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Monday, August 09, 2010

Courting a New Wine Shop

I’m the last guy to champion my local retailers. Why, you ask? Because they stink…well, that’s not fair- they’re dirty and unimaginative and overpriced and overstocked w/ commercial rate crap. Brooklyn- home of the liquor store, wine shops need not apply. Who needs one anyway when the neighborhood packy just got a fresh supply of Carlos Rossi by the jug & some Santa Margherita for the snobs? I’ve always been under the impression that fine borough products all ended up in restaurants, leaving us idiots that actually shop the stores holding the bag. With the arrival of the Brooklyn Wine Exchange on Court Street & Fairway Grocer down the block, I’m beginning to change my tune. Well, at least a little.

The team at Smith & Vine has opened up an expansive, yet cozy all the same style shop that covers a wide variety of its wine bases. Elegant tasting room ‘Learning Center’ for evening classes- check. Local wineries of high quality represented at all price points- check. Wall of rose for the summer- check. Fine fizz (artisan rose Cava by Raventos to Dirler Cremant to grower Champagne a la Guy Larmandier)- check. The entire portfolio of Neal Rosenthal, including a monument to Paolo Bea which showcases every friggin’ wine the domaine makes- check.

The store itself is shaped like a railroad apartment, draped in exposed brick and slick lighting. The bottles are stacked on opposing sides, cut by a 12 dollar and under table full of solid summer buys. As opposed to going the ‘Wine Spectator said this’ shelf talker route, the Wine Exchange prepares their own pieces to accompany each bottle. The snippets include background details on the domaine, soil type, vine age, upbringing, blend & a brief tasting note. The aforementioned Learning Center isn’t exactly an Astor Wine & Spirits ‘Star Trek the Next Generation’ war room. It has the look, size & feel of Murray’s Cheese tasting room (for those who haven’t been there, think cozy tucked away nook- two long, rectangular tables on opposing sides headed by a bar podium). Smartly, the staff takes part in the tasting events & shares the results w/ customers when suggesting wines.

The website, complete w/ inept search-less engine (perhaps I’m the one that is navigationally impaired, it’s not you it’s me) is molded in Smith & Vine clay, highlighting Friday, Saturday, Sunday weekly tastings, Learning Center events & reminds you that mixed cases are discounted, local delivery is free & that you are indeed loved. Curiously, I click on the last icon labeled ‘we love you…,’ only to note its subsequent message ‘…we really do.’ This type of web interface charm makes me all fuzzy inside (eh-hem, Polish package store owner on Manhattan avenue in Greenpoint, put down your brown paper bagged bottle of Zywiec malt liquor and start taking notes). For you night owls, they’re open till 10:30- a particularly useful commodity to those w/ late reservations at a nearby Cobble Hill B.Y.O.

Fans of fine Riesling are more than taken care of, from Clare Valley to the Rheinhessen, w/ value being at a premium. Case and point- a bottle of ’89 Geschwister Ehrhard Spatlese retails for around 30 dollars (hey math majors, that’s one dollar and forty three cents per year of age). Maturity at such a silly price makes me think these rock-heads are onto something. I showed zero restraint and picked up 2 bottles, rolling the 2 bowling pin shaped bottles to the counter for purchase. The growing clutter of my selections was beginning to obscure the register.

While the size of the shop limits its potential for depth, the selections are expansive and provide solid highlights across the rest of the global vineyard. Top producers are represented from Washington (K Vintners, Owen Roe) to Alto Adige (Kofererhof, Lageder) to Abruzzi (Valentini) to the Loire (Joly, Huet, Germain & a ’90 Raffault Les Picasses for 60 dollars) to Alsace (Humbrecht) to Austria (Pichler, Prager, Kracher) to Germany (Donnhoff, Selbach) to Spain (Muga, Pesquera) to Carema (the magnum of ’03 Ferrando black label was love at first swallow) & even South American pioneers Durigutti, Weinert, Achaval Ferrer & Casa Marin all make appearances on the shelves chez Brooklyn Wine Exchange. If you’re wondering why I haven’t mentioned the Rhone, my region d’etre, well consider the source- my feeble attempt at objectivity looses a bit of traction when I mention Clos St. Jean, Clape, Cuilleron & Barroche are represented as well.

Obscure varietal aficionados will rejoice in wines like Weingut Schlossmuhlenhof’s ‘08 Dornfelder, South African Bukettraube from Cederberg, Bisson’s full bodied Ciliegiolo from Italy, Chateau Viella’s ’07 Tannat blend from the South of France, a Hondarribi Zuri from Spain (a WHAT from Spain?) or, for those that find Prosecco tame, how about a sparkling Scheurebe from Dr. Becker to wet your whistle? Not to be outdone, Schloss Muhlenhof’s Ortega U. 100 percent Siegerrebe Berrenauslese ’99 from the Rheinhessen is a veritable supercalifragilisticexpialidocious of dessert wines. Said moniker could only be endowed upon a Siegerrebe. Siegerrebe, just rolls of the tongue now doesn’t it? I’m sitting here trying to imagine how the hell to pronounce such a flatulent contraption of a word, but I’ve got nothing. Damn Germans, I think my spell check just self-immolated. Well, for 20 bucks and change you get an unpronounceable eleven year old dessert wine. At least you don’t have to pay per letter. Sake even makes an appearance, though the lack of karaoke bar presence in Brooklyn could dampen sake’s potential to augment its respective shelf market share.

New Yorkers looking to scout the local flavor can do some real damage on the table to their immediate left upon walking through the door. Top tier producers from the forks include Shinn, Schneider, Paumanok, Channing Daughters & Macari. The Finger Lakes are also well represented, led by Atwater State’s Gewurztraminer, dry whites from Ravines and a single vineyard designated Riesling from Hermann J. Weimer that, to my palate, is up w/ the best dry Riesling in the country. A singular selection from the Wine Exchange comes from down the street at Red Hook Winery, as asymmetrical a project as can be imagined. Scholium Project’s Abe Schoener & Bob Foley consult on a wide array of wines made from North Fork fruit. Before you spontaneously combust allow me to note that Foley & Schoener consult on separate wines, with each bottle carrying the name of the winemaker. Out of the 3 2008’s I tasted- the debut vintage- the Foley Chardonnay was the most conventional, a round & ample Macon look alike undercut by mouth-watering acidity. Abe’s Jamesport Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc had all the clarity of a smoggy Los Angeles day & a viscous, salty midpalate. The last of the bunch, dubbed ‘The Electric,’ was a novel idea combining Chardonnay w/ botrytised Riesling, yet was marred by far too much volatility & bizarre gelatinousness for me to recommend it to the non-eccentrics. Those interested in getting their hands on a Red Hook offering best make their way down to the Brooklyn Wine Exchange, as they’re the only retailer w/ has access to them.

To be fair, Heights Chateau on Atlantic is a terrific shop, as is Smith & Vine, Brooklyn Wine Exchange’s progenitor. That said, Brooklyn as a borough has been essentially bereft of innovation & quality in its wine retail scene. UVA, the Green Grape & a couple other shops prodded a bit of intrigue, but the Brooklyn Wine Exchange has finally given me compelling reason to do my wine shopping locally (though I’ll still enjoy my road trips up to North White Plains to gorge on high quality juice from Grapes the Wine Company). If you’re out in the hood I highly recommend you pop in. Courting a new wine shop may be awkward at first, but I’ll admit it- it’s a lot of fun. This must be how my wife feels about shoe shopping…

Monday, July 26, 2010

Rock-Star Chablis on the Cheap

Christian Moreau Chablis ‘08

This is an outstanding wine for the money, no doubt about it. The richness of ’08 creeps into the body of this young village wine at a young village price (high teens or so)- as notes of crushed stone, lemon peel, ginger & poached pear pepper the profile. The entry is smooth and expansive, packing in atypical power & persistence for its category & relative weight class. I’m tempted to refer to the finish as heady, but haven’t the cojones to go for the jugular. No fear for the old Chablisean guard, the electric output is still churning at high acid wattage, in spite of the current of fruit, 90 points.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Finger Lakes Top Producers

Red Newt Cellars

Fans of Gewurztraminer take notice; Red Newt may be a New Yorker but boy does he make a kick ass German-penned varietal. Out of all the wineries I’d visited, no winery nailed Gewurztraminer & Pinot Gris like Red Newt. Gewurztraminer was a 3 tiered project: showcasing a dry label alongside two single vineyard designated bottlings. The Dry ’08 snapped w/ a strong floral nose of rose water & beeswax, turning dense & lush on its thick, flashy midpalate. The winery was pouring the ’07 SVDs, with the Sawmill Creek juxtaposing delicacy & power in its nose of tangerine, peach, spring blossom & honeysuckle. Flickers of spice pepper the palate, leaving a layered, resonating impression on the finish. The Curry Creek, another top Finger Lakes site, was muscular with Zind Humbrechtian beef, popping with a wild, vivid tang. Broad shouldered, with a full-bodied mouthful of flavors that wedged chalky spice notes from cheek to cheek, penetrating past the finish line. The Curry & Sawmill Creek versions are a bit pricy, but justifiably so & I can imagine them aquitting themselves beautifully next to top vintages from the Brand Vineyard in Alsace. The Pinot Gris ’07, also sourced from Curry Creek, was about as honeyed an unctuous an Alsatian fan could hope for. Rich & generous, with warm flavors of baked apple and nutmeg spices rolling over the tongue like a creamy dream.

For those at odds w/ Gewurz, the top Riesling & Franc from Red Newt are by no means slouches. The ’08 entry level dry Riesling, a shy bony chisel of a white, packed plenty of zip but left me wanting in the category of flesh. A marked step up was found in the ’07 Reserve, remarkably Trimbachish to smell and savor, w/ a plumy nose smelling of enough unleaded fuel to dent an energy crisis. A piercing entry zapped the palate through chords of slate & citrus, knotting up on a frenzy of a finish. The Sauvignon Blanc ’08 proved to be a tangy, simple sipper of snappy gooseberry & herb notes, finishing amply. The lone red that I tasted, a ’08 Cabernet Franc from Glacier Ridge Vineyards, rounded out the portfolio w/ its impeccably clean profile of crushed berries, pipe tobacco and licorice snap flavors. Its middle weight, yet full flavored sense of grace is sure to find plenty of fans & bodes well for the red colored spectrum of Newt’s stable.

