Thursday, July 29, 2010

More on the DRC Case

The convoluted and keeps-on-getting-weirder story of the attempted blackmailing of the famed Domaine de la Romanee-Conti earlier in the year just took an even more cinematic turn: The accused, who was in jail in Dijon in the lead-up to his trial, has apparently hanged himself in his cell. “His son,” reported, “who was arrested at the same time, will [still] stand trial later this year.”

This is yet one more twist in an already Hollywood-esque tale: Back in February, the deceased and his son were arrested “during a sting operation after they had demanded $1m ransom from Romanée-Conti owner Aubert de Villaine,” Decanter reported. “‘They claimed that if we did not pay they would poison the vines,' Villaine said after the operation was revealed by local newspaper Le Bien Public.”

Thankfully, aside from the loss of a vine as the result of its being poisoned with a weed killer, there was no harm done to the vineyard...just a real scare, and a realization, among all wine lovers, that even the most precious, historically significant vineyards in the world aren’t safe from those that would do them harm.

Scary stuff, indeed.

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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Wine Review Wednesday: Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley 2006

Jordan, one of the most easily and instantly recognizable of California’s classic producers, has been releasing stellar wine for as long as I’ve been tasting. Longer than that, in fact: As a child in my parents’ house, I have distinct memories of my father uncorking the occasional bottle of Jordan Cab with great care and reverence. This was special occasion wine, after all, meant to be savored and assessed as deeply as it demanded.

All these years later, Jordan is still doing it as well as it always has, and the Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley 2006 is no exception. Aromas of cedar, humidor, graphite, and currents, as well as blueberry and blackberry, rise from the glass. There’s also a note of sandalwood in there, providing a hint of the exotic, the spicy.

For all that aromatic complexity, however, this is still a young wine, and the palate is rather taut at this stage of its evolution. There’s a good bit of berry fruit in there, but right now it's defined by nutmeg, clove, cinnamon, lavender, and mineral flavors, which themselves are softened by a sense of creaminess hovering at the edges. The finish is a bit brambly, and a fleeting intimation of herbes de Provence slowly fades away, adding one last piece to this already complex, exceptionally food-friendly Cabernet that will continue to evolve and reward for at least another 10 years. (75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 19.5% Merlot, 4.5% Petit Verdot, 1% Malbec)

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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Chablis Evolution

Chablis typically finds itself at the far end of a Chardonnay-lover's evolution: One typically begins with fruity, powerful oak monsters, moves on to more detailed yet still round-and-ripe California-style bottlings, heads in the direction of white Burgundy, and then, finally, dips a tentative tongue into the taut wines of Chablis.

For all the time it takes to get there, though, a wine-lover’s first great Chablis experience is often a paradigm-shifting one, and therefore worth the wait: The purity of expression, the clarity of the terroir, the cleanliness of the juice: All of these conspire to make great Chablis among the best white wines in the world.

The problem, however, is one that makes so many would-be Franco-oenophiles nervous: The details. From the seven legendary grands crus to the technically lesser yet still often magnificent premiers crus all the way down to regional wines, Chablis has always posed a problem for consumers. (So has the confusion, at least on this side of the Pond, between real Chablis and the oversized handles of California “chablis,” a laboratory concoction that bears as much resemblance to the real deal from Northern Burgundy as, say, the poor hapless fellow who performed “Pants on the Ground” in this past season’s “American Idol” does to Pavarotti.)

Still, for all the confusion and misinformation associated with it, Chablis is a part of the wine world worth knowing and learning about, especially now.

This past weekend, The San Francisco Chronicle ran an article on recent developments in the region, and noted that, despite the longstanding primacy of the seven grands crus in Chablis, “in a region ruled by terroir, things are becoming more complicated.

Standout wines are appearing from more humble sites. And new talents are appearing in a region whose top names are so established that the war memorial in Chablis' town square reads like a wine list.”

Not only are new producers finding their way onto the Chablis scene, but they are slowly shifting perception of what’s possible throughout the region, no matter how famous or humble a particular piece of land might be: Some producers are starting to pull back on their use of oak in the GC bottlings, terroir-specific wines are being bottled even from non-grand cru or -premier cru parcels of land, and organic viticulture is on the rise.

Chablis, then, is one of the most interesting regions in the French wine world right now. It may be confusing, but the effort required to unravel its mysteries--both ancient and modern--is more than worth it.

