Sunday, February 25, 2007

Rust Never Sleeps

"Define botrytis," I asked a wine buddy while we drank a half-bottle of Suduiraut 1997. Because I can recognize it but I can't verbalize what I'm sensing and I thought, time to learn a little.

He thought a minute and said "rust". I'd heard rust used to describe young Barolos and this same friend used it several times to describe red wines. I know what he meant, though, and I can generalize it for the kind of wines my friends and I love. It's in the way certain wines don't need to be smooth and prefect. In fact, they seem to resist it. They have an X-factor to complicate things. Why do you think great wines have long, lingering finishes? Because they're dainty and polite?

Then my friend brought forth his own question to the table: "name the five greatest wines you've ever had". "You know, I don't really have have a large catalog of Great Wines That I Have Tasted. My answer would probably be somewhat naive." "Never mind, I just want to hear your answer".

So here's my answer. Pretty good wines, if I do say so myself, though the reason I chose them was because they were each a revelation at the time of imbibing.

Chateau de Beaucastel, Rouge, 1989

The minute I stuck my nose in the glass, I knew this was male-bonding wine, the reason we lay down wines to share with our sons. The brett is like drops of sweat on war steeds. It has the rust I was talking about but it caresses you on the palate like Otis Redding singing "Dock Of The Bay". Am I getting carried away? Of course I am. Wouldn't you?

Louis Jadot, Chambertin Clos de Beze, 2001
Louis Jadot, Corton-Charlemagne, 2000

Burgundy hit me bad. These were tasted at a Louis Jadot tasting. I had never tasted red Burgundies before and I couldn't believe the combination of power and silky texture. It's customary among Old World lovers to deride Jadot and I don't know if I'd feel the same way about them today but I owe these wines a debt (judging by the hole Burgundy ripped into my wallet, I'm sure my wife thinks I've paid it back already). I was only a carrier of the Burgundy germ for a while but a year later the disease erupted after I drank a bottle of one of Ghislaine Barthod's Premier Crus.

Chateau Rieussec, 2001

I couldn't write down a decent note for it three years ago and I'll be damned if I can re-create one now, from memory. I just know I want to go back and to that magical cloud again one day.

Domecq, Palo Cortado, Capucino, n.v.

It's labeled VORS but Domecq claims the juice is actually even older, over 60 years old. If Jerez had a Grand Cru system, this would be their Montrachet. I knew it was supposed to be quite good but I couldn't believe just how good it was. This wine actually deserves a grocery-list tasting note because there's just so many things going on in it, so many flavors. You can almost feel all the years it spent in the solera, all of that history; and I'm so glad I had it after drinking enough sherries previously to appreciate all its nuances.

Tasting Notes From The Rheingau Tasting at Giaconda, Feb. 22, 2007

Continuing my earlier post, here are the tasting notes.

Leitz, Riesling QBA Trocken, 2005

A very approachable and clear nose, ripe white fruit, some clementine, white pepper, minerals. Echoed on the palate, with a pleasant bitterness on the reasonably long finish. Quite a lot of wine for a QBA. 88+.

Peter Jakob Kuhn, Quartzit Riesling QBA Trocken, 2005

A terrific, complex nose, cooler than the first wine, more withdrawn within itself, that develops floweriness. It's got length and hints at potential - right now it's too frizzante. A teaser in a way. Forget the QBA label. 89-90.

Keller, Rheinhessen, Von der Fels Riesling QBA Trocken, 2005

Ignore the QBA label again, this is serious stuff. Flowers and oatmeal on the nose at first then develops minerals. Frizzante again. The difference in style with the first two is striking. 90.

Langwerth Von Simmern, Rauenthlaer Baiken Riesling Spatlese Trocken, 2004

Apple pie, pears, flowers and honey. Develops an intriguing herbal overlay. Frizzante again. Needs time. 90-91.

Langwerth Von Simmern, Erbacher Marcobrunn Riesling Kabinett, 2004

Similar to "big brother", but sweeter, less complex and less structured, but just soooo delicious. Quite tempting. 88-89.

August Kesseler, Rudesheimer Bischofsberg Riesling Spatlese, 2005

Aromas of tea and sweet spices, a bit candy-like but elegant for all that. Sweetness on the palate, counter-pointed by red apples. Solid length. 90-91.

