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Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Does Italian wine taste like Italian food?
More often than not, I find striking similarities between home grown Italian produce and their home grown vino. Granted, popping a bottle of Chianti open is not an equivalent to drinking a glass of veal picatta, but I can't help but sense an earthy parallel between the two. Before I delve into the comparison, I'd like to make a background point on the food and wine that the 'old country' produces. Italy undeniably has carved a signature cultural stamp on the globe w/ their hearty cuisines, cured meats such as genoa salami, thinly sliced prosciutto, pepperoni, and spicy peppercorn pastrami. You almost can't make any reference to Italian culture w/o salivating over envisioning ornate arrays of various calorie-laden indulgences. Having said that, Italy's place in the wine world isn't nearly as unanimous. Often cited for it's vast vineyard potential, fascinating native varietal wines, dynamic regions and, unfortunately, vast quantities of industrial jug wines that completely lack character. Italian viticulture appears to be much more fragmented than their universal cuisines. I'd like to cite a particular example of Italian 'infighting' as it pertains to cherished traditional values vs. the onslaught of modern and commercial ventures.
The proprietors of one of my favorite wine bars in Brooklyn, the D.O.C., will defend the noble Italian varietal, Nebbiolo, to the death against the infiltration of French varieties in Bolgheri and Tuscany. "I'll never have a Super Tuscan on my list, if it's not from Piedmont or Sicily it's not Italian," remarks the passionate wine faithful at the D.O.C. If you are interested in starting a wine bar brawl, just tell your waiter that you wish they served Frescobaldi joint venture wines like Luce, or acquisition wines like Ornellaia (beautifully voiced in Corporate speak, of course). I'm sure the server would irately slam you with phrases like 'diluted culture' and 'big money globalization garbage,' and then drop the 'branded marketing' bomb on you while they discharge you out the door in belligerent Irish pub style. Don't get me wrong, I am extremely grateful for my Italian faithful in Brooklyn as they have introduced me to fantastic indigenous varieties such as Nero d'Avola, Barbera, Dolcetto and the unctuous whites of Gavi de Gavi. I also not only enjoy their passion, but admire how unwavering and uncompromising they are. That said, I am also quite grateful that I don't have the blatant bias of local pride interfering w/ my tastes and pleasures. I believe that without preconceived notions or label bias, it's much easier to have a pure experience w/ what's in the bottle. Even though there are such drastically different native Italian and French varieties planted on different soils w/ different climates (and different business intentions, for that matter), I'm convinced there is a distinct universality to Italian red wines.
I'm going to list a core group of Italian wines and pull together the common thread.
Piedmont: Late 90's Produttori Barbaresco and mature vintages of Pio Cesare Barolo
Tuscany: Mid 90's Banfi/La Magia Brunello di Montalcino, Chianti Classico and Rufina (from the lesser known estates up to quality bottlings of Marchese Antinori and Frescobaldi)
Bolgheri/Maremma: Late 90's and '01 Terrabianca, Sassicaia, Ornellaia, Lucente
......I could continue, but for the purpose this exercise I will halt w/ those examples to show some concrete foundation. All right, now for the common thread. What do these bottles have in common? That's right, you guessed it (my title didn't leave much for the imagination), they taste like Italian food! I know that is quite a generalized and entirley over simplified tasting note, but hear me out. Regardless of the ripeness, concentration, or typicity of the particular Italian wine, there is something rooted in the soils that is undeniable. With Sassicaia there is an unmistakable layer of flavor, underneath the notes of liquid mineral and paprika spice, that brings notions of stewed tomatoes and meat sauce (I just couldn't help but envision an ancient Italian grandmother, slowly stirring her fresh pasta sauce for countless hours on the stove). The mature vintages of Brunello di Montalcino expressed potent aromas of spicy meats (salami, cured ham, as well as other Italian staples), surrounded by dried herb and cooked blackberry. The characteristics of Barolo and Barbaresco, whether young or mature, seemed to transcend time. Even at younger ages, the freshly cut mushroom, cooked pork and chunky textured notes that these classic Nebbiolo based regions produce, seemed to allude beautifully to a hearty meat dish served at one of Mario Batalli's New York restaurants.
I know I am not alone in this observation, but I can't help but notice how well Italian foods and their native wines pair with one another. Whether it's a spicy white from Alto Adige, coupled w/ a plate of fresh Italian greens, or a Nero d'Avola from Sicily beside a gently pressed panini sandwich, Italy has written the book on complementary native pairings. Do I notice the similarities between the foods and wine simply because they are delicious couplings? Perhaps there is something distinctive in the soil composition that imparts similar textures and flavors in the local food-wine mix? Doubtfully, considering the fertile soils that the local veggies thrive in are quite distinct from the more poor soils that vineyards demand. Is it the climate, a nebulous definition of terroir, or distinctly Italian land tending techniques that all come together to exude these commonalities? Usually the most appropriate answer lies somewhere in the middle, and this time is most likely no different.