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Monday, July 26, 2010

Cleaning Out the Cellar

Like many so-called wine people, it recently came to my attention that my collection (a very, very modest one) had gotten out of hand. I don’t own all that much wine compared to some collectors, but enough age-worthy bottles had accumulated in my in-house cellar that I had completely lost track not only of what I had, but also where specific bottles were located within it.

So I decided that the time had come to follow my friend Scot “Zippy” Ziskind’s advice, take everything out, catalog it, and move any bottles that I wouldn’t be drinking in the next two years to an off-site, professional storage facility. Scot, as I’ve written about here before, is one of the country’s foremost experts in wine cellar design, cooling, and humidification, owner of ZipCo Environmental Services, Inc., and My Cellar, one of the region’s best wine storage facilities.

And now, after having gone through my precious bottles, and having reacquainted myself with what I had, cataloging everything in Cellar Tracker, and purging my poor overstuffed cellar, I’ve come to two important conclusions: First, I need to buy more wine; and second, I should have moved my most important bottles to the My Cellar warehouse a long time ago for guaranteed safe-keeping.

I bring this up because I’ve been hearing some real horror stories lately from friends who have had people over for dinner, had a bit too much to drink, and decided, in their impaired state, that they would pop the corks on bottles that were nowhere near ready. And while having trophy bottles on hand to show off is perfectly fine, it’s also dangerous unless you have some sort of fail-safe mechanism in place to protect yourself from your own worst impulses.

Trophy wines are nice to look at, but they’re even better to drink--when they’re ready.

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Friday, July 23, 2010

Know What You Don't Know

In his new column on, Matt Kramer makes a confession that I imagine many, many people wish they had the confidence to say publicly: Despite years of studying Italian wine, and living in the country, and collecting and drinking its wines, he still finds himself confronted--rather regularly--with Italian grape varieties and producers that are unfamiliar.

This is huge for a highly regarded wine writer to admit anything but vast expertise in his specific area of the field--but there it is, right on the computer screen for all the world to see.

On a recent visit to the restaurant A-16 in San Francisco, for example--the spot is known for its extensive selection of Italian wines--Kramer “was handed a superbly flavorful dry white wine: 2008 Pecorino Colline Pescaresi from the producer Tiberio,” he writes. “I don't mind telling you...that I had never heard of the Pecorino grape variety, the Colline Pescaresi district or the producer Tiberio. Other than that, I'm an expert.

“Mind you, this Pecorino wasn't just some bland white wine mouthwash...This was really dazzling stuff, zingy with minerality and scents of herbs such as rosemary and sage delivered with an impressively dense texture. There wasn't a trace of oak, by the way, and none needed. It was a ‘where have you been all my life?’ white wine.

“Of course,” Kramer continues, “when I got home I raced to the computer to become a know-it-all about Pecorino. It turns out that the grape variety wasn't even isolated as such until the 1980s and that the first varietally labeled Pecorino appeared only in 1996.”

And so it goes with wine, as it does with music, film, literature: Only by opening ourselves up to experiences we’ve never had before can we truly be charmed and educated and won over in equal measure.

Last night, for example, we held a wine and cheese cake tasting at Wine Chateau Piscataway, and nearly every single person in the room commented on how they had either never tasted red wine and cheese cake together before, or experienced those particular wines in the past (Negro Amaro, for example, or a ripasso). So what was intended as a fun way to spend an evening actually turned into much more: An education, and an eye-opening one at that.

The wine world is so big, and so diverse, that it always--always--pays to explore previously unfamiliar territory. The rewards are tremendous, and often far more pleasurable than you ever imagined.

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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Wine Review Wednesday (on Thursday): Taylor Family Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2005

Several months ago, I wrote an article on the 2005 vintage of Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon for John Mariani’s Virtual Gourmet. I tasted a number of excellent wines from that already-legendary vintage for the story, and even among so many great bottlings, the Taylor Family Cabernet stood out for its combination of power, elegance, complexity, and aging potential.

Their 2005 Reserve bottling will not be released until this coming fall, but I recently had the opportunity to taste it, and I’m happy to report that it is even better than the regular Cab--no small achievement given the supremely high quality of that wine.