Wine Rating
Sauvignon Blanc ’08 83
Dry Gewurztraminer ’08 88
Sawmill Creek Gewurz ’07 91
Curry Creek Gewurz ’07 92
Dry Riesling ’08 85
Reserve Riesling ’07 91
Pinot Gris ’07 89
Cab Franc Glacier Ridge ’08 88

Pioneers that trek up to Red Newt Cellars should schedule their visit towards closing time, wrapping up their tasting calisthenics at the terrific wine bar next door. The Red Newt Bistro offers about as frugal a chef tasting menu as this jaded pair of urban eyes as ever seen, 5 imaginative courses for 60 dollars. Dishes range from spinach ravioli with blueberries to bacon wrapped pork tenderloin stuffed w/ cherries. So goes the theme of eat local, with the drink local portion of the menu pitting flights of 04 reserve Rieslings together alongside sparkling wines from Konstantin Frank with vintage dates ranging back to the previous decade. All told, over 150 Finger Lakes wines are represented in the list, with the most expensive selections setting you back all of 40 dollars & change. This type of modesty for such gustatory goodness makes me want to pummel myself for living in New York City. Lay another indignant log on the blue flame.

To give you a brief window of what I sampled chez Red Newt Bistro, I began w/ the ’04 Tierce Dry Riesling, a veritable FLX all star team of winemakers including Anthony Road, Fox Run & Red Newt (emblematic of the cooperation seen at the highest level from FLX producers, e pluribus unum). The Tierce was idiosyncratic, showing mature, waxy notes & a lean mushroom edge. I moved onto ’04 Dry Rieslings from Fox Run & Anthony Road, w/ the former dazzling w/ the total package, jump started by smoky petrol notes- I can easily see this cruising in the cellar for another decade. The Anthony Road was a bit soft & gelatinous, leaving me wanting, but the terrific ’07 from ARWC more than atoned. I finished off the evening w/ an ’06 Gewurztraminer from Red Newt, dark gold in color yet as potent and crammed w/ baby fat as a new release. I’m starting to get the impression that these bright young Gewurztraminers from RNWC can go for at least 10 years before their characteristics atrophy.

Time to round ‘bout the wine trail cul-de-sac towards Anthony Road & Fox Run next…

Friday, July 23, 2010

Top Finger Lakes Producers

Hermann J. Wiemer

Next to Frank, Wiemer is as close as it gets to an ‘old stalwart’ of the region, crafting exquisite Rieslings that are a bit plumper than Ravines, yet equally distinctive. The domaine produces a Dry, Semi-Dry, Late Harvest, ‘TBA’ style, Reserve & two single vineyard designated Rieslings from the HJW & Magdalena plots. The ’08s were on display; with the Dry Riesling already developing into a dynamic, fresh white, w/ cackling nerve and a long, persistent finish. The Semi-Dry handles its residual sugar w/ kit gloves, as a tangy rope of acidity tugs along the middle weight frame to a fine finish. The Reserve is tangibly more complex, w/ vivid peach, orange peel and bushels of orchard fruit shimmering from bouquet to body. The textures were gorgeous & delineated, awash in pure, clean flavors that just wouldn’t quit.

The nerve center of dessert wines began w/ a Late Harvest Riesling, which was Spatlese-like for those familiar w/ Mosel monikers, showing round textured canned peach notes that stayed spry & straight to the finish. The Late Harvest Chardonnay demonstrated what an inherently trite grape it is in comparison to Riesling, boring, flat, verve-less. As for the Late Harvest Bunch Select ‘TBA style’ (for the non-German acronym-inclined, TBA doesn’t stand for ‘To Be Announced,’ it refers to its not so close kissing cousin ‘Trockenbeerenauslese,’ which for brevity sake we’ll simply call URD or ‘Uber Rich Dessert Wine), this was a sheer powerhouse and perhaps the most staggering wine experience of the trip in regards to price & power. The viscous, opulent dessert wine packed a torrent of baked apricot, apple pie and honey drizzled flavors that sizzled through the mouth richly, backed by a beaming brightness often found in cool vintage Sauternes.

My favorites from team Wiemer were the single vineyard Rieslings. Call me an SVD slut if you wish, but they more than merited their special designations. The HJW ’08 was gorgeous, competing w/ the Argetsinger for best dry Riesling in the country, demonstrating brilliant poise and focus. An impenetrably mineral-coated gloss, w/ a tightly wound beam of smoky slate holding sway over the green-fruited core today. Whispers at nuances sure to stun w/ short-term cellaring. The Magdalena, an appreciably warmer spot, dazzled w/ its ripe peach, apricot, Jon gold & floral notes that came on in textured waves, leaving you thirsting for another sip. Though I preferred the HJW, the showy Magdalena is the more approachable of the two.

While the sparkling wines generally disappointed on my trip, particularly due to my high expectations, Wiemer seems to have a firmer grasp on bubbles than most. Their ’06 Brut only takes a back seat to Lamoreaux Landing, showing a delicate balance between lush fruit and linear cut. The flavors were pure honey and golden delicious, w/ sharp edges framing the malic-acid tinged finish wonderfully. The Blanc des Noir ’03 has already evolved to a nutty profile, as hints of damp earth, cherry and peat moss fill out the bouquet. Softer and ready to drink, yet lacks the drive & punch of the younger Brut.

Next to Riesling the most consistent category in the FLX has to be Gewurztraminer, as Wiemer’s take revealed a deeply honeyed profile, w/ fragrant lychee & spice notes fanning out along the firm finish. An ’06 Rose was on tap & fans of bottle aged pink may find the tawny colored ’06 to be a uniquely earthy interpretation, with its singular toffee, underbrush and mushroom notes atop a bony frame. While a provocative take, this style doesn’t exactly rub my rhubarb, as I found the baby rose to be more palatable, albeit in a straight forward, trim & dry package. The Chardonnays were unremarkable quaffs.

My wife’s on-going Cabernet Franc contest, her favorite varietal, gave honorable mention to Wiemer. The ‘07s walked a fine line between herbacity & straight up vegetal spunk, with the entry level Franc cooking up a salad of cabbage, tapenade and red currant notes that possessed round textures & a pleasantly bitter close. A noticeably cleaner Reserve was all red fruit & cigar humidor, picking up bright, pliant layers in the mouth & packing enough density for cellar shedding.

While the line-up is dauntingly large, Wiemer manages to pack enough quality into the bottle to merit some breadth in experimentation. That said, I still feel their Rieslings are too terrific to not uproot the tame, expendable rows of Chardonnay in the vineyard.

Wine Rating
Pinot Rose ’06 78
Dry Rose NV 84
Blanc des Noirs ’03 83
Brut ’06 87
Dry Riesling ’08 87
Semi-Dry Riesling ’08 86+
Reserve Riesling ’08 90
Late Harvest Riesling ’08 88
HJW Riesling ’08 92+
Magdalena Riesling ‘08 91+
Bunch Select Riesling ’08 93
Gewurztraminer ’08 88
Cab Franc ’07 84
Cab Franc Reserve ’07 87+

For those that haven't visited the winery, I highly recommend taking a look at their library releases. While they don't have any vintages past 1990, I picked up an '02 'Johanisberg Riesling' (pre-appellation labeling law disallowed calling a non-Johanisberg Riesling as such...for those that are confused, think 'Korbel Champagne' being relegated to simply 'sparkling wine') which performed brilliantly:

This 8 year old Riesling was adorned in a light golden Chardonnay-like hue; w/ effusive and myriad scents that were akin to walking through a florist’s shop. The bouquet attacked at all angles, ranging from bee pollen, pine, apricot…countless and unnamable floral arrangements. The entry was spicy, spry and lighter than air, with an invisible depth of flavor that wrapped the palate in a gentle push, lingering & dramatic on the finish. Gorgeous, long, minerally- very impressive showing- best over the next few years, 91 points.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Ravines Wine Cellars, One of the Finger Lakes' Finest

The majority of my previous experiences w/ Finger Lakes wines were courtesy of Vintage New York, a creation from Rivendell winery’s Robert Ransom. Vintage, much like Ransom’s Hudson Valley winery, offered locals the opportunity to sample wines from Fork to Finger, where I had my first samplings of Lamoreaux Landing sparkling wine, Standing Stone Riesling, Wagner & the like. Ransom’s concept was a smart one, serving as an all-encompassing ‘New York Winery’ tasting room of sorts, where all wines could be sampled and purchased on the premises. The tasting room abutted a wine bar, carrying a broad spectrum of New York wines to be paired w/ various foods from said state. Smart business plan huh? Well New York apparently didn’t think so, as both Vintage sites in Soho & the Upper West Side eroded to sluggish sales & couldn’t compete w/ rising neighborhood rents. Thankfully the postmortem on Vintage proved the notion not in vain, as the ‘eat local-drink local’ baton has been successfully passed to NY’s Wine & Culinary Center of the Finger Lakes.

Suffice to say my background on the Finger Lakes was hardly extensive, so I did my best to stuff preconceived notion in the trunk as I hit the grape trail, getting my virginal palate acquainted w/ over a dozen new producers during the holiday weekend. I’d figured Hermann J. Weimer would be the top dog, considering the breadth of distribution in the city & previously contented purchases I’d made. Konstantin Frank was sure to be solid, but what of the others? Throw darts at a board, see what sticks. Had I been told an upstart winery that purchases most of their fruit would steal the show I’d certainly question the source. The source, in this case, was my own palate.

The finest winery I visited:

Ravines: While the bulk of Finger Lakes wineries offer a range in styles from bone dry to more than slightly sweet (some even feature a sweetness scale on the side of the bottle- talk about a knee in the nuts to the indecipherables from Germany), but Ravines’ scale would be best dubbed as dry, drier, driest. The winery was started by Morten & Lisa Hallgren, a European tandem from the South of France. Morten’s pedigree is there, coming from a family that owned a 270 acre estate (170 of which were vineyard) called Domaine de Castel Roubine. While Morten’s chromosomal connection is undeniable, his scholastic route, achieving advanced degrees in Enology & Viticulture at Ecole Nationale Superieure d’Agronomie in Montpellier didn’t hurt. Nor did his apprenticeship at Cos d’Estournel in Bordeaux. He finally landed a winemaking job stateside under none other than Konstantin Frank, culminating in the creation of his own label to start the 21st century. Though I’d never tasted nor heard of Ravines Wine Cellars before my trip, they are hardly a local secret.

