Monthly Archives: August 2007

Tasting A to Z Pinot Noir 2005

a2z_pinot_05.jpgPretty, garnet color. Warm Bing cherry, cranberry and sweet strawberry on the nose. On the palate, the wine has a slight silkiness, not too much, although that begs the question of how much is too much… Bright, cheerful acidity on the palate with some warm spice flavors that lingered in my mouth with a scrumptious Bing/black cherry finish. Very well balanced tannin and acidity. Yum-yum!

I am from Oregon, and I love Pinot Noir. And I love Oregon Pinot Noir, so it must be noted that I am biased in favor of this wine. Plus, their website is fancy-cool. One of the beefs I have with Oregon Pinot Noir is how expensive it tends to be, and A to Z really feels me on that one. Their whole gig is to bring good Oregon wine to my mouth without emptying my pocketbook on the way, and for that I thank them heartily. I don’t recall ever having an A to Z wine that I didn’t like, and I will try to remember to taste more of their stuff. You should be seeing more of their juice around your friendly local wine shop, as Wine Business Monthly named them the #1 Hot Small Brand of 2006.

A to Z Wineworks brought together a lot of very well-respected people in the Oregon wine industry with the aim to make a négociant-style wine in Oregon. This is a tradition quite common in France, especially in Burgundy (Jadot), Beaujolais (Duboeuf), and the Rhone Valley (Guigal and Jaboulet). A négociant can buy grapes or grape juice from vineyard owners and make it into wine, or she can buy wine fermented by the vineyard or even other wineries and blend that into a wine that she will then bottle under her own name. The most famous example of a négociant wine in the US is the infamous “Two-Buck Chuck,” or Charles Shaw, whose 2005 Chardonnay recently won the California State Fair’s prize for Best Chardonnay.

If you are horrified at the concept of drinking a wine that is a blend of juice from the Rogue Valley all the way up to Hood River, then you should carefully look for words like “estate bottled” on your wine label, because that’s about the only way you can tell that a US wine was really grown and pressed and fermented and bottled all by the same gal. Me, I care more about well-made, inexpensive, tasty tasty wine, so I don’t worry my head about that. A to Z’s 2005 Pinot Noir purportedly has about 40 different wines in its blend. If it produces an Oregonian Pinot Noir with some character and verve that I can afford to drink, I say, the more the merrier!

A caveat, in which the Scamp’s ass is covered: Not all négociants make great wine. Some of it is nasty plonk, not even worth that $6.99 you paid for it. But at the prices you’re likely to pay for these bottles, you can experiment with impunity.

Other US négociant labels include:
Castle Rock
Domaine La Due
Teira
Three Thieves
Stephen Vincent
Cloudline
Mark West
Stone Creek

The wines of Don Sebastiani & Sons are some of the most successful examples of California négociant wines. I list them separately here because I have learned that this company is financially and politically supportive of anti-choice legislation, and so I won’t be buying them or reviewing them here. Some of their wines include: Pepperwood Grove, Aquinas Napa Valley, Mia’s Playground, Screw Kappa Napa, Smoking Loon, Used Automobile Parts, Fusee, Gino Da Pinot, Le Bon Vin de La Napa Valley, Plungerhead, Hey Mambo, White Knight. Why they be harshing on the womens like that? Shame!

Predictability is the New Black

Driving home from work the other day, I caught another of NPR’s excellent stories about global warming. In the teaser for the segment, the announcer said something about “a positive side to climate change,” and I immediately knew we were going to hear about wine.

For some reason, the only upside anyone can seem to find to global warming is that France has been having record highs, which has resulted in ultra-fruity, superripe, California-style Bordeaux and Burgundy. This is the kind of wine that Wine Ratings God Robert Parker gives 10,000 points to, which sells wine, which is definitely good news for French wineries.

