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

Friday, May 29, 2009

Maestro, the wine, please...

Over on Dr. Vino (a fine blog that I recommend whole-heartedly if you're into the politics and economics of wine), I learned of a new Champagne closure, called "Maestro."  Duval-Leroy is introducing it with their 2004 Clos du Bouvieres.  A video of it in action can be found here.

Basically, to open the bottle, you pry the lever up, and with a pop, the cap comes off.  Under the tip of the lever is a crown cap, which is what Champagne is aged under, and a plastic hood that covers the crown cap and lever mechanism.

Effectively, it's a single-use beer-bottle opener for Champagne.

Which is pretty cool.  I like alternative closures!  For still wine, there's basically 5 methods of closing off a bottle of wine:  real cork, plastic cork, Stelvin/screwcap, Zork, and Vinolock.  Real and plastic cork are pretty well known, as is Stelvin.  The Zork is a primarily Austrlian closure (you can find it on Whoop Whoop and Red Knot wines from Australia, although Don Sebastiani uses it for his Plungerhead zins from California), made of plasticized vegetable oil, it looks like nothing if not a single-malt Scotch or LBV Port closure -- there's a bit that sticks into the neck of the bottle, and a covering cap.  It also makes a satisfying pop when removed from the bottle (something I find sadly lacking in the Stelvin).  Vinolock is a similar method, using inert glass and a silicone O-ring that are covered by a foil.  It looks quite similar to a normal cork, and has all the advantages of Stelvin in addition.  It's mostly used for wines from Sicily (Cusumano uses it on their wines), although Molly Dooker used it last year.

Anyhow, there is a wine bottled right now  with something like the Maestro -- Chandon's Etoile, which is bottled directly under crown cap.  Yes, that's right, you need a beer bottle opener to pop that bottle open!

All in all, it's a bad time to be a cork farmer; more on that later, I suspect.

Photo from Alcan Packaging.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Starting out in wine.

A friend of mine just asked me the question, "I'm introducing a friend to wine. He doesn't drink normally, what would you recommend as a starter bottle?"  Since it was on Twitter, I was limited to 140 characters in responding, so I recommended a specific bottle of Merlot, or the idea of going to some tastings (either in-store or in wine country -- she lives in northern California, so Amador and Napa/Sonoma are a daytrip away).

Which leads me to think, how does one get started in wine?  What should a first introduction to wine, what to drink, what to know?

Whoa.  That's over-thinking it.

So, some specific recommendations (aside from "try this bottle," that is).
  1. Go to a tasting, either in a store or at a winery.  Given proximity to Napa, a day trip would come to mind -- yes, it's slightly expensive, both in terms of gas and $10 tasting fees -- but there's bound to be something good there.  If paying tasting fees isn't in the cards, hop off to Amador, where most of the wineries are free or nearly so (eg, I know Sobon is free for the base tasting, and  $5 for reserve tastings, which allow you get to keep the glass).
  2. Have friends over for a "bring a bottle" party -- this could be a blind tasting, in fact.  Again, a chance to taste a couple of wines might make more sense.
  3. Take him to a wine store and put it in the hands of the staff there; they'll know their stock (or, at least, they should), and may be able to make good specific recommendations within the style and price point that's comfortable.
  4. Don't limit the initial introduction to California wines; I've found Dornfielder (a German red grape) to be a great wine for new wine drinkers, it's soft, fruity, and just a bit sweet.  Ditto Scuppernog and Catawba (from North Carolina and New York, respectively); they're easy drinkers.  Australian wines are often good for new drinkers, as they're in a much more relaxed, low-tannin style with a bit more residual sugar.
  5. Avoid the temptation to get a top-flight, reserve wine.  They're often very oaky, overpowering, and might turn off a new drinker.  In fact the "cheaper" wines often appeal more to a palate that's used to sweeter beverages -- Americans are raised on soda, so we tend to think "sweet=good."
Introducing someone to wine can be a great deal of fun, especially if they invite you along to explore with them!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Another blind tasting.

Last night, I had a friend over to taste some Chardonnays.  As a full disclosure, two of them were provided free to me at work, although I did buy the Hess.

We decided to taste the wines blind, in order to avoid any pre-existing bias that might come with the labels.  The procedure was pretty simple; I put the wine into paper bags, left them in the refrigerator overnight, and when he came over, I removed the foil and popped out the corks, so that each wine was anonymized to my friend.  I had him choose the order of tasting from the three, so that the wines were anonymized to me (fortunately, they all were in the same general shape bottle, and the bottles were the same color, otherwise we'd have had to enlist some third party to pour while we weren't looking).

The results were... interesting.  The three wines we tasted were Running With Scissors 2006, Coastline 2007, and Hess 2007.  The first wine carries a generic "Central Coast" appellation, while the latter two are from Monterey.  First up, we tried the Running With Scissors:

Pale lemon in the glass.  Inviting nose of creamy oak and tropical fruit.  Very ample intensity of flavor, with tasty oaky notes.  The fruit brings ripe Granny Smith apple to the party, some mango, and a good hint of butter.  Well-balanced, dry wine with a medium body and acidity.  Long finish.  86 points.

Then, the Coastline:

Straw-yellow.  Average intensity nose, showing some oak, pineapple, and a bit of cream.  In the mouth, it fell apart, though, with really ripe pear dominating, then a sort of dirty (as in, dirt-like) vanilla, and a steely, mineral finish.  Intensity was pretty low, and the quality of flavor was ordinary.  Just a hint of sugar on the palate, with a light/medium body, the balance is OK, but not great.  Finish is average.  81 points.

Finally, the Hess:

Mild nose, slightly creamy, with pineapple in evidence.  Flavor intensity to match, showing creamy pineapple, some toasted coconut, and not much else.  Wine was slightly sweet, with fairly high acidity to balance the weight of the wine, so it came off well-balanced.  Finish was average length.  81 points.

Note that all these wines were tasted blind.  I was shocked -- quite shocked, in fact -- at the quality levels of the wines, especially considering the price points involved; Running With Scissors is $10, Coastline is also $10, while I purchased the Hess for $8 (most stores seem to sell it for around $11 here, so I figured it was a fair comparison).  I'd expected a lot more oomph out of both of the Monterey wines, especially considering how much I like pinot noirs from that region.  In fairness, I don't expect a ton out of wines for $10, but those two showed surprisingly poorly last night.

Photo by DanRandom, used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Quite a bummer.