Truth be told, the wines are nothing short of fabulous. The dry whites merge searing mouthfuls of Chablisean minerality w/ smoky flint notes reminiscent of Pouilly Fume. Ravines Riesling is an Old World palate’s dream. Morten’s staff was pouring ’06-’08 vintage, smartly holding back enough stock to demonstrate the benefits of ageing to consumers (not to manipulate demand a la Bordeaux). The ’06 vintage, a lean year that had its share of problems w/ dilution, had a nose of pure diesel & smoke. The palate was trim, yet subtly layered in dried honey, gun-flint, chive & lime notes, reminding me a bit of a Francois Cotat Sancerre. The ’07 showed contrasting ripeness, w/ dried pineapple, crushed rock & an unnamable Chablisean character. The frame was gossamer, w/ high toned fruit flavors that sailed on and on. The ’08, a tightly coiled embryo, seemed chiseled out of stone, w/ hay, floral and green fruit flavors contracting through the taut, firm finish. The gem of the collection, a single vineyard designated Riesling, comes from the Argetsinger plot. The ’08 was a full bodied, opulent, mineral-rich Riesling. Brooding, wrapped in a penetrating core of ginger, lemon peel, key lime and stone fruit flavors that seem backward to the point of intimidation, yet structurally impressive. This on'es built for the cellar. The ’08 Sauvignon Blanc was a touch angular, yet beguiling in its own right. The flinty nose of grass, savory herb, grapefruit & lime expanded & grew in complexity as the wine warmed. The inner-mouth perfume was a ricochet of scent, fleshing out a bit on the finish. The ’08 Pinot Gris was just bottled and suffered accordingly, though its honeysuckle & melon notes were round, juicy & ample, in spite of being bottle-shy.

I’d said previously that Pinot belonged in Finger Lakes fizz, well it doesn’t do a terribly bad Rose either ;) The winery was still pouring their ’08, a soft nose of berry and briar turning creamy and well textured in the mouth, finishing w/ a snap. The ’08 Pinot Noir was easily the most impressive offering I’d had during my tastings and also one of the lightest in color. The succulent nose of bing cherry, flowers and underbrush was a kinky display. The entry was sappy, middle-weight in presence & pushed by soft, gentle tannins. The ’07 Cabernet Franc was stellar, perhaps the best of the trip. A meaty, seared edge dominated the aromas, but the palate was all polish, tugged by a tarry, graphite grip on the finish. The Meritage, an ’06, was a long, red-fruit flavored Claret-doppelganger, keen on verve and finesse.

While the ambient conditions make Meritage blends & Pinot Noir somewhat challenging in the Finger Lakes, Ravines displays a deft touch w/ all varietals. The reds distinguished themselves in terms of balance, energy & superlative texture, yet the Rieslings stole the show & are arguably the best bone-dry Rieslings versions in the state, if not the country. I'm betting on door number 1 and number 2, Chuck. I’m hardly an advocate of wine clubs (I can count the number I belong to on the fingers of one hand), yet the 20% off the already modestly priced Ravines line-up made it impossible to resist. 14 bucks and change for Riesling this good is something worth shouting about, particularly for fans of Alsace, Clare & Eden Valley Riesling.

Wine Rating
Rose ’08 87 points
Dry Riesling ’06 90 points
Dry Riesling ’07 92 points
Dry Riesling ’08 91+ points
Argetsinger ’08 93 points
Sauvignon Blanc ’08 90 points
Pinot Gris ’08 87 points?
Pinot Noir ’08 87 points
Cabernet Franc ’07 90 points
Meritage ’06 88 points

*As I’ve already drunk a case of them I do offer one bit of serving advice:
Decanting is a must & they show best when they’re a bit warmer than fridge temp.

Other top producers to follow...

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Finger Lakes Region Report, I'm Hearing Great Things

‘Hey, I’m hearing great things about the Finger Lakes,’ spoken by the collective ‘they.’ Sure, I’d tasted a bottle of Konstantin Frank or two, but embarrassingly had never visited. Summer heat finally drove me to the car, down past the paper trail of Scranton, PA’s ‘The Office,’ north bound to Ithaca, the tail of Cayuga Lake, where all the smart Cornell kids dwell.

From a zoologist-in-the-sky eye view, the fingers themselves are more like salamanders, accompanied by various thumbs and toes. Facing north, Cayuga Lake forms the right hand’s ring, Keuka Lake the index & Seneca Lake offends as the middle finger. You best bring your driving gloves unless you plan on toting a canoe along (or pink paddleboat, for the manly men) as the lakes are long, undulating bodies that are not traversable by car. I chose to wedge myself on the southwest corner of Seneca for the beginning of the trip, as the bulk of the wineries I’d planned on visiting lie on the southeast & western segments of Seneca. For some reason I ended my trip in a town called Canandaigua, just north of Canandaigua lake- a lake I called ‘Chicamacomico’ throughout the trip because I couldn’t remember nor pronounce Canandaigua. This proved to be an idiotic move, as Canandaigua is about as convenient to the wineries as it is to Buffalo.

Geographically speaking, the Finger Lakes aren’t really near anything. That said, they’re also not terribly far from what seems about anywhere either. It takes around about 4 hours to get from the Finger Lakes to Pittsburg, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York City & what seems like just about anywhere else in the Northeast. This ‘somewhat remoteness’ contributes to the allure of the lakes, which are broad and beautifully maintained. Seneca is choked by vines on hillsides that drape the water east to west, cradling the lake for reflective heat. The vines naturally freeze in the winter, producing thick, vibrant dessert wines that garner just about the only premium prices you’ll see from the region. The land, with soils ranging from loam to gravel to slate, must be dirt cheap (no pun intended) relative to the vineyards of the North & South Forks of Long Island, giving the region a huge pricing advantage. I poked and prodded but never really got an answer to the question when I asked ‘so, how much cheaper is the land up here?’ A 30 dollar lunch for two at a spectacular microbrew called the Wildflower Cafe in Watkins Glen, as in Nascar & Indy Car Watkins Glen, told me all I needed to know about land prices. Are you sure you charged us for 4 beers, an appetizer and two sandwiches?

While just about every strain of popular vinifera imaginable is grown in the Finger Lakes, my real motivation for visiting was to gauge their take on Alsatian varietals (Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer- I think every single winery I went to makes a Gewurztraminer). That said, a quick word on the reds & stray whites:
  • Chardonnay was eh. Most of the examples I tried were mercifully unoaked, yet banal. To my way of thinking this grape is best served in sparkling wines when grown in Finger Lake soils. While I have high hopes for the region’s potential in the fizzy department, it still seems a bit behind in comparison to top sparklers from Wolffer, Lenz and the like from Long Island.
  • Sauvignon Blanc- though not nearly as widely planted as Chardonnay, Sauvignon seems to do exceptionally well upstate, with top examples showing Pouilly Fume-like notes of smoke, flint & citrus fruits, backed by bracing acidities. Some may be a bit severe, yet the bulk of my tasting revealed most versions carry plenty of flesh atop their bony structures.
  • Pinot Noir- don’t go there, just don’t. Each Pinot I tried (save for Ravines, which is a producer talented enough to make a Charbono from the Finger Lakes palatable) was boring, bitter or bad. Maybe the talent and persistence of the region will prove enough to tackle this grape, but is it really worth the effort when you can devote your energies to WORLD CLASS Riesling?
  • Blaufrankisch, the surprise of the trip. Granted, I’d only tasted a handful, but there’s undeniable potential here. I may have slight label bias, thinking latitudinally (Germany, Alsace & Austrian grapes seem to do so well here, why wouldn’t this one?), but the examples I’d had were undeniably good and, more importantly, unique. The one problem- they call it Lemberger here. Reason being- Blaufrankisch is a weird name, no one can market such an oddity, yet Lemberger is way too phonetically similar to stinky cheese for it to sell either. I hate Catch 22’s.
  • Cabernet Franc- while not quite on par w/ the North Fork as of yet, I saw nothing but promise from the producers dedicated to Franc. There’s been some interesting research at Cornell demonstrating that pyrazines (the unwelcome component implicated in the bell pepper phenomenon of Cab Franc) can be greatly minimized by leaf pulling early in berry development. Managing the canopies a few days before methoxypyrazine accumulation ramps up (roughly 30 days post bloom) seems to do the trick. Several Californian Franc producers have dealt w/ pyrazines by burying them under layers of ripe fruit, but the Finger Lakes aim is to nip them in the bud before they get cookin’ in the first place.
  • Other reds- I wish were a smaller focus, not to say there weren’t a couple solid examples of Meritage blends, but again- the Alsatian varieties are SO good upstate that I fanatically believe the bulk of the land, enological talent and time should be dedicated in their direction as much as possible. I do understand and empathize w/ the notion that the region is relatively young, experimenting and has their own agendas (far more important than mine!) to manage, but I’d be remiss to not mention that the potential greatness to be found in a Finger Lakes Riesling or Gewurztraminer is likely to be marginalized by a diffuse portfolio. Fair or unfair, it may be an unwelcome perception that stunts the region’s growth.

As for the top wines of the region, the styles vary from dry to semi-dry to semi-sweet. Fans of Mosel Riesling will likely find the semi-sweet wines of the Finger Lakes to be almost trocken (dry) by relation, as the alcohols trend well over 12 percent and the acidities are almost uniformly brilliant, RS or no RS. When there’s a bit more sugar to go around, these wines wore it exceptionally well. To generalize, Alsace, Clare/Eden Valley & Austria are better comparators, w/ Finger Lakes Riesling at its best showing an uncompromising severity akin to a Grosset Polish Hill or Trimbach Cuvee Frederic Emile (I’m not exaggerating on either front, fans of said wines will love a top Finger Lakes Riesling). The characteristics for drier Riesling varies from smoky slate & petrol aromas to subtle floral, citrus blossom notes & possess an near-impaling sense of cut. Off dry versions give you the classic peach, apricot and lime notes, yet are not short on nervy malic acidity to keep things fresh, focused and lithe. I was particularly impressed with how intensely mineral-driven the wines were as a whole, leaving me to believe that there’s no area in the US that churns the Old World mineral gear as it does here- at least not that I can think of.

Gewurztraminer & Pinot Gris can be exceptional in these conditions as well, with the former achieving more consistency in terms of quality than the latter. The best Gewurztraminers have explosive bouquets of rose water, apricot and lychee, with dense, rich midpalates & spicy finishes. The only gripe w/ Gewurztraminer was that some of the wines lacked depth & were a tad trim for my tastes; but all in all, there really wasn’t a bad Gewurz to be found (that is unless you loathe the grape all together, making this paragraph a non-event). The Pinot Gris tended to be either over-oaked or neutral, though a couple shining examples demonstrated that honeyed, gorgeously bright profile which brought Domaine Weinbach to mind. As an aside, I did not taste a Gruner Vetliner, but I can only imagine it would flourish in such an environment- latitudinally speaking.

