Random thoughts on the world of wine, presented in no particular order.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Splurge wines, holiday edition.

Looking at my Top 10 list yesterday, and I got to thinking... "what wines would I splurge on?"

Note that not all of these are wines I've had -- in fact, most, I haven't tried. But, if you had to get me a splurge-worthy wine, these would be the ones I'd love to see under the tree on Christmas... perhaps the wine geek on your Christmas list might enjoy one as well!

  • 10: Andrew Will Ciel du Cheval 2006 ($55-ish). I've never had it, but a friend of mine at work got to taste it this past year, and said it was sublime, a wonderful Left Bank style blend from Washington. I like Washington wines, and I like the Left Bank, so I think this'd be excellent.
  • 9: Pavillion Rouge de Ch. Margaux 2005 ($100-ish). I've always had good luck with second wines, and 2005 was -- as everyone has said -- an amazing year for Bordeaux. Pavillion Rouge is, traditionally, every bit as good as almost any other wine from the region.
  • 8: Dr. Loosen Erdener Treppfchen Riesling Auslese 2007 ($55). Sublime Riesling, and the perfect antidote for the person who thinks that "sweet" = "bad" for wine. A perfect balance of sugar and acidity, that finishes for seemingly days. Truly an experience, and one I'll gladly repeat.
  • 7: Dom de Perdrix Echezeaux 2005 ($150). A little young for drinking now, but... well, it's Grand Cru Burgundy. What more needs to be said?
  • 6: Bodega Catena Zapata Catena Alta 2006 ($50). A big Argentine red, but well-balanced, easy to access, and most importantly incredibly tasty! Argentine wines offer some of the best value on the market right now, and a wine of similar quality from California would easily cost thrice as much.
  • 5: Nickel & Nickel Chardonnay Searby Vineyard 2007 ($55). I loved Far Niente's charddonay... Nickel & Nickel is their single-vineyard line, and I'd love to see how it compares.
  • 4: Bodegas LAN Culmen 2004 ($65). Powerful, deep, complex wine from a producer that's best-known for more value driven, mass market crianzas. The big, cult-wine bottle doesn't hurt the presentation either!
  • 3: Titus Vineyards Reserve Cabernet 2006 ($60-ish). I've loved Titus' cabs for the last several vintages, and their '06 has amazing reviews (a better review than Screaming Eagle in Wine Spectator, if you can believe it!)... which I can say it's earned completely. A tasting pour is all I got to have, and I really, really want a bottle to cellar.
  • 2: BV Georges de Latour 2006 ($105 list, but often on sale for less). Yeah, I know, you're wondering... "BV? Really?" And while their lower-end wines are pretty pedantic, their Georges de Latour is... well, amazing. I've had several vintages (2005, 2004, and 1990), and enjoyed them both old and young. '06 is the latest release, and it's one of those wines that wound up being a diamond in the rough -- '06 wasn't a great year in Napa, but BV did admirably.
  • 1: Salon Champagne Brut Blanc de Blancs 1998 ($250-ish). Champagne Salon is arguably the best producer from Le Mesnil sur Orger, and 1998 (their latest release) is one of the better vintages available. It's pricy, but what better way to ring in the New Year than with cult Champagne! Only 6,000 cases per vintage are produced by Salon (they source only from the Le Mesnil vineyard, where Le Mesnil sur Orger gets it's name from), and they don't produce a wine every year, so it's really the definition of "cult wine."
Any one of these under the tree would be absolutely excellent! What would you like to find with a bow on it for Christmas?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Top 10 of 2009

Looking through my notes for the year, the following are my favorite wines of 2009 (note: not highest scoring wines, some of these are on the list for their quality to price ratio).

  • 10: Mendoza Station Torrontes 2008. For under $6, it's a crisp, clean white from a region best-known for it's heavy reds, and it's insanely tasty. One of the very few wines that I've bought more than one bottle of this year.
  • 9: San Andrea in Colle Il Rosso 2007. One of the best inexpensive Tuscan IGT's that I've had. Period. Again, one that I bought more than one bottle of; the perfect pairing for this one is a couch and a TV! Roughly $9.
  • 8: Nino Franco Prosecco Rustico. My favorite Prosecco of the year, wonderful white peach and spice notes, surprising intensity and complexity out of a wine that most people think of as Champagne's poor cousin, showing how Prosecco can really stand on it's own. About $18.
  • 7: Pertois-Moriset Grand Cru Champagne. Breathtaking blanc de blancs, from Le Mensil Sur Orger (home of Champagne Salon, and where Krug sourcers their Chardonnay). A surprise; generally I dislike blanc de blancs, as they're so think and over-acidic, but this one has a bit more weight on the palate, and the acidity is better balanced. Hard to find (only 250 cases were imported), but a great argument for RM Champagnes. A steal at $35. As a note, they also make a vintage -- the current release is the 2000, pictured, but it's even harder to find, as only 75 cases came into the US.
  • 6: Titus Chardonnay 2007. Opulent, plush Chardonnay from Carneros. This is a Rombauer-esque wine for half the price; wonderful ripe golden delicious apples, vanilla, and buttercream. They only make about 500 cases of this a year, but if you can find one, a bottle should set you back about $20, even though it's worth more.
  • 5: Coelho Pinot Noir Paciência 2006. When I tasted this, my immediate reaction was "so, this is why people keep going on about Oregon pinot..." It was spicy, full, and absolutely, insanely tasty. Fairly small-production (Coelho makes about 2500 cases a year), and $35.
  • 4: Château Doisy-Védrines 2005. An absolutely amazing Sauternes, powerful, with spot-on characteristics of the type -- including the "gym sock" note in the nose. At just under $40, it's a pricey dessert wine, but with some blue cheese or pate, it's an amazing experience and I highly recommend it.
  • 3: Pierre Amadieu Grande Romaine Gigondas 2006. It's like mature Châteauneuf-du-Pape, at half the price. Gigondas is my favorite "hidden gem" appellation of the Rhone, offering wonderful wine with the power and depth of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but since it's not as well-known, the wines from there cost less than half. This one was $22.
  • 2: Thorne-Clarke William Randall Shiraz 2005. A monster of an Aussie shiraz, but amazingly well-balanced. Is it over-the-top, huge wine? Yep. Do I want another bottle? Yep. Expensive, at about $40, but worth it.
  • 1: Château Haut-Bages Libéral 2006. One of Wine Spectator's top 100, and I can agree with that assessment. A rich, deep, chewy wine, one with a breadth and complexity that I found amazing. Young now -- I'd say drink 2012-2020. The most expensive wine on the list, at $45, and worth every penny.
What would your top 10 of 2009 be?

Image from Austin Keys, used under Creative Commons Sharealike 2.0.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Wine for the holidays

Even though it's late October, thoughts around casa Corkdork are turning to the holidays; partly because November also happens to be my father's birthday, partly because it's the time when we start considering "hey, what should we have with Thanksgiving dinner?"  There'll have to be at least 7 bottles purchased for gifting/celebrating this year -- two for Thanksgiving dinner, two for Christmas Eve, one for Dad's birthday, and two more for Christmas presents.  Oh, and something to ring in the new year with.

There's food to pair with, people's flavor preferences (and dislikes!) to work around, and gift-presentation thoughts to consider!  What is a wine afficianado to do?!

