Saturday, January 28, 2006

Sweet Surrender

This time of year, is there anything more enjoyable than indulging in a vintage port, a 10-year-old (or older) tawny port, a madeira or an oloroso sherry? Partaking in any of the above can be like wrapping yourself in a warm comforter on a cold night, or sitting down with friends for a meal of comfort food. These winter-friendly fortified wines not only delight the palate, they warm the soul. Of course, they're good any time of year, but their charm is never greater than it is right now.

I usually put away the lighter dessert wines until spring, but there's one I think deserves continuing attention whether it's winter or spring. I'm talking about tokay from Hungary, an often overlooked dessert wine classic. With its rich flavors of honey, apricots and macaroons, it's an absolute charmer but interesting as well. Unlike the other wines I've mentioned, it's not fortified. It's a botrytised wine, but its deep amber color and rich flavors give it snowshoes -- it'll help get you through the storm.

Consequently, I was intrigued and excited when a trip to one of my favorite local wine stores this week steered me to a tokay from an Australian winemaker, R.L. Buller & Son, for under $14. Nate at the store joked that Parker gave it a score of 110, but that's not too far off. This sticky apparently did get a 95 from WA and 91 from WS. It practically jumped into my hand.

When I finally got it home and into a glass, I was delighted at its rich butterscotch, burned sugar and caramel flavors. But, alas, it's not tokay. In fact, not much like the nuanced flavors of the real deal. But, I was not hanging my head because it did a fine imitation of a very nice tawny port. So, if you like rich, eclectic wines, it might not be the bottle for you. But it's a pretty terrific, inexpensive wood-aged, port-style wine that will help you pass the night cozily.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Winetasting Primer

Having just done a wine tasting festival weekend, I was impressed by this Boston Globe piece on what not to expect at a winefest, and how to get the most out of your wine tasting experiences in general. He's definitely on the money -- don't go to a winetasting festival thinking you're going to discover the subtle nuances of hundreds of wines.

Definitely a good idea to limit your tasting in some way, perhaps wineries you're unfamiliar with or varietals about which you want to learn more. For me the real value is in the seminars. In addition to last weekend's pinot noir seminar, we indulged in a little workshop about blending wines. Most people probably have no idea that the cabernet or merlot they drink likely has other varietals blended in, probably grapes from other regions and even a little bit of juice from other vintages. Other blended varietals, for example, often add strength to the varietal on the label.

An exercise in wine geek minutia? Not really. As we juggled three different liters of wine (petite verdot, syrah and petite sirah) trying to decide what percentage of each to use in creating our own wines, our winemaking guide helped us see the hidden flaws in our final products. It drove home the lesson of balance. Blending for immediate oppulence often won't get you ageability, an important consideration if you're looking for wines for the cellar.

Best advice the author has to offer -- get to know a wine shop proprietor and indulge in frequent, more manageable tasting opportunities. It's not exactly hard work, and you'll learn loads.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Power of Pinot

For some people pinot noir is chic and trendy. For others of us, it represents a decade or more of infatuation with a bewitching but elusive prize (I've been haunted by the intoxicating perfume of several vineyard-designated pinots and woefully let down by other thin, tart versions). In any case, a Sun Wine Fest seminar devoted to the "holy grail" of wines was just what the doctor ordered this past weekend.

The seminar was led by Fred Dame, one of just 73 Americans to earn the title of master sommelier and the first to pass all three parts of the exam in just one year. Fred is a witty, personable guy whose enthusiasm for the grape is absolutely infectious. His seminar covered a lot of the basics, e.g., briefly covering the history of Burgundy and pinot's notorious quirks, which have driven many a winemaker absolutely crazy.

Fred's basic approach was to examine eight different pinot noirs representing eight different microclimates and compare the differences. As I said, it was a great deal of fun and the pinot refresher was good. But bad pacing left little time to give each of the eight wines their due. And, while we did talk a little about the distinctive characteristics of some of the wines, I was a little disappointed we did not really get at the distinguishing characteristics in more detail. I was also slightly disappointed that some of the hottest appellations, such as Russian River, were not represented.

I did learn a few lessons. For example, of the two burgundies we tried I preferred the Cote de Beaune, much better known for white burgundies, over the Cote de Nuits. It was more elegant and perfumed. I also loved a pinot from New Zealand. While it's still very early in the pinot game for the kiwis, Fred said he thinks they will be a force to reckoned with. Almost all of New Zealand's pinot plantings are no more than 6 or 7 years old. Look out when they really reach maturity, Fred predicted.