Not so good news for warm-weather climates, though, this global warming. The NPR story focused on Spain, and had a Spanish winemaker talking about planting in the foothills of the Pyrenees, hoping for cooler temps there.

What really caught my ear in this story, though, was not the discussion of rising temps and their fears effects on our agriculture. No, what I thought was so interesting (not that disaster isn’t interesting, my apologies to the 4 horseman and all) was the comment by Albert Puch of wine giant Torres that vintage variations, once a given in the minds of European winemakers and consumers, is no longer an excuse for mediocre or bad wine.

Que que?

Some background: Old World wineries (winespeak glossary — Old World = wine regions in Europe; New World = wine regions everywhere else) trained their consumers long ago on the vintage system: if you wanted to know which of their wines were the best, you needed to memorize which vintages were the most successful. Of course, every wine maker does her best with every harvest, but sometimes your weather is great and sometimes it’s crap and it’s hard to control that, even in France.

Then, when everyone agreed that average vintages were a shame but what could you do?, New World wineries started bringing vintage after vintage to the table with no variation in quality. Regions like Australia, California, Chile, even Washington all have very predictable weather, and could make a wine that tasted the same year after year after year after year… You know when you buy a bottle of Chateas Ste Michelle Riesling or Jacob’s Creek Shiraz and you enjoy it, you can buy another one next year and it’ll be equally likeable. Victory! No more vintage charts!

Old World winemakers fought back, charging that their wine had very much specialness in it that made it better than predictably drinkable New World wines do not. They can’t really tell us what that is, but it’s there, and you’re missing out if you drink tasty new world wine all the time. And lots of people beleived them for a long time, feeling undisciplined and bourgeouis when they forgot their vintage cheat sheet at home and had to buy something they simply knew they liked, without remembering whether hail fell in the Rhone Valley in 2002.

Hearing someone from Torres saying that they needed to find places that weren’t going to provide unpredictable harvests was like hearing the fashion editor of Vogue say she was going to have to write about some shoes for women that don’t hurt our feet. Finally, the cart is placed behind the horse where it belongs, and you, gentle reader, are in the driver’s seat. Giddup!

Nice Acid

A Poem

In posting my tasting notes on certain white wines recently, I may have mentioned that a wine had “good acidity.”  It occurred to me much later that all my attentive readers may not be familiar with the importance of acid.

Many friends may now be thinking, “Well, now, if it’s acid we’re talking, I know my way around a blotter sheet… er, hey, I thought this was a wine blog!”   Got it in one: this is a wine blog, and no discussion of wine would be complete without a thorough understanding of acid.

The acid in wine is largely of four kinds: tartaric, malic, acetic, and citric.  Sorry, none of the three-initial-variety here.  It is not the acid in wine that made you stagger up to that guy at the party and tell him all your theories on fetal genital development.  But you wouldn’t have been drinking that wine if it weren’t for the acid in it (OK, you have a point, let’s blame the pH this time), because acid is one of the essential elements of What Makes A Wine Taste Good.

Wines with good acid are refreshing and bright.  They taste better with food, they age better, and they make you more appear more intelligent.  OK, maybe not so much with that last one, but the other three are all true.  Wines without acid taste flat, and are frequently maligned with descriptions like “flabby.” 

“But Scamp,” you ask bravely, because you know there are no dumb questions, just dumbwaiters, “how will I know that my wine has this nice acid of which you speak so wittily?”  I’ll tell you:  acidity makes your mouth water.  Just like taking a sip of fresh lemonade, sipping a Chablis or an un-oaked Sauvignon Blanc will trigger your salivary glands.  John Juergens, in his excellent Wine 101  article on Robin Garr’s Wine Lover’s Page, says that wine without acid tastes like a flat Coke.

Wines with naturally high acidity usually come from cool wine regions, like France’s Champagne, Chablis, and Alsace, all of Germany, California’s Anderson Valley, Santa Barbara, and Carneros, most of Oregon, and most of New Zealand.  (This is not an exhaustive list, to be sure.) 

