Sunday, July 29, 2007

Connecticut Wines On Parade

Everyone knows that wineries are popping up all over the country these days. Same is true here in Connecticut, where we now have 22 wineries. I know that doesn't seem like much to those in most other states, but the growth has really accelerated in recent years and the quality is getting much better.

Consequently, Connecticut is now more actively celebrating and marketing this hip agricultural product. Connecticut wineries have put together the first Connecticut Wine Festival to be held next weekend. Visitors will be able to taste, side by side, nearly all of the wines now produced in the state.

Also, Connecticut magazine has just come out with a cover story on the state of local wines.

In the interest of full disclosure, I know the author of the story, Leonard Felson. Regardless, I have to recommend the story to anyone out there interested in learning more about Connecticut wines. While you might think Connecticut magazine would be a shameless booster for the hometown team, I think Leonard did a very fair, even-handed job. (My apologies, but you may not be able to read the full story online until the piece enters their archives in several more weeks.)

The story correctly points out that the growth of the Connecticut wine business owes much to the growing popularity of wine nationally for both health and lifestyle reasons. And, the story points out that Connecticut wineries face significant climate issues and obstacles built on perception.

But several people quoted in the story offer a point of view similar to my own last year when I blogged about my overall impressions of Connecticut wineries after concluding a summer-long tasting tour. That is, the quality of Connecticut wines has increased significantly in the past 10 years to the point that Connecticut's white wines are now quite credible. The reds, for the most part, are weak. A good one can be found here and there on occasion, but principally these come from the occasional dry year.

One promising note from the story -- several more wineries may be in the offing for Southeastern Connecticut. That's good news from my point of view because I think some of the state's best wines come from close to Long Island Sound. It has a microclimate similar to Long Island's, and that's a good thing. The benefit of this development can be maximized if Connecticut wineries stop producing what they are not good at and start concentrating on those varietals with the most local potential.

Regardless, I'm looking forward to comparing these wines again next weekend at the festival, this time consecutively in one day. Should be an interesting test of whether last year's observations continue to hold up.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Red, White and Green

Every time I pick up a wine publication these days it seems like there's something in there about organic wines or biodynamic wines. The June 30 edition of Wine Spectator had a pretty thorough look at the phenomenon. A recent CNN video explored the issue as well.

There is even a nice little journal out there devoted to the subject of organic wines. So, with all the attention now being paid to these wines I feel like I should be able to weigh in with some expert thoughts on the subject. But the truth is, I don't really know a lot about them. One of my goals for this year is to do more systematic tasting of organic wines and a lot more reading.

Trouble is, I think there are a lot of other people out there who also don't know a lot about organic wines, and it hasn't stopped them from blathering on. I think there's a real need for "reader beware" cautions.

For one thing, with the organic wine train really picking up a head of steam now, marketing efforts on behalf of organic wines are moving into high gear, according to Spectator. Announcements about winery biodynamics are coming all the time. Fetzer, one of the earliest California wineries in the game, has announced a $1 million campaign that includes a 30-city "green" tour.

Marketing always needs to be taken with a grain of salt. For example, Bonterra has a magazine ad that says, "Have you heard the buzz? Organic grapes make better wines." Really? I always thought that better winemakers make better wine. Those with the perfect soil conditions who practice time-tested techniques, such as low yields and smart canopy management, on old vines might just have the edge over a farmer who is green in more ways than one.

I've seen some people claim that organic wines will give a truer taste of terroir than non-organic wines. I don't really know if they do or not, but I do know that terroir is influenced by so many different factors and is still so hard for many consumers to get their arms around that I simply would ignore this claim for now.

In the CNN story already cited, someone said biodynamic wines make better wines and so should cost more. Whoa. Isn't that putting the cart before the horse? The market still needs to decide whether these are better wines before higher prices are justified. I might have bought the argument that organic wines should cost more because it's harder and more expensive to produce healthy grapes without chemical pesticides and fertilizers, but Spectator called that assumption into question as well.