This one starts out with an explosive nose of dark chocolate, chocolate-covered cherries, kirsch, creme de cassis, and a hint of mint. For all this exuberance, however, it’s also a touch exotic, with sandalwood and licorice and scorched earth bringing something more mysterious to the glass. The palate, on the other hand, is where the wine’s primary fruit shows through brightest, with sweet cherry still dominating despite the emerging notes of tobacco, graphite, and something a touch floral. That floral quality really comes through on the finish, which practically sings with violets, sweet black tea, and minerals.

The Taylor Family Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2005 is a perfect example--and embodiment--of what makes Stage Leap District so remarkable even within the Napa Valley as a whole: It’s delicious right now, promises to keep on evolving for at least 10 more years (depending on how you like your older Cabs), precise, exquisitely balanced, and endlessly involving as it gains nuance in the glass.

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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Miraculously Old Champagne

There’s old wine, and then there’s old wine. Last week, a Finnish diving instructor discovered a cache of the latter in the Baltic Sea: 30 bottles of Clicquot Champagne that are believed to be from somewhere between 1782 and 1788. According to a report on the BBC’s web site, “The bottle - whose shape indicates it was produced in the 18th Century - has now been sent to France for analysis. If confirmed, it would be the oldest drinkable Champagne in the world.”

What makes this even more remarkable, however, is the fact that the wine is apparently still in good condition. The discoverer, Christian Ekstrom, opened one of the bottles on his way back to shore and, afterward, described it as “[f]antastic...It had a very sweet taste, you could taste oak and it had a very strong tobacco smell. And there were very small bubbles."

There’s a lesson here: Great Champagne, though typically ready to drink upon release (specific vintage bottlings, like the Krug 1996, notwithstanding), often benefits from some time in the cellar. Personally, I always purchase multiple bottles of Champagne in order to follow its evolution through the years.

In response to this discovery, The Champagne Bureau sent out an email recommending the following steps to ensure that your precious bottles last. Their advice is below:

Aging – Although Champagne has already reached maturity by the time it is released, you can successfully store it for years in your own home. Make sure that your bottles are kept in a cool, dark place (like a shipwreck!).

Chilling – We recommend keeping the bottle cool, ideally between 45-50 degrees. When you are ready to enjoy it, serve the Champagne well-chilled. A Champagne bottle usually reaches its ideal temperature after twenty minutes in a bucket filled with ice and water.

Opening – Start by cutting the foil and undoing the wire cage, with the bottle pointed away from your face. Always hold the cork in one hand and gently twist the bottle with the other. You will feel the cork easing out.

The right time to drink Champagne – It’s always the right time to enjoy Champagne. Real Champagne only comes from Champagne, France!

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Monday, July 19, 2010

New Taste-and-Tour Package at Rubicon

This year, it seems, an unusually large number of my friends are planning trips out west to explore Napa and Sonoma. And, as always, I try to recommend a range of winery visits, from larger and more formal ones to the mom-and-pop operations that often provide such unexpectedly memorable experiences.

This year, in addition to the usual destinations I’ve been recommending, I have also suggested that my friends and colleagues make a point of getting to Rubicon, one of the Napa Valley’s most famous estates and producer of the eponymous Rubicon, one of California’s more sought after wines year after year.

Rubicon recently introduced a $15 package that includes a tour of the estate (founded in 1880 and, in 1975, purchased by Francis Ford Coppola and his wife Eleanor), its chateau, the winery itself, and the property’s museum, after which guests can refresh themselves with tastings of the Sofia Rosé 2009, Captain’s Reserve Syrah 2006, and Captain’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2006.

I’ll be covering other wine-travel options in the coming weeks and months, but for now, this new offer at Rubicon is a great way to start, and a fantastic anchor to an end-of-summer trip out west.

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Friday, July 16, 2010

Spectator Shakeup

Big news from the world of wine magazines: James Suckling, the highly regarded critic who covered Bordeaux, Italy, and Portugal for Wine Spectator, is no longer with the publication. In an announcement made yesterday, the Spectator noted that "James Suckling, who joined Wine Spectator in 1981 and has served as European bureau chief since 1988, has retired from the company...Suckling’s tasting responsibilities have been reassigned. The wines will be reviewed in our standard blind-tastings in the company’s New York office.”

Today, as more details have begun to dribble out, reports that Suckling will continue to taste wine on his own, travel the wine world, and work on other projects, including speaking engagements and, possibly, wine-making.

This is a big shake-up at the Wine Spectator, which has, in recent years, found itself working hard to try to stay as relevant as it always has been in an ever-shifting wine-journalism world. Its impact will take quite a while to be fully felt and assessed. We’ll post more details here as they become available.