I was a bit shy w/ the dessert wines, as that’s an area I tend to be too easily seduced by. Call it my fruity pebble palate- growing up on artificially sweetened snacks has rendered me a bit anxious in terms of offering anything of value in that department. That said, a few of which were too remarkable to not include in my tasting notes & I will attempt to do the wines a modicum of justice.

Tasting notes & producer impressions are to follow. I’ll give the most coverage to what I considered to be the top 3 producers. I will spill the beans on one thing- I joined one mailing list (I belong to all of 3 or 4, including the obligatories) and I’m already back to order more- the wines are so inexpensive and so damn impressive that I was actually giddy in the tasting room.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Rhone Ranger Relay, Hospice du Rhone

  • Samsara: The only winery visit I made on my way up to Paso (outside of the BBQ extravaganza jackknifed between Pisoni vineyard & a turbulent bump of lunar road). These wines are a bit of a personal project from Chad Melville, whose namesake winery’s line is made by Greg Brewer. The stylistic choices are certainly inspired by Greg- dumping inordinate bunches of kindling into the fermenters (upwards of 40% whole cluster) & practicing abstinence when it comes to commercial yeast. The whole line is Pinot Noir & Syrah, drawing from Mencocino to supplement the Santa Rita Hills based bottlings. The 2 Pinot Noirs I tasted, the ’06 Ampelos Vineyard & ’08 Melville, both emphasize dusty notes of chalk, sea salt & moist earth in their aromas. The Ampelos was a rounder wine, buttressed by soft texture and a long, fresh finish resonate of autumn leaves & berries. The Melville was the weaker of the bunch, as its violet & plum core turned a bit desiccated on the finish, as hints of dried fruit crept into the aftertaste. 90+ & 87 points respectively. The Syrahs took the cake for me, beginning w/ the ’06 Alder Springs from Mendocino, displaying brawn & bite. The flavors were unique, spectrally blue & almost mulberry driven, whistling in a sweet tobacco and anise note on the big-boned finish (91 points). The ’07 Verna’s Vineyard, a site I’m more accustomed to sampling Viognier from, was a cool breath of fresh air, feminine & svelte, w/ a red fruit profile that flirted on the strawberry end of the spectrum (not dissimilar to that of Arcadian). The bright, rose-petal driven finish really turned on the salivary faucets (92 points). The finest Syrah of the bunch was the ’07 Ampelos Vineyard, truly fascinating in its seething, rocky texture. The flavors of black raspberry, cola and pepper were sprayed over a chalky backdrop punched by snappy tannins & a long, kinky finish (93 points).

  • Gramercy Cellars: The John Lewis Reserve Syrah in ’07 is an outrageously powerful, impressive Washington Syrah (when this state gets Syrah right it doesn’t get much better for the New World persuasion). The concentration & depth of fruit carried this cuvee, from vintage to vintage, though the tarry ’06 was the shallowest of the bunch. A barrel sample of ’08 demonstrated terrific texture for such an embryonic Syrah, already laced in layers of pure, suave, polished fruit that is sure to please palates the second it reaches retail shelves.

  • Herman Story: Russell From continues to axe his way through the vineyard, complete with Paul Bunyan flannel, grizzly face fuzz & easy going grin. Stylistically, the wines have behemoth girth, blasting you with flavor & wearing as much oak as they damn well please. Personally, I find oak & Grenache to be a match made for divorce, yet Russell’s ’08 is the first vintage where I found the wood relegated to shadow puppetry. The wine is all about pure fruit, round, lush, explosive. Varietal recognition is secondary to fruity bliss. The Casual Encounters, an inventive co-fermentation of equal parts Grenache, Syrah & Mouvedre, showcases the experimental side of things in the cellar, but the end result is the same- she’s one big, spicy bitch. Those that can sit on subtlety & swallow their tender sensibilities will find Herman Story’s wines to be as endearing & snug as a black bear hug.
  • Hug Cellars: I’d communicated w/ Augie Hug intermittently through the cyber waves, but this was the first I’d met him in the flesh. He’s a wonderful man, with a soft grin & sugar-sweet disposition. His wines struck me as a bit of a cross between Jim Clendenon & Villa Creek, as they emphasize an almost Burgundian sensibility w/ earthy, stylish spice notes. The ’06 Cedar Lane Viognier maintained fine proportion, avoiding the hysterical highs or flabby lows seen w/ this grape in Califonian soil. A real tangerine character tugged at the palate, freshly wrapped in a balanced fist. The El Pape, a GSM Central Coast blend, was one of the more feminine, strawberry-inflected expressions you’ll see from a Grenache dominated blend. Proportion, proportion, proportion…if weighed on a scale its body mass index would be smack dab in the middle of ‘ideal.’ The ’07 Mourvedre, sourced from the Santa Barbara Highlands (not to be confused w/ Santa Lucia), had an exceptionally bright citrus tone to its chalk, briar and white pepper notes whose rusticity was complemented by sheer gentility. Sound like any Mourvedre you know? ‘She’ was one of a kind, perhaps the Crying Game transvestite of Mourvedres, which I admittedly fell for. El Jefe, an ’08 GSM blend, showcased Syrah at a louder volume than the rest, with its peppery blackberry notes forming the flesh above the lush belly of warm milk chocolate. A long tug of dark fruit sneaks up on the finish, boding well for the cellar. The ’07 Cedar Lane Syrah was a terrific tactile experience, letting iron, pepper and chalk dust notes into the fold. The ashy, slate-like mineral impression left on the palate was like no other Californian Syrah I could recall, save for Edmunds St. John. The ’08 El Grande was just as it sounds, a purple fruited, more Paso Robles-like Syrah w/ a mouth-full of sun-baked primary flavors. The least ‘Hug-like,’ as I wrote that this seemed if it came from another winery, yet its creamy textured seamlessness made it entirely gulpable. I finished off w/ El Maestro ’08, an 80/10/10 split of Grenache, Mourvedre & Syrah (a common theme, chez Hug). Augie seemed to know my palate well enough to serve this one up at the end, as it was yin & yang, essentially the chiaroscuro of Grenache light & dark (who’d a thought I’d bust out a chiaroscuro in Grenache description? Thank god for Freshman English). Input your paradox here: Lush, yet seriously biting. Spicy, yet soft. All in shades, a doppelganging chameleon in shadows. To me, Augie’s Grenache has the potential to match up w/ the best in the state (which is high praise from me), but I think this particular blend was so compelling because it was seasoned brilliantly: by just the right amount and just the right type of supporting cast. Well done, and for those like myself that have a penchant for whole cluster, wild fermentation, Hug cellars is more than worth the gustatory trek.

  • Cabot Winery: What is a Humbolt county and what planet is it on? Who’d a known? - A winery that carries its own appellation flag, no neighbors in sight. Unique dirt, the footprints all John & Kimberly Cabot’s. For the record, I felt like I was the ‘last to know’ in terms of Cabot vineyards (as they’ve establish a cult-wine bulletin board following of sorts via typed word), but for those in the dark like myself, Humbolt county is in the far Pacific Northwest portion of California, North of Mendocino & well on its way to Oregon territory. John & his wife Kimberly planted 12 acres of organically farmed Syrah (& sparse Viognier is dusted throughout for co-fermentation of the red blends) in 1998 and 2003. The breadth of their vineyard acerage is hamstrung by minimal availability, mainly due to dense forestation & sprawling mountain ranges that rule the Humbolt lands. From the couple vintages that I sampled through I quickly noticed a familiar theme. Tar, gravel, bramble; tar, gravel, bramble. The signature bouquet. The ’07 Humbolt County Syrah was the most floral of the bunch, awash in tapenade, soy & spicy flavors that were still a tad taut & lean, but finished strong w/ good palate penetration. The ’06 Kimberly Syrah, lifted by 5% of co-fermented Viognier, was as tarry and brambly as they came, w/ a firm, sinewy grip that finished w/ the essence of dusty pebbles. Back to ’06, an Aria’s Syrah in two faces. The first of which was brought up in 6-10 year old barrels & underwent a 50% whole cluster fermentation. The peppery, suave palate was crammed w/ dark berries, hot stones & freshly paved road tar, cloaked in a velvet robe, finishing suavely. The counterpoint, an ’06 Aria for 30 months in old barrels, was a softer, more delicate wine, w/ licorice inflected red fruit notes. This was easily the most gentle of the bunch, lacking the Cornas-like brawny tannins of the more traditionally aged Syrahs. The star of the show, an ’06 aptly named ‘The Bacon Fat,’ was a powerhouse, amped by a wealth of fruit & notes of tilled soil, violet, cola & steamy pork grizzle fresh from the pan. A full bodied mouthful of beefy, chewy Syrah seared in a rocky edge & framed by firm tannins. The Cabots have really got something here & it will be a fascinating project to follow as they continue to unearth new enological ground.
  • Tercero: Larry Schaffer’s baby, Tercero, is a project from one of California’s staunch Grenache advocates who ascended to his own label by way of Fess Parker. Larry’s a passionate, yet empathetic and oddly magnanimous producer that tends to observe all sides closely before weighing in personally. His wines seem to share that similar measured sensibility about them, avoiding the dogma & obfuscation found in the triple-D top heavies or the enamel vaporizing emaciated pH rides. While Larry cheated a bit, dropping in a Gewurztraminer here and a Petite Sirah there during an exclusive Rhone-for-all (house rule my friend, consider yourself HDR hand-cuffed), I thought that his line-up acquitted itself well, particularly when considering the breadth of his project (he seems to make nearly as many wines as Tablas Creek). The big wines- big in good taste, well tailored & HGH free (the Petites were anything but, yet were honest & more about structure than bombastic fruit). The smaller wines- had pH levels well past 2, were full-flavored & generally avoided the ‘I’m small and I’m proud’ Napoleonic complex that plagues wines of certain stature fighting out of their weight class. The Gewurztraminer & Grenache Blanc, two delicious favorites, both were textbook, varietally crafted examples. The Gewurz was sheer rose water & lychee, complemented by a bright spine seen in the better examples of Anderson Valley renditions. The Grenache demonstrated that bright honeydew melon belly, w/ crunchy acidity & a bit less overt sweetness than the popular, becoming somewhat-too-pricey Curran version (of Sea Smoke fame). The Tercero Rose was pure strawberry & chalky lime, w/ an ample, plump frame giving it a bit more culinary flexibility at the table. The Watch Hill Grenache ’07, which Larry notes includes some stems, showed notes of pipe tobacco, briar and crushed berry fruit that filled out a succulent, atypically opulent palate. While more muscular than most, it is as soundly recognizable a Grenache as any from the Golden State (which is no small feat). The Mourvedre immediately became one of my favorite New World examples (alongside Tablas & Villa Creek’s), smelling of enough raw beef, animal fur, leather & pepper to choke a Bandol horse (that is of course if Bandol is home to members of the Equine persuasion). In spite of its fungal, funky fumes, the attack is spry and unfurls a juicy core of fruit, peppered w/ copious amounts of gentle tannins. The ’07 Larner Syrah had all the forward, chocolaty fruit one comes to expect from the vineyard site, wound in hot blackberry sauce & anise notes. The tannins are polished and dissolve on contact, leaving the wine w/ an easy to drink sensation on the back of the tongue. While tasty, I’m finding that Larner Syrah tends to be a bit pedestrian in terms of dimension & complexity- not discrediting the quality of fruit, but perhaps its dynamism. The ’07 Thompson Vineyard Syrah was a big ball of mouth-filling, purple fruit, finding a firm landing on the chocolaty finish. As the Petite Sirah entered the line-up, the sense of dark heft brooded over the wines one by one. The Climb, half Petite from Rodney’s Vineyard (a Fess Parker site) and the other half Syrah from Thompson’s, was a decidedly chunky, substantial red showcasing fruit of a deep nighttime shade. The force behind the ’07 Climb felt like a pile-driver, ending on a warm ganache & slate note. The ’07 Petite Sirah could only be dubbed as a ‘structure bomb,’ lambasting other such members in the category to shrivel in shame. While embryonic & a bit distorted in volume, the searing finish resonates w/ promise. To my palate, the ’08 Petite had a much more alluring floral character, fleshing out attractively as it unwound (but don’t get me wrong, it’s firmly in the burly camp). The Thread ’07 was inviting, w/ sweet licorice notes wrapped in a fine, muscular spine. The Loco, a 50/50 blend of Grenache & Syrah, wound out the Tercero portfolio w/ nice balancing tension between the softness of the Grenache & the tug of the Syrah.

