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Sunday, July 29, 2007

The All Consuming High Alcohol Debate, Alban Style....

I’d like to use a particular wine, the Alban Central Coast Viognier 2006, to bring my two cents to the high alcohol debate. While this may not strike you as a rhetoric commentary or demand blatant attention like Randy Dunn’s commentary did, I find that speaking of a particular wine can help one achieve some personal insight and reflect on its relevance towards broader issues.

I'm happy to introduce one of Alban’s wines that any of you may actually be able to locate at retail (and won't break the bank for roughly 22 dollars). Nearly the wines in his stable are perfect fodder to begin an alcohol-level based debate, especially when one notices that the small number in the bottom right hand corner of the label says 15.8%. Make no mistake about it, this Viognier is a product of uncompromising ripeness, vision and extreme intensity of cool climate terroir. His decisions to fanatically crop thin, leaf pull and late this case, result in a heady, forward and deliciously rich white.

To generalize, Rhone varietals are tend to attain much more depth of flavor when achieving higher levels of ripeness, and the opulent flavor development is necessary to achieve a balance in their overall profiles. Viognier (as well as Grenache, in particular) can accumulate very high levels of sugars and still be quite lean in flavor; so pushing back the harvest dates in cool, hillside regions has proven to be a very successful viticultural practice. This 2006 Viognier is no exception to these rules.

The color has a light golden shade, w/ flecks of grin from the base to the rim. The scents are exotic and alluring, w/ shades of citrus blossom, lanolin, tropical oils and jellied quince. Flavors are intense, but still focused and evoke notions of dried apricot, honey and cinnamon spices. Sure, I guess there are traces of heat, but nothing severe enough to detract from the precise character and overall harmony of this endowed effort. Serve slightly chilled, drink early and often…91 points.

My wife mentioned that she thought it smelled like a Gewurztraminer, which actually brings up a good point. Nearly all outstanding examples of Gewurztraminer I've had exhibit exotic, flamboyant and heady profiles that people tend to love or hate...balanced or not. Gewurtz, not unlike successful Rhone Rangers of California, is not bashful nor apologetic for the intensity it brings nor for the gaudy expressions it conjures. Not everyone will like it, but considering the uniqueness, not everyone should. Those that find wines of this nature offensive will choose not to drink them (but certainly should refrain from their elaborate protests, crying heresy), but those that adore them should not be ashamed nor defensive of these precocious elixirs...if Alban's Viognier could talk, I don't think it would be ashamed or defensive of what it is, so don’t be afraid to drink up :)

Friday, July 27, 2007

A Stamp of Perfection?!
There are some indications from this article that the technology has the versatility to seek out various flaws in addition to TCA. Perhaps winery-level dilemmas can be nipped early via detection of exaggerated levels of TBA, brett, VA, sulfur...even cooked wines could be dealt w/ in transit, further minimizing consumer anguish.

These characteristics of the promising new invention have several limitations, most likely limiting it's use to industry related personnel...but the positive consequences could be far reaching if it were to be utilized widely. I'd suggest top notch restaurants hire consultant staff to administer tests of their high-end stock, perhaps some distributors could begin to stamp guarantees on their bottles via early detection of flaws to high end products and lucrative, high volume producers can dramatically reduce the likelihood of another 'Pillar Rock disaster' occuring....

Don't want to change to screw caps due to consumer acceptance? Well this may be your expensive ticket...Benefits and implications seem to be far reaching though, especially for older labels and winery-level crisis...your thoughts?

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Another Heavyweight Round in Westchester
A absolutely wonderful night of hedonism, great company and terrible preparation of food (obviously kidding Leo...). I must have lost my sense of reality somewhere between the homemade bread, gnocci, lamb and roast...but la-la land was a tremendous place to be last night. Adored every second of it, and still have the tingles to prove it. World class wine aside, Leo and Connie- I'm lucky to know you two and am extremely greatful for the time we spend together. You outdid yourselves in spades...