One of the less-expensive "cult wines" in my area is a Shiraz called Layer Cake.  It's made by Jayson Woodbridge, of Hundred Acre fame; the Layer Cake line is, as Mr. Woodbridge would say, a chance to bring global fine wine to the American consumer at a low cost.

My take on the wine?  It's repackaged bulk wine, harvested uber-ripe, with high residual sugar levels, and high alcohol.

In fact, the wine's factsheet (PDF) supports that idea: "For our Shiraz, we pull from vineyards all over McLaren Vale; from the full-clustered, sandy soiled blocks on the sea coast of Gulf St. Vincent, to the Terra Rosa based, tiny-berried wind-blown hills across the Vale.  The vineyards are all within a few miles of each other, yet give us a broad array of flavors to blend into a complete wine.  Each year we pull a small amount of fruit from tiny vineyards in Padthaway and Wrattanbully for added layers; combined they represent less than 10% of the blend."

Traslating: "We got grapes and/or juice from a ton of places, and threw it together."

Their tasting note?  "Dark, dense and creamy, complex aromas of black plum, Bing cherry, blackberry and pepper merge with licorice, tobacco, mocha and dark chocolate.  This is one inky Shiraz; an explosion of dark, super ripe, wild blackberry, with a touch of cigar box finishing with a mélange of exotic spices. A pure fruit bomb…complete from attack through a long, lingering finish."

My tasting note?

Inky black/red. Fairly strong nose of raspberry and some herb. In the mouth, the wine has some slightly velvety notes, and is reasonably weighty. However, it is quite hot (14.9% abv) and the alcohol throws it out of balance. Flavor profile is mainly towards the raspberry-and-slightly-spicy side, with some mint on the finish. Balance is, as noted before, off -- it's flabby. Finish is average-length.

If you like slightly sweet, flabby wine, this is great. For me, not so much.  83 points.

There just wasn't a lot to the wine.  Here's the fruit, lots of heat, some spice, and done.  Wham, bam, thank you ma'am.  No backbone, no subtlety.  I had been hoping for something with some structure, and wound up with alcoholic grape juice.  Sigh.  And I'm forced to wonder, why is it that people lust after this wine so much around here?

Monday, May 25, 2009

Sobon Estate: zinning in Amador

Full disclosure: I tasted these wines at a free tasting with the winemaker about 2 months ago.  I'm re-translating my notes (I keep them in a form of shorthand) from that event.

The first thing many of you may be wondering is, "where the heck is Amador, and why should I care?"  The Amador AVA is east of Sacramento, well inland from the coastal influences you find in Napa and Sonoma.  It's warm and dry during the growing season, and -- in my opinion, at least -- some of the best Zinfandel in California comes from there.  Certainly some of the best values in California zin are Amador county zins.  I've never seen an Amador zin over $26, and most of them are in the $10-$20 range.  So, it's a place rife with good value -- since you've likely not heard of it, neither have other shoppers, so there's not as much of a demand-based drive up in price.

My personal favorite producer in Amador County is Sobon Estate/Shenandoah Vineyards (hereafter referred to as just "Sobon.").  Sobon is a very green-friendly producer, growing organic grapes (no pesticides or herbicides), using solar power to minimize their carbon footprint (they actually sell carbon offset credits, since they create less CO2 than they eliminate!), and best of all in my opinion, using Stelvin closures on most of their wines -- screw caps mean no corked wines, and no need for a tool to open up a bottle!

Their line includes a number of non-Zinfandel offerings; Sauvignon Blanc, Roussanne, Viognier, a zin rosé (not white zin!), Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Sangiovese round out their lineup for dry wines.  They also produce a Black Muscat, some Zinfandel-based Port, and a white Port based on their white Rhône varietals.  Their zins come in several lines -- Hillside, Old Vines, Cougar Hill, Fiddletown (from the AVA within Amador of the same name), and Paul's Vineyard.

OK, enough talking, time for some reviews.  First up, their 2007 Sauvignon Blanc:

Light yellow/green in the glass.  Shows nicely perfumed citrus in the nose. Apple, citrus and melon in the mouth, with a slightly herbaceous finish. Just enough acidity to be interesting, but not as zippy as comparably-priced Sauvignon Blancs from New Zealand.  Still, a tasty wine, good for light fish meals or just as an aperetif.  Great, if you like a slightly lower-acid Sauv Blanc.  85 points.

In the interest of fairness, I generally don't like California Sauvignon Blancs (give me the enamel-stripping acidity of New Zealand, or the elegant minerality of Bordeaux, or the light crispness of the Loire instead), but this one really is quite good in that genre.  It's not nearly as flabby as most, with enough acid and low enough residual sugar to be quite tasty, in fact.

Then, their 2007 Hillside Zinfandel.  I'll note that 2007 was a very good year for Amador Zinfandel -- ideal growing conditions through most of the summer -- so if you have the chance to get an '07 from there, do so.  Anyhow, the Hillside:

Garnet.  Nose shows blueberry and blackberry, with some darker notes of cocoa.  Similar in the mouth, some dark cherry, with the addition of a little eucalyptus/mint note on the finish. Nice, moderate tannins give the wine good structure.  The wine is moderately heavy, with a fairly long finish.  88 points.

Next, 2007 Fiddletown:

Bright ruby in the glass. Powerful nose of cherry and black pepper-esque spice.  In the mouth, shows off more of the fruit -- cherry and raspberry -- with a distinct undercurrent of charcoal and black pepper.  Powerful, deep wine, but still very well-balanced, with enough acidity and tannin to keep from being flabby.  Very long finish.  This is quintessential "steak wine," especially if you're grilling over coals and peppering the steak.  Great value.  Drink through 2019.  91 points.

Finally, their 2007 zin Port:

Dark red in the glass. Inviting nose, showing LOTS of plum and some raisin/prune notes. More of the same in the mouth; lots of fruit, some of it dried.  Just a hint of spice on the finish to show off the Zin character. Quite tasty. Good balance and finish.  A rich port, perfect for "dessert in a glass," or with cheesecake. 89 points.

So there you have four very nice wines.  And the best part?  Every one of them is under $25 -- at the winery's website, you can buy Fiddletown for $22 and the Port for $13 for a half-bottle.  The other two appear to be sold out at the winery, but my local wine store has them for $10 for the Sauvignon Blanc and $11 for the Hillside.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Visiting a winery

When going to a visit a winery, you'll find some variation on the following speech.  Always.