Finally, reading some of the stories out there might lead some consumers to believe that buying any product from the wineries featured will get you an organic wine. But even some of the most lauded organic producers out there, such as Benziger, still only produce a tiny amount of organic wine. Consumers interested in organic wines simply need to get educated and be cautious about what they buy.

Don't get me wrong. I think the idea of drinking wine free of chemical pesticides and other noxious ingrediants is great. I can't wait to see which organic products rise up as the real cream of the crop. But, in the meantime, I hate to see anyone sucked in by gross hyperbole. Keep on reading and ask questions of your local proprietor. They should have all the "dirt."

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Wine Movies and Me

I have to admit I'm a sucker for any movie about wine, even if the early reviews are bad. Sometimes I'm delighted, but even when the movies are disappointing I never regret having seen a movie that has something to do with wine.

So, you can appreciate, then, that I'll be among the first in line to see "Bottle Shock," a new movie that will begin production in just a month or two. This film will tell the story of the legendary Paris wine tasting of 1976 that helped put California wines on the worldwide map, and it will do so by focusing on Chateau Montelena, which won top honors for its 1973 chardonnay.

Actually, I understand there are two movies in the works about the Paris winetasting competition, but Bottle Shock sounds especially promising with a cast that includes Alan Rickman and Bill Pullman. And, just to make a good thing even better, it was announced this week that Eliza Dushku will play one of the lead roles.

If you're not familiar with Eliza, she was Buffy's vampire-killing alter ego on TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and a serious hottie -- not that this was absolutely necessary to so inspiring a story. Let's just call it divinely inspired casting.

Anyway, the Judgment of Paris, as it's known, is one of those events of which you should be aware to be culturally alive. It's also a major feel-good story, a David vs Goliath story on a par with the U.S. Hockey team winning the gold in Lake Placid. OK, maybe that's a slight exaggeration, certainly in popular terms. But in the world of wine geeks there is no more important event.

Long story short: an Englishman, Steve Spurrier, put together a wine competition in Paris that pitted a number of California wines against a number of famous French labels. The judges were all French, and the tasting was done blind. No one seriously gave the upstart California wines a chance, but California won top cabernet (Bordeaux) and top chard (white Burgundy). I for one can't wait another year to see this movie.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Bastille Day Bordeaux

As July 14 is Bastille Day, yesterday seemed like a good occasion to dive into something French. So, I decided it was time to check again on how my mixed case of '95 Bordeaux is doing.

I picked out a '95 Chateau Pavie Macquin, a Saint-Emilion Grand Cru. This was a very well rated but nonetheless affordable Bordeaux from a great vintage -- so Pavie Macquin helped me round out a case of '95s back in the day when I was working in a wine store and used to get a deep discount.

I've tried others from this case in the past several years, and have generally found them delicious but still shy of peak. The Pavie Macquin, however, is drinking splendidly now and should not be held much longer. It's definitely got a silky texture and a fairly long, smooth finish. It's simply a real treat to drink right now.

It reminds me, in a way, of why I enjoy these wines with meals. It's certainly no blockbuster, with loads of extracted fruit or a muscular physique. It's simply a well-integrated, elegant wine with lovely, complex aromas of blackberries, vanilla and even a bit of mushroomy, truffly earth. It was a gracious, harmonious partner to our filets.

Those who know their Bordeaux wines know the region of Saint Emilion produces merlot-based wines of great grace and distinction. The prevelance of merlot may help explain why right bank wines from Saint Emilion mature a little faster than most left bank wines. Pavie Macquin typically uses 70 percent merlot, some cabernet franc and just a wee bit of cabernet sauvignon. But if you think you know what a Saint Emilion wine tastes like on the basis of New World merlots, you couldn't be farther from reality if you tried. In fact, a side-by-side tasting would be very instructive.

