Sunday, November 26, 2006

Tis The Season For Syrah

For years, our little tasting group got together semi-frequently to indulge in and analyze particular varietals or the wines of a region or country. But then I started working on my master's, and there never seemed to be enough time -- until now. I'm happy to report our group got together again recently for the first time in two years. And, did we ever have a great time comparing wines made primarily from the syrah grape!

We've taste-tested a lot of varietals over the years, but it occurred to me we've never really explored syrah-based wines before -- we came close three years ago when we did a tasting of numerous Rhone wines. It also occurred to me that syrah is a wine I turn to often this time of year when we're having stews and lamb dishes.

So, for this tasting we decided to compare syrah-based wines from California, Australia and France. As is often the case with our little group, there was a clear cut favorite for the majority of our tasters. And, it was a last-minute addition that, surprisingly, blew me away.

We always have a warm-up wine to get things started, and on this night we got things rolling with a 2005 Gigondas La Cave Rose. Though syrah is not the dominant grape in this wine, it was a special way to kick off the evening because it was carried back from France recently by our friends Tony and Kristen. It's not something we can typically get around here -- a real treat. It had perhaps the prettiest bright red/pink color I've ever seen in a rose and intense cherry/strawberry flavors that finished dry and spicy. Very, very tasty.

The real tasting began with California, and we were fortunate to have a couple of gems also not typically found around here. We started with a 2004 Lost Canyon Russian River Trenton Station Syrah. This wine comes from a small, high-quality producer (only about 200 cases of this wine were made), but I was nonetheless ready and waiting for a California fruit bomb. Instead, we got a mouthful of black pepper with rich blackberry fruit following close behind. This was a very interesting and enjoyable wine showing real meatiness.

The next wine was a 2002 Tablas Creek Syrah from Paso Robles. Again, nothing simplistic here. The Tablas Creek was a rich mouthful of wine with lots of black cherry, licorice and just a bit of pepper with a pleasant acidic finish. Despite 14.5 percent alcohol, we all agreed the wine was well integrated, balanced.

Everyone's familiar with the ultra ripe flavors of inexpensive shiraz, so for our tasting I was after a more distinctive taste of Australia. We found that in our first Australian, a 2000 Penfold's St. Henri Shiraz. This was my first taste of this premium label from Penfold's, and it did not disappoint. Less than half as expensive as Penfold's better known monster premium, Grange, St. Henri is supposed to be a more restrained and elegant version.

It is indeed more restrained and, in my opinion, still quite tight. I found it quite Bordeaux-like, with bitter chocolate and mocha notes. This wine needs a few years to really soften and show its stuff. I'm not sure it has the body its big brother boasts, but it's a very serious food wine.

The next Aussie wine, a 2002 Brothers in Arms Shiraz, was the near favorite of many. It's an interesting wine in that it expresses the commitment of a growing number of Australian artisan winemakers who are striving to produce shiraz that exhibits lots of terroir. Hailing from South Australia's Langhorne Creek, this wine shows beautiful, complex flavors of blackberries, smoked meat, rosemary and pepper. Its rich, slightly sweet fruit flavors stay in balance, making it perhaps the best sipping wine (without food) of the bunch.

Where to begin, regarding the next wine. The 2001 Mas Cal Demoura L'Infidele from Coteaux du Languedoc blew my socks off -- I certainly never expected anything quite so dramatically good from the Languedoc. It was the clear favorite of 5 out of our 8 tasters -- all the men and one woman. Those who didn't vote it best had to admit it was a lot of wine, just not the style they prefer. You see, it was a virtual explosion of barnyard aromas, from freshly tilled earth to soggy, ripe cow pasture.

OK, I know some people might regard this kind of barnyard experience to be more stinky than pleasurable -- a flaw. But there's no denying it's a big wine for under $30. And, the barnyard quality will fade after an hour or two. Then you can look forward to mushrooms, earth, leather, lead pencil and anise. How many wines can say that?