Leitz, Rudesheimer Berg Rozeneck Riesling Spatlese, 2004

Very tight. I get petrol and yeasts on the nose. Fine structure, very long, pure and balanced. 91.

Leitz, Rudesheimer Berg Rozeneck Riesling Kabinett, 2005

Green and baked apples on the nose, with sweet spices. Very sweet. 89-90.

August Kesseler, Spatburgunder QBA Trocken, 2004

Alcoholic nose, medicinal/band-aid funk. Very green and not very approachable. Develops some candy, leather, sweat, spices. Has potential quality but dubious QPR. 87-89.

Peter Jakob Kuhn, Oesterich Lenchen Riesling Spatlese, 2004

Closed, cool, elegant. Very pure and clean on the palate. A bit of apples and petrol on the nose. Hard to get at and less approachable than the QBA. Can't score it but it's probably very good.

Jos. Christoffel Jr., Urzinger Wurtzgarden, Auslese, 1990

Wood shavings on the nose and lots of other things going on. Obviously a terrific wine. I can't fully decipher it but has matured wonderfully. I will have to get me a few. 92.

Keller, Rheinhessen, Monsheimer Silberberg Rieslaner Auslese, 2005

A fantastically refreshing dessert wine with ripe acidity. Complexified by a hint of mustard on the nose. 93.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Random Tasting Notes

I do try to avoid grocery-list tasting notes. Here are a few where I think I was able to capture the essance of the wines while making sure the descriptors are only supporting characters.

Deux Montille, Saint Romain, Les Jarrons, 2004

Buttery and pure Chardonnay fruit, with some mildly sweet spices, minerals, some smoke on the nose but it’s main appeal is in the mouth-watering acidity on the palate, with a zippy, almost pungent finish. I would have guessed Chablis in a blind tasting except for that happy, hyper acidity, which will either win you over or put you off. Score 89-90 (Sept. 10, 2006)

The following two were tasted at a Jacques Prieur tasting. This was the first time I felt I was truly able to 'get' the wines in a group tasting without being distracted.

Domaine Jacques Prieur, Beaune Premier Cru, Champs Pinot, 2002

Mostly red fruits on the nose, with some black, sweet spices, animalistic though not as overtly brett-y as the Echezeaux 2001. The palate is powerful and long, closed, not ready. A bit medicinal at first before it blew off. More communicative than the Greves 2002. Score 90. (Jun. 25, 2006)

Domaine Jacques Prieur, Beaune Premier Cru, Greves, 2002

The nose is very similar to the Champs Pimont 2002, with more nuances, greater finesse. Much more closed, too. Seems more complex and intellectual as well. Martin Prieur suggested it will be ready a year earlier than the Champs Pimont but my feeling is it should be the other way around. Score 91-92. (Jun. 25, 2006)

I think I will get better at this, but the following really conjures the memory of the evening which is all that should really matter.

Brundlmayer, Heilingenstein, Riesling, Lyra, 1999

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. Score 92-93. (Aug. 17, 2006)

I love Koehler-Ruprecht. The note really doesn't convery how much you can get lost in the nose.

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

The nose is very complex, nuanced and intriguing, maybe beguiling is the best word, full of various shades of fruit (from citrus to tropical), with various herbs that I really can’t tell apart but simply live in tremendous harmony with the fruit. The palate is less fleshed out and despite being obviously dry, you can feel the sweetness of the fruit. Very good length even now with grapefruit acidity. Score 91-93. (Dec. 3, 2006)

Tardieu-Laurent, Vacqueyras, “Vieilles Vignes“, 2001

Very promising nose out of 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 last tasting so drink now to 2010. Score 91+. (Jan 13, 2007)

La Rioja Alta, 890 Gran Reserva, 1989

Very classy. The nose is very complete, very complex, I’d even be tempted to say perfect, with secondary and tertiary aromas over mellow red Rioja fruit. The palate is still young but with great length and a rough rustiness lending great character. Score 93-94. (Feb. 3, 2007)

Friday, February 23, 2007

Avoiding The Bad Vintages

There are vintages every wine lover knows to avoid. 2002 in most of Italy and the Rhone Valley was such a year and if you love classic Old World wines, you probably want to avoid 2003 in Burgundy and Alsace as well. But not everyone avoids these vintages altogether. One common advice is that if you know where to look, these vintages are a bargain buyer's paradise, as some producers will declassify their premium wines into the second wines.

