Thursday, March 29, 2007

Little Sister - Four Scheurebe Wines

Sometimes when you read about German wines, you get the feeling they spend an awful lot of time on genetics. Whatever, they did a very good job with Scheurebe, a little known cross between Riesling and Sylvaner. The four wines I've tasted were idiosyncratic and individualistic and the varietal seems have wildly different personalities at different sugar levels.

Weingut Unckrich, Kalstadter, Scheurebe Auslese, 2004 is the sweet version but I would serve it with a spicy meal and not as a dessert wine. "This is Riesling's little slutty sister," I thought to myself as I drank it and it really puts out. It has forward yet refined pineapple, lime, grapefruit and guyava aromas and flavors. Pure and simple, tasty like a frozen sherbert, with balancing acidity. I don’t think this is a wine to cellar and it doesn’t have a lot of complexity and intensity, just delicious elegance.

Muller-Catoir, Haardter Manderling, Scheurebe Spatlese , 2004 is as sweet but has a peppery, minerally overlay that adds depth and complexity. It's not slutty, just promiscuous, and I'd like to quote the Wikipedia definition here: "It is worth noting that people who are called 'promiscuous' under this usage, may in fact be quite selective in their choice of sexual partners."

The dry versions I've tasted were quite different. Kinky rather than lush. I've posted a note for the very dry Koehler-Ruprecht, Kalstadter Steinacker, Scheurebe Beerenauslese, 2004 already but Koehler-Ruprecht makes a rather more affordable introduction, which is arguably just as good: Kalstadter Steinacker, Scheurebe Spatlese, Trocken, 2003 (hmmm, was 2003 a good year for Scheurebe at Pfaltz). I didn't write a note at the time (September 2006) so this is all from memory, but it was very floral with mocca and chocolate notes, very brainy and demanding and I think I ordered a bottle after the first sip. Despite an inherent, implicit balance, it still felt adolescently disjointed so I'd guess it should be drunk from late 2007 and onwards.

Availble from Giaconda (I think the BA hasn't arrived yet, though).

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Brundlmayer

I'm new to Austrian wines so I know Brundlmayer and that's just about it. But I'm very intrigued by the few wines I've tasted.

First the Rieslings. I've posted about the Heilingenstein Lyra, 1999 but I really fancy my note so I'll repeat it:

Wonderful golden color. Aromas and flavors of petrol, honeysuckle, apples and rocks. Intense, yet elegant, long, complex and crisp on the palate. Bone dry but the verve of the fruit gives a sweet impression that is offset by excellent acidity. It’s obviously ripe yet balanced, the ripeness showing only as notes of fruit punch on the nose and a contained lushness on the palate. It’s really drinking perfectly now but from what I’ve read plus the great poise it displays, give it 5 more years at least. (17-Aug-2006)

The regular Heilingenstein, 1999 is not in the same league but still a fine drop:

The nose is at first adamantly petrol-y, but the petrol recedes to make room for a fairly complex nose of citrut fruits, apples, minerals and spices. The palate lags behind the nose and shows notes of lime and minerals, with fine acidity and a long, green apple finish. After a while it seemed to fade before coming back and settling into a laid back groove. Not as complex or compelling as the Lyra but a fine wine to drink between the occasions where you just need to open one of Brundlmayer’s flagship wines. Won’t develop further but should keep for a couple of years, I think. (18-Oct-2006)

And then you've got the Gruner Veltliner, every spell checker's nemesis.

I've just had my fourth tasting of the Gruner Veltliner, Langenlois, Alte Reben, 2000. Sort of four, because the first time was corky. The second, at home in late July, was an eye-opener, a Burgundian nose over a palate remiscient of Riesling or Sauvignon Blanc. The third time, at a tasting at the importer five months later, it was oakier and sweeter in a way my earlier experience would not have predicted. Now, it seems caught between the two previous experiences:

Veggy, oaky nose, with spicey, vaguely caramely notes. The fruit is somewhat in regression, though there are ample green apples in there and juicy acidity. As the oak melts, I get sweet spices and even hints of chocolate and red fruits and they are very finely delineated on the palate. Not a wine for everyone and I was going to give up on it until it overcame the oak after a couple of hours. (27-Mar-2007)

So I'm kind of scratching my head here. Gruner Veltliner is not that widely written about and I've found widely different opinions of its aging potential. Is the Alte Reben on its way down or does it need to assimilate the wood further?

Brundlmayer is imported to Israel by Anavim.

Friday, March 23, 2007

An Italian And A Spaniard

Some wines make their appearance on shelves at Israeli wine stores and then disappear and never return, some never make it at all.

Altesino used to be imported by WineRoute (Derech Hayain) a few years ago and as far as I can tell they've stopped carrying them at all. I'm almost sure that the only vintage of the Quarto d'Altesi they ever brought was the 1999. The wine is not listed at the Altesino site, so maybe they just stopped making it.

I bought my one bottle at a tasting it four years ago, in the embryonic stages of my malady. Since my tastes have changed so much since those formative years, I was wary and suspicious of it and shared it with friends. Too bad, actually, because I could have gone through the entire bottle myself. It's a blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. I’ve grown used to super Tuscans being on the muscle bound side, but the Quarto d’Altesi seems very much dominated by Sangiovese acidity and succulence. I think the Merlot may have softened some of the Sangiovese's bitterness, though, fortunately without obscuring its Tuscan character.

