Wednesday, September 30, 2009

News from Bordeaux

Harvest season is here. Two weeks ago, while I was in Champagne, vineyard workers were busy picking grapes, and winemakers had their hands full crushing the fruit. Now, reports, it’s Château Latour’s turn down in Bordeaux. One of the grandest of the First Growths, Latour began harvesting Merlot a couple of weeks ago, with an eye toward picking its Cabernet Sauvignon sometime around October 5th.

Below is a video that was posted on Decanter’s web site; that’s Penelope Godefroy speaking, Latour’s Quality and Research & Development Manager. Scenes like this are unfolding all over Bordeaux right now. Let’s just hope the weather holds.

On another Bordeaux note, Château Brane-Cantenac, which readers here know I’m very fond of, has a new label. Fans of the great Second Growth will notice that, starting with the 2007 vintage, the label is just a bit cleaner, with some of the information that had previously been on the front label now relegated to the back one. But it’s still the same general idea, with crisp black lettering set against the famous brushed-gold background. And the capsule, once red, is now black.

Below is a photo of the new label. For my tasting notes on other vintages of Château Brane-Cantenac, click here.

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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Time for Tokaji

For the first time since last year, the days have begun to get noticeably shorter, the weather cooler, and the wines I gravitate toward richer. And while I'll miss the warm, slow days of summer, I'm thrilled to be able to start drinking those bottles that didn't necessarily scream out to me when the mercury climbed past 90.

Sometime this week, I'll be popping open the season's first bottle of Tokaji. This isn't to say that I don't love these wines throughout the year, of course--I do. It's just that, as autumn settles in right now, I can't think of anything more appropriate than a nice glass or two of this Hungarian beauty.

To get you in the mood, take a look at the video below, produced by Wilson Daniels, on the wines of Tokaji. Better yet, uncork that first bottle of the season (either dry or sweet) and sip a glass while watching. It'll be an evocative and delicious way to kick off autumn.

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Friday, September 25, 2009

Champagne Pommery's Cuvée Louise

Over the course of the next several weeks, I’ll be posting tasting notes and video clips from my trip to Champagne. There’s a lot to go through, including impressions of dozens of wines and footage from all over the region.

Today, I’d like to focus on the wines of Pommery, particularly their tête de cuvée, the much-loved Cuvée Louise. It’s named for Louise Pommery, the great catalyst behind the initial ascension of the house and one of the most important of Champagne’s famous grandes dames. (Incidentally, for an excellent overview of Madame Pommery’s pivotal role in Champagne’s history, as well as an entertaining and informative look at the region as a whole, check out the book Champagne: How the World’s Most Glamorous Wine Triumphed Over War And Hard Times, by Don and Petie Kladstrup.)

The evening of our visit to Pommery, we were treated to a tour of the extensive caves and then a spectacularly elegant dinner, with Cellar Master Thierry Gasco, that featured four vintages of Cuvée Louise.

The silky, medium-bodied 1999 showed gently spicy caramelized pear notes, and, like a number of other 1999s I’ve tasted in the past year, was drinking beautifully ten years on. There was a hint of nuttiness, of course, but excellent acidity, and the wine as a whole is already perfectly integrated.

The 1998, on the other hand, was far more mature, despite being only a year older. It had more depth, more earthy detail, and the Chardonnay in it had begun to take on the telltale café crème character that well-aged ones so often do. This vintage, the first one served with the meal (the 1999 was poured before we were invited to take out seats), was a classic food wine in the best sense: When sipped alongside brandade with celeriac, fennel, and tender pieces of crab, notes of chanterelle and milk chocolate came out, bringing the wine’s richness to dizzying heights.

The 1995, on the other hand, could not have been more different with its creamy nose and mid-palate of rhubarb, sweet lemon, and melon. With all the fruit there, as well as the still-perfectly-calibrated acidity and excellent concentration, this vintage of Cuvée Louise still has a number of years left on it. And as delicious as it was, I’d imagine that it will continue to get even better with a bit more time in the cellar. As always, the strength of the 1995 vintage showed through brilliantly here.