Sometimes grapes grown in very cool regions actually have too much acid in them, and wineries are permitted to chaptalize the wine, which means they add sugar to make fermentation possible (because yeast eats sugar, but is killed by too much acidity) and to balance the flavor of the wine.  Frequently highly acidic wines are subjected to a second fermentation, called malolactic fermentation, which takes the malic acid (think apples) and converts it to lactic acid (think milk).

It is high acid that makes many of my favorite whites my favorites.  German Rieslings and Gewurztraminer have such divine sweet aromas of roses, honeysuckle, peaches, apricots, melon, and spice that it’s a refreshing pleasure to finally sip the nectar and be treated to a bright, no-nonsense slap of honest acidity.  It’s like meeting a person who is stunningly beautiful but utterly humble at the same time: entrancing, and rare.

You can also find high acid in red wines, which usually either means it’s a New World wine built to age (high acid also stabilizes a wine and kills certain micro-organisms that can harm a wine during aging) or it’s an Old World wine from a colder region.  In Europe, where wine is just one more kitchen staple like cheese and bread, no meal is complete without a wine on the table, and so wine is made to be drunk with food.  More acid in a red wine will help it stand up to acidic foods like tomatoes, and will help your palate cleanse itself by stimulating your salivary glands. 

A warning: acid makes a wine taste sour, so if a wine with higher acid does not have correspondingly powerful sweet fruit flavors, it may not appeal to you.  If you don’t like a wine and you think it’s because of the acid in it, you might try it with food before you write if off completely, because it may simply not be built to drink by itself.

Here’s a Nice Acid Cheat Sheet, if you want to try an acidic wine with dinner (hint, hint) tonight:

White

Chablis (must be French)

Sauvignon Blanc

Pinot Grigio

German Riesling

 

Red

Chianti or Sangiovese

Barbera

Bordeaux

Burgundy, and other Pinot Noir from Oregon, and in CA the Central Coast & Carneros

 

Fancy winespeak you can use to describe acidity in a wine include:  racy, crisp, tart, brisk, snappy, twangy, and juicy.  After the second glass, others may occur to you… enjoy!

 

Tasting De La Guerra Chardonnay 2005

De La Guerra Chardonnay 2005Price: $35.00

Straw gold in color, this wine had a toasty, creamy aroma on the nose, with a teensy hint of ripe apple. It was served at about 40 degrees F (I asked about the temp of their fridge), so I let it warm up a little before I continued to taste, because I wasn’t smelling much more than the oak.

Upon warming, the wine presented a slightly honeyed creaminess and some sharp pear aroma. When I tasted it, I noticed some oak tannins and a good dose of mineral on the mid-palate, which almost felt astringent. Maybe the astringency came from the oak tannins; I’ve never noticed mineral coming across as astringent before, but that’s how it seemed at the time. Fruit on the palate was a rather lemony-green apple, but super-integrated.

I was really surprised by this wine, because the winemaker is big-time Burgundian Stephane Vivier, and I confess I was looking forward to a less opulent, more oak-free Chardonnay. This is a decently well-made wine, but not a style I enjoy much. (Looking at the tasting notes from the winery’s website, they’re all about the citrusy finish, which my poor tastebuds did not detect. Maybe the wine was damaged in shipping? I didn’t taste anything off. Ah, well.)

If you must pair this with food, go with a pasta alfredo or something involving brie. In my mind, though, this is a Drink-It-On-Its-Own wine. If I had purchased it for $35, I would be disappointed.

About the winery: HdV is a joint venture between two big players in the wine biz: the de Villaine family, famous for their super-duper premium Domaine de la Romanee-Conti (DRC) Burgundy, and the Hyde family, famous for their epinomous vineyards in the Napa side of Carneros, which have supplied grapes to some of the most recognized wineries in California (Kistler, Ramey, Paul Hobbs, Patz & Hall).