After we were done, my friends opened a wine of their own, one that I'd recommended to them a couple of years ago, Bodegas Riojanas, Vina Albina Gran Reserva, 1994. From what I've read, Riojanas is a good, traditional Rioja producer, but only second tier. But I liked the wine two years ago, and I think any Rioja lover would have. It's got those savoury red fruits and leather and mildew and if you want a typical Rioja Gran Reserva for a wine class, this is it. Having just now read through the Riojanas web-site, I see that the Vina Albina is not even their top line and I'm curious what their Monte Real is like.

Unfortunately, my hosts' bottle was not as good as mine. The two years since I opened my own bottle plus bad storage conditions may have pushed it past its peak but its pedigree is still obvious. The nose has enough mature, albeit somewhat muted, Rioja aromas to tantalyze. As for the palate, thirty-some minutes after opening, its softening and fraying structure reveals its age.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Four Musketeers Classification System

Yes, I know the book is actually The Three Musketeers, but the system works better with four and anyway d'Artagnan gets his commission by the end of the book. I read an abridged version dozens of times in second grade and the original version still works for me, though it's got its hokey bits and our heroes are actually defending a pair of royal idiots and plotting against the only intelligent and conscientious person in the ruling circle. But like a good Sherlock Holmes story, you read it for the giveaway scenes and not the plot anyway.

Each of the Musketeers represents an aspect of the male personality. There's some overlapping between the characters of course but each has a distinct trait that Alexander Dumas plays up in order to streamline the characterization. The idea of the classification system is to figure out which wine would each Musketeer bring to the table. Admittedly a somewhat chauvinistic approach towards wine, so sue me, but I never read Little Women.

Athos

Athos is the true hero of the book, at any rate my favorite. Dark, brooding, tragic though redeemed by his sense of honor. Aristocratic by breed and carriage, Athos is a leader without unduly trying to be one. To me, he's pure Burgundy.

Porthos

Porthos is the big, macho man of the group, with no little vanity. They're all fighters, but he's the most physical, the one most likely to use his fist rather than a sword. At the table, though, he's a gourmand, a man who appreciates a hearty meal and can keep it up all night. To me, he's a very bretty wine, all horse sweat though conscious of his appearance. I think Porthos has a huge supply of Rhone reds, mostly Hermitage and Chateauneuf.

Aramis

Aramis is all about romance and seduction and a bit feminine and vain. Forget the religious stance, it's just an act to get some pussy. He's just as hedonistic as Porthos though you imagine he watches his waistline more carefully. In short, Champagne.

D'Artagnan

In a way, d'Artagnan has a little of all his friends, because Dumas was canny enough to play on the readers' expectations to have the young man grow through his experiences with his older friends. Thus he's the most round character and he's got the romantic flair of Aramis, the physical bravery of Porthos and the nobility of Athos. But most of all he's a leader and a bit of a capitalist. D'Artagnan will climb up the ladder all the way to the top, in a manner that Athos never would. Anyway, this Musketeer might hail from Gascony but to me he's all Bordeaux.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

A Few From The Rhone

Drunk over the last few months.

J. L. Chave, Saint Joseph, Offerus, 2001

Bretty, with black fruit underneath and hints of chocolate. Thick and bitter, a mix of stylish and rustic. The fruit is drying out and I think it was probably better a year ago.

I don't know whether to call it a surprise, but the 2003 was much better.

J. L. Chave, Saint Joseph, Offerus, 2003

Very high quality. I suppose stylistically it is solidly St. Joseph but the quality is about 20 yards from the Cote Rotie end-zone.

Jaboulet, Cheateauneuf Du Pape, Les Cedres, 2001

Tasted on the same night as the Chave Saint Joseph, which overshadowed the Jaboulet. Very Rhone on the nose, with black fruits, herbs, olives and mushrooms, maybe some coffee. The palate is not as structured as I’d like but with adequate concentration and length.

Georges Vernay, Condrieu, Terrasses de l’Empire, 2004

The nose is citrus-y and buttery with minerally nuances. A great nose, really. The palate keeps up and is crisp and minerally, an excellent food match, though it lacks some length and doesn't quite live up to the expectations created by the nose.

Yves Cuilleron, Condrieu, Les Chaillets, 2002

The nose has everything going for it, it's complex, it's full of white fruits, flowers and minerals. The palate is oaky - not obnoxiously oaky, but enough to be a factor - and like the Vernay, is not quite as good as the nose. Nevertheless, a lovely wine and everyone asked for another glass. Considering Viognier doesn't age well and the general concensus regarding 2002, this is an amazing success. I suspect it was never as good as the Vernay, though.

Yves Cuilleron, Cote Rotie, Le Bassenon, 1999

This wine struck out in a dullest way possible; too much oak, the most boring way to ruin as wine. At first, the nose seemed overwhelmed by the Viognier element, with a huge blast of lemon-drops and burnt pine sap. Then it settled down and revealed red fruits and smoke so in the end it was a fairly interesting nose. This did not help the palate much as the fruits felt constricted by the oak.

Tardieu-Laurent, Vacqueyras, Vieilles Vignes, 2001

Very promising nose straight out of the bottle: high-class Grenache red fruitiness and leather. The palate is tight and minerally but is as promising as the nose. And it opens up to live up to that promise as well as add nuances of spices and coffee. Long and deep. Remarkably, it doesn’t seem to have changed a whole lot since my previous tasting in 2004.