Domaine Carneros 2000
Lovely, fine beaded sparkler to begin the evening with. Very directed aromas of citrus oils, roasted nuts and judicious toast shot through the glass. Ample weight and great lift on the palate carried the baked apple flavors to a lively finish. Poured from a magnum and is on its way to maturity. 89 points

Jadot Batard Montrachet 1998
Decanted for a few hours prior to consumption; the nose of this 7 year old Grand Cru Burgundy seemed far more evolved than that of the palate. Rich, creamy notes of nutmeg spice, tapioca pudding, honey dew and rich vanilla bean had such a sultry complexity to them that I found irresistible. Beautifully integrated and layered. I’d recommend consumption over the next 8-10 years. 92 points.
Chateau Beaucastel 1998
Lovely aged Chateauneuf w/ plenty of steam ahead of it. Showing classic Grenache notes of dried plumbs, figs, cocoa powder and pepper. Adequate richness on the palate was accompanied by layers of modest briar and spicebox tones amidst silky layers of dark fruit. Guy mentioned that the majority of the Mourvedre ended up in the Hommage bottling in ’98, making this a bit of an anomaly bottling for Beaucastel as it contained such a high content of Grenache. Mourvedre or not (definitely keeping her less funky), this is a deep, aged Chateauneuf that is drinking very well now. 93 points.

Jadot Latricieres Chambertin 2003
This peek into Grand Cru red Burgundy from the intensely exotic 2003 vintage was definitely a fabulous one! Dark, deeply colored ruby tones lead the way to a pungent smorgasbord of scents including smoked game, campfire grill and rich dark cherries. An initial glimpse could have fooled me into thinking this was a young Graves! This flamboyantly ripe pinot really strut its stuff on the palate, pumping out mouth-filling, full flavors of rich toast, huckleberry and currant coated flavors in a sheer cashmere cloth. Remarkable purity, opulence and length. Big time Burgundy! 94 points (my wife’s wine of the night)

Tentua de San Guido, Sassicaia 1998
Roll out the red carpet, this is officially my favorite vintage of this iconoclast Italian cabernet yet (no, I have not yet tasted the ’88 or ’85…but I’ll get to them eventually)! The nearly inky color was surprising, but not nearly as profound as the aromatics of roasted peppers, mushroom, truffles, coffee and smoke. Absolutely delicious and fat in the mouth, loaded w/ heady black currant, black raspberry, graphite and steel, punctuating its character w/ a remarkably long, gravel tinged finish. 1998 might have been less than exemplary in Tuscany, but Bolgerhi was surely rockin’ tonight! A home run, easily worthy of 95 points.

Tentua de Ornellaia, Masseto 1996 (from a magnum)
Well, I am officially bursting my Masseto cherry, and needless to say, it was an absolute privilege. This wine simply won over the entire table, eyes gawked and mouths drooled once putting this pure Merlot elixir to the lips. A beautifully complex bouquet of Starbucks coffee, melted licorice and touches of mint that are powerful and simply effusive. Fat, plush flavors of dark chocolate and dark cherry liqueur are flat our breath-taking as they cascade through the palate like a barrel trip through Niagra Falls! Out of this world. 97 points.

Tenuta del Terriccio 2003
This has been a hallmark bottle for us to chow on at the end of the evening. It began w/ the 2000 (which beat out the ’96 Sassicaia for wine of the night) and then migrated over to the 2001 (which was a sheer, caged animal that bounced all over the palate like a Gorilla carrying a banana) and now it’s time for the ’03. I figured the extreme heat and drought of ’03 would play right into Carlo Ferrini’s hands w/ this eccentric and loaded Syrah based blend, and it sure did. This is undoubtedly was a WTF wine! Much like a beginning taster’s first experience w/ a rich Amarone, this juice evokes such blatant characteristics that it demands one’s creative apparatus to kick into full gear! A nose of pure black peppercorn salami, scorched chestnuts, espresso roast and pure bacon fat (no, I’m not kidding!). You can’t help but explore further, like an Archaeologist on a forbidden dig. The palate had a ferocious sense of depth and opulence, while maintaining such a silky feel that was almost haunting. Flavors of fig and vivid blueberries danced their way through the night….a sheer tour de force! 95 points (excitement, yes…just not the polish of the Masseto, but this aint about polish!).