For our last wine, we again tasted a 1996 Paul Jaboulet La Chapelle Hermitage. We tasted this wine together three years ago, and it was my favorite of the evening. The most expensive wine in our lineup, it's still got some good stuffing, but I did not find it as intense as I remembered it. It has very nice earthy, mushroomy flavors with just a bit of pepper on the finish. Really, it was quite nice, especially after 20 minutes in the glass, but I think it suffered from following the L'Infidele.

Based on some reviews I've read I gather I'm not supposed to like this wine. But I have no trouble recommending it to others -- it's still a class act. But I'm not sure if I can recommend buying any of the current vintages at about $120 a bottle, when there are wines like L'Infidele available for a whole lot less.

Our conclusions: syrah does, indeed, make great world class wines that belong on your dinner table. But you don't have to spend a fortune for great ones, unlike cabernet. The two best loved wines of the evening were the two cheapest at about $28 a bottle. Very cool.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Giving Thanks for Pinot

It's that time of year again, when wine writers and bloggers love to blither about their choice for the "perfect" Thanksgiving wine. I get asked by friends for my thoughts on this subject every year at this time. So let's get this on the record here and now. Pinot noir. In fact, if the pilgrims had pinot noir on the table for that first Thanksgiving celebration, relations between settlers and native Americans might never have soured!

I've heard every kind of Thanksgiving pairing imaginable suggested by the so-called experts. Let's be clear -- there is no concensus. It shows how inexact and personal the choice really is. So, instead of trying to recommend the "best" Thanksgiving wine, it's probably more helpful to explain why pinot noir is my favorite Thanksgiving wine.

Cabernets and zinfandels simply have too much alcohol and tannins to match well with the white meat on a turkey, which is what most people reach for. But I've seen both wines recommended for Thanksgiving. Wall Street Journal wine columnists Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher, whose column I love, by the way, have advocated pairing a well-aged cabernet with turkey because the tannins have been defanged by time. Maybe, but I don't think it's practical. Most people don't have well-aged cabs on hand. And, I just don't think classic cab flavors marry well with poultry.

Others like whites with turkey. It can work, but you've got to be careful here. Some whites can seem overly acidic once you bite into some of those sweet sidedishes. Riesling, chenin blanc and some pinot gris can work fine. But turkey is not chicken -- it has more character and body (however you look at it). I think a red complements the flavor of turkey better, not to mention savory stuffing and gravy.

So, what wine works best with game birds like duck or turkey? Pinot noir, of course. A friend of mine at the wine store where we once worked used to say, "finding a wine to pair with turkey is not hard at all. It's all those candied yams and cranberry sauce that screw it up." That is, indeed, the rub. But I think many people hyperventilate needlessly over this challenge.

If pinot noir works perfectly with turkey, as I believe it does, stick with what works but deal with the sweet potato onslaught by choosing your pinot wisely. With sweet sides in mind, Thanksgiving is one time I don't want an earthy complex pinot like Burgundy or even a dark Russian River pinot. Instead, I want one with jammy red fruit, like those often produced in Carneros. Perfect, perfect example -- Etude. Too pricey for your budget at about $45? There are others more affordable that are just about as good.

That's what works for me. But tastes are so different that in big family gatherings you're never going to get everyone on the same page. It probably makes sense to offer family members both a white and a red. The important thing to remember is that there are no rules in your house but your own. And, oh yeah, have a happy Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The High Cost of Higher Education

Long ago I attended a winetasting at someone's house that was emceed by a local retailer. We were tasting Tuscan wines, always fun. But, I quickly became nervous when I found out we would be asked to confidentially score the wines and then reveal our scores and talk about them -- something I had not previously done.

Immediately, an instinctive drive to avoid outlier status took hold of me. But it didn't last long. I was an outlier, alright, consistently scoring the wines lower than all others but one. I found suddenly that I didn't mind not being part of the pack. I simply couldn't understand scores of 95 or 96 given by some others to simple Chiantis.

Only when we got to the last wine, a Brunello, did I give up a 90-plus score -- and discovered to my amazement that some others had given it an 82. It was puzzling at first, but I soon discovered the reason -- many of the others had never had a $30+ wine before.