We ended the dinner with the Cuvée Louise 1990 from magnum (as well as royal dorade with a gorgeous parmesan crème), and the combination of the larger bottle size, the perfect storage conditions, and the vintage itself contributed to the wine of the night. It was intensely concentrated and showed amazing grip, as well as a fabulous creamy nuttiness, hints of almond, café crème, vanilla custard, and cinnamon. Still, despite all its brilliantly evolved maturity, it maintained a real sense of liveliness, its laser-point bubbles and perfect balance utterly beautiful.
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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Wider World of Wine

The New York Times Food Section ran an interesting article this morning. Eric Asimov, their excellent wine writer, notes in it that “Wines from the Jura [in Eastern France] are among the most unusual in circulation, made from obscure grapes and offering unexpected flavors. One might even call them geeky, for good reason.

“Yet they are showing up in New York restaurants more often than their obscurity may suggest,” he continues, “as their versatility with food and pure, distinctive flavors have made them a darling of many sommeliers and favorites of the wine counterculture.”

And that, really, is the crux of the article for me: Not the specifics of the wines of the Jura (though they are more than worth a try, and certainly offer an abundance of their own unique pleasures), but the fact that there are still wines out there that most people have never tasted. Or, at the very least, have not explored in much depth.

Among many wine professionals, it has become a mission of sorts to introduce people to more of the less-known wines from around the world. For, indeed, we now have greater access to more of these less-familiar bottlings than we ever have before. From Cotes du Jura Chardonnay to German Spatburgunder to the wonderfully versatile dry Furmints of Hungary, the world of wine can be as rewarding, as unexpected, and as intellectually challenging (in a good way!) as you are comfortable with.

The key is to be open-minded, not married solely to the flavor profiles and textures that you’ve grown accustomed to, and willing to take a risk. The payoffs, as you might expect, are tremendous. And, more often than not, really tasty.
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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Second Labels

So-called second-label bottlings of great wines are nothing new. And, in fact, they make perfect sense: They’re a great way for producers to make the most out of less-than-perfect fruit, or of their vines that are just too young to plumb the depths of profundity that their more mature ones do. From a consumer’s standpoint, they often afford the opportunity to experience the general character of a great wine without the necessity of spending all the money that the big brother requires, or giving the juice as long a repose in the cellar before it’s ready to be enjoyed.

What is new, however, is the price being asked for some of these second labels, most notably Carruades de Lafite. According to a recent news item on, “Carruades 2008 is still at around £1,000 [per case], but it is predicted to keep climbing closer to the other first growths once in bottle.

“Gary Boom, managing director of Bordeaux Index, told, ‘Today a case of Carruades 2004 would set you back £1800, which is considerably more than the £1650 you would pay for a case of Mouton 2004.

“‘And this for a wine that cost around £280 at initial release. The 2008 may not climb as high as the firsts, but it is likely to go higher than Cos and the other Super Seconds.’”

So the question is this: Is the second wine of Chateau Lafite worth as much as, or more than, a bottle of top Second Growth like Cos d’Estournel, Leoville-Barton, or Pichon-Lalande or –Baron? Or, for that matter, a top Fifth Growth like Lynch-Bages?

It’s a tough call, and, like so much in the world of wine, a matter of personal taste. I’ve personally found that my preference is vintage-specific. For example, a recent bottle of 1996 Lynch-Bages was absolutely wonderful, but comparing it to the 2000 Carruades (opened at the same dinner) is unfair to both, since the latter was just starting to develop, even 9 years after the fruit was picked. It will be singing in another five to ten years. And give me a Leoville-Barton anytime and I’ll be a happy man.

So, really, it comes down to this: Drink what you love, try wines that you haven’t had before, and keep in mind that every vintage is different. And always look for opportunities to taste wines that are too young, at their peak, and slightly over the hill. It’s the best way to start building a sense of context for everything you taste, and you never know when you’ll find your next favorite bottling.
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Monday, September 21, 2009

Back from Champagne

I returned from France this past Friday, and have come away beyond impressed with what I saw and tasted in Champagne. From the most glamorous grands maisons to the most ardent grower-producers, this is a region of wonderful history, stunning beauty, and, it seems, better wines now than ever. Keep an eye out for videos, articles, and links here over the next several weeks as I transcribe my notes, edit my videos, and take stock of what was truly a remarkable experience.

