Thursday, December 30, 2010

Happy New Year!

Yesterday, I posted a rundown of some of my top Champagnes to pop to celebrate New Year's Eve. Now, some virtual bubbly. Click this link to check out and download the Moble Toast iPhone app from Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte. There's some very good information on Champagne, food pairing, and more that comes along with it, and it's a great use of technology to ring in the new year.

Wishing you a wonderful 2011!

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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Wine Review Wednesday: New Year's Eve Edition

Viña Montes Purple Angel 2007, Colchagua Valley, Chile

There’s real truth in advertising here: The deep, opaque purple is the first thing you notice, a shimmering, glass-staining color remarkable in its own right. It smells like classic carmenère with an added dose of intensity: Concentrated spiced plums and dark cherries are balanced out by notes of grilled green pepper, spice, blackberry, black cherry, cigar tobacco, and a touch of eucalyptus. For all the richness and palate-coating texture of the wine, it’s an almost salty quality to the attack that first jumps out, a mineral spine that runs throughout this otherwise black cherry- and cherry liqueur-expressive wine. With air, the fruit turns sweeter and more dominant, making this much more approachable right now than it implies right out of the bottle. This is one for the cellar, and with time, the oak, beautifully concentrated fruit, and spice and licorice notes will integrate to create a wine of even greater complexity. Drink 3 - 7 years. 92% carmenère, 8% petit verdot.

Montes Star Angel Syrah 2007, Paso Robles

On the nose, this reminds me of a particularly nice brunch: Toast and blackberry compote and bacon that, for all its depth, remains fresh and bright. The palate shows loads of sweet blackberry fruit, with a ripeness that stays focused and balanced. There’s also licorice and hints of star anise here as well, and this follows through to the finish where it’s joined by cocoa powder and black cherry liqueur with more black licorice and a touch of mesquite. Very well-made, generous and large in scale, yet still focused. Solid potential for short- to medium-term aging, but with this expressive fruit, I’d have a hard time resisting it sooner. Drink now - 5 years.

Montes Star Angel Red Wine 2007, Paso Robles

Darker color, but still not quite opaque. More subtle nose here, with garrigue flashing through here and there between the cherry fruit. There’s also a creamy note here that softens it up at the edges, almost like a nice bacon cream with a hint of sweetness. Again, very sweet fruit here, and the oak is a bit more apparent, with cinnamon and clove spicing it up, as well as Chinese five spice, cigar tobacco, cocoa powder, and hazelnuts. Dusty tannins and oak character that still need to be integrated more fully imply a long-lived wine, 5 - 12 years at least, but again, with the fruit here, it’ll be tough to resist for that long. Buy several and see what promises to be an excellent, interesting evolution. 94% syrah, 4% grenache, 2% mourvedre.

J Cuvée 20, Sonoma

Very attractive laser-point bubbles and a nose that speaks of toast with butter and lemon crème fraîche lead to a palate that sings with bright acidity and excellent concentration, as well as spun sugar, candied lemon, and bright minerality. Its yeast notes really come through on the finish, which itself is tinged with that lemony acidity of the mid-palate. This is a beautiful example of what California sparkling wine is capable of: Intensity, vinosity, and a promise of further evolution. Drink over the next 2 - 4 years, but it’s delicious right now.

J Brut Rosé, Sonoma

Very subtle, unexpectedly transparent nose here that whispers of mushroom and raspberry and a bit of toasted brioche. The palate is creamy despite its bright acidity, and notes of concentrated raspberry, red cherry, and cream come through. This is all about subtlety and transparency, and it succeeds very well. Drink now, and definitely enjoy with food.

Porto Kopke Colheita 1986 (bottled in 2005)

The lightness and transparency of the honeyed amber color here is remarkable. On the nose, it’s gorgeously lifted, with spice and mushroom components that find their counterparts in a subtle florality, all of it carried along a rich, round layer of nougat: Amazing how this runs the gamut from masculine to feminine in just one whiff. This is astoundingly delicate on the palate, with spice and the barest intimation of red berry fruit darting in and out of the spotlight, and joined by orange, candied orange peel, brown sugar, aromatic spices, and flowers. This is a complex, seamless, endlessly evolving Colheita. The finish, all toffee and honey and dried apricot, goes on for a minute, and only slowly recedes first into even greater subtlety, then a whisper, then a beguiling memory of a remarkable wine. This Port is like a ballet dance of nuance--a sweet wine not defined by its sweetness--and shows that tawnies can be some of the most elegant wines in the world. Remarkable, and utterly delicious.


Finally, with New Years Eve just two days away, I’ve included below some highlights from the Wine Media Guild rosé Champagne tasting I attended in New York at the beginning of the month. [Thanks to Ed McCarthy for presenting a fantastic program, as always.]

Among non-vintage bottlings, the Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Rosé, as always, was a beautifully crafted wine with plenty of pastry crust, red berry fruit, and cream--perfect for starting off the night’s celebrations on the right foot. Ayala Brut Rosé Majeur, like the Feuillatte, delivered a lot of wine for relatively little money: The strawberry here is addictive. Ariston Fils Brut Rosé was a standout, its crystal-clear wild strawberry and raspberry character framed by an intense vinosity. Bruno Paillard Brut Rosé Première Cuvée, while a bit more money, was a winner: With deep, candied strawberry and cherry fruit, a note of warm brown sugar, and a long finish, it was great on its own and even better with food. Delamotte Brut Rosé showed a solidly integrated character that included mushrooms, flowers, and more aromatic truffles: Excellent. Charles Heidsieck Brut Rosé Réserve was round, lush, and structured, with a beam of minerality providing backbone. Pol Roger Brut Rosé was a taut, elegant expression of pinot noir.

