Tuesday, December 1, 2015

An Accidental Zin

At the end of a cold, rainy Thanksgiving weekend, I decided to make a beef stew. Shopping was done and I was on my way home before I started thinking about wine. Halfway home, I realized that while there I had a lot of bottles to drink, I didn't have one that I wanted to commit to the stew pot. But, I thought, surely there's something a few years too old that you've forgotten about. I didn't want to drive back to the store. Not again, not on my day off. So I headed on home.

And sure enough, there at the bottom of the wine cabinet was a bottle of Steele Zinfandel that had been there who knows how long. Perfect! I grabbed the bottle, pulled the cork, and started pouring.

Oh, my! The wine smelled fantastic.

"Wow! What is that?" I asked myself, and looked at the label.

1994 Steele Catfish Zinfandel.

"WHAT THE HELL!!!" I said aloud.

I still can't remember where that bottle came from. I started working at Sigel's in 2001, that would have been an old bottle to still be in inventory at that time.

But, that's what it was.

I've never had a Zinfandel that old. It helps that I know the wine well, I get to taste every vintage as the wine passes through the store. Jed Steele now owns the vineyard, it was planted in 1901. With the 2001 vintage Jed gave the wine its own label with a black catfish jumping through the Steele logo along with "century vine" designation. Neither was on this bottle.

As to the wine? It was very much alive, with a dark ruby core showing the slightest hint of brickiness on the edge with aromas of fresh and dried fruit and flowers. The classic Catfish zinfandel is redolent of velvety red plums with classic brambly Zinfandel finish and this old Catfish holds true to form, except that the plums are dried. Yes, I know dried plums are prunes, but the wine tastes like delicate dried plums without the concentrated sugars that you find in prunes or raisins. Elegant and gorgeous, light yet full. At 13%, it's a wine for those in pursuit of balance.

So, a happy accident. As I write, the wine's been opened for five hours and it's still pleasant. Susan's gone to bed. Too bad there's no one else to share it with.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Blind Tasting: Monday Study Group 1.4

This post is a continuation of the previous post which discussed the white wines. We finished the morning with red wines. The first, a Napa Carneros Pinot Noir was pretty straightforward with the lighter character and dusty cherries that are typical of the AVA.

The second wine caused the most confusion. It was a classic blind tasting dilemma - how to differentiate between Sangiovese and Tempranillo. Red and black cherries defined the core fruit of the wine with mouth coating tannins that were intense but not overwhelming. Acid on both wines was medium-plus, there was evidence of moderate barrel use, but not the signature coconut and pungency of American Oak one would expect to find in Rioja or the leathery finish of Sangiovese. The favorite call of the group with Chianti, maybe with a small blending dollop of Merlot. It turned out to be a Gran Reserva Rioja, but with a curveball. Cune uses both French and American oak. Exceptions will get you every time. These two varieties are so similar. When the wine is opened and the label is known, the flavors seem so correct. And so baffling when tasting blind.

We then tasted a 2007 Napa Merlot that was falling apart and disjointed. The alcohol was high as was the acidity which was surprising and out of balance. Our 'coach' suggested a problem with acidification. A red wine from Napa with that much alcohol would not have such a high level of acid, especially in 2007 which was a warm, generous vintage.

The last wine was a 2012 Napa Cabernet.There was the thought that the wine was a Malbec due to the rich, velvety quality of the fruit. My thought was that it was Cabernet due to the pyrazine character of the red fruit. A year or so ago I attended a portfolio tasting with Clear Creek distillery of Oregon. Tasting their Cassis was a true "Ah-Hah" moment as memories of aromas of years of tasting Napa Cabernets flashed through my senses. A redolent blend of intense red fruits with a pronounced herbal edge that cut through the flavors like a deep cut on a crystal goblet. And there it was, peaking out from the canopy of black fruit.

When blind tasting, the immediate temptation is to make an immediate identification based on matching the flavor in the glass with a flavor in our memory. Like making matches in a memory game like Concentration. As we work on these blind tasting skills, we are constantly being told not to make these immediate identifications. Rather, we taste and analyze. And then let the results speak and identify themselves. But memories keep popping out and making themselves heard.

