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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Ultimate France vs. California Blind Taste-Off

Ever since the debacle of 1976 in Paris, blind tastings that pit California against France have garnered a lot of excitement and press. This may partly be due to an American sense of nationalistic pride, comparing these tastings to the quest for gold at an Olympic event, or perhaps the French still have a chip on their shoulder from the drubbing California gave them 31 years ago (at least that’s what us proud countrymen would like to think!). Either way, blind tastings that showcase dramatically different regions of the globe tend to humble the most confident of connoisseurs, while they often illuminate elements of wine that we might not have seen, had we not been blind.

While there are always plenty of criticisms regarding competitive tastings that involve more restrained, elegant wines vs. more powerful, higher alcohol expressions, this tasting was extremely well executed by David Gordon and company at the Tribeca Grill as they conjured an atmosphere that was purely based on intrigue. While I was able to correctly determine what each one of the 16 wines were (I usually do terribly in blind tastings!), it doesn’t mean that I wasn’t surprised with the results and it certainly doesn’t suggest that I didn’t learn anything from the exercise.

I was not surprised that most California wines were richer in color and more effusive in their personalities, nor was I shocked that the French wines developed tertiary nuances and minerality to a much more profound degree than that of their Californian counterparts. What was unexpected was that these differences did not skew the results, at least not to my palate. My notes should capture the fact that quality is quality, whether or not it comes in an opulent package or a more ethereal one. California and France can both make world class wines, and the beauty of their qualities is that they are different. I am certain that the elitist, dogmatic palates will state that the distinction between a French Bordeaux and a Napa Cabernet is what makes them ‘better.’ The discussions surrounding so called superiority simply because France makes wines that have more finesse and subtlety or Californian wines are the best because of their size and power are absolute gibberish droll. Last nights tasting clarified that some stylish French wines were of better absolute quality than their Californian partner. It also highlighted that some heady Californian efforts were more impressive wines than their French cohorts. Having power alone doesn’t make a wine great, nor does the vaunted goal of minerality. Although both of these viticultural places are truly unique, uniqueness alone does not make them great. My impressions should expose what I believe makes wines great.

The first two wines were served as non-blind aperitifs with passed appetizers.

2005 Francois Villard Terraces du Palat, Condrieu
A Viognier that is stunningly pure in its definition and clarity, with an electrically charged minerality that pulses through the broad, lush flavors of mangoes, peach cobbler, key limes and flowers. Admirable in its sense of restraint and exposes the class of the appellation in an almost disarming fashion, 94 points.

2005 Alban Estate Viognier
The Alban is a more extroverted, primal expression of the grape that showcases a torrent of creamy apricot pie, cinnamon, quince and lychee flavors that are authoritative and exotic. Thick and fat, flexing more alcoholic power than the Condrieu, but offering up just enough nervy character to keep things honest, 92 points.

You are all going to hate me, but I am not going to say which wine is which so you will have to read through and find out for yourselves just like I did. I encourage you to throw a few guesses my way ;)

The wines are listed in no particular order.

Chardonnay flight (Peter Michael ‘La Carriere’ 2003, Kongsgaard 2003, Chassagne Montrachet ‘Ruchottes,’ Ramonet 2003 and Meursault ‘Rougeots,’ Coche Dury 2003 paired with a warm Maine lobster salad, chanterelle & truffle crepe)

Number 1:
An elegant Chardonnay that plays things extremely close to the vest, exposing some high toned aromas of golden delicious, pear skins, honeysuckle, fresh cut wood and a touch of damp earth. The structure and impeded stoniness can be sensed w/ clarity on the finish, hinting at a lovely potential evolution. The most tightly wound and reserved wine of the bunch, 90+ points.

Number 2:
A much more richly perfumed and unctuous example, sending notes of smoky burnt wood, hard spices, fig, marmalade and warm brioche through the senses offering pleasure and precision. While the wine offers quite a bit of body and a sense of under-stated power, the finish trails off a bit and tempers my enthusiasm from erupting, 92+ points.

Number 3:
This wine offered perhaps the most singular, distinctive aromatic display that I’d ever experienced in young Chardonnay. Exotically perfumed and flamboyantly expressive in its dazzling array of white flowers, hazelnuts, mulled spices, baked apples, honeyed figs and rice pudding notes. This is an exceptionally unique wine that has tremendous character, depth, length and intensity of flavor that isn’t often achieved in this varietal, 97 points.

Number 4:
The last was certainly the most ostentatious, giving the tasters a thrill ride, almost gushing w/ notes of buttered pecans, over-ripe honeydew melons, crème brulee and dried apricots. Richly colored, seamlessly textured and offering a cornucopia of power and density from start to finish. A prototypical ‘American Chardonnay,’ but executed in a nearly flawless fashion, 96 points.

Pinot Noir flight (Marcassin ‘Marcassin Vineyard’ 2001, 2002, Echezeaux Jean Grivot, 1999 and Echezeaux Dujac, 1996 served w/ mushroom crusted halibut over flageolet beans, pancetta and Swiss chard)

Number 5:
An intensely colored Pinot Noir, w/ heady sweet notes of kirsch liqueur, toffee, strawberry jam and rhubarb pie. While very ripe and pushing its intensity to the max, there is a tantalizing underbrush streak and decent juxtaposed acidity that keeps things in symmetry. Certainly stemmed from Zinfandel sensibilities, but harnessed enough to pull it off, 94 points.