  • Red Car: Fans of Saxum should definitely take a spin in the Red Car, as the Syrah shares a common ‘rainbow of fruit’ like thread. The ’08 Estate, which I believe comes from a Sonoma site adjacent to the Hirsch vineyard, is as silky smooth as they come. The fleshy mid-palate unwinds its layers of hidden spice, brine & kaleidoscopic fruit over a pillowy bed of tannins that are soft as couch cushions. The Cuvee 22 slides up and down a blue-purple teeter totter of fruit in vivid, almost glossy coats, kicking in that welcome spice note on the easy finish.
  • Arnot Roberts: Wineries like Arnot Roberts stir the pot so beautifully, ablating objective truths with each spin & flicker. Brewer Clifton, a winery which I unabashedly admire and regularly inflame my hepatic organ w/, primarily achieves such high alcohol levels to allow the stems enough hang-time to lignify (turn woody), as the wines are all whole cluster. From a whole cluster apprehension-o-meter standpoint- bitter, vegetal stems are as much of a bummer as goopy cream in tepid coffee. Arnot Roberts, who also goes the whole cluster route, takes a paradoxically different approach, throwing the concept of lignification right through a UC Davis grade wood chipper. Their wines are so low in alcohol that producers in Cote Rotie might even tease them for it (just imagine a European encouraging a California producer to chaptalize their wine to increase the alcohol; the bizzaro-world indeed). The Clary Ranch, Hudson North Block, Griffins Lair ’08 Syrahs range in alcohol from 11.5% to 12.2% to a titanic 13.4% (the Alder Springs vineyard apparently has done a bit of heaving lifting). Ironically enough, the winery almost uses the alcohol levels as a selling point, perhaps hinting that the counter-cultural de-alcoholization revolution is afoot. Super-sized foods, biceps, mammary glands, buildings, bank rolls, cinema budgets, viscera, waist bands, blood sugar, etcetera have all become so disgustingly stereotypical that they’re inching they’re way to taboo, is alcohol too far behind? While I can hardly imagine a plastic surgeon’s pile of breast augmentation charts to be surpassed by reduction requests for said organs anytime soon, I do look at low alcohol California reds as a bit of a groping towards equilibrium. All that conjecture aside, the wines from Arnot Roberts seemed to have no problem achieving phenolic ripeness, regardless of their weenie alcohols. The wines are intensely bright, littered in aromatic complexity so varied & vivid that they seem to be originating from multiple species. The Green Island & Bea Ranch North Coast Chardonnay, a bootlegged bottle in-HDR-cognito, had all the tang of green tea, backed by lemon candy, bitter chalk dust, sea salt & honeydew notes. It was refreshing enough to be named as the honorary palate cleanser of the event- just what the nurse practitioner ordered after sampling all ‘em inky Rhones. I joked that you could measure how far away you could smell the wine from the glass as an alternative to counting seconds on the finish (ie: ‘I could smell the wine 20 feet away’ instead of ‘it had a 45 second finish’), that should keep the numbers geeks in check. As for the Syrahs, they are not short on beloved funk & arguably have enough range to match up to anything from fish to filet. I found the Clary Ranch to be the most compelling, so light in weight yet dense in flavor, packing enough zip to please even the most jaded lover of Muscadet. As the wines progressed to Hudson & Griffin’s bottlings I found that the more alcohol they had, the less distinctive they were. Less is more- perhaps reverse osmosis isn’t far behind? Research the anatomy of a wine long enough and you’ll be left w/ more questions than answers.

Odds & Ends:

  • While Grenache still struggles to find its footing in California, some of the successes I’ve seen come from (in addition to the producers already mentioned): Beckmen/Kaena, L’Aventure’s Cote a Cote, Alban, Stolpman, Copain & Villa Creek. There’s more than one way to skin & Grenache, and California’s spotty success includes dense, beefy examples as well as spry styles of the more red-fruited variety.

  • Tablas Creek, arguably the preeminent producer of Rhone Ranger wines in California, deserves additional mention for their influence on winemaking, plant material & could easily be dubbed as the pioneers of Paso. In addition to the obvious, the trend to team Californian know-how w/ French sensibility seems to continue to gain steam, as evidenced by the growing number of joint venture projects in the Rhone Ranger realm.

  • Arcadian’s Syrahs could be the antidote for weaning Pinot Noir lovers off their expensive habit. Joe’s ‘Pinot lover’s Syrah’ possess such delicacy and finesse that they could easily be confused w/ a wine of the Burgundy persuasion if tasted blindly. Fans of crunch acid, red fruit dominated Syrah owe it to themselves to taste Arcadian’s entire line-up, beyond the Pinot and Chardonnay.
  • Foxen, a winery that’s about as rangy and unpretentious as they get, make terrific Rhone Ranger inspired wines at the heart of their portfolio. Their beefy, chewy Syrahs tend to get the most critical praise, but don’t miss the well crafted Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre blend (Cuvee Jeanne Marie, Williamson Dore Vineyard).

  • Harrison Clarke, a new winery for Syrah loving fans to pay close attention to, has recently latched onto a terrifically exposed limestone patch atop the Ballard Canyon Road (well past Stolpman & Larner Vineyards). Roger Harrison, a South African native, has brought on Sashi Moorman, local consultant extraordinaire, to make the wine for his namesake winery. The cuvee Charlotte Syrah, from the aforementioned contiguous limestone plot, is one of the most structured, dense & layered Syrahs I’ve tasted from the ’07 vintage- keep an eye out for this one.

  • The quality of these top producers was almost uniformly excellent, save for my folly of slipping in a few tastes from Rosenblum Cellars. Not to belabor any abject criticism of the winery for the few bottlings they poured at HDR, but all that can be said of the profile of said botttlings is that they tasted of alcoholic fruit punch, with all the characteristics one would expect from fermented Concord grapes. If that is what they’re aiming for, they’re better served sourcing their fruit from the Grand River Valley in Ohio, from vineyards that likely do a better Concord (Niagra, Catawba, pick your poison) than Rosenblum does an imitation Concord, and I’m certain land out there is dirt cheap compared to California. No offense to people that dig jug juice, but they shouldn’t have to pay California prices for it, much less deal w/ the faux-Syrah labeling subterfuge.

Hospice du Rhone: Misc notes from CDP to Cote Rotie

The following impressions were collected over a couple two hour walk around sessions during the Hospice du Rhone. Considering the environment, my propensity to babble on w/ winemakers & the frenetic pace of each event, my notes aim to capture a bit broader stroke than the typically pedantic wine prose to which you may be accustomed. My penmanship deteriorated as the afternoon’s progressed, as did the content of my impressions. My hopes are that this preface suffices as an adequate apology for the shortcomings of the following:

· Clos St. Jean: In addition to the behemoths that were sampled during the seminar, Vincent poured his ‘08s, a vintage destined for obscurity, caught in the vortex of the ’07-’09 tornado. The Vieilles Vignes showed very well, w/ forward fruit in an immediately complex package. The palate was augmented by a wily spice note & framed by well rounded tannins. If the price is right, the balance of this young wine should provide for great drinking early in the game. The Deus Ex Machina & Combe des Fous suffered a bit from high extraction syndrome- all thrust & not enough raw materials to fill out their stocky shoulder pads. The bittersweet cocoa & espresso notes were there, but each cuvee displayed a level of grit that I had yet to experience from either. ’08 will likely be a year to avoid Clos St. Jean’s luxury cuvees, save for an unlikley discounting freefall.
· Domaine de la Solitude: Perhaps the least represented great producer in my Rhone-centric cellar. My excuse? Idiocy. I plead hollow cranial disease, particularly in regards to the cuvee Barberini, pound for pound one of the most under-rated wines of the appellation. The ’04 showed brilliantly w/ its peppery, velvet textured palate displaying equal sides of grace & power at this stage of its evolution (94 points). The ’07 Blanc was solid (89 points), but a mere afterthought once the elephantine Secret de Solitude ’07 passed my lips. The superlatives were super-elementary and might as well be distilled into recess garbles of ‘totally awesome’ and ‘wicked great dude’ and ‘stuff rocks man’ nonsense, as the overwhelming intensity of the wine battered my dissection of the wine’s characteristics to sophomoric dribble. Gorgeous young trophy wine, and a genuine trophy she is (99 points). The Cuvee Constanza (originated in the ’05 vintage, 100% Grenache aged in 80% tank, 20% wood barrels) demonstrated just how dramatically different the ’05 vintage is from ’07, particularly at this stage in development. The ’05 had a taut, sinewy spine that was wrapped in a great wall of tannin- China style, while the ’07 was an enveloping, lush siren, pillowed impressively in sweet Grenache baby fat (95+ and 97 points respectively).
· La Nerthe: One of my favorite white Rhones year in; year out has to be from La Nerthe, w/ their ’09 CDP blanc generating all that Chenin Blanc-like character I’ve come to expect from the house. Aromatics of green tea, persimmon and baked apple were backed by a lilting, zingy palate that kept freshness at the forefront (92 points). The ’07 Chateauneuf du Pape Rouge echoed just the reminder I needed regarding the vintage: buy cheap cuvees by the truckload. Just a beautifully poised, round young Chateauneuf du Pape w/ all the depth of flavor you’d hope for in the Cuvee des Cadettes (sans the oak) & a style that likely will be most flattering over the first dozen years of its existence (94 points).
· Domaine de Barroche: The two traditional cuvees from Barroche contrasted the ’08 & ’07 vintages nicely, w/ the ’08 shaded in a floral, elegant frame lifted by easy delineation and harmony. The ’07, on the other hand, blackened to the core, brooding & bubbling over a powerful fist of fruit that trumped the anthropometrics of the ’08 in terms of length & breadth, reminding me how opulence can overwhelm charm at a tasting such as this, like bringing a knife to a gunfight (92 and 95 points respectively).
· Domaine Cristia: The 3 offerings from Cristia were tri-polar, filling out one of the most awkward wine geometries imaginable. The ’06 Vieilles Vignes, a pure Grenache cuvee, must have been the inspiration for Justin Smith’s ‘Rocket Block’ nomenclature, as it was a flat out rocket blast of fruit, rifling through spades of kirsch, fruitcake & sweet licorice notes as if touched off by high energy dynamite. This fantastic, scintillating ride is well worth the amusement park line wait & is simply uncanny for an ’06 (96 points). The Renaissance ’05 was an inevitable drop-off, though I didn’t imagine the drop would cover such ladders of altitude. The wine was a grapey monolithic mess, disjointed at oblique angles and puckered to an astringent clip. I have no idea what was cooking w/ this showing but let’s cross our fingers and toes and chalk it up to ’05 structural awkwardness. Phasic. The Quartz, ’07, had no such excuse, yet was equally awkward in its unyielding, compressed profile that was far too tight-lipped to utter a sound. I do not know if this was a late bottled version, but ‘07s don’t tend to be shy, rather they trend in a 180 degree direction.
o Note. Justin Smith likely did not name his Rocket Block after the Domaine Cristia VV ’06. In fact, it would be chronologically impossible for him to do so, considering his Rocket Block originated before said vintage of said wine was hatched. I have not discussed the naming of Rocket Block w/ Justin during any occasion, past or present. I disclaim everything and fabricate anything.
· Yves Cuilleron: One of Neal Rosenthal’s more modern imports, Cuilleron’s Condrieus have always been impressive w/ their bright, flashy expressions of Viognier fruit, w/ the ’07 Vertige firing on a powerfully opulent angle for the region. What impressed me most w/ Cuilleron is the progress he’s made w/ his Northern Rhone reds, as his Saint Joseph Serine (an appellation the performed particularly well in ’07 based on these tastings) achieved a confluence of seamlessness & savagery. In spite of its beefy nerve it was wrapped in a burnished texture that made it instantly approachable. As for the Cote Rotie, Terres Sombre ’07, it was a much more backward, cellar-worthy red, with notes of bay leaf & spicy graphite holding sway over its tight tendons of dark fruit. His wines; both white and red, are expressive, plump vixens that cover an opposing stylistic ground to Villard.
· Yves Gangloff: The biggest tease of the tasting came from Gangloff in the shape of a 2 case import, Saint Joseph. Its production & distribution might as well make it a 100 foot plot in some obscure Burgundy appellation, yet Domaine Gangloff had the audacity to pour their diminutively produced bauble at Hospice, which was an ’08 that came damn close in quality & form to the ’04 Chave Hermitage Blanc we’d gulped through at lunch. There’s such limited supply that I doubt I’ll find anyone who’s tasted it to disagree w/ me on its merits, but let me make a not so unobvious plea to the Domaine to either ramp up production (this was their first vintage), extend their reach overseas or simply stop pouring this sauce in places that can’t access it, ie: America. Anyways, the ’08 Condrieu was a sensuous walk through the tropics, with soaring perfume and a lush, apricot inflected palate. The ’06 La Barbarine, Cote Rotie, was an absolute beauty. While I’ve generally considered this vintage to be a bit of a ballerina, this showpiece was loaded, w/ a concentrated wedge of white pepper, mesquite smoke & beefy currant notes that fanned out in long, lush, symmetrical tiers. Out of all the Cote Roties I’d sampled through, this was the most salivatory (next to Ogier), 96 points. The wordplay award goes to team Gangloff for their Santa Barbarine, a Santa Barbara county take on the aforementioned Cote Rotie. Kunin provided the territorial acuity for the project (which I believe is sourced from a vineyard previously owned by Andrew Murray), with the ’07 toeing the line between both worlds Old & New. The nose mixes animal & intensity, with an array of road tar, licorice, cassis & funky unmentionables that neck up & down the spice rack of the kitchen. The round generosity & warmth of the palate is all Santa Barbara, but what really compelled was the outrageous encore, taking shape in a long, multi-dimensional finish which sparked a bitter chocolate bite. The ’06 was even broader & deeper- which could arguably be credited to bottle ageing as much as the distinction between vintages. Gangloff’s dazzling New World joint venture was as much the talk of the floor as any during the big tent tastings at Hospice and deservedly so. I pegged both wines for mid 90’s ratings.
· Francois Villard: Was there a more enjoyable tasting table than Francois Villard’s? Probably not, considering the guy seemingly makes dozens of different wines (all of which rock like a mineral). The ’08 Version, St. Peray, A Marsanne that takes tang to a new level, cackling away w/ green tea, blanched almond & honey notes that cut through the palate like a switchblade, leaving the mouth watering for another sip. The Mairlant, a 70/30 Marsanne/Roussanne blend, picks up the zip where the St. Peray left off, tucking in quite a bit of nuance to its bony frame. Moving to Francois’s Viogniers, the best deal of the house has to be his Les Contours de Deponcins VDP ’08, full of peaches ‘n cream & baked apple flavors that snap up & down the tongue to a fresh finish w/ pronounced clarity & drive. The diamonds of Villard’s collection come in the shape of 3 Condrieu’s: Deponcins, Les Gran Vallon & Les Terrasses Du Palat. The ’08 group, beginning w/ Les Terrasses, shows the flesh & thickness of a Cuilleron, yet w/ hairpin focus & poise, extending to the long, almost ethereal finish. Les Gran Vallon ratcheted up the depth a bit, yet my favorite of the bunch, the De Poncins, had a crunchy, almost severe minerality that buttressed the sparkling tiers of bright licorice & exotic green fruit flavors (92, 93, 94 points, respectively). Again, the ’07 St. Josephs show that they’re a force to be reckoned w/, as the Reflet proved to be the most dynamic & nimble of Villard’s bunch, showing fascinating tar & spice notes throughout its complex, seamless frame. Not to be outdone in the joint venture department by Gangloff, Villard has teamed up w/ Dave Miner (HDR’s person of the year in 2010) to create ‘La Diligence,’ Stagecoach vineyard picked Marsanne & Syrah wines that are also worthy of a wine-search for Rhone enthusiasts. Tablas Creek was onto something w/ this whole Frenchofornian Paso thing…

As an aside, our sips and slurps stumbled a bit when the Cotes du Rhone girls walked through the room, scantily adorned in black & red sultry-wear, perhaps metaphorically hinting at the formerly beleaguered region’s current sex appeal. Lipstick wearing Grenache blends may be a new marketing trend, aimed to compete globally w/ Australian Kangroos, Cape taboos & Californian tattoos, but I’d be lying if I didn’t mention that they’re designer perfume came off smelling a bit cheap.

I’ll splice in the New World Rhone blends on the next installment, allowing you some time to digest. In totality, wines were universally impressive from either side of the pond, though I do have to couch that appraisal w/ the fact that the Franco-contingency was well represented by almost exclusively top tier producers (and my snobby eyes tend to gravitate to the best).

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Dynamite Rose for a Fair Fare

Bastide Blanche, Bandol Rose '09

A pale (surprisingly so for the appellation) salmon hued rose, draped in iron, sea salt, blood orange & strawberry aromas. From its mildly earthy nose it deepens in the palate, broadening to a savory scope of flavors that I found myself nearly chewing through. Powerful & texturally brilliant, finishing w/ a fine, pebbly edge that dangles a dusty graphite note on a string. Packs a Tempier punch at a discounted fare, 91 points.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Excellent Value in White Bordeaux

Value in the un-value of wine categories can be a particularly enjoyable find. At 14 dollars and change it doesn't get much better than this for boutique blanc:

Graville Lacoste '08

One of my favorite cepages for Bordeaux blanc, w/ this Kermit Lynch import layering a larger portion of Semillon in the blend, keeping Sauvignon Blanc & Muscadelle in the passenger seat. The light golden colored wine has a sensational, waxy nose of chive, freshly cut grass, white peach, guava and honey. Bracing on entry, yet paradoxically wrapped in an unctuous texture that balances well tailored oak w/ good concentration. A lush tug of acidity echoes on the finish, teasing you to another sip. Just a terrific value in white Bordeaux & a great gateway drug to boot, 89 points.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Hospice du Rhone Installment 4: Chateauneuf du Pape

After the dust settled from the whipping mane of Charles Smith, the tone & texture of Hopsice du Rhone began to soften. I’m uncertain whether or not the stridence of Smith’s exposition submarined the Chateauneuf seminar, but I will offer that it was my least favorite of the exquisitely run events at the 2010 Hospice. Heretical words from a bleeder of Grenache blood I know, resembling a rough equivalent to a closet confession from ESPN’s Dick Vitale- sobbing his preference of NBA to the NCAA. 10 Hail Mary’s, 4 Our Fathers. Please submit to the court some self-damning evidence: I’ve had all these wines on numerous other occasions, the translation of our esteemed French guests was staticy, Charles Smith got me drunk on Grower Champagne at 9 am…but I digress.

Michel Tardieu (the namesake ‘Tardieu Laurent’), Vincent Maurel (Clos St. Jean) & Philippe Cambie paneled the ‘Incredible Cambie-nation,’ aptly named when one considers the expanse of Philippe’s resume. Cambie consults to a nation of Chateaueneuf producers, a who’s who in globally great Grenache. Zealots that cast Rolland-size stones towards Cambie’s houses should reconsider, when looking up & down Cambie’s ladder from Clos St. Jean to Vieux Donjon we objectively see that these houses are in fact, not all alike. In fact, they are about as polarizing in terms of style, approach & execution as wines get in Chateauneuf. The one commonality they all seem to share: critics love them. If you’re a start-up domaine in the region and are looking to craft a ‘Cambie-ized wine,’ I suggest the following approach. Draw from ancient vineyard, bio-dynamically grown Grenache, planted to sandy, stony, alluvial soils. Make one cuvee, scratch that, multiple cuvees…make both. Take a traditionally modern approach, incorporate cement tanks, foudres, small barrels, de-stem, don’t de-stem. Vinify ripe fruit w/ native yeasts, stir, wash, rinse. Aim for fruity, earthy wines. Spicy, subtle, explosive- geared for the masses and the artisanal consumer. A little dab will do yah, coated completely.

