, and Sylvaner share the same parcel of land and after years of growing together, he claims that they have begun to ripen at the same time. Now that's synergy!

I admit that as much as I love the principle of this more ‘organic’ approach to blending, I was skeptical…. until I met Luc de Conti from Owner Château Tour des Gendres who made the same claim. Located in southwestern France’s Bergerac appellation, Conti has co-planted Muscadelle, Semillon and Sauvignon which over time have begun to ripen at the same to,e. Hmmmm. Now the wines are fabulous but I must admit to being a bit confused as to what this system can bring to the final product. Will the grapes ultimately have a different flavour if cross-polinated by other varietals? Conti espouses, and rightly so, the need for vintage variation but does this system just lend itself to a blend of ripe and super-ripe grapes, whereby each varietal's ripeness is dependant upon the climate variations of that vintage?

It must be noted that this technique is used only for his whites, as his Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot apparently have natural ripening times which are too far apart to benefit from co-plantation.

I have spent the morning trying to find a scientific reason for this phenomenon but to no avail, though I have found other winemakers who use the same principle. All I can fall back on is anecdotal evidence, like my grandma's belief that green tomatoes when placed in a bowl with ripe tomatoes ripen faster than if left separate. I would welcome any scientific evidence that is out there to explain this phenomenon.

So back to the point of this post which is the amazing discovery that is Château Tour des Gendres. The whites were crisp, rich and aromatic while the reds make many a Bordeaux pale in comparison. Here’s the rundown.

Bergerac Sec 2004, Cuvée des Conti, Château Tour des Gendres (saq....$15.70)
An enticing and delicate perfume of musky citrus flowers, followed by a rich and honeyed texture. The lolita of wines, this is so fresh and pretty one feels almost guilty about it enjoying this much. The balance between richness and acidity is perfect, especially for such a young Semillon. A field mix of 80% Semillon and 20% Muscadelle. Calling all spicy plates, you have met a wonderful under $20 match.

Bergerac Sec 2005, Cuvée des Conti, Château Tour des Gendres
Fresh from the barrel, the muscadelle was a bit overpowering and brought a bit too much sweetness to the nose. Luc said it would calm down.

Bergerac Sec 2001, Moulin des Dames, Château Tour des Gendres (saq....$33.75)
A blend of 40% Semillon with Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle, this is a big white wine that could still benefit from a year or so to allow the wood to integrate even more. But it is close. The 2003 are on the market but like so many 03’s lack a certain acidity. Hold out and buy the 2004.

Côte de Bergerac 2002, Gloire de mon Père, Château Tour des Gendres (saq....$22.50)
A 50-50 blend of Cabernet and Merlot and a proof that great wine need not break the bank. For those who want the combination of finesse and power that good Bordeaux does so well, and at a fraction of the price, then this is your bottle. Concentrated and explosive from the first sip, layers of slightly jammy dark fruit are intertwined with hints of coffee grounds and nutty, sweet spice. And I thought I was starting to get bored with reds.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Crabfest ‘06

Not much rivals the pure, unadulterated joy that is the first week of real spring weather; when the sun actually warms, the snow starts to melt, the crocus flowers. Bliss me Ma Nature! But close on the heels, and yet another hopeful sign that summer is nigh is the start of snowcrab (Chionoecetes opilio) season. There are few seabugs whose meat can match the snow crab’s delicate sweetness and silky texture. When prepared (steamed) with water that has the right salinity, the sweetness is balanced by almost a ‘briny’ flavour reminiscent of walking the beach in Matane, with that cool, salt laden air breeze coming off the St. Laurent.

The key is to get them live as freshness counts (even 2 days later after being cooked, they started to get a touch rank). However, unlike lobster, snow crab needs to be ‘de-leggified’ while they are alive (if they are cooked whole, the meat is sullied by the release of a dark, inky substance). Last year, I found our technique a bit barbarian so welcomed Karl’s new precision killing system which involved a chef’s knife penetrating straight between the eyes.