The current thinking is running something like this:
  • For Thanksgiving, we traditionally have two bottles; a sparkling wine and a red with dinner.  For the bubbly, I have to say I love Cava, both for it's affordability (hey, they're all under $25 at my local wine store, and most are under $10, including my two favorites, Conde de Caralt and Rondel), and it's zesty flavor -- the perfect thing to start a meal with.
  • For dinner, we traditionally have a Pinot Noir, and this year will probably be no different -- Pinot is versatile enough to work with the variety of foods on the table, and it's cranberry notes are a natural choice.  In the past, we've had Oregon and Russian River Pinot, but this year I think we may go for Burgundy, with the Chateau Chamirey Mercury Rouge 2005 (under $40) -- I got to try it twice this past weekend, once newly-opened and once with some air, and it's evolution was wonderful.  Newly-opened, it's fresh and fruity, but with some air, complexity is added, with earthiness and minerality underpinning the ripe fruit.
  • My father loves reds and steak, so the natural thought there is a wine to go with steak.  He especially loves California Cabernet and Chateau Neuf du Pape, and those fit quite well in that milleu.  Since his birthday is in November, he'll get two bottles this season; probably one of each.  The current thinking is something from Martin Ray for the California Cab -- Dad's a big fan of their Stag's Leap and Diamond Mountain District cabs -- and a 2006 Chateau Neuf du Pape ('05 was a better year in the Southern Rhone, perfect for laying down for a couple years, but '06 is ready to drink young, and Dad doesn't hold onto wine long).  Another possibility would be a bottle from Von Strasser -- I know Dad's not had anything from them before, but they're excellent.  In all three cases, the presentation is part of the key -- the bottle looks good, as well as having good juice inside it.
  • Not unlike with Thanksgiving, we start Christmas eve with bubbles, but generally Champagne.  Here, I'll look for a grower-maker wine -- it'll be a treat, pretty much regardless of what I pick.  Currently, I'm leaning towards a vintage 2000  Pertois-Moriset -- not as great of a year as 1996, but still quite good, and very tasty.
  • Christmas Eve dinner traditionally consists of a roast of beef with lots of garlic and herbs.  I've got my eye on a very small-production Barolo (200 cases made, from a single vineyard), which will get a full decanting treatment, as we'll be drinking it young -- Barolo is notoriously long-lived.
  • My fiancee loves Italian wines, and while a Barolo would make a great gift, she doesn't hold onto wine for more than a year, so a mature Brunello makes sense; there's lots of 2000's still out there, and even some '99's.  In fairness, since I'll likely be consuming the wine with her, it makes sense to pick out something I like too, and I love Brunello.
  • Finally, to ring in the new year, something sweet (hopefully a harbinger of the year to come).  Demi-sec Champagne comes to mind -- it's much better for drinking on it's own than a brut -- and one of my favorite grower-makers has just the answer...  Franck Bonville's nonvintage Demi-sec (which they don't mention on their website -- hopefully it's not out of production!).
So, what can we learn from this list?  Well, for one, that I tend to spend about $40 on a bottle of wine for a gift (more or less, but everything averages out around $40 here).  Additionally, the perfect gift for one person may not be perfect for another -- while my fiancee might enjoy the Von Strasser or Martin Ray, she'll love a Brunello, and my father might like a Brunello, but he loves California Cab.  Additionally, it's not necessary to go to one of the major, spendy bottles for a gift (that's, of course, if you can find them -- there's not a lot of cult Brunello for sale in my area); a good gift of good wine, even if it's not from a "name brand" winery, will be appreciated -- and, may, in fact, be better (as the "name brand" wine charges a surcharge for the name!  To wit, I think the Von Strasser Sori Bricco cabernet is the equal of Diamond Creek's Red Rock Terrace, and it's half the price).  Finally, traditions are hard to break; we've had Champagne for probably 20 years for Christmas, and that's probably not going to change any time soon.  So go with it!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Tasting the grand cuvee.

Through work yesterday, I had the opportunity to go to a very nice tasting (our last for the year, alas) -- wines for selling through the holidays.  We concentrated on sparkling wines, ranging from $8 cava through a $170 Krug Grand Cuvee.

Interestingly enough, the Krug was a late replacement for another bottle -- the 1998 Nicholas Feuilette Palmes D'Or, which we've had some quality control issues with (in fact, I got to taste the tester bottle of Palmes, and it's nothing like how the '97 I had last year was -- much more bitter.).

So, how was the Krug?

In a word, it was a razor-wire balance between weight and acidity, and Champagne Krug does this very well.   There's a unusual green-yellow cast to the wine in the glass, and it shows a lot of tart fruits (green apple, lime), and bracing, steely minerality.  It's a unique wine -- I've not had any Champagne that quite matches the style -- and I can understand how people would want to seek it out.  (93 points, if you're looking for a number and not a tasting note)

Is it worth $170 a bottle?

Well... if you've got $170 to blow on a bottle of wine, sure, why not!  Still, for the money, one could almost have a 6-pack of the best value Champagne from the tasting (the $30 GH Martel Brut Presteige -- much more yeasty/toasty than Krug, with more red fruit, but a great value and 91 points), or 4 of the second-best Champagne (the $45 DeMargerie Cuvee Special Grand Cru -- big, luxuriant wine with tons of red berries, tons of weight, and length.  92 points).

And that, I think, is the point of the luxe cuvees.  Are they better wines?  Yes.  Are they 4 times as good?  Not so much -- it's a very marginal difference.  So, really, when it comes time to buy a bottle of Champagne this year for a present... I don't think I'd go for a tete de cuvee.  Much more likely would be a bottle of a very good non-luxe cuvee, and some glassware.  Except for that one wine-geek friend who can really grok the difference (or, for that matter, for myself).

Thursday, September 17, 2009

But... is it organic?

One of the things that I see a great deal at work is people worrying about whether or not a certain wine is organic.

Odd -- it's a term that's pretty over-used in the wine world (go visit a vineyard.  They'll tout that their wine has an organic connection, I'll wager -- either it's "organic grapes," or "no harsh chemical pesticides," or "we farm sustainably.").  Really, it's all about the marketing -- which is what's really important, right?  Heck, it's almost impossible to define "organic wine," as there's a myriad of certifications (off the top of my head, there's California Certified Organic Farmer, USDA Organic, Demeter, Salmon-Safe, Oregon Tilth, and Low Impact Viticulture and Enology).  Not to mention that in other countries, the certification processes are different (as one vintner from Australia once told me -- "we don't bother getting certification, as we'd have to do Australia's, the UK's, the US's, and Japan's.  I'd rather make wine than fill out paperwork."), so there's plenty of uncertified organic wines!

I know the basic arguments for organic wine -- it's a lower-impact method of farming (although, that's debatable -- there are organic pesticides and fertilizers that don't break down any better than the non-organic alternatives), there's the possibility of trace pesticides/fungicides "contaminating" the wine.  Ultimately, though, I wonder...  When you're drinking wine -- which, by definition has ethanol in it, a poison -- why worry about what kind of fertilizer was used in producing the grapes?  I'd worry more about the carbon footprint of the wine (see Dr. Tyler Coleman's work on the subject). 