This wine and the Vernay Condieu are the perfect example why I love the Rhone.


Coming Attraction: The Four Musketeers Classification System!

The Tedeschi Mystery Is Solved

A short while ago I wrote about the the Tedeschi Capitel San Rocco 2004 was released long before it should have been ready according to the producer's technical sheet.

Today the local importer informed that the wine's production method has indeed changed and their site will be updated in the future. It is still a ripasso but it is now aged for a shorter period after the second fermentation. I'd guess it is a lighter wine that it used to be.

By the way, my bottle of the 2003 Capitel San Rocco had re-fermented in the bottle and the same thing happened to two other friends. Since ripassos go through a second fermentation anyway, I'd say this must be a world record. To their credit, the importer has replaced all damaged bottles.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Pfalz Tasting at Giaconda (Dec. 7, 2006)

This is going to be a killer to type up, damn German names...

This was my first German tasting and a very interesting one it was. Only three producers from Pfalz (with some outsiders thrown in for comparison's sake) but damn good ones, and some very tasty comparisons between the different producers across different vintages and vineyards.

Muller-Catoir, Mussbacher Esselshaut, Riesling Kabinett Trocken, 2004

I kicked myself for having opened my bottle too early, as it was a much better showing this time. Apples, maybe a bit of tropical fruits, spices. I didn't get a lot of minerals on the nose but the palate was very crisp and flinty, albeit much less developed than the nose. Still slightly fizzy.

Muller-Catoir, Haardter Burgengarten "Im Gehren", Riesling Spatlese Trocken, 2003

Oddly slightly less impressive than the younger Kabinett, which might be due to the vintage. Less delineated, spiceier and more alcoholic. Also less minerals and fruits.

Koehler-Ruprecht, Kalstadter Saumagen, Riesling Kabinett Trocken, 2004

I'm turning into a fan. Not as good as the Auslese from the same year, but even Sugar Ray Leonard was not as good as Sugar Ray Robinson. Excellent intraction between acidity, fruit, chalky minerality and petrol aromas and flavors. Knife edge balance. A wild, edgy personality.

Koehler-Ruprecht, Kalstadter Saumagen, Riesling Spatlese Trocken, 2004

A delicate wine. Different from both the Auslese (which we didn't taste that evening, alas) and the Kabinett from the same vineyard. More restrained and fruitier. The first wine that night to hint at petrol. Why it costs more than the Auslese probably has nothing to do with its quality.

Koehler-Ruprecht, Kalstadter Steinacker, Riesling Kabinett Trocken, 2004

Loses on points to the Saumgen Kabinett but what a fight it was! Sweeter and more pure, with minerality of a different character complemented by notes of honey. Perhaps more finesse but less power and less of a rush. A wine for a different mood than the Saumgen. This would be a wine for Mrs. Shraga.

Muller-Catoir, Mussbacher Esselshaut, Rislaner Statlese Trocken, 2001

My Wine Of The Night. On the nose I found petrol, honey, a hint of dried fruit. Slightly smokey at first. The fruits lean towards lemon-lime at first then morph to sweet citrus. Elegant and constantly changing and really, I’m not doing it any justice at all with this note.

V. Amici (Rebholz), 2002

This is a co-production betwen different Pflaz producers and was just about the most expensive wine at the tasting. A blend of Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay, the nose is very sweet, very much a fruit punch, with apple cider and hints of bubble gum. You expect a dessert wine but your palate is forced off-balance because this is a tough, bone dry, alcoholic wine. it is certainly impressive but I don't know what to make of it or what food to match it with.

The next two wines were Pinot Noirs. I'd tasted them both before (and the Koehler-Ruprecht since) and found them interesting but not enough to buy.

Koehler-Ruprecht, Kalstadter Kronenberg, Spatburgender Spatlese Trocken, 2002
A complex, intruiging nose. German Pinot Noir is very different from anything I've ever tasted (or anyone else for that matter, I guess) and can be off-putting but I find this wine fascinating. But it is certainly hard to approach right now.

Meyer-Nakel, Blauschifer, Spatburgender QBA Trocken, 2004

From what I've read, Meyer-Nakel, who hails from red wine region Ahr, is the Pinot Noir specialist in Germany but I prefer the Koehler-Ruprecht. Though it's labelled a QBA and not Spatlese like the Koehler, it was too ripe for my taste and I'd liked it more the first time.

Muller-Catoir, Haardter Manderling, Scheurebe Spatlese , 2004

Now this, if not the best wine of the tasting, was certainly the yummiest. Like frozen pineapple sorbet sprinkled with white pepper and chalk. But I don't think Scheurebe should cost quite as much as this wine does.

Jos. Christoffel Jr., Wehlener Sonnenuhr, Riesling Auslese, 1992

Petrol at full throttle at last. A wonderful nose, a wonderful wine, very elegant and capricious and feels very young on the palate.

Koehler-Ruprecht, Kalstadter Steinacker, Scheurebe Beerenauslese, 2004

A bone dry BA! I'll ape what Anat Sella and Terry Thiese (Koehler's importer to the US) have said about this wine: it kicks like pure ginger. Amazing for what it does as well as for its quality.


Coming Attraction: The Four Musketeers Classification System!

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Some Israeli Tasting Notes

Israel's first steps up the wine quality ladder had a lot to do with the obvious varietals, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay. Arguably, however, they're not that well suited to Israel's climate.

