Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Holidays in the Liquor Biz

Holidays in the liquor and wine biz basically means no holiday at all! Just longer hours and no days off. The staggering demand for alcohol at this time of the year is always amazing.

Posts are happening constantly, just in my head and not online.

Fermenting topics:

Vinturi Wine Aerorators
Diatom Chardonnay
Great Wines at Christmas Dinner
Dogfish Head Palo Santo: Deconstructed
Vergano Chinato
Sean Thackery Pleaides XVII

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Smoke of the Peat, Nut of the Barley: Laphroaig Tasting

Fascinating tasting at the store last night with Simon Brooking, Laphroaig's Master Ambassador to the States. The whiskies delivered the goods as always with plenty of peat, but beautifully balanced and self-contained. We tasted several expressions of Laphroaig as well as Ardmore, a peated Highland Malt, and Teachers, a blended whisky which features a big dose of Ardmore.

My desk is next to the tasting bar in the store and I was catching up on paperwork while Simon was talking to customers when I noticed a smoky aroma. The smokiness didn't dissipate and grew stronger. My first concern was a fire of some sort, but it didn't have that electrical smell, instead it was perfumed like some strange incense. Ben confirmed my suspicions and said that Simon had a couple of lumps of peat and was heating them. Nice. I quickly abandoned the paperwork and went to investigate.

Sure enough, he had two dark lumps of peat. The larger one was the Islay peat used at Laphroaig to dry the malted barley. The smaller lump was Highland peat and is used at Ardmore, the only 100% peated Highland Malt. Peat being organic material compressed over a long period of time, it is composed of whatever grows in the region it is found. It follows that the flavors of the smoke would be different.

The Highland peat produced a sweeter and slightly resinous smoke. The first impression was rich charcoal. It was sweet and earthy with an overall impression of dense smoke. I imagined I was walking into an old barbeque house in Lockhart where they've been smoking all manner of meats for years and years. Simon attributed the sweet resin notes to the heather which native to the area.

The Islay peat was not as dark and smoky, but was more complex and aromatic and was perfumed like an incense. I was reminded of sandalwood, but much darker, with bitter chocolate undertones. Simon said the peat bogs contained a lot of bog cotton and bog myrtle. Bog myrtle is very aromatic with rich essential oils. It is used for medicines and sometimes as a substitute for hops in making beer.

Both the Ardmore and Laphroaig are 100% peated. According to Simon 15% of Laphroaig's peated malt is produced at the distillery, the rest is sourced from Port Ellen. The Islay produces a much peatier whisky. The Laphroaig contains approximately 40 parts per million peat, while the Ardmore is just 15 ppm.

The peat is used to dry the barley after it has been malted. The peat fires produce hot smoke which impart the peaty flavors into the malt. Simon also had a jar of peated, malted barley from Laphroaig, which we chewed. The small grains were nutty with smoky pipe tobacco flavors and aromas with a myriad of salty minerals and iodine from the ocean air. Addictive and delicious, the flavors just hung around on the palate forever!

Oh, we also tasted some whisky! The Teachers was surprisingly smoky and smooth. The Ardmore Traditional Cask was sweet and smooth with fruit and floral aromas floating over the delicate notes of smoky peat. The youthful Laphroaig 10 Year Old delivers the focused beam of smoky, salty pipe tobacco that is the signature of a young Islay. However the whisky is very finely balanced with hints of honey showing through the dark flavors.  

Laphroaig Quarter Cask sees a second aging in small quarter casks that were traditionally  used to deliver whisky on horseback. The second aging in the smaller casks allows the spirit 30% more contact with the wood. The result is a sweeter whisky with notes of creamy citrus intermingled with the dark flavors of smoky peat. The luxurious viscosity is amazing, encouraging the taster to roll the spirit around in the mouth, turning the kaleidoscope of flavors around and around. The 15 Year Old is a mature version of the 10. The focused beam of youth has matured into more refined whisky with notes of creme brulee, nutmeg and burnt orange riding the waves of smoke and peat.

As we were reflecting, Simon pulled a sample bottle of Ardmore 31 year old from his bag of tricks. The spirit was the same color as the younger Ardmore, but the flavors were much more concentrated. Simon guessed that about 60% of the whisky went to help the angels sing.  Intense floral aromatics of heather and honey dominated both the nose and palate, supported by subtle notions of smoky peat. Definitely a treat!

Simon packed his bags and left for his next tasting. We were left with a lingering smoky perfume in the store and salty nutty flavors of peated barley still hanging on our palates. Those flavors were surely there during our short but sweet tasting. Talk about enhancing perceptions of flavor!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Two Mezcals: Minero and Pechuga

Wow, it seems like forever I've been trying to get this post written. Every time I start it just gets too long, too involved, with way too much information. So I'm going to take a direct method. I've poured myself a touch of both Minero and Pechuga. I started to say, "of each mezcal," but that would be incorrect. The two are both expressions of the same mezcal. They are both imported by Del Maguey Mezcal who brings a number of mezcals from different villages around Oaxaca. They are all outstanding, world class spirits.

Ok, a few basics so all readers are up to speed. Mezcal is the generic name for any distillate produced from any agave. Mezcal is produced from about 120 different varieties of agave in many different regions in Mexico. Tequila is a name-controlled region around Jalisco and must be made from the Weber 'Blue' Agave native to that region. Thus, all tequila is a mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila.

By far the most mezcal is produced from agave grown in the mountains around Oaxaca. Much of the mezcal is produced in artisanal fashion with the starchy stems (called pinas which can weigh up to 125 lbs) roasted in earthen pits over hot rocks which have been heated in oak fires. The pits are covered with moist fiber from the plants, or in some villages banana leaves. The pinas are typically roasted for 3-5 days. They are then covered and allowed to sit to absorb yeasts before being crushed by large stones turned by mules or tractors. The pulp is mixed with water and allowed to ferment. It is then slowly distilled. The resulting mezcal has a characteristic smoky flavor.

Minero is made is the true artisenal fashion. The mezcal is double distilled in clay pots with bamboo tubing.  Pechuga is a third distillation that takes place when the fruits ripen on the trees. 75 liters of Minero is placed in the still along with 25 pounds of wild mountain apples and plums, red plaintains, pineapple, a handful of almonds and a few pounds of rice. Over the liquid is hung a washed and skinned (but still on the carcass) chicken breast. The vapors pass over the chicken breast before condensation. They say the chicken serves to take the edge off the fruit flavors. Production is exremely limited. Just 350 bottles of the current 2007 vintage was released in February 2008.

Late one Saturday night (Sunday morning), after a long day at the State Fair of Texas, I sat down with my son Travis to do some serious analytic tasting. The mezcals were accompanied by toasted pine nuts dusted with heirloom Chimayo red chile.

The Minero shows an initial aromatic hit of smokiness which is followed by complex notes of banana, honey, citrus, some weird alkaloid herbal shit with refined 'jet fuel' aromatics providing a long finish with a steely minerality. It is very difficult to find words for the complex set of flavors encountered when the thick, viscous liquid coats the tongue. A kaleidoscope of flavors emerge from the initial smokiness as the mezcal is rolled around the mouth. Bitter lemon zest, resin, herbs and alkaloids are followed by smoky honey with hard rocks and pepper on the long desolate finish.

