Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Cork As A Green Solution

I read a story just the other day that struck me as a bit much. Apparently the wine cork industry, and some environmentalists, are urging wineries to get back to using good old fashioned wine corks because it's the environmentally responsible thing to do.

Cork, as most people know, comes from trees and is a biodegradable, renewable resource. It's naturally appealing to environmentalists. Problem is cork is far too often tainted with TCA, ruining the wine. With many wineries eschewing cork in favor of screw caps as a result, the cork industry now warns that not only will this natural stopper be replaced by synthetic products in the waste stream but that cork forests themselves may be forced to give way in favor of less environmentally friendly development.

With cork manufacturers hit rather hard in the pocketbook in recent years, forgive me if I'm cynical about the professed environmental concerns of corkers.

I'm very sensitive to environmental concerns in general. But my opinion about cork vs. screwtops on wine bottles remains unchanged: I think every bottle under $10 should have a screwtop, wines over $20 should always have real cork, and wines $10 to $20 are up for grabs. One other hard and fast rule -- the industry should move completely away from synthetic corks, which are environmentally unfriendly and difficult for the consumer to use.

The Genie has been let out of the bottle as far as screwtops are concerned. There's no going back. They are so easy for consumers to use and free of cork taint. But, because no one knows yet just how these stoppers will impact the long-term aging of wines, and for aesthetic reasons, cork is a must for ageworthy wines.

Instead of using scare tactics, the best thing the cork industry can do to slow this trend is improve the reliability of its corks. That's one thing I was glad to read of in the story mentioned above. The industry already has implemented measures that are resulting in more reliably taint-free corks. Perhaps this alone will help slow the trend toward screwcaps. But, as I said, it's too late to stop it. And I, for one, don't think that's a bad thing. I hope both screwcaps and cork will be a part of our wine-drinking future for a long time to come.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Summer of Sauvignon Blanc Love

Sorry about the lapse in postings lately. But vacation is winding down, and I now have a chance to reflect on one our two recent tasting experiences, including some thoughts about one of my favorite summer wines -- sauvignon blanc.

One of the most poorly kept secrets of the past decade has been the superior quality of the sauvignon blancs from New Zealand. While some critics continue to sing their praises in an unrestrained fashion, I have been disappointed to learn that others are now noticing more mediocrity in the New Zealand wines they are tasting.

Whether this is due to a less exuberant 2006 vintage or to a more serious issue, I'm not really sure. But it's definitely not time to hit the panic button, if for no other reason than that the success of the New Zealand style is helping to usher in new levels of quality and tastiness in sauvignon blancs from many other locations, such as South Africa and Australia.

For example, I recently was impressed by a sauvignon blanc from Australia, the 2004 Jinks Creek Winery. While many think that this "sunburned country" makes only ultra ripe shiraz and cabernet very well, the reality is that Australian winemakers in the past decade have been nailing down which wines do really well in a variety of microclimates and terroirs. And, sauvignon blanc, it turns out, does extremely well in some areas of Australia.

The Jinks Creek sauvignon blanc is a delicious example of what Australia can do, with its rich tropical fruit, grapefruit and herb flavors. I found it less grassy than others, but truly enjoyable. The vineyard is located at the foothills of the Black Snake Ranges in Victoria's West Gippsland region. The granite soil, low yields, cool weather ripening and cool fermentation all combine to make a wine with real purity of flavor.

So, the good news is that there continues to be more and more options available for finding great examples of this perfect summer wine. And, bonus for those who enjoy great label art, the Jinks Creek wines feature the art of Australia's Esther Erlich.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Gout Festival 2007

You probably missed word of this event in the blogosphere or the local newspaper. Actually, this is a very localized event, one that started recently among family and friends in our neck of the woods. If you are susceptible to gout or know someone who is, then you probably know lots of shellfish and lots of wine can be a formula for bringing on a gout attack.

But, as many of us know, there are risks in life well worth taking and indulging copiously in lobster and wine is one of them. After all, even Robert Parker suffers from gout, but you don't see him giving up wine and good eating, do you?