Personally, I'd argue that the only reason we have so many of those varietals here is their market appeal and not their suitability to Israel. Now I don't have the technical background to argue this properly and I know winemakers will say that the differences in day and night temperature and the altitude and management of the vineyard can make up for the southern latitude of our Promised Land. But my common sense says these varietals won the battle for survival in Bordeaux and Burgundy because they were suited for those cool climates and I happen to believe in specialization in nature.

The latest trend is towards new varietals, such as Carignan, Syrah, Cabernet Franc. The first two make sense but last time I checked the map, the Loire was much further north than Bordeaux.

Whatever, here are some wines I've tasted recently that are good examples of this trend. Despite my rather critical tone above, I enjoyed them for the most part.

Sea Horse, Antoine, Syrah, 2003

The first bottle I had was pickled with sulphur, I think, though that cleared and it showed what I see as this winery's trademark, a sort of Old World earthiness coupled with Mediterranean spiciness. The second bottle a few months later had been flat and disappointing. My most recent bottle I believe shows where this wine is going.

A nice nose of sweet red fruit (cranberries and cherries) and pepper, later some chocolate. The palate has decent structure, the acidity is okay, but the fruit is still subdued, so it feels a bit tart which is fine, most Israeli reds will just go the other way. But it gets better and reveals sour-cherry fruitiness and hints of minerals on the finish. Mostly it’s just subdued right now with some hollowness in mid-palate. I’d open the next bottle in a year, maybe even two.

Regarding the drinking window, I wouldn't open a bottle 5-6 years post-vintage if I only had one, especially since I find a lot of bottle variation at Sea Horse. You can see a visibile difference in the cork depth in different bottles of the same wine. But I liked the one relatively mature wine of Ze'ev Dunie that I tasted and I'll be very pleased if my last bottle lives to the same age.

Ella Valley, Cabernet Franc, 2004

A nice warm and and ripe nose, earthy, with reasonable complexity. The warmth is present on the medium-bodied palate as well, but something just doesn't click for me.

I had this wine with someone who appreciates the Loire and he said it was typical Franc, but except for the medium body, I don't see this wine as making a big break from the usual Israeli paradigm. He said the next wine we tasted (see below) was less typical and I think the concensus was it was a better wine as well. For some reason, despite being bigger and thus superficially more typically Israeli, I found it less archtypical. So, on to the next wine...

Pelter, Cabernet Franc, 2004

Elegant on the nose, with ripe red fruit, some herbs and a hint of minerals. Rawer on the palate. Full and long. An Israeli wine in need of more bottle time?

Finally, from a boutique that has carved out a niche in atypical varietals, what some regard as their best wine:

Vitkin, Carignan, 2004

Typical ripe Israeli red at first, albeit without the Cabernet characteristics which is a big plus. Meaty, mushroomy notes lend it distinction. Very nice acidity that feels unmanipulated and, despite it’s sweet ripeness and a slight hollowness in mid-palate, has the savouriness I look for. I wouldn’t exactly call it a long-distance runner but it has promising structure for short term cellaring potential.



Coming Attraction: The Four Musketeers Classification System!

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Good News From Chablis!

Looks like the local supply of Chablis has just been radically improved, with the addition of Raveneau and Vincent Dauvissat to the portfolio of local Burgunday importers Hadas Ezer and Tomer Gal. Were the fans this ecstatic when the Yankees signed Babe Ruth?

Saturday, March 10, 2007

A Small Mystery

I'm quite fond of Tedeschi, a traditional Valpolicella producer. One of their better values is the Capitel San Rocco, a Ripasso wine.

I bought the 2004 version in late 2006. As you can see in the technical sheet, the wine should have been released in late 2007/early 2008 (I highlighted the appropiate parts):

Grapes are harvested by hand at the beginning of October. They are then pressed and the stems are removed and the must is placed into small fermentation vats. Fermentation takes place at 28°C with steeping that lasts 14 days. The wine also performs malolactic fermentation at the end of steeping. It then rests in stainless steel tanks to favor spontaneous clarification. The partially clarified wine, in March, is poured over Recioto and Amarone marc. By contact with these it performs another stage of slight alcoholic fermentation that lasts about 15 days. This increases the alcohol content and structure of the wine, improving longevity. It also develops new aromas that create an interesting and complex bouquet. Then the wine is left to age for approximately 2 years in oak barrels before it is bottled. During this aging the wine acquires a balanced structure, new aromatic contents and its coloring substances are stabilized. Once it is bottled it is refined in the cellars for 6 months before it is placed on the market.


The importer (Anavim, Tel Aviv) couldn't figure it out but ecce homo.

Friday, March 9, 2007

One More Word About Rust

A short followup to my Rust Never Sleeps post from last month.

Flor is the rust in sherry.

That is all.

I Want To Like Israeli Wines More, But...

This is a crazy country. Sometimes I think you have to be crazy to love it and I'm usually too cynical to admit it, but yeah, I do. I miss it when I'm away and despite the insanity of living here, sometimes it's the only place that makes sense to me. I love talking to people from my generation, knowing we share the same experiences, feeling we've been through it all together.

When I started this blog, I thought I'd write about Israeli wines and try to put into words how I felt about them but it's harder than I thought, though of course I've written that long post about the Katzrin Chardonnay. It's relatively easy for me to analyze what I don't like about French wines or whatever but for good or bad, my approach towards Israeli wines is never as clinical.

