December 16, 2007

Wine from the Nandi Hills in India

Ever had wine from the Nandhi Hills? After trying the 2005 Grover Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc Nandi Hills, I can say I have.

I had been meaning to try this wine for months, after seeing a number of Grover bottlings in the Portland area. I've even seen some tasting notes online but they largely scared me away. The only really positive thing I recall reading was about the white wine. So when I saw this bottling for about $6 in a local bargain bin, I couldn't resist entering the world of Indian wine. Never mind the label's boast of enology services from the internationally employed Michel Rolland. That doesn't suggest artisanal wine, but I can't be picky with wine from the tropics.

So how is the Grover Sauvignon Blanc? Pretty good, in fact better after a couple days open in the refridgerator. It's clearly a modern, clean wine, but with a piercing acidity that seemed disjointed at first, then turned more pleasing over a few nights. The wine smells more like chardonnay or pinot gris than sauvignon, but it has some varietal character with grass notes mixed into the tart citrus flavors.

I understand that the grapes are grown at 5000 ft outside of Bangalore, well south of the Tropic of Cancer. I imagine the altitude allows for cool nights. Wikipedia says there is eucaplytus in the area, but also coffee and what sounds like high humidity. Hmm. Who knows how they grow vinifera grapes in such conditions, but the results are pretty good.

This isn't earthmoving wine, but if you see it in the low teens or less, it's worth a try. If only to say you've had wine from the subcontinent.

December 09, 2007

Recycled Wine Reviews

Let's be clear about one thing. Matt Kramer is a terrific wine writer. We should only wish other writers (myself included) were half as good.

That said, no one's perfect.

Kramer might be best known these days for his long running column in the Wine Spectator magazine. That's not to discount his small catalog of well regarded wine books. He also writes a column that appears in our local newspaper, The Oregonian.

That weekly column usually has two or three terrific buys, mostly around $20 or less, each one picked for its value and distinction. For local producers, getting a review is good for selling at least a palate of wine (that's 56 twelve bottle cases). I highly recommend you check out his reviews if you don't already.

That said, after reading about a super cheap 2006 Spanish garnacha a few Sundays back, I search online for the column to remember the name of the co-op that produced the wine. Here's what I found:

This helps explain just why Castillo de Monséran Garnacha 2004 is so improbably good. The Cariñena district is recognized as a good spot for growing better-than-average grenache. And like so many other vineyard areas in Spain, these vines are old, which tends to lend character to the grapes.

This is terrific, bursting-with-fruit grenache (the label, by the way, is marketsavvy: It declares both grenache and garnacha). It's silky red wine that slides down the gullet without a catch and is mercifully free of any oakiness.

Hmm. That sounded familiar. But this was Kramer's column in the New York Sun from August 2006, about the 2004 version of the same wine I had read about recently.

Searching further, I found the review I had seen in the Oregonian:

This helps explain just why Castillo de Monseran Garnacha 2006 is so improbably good. The Carinena district is recognized as a good spot for growing better-than-average grenache. And like so many other vineyard areas in Spain, the vines are old, which tends to lend character to grapes.

This is pretty, bursting-with-fruit grenache plumped with the grapey/black cherry flavors that characterize this variety. It's a silky red wine that slides down without a catch and is mercifully free of any oakiness.

Now this is just a $7 large production wine from a Spanish cooperative. I'm sure the '04 wasn't much different than the '06.

But are we that short of writers that our newspapers just recycle content? I'd gladly write for the local rag if the regular guy is too busy to write something new. Don't people realize that, with the internet, you can't do this anymore without getting caught?

I do like how there are subtle differences between the "different" passages. I'm sure it's just editors doing their thing. But does "gullet" not resonate on the west coast? Can we not handle it? Does the local rag have something against accents in foreign words? There are many questions.

For what it's worth, I bought a bottle of this 2006 Castillo de Monseran Garnacha for $6.99 at a local market. And it's terrific. In a world where budget Spanish red wines have largely become candied, oaky, sweet, fruit punch wines, this wine actually has aroma. It tastes delicious, too. It's the best, cheapest red wine I've had in a while.

Too bad the Kramer review leaves such a bad taste. Better luck next time.

December 07, 2007

Wine Anxiety

Are you ever reluctant to buy a wine because of what the wine shop staff will think?

I know I am, and I’m not alone. In fact, I recently wanted to write about this situation, but initially decided not to when I thought maybe it was just me. You know, buck up, don’t worry about what people think.