A clever niece of mine came up with the name for the festival, which included lots of lobster in drawn butter, baked stuffed shrimp and mixed seafood salad (preceded for some of us by oysters on the half-shell). Festival goers were supplied with T-shirts, in a color scheme well suited to hiding flying lobster juice. It was an awfully satisfying event.

So, it seemed like a good time to build on last year's research as to what white wines go best with lobster. So, I again trotted out a white Burgundy, which I thought paired just as well as ever with the lobster. The flavors work pretty well with lobster in butter, but the magic is in the textural match. Good white Burgundy has a creaminess that goes so well with anything in a butter sauce.

We also had some Champagne with the lobster, some Veuve Cliquot to be exact. This also was a very tasty match -- of course, good Champagne goes well with almost anything. Recently, I also tried a Chateau Routas Coquelicot (a chardonnay/viognier blend from the south of France) that was quite nice with lobster. This wine brings together the body of the chard and the floral notes of the viognier, making it so much fun with lobster.

But the wine I recently tried with lobster that really shone was an Alsatian pinot gris, the Domaine Zind Humbrecht Heimbourg 1999. Just lovely with lobster. This wine has the richness you need with lobster in butter. And, the natural sweetness of the lobster meat was heavenly with the slightly honeyed citrus quality of the Heimbourg.

I don't know if the Heimbourg is the perfect lobster wine. Probably not, since that would mean an end to this most enjoyable little research project. We can't have that, just yet.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Pinot With A Difference

I adore pinot noir of all stripes, be they from Oregon, California or the heart of Burgundy. I even like some of the simple but gregarious pinots I've tried from New Zealand. But I confess I'm having a tough time getting my arms around the pinot noirs I've tasted from the Loire Valley.

Everyone knows the Loire produces sensationally crisp white wines (sauvignon blanc) in Sancerre and Pouilly Fume. They are just so enjoyable. How could I possibly pass up a pinot noir from this unique area of France? Well, I now have tried red Sancerre (pinot noir) several times, and each time I've been unimpressed. I may have to take a pass next time it's pitched to me.

This week I had a Pascal et Nicolas Reverdy 2004 Sancerre Terre de Maimbray with dinner. It came highly recommended. I knew from past experience not to expect too much fruit, and not too much body, with its 12.5 percent alcohol. But, from the first taste, I knew it's not a wine for me. It's not a bad wine but not one that most Americans would embrace. I've just come to expect so much from pinot noir that I can't get excited by this ultra lean version of the grape.

The Sancerre was a little light in color and a little bit thin on the palate with tart red cherry flavors and just a bit of earthy complexity on the finish. But there was also just so much acidity on the finish that this earthiness was quickly lost. It was not especially good with our grilled chicken as well.

Pinot noir doesn't have to have rich ripe flavors, ala California, to be good. I'm completely in love with the dry, complex flavors of good Burgundys. But pinots just don't seem well suited to the flinty Loire soil to me. Maybe some day I'll try some that will change my mind, but I'm not sure how long I can keep going to that well. In the meantime, I'm sticking to the places that do pinot noir justice.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Connecticut Festival Off to Shaky Start

Most of the wine writing out there is...well, nice. Sometimes too nice. You hardly ever see the kind of caustic, flaming prose typically used by movie reviewers applied to wine reviews. It's probably analogous to the difference between spectator behavior at football games vs. country club sports such as tennis and golf.

Wine writing can especially descend into boosterism when it comes to writing about small fledgling producers or up-and-coming wine producing regions that face steep obstacles to gaining critical acceptance and market share. I try to maintain a critical eye, and palate, when it comes to evaluating local wines, but I find myself nonetheless pulling for Connecticut's wine industry, which is better than ever but still has a way to go.

I was thrilled recently to hear that Connecticut was about to trumpet its up-and-coming wines with the first ever Connecticut Wine Festival. But I'm afraid I just can't be a cheerleader for the event I attended yesterday. I know a first-time event of this kind can have a few rough spots, but I was extremely disappointed in the way it was run and in the people responsible for some of the bone-headed decisions I witnessed. And, I would not recommend it to any locals in the future.