Vintage standouts included the Charles Gardet Rosé 2001, and exceptionally vinous wine whose maturity sang through with brown spice, leather, and truffles, and whose pinot noir character really came to the fore. The Gosset Célébris Brut Rosé 2003 was surprisingly--and charmingly--bright and structured given its vintage. Taitinger Comtes de Champagne Brut Rosé 2004, while still quite young and fruit-driven, demonstrated ample potential for development in coming years. Perrier-Jouët “Fleur de Champagne” Brut Rosé 2002, while expensive, was one of my wines of the tasting, a bright bubbly that reminded me of strawberry jam on whole wheat toast, and whose almost tannic structure promises a long life ahead. And the Charles Heidsieck Brut Rosé 1999, with its graphite and mushroom notes, is just now hitting its stride and utterly impossible to stop sipping.

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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Wine Service Basics

With New Years Eve dinner parties just a few days away, and menus and wine selections being finalized for the celebrations, this seems like the right time to discuss the issue of wine service--particularly, what kind of glass to pour your wine into and whether or not to decant the bottles you’ll be serving.

Regarding the first issue, I strongly recommend reading the article linked up right here, posted just last week, by Jancis Robinson on the web site of the Financial Times. She recommends a number of specific glasses, though her most salient point seems to be that, contrary to popular belief, wine professionals don’t generally obsess over what kind of glass to serve wine in. As long as the glass provides ample room for swirling and breathing, is narrower at the rim than at the widest point of the bowl, is fairly thin, and provides enough room for an appropriately sized pour, it’ll do just fine. Issues of aesthetics and feel are personal, and should certainly be considered, but they won’t necessarily have a major impact on the experience of drinking the wine.

Then there’s the issue of decanting, which The Guardian’s Fiona Beckett addresses in a recently posted commentary. Her advice can be summed up like this: “The most obvious reason to decant is that the wine has thrown a deposit, and that's really only likely with vintage or crusted ports and aged unfiltered reds...You may also want to get some air into a wine that smells slightly stinky - there are more of these around given the growing popularity of natural wines made with no or very little sulphur - or full-bodied young reds that need a bit of aeration to mellow over-aggressive tannins. You might even want to decant a full-bodied white if you feel it's tasting a bit funky or not showing at its best.”

The important point to remember is that all of this pre-sipping routine--choosing the stemware, decanting (or not)--is done in the service of maximizing the enjoyment you get from your wine. Everything else is secondary.

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Monday, December 27, 2010

To Pop or Not to Pop That Cork...

With the holidays here, and all the pressure to pop the best corks in your cellar for everyone who stops by to say hello, Matt Kramer has written a fantastic piece on Wine Spectator's web site on which guests you should or shouldn’t open which wines for. I’ll avoid saying whether I agree with him or not (call it political expediency), but it’s well worth a read.

As Kramer says: “I care a great deal about who gets served a certain wine. I realize that this makes [me] less than a generous, all-embracing soul. And in my defense, it's got nothing to do with money. Instead, it's got to do with my conviction that there's no sense squandering a great wine—or even a carefully cellared minor jewel—on somebody who could care less about what's put in front of them. Never mind congenial food. The real art of ‘pairing’ lies in the right wines for the right guests.

“Nobody likes to mention this sort of thing because it makes you seem snobbish or even churlish. Yet I know I'm not alone in these dark, semi-unsociable feelings.”

Tough? Absolutely. Justified? Difficult call. Read his argument for yourself, as well as the comments that follow.

[Note: The photo above is from The Wall Street Journal.]

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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Wine Review Wednesday: Christmas Week

This week, I’ve ordered the wines as they’d appear in a meal: We start with three sparklers, move on to a lovely Tuscan white and red, head over to the Rhone for a Crozes-Hermitage, continue south to Argentina for a big, juicy red blend, and finish off with a California cabernet that, though drinking very well right now, still has plenty of time left to evolve in the bottle.

Jaume Serra Cristalino Brut Cava

With its appealing light straw color and pinpoint lacing, this has always been a Cava of elegance and excellent value (and, now, a new label). It speaks of bright green apple, citrus, and a hint of nuts, but it’s primarily a fruit-driven bottle. On the finish, a zing of minerality comes through, which, with the mouth-watering acidity and overall crisp character, provides excellent backbone. As always, this is a very good everyday sparkler, refreshing and food-friendly.

La Cave de Die Jaillance Cremant de Bordeaux “Cuvee de l’Abbaye” Brut

What a lovely, bright sparkler: Grapefruit, warmed honey, vanilla creme Anglaise, and something a touch waxy mingle to create a nose that’s both unfamiliar and deeply comforting. The palate explodes with sweet citrus fruit both in the grapefruit and Mandarin orange family, as well as a taut minerality, ginger, and well-balanced acidity that lend this sparkler a sense of seriousness. Let this one sit on the counter for 10 minutes after taking it our of the fridge: When the edge of the chill comes off it, a beautiful bass note of brioche pumps through, leading to a finish rich with that Anglaise from the nose. Very, very well made, and a wonderful option both for New Years or, for that matter, any time you want to treat yourself.

La Cave de Die Jaillance Cuvee Imperiale Clairette de Die

Very intense nose of concentrated honey suckle, orange blossom, and other warm-weather flowers, with and edging of orange oil. It’s sweet and concentrated on the palate, too, with pronounced notes of spice, honeycomb, and candied apple and nuts that follow through to the finish. This is a nice wine for rich cheeses or to ring in the New Year with.