Granted, I don't have the most extensive tasting experience w/Italian wines, and I couldn't claim that I've sampled exhaustive amounts of Italian cusine. But I can say that in all of my varied experiences I've discovered that native Italian and French varieties, when planted in Italian soils, consistently express a common sense of earthy components, coupled w/ subtle notes of animal characteristics that are exclusively Italian. While fresh local Italian foods have a similar sense of place that is undeniable, the foods qualities seem to echo through the wines. Perhaps I'll design a research study that quantitatively proves this in black and white. Or maybe I won't have to defend a theory that doesn't spark much controversy? Something tells me I'm not alone in this observation.

Monday, June 26, 2006

The poorest soils create the richest fruit
The producer is Finca Luzon.
The appellation is the D.O. of Jumilla, Spain.
This wine is not new news, as it already received a substantial amount of press when it was proclaimed as one of the '100 Best Wines of 2005' by the Wine Spectator. While the wine was recognized, the grape growing region (and winery, for that matter) are hardly household names. I'd like to take a bit of a more intimate look at the appellation, the wine and the surrounding possibilities.
Jumilla, a minute wine growing region tightly tucked away between the provinces of Murcia and Albacete of Southeastern Spain, has long been a tiny speck on a map that is laden w/ much more profound Spanish viticultural regions (Rioja, Priorat and Ribera Del Duero). Several exhaustive volumes of wine text fail to even mention Jumilla at all. The region is characterized by scalding, harsh summer temperatures in the vicinity of 100 degrees plus (coupled w/ chilly winters), arid conditions, with annual rainfall totals in the vicinity of 12 total inches, and limey soils that all set the stage for the local Monastrell grape to thrive. Monastrell, identified as a clone of the Mourvedre grape from Southern Rhone, is the area workhorse group as its plantings occupy over 80% of the total acreage under vine in Jumilla. Most vineyards are located at modestly elevated altitudes, between 1300-2600 feet above sea level, and enjoy over 3,000 hours of sunlight a year. Until the mid 90's, the viticultural methodology was geared towards over-ripening, causing the grapes to shrivel on the vine like raisins. During the fermentation process, the accumulated sugars would be converted to alcohol, w/ alcohol levels pushing 16%. The majority of the overly alcoholic juice was sold off in the European bulk market to cool climate wineries, whose wines lacked color and had insufficient alcohol (the Monastrell juice would be blended for balance). These practices were how the locals felt they could best profit from the rough and tumble grape variety that Monastrell semmed to be. A viticultural and enological revolution occurred during the 90's throughout the country. International markets began to demand higher quality wines, and modern wine-making techniques changed the perception of the Spanish vigneron. In order to prevent excessive sugar accumulation (and therefore, alcohol), harvest dates were moved from mid September to late August. Grapes were to be transported quickly to the winery to be crushed and fermented in stainless steel temperature controlled vats to prevent oxidation. Depending on the vintage characteristics, Jumilla enologists began to practice the Bordeaux 'insurance policy' of blending. Monastrell could be complemented w/ other varietals, such as Garnacha, Cencibel or the staple grape of Spain, Tempranillo. The Jumilla wine council also proved to be dynamic, as they authorized the use of the French varietals Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. The introduction of aging wines in new oak barrels brought another complementary characteristic to cutting edge wine-making in Jumilla. The vineyards in this small segment of Spain's southeast corridor began to look less like alcoholic grape factories, and more like serious soils that could tame the Monastrell grape into a dazzling beauty. One of the first producers in the area to begin to express this land's potential w/ consistent success has been that of Finca Luzon (sources cited).
The bodega, or estate, of Finca Luzon is nessled between the Jumilla mountains and has been creating excellent quality to price ratio wines since 1999. Their flagship bottling, called Altos de Luzon, contains 50% Monastrell, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon and 25% Tempranillo. Two unique vineyard locations are used for the final blend; the Montesinos Vineyard, at 2,100 feet in elevation, is planted w/ ungrafted Monastrell vines that are over 50 years old. As for the Cabernet Sauvignon and Tempranillo, they come from 20 year old vines located at 1,500 feet in elevation at the Castillo de Luzon vineyard. The soil types in each vineyard are made up of a diverse gravel and chalk mixture. Couple that w/ a harsh climate, which naturally reduces yields to 1.6 tons/acre, and you begin to get a sense an emerging Jumilla terroir. The 2003 vintage was hand harvested and sorted rigorously. Gifted winemakers initially fermented the grapes in stainless steel vats, and then transferred the wine to new French and American oak barrels. A secondary malolactic fermentation would then converts terse, malic acid into a creamy, supple lactic acid in the barrels (think of apple acids transforming to milk acids). The wine was later transferred to bottles after a 12 month aging period in the oak barrels (sources cited).