First, the festival offered tickets in advance on its website for $5 less than the price at the door. I tried to purchase tickets online for two days prior to the event, and could not get the right page to open. When I arrived at the door, I thought they might honor the online price when I explained the issue, since they evidently had problems. But, no.

When I explained the issue to the manager he could not have been less friendly or accommodating. "We shut it down because we had to move it to another server." He did not elaborate, but that, I guess was supposed to explain it. Not, "I'm very sorry, but we had technical problems that shut us down." I might have been sympathetic in that event. Just, we decided to change servers -- two days before the event. I suggested the customer-friendly thing to do would be to give us the online price anyway, but no. The people taking tickets "are audited. They can't take a dime less." It was a very bureaucratic experience.

I then took my premium tickets in hand and marched off to the first tent where I discovered that I was entitled to taste wines from exactly five of the 17 wineries there. That was news to me (you can bet the first thing I did when I got home was doublecheck the website, where I saw no mention of a limit. $25 is supposed to allow you taste from all the wineries present). This struck me as the very height of cheapness. I've been to a fair number of wine festivals in my day, and I've never seen the like before. One admission fee usually covers winetastings -- period. Granted admission fees are higher elsewhere, but you can taste more than 100 wines if you like. Only the food or gifts cost extra. Here, we would have to buy extra tickets to taste more than a handful of wines -- what a racket!

Perhaps they were concerned about guests getting inebriated? I doubt it. Again, bigger and better festivals don't seem to have these issues. I chalk it up to greed.

Also, each and every winery was offering a tasting of exactly three wines. This, of course, greatly limited the choice of varietals that one could taste. From what I saw, the wineries for the most part offered their three most popular varietals but not what might be the most interesting varietals to experienced tasters.

In addition, plastic measured pourers that attach to the top of wine bottlers and dispense such small tasting samples were in use everywhere. I hate those things. I find it very hard to get a good sense of the aromas with the samples they provide, especially served in the cheap glasses they hand out at the gate.

As for the wines, I made an effort to try a couple of new wineries that were not around when we did our Connecticut wine tour a year ago. I saw some potential in them, but like most new wineries, their wines just aren't all there yet.

Three wineries I've liked in the past, Stonington, Hopkins and Sharpe Hill, had very good wines as usual. But the winery that really was the most refreshing was Chamard. I get tired of singing their praises because they are so often praised in the local media. But they really are good at what they do. The chardonnay and the rose were the best among all we tasted. And, our pourer took great care to explain the characteristics of the wines and the growing conditions for each vintage.

When my wife complimented her for the job she did in talking about the wines, she explained that it's essential because so many people come in expecting a California-like product and that is the yardstick they use to judge the wines. She wants people to know that Connecticut and the Northeast makes a different product because of its different climate, one that shows varied but very worthwhile flavors given what winemakers have to work with. If they understand the wine in its correct context, they'll likely enjoy it more.


Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Wine Labels Soon To Speak Volumes

Some newly proposed regulations out of Washington would require wine and beer makers to include alcohol and nutrition information on their labels for the first time, and some are beginning to squawk about it already. But I say, relax.

As reported, the new rules would require labels to divulge levels of alcohol, carbohydrates, protein, fat and calories for the product inside. You might think that wine labels already include alcohol content, and the vast majority already do -- all you have to do is look for it. But only those wines with a hefty 14 percent or more are actually required to display that information.

Winemakers can't help themselves in opposing this proposal. They've been saddled with such a widely divergent set of regulations from state to state and from Washington for so long they are naturally wary.

But I say the proposal is a natural outgrowth of an ever-growing need for information in the consumerism era that winemakers should come to grips with. Think about it, winemakers already have to disclose 14 percent or higher alcohol levels. Where's the harm in putting lesser amounts on the label? It's actually a selling point with purists today.

Consumers want certain information with which to make buying decisions, and winemakers ought to give it to them because they have got nothing to hide. You mean there's really calories and carbohydrates in wine? Oh my. It won't cost wineries a thing in the end, but it will, for example, inform diabetics better about how much they can imbibe with their dinner.

Where I have sympathy for the wineries is their fear about how the proposed regs could be manifested. Huge letters and numbers on the front label, for example, is not necessary. But readable numbers on a back label is not draconian.