Banfi Centine White 2008, Toscana

There’s an unexpected floral note to the nose here, and aromatic lift that speaks of peaches and orange blossom, and in that way implicitly references summertime. There’s also a hint of something a touch spicy, which itself adds to the wine’s sense of freshness. This blend of sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, and pinot grigio is very clean on the palate, with well-balanced acidity that keeps the peach and apricot notes fresh. There’s some apple here too, as well as a hint of something a bit honeyed. Hazelnuts and a touch of nougat sing on the finish, which still remains nicely mouth-watering. What a charming wine, and a serious bottle for the money. Drink now with anything, or with nothing at all.

Banfi Centine Red 2007, Toscana

Lots of red cherries and ripe fraises de bois on the nose of this fabulously food-friendly Tuscan blend of sangiovese, cabernet sauvignon, and merlot. There’s also a bit of minerality here, as well as cured black Sicilian olives and a hint of dried Mediterranean herbs and chocolate. On the palate, this medium-bodied wine boasts plenty of red and darker berry fruit and ripe cherries, but also touches of coffee grinds and, on the finish, a bit of smoke and leather. Well-made and complex, lovely integrated tannins, and an excellent value. Drink in the next three years.

Cave de Tain Crozes-Hermitage “Les Hauts du Fief” 2006

Such a pretty, accurate nose. Black raspberries, blackberries, asphalt, and something a bit funky, like grinding peppercorns in a barn (in a good way!). With some time, a gentler face starts to show itself, the pepper taking on a more perfumed note and the fruit resolving into a riper, sweeter style. On the palate, this is appealingly elegant, with fully integrated tannins, a silky texture, and subtle fruit that indicates that this is a wine at its peak. There are some tea notes on the finish, as well as a lingering hint of earthiness lending it all a sense of richness underpinning its elegance. Really good stuff.

Kaiken “Corte” Malbec - Bonarda - Petit Verdot 2008, Mendoza

A beautiful, glistening opaque purple color with a center verging on black. The implications of that appearance come through on the nose, which is well-lifted by blackberries, black cherries, smoky plums, and hoisin sauce. There’s also something reminiscent of tarragon in there, perhaps a bit of the cabernet’s freshness poking through. On the palate, the fruit is sweet and ripe, with those cherries taking the lion’s share of attention. Still, this isn’t just a fruit-expressive bottling: Sweet tobacco, black licorice, bonfire, and a touch of birch bark add depth and complexity. Very well-made, and compulsively drinkable. Could go three more years, but there’s no need to wait.

SIMI Cabernet Sauvignon Landslide Vineyard 2007, Alexander Valley

The minerality is the first thing you’ll notice here, a terroir-driven nose that indicates a wine that, year after year, is firmly rooted to this particular patch of land. There’s bright currants and spice there too, though it’s still tightly wound, practically coiled to explode with more time in the bottle. The palate here is remarkably similar to the nose, though there’s a bit more lushness to the fruit than you might expect, more cherries as well as tea and oak spice that still needs some time to integrate fully. All of it is buttressed by tannins that, though attractively sweet, still have 7 - 10 more years of life to give this excellent wine whose future in the cellar is very bright indeed. Drink now with food and a good decanting, or hold onto it for even more pleasure.

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Monday, December 20, 2010

Gift Guide: The Best Books for the Holidays

With the holiday gift-buying rush upon us, this is the perfect time to focus on the books that the food, wine, and cocktail lovers in your life would be more than happy to find under their tree, by their menorah...or anywhere else, for that matter. Here are five that I strongly recommend.

Vino Argentino: An Insider’s Guide to the Wines and Wine Country of Argentina, by Laura Catena

From the Wonder-Woman of the wine world (Catena is an emergency room physician, producer of fantastic wines, and one of the most recognizable faces of Argentina’s wine industry), this book is an excellent primer on what makes Argentina such an alluring destination for wine fanatics and casual sippers alike. In fact, I began reading this book shortly after returning from a 10-day tour of the country myself, and it not only brought me back to the magic of the country, but also served to clarify and highlight certain experiences I had while there. (It also made me want to return to Argentina immediately, which, come to think of it, I've wanted to do since returning to the States back in October!)

Unlike most wine books, Vino Argentino doesn’t just focus on the juice. Instead, it serves as a tour guide through the country’s most important wine regions (with sections on their history, major players, wines, and more) and also provides an excellent sense of cultural and historical context. There are forays into the occasional technical issue, but it’s always entertaining and charmingly presented, and it’s always at the service of Catena’s larger goals: To educate consumers about her beloved country, and to share her enthusiasm for its people, its culture, its food (there are a number of fabulous recipes in the book), and, of course, its magnificent, world-class wine. She succeeds with gusto.

Secrets of the Sommeliers: How to Think and Drink Like the World’s Top Wine Professionals, by Rajat Parr and Jordan Mackay

Bringing together one of America’s most respected sommeliers and one of the field’s most accomplished wine writers, and Secrets of the Sommeliers delivers exactly what you’d expect from a team like this: Serious information--much of it informed with the kind of “insider” knowledge that these two have accrued over the years--conveyed in a way that’s both casual and compulsively readable.

The varietal guide to blind tasting is particularly useful to budding professionals and the most passionate consumers, and a rundown of the best importers to become familiar with provides a fantastically helpful guide to consumers who find themselves confused and overwhelmed when picking through the wine-store shelves. Advice on topics as diverse as food and wine pairing, wine travel, service, and making the most of auctions are very well-researched and laid out, but it’s Parr’s and Mackay’s willingness to speak truth to power, as it were, that really sets this book apart: Referring to Krug’s Clos d’Ambonnay, for example, as having “the ignominious distinction of...[being] the world’s most overpriced Champagne” is gusty and bracingly refreshing. In other words, exactly what the wine world could use more of.