 "Will the real Cabernet please step forward and identify yourself!"

photo of Clear Creek Cassis by David Waddington

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Blind Tasting: Monday Study Group 1.3

After a couple of weeks off we're almost all back together. Two members have just taken new positions with new projects that will be opening quickly in the next couple of weeks. Exciting time for them, but now is not the time for them to be studying! So, it was a smallish group today. Ben, our tasting coach was able to join us and brought a pair of classic white wines for us to blind.

The first wine presented a powerful nose with plenty of viscosity and a deep gold color. Aromas and flavors were driven by peach skins and stone fruits. The wine was dry, the big round ripe flavors were offset by both the high acidity and high alcohol (always an unusual combination.) The initial call was Alsatian Riesling which made sense except for the fact that there was none of the petrol character which is such a signature of wines made from this grape. I thought it might be a Santa Rita Hills Chardonnay, either Melville or Brewer Clifton. Alsatian Pinot Gris was also suggested but the wine seemed too powerful to my thinking. BUT that's what it was. Rotenberg Pinot Gris from Zind Humbrecht. Which explains the power, the intensity and everything else. The Rotenberg vineyard is high on the slopes, near the forests and produces small, intensely flavored berries. The wine is aged on the lees for 18 months in 40 year old barrels. Not your typical Italian Pinot Grigio! Now I feel better about my call.

The second white wine was a Sauvignon Blanc. Period. End of story. Classic notes of grapefruit zest, lime zest with just a proper kiss of funk and screaming pyrazines. The question was one of origin. The high acidity and steely funk pointed to Sancerre. New Zealand sauvignon typically has more tropical fruit which obscures the mineral flavors and a California wine would typically show more melon and grassy characteristics. And Sancerre it was.

Yes, yes, yes. I know that there is a lot of talk that there is no chemical basis for ascribing different soil, rock and mineral attributes to wine. BUT those are scientific meanings of the word. Flavor descriptors are the language of wine. There are no more raspberries, blackberries or shoe leather in wine than limestone or chalk. Yet there are flavor components which we describe with those terms. Different words have different meanings in different contexts. Is there a better word to describe the flavors we ascribe to minerals and soil types? I remember tasting Fritz Haag's Brauneberg Riesling and touching pieces of red slate from the vineyard. The nuances of the 'mineral' flavor were very different from the Urziger Wurzgarten Riesling from Robert Eymael who had brought pieces of blue and grey slate from that vineyard. Say what you say, mean what you mean. If meaning is conveyed, GREAT SUCCESS!

Monday, October 19, 2015

Bruce Neyers' Heirloom Wines

Bruce Neyers was in town for a series of tastings a couple of weeks ago. Bruce has been in the business a while now and his work history is unique in that he has been deeply involved with wines from both Napa and France. In Napa, first with a long career with Joseph Phelps and then his own Neyers Vineyards. In France, with Kermit Lynch, the legendary Berkeley importer of some of the finest French and other European producers. I've been tasting once or three times a year with Bruce for some fifteen years now and more than ever he emphasizes the influence the great French winemakers he visits several times a year has on his California wines.

On his most recent visit we paired Bruce's wines with wines from the Kermit Lynch portfolio. There were several standouts. What they all had in common was the old age of the source vineyards and the heirloom purity of the vines themselves.

For his California wines, Bruce pays particular attention to the source of the vines. He demands that the budwood be taken from existing vines, selected for the quality of the fruit and the provenance of the vines themselves. He insists on vegetative reproduction rather than clonal to retain as much of the original genetic material as possible. Vines are then tended with biodynamic farming and wines are made naturally with indigenous yeasts and minimal intervention.

The Carignan was sensational. Most tasters did not know that Carignan is a grape. Over and over I had to explain that it came from the South of France, both in the Rhone Valley as well as Rousillon in the foothills of the Pyrenees as well as northern Spain. The wine spoke for itself with its silky, velvety almost Burgundian flavors and textures, but there was an exotic wildness that came from the 140 year old vines themselves. Yes, that is correct 140 years and on the original roots. The vines are in the 'ancient' Evangelho Vineyard in the hot sandy soils of Contra Costa County.