I still don't think I've really nailed down my issues with Israeli wines but let's just review my list of complaints and see what I've got.

The Wines Themselves

Apparently, Israeli weather is fairly consistent. Sugar ripeness is never a problem, though you hear complaints about phenolic ripeness from winemakers, consumers and critics alike. I really can't speak on the subject from a technical point of view but I can tell you how the wines taste: ripe, a bit too sweet for my tastes, with rarely the savouriness and mineralliness that I look for. While I loved their style a few years ago, I've outgrown it.

All too often Israeli wines say more about the people who made them than about the land they come from but that's just an observation, not a critique. Despite that, they're recognizably Israeli, I'll give them that. At their best they have rich noses with decent complexity and the palate can at times be balanced though it's rarely as good as the nose. They don't age for very long, except for Golan Heights Winery's Cabernets.

I appreciate the fact that visitors like them. I would too. If I were a visitor. But try living with a steady diet and there's a sameness about them that will wear you out.

The Hype

Let me start off by saying some of these wines are too warmly received, too eagerly compared with the classic models they're based on, too highly scored, by people who should know better. And these days I for one know better. A few years ago, we could still be fooled by a Castel GV in the midst of a Bordeaux tasting but I would like to see if that could happen again. The last time I attended a Bordeaux/Israel face-off, no one mistook an Israeli red for a Bordeaux. Style-wise and, I'm sad to say, quality-wise as well.

The hype turns me off. It's as plain as that. I read various Israeli boards and when I see people waxing poetic about local wines, I really have to wonder. Did we really taste the same wines? Do we have a shared context for comparison?

I think the creative people who make wine deserve better (flattering though the hype may be). They deserve honest criticism by people with discerning palates and brains because people who can't see the wines' faults will never truly be moved by great wines. They'll never appreciate the progress I believe Israeli growers and winemakers will make. Though I'm sure everyone appreciates the effect of positive criticism on sales and maybe I'd be less idealistic about all this if I had to think about the bottom line.

The Prices

I have two tests for prices. The first one judges the wine's quality when tasted and then looks at the price. Basically, I ask myself, given a wine's quality and what I usually pay for wines of similar quality, would I buy it? Israel produces a decent quantity of wines who pass this first test.

The second test is whether I think the price is reasonable, and the answer to that question depends on many factors. I don't think premium Israeli wines are reasonably priced because as far as I'm concerned, any Israeli wine that costs more than 25 USD should have a track record for aging potential. Now I realize that some of the few wineries that have managed to build up such a track record charged the same prices before they built up their record, but I can't fix history and now that they've earned their prices so to speak, they can keep them.

With very few exceptions, the Israeli reds I've tasted didn't thrive past their fifth year post-vintage. For wines costing 25 USD, a wine should have some aging potential. If I have to put up with a short life, hey, there's a few nice Barberas I've had my eye on lately (and they might outlive Israeli reds of the same vintage at that).

The Proof Is In The Pudding

I don't like to drink leftovers so any wine remaining in the bottle (which is usally the case if we don't have guests over) goes into a bottle of accumulated leftovers for cooking purposes. Israeli bottles wind up leaving the most leftovers and usually take longer to actually drink because they plain tire out my palate.

White Power

Recently, my taste in wine has shifted radically towards white wines. All other things being equal, I am in a white wine mood two times out of three, though I usually hold back because my fridge hasn't quite caught up. You can blame the local weather, which make makes whites a much better choice, but mostly it's me. I like stylish, expressive wines and, pound for pound, dollar for dollar, those qualities are more easily found in white wines.

Not that I think style and expression cannot be found in red wines, but the oak and higher alcohol obscures them (which is one reason why I and my Old World brethren prefer the more classicaly built red wines). So sure, you've got your over-oaked Chardonnays that don't have the purity I'm looking for, but where my heart is right now is with white wines that derive their aromas and flavor from the fruit and its reflection of its homeland, made by winemakers who might be working some scientific mumbo jumbo but thankfully leave all traces on the cutting room floor.

Of course, I'm not saying you don't have all that with red wines but to get the purity of expression that I'm looking for, you need to invest more money and cellar time. So these wines become wines for special occasions, which brings me to my next point.

I'd share most of wines with friends but I have a more active need to share to share my reds. Because they're usually more expensive and because they bring out the social side in me. With whites wines, I find my enjoyment is a more private one and I don't have a need per se to share. For me, drinking a good white wine is like reading a book and red wine is more like watching a movie or a football match. I am also more confident of my understanding of white wines than I am of reds.

Some Tasting Notes

This week I opened two bottles at home. One was a very good German wine, Donnhoff, Weisser Burgunder (Pinot Blanc) QBA, Trocken, 2004, which I'd tasted about a month ago and liked enough to buy but did not enjoy it quite as much as I did at home. It's that "reading a book" effect I mentioned before; sometimes you just have to get through the exposition.

The fruit is tropical at first, backed up by sweet spices on the nose, then it picks up a green apple character, especially on the palate which really is like biting into a firm, cool green apple. Beautiful acidity! I thought at first it was a less heady version of Alsace but I was wrong; it is all Germany, albeit with an illusion of richness that is at odds with alcohol level. I probably underestimated it, its complexity and its potential at the Nahe tasting.

The other was a local white I'd rather expected more of, Pelter, Semillon, 2003.

