Friday, October 29, 2010

Wine Twits Event Tonight

Tonight, Wine Chateau Piscataway will be hosting one of several Wine Twits events around the country where, according to the official materials, "participants and tasting groups across the country taste blind 4 different highly regarded international wines of varying price, to see if they can spot which one is [yellow tail] Reserve."

For more information, and to get involved in the action, click right here. This should be one seriously interesting event, and yet another great use of Twitter to expand the wine conversation.
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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

2003 Bordeaux Evolution

Vindication is a complicated thing. On the one hand, it feels good to have your hunches borne out by others. On the other, it’s a bad thing when those hunches mean that the wines that so many people invested both money and emotion in turn out to be far less than they were initially led to believe.

I’m talking here about 2003 Bordeaux, wines from that famously hot year that thrilled so many critics in the beginning and that have not managed, in general, to stand the proverbial test of time.

Personally, I’ve never been a fan of these fruit-forward bottlings. The Bordeaux I tend to gravitate toward express their terroir above all else, and while you certainly need a solid core of fruit to make a young wine as enjoyable as possible, few things thrill quite as much as a whiff of warm clay or a fleeting note of minerality in these wines.

Now, in a fascinating and revealing column for The Financial Times, Jancis Robinson reports on a recent tasting of 2003s, and the results were not great. Aside from a few standouts, she was not terribly impressed with the rapidity of the wines’ evolutions. “My advice for the great majority of 2003 bordeaux is to drink them before the fruit recedes altogether,” she notes.

Personally, I’ve always gained far more pleasure from vintages like 2004, whose more classic (some might say austere) profile tends to make for wines that are easier to enjoy with food, and whose generally more reasonable alcohol levels mean that you can drink more than a single glass without needing to rehydrate. Like all things vinous, it's a matter of taste. But it seems beyond question that these 2003s, in general, are destined for rather disappointingly short lives in the cellar.

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Monday, October 25, 2010

Back from Argentina

This morning, just a few hours ago, I landed in the United States after an overnight flight from Buenos Aires to Washington, D.C., and a quick hop here to Philadelphia. It will take me a few days to collate my notes, edit my videos, and start formulating a plan of attack to report on everything I tasted. For now, however, I will say that, if you have the chance and the time, a visit to Argentina is a must--it's one of the most beautiful, hospitable places I've visited. And even if you don't, make sure to keep on exploring the country's wines. They are without question some of the most enjoyable and exciting in the world right now, and from familiar favorites like Malbec and Torrontes to less-well-known bottlings of Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, and more, there is a limitless range of wines to learn and love.

I took the photo above while visiting excellent Mendoza producer Dona Paula, and the one below in our tasting room at Lagarde. It was hard work, but the very best--and most rewarding--kind of hard work. I miss it already.

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Thursday, October 21, 2010

Impressions from Mendoza

In the United States, Mendoza is pretty much synonymous with Malbec. This makes sense to a certain extent: Aside from a handful of Bonardas and the occasional other grape variety from this region in the shadow of the Andes Mountains, Malbec comprises most of what we see from here. And it’s not just a matter of export issues: Malbec is king in Mendoza, producing wines that range from gulpable everyday reds to concentrated, complex classics that have the potential to evolve for a decade or more in the bottle.

But one of the big advantages of traveling to a wine region is having the opportunity to taste the grape varieties and styles that aren’t being exported in great numbers, if at all, just yet.

I arrived in Mendoza two days ago, and have been tasting an average of 45+ wines each day. The Malbecs, perhaps expectedly, have been among the best, and I’ll write more about specific ones when I return next week. But there have also been a lot of unexpected discoveries along the way that have changed what I always assumed about Mendoza: A mature Chardonnay - Pinot Noir sparkler from Familia Zuccardi; a single-vineyard Petit Verdot from Decero; a rich, expressive Syrah from Trivento; a toasty Viognier from Dona Paula and a more French-styled, pear-rich one from Lagarde; excellent Bonardas from Argento and Serrera; a spectacularly subtle Semillon from Mendel--the list goes on and on.

The point is this: Keep exploring Malbec from Mendoza and learning about its many styles and expressions, but keep an eye out for other grape varieties, too. Mendoza is a region with all the potential in the world, and in the coming years, you’ll be hearing a lot more about its range of great varieties, styles, and wines. This is, as I suspected, one of the most exciting wine regions (and countries) in the world right now, and all the buzz it’s generating is 100% justified.