The '03 Altos de Luzon is immediately impressive in the glass, marked by a deep ruby color and brilliantly clear. The nose is initially tight, but opens beautifully w/ exposure to air as aromas of melted licorice, rich cassis and violet fill the air. Underneath the superficial layers in the nose, you can detect a bed of wet stone minerality, with just a slight hint of raisin. In the mouth, the texture is unctuous, with slightly toasty black raspberries, blueberry and boysenberry fruit character saturating the palate. Powdered cocoa smoothly glides into a finish, which ends w/ a slightly briar tone, marked by notes of green olive and soft fruits. The tannins are ripely woven into nicely integrated oak. I would give it a unanimously outstanding rating, at 92 points. The wine spectator agreed, as it was named number 43 on their top 100 list of 2005. The Jumilla terroir speaks clearly in this wine, showing how unique a Monastrell blend can taste from Spanish soils. Altos de Luzon is also an incredible value, at roughly 15$ per bottle. Wines like this are tailor made to buy in bulk; try one each year to see how Luzon's old, ungrafted Monastrell vines evolve in the bottle. Experimentation like this is generally cost-prohibitive, but at 15 bucks a bottle we can afford to quench our curiosity. Needless to say, another beauty of an up and coming wine region is that it does not yet have the reputation or audacity to charge you 3 figures a bottle. Jumilla shows that all it needed was a little care and attention to coax its mature vineyards into a penetrating and depth laiden expression of terroir.
The region combines the essence of Chateauneuf du Pape's rugged soils and blistering dry heat (not to mention the Garnacha, Monastrell and Syrah Rhone varietals), w/ Bordeaux's Cabernet Sauvignon and Spanish hallmark, Tempranillo. There are even more possibilities for rich wines to evolve from poor Spanish soils. For example Rias Baixas, with its trademark Albarino grape, is another seemingly obscure D.O. of Spain. Alba...who? Yes, I've tasted several and the Albarino varietal has a fantastic ability to transmit it's terroir in a variety of ways (while most bottles are still available at price ranges in the single digits). Who needs an overpriced oak bomb mouthful of Chardonnay when you can sip a fascinatingly unique glass of stony mineral laced citrus that modestly priced Albarinos can deliver. There is also a section of Cataluna called Montsant, a red-headed step child of Priorat that has the ability to produce wines of similar Priorat character at a third of the Priorat price. Then there is Penedes, home to over 90% of Spanish Cava (sparking wine). I still have yet to see a Spanish sparkler for over 20 dollars and I've never been disappointed with the refreshing quality of each bottle. One of the ultimate value brands, Cristalino, consistently produces non-vintage brut sparklers of Champagne quality for 6.99 a bottle. Sometimes pleasure can be so much more....pleasurable, when you don't have to break the bank for it.
These times are exciting, as energetic 'flying wine makers' flock to areas ripe w/ potential that just need a bit more attention. One of the newest, possibly most obscure of Spanish appellations is that of the Costers Del Segre (meaning 'the banks of the river Segre'). Some of the most personal and eccentric Spanish wines have emerged recently from this appellation. The 2003 Cervoles comes to mind as I am quickly reminded of it's sumptuous bouqet of blueberry liqueur, gorgeously interwoven w/ a sinewy mid-palate spice. So oddly delicious I couldn't help but think in paralells to my early experiences of the 'garrigue,' or 'barnyard' nose of a mature Chateauneuf du Pape ultimately giving way to gushingly ripe, stewed fruits. Spain is full of areas like this, with anxious and obscure enologists clamoring to grasp a cleverly placed parcel of land and the century old vines that occupy it. It's a buyers market for the educated consumer that chooses to do a bit of research. There are still several distinct ways to grab a bottle that can wonderfully transmit its sense of place. You don't have to fly there, nor do you have to spend thousands on Bordeaux's first growth table scraps. I suggest you start w/ may, at the least, show you that all 10 dollar wines aren't the same. In fact, some can be provocative enough to inspire an amateur, like myself, to write about it.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Vino Resume
Check out the link that highlights a few of my favorite vinous gems. Some of which are in the cellar (i.e.: a cheap wine fridge in the bedroom of my cramped Brooklyn apartment), some are everyday beauties, and others are trophy wines I feel blessed to have tried at one time or another. I have an obsessive compulsive habit of hanging on to old wine bottles too......