My sister Mary is a professional food writer. When she first encountered Minero she wrote the following:  "This mezcal was a whole new kind of tasting experience for me: it was almost entirely olfactory. Maybe this is how a lizard “tastes,” by just flicking its tongue. As well as savoring a sip every few minutes, I stuck my nose in the glass and just inhaled every few minutes. The aroma was a lot more complex than anything my tongue’s taste bud receptors were designed to recognize. It had a "flavor" designed more for the limbic brain than the mouth. Other extremely volatile drinks (armagnac, cognac, old whiskey) have at least one or two comfortingly identifiable taste connections--sweet, acid, bitter. This mezcal had cut all the kite strings attached to the usual contents of the sensory memory bank. And I tend to think that’s part of the enchantment."

I had to look up limbic. "The limbic system includes the areas in the brain involved in emotion, motivation and emotional association with memory. It influences formation of memory by integrating emotions with stored memories of physical sensations." The limbic system is descended from the olfactory bulb of the brain and provides an evolutionary basis for the union of emotion, smell and memory.

So, to make Pechuga they take the intense complex flavors of Minero, add all the fruit, nuts and rice, and run the vapors over a chicken. What the hell do you get from that?

The aroma features a much milder smokiness followed by buttery, yeasty, liquified bananas reminiscent of the 'Elvis fried PBJ + Banana Sandwich' we had eaten earlier at the Fair. Fine fruity alcoholic aromatics reminiscent of a super-refined European Eau de Vie float to the forefront. The complex herbal aromas that dominated the Minero are still present, but are lurking beneath the fruit and cool refreshing notes of fresh aloe vera. One has the sensation of being very lost in a very rich and complex thing. Navigation is difficult.

Amazing viscous textures coat the palate like a lip balm. Notes of honey, complex fruits and smoke emerge in that order. The overall impression is that of the finest, cleanest, richest silver agave you could imagine. The rich spirit is tender and delicious like the best roast chicken. The finish is extremely long and complex with dark, bitter undercurrents of raw chocolate and black pepper intertwined with smoky honey.

In conclusion:  Where the Minero leaves you alone on a desolate but contemplative metaphysical plain, Pechuga wraps you in a safe, warm spiritual place, safe from any storm
Difficult to find, but worth the search. We occasionally have them at Sigel's, but they don't last long!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Lots of Friends When You're Pouring Krug, Dom, Grande Dame....

Had well over 500 of our closest friends in the store last night. Poured 13 different Sparkling Wines. Had over 100 empty bottles! Thanks to Ed and our good friends with Moet Hennessy for putting on a fabulous tasting.

We started with 4 selections from Domaine Chandon. The Brut and Blanc de Noir were their usual delicious selves, really good quality bubbles at very reasonable prices. Etoile was delicious, but I thought the Etoile Rose was stunning. Delicious sparkling wine at the base with just a touch of strawberries and a finishing slip of honey down the back of the tongue.

Moet Chandon showed their rich and delcious Grand Vintage 2000. Basically made with the wine that doesn't go into Dom Perigon, there is no other wine in the portfolio between the Grand Vintage and Dom. The Vintage 2000 represents an amazing value. Imperial Brut Rose has a bold touch of cherries and the Nectar Imperial has its reliable rich touch of sweetness. The Nectar has been my favorite dessert bubbly for many years.

Clicquot Brut was Clicquot Brut, full and very toasty. The Vintage 2002 was a winner as was the Rose, made for a summer Sunday watching Wimbledon with its strawberries and cream!

Of course the big table featured the tete de cuvees. Dom Perignon 2000 was fresh and crisp with stone fruits, honey, minerals and sparkling acidity. Grande Dame 1998 featured hints of toast and hazelnuts with complex fruits and honey.

Krug's current Grand Cuvee was very interesting as it is nowhere near as nutty and toasty as previous releases. They use 7 vintages to blend the wine and they have used the same barrels for fermentation for many years so the barrels are essentially neutral. They use the same vineyards and the  same family has blended the wine for many years. The only variable is vintage variation. Ed suspects there is a large dollop of the 1995 in the blend. Of the different vintages of Krug he has in his cellar, the 95 is the least approachable and he's still waiting for the acidity to calm down, which would account for the crisp attack of the wine. That being said, it is quite delicious and the current blend with its crisp attack on top of the nutty complex of fruits and honeys is my favorite style of white Burgundy. Only Krug has bubbles which just makes it that much better!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Chris Ringland Shiraz Tasting with Chris Ringland

As was mentioned in the previous post, the R Wines tasting was a great success. The event was very well attended, as it should be when a world famous winemaker is in the store. The wines showed very well, and best of all, sales were very brisk. In addition to selling wines with 'everyday' pricing, we took a large number of pre-sale orders for the rare and exceptional limited production shiraz's.

But the real treat was at the end of the tasting. Chris had with him a four year vertical selection of the legendary Chris Ringland Shiraz, which he had opened for a private tasting earlier in the day. And in a moment of extraordinary generosity, he shared the wines with the wine staff who had worked the tasting.

A little back story is in order. Chris Ringland Shiraz is a tiny production wine made from the Three Rivers Vineyard, located at the top of ridge in Barossa. The vines were planted in 1910. Yields are miniscule, generally around 1 ton per acre, extremely low for the Barossa Valley. Production typically is 750 to 1100 bottles, depending on the  the vintage. Intervention and manipulation of the vineyard is minimal.

Chris said he throws bird netting over the vines after the grapes change color at veraison and rarely goes under the nets until it's time to harvest. "I used to be fairly obsessive about checking the progress of the grapes," he said. "But now I just throw on the netting and let it go. When you really know the vineyard, you can usually tell what's going on just by looking at the grapes. Now, when I think it's about ready, I go under and taste the grapes and maybe test the sugar. Usually it's about a week or so before they're ready to harvest and sometimes, it's 'Oh shit, we need to get these grapes in now!'"

The winemaking is equally minimal. The grapes are crushed, the juice is fermented and aged in new French oak for around 40-42 months. It is then aged in bottle for another couple of years before release. The bottles are wrapped and packaged in individual wooden boxes with lead seals. Buyers beware, there's no checking the fill level of these bottles! Generally about 1/3 of the production is sold in Australia, the rest in the States. Any wine sold in Europe is via after market transactions. Needless to say, it is not cheap.

And, needless to say, the wines are amazing. We tasted the 2001 and 2002 vintages which have been released, as well as the 2003 (about to be released) and the 2004, which is still a year or so away. The wines all show a remarkably consistent flavor profile and identity. There is vintage variation, but it doesn't come close to overriding the singular flavor of the wine produced from this exceptional vineyard.

Aromatics are deep and dark, redolent of any black fruit you can name, licorice, creosote, earth, smoke. Intensity of floral perfumes seemed to vary by vintage. The dense, dark wines bring flavors of deep, dark intensity. Notions of black fruits tend to be swallowed by soy, hoisin, smoked meats and provencal herbs before those are devoured in turn by dark minerals, asphalt, truffles, earth, integrated tannins and surprising acidity which keeps the flavors turning on the palate through the long extended finish. Alcohols tend to be massive, even by Australian standards, but totally unobtrusive. You would never even think about alcohol unless you looked at the label.

Even against this massive tapestry, each vintage presented unique characteristics and it seemed that every taster had a different favorite. The 2001 (100 pts- Robert Parker) had a dark snarl to it, reminiscent of V-8 engines and glass-pack mufflers. The 2002 (100 pts - Robert Parker) had rich, opulent fruits and was showing a seamlessly silky profile. The 2003 (97 pts- Robert Parker) showed expressive elegance and rich, exotic perfumes. The 2004 (not yet rated) was just a monolithic mass of flavor and fat baby fruit. Yet despite their differences, each wine was just a different expression of the vineyard.