I am going to allow Guy to post on the dessert wines (on the eBob board)...the Vouvray you brought was one of my favorite Chenin Blancs of all time (god what a versatile and under-appreciated grape!). All you guys are the best, salud- I will open something dynamite tonight and toast to the eternal health of your families.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

The ‘Off Vintage’

A refreshing breeze is blowing through the stoic chateau on each side of the Gironde. An enlightening gust so obligatory that even the most austere Bordeaux aristocrat seems whimsically approachable. This breath of fresh air originated in the vineyards of Bordeaux during the 1999 harvest and has now blossomed into an 8 year old savior from the grim luxuries of big ticket claret. I will affectionately name our knight in shining armor ‘The Off Vintage.’ I shall explain why a bit of rain, an ever so slightly generous yield and lack of effusive sunshine can be the perfect recipe for Momma’s home-cooking in today’s market for Bordeaux wines.

My declaration of 1999 as a savior begins with a few tired old notions (some true, some not) and some classic clichés. Clichés that begin in Burgundy, labeling its followers as masochists waltzing through minefields in search of a coveted holy grail. Then there is the all too familiar naysayer approach towards New World frontiers, condemning them as void of terroir, finesse and lacking capacity to age. Which brings us to beating around the Bordeaux bush with its hedge funds, classic vintages of 'vin de garde' juxtaposed to the countless 'vintages of the century,' and of course the all too painful sense of patience. Say something too often and it becomes nearly meaningless, as if it were the Chateau owner crying wolf.

If Burgundy is for masochists, I say Bordeaux is for those w/ a pension for blue balls. Look but don’t touch. Shell out thousands up front for a product you won’t actually be able to hold for at least 2 years. Once you finally have the baby in your arms…..wait. Only this breed of consumer would pounce all over the opportunity to shell out well over 100 dollars a bottle (shh, it’s a steal!) for something of which the critics don’t recommended consumption of for nearly 2 decades. Such an arduous prison stay is indeed one without a conjugal visit.

I tire of the blockbuster vintages not only because of their cliché, but more so due to the agony associated with them. I, admittedly, adore Bordeaux. I respect and admire its longevity and all the treasures that await one who allows their bottles to reach maturity. But alas, I must drink! I must drink w/o being chided for committing infanticide, only to find a wall of tannin w/in Pandora’s box. Worse yet, when one actually enjoys young Bordeaux only to hear of the heresy they’ve committed, punctuated with the all too familiar “just wait, you aint seen nothing yet.” Suppose that brings additional light to the cliché of what constitutes a guilty Bordeaux pleasure (along with drooling over wines like Monbousquet that are unjustly delicious wines spawned from pitiful terroirs).

I feel I have set the scene sufficiently to delve into 1999 a bit, haven’t I? Allow me to demonstrate how this has crept into my soft spot of Bordeaux passion w/o the pain. But wait; does this creep into the realm of all those financial woes associated w/ purchasing mature vintages? Eh, not so much, least not when the vintage is sandwiched in between two vintages of the century (’98 for the right bank and the bicentennial vintage for just about everywhere). The Bordelais conjured some absolutely lovely wines from this unheralded year, eh-hem dare I default to “a classical vintage to be consumed in the midterm whilst you await the ’98 right bank chateau and ‘00s to reach maturity.” Ok, perhaps I’ll bite on that cliché as it doesn’t seem a painful one, least not in this instance.