"Welcome to Chateau du grandmere d'taurieau1!  Our winemaking philosophy is simple; great wine begins in the vineyard.  We selectively harvest only the best grapes from our vineyards, which are then gently handled and vinified using labor-intensive techniques, to fully express the terroir of [appellation].  That's how we've done it since the Taurieau family founded this winery, [number of years] ago."

Cutting through the marketing, basically what's being said is "we try to get good grapes, and treat them well.  Since everyone else does this -- excepting giant bulk producers -- we have to make it sound more artesianal."

This is often followed by the phrase:

"So, please, try our wonderful [appellation] Sauvignon Blanc."

I'll note that, in general, the Sauvignon Blanc isn't all that wonderful.  There are exceptions (Barnett, pictured above, and Sobon both come to mind), but for the most part the Sauvignon Blanc is slightly sweet and low acidity; it's there to whet your appetite for the more serious wine.  And, perhaps, to dull your palate a bit.

You'll then be given three or four other wines, culminating in their best (read: most expensive):

"Finally, our most select lots go into this wine, our tete de cuvee.  Note the depth and complexity of the flavor, the power, and the little hint of [odd flavor], the signature of the terroir of [appellation]."

Of course, the best is saved for last, after you've had 3 or 4 tasting pours -- just over a glass.  Your palate will have been dulled slightly, and (if this isn't your first winery visit of the day), perhaps you're even a bit buzzed.  So, of course, you're just a bit more suggestable.  And more likely to buy the tete de cuvee (which, generally, really is their best, although I often wonder if it's worth the price).  Yes, it does have a hint of mint, or fresh asparagus, or whatever the odd flavor is, but does that make it worth twice the price of their regular offerings?

Again, I'll note exceptions -- Sobon Estates, for example, has a tete de cuvee zin that is over twice the price of their regular offering.  A whopping $25 for their Reserve Paul's Vineyard, as opposed to the $11 Hillside.   And, yes, it is worth it.  I'll post a review Monday, in fact, of some of the wines in their lineup, as I realized that I've had just about everything out of their winery when the winemaker came to visit my local wine store last year.

You may also get, at this point, an invitation to join their wine club, by whatever name they call it.  Honestly, this is often a good deal -- you get wine, generally their new releases, on a regular basis, and there are often other benefits (generally the price for the wines is lower, you get access to library releases and club-exclusive wines -- which can be either experimental wines, or are just really low-production).  But, think before you sign on the dotted line!  Do you really want their wine on a regular basis?  Is it unavailable in your local wine shop?  If so, is it less expensive in your local wine shop (often, the vineyard is the most expensive place to buy a wine)?  Maintaining several mailing list memberships can be quite expensive!

1 I couldn't resist the pun here.  Does anyone else notice it?

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Navagating a restaurant's wine list

A bottle of wine is often about celebrating; even if someone's not a regular wine drinker, they're likely to open a bottle for Valentines, or a birthday, or a promotion at work, or other special occasion (even if that occasion is called, as it often is in my household, "Tuesday").  Often, celebrating involves going out to a restaurant, so the wine may come from the wine list.

Some tips for working with a wine list:
  • If you don't know, ask!  Your waiter may know if 1998 was a good year for Brunello, or the wine steward/sommelier may be able to help if you don't know the grape types typical of the Douro.  
  • Be willing to shop by price and region, rather than by name, as paying for a name brand wine means paying a serious surcharge for the name's recognition; I was out at lunch the other day and looked at the wine list, where they had Silver Oak Napa Cabernet 2004 for $250.  The list in my local wine store is $90.  You may find a hidden gem with an unusual appellation, or as-yet-unheard-of label. 
  • The third-least expensive bottle on the menu is often the hidden gem.  Why?  Nobody orders the least expensive, it looks cheap.  The second-least expensive wine is the high profit margin wine (as nobody orders the least expensive), so it'll likely be something ever-so-slightly sweet and inoffensive; you see a lot of critter labels as the second-least expensive.  Third from the bottom is where, often, a restaurant will place good wines nobody's ever heard of.
  • Expect to pay more than you would in a retail setting -- the standard markup should be about 50%-100%.  Guess what?  Your local wine store probably gets a quantity discount from their distributors.  Your local restaurant probably gets wine in one and two case lots, so no discount.  Additionally, you're partly paying for the labor -- your waiter should be on hand to keep your glass full, so you may never actually touch the bottle!
Now, when you order wine, there's a specific routine that most places go through:
  1. The bottle will be presented for your inspection.  Look to see that you got what you ordered -- you would be surprised, I've been presented Belleau Vineyards Coastal Estates Cabernet 2005, when I ordered Belleau Vineyards Rutherford Caberent 2004.  That's getting a (retail value) $9 bottle in place of a $20 bottle.  So check the wine's appellation and vintage.  If it's not what you ordered, politely point it out and ask for the correct bottle.  At this time, also look to see if the label is stained, as that may be an indicator of a problem in stage 2 or 3 (see below).
  2. Then the cork will be removed and presented for your inspection.  Do not sniff the cork. Trust me, if the wine has gone to vinegar, you'll smell it without having to sniff the cork!  The cork is presented so you can see that there's been no leakage -- look up the sides of the cork, to see if there's any staining beyond the bottom 1/3 or so. 
  3. Next, a tasting pour will be poured out.  Taste the wine.  Look for aroma and flavors that indicate problems with the wine.  Does it taste like cardboard, or a musty basement?  It might be corked.  Is there sediment?  Request a decanter.  Not cool enough, if the wine is red (remember, serve your reds slightly chilled!)?  Ask for an ice bucket.
At any point during this, if the wine doesn't meet your expectations, this is when you have the sommelier come over to see what can be done.  The sommelier may taste the wine as well, if you find a fault with the bottle once it's opened, and will agree with your assessment.  Trust me, they'll agree, unless the wine is irreplaceable; they would rather replace a bottle for a happy customer than deal with an unhappy one.  If it's not faulted... well, the staff drink well that evening.  And that, my friends, is why the markup is 50%-100%; many folks call a wine "faulted" simply because they don't want to say "I just don't like it."  So, knowing that, be willing to take a suggestion from the sommelier if you find the wine is faulted; it may be that you didn't know you don't like Retsina, and yes, it is supposed to taste like pine tar.