Light in color and body, delicate apples, lemon and melon aromas and flavors, complemented by honey and herbs. The nose is excellent but the palate simply doesn’t have enough fruit, otherwise it would have been one of the best Israeli whites.

(I hope I'm too harsh with the Pelter. Semillon is very new to Israel and I may have opened it too early or too late and I'm sure Pelter is still learning his way around the varietal. For what it's worth, I'm interested in following future vintages.)

Sunday, March 4, 2007

How I Abandoned The Katzrin Chardonnay

The Golan Heights Winery, Katzrin Chardonnay, 2000 is a sort of a turning point for me. This premium (and fairly priced, I must admit) Chardonnay from the winery, unquestionably the pioneer of quality Israeli wines, has always received favorable reviews. Yet I seem to sense that this particular vintage is where a certain backlash against this New World style of Chardonnay started to take place among my friends and I.

The 2000 received scores locally that hovered around 90, one excited reviewer giving it a 94+ and comparing it to the best of any wine region in the world (which I always took be a comparison with Burgundy) and a drinking window going on until 2010. I must say the excitement was also echoed at the time in amateur tasting notes among my friends. Tom Stevenson included it in his list of "100 Most Exciting Wine Finds" in the 2005 edition of his annual Wine Report, but dampened the excitement by noting that "I would be going wild about a quality such as this from Israel 15 years ago but the wine world has moved on and I find it rather simple, lifted Chardonnay fruit with far too much oak..."

I can only speak for myself and for my close circle of fellow geeks but I find a growing acceptance of Stevenson's mini-crit. I've misplaced my first tasting note for the wine of three years ago, but I remember the oak was very obvious, but it was spicy oak, not sweet oak, and you could feel some nice fruit underneath. I suppose I scored it a 92.

Fast forward to March 2006. I felt it lacked some fruit as my otherwise favorable note shows:

A lovely, complex nose: oily, butter, baked apples, spices, toast. The palate is rich but perhaps not as complex as the nose; it is perhaps a bit tight, a bit overoaked, but it is deliciously spicy and mouthfilling. However, more fruit would have made it a true wonder. 90-91

The backlash I mentioned about had already started taking place because I remember being postively surprised because by the Katzrin 2000 because I was really expecting much less of it. The Katzrin Chardonnay, 2003 had come out and even fans were disappointed. One acquaintance started looking for buyers for his case of futures. The 2002 had seemed promising at the time of its release but friends were starting to complain of its toffee flavors. I thought it was was a well made wine of its particular style but noted it was not a style I'd rush out to buy. Though in a gust of exuberant folly I'd bought two bottles, the last finished off last fall when I noted:

Very ripe and sweet with tons of coffee and other heavy elements. This is, for me, a Bizarro Chardonnay.

Backlash at full throttle.

I thought that was the last of the Katzrin Chardonnay2000 for me until a 'lost' bottle turned up in one of my storage lockers. I was actually looking forward to seeing if perhaps the fruit had recovered but was wary enough to spring it on neophytes who did like it including my wife (whom I told to memorize the taste carefully because she would never taste it home again).

So here is my final note:

A wine that puts out way too much and with too much makeup (oak) and perfume (sweet oak) to be truly sexy.

It's easy enough to blame my growing sophistication and my exposure, since my initial purchases, to the great whites of Burgundy. But I don't think that's entirely it. Though Israel can produce Chardonnay of high sugar ripeness, it doesn't always achieve phenolic ripeness so many producers (not just GHW) spice it up with oak. The most depressing thing is I think GHW can probably come up with good enough Chardonnay in time, if they wanted to. Their Odem vineyard (source of their Odem organic Chardonnay, similar to Katzrin in price and style but with admittedly less oak) can probably come up with reasonably concentrated fruit flavors. It's certainly cold enough; I was there last spring and froze my fanny off in late morning. But I think GHW are committed to that certain style by now. They try to impinge it upon their recent Viognier releases as well , again toffee-ing up what could be decent fruit in time, with the added problem that Viognier is shorter-lived than Chardonnay and has an even smaller chance of integrating with the wood.

I must again stress that this is only my own personal experience with this series but numerous discussions about this wine tell me I am not alone. Only time will tell whether my social circle is representative.

A Plea For Sherry

I'm going to talk about the least popular, least sexy of the great wines of the Old World.

Sherry, which hails from Jerez, Spain, is a non-vintage wine, grown in soleras, which depends on a local yeast called flor for its distinctive iodine tang. You can find a short introduction here (or even better in a series of fine article at thewinedoctor.com) but the best resource, isn't online, it is Julian Jeffs' classic Sherry, which covers everything from the history of the British colony in Jerez to specifics of wine making (probably more complex than for any other wine, even more than Champagne) and the different styles.

If wine is your hobby and passion and you love it for its connection with tradition and the history of the places it hails from, then sherry is a wine you really need to try. It is the last unsullied bastion of the Old World. Parker has only recently discovered it and there is no way a Michel Rolland could find clients there because arguably, Jerez is suited only for making Sherry. And sherry is an oxidized style of wine that by definition defies modernity. It has no use for new barrels; while new barrels might be a questionable choice of style for certain wines, for sherry it is probably close to a physical impossibility. You cannot teach making sherry at Davis because flor only thrives in Jerez (and Jura for that matter).