Now consider the reverse strategy used to market the second wines in great vintages: Buy the second wines because the quality trickles down the food chain. You can't have it both ways so sometimes I just ignore both hypes. Basically you should buy wines and not vintages, preferably wines you've tasted yourself. But it's not always possible to tastes each wine you buy so we all depend on reviews and scores and obviously you always find high scores even in off vintages.

So why avoid a bad vintage altogether?

It's all about budget. Most of us just can't afford the risk and critics have been known to be wrong. So we avoid bad vintages as a rule of thumb, taking the risk of missing out on hidden germs.

My favorite example is the Alain Graillot, Crozes-Hermitage, 2002. It scored 93 with a local critic (who scored most of the Chapoutier Hermitage Rouges 2000's in the upper 80's, just to put this score into context) and I and quite a few of my friends each bought a bottle. I've had it 3 times and it never scored higher than an 89, and even that was the first time I had it, when I was willing to give it the benefit of a doubt. Realistically it was probably an 87 or so and had my expectations not been unduly raised, I might have enjoyed it for what it was.

By the way, if you must buy from off vintages, at least buy from vintages whose weaknesses the local winemakers have experience combatting. In most of France, you're better off buying wines from cold years (unless there were huge hails or floods) than hot years and again I refer you to 2003 in Burgundy and Alsace. In Burgundy, some vineyard practices done by rote in preparation for usual cool weather left the vines more vulnerable for the heat stress while in Alsace, producers were allowed to acidify for the first time in years and I can't imagine it being handled with sensitivity under those circumstances.

The More Things Change, The More They... Change

A couple of years ago, I really loved d'Arenberg and so did a lot of my friends. There's a lot to commend in this Australian winery. Their wines have a sort of Old World savouriness with a New World gloss and they're very obviously high class. A wine buddy of mine once commented that if you're new to wine and taste their Footbolt Shiraz, you really think this as good as it gets.

But then you, well, move on.

Where I started to be disillusioned was when I opened their Custodian 2001 in August 2006. The Custodian is a Grenache and I'm a Grenache fan and it has short to medium term aging potential so it's a good wine if you're starting out and want to learn how wines age. 2001 was a good vintage down below thus it seemed like a good wine to stock up on. My tasting note really reflects how my tastes had changed:

Alcoholic nose. Ripe, candied fruits with spices and hints of roasted meats. Full bodied, almost sweet, but it withdraws within itself a little after a while. I’m moving away from this style but it's well made.

Of course, you'd need to compare it with my notes for the 1999, written 2 years previously:

At first, all smoke and sour-candy fruits. Then, opening beautifully after over an hour and a half in the glass, it turned into an elegant balance of smoky oak, black plums and ground coffee. High acidity, though not enough to mar the wine's elegance, medium-bodied, a strong, dry finish with bitter, slightly minerally notes.

The key phrase here is "opening beautifully". See, I just couldn't get excited enough about the Custodian in 2006 to think about it in those terms again. It was no longer a wine whose development in glass could captivate me. I look for wines to study so a very obvious wine has little appeal to me.

D'Arenberg makes well made wines that offer good value. If you're lusting after a Cote-Rotie, their Laughing Magpie, a Shiraz-Viognier blend, is a reasonable fascimile' albeit with a New World slant. Their various GSM blends likewise ape Chateauneuf and their 28 Road Mourvedre is supposedly a Bandol copycat. They even have Port lookalikes. Get where I'm going? They're a "me too!" operation.

Things came to a head a month ago when I brought one of their GSM's, the Ironstone Pressings 1999, to a friendly blind tasting. This is a wine that at least one of the present had raved about 4 years previously. I'd had the 1995 version at a similar age and really liked it at the time. And now? The bottle was still half-full at the end of the evening. It was well made and it wasn't an obvious block-buster, which the usual suspect for turning us off. We couldn't really understand what put us off but there it was, registering zero on our excitement scale.

I won't rant on about this. It's obvious we'd all changed. We're not the same people we were 3-4 years ago, we're looking for different things and the cruelest trick played on us is that, a couple of years into this hobby, your assimilation of wines shifts into 4th gear and your taste changes radically. And then you're stuck with yesterday's paper. But anyway, d'Arenberg had served their purpose well at the time, so thanks for ride, Chester Osborn.