See, much of the impact of a wine on the environment comes not in producing it...  but in transporting it.  Transporting a wine from Napa to, say, Tampa burns an awful lot of gasoline if you're moving it by truck (which most wine is -- there's a move towards shipping wine by rail, which is much more efficient, but in my experience most wine arrives on a truck).  So let's do some math:

A refer truck gets about 6.5 MPG.  It's 2923 miles from Napa to Tampa, which means about 450 gallons of gas to move the wine -- or 8,730 pounds of CO2 emitted (roughly -- a gallon of unleaded yields about 19.3 pounds of CO2 when completely combusted).  The average tractor-trailer carries about 25,000 bottles of wine -- so your bottle of wine from Napa equals just over 1/3 of a pound of CO-- and that's just the cost of moving the wine from producer to consumer, not the cost of getting the bottles, corks, labels, fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, and cases to the producer!

Now, if the wine were transported by train, you can cut the fuel cost in a third -- at least, that's what Union Pacific claims (in the bottom section).  And, according to Dr. Coleman, wine moved by ship is more efficient than truck as well -- to the point that, east of the Mississippi, it's more efficient to drink from Bordeaux than Napa.

And I'd say that cutting the CO2 emissions used in moving the wine is about as important as anything else you can do in the process.

So why do most people worry about wine being organic? The cynic in me says, it's because appearing to do something to save the environment is easier than actually doing something about it.  It's easier to self-righteously spout to your friends "oh, I'm drinking organic," than it is to explain "my wine has a low carbon footprint."

That being said, it's not that organic wine is bad -- much of it is quite good, in fact, although there's some duds in the organic wines -- but that people's motivations for looking for organic wines are often screwed-up.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

In his last column as food critic for the New York Times, Frank Bruni offers the following tips for getting the best value in your next fine dining experience:

  1. Scratch off the appetizers and entrees that are most like dishes you’ve seen in many other restaurants, because they represent this one at its most dutiful, conservative and profit-minded. The chef’s heart isn’t in them.
  2. Scratch off the dishes that look the most aggressively fanciful. The chef’s vanity — possibly too much of it — spawned these.
  3. Then scratch off anything that mentions truffle oil.
  4. Choose among the remaining dishes.

Amongst these, the most useful is the number 3 -- avoid truffle oil.  This means, avoid items made with expensive ingredients solely for the purpose of saying that they were made with expensive ingredients.  An analogy in wine would be a winery in California spouting how they used nothing but new Limousin oak barrels, assembled by a master cooper from France on-site.  Yes, French oak has different aromatic properties than American oak, just as truffle oil differs from soybean oil, but one must consider the value of the thing -- is it worth double the price to have the exotic ingredient?

A similar analogy to these can be made with the other two "remove from the list" suggestions.  Analogous to 2, I'd say avoid reserve bottlings.  Generally, there's not that much of a difference in quality, and often the reserve uses oak more aggressively, resulting in a more tannic wine that may be suitable for aging more so than drinking young (note that in some cases -- Rioja comes to mind -- this rule doesn't hold true all the time.  But it's good enough for 90% of the cases you'll find out there).   And, analogous to 1, avoid wines with large, generic appellations (a single state or country is way too varied to have a unique terroir).  You'll likely find inferior juice.

So, in the spirit of Frank Bruni (but not in the sense of "it's the last thing I'll write," hopefully), here's my list of ways to find value on a wine list:

  1. Scratch off everything that has an appellation broader in geographic size than a county (roughly 100 square miles).  Too broad = cheap juice.
  2. Scratch off every "reserve," and first-label wine for wines with multiple labels (Opus, Ch. Margaux, Dominus, etc).  You'll be paying for the privelige anyhow.
  3. If a description fetishizes the labor-and-capital intensive winemaking process, scratch that wine off too (you may have to ask the sommelier for help with this one).  They're trying to justify overpriced wine.
  4. Choose something from what's left.
Following these rules, you won't always get the best pairing you've ever had, but you'll likely not overpay for a wine, either.

Friday, August 21, 2009

An interesting twist on a wine gift.

One of the email lists I subscribe to is Bottlenotes' The Daily Sip.  Todays email refers to a very.... unique... kind of wine holder, pictured to the right.  It's called the "Don't break the bottle wine caddy," and I can see it being an absolutely infuriating (in a good way) means to give someone a gift of a good bottle of wine.  They'll have to work for their wine!

Yep, it's basically one of those "take the ring off of the metal horseshoes" kind of puzzles, but instead of a metal ring, the person who solves the puzzle gets a bottle of wine (not included with the caddy, of course).

The same company also makes several other versions, apparently for liquor and beer as well as wine, but I thought the wine versions were all pretty interesting; there's the "Don't break the bottle corkscrew edition," and the "Don't break the bottle original." So you've got your choice of ways to annoy your gift recipients this year!

Don't get me wrong, I think just giving someone wine in a gift bag (or, really, just without wrapping at all) is a fine gift... but what a way to make it memorable, forcing your recipient to look at the bottle of Napa cult cab, or fine Bordeaux, and puzzle over it for several hours trying to free it from it's prison before they can open it?

Perhaps you'll even get invited for dinner... so that you can open up the darn bottle that's still locked up tight! It's enough to make a devious wine geek weep with joy.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

On wine and burgers

Yesterday, I had a very nice conversation with someone about Champagne -- and, oddly enough, I was not in a wine store when doing so.  While waiting in line at the bank, a woman in chef's pants (it turns out she is in fact a cook at a local restaurant) struck up a conversation asking "so what do you do?"  When I replied that I work in wine, she asked about my favorite Champagne.

When I told her, "it depends on what I'm drinking it with," there was shock and surprise; I believe she expected an answer like "Piper-Heidsick," or "Laurent Perrier."  A name that she recognized from the wine list.  She was further shocked when I broadly labeled the top volume producers as making "mostly mediocre wine."

So, I came up with a quick-and-dirty analogy that might be useful -- both with Champagne and still wines.  Comparing wine producers to hamburger restaurants.

Big names everyone's heard of are kind of like McDonalds or Burger King.  Big national fast-food chains.  Everyone knows McDonalds, and though the food there won't make you ill, it's not fine cuisine by any stretch. It's serviceable food, meant for mass consumption by people with a broad spectrum of palates.  Same with wine made for mass consumption; it's made to try and please as many people as possible.  Think Veuve Cliquot yellow label, or Chateau Ste. Michelle.  Yes, these names may make good upper-end wines (Grande Dame, or Indian Wells), sort of how McDonalds does sometimes do a good "special" burger (Black Angus and mushroom, for example), but for the most part, it's cheap and cheerful.

Smaller names that you may or may not have heard of are kind of like Five Guys, or In-n-Out, or Whataburger.  Regional chains, these places are about the same price as the big guys, perhaps a bit more, but they make good products.  The wine equivalent would be stuff you sometimes see on wine lists, but that you rarely find in a grocery store.  For Champagne, think Feuilette or Montaudon, for American wines think Martin Ray or Gordon Brothers.  They try, and generally succeed, at making top-flight products that are consistently good, and memorable.

Then, there's the real artisan producers.  RM Champagnes, estate-grown wines (oddly enough, many of these are in the category of "wineries lots of people have heard of," but mainly due to their cost, not as many people have had their wines).  This is like that friend who insists on having fresh-ground beef prepared at the butcher in front of him, hand-selects the freshest lettuce, makes homemade mayonnaise from scratch, and who grills that amazing burger that makes your mouth water to think of.  Yeah, the quality will vary slightly (good years versus bad ones for wine, days when all the butcher has is chuck roast versus sirloins for the burgers), but at the best of times, they're amazing, magical experiences.