I'm not denigrating these people, but I bring it up to make a point -- you can't really judge how good a wine is unless you have the context or framework of experience to do so. Of course, you can judge whether or not you like a wine, and for some people that's enough. But to understand and appreciate true quality and value, you've got to taste a wide range of stuff.

A post on Vinography the other day got me thinking about this. Alder was exploring whether mega-expensive cult cabernets, some of which top $400 a bottle, are worth the money. It seems that recent tastings by some of the so-called experts have found some expensive cult favorites a bit lacking. But in other cases, these expensive gems really rocked.

I'm a big advocate in indulging in the good stuff now and then. The idea is not to emulate the wealthy but to be privy to what the wealthy know, which is how great wine really can be. Otherwise, how do you know?

Of course, great wine does not always come in expensive packages. We all scour the wine mags looking for the next 1996 Chateau St. Jean Cinq Cepages at $27 bottle. And, even if we're not buying the "wine of the year," there's a lot of great stuff out there for an affordable price.

But there are experiences that can be had only by splurging once in a great while, whether for a great Barolo or a first growth Lafite or a Mouton. Thank goodness I splurged on some of these before the 2000 vintage drove the price up around $300 to $400 a bottle. I have enjoyed Lafite once and Mouton several times, all close to $100 a bottle. Let me tell you -- they were truly worth it. The memory is always there when tasting other Bordeaux and cabs.

I have even paid a little over $200 a bottle twice in my life -- you can bet I sneaked those into the house. One was a 1989 Chateau d'Yquem. I haven't opened the '89 yet (I've had lesser vintages), but I enjoy every day knowing that one hell of a tasting party is waiting for me -- I just don't know exactly when yet.

The main point is most of us will never be able to afford or find a Screaming Eagle, but if you don't occasionally reach for the really great ones you'll always wonder. And, if like some tasters, you find expensive wines are not all they're cracked up to be, just consider it the high cost of higher education these days. You're guaranteed to have more fun than you did taking a college exam, and that cost a whole lot more.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

And the Winners Are

What better day to look back at my experience on the Connecticut Wine Trail this year, to assess the winners and losers, than the day after mid-term elections nationally. Don't need any voting machines nor will there be any recount...for this ballot of one.

And the winners are:

Best Wines -- Chamard. For many wine fans in this area, this comes as no surprise. I even admit this is a boring choice, since Chamard has long been regarding as the best in Connecticut by critics and consumers alike. Up and down their lineup, you'll find balance, depth and decent complexity. I wanted to upset the apple cart and swoon over someone else's wines just to shake things up. But I couldn't do it. Chamard still rocks.

2nd Place -- Sharpe Hill. I love this winery for its lovely ambience but also for the strength of its white wines. There are so many strong white wines, from two wonderful but different styles of chardonnays to a very nice riesling to their signature Ballet of Angels -- a slightly sweet but citrusy delight.

3rd Place -- McLaughlin Vineyard. I almost went with another winery here, but I think McLaughlin deserve cudos for what they've done with their Vista Reposa wines -- perhaps the best cabernet franc in the state. There's terrific complexity in these wines. To be sure, there are a couple of misses in their lineup, but I just loved the Reposa and have to give them credit.

Honorable Mentions
The Connecticut Wine Trail is boasting something on the order of 19 or so wineries in the state, and I can definitely recommend a visit to about half. Actually, virtually all of the wineries have something nice to offer. You're going to meet committed, enjoyable people at nearly every Connecticut winery.

When I say I can recommend visiting perhaps half of them, I mean that roughly half make wines that I would buy. In addition to my three favorites listed above, Hopkins, Haight, Stonington and Jonathan Edwards all make wines worth trying. There were some clear disappointments. Some small operations have not yet found a way to meet the challenges of Connecticut's weather, making thin, unappealing wines. I found one well-known winery with a great reputation for making sweet wines subpar overall, with a couple of exceptions in the dessert wine category.

But the good news is that just as the quality of winemaking everywhere has greatly improved in the last 10 to 20 years, Connecticut winemaking overall has come a long way. Ten years ago I would have recommended two out of eight (25 percent) Connecticut wines. Today, I can recommend just about half of almost 20.

