December 21, 2010

Great wines and friends

Since we're visiting southern California and feeling at home in the pouring rain, what better time to see old friends from our San Francisco days who live locally. We'd reconnected with Paul and Barrie last year at this time here at our family beach condo, along with other friends who we missed this time around. This time we traveled south to their lovely old Spanish-style home for dinner and tastes of a few really good and interesting wines.

I'll spare you the details of the older kids playing video games and the occasional chase around the house with the younger twins who have endless energy. Though it was really fun and Paul and Barrie's kids are impossibly cute. Instead, the wines, first the 1992 Zind Humbrecht Tokay Pinot Gris Clos Saint Urbain Rangen de Thann. I don't know my Alsatian grand crus nearly well enough, but I know this is a top vineyard with a long history worth knowing about. So how was the wine? This isn't Oregon Pinot gris, to say the least. Eighteen years old, opulent and ripe, lightly sweet but nicely balanced, rich with stone fruit juiciness and an expected mineral quality, all still youthful and clearly capable of aging for another decade with ease. This was exceptional.

Then a bagged wine, a red wine I guess to be some no sulfur gamay from Beaujolais or maybe the Loire. Some spritz at first, pungent strawberry and ashy earth aromas. Bright and a bit lean in the mouth, there's great energy in this wine and a long, slightly cheesy finish. Clearly no sulfur but I had no idea it was from Sicily. It was the Frank Cornelissen Contadino 7 Rosso Etna, from the slopes of Mt. Etna made in amphorae with the Nerello Mascalese grape. This is totally natural wine, something many winemakers would taste and remark, "you know, some sulfur would clean that right up." But that's not the point. And strange as the wine is, I found it grew on me, especially tasting a bit with pizza dinner. Probably more of an intellectual pleasure than purely delicious, but I still really appreciate wine like this. But I'm a wine geek.

Paul also opened the 2009 Domaine Dubeuble Pere et Fils Beaujolais, imported by KERMIT LYNCH in case the label's too subtle. This is really good, more straightforward wine compared to the Cornelissen. Just another example of how great 2009 is in the greater Beaujolais area. Purple, bright fruit and gravel and soil notes, great texture, simply delicious gamay.

But the coup de grâce was the 1942 Jean Bourdy Cotes du Jura, a World War II era bottle from the remote Jura region near Switzerland. This bottling is a blend of Plousard, Trousseau and Pinot noir, aged three to four years according to the back label (en Francaise) in old oak tonneaus. The wine was probably better some time ago, but still was a delight for its history and flavor. Almost honey gold in color, the aroma was meaty with some pungent notes from oxidation. The flavors were seamless, with a nutty middle and finish like a dry sherry, certainly from oxidation in the winemaking and elevage process and also from 60+ years in bottle. Again, an intellectual pleasure more than anything, though also memorable purely for its taste.

Thanks Paul and Barrie for such delightful wine and for opening your house to us. We'll have to repay you in Portland.

December 11, 2010

Vincent Wines in the news

It's shameless but I'm not above that. Check out this article in this week's Portland Tribune on urban wine making in Portland, Oregon. Some colleagues and I are featured, and if you're local, the print edition has some really good pictures. Only one seems to have made it online. Ok, end of shamelessness.

December 05, 2010

Bottling Nocino

This weekend saw the final act of my nocino (no-CHEE-no) making that began last summer -- bottling and my version of labeling. In July, I picked green walnuts, chopped and soaked them in a variety of liquors and sugar and spices. Two partially full gallon jugs worth sat for months to steep and oxidize and otherwise maderize. Last month I poured the now chartruse brown liquid off the walnuts and sediment to settle some more and continue aging. Now it's December and time to finish things off.

This was my first attempt to make nocino and I thought I would make two jugs worth instead of just one, to have plenty. But after all this time, I figured I'd get only a little more than 4L of liquid. So I found square 250mL bottles and some t-top corks, which would give me between 16 and maybe 18 bottles. That's not too many if you plan to give a bunch away as gifts and keep several for aging, drinking, cooking (nocino whipped cream, anyone?). This stuff is good. So next year I'll have to make even more.

I began by straining the nocino once more through folded cheese cloth, into a tub big enough to combine both jugs. One jug had more sugar, the other less, but a blend turned out to be best. Then I poured the blend carefully back into a jug to make filling each bottle easier, with the little yellow funnel to keep things tidy. The only real challenge was dealing with foam that came from pouring the liquid, as you can see in the jug. I filled each bottle, waited for the foam to subside, then topped up and put a t-top cork into each one All together, I had 18 bottles.

I rinsed off each bottle and let them sit overnight, before heating up yellow sealing wax in a stove top pot to dip the bottle necks. It was tough to get the wax just the right temperature to adhere well to the plastic tops of the t-corks. Finally I got things right, waxing each bottle and dipping the waxed top into cold water to set quickly and give a little shine.

Then a final wipe down and silver Sharpie to sign each bottle in a way that ended up echoing old port and madeira bottles with their white stencil paint. So how does this nocino taste? Think liquid gingerbread with a kick. It's fairly sweet but appropriate to balance the pleasant bitterness of the walnut tannin. What experience I have tasting others' nocino, age should smooth out any rough edges, though this nocino isn't excessively tannic or bitter as I might have feared, being a newbie. In all, I'm very pleased and there are some lucky people out there who will get a bottle.