As an aside, the photo above was taken an hour ago at a truly memorable lunch we enjoyed at Lagarde. The springtime sun was shining, the food and hospitality were amazing, and the wines, as you can tell from the number of glasses on the table, were flowing freely. What a great place to visit.

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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Day of Discovery and Wine in Patagonia

One of the great joys of traveling is that you never know what kind of experience you’re going to have: You get on a plane, fly through the night, and land somewhere far away from the life you call home. The key, then, is to stay open to the experiences that are thrown your way, and to enjoy them in a context of excitement and, above all, engagement.

Sunday morning, we flew from Buenos Aires to Neuquen, Patagonia, were driven to lunch in the quiet city center, and then proceeded to venture as far off the grid as I’ve ever been, over roads first dusty, then rough-hewn, then unpaved, all to eventually find ourselves at the utterly gorgeous wine resort of Valle Perdido, or Lost Valley--as true a name as any I’ve ever heard.

The browns and tans of the lobby blended perfectly into the surrounding landscape, as did the drapes in my room, their silken burlap textures echoing the just-growing vineyard-land off my patio. The air was scented with the perfume of rosemary bushes, and an otherworldly calm prevailed.

It’s a huge, sometimes overwhelmingly varied world we live in, and discovering it is one of the great inspirations and justifications for travel. In places like this, we find not only environments and lives we otherwise would have no idea about; we also find ourselves.

This is the joy of travel.
As far as the wines of Patagonia, we spent yesterday tasting somewhere around 45 wines at four different producers. After our first visit, at the wonderfully named Bodega del Fin del Mundo, we were convinced that Patagonia’s future lay in sparkling wine. Then, after tasting the concentrated, endlessly complex Malbecs at NQN, we thought that this most famous red grape variety of Argentina was most exciting here. Along the way, we also tasted standout wines as varied as a late-harvest Pinot Noir at Familia Schroeder and some seriously well-crafted Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc at Humberto Canale. (These are just a few highlights; I’ll post more extensive tasting notes and impressions here once I return.)

The moral is that Patagonian winemakers can essentially choose their destiny. It’s an exceptionally exciting place to be, both literally and figuratively.
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Monday, October 18, 2010

Buenos Aires

After flying through the remnants of a Nor’Easter from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., and the on to an additional 10-plus hours to Buenos Aires, I was welcomed to Argentina with two of the best meals of the year, one at the thoroughly creative Chila restaurant with Alberto Arizu, president of Wines of Argentina and Export Director for the excellent Luigi Bosca wines, and another solely with my traveling companions, Ed McCarthy and Mary Ewing Mulligan, at Tomo1, the avant-garde powerhouse that seems to be generating the most buzz in BA.

Indeed, for all the respect for tradition and history that this city possesses in such abundance, these meals demonstrated that something exciting and new is going on here, a forward-thinking, ground-up re-imagining of the food that combines everything from local favorites to Asian spicing and French cooking techniques to the kind of chef-driven excitement and innovation that marks a truly important global dining scene.

It’s impossible to discuss everything that I did in Buenos Aires right now, from wandering into a parade of Andean tribes marching through the city, to visiting Eva Peron’s tomb, to enjoying a Broadway-style tango show in the hotel we stayed in, to a 17-bottle tasting of the bright, structured wines from the north of the country that are custom-made for pairing with food.

Next week, I’ll post video to provide an idea of what Buenos Aires feels like these days. In the meantime, I’ll continue to compile tasting notes, photos, video, and more to share right here in the days and weeks ahead. As for right now, I’m in Patagonia, and off to a day of tasting the wines of this far-removed part of the country. Look for details right here tomorrow.

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Thursday, October 14, 2010

Off to Argentina

I'm leaving this evening for a tasting trip to Argentina, and will be visiting Buenos Aires, Mendoza, and Patagonia. From Malbec to Torrontes to a number of surprises in between, make sure to check back here regularly for tasting notes, photos, and videos.
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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Wine Review Wednesday: Blackbird Vineyards

Every once in a while, a wine project comes along that makes connoisseurs and collectors snap to attention. We all know the names: Sine Qua Non in California, Maggie Harrison’s Lillian in Oregon (she also owns and makes the wine at Antica Terra), and the like. They’re difficult to find bottlings that, regardless of the effort required to get them, are more than worth it.

Add Blackbird Vineyards to that illustrious company.