As my friend Tony noted in the comments to my last post, it's hard these days to feel like Bordeaux is a good buy. But every vintage has a few bargains, and if you can find one, you definitely should go for it. These wines not only are enjoyable, they're a good reminder of how refreshing subtlety and balance can be.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Take a Bite, and a Sip, Out of Crime

Of course you know that wine is good for your health. But did you know that wine can help save your life in more ways than one? This story was just too good not to share.

I know that wine always relaxes me. But I never dreamed it could calm down even the most hardened criminals. Is there no end to the benefits of wine consumption? Thanks to Emily for sending me this one!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Guzzlers Ruin A Good Thing

Seems like there's been a bunch of stories lately about bad behavior becoming rampant at local wineries. This week, The New York Times weighed in with a story about the problem at both Long Island and Finger Lakes wineries. Recently, the Wall Street Journal found it necessary to publish a story counseling tasters as to appropriate winetasting etiquette.

To be sure, some of the winetasting behavior reported goes well beyond rude into the realm of disgusting. One of the things I've enjoyed most about visiting wineries over the years is that you meet the nicest, most interesting people while learning about wine. But the epidemic of bad behavior is ruining the experience in multiple ways.

For one thing, wineries that charged little to nothing for the pleasure of tasting wines are now charging much more. Who can blame them? Free tastings have become a magnet to those who simply want to get drunk. Secondly, those who really want to talk and learn can't get the attention of pourers who have to watch the problem clients closely.

So, I understand the need to implement safeguards. But there's one so-called remedy hinted at that I hope wineries don't resort to -- that's the plastic, measured pourers that attach to the top of the bottle. Some wineries use them already, and I absolutely despise these devices. Wherever I've encountered them they seem to dole out only the tiniest thimble-full of wine, leaving the taster frustrated and desperate for a real sense of the wine's bouquet and taste.

I've done a lot of winetasting in my day, and I can tell you that I've never come close to feeling even slightly tipsy at a winery. Getting a decent pour is not about getting big, feel-good gulps. It's just a matter of getting enough wine to swirl in the glass and swish across your palate. I have had pours from these plastic devices that provided less than a spit, with virtually no detectible aroma in the glass.

So, winery owners, please, please don't subject your respectful, paying customers to this indignity. Charge more if you have to, throw out anyone you don't like the looks of, but please don't ruin the winetasting experience for those of us who love wines as much you do.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

A Season Made For Malbec

Finding a good wine to go with the grilled foods of summer is not rocket science, though some people seem to think so. All that's required is that you find something to complement the extra smoky complexity that foods acquire while broiling on the grill.

Did I say "required?" That's to appease the purists. All you really have to do is find something you like. When it comes to matching a wine with grilled meats, I like the smoky flavors of Rhone wines. You don't have to get expensive either -- many inexpensive Cotes du Rhones work quite nicely. Some of the more complex California zinfandels do as well.

Adding a barbecue sauce to your meat? I might then switch to an Australian shiraz because most will work well with the sugar in the typical barbecue sauce. Trying some lighter things on the grill like chicken or fish? Then it's hard to go wrong with a dry rose from France or Spain. Or, how about a sparkling rose? That's a wine, if ever there was one, that adds a refreshing note to dinner on a hot summer day.

But recently I tried a different wine with grilled foods that had my palate dancing a jig. It's a 2005 Viu Manent Reserve Malbec. I've had this wine once or twice before, but when I paired it recently with both grilled beef and chicken I was doubly impressed.

The Viu Manent first offers a wonderful nose of blackberries and plums with just a hint of earth -- perfect for enjoyment before the main course arrives. But give it 30 or 40 minutes and a leathery, smoky scent emerges that makes it the perfect companion to your grilled meal. It also has a rich, smooth finish that is quite enjoyable -- you won't find yourself wishing you had saved it for a cold winter night.

Best of all -- it sells for about $14 a bottle. Now that's cool.