Here's a rundown of what we tasted by region:

Cote de Nuits, Rene Lequin-Colin: Nuits-St-George "Les Brulees," 2003. Tart red cherry with an earthy undercurrent. A bit tight.
Cote de Beaune, Joseph Drouhin: Chorey les Beaune, 2003. Floral bouquet of rose petals and violets in an elegant style. It may not hold up as long as Les Brulees, but it is sweet right now.
Oregon, King Estate, 2003. Nice black cherry fruit with a brown spice aroma and a long finish.
New Zealand, Brancott, "Terraces Estate," 2003. Spicy black cherry with a sweet vanilla finish. Red candy.
Sonoma County, Clos du Bois, 2004. An enjoyable red raspberry nose that also included a bit of cinnamon and other brown spices.
Napa Caneros, Etude: Caneros, 2003. Lush, red cherry and raspberry flavors in a smooth, silky style. It was the favorite of most and I certainly enjoyed it, but dare I say it's short on complexity for the price?
Sonoma Caneros, Buena Vista: Caneros, 2004. Definitely more black fruit and some smoked meat aromas.
Central Coast, Wild Horse, 2003. I've had this before and it surprised me because I don't remember it being this enjoyable. Very nice, simple red fruit package.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Heck of a Fest

Just got back from the Sun Wine Fest at the Mohegan Sun casino here in Connecticut. While the crowds were a bit daunting, I was amazed at how good natured were those we ran into -- sharp elbows and all. We came across people from France, India, California and the Midwest. While some were overwhelmed by all the choices and the people, it was good vibes all around -- especially while nibbling scallops and lobster risotto, or lamb and garlic-mashed potatoes.

The ones who often don't seem to know what to make of it all are the media. The local paper's coverage was not bad overall, but it does indulge in stereotypes. Apparently, if you want to talk about a wine's earthiness or excessive use of oak you're a snob. In reality, I found the pourers and lecturers more than willing to answer questions at any level, recognizing as many of us do that enjoyment of the wine can be enhanced by paying attention to its components, such as earthiness. Oh well.

We spent most of our time in a couple of seminars (more about these later), but while browsing through the convention room we decided to focus on some things we hadn't tried before -- passing up some very reliable but readily available wines. One exception was Gruet, a New Mexico sparkling wine maker that I praised on New Year's Eve and have tried a number of times. Disapppointingly, they were not pouring the blanc de blanc, but the brut was as terrific as ever. I also found out that the lovely Nathalie Gruet, whom we met in '98, is in training for a triathlon and is in killer shape.

A couple of nice wines we tried came from Heck Estates in Sonoma. The Lake Sonoma Dry Creek Valley Fume Blanc '03 had wonderfully zesty aromas of grapefruit and lemon meringue with the bright acidity born of stainless fermentation. I chuckled as our affable pourer evoked the name of New Zealand (style), an understandable nod toward the success that are upstart New Zealand sauvignon blancs. At $14.99, a delicious find. Their Valley of the Moon Pinot Blanc '04 was darn good too, with wonderful pear and mellon aromas. Another good buy at $14.99.

Another wine that worked for me was Villabella Valpolicella Ripasso 2000. I've never found Valpolicella an especially noteworthy wine, so I was caught a little off-guard by the rich black fruit and raisin-like aromas that wafted up from the glass. The ripasso method, giving the Valpolicella some time on the lees of full-bodied Amarone, apparently results in a hybrid wine of sorts, richer than typical Valpolicella but cheaper than Amarone.

Speaking of Italians, I was really surprised and delighted by a barbera/nebbiolo blend, Fontanafredda Eremo '03. For $14.99, this wine has loads of lip-smacking fruit but with a smoky complexity that has got to come from the 30 percent nebbiolo. I've got to find this one soon.

And, I was also delighted by a New Zealand pinot noir that truly helps answer the question of whether New Zealand can really make respectable pinot noir. The Brancott Terraces Estate '03 pinot noir was outstanding, full of rich plum, black cherry, cassis, and spicy oak aromas. This wine compared very well to the California pinots we tasted, and they were no slouches. I promise to blog more about the pinot tasting, but I had to single out the Brancott right away for the great value that it is.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Grazin' in the Sun

California has its zinfandel festival. Massachusetts has the ever popular Boston Wine Expo. And, I'm delighted to say that we here in Connecticut can wring some darn good juice out of the month of January with the Sun Wine Fest.