There’s your Cambie-ized wine. A simple, complex approach. Thank goodness Philippe Cambie doesn’t paint with the grossly generalized, erroneous brush that’s blotching up the blogosphere, otherwise the Chateauneuf faithful would be draped in cloaks, dogmatic and clanking, a spewed rhetoric. If you ask me, his palate & his wines are emblematic of the acute heterogeneity I noticed sitting next to, behind & in front of me, from palate to palate. If all the estates he’d been working with had crafted similar wines, I’d think our collective passions would be all the less…passionate.

That said, Clos Saint Jean really is Cambie’s wine. Out of all the domaines he consults for, Clos Saint Jean is one of which he comes closest to ‘making’ on his own accord. The style of this particular domaine is of the darkest and most brooding the region’s ever seen. From this stylistic perspective, it makes wines grouped w/ Clos St. Jean show feebly by comparison, as if they were a welterweight competing out of class. Michel Tardieu’s wines, to my palate, suffered that fate to a degree- but I’ll also posit that Tardieu’s wines simply aren’t as objectively impressive, even in isolation. This was a Clos St. Jean pow-wow, with Tardieu’s tickle tangling in the afterburners.

Clos St. Jean CDP Blanc, ‘07
The weakest of the group for Clos St. Jean remains their white offering, which resembles a workman like affair of modest melon, pineapple & honeyed toast notes. The entry has an immediate lushness, yet fans out to a bit of a foursquare body, teasing out a finish of green apple peel bite, 87 points.

Michel Tardieu CDP Blanc, ‘07
The one area where Tardieu’s wines eclipse Clos St. Jean was its white, a Grenache Blanc dominated blend that adds a drip of Roussanne to the mix. The color is a deeper, more saturate gold than the CSJ, with a creamy, rich nose of nutmeg & tapioca pudding notes filling out the bouquet. As if on a swivel, the palate turns a bright shade, with its sharp, exacting focus giving light to the baked apple and honeysuckle flavors that linger nicely on the long, alluring finish, 92 points.

Michel Tardieu CDP Grenache, La Crau ‘07
A nice offering from Tardieu, with a dark core of baking spices, roast coffee, black raspberrry & kirsch notes dominating the profile in very 2007 fashion. As it airs the bouquet soars into plumes, through still reserved in the palate, taut yet supple, awash with crushed berry notes. Pushed by a generous thrust of acidity, the finish tugs at the cheeks with a snap of dark pepper. This wine really seemed to augment & strut with exposure to air, boding well for the near-term future, 92+ points.

Clos St. Jean Deus Ex Machina, ‘07
A bit early to be sampling the big kahuna (much less a neonatal version of said kahuna), yet one never turns down a chance to dance with this Colossus. 60% Grenache & 40% Mourvedre, 100% beast…an immobile titan of a wine, carved of stone, with a deep, impenetrably closed façade that showcases as much raw power & density as one could imagine a performance enhanced Chateauneuf could achieve. The palate is jammed with mouth-coating tannin, towers of raw extract & enough glycerine to choke a horse, barely delineating its pitch black flavors that bite like heady espresso. Too young to taste, too palpable not to marvel, 96+ points.

Michel Tardieu CDP Grenache, La Crau ‘06
This was not an impressive 2006, as it was plagued by a blowzy aimlessness from nose to palate. The risks of stand alone Grenache cuvees are numerous, with one consequence being its propensity to develop dried fruit notes that teeter-todder one’s personal levels of acceptability, what I like to call the subjective debate of ‘when does a fig become a raisin.’ This wine was pricked by such a defect, alongside its salty, seaweed like characteristics that just didn’t mesh with its turbulent structure. Is it crawling into an awkward phase or simply awkward? Let’s hope this showing was an intermittent one, for buyer’s sake, 76 points.

Clos St. Jean Deus Ex Machina, ‘06
Surprise, surprise; guess which domaine found unexpected opulence in 2006? Alongside Clos des Papes, CSJ crafted wines of uncanny power in this vintage, yet the Deus is noteworthy for the clarity that’s found in its muscle. The dark fruited, profound tactile experience is brought into focus with an airbrush, as the tannins are impossibly fine for a wine of such raw youth & mass. Don’t confuse this with drinkability, as I’d recommend owners of this wine keep it under lock & key for at least 5 more years, 95+ points.

Michel Tardieu Grenache, La Crau ‘05
The stony, sea-salt theme found in the 2006 is also evident in this vintage, yet it’s wrapped in a much more classic, well-proportioned frame. The spice cake, sweet date & damp earth notes zip through the firm, surprisingly brisk palate with nice follow-through & length, 91+ points.

Clos St. Jean VV, ‘05
In case you were wondering, the domaine has been vacated of all ’05 uber-cuvees. Their stay in the cellars of Clos St. Jean was a mere weigh station, leaving their storage blocks immediately dusty, in abject vacancy. However, one of the most impressive deals in the Southern Rhone, the ‘entry level’ CSJ cuvee, cannot be overlooked. Just a big, fat WOW was my tasting note for the first few sips & slurps. Entry level my ass. Blot the spittle, elbows off the table, stop staring, compose thyself. She’s just a gorgeous, brilliant young wine, full of an energetic rush in the shape of dark fig, espresso roast, bittersweet cocoa & hot stone notes. Full, long & awash in vibrancy, as the crackle & smoke of the finish stays with you long after the juice leaves your lips, 94 points.

Michel Tardieu Grenache, La Crau ‘04
This ’04 was the only red wine of the tasting that was ready to be not only tasted, but drunk. A fresh, red-fruited wine, with a nose of cherry, dusty plum and cedar notes. Its spry entry was buffered by deceptive structure, funneling the mid-weight frame to a long, tangy finish resonate of garrigue, 91 points.

Clos St. Jean Combe des Fous, ‘04
The only sampling of the Combe des Fous came from the 2004 vintage, with its singular character coming from its seasoning of old vine Vacarrese & Cinsault. A distinctively floral note forms the trademark, buffered by scents of dark olive, sweet earth & kirsch liqueur. Again, the wine has an almost sinfully mouth-filling presence that reaches the point of surfeit, yet this particular cuvee demonstrates threads of finesse that make it unique & almost beguiling. As the mass begins to shed, watch out, there’s something undeniably sensual here, 95+ points.

For the next installment I’ll put together a Cliffs Notes rendition of the dozens of wines sampled during the mosh-pit style tastings at Hospice du Rhone. There were several new faces (and appellations) to be found amongst the legions that comprise our familiar Rhone folklore, and I’ll try to give the upstart producers a bit more attention in my commentary.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Hospice du Rhone Installment 3: Charles Smith

Quiet Name, Loud Wine

We were all hung over. The night before involved some 60 odd bottles that took us well into the jet-lagged night. Notes for said bottles escape me, but the residual Sahara grip on the roof of my mouth remains as clear as a Pacific sunrise. 9 a.m. is too early for a damn seminar. Apparently Charles Smith, of K Vintners & Charles Smith wines, agrees- considering he was nowhere to be found at that ungodly hour. Was he dangling out of a dumpster somewhere in downtown Paso Robles? Perhaps his hair, somewhat of a cross between Carlos Valderrama & cotton candy, was taking a tad longer to blow dry than expected? We waited, dry mouthed, staring into our diner placemats complete w/ K Vintner vertical flights and a curious flute of bubbly. A bit of Washington fizz perhaps? Tick-tock tick-tock…Poland Spring bottles pounding down parched lips like they’ve got the cure inside. Desiccated eye lids, swelled red like over-ripe strawberries, watch bound and wondering. Where the hell is Charles Smith?

Yo, M.C. Alan Kropf of Mutineer Magazine grabs the microphone like Del Preston at Waynestock to a thunderous pronouncement of “Charrrrrrrrrrlllleeeesssss Smmiiiiittthhh!” Playing possum- the man in question was a former rock band manager. Who’d a known?

Buckle your seats folks; get ready for the F-bomb brigade. A command assault of profanity splattered our wings like vulgar clouds of high level flak. No amount of bullet-proofing could prepare our ears for the pummeling they took. The barrage of F-bomb shrapnel left some of us wounded, some in stitches & others simply open-mouthed. ‘Who here loves wine? Raise your hands…if you don’t put your hand up you’re gonna get a beat down! Let me tell you something about Rhone producers and Rhone drinkers, they’ve got F’n balls! It’s not some boring F’n Bordeaux seminar, at Hopsice du F’n Rhone, these F’n wines F-you up!’ Etcetera. The cobwebs were shaken off, we were officially awake.

As for the bubbly in question, ‘F’n grower Champagne and don’t F’n spit it out!’ Your wish is my command. Kurt Cobain’s local grunge music & Robert Plant’s hair- all the terroir parallels you’ll need (he threw in Barossa’s AC/DC riff to balance Walla Walla’s Nirvana). When asked about his viticultural practices, Smith replied ‘these grapes are gonna be my bitch!’ Alright Charles, your wines better bring it as much as you do.

Truth be told, this was my first experience w/ K Vitners, but be lying if I didn’t admit some serious expectations. Charles Smith, a winner of Food & Wine’s winemaker of the year, owes quite a bit of his start-up to Christophe Baron of Cayuse fame. Anyone that reads me knows my holy grail is branded w/ a Cayuse insignia, so upon hearing such a connection I doffed the earplugs, licked the lips & braced for impact. Offensive guy + access to Cayuse fruit is sure to produce an = amount of excitement & disgust. I’m pumped.

Enough F’n foreplay, onto the F’n notes!

All of the following wines are Syrah from the 2006 Vintage. The wines were foot crushed & basket pressed, utilizing native yeast fermentation w/ varied upbringing techniques based upon the vintage/vineyard characteristics.

Pheasant Vineyard, Wahluke Slope
Coming from mostly sandy soils, the Pheasant Vineyard was one of the shyest in the K line-up (oxymoron), w/ its reticent hints of plum, flowers and spice notes peeking through. The attack turns fleshy, w/ a suave, violet-tinged texture coating the mid-palate nicely. The wine really picks up the pace on the finish, which leaves the palate awash in smoky, mesquite spice flavors, 92+ points.