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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Wine Review Wednesday: Domaine Gerovassiliou Viognier 2008

Several weeks ago, I attended a wine lunch and tasting at New York’s Marea Restaurant that featured a number of Greek wines being imported by the excellent firm Cava Spiliades. And like too many people, my experience with the wines of Greece had been limited mainly to the occasional bottle Moschofilero, but beyond that, not much.

However, it very quickly became apparent at this lunch that I’d been missing out: The wines--reds and whites in equal measure--were fantastic: Well-crafted from high-quality fruit, balanced, and supremely food-friendly.

Then yesterday, I had the chance to taste more excellent wine, this time with the legendary Greek winemaker Evangelos Gerovassiliou, and George Spiliadis, the importer and passionate advocate of the artisanal wines and foods of Greece. Lunch this time was at the spectacular Milos, which George and his family own. Both the wine and the food were remarkable.

I’ll be reporting on all of the wines, as well as the food, in more detail in the coming weeks, but for now, I wanted to share the tasting note for one of the single best Viogniers I’ve tasted all year: The Domaine Gerovassiliou 2008, which is not only a spectacular bottle of wine, but also is representative of the remarkable, exciting changes that are happening in the Greek wine world. I cannot possibly recommend these wines highly enough.

This particular bottling starts out notably spicy on the nose, with aromas of charred peaches, smoke, nuts, and the unmistakable perfume of ginger providing lift. The texture, all chewy and glycerine, is balanced out by a fresh acidity that is far too often missing from other Viogniers. (That acid balance, in fact, seems to be a hallmark of the wines brought in by Cava Spiliadis.) Mango and peach, as well as more spice and smoke, define the palate, and the finish remains fresh and mouthwatering, allowing the impression of the wine to linger beautifully.

Over the course of two lunches and some tasting on my own at my home office, I have, rather quickly, become a very big believer in the wines of Greece, especially when they’re made with as much care and attention to detail as this one. What utterly gorgeous wine.

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Monday, July 12, 2010

Wine Q & A with Red Wine with Steak

Question: Do different types of steak call for different red wines?

Answer: Along with what is the meaning of life? and does the tooth fairy really exist?, this is one of the great mysteries of the world--a question as deeply and inextricably linked to the human condition as taxes and awkward-teenage moments at middle-school dances. And just like those other ponderables of its ilk, this question is both more difficult to answer and far simpler than it initially appears.

First, then, the more complex of the two answers: Yes, different steaks call for different red wines. As we’ve addressed here before, cooking method has a significant impact on the kind of wine that will pair best with a particular dish. Grilled steak, for example, with its smoky notes and charred exterior, will respond better to a Cabernet Sauvignon, say, than a classic chicken-fried steak will, which, in my experience, is more suited to some sort of pink sparkler, like a great rosé Champagne.

But beyond that, there is also the question of the cut of the cow that you’re dealing with, as well as the way in which the animal itself was raised. Fattier steaks require heartier, more tannic reds to cut through all that richness, whereas leaner ones, like, say, a filet mignon, can easily be overwhelmed by big reds, and tend to do better when paired with gentler wines--I like a nice Pinot with filet, for example.

As far as the nature of the animal itself, much has been made lately about the differences in flavor and, indeed, morality, between grass-fed and corn-fed cows. We won’t get into the issues of ethics here, but the flavors and textures are certainly different. Personally, I prefer the more pronounced mineral tang of grass-fed steaks to their sweeter corn-fed counterparts, but, like all matters of taste, this is a personal decision. For more on this, take a look right here at a very good video that Wine Spectator posted a while back on this very subject.

Finally, to get to the second (and simpler) answer to our original question, it is, as always, this: Drink what you want with your food, even if it breaks to so-called rules. So: Big juicy Chardonnay with your steak? Go for it! If it brings you pleasure, then it’s a perfectly wonderful pairing.