Now, you don't have to limit yourself to the wine list.  You can, local laws permitting, often bring a special bottle of your own and pay a "corkage fee."  Basically, you give the restaurant $10 to $30 for the right to have their staff serve it to you.  You replace some of their markup, and get to have that bottle you've been saving for a special occasion.  Just remember a couple things regarding corkage:
  • Call ahead to make sure it's OK.  Where it's legal, most restaurants allow the practice, but some don't.  Find out what rules they have (often it's as simple as the wine not be found on their wine list).  If you have a specific bottle you're thinking of bringing, tell them so.
  • Don't show up with a grocery store wine in a store bag, and in the name of all that's holy, take off the price sticker.  That's just tacky.  Corkage is supposed to be so that you can bring a special bottle -- that one you brought home from California when you were there last year, not a bottle you pick up at the grocery on the way to the restaurant!
  • Offer a sip of the wine to the waiter and the wine steward; who knows, you might encourage them to get your wine on their menu that way!  Additionally, if you dine there regularly, this will give them a better feel as to what you like, making their recommendations for you all the better.
  • If the wine is bad, c'est la vie.  The only way the restaurant will do anything if there's a problem is if their staff screws up (dropping the bottle, for example)...  And don't expect a refund, just an attempt at replacement-in-kind.
  • Tip well, not just on the cost of the meal and corkage.  The waiter did all the same work as if you got the wine at the restaurant, so acknowledge that.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Napa's Terrior

In a discussion with a friend -- an admitted Francophile when it comes to wines -- the topic of terroir came up.  The argument my friend made is that French wines are superior to Californian, because they express the terroir of their home region better.  I argue that there is, in fact, distinct terroir to Californian wines, and will use Napa valley to illustrate the point.  Note that I'm not arguing the superiority of Californian or French wine, just trying to disabuse the notion that Californian wines are soul-less and lack terroir (only some of them fit into that category... and the same could be said of mass-market French, or Italian, or Australian, or Chilean wine.  Anywhere that you produce wine as an industrial product, you'll have soul-less wine with no terroir!).

So, perhaps an explanation of what, exactly, "terroir" is would be in line here, as it's a French term that has no direct equivalent in English.  Basically, the idea of terroir is that the dirt (and climate, and drainage, and level of shade) here is different from the dirt (and climate, and drainage, and level of shade) there, and therefore wine made from the same grapes here will be different from the wine made there.  Ideally, a wine expressing terroir makes someone who tastes it blind immediately go "this is from only one spot on this green Earth, right there."  The idea of terroir explains why, for example, Petrus commands such a high price -- it's grown in a specific point in Pomerol, and there's no place exactly like it anywhere else, and that place happens to grow terrific grapes that express terroir well.

We'll be talking about Cabernet -- it's the grape that made Napa famous, and it's the red varietal that is most arguably the best expression of what a "good" wine from the region is.  Napa Cabernet runs from $10 to "hey, how much do you want to spend?" to "it's completely unavailable unless you're on the mailing list," and that's just for the new releases.  It's the crown jewel grape of Napa.

So, let's look at the AVAs within Napa.  Broadly speaking, they divide into mountainside AVA's (Mt. Veeder, Spring Mountain, and Diamond Mountain near the west, Howell Mountain and Atlas Peak on the east, and the Chiles Valley), and valley floor (everywhere else).  The wines from the mountainsides tend to be a bit less fruit-forward than the valley floor wines, and have more acidity.  The valley floor wines tend to be a bit rounder and more intensely flavored.

Additionally, different AVAs have their own distinct characteristics; Diamond Mountain tends to show off cocoa and espresso, while Mt. Veeder is much more earthy.  Oakville wines tend towards intense, richly textured wines with a hint of mint, while Stag's Leap District is best described as an "iron fist in a velvet glove," with beautiful, velvety tannins.

So what does that mean for someone drinking a bottle of Napa Valley's best?  Simple; if you want big fruit, go to the valley floors.  For wine with more ageability, look to the mountains.  If you find a winery makes a wine from an AVA that has a style you like... you'll likely enjoy the wines from their neighbors!

And, the best argument for Napa having terrior?  Why do you think the cult (and would-be cult) wines concentrate themselves in Oakville -- Harlan, Screaming Eagle, Ghost Block, and Nickel & Nickel all source from there...  The rich, ripe fruit, subtle tannins, and moderate acidity have a lot to do with it.  

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Last meal

An interesting question was posed to me the other day at work.  Suppose that you know that, at a given date, you're going to go to sleep and simply not wake up; you'll be asleep and slowly slip off this mortal coil.  You know the date of your own death... so what would you have for your last meal?  Include foods and wines to pair with them.  And, presume that price is not an object, nor is availability of any specific wines, so if you want a 1961 Petrus, fine.

For me, the choice centers around the main course (yes, it would be a multi-course affair).  There would be beef of some flavor, with a baked potato and good bleu cheese dressing (oddly, I love dressing on potatoes), probably a side of fresh sweet corn and some green beans.  But what about the appetizer...  the dessert...

So I've agonized a bit.  And come up with the following.
  1. Appetizer: four or five escargot, served de-shelled in butter on a bed of garlic toast.  A glass of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Montrachet, from a recent good vintage (2004 or 2005).  I've never had DRC, and I'd like to try it, and I love escargot.
  2. Cold cut plate: Jamón Iberico de Bellota, some nice Prosciutto, perhaps some thin-sliced roast beef.  This would also be paired with a Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, probably Echézeaux (I've always liked wines from that appellation), although really, any DRC red would show well with this I think.
  3. Fish plate: Some light salt cod, some scallops, perhaps even some shrimp and/or lobster (claws only, please).  Some Champagne Salon 1995 to accompany it would go nicely.
  4. Main course: A friend once told me about a roast of beef that he had that involved taking the roast, stuffing it with butter (whole sticks!) and roasted garlic cloves, wrapping it in bacon, and cooking it low and slow for hours.  I'll have a slice of that, made from Black Angus or Wagyu beef.  With a side dish to hold some baked potato, green beans, and corn.  And bleu cheese dressing for the potato, please.  The pairing here would be with a nice, rich, acidic Cabernet-based Bordeaux, ideally something from St. Julien, either Léoville-Barton or Clos du Marquis (yes, I'll happily take a second wine -- Clos du Marquis is the second label of Léoville Les Cases, and it's damn fine in it's own right).  Ideally, it would be a matured 2005, but failing that, a 1982 would do nicely.
  5. Cheese plate: Assorted soft cheeses and table water crackers.  Perhaps a nice, buttery California chard to go with this -- probably something Phil Titus has his hand in, be it Sonoma-Loeb, Chappelet, or his Titus label, whatever the current release is.
  6. Chocolate plate: Assorted dark chocolates, with raspberries and cherries.  I'll have a bit of Brachetto d'Acqui with this.
  7. Dessert: A single slice of raspberry cheesecake, served with  a glass of Dow's 1977 port.
  8. Spirits: After dinner, a snifter of Rémy Martin XO (because, really, after all the other wine, Louis XIII would be wasted!), and a good cigar. 
I could die after that meal, and be happy.