(Having said all that, I admit I wouldn't kick their Dead Arm Shiraz out of my bed.)

German Wines - The Honeymoon Is Still In Progress

German wines are my new girlfriend.

Germany is a wine country I've wanted to get into for quite a few years now, but German wines were never extensively imported to Israel for reasons both obvious (it's not the most popular country in Israel though when you think about it, neither is France) and not so obvious (an appellation system that is hard to grasp; site names that are difficult to grok and pronounce; and local import laws that mean the good, low alcohol stuff can't legally be sold as wine). A few years ago I picked up a couple of bottles of Bassermann-Jordan 1990 Ausleses that knocked me out but that was more or less it.

This all changed this summer when a local importer called Giaconda opened its doors. Run by Anat Sela and Raphaella Ronen, Giaconda specializes for now mostly in German wines (plus one winery from New Zealand, due to the that Anat and Raphaella studied wine-making in Kiwi land). I should mention I am somewhat friendly with Anat and Raphaella so just to show how I try to remain un-biased, I will say that some of their wines are expensive and sometimes the comparisons to prices in the US and UK are not very flattering. Forget what you might have read about Germany being the last bastion of consumer friendliness!

But back to wine. Giaconda has an impressive freshman catalog with representatives from all the major German wine areas. And it's not just limited to Riesling, either. They import Schuerebe, Rislander, Pinot Blanc, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Noir. They hold monthly tastings (also not moderately priced!) and the cause d'etre for this post is a Rheingau tasting I attended yesterday.

Rheingau is the most historic, classic German wine region, popularly labelled the birthplace of Riesling. Sheesh, I sound like a tourist brochure, don't I? But ignoring the hype and some debate on the Rheingau's current rank among its peers, the Rheingau wines we tasted were hard, marrow-crushing proof of how sensitive vineyard and winery work allows terroir and grape to clearly speak out and how the winemaking tradition works with - and not against - diversity.

Every wine that evening told a different variation of a common story: quartz-like minerality buffetted by elegant, flowery fruit. I know, rationally, that I'm still courting and sucking up to Riesling and knowing this I take a step back and sense faults in specific wines (not to mention noticing the prices) but the big picture still takes my breath away. I drunk the wines while Anat lectured on specifics of technique but I can't connect the winemaking that brought forth the wine with the experience of the wine itself. Each wine was a living thing that existed outside the process that created it, for that moment anyway.

(As a sidenote, I definitely did not feel that way during the Nahe tasting last month but I did enjoy the Pfaltz tasting before that tremendously albeit in a more earthy way than the Rheingau tasting.)

People get into wine for different reasons and they stay there for different reasons and they get different things out of it. But can't it be summed up in those moments when the results of man working with and sometimes against nature just blow you away?


Why write about wine?

Obviously, not every wine lover feels a need to write about wine. I know a fair number of wine lovers, both online and offline, and only a minority write about it. Some probably worry they don't have the verbal skills and some don't think they have a great palate and some feel they don't have anything original or interesting to contribute. I'll be the first to admit I don't have a great nose or palate. I'm not one to pick out a slew of aromas and flavors in the wine I'm drinking; but I do have an awareness of the experience of tasting and drinking and how the structure of a good wine is the backbone of this experience and what happens when a special wine captivates us. And I believe I have an original contribution to make.

Furthermore, I think writing about wine is a strong way to cement the wine tasting experience. In the end, wine is a very ephemeral thing. You spend a hefty sum of money and lay down your wine for years and then wham! a bottle is gone within a couple of hours and all you're left with is the memory. It's not a book you can re-read at leisure. So I drink, I write tasting notes and re-read them late at night just like leafing through a photo album.

Why write in English?

As you can see in my profile, I live in Israel. However, though Hebrew is my mother tongue, due to certain biographical reasons, I do express myself better in English. It's the language I read in, it's the language of the rock and pop music I listen to.

Reason number two is I admit I want exposure. I don't want to limit myself to Hebrew speaking wine lovers. The local scene is rather small and the Israeli wine forums are very undeveloped (this should in no way be read as an indictment against the Israeli wine lovers themselves, who are usually very knowledgeable). Most don't have a strict registration policy and are thus a breeding ground for trolls. Anonymity on the web will bring out the worst in people.

So let's see how this viral blog thing spreads my thoughts around the globe and who knows, maybe in a couple of years, Robert Parker will buy me out, too.