(Different Expression. The term is thrown around with increasing frequency these days. Whisk(e)y folk use it all the time. This tasting gave real meaning to the expression.)

I want to express my thanks to Chris for the entire evening. He is easy to be around, to work with and to talk to. He was great with the customers and signed many, many bottles. It was an overwhelming treat to be able to taste the Chris Ringland wines at all, let alone sit around a table, taste and discuss them with the winemaker. Let me just say that it was up there as far as experiences go for wine guys like me and my colleagues. Needless to say, we wore big grins for the next few days!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

R Wines Tasting with Chris Ringland

It was a real treat to have Chris Ringland in the store a couple of weeks ago for a public tasting of some new releases. Chris makes the wines for "R" Wines, a partnership with Dan Philips and the wines are imported through The Grateful Palate. Over the past few years, Chris and Dan have been focusing on securing leases on some of the choicest vineyards in Australia and are producing a multitude of wines of amazing quality that are selling at amazingly affordable prices. Of course the upper tier wines will still knock your socks off!

It was my first opportunity to taste the 2008 Marquis Philips Riesling 44. Classic riesling notes of rich apricot and petrol waft from the glass, followed by crisp, mineral laden riesling that is bone dry. Very Alsatian in character.

Next we poured the 2008 Bitch Grenache. The response to this wine has always been the same. People buy the wine for the novelty of the label and then they come to buy more. The recipe is very simple: pick ripe old-vine fruit, let it ferment and put it in a bottle. No oak, no manipulation, just ripe concentrated fruit-driven wine.

2008 Permutations Pinot Noir and 2006 R Wine "Little R" Cabernet are both well-made and varietally correct, which is a big statement when you are talking about these prestigious grapes and the affordable prices these wines command.

The star of the evening was the 2007 Chris Ringland Ebenezer Shiraz. And what's not to like about this wine? Beautiful silky black fruits are robed in veils of vanilla and toasty oak. It just tastes too good and is way too easy to drink. Surprisingly, Chris says this wine is just a baby and recommends using a Vinerator wine aerator or double-decanting the wine to see all the comlexity. People seemed to like it straight from the bottle as we sold every bottle we had in the store.

And then they went to the table with the big-boy wines!

First up was the Chateau Chateau 2007 David and Goliath McLaren Vale Grenache. The Chateau Chateau series features small lots of exceptional single vineyard Grenache. The spectacular labels are designed by the Hungarian Artist, Istvan Orosz, who creates images with impossible objects, optical illusions and double-meanings. The David and Goliath, 100 cases produced from 80 year old vines aged in neutral barrels, featured layers of richly perfumed red fruits, spices, minerals and leather.

The next three wines were extremely limited expressions of Shiraz and were only available on a pre-sale basis. Evil Incarnate 2004 and The Wine 2004 are both sourced from the Hoffman Vineyard in Ebenezer, but the barrels selected for each wine were selected for their unique characteristics. Evil Incarnate was aged for 36 months in French hogsheads. The multitude of pure black fruits were precisely etched, with soy and truffles leading down a dark path of smoky earth and finely integrated tannin. The Wine saw the same barrel regimen, but the fruits are richer and more opulent and are graced with notes of soy and hoisin before dissolving into a long finish with fine tannin and dark chocolates.
Anamorphosis 2006 is sourced from Kalimna and was aged for 30 months in new French oak barrels made from four of France's finest coopers. The wine explodes on the palate in a dizzying array of red and black fruits. Imagine berries of pomegranate, huckleberry, raspberry, blackberry, red currant, black currant and cranberry all popping crazy on your palate simultaneously. Something like that. And then it just slowly dissolves into infinite inky blackness. Nice.

It so happens that the word 'anamorphosis' has a very specific meaning. (I had to look it up!)  An 'anamorphisis' is a drawing that presents a distorted image which only appears in its natural form under certain conditions, say, viewed in a cylindrical mirrored surface, like a wine bottle. Istvan Orosz specializes in such things. The wine comes in a special box with the bottle (in a black fabric bag to protect the mirrored finish) and the poster with the inscrutable drawing of a forest floor on which to place the bottle to reveal the image.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Perfect Pairing

Whisky and whiskies have risen back with a vengeance. Driven by the younger generation with a ferocious drive for maximum flavors in all things alcoholic, from extreme beers to rare and powerful spirits, the current demand was not foreseen 15, 18 and 25 years ago when the spirits the market demands today had to have been fermented, distilled and laid to rest in casks. Twenty years ago, distilleries were being mothballed and cask stocks were being sold, converted into cash. The result is that today, releases are carefully parcelled out of dwindling stocks, allocated to lucky stores who sell them to loyal customers who have the foresight to put their names on waiting lists well in advance of the availability of the goods.

Recently I was lucky to share the latest release of the Sazerac 18 Year Old Rye Whiskey, which was bottled in Fall, 2009. The whisky is smooth and rich, with a heavy viscosity which coats the tongue like heavy satin. The flavor is surprisingly light yet full of the buttery brown sugars of baked apples and candied citrus dancing through the long finish. It's hard to imagine doing anything with this liquid but just savoring it neat and somehow trying to make it last as long as possible.

However, I was also lucky enough to have on hand a praline made by one of the masters, R.J. Shonuff. The pralines are large flat puddles of crisp and creamy brown sugar with a mound of pecans piled in the center. They were the perfect extension of the whiskey, taking the flavors to a deep rich nutty vortex of deliciousness. The whiskey and the praline joined in ecstatic union. Pretty hedonistic stuff for an old man like me!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Addicted: Ardbeg

Devotees of the Smoky Peat and Honey gathered at the store on a cool and drizzly Monday night to meet the spirited Ardbeg 'Evangelist' Davinia Small and to welcome the newest Ardbeg offering "Corryvreckan" to Dallas.

Ardbeg is a small Islay distillery that produces some of the peatiest intensely flavored whiskies to be found. Production is tiny, they only have two stills. The distillery has been mothballed and the startup has been slow. Offerings have been limited blends of existing stocks, but are avidly sought after, achieving cult-like status.

We tasted four expressions.

The Ten Year Old, aged solely in ex-bourbon casks offered brisk smoky peat of the pure malt, highlighted by the salty lime and iodine notes of the Atlantic. Davinia kept referring to oysters! Among the publicity materials was a recipe for an Ardbeg margarita, which I initially thought was something of a heresy, but then I remembered having margarita's in New Mexico with the complex smokey Del Maguey Mezcal floated on top. Hmm. Good Reposado with Agave Nectar and lime juice, shaken, served up, Ardbeg on top.....

Uigeadail, aged in bourbon and sherry and bottled at 54% abv, packs a more powerful punch. I was able to sit at home the other evening and compile some detailed notes on both Uigeadail and Airigh Nam Beist, tasting the two side by side. They are surprisingly different expressions. Uigeadail present aromatics (in approximate order of perception) of smoke, peat, iodine, citrus oils, salt, rosemary, cedar, and honey. Tasting revealed smoke, peat, more smoke, more peat, honey, citrus oils, dense medicinal herbs followed by still more honey and then the creamy, oily texture dominates the sensation followed by sweet fruits with a long smoky floral and honeyed sweetness on the lingering finish. And then dizziness.