Then, the secondary question -- if you had to have just one wine from all the ones you've tried as your last bottle on Earth, what would it be?

For me, right now, that honor would go to Glaetzer Amon-Ra 2006.  It's rich, deep, luxuriant wine, and I could happily die after polishing off some more.  But I'm curious to see how my 2005 Bordeaux's age out -- they may take that place.

So, I leave it to you...  What would you have for your last meal?  How about for the last bottle of wine you ever try?

Monday, May 18, 2009

The "big boys" of Tuscany

Friday, I posted about Tuscany, concentrating on Chianti; today's post is going to be about the big-name DOCG's in Tuscany, Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and their "little" DOC counterparts, Rosso di Montalcino and Rosso di Montepulciano.

Again, as in the rest of Tuscany, the story here is all about Sangiovese. In the Brunello and Vino Nobile, the wine must be 100% Sangiovese -- to the point that, last year, there was a scandal involving a number of producers blending some Merlot into their wine (including Banfi, who are one of the biggest Brunello producers). People went to jail for it.

Yep, Italian wine is serious business!

Other requirements for Brunello include extended aging at the winery (release is 50 months after harvest; the "latest vintage" can be 5 years old), a very long maceration period -- the juice remains in contact with the skins of the grapes to add tannin and complexity to the wine. Brunello also sees a lot of time -- 3 years! -- in oak; admittedly, it's generally in large barrels, but some producers use small ones (which impart more flavor to the wine). It's rich, agable wine; even 5 years after harvest, the wine might still need a couple of years in the cellar to peak!

Anyhow, the other day, I had the opportunity to have some wine with several producers from Italy, including Maximo Sassetti, owner of Vasco Sassetti (who's label is pictured here). Between my very fractured Italian, and his only-slightly-better English, the wine had to talk for itself (although, I did get the impression that he was extremely happy with how his 2004's will be; I think he said it was "a year as good as 1997," which was a phenominal year for Brunell0). So, his 2003:

Clear garnet in the glass. Nose shows a ton of power, some expected cherry, but a bit of dark-roasted coffee and some meaty, bacon-like notes. Powerful flavors, cherry, blackberry, some plum, over cedary tannins, quite firm. Really, really tasty. A bit tannic, even now, but that will settle with time or decanting. Probably best between 2011 and 2017 or so. 91 points.

Similar wine is made about 25 miles away, in Montepulciano, where they call the Sangiovese "Prugnolo Gentile." Their wines are just a bit lighter than Brunello, seeing "only" 2 years in oak (3 years for a reserve), with a shorter maceration period, but still producing top-flight, rich wines with high ageability.

The one thing that holds most people back from Brunello is the cost -- Brunello starts about $30, and goes rather quickly up into "how much do you want to spend?" For Vino Nobile, the cost of admission is a bit lower -- around $20 or so. Still, either way, this is not cheap plonk. Knowing this, both regions also have a DOC "little brother" wine; their Rossos.

In the case of the Rosso di Montalcino and Rosso di Montepulciano, the wines are made from younger vines (which produce less-intensely-flavored wine), using less time in oak and a shorter maceration. There's less "oomph" to the wine, more straightforward cherry and some plummy notes, just a bit of earthiness. These are what you drink while you're waiting for your Brunello and Vino Nobile to mature. Why? Because they're $15 to $30 -- the price of an expensive bottle of Chianti!

Given the complexity of what I've laid out, it would seem that Montalcino and Montepulciano are a minefield of difficult wine, but not really; even in a mediocre or outright "bad" year (like, say, 2002 for Montalcino), the wine is still pretty good (and often much less expensive than in a good year), and although different producers have some different styles to their wine... Brunello and Vino Nobile are all DOCG, so there's got to be a base level of quality and consistant regional style. So you can be confident in the wine, and that's really a good value!

So, next time you're cooking a roast of beef with an herb rub... skip the Cabernet Sauvignon, and consider Tuscany for your wine!

Photo from Ego-vino.de.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Tasting Tuscany: a bit on Chianti.

Tuscany is, as one friend of mine once said, "tons of different names for the same grape."  All of the traditional-varietal wines that Tuscany is famous for are from... Sangiovese.  True, it's called different things (Brunello, Morellino and Prugnilo Gentile are but 3 of Sangiovese's other names), but the famous red wines of Tuscany are almost all Sangiovese.

Tuscany has 29 different Denominazioni di origine controllata (DOC) and 7 Denominazioni di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) regions, but I'll concern myself with just the ones that you tend to find in wine stores here in the US, the DOCG's of Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile de Montepulciano, Vernaccia di San Giminiano, and the DOC's of Morelleno di Scansano, Rosso di Montalcino and Rosso di Montepulciano.  Trust me, there's enough wine there for quite some time!

What's the "DOC" and "DOCG," I can hear you asking.  Basically, a DOC is a region where the Italian government has set rules about what the winemaking process can be like -- what grapes can go into the final blend, how high the alcohol level must be, how long the wine must be aged, that sort of thing.  It's a guarantee of quality level, indicated by a blueish band around the neck of the bottle, or over the capsule .  DOCG's are almost exactly the same, but with the difference that the rules are stricter, and the wine is subject to tasting by a panel of experts to insure that the wine "meets regional characteristics and quality levels."  It's denoted by a pinkish band around the neck of the wine.

As an interesting note, in Tuscany, the word "reserve," or "riserva" has a legal meaning.  Unlike in the US (where you can slap "reserve," on any plonk you want, as it's considered an advertising term, although many producers hold to the spirit of the word), each of the regions of Tuscany require certain conditions to be met before a wine may be called a reserve; generally, the rule is longer barrelling and bottle-aging.  Due to the aging requirements, producers will generally only use their best blocks of grapes to produce reserve wines; it's expensive to hold wine for a long time (a bottle in the cellar is a bottle that's not made any money by being sold yet, and it's taking up the space that two bottles of non-reserve could be aging in while it's in the cellar), so it makes economic sense to limit reserve productions.