The Neyers Grenache comes the old Rossi Ranch in Sonoma's Dry Creek Valley. The story is the same: 70 cases were made from the ancient vines, resulting in a silky wine with penetrating red fruit characteristics. The Mourvedre is another tiny production from the Evangelho Vineyard.

All of these wines are treasures, heirlooms that have survived storms and drought, Prohibition and years of neglect, not to mention the pressures of expanding cities and real estate developers.

The other star came from France. Cotes du Rhone "La Sagesse" from Domaine Gramenon. When I started with Sigel's, Gramenon's wines were imported by Robert Kacher and I was blown away by their quality, but they soon left Kacher and I lost touch. Now they are being imported by Kermit Lynch and Sigel's now brings these treasures into the Dallas market.

La Sagesse is mainly Grenache from 50 year old vines which yield only 20 hectoliters per hectare, which is exceeding low. (The lowest required yield for any AOP vineyard is Chateauneuf du Pape at 35 hl/ha.) Again, this intense wine drinks like a rich, velvety Burgundy, but instead of the aromatic splendor of Pinot Noir, there is this deep, winey dark fruit inflected with the flavors of the Rhone Valley - lavender, thyme, and rosemary.

Spectacular stuff.
Photos courtesy: Evangelho Vineyards, Carlisle Winery, Domaine Gramenon.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Blind Tasting - Monday Study Group 1.2

Back to starting with a bit of Theory, the last two weeks we covered Washington and Oregon. Today we start with California. We will go quickly as these are the wines we all sell and know best. Started with non-Napa and Sonoma. From Mendocino to Monterey to Santa Lucia Highlands to Paso Robles to Santa Barbara. Every region has its own version of the American story. Initial winemaking efforts by the European settlers, in this case first the Spanish, then the great immigrant influx of the 19th century. The nascent wineries are dealt the dual blows of Prohibition, then phylloxera and most were abandoned only to be revived by successful entrepreneurs who chose to leave successful careers and follow their passion in the sixties and seventies. In every region there are iconic producers who staked the claims for the modern California wine industry.

It was an open blind tasting session, four white wines and three red. Once again the wine I brought was flawed. I bought it from the store's cold box and now wonder if it spent too much time in the fridge. Note to self:  need to look at how long wines stay standing up in the cold. Maybe I'll put a date stamp when they go in and start rotating. Or maybe it was just a flawed bottle. The tasting comments of my colleagues were not kind, to say the least! Nor should they have been. The wine was terrrrrrible!

Otherwise the tasting session went smoothly. As a group we're getting quicker at running through the tasting grid and getting better at getting our notes consistent and without contradiction. Today we had more than a couple of wines on which we identified all the components correctly but for a conclusion could only say, "What the hell is this?"

The first problem was a Santa Barbara Viognier . The surprising acidity led to a call of Italian Pinot Grigio with which no one was happy. The wine had too much weight and complexity for PG. Most tasters were looking for more tropical fruit to call Viognier. I was thinking unoaked Chardonnay. As the wine sat in the glass, the peachiness became more and more evident. Several weeks ago, Rob, our tasting coach, brought a Condrieu which gave us fits as well. Evidently we need to work on Viognier.

The next wine was Alsatian. Everyone had the same "Ah Hah!" moment when smelling the wine. The big floral peachy-lychee aromatics screamed Gewurztraminer. But the rich, seemingly off dry flavor masked the surprisingly persistent acidity which lingered past the sweetness of the fruit and left a dry mineral finish to the wine. Yes, that's right. It was an Alsatian dry Muscat in the classic overripe style of Zind-Humbrecht. It's not the first time the group has faced the Muscat/Gewurz confusion.

Now it was my turn to run the grid. The wine had rich floral citrus aromas that I described as baked Meyer Lemon with a creamy meringue and good acidity. I leaped to the conclusion that it was the Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay that I had brought and so I raced through the rest of the grid, building what I thought was the case for the wine that I thought it was. (Of course as we later learned the wine I brought smelled like ass!) Appropriate. I had just committed the cardinal sin of blind tasting. Premature identification.