Speakeasy: Classic Cocktails Reimagined, from New York’s Employees Only Bar, by Jason Kosmas and Dushan Zaric

Suddenly, somewhere along the way, cocktails became a serious business again. Maybe it’s the pendulum’s natural swing back from the ridiculousness of Carrie Bradshaw’s sugary-sweet cosmos and every crime-against-nature apple-caramel martini that we’ve ever been subjected to. Whatever the cause, serious drinks are the stuff of grown-ups once again. Finally.

Which is where Speakeasy begins, and the place from which it takes off. The recipes are excellent (after testing a number of them, I’ve become an unrepentant addict of their Secret Crush, a riff on the Champagne cocktail that calls for Llopart Cava brut rosé and Campari, and results in a compulsively drinkable treat any time of day); the advice to use real ingredients as opposed to resorting to mass-produced ones of questionable quality is well-argued (their recipe for a lime cordial, key to a good gimlet, is brilliant); and the style--well-informed, considerate, and thoroughly engaging--is just what you’d want from two of the country’s leading beverage personalities.

At Home with Madhur Jaffrey: Simple, Delectable Dishes from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, by Madhur Jaffrey

Few cuisines intimidate home cooks quite like the ones listed above. Mention to even the most accomplished dinner-party host or hostess that you’d like to learn to prepare the emblematic dishes of South Asia, and you’re more often than not met with an uncomprehending stare that mixes fear and incredulity. Its reputation --not necessarily true, by the way--for being endlessly difficult to prepare at home, especially for unseasoned cooks, has frightened generations of people who otherwise love the food.

Madhur Jaffrey, however, not only takes the fear out of cooking the food of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, but her recipes are both approachable and utterly delicious. Start with something simple--say, roasted cashews spiced with cumin and cayenne. This is exactly the sort of deceptively simple, high-impact item to whip up for cocktail hour with friends, and perfumes the house with a scent both exotic and unarguably comforting. Move on to a Sri Lankan fish curry, which sounds daunting until you see Jaffrey’s recipe: Easy to prepare, time-effective, and, like so much else in this excellent cook book, impressive. For passionate home cooks and, frankly, anyone who loves to eat, this book is a necessary addition to the kitchen.

At Home by Steve Poses: A Caterer’s Guide to Cooking & Entertaining, by Steve Poses

As a native Philadelphian, I take a special kind of pride whenever the name Steve Poses comes up in conversation: He has done as much as anyone to put Philadelphia on the nation’s food map, and his Frog/Commissary Cookbook, written with Anne Clark and Becky Roller, informed so many of my own mother’s dishes growing up that, over the years, I mush have eaten every recipe in it.

Now, with At Home, Poses turns his attention to one of the biggest dilemmas of all: How to make the most of entertaining, well, at home. This is not an easy task: Many of us, when pressed, are happy to bake a few boxes of frozen hors d’oeuvres, cook up the same tired dishes we always do, and hope that our guests drink enough in the beginning to miss the obviously repetitive nature of the get-together.

At Home changes that.

The recipes in this book are, as always with Poses, easy to prepare and pack a serious flavor punch. Shrimp poached in coconut milk with pumpkin and cilantro pesto is exotic, decadent, and tastes like it took far longer to create than it does. Savory ricotta cheesecake flips expectations on their head and serves as an excellent, whimsical first course. But more than that, At Home provides the kind of advice and guidance that could only have come from a professional with Poses’ experience: Advice for rolling and tying napkins, microwave do’s and don’ts, a running commentary on how to successfully entertain at home, and more. It’s all here and then some, all presented in the charming, conversational voice that’s inimitably Poses’.

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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Wine Review Wednesday

SIMI Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Alexander Valley

This shows a surprisingly high-toned nose, with super-ripe and roasted green bell peppers, a passing whiff of wild mint and licorice, and lots of currants. Its youth is apparent on the palate, where it’s still tightly wound and not showing all that it ultimately will. For now, there’s coffee grounds, as well as a creaminess that carries within it intimations of tiny wild strawberries, raspberries, brambly fruit, and wild herbs, with a hint of fennel on the finish. There’s lots of potential here; let it evolve for another 2 or 3 years, and then enjoy it for 4 - 6 after that, when it should really come into its own. The acid and tannins will allow it to age well. Subtle, with great structure.

Quivira Vineyards and Winery Zinfandel 2008, Dry Creek Valley

The nose here explodes with a deep, ripe bowlful of summertime berries: Blackberries, black raspberries, and wonderfully evocative strawberries. There’s some peppercorn spice too, but this wine’s story centers on its density of fruit. All that fruit, in fact, follows through to the palate, where it manifests itself with a sweetness, as well as a hint of cherries reduced with a splash of balsamic, that’s addictive. Lush mouthfeel, with subtly dusty tannins that serve as excellent and successful foils to the glycerin-like slipperiness. This is a wine that manages to be both fun and serious at the same time. Drink now, with barbecue or a burger.

Ehlers Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2009, St. Helena, Napa Valley

There’s an earthy, almost mushroom-referencing note to the nose here: Unusual, unexpected, and intriguing. With air, this refines itself into fruit in the clementine family, and there’s an almost fresh-herb-and-spun-sugar perfume to it that makes the aroma a lovely analog for summertime, no matter when you’re drinking this. The palate is much more acidic and tightly wound than the nose implies: This is a sauvignon blanc for the cellar. Flavors of slate, lemon, and something lanolin-like linger on the finish, and promise a wine of both serious potential and intense food-pairability. Loire-like in profile; tasted blind, I’d think Sancerre more than Napa. Excellent. 4 - 6 years.