Most people's introduction to Tuscan wine tends to come from Chianti; it's the most commonly available Tuscan wine, found literally in all locations from gas stations to restaurant wine lists all over the US.  It's actually a collection of several different DOCG's -- basically, what you can think of Chianti is that it's a region with a basic sort of wine, with specific towns that make slightly better (to most people's minds, anyhow -- most of them are just a bit different, either higher acidity, or a bit more spicy) wines.  Chianti, as a region, is quite large, covering about a quarter of central and north-central Tuscany.

The best-known sub-appellation of Chianti is Chianti Classico; it's the "original" Chianti, as the name implies, containing the original region of Chianti as laid out in 1716 through 1932.  "Look for the black rooster," as many people say, "and you'll  find good Chianti."  Which is true enough -- although the black rooster on the DOCG seal for Chianti Classico is really just a membership symbol in a producer's association for Chianti Classico, so there are Classicos without the rooster.  The rules of the DOCG include 12% alcohol and 10 months minimum aging.  Yields for vines in the region are also required to be slightly lower than in neighboring DOCG's, at only 3 Kg of grapes per vine, as opposed to 4 in most of the rest of Chianti.  The wines of this region tend to be a bit more tannic and have a more pronounced cedary note to the midpalate, I find.  However, due to the common wisdom of "look for the rooster," Classicos are more saught-after, and demand drives price.

Then, there's the other towns of Chianti, which produce as good of a wine as Classico, but don't have conventional wisdom driving customers to them; you'll often see Chianti Colli Senesi, Chianti Rufina, Chianti Colli Fiorentini, and Chianti Montalbano (although there are 3 other regions, Colli Aretini, Colline Pisane, and Montespertoli).  "Colli" just means "from the hills around," so "Chianti Colli Senesi" is "Chianti from the hills around Siena."  Each of these regions yields high-quality wines worth looking for; they do have some different regional characteristics, though -- Montalbano tends to be a touch lighter, as it's aged for only 3 months and has a minimum alcohol of 11.5%.  Senesi tends to show a bit more acidity, even though the aging and alcohol levels are the same as Montalbano.  Rufina is a bit more complex, weightier wine, with 9 months' aging and 12% alcohol.  

Finally, there's general "Chianti," which is wine made from a blend of the different regions, or wine that just didn't quite fit the regional requirements; it's generally a bit simpler, more straightforward.  Note that this still means imported Chianti -- not the stuff from California labeled as such (generally, it'll be in a different section of the wine shop; the California "Chianti" will be with the jug wines).  There's some legal reasons why some producers in California can use the appellation on their wines, and fewer do now than in the past, but the wine from Chianti has nothing to do with the ones from California, either in style and flavor, or quality!

Expect to pay about $8-$30 a bottle, depending on the sub-appellation of Chianti.

Monday:  Brunello and Vino Nobile; the "big boys" of traditional Tuscan wines.

Map from winecountry.it.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

A food pairing!

A friend of mine, living in Italy, had this for lunch the other day -- due to the magic of Facebook, of course, I got to see the meal.

It's salmon, wrapped around Mozzarella, with honey and sliced almonds on a bed of fresh greens.  Immediately, being a wine geek, I wondered "what would I drink with this?"

It's a well-balanced meal -- creamy, heavier Mozzarella, with slightly more delicate salmon bringing an oily and salty note, the sweet honey, and the slightly bitter almonds and greens.

So what would you pair this with?

The easy way out would be to say "a brut or extra-dry sparkling wine."  And that would work; the acidity of a sparkler would clear out the salmon and Mozzarella, the sweetness of the honey counterbalanced by the dryness of the wine (or, in the case of an extra-dry, echoed by the sweetness of the wine).  But that's a cop-out; sparkling wines are incredibly food-friendly.

So what would you drink, if it were still wines only?

My first thought is a fruit-forward Pinot Noir; it's light enough to not overpower the salmon, but if it's got a good fruit note (and, indeed, perhaps a bit of residual sugar!), it'd pair nicely here.  A Monterrey Pinot, perhaps, then?

Another good pairing would be a Soave -- an Italian white made from Garganaga, which can show off some nice peachy and mineral notes, but still have enough acidity to clear the palate with this meal.

Ditto a Riesling.  I'd look for a good Spätlase or Kabinett Riesling; the sugar would go well with the honey, the acidity would clean off the fattiness of the food.

And my friend?  Alas, he didn't know what they served.

So what would you have with this?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Cakebread and Far Niente; tasting cult wines.

The other day, I found myself in one of my local enomatic bars with about an hour to kill, and decided to do some tasting.  This particular bar has a good selection of upper-end Californian wines, and (it being Florida in the beginning of the summer, ergo hot), therefore, I decided to taste the whites.

First on the block was Cakebread Cellars 2007 Chardonnay.  This is, if you don't know, a cult-classic chard that is quite hard to get a hold of at retail (Cakebread allocates their wines, slanting heavily towards the restaurant market -- and the wine bar can get a large allocation, since they're an on-premises license holder, hence a "restaurant" so far as the winery is concerned).  My thoughts:

Yellow-gold in the glass.  Highly oaky nose, not showing a bunch of fruit.  In the mouth, the oak dominates, showing some vanilla, with a creamy mouthfeel.  There is amazingly little fruit in this wine; it tastes like chewing on a toothpick.  The oak astringency throws the balance out of whack, but the finish is long.  I can see why people hunt for this wine -- it's rarity, primarily, drives demand -- but it's a big pass for me.  87 points.

So, you can see, this is -- to my eyes, at least -- a demand-driven cult wine.  It's good, if you like oak, but the main reason people seek it out is it's rarity, not it's flavor (well... unless you love tasting barrel rather than wine).  I was actually quite surprised how much I didn't like this wine -- as much as it's hyped, it was downright disappointing.  This wine is a poor value, period.

Then, there was the other wine I tried -- well, the other Chardonnay, at least.  Far Niente Chardonnay 2006 (note: pictured is the 2005, although it's hard to see the neck label).  Far Niente is a luxe producer from Napa, a product of the Nickel and Nickel partnership.  They're best known for making exactly two wines -- a Chardonnay and a Cabernet.  No "reserve," no "special selection," and that's it.  According to their website, "[we produce wine of] the highest quality possible from our estate vineyards; if the wine doesn't meet expectations, it doesn't make the final blend."  So how is their Chardonnay?