Airigh Nam Beist is a limited 1990 release. My understanding is that what is in shops is what there is, so don't delay if you're interested. At 46%, the whisky is a little less hot than the Uigeadail. Oak comes first on the nose with notes of vanilla  and nutmeg, followed by smoke, peat and citrus oils, with apple, fennel and pine transitioning into lingering notes of smoky floral honey. Luxurious vanilla scented honeyed cream coats the palate accented by smoke, citrus oil, apples and spice before finally coming to ground in dense salt, peat, iodine and medicinal herbs, dissolving in a cloud of delicate floral creamy honeyed sweetness. Intense stuff.

Corryvreckan is the newest release. The French Oak finish gives it a different character from the other expressions which are grounded in traditional bourbon casks. First impressions are of deeply burnished wood. Polished nutmeg and spice with notes of burnt oranges give a deep resonance and then more traditional flavors of smoky, peaty honey begin to intermingle with rich warmth of creamy spicy vanilla. The 57% abv combines with the caramel and allspice to keep the richness lively on the tongue through the long finish. Quite delicious.

The following week has been one of intense addicition and withdrawl. Waking hours are spent craving any and all these flavors. As I sit here writing at 8 in the morning I have two bottles on my desk. They are so tempting. Well.... it is Friday!

Back! Outrageous Sauvignon Blanc

Sorry for the absence. I've been fighting a cold and hit a lull after that very busy last week in October, but it's time to get caught up!

At last week's tasting meeting, I experienced an outrageous Sauvignon Blanc. It is the new vintage Blueprint Sauvignon Blanc from Robin Lail. The wine presented brisk aromas of candied citrus peels: lemon, lime grapefruit and hints of tangerine. It then coated the palate with tremendous viscosity. The citrus peels continued on the palate transitioning through a brief grassy interlude into a long complex minerally finish, kept sparkling with vibrant acids. The sensation was not unlike drinking a bone dry Sauternes. The wine is so rich, it's hard to believe it is crafted totally in stainless steel. After the meeting everyone joined in one common reaction, "WOW!!!" Randy was working on a dinner pairing the next day that involved grilled halibut with a pinapple glaze which would be a tremendous pairing with this wine.

For those not familiar with Robin Lail, she is an amazing woman who grew up in the inner circle of Napa Valley. Her great-uncle, Gustav Niebaum founded Inglenook Cellars in the late 1800's with the vision of making world-class wines. He passed this vision to Robin's father, John Daniels who oversaw the production of the legendary Inglenook Cabernet's of the mid 20th century that are still magnificent 50 years later. Robin grew up in the cellars while her father passed the vision to Robert Mondavi. While working with Mondavi on the Opus One project, she met Christian Moueix and together founded Dominus from the old Napanook vineyards then founded Merryvale with a young real estate developer named Bill Harlan. In 1995 she founded Lail Vineyards.

Follow the link to hear her tell her story: Robin Lail, Lail Vineyards.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

And a Bordeaux Dinner!

Tuesday morning, I received a call from Randy at the office asking if I could help at a Bordeaux Dinner Wednesday night at The Mansion on Turtle Creek. This question came as quite a surprise. I was not even aware of the event. But I wasn't too surprised to decline. The dinner was with a small group of customers honoring the proprietors of two estates that have become cornerstones of Sigel's Bordeaux portfolio, Alfred Tesseron of Chateau Pontet-Canet from Pauillac and Alexandre and Francois Thienpoint of Vieux Chateau Certan and Wings from Pomerol.

The evening began with Krug Champagne and passed Hors d'Oeuvres. The Krug was delicious as always with delicate hazelnuts infused with citrus and lemon oils leading to a long finish of lightly toasted brioche and honey. 

Crusted Monkfish in Lobster Minestrone was the first course. It was paired with Chateau les Carmes Godard Blanc 2007 from Cotes de Franc, owned by the Thienpoints and located near Chateau Puygueraud. The rich tomato broth was complemented by the wine, which gets its richness from its unusual blend 75% Semillon, 25% Sauvignon Gris, and 10% Muscadelle.

Then the dinner took a serious turn as attention was turned to the red wines. Each course was paired with a wine from each estate and the wines were progressively older with each course. As we delved into the recent history of these two legendary estates, the dramatic theme of the evening emerged. Both of the estates had in the past enjoyed excellent reputations but had fallen into periods of relative decline. Both estates have now been taken over and driven to new heights of excellence by their current owners.

Mr. Tesseron and Mr. Thienpoint both spoke to the passions necessary to drive the course to quality. In the words of Mr. Tesseron, "The soil is our gift, our job is to learn to understand it." To that end he is moving from tractors to horses. His expectation is that the vines will live longer in the looser soils. "Horses stop when they are about to damage the vine-tree, tractors do not." The older vines should produce more intense fruit yielding more intense wines. Although it is hard to imagine his wines becoming more intense. 

Roasted Squab on Butternut Squash Risotto was paired with the younger reds. The 2004 Pontet-Canet showed aromas of vibrant black fruit and a initial bright juiciness on the palate followed by waves of dark fruits and fine, gripping tannins on the finish. The wine is quite young and the mid-palate will gain weight as the wine matures. The 2001 Vieux-Chateau-Certan was dark, rich and spicy with layers of red and black berries and plums leading to depths of licorice, chocolate and espresso. Both vintages presented challenges and both were adjacent to vintages considered classic, but both wines were delicious and were well paired with the food.

Petite Filet with Roasted Porcini Mushroom on Parsnip Puree.  The complex flavors of the tender beef, earthy mushroom and creamy parsnips were paired with wines from the classic 2000 vintage. Quick floral notes surrounded the deep cassis aromas of the Pontet-Canet. Massive black fruits integrated seamlessly into a sea of melted tannins. The Vieux-Chateau-Certan moved straight into pools of deep velvety black fruits of unperceived depths with very dark undercurrents. Both wines were spectacular and both spoke of their individual and common origins. Pontet Canet was definitely Pauillac, Vieux-Certan was definitely Pomerol. Both were definitely Bordeaux.

A spectacular trio of cheeses: 5 yr Gouda, Perail de Brebis, Delice de Bourgone were accompanied by the older wines. The Pontet-Canet was from 1994. Though considered an off year, 1994 was the first year Mr. Tesseron began to operate the estate with his aggressive dedication to quality.  The dark wine showed no sign of age in the color. The fruit was beginning to recede from primary to dried fruits but any subtlety was lost in the intense, dark brooding flavors. I thought the wine was magnificent. 1998 was a banner year for the Right Bank and the Vieux-Certan verified the acclaim for the vintage as the wine took us deep into spectacular velvet pools of infinitely dark fruits.

Dessert was a deconstructed Tarte Tatin with a delicious Barsac, Chateau Coutet 1996 and it was almost a disaster from my end. For the first time at one of these affairs, I was given the job of opening the wines unsupervised during the meal. The corks were moist and tender and one totally crumbled. I managed to extract the very bottom of the cork intact averting total disaster, though there were a few floaties, which I was able to fish out. I do mean to tell, I was sweating!

Before their involvement in Bordeaux, the Tesseron family has long been in the Cognac business and have tremendous reserves of old stocks. Tonight he served the Lot 53, which was silky and smooth with more chocolate, praline, caramel and dried fruit flavors and aromatics than I could count. What a treat.