Started just a blink-of-an-eye ago in 2003, Blackbird Vineyards has already made its way to the top of the California food chain, and its astounding collection of Pomerol-inspired wines, based on my recent tastings, are among the best in the country.

As is the case with so many of the world’s top performers, Blackbird relies on sustainable farming, noninterventionist vinification, rigorous fruit selection, and a willingness to produce less wine if that means raising its quality and staying true to the vintage.

I recently had the chance to taste the new releases, and was utterly blown away by the wines’ expressiveness right now and potential for evolution in the long term. My notes are below.

Blackbird Vineyards "Arriviste" 2009

The nose is charmingly subtle here, showing restrained notes of strawberry, rhubarb, flowers, spices, and watermelon. Very elegant, as is the palate with its silky mouthfeel and perfectly calibrated acidity adding lift to sweet fruit notes of smaller, riper strawberries, hints of cranberry, watermelon, cherries, and something a touch floral and spicy on the finish, like peppercorn cracked on fraises de bois. This is a subtle, structured rose with enough backbone to age for a season or so but irresistible right now.

Blackbird Vineyards “Arise” 2008

This leads off with a very rich, expressive nose, and though the oak is readily apparent right now, it’s balanced and soft enough to integrate seamlessly in the years to come. Plum and cherry marmalade aromas complicate things, as do violets and a touch of something exotically spicy that reminds me of coriander and peppercorns. Great depth here; I could smell this all day and be happy. The palate, for all its lavish plum and cherry fruit, is remarkably subtle, enhanced with flavors of spicy tobacco, rich chocolate ganache, and coffee, and ending on a gentle whiff of eucalyptus throughout a finish that lasts a full minute. Mesmerizing.

Blackbird Vineyards “Paramour” 2007

The role of the cabernet franc here comes right out and manifests itself in the perfume of cigars, mint, and fresh Provencal herbs that I typically associate with great-vintage Cheval-Blanc. This breed follows through to the palate, with its serious structure that will require time to allow the full potential of this wine to emerge but that even now, this early on its life, pulses with tightly wound sweet dark berry fruit, black cherries, chanterelles, and violets. A wine for the cellar and very special occasions, this is at the far end of what Right Bank-style Napa reds wines can do. It's a serious achievement.

Blackbird Vineyards “Contrarian” 2007

The 2007 Contrarian smells like walking through a forest after the rain as rosemary and mint and black raspberries grow all around you. Wonderfully reminiscent of a young Pomerol on the nose. On the palate, however, this is a bigger, more mouth-filling wine whose oak and other elements need more time to integrate, but whose deep well of dark berry fruit sings through with a masculine sense of purpose. More tannic and reserved than the wines that preceded it, there’s also an aromatic lift and a propulsive power undergirding it all right now. This big, mouth-staining wine promises a very long life ahead.

Blackbird Vineyards “Illustration” 2007

Sweet, clay-flecked red plum, black raspberry, sun-warmed blackberry, white truffle, maduro cigar, and fraise de bois define the nose here, and lead to a palate every bit as complex. Sweet, chewy, chocolate-enrobed fruit, kirsch-filled German chocolate, caramel, and strawberry preserves are balanced by spice, earthiness, and the sort of dusty tannins that make you want to drink more and more. Impossible not to love now, and it should easily evolve for the next decade or two in the bottle.

Blackbird Vineyards “Illustration” 2006

The aromatics here are just so evocative of Pomerol, with warm clay, perfumed mushrooms, and cherries in abundance. If you’ve wandered around Pomerol itself, this is as Proustian an evocation of the smell of the place as you’ll find in California. It’s dense and rich on the palate, with sweet black plum, blueberry compote, chamomile tea, and licorice limning the black cherry fruit. The tannins really make themselves known on the finish, though they certainly don’t cover up the lingering memory of the fruit or the fabulous flutter of demi-glace that develops and then slowly, languorously vanishes. Drink over the next ten years or so.

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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Marcel Lapierre: The Passing of One of the Greats

Marcel Lapierre, one of the giants of Beaujolais, passed away this past Sunday evening. And though his name may not be terribly familiar to casual drinkers of the region's famous wines, his influence is unavoidable, and, it can be argued, is apparent every time you uncork a bottle of serious Beaujolais.

"He and a group of three other producers [affectionately known as the Gang of Four] were instrumental in demonstrating to the world that Beaujolais had far more to offer than its often insipid mass-market nouveau wines," an obituary in The New York Times reported this morning. "Rather than these fruity, happy-go-lucky concoctions, Mr. Lapierre and his colleagues, Jean Foillard, Guy Breton and Jean-Paul Thévenet, produced wines of depth, nuance and purity that nonetheless retained the joyous nature of Beaujolais."