Golden in the glass.  On the nose, the wine shows buttered fig and some pear notes; this may not have gone through intentional malolactic fermentation, but there's definitely some cream evident.  In the mouth, the wine is luxuriantly rich, with well-controlled oak underlying the fruit and buttercream.  This is deep, intense wine.  Balance is nearly perfect; just enough acidity to keep it interesting, enough weight to be intense.  Finish is quite long.  90 points.

So, there, you can see the difference.  For me, at least, the controlled use of oak in the Far Niente made it a much better wine than the Cakebread.  And I can understand why this wine is so sought-after; the flavor, not the rarity (Far Niente may allocate, but it's not nearly as slanted towards restaurants as Cakebread is.  So you can, you know, actually buy some in a wine shop!).

And the upshot?  Both these wines are quite expensive (in the $50-$60 range).  In both cases, it's really mainly conspicuous consumption, drinking either.  Heck, my tasting pours cost $7 each.  Is it worth it?  For the Cakebread, definitely no -- if I wanted Chardonnay with all oak and no fruit, I'd drink some Simi Alexander Valley.  For the Far Niente... perhaps.  There's a lot of good Chardonnay out there, but this one is quite good, and their reputation for consistency is excellent.  That being said... it's twice the price of one of my favorites (more on that wine later).  But if I were trying to impress, both with the label and the wine?  Yep.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Pairing wine.

"What's the right wine to go with [whatever]?"  If you're a wine geek, and out to your friends about it, it's probably a question you're confronted with every time you go out to a restaurant.  Of course, there's no specific training for pairing food and wine, at least for most people (culinary school/hotel and restaurant management graduates and sommeliers exempted).

However, there are some rules that can be applied to help find good pairings for foods.  No, not "red with meat, white with fish," that won't work at all (imagine drinking an over-the-top Australian Shiraz with a delicate fillet mignon!  Ugh.).  But...
  • Think of the weight of the food in the mouth -- heavier food will pair with heavier wines, lighter food with lighter wines.
  • How intense the wine is -- an over-the-top wine will overpower a light, delicate food.  Conversely, a rich, heavy food would overpower a delicate wine.
  • High-acidity wines will pair well with foods that are mouth-coating and fatty.  So chicken in a cream sauce will pair well with a crisp medium-weight wine (chicken is what I would call "medium weight" food), while sea bass in butter would go with a crisp light wine.
  • Think of the flavors in the wine; would they compliment the flavors of the food, or might they contrast well?  The citrus in a New Zealand sauvignon blanc, for example, would go great with fish tacos!  Ditto the earthy flavors of a good Rhône red and a beef stew with mushrooms and potatoes.
  • How sweet is the wine?  Sweet wines go well with hot and spicy foods.  Additionally, if you're pairing with dessert, choose a wine that's sweeter than the dessert, or it'll come off slightly bitter.
  • Finally, relax.  There's still wine in the glass, there's nothing wrong with that.  If you pair "wrong," there's nothing to worry about -- I know of at least one person who loves White Zinfandel with steaks!
Some good general pairings:  Australian Shiraz and wet barbecue -- spicy, smoky, slightly sweet wine with spicy, smoky, slightly sweet sauce!  Russian River Pinot Noir and tuna steaks -- good, high acidity, medium weight red with fatty, weighty fish (yep, a red with fish!).  Seafood in butter and Loire whites -- Loire whites go phenomenally with seafood, from clams to scallops to lobster.  Spicy Chinese food and slightly sweet Gewürtztraminer or Riesling.

So why fear having to pair wine and food?  As an outspoken friend of mine once said, "why worry?  It's just f*cking wine!"  Given that the speaker is a man with 40+ years as a wine importer, and a gourmet chef... if he doesn't worry, neither should you.

Photo credit: FreePhoto.com.

Monday, May 11, 2009

On the road... touring Napa & Sonoma.

I'm going to be travelling in wine country in California in about a year (it'll be a road-trip bachelor party; wine and food trumps beer and strippers!).  So, I'm in the process of planning where to visit.

Of course, since I work in the wine industry, that's a bit easier for me -- I can count on our corporate office to arrange some tasting tours for me.  But, were I a civilian, how would I go about it?

The first thing would be to call wineries I was interested in -- either because I've had their wine and liked it, or because I'd like to try their wines.  Ask for recommendations -- both from friends who've visited the area, and from your local wine shop staff (you'd be surprised how many staff members have gone to a number of areas for wine tours!).  Check out wine blogs -- both reviewers and winery blogs -- for ideas as well!

Assume a tour and tasting will take an hour or so (after all, this is a chance to relax, not to recreate the Bataan march in wine country, so no power-tasting!).  Schedule the  visits about 2-3 hours apart -- so, if presuming the schedule was tasting from 10 AM (when most wineries open up) to 5 PM, I'd schedule 3 to 4 tastings a day.

Why schedule such long breaks?  Simple -- ask at the winery, "where should I go next?  I'm going to be at [wherever] in 2 hours, so what would you recommend?"  The folks at the winery will be far more knowledgeable of the hidden gems in the area than anyone else.  So take their advice!

Additionally, you might just see someplace that appeals to you -- so have enough latitude in your schedule to be able to visit!

Also, as a note -- tastings in Napa and Sonoma are not free.  Expect to pay anywhere from $10 to $50 for a tasting flight (4-5 wines), depending on where you go and what menu you choose.  The costs will be higher for Big Name wineries (eg, Opus One, Silver Oak), and higher for reserve and library selections.  Yet another reason to avoid the Big Name wineries -- your tasting dollar goes further off the beaten track!  Yes, there are exceptions, but plan on paying.

What about food?  Well, again, ask.  There's always places that non-locals can recommend (personally, I'm a fan of Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen in St. Helena -- try the duck burgers!), but really, why not ask the locals (that's how I found Cindy's!), as new restaurants open up all the time.  Alternately... what's the phrase, "a loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou."  Picnic overlooking the vineyards -- many tasting rooms have a small picnic area (Heitz has back patio for picnicking, for example, and Von Strasser has a front patio where I'm sure they wouldn't mind you enjoying a sandwich).  I would check before planning, though, to make sure it's OK.  Still, how could you beat popping into a winery for their new release Pinot Noir, picking up a bottle, spreading out some gourmet sandwiches (there's a Dean & Delucca in Napa.  'nuff said.), popping open your new find, and relaxing for a half-hour? 