This Chardonnay is called De La Guerra in honor of an ancestor of the Hyde family, Don Jose de la Guerra y Noriega, who made wine in Santa Barbara in the early 1800s. A de la Guerra family wine evidently won a gold medal, back when Americans cared about non-Olympic gold medals, at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Fair, back when Americans cared about Centennial Fairs.

I tasted this wine as part of a premium tasting at Lake Travis Wine Trader. They do a 3 wine flight of premium wines ($35 per bottle and up) every Saturday for $20, and they have other neat tasting programs, in addition to their excellent by-the-glass list. It’s up near my house, so I’ll be going back, you can be sure.

Old Vines

Wine marketing frequently throws normal advertising rules out the window, when it comes to Americans. We love all things new, right? Bright, shiny and new: new iPhone, new house, new car, new Hollywood star, new bestseller… in a world in which technology seems to be accelerating life, we work harder and harder to keep current.

So why does the term “Old Vines” have such cachet with us? It sells the crap out of wine, let me tell you. It’s one of those terms that, when a wine-nervous consumer sees it, makes her feel that she’s in good hands. Don’t worry, say the Old Vines, we’ve been around the block a few times and we’ll treat you right.

And Old is supposedly a good thing when it comes to wine, right? Wine ages, and gets better with age (sometimes). “Old Vines,” though, refers to the age of the vines producing the grapes producing the juice producing the wines, though — not the wine itself. Apart from the comforting sense that at least something is old about the bottle you’re buying, what is it about old vines that makes a winery think they should put it on the label?

In Europe, where they invented the term (Fr: vieilles vignes), wine producers slap the Old Vines on a bottle to brag about how long wine’s been made on their land. It makes sense, if you are a devotee  of terrior , the concept that what makes a wine good is the land its grapes come from. Older vines have deeper, more complex root structures that, according to some terrior believers, bring unique, irreplaceable elements to the wine grapes.

Especially in Europe, vieille vignes also implies that the people making the wine have been doing so for generations, and therefore really know what they’re doing.

Ironically enough, though the Old Vine mystique was born in Europe, it is now many non-European vineyards that can boast some of the oldest vines in the world, Chile, Australia and California in particular.

Australia’s Barossa Valley: Hewitson’s Mourvedre planted in 1853
Maipo Valley in Chile: Merlot planted in 1863 at Cousino Macul
California’s Amador County: Zinfandel planted in 1886 by Joseph Davis

We can blame this on the phylloxera blight of the late 1800s, which all but annihilated the wine industry in Europe until it was discovered that native US rootstock was immune to the disease. European varietals were grafted onto new rootstock, which saved the day, but it means that many of the greatest, most expensive wines in Europe come from vines that were planted less than 100 years ago.

There is one other reason to prize the old vine, and that is yield. As vines age, they naturally produce fewer grapes, but those grapes are said to be more intense and packed with flavor and complexity. It’s as if all the energy of the grapevine is concentrated into fewer grapes, but better grapes.

The problem with the term “old vines” is that it’s completely unregulated, even in France, where they love them some wine regulations. So while any of the reasons to choose a wine made from really old vines are good, it’s hard to tell who to trust. Is Winery X’s definition of old 20 years? 30 years? Or are we talking 100 or 130 years old here?

Sussing this out is mostly a matter of knowing your regions and varietals, unfortunately. I’m not shocked to hear of 100-year-old Zinfandel vines in California, but I’d be surprised to hear of 100-year-old Sauvignon Blanc vines there. I’ll believe almost any vine is super-old in Australia, because way back in the mid-1800s James Busby, a very serious Australian wine evangelist, collected all the varietals he could from Europe, and spread the gospel of grapes. I know that in Spain’s craggy hills and valleys lie vineyards that time and the modern world had forgotten until very recently, and so a $10 bottle made from 80 year-old-vines is feasible.