If you like sharp, intellectual wines, then a dry sherry from a Fino to a Palo Cortado will tax your brains to their limits. If you just want let your hedonistic tendencies run wild, then Jerez makes some of the lushest sweet wines in the world, with flor playing the role of noble rot, lending sharp, saline notes to balance the sweetness. And its unpopularity makes it a very good value wine. Where else could you find a 30 year old wine for 30 dollars?

But this unpopularity is the reason it's so hard to find. Sure I could always find the good stuff in Spain, London or in the big cities in the US, but everywhere else you're down to the basic commercial stuff which is fine in its own right but I want more. If I'm not mistaken, only 4 labels in the VOS/VORS range are imported to Israel.

I am fully aware of the commercial reasons. It has an image problem. It is associated with old British ladies. The high alcohol level scares some people off. It takes time to develop a taste for flor. Many have had bad experiences with stale, badly stored Finos, a wine that thrives on freshness to begin with.

So sure, it's only a niche wine and in Israel wine itself is only a niche market in a certain sense. But look, if you open a bottle of Lustau's East India or Williams and Humbert's Dry Sack Solera Especial 15 Years Old Oloroso at the store and let people taste it, they're going to flip for it and buy some. I'm sure they're going to buy it. Every time I've served these two wines to neophytes they adored it and wanted me to find them a bottle. So couldn't you start with the easy (I'm going to try and kick my head for calling the Solera Especial easy) stuff and work your way up to a lovely, delicate Palo Cortado that can play Charlie Parker riffs on your palate?

A friend of mine organized an Emilio Lustau tasting a year or so ago. He got the wines directly from the bodegas for free. Nobody who attended the tasting had to pay for the wines, only for the food in the hosting restaurant, appropiately enough a tapas bar. But not a single importer that he contacted showed up! We just didn't register on their radar. So they never saw how much everyone enjoyed themselves, including wine lovers who had never tasted more than a sherry or two in their lives. They never saw how we haggled over the leftovers bottles.

Lustau has a good story to market, especially with its range of almacensitas which you can read about here or here. It offers consistent quality, food friendliness, a recognizable style despite the almacensita system and very attractive prices. In some ways, it is the Tardieu-Laurent or Louis Jadot of Jerez and tasting its range is a text book example of how flor affects different soleras in subtly different ways. It has been marketing itself in bold, modern ways and gets good reviews from the American press. Their bottles for good or bad do not project a stuffy, conservative image. This is the one Jerez house for a bold importer who loves wine to carry.

So this is it, my plea for more sherry in Israel. Amen.

A Dream List

Here is a list of wine regions currently under-represented in Israel:
  • Chablis - expect a surprise soon.
  • Alsace
  • Loire
  • Jerez
  • Provence
  • Southwest France
  • United States - yes, the US! I'm not a big fan but it seems to me we get only the very obvious choices that are tailored to fit the consumers' expectations.
  • Austria
  • Champage - I know the big problem is the tax on bubblies but it is an utterly evil law!

And showing improvement over the last year:

  • Germany
  • Australia
  • Rhone and the Cote d'Or (always well represented to begin with, actually, but improving nonetheless)

Friday, March 2, 2007

Why Score Wines?

There are many arguments against scoring wines and publishing scores. The most often repeated are that scores:
  • are never truly objective
  • cannot be accurate in the sense that the same wine will always score the same with the same taster
  • cannot reflect differences between styles
  • cannot be faithfully calibrated between different palates.

These are not strong enough reasons for my taste. Speaking for my friends and I, we're intelligent folks and we know how to make intelligent use of scores.

Scores are a commercial necessity and they've warped the way wines are marketed. Different flavors of this argument are plentiful so I won't go into them in depth because it'd bore me to repeat them but basically it all boils down to this: the marketing system is geared into pushing only high scoring wines or wines who scored well within a relatively low price range. In the event that someone is trying sell you a "food" wine, odds are theyr'e just doing it to obscure the fact that it didn't score high.

So this is yet another argument against scores: they're a marketing ploy and how many of those wind up being consistently beneficial to the consumer?

But since I've brought up this issue, I can obviously see past Establishment's petty tricks so like the other arguments, it doesn't really add up to a definitive reason not to score.

Here's the real reason not to score: some things are not meant to be reduced to numbers.

It's romantic, I know, but why reduce everything to numbers? It's simple enough not to need elaborating. Holy Moley, Shakespeare did just fine without scores, right?

So why do I do it? Why do I score wines when I write my own amateur notes? What could I possibly be getting out of it?

There's one thing to be said for scores. Scores are an easy shorthand for saying "wine x is better than wine y, which is better than z". And let's just pretend we all agree that it's important or beneficial or enlightening to do that, alright? I've been a music fan for waaaay longer than I've been into wine. I make comparisons like that above by force of habit. I enjoy it. I need a few days with a new album to decide where it fits into my ever expanding expanding ruler and why. Granted, it will travel up and down that ruler but I can always 'spot' its rank and if you're into music in the same way as I am, we would have a good time discussing why it belongs right there between, I dunno, Purple Rain and Highway To Hell. You may not understand why I'd want to do that but the point is it gives me pleasure and I don't need scores to do it.