The best of 1999 have blossomed into outstanding wines, if not the colossal blockbusters of their caddy-cornered vintages (phew, refreshing aint it?). Financially speaking, it’s imperative to look into back-vintage Bordeaux. Even if the Bordelais have priced themselves out of the American market in 2006, it’s had a domino effect of elucidating the relative value of previous years, in particular 1999 (at least for today’s writing purposes). Wines like Latour, Cheval Blanc, Margaux, Palmer and Lafite are still widely available for circa 150-300 dollars, some of which are literally one fifth the bloated price tag of their 2006 counterparts! Not only can you purchase close to 5 Cheval Blanc’s from 1999 for the price of one 2006, they are of comparable quality and…yikes, nearly mature! I’ve mentioned the big boys initially in 1999 to illustrate a more dramatic point, considering these wines are not cheap by any stretches of my imagination. Having said that, I find even more substance down the line of 1999.

The likes of Peby Faugeres (which, to my palate, was one of the most profound wines of the vintage), Monbousquet (that pesky petit chateau strikes again w/ another winner), Pavie Decesse, Canon La Gaffeliere, Ducru Beaucaillou, Clerc Milon, Clos de l’Oratoire, Pape Clement, Pavie, Montrose, Clos L’Eglise, Pavie Macquin, Smith Haut Lafitte, Chapelle d’Ausone, Lynch Bages, Malescot St. Exupery, Bon Pasteur and Pichon Baron are all either comparably priced (or much lower) than their ritzy, newly bottled 2006 versions. Not only that, they are all approaching a very beautiful window of maturity and drinking exceptionally well! Wines that you can purchase for under100 dollars and actually enjoy today. Their speculative potential is most likely limited (unless back vintages continue to appreciate from buying pressures of ludicrously priced young Bordeaux), but their pleasurable potential is certainly outstanding!

I’ve mentioned before that I consider years such as 1999 to be the meat and potatoes of Bordeaux (particularly because it has hit an 8 year old mark and is drinking so beautifully well), simply because it serves as a blissful reminder of why we hold this region’s wines in such high regard. This can be lost through the long nights on, clamoring over futures, vintage speculation, Parker upgrades and downgrades and the all consuming pricing debates. I am throwing out this diatribe of 1999 as a life line to those of you that are at risk for losing the essence of what brought you to the banks of the Gironde in the first place. The elegance, supple textures, depth, additional layers of complexity and dinner partner of perfection that Bordeaux is….when you drink it. It is, in fact, a wine product meant to be drunk. To accompany family, food and commemorate the joys of life. A celebration, a symbol, a reminder or just because it tastes so damn good.

Whatever it is, the soul of wine requires to be viscerally experienced, not speculated upon or revered as an intangible trophy or cloth of luxury. It shouldn’t bring one pain or prejudice, it should bring delight. The heart of Bordeaux that I’d always found an attraction for had nothing to do with greed, sloth and arrogance. The heart is pure with history, symmetry and strength. Simple as that sounds, sometimes these foundational pleasures of life demand a simple recounting, just because. I hope these thoughts find you well, and if you don’t know where to look for these simple reminders, I suggest you start with a top notch 1999. Once it’s in the glass, you will see what I am talking about.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Is there a better pinot noir from New Zealand?

Craggy Range Te Muna Road, 2005

Certainly my favorite thus far, albeit from a relatively small sample size. A producer who has probably made more headway w/ their bright, concentrated sauvignon blancs (from the same vineyard sources, I believe) but certainly has made a powerful statement w/ this persuasive expression of pinot noir.

Scintillating, exuberant scents of cracked pepper, hard spices, cardamom, dark cherries and black raspberries engulf the taster w/ the sweet and the spicy. The palate is full of fat pinot flavors, underpinned by peppered minerality and a satin coated texture that evokes each metaphor that put this temptress of a finicky grape on the map. While broad, it is quite grounded in pleasing restraint. Enjoy this silky goddess over the next 7 years. 93-94 points. With efforts like this (clocking in around 35 dollars, fairly priced around 80 smackers on the restaurant list) from New Zealand, can more outstanding pinot be far behind?

As a side note, I believe this wine has extremely limited retail availability. I've only been able to locate it at the Gotham Grill (which, eh-hem, I've frequented on multiple occasions, using this wine as the perfect excuse to return) & have yet to run into it on wine-searcher. It could be due to an exclusive restaurant deal, a high Wine Spectator rating, or minimal importation? Considering the high volume of their sauvignon blanc that can be found on retail shelves w/ relative ease, I'd probably rule out the latter theory. Another relentless search may be in order...

