May 31, 2005

On Wine Value, and a Bargain Southern Rhone Red

I suppose it’s right and good for a fan of anything, as I am of wine, to have a few pet peeves about his hobby.

Some are minor, like how people misuse the word varietal. As in "that’s my favorite varietal" or "how many grape varietals are in that blend?" It’s variety, in both cases. Grape varieties can be varietal just like comics hopefully can be comical. But saying "that’s my favorite grape varietal" makes about as much sense as saying "he’s my favorite comical."

Which makes me think of the annoying myth where you have to be sophisticated to appreciate wine. Apparently that’s not true at all, what with the wine crowd constantly effusing about favored grape varietals.

Yet some peeves are more serious. Perhaps the worst, because it seems to be reason number one that people give me for why they aren’t into wine, is that you have to spend a lot of money to get good wine. It’s simply not true.

Oh, but here comes a related peeve. Yes, yes, yes, you’ll constantly read in the wine press about great values from the world over. But they’re usually high volume, mass marketed brands that, given what they offer, don’t seem to be a nice way to spend $10 at all. Gallo of Sonoma, Kendall Jackson, Georges DuBoeuf? Yes, all likely to be found almost anywhere in the US. But good value? Maybe if you’re really into Hostess doughnuts and fast food. For the most part, these and virtually all the other big brand wines have as much distinction as the Red Lobster.

No, value in wine is admittedly a more complex, personal, and to some degree a local concept. Now I’m the first to admit I love, and love to taste, wines that cost a whole lot more than $10. But if you are interested, you can drink and even cellar terrific wines for an average of $10 a bottle, pretty much anywhere you live.

Sure, it doesn’t hurt to live near regions that produce wine you like. There are always some local values you won’t find elsewhere. But retailers almost everywhere discount good wine that they simply can’t sell. And you can’t overlook buying and shipping wine from retailers across the country, just like you do from Land’s End or There are high quality retailers out there with some amazing deals on wines that are worth your time and money.

One little blog entry can’t convey all the ways to find discount wine. I’m passionate about the subject, and I will write more about where you can find great deals. But here’s my personal favorite. Bargain bins. Of course, they vary widely by region, and truth be told I’ve never found as consistently great bargain bins as we have here in Portland. But even if you’re not a manic bin browser like me, keep your eyes open for unusual things your local retailer might want to get rid of. Stay away from suspect wines – leaking out the top, faded labels from too much light exposure, low fill levels, etc. All bargain hunters must learn some painful lessons with dicey purchases, and wine bargain hunters are no different. But it’s fun and often worth the search. And if you’re like me, you might get to the point where you turn down bargains because you simply find too many.

Today’s inspiration? A $14 wine that I found in a bargain bin for $8 that tastes like a $20+ wine. When you find something like this, you know you’ve spent your time well.

2001 Andre Brunel Cotes du Rhone Villages "Cuvee Sabrine"
This southern Rhone red wine is a typical blend of grenache, syrah, and mourvedre, and the producer happens to make wine for the widely noted Chateauneuf du Pape property Les Cailloux. It offers a dark ruby color with a lovely perfume of the southern Rhone – red berries, black pepper, stones, and the classic garrigue or mixture of earth and herbs that you might notice on a walk in this area of France. In the mouth the wine is gorgeous, with rich stony fruit, pepper, and clean earth flavors. There is bright acidity, fine tannins, and a fairly long finish with some alcoholic warmth.

Overall, the wine is a little slick compared to the traditional producers, made in a more modern style that preserves the fresh fruit character of the grapes. But there’s simply question where this wine comes from, and it is delicious over two nights (I only saved some in the name of science) with food and on its own. This was the best wine under $10 I’ve had in a long time and it will hold for a few years even if it doesn’t develop much. It’s great as it is, and for $8 it might as well have been free.

May 18, 2005

All day I dream about Scotus

Enough please with the recent Supreme Court of the United States decision on interstate wine shipping.

Now I’m the first in line to cheer the removal of restrictions on interstate wine trade. I currently live in one of many essentially free trade states in this nation. Wineries sell and ship wine directly to consumers here and in other states that allow shipping. Wine shops too, if they choose. And the wholesale trade still gets its share – wineries will always need agents to handle at least part of their distribution, most for the larger wineries that couldn’t possibly sell more than a fraction direct.

But what about the kids? You know, the ones the wholesalers say will abuse free trade by ordering alcohol on the…gasp, internet. Kids here in Oregon, believe it or not, aren’t getting liquored up with hooch they score online. There are way too many easier, cheaper, and faster ways to party, all of them qualities kids appreciate most.

And so the recent Supremes ruling opening the floodgates for interstate wine shipping. Hooray! What? That’s not really the whole story? But that’s what everyone’s saying.
Even the New York Times editorial staff said so on Tuesday. They noted the end of "unfair barriers…to the free flow of wine across the state lines." They even pile on by saying how the ruling will have "considerable effect on the wine industry and its customers, particularly in the booming areas of online shopping and small specialty vineyards." Sounds like free trade for everyone.