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Thursday, July 8, 2010

Wine Review Wednesday (on Thursday): A 2005 Beaujolais Cru

They say--whoever they are--that good old Gamay eventually turns to something resembling decent Pinot. I’ve only experienced this phenomenon once or twice before, which made the bottle of Georges Duboeuf Régnié 2005 such a charming surprise. The color is the first indication that it’s a fully mature wine, the center of the juice a deep, rich brown with reddish-orange hints at the rim. On the nose, it’s all caramel, toffee, dried violets, mushrooms, and, unexpectedly, dried apricots. These brown notes follow through to the palate, which is further complicated by dried cherries, cedar, and smoke. And while this ’05 is at the far end of its evolution--drink now or forever hold your peace--and though the mid-palate is starting to fall apart a touch, it is a delicious, thought-provoking wine in its own right, and a great example of how well good Gamay can age.

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Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Sustainable Wines on Grape Radio

We recently reported on Smith Haut Lafitte’s efforts to cut their carbon footprint by sailing their wines to Canada rather than loading them onto shipping containers and motoring them across the ocean. In keeping with this focus on the environment, today I wanted to link up a fascinating discussion that was posted this past spring on on sustainability in grape growing.

“In wine growing,” Grape Radio reports, “the word ‘sustainability’ gets bandied about frequently. So, what’s it really mean? Obviously, sustainability is the ability to continue on…to endure. So, with wine growing the term will usually mean that the grower uses farming methods that are least likely to harm the environment in general, and the farm in particular, so that it may ‘live long and prosper.’ But, philosophically, it actually goes well beyond that basic premise.”

That philosophy, as well as the details of environment-friendly winemaking, are discussed in this eye-opening interview with Jon Ruel, Trefethen Vineyards’ Director of Viticulture and Winemaking.

Click here for the full show.

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Monday, July 5, 2010

Wines by Ship?

I’m on vacation this week in South Carolina, spending most of my time outside and generally marveling at the beauty of our natural world. (As opposed to my golf swing, which possesses absolutely no beauty of its own: It’s an arhythmic, Charles Barkley-esque thing.)

It’s a treat to be outside, of course, and a reminder of how fragile our natural world really is--especially given all the news reports this summer, from the BP oil spill in the Gulf to the the usual warnings about global warming. And this morning, I awoke to a news item on that reinforced what we’ve been reporting on here for quite some time: That the wine industry is taking significant steps toward being a more responsible global business, cutting its carbon footprint and other potentially harmful impacts where it can.

The great Bordeaux producer Smith Haut Lafitte, Decanter reported, “is to begin exporting wines by sailing ship...The 106 year-old British ketch Bessie Ellen will set sail from Bordeaux for Montreal on July 21, laden with 20,000 bottles of Smith Haut an effort to cut the chateau's carbon footprint.”

This is a gutsy move, to be sure, but also very much in line with the industry’s efforts to protect the earth from which its grapes and wines originate: From lighter Champagne bottles to a focus on organic and sustainable farming practices and beyond, Smith Haut Lafitte’s effort is one more piece of evidence that the wine industry is leading the way toward a greener future.

Plus, it seems, the wine benefits, too: “‘We conducted a blind-test experiment with independent oenologists who found that long journeys by sailing ships also improved wines, some of them giving an impression of having aged a year in the process,’ [shipping company] CTMV CEO Frédéric Albert told”

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Thursday, July 1, 2010

Holiday Weekend Wines

July has arrived, the 4th is just days away, and summer is officially in full swing. Yesterday, in fact, from my home base in Philadelphia, I actually found myself a bit chilly in the morning when I realized that the temperature had dipped below 85!

With the holiday weekend nearly upon us, then, it seems like a good time to discuss a couple of wines to enjoy--easy-to-drink, food-friendly bottlings that will work at the upcoming weekend’s barbecues.

I’ve been having a lot of fun lately with the Concha y Toro Xplorador series, particularly the Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenere, both of which seem perfectly suited to the food and the mood of the holiday. The wines from Pine Ridge and ForeFront have been showing really well, too--Pine Ridge’s Chenin Blanc - Viognier should be a standard in your seasonal arsenal. Helfrich’s Rieslings, Gewurztraminers, and Pinot Blancs are spectacular. The spicy elegance of a Zantho Zweigelt or the more lush pleasures of Michel Rolland’s Clos de los Siete, from Argentina, will sing with holiday weekend cookouts. And for dessert--this idea is from a perfectly timed and very thoughtful press release I recently received--a pairing of ‘smores and Port, which seems like the kind of thing that we all should have been enjoying for years already, and a fantastically fun way to celebrate the holiday weekend.

(NB: I’ll be posting tasting notes on all of these wines in the coming weeks. For now, though, just drink and enjoy. There will be time for analysis later.)

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