Try to imagine my cluttered and overpriced New York home, immersed w/ empty and full wine bottles and sparse tasting notes strewn across the floor. If it wasn't for my fiancé’s purse and shoe purchasing habits, I'd be out on the street w/ no rebuttal!

The scorcher of '03
Well I ponied up and trekked out to New Jersey for the 2003 Bordeaux Bonanza on display at the Madison Hotel. At times it was difficult to sneak past the hordes of thirsty minions disguised in business casual attire, but I found my way to each table to fetch my pours of Bordeaux's latest releases. I don't think any critic would disagree with my statement that the vintage can't be characterized as a success from top to bottom. With such erratic and extreme weather, you can expect atypical results from even the most typical of chateau. Although it's difficult to really hone in and judge such young Bordeaux clarets, I definitely got a solid sense of these baby's qualities and structures. I am not going to delve into each sampling, but I'd like to sketch a couple of highlights. From a regional standpoint, the Margaux appellation was extremely approachable already. Granted they are not fully mature, but several chateaus can be quite enjoyable in the glass right now. Chateau Kirwan, Prieure Lichine and Rauzan Segla are already incredibly tempting to pop the cork, with their beautiful sense of elegance and ripe fruit. Even though the most endowed Margaux, Chateau Margaux itself, was a typical big-ticket item at the event, I was much more surprised w/ the Pavillon Rouge de Margaux. Second wines are always more approachable and open than their counterparts, but this one was seductive as hell. The wine was laden with such a sexy spice from nose to finish and characterized by an uncanny finesse of mocha kissed wild raspberries. The texture oozed such supple qualities that I can't help but advise any avid Bordeaux aficionado to throw patience to the wind and drink up! Despite the wine's potential to hold up well for at least a decade, it can't be resisted as is (and it’s a relative steal at the price). Solid 93+ points. This was not the only second wine that had an impressive showing. While not quite as concentrated, or as long on the finish, the Carruades de Lafite was full of sweet properties. I loved the wilted rose petal, incense and mixed berry aroma seeping from the glass. I felt such a textbook sense of Lafite's paradoxical 'elegant intensity,' with the volume dial turned down to a level keeping the wine too damn pretty to be considered 'big.' The Carruades texture was, again, too plush to wait for. 92 points.
It seems that atypical years can really make a Chateau's selection not only difficult, but excruciatingly small. Thankfully there was plenty of great fruit that snuck into these two second labels. In my humble opinion, second wines should offer the consumer a glimpse into the essence of the property, characterized by a more openly knit expression of terroir (generally from younger vines in the vineyard, w/ a shade less depth), at a sliver of the price. In great years, like '03, some first growths can give the shallower pocketed consumer a cheaper taste at the good life. Having said that, far too many of my second wines experiences have tasted like sloppy seconds, leaving me to feel that I was duped into purchasing an over-priced brand name. Caveats like Pavillon Rouge and Carruades are always a nice surprise. As far as the powerhouses of St. Julien are concerned, a lot of their once jammy fruit has begun to close down. The estates of Branaire-Ducru, Leoville Barton, and Ducru Beaucaillou are all behemoths of extract, intensity and length (and they are impenetrably backward, meaning that they need more time). There were such layers upon layers in these wines that built into a crescendo of a giant surging finish in the mouth. The Barton seemed to be the most endowed w/ lush fruit, while both of the Ducru's had cascades of diverse mineral and complex earth elements surrounding their plump, juicy tannic backbones. Please tuck them away into a cool, dark corner so they can quietly hibernate into the next decade for consumption. Definitely classic 95+ point wines. Although the tasting was massively Left Bank-centric, I had the good fortune of trying a dynamite St. Emilion from the property of Monbousquet. WOW! A silky satin sheath of cherry cordial and raspberry liqueur swished and swirled in my mouth for what seemed to be an eternity (I wish Listerine tasted like this). I defy any taster to spit out this sexy drink of liquid decadence! As I tasted the Monbousquet, I couldn't help but think of my first introduction to phenomenal pinot noir (which started my love affair w/ wine). Granted the components of Monbousquet (60% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Franc, and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon) are entirely different, the sensual seduction of gorgeous fruit married w/ oak seemed to give me the same, tingly sensation that my first great pinot did. For the sheer joy the wine offers, it deserves to be placed in the same class as their monumental 2000 offering at 94 points plus. Unfortunately I was completely unimpressed w/ the 2nd wine offering from the famed Chateau Petrus. The structure of La Fleur Petrus walked a fine line between elegance and fragility. Although there were some sweet strawberry, ripe cherry and vanillin notes, the wine's backbone was almost too delicate. I am certain, if it were available at the tasting, that the grand vin of Petrus would have made me completely forget that La Fleur existed. Unfortunately some of us aren't THAT lucky; my first taste of Petrus still eludes me.......86 points at best. Now to wrap up w/ the big names that those in wine circles love to throw around to impress. Out of the two Pichon properties, I pick the Baron. Both Lalande and Baron were full of the gravel and stone minerality, but the spicy pepper laced stately fruit of Pichon Baron had a much smoother set of ripe tannins and a suave finish (as well as a cheaper price tag). 93 points, w/ a lot of potential.