But, no. The ruling really says that, in states that allow in-state wineries to ship directly to consumers, such as Michigan and New York, it’s unfair to prohibit out-of-state wineries to ship directly. That’s wineries, not online or old fashioned wine shops that still presumably face restrictions. And that means states can choose to eliminate all direct shipping, which is just what Michigan might do. For the affected states, the wholesalers generally have a whole lot more power and influence than fledgling wine industries. Who do you think will win?

To its credit, the NYT did mention that states might "choose" to ban all shipping. But that was buried in the editorial, in the aftermath of their initial frothing. And they didn’t mention the wineries only part of the ruling.

So the ruling is a step, a positive step even. But it’s only a step. Save the toasts for bigger news, like when wineries and wine shops are really free to ship to anyone. Just like the guns and ammo sellers.

May 03, 2005

A Nice Summation of Vintage

I go back and forth on the worth of vintage generalizations. They have some value, but the exceptions often pile up enough to invalidate the rule. You mean they are good wines from "bad" vintages? Yup. And even some major clunkers in so-called "great" years. See the of the '98 southern Rhones, lauded everywhere but often top heavy with alcohol even for their idiom.

So we have the freakishly hot '03 vintage in the Loire Valley and the damp, cool, more typcial '04 vintage. Check out this post on Wine Therapy by Paris-based contributor Rahsaan, who writes nicely about two top producers of Vouvray, Huet and Foreau.

Pay special attention to SFJoe's reply. He offers as pithy a summation of the two vintages as I've seen, and suggests the kind of nuance you should be able to find in the wines of any year:

"The 2004s reflect the vintage very accurately. You can feel the rain on your neck while you taste them the same way you can feel the sweat on your brow from [the] '03s."

Nicely said.

May 02, 2005

Edmund Burle Does It Again

I hear the southern Rhone Vally wines of 2003 are overripe and underripe at once, with the summer heat shutting down flavor development, dehydrating the grapes to concentrate sugar levels, but leaving a mix of raisined and leafy green flavors with lots of harsh tannin. Reports from those who've tasted the wines seem mixed, and so far I've had mixed results.

However, I tasted the 2003 Edmund Burle Cotes du Rhone over the past couple nights, and this is a great little wine, as usual, and a nice bargain on sale for $8.46 locally. Not sure where else you can find this wine, but local importer PS Wines brings it in to Portland. This '03 from Burle is classic rustic, wild grenached-based Cotes du Rhone. The color is ruddy ruby and it has an exotic aroma full of stones, pepper, and cherry with nice dried herb notes. The flavors are full and round on the palate with lots of fine tannin and a typcially stoney flavor. It is dry on the finish, so this wine needs food to show its best. And I'd drink this younger despite the structure, because the flavors seem so broad and ripe that I don’t think they have much evolution before they simply wilt. But what a tasty, honest wine and how delicious it was with burgers.

May 01, 2005

Manning Magnum Madness Mad-riffic

The exile has ended. Élevage is back after a long though unrelated diversion in the aftermath of Manning March Magnum Madness.

So how was the best wine house party in Portland? Terrific as usual, with lots good folks and good food, and a vast amount of undeniably good wine. The only downside, beside the unusually hard rain that fell all day and night, is not being able to try everything. And I didn’t get to say hello to some people that I wanted to see. Such is life. The highlights listed here implicate the amount of wine consumption, and consider that I tried to hold back and spit a reasonable amount to keep my head straight. Which didn’t exactly happen. At least I was riding the bus. On to the event.

Before my first taste, I cut up my Seigle de Thiézac and Pane Francese, both of which turned out pretty well. The siegle was especially tasty with Eddie Robinson's homemade paté. I ended up hanging out around the food taste much of the night as I tasted through the line up of wines.

I started at the white wine table in the Manning dining room. This table was perhaps the star of the event with a terrific array of quality sparkling and still wines. I loved the NV Ariston Champagne Aspasie Brut Prestige, a big Champagne I’ve never heard of with rich, barrel-aged aromas and flavors with good acidity. The NV Billecart-Salmon Champagne Rosé was nice as well, with a pale color and delicate red fruit flavors. For comparison, I tried the 1994 Argyle Brut, a Willamette Valley sparkling wine that tasted good as usual but simple with citrus and yeast flavors. I like Argyle wines, but they never show much complexity. The 2001 Sauzet Puligny-Montrachet Champ-Canet was a big change of pace, with nice slightly maturing white burgundy flavors of apples, toast, and cream. The 2003 Donnhoff Oberhauser Brucke Riesling Spatlese showed the ripeness of the ’03 vintage across Europe, with sweet Auslese-like richness and lots of broad flavors that taste great now. The 2002 Fritz Haag Brauneberger Juffer Sonnenuhr Riesling Spatlese showed lots of petrol for a young wine, but was otherwise fairly tight and young. Drink the Donnhoff and hold this one. Finally, a curiosity, the 1989 Maresh Vineyard Riesling Red Barn, from Oregon’s own Dundee Hills. Thanks to my buddy Jim Maresh for sharing another nice example of his family’s wine from the ‘80s. Youthful color, diesel and lemon aroma, nicely flavorful with maybe Spatlese-level sweetness. Not German in complexity or soil flavors, but tasty stuff and Oregon at the core.