Mr. Lapierre's work not only raised the quality of Beaujolais at a time when so many of the region's winemakers otherwise seemed content to produce a fair to middling product, but he and his like-minded colleagues managed to change consumers' perceptions of the region and its potential for serious, age-worthy wines.

As Jon Bonne wrote in The San Francisco Chronicle, "A lot of bottles of Morgon are going to be uncorked in the next few days, with glasses raised in tribute. As another annual Nouveau-fest appears on the horizon, take a moment to reflect on Lapierre’s efforts as a symbol of wines that — in an ocean of falsity — spoke true."

The wine world has lost a legend with the passing of Marcel Lapierre.

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Monday, October 11, 2010

Book Review: Boozehound, by Jason Wilson

In his seminal book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan makes the important point that because ours is a country without a common, deeply held culinary tradition, we are uniquely susceptible to the vagaries of food fads. The same could be said for our drinking habits--without an engrained and broadly embraced understanding of alcohol’s role at the table and beyond, we’ve left ourselves open to a whole host of ridiculous drink crazes. How else to explain abominations like appletinis, Jagerbombs, Red-Bull-as-a-mixer, and the like?

But just as wine has gained not only a wider audience but also a far more passionate and well-informed one over the past several decades, spirits are now finding themselves the subject of increasing (and overdue) attention, study, and appreciation. Serious bartenders, mixologists as venerated as chefs in some cities, and--yes--mammoth spirit-producing corporations are getting into the act, and the result is both an abundance of exciting new products as well as a slowly spreading sense of confusion: What, you might wonder as you ponder the profusion of unfamiliar bottles lined up along the back bar, is Chartreuse, or reposado tequila, or Averna?

Thankfully, Washington Post spirits columnist Jason Wilson has recently published a book, Boozehound (Ten Speed Press, $22.99), that not only clarifies these tipsy mysteries, but does so in a way that is entertaining, thoroughly engaging, and utterly informative.

Wilson is the guy you’ve always prayed sits next to you at the bar. He is funny, charming, and wildly well-informed. His work has taken him around the world in an effort to discover the truth behind the spirits and cocktails that the newly minted American drinks cognoscenti gravitate toward today (or soon will be; Wilson seems to be as much a prognosticator as a writer), and that, sadly, have been lost for too long in a sea of synthetic flavorings and mixers. Remarkably, however, his travels and knowledge have resulted not in a tone of pedantry and condescension but, rather, one of contagious enthusiasm.

“It’s a curious thing about memorable flavors,” he writes. “They always come back.” This observation provides the ballast of his book, and each chapter’s focus on a specific category of spirit or cocktail encompasses everything from travel writing to memoir-style childhood reminiscences to just enough cocktail-geek detail to whet your appetite for not just another drink, but also a deeper appreciation of what’s always been in your glass, whether you’re a gin-and-tonic guy or a fan of negronis. Hemingway’s line, from his story Hills Like White Elephants, pops up several times throughout Boozehound, and, in a way, guides the action: “That’s all we do, isn’t it--look at things and try new drinks.”

Wilson, however, has a keen enough eye and a smart enough voice that nothing is ever dull, or even as expected. He writes, for example, on the preponderance of processed and generally inauthentic mixers, that they “usually [sneak] up on you, like a mullet seen from the front. And you usually spot it too late, once you’ve settled onto the bar stool.” He then goes on to mine a cocktail’s history, its significance, and the ways in which serious drinkers everywhere can reclaim it--recipes included.

In the end, Boozehound is not just a book for drinkers. Rather, it’s an invaluable volume for curious people everywhere, and its insights into culture, history, travel, and, yes, spirits, are rewarding on any number of levels. They’ll also make you seriously thirsty for a cocktail--with a renewed sense of appreciation for what went into it, of course.

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Friday, October 8, 2010

Weekend Reading

As the weekend draws near, I wanted to link up some solid wine reading for the weekend.

First, make sure to check out Wine Enthusiast Magazine’s list of Top 100 Best Buys for 2010. As the editors note in their introduction, “At the end of the year we tend to count our blessings and take a minute to appreciate the good things in our lives. Family, friends and health deservedly come first, but somewhere near the top of any wine devotee’s list has to be the increasing quality of wine, available at prices that make regular enjoyment affordable.” It’s hard to argue with that. The list is linked up right here.