December 03, 2010

1990 Lopez de Heredia Vina Tondonia Rioja Blanco Reserva

I got home tonight and was compelled to tweet how love is coming home to 1990 Lopez de Heredia Vina Tondonia Rioja Blanco Reserva.

Our neighbor Jamey had mentioned recently on a walk back from the kids' bus stop how he loves this very old school Spanish producer from Rioja, one of my favorites. Tonight he came by with a nice glass pour from the end of the bottle while hosting a Hanukkah dinner. I wasn't home yet but Jennifer graciously accepted such a gift, though Jamey apparently said "you should just drink it all."

Not bad advice. Jamey's no fool.

Jennifer of course saved me half and, upon my return from a long day at work and some play, I put my nose in the glass. How can 20 year old white wine be so fresh? Yes, the wine is aged in oak for several years and intentionally oxidized in the process, softened and opened by time. Then bottled and held for years.

Now, the cork finally out and wine in the glass for drinking, there is an aroma of spiced lemons, wax and a soft, pleasant herbal character from the American oak aging. And a freshness that belies twenty years since the grapes came off the vine. In the mouth, there's richness and acidity, a brightness immediately that amplifies to a full flavor of lemon cream, spicy wood and jelly candies, then acidity to tighten the flavors and carry them nice and long.

There's an impressive dynamic to this wine. It's clearly not simple wine, yet it's not complicated or difficult to enjoy. Perhaps that's a trait of the greatest wines, and while this is not what I'd call "great," it is very, very good and special. Thanks Jamey, and thanks love for saving me some.

December 01, 2010

1995 Taylor Fladgate Quinta de Vargellas Vintage Port

Of the leftovers from Thanksgiving, one wine remains. The last wine, the port. On yet another cold rainy Portland night, it seems fitting to finish it off at last. And reflect on wine of such quality and a small personal story.

I remember finding a little cache of 1995 Taylor Fladgate Quinta de Vargellas Vintage Port several years ago for a remarkably low price (a common story it seems in my cellar). I asked the manager about the price and he said that's what the distributor sent, and maybe it wasn't the right wine (should have been the Late Bottled Vintage, I'm sure), but that's the price, go for it. So I bought six.

Douro Port houses declare "vintage" ports every few years, when the quality is exceptional so that excellent young wines are bottled after two years, sold at a premium and intended to age for decades in the glass. These are the wines collectors prize most. The '77s and '70s, '63s and '45s, among other classic years. Most years produce more basic ruby wines that are bottled early for their grapiness and tawny wines aged longer in cask to develop more nutty qualities. You'll see these commonly for low prices in grocery stores and wine shops, and they provide nice port drinking (and cooking) quality without the depth or price of the more serious wines.

However, there are some particularly good years that may be declared vintages by many houses that for one reason or another aren't declared by others. Typically that happens in years such as 1994 and 1995. '94 was exceptional, and many houses quickly declared the vintage to produce their top wine. However, '95 was also excellent and, had they not declared '94, perhaps '95 would have been the "vintage" year of for a given house. For many, it was declared. For others like Taylor's, you see what I'll call a junior vintage Port, the single quinta (or vineyard) bottling.

We won't fall into the trap and call this wine as good as regular vintage quality. Sometimes wine marketers will make such claims, about single quinta Ports or, for example, Cotes du Rhone from a vineyard "just outside" one fancy appellation or another. This isn't vintage port, plain and simple. But it's darn close and considering the track record of Quinta de Vargellas wines going back to the '50s and earlier, clearly there's longevity and real potential here for development in the cellar.

So how's the wine? Well, young as I would expect, even at 15 years of age. Deep ruby color, with a classic peppery, spirity, mixed berry, fresh tobacco and raisin aroma. The flavor is moderately sweet with excellent richness and fresh acidity, softening tannin and peppery, tobacco flavors to add savory qualities to the plum and berry fruit. The finish is long, slightly warm and simply gorgeous, even after the bottle has been open for nearly a week. There are many dessert wines in the world, but vintage port is one of the most classic and delicious. This wine shows why. Love it.

And a story. I found this wine is early 2002 and brought a bottle to a tasting event where my friend, Roy Hersh of For the Love of Port out of Seattle, brought a bottle of 1935 Sandeman Vintage Port. My young single quinta wine paled in comparison to Roy's special bottle commemorating the coronation of King George VI. But Roy is so gracious. We had a nice conversation about Vargellas, its history producing terrific ageworthy wine. My '95 showed well but young, and time is still a friend here. I'm happy to have more. If you're wondering, that '35 Sandeman was pale ruby and spectacular, everything you could want in old Port. I can still taste it.

The night was particularly memorable. I'd found out that morning that my wife was newly pregnant with our now 8-year-old son Martin, something I couldn't share with anyone because of the fragile uncertainty of things. We were leaving for Australia in the morning to visit family, obviously it had been a big day, and now here were wines by which a guy like me will remember everything. That legend from 1935 and one of several bottles from 1995 that I would open over many years, commemorating that time of life. This Thanksgiving marked the first time since then I'd checked in on the '95 Taylor. I'm happy to have the opportunity to check in again and again.