It's difficult to write about the last toasts of the evening. John turned the floor over to Dr. Goran Klintmalm, who started the Baylor Organ Transplant Program 25 years ago. He spoke softly and eloquently of the 'double blessing' made possible by organ transplants. He finished by turning and offering me a toast on the first anniversary of my transplant. I was totally overwhelmed. And he is right. Organ donation and transplantation is a gift of life and I have been doubly blessed to be a recipient. The knowledge and awareness of this gift grows deeper with every passing day.

BT #3 - Post Mortem

BT #3
Oct 27

Once again the group gathered for an afternoon of double blind tasting. After a month of rain with only one or two sunny days, Bacchus smiled and granted us a glorious afternoon. We met again at Urbino Pizza e Pasta on Henderson and enjoyed their terrific cheese and salimi boards, flatbreads and pizzas. The front wall of the restaurant opened to the afternoon, so we were virtually sitting outside. Many thanks to the Urbino staff for their gracious hospitality. Enough about that, on to the wines! 

#1  Though it started in brown paper, the clear bottle and delicious bubbles quickly betrayed the 1999 Louis Roederer Cristal. The bursting bubbles released aromas of rich   yeast surrounding the essence of any citrus oil you would care to name, with delicious notes of honey toasted brioche lingering on the long effervescent finish. Nice start!

#2  This dark black/ruby wine offered aromas of deep dark fruit buried in earthy flavors of mocha and espresso. Definitely Old World in flavor, the wine showed New World richness and texture. It was quickly identified as Malbec and after further discussion as the black wine of Cahors. Chateau Coutale, 2007. It was noted that the local name for Malbec in Cahors is Cot.

#3  Another wine is betrayed by its packaging. The aromatic red fruit and the red waxy capsule left no mistake, this was a Brewer Clifton Pinot Noir. All that was left was to identify the vintage and the vineyard. The lack of pure intensity led some to think it was 2006, but it was 2007. The sappy aromatics and minerality led to guesses of Clos Pepe and the Santa Rita Hills blend, but it turned out to be the high scoring 2007 Cargasacchi.

#4  Whoa! This wine was huge, rich and powerful! It was still close to cellar temperature and the aromas were reticent, but the wine didn't last long enough to warm up. Complex and elegant, with dark smoky black fruit, distinct minerality and a rich velvety finish with a lingering grip of tannin, the wine prompted initial flirtations with Super-Tuscans and Bolgheri, but these notions were quickly quashed. It was finally revealed as an Argentine Malbec, Archaval Ferrar Finca Altamira la Consulta, 2006.

#5  Darkly transparent, the deep ruby wine was beautifully silky and floral with rich red fruits and licorice. Almost Pinot-like, its Southern Rhone origin was betrayed by subtle smoky notes of garrique. The first guess was Vacqueras and the total lack of rusticity precluded Gigondas. The bag was removed... 2005 La Nerthe Chateauneuf du Pape.

#6  Big rich flavors of classic Pinot Noir jumped out of the glass. The combination of wild cherries and dark black fruits on the rich velvety texture spoke compellingly of the New World. En Route 2007 Russian River Pinot Noir from Far Niente made an auspicous debut! Limited availability.

#7  As the first glass of this beast was poured from the glass, it was immediately pegged as Petite Sirah! Powerful and dark, the wine showed copious black fruits with limestone, mint, pine, rhubarb and a myriad of other flavors buried in the dense finely integrated tannins. Sirius Petite Sirah 2006 from the iconoclastic winemaker Sean Thackrey. Powerful stuff!

#8  This wine stumped the chumps! Black and blue fruits were followed by complex spices and a citrusy finish. Not only that, it had a shiney glass cork! I don't think anyone identified this Austrian blend of zweigelt and blaufrankisch. Heinrich Red, 2005.

#9  Immediate impression of this elegant refined wine: Aged Bordeaux! The tells were the slight hints of brick on the rim and the cedary notes of dried fruits. 1995-96 was the consensus on age, the problem was nailing down the appellation. The cedar and tannin pointed to the Left Bank, the dried tobacco and cigar pointed to Cabernet Franc and the Right. 1995 Chateau Moulin St. George, Saint Emilion, owned by Alain Vauthiers, co-proprietor of Ausone. The wine has an unusually high percentage of Cabernet Franc.

#10  Another wine that threw the group for a loop. The rich red/black fruits with the herbaceous mid-palate and toasty finish had everyone on their chairs screaming Napa Cab. But I know I overlooked the spicy acidity and leathery notes in the delicous structured finish. Hello! A big slug of Napa Sangiovese blended with bits of Cab, Syrah, Petite Sirah and even Viognier sure made everyone crazy happy! Pazzo by Bacio Divino.

#11  Beautiful aromas of cassis, vanilla and refined fruit led to a complex blend of primary red and black fruits with delicate aromatics of dried cranberries filling in the empty spaces. A wine this refined with beautifully integrated structure has to be Bordeaux, though at this point in the afternoon, specificity was getting difficult. 2001 Quinalt L'Enclos, Saint Emilion.

#12  Dark purple color and strong notes of rich cassis and black fruits betrayed the youth of yet another Bordeaux. Beautifully balanced and silky, yet powerful in its youth, this wine is drinking great today! Chateau Coutet, Saint Emilion 2005.

#13  Wow! #13 jumps out of the gate and it looks like... NO! It can't be... but it is! Another Bordeaux. Yessss! Bright black fruits intermingle with red fruits amid notes of licorice, cedar and toasty oak on the long integrated finish. Very ripe fruit with sweet tannins. Marojallia 2003, Margaux. This small garage operation is managed by Jean-Luc Thunevin. Production is usually less than 500 cases.

#14  Definitely brick in color, the 1995 Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape showed floral notes with abstracted dried cherries and cranberries over the lengthy herbal and earthy finish.

#15  Vanilla, flowers and jammy black fruits lead to speculation that the wine is an Aussie Shiraz. But the fruit is not quite jammy enough and the pepper is more white than black. The wine was correctly identified as a Washington State Syrah. Doyenne Syrah 2006 from deLille. (delicious!)

#16  Andrew Will Sorella 2006. Damn! How did I miss this? By the time I saw the bottle it was empty.

#17  The last wine was not tasted blind, (well the wine wasn't blind.) Antinori Muffato Della Sala, 2000. A blend of 60% Sauvignon Blanc with Grechetto, Traminer and Riesling. Botrytis gives the wine its characteristic honeyed sweetness, it has delicious complexity with dried fruits and candied fruit peel dancing on the long finish. There is enought vibrant acidity to keep the wine alive and fresh on the palate. A wonderful close to a long, wonderful day!

THANKS to all for their valuable contributions to making these special days special and THANKS to Scott for pulling it all together!


Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Morning Tasting With Joe Briggs

We met and tasted with Joe Briggs, owner and winemaker of August Briggs Winery. Some of the wines we tasted were discussed on postings a couple of months ago. What was great about this meetings was just the conversation that took place with Joe. He's a very laid back and upfront guy. It was fascinating to hear him talk about his relationships with his growers. The most successful and those built on handshakes and mutual respect. In good times his growers don't demand price increases, in hard times he doesn't demand price decreases. Vines take time to grow. Wines take time to mature. Time slows down and the world shrinks. As Joe says, Napa is really a very small community of growers and winemakers. Word gets around. The fact that he places an emphasis on hand delivering payments for grapes rather than just dropping a check in the mail says volumes about his style.