But I just can't make those kind of comparisons easily with wine which is for me the only reason to score wines in the first place, because otherwise I don't see how recognizing that your claret is a 92-pointer is going to make drinking it any more enjoyable. I need scores for the comparison right now because I have not built up the large databse in my head of wines that I've tasted like I have with music and I'm still learning to understand the styles and sub-styles of the myriad appellations of the world of wine. Which rather begs the question: if I haven't built up this database, why fret over comparisons? Shouldn't I wait until I gain more maturity in wine? If at all, that is.

At the end of the day, all it is, scoring, is a crutch. Not necessarily for you or you or you, just for me, right now. It would certainly be very liberating for me not to score wines. I too often find myself in tastings worrying whether my scores are not too high or too low compared to my friends' scores or whether I'm not scoring the wines in the early part of the tasting too high and vice versa. It should really be all the proof I need that there's something wrong with scoring wines. That, and sheer number of notes where the score is fuzzy range (ie, 87-89) because I couldn't even nail the score to begin with. I used to think tacking a score at the end of the note would help me remember how good the wine was but I'm starting to realize that if the note can't tell me that, either the note or the wine just weren't memorable enough.

For Tomer Broude, a person I've met offline only three times but who has enriched my understanding of wine immensly over the last four years.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Bordeaux 2003 Tasting at WineRoute

WineRoute

WineRoute or Derech Hayain (hebrew site) is arguably Israel's largest wine importer. Of premium wines certainly. They were the first to offer a wide selection of Bordeaux and Rhone wines, the first to sell Bordeaux futures and the first importer to establish their own chain of wine stores. I've been a customer for 4 years, attending 6-10 in-store tastings a year. Their big drawback recently has been a growing monopolistic power that has allowed them to be less consumer-minded pricewise and a leaning towards big, Parker wines (which admittedly they've been selling by the truckload). Though to be fair, they had let my disappintment simmer for a year or so before coming out with a very fair priced new catalog with a lot of wines that seem elegant and food friendly, judging by the reviews.

Each year in July/August, they hold an annual Bordeau tasting of wines from the newly released vintage. For some reason, this summer they held a tasting of wines from the last few vintages and have only gotten round to an actual tasting of the 2003 vintage this month.

2003 in Bordeaux

You're here, so you probably know all about it, right? Hot vintage, big hype, prices continuing to spiral upwards.

The Tasting

Despite what I said above about WineRoute pushing wines with high Parker scores, the tasting contained little obvious blockbusters. One obvious observation was the low acidity; a more surprising one was a certain lack of body. Also, the wines were very fairly priced (I'm referring to off the shelf prices, before figuring in the tasting discounts).

Smith Haut Lafite Blanc, Pessac-Leognan

A high quality nose: ripe white fruit, toast, nuts, some sulphur. The palate is where it falls apart due to a lack of acidity and feels harsh. The nose in itself is a 92 but it's too bad the palate is in the mid 80's.

Cantemerle, Haut-Medoc

The nose is old-fashioned and earthy with a huge blast horse sweat over red fruit. The attack is tempered after time in glass. Tannic and rustic and the low acidity is passable. I like it more than the score suggests. 87-88.

L'Arrivet Haut Brion, Pessac-Leognan

A minerally nose with sweet black fruit. It's a touch brett-y, but it really leans more towards eastern spices. On the palate I find jammy fruit, an unyiedling tannic, minerally finish and a certain hollowness in mid-palate. More finesse than the Cantemerle but somwhat less interesting. 87-88.

Clos Du Marquis, St. Julien

The 2nd wine of Leoville Las Cases, of course, and one of the night's disappointments. Huge ripe and perfumed fruit on the nose, liquor-ish and jammy accents; then you feel the presence of the oak and the fruit receedes. Very modern, again lacks some body in mid-palate, with a tannic finish of decent length but no great interest. I can't really tell whether the lack of excitement is due to its youth. 86-87.

Les Ormes-De-Pez, St. Estephe

A leap in quality. A very elegant nose and good balance and acidity on the palate, fine tannins. Good concentration of black fruit with faint traces of brett. 90.

Rauzan-Segla, Margaux

A complex nose highlighting notes of minerals and espresso. Doesn't over-do the ripeness thing. Very savoury and appealing with fresh acidity. 91.

La Conseillante, Pomerol

Ripe and perfumed fruit of every color, mostly blue though, with flowers and meat in the background. Very concentrated, almost a block-buster, but comes away with a lot of elegance and balance. Elegant tannins. Really a delight and how I wish I could afford it. 93+.

Grand-Puy-Lacoste, Pauillac

Closed shut. The nose shows some candied fruit and flowers and might turn out to be on the jammy side. A long harsh finish. 92-93.

Lynch Bages, Pauillac

A very open and inviting nose with tons of espresso that is more than matched by the fruit. Complex and elegant. Still closed on the palate where the soft tannins worried me about its potential. 91-92

The neighbor on my right was surprised I picked the Grand-Puy-Lacoste over the Lynch Bages. While the Lynch bages is a very sexy wine whose appeal can't be ignored, I felt the Grand-Puy-Lacoste was holding something back and might be the more interesting wine in a few years, despites my concerns about possible jamminess.

Guiraud, Sauternes

I know 2003 is supposed to be an excellent Sauternes vintage, yet this is the second time I've noticed that botrytis or no botrytis, the sweet wines of Bordeaux can be as low in acidity as the red wines. A terrific, concentrated nose with hints of spices. The palate is almost syrupy, with enough acidity to offset the sugar but not very much left after that. A bit of a disappointment because of that low level of acidity but an excellent wine otherwise. 93.