The Deal, Sundance Vineyard
This is another Wahluke Slope site from K, yet this vineyard is currently demonstrating a far more savage, animal character in its tarry, black shaded scents of pepper, fur & wild beefy suggestions. The mid-palate has a hearty, savory bite to it, rife w/ more up-front power and depth than the Pheasant Vineyard, powering through to the long, heady finish. I absolutely loved it, 95 points.

Cougar Hills Vineyard, Walla Walla
The first Walla Walla designated Syrah, w/ a serious, immediate density to its briny black olive & tobacco notes. Sometimes crass descriptions serve as the best ones, so let me call this what it is, a brick shithouse. The palate of the wine is a muscular flex, with a spunky beef jerky note (a la Cayuse) holding sway over the vivid belly of purple fruit. Firm & fresh all at once, with its weighty body taking a load off on the mouth-watering finish spiced in white pepper, 94+ points.

Wells, Walla Walla
To me, this was the Camaspelo of the bunch, more provocative than it is pleasurable. Flat out funky in its bouquet of cooked cabbage, leather, porcini mushroom, tapenade and sweet balsamic scents. It is a paradoxical wine in that it feels ripe to the tongue yet has a vegetal streak (which could be a vineyard characteristic, brett or Charles Smith’s feet), as the mouth-feel demonstrates surprisingly structure, complexity & intensity. It’s just one of those oddities of overtly expressive wine, leaving you w/ an objective admiration, yet abject revulsion. The score fails me here, much like an awkward stamp on impressionistic art, 84 points.

Phil Lane, Walla Walla
What a difference a site makes- moving to the minty end of the spectrum on Phil Lane felt like a cool breeze through the nose in its menthol, licorice and milk chocolate notes. Think Andes Candies. Pure, polished and impossibly elegant through the palate, w/ a seamless bent that puts it on an island from the rest of Charles Smith’s portfolio. This is a Syrah for fans of the classics who loathe the obnoxiousness of the rest of the bunch, 93 points.

Motor City Kitty, Stoneridge Vineyard, Royal Slope, Columbia Valley
The 2006 saw zero new oak, bringing us back to the beef in its tightly coiled, savory scented nose. Undoubtedly in need of extended aeration (or more preferably, ageing), the wine incrementally builds on the palate, un-locking its layers upon layers of spicy, purple fruit flavors. This really augmented in the glass, shifting to an expansive gear that didn’t truly explode until its crescendo of a finish. She needs quite a bit of time to let loose, as 4-5 more years should help shed some of that power left in reserve, 94+ points.

Royal City, Stoneridge Vineyard, Royal Slope, Columbia Valley
Shall we save the behemoth for last? We shall, with this 17 plus percent alcohol bombshell completely shocking us in its restraint. The nose contradicts its heft, seeming fairly classic with its dusty graphite, cedar & savory plum notes. The raw materials don’t reveal themselves until the wine passes the lips, as the viscosity & sheer mass seem close to bursting at the seams, yet the weight stays in proportion, thanks to a firm skeleton & jazzy bright acidity. The length here is tremendous, suspending dusty earth, hard spices & warm blackberry sauce notes in thin air, resonate and complete, 95+ points.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Hospice du Rhone installment 2, Ogier: Finesse, Elegance & Pairing

Finesse & Elegance- two words that are spewed out to a point of surfeit in wine diction- two words which I'd like to dump into a biodynamic compost heap. They’re tired and they’re cliché and they’re archaic, but what wedgies my tighty whities most is how they’re mechanically thrown about the winespeak pitching mound regardless of who’s up to bat. Setting the bar low (or high, either way you slug it) with a 16.5% percent alcohol elephantine Pinot Noir from Napa Valley that ‘somehow manages to be elegant.’ Come on, really. Or another claret, in the long line of distinguished clarets, that ‘reeks of finesse’…well maybe it does, but can’t we use another word? No not reek, I like reek, I mean for elegant. If you’ve got a dozen elegant Bordeaux, one by one in a shooting gallery, who cares? Doesn’t that make what they don’t have more interesting? The erroneous use & sheer redundancy of 'finesse & elegance' have soured me on said terms a bit, but what about when they’re spot on, dead center apropos, absolutely perfect adjectives to use on a wine at hand? Am I still allowed to sneak ‘em in as descriptors after bashing the hell out of them? Caveat emptor- some wines strike me as so archetypal that they must have existed before the adjectives came around, as if the words were created just for them, like a tailored suit. Ogier’s Cote Rotie, for lack of better terminology (or perhaps as an emblem of said terminology in its quintessence), are the incarnate of all enological finesse & elegance in all their defining grace. They float, they glide, they tiptoe with authority. Justification for their use noted.

If you’d like the inspired gasbag to continue to state his case for using such timid terms for such exemplary wines, feel free to nudge. For brevity’s sake, let’s move onto door number two.

Pairing- usually a term associated with the grouping of particular wines w/ particular foods, but during the Cote Rotie, The Next Generation seminar, I felt compelled to take the liberty to direct said term towards the grouping of a particular winemaker with...a particular winemaker. John Alban sitting next to Stephane Ogier, tasting his wines. The aforementioned moderator of the seminar makes some of the most burly, broad-shouldered expressions of Rhone varieties on the planet, easily taking the cake in the ‘my wine can beat up your wine’ competition. That said, they not only express their Edna Valley site uniquely, they do so in a way that I find to be compelling, equally and oppositely from the stable of Ogier. How is that possible? Big & balanced, ethereal & elegant- or, sans alliteration- good wines come in all dimensions. The chemist in me is interested in pH, brix, phenolic ripeness, dry extract...though my gustatory marrow tends to win out. In Bacchus we trust (or, for you 80’s pop music fans, consider Paula Abdul’s ‘opposites attract’ in verse).

We’ll call Ogier the Chateau Lafite of Cote Rotie (or the Chateau des Tours of the North, or the…you get idea), with John Alban playing the electric bass to his acoustic violin. Seriously, could you possibly make two Viogniers that are more different than Alban & Ogier? No cheating Italian fans, your funky fermented on the skins jobs don’t count. Why don’t they count? ‘Cuz I make the rules, my game.

Stephane Ogier’s line-up (minus the ’08 Syrah, La Rosine VDP & ’07 Cote Rotie Reserve, which were casualties of the hit & run variety):

Viognier 2008, Viognier de Rosine VDP
The bulk of Ogier’s discussion on his whites consisted of ‘I do NOT believe in battonage (stirring of the lees).’ Cautioned w/ a ‘hey, it’s cool if you do it, but that’s just not the way I roll.’ I’m paraphrasing obviously, it sounded much better in his French accent. Well the first of his Viognier came in under 12.5% alcohol, which is exceptionally low for the variety. The hue was slightly pale, but the bouquet was sheer ambrosia. A fiery spray of honeycomb, warm apple pie crust, rose petals & grapefruit peel stole the show, as the palate turned a bit trim, w/ its crunchy, almost tart rip of green apple-peel acidity brimming through the finish, 88 points.

Condrieu, 2008
A slightly headier (13% alcohol), more golden colored Viognier, with a reserved, coiled nose of quince, sea salt, peach & rose water perfume. This fleshier, naked expression of Viognier rips through the palate w/ a tactile, rocky-river bed like layer of minerality pumping out to the juicy finish. While the Condrieu is obviously a tad riper, it maintains a poise and lacy texture that is all Ogier This wine sees zero small barrels, 91 points.

Syrah L’Ame Soeur, VDP 2007
How many VDPs come even close to the class of this effort? His ‘07s are just tremendous up & down the line, w/ the VDP revealing a deep ruby core of color. The sultry perfume of wild spices, briar, white pepper, flat iron singed meat & dark, smoky berries almost gave me goose bumps. In the mouth, the entry weaves in such fabulous layers of suave, velveteen texture that I seldom experience from young Rhone, even in Cote Rotie. The ethereal wave of earthy, delicate fruit spins its way to the finish, propelled by a stony, rippling undercurrent of acidity, 92 points.

Cote Rotie, Lancement 2007
The Lancement was completely de-stemmed in 2007, firing out another impressively aromatic statement that brings to mind the irresistible scent of smoke swelling up from wood grilled game. The attack brings about a raw kaleidoscope of flavors, shuffling in notes of pepper, brick dust, tilled earth & sun baked dark fruits. The flavors flicker & spark the taste buds throughout the palate through shapely curves- an almost impossibly elegant frame. This is singular stuff that I can’t imagine coming from anywhere but Cote Rotie, 95 points.

Cote Rotie, Belle-Helene 2007
The Belle-Helene represents some of Ogier’s oldest vines in Cote Rotie, with the 2007 incorporating about 15% of the stems. Quite the contrast to the Lancement, which was full of showy immediacy, the Belle Helene has a taut, more sinewy tannic frame. In spite of its backward disposition, the quality of the fruit is obvious with its intense & perfumy notes of caramel, milk chocolate, cassis & lead pencil shavings. She’s got a body to die for, but a few more years in the cellar are a must, 95+ points.

Cote Rotie, Reserve du Domaine 2001
In spite of the 9 years under its belt, the Reserve is still impenetrably dark, arguably more so than the babies of the flight. A funky, freaky blast of the bouquet and you’re transported over to something from the world of Bonneau, as a provocative array of cabbage, sweet balsamic, stable floor, mushroom & iron notes smack from the stem. I’d obviously wager Chateauneuf from the bouquet alone, but the savagery toned down a bit as it aired, w/ the enveloping, deftly textured palate of warm currant fruit leaving a silky, almost cascading impression on the finish, 94 points.

Roussanne VDP, 2005
This wine was so deeply golden it made the previous Viogniers in the grouping look like tap water. Think concentrated urine the Sunday morning after a weekend bender that got way out of hand. Pee shaded robe aside, this was a helluva wine (albeit one that is not for everyone) conceptually reminding me of what hefty, dry Sauternes would taste like. Brazen & complex with its nose of ceiling wax, honeysuckle, French vanilla custard, nail polish, bee pollen & quince. Wow- that’s a lot of characteristics to decipher but trust me, they’re all there! As for the mouth-feel, for all its fat, opulent layers of glycerine, the wild ride was reeled in by an idiosyncratic tang, reeling it all in for the dry finish, 92 points.

*For the record, one of my favorite wines (not necessarily best, but favorite) of all time is a ’99 Ogier Cote Rotie. If affluent were part of my checking account’s vocabulary there’d be a LOT more of his wines in my attenuation of a cellar.