And that, my friends, is why wine geeks are always searching for that new winery that "nobody's ever heard of, but you should try their estate cab!"  We're searching for the perfect burger in a world full of McDonalds.

Friday, July 3, 2009

A great pairing

The other night, having found a great special on ribs at the local supermarket, my fiancee and I decided it was time to cook some barbecue with a slightly spicy sauce, with corn and baked potato on the side.  Of course, that meant we had to crack open something nice from the cellar; in this case, we popped open the bottle of Two Hands Angel's Share '07 that I got her for Christmas (hey, she's an Aussie Shiraz fan, what can I say!).

The ribs were easy -- slather on sauce with a brush, cook at about 350 for an hour, then re-sauce and crank up the heat to 450 for 15 minutes to get a nice caramalization.  Add corn and potatoes, and serve.

The wine?  Glad you asked:

Inky purple with a neon-violet rim. The nose shows plenty of spicy berry notes -- think raspberries in baking spice. In the mouth, full, mouth-filling flavors of raspberry, cedar, and more of the spice. Some cherry on the finish, slightly bitter. Surprisingly velvety tannins round out the finish; quite tasty. A bit over-the-top; the wine feels almost too heavy in the mouth, but the finish is long and lingering.  91 points.

Incidentally, I can see why this was one of Wine Spectator's Top 100 wines of 2008 (#83, if you're keeping track).  It was a truly uplifting wine -- a surprisingly decently-balanced wine given it's 15.5% alcohol level.  True, it's going to be topheavy at that point, but that's to be expected.  It's a darn fine wine, and for the cost that the Two Hands non-Garden wines command ($30 or so), it's pretty reasonable.

Alas, these are not the ribs we ate -- Photo from bbq-ribs.com.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Technical Difficulties

Sorry, loyal readers, we're having some network difficulties here at casa Corkdork (I'm updating via a neighbor's unsecured wireless that has 1 bar).  Since I've got to put my "network geek" hat on, instead of my "wine geek" hat... no wine post today.

We'll see what comes up tomorrow, but for now...  playing with my cable modem, router, and network settings is the plan for the day.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Last night, over a simple meal of pizza and wine (naturally), my thoughts turned to the region where the wine came from -- Sicily.

Sicilian wine has had a bad reputation in past years; they produce a relatively large volume of wine, most of which is jug-wine quality whites (only 1.5% of Sicily's nearly 300 million gallon production comes from DOC plots).  So, fine wine producers from that region don't get a ton of respect; it's sort of like saying, "hey, we've got this fine wine, grown right next to where they make Carlo Rossi."  Sicilian winemakers are well-known for their progressive nature; they're big users of alternative closures (Stelvin and VinoLok, although it wouldn't surprise me to find a Zorked wine from Sicily as well), and they're not hidebound to tradition in their grape selection and winemaking methodology -- the attitude is generally "let's make good wine for a good price."

The most famous wine of Sicily is Marsala, but with that fairly out of fashion (it's too sweet -- perhaps a post for another time should be done on how "sweet" doesn't mean "bad," but not now), I'll concern myself more with the dry reds here (oddly enough, red wine is only 5% of Sicilian production).

Probably the best-known Sicilian varietal is Nero d'Avola (the "black [grape] of Avola").  It's not unlike a good syrah -- slightly peppery, spicy, with smooth rich tannins, and enough acidity to compliment many foods.  In fact, it was a Nero that prompted this post.  Nero d'Avola shouldn't be too expensive -- $20 at retail would be too much, and the Nero I drank last night was like $8.

You'll also find Syrah, Merlot, and Cabernet amongst the Sicilian winemakers' arsenal -- like I said, not hidebound to tradition, they're not afraid to grow French grapes in Italian soil.  The Syrahs, especially, tend to be good, as the climate is not dissimilar to that of the Rhone.

So, next time you're looking for value in a wine that's from a bit off the beaten path... remember that Sicily is more than just the soccer ball that the rest of Italy kicks around!

Monday, June 29, 2009

How to taste wine for (almost) free

One of the things that people who aren't "big wine drinkers" often cite as a reason for not trying a lot of wines is the expense -- buying bottles to take home can add up, buying glasses in a restaurant is even more so.  But... how do you find wine you love without trying new wines?

Ahh, the eternal dilemma -- the safe, comfortable, known wines versus the new, unusual wine with a hard-to-pronounce grape name from an appellation that you didn't know even made wine!

So, barring winning the lottery, what's an aspiring wine geek to do?

Simple.  There's tons of opportunities for you to try wine for little to no money!

Get on the mailing list of wine stores and restaurants with good wine lists.  It's not unusual for them to have regular, scheduled, tastings, and special events when producers come into town.  For example, there's 4 major wine stores in my region that have such -- two have monthly tastings that cost $10 ($5 of which is returned in the form of a gift certificate), one has semi-regular tastings (some of which are free, some of which are up to $25), and one has regular weekly tastings for free.  Additionally, one has monthly themed, in-depth tastings ("Cabernet around the world," or "Celebrate with Champagne and Sparkling Wine" for themes) for $25.  In all these cases, it's not uncommon for there to be specials or coupons on the wines tasted -- so if you like something in the store, you can take it home for a little off retail.

As for restaurants, one in my area has "wine down Wednesday," where house pours are $2, and the rest of their by-the-glass list is half off.  Others will host tastings (generally costing $5-$10) on a semi-regular basis; keeping track of the emails can be a bit of work, but it's easier than paying full price!  You'll also hear about "big name" tastings at some -- one steakhouse near me, for example, is having a dinner with the makers of Nickel & Nickel... for $125 a seat.  Still, that's only marginally more money than a bottle of their wine and a steak would cost, and you get to try 5 wines (and a 4-course meal).

Additionally, when you eat out -- look for wine flights for tasting.  In my area, a number of places now serve a flight of 4 wines for roughly the same price as 1 by-the-glass.

Then, there's the option of hosting a wine tasting on your own -- get together with 5 or 6 friends, everyone buys a bottle in the same price point (generally, my rule here is "about $20, and something you've not had before"), and get together to try them and compare notes.  

One good resource for finding out about cheap/free wine events, pretty much nationwide, is localwineevents.com.  Yes, some of the information will be repeated (two of the wine stores in my region, for example, post their events here too), but better to hear about something twice than miss it!

And how do you keep track of what you taste?  In my case, a notebook for recording stuff "in the field," and then Cellartracker for keeping it all straight and organized -- the whats, whens, and how-I-liked-the-wines of tasting.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Closing the deal.

While reading through my favorite consumer blog, Consumerist, I found an article about advertising and persuasion, which linked to this longer post, which distills the knowledge of the book "Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive". I found a number of these points to be important to the sale and marketing of wine, especially:

1. Inconvenience the audience by creating an impression of product scarcity: Does the allocation system ring a bell here? "Oh, I can't find Sea Smoke in stores, it must be awesome..." Making sure that the wine is available under only some circumstances (the allocation being in a store, or a restaurant having gotten some) is a great idea for marketing. Of course, it sucks for consumers, but as they say, them's the breaks.