Number 6:
The lightest wine of the flight by a long shot, exposing a bit of amber in its light ruby hues, offered the most captivating scents of the flight. Notions of briar, damp moss, leafy vegetation, leather, rose water and ripe cherries scintillate through the senses like autumn winds bustling forest leaves from tree to tree. Unfortunately, after all that poetry, this wine had an emaciated, underwhelming palate that lacked depth and was marred by an angular personality. Perfume is what matters in Pinot to most, but stuffing is essential for me to swoon in any wine that I evaluate, 85 points.

Number 7:
I actually found this wine to be a tad more ambitious than the 5th of the flight, offering up overt scents of crushed berries (raspberry, strawberry), cassis liqueur and red plum jam. The wine is delicious, if a tad superficial. A bit of a powerhouse Pinot Noir, but I’ve had more compelling examples of this style as this doesn’t capture all the charm and seduction that Pinot is capable of expressing at its finest, 92 points.

Number 8:
This deep ruby colored Pinot defied you to approach it, as it was the most youthful (not necessarily chronologically), reductive and foreboding effort of the bunch. Scents of leather, melted asphalt, braised game, and deep, dark cherries make themselves apparent through vigorous aeration. The palate is full of juicy dark fruits that are masculine and ruggedly tannic, finishing w/ sinew and savory elements that barely hint at where this wine is headed. In need of a decade or more in the cellar, but watch out, it is going to be a stunner when it comes around, 94+ points.

There will be more comments on this flight to follow as I unveil the wines. It was an interesting group.

Cabernet Sauvignon flight (Araujo ‘Eisele,’1999, Chateau Montelena 1996, Lynch Bages 1996 and Ducru Beaucaillou 1996 paired with grilled dry aged NY strip steak alongside braised short ribs & porcini mousse)

Number 9:
The first of the group was crisp, mature and full of complexity. Notions of tobacco, pepper, licorice, tilled earth, truffles and black currant are bright, medium bodied and have a bit of a chewy disposition. While the wine is by no means a blockbuster, it is noble and full of charm and is sure to satiate any fan of finesse-driven Cabernet, 90 points.

Number 10:
A much more brooding wine than the first not only in stature but in it’s intensely wound persona. Ripe and still a bit backward, this Cabernet yielded notes of violet, crème de cassis, cedar, graphite and dried porcini mushrooms as it sat in the glass. This savory, mineral rich, plump red still needs some time to fully bloom, but it’s quality is currently undeniable, 94+ points.

Number 11:
The third Cabernet of the flight was perhaps even further away from maturity than the second, as it showed in austere and stubborn fashion throughout the entire tasting. A tannic, excruciatingly backward palate nearly concealed its hidden flavors of iron, tea, currant, flowers and crushed raspberry. Hopefully another five years in the cellar will help unwind the tannic stranglehold in this wine, 90+ points.

Number 12:
The irresistible sexpot of the Cabernet tasting was precocious from the get go, exposing its ripe underbelly of black currant, blackberry, spice box, mocha and flint flavors in spectacular fashion. The ripest of the bunch was juicy, supple and full of richly layered dark fruit in the palate that were buttressed by a wondrously plush texture, pumping out the flavors effortlessly to a lengthy conclusion. At the top of its game last night and should drink well for another ten years easily, 96 points.

The final, Syrah flight consisted of Sean Thackery ‘Orion,’ 2002, Alban ‘Reva,’ 2002, Hermitage, Chave 1999 and Cote Rotie ‘Chateau D’Ampuis,’ Guigal 1999 (served w/ artisanal chesses: Chaource from Champagne, Laura Chenel from California, La Tommett from the Pyrenees and Grafton Cheddar from Vermont)

Number 13:
While the first of the flight was exceptionally tight, it was ultimately the most promising. Hauntingly proportioned notes of violet, bacon grease, melted licorice, raspberry ganache and tobacco flavors were exceptionally pretty and elegant in their presentation. The palate had a gorgeous beam of pure, mineral laced fruit that sashayed along muscular tannins to a lengthy finish. This should prove to be an immortal Syrah. I wouldn’t touch it for another 5 years, 95-97 points.

Number 14:
A bit darker, more saturated color presented itself in the next wine, which offered up the most interesting smorgasbord I’d ever witnessed in a young Syrah. Idiosyncratic, wild notes of red cabbage, chive, thyme, basil and parsley drenched the taster’s nose as if it were serving up a fresh herb fare from a Turkish bazaar. The palate got a bit more serious, with deep, rich cassis, mocha and spice flavors that brought this wine into a bit more equilibrium from its eccentric beginnings. Outstanding for sure, but I can’t help but wonder where ‘unique’ becomes flat out weird, 93 points.

Number 15:
This is a flat out gorgeous example of Syrah, from anywhere. Fantastically pure shots of grilled game, crunchy dark fruits, violet, black pepper, hoisin sauce and sweet toast burst from the glass as if they were launched from an airstrip. While it struck me as a bit heady initially, the density of the palate was surprisingly restrained, composed and full of muscular tannins that meant business. Wonderfully proportioned and impeccably made juice, 95 points.

Number 16:
The deepest and darkest colored wine of the flight was a pedal to the medal thrill ride that erupted like Mount Kilimanjaro. Inky, palate staining flavors of super-ripe blueberries, blackberry reduction sauce, tar, white flowers and a cornucopia of Asian spices fluttered throughout the palate like a muscular ballerina dancer. Layers and layers of rich fruit dazzled in their concentration and admirable poise, in spite of the sheer size of the wine. This puppy was a tour de force that demonstrates what controlled explosion is all about, 96 points.


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