In previous years I have drunk a single wine, concentrating on the white Pinot family which has been a proven success. So in the spirit of innovation, this one was left to chance, I guess one could call it a ‘pot drunk.’

Alsace 2004, Domaine Marcel Deiss ($24…importation)
This was so good we drank two. A classic assemblage of Rielsing, Pinot Blanc with a touch of Pinot Gris and Sylvaner are put together by the mix master Jean-Michel Deiss. Nobody does it better in Alsace. The ’04 is a little greener than the ’03 but both the finesse and freshness are there; one had the sense of biting into a juicy green grape. And like always, organically grown with the bare minimum of sulfite.

Sicilia Igt 2004, Anthilia, Donnafugata ($18…importation)
A mix of the indigenous Ansonica and Catarratto grapes, this is yet another great wine from Sicilian producer Donnafugata. It reminded me of an unoaked Rousanne, rich and spicey but with a hint of melon. Nice wine but would have been better with a smoked salmon.

Sauvignon Blanc 2004, Kim Crawford ($16…saq)
They make 70 000 cases of this stuff but it remains a great buy. Crisp acidity and thankfully not overly aromatic, what it may lack in distinctiveness it more than makes up for in easy drinkability. If only all the corporate wines were produced with the same skill and care. The super ripe fruitiness was a nice compliment for the crab’s natural sweetness.

Gewürztraminer 2004, Dopff & Irion ($18…saq)
We drank this with a cheese plate before the dinner. The cuvee ‘Sorcières’ has always been one of the better inexpensive Gewurztraminers on the SAQ shelves and this entry level follows in a similar vein; bright litchi, grapefruit and rosehip aromas with a slightly ‘honeyed’ finish. A very easy, user-friendly gewürztraminer and perfect for introducing this noble Alsace grape to the uninitiated.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The Recipe for Great Winemaking
The Sycophant and the Donkey

My weekend reading included an interesting article in the NY Times entitled ‘The Chemistry of a 90+ Wine.’ Yes I know. I made a promise to a number of you that I would get back to the wine reviews and quirky dinners and I will, er, um, soon. But this is important.

The article’s subject is a Mr. McCloskey who has apparently conceived of a new way of measuring wine quality. He uses spectrometers and chromatographs to separate and measure particular chemical compounds in a vintner’s juice. The resulting ‘quality index,’ the ratio of phenols, terpenes and other secondary’ chemicals to one another, are then compared to a ‘benchmark’ wine, a mythical 100 point wine which comes from a similar analysis of previously high scoring wines (from the usual culprits).

The premise is simple. ‘The Score’ is everything, and by modeling one’s wine after those which have previously received 90 points, it follows that one should receive a similar benediction, and thus sales. In fact, McCloskey’s company Enologix promises it’s clients that it’s ‘metrics’ will assist winemakers in . . . boosting average national critics' scores.''


Now there is nothing wrong with using whatever system one wants to use to analyze wine, and in fact I am intrigued by any tool which aims to explain why we like what we do. Knowledge is good. The problem here is that McCloskey is purporting some sort of ‘holy grail’ of quality which is based on what a small group of individuals have deemed to be quality. Follow? If you so fervently believe that you know what the ultimate good is, you're moving into dangerous territory.

McCloskey himself has claimed, "If you ask what is wine quality?..."people say it's relative, it's a matter of taste. But the fact is, it's not." It would seem that McCloskey believes it is a matter of a few tastes, that being those of Parker, Laube, His and all those critics who tend towards the jammy, oak-infused New World style. Suffice to say that Enologics has quite a roster of clients.

Okay. Fuck that. So what?

I have written a number of times about the potential pitfalls that arise from winemakers who rely too heavily on additives and manipulations to make their wines as opposed to technique and terroir. I won’t rehash it here. McCloskey’s concept in of itself is interesting, its the possible applications that make me squirm guns don’t kill people, people kill people.