It's just the third time the Sun is hosting this extravagent affair, and this weekend I'll be getting my first taste of it. Of course, you know I'll be reporting on it here. Don't expect the kind of detailed reviews you get over at Alder's Vinography blog about the zinfest (geez, I can't believe how thorough). But I'll do my best to bring you news of any great finds and some local color (in purple prose, of course).

For those of you not familiar with Connecticut culture, Sun is shorthand for Mohegan Sun, one of the country's most successful casinos -- named for a local Indian tribe. You might not expect a casino to be a seat of culture, but with Connecticut's major cities continuing to struggle more and more, events from concerts to large cultural festivals now belong to the state's two mega casinos. No matter. We don't need no stinking palace of fine arts.

I'm of two minds about these festivals. On the one hand, you find a lot of things you don't normally see -- an important goal of walking the wine. But, on the other hand, a warm, cozy environment it's not.

But the wokshops, not the great halls, are where I find the real value in these things. This year, we're signed up for a pinot noir seminar and a seminar on wines of Paso Robles. Having toured vineyards there is '99, I know I'll be enjoying myself. Stay tuned on exactly how.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Hormones vs Wine

I read Alder's latest post with incredulity and a chuckle (for the art work, not the crime). How does this stuff happen around wine? Unless someone refuses to share, of course. But oenophiles not share? It's just not done.

I wonder if there was another person involved. You see, I remember something similar, though far less lethal, happening in connection with the wine store where I once worked. About 10 years ago, I was basically moonlighting at the wine store. When I showed up at the store for my evening shift one night, I noticed Andrew, one of our young full-timers, was sporting a nasty shiner.

Two days earlier all of us had gathered at the owner's house for a cookout and wineout for the staff. We were all there, including Andrew and another full-timer named Richard. It was a fabulous day full of sirloin steaks, pate, Krug Grand Cuvee and Leoville-Barton. It was enough, I thought, to put even the most foul-tempered hothead into a pretty relaxed mood.

However, shortly after the wife and I left for the evening, Richard decided to head out as well, but he was having trouble finding the date he came with. After searching thoroughly about the house and grounds, it became apparent to Richard that Andrew was nowhere to be found, either. Now, if wine can make one happy and relaxed (works for me) I suppose it can make others bold, even foolhardy. Richard, you see, was on the burly side while Andrew's boyish good looks were supported by only a modest, underdeveloped frame.

There was nothing wrong with Richard's arithmatic (1+1=2), so he headed off to the girlfriend's house where he observed familiar faces through the window. He knocked, vigorously, of course. He may have even shouted something. Andrew, for some bizarre reason, opened the door. Andrew had no more than an instant to recognize Richard's snarling features before a fist came through the screen, knocking him on his ass. Voila, black eye.

I've often thought that these two louts gave a bad name to winedrinkers. But stories like this one remind me, hormones trump wine, every time.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Drawing a Blanc

If there's one varietal I've come around on 180 degrees it's sauvignon blanc. When I first started getting excited about wines roughly 15 years ago, my taste for whites then ran toward the big flavors of California chardonnay. I was convinced sauvignon blancs had little to offer. I WAS WRONG.

Perhaps my tastes have grown up. Perhaps there are more amazing sauvingon blancs available these days. Perhaps both. But I continue to be impressed by the range of flavors winemakers manage to wring out of this grape. Consequently, I was not surprised when Wall Street Journal wine writers John Brecher and Dorothy Gaiter, in their recent looking-back-at-'05 column, recommended sauvignon blanc as one of the solid areas into which consumers could plunge without trepidation because there are so many consistently good examples out there right now. Incidently, Brecher and Gaiter have the best wine column out there for non-experts, but WSJ sadly does not make it available online.

It also was no surprise to me when a group of friends and I recently had a winetasting and were bowled over by the sauvignon blancs. We tasted three, each done in a very different style. While it was definitely a case of different strokes for different folks, we all agreed there were no weak, wimpy wines in the bunch.

2003 Henri Bourgeois les Bonnes Bouches Sancerre
This Bourgeois is classic Sancerre, showing off straw and mineral notes with a crisp, slightly lemony finish. This Loire Valley white was the preferred style of at least two of our tasters, and we agreed it's a terrific match for any white fish or shellfish.