5. Too many options necessitate selection, and hence frustration, when brain decides it’s unnecessary work: Far Niente has done a great job of this. They make 2 wines -- a cab and a chard (I've heard rumblings that they'll be making a zin next year, but for now, just the 2). Not like, say, Mondavi, where you can find 30 or more different types of wine. 2. Once you've decided on a bottle of Far Niente, there's basically no decision making left. With Mondavi, there's 6 or more varietals, each of which has several different wines -- Private Select, Napa, Sonoma, etc. There is something to be said for simplifying your product line -- find something you do well, and do it a lot.

7. A more expensive product makes the old version look like a value buy: Kind of at odds with #5, but look at Silver Oak, for example. Their Napa cab is around $100. Their Alexander Valley cab is $50-$60. Now, the Alexander Valley cab isn't cheap, by any means... but in comparison, it's a bargain!

9. A small gift makes people want to reciprocate and 6. Giving away the product makes it less desirable: Seemingly at odds, this explains why a lot of tasting rooms work the way they do -- spend $x on a tasting flight, get a free glass, or $x off of your order. People will take advantage of free samples... but even a small fee takes the sample out of the range of "free" and into the realm of "something I've paid for." Getting a glass, or a deal on your order? Why... bonus! Now I want to buy!

15. Labeling people into a social group tends to increase their participation ratio: Have you ever been told at a wine store or winery, "Ahh, you must like the good stuff!" (or something similar)? Congratulations, you've been labeled into the group of "people who buy expensive things." And therefore, you're more likely to buy expensive things... like that pricey bottle of wine you were eyeing...

41. Abstract names allow the customers to come up with reasoning: This explains why winemakers name their wines after abstract things; "Rattlesnake Hill," "Siena," "Trifecta." These have no solid meaning in the wine world... so they make the consumer create their own meaning, or at least ask (and get involved with the wine by doing so) why it's named that way (respectively: the hill had a rattlesnake nest on it when it was cleared, the wine's a Tuscan-style blend, it's 1/3 each cab, merlot, and cab franc, if you're curious).

Good wine is made in the vineyard (or the winery), but sales are made in the customer's head, and the wine industry knows it as well as any other one.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

One to watch...

I had the joy of getting to taste two of Coelho Winery's wines at a trade tasting yesterday.  Here I am, to tell you... these folks are one to watch.

Their business plan is sound (they're running a profit in the fourth year of operations -- this is well-nigh unheard-of in the wine world).  Their costs are low (it's a family winery -- the family's children do some of the bulk work).  Their winemaking philosophy is minimalist (free-run juice only -- a good idea for pinot -- native-yeast fermentation, sustainable vineyard practices including encouraging kestrels to nest nearby and control rodents -- they're certified Salmon-Safe right now, and will probably be getting Organic certification in 2010), which appeals to me.  And, most importantly... their resultant wines are outstanding.

I got to try both the 2007 Renovação Pinot Gris and the 2006 Paciência Pinot Noir (all of Coelho's wines are given a Portuguese descriptive name -- in this case, it's Renewal and Patience, respectively).

Tasting notes on the Pinot Gris:

Pale in the glass.  Inviting nose of pear and some white floral bouquet.  Surprisingly abundant flavor, showing crisp apple and pear, a vanilla midpalate, with grassy undertones.  A pop of mineral acidity on the finish.  Quite tasty; this is not generic white starter wine, this is serious stuff.  Dry wine with moderate to high acidity balancing a mid/full body, nicely complex, well-balanced, with a long, lingering minerality on the finish.  89 points.

The Pinot Gris was, in a word, excellent pinot gris (I generally dislike this varietal, so a rating in the 89-90 range is high praise).  Good acidity, but not overpowering, perfect as an aperitif or with a light "white wine" meal -- fatty sashimi tuna comes to mind, as does turkey.

The 2006 Pinot Noir -- from 4-year-old vines! -- was similarly good:

Ruby/purple in the glass.  Inviting nose of cherries over mulling spices.  Powerful flavors, showing a bit of raisin right on the forepalate, cherry, more of the mulling spices, and some smoky vanilla notes on the finish.  Tasty.  Perfectly balanced, with moderate acidity and a medium body, very fine-grained tannins barely present.  Finish is around 30 seconds.  Drink now through 2012.  90 points.

And this from 4-year-old vines.  It's generally accepted wisdom that good wine comes from vines 6+ years old, and great wines from 15+ year old vines.  These are young vines.  Not ready for prime time!  Imagine what they'll be in 10 years.

Now, these are not cheap -- $20 for the Pinot Gris in my local store, $33 for the Pinot Noir.  On the website, they're $16 and $35, respectively (although, currently they offer 10% off of cases -- solid or mixed -- and free shipping to legal states in the lower 48).  But, I'll say this... I've had a lot of crappy $30-$40 Pinot Noir (many producers have raised their prices in response to the "Sideways effect," to profit-take -- for $30 or $40, I expect a lot from my Pinot).  This is emphatically not crappy $30-$40 Pinot Noir.

So, get a bottle.  Heck, get a case.  In ten years, you can say you had them "when."

Image from the Coelho Winery website.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Wedding wine.

It's summer, and that means wedding season; perhaps you or someone you know is planning a wedding?  A few tips for dealing with the wine aspect of it:

The general rule of thumb is that each adult will have 1 drink per hour.  That's an average, taking into account your teetotaler cousin Julie, and your lush of a brother-in-law Chris.  Over a long party (more than 3 hours), in fact, people will tend to drink a bit less than that, but it's a good place to start.

You get about 4 pours and a splash from a normal wine bottle.  Therefore, for a 3-hour long reception, plan on 3 bottles of wine for every 4 guests.  For toasting, you get about 8 pours out of a sparkling wine bottle, so plan on a bottle for every 8 guests or so (unless you intend on having a sparkling wine throughout the reception, in which case treat it as you would wine, as people go through bubbly faster).

Now, if this seems like a lot of wine -- I mean, let's face it, I'm saying "get 75 bottles of wine for 100 people, plus 12 bottles of bubbly for toasting, for a 3-hour reception with 100 people,"-- remember that I'm trying to overestimate the amount of wine people will drink; that way, you don't run out.  Most wine stores will take returns with a receipt, provided they can resell the wine (so don't dunk them in ice, which will make the labels peel).  If they don't have a return policy... you might want to consider another store.

As for the debate of how much red/white should you get, figure about 50-50.  In our hypothetical reception, I'd get around 3 cases of each.   When selecting wines, plan on a red and a white -- a cab and a chard, a Chianti and a pinot grigio, whatever.  But only one (or at most two) of each color -- keep it simple, make your life (and your bartender's life) easier.

As for the quality of wine -- don't skimp, but don't feel the need to pull out top-flight wines for a wedding reception.  Most people really aren't paying attention to the wine at that point, so why waste bottles of $50 cab, when $10 cab would do just as well?

Similarly, for the toast, Champagne is nice, but expensive.  Why not toast with Cava, or Prosecco, or Cremant?  The quality level of many non-Champagne sparkling wines is very high (and most people can't tell the difference between a Prosecco and a Champagne, really), and they're much less expensive.  Also, why limit yourself to brut?  If you're toasting with wedding cake, try something sweeter!