Lessons Learned
Once again, I find what's true for other locations is true here -- microclimates rule. I found the best Connecticut wines can boast vineyard origins that benefit greatly from microclimates. Whether it's close proximity to Long Island Sound (ocean) or Lake Waramaug, factors that help delay the onset of frost and mitigate the heat of summer make for better wines.

Experience also counts for a lot. With one or two exceptions, I also found that those winemakers who have been in business the longest make the best wines.

In the end, there's no guaranteed formula for finding wines that will please your palate. You have to get out there and find what you like. Perhaps my impressions will sync up with your own, perhaps not. But I hope my reviews over the past four months will provide some assistance. Just a word on scoring -- wine reviews that use the 100-point scale actually judge wines on a 40 or 50-point scale. Wineries get 50 points just for showing up. The other 50 points have to be earned. I followed the same model. The wineries that truly impressed earned 15 points and up on my 20-point scale.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Land of Nod

For our last stop of the season on the Connecticut Wine Trail, we visited a young winery in Canaan, Conn., called Land of Nod. There's no doubt it's quite modest compared to some of the state's more accomplished wineries, but suprising things can sometimes come from simple, unpretentious sources. Sometimes, but not often.

The Facilities
Just four years old, Land of Nod resembles a garage operation more than a full-fledged winery. Of course, garage wineries in some parts of the world are regarded with awe for the outstanding, high-quality wines they produce in an unassuming, no frills environment. That is not the case here.

Don't get me wrong. Land of Nod has done a nice job decorating with handcrafted vines and antique phonographs, for example, but we're still talking about your basic garage with little in the way of tasting room conveniences to create a nice ambience that helps make the experience fun. The tasting bar is small, and there are no tables at which to sit and sip inside -- there are a few outside. I give the facilities a 3 out of 5 score.

The Staff
Our pourer was the mom of the winemaker. Affable and knowledgable, she was a very pleasant host who was able and ready to answer many of our questions. Only in a couple of instances was she stumped. And, she had a knack for making you feel really welcome.

Overall, we had an enjoyable conversation with our pourer, if not a truly illuminating one. I give the staff a 4 out of 5 score.

The Wines
The lineup at Land of Nod is limited, and the wines demonstrate some of the awkwardness that comes from youth and inexperience. Evaluating the winery's potential was made more difficult for us by the fact that their white wines are sold-out for the season. So, we tasted only reds, which are the most challenging wines for Connecticut wineries to make.

2005 Pinot Noir -- I was initially tickled by the red cherry and licorice nose, but a heavy dose of residual sweetness made this a disappointment. This wine lacked balance, making it a poor food wine, in my opinion. I wondered how they are able to do pinot noir at all in the Northwest part of the state, until I learned that they are able, as a young winery, to purchase up to 75 percent of their grapes from somewhere else.

2004 Cabernet Franc -- I thought this wine was truer as a varietal, though it was a bit thin and underripe. It had a slight raspberry nose and a bit of spice, but little body.

Raspberry Dessert Wine -- Made entirely from flash-frozen raspberry fruit, this was a simple sticky that could be nice over ice cream but was a little cloying as an after-dinner drink.

The wines in general lacked the sophistication and the range to compare favorably with many of the state's more accomplished wineries. As a young winery, they have a chance to grow and mature, but a tasting experience here presently leaves a little to be desired. I give the wines a 4 out of 10 score.

A visit to Land of Nod can be a pleasant outing for anyone in the area anxious to get a taste of what local farms can do. But more seasoned winetasters will probably find more to offer elsewhere. Land of Nod's overall score comes to 11 out of 20.

NOTE: While most reviews tend to look only at the wines, I believe visiting wineries is as much about an "experience" as it is about the quality of wines. Wineries probably get more tourists than wine geeks for visitors, and I think they're looking for a combination of comfortable, wine-focused facilities, knowledgable and passionate staff, and enjoyable wines. So, I'm assigning scores to each winery on a 20-point scale. 5 potential points for enjoyable, mood-enhancing ambience; 5 for knowledgable, enthusiastic staff; and 10 for quality wines. The scores are purely a result of my personal judgment; I have no relationship to any of the wineries.