How about getting from point A to point B?  There are a number of limo/town car services that will drive you around wine country, and I would recommend these wholeheartedly.  If you're not spitting at your tastings, you'll be taking in a lot of wine -- the last thing I'd want a reader to get as a souvenir from wine country would be a DWI.  At the very least, make sure you have a designated driver.  As a side note, many of the limo services will have set tastings that they go to; these can be a great way to see "off the beaten track" wineries, but if you've got tastings arranged, let them know when you book, as they'll happily work around your schedule.

So, in a nutshell, that's how you'd arrange a slightly hectic, but unique, visit to wine country.  Now, as for how to get your new finds back from wine country... well, that's another thing entirely -- I'd recommend shipping your luggage home via UPS or FedEx, and checking a case of wine (labeled "fragile") as your baggage for the flight home.  Because, you know, you've got to have some souvenirs!  Especially when you consider that some wines are still only available at the winery (for example, did you know that Heitz makes a port? Yep.  You'll probably only see it in their tasting room.).

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Petit Verdot

In Bordeaux, there's 6 allowed varietals, of which there are 5 that you'll actually find -- Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot (Carmenere is also allowed, but there are, to my knowledge, no significant plantings of it in Bordeaux. There's plenty in Chile, though...). These varietals are also planted in California, significantly in Napa, as a part of making Meritage wines (and, as a note, that's pronounced to rhyme with "heritage"), which are California's answer to Bordeaux blends. As a cool bit of trivia, Petit Verdot one of the most expensive varietals you'll find in California -- there's a high demand, but small supply, as only 300 or so acres are planted in California. It is also found in small quantities elsewhere in the US, mainly Virginia.

And that's what I had last night -- a Petit Verdot from Virginia. Specifically, Oakencroft Petit Verdot 2006, from the Monticello AVA. A couple of friends of mine were up that way in October for a wine and craft show, and picked this up as a gift for me. My thoughts?

Purple with a violet rim. Average-intensity nose of grape and pencil shavings. Quite grapey in the mouth, on the midpalate, with a distinct graphite note right at the front and overarching Red Delicious apple. Some green/floral happening here, too. Not the deepest wine I've ever had, but very enjoyable nonetheless. Balance is nearly perfect -- medium-body, a not-overpowering acidity, just enough tannin to be interesting. Finish is fairly long. 89 points.

As I note, not the most intense or deepest wine, but quite interesting. A fun thought for a tasting, pick up one of each Bordeaux varietal (bonus points for picking up a Carmenere!), and "blend" tastes to see how they interplay. I've never quite had a wine with the same coloring -- the brilliant purple rim is quite interesting -- or flavor characteristics. It's quite unique, and I can see why producers use it in their blends. So, if you see some, try it!

Any port in a storm.

Port refers to a type of wine, made by adding alcohol during the fermentation process, before the yeast have completely converted the sugar of the grape juice into alcohol.  Why add alcohol?  Well, it kills off the yeast (yeast die at about 17% ABV), and results in a sweet wine (as there's still residual sugar).  It's also quite strong -- most range between 18% and 21% ABV.  Most wines float between 12% and 15%!

Port is also extremely long-lived, due to the alcohol and sugar.  Properly stored, sealed and on it's side in a cellar at 55 degrees Fahrenheit, a bottle of port will be drinkable for 60 or 80 years... or more!

A bit on the history of the wine may be in order.  Port was first made in Oporto, in Portugal, at the request of the British.  Since, at the time, the British were involved in open warfare with the French, they needed a source of wine, and so turned to Portugal.  Alas, Portuguese wine was unable to withstand the rough sea voyage from Oporto to London in barrels -- it became vinegary and undrinkable -- so the Portuguese thought to add more alcohol to the wine, to better allow it to travel.  Port was born!

Traditional Ports generally fall into two categories of wines: barrel-aged and bottle-aged.  Barrel-aged Port tends to be a tawny, almost mahogany color, and exhibits nutty, sometimes gingerbread or spicy notes.  They come in a dizzying array of varieties (and prices!) but it generally comes down to aging -- the older the wine, the more you pay.  See, a barrel-aged Port isn't just something that sits in a cellar.  No, the barrels get topped off each year, so a 40-year tawny (which you should expect to pay around $100 to $150 for) has had, literally, a lifetime's work put into it.  There are two exceptions to this rule, which will be discussed later.

Then, there's bottle-aged port.  These are also called ruby ports, and they tend to be more red in color, exhibiting more berry flavors, and definitely more tannins.  These roughly break into vintage and nonvintage ports; vintage port coming from a defined "good vintage" year (as declared by the port house that makes the port) -- good years in recent memory include 1977, 1985, 1994, 2000, and 2003 -- and nonvintage ports including a blend of several years, to make a distinct "house style."  Vintage port is small production -- about 2% -- but it is the star of a Port shipper's catalogue.  Ruby ports either are aged in huge barrels over time (with little oxygen contact due to the relatively low ratio of surface area to volume), or bottled relatively quickly.

Hmm.  Vintage and nonvintage, with nonvintage being a sort of continuous product that makes money, while vintage is special and makes reputations.  Kind of like Champagne, do you think?

The two exceptions to the rules of barrel-aged ports are "colhita," which is vintage-dated tawny port -- I'll have to claim ignorance on what it's like, as I've never had one, although I would expect it to lack the breadth of flavor that you find in most tawnys, but with a lot more depth in the flavors it does have (sort of like vintage Champagne, Armagnac, and Cognac).  And there's Late Bottled Vintage, or LBV port, which is barrel-aged longer than normal vintage port and often filtered before bottling.

Why do that?  Simple; vintage port takes years to mature in the bottle... decades, really.  I shudder now to think of all the 1994's I drank when I turned 21...  over 10 years ago.  The turning point, for me, was a bottle of 1977 that I splurged on.  Tasting a matured port... well, it's luxuriant, deep, and eminently gratifying.

So if you've got space in your cellar, and the patience to wait 15 to 20 years, pick up some 2000 or 2003's (a full bottle should run $40 to $80, and a half should be $25 to $50 or so, depending on the producer and where you buy it).  And pick up a 2003 LBV while you're at it.  If you have the money, and your local shop has some, pick up some 1977, 1983, or 1985, to see what the fuss will be about in 20 years over the 2003's.

And, if you lack the patience, pick up an LBV anyhow.  Instead of dessert, serve wine.  And a little fresh fruit (raspberry tortes come to mind, as do fresh cherries).  Relax, and enjoy the magic of Port.