Of course, you may want a couple of bottles of good stuff for the head table -- a nice Champagne, a top-shelf cab, whatever.  But that's more of a splurge for the bride and groom than anything else.

So, how do you budget?  Again, consider the hypothetical wedding above -- 100 people, a 3-hour reception means about 7 cases of wine.  If you've got a $1000 budget for wine, it means you've got to keep it under about $12 a bottle (and, if you worry that this is too much money for an event -- it's $7 a person.  Or, roughly what an open bar will charge you for a glass of Beringer.).

So what would I choose for a wedding like this?  Let's go with a standard merlot/chard/sparkling mix; for the merlot, there's any number of good California and Washington wines that fall under that price point.  My favorite here would be one called Buffalo Grove -- it's light, friendly, and hits a lot of people's sweet spots.  Coming in at $6 a bottle, or $64.80 a case (with a 10% discount), we've got $194.40 in cheap reds.  A good bottle, for the head table, would be something like Twomey, which should run about $50 or $60, so let's call the red $250 total.

On the white side, there's even more choices.  Again, trying to keep it under $12, a favorite is Cupcake, a Central Coast chard that's got plenty of cream, a little oak, and nice ripe pineapple flavors.  At $10-ish, it's $108 a case, so $324 in cheap whites.  Add a bottle of Mer Soleil, at $35, and we can call it $360 in whites.  Running total: $610

Finally, there's the bubbles -- here, we'll go a bit over the $12-a-bottle mark.  For general consumption, I'd look at something like Louis Bouillot, a very nice Cremant de Bourgogne, that runs about $16 a bottle for either the brut or extra dry (slightly sweeter).  A case will run $172.80, so call it $175.  The running total at this point is $785, which yields a lot of wiggle room for a really nice bottle of Champagne for the head table.  A personal favorite would be Feuillatte's Palmes D'Or vintage, which comes in at about $120 a bottle.  So, there, for just over $900 (out of a budget of $1,000), is a wedding for 100 people.

And, the best part is, since we've over-estimated consumption slightly, the likelihood is that the happy couple will either have some wine to stock away in their new household, or a nice little return of $100 or so when they come home from the honeymoon.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

I know I've done it.  You've done it too.  You're in an unfamiliar (or even familiar) wine store, looking at new wines, and you look at the shelf talker, and in the corner you see "WA: 91."

You cave, skipping the description.  You buy the wine.  Based on a number.

Don't feel bad, we've all done it.  There's a number of sensory biases that the little number feeds into -- the bias of the expert ("if Parker likes it, and he's an expert, I should like it too"), the desire for simplicity (let's face it, it's easier to look for a number than to read a description), the sheer number of non-rated wines (I've heard many wine store customers say "well, this one's got a rating, it must be better.").  It's natural.

The thing is... (and this deserves bold text) a rating is what one person thought of the wine one time!  Often, in fact, this number is arrived at during a marathon tasting of 20, 30, even 40 wines!  So, what's going to score highly?  Wines that are gigantic, fruit-bombs with extreme flavors and intensity.  How could you remember anything but that style of wine when you taste so many in a row (if you've not had the opportunity -- trust me, palate fatigue sets in surprisingly quickly).  The truly amazing thing is this: day-to-day, your palate's sensitivity will change (imagine tasting wine with a very mild head cold -- a little hay fever, perhaps -- versus tasting it with completely clear sinuses; the wines tasted with the cold will rate lower).  So how in the world can we be precise to within 1% on how "good" -- as subjective and divisive a term as there is in the wine world! -- a wine is?

Additionally -- a number of vintners couldn't care less about what some critic in an office in New York or LA thinks of their wines.  They care about what the people who actually drink their wines think!  As one importer I have chatted with said -- "if you like the wine, and I like the wine, who is Parker to say the wine is bad?"  Do you think that people with that sort of attitude towards wine critics are likely to submit their wines for rating?  Probably not -- so there's a ton of hidden gems in the unrated wines.

A little secret: I've got about a bit over 750 ratings recorded on CellarTracker, and my average score is about 86.5.  86.5 should be, by the 100-point chart I've linked to above, that means that half of the wines I've rated are "good to very good" from Enthusiast, and "above average to very good" from Advocate and Spectator.  So is this a fair rating system?

No.  There's no way that I've been drinking wines that are that consistently above-average.  Heck, I've had wines that I've actively disliked that scored an 83 (the system I use is up to 5 points each for nose intensity, balance, and finish, 10 points for flavor quality, and 15 points for flavor intensity.  Add 50 points, and you've got the score.  Wine with a ton of intensity, a long finish, and reasonable balance can taste like crap and still score high -- and it has.).

So what's the point?  Well, for one, ignore the difference between an 88 and a 91 -- it's really subjective, and the margin of error for one person's tastes from day to day can be higher than 3 points.  Two, don't compare apples and oranges -- just because, say, Parker gives a wine an 88 and James Laube gives it a 93 doesn't make Laube's score any more or less valid; it just means that Laube liked it more.

It's not like there's a certification program for wine critics, after all; anyone with a working palate and an Internet connection can post blogs with scores!  There's no standardization, so really the best advice is to taste a lot of wines, and trust your own palate.  Don't slavishly follow anyone's dictum that this wine is good and that wine is bad -- be it Robert Parker, Micheal Broadbent, your wife, your wine-snob friend, or even me. 

Chart from DeLong Wine Info, with the JPG compiled by the Wine Economist.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Contains Sulfites

Few terms on a wine label cause more contention -- and more misunderstanding -- than the little phrase "contains sulfites."  It's on almost every bottle of wine sold in the US, and I'd wager that 95% of consumers don't understand what it really means.

For a wine to be sold in the US, it must have a "contains sulfites" label if there's more than 10 parts per million (ppm) of sulfite -- ususally sulfur dioxide, or SO2, which has it's Lewis structure pictured here.  That's it -- wines without the "contains sulfites" label will often boast "no detectible sulfites," or "no added sulfites," which are two different things -- the former just has less than 10 ppm, while the latter is a wine made in a minimal-interventionalist process using no sulfite.  However, "no added sulfites" wines will still contain some sulfite, as it's a natural part of the fermentation process (generally 5 to 9 ppm result from fermentation).

Why do you add sulfites to a wine?  Well, mainly to impede secondary fermentation from wild yeast and impede the growth of bacteria that may wind up in the bottle, and also to sterilize the bottles and barrels (and they've been used for this for hundreds of years -- vintners in the 1600's would burn sulphur in their cellars to clean the barrels and bottles, as S+2O->SO2).  They're also used to prematurely end fermentation for sweet wines.  Finally, they're used to protect both raw juice and finished wine from oxidation.

Now, there is a movement towards making wine with little to no sulfite use (a good article on it is found here), as some people are sensitive to them -- mainly as a slight, unpleasant taste of struck match or rotten egg.  There are a very small percentage of the population who have a true allergy to them (under 1%, and the majority of them are steroid-dependant asthmatics -- around 5% of asthmatics have sulfites as a trigger).  So there is some merit to the "contains sulfites" label, as the people who are allergic to them are deathly allergic to them (a severe asthma attack can be fatal, after all).  Sort of like how many foods are labeled "contains tree nuts."