Already many wine buyers seem unable to make a purchase that does not have the benediction of one of the big critics. It is lamentable for any number of good reasons, but this type of ‘sycophantry’ is even worse because it relates to the winemaker’s integrity. I have my problems with the ‘ego-centric’ new world winemaker attitude, whereby nature seems to be tolerated just as long as it doesn’t get in the way of what he or she’s preconceived notion of what their wine ought to be. But I can understand it, and even if I believe that the use of all these interventions removes a wine from the subtle influences of it’s terroir, if they are used to create a unique wine which reflects the personality of the winemaker then I can at least respect it. It comes from them.

Using The Enologic system for the purpose of pleasing critics completely eliminates the winemaker’s personality from the process, and instead panders to a small group of tastes and the ‘metrics’ of a man who claims to have written the recipe book on how to make a bestseller. This type of winemaker is as soft as the Pillsbury doughboy, as real as Hasselhoff.

Wine should be the product of the interaction between the winemaker and nature, not the interaction between the two to make a wine the Parker-Laube tandem will like. This is soul-less pandering, insulting to us wine consumers and most importantly, it 'splooges' a couple more drops of oil on that slippery slope towards the uniformity of taste. We are being powned like some cheap whore. You the consumer are looked upon as a second class drinking citizen, you ass.

If there was ever a reason to trumpet the democratization of wine criticism then this is it.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006


Imagine my excitement when I found out that this months installment of Wineblog Wednesday featured white wines, and in particular, wines made by none of the big three (Chardonnay, Sauvignon and Riesling). No shortage of that stuff lying around. Thanks to the folks at wine for newbies for going white.

So I went down to one of my favorite areas for white wine these days, France’s southwest. From just south of Bordeaux thru to the Spanish border, this is the domaine of grapes such as Grenache Blanc and Gris, Macabeao, Pacherenc, Courbu and my personal favorites, the Manseng duo.

The Basque homeland straddles the Pyrenees on both sides of the French and Spanish borders. It is a credit to their fierce nationality that they still speak their bizarre native language, and aside from a certain penchant for bombing things, they seem as a whole to have been able to walk that fine line of holding true to tradition, while embracing modernity.

This is perhaps best exemplified by their food and wine. As a region, they have the most Michelin stars per capita in the world. Led by El Bulli (where they receive 250 000 reservations for a mere 3000 dining spots), it is considered the new frontier of cooking, and a reference of modern cuisine. In terms of wine, the tannat based reds are too big for my taste, but boy do I love the whites. As the region is influenced by the cooling influence of the Atlantic, and as the grapes are grown at a certain altitude, the wines always seem to maintain the perfect acidity, independent of the richness that it’s grapes bring to the mix. So here is one my favorites, the Hegoxuri from the Domaine Arretxea.

Irouléguy 2002, Hegoxuri, Domaine Arretxea ($30…importation)

Organically grown with minimal sulfites (which explains a bit of a reductive cheesiness on opening the bottle), the Hegoxuri is a blend of 65% Gros Manseng with 25% Petit Manseng and 10% Petit Courbou. This one kind of stumped the table. It had a strange minerality reminiscent of Ostertag’s exceptional Franholz Muscat; that being an impression of vanilla infused, damp stones (like the Ostertag, one would easily be fooled and confuse this aroma with a wine that spent some time in oak). For a four year old white, it still had a remarkable acidity that acted as a wonderful counterpoint to it’s creaminess. I served it at 8 Celcius (45F) and as we worked our way down the bottle, it moved into Chardonnay territory with a buttery richness, but with always with that ever present citrus spine.

The last time I drank this bottle was the 2000 cuvée, and ate a steak tartare (which was phenomenal and according to Ryan , a natural accompaniment to raw meat tapas). While the ’02 still had enough acidity and freshness to work with our salmon roulades, if I drank this bottle next year, I will probably have to work with a heavier sauce, or an even richer fish.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Only in California
California Wine Tasting, Take 3

My dislike for much of New World wine is due in a large part to years of careful tasting and analysis, but admittedly there is also a measure of prejudice and ignorance involved. As I live in a place where California wines represent a mere fraction of total sales (though this last year, it gained market share), I simply don’t have access to the many unique and less ‘main-stream’ wines that are being produced. As is so often the case, much of these wines either never make it out of the country, or aren’t big enough to join these traveling tasting carnivals.