We tasted the new release of Petite Meunier which is grown adjacent to the winery in the Frediani vineyard. He makes it in the manner of its cousin, Pinot Noir, but the wine is dark musty cherries with a spicy finish. It shows its warm Calistoga heritage, but is unique and delicious.

He sources Pinot Noir from a grower that is in the overlap of the Sonoma Coast appellation and the Russian River Valley. In special years Joe bottles the wine as Sonoma Coast. In other years it is blended with the Russian River appellation. 2007 was special. The initial impression of sappy wild cherry fruit leads into a dark earthy finish. Like a Gevrey Chambertin morphing into a Nuits St. Georges. Very nice!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Sunday Dinner With a Good Rhone

A couple of weeks ago, we received a new label from one our most reliable producers in the Southern Rhone, Fayard from Domaine Fondreche. Located in the Cotes du Ventoux, Fondreche has long been regarded one of the premier producers in the appellation. The young winemaker Sebastien Vincenti is a protege of Andre Brunel of Chateauneuf du Pape fame. Sebastien takes a firm hand in the vineyard where his production typically cames in at half the yields allowed in the appellation, making his wines intensely flavored with rich texture and deep concentration. The blend is pure Southern Rhone, 50% Grenache, 30% Syrah (the high percentage gives the wine its rich body) with the balance Carignan and Mourvedre. Fermentation takes three weeks and the wines stay on the lees for 9 months before being bottled unfined and unfiltered. The photo shows the old Grenache vines with Mount Ventoux in the background. I remember the house from a watercolor painting on the labels Fondreche bottlings several years ago.

Anyway, to shorten the story I rubbed a porterhouse with a mixture of red chili led by some spicy Chimayo from New Mexico, threw it on the grill, fried some potatos with onions, red pepper in some bacon grease and served it all with a tomato-onion and lettuce dressed with balsamic vinagraitte. Tasted pretty good!

The dark silky smooth wine pulled all the flavors together but still let them stand on their own. The body in the wine comes purely from the dense complexity of the blended grapes. Typical Southern Rhone two-step: rich red and black cherry from the Grenache up front, a touch of funk and complexity from the Carignan and Mouvedre with a little spice from the Syrah, but not enough to clash with the chili.

 In sum: a great wine from a great producer in a great vintage and a great value!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

A Slow Couple of Weeks on the Wine Front.... and a Couple of Beers

In case anyone was wondering, it's been a slow couple of weeks on the wine tasting front. Business is starting to pick up. Fall is series of big wine sales, new releases which means new product to bring in and work into the shelves. Many customers don't believe it, but we do try to keep a semblance of order to the wine racks.

Meanwhile, it's been a busy couple of weeks on the 'life' front. If you're interested, check out my other blog, Surviving PKD. Nicholas Kristof wrote a column in the New York Times a couple of Sunday's ago on my sons dilemma about whether to be tested for PKD to become a kidney donor when my kidney failed several years ago. Being diagnosed with the disease can severely limit insurability under current policies. The column received national attention and the reaction dominated our lives for the next week.

Then my son and a friend came to town to see the State Fair of Texas and Matt wanted to see some of Texas. So last Friday we hit the road. We circled the Denton County courthouse and headed west to Jacksboro. We saw the terrain change from the rolling horse country of North Texas to northern outcroppings of the hill county to the beginnings of West Texas. 

In Jacksboro, Herd Burgers has been serving customers since 1916. Follow the link for a discussion of their unique burgers. Heading down the infamous Jacksboro Highway, we circled the Tarrant County courthouse and headed to Dallas where we drove past the Dallas County courthouse while tracing the Assassination Route. We drove past the Schoolbook Depository and accelerated past the grassy knoll and north on Stemmons.

We arrived in North Dallas an hour early and there was really nothing to do but head to the Flying Saucer for a couple of beers. We all had draft, Matt had a Real Ale, Travis had a St. Arnold's cask, I ordered Dogfish Head's 90 Minute IPA, whereupon the waitress asked if we wanted to wait until 5 when they would be tapping a keg of Dogfish 120. Since it was already 4:30....

The thing that Dogfish does is continual hopping. For the 90 Minute Ale, a variety of hops are added slowly over the 90 minute cooking time. More hops are added over the next month as the beer ages. The result is a high alcohol beer with a tremendous level of IBU's. 'International Bitterness Units.' The trick is that so many flavors:  citrus, red and black fruit, herbs and spices too numerous and complex to identify, are pulled out of the hops that the alcohol and the bitterness become the structural elements that carry the flavors.

What does this process have to do with wine? We have just received the phemonal 2007 Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays from the Santa Rita Hills region in the Central Coast of California. The cool, foggy afternoons, nights and mornings allow the grapes to develop intense acid levels. The warm noon hours and the extremely long growing season (there are no fall rains forcing early harvests) produce massive flavors and massive sugars which produce high alcohol wines. So when the massive flavors are balanced by the acids and structural elements of the wine, it is balanced and luscious with tremendous depths of flavor.

The same thing happens during the 120 Minute Ale, which I tasted after the 90. Do not be deceived. The progression from the 90 to the 120 is roughly akin to going from a class 3 to a class 4 Hurricane. Technically they are the same, but the effect is way, way more powerful. IBU's are off the chart, but there is no bitterness. The beer is all hoppy, fruity, creamy and sweet with random bitter notes chiming in from all directions to somehow keep the massive flavors somewhat focused. But with the 20% alcohol kicking in everything becomes blissfully muddled happiness.

And then I think we picked up my wife and went out for Mexican food. I think.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Wines Only in Your Dreams

Every fall sees suppliers holding large portfolio tastings to show new releases and to spark sales as the industry moves into the busy Fall and Winter Holidays. Recently I attended Republic/National's 'Toast to the Trade' where they graciously open bottles of the legendary wines normally gazed upon by anxious eyes and read about in publications like Robert Parker's The Wine Advocate.

The first time my wife saw a copy of The Wine Advocate, she remarked that, " This is just like reading pornography!" She was absolutely correct. Reading Parker or any of his colleagues is to read about exotic, rare and expensive sensory experiences that most of us encounter only in our dreams.

Tastings like Toast to the Trade give us lowly wine guys opportunities to benchmark their palates by tasting some of those wines. From the many wines offered I've chosen just a few to reflect on here.

Two Champagnes

Taittinger Comte de Champagne 1998: Blanc de Blanc blended from several 100% Grand Cru rated vineyards, made only in the best vintages. Light notes of citrus float in the delicate foam turning to rich brioche filled with dry honeycomb lingering in the long dry minerally finish. Big, rich and delicate at the same time. Complex and delicious!

Salon 1997:  Blanc de Blanc from Salon's vineyard, Le Jardin de Salon and selected parcels from the famous Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, all 100% Grand Cru rated. Very similar to the Comte except that the flavors are richer and much more defined and precise. This would be expected as the fruit sourcing is limited to a single area. The finish has a deft touch of honey slipping down the back cleft of the tongue. Very sexy!

Four Burgundies

Raphet Pernand Vergelesses 2006:  Tight aromatics give little hint of the dark plums found in the glass. The wine shows promise, but seems a little closed today. Good producers making wine from vineyards in out of the way creases in the slopes can offer good value in Burgundy. This is one of those wines.