I probably offended some of the old world loyalists w/ my commentary on Chateaux Montrose's '03 offering when I compared it to the premium label of Concha y Toro's Don Melchor. As I sipped the Montrose I was brought back to a distinct memory of the '01 Melchor, endowed w/ such a juicy tannic mouthful of ripe tobacco, juicy cocoa laced deep currant, ripe plum and sweet fire-kissed loam undercutting the fruit. Who knows how many Bordeaux loyalists may take Chilean offense, but hey, if Mouton Rothschild can construct a Paulliac-esque blockbuster like Almaviva in Puente Alto, I think that officially puts the French traditionalists' defensive standpoint w/ terroir on more shaky grounds. That aside, both are fantastic wines, but Melchor is 45 bucks and the Montrose is approaching 200....take your pick. Both 95 points, with a slight edge to Montrose in longevity and evolutionary potential.
I felt that the Leoville Las Cases and Pavie were too closed to genuinely appreciate or disseminate. One comment in regards to the Pavie, it's laden w/ brutal extraction. Seems as if it were a volcanic mountain, slowly steaming its way towards a massive eruption. It had a mid-palette, body and set of California tannins that were decidedly New World. With the '03 1st growths, the Mouton and Haut Brion were firmly on the wild berry and red fruit end of the spectrum. Haut Brion's unique composition and gravelly soil profile always distinguish it from the other 1st growths (it is the only chateau that was a classified first growth outside of the Medoc). The wine was defined by sweetness, class and elegance. As for the Mouton, while impressive, I found less intrinsic character to it than the other first growths. I think there has been a bit of corporate dilution w/ their technically opulent, but structurally monolithic personality.
I had the good fortune of tasting two Chateau Margaux's that evening, one of which being the 1986 (the mystery first growth of the night). While the Margaux w/ 2 decades under its belt has a gorgeously sumptuous bouquet of roasted herb, damp earth and tree bark, the mid-palette begs for a bit more depth and intensity. Wouldn't send it back to the sommelier though, 93+ points. The '03 Margaux is a giant chasm of deep, impenetrably tight construction. For any Margaux wine to have such muscular power, while maintaining a set of finesse and floral nuance is certainly impressive. Don't touch for at least 8 years! 96+ points.
A perennial first growth star, Lafite Rothschild, produced a phenomenal bottle in '03. The winemakers in California must shake their heads in total disbelief to note how Lafite can cram such uncanny richness, depth and complex power into such a minutely alcoholic wine (under 13%). When I think back to my west coast trip to Santa Barbara county last month, in particular the Fess Parker winery, I recall a series of insanely hot wines. Out of the reds, I don't know if I saw any label with LESS THAN 16.1% alcohol! To top it off, we are talking about pinot noir and syrah?! Hang time, late harvested, full flavor development....or is it straight up sherry? Any sense of nuance or subtlety is totally burned off, as is your tongue for that matter. Any ice for my beverage Fess? Take a trip out to Paulliac and see how Lafite Rothschild can craft a gorgeously fat claret in a 100+ degree summer, at under 13% alcohol. 99-100 points, a truly blessed wine (I can still taste the dazzlingly subtle echo of fresh mint from the finish, perhaps I should never brush my teeth again).