So what defines great California? Who produces those wines which work that curious mix of terroir and winemaking style, pushing the envelope of what grapes can achieve within the parameters of the State; this is what interests me. Who are the models? I was confronted as expected by a multitude of wines that I would characterize as over-ripe and lacking acidity but, in general, I found the oak much less obtrusive and a movement amongst some towards a touch more austerity. Here are a couple of exemplary wines that, for different reasons, reveal the depth and complexity of what Cali can do.

Zinfandel 2000, Jackass Hill Vineyard, Russian River Valley, Martinelli
Guiseppe Martinelli’s wife named the vineyard saying that only a jackass would attempt to work this particular area of the family's property. The vineyard is on an almost 60-degree slope and typically yields one and a half tons per acre (250 cases). Its southeastern exposure catches the early morning sun long before it reaches the vineyards on the valley floor and the afternoon’s sun is shaded by forested hills to the West. Helen Turly acts as winemaker and consultant.

At 17.6% alchohol, it is aromatically closer to banyuls than a dry red, packed with layers of extremely ripe black plums and cassis. However, the shock is in that first taste. Slightly austere, waves of sweet spices (nutmeg, clove, pepper) were interwoven with luxurious fruit. As with most great wines, it inspired and while it worked wonders with the contre-filet, I could see it with a pan-seared fois gras in a spicy red wine sauce. Seghesio does Zinfandel really well (especially with its Vieilles Vignes and Carignan blend), but this is the reference.

Old Telegram 2003, Bonny Doon
While the jackass takes a classic Cali grape to another level, I liked this wine for its choice of grape. The relative monotony of Cab and Merlot is broken here with a 100% Mourvèdre offering from Randall Graham, inspired and named after my favorite Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Vieux Telegraph.

A notoriously late-ripener, Mourvèdre (curiously called Mataro on the label) works well in warm climates, and when done well can produce wines of depth and elegance that can rival some of the best Cabernet and Syrah. And this one does just that.

Again, this a wonderfully restrained wine which upon sticking my nose in the glass reminded me of cooking bacon on a balcony next to the ocean. Less gamey than meaty, it had an amazing balance between the hints of fruit and more characteristic notes of mushroom and pepper. Now this is a steak wine.

Estate Cuvée 2003, Paso Robles, L’Aventure
For the second year in a row I was lucky enough to find myself sitting next to Stephan Asseo at lunch. Check out Jathan’s article on Stephan for a full review of his wines.

Stephan has the honour of being the first California winemaker I have met who eschews the use of acidification in his wines. He works on a 2 ton/acre harvest with his vines planted at 2100 pied-acre. He recognizes the challenges posed by the heat of California summers which is why he is so big on the terroir of Paso Robles (soil and climate) which he claims allows his grapes to ripen with enough natural acidity to not need tweaking. While his whole line of wines combined Euro elegance while maintaining typical California ‘juiciness,’ the Estate Cuvée is this theme's apogee. A mix of 66% Cab, 28% Syrah and 6% Petit Verdot, the Estate combined ripe, chocolatized dark fruits with layers of spice, all held together with soft and impressive tannins.

But as we sat outside the hotel, puffing on a cigar (my first and possibly last), I got an insiders perspective on the some of the problems facing smaller, independent producers — most notably distribution. It is difficult to compete when larger companies can offer retailers and restaurants discounts and promotions that, if he matched, would undercut his already precarious margins. He is counting on more and more wine drinkers tiring of the ‘just good enough’ wines, and seeking out those winemakers who put the emphasis on expressing the individuality that comes from working the terroir, not the laboratory. Here’s to Stephan.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Wine, Additives and Other Over-Manipulated Things

Didn't Pammy do a great job at the Junos?