As I started into my initial conclusion, I took another sip of the wine.

"Wait a minute," I said. "I think I'm totally wrong. This wine is off dry. It is oozing petrol on the aroma and the palate! How did I miss that? This wine is top quality 2010 Alsatian Riesling from a good producer!"

An embarrassing, but spot-on reversal.

Our first red was a straight forward New World Pinot Noir. The only question was whether it was Sonoma Coast/Russian River or Oregon. I really think it could have been either. The ripeness of the fruit overwhelmed any significant identifying characteristics.

The last two reds were much more problematic and the differences and similarity were classic. The wines were very similar with good acidity, predominately red and black cherry fruit notes with some sort of spiciness on the finish. Both were obviously classically Old World.

The group was split on the second wine. Some thought it was Syrah from the Northern Rhone, some thought it was a Bordeaux varietal. A classic clash of flavor groups, was the spiciness due to some form of Pyrazine driven bell pepper (not necessarily green but possibly dried ancho) or was it due to Rotundone (white or black peppercorns?)  The vegetal note won out over the spice. The wine was a fabulous Cabernet Franc from Chinon in the Loire Valley.

The last wine was very similar, but had more drying tannins and less spice. Discussion centered on the Tempranillo/Sangiovese divide. Nebbiolo was out of the question. The wine did not show characteristics of American Oak which would seemingly rule out Rioja, but did not show the leatheriness expected out of Sangiovese. I thought is was Tempranillo from Ribera del Duero, but it was a very ripe Chianti Classico. I wish Rob had been present to coach us through the subtle structural differences and distinguishing elements between the two wines.

All in all, a really great session. I think we've really raised our game!

Friday, September 4, 2015

Blind Tasting - Monday Study Group 1.1

To bring matters up to date, for a little over a year I have been meeting with a group of young Dallas sommeliers who are intent on achieving advanced levels of sommelier certification. To that end, we meet to study theory of wine involving intensive learning about winemaking and viticulture as well as tasting wines both to reinforce what we are studying and tasting and identifying these wines 'blind' in accordance with the blind tasting examination of the Court of Master Sommeliers.

Our core group consists of three restaurant sommeliers, a salesman for a local supplier - all of whom are quite young - and myself, the grizzled geezer of the group, almost old enough to be their grandfather! They are patient and seem happy to put up with this old man.

In the world of these young Dallas somms, the year culminates in the TEXSOM Conference, a three day weekend full of workshops, tastings, a sommelier competition and testing conducted by the major somm accreditation programs. It's a big deal!

So getting together post TEXSOM is like starting the school year.

And so it is that we have some new faces in the group as well as the return of familiar but intermittent members from the past year all with good intentions of regular attendance and sticking with it. Our core group is back and looking forward to another year.

So far we've covered Europe from Germany and Austria to Spain and Portugal. Of course France and Italy required many weeks of study. So where do we go next?

Before the TEXSOM break, we were fortunate to have Master Sommelier Candidate Ben Roberts coach us through some blind tasting sessions. We thought we had been doing pretty good and making progress, but in fact we were babes in the woods. Ben was able to give us a new sense of perspective and focus to help us when we're blind tasting.

Blind tasting is like walking through a densely treed forest and it is easy to forget where you are. But if you combine the identity of the plants and trees with the geography, the geology, the climate, the position of the sun, the direction of the wind; all these points of data combine to define the notion of place. It's a deductive exercise that forces examination of all factors of the wine.

Critical tasting of wine often seems silly and is an easy target of jokes. But the rationale is simple. To develop a vocabulary that will make us more able to describe wine to customers whether in a restaurant or in a wine shop.

We all agreed that the primary focus of the groups needs to shift to blind tasting. And that means not just running willy nilly through tasting grids, but taking notes and holding each other accountable for making correct, non-contradictory calls, being more precise and eliminating ambiguity and to make our final identifications consistent with the descriptions we have called.