But, go into a wine store and talk with the customers, and most of them will be completely in the dark about what sulfites are doing in their wine.  For some reason, the American consumer views the "contains sulfites" label as something sinister.  There's a number of myths around this, the most popular of which is "there are more sulfites in American wines than European, because they use traditional winemaking methods and don't need them."  Why they wouldn't need them is unknown -- but the use of sulfites in the US versus Europe depends on the wine (eg, Sauternes and Auslese Rieslings use sulfites like it's going out of style, up to 300+ ppm, while dry table wines tend to be on par, between 15 and 50 ppm).

However, by far the most popular myth of sulfites is "they give me a headache."  My standard response to that is that any wine will give you a headahce... if you drink two bottles of it.  But, seriously, there's no conclusive positive link between sulfites in wine and red wine headaches -- and, in fact, the current thinking is that the problem is another chemical entirely called tyramine, which can act as a trigger for migranes, and also a blood pressure elevator (which can cause pounding headaches), especially for people taking a class of antidepressent called MAOI's.  Of course, the best course of action in that case would be consulting with your physician and/or pharmacist if you think a medication is interacting with your wine, as it could save you from serious problems down the road.

And the odd thing about sulfites?  There's generally more sulfite in the cheese you eat with your wine, than in the wine itself -- a 4 oz serving of hard cheese has more sulfites than a 750 ml bottle of wine!

Friday, June 19, 2009

Tasting room etiquette.

So, you're in wine country for a vacation.  You spot a cute looking winery, and their tasting room is open!  You walk in, and you're confronted by a bar with bottles, and a friendly looking person behind it asks you if you'd like to try their wonderful Sauvignon Blanc.  What should you do?

Chat with the host; ask about the wines.  I mean, you're in the tasting room, you're obviously interested, right?  Don't be a silent lump!  These people know more about the wine than you do -- they can often point you to the block of the vineyard where it came from, explaining why this one has a hint of mint while that one tastes of cocoa.

The order of tasting will almost always be white, rose, red, dessert.  If there's a variance, ask why, as it'll give your host a chance to talk about the wines and why this white follows those reds, or whatever the variance is.

There's often a fee.  It'll be upfront.  Sometimes you get something for the fee (a glass to keep, for example, or a the fee is applied to pay for wines you purchase at the tasting room).  Sometimes you don't.  There's no standard for that -- just accept it and move on.

If you're offered a bonus of some kind during a tasting -- be it a reserve wine, something offbeat that's not for sale yet... accept!  I once watched someone turn down a tasting of a pre-release rose of Pinot Noir that was absolutely amazing because "I only drink red and white, not pink."  Insanity!

The same goes for taking a quick tour -- you're in wine country, why on earth would you not want to see the winery?  Take some pictures -- wineries are often quite photogenic.  Ask questions -- why does the winery use new barrels for this wine, and used barrels for that one?  It'll improve your appreciation of all wines, not just the ones of the winery you're visiting.

Actively taste.  A tasting room isn't a bar.  Slamming down wine is bad form.

The spittoons are there for a reason -- again, it's not a bar, you're not there to get drunk, so spit your wines.  Especially if you're going to be driving.

The crackers are a palate cleanser, not a snack.  If you want a snack, bring your own (although, some wineries do have light snacks for sale in their tasting rooms).

If you want a second taste of a wine, that's fine, but you should buy a bottle of something at that point.  Remember that the tasting room is also a store -- the wines should be priced reasonably competitively with retail, and there's often tasting-room-only wines (eg, Sobon's Tempranillo, Heitz's Grignolino and Port).  The words "I can get this less expensively at home," should be banished from your vocabulary.  The producer's gross profit on wines sold on-site is 100%.  On wines sold at retail, it's around 30% (more or less).  You want to support a favorite producer?  Buy a bottle directly.  It'll be a souvenir you can savor at home.

Photo of the Martin Ray tasting room, from Sonoma Uncorked.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

A rose by any other name...

White wine is easy to understand -- when you squeeze a wine grape, almost any wine grape, the juice runs white (yes, you could, in theory, make a white Cabernet).  Red wine is a bit harder -- the red color comes from contact with the skins, so you leave them in the mix for a while.  Rose, though, is hardest still -- you have to leave the skins on for just a little while, and the juice is pink.  Note, of course, that this has nothing to do with how much sugar is in the wine; pink ≠ sweet.

Of course, you can also just mix red and white to make pink; this is the easy way out, and it's how some American wineries make their pink wines.  Folie a Deux, for example, makes a rose in their Menage a Trois line that's 2 parts red (Merlot and Syrah, for color and fruitiness) and 1 part white (Gewürtztraminer, for some sweetness).  In fact, this method is also used to make rose sparkling wine -- make the bubbly, then add some red wine at the end to make it pink (everyone from Cava to Champagne does this -- there are some who use the method of leaving the juice on the skins for a bit, but not many, and those are quite expensive).

Many European vintners have complained about the blended roses; they're cheap to produce, and they tend to make all consumers think of rose as cheap pink stuff, not serious wine (how seriously can you take a bottle of $9 wine that's got a punny name, after all?).  The wines produced through the traditional method, of course, are expensive and worthy of consideration, at least in their eyes (and mine, for what it's worth).

So, in the light of the recent EU ban on using certain terms on import wine labels, I felt I had to give the EU their due -- they banned the import of still rose made using the blending method, and the production of blended rose.  Blending is still OK for bubbles, though.

Good for them, for sticking up for traditional methods in winemaking.  Yes, it's a protectionist move, same as the name thing, but in this case it encourages people to make better wine, to treat it as a craft and not a beverage.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Some of this, some of that...

In wine, as in many things, what's on the outside isn't always on the inside -- to put it simply, the things that the label advertises is not always what's in the bottle.

Let me explain (from a general US-centric perspective -- other countries do vary, and specific appellations may have different rules).  When you go to the wine store to buy a bottle of 2007 Reserve Napa Sauvignon Blanc at 13.8% alcohol...  all of those things are approximate.

The grape?  Once 75% of the bottle is filled with juice from that grape, the vintner can put anything they want into the bottle.  So your Sauvignon Blanc may well have some Semillon or Muscadelle.  I know of one major producer who's back-label text (which is, as far as I know, completely unregulated) begins with the phrase, "this 100% Chardonnay," despite the fact that their wine tastes severely of Gewürtztraminer -- I suspect about 10%.  Another producer -- Woodbridge, by Mondavi -- will only verify that their Chardonnay is 75% Chardonnay, and the remainder is "a blend of white grapes."  Why would vintners want to fudge the grape?  Well, for one, they don't want to give away their formulas -- and trust me, for the big producers, it's a formula, an attempt to make the same product year-from-year.  For another, consumers seem to self-brand as "I drink Chardonnay," or "I don't like Merlot."  I guarantee you that there's some guy out there right now drinking (or thinking about drinking, if it's early) Silver Oak Napa, saying "I hate Merlot," blissfully unaware that Silver Oak is only around 90% Cabernet, and that the remainder is a healthy chunk of Merlot, with a dash of Petit Verdot.