In the end, though, the term Old Vines on a bottle means less to me than the region, the winery, the price, and the grape. It’s always nice to drink the juice of historical grapes, but only if the wine is well-made, and is appropriate to the food and/or the setting.

Tasting Garnacha de Fuego 2006

Garnacha De Fuego 2006 Price: $7.99 at Whole Foods

I got the heads-up on this wine from The Cork and Demon, a great Austin wine blog. Taj paired it with meat manicotti and friends; I had it with pizza and Borat with friends.

The color is bright garnet, with a nose of jammy blackberry, a little spice and just a tiny pepperyness. In the mouth, the texture is soft, and it’s obvious you’ve wrapped your gums around a fruit bomb. Rich, sweetish blackberry flavors are balanced with some cranberry and raspberry notes with some acidity, which is good because this wine has NO tannins. It doesn’t even recognize tannin on the street; it’s all, “Tannin who? Tannin what? Never heard of it.”

Overall, a medium-bodied, simply tasty wine that is everything I want out of a casual table wine, including the price. Juicy-juicy goodness.

A confession: I knew I would like this wine because the label said it’s from Fine Estates of Spain, run by Jorge Ordonez. Continue reading

We go way back

When I was a kid, I wanted desperately to be sophisticated, and dreamed one day of knowing all about wines and vintages. (I also wanted to be able to spout whole monologues of Shakespeare, earn my PhD before my 25th birthday, and live in a tower.) I didn’t grow up in a alcohol-friendly household; there was no alcohol in our house at all, except for a bottle of Blue Nun that would show up in the fridge every 6 months or so, titillating us kids with its very existence. MOM! we would shout, THERE’S WINE IN THE FRIDGE! She would yell back, DON’T WORRY! IT WON’T BE THERE FOR LONG!

My first taste of beer was out of a half-warm can of something domestic, and nearly put me off it for good. After an abstemious 80s adolescence with only a few B&J wine coolers under my belt, I finally had my first real glass of wine, my epiphany wine. I had a room-mate when I was about 19 who was a great cook, an older woman, and she let me have a small glass of a special bottle she had in the house. It blew my socks off! THIS was what it was supposed to taste like! THIS is what all the fuss was about! Whatever your name was, Ex-Roommate of Long Ago, I thank you.

I only wish I could remember what the wine was. In later years, tasting big Cabs and first growth Bordeaux, I think it may have been either a really mellow Caymus Cab, or possibly a down-market Margaux. Nameless Ex-Roommate also introduced me to the concept of sweeter spices like cinnamon and clove in savory dishes with some divine African-inflected stew she once made. If only I hadn’t moved out — I could have been a freaky foodie so much sooner!

Instead, I stuck to traveling, and over 10 years went by until I tasted wine I liked that much again. In the meantime, I drank a lot of fruit wine, made friends with microbrew and coffee, and discovered martinis. It wasn’t until I moved to St. Thomas and accidentally got into the wine business that I started to be able to taste wine and discover what I was supposed to like and what I actually did like. Frequently, these coincided. Sometimes they didn’t. But by learning the language of the wine business, breaking the winespeak code, and learning about how and where wine is made, I was able to finally understand how to drink what I enjoyed. Now I just need to memorize some vintages…

I don’t drink wine every day (have to maintain my amateur status), but I know what I like and I know what I like to pair with what dishes. I am a Certified Wine Specialist with the Society of Wine Educators, and I sold wine and taught classes about it for about 5 years. Now I have a Joe Job that pays the bills (most of them), but I still have my same love for wine.

What made my love for wine a lifelong passion and not just a passing fling is that wine, for me, provides a sensual and an intellectual pleasure all in one. You can never stop learning about wine… even if you’ve learned everything about every grape and every region and every winemaker and every vintage, there’s a new harvest happening somewhere in the world RIGHT NOW. Therefore wine offers infinite opportunities to learn new things and taste new things. And isn’t that the best part of life?