So this morning we concentrated on aromatic white wines whose primary flavor characteristics are driven by terpenes and we blind tasted:  2 Spanish Albarinos, 2 Alsatian Gewurztraminers, 1 Alsatian Riesling, 2 German Rieslings, a Gruner-Veltliner from Austria and a Napa Valley Viognier. Whew! A serious assault on tooth enamel.

So this post was written at Method Coffee, a new cafĂ© at the corner of Ross and Hall. Forty years ago I drove through this section every day on my way to work and it's just now finally showing signs of gentrification.

 I finished writing with two empty cups of the best espresso I have had in Dallas, a serious contender for top cup ever. The Kenyan beans yielded espresso with a deep, rich crema with a brilliant acidic flourish of baked Meyer lemons. Showy, spectacular stuff.

Not bad for a Monday.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Tasting on a Gray Day in August

Gray days are rare in Dallas in August but it's nice that the predicted rains have held off. Parking at the hotel where Pioneer Wine always holds their annual portfolio tasting is always a bitch. (Though as #4 tells me, valet is available, but my low-rent brain never thinks that way.) So I wasn't parked in a muddy field and that's a good thing.

Portfolio tastings are always fun, a big room filled with great wines and great friends I've met through the now fifteen years in the wine biz. Champagne from Billecart-Salmon filled the first table and the day brightened immediately. The wines were crisp with a bone dry elegance. The Rose is mostly chardonnay which gives it its legendary austerity softened by the final addition of Pinot Noir. Fruit is barely detectable in most red Pinot Noir I've tasted from Champagne. It's always amazing how much more fruit is apparent when it's diluted in the white base wine. The 1999 reserve was the standout with its undercurrents of tart red berries.

One of my favorite wines  I've tasted in a long time is Cartology from Alheit Vineyards from South Africa. An elegant austere blend of Chenin Blanc and Semillon (a new combination for me!) The lean Chenin greets the palate and is lengthened and complicated by the richness of the Semillon. The bright acids of the Chenin hold the complex stone and orchard fruits in suspension through the long finish. A bit pricey, but spectacular.

For me that was the star of the show. (Although the room was filled with great wines.) That and a few old friends.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Fish Wine

We spent a memorable weekend in a snowy New York City.

After a long afternoon in the American Museum of Natural History, it was difficult hailing a cab in the driving snow along Central Park West, so we ducked into the subway. After a long cross-station walk, we caught the #7 shuttle from Times Square to Grand Central, arriving at dinner-time. A perfect night to eat at the Oyster Bar at Grand Central Station.

The menu is huge. The wine list is long. Decisions are difficult.

Actually, the wine was easy.

Some of the greatest fish wines in the world come from France's Loire Valley. Whether it's Muscadet from Nantes, Chenin Blanc from Savenierres or Vouvray, or Sauvignon Blanc (I like to just say Sauvignon) from the inland valleys, the wines are fresh and clean, driven by citrus and mineral flavors with high acidity that clears the palate and makes you want more to eat and drink.

While more expensive appellations produce amazing wines, the basic wines of the appellations are delicious unto themselves, offering great flavors at fair prices. I ordered a young Sauvignon from Touraine. I did not know the producer, but the region is known for high basic level of quality. The price was within my budget and the wine was delicious.

My special treat was ordering a few oysters. Normally raw seafood is off my diet due to my lowered level of immune-suppression necessary to protect my transplanted kidney and I have been real strict through the years. Susan smiled and said go for it. The provenance of the Oyster Bars oysters is as tight as can be found. I ordered a few old friends and one new, an extra-large beauty from Wianno Bay on the southern shore of Cape Cod. As you can see, the oysters are harvested from icy cold water.
The bivalve was so large I had to cut it into two bites. I felt immersed in the Atlantic with bursting sweet, briny, ocean flavors. Washed down with a swallow of wine, I felt reborn. Experience confirmed with the second bite.

Main courses followed. Susan had Salmon served with a BĂ©arnaise, I had a grilled Branzino served with lemon, capers and olive oil. It was a great meal and we had great wine and stayed within budget.

For desert it was a short walk to Junior's in the food concourse where we enjoyed their classic cheesecake.

Then walked through an empty Grand Central and a couple of snowy blocks to our hotel. And I think we fell asleep. Happy.