For pinot lovers, make sure to read The San Francisco Chronicle’s report on the stellar 2008 vintage in Oregon. Not only are there some real gems to be found, but prices, they say, are beyond fair. The Cloudline pinot noir, for example, which made the Chronicle's list of recommendations, is a steal at $18.49.

Finally, for something a bit more hearty for the cooler nights that have descended upon us here in the east, Eric Asimov’s bloggy rumination on what he loves about Northern Rhone syrah is a must-read. If only we all had access to Cote-Rotie whenever we wanted it...

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Thursday, October 7, 2010

Wine and Pregnancy ran a fascinating column yesterday regarding pregnancy and alcohol consumption. It notes:

“A study released Tuesday in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health that tracked 11,500 British children found that the offspring of women who drank ‘lightly’ during pregnancy -- one or two drinks a week -- not only fared no worse in cognitive ability than children of mothers who didn't drink at all, but they actually did slightly better in certain tests.”

Of course, as is the case with so many studies regarding wine consumption, this one comes with a now-standard caveat, noting that Time Magazine pointed out that “The study is likely just a reflection that 'maternal education and income tend to be higher in light drinkers.'"

This is a fascinating area of research, and a personally relevant one, too: During our first visit to the doctor this past spring, he told my then-newly-pregnant wife that a bit of wine would actually be a good thing for her from the fourth month on, noting this new research.

This is not the forum to discuss how we’ve chosen to handle The Wine Question these past several months, but the column does bring up a fascinating question: Is the general American aversion to all alcohol during pregnancy a remnant of older belief systems and science that should be reconsidered in light of new research, or is abstention still the best policy? Either way, as more research seems to imply that very moderate wine consumption is beneficial, it’s an issue we’ll have to grapple with in the coming years.

[Note: The image above is for illustrative purposes only. Though Wine Spectator ran a cover story on this several years ago, this blog post makes no reference to the magazine's coverage specifically.]

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Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Wine Review Wednesday

Evocative aromas of subtle apricot, peach, red apple, vanilla custard, and a hint of white-blossomed flowers are very pretty right now, yet not nearly as effusive as you might expect: This is a wine with an almost Burgundian sense of reserve, as well as a long life ahead of it, and it’s not showing everything quite yet. (This is a good thing.) The palate, while leaning in the direction of plushness, is structured by much brighter acid than the nose implies. There’s some high-toned green apple in there, an easy-to-miss hint of pastry crust, lemon zest, and plenty of zippy minerality. This chardonnay is already a superb wine, though it should be even better once all its moving parts have a chance to more fully integrate. Taste it now, then lay another bottle down for two years. After that, it should continue to develop for another five or six years. This is a great example of the direction top-quality California chardonnay is headed in, and a fabulous wine already.

Lyeth Estate “Fleur de Lyeth” 2008

The bright purple color here leads to a wine defined by fruit that’s just starting to shed its youthful edge: There’s plenty of crushed blackberry, raspberry, and red plum here, but these are complicated by intriguing notes of cinnamon, sweet tobacco, and grilled orange skin. This medium-bodied blend of cabernet, merlot, and malbec is showing well right now, and it should get even better once the remaining oak resolves itself with the fruit. A fun, food-friendly wine.

Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi Chianti Rufina Nipozzano Riserva 2006

One whiff of this excellent red and it’s clear that it could only have come from Tuscany: The leather, cured black olives, and spice root it firmly in the Tuscan terroir and tradition. Still, it also displays plenty of black raspberry and black cherry fruit, flowers, and a hint of exoticism that reminds me of black bean sauce. On the palate, the wine is impeccably balanced, with mineral-tinged cherries, black tea, cocoa powder, dried blackberries, more flowers, and leather. The tannins, acid, fruit, and earth are in exquisite harmony, and the wine is drinking beautifully right now, though fans of more mature reds could easily hold onto this for another 5+ years. The Nipozzano Riserva 2006 is a perfect example of why Chianti Rufina should be getting a lot more recognition than it does--it’s utterly wonderful stuff.

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Monday, October 4, 2010 Launches

After Friday night's anniversary and launch party at Wine Chateau Piscataway, I just wanted to announce here the official kickoff of Click the link, sign up, and check out Wine Chateau's newest revolution in buying wine online. Today's wine is a 95-point Napa beauty that offers everything you'd want from one of the top cabernet regions on the planet.
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