Waterstone Merlot 2007, Napa Valley

Lots of juicy plum and berry aromas jump from the glass here, an almost light-bodied, relatively high-toned mixed-berry composition kicked up with shiso, if such a thing exists. The palate is still tight and not showing much fruit right now beyond a subtle hint of cherry, though in time more cherry, tea, colorado-wrapper cigar, as well as more tarragon and shiso flavors, should express themselves nicely. Restrained style, and a nod in the direction of Napa’s potential for subtler reds. 3 - 7 years.

Cupcake Vineyards Riesling 2009, Columbia Valley

The nose here is defined by its soft peach and orange blossom notes, a summery combination that implies sweetness but doesn’t force the issue. On the palate, those peaches are joined by tart apples, a touch of grapefruit and minerals, and a hint of the kind of petrol note that defines accurate Rieslings all over the place. Pleasant, straightforward, and a nice accompaniment to spicy dishes. Drink now.

Clos du Bois Pinot Noir 2008, North Coast

There’s nice lift to the spicy cherry and kirsch of this wine’s nose, an expressiveness that people who haven’t tasted Clos du Bois lately might not expect. Those cherries follow through to the palate, where they’re joined by mushrooms and a smoky mesquite finish that adds depth and a nice grounding to the fruit. Drinking well right now.

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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Austrian Wine on the Web

Wine on the web just got a bit better with the relaunch of the Austrian Wine Marketing Board’s website,, a few weeks ago. As readers of this blog know, I’m a big believer in the wines of Austria--from the expressive, pairable-with-everything whites like Gruner Veltliner to the spicier, endlessly rewarding reds like St. Laurent, Zweigelt, and Blaufrankisch, the wines of Austria are some of the most exciting in Europe right now.

Now, with this relaunched web site, consumers will have a chance to learn even more about Austria’s wines and stay up to date on recent developments. With everything that’s happening with Austrian wine these days, this is definitely a site worth adding to your favorites folder and checking regularly.

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Monday, December 13, 2010

A History of Haut-Brion

With all the news and ongoing commentary about the ever-skyrocketing prices of First Growth Bordeaux, it’s easy to forget that these legendary wines are far different from most other luxury goods. Their history sees to that, and the fact that they’re not products that have been expressly created to appeal to a specific market sector but, rather, have grown over the centuries while maintaining a sense of consistency and recognizable style (while still evolving with the times) means that they constitute a category apart. ran a fascinating story yesterday on the history of Chateau Haut-Brion, the great First Growth of Bordeaux’s Pessac-Leognan. And even if, as the article notes, “Haut-Brion has had an undisputed place among the top 10 or 20 most expensive wines in the world for the past 350 [right now] tends to sell for less than rival top reds from the Medoc, Saint-Emilion and Pomerol,” it nonetheless is among the greatest wines on the planet, and a supremely expressive example of why certain terroirs are superior to others.

Its history, the article notes, goes back “more than 2,000 years ago, when a group of Bituriges Vivisci tribesmen scattered grape seeds a few miles west of the Gironde River. That gesture has burgeoned into a hyper-luxury, billion-dollar industry hinged on how the weather affects the 400,000 vines that annually turn out between 10,000 and 11,000 cases of Haut-Brion.”

That may seem like a lot of wine, but the demand for it means that it’s often difficult to find. Indeed, Jay McInerney, in his excellent book A Hedonist in the Cellar, notes that Haut-Brion is “the most aromatically distinctive and unmistakable of all the first growths...a mature Haut-Brion smells like a cigar box containing a Montecristo, a black truffle, and a hot brick, sitting on top of an old saddle. It’s as earthy and complex as a Shakespearean sonnet. Once you’ve had it you never forget it, and you never stop yearning for more.”

It may be priced out of the range of most mere mortals’ budgets (the second wine, Bahans Haut-Brion, is a great alternative), but its history is integral to the story not just of Bordeaux, but of wine itself.

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Friday, December 10, 2010

Birth Day Wines

Just a quick post today about celebratory wines, which I’ve been drinking plenty of since this past Tuesday night when my wife gave birth to our daughter. And while something bubbly and festive is usually popped to mark a moment like that, I wanted to make sure that we kept the party going throughout our stay in the hospital. (Within reason, of course.)

We started off with a bottle of J. Dumangin Fils Brut Rosé 1er Cru, an amazingly expressive Champagne with berry fruit of astounding ripeness backed up by all kinds of toast. We also enjoyed a bottle of Heitz Bella Oaks 1998, a Bollinger Brut Special Cuvee, and, to toast a sweet life ahead, some beautiful Dow’s 40 Year Old Tawny Port.

Come to think of it, whether you’re celebrating the arrival of a new child, a birthday, the holidays, or absolutely nothing at all, these are wonderful wines to mark the occasion with, and to savor either in their own right or in the context of an occasion worth toasting.

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Thursday, December 9, 2010

Wine Review Wednesday (on Thursday): Pinots and Chardonnays

Sticking Stateside and nodding in the direction of Burgundy, we feature four exceptional Pinots and Chardonnays this week, each one a standout in my recent tastings.

Stoller Pinot Noir “SV Estate” 2006, Dundee Hills

The utterly intriguing nose here shows almost cherry-cola notes, though it never turns sweet. There’s lots of brambly fruit, almost autumnal in its expression, although it still maintains a sense of transparency. On the palate, there’s excellent concentration: This is clearly a young wine with serious potential. Some of that cola character comes through on the mid-palate, and is joined by hints of sous bois, black licorice, minerals, and flowers. The acid and tannins are in excellent balance, and though this is drinking nicely now--it’s screaming out for food--it should be even better in 7 - 10+ years. A muscular style, with an almost feminine sense of elegance. It evolves with half an hour of air and gains aromatic hints of kimchee and horseradish: Almost like a Gevry-Chambertin or an Echezeaux. Fabulous Pinot.