The alcohol level?  Nope.  There's wiggle room -- it varies from region to region -- but you can go anywhere from +/- 1.5% in Australia (although this may be changing soon to 0.8%), to +/- 0.5% in the US.  Figure that the alcohol level is approximate.  Again, it's to a producer's benefit to estimate the alcohol level -- generally to lowball it.  High-alcohol wines are taxed as "fortified wine," even if there's no addition of alcohol during the vinifiation, and therefore there's a tax break to underestimating the alcohol.  Additionally, in some states (South Carolina comes to mind, but it's assuredly not the only one) anything under a certain alcohol level can be sold in a wine-and-beer licensed retailer (an easier and less expensive licensce to get), while anything over that level is from a liquor-licensed retailer.  Since there are more wine retailers, it makes sense to try and keep your wine in their shops, rather than having it shunted over to the liquor stores.

The appellation?  I mean, as important as terroir is to wine, that's got to be dead-on, right?  Nope.  Once 85% of the juice has come from an appellation, the remainder can come from outside.  It allows vintners to source grapes for their blends that aren't found in a specific appellation, or to find the best grapes they can (ideally this would mean "best-quality," but it often means "best-priced").

The vintage?  Really, c'mon, even the year?  Yep.  Again, depending on the appellation, you're allowed some wiggle room there too -- older wine to add depth and complexity, younger wine to add fruit and youth.  Generally, there's not a lot of wiggle room here -- around 5% is the norm -- but not all the wine has to be from the same vintage.

Other terms -- "reserve," "old vines," even "estate grown" can be subverted.  "Reserve" is a marketing term in the US, nothing more (other countries have different rules -- in Italy and Spain, for example, the term has legal weight).  I know of two lines of wine that make only "reserve" wines, and nothing else.  Not that they're not decent, but the term is suspect.  "Old vines" generally means the vines used in the wine are an average age of 30+ years, and most producers respect that.  Is there a legal standard for it?  Nope.  Is someone out there bottling wine from 5-year-old vines and labeling it "old vines?"  Almost assuredly.  "Estate grown" generally means the grapes were grown on-site, but I know of a producer (in fact, the Chardonnay producer who makes "100% Chardonnay" with a splash of Gewürtztraminer) that labels all their low-priced wines as "estate grown" on the case, even though they make so much wine there must be outsourcing of production (additionally, the "estate grown" wine has a generic "California" appellation.  So, unless the "estate" is larger than any single appellation in California...).

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Sticks and stones...

While reading through other blogs, I happened upon a link to this article in Decanter (a British wine publication, that I highly recommend).  The quick-and-dirty version of it is that the EU has banned the use of certain terms on the label of US wines.  The list?  Chateau, classic, clos, cream, crusted/crusting, fine, late bottled vintage, noble, ruby, superior, sur lie, tawny, vintage and vintage character.

Insanity!  This is to say that, say, Chateau Montelena -- which has a definitively European-castle styled building onsite (see the above left photo from their website) cannot bring their wine into Europe without changing the name (one that's been in use for over 30 years).  Nor could Clos du Bois, Clos du Val, Chateau Ste. Michelle, or Chateau St. Jean.  You can't call your Port-like wine (Port is a protected term already, although a number of wines have been grandfathered in) a Tawny or Ruby, even if it is in that style!  If you age your wines on the lees -- the yeast particulates left over after fermentation -- you can't say it's been aged "sur lie."  You dare not make both a nonvintage and vintage cuvee if you're an American sparkling wine producer!

What a crock!  It means that we, as Americans, would have to develop an entirely new vocabulary to explain wine, one for which perfectly acceptable terms have been being used for years!  Great, we'll have to make a subject that is already unreasonably complex and imposing even harder to understand and potentially less accessable to the average person.  Great marketing strategy, there, guys.

Now, I'm the first person to say we should protect European place names for wine – in my personal opinion, there's no excuse for an American winery producing a Chianti, or a Burgundy.  And don't even get me started on Champagne being used on American wines – even with the modifier “California” or “New York” in front of it.  I shudder to think of the beating that that appellation has taken due to greedy American vintners subverting it's fine name and putting out mass-market crap (well... different mass-market crap than the vintners who belong in the appellation -- and, in fairness, the American mass-market crap is often not even made using the same method; Cooks "California Champagne" is Charmat-method, for example).  But this move smacks of pure European protectionism; three of the better-known American producers of mass-market wines are affected by it (Clos du Bois, Chateau Ste. Michelle and Chateau St. Jean).

What's the solution?  Should the US slap the EU with a similar ruling, saying "you can't send wine into our market without an explicit explanation of what the grapes are?" (labels from the Rhone would get a lot more complex then, and I fear the Bordelais would simply revolt).  Perhaps a tariff on EU wines?  Great ideas, but then US consumers suffer for the sins of the EU, in the sense of losing the ability to choose European wines or in overpaying for them.  In that case, we'd be no better than the EU -- after all, the European consumer's freedom of choice has been limited by this as well (in fact, one of the better American wines made by a European vintner is Dr. Loosen's Eroica, made under the Chateau Ste. Michelle label!  So, if you're in the Mosel and you want Loosen Riesling, your choices are limited to only the local wines, and not any of his Washington State endeavors!).  And, of course, European vintners, who already make more wine than they sell, lose out on a fairly major market for export.

There's a fine line between protecting the uniqueness that terroir imparts in a wine, and heralding the history of technique used in making it, and trying to unfairly stifle the competition.  This EU ruling seems to be firmly in the latter category.  It's as crazy as trying to forbid the word "Glen" in the name of a non-Scotch whisky.  Oh, wait... that's been tried.  And failed.

Monday, June 15, 2009

A wishful tasting...

Friday, Dr Vino (a blog I highly recommend, by the way) posted about an amazing tasting attended by James Halliday, including '55 and '71 Grange, '55 Wynns Coonawarra Shriaz, '62 Penfolds Bin 60A, some '85 Hill of Grace, and '96 Clarendon Hills Australis, amongst others.  The whole list is here.

This is, if you don't know it, a hitlist of the heavy-hitters of the Australian wine scene, and most of them were aged either to perfection (yeah, even after railing against aging wines... but these ones deserve a chance to develop!), or in fact were over the hill.

All in all, I'm highly jealous.  I've had some great Aussie wines -- a mid '90's Grange, back in 1999 (alas, I didn't make notes, and it was before I got into the wine business in a serious way), William Randall, Amon Ra, and The Gate, amongst others.  But never this many on one table.

So, in that vein, here's the tasting note for arguably the best Australian wine I've ever had -- 2006 Amon Ra, which I had about a year ago.  I can still see the brick-red color of the wine, smell it's toasted oak and fruit, and feel the velvet of it on my throat.  Truly a wine to remember, and one that I happily pulled out of my personal cellar for a friend's going-away party.

The color is a deep, brick-red, almost opaque. On the nose, a rush of blackcurrant and rich berries. The nose intensity is overwhelming; I poured less than half an ounce into a glass when decanting the wine, and it almost knocked me over taking a short sniff from over the rim of the glass; I didn't even try to put my nose into the bowl. On the palate, the wine is indeed overwhelming in flavor. Notes include distinct cedar and oak notes, an overarching flavor of dark chocolate, red fruit, coconut, spice, and espresso. The mouthfeel is velvety. There's a richness to the flavor that's hard to put into words; it's mouth-coating, intense (even in a 1/2 oz tasting pour). The wine sets up camp in your mouth and stays there for seemingly ever. Truly amazing.  99 points.

All in all, too intense to have on a regular basis, but wine like that is amazingly nice to have for a special occasion.

Photo from K&L Wines, where you can buy 2006 Amon-Ra, and who did not contribute in any way to this update.