Raphet Pernand Vergelesses 2006:  From under the table comes a bottle of the same wine from 2002! Wow! The same dark damson plums that were shy and coy in the 2006 are strutting their stuff in this bottle. Undertones of soy make the dark fruit sparkle! The transforming miracle of bottle age is very evident.

Marc Roy Gevrey Chambertin 2006:  Classic Gevrey showing the sappy vitality of red cherries, berries and plums exploding before the wine closes in tannic darkness. Tasting this wine was just plain fun. Gevrey Chambertin has always been my favorite and it was enhanced by conversations with my son who had recently spent a Saturday wandering the vineyards of Gevrey. He lucked onto a Faiveley picking crew who shared their lunch and wine. He repaid the favor by taking shears and bucket and picking a couple rows of Premier Cru fruit! Domaine Faiveley is represented by Republic/National, but their wine was not shown today.

Domaine Com Vogue Bonnes Mares 2006:  Beautiful aromas of pungent berries and plums that can only be produced by great Pinot Noir jump from the glass. The wine has a rich texture full of ripe red and black berries and plums integrated into long dark earthy finish. The wine is very open and approachable in its youth with beautiful primary fruits bursting from the glass. However, it is ridiculously expensive!

A Big Bad Boy From a Big Bad Vintage

Chateau Mouton Rothschild 2005:  This is a very nice surprice because RNDC opened the 2005 at last year's Toast. A year ago the wine resembled partially liquified espresso grounds. From very, very good espresso, I might add. But I don't think I've ever tasted a less evolved wine of such massive proportions. In one year's time, the wine has shown remarkable developement. Hints of fruit are starting to emerge from the massively dark espresso flavors. It has lost some of the grittiness and almost seems light on the palate. I suspect this apparent 'lightness' is just temporary. (Even I was skinny for a brief period in my life.) This wine has years to go before the flavors and weight are fully developed.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Rochioli Pinot Noir and Sunday Night Supper

Susan bought some fresh whole wheat linguine at a new local market. It was flavored with garlic and basil. While normally I don't go in for flavored stuff, I thought it might work well with a mushroom cream sauce, which it absolutely did. A nice porterhouse was on sale at the store,  and then, oh yeah, the big question. What do you pull out to drink? It's  the usual Sunday dilemma: no house wine, nothing but the good stuff. What'cha gonna do?

I found a 1999 Rochioli Russian River Pinot Noir and said, 'what the hell!'  Beautiful spicy black cherries with dark 'pinot' perfumes. Nice. Juicy at first but the texture grew velvety as the wine opened up. Perky acidity kept the wine alive as primary fruits gave way to dried fruits on the long finish. The color was deep,dark, transparent ruby with hints of brick just starting to show on the edges. The wine was a fabulous match with the mushroom sauce and the earthy pasta.

It's always fun to taste wines with some age. Being in the wine biz, I am continually exposed to new vintages and young wines, but am always speculating with customers on drinking windows. This wine was right in its wheelhouse showing both primary fresh fruit flavors of a young wine transitioning into the secondary dried fruits of an older wine.

I did research the wines several days later. Both The Wine Spectator and Robert Parker scored the wine 90-91 points with the drinking window ending in 2007 and 2005 respectively. But the Rochioli was far from gone. The Spectator's tasting notes were still spot on for the wine even in its 10th year. Which goes to show that well made wines from great growing sites make great wines!

And speaking of great growing sites, Rochioli is one the great growers of California Pinot Noir. After years of working in vineyards, the family began acquiring Russian River property in the 50's. The oldest vines currently are Sauvignon Blanc planted in 1959 and Pinot Noir vines planted in 1968 and 1969. Wines produced first by Williams Selyem and then Gary Farrell helped spread the fame of Rochioli fruit and the family started producing their own wines, mainly Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. The wines are sold mainly through their mailing list and restaurants with minimal retail exposure.

I find I can't write these blogs just off the top of my head. I have to learn more and feel the need to verify what I think I know. So I go digging for information and photographs because the wines I tend to like are often just tips of the icebergs which are the stories of the people who make the wine and the people who grow the grapes and the soils where they are grown. And I find treasures:

Williams Selyem Interview with Joe Rochioli

My digging led me to this interview with Joe Rochioli, Jr. on Williams Selyem's website. They have video interviews with a number of their growers, but here Joe tells the story of grape growing in the Russian River Valley, going from grapes to hops to green beans and back to grapes. The Rochioli's have grown them all. I found the experience to to be magic. Primary history. The download is slow, so be patient. When it stalls, just go back and listen again while it loads, you'll learn more that way. Look at his hands as he handles a leaf stem at the end of the interview, the gnarled hands of a farmer. He says, "I guess I had something to do with that Pinot Noir thing..." Yeah, I guess he did.

Friday, September 11, 2009

California Heirlooms? August Briggs, Part Two

Part two is focused on Charbono, Petite Sirah, and Zinfandel, varieties that Californians like to claim for themselves. Is that really the case? And what is Charbono anyway. People always talk about it but it's almost never for sale in stores. (Well, we do get a little from August Briggs here at Sigel's!)

According to Carole Meredith, UC Davis' guru of the origins of grape vines, Charbono originates in the Savoie region of France, where is known as Corbeau, Douce Noire or Charbonneau. It is the same grape that is widely planted in Argentina, but there it is known as Bonarda. BUT the Argentine Bonarda is NOT the same as the Bonarda grown in the Piedmont region of Italy. Are you confused yet? If not then you're not reading carefully enough. Most Charbono originally came into California labelled as Barbera, which it is not. Existing California plantings are extremely small, about half being located around Calistoga. Most of the existing vines owe their existence to long-term contracts with the original Inglenook who produced Charbono's for many years.

August Briggs' Charbono comes from the older blocks of the Frediani Vineyard and were planted around 1940. Frediani Charbono is highly sought after and Joe feels very fortunate to be offered the fruit. The wine is inky black with penetrating laser beams of intense black fruit that linger on the palate supported by acids and ripe integrated tannins. It's almost Italian in style except for the ripe black fruits which reveal the signature California sun.

Petite Sirah is a young variety. The cross was discoverd by a Professor Durif of the University in Montpellier in vineyards in the Languedoc. DNA analysis shows the cross was made when Pelousin flowers were pollinated by Syrah. The new grapes saw an initial wave of popularity due to its resistance to powery mildew, but soon fell out of favor and is now almost non-existent in France. It proved popular first in California as a blending grape and is now found in Australia and Israel.

August Briggs Petite Sirah comes from the obsidian filled, red volcanic soil of the Black Rock Ranch vineyards in Lake County. The shiny black glass rocks both absorb and reflect the heat which ripens the fruit. The tiny berries develop thick skins which give the legendary tannins. Rich, soft blue and black fruits initially puts smiles on the faces of the uninitiated which scrunch when they encounter the astringent tannins on the finish. I tell them to imagine a well-marbled ribeye fresh from the grill. The fat protects the mouth from the tannins, while simultaneously the tannins cut through the fat. Which gives the most pleasure? Have a glass of old vine Petite Sirah with a great steak and let me know!

Zinfandel was long regarded as America's grape until the resemblance to Italy's Primitivo began to be noticed. It was debated for some time until Carole Meredith's DNA anaysis confirmed that Zinfandel was indeed the same as Primitivo and share common ancestry in the very rare Croatian grape Crtjenak Kastelanski. It is now thought that Zinfandel came in shipments to growers in Long Island in the 1820's and was brought to California in the Gold Rush. There are references to Napa Zinfandel in the late 1850's and by the end of the 19th Century, it was was the most widely planted variety in California.