In the living room, I found the first table of reds, this one featuring mostly wines from pinot noir and gamay. I brought the ’03 Lapierre Morgon and found a ’99 from the same producer to compare. The maturing ’99 was a favorite on the night, with nice peppery earthy Burgundy-like complexity and elegance. The ’03 was more primary and large, maybe even a little alcoholic, again showing the heat of the vintage. Still a good drink though. Another favorite of mine was the 2002 Cameron Pinot Noir Clos Electrique, which only reinforced my feeling that Cameron is one of the top 5 producers of Oregon wine. This wine shows the depth and richness of the ’02 vintage here in the Willamette Valley, but the alcohol remains in check, flavors are complex, and there’s not a lot of noticeable oakiness. This is a classic in the making. John and Kay Eliasson of Oregon’s La Bete winery were here, and John brought a 1985 Pinot noir he made as an amateur from grapes grown near Estacada, OR, far from the heart of wine country today in the Cascade foothills. And wouldn’t you know it, this mature, delicate wine was delicious with nice earthy flavors and some hints of fruit, more than alive though starting downhill. I’d happily drink this with dinner. More Oregon pinot noir, this time it’s the 1996 Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir. This bottle seemed a bit old, not dried out but soft and simple with easy cherry flavors. The 1999 Amity Pinot Noir Schouten Vineyard shows again how underrated this and other pioneer producers are today. Nice, polished but honest pinot noir from a long, late vintage known for great balance and complex flavors. This wine, like many tonight, was opened way too soon. Same with the 1998 Chehalem Pinot Noir Rion Reserve, a bigger wine from a sunnier vintage but still young, fresh, and delicious. Breaking the Oregon pinot streak, the 1993 Podere Il Palazzino Chianti Classico Riserva Grosso Sanese seemed young and rich for this lighter year in Chianti. Without seeing the full label I thought it was a super Tuscan with some cabernet in the mix, but indeed this is all sangiovese as once vociferous taster pointed out. Nice stuff with a long life ahead.

I had arrived a little late and missed some early favorites like the 1985 Veuve Clicquot Champagne Rosé Reserve Brut. Now after lingering at the first table of reds, I saw I had already missed some of the best things from the second red table. First and most painful, the 2000 Produttori di Barbaresco Riserva Rabaja. Nevertheless, I ventured downstairs to the "bigger" red table and found some more things to sample. First up was the ’00 Les Pailleres Gigondas, which I also tasted at last year’s event. What was a grapey monolithic but nice Gigondas has opened some to reveal more red fruit, pepper, and stone flavors. This is a terrific wine with at least 10 years ahead of it. The 1996 Prunotto Barolo Bussia was predictably tannic and hard but showed lots of promise. I don’t have much experience with this producer, but, although I’ve heard lots of grumbling from others about how the house style is new wave, this bottle showed nice Barolo character. Just let it rest for 5 or 10 more years, especially in magnum. Next were a couple of California cabernets. First the 1999 Heitz Bella Oaks Vineyard, which tasted nice if predictably young and wound up. It took a back seat to the 1991 Beringer Cabernet Sauvignon Private Reserve, which is a terrific example of this long, cool vintage. Oaky as the house style goes, but with enough stuffing, as they say, to balance it out. Cassis, herb, and graphite flavors that echo Bordeaux but with the ripeness of Napa.

I turned out not to be too interested in the other "big" wines, so I made my way back upstairs to find a dessert wine frenzy all over the house. Big bottles, little bottles, already empty bottles…again my slow pace cost me tastes of some precious wines. But at this point, even with my moderate pace, I was winding things down. Still, I managed a few more tastes. The 1971 Quinta do Noval Colheita, a vintage tawny port, was gorgeous with nice sweetness and length. The 1996 Huet Vouvray Le Mont Moelleux 1er Trie was less intense than I expected for this bottling, but that’s picking nits. No white wine for me ages more slowly than chenin blanc, and this wine is typically a classic example. Open again in 20 years. There were two different bottlings of the ’80 Mas Amiel Maury, an early bottled vintage-port-style wine and a later-bottled example that saw two decades of cask ageing. Both were delicious, and nicely savory for all their sweetness. Usually I find Maury too sweet compared to its sister wine Banyuls, but these bottlings were superb. And finally my other contribution, the NV Broadbent Madeira Terrantez Old Reserve that is at least 50 years old and perhaps 70. Wow, this was terrific. I had tasted a little of this one in the afternoon as I decanted it, and found it to be moderately sweet with lots of hard to describe complexity and the typical bright acid of Madeira. Tasted even better to me later on and it showed a wonderful unique fragrance. Wish I had bought more of this when I found it on close out for $24. Even the full retail of $48 is a relative deal here, for a wine that will last in an opened bottle almost indefinitely. And to think that the Madeira experts I know say this is good stuff but not great. I need to taste more.

So that was that. I said final goodbyes, munched a little more food and trundled down to the bus stop in the rain. Thanks again to Marshall and Carolyn for hosting and to all for bringing such fantastic wines. I look forward to next year, if the Mannings are willing.