Before I move onto the most stately of estates, Chateau Latour, I must reference my California trip once more. A blatant observation any tourist must make on their trips out to Napa is that of sheer size. Let me explain through an American cultural metaphor: giant homes, sky-scrapers, over-bloated bank rolls, massive flat screen televisions, mammoth breast augmentations and.....Cabernet Sauvignon. Don't read into this correctly as I adore California and I had some life altering wines on my trip, but some were just plain huge! If only the Titanic had docked in the San Francisco Bay, we'd rename it the Oracle (a Miner Cabernet based blend). It seemed like the tannin and fruit were in a heavy weight boxing match, which one was bigger, louder and stronger? Either way, I was knocked out. As for Latour, yes it was a monster as well, but an entirely different animal. In fact, it was huge, a scowling beast that had nearly 5 different roars at 5 different levels. The grip from the indulgently sweet tannin was perfectly integrated into layers upon layers of gorgeously fleshy fruit. I felt like I was going to be clobbered over the head when I remarked that I would almost recommend drinking it now. Wines like this make you feel that life is truly too short to sit on immensely impressive gems. Instead of waiting for the special occasion, open the bottle! The bottle is the special occasion. That's really what great wine is about; pleasure, temptation, seduction, pontification and straight hedonistic bliss. It blows my mind to know bottles like these WILL get better, I almost can't imagine how though. I chose not to stain this bottle w/ a numerical score as it is completely unnecessary. Win the lottery and buy a bottle for every year you plan on living! Speaking of which, look forward to reading about value bottles in the upcoming posts. I'm out.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Pellegrini Evolution
Determining a wine's lifespan is one of the most theoretical speculations a critic can make. Granted, one can refer to historical tastings (ie: Bordeaux) and use comparable vintage conditions, or use the open bottle test to see how the wine handles oxygen exposure. How can one possibly define the lifespan of a wine that is produced from a region that is still in it's infancy from an enological perspective? I guess the short answer is conservatively. 'When to drink' windows should be modest and cautious, unless you have substantial evidence to suggest otherwise. I like to put theory and caution up to the test, so here lays my experiment: A 1997 Pellegrini Merlot. It's been nearly a decade since the grapes were harvested in the budding wine region of Long Island's North Fork. Although the vineyards of Pellegrini are some of the oldest on the island, they are most likely dominated by vines w/ years in the single digits. Although this region is not marked by maturity, it is definitely defined w/ potential. The terroir of Pellegrini's vineyard is imbued w/ well-drained loam soils adjacent to the moderating maritime effects of the Atlantic. In 2000, the Wine Spectator reviewed the 'exuberantly fruity' Merlot with an outstanding 90 point score. Seven years later, I'm interested in how this Long Island Merlot has progressed.
The perfect place to experiment w/ the aged NY Merlot was in an up and coming restaurant called the Lamb and Jaffy. A relatively new venture began by caterers; Jaffy offers an adventurously eclectic mixture of New Age American fare, w/ a nice spin on some old stand-by dishes like pan charred flank steak and spicy tilapia. This little gem is a perfect addition to the budding Polish neighborhood of Greenpoint, Brooklyn (which also happens to be the town where I currently hang my hat). Considering that the proprietors have chosen not to apply for an expensive liquor license, I can't help but take advantage by bringing my own booze.
Oh, and the wine you ask? After the cork was popped and the inky purple merlot splashed into my glass, heady aromas of Long Island loam filled the air. I found the nose to be quite pronounced, filled w/ spicy red peppers, olive paste and fresh mushroom. I considered it to be a bouquet of secondary bottle age, w/ more mature scents of earthy terroir, marked by nice depth that seemed to zip through my nostrils. There was quite a bit of mid palette flesh marked by juicy blackberry, dried cherry and allspice. Medium to full bodied, w/ tea herb and ripe fruit on the medium finish. Not only did the wine gain complexity and nuance, the fleshy fruit seemed to meld into a deeper, more mature flavor. Granted it was a non-blind dinner tasting, (coupled by a lovely medium-well lamb burger I might add) but I believe my commentary and evaluation should still have some credence. As objectively as possible, I score the '97 Pellegrini Merlot 89 points, a hair shy of outstanding (which may have moved to outstanding if I were in a more controlled environment).
Not only has the wine sustained nearly 10 years, it has evolved quite nicely w/ Bordeaux-esque hallmarks of subtlety. I can't help but observe the similarities in composition and stature of the Pellegrini Merlot (and a few other North Fork grown varietals for that matter) and some of the Merlot dominated wines of St. Emillion. By no means I am directly comparing the two from a quality perspective, but take notice to these similar characteristics. Modest alcohol content for both (roughly 13% and change), similar pH make up, emphasis on freshness and balance. Bordeaux and the North Fork are located on the same longitudinal level and they both receive similar amounts of sunshine and rainfall. Temperature averages are similar, and soil composition is at least in the same ballpark for both regions. Clonal selection and wine making aside, when the grapes of Long Island are blessed by Mother Nature (as they were in '97) and they achieve physiologic ripeness, the structure of their wines can be quite similar to that of Right Bank Bordeaux.