2004 Ferrari-Carano Fume Blanc
This wine is a good example of many, though not all, California sauvignon blancs. With six months of barrel aging, the wine's melon flavors worked in tandem with nutty, spicy oak notes on the palate. It was no one's absolute favorite, but it was by no means dissed. A richer style of sauvignon blanc, this white would go well with chicken or fish accompanied by a full-flavored sauce.

2004 Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc
Everyone was knocked out by the huge citrus flavors of this great white from New Zealand. While not everyone's favorite style, there was no arguing that this wine is packed with bright lime, grapefruit and mango flavors. I adore the bold flavors of the New Zealand style and its vibrant acidity, and Kim Crawford is as rich as any for a moderate price ($20). I'd consider serving this wine with lemon chicken, chicken and pasta, or almost any fish dish. Or, it would make a hell of a resfreshing summer quaff.

Friday, January 13, 2006


Savvy and adventure-seeking, that's me. At least according to a brand new survey, that's me and countless other wine drinkers. Hmmm. Trying a year-old Beaujolais Nouveau is as adventuresome as my wine-swilling friends get. They certainly don't do this.

So, if we're not exactly into pulse-pounding thrills, what does this survey really say about wine fanatics? What is it that's different about us? I have a couple of friends with a quick response to that one -- effite snobbery. But the wine geeks I know are not like that. There was a time in this country when you were considered a snob if you knew anything at all about wine. Not true of most European countries and, thankfully, no longer true of the U.S.

So, if it's not a penchant for danger and not the desire for elitist stature, what then? I think it has to do with a shared philosophy that transcends mundane matters such as politics. Some people even think wine had something to do with the birth of philosophy. Apparently, college courses are now looking at this question (now I know I live in the wrong part of the country).

Turning to the survey again, wine drinkers stand out from other Americans in valuing new experiences, following their own path, desiring intangibles, and having their life priorities in order. OK, this can get overstated a bit. Neurosis does exist in the wine community. But, in general, I've never met a more content bunch of people than those gathered around a great wine. Could it just be the simple pursuit of pleasure, rather than some pretentious philosophy at work? Sure, but I'm convinced the simple pursuit of pleasure encourages a lust for excess not typical of wine drinkers.

Wine is, on the one hand, hedonistic pleasure but also the solder of strong community. Thomas Jefferson knew this. "No nation is drunken where wine is cheap, and none sober where the dearness of wine substitutes ardent spirits as the common beverage" -- Jefferson.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Original Zin

In the wine world, January is a time for pruning the vines or simply sitting back and relaxing with a nice port or some other zesty red. But I was delighted to read there are those who prefer not to let January get the best of them. In fact, they have turned January into red zinfandel month.

I admire their pluckiness in the midst of the winemaking doldrums. I also love the sound of this festival because it celebrates an often underappreciated wine grape.

Zin is a grape of mysterious origins that has sometimes been call "America's grape" or "California's original red" -- irony already noted. But what's important to remember is that it does so damn well in California and it does virtually nothing anywhere else, despite its ancient European roots. So when I heard a loopy group of Californians was turning January into a tribute month, I had to raid the cellar to get an early start and join in.

I opened a Seghesio Sonoma Zinfandel'01 and got lost in the rich blackberry aromas with their enticing peppery notes. This winery churns out terrific zins year after year for just under $30. At 14.9 percent, the 2001 is a bit high in alcohol, but there's plenty of fruit here to keep the wine from turning hot on the tongue. It's also not too briary, just delicious.

Of course, Ravenswood remains among the nobility of California zinfandels. You can't go wrong trying virtually any of Ravenswood's vineyard-designated wines. In 1999, we were lucky enough to get a private tour of Ravenswood while on a Napa and Sonoma tour. From the barrel samples and special bottles we tried I was astounded by the consistency and quality. Wish I had some now, as most are available around here, but I'm fresh out.

For a fine low-cost alternative, I've still got a bottle or two left of a case of Renwood Sierra Series Zinfandel '02. This wine is really smooth and fruit forward. It is so versatile, I've had it with nearly everything and loved it, from pizza to quesadillas to barbecue. For $12, it has become one of my favorite mid-week wines.

There are many terrific zins out there to try. Don't overlook them. Watch out for those that are too high in alcohol, a notorious trait of zins in general. They can be too hot and one-dimensional. For this reason and a lack of overall elegance and complexity, zinfandels can get knocked around a bit by some wine writers. Not as bad a beating as merlot took in Sideways, but bad enough.