Hartford Court Pinot Noir “Lands Edge Vineyards” 2005, Sonoma Coast

Very subtle nose, almost smoky and mysterious in character--interesting for a Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. It’s showing spicy, higher-toned dark cherry fruit too, and an unexpected whiff of slate. This is very soft on the palate, with lots of grilled mushrooms, mesquite, and sous bois notes. There’s also a touch of meat on the finish, were the cherry comes back, but here in the guise of cherry reduction and coffee grounds. Much of the fruit has melted away at this point, and it’s beginning to turn to something more secondary. Fascinating expression of the appellation. Very masculine. Drink now.

Knights Bridge Chardonnay “West Block” 2008, Knights Valley

Warm, toasty oak dominates the nose right now, but with some air, aromas of preserved lemon, cream, red apple, pear, and tarragon start to peek through. Where this wine really gains speed is on the palate, with its flavors of white peppercorn, dulce de leche, toffee, and hazelnuts. The fruit is sweet and ripe, with echoes of baked apple and cinnamon. This is a young wine, and still needs a bit of time to integrate more fully, but it shows lots of potential with its muscular, creamy texture, lingering finish of spiced nuts, caramel, and kumquat peel, and an overall impression of a wine that will evolve for another 6 - 10 years. Big and delicious.

Knights Bridge Chardonnay “Beresini Vineyard” 2008, Carneros

Much more filigreed and detailed on the nose than the “West Block” bottling; maybe the Puligny-Montrachet to the Meursault of the other one? There’s something more nervy here, more transparent, with intimations of seckle pear, flowers, and a whiff of minerals. The flavors take a nuttier, spicier turn, with anise and fennel pollen, and the oak’s caramel and vanilla are only showing their full potential on the finish for now, where they’re joined by a pleasantly bitter hint of lemon pith that vibrates on the tongue for a good 30 seconds. This is a very well-made wine, exceptionally pleasurable, and indicative of what Carneros is capable of: Power and insistency wrapped in an elegant package. 4 - 8 years.

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Monday, December 6, 2010

Bordeaux and the Pendulum's Swing

Like music and fashion and food, wine is subject to fads and trends that even its most passionate and devoted consumers easily fall victim to. The soft, Milli Vanilli pop of the early 1990s caused a backlash that led to grunge, which itself eventually opened the door to the swing music that was piped into martini and cigar bars all over the country. It’s the circle of life, or something like that.

It’s the same with wine: As soon as a particular style becomes too popular, too widely accessible or venerated or otherwise obsessed over by either the masses of middle-of-the-road consumers or elite collectors, it eventually, perhaps inevitably, experiences a backlash of some sort.

Jay McInerney’s column in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal deals with this phenomenon as it applies to Bordeaux, one of the great wine regions of the world that has, in recent years, experienced a bit of a PR problem as a result of both its reputation for being a bit on the staid side (I disagree strongly with this) and, at the highest levels, exorbitantly priced (on this point I have to agree).

“Does Bordeaux still matter?” McInerney asks. “This might seem like a foolish question given the fact that the 2009 futures campaign set new records for prices, or given that Asian buyers in general and the Chinese in particular have embraced the region's wines, especially the first growths, as if they had proven aphrodisiac qualities. Many younger sommeliers and enthusiasts think of Bordeaux as the IBM of the wine world—kind of a dinosaur. For wine buffs with an indie sensibility, Bordeaux is the equivalent of the Hollywood blockbuster, more about money than about art. At one recent Acker Merrall & Condit auction, there was booing when the auctioneer announced an offering of Bordeaux.”

“Bordeaux bashing,” he continues, “has become a new form of wine snobbery. As someone whose first love was Bordeaux, I can't quite join the beat-down, and several recent close encounters have reignited my passion.”

McInerney goes on to catalogue a number of tastings he’s recently experienced that give him hope for the region, from the seemingly timeless beauty of older vintages to the up-and-coming producers from lesser-known parts of the region that are igniting a whole new generation’s sense of excitement about Bordeaux.

What interests me most about McInerney’s column is the fact that, finally, it perhaps implies a change in direction of the pendulum’s swing, and hopefully represents a new era of Bordeaux appreciation. Because despite the crazy prices commanded by so many of the top chateaux at auction, these are wines that have earned their reputation for greatness. With a bit of focus on other parts of the region, and producers that bottle wines at prices mere mortals can afford and justify, perhaps Bordeaux will experience the resurgence among all wine lovers that it so richly deserves.

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Thursday, December 2, 2010

Wine Review Wednesday: Holiday Treats

With Thanksgiving behind us and the long haul of the rest of the build-up to the holidays ahead, it’s time to start drinking some serious wines. This week, we start off with a whet-your-whistle SB before moving on to two bigger, rather dramatic reds. ‘Tis the season for wines like these, after all...

Viña Casa Silva Sauvignon Blanc Reserva 2009, Colchagua Valley

There’s a nice grapefruity nose here, with hints of warm hay and tarragon. The palate, however, is where things really get interesting: Unexpected concentration fans out to a bright, kumquat- and white grapefruit-flavored wine, with flashes of minerality providing complexity at the edges and a hint of something with an almost fresh-mint aromatic component lingering on the finish. Well-made, and a very good wine for the price.