The jury is still out on exactly how wines age, but it is believed that the interplay of tannin (a preservative) and acid shape the wine's evolution and structure. The aging process of Bordeaux has been extensively studied, as well as documented, but the New World babies’ progression to adulthood is still an enigma. First and foremost, why wait? Most taste good upon release (which our impatient consumers demand) and who would cellar a wine they believe is ready to drink? Not an American! French have historically criticized the open, accessible and fruit-forward west coast wines to be incapable of longevity (they also feared that the 1982 vintage in Bordeaux would fall apart after a few years and it seems Mr. Parker has proved them wrong). Super-ripe California wines have been shown to sustain, but seem to have too much muscle for any secondary subtlety to be noticed.
Now Long Island on the other hand, who knows? With some exceptions, their production isn't sizeable enough for lofty storage of past vintages. The region itself is chock full of young vines and even younger vintners that are progressing at a dramatically fast rate. It's great to see the passion, altruism and excitement of an up and coming wine destination. If I were old enough, I may even say that it reminds me of the unbrideled youth of the California wine boom of the 70's. Who knows....I don't expect one amateur wine review of a region still in it's infancy to ruffle too many cuffs, but it is a great place to start.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Hedonism in the North Fork
We trekked down to the east end this past Saturday to mark two celebratory occasions. One of which is my fiancé’s much maligned birthday, with an age landmark that will remain unmentioned, and the other is our decision to get married at Macari Vineyards. Wine country in Long Island is beautifully secluded from the polluted sky-line that towers nearby New York City and offers a bucolic air that seems perfectly distinct. You can't help but be seduced by pastoral pumpkin patches, the Monterey county-esque herb farms and a serene coastal influence. Between the two forks, the other being the flamboyantly affluent Hamptons, the northern tip gets my vote for most 'plate-worthy.' This trip happened to be a cameo appearance for myself and my bride to be. Amidst many of the delectable finds that the North Fork had to offer, the Frisky Oyster restaurant seemed to have an air all it's own. Despite how remote this budding wine growing region is the essence of meat-packing district minions and hipster west villagers of Manhattan seem to have migrated their way into the flavor of the restaurant. The conservatively quaint village of Greenport has a newfound gem in the Oyster, disguised as an adventurously eclectic modern American dining hole. One of my favorite features of the evening, in addition to the flamboyantly fashioned fare on the menu, was that of their waved corkage fee. The celebratory occasion offered a golden opportunity to allow my newly purchased '97 Joseph Phelps Insignia to breathe the oxygen it had been so deprived of for nearly a decade. The lovely appetizers were marked by uniquely blended baked fig, prosciutto, and wild arugula. Towering entrees were punctuated w/ finesse, as the lamb was cooked to perfection, and the salmon delicately glazed w/ a kiss of sweetness. Unfortunately, they were completely overshadowed by the peaking master of Napa meritage blends (I could write a lovely restaurant review, but it's time for a bit of a wine rant).
This towering tree of multi-layered mocha infused concentration in a bottle demanded more attention than a rottenly spoiled child w/ a sweet tooth at the Ben & Jerry's headquarters. Even w/ the bottle age, the Insignia's opulence and mass really need a solid hour to decant in order to show a sense of subtle elegance. With such robustly ripe and gripping tannin, slapped by an abundance of fruit, the Insignia stood alone instead of as a complementary fare to a wonderfully laid out dinner.
Insignia seems to be among the several gaudy California 'trophies' that will squanch weenie wines of subtlety in blind tastings. It all makes sense though, because Insignia is phenomenally one of the most impressive wines on an annual basis from sheer size, depth, power and numerous layers that build into a crescendo of an echoing finish (not to mention such a large production, which continues to baffle me how Phelps can crank out such consistent classics). No one will deny that. The question I pose is of practicality and, more accurately, complementary features. Bordeaux has long held the patent on cabernet family and merlot dominated blends. There are a plethora of obvious reasons that lie w/in their centuries of viticultural trial and error (and yes, terroir). Today's most profound issue is that of wine's purpose, is it created to be a massive trophy w/ a 3 point score, or is it intended to complement cuisine beautifully as a perfect component to an evening? Personally, I am generally more in line w/ the former (considering I am such a psychotic enophile, I generally have a wine in mind and chose the meal to complement the bottle, instead of the conventional opposite). Having said that, the French seem to have a point when it comes to their style of claret, lighter is better. Drinking wine w/ every meal would most likely put a Californian on the ground by early afternoon, but the modest alcohol version of Bordeaux seems to be a more suitable companion. In order to find an appropriate food accompaniment, wine generally should have an essential balance, typified by moderate alcohol content, ripe fruit, defined tannin and a quintessential freshness that most over-ripe Cal-trophies lack. When harvesting late, as the sugars rise the pH levels typically rise w/ them. The only saving grace that prevents Californian juggernauts from being flabby is their pronounced ripe tannins, yelling for attention and scaring away subtlety.