In the meantime, a couple of items of note to start off the week:

This past Friday, Eric Asimov, the wine writer for The New York Times, ran a blog post on a climate-change study that has been conducted by Greenpeace. In it, he notes the report’s warnings on how rising temperatures can—and, in some cases, already have begun to—affect the great wine regions of the world. He writes:

“If climate change continues at its current pace through 2100, the report suggests, vineyards worldwide will be displaced by 1,000 kilometers to the north or south depending on which hemisphere they are in, and a swath of Mediterranean vineyards will be lost.”

Asimov continues: “The report pays particular attention to Burgundy, which has already felt the effects of a warmer climate. Around Beaune, the center of the Côte d’Or region, grapes were harvested generally 13 days earlier from 1988 to 2006 than from 1973 to 1987. Over the same period, the report states, the time it took grapes to progress from ripening to maturity dropped to 40 days from 50 days.”

And, finally, a birthday: Beaulieu Vineyards has released its 70th vintage of the highly regarded Georges de Latour Private Reserve, one of the great wines of California. (Click here for the press release on Reuters.)Year after year, this Napa Cabernet Sauvignon is a standout, and, in the way of great Cabs from all over the world, has the uncanny ability to stand the test of time. I’ve tasted bottles from 20 and 30 years ago, and have been very impressed by both their longevity and their ability to gain immeasurably in complexity and elegance. As one of the greats of the American wine industry celebrates this milestone, it’s worth taking note…and perhaps popping the cork on a bottle.
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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

An Afternoon at Champagne Jacquesson

We’ve been visiting a wide range of producers the past several days, from grands maisons like Pommery to smaller—but also stellar—grower-producers like Larmandier Bernier.

Yesterday, we spent the afternoon and evening at Champagne Jacquesson, whose philosophy is very different when it comes to their non-vintage bottlings: Rather than have a “house style,” they instead rely on the most recent vintage as the backbone of their newest release, each of which is given a number and built to reflect the best possible fruit that they have above all else. (We tasted Cuvee No. 732, for example, which is built on the 2004 vintage, and the Cuvee No. 733, which relies heavily on the 2005. And their vintage 2000 bottling is an absolute stunner.) They also do a number of single-vineyard bottlings, which were all excellent. I’ll post tasting notes here in the coming weeks.

Before the tasting and dinner, though, proprietor Jean-Hervé Chiquet showed us around the property, and, as has been the case everywhere this week, the grapes were coming in and being crushed. Check out the videos below for a look.

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Monday, September 14, 2009

Harvesting Grapes in Champagne

I arrived in France yesterday morning, and within three hours of my plane touching down at Charles de Gaulle Airport, I was in Champagne. The experience has been spectacular, from the wine itself (amazing bottles both young and old) to the food (rich and wonderful and perfectly paired with the wine) to the winemakers (friendly, gracious, and supremely giving of their time and knowldege). As much as I loved Champagne before I came here, I find myself even more impressed now that I'm walking around the region and speaking with the people responsible for it.

I just returned from a spectacular visit and dinner at Pommery after spending an amazing morning and afternoon at Champagne Leclerc Briant. This great domaine was harvesting and crushing Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier today from their Premier Cru, biodynamic Les Chevres Pierreuses vineyard in Cumieres.
They are reporting that 2009 is an excellent harvest, with very high-quality fruit and cooperative weather. The grapes that I've seen (and picked a few of today) are just gorgeous. Check out the video below for a look at how great Champagne starts its journey to the bottle, and keep stopping back for more details from my time here.

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Friday, September 11, 2009

Heading to Champagne!

Tomorrow evening, I’ll be flying to France. This time I’m heading over there on a press trip to experience Champagne at harvest time. Over the course of five days, I’ll be visiting Champagne houses (Pommery and Jacquesson among them), tasting the wines, picking a few grapes, and experiencing the wines with specifically prepared dishes at lunches and dinners.

And just like my earlier trips to Bordeaux and Austria, I’ll be blogging about it from there, taking tasting notes, and shooting plenty of videos to post here when I return the following week.

So keep checking back for updates—next week should be very interesting, indeed.
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Thursday, September 10, 2009

News from the World of Wine, in an interesting news item, reports that “France will return to being the world’s leading wine producer this year after losing its customary number-one spot to Italy, an Italian study said.”

The article continues, “France will produce 48.1 million hectoliters of wine in 2009 compared with 46.5 million by Italy and 39.9 million by Spain, according to a study published [earlier this week] by the Milan-based Italian Wines Union and state-run agricultural institute ISMEA.” Click here for the full article.