But it’s not so simple. Just the other day, I was in a local wine shop talking to the proprietor and the subject came up. And the stories I heard made me think about the situation in a whole new way. The experience made me want to write about it again.

What originally brought all this on was a visit a few weeks back to another local wine shop that had two different wines from Loire producer Denis Jamain. Click here for a write up I did last year when Denis himself was here pouring at yet another local shop.

Jamain makes nice if light, delicate wines from a lesser known Reuilly appellation. Only instead of bottle prices ranging from $14 to $20, here were cases of the 2005 Jamain Reuilly Pinot Gris Rosé for $5 and the 2002 Jamain Reuilly Les Pierres Plates for just $7.

Usually such startling discounts suggest damaged goods. Here was “old” rosé from a grape you’re not “supposed” to make rosé from, and a five year old sauvignon blanc, albeit from a terrific vintage. But this wasn’t some lowbrow shop. They wouldn’t bring in wine that was damaged, right? Right, as it turned out in this case.

But I’ve worked in a fine wine shop that occasionally had wine for sale at bargain prices that wasn’t very good. It happens. And if you think that you can just ask the staff for an honest opinion, even at a “good” shop, what could I say when a customer asked me for my opinion. Usually I hemmed and hawed, unsure of how honest I could be and completely uncomfortable about the whole thing. One time I was completely honest and I got in some trouble. I didn’t work there long and the owners were probably fine with that.

Still, I asked a staff member who I know for his opinion on the Jamain wines, and though he was fairly positive, I could tell he was hesitant. He ended with the faint praise that the wines are priced “appropriately.” Hmm, what does that really mean? Is that code for “don’t buy it, it’s only here to satisfy our cheap ass customers who can’t tell Gallo from Maxim Grunhauser?”

I knew he couldn’t be completely honest with me. His boss was right there. And he didn’t want to rain on my parade if I was interested in the wines. These are delicate situations to be sure. But I know that it’s common for wine shops all over to have wines that are sold with at least some amount contempt. Were these such wines?

Which brings me back to the conversation the other day with the proprietor, who had joked about his wife asking him, “what, another gruner veltliner?” when he came out of a store a while back after having to buy a last minute pinot noir on the way to a dinner party. He’d gone in for one bottle but felt the need to buy something else to keep the staff from snickering.

Now why would this matter? Surely we’re above such adolescent behavior, right?

Wrong. The proprietor rolled into a few stories – and I have plenty of my own – of being in wine shops when a customer leaves with a bottle of, say, high priced California cabernet, only to have the wine geek staff, and even the shop owner, tear the customer to pieces for buying such awful wine. Let’s not get into the rumors you’ll hear about what supposed crap some famous winemaker adores, or how drunk he or she got toasted at one event or another.

The fact is, this happens a lot, maybe more than you think. And while we must rise above that fray, it can be tough in the moment to feel comfortable buying what you want to buy. Call it what you want, but that’s the honest truth we all go through in any purchasing situation.

I appreciated the proprietor’s take that it’s bullshit for wine shop staff, and especially an owner, to participate in the somewhat public hazing of a customer. Who knew who else was listening, or if they knew the person or, at the least, might take the opportunity to tell a stranger what the shop really thinks of him.

Why’s this important? Because it’s at the heart of the weird feelings people have about some wine shops. That snobby sense of not belonging or not measuring up, when we’re at most trying to satisfy an intellectual passion or at the least just trying to get some hooch to make the night a little more fun.

I’ll be honest. I’ve passed up some things that I just couldn’t, for whatever reason, bring myself to bring to the counter. And I’ve done as the proprietor and mixed in some coded wine in some weird attempt to display my alleged wine cred. I’ve quietly enjoyed compliments at some of my selections. And I imagine I’ve been the butt of some jokes about the “bargains” I like to purchase.

This time, of course, I bought one of each Jamain wine. The rosé wasn’t so hot. Not tired or oxidized, just a bit tart and more phenolic than I remember. Maybe we shouldn’t make rosé out of pinot gris after all (though secretly I want to try it myself…oops). Yet the blanc was delicious, more like a light, dry chenin than sauvignon with a waxy roundness that kept my interest over a few nights. This isn’t a wine to cellar much longer, but I bought another and will enjoy it in the coming months.

In the end, yes, we should be resolute with the confidence to buy what we want to buy. But it doesn’t always play out that way, and that’s what interests me in the whole affair. What do you think? Ever been ashamed to buy a wine? Maybe next time, we’ll be a little less reluctant to be who we are. And hopefully those who exchange our big bills for change will keep their oh-so-knowledgeable opinions to themselves. That includes you too, boss.