South America and Argentina in particular seem to be saving malbec from obscurity. One of the five red grapes typically blended into red Bordeaux, malbec adds a rich, dark color and spice to these blends. But it never made its mark as a varietal until the wineries of South America got their hands on it.

The Viu Manent hails from Chile, not Argentina. But I doubt you'll find many malbecs better in this price range. All I know is that I have a new tool to add to my grilling arsenal. Summer never tasted better.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Red, White and Gold

I was delighted to read yesterday Dr. Konstantin Frank's Finger Lakes winery is swimming in gold for the 4th. This wonderful New York State winery took home the most gold medals of any winery this week at the Great Lakes wine competition in Michigan.

Hopefully, events liked this one will help convince the few skeptics left out there that the Finger Lakes region is producing some world class wine. I try not to put too much stock in wine competition medals, but the degree of success enjoyed these days by Dr. Frank is telling. They've been doing vinifera longer than anyone else in the Finger Lakes and it shows.

We were very impressed by Dr. Frank's wines when we visited in May, an occasion I blogged about soon afterward. But I have to confess to something here and now. I never tasted the 2005 cabernet sauvignon that just won double gold.

I advised, in one of my recent posts, that you're better off skipping the cabernet sauvignon at any Finger Lakes winery if you have a limited number of tasting choices. Most lack sophistication and body. I still think that's sound advice overall, but I'll admit you may miss an occasional jewel following this advice.

If you're willing to taste a lot of bad cabernet in the hopes of finding the occasional terrific one, go for it. I have to admit I'm curious as hell about the Dr. Frank cab I passed up, though I certainly don't regret tasting the others I chose. I wonder where the bulk of their cabernet grapes hail from?

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Anything But Petite

Petite syrah has always been a bit of an enigma to me. Generally, the petite syrah I've had has been good, enjoyable to drink. But I've always struggled to pin down its identity, like trying to come up with a description of a completely average-looking individual.

I don't mean average in terms of quality. I just haven't been able to recognize a signature style or profile -- I couldn't pick it out in a blind tasting, for example.

The French must have felt similarly, since petite syrah has been given the cold shoulder in France for eons. Petite syrah is actually a grape grown in the Rhone region of France called durif. Durif is a clone of syrah that is the result of an effort to come up with a mildew-resistant varietal. Despite its inky dark color, the grape wowed no one in France, and it's almost non-existent there today.

Petite syrah, however, seems to do better in California's dry conditions. That's why California petite syrah today has legions of fans. Still, after trying a handful of petite syrah over a period of many years, I wasn't getting the passion or the devotion.

But a wine I had last night gets me a lot closer to understanding the fervor. I opened a 1997 Turley Wine Cellars Rattlesnake Vineyard Petite Syrah, and, no doubt about it, it's a big wine. A big Napa Valley wine. It's amazingly dense and concentrated, with peppery blackberry aromas. There was also just a bit of cocoa and alcohol on the nose -- this wine comes in at 15 percent alcohol. While this wine has a reputation for being quite tannic, the 1997 is drinking well right now -- the tannins have smoothed out and there's just so much body.

Turley Wine Cellars, run principally by Larry Turley, brother of the renowned wine consultant Helen Turley, has gained a reputation for making some of the best zinfandels and petite syrah around. Helen Turley's stamp is evident. The petite syrah is so dense, so well extracted that it's easy to see why it sells out quickly each year. It's really a wine built to impress the tasters. But is it balanced?

Hmmm. As much as I enjoyed the experience of tasting this wine, I'm not sure I'd seek it out again. I'm still not sure what foods to pair it with, and I have a better sense of what to expect from other varietals in this price range. But it is a fun, conversation-provoking wine.

If, like me, you're located on the East coast, you won't find it easy to obtain. Almost impossible, is more like it. I picked it up while on a trip to California in 1999 -- demonstrating why you've got to walk the wine if you really want to explore the world of wine. The Turley petite syrah was just under $50 when I bought it, but it goes for about $70 a bottle today. Not a cheap conversation-starter.