Once again the nerdier contigent of blogland has wrapped its collective eggo around the question of manipulations and additives. The latest affront to the purists is the use of wood chips, a subject which follows closely on the heels of similar debates over the use of colorants, enzymes, sugars, artificial tannins, etc... I can’t wait for the arm wrestle over irradiated wine. The list is long and debating each intervention separately has proven to be a non-starter, it seems one either embraces what innovation offers or tends to denounce it. While I tend to the latter, I must agree with its proponents that there is a certain amount of ‘reactionarianism’ from the anti-additives school. So here is hopefully a more sober and less emotional treatment of the question than my previous effort.

Why use additives in the first place?

Whether due to vineyard failure or choice of wine style, the majority of these manipulations are used to compensate for inadequacies in our pre-fermented juice; chapitalization for the under-ripe, acidification and tannin adjustments for the conversely over-ripe. Aromatic yeast strains and other taste and aroma enhancers are used to give character to otherwise characterless grapes. Colour adjustments are more of a marketing question (red wine should be really, really, really red, no?) and tossing a bag of wood shavings into a barrel provides the winemaker with oak flavouring at considerable savings compared to actually paying for an oak barrel.

The reality of chapitalization is that the majority of French winemakers do it (some with more reticence than others). Now, not to point fingers, but in weaker years in France there are winemakers who are capable of producing great, perfectly ripe wine. These winemakers tend to work smaller plots of land and seem to be principled to the point that they are willing to make less wine in weaker vintages in the hope of making up for lost income in better vintages.

Conversely, we can almost take it as a given that the ‘very ripe’ new world style more often than not necessitates the addition of tartaric acid. This is true to the point that I have yet to meet a new world winemaker who does not use acidification. In fact, the ‘new world style’ seems to be dependent upon this intervention, or else the ripeness would have to be sacrificed for a better-balanced natural acidity. There is an awareness amongst many I have talked with that the wine still has to make sense; i.e., that toe-curling acidity in a 14.5% sauvignon blanc is an over-made-up caricature of whatever the Platonic Sauvignon Form should be.

Both chapitalization and acidification seem, on the surface, to be rather innocuous interventions — simply there to help bridge an imperfect reality with a desired potential. And, of course, one of these potentialities is a better bottom line as less-than-ideal grapes are integrated with the good in the fermenting barrel. It is within this context that one must examine the benefits and risks associated with these more debatable manipulations.

So what’s the problem?

There is only a problem if we believe that wine is generally better when it is manipulated as little as possible. Is what differentiates a good wine from a mediocre one dependent upon the subtle touches of nature (terroir) nursed by the light hand of the winemaker. And conversely, are these subtle influences suppressed by the excessive use of additives and manipulations? Th emost obvious example is that of climate and wether the natural balance between fruit and acidity can be as effectively copied via either chapitalization or acidification. And, while wood chips definitely add oak flavouring to wine, can the other desirable effects of barrel-aging also be simulated, or put differently, is barrel-aging substantively better than wood flavouring?

With respect to this entry-level wine, it is not unreasonable to assume that as the technology advances, so will the quality of the wine. That should normally be considered a good thing. However, as we move out of the supermarket category of wine, does employing this technology offer winemakers a competitive advantage over winemakers who are doing it without manipulations. If these additions and manipulations are cost-effective and substandard grapes can be worked into reasonable wine, this will put price pressure on the winemakers that live and work with what they harvest. If one is optimistic about the value of science, one can only assume that technology will make it easier and cheaper to produce decent wine for less.

Are the days numbered for winemakers who want to make inexpensive wines without the benefit of additives?
And as the technology gets even more precise, wine can, and will, be made with a particular flavour and aroma and colour and texture profile, one that is pre-determined before a grape is even harvested (or is this already happening?).

The question is what do we want and expect from our wine?

Harlan Estate, Grange, DRC, Petrus and other classic wines are what they are because of low yields, vineyard location and technique. Their magnificence is due to that curious bit of teamwork between man and nature. And while they do cost a fortune, at what price point do we expect our wines to stop emulating these grand wines; both in terms of selectivity in the vineyard, and skill in the chais? It strikes me that using these bottom feeders as models is not really the way to go.

Or do we simply want the best possible drink, no matter how it is produced, and for the cheapest price?