Mount Veeder Winery Reserve 2005, Napa Valley

The nose here is absolutely intriguing: It starts off at the intersection of cream and clay, with licorice and coffee and beef carpaccio livening it up throughout. On the palate, it shows amazingly well-defined red and black cherry, spice box, cedar, graphite, and wildflowers, the last of which follow through to a finish as elegant and pretty as the palate is complex and rich. Exquisite balance, dusty tannins that still show plenty of life, and the promise of another 10+ years of evolution. Even better on day two. Built for the long-haul. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec.

Ehlers Estate Merlot 2007, St. Helena

As soon as you pour this wine into the glass, you’re given an inkling of just how exciting and accomplished California Merlot can be, naysayers notwithstanding. It’s all rich cafe mocha, nutmeg, warm cream, and cherries, with an edge of minerals and sage providing lift. Sweet cherry, birch bark, a touch of balsamic, sun-warmed fraises de bois, and dusty cinnamon sing through, swirling around the palate and given ballast by the utterly elegant tannic structure and perfectly balanced acid. This is one of those wines that, no matter how long I’d like to hold onto it (5 - 7 years), I probably couldn’t keep from raiding the cellar and popping the cork the next chance I have. Stunning.

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Monday, November 29, 2010

The Wines of Israel

Now that Thanksgiving has come and gone, it’s time to focus on the wines that will be uncorked at the holiday table this year. And, as always, I cannot recommend strongly enough how important it is to break with years past, drink outside the box of habit and tradition, and take advantage of the full range of wine options available these days.

Much has been made recently--and by recently I mean the past 10 years or so--about the wide range of wine-producing countries that are finally making names for themselves on this side of the Atlantic. In just the past year, this blog has covered wines from no fewer than a dozen countries around the world, many of them relatively unfamiliar in wine-drinking circles just a few short years ago.

And now, this weekend, both The Virtual Gourmet and Bloomberg Muse News ran an excellent article by John Mariani on the wines of Israel, a country that, thousands of years into its history, is really starting to make wines of note.

“A decade ago,” Mariani begins, “I’d never have written this sentence: ‘On a recent trip to Israel I was very enthusiastic to order Israeli wines with my meals.’” He goes on to note that, though there were the occasional pitfalls that so many up-and-coming wine-producing countries fall victim to, the wines he tasted, particularly the reds, “were clean, well made, and dry.” He added: “Many can compete with the better wines coming out of Lebanon, Eastern Europe, Spain and Portugal.”

The complete article is linked up above. It’s a fantastic overview of a country whose wines will likely get plenty of attention during the holiday season, but that are enjoyable throughout the year, improving all the times, and certainly worth learning more about.

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Friday, November 26, 2010

Restaurant Wine Strategies

Now that Thanksgiving is in the rear-view mirror--turkey’s sliced and frozen and packed away for a month’s worth of sandwiches, the kitchen no longer looks like FEMA needs to condemn it, and the sale-mad crowds have begun their annual search for bargains--most of us would probably love a night out. At a restaurant. Eating food and drinking wine that doesn’t require our own planning and clean-up.

Which is why the short piece that Alan Richman wrote this past September in GQ, on tips for ordering wine in restaurants, is so timely, even nearly three months after it initially ran. Because now that the holiday season is fully upon us, and now that the cold weather and early-setting sun and free-spending nature of the next month or so provides us with all the reason we really need to splurge on a bottle or three of wine at dinner, some strategies will prove helpful.

Richman recommends some standard pieces of advice here, like always having the confidence to tell the sommelier when you think the wine may not be up to snuff, or not sniffing the cork when it’s presented to you, or not slurping loud enough for the people three tables away to hear you. But there are some less-commonly heard ones too. And to his words of wisdom, I’d also add five of my own:

Try wines from out of the way regions that you’ve never heard of before; discovery equals joy.

Start off with something to whet your appetite, like a bone-dry Fino Sherry.

Don’t get roped into the great-vintage hype; ask for an off-vintage wine from a favorite region and see how it shows.

Scan the wine list for half-bottles and order several different ones; mixing and matching wines and dishes throughout a meal is a lot of fun and a great education.

End the meal with a digestif: Grappa, amaro...anything to settle your stomach after eating a lot of food. (If you do this, have someone else drive home.)

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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Wine Review Wednesday: Thanksgiving Edition

Thanksgiving dinner is one of the more difficult meals to pair a single wine with. From the hors d’oeuvres that you nibble as the rest of the family slowly makes its way to the house, to the roasted turkey (which itself wouldn’t be too much of a headache, blank canvas as it is), to the more troublesome sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, and stuffing, tomorrow night’s meal is enough to challenge even the most wine-versed among us.

Which is why you shouldn’t worry about sticking with one wine. Keep your options open, mix and match throughout the meal, and see what works best. Personally, I always have a bottle of bubbly on the table, as well as crisp whites (both dry and a bit sweeter), an aromatically bright red (try Pinot Noir or Beaujolais-Villages), and something for dessert. Below are three wines I’ve tasted in the past week that would work beautifully.

Gini Soave Classico 2009

There’s a distinctively crisp, clean, mineral-driven nose here, with flecks of dried apricot and spice at the edges; it’s a fantastic counter to anyone who says that Soave can’t have a sense of purpose and real complexity. On the palate, it shows zippy peppercorn flavors wrapped around ripe lemon and orange, preserved lemon peel, and something approaching acacia. For all this linearity, however, this is a Soave that should not be drunk too cold: You want to experience it in 360 degrees, and this one has more than enough character to shine at cellar temperature.