And in the new issue of the Quarterly Review of Wines, Serena Sutcliffe reports on the ever-improving state of the wines of Greece. She writes that “The innovations and improvements have been startling and these growers and oenologists have been fired with enthusiasm for modernization while respecting Greece’s formidable wine history.” And, indeed, if you can get past the difficulty in pronouncing some of the more challenging grape names (Moschofilero, Xinomavro), you’ll be rewarded with some truly remarkable wines. The full text of the article is available here.
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Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Reconsidering Petite Sirah

This past weekend, The San Francisco Chronicle ran a story on Petite Sirah’s uptick in popularity. And while some of the people they interviewed for the piece weren’t thrilled with its potential in single-varietal wines (for the record, I strongly disagree with that assessment), the fact remains that it provided some much-deserved attention for the grape variety.

Much of the article focused on its prowess as a blending grape; one sommelier, Erin O’Shea, said that “it’s always been there in wines you know and love, but behind the scenes.” And Glen Proctor, a grape-broker, is quoted as saying that much Zinfandel “wouldn’t taste like Zin without Pitite Sirah.”

But the comments about Petite Sirah’s potential as a single-varietal wine weren’t quite as overwhelmingly positive, a position I personally disagree with. In fact, last year, I had the unique opportunity to taste a number of back-vintage Petite Sirahs from the excellent Sonoma producer Foppiano—I built a tasting around them at the Wine School—and was thrilled with both the quality and range of expression of the wines, including the 1986, 1987, 1992, and 1993.

But even younger, easier-to-source bottlings can be wonderful. And, as the article notes, producers like Bogle, Concannon, and Parducci, among others, are leading the way to a Petite Sirah future of bold flavors, rich textures, and, quite often these days, elegance, too. The time, it seems, has come for a second look at Petite Sirah.
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Friday, September 4, 2009

Fire and Pinot is reporting that “investigators probing a huge wildfire that began at a vineyard owned by Constellation Wines believe a firework used to scare birds may have started the blaze.” It’s wildfire season in California, and, as always, the news is peppered almost daily with tales of acre upon ruined acre dotting the landscape. And, also as always, it is affecting the local wine industry, as well.

The story continued: “Nearly 6,500 acres…of grassland in an area northeast of Soledad were destroyed in the blaze, which started on 27 August and was finally put out on Monday evening.” More details will be posted here as they emerge.

Also this week, The New York Times ran a wine column and tasting-panel report on the Pinot Noirs of Oregon and, contrary to what usually appears in the press, it wasn’t all that exuberant.

“I will say,” wrote Eric Asimov, “that this was one of our more difficult tastings. While we liked many of the wines, very few grabbed and held our attention.

The wines that seemed most balanced and freshest lacked complexity, while those with more going on in the glass occasionally seemed clumsy or unfocused. The difficulty in finding wines that put it all together kept our scores relatively low."

He goes on to describe the differences between the vintages in general (2006 and 2007) and the wines tasted for the article in particular, but his conclusion is not as positive as I would have expected. I’d be interested to hear about readers’ personal experiences with Oregon Pinot Noir in the comments section here. Personally, I’m a big believer in them, and wines at all price points, from Torii Mor to Bergstrom to Antica Terra have given me as much—and often more—wine-drinking pleasure as anything else in recent years.

And speaking of great Oregon Pinot, click here for an excellent interview on Grape Radio with rising star Maggie Harrison of Antica Terra and cult Syrah Lillian. Her story is a fascinating one, and speaks not only to her own history, but also to the future of American winemaking.
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Thursday, September 3, 2009

Chateau Lafite 1975

This is the second installment in what will be a continuing series of reviews of Chateau Lafite throughout the years. My last tasting note was for the 1966 and is available here. This one, though, focuses on the 1975, which is one of the most unexpectedly profound wines I’ve ever tasted. Its shows a sweet, floral nose leading the way to a dried-fruit and –flower mid-palate tinged with fresh raspberries, leather, and earth. You can feel this wine all the way down the tongue, its cinnamon and clove notes lingering for what seems like an eternity. This 1975 exhibits the perfect balance between freshness and bottle-age characteristics, and is nearly impossible to stop smelling and sipping.
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