August Briggs comes from two old vineyards near his winery in Calistoga. The Luvisi Vineyard was planted in 1908 and from the Frediani Vineyard (Note the Briggs winery in the photo to the right). Joe produces a rich silky Zin with lush, smoky black fruits leading to a velvety, spicy finish. The wine is definitely closer to the 'zin as claret' style than 'zin as dry port,' which makes it very drinkable and food friendly. And isn't that really what it's all about?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Staff Tasting: Miner Family Vineyards

Tasting through Miner wines is always a good way to start the day. Highlights of the day were led by the 2007 Viognier which is nothing new. This wine has been on fire all summer! Big peach and nectarine flavors explode into the long minerally finish with the rich viscosity of the Viognier coating the mouth. The wine is summer in a glass!

The 2007 Pinot Noir's showed very well. Both were very balanced with smooth rich flavors. The Rosella's (right) was light in color as ususual but long in flavor with dusty cherries and plums lingering on the long finish. The wine is from Pisoni and Dijon clones and the Burgundian heritage shows in the wine. The Garys' features mainly Pisoni clones and as might be expected, the wine is deep, dark, rich and spicy. Unlike many big California Pinot's, this wine is beautifully balanced and definitely not over-extracted.

And that's not to mention the Chardonnnay and Cabernet's! 

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Blind Tasting Post Mortem

Well, if everyone made it home or to the airport successfully, the tasting was a great success. Spit buckets were not in evidence nor should they have been considering the outrageous quality of the wines. If you read the previous entry, you no doubt have visions of copious notes and rigorous analysis. Well, that's just not the way things go down. Pleasure drives kick in and that means just plain drinking. Still amazing stuff went down. I'll go briefly through the wines with a bit of play-by-play. We tasted through most of the wines and then revisited them for final conclusions and then opened a couple more just for good measure. The wines were accompanied by fabulous Salumi/Cheese platters and pizza's at Urbino's on Henderson. The flatbread pizza's were just delicous, check them out!

#1 Descendientes de Jose Palacios Corullon Las Lamas, 2003. Showed aromas of red fruits and minerals which were reinforced on the palate with an abundance of rich fruit and mineral laced gripping tannins and acidity on the long finish.  Proved a tough one to crack. First guess of Burgundy was shot down, followed by Spain. John then followed with a  series of 'nots': not Bierzo, not Corullon not Priorat, not Rioja as he  danced around the true identity. Most tasters were familiar with the lower tier Petalos, which Palacios produces from the same region and were not anticipating the intensity of this single vineyard expression.

#2 La Cedre, Cahors, 2004.  Wow! Another tough one to crack! Truly opaque black wine, the moderate rim variation indicated an old world wine, but the smoky blockbuster fruit scooted us out of most familiar haunts. The deep, smoky black fruit was followed a touch of acid and some red fruit and cranberry notes before the wine yielded to rich sweet tannins. The first guess was Mourvedre from Bandol and was followed by the correct designation of Malbec. From left field came the discovery of Tannat which also proved to be correct. Finally, after a second tasting, the wine was identified as Cahors. But, wow! I know I've never tasted a Cahors with this level of opulence and power!

#3 Ca' Marcanda Promis, Toscana, 2006. The floral aromatics of rose petals, violet and soy had everyone chasing this wine in the wrong direction. With the acidic finish it seemed to be definitely from from Italy's Piedmont. But no! The wine softened by the second go round revealing notes of silk panties according to some tasters (that was definitely considered a good thing!) We were told the wine had three grapes which threw out most Italian regions. The blend was unusual: Merlot, Sangiovese and Syrah.

#4 Tenuta dell'Ornellaia Masseto 2005. From the get-go, this wine had everyone spinning. Both the aromatics and flavors revealed copious rich black fruits, cassis and licorice, backed by firm oak and integrated tannins. Tasters were staggered. Before anyone could even gather their thoughts, John nailed the wine dead to rights. He shall henceforth be know as Number Four! Thanks to Jeff for such a treat!

#5 Melis 2008, Priorat. Aromas of cedar, floral fruit and earthy minerality led to dark cherries on the palate and a long finish with tart red fruits. Another wine that had tasters grasping at straws. The Spanish origin was identified, but characteristics led tasters to an old traditional Rioja, John however kept calling out Grenache! The wine opened up some on second tasting and the Grenache (not Carignan) dominated Priorat was revealed.

#6 Palomero 2000, Ribero del Duero. Wow. Another blockbuster. This one was not presented blind. The massively funky nose dominated intense aromatic black fruits while on the palate the fruits trumped the funk. All this massive flavor was layered over a richly textured, massively integrated structure. What a treat!

#7 Groth Cabernet, Napa, 2006. Though tasted blind, tasters lept at the joy of being on familiar territory, and this did not disappoint with its classic Cabernet profile. Pricewise, it might have been the star of the day. Napa producers can do Cabernet very, very well and this is a great effort from a longtime producer. 

Goodness, that was a tough afternoon. THANKS to all!

Tasting Blind

Invited to a blind tasting group this afternoon, always intimidating affairs. The wines will be double blind and it's so-o-o-o easy to look like a fool. But very interesting and demanding. Blind indentification of wine is a major component of advanced wine accreditation. 6 wines in 24 minutes for an MS. BUT there is a system. If you correctly identify 6 components of visual, aromatic, taste and general assessment you have 24 unique points that make up the signature of the wine. Think of a scantron with 24 choices. If you think it's Cabernet, use the answer overlays for Napa and Pauillac.  There are differences! Which one matches up best? 

Blind tasting becomes an intellectual exercise combining wine analysis and wine knowledge rather than Scientific Wild Ass Guessing combining memory and intuition. Well, until you've swallowed too much. 

Last time we got together I managed to get one right through analysis, SWAG, and some helpful elimination and have heard about my 'feat' several times since. Funny, nobody talks about the ones I missed by a mile, I guess you just take what you can get!

Monday, September 7, 2009

An Introduction to Nebbiolo

My mother is a great cook and so was her mother. My sisters went almost immediately into culinary careers; one as a chef and now a cheese expert, the other as a food stylist and now writer. I took a 25 year detour in packaging before finally landing in the wine biz. (OK, sometimes I'm clueless!) So when Mom invited us to dinner Saturday and said she was fixing veal shanks, well, I'm not THAT clueless. At least I knew what wine to bring!

I went straight for Barbaresco, the queen of Italy. Wines made from the Nebbiolo grape are a classic pairing for braised meats. They are rarely flamboyant, in-your-face wines. Subtle dried fruits are veiled behind floral, earthy perfumes and masked with acid and tannins. The flavors are complex, but once you find the key, the wine opens up like a painting.

However, I don't think either my wife or my parents have had much experience with these wines, so I chose the basic Barbaresco from the renowned cooperative, Produtorri del Barbaresco. The 2003 vintage was unusually hot, so there would be plenty of fruit to increase accessibility to the flavors. The extreme heat limited production, so fruit that normally went into their Riserva wines went into the basic cuvee, so there should be some complexity to the wine.
The evening was a great success! The Ossu Bucco melted in our mouths. The shanks yielded copious marrow. The rich meat squeezed the wine's fruits into a concentrated bubble that burst in the mouth with flavors of sweet dried cranberries that lingered on the palate.

25 years of boxes never yielded such pleasure.