Don't be talked out of the fun. Zinfandel, usually, is simply a concentrated, fruity and spicy red that makes food pairing so much less stressful. Missing out on great zin is simply a sin.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Not Ready for Primetime

One of the great joys of keeping a wine cellar, even a modest one, is to watch and taste the progress of some terrific wines over time. I don't really get to indulge this pleasure very often --my budget does not allow me to buy ageworthy wines in much quantity very often.

But I was lucky enough to be working at a wine store when the '95 Bordeaux were released. With the help of the employee discount, I put together a mixed case of several well-rated Bordeaux. I first dipped into my stash two years ago, definitely too soon for this excellent vintage. Today, for a family gathering, I couldn't resist opening a 10-year-old Chateau Kirwan to go with our steak Diane.

It was a terrific pairing, the dijon sauce-drenched grilled steak danced marvelously well with the smoky, spicy black cherry flavors of the wine on the tongue. But, the more I examined this wine in the glass the more it was obvious to me that these '95s need more time. This well-structured wine remains a bit tight and the fruit, hidden. I plan to give the tannins at least a couple more years to settle down before reaching again into this particular case.

Even if I was rushing things just a bit in opening the '95 Kirwan, it was fun -- like watching a top baseball prospect play a Double A game knowing what the future will likely bring. Of course, many wine collectors live in fear of waiting too long and missing the fruit in its prime, but there's no need for any such fears yet with the '95s...I think, I hope.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Spanish Conquest

That's me. I'm a conquest, a convert of sorts to Spanish wines. I recall 10 years ago trying a few quaffable but otherwise undistinguished Riojas sporting dry, dusty tannins. But if you haven't tried a Spanish red in the past four or five years then chances are you don't know what Spain truly has to offer.

The wines coming out of Priorat and Ribera Del Douro these days are often phenomenal. These wines wowed my friends at a winetasting we hosted at our house a couple of years ago. More about these wines another time.

I really want to talk about my nomination for best-value wine out there right now, Borsao. I can't really call Borsao a fresh discovery, as I've been drinking the $7 Borsao Campo de Borja for at least 5 or 6 years. A blend of tempranillo and garnacha, it's got generous gobs of red cherry and raspberry fruit, especially in good vintages. And, it hits just enough black fruit notes and acidic chimes to keep it from being overly simplistic. The current vintage really should be in your cellar or closet for mid-week meals or light weekend dinners.

But, newfound delights for me are the other Borsao bottlings that now appear to be widely available. Under $15, they still represent great values and are downright delicious.

The Borsao Crianza 2001, currently available, is a bigger wine than its $7 little brother and it has marvelous balance and complexity. The garnacha and tempranilla in this baby get some added muscle from cabernet sauvignon, without getting overpowered. I enjoyed the complexity and length of this wine, made from mountain-grown grapes.

But, best saved for last, you simply have got to run out and get some of the Borsao Tres Picos, if you have not already tried it. 100 percent garnacha, the 2004 vintage is a real fruit bomb that is amazingly aromatic and concentrated for the price.

In my experience, wine stores tend to have pet wines they love to push, which are usually quite good. But it seems like every shop I know is celebrating this wine lately. Do yourself a favor and get to Spain, in spirits if not in body.

Monday, January 02, 2006

This Does Not Compute

I saw this story the other day, and it made me cringe. Don't get me wrong. I'm not usually suspicious of scientific advances, so harnessing computer science to aid the winemaking process can be a good thing. After all, such techniques have helped make today's wines the most consistent quality-wise of any era.

But, while we can all celebrate consistency, many wine geeks worry that it's coming at the expense of unique, even quirky styles of wine that often represent the truest, most noble expression of the crushed grape. They argue that if the floor has been raised, the ceiling has been lowered. I think this concern gets exaggerated sometimes. But parts of this story give me pause: "One company, Enologix, of Sonoma, Calif., takes juice samples from grapes, analyzes them and, using proprietary software, recommends how to make wines that please leading critics." Now, I'm all in favor of using technology to help prevent or repair imperfections in wines. But striving for homogenized, popular wines is not an ideal I can embrace.

We already have a glut of wines made by mega-producers in the style popularized by Parker. What can we wine consumers do? Try reaching for wines made from more obscure but distinctive varietals, such as nebbiolo, tempranillo, or grenache. Or, look for the wines of a quirky winemaker known for making high-quality but unusual stuff. The market will get the message. Unsure what to ask for? Just ask your wine proprietor. He or she will love the chance to talk about something other than chardonnay or cabernet. You may find a few not to your liking, but, have no fear, you'll be glad you did.