The lower echelon Bordeaux wines that may not merit an entirely impressive score in a blind tasting, may in fact be a better companion for your braised lamb shank on a Saturday evening. Palate cleansing acidity and quieter senses of nuance allow you to focus on the meal as a collective, instead of our evening, characterized by my awestruck gaze at the beautiful bottle and forgotten food (that tends to happen to me quite often, and no, it doesn't make me weird). Two quotes that evening seem to have said it all:
Myself: "This reminds me of the concentration that the 1990 Leoville Las Cases had, w/ the volume jacked up about 100 more decibels."
My Fiancé: "I don't want to waste this wine on food."
If I had to choose between my Insignia '97 and a beautifully balanced, subtle and supple cru Bourgeois of maturity, I'd still take the Insignia 9 times out of 10 w/ dinner. Although logic would dictate that a mature selection would be a lovely Sociando Mallet w/ some bottle age, I don't think I've quite hit that level of maturity yet. I may in fact take my impressive show wines to the grave and keep food as an after thought, hence this blog post being about wine and not my dinner.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Fascinating how a documentary (which took well over 3 years for Jonathan Nossiter to complete) could inspire such utter distaste from the wine critique collective. Robert Parker and James Suckling, both of which were centerpieces to the film's theme, found it to be quite disingenuous (if you are not a Wine Spectator subscriber, you may not be able to view the link). The film definitely took a sympathetic, as well as romanticized perspective towards what a traditionally organic and natural animal wine can be. It was somewhat of a face-off, pitting the big bad wolf of the flying wine consultant against the old world vintner whom can only embrace neutral casks and Mother Nature’s soils. One of the most defiant battle cries shot out against the potency of numerically scored wine reviews that seem to entice a homogenous world filled with wine manipulation, coerced vinous concentration and lack of unique terroir thumbprint.
The more that I become involved w/in the wine world, the more I am able to appreciate why the wine writing public took such offense. In fact, the more I watch it (masochistically), the more bothered I am by it. From a cinema point of view, it is well defined w/ humor, character development and battle scars. Check it out if you haven't already.

Upcoming tasting worth taking out a bank loan for
On June 20th the Madison Hotel in NYC will be putting the most recently released Bordeaux babies on display. For a modest price, sip away at some solid performers during the year of the sunburned left and right banks. Perhaps one of the most fruit forward and approachable Bordeaux vintages in recent memory, the pH's rose and so did the prices....w/ some solid values to be found. If you anty up and decide to go leaner on the wallet for some fat 1st growths and scintillating seconds, you can engorge your pallet on Latour, Lafite and the Leoville's for a much statelier price tag. Sponsored by the Jersey Shangri-La of enology, Gary's Wine & Marketplace, this is an event that only the most swollen of livers and hedonistic of tongues (and nostrils, for that matter) should attend!
It will be of genuine interest to discern which new releases are already hibernating for winters to come, and what others are decidedly open, full of savory baby fat. With all the hype of 2005, perhaps the lofty price tags of '03 may seem less prohibitive and worthy of a taste or two. Come one, come all! Has anyone formulated a dramatic opinion of '03 as of yet? Anyone have some gems or disappointments to share?

Wine school drop out
Hang on to your stem wear folks, the introductory edition to my 'Unidentified Appellation' is a go for take off. Sniffing, swirling, and an occasional spitting will be the central theme of my commentary, w/ plenty of spiraling rants to keep the buzz alive. My anti-corporate mission statement is based on the sharing of passion that was spawn from the life blood of the vine. I will stimulate enological controversy, use brush strokes of irreverence, educate and be educated in the perplexingly fanatical chasm of the old new world's choice beverage (we, like wine, are all juxtaposed paradoxes aren't we?). My perspective usually lies in a hybrid position, away from the left & right spectrum temptation....but I do occasionally dabble in extremes. If Robert Parker can flourish as an independent advocate of the consumer, I think it's time he has a collective share of voice from a slightly different set palettes. I am not prepared to insure my nose for a million dollars, nor any other body part for that matter, but I assume nearly anything is possible. I have officially opened the forum and will throw down the wine gauntlet in thousands of posts to come, hopefully as evolving as the wines themselves. Consider my door open.