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Why '99 Bordeaux is Worthy, Even Though Steakhouses Aren't

Yet another steakhouse wine list, loaded w/ over-priced Napa cabernet and stratospheric charges for back-vintage Bordeaux left my wallet spinning at its bloated commercial selections and lack of breadth. My recent MOA at steakhouses has involved seeking out Chilean cabernet, Argentinian malbec, pinot noir (most steakhouses toss a few Burgundies your way, but California has proved more reasonably priced) or a token Rhone Ranger. While I have become almost unkindly jaded w/ the steakhouse sommelier, I still can’t help but let curiosity get the best of me. I perused the Bordeaux selections with pessimistic hope, perhaps a diluted dream fooled me into thinking that a misprint would make my evening a bit more financially palatable.

What I discovered certainly wasn’t the deal of the century, but at roughly 100 dollars, a 1995 Pichon Baron seemed a lovely selection and made me my search seem justified.

Alas, the famous two pet-peeves of mine were jumbled together painfully.

  1. Number one: restaurant menu-wine list combinations usually are not all. If I am looking at a 1999 Cakebread Sauvignon Blanc, chances are it’s no longer in the cellar during the summer of 2007. Needless to say, they 'just ran out' of the 1995 Pichon Baron. Deals like that don’t tend to last.

  2. Number two: the old vintage switcheroo. While this one was much more tactful in approach; “Sir, we unfortunately no longer carry the 1995. The only Pichon Baron remaining in the cellar is a 1999. Would you be interested at the same price?”

Ok, I’ll bite. The ‘95 was a deal at 100 bones, the ‘99...not so much. Coupled w/ the waiter’s ostentatious commentary on the vintage; “Most restaurants don’t carry this vintage, it’s quite rare that you’ll find a ‘99 Bordeaux at this price.” I could almost feel the whispers of the Bordelais creeping into my ears “vintage of the century, it’s a return to classic Bordeaux,” except I had to agree w/ the second part of his statement- it is rare to find a Pichon Baron 1999 over a hundred dollars (it’s still retailing under 50). Why do I continue to go to steakhouses? Well, everyone else loves them and their lamb chops are usually out of this world. Submitting to peer pressure certainly makes me feel like a dweeb.

Anyhow, w/ all of my previous successes w/ 1999 Bordeaux, I had a good feeling about Mr. Pichon, and that feeling was well recognized. A splash decant was certainly welcome, as each subsequent glass gained in richness and generosity. The scents of textbook Pauillac character were very attractive, w/ spicy cedar, black cherry and licorice notes filling the air. The wine put on weight w/ exposure to air, which certainly bodes well for positive future development. Harmony took a bit of time, but the toasty elements began to mesh perfectly w/ the lovely black currant laced palate. A more than modest finish punctuated yet another reason to enjoy 1999 Bordeaux. My score rose from an 88 on the first glass to a firm 90 at my last sip. The 1999 Baron should evolve nicely through 2018.

1999 Bordeaux is hitting a very favorable stride. Many of the finer left and right bank chateau are beginning to reach an attractive drinking stage of their lives, while one can’t help but imagine close to another decade of positive maturation for these 8 year old pups, gaining even greater complexities and continuing to round off their already supple tannins. Blockbuster years will continue to receive all the press, accolade and speculative attention, but years such as 1999 are the meat and potatoes of why I love to drink claret. They remain at relatively attractive price points and are beginning to offer quite a bit of pleasure in the glass. While it is certainly understandable that the 2005 excitement can overwhelm, I’d like to remind all Bordeaux aficionados to remember that their dinner tables will be a barren place until those 2005s are released, much less reach maturity. While I will continue to entertain a beautiful day dream for enjoying the cream of 21st century Bordeaux, I can’t imagine a better way to pass the time than w/ the last vintage of the 20th century's finest in my glass.