Rocca Sveva Soave Classico 2008

This is a totally different expression of Soave: Waxy and nutty, with lots of cream and perfumed flowers. It reminds me, in a lot of ways, of a white Rhone, especially considering the density of the aromas. The nuts and cream continue through to the palate, where they take on a slippery, almost glycerine texture that gives this wine remarkable weight and presence. The minerality and lemon notes are still here, as are loads of apple and a hint of something near persimmon. Totally different, completely unexpected, and thoroughly delicious.

Inniskillin Vidal Icewine 2007

It’s clear that this is a very special wine from the moment you pour it into the glass: The rich gold tone is the first thing you notice, but then the aroma lifts out of the bowl and intrigues with its scents of dried pineapple, caramelized apple, candied orange peel, and the slightest flutter of flowers. These fan out on the palate and are complicated by flavors of super-fresh pineapple, grilled white peach, mulling spices, and spun sugar. It’s a rich wine, like the best sweet ones are, but never heavy or plodding: There’s a strain of acidity keeping it bright and maintaining a sense of linearity from attack through finish, which itself lingers on with more tropical fruit, flowers, and mouthwatering brightness. Wonderful intensity and balance, and never too sweet: What a great way to end Thanksgiving dinner.

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Monday, November 22, 2010

Very Old Champagne

Earlier in the year, we reported on the discovery of very, very old Champagne in the Baltic Sea. Now, finally, some of it has been opened and assessed. A video from The Wall Street Journal is below. It speaks plenty for itself...

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Friday, November 19, 2010

Wine Origins, Sherry, and Thanksgiving

The Center for Wine Origins, the organization that works to "protect and promote unique wines from unique locations," and works closely with the wines of both Champagne and Portugal, recently featured us on their blog. Click here for the column I wrote about the trip I took to Jerez this past September. It's a region that fits perfectly into the Center for Wine Origins' goals: Real Sherry can only come from this part of Spain, and is unlike anything else in the world. They are fighting for something that maters deeply, especially as the wine world grows and shifts from one center of gravity to another. Check out their site--it's a great education.

Also, a reminder to check back frequently next week, as we'll be featuring wines all week--in addition to our usual coverage of wine news and happenings--that will work well with Thanksgiving dinner.
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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Wine Review Wednesday: Idiosyncrasy and Refreshment

This week, we feature three very different wines, and hopscotch around the globe in the process. From California to Chile to Australia, Wine Review Wednesday this week is all about the kind of crystalline expression and idiosyncrasy that make wines like these such a joy to drink.

ForeFront by Pine Ridge Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2009

With 50% of its fruit from Sonoma, 32% from Napa, and 18% from Mendocino, this bright, springlike Sauvignon Blanc is the perfect antidote to the encroaching wintertime blues. Super-fresh aromas of subtly spicy white-berry fruit, sun-warmed hay, and grapefruit pith lead to a nicely concentrated palate whose flavors maintain that brightness while also turning a bit darker. A real sense of minerality comes through, as does not-too-sweet orange and more of that spice from the nose. Beautiful wine, amazingly complex for the money, and rich enough to work well as the days grow shorter and colder.

Santa Carolina “Coastal Hills” Syrah 2009

From Chile’s exquisite Maipo Valley comes this beautiful, deep-cranberry hued red. The nose is all creamy, expressively brambly berries, wild strawberry, and plum fruit edged with a note than reminds me of grilled beef with some sort of creamy peppercorn sauce. It’s impossible to smell this wine and not get hungry. On the palate, the sweetness of the cherries is kept in immediate check with flashes of pencil lead and cedar. The balance between ripeness and earth, between fruit and terroir, is wonderful here. Really well-made, and a pleasure to drink.

Xavier Flouret “Waroo” Shiraz 2009

The nose on this Shiraz, coaxed to life by winemaker Bernie Stanlake of Fonty’s Pool, is as alive with peppercorn as any I’ve smelled all year. In fact, considered blind, I’m not sure I’d ever guess this is from Australia. Then again, many of the best producers there are working diligently to educate the wine-drinking public that Australian Shiraz doesn’t have to be a fruit bomb. With air, sparks of iron, black cherry, subtle black plum, and oregano come out. All of that follows through to the palate, too, where it’s joined by macerated black cherries, blackberries, hints of dried figs, and herbes de provence. Balanced, spicy, and expressive in both the fruit and terroir departments: This is the new Australia. This is deeply satisfying Shiraz.

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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

There's More to Beaujolais than Nouveau

With Beaujolais Nouveau arriving in two days, this seems like the right time for a discussion on Beaujolais in all its many incarnations. After all, though the Nouveau is an often fun and almost always gulpable wine, it is far from the extent of the region’s potential.

There are four kinds of Beaujolais you can find. They are, in ascending order of quality:

Beaujolais Nouveau, which is released on the third Thursday of November each year, and should be consumed in the very short-term.

Beaujolais, whose grapes come from anywhere within the Beaujolais region itself.

Beaujolais-Villages, whose grapes come from any of the more than three dozen specific villages whose fruit is supposed to be of higher quality than elsewhere in the region.

Cru Beaujolais, which comes from any of 10 specific crus, is often surprisingly age-worthy, and whose labels note the name of the cru and not Beaujolais itself.

The best part about Beaujolais is that the values are often stellar, and the price differences between standard Beaujolais and a well-made cru bottling is typically far less than the difference between, say, Bourgogne Blanc and Meursault.

So while Thursday will be a time for revelry, take advantage of all that this region has to offer. It’s about so much more than the light, fruity, fun juice we’ll all be gulping in 48 hours.

(As an aside, here is an excellent article by Jancis Robinson on the fantastic 2009 vintage in Beaujolais.)

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