March 30, 2008

Ah, Bordeaux

Thank you faithful reader for your encouragement that I update my blog. So…

Back in my San Francisco days, I was more of a Bordeaux buyer and drinker than I am today. There are several reasons for the change.

One is simply that I don’t drink nearly as much cabernet- or merlot-based wine than I used to. If I do, it’s likely to be Loire cabernet franc, which I find to be the Burgundy of cabernet-based wines. Lighter in body, emphasizing its perfume and simply a better fit on the dinner table. My table, at least. And it’s more ageable than conventional wisdom suggests. Far more. Ignore those writers who tell absurdly you that Chinon and the others cannot age and improve with time.

Second, the Bordeaux selection here in Oregon is abysmal. Why is this? Portland’s wine selection is terrific in depth and breadth for bottlings from around the world. One very notable exception is Bordeaux, and what Bordeaux we do see is usually horribly priced. I know I could order from afar (i.e., Premier Cru), yet I don’t. See reason one above.

Third, with the 1995 vintage, Bordeaux pricing went absolutely crazy. Sure, older timers will say that 1982 changed everything. Those older still will point to the 1970 vintage, which led to such a run up in prices that a few (poor) years later the market crashed. People have predicted another Bordeaux crash ever since, without success. The latest run up indeed started with the well-hyped 1995s, then the 1996s, then the 1998s from the right bank (St. Emilion and Pomerol), then the 2000s, 2003s, and now 2005s. Will it ever end? Sure. But people have been predicting it for so long, no one should claim credit when things finally do change.

Finally, though I’m loathe to bring it up, there’s clearly been the dramatic change in grape growing and winemaking in Bordeaux wines in the past decade or two. Suffice it to say that, indeed, more wines from Bordeaux taste like California cousins than ever before. Whether that’s a good thing is debated endlessly. I prefer more traditional examples. Clearly the American press in general sees it differently. So I find myself simply bored by the whole topic of Bordeaux.

At least, until I try something like the 1994 Ch. Grand Mayne St. Emilion.

Back in the late 1990s, after prices started to rise, good but not great vintages like 1994 fell out of favor. So there were some terrific deals to be had. It didn’t hurt that I met my wife in that year, and spent a good part of that summer in France. I loaded up on ‘94s, but these were wines I knew I’d need to wait on. The press faulted the rainy harvest (after a nicely warm growing season) and its firm, tannic wines. To me, they tasted like classic young claret, provided you were patient.

More than a decade later, the ‘94s I’ve tried are still a bit tough. The ’94 Leoville Barton was still too firm for my taste at Christmas more than a year ago. But it’s early yet. Good Bordeaux can age for decades, so we’re still early on with things. And if this Grand Mayne is any indicator, good things are on the horizon.

The 1994 Grand Mayne has its own controversy. Robert Parker liked this producer in the late ‘80s but felt that the ’93 and ’94 were possibly flawed in the cellar, with repeated samples showing elements of “cork” taint that can come from bad barrels or even a mold-infected cellar. I tasted this wine young and found it promising, so I bought a few cheap on close-out after Parker readers must have passed it over. Back on Thanksgiving 2000, it tasted tight and hard, not bad, certainly not corked, just lackluster and in need of time. I didn’t open another until last week and, wow, what a difference.

Let’s be clear. This isn’t first growth quality. But after nearly 14 years, this wine shows a nicely maturing ruby color and that vague sweetness of bottle age in its perfume, like the way onions caramelize and sweeten with cooking. There are also nice red fruits in the aroma and herbs from the merlot, and that clean, rocky earthiness I love in Bordeaux. In the mouth, the texture has become more smooth, the tannins a bit softer though still clearly there, the flavors of oak, fruit, and earth coming together as a whole rather than parts. On its own, this wine would be too dry for many drinkers I know. But with food, I found this simply delicious. My wife too, and we easily finished the bottle over the evening.

The lesson here? Don’t always believe what you read, this blog included. You may hate 1994 Bordeaux, but I found advantage in the critics’ distaste for this vintage. Same, too, with reports that a producer’s entire harvest is suspect. That’s not the case here, unless I’ve been incredibly lucky. If so, I suppose I’ll just smile all the way to the cellar.

March 07, 2008

Bubbly de Savoie

To celebrate the fact that my 2006 red wine is nearing the bottle, I popped a bottle of NV Domaine Labbe Brut Vin de Savoie Methode Traditionnelle. That's French for delicious sparkling wine from the Savoie.

It has a fine frothy mousse with crisp, fresh aromas of yellow fruits and stones. The flavors are similar with a lemony tang, so lively and pure with tantalizing minerality. Yes, that word's thrown around way too much. But this wine shows that unmistakeable stony flavor that you simply don't find in many (any?) local wines. Dry but not austere, my less educated palate regarding vins des Savoie might guess this was good Loire sparkling wine. For something like $14, this is stealing.

2006 Pinot Noir Update

Just got back the ETS report on my single barrel of 2006 Pinot Noir and I'm very surprised and glad to see the chemistry. Here are the numbers:

Free sulfur dioxide -- 23 mg/L
Total sulfur dioxide -- 75 ml/L
Volatile acidity (acetic) -- 0.056 g/100mL
Titratable acidity -- 0.54 g/100mL
pH -- 3.54
Molecular SO2 -- 0.42 mg/L

I'm not a technical guy, but seeing these numbers really helps give perspective to what I've been experiencing, and thinking I've been experiencing, with this wine over the past year and a half. I wish I'd done a "juice panel" before fermentation to know the initial pH and TA. I'm not sure the measurements we did on this at the time were very accurate.

I thought the free SO2 might be really low. Instead, it's pretty close to where I want it for bottling in the next month. Total SO2 is a bit of a puzzle. I recently added 60ppm after the long malolactic fermentation finally concluded. I'm confident in my calculation, and the only other SO2 added to this wine was (I think) 40ppm at the crusher. Certainly no less, perhaps a bit more. So how do I only have 75 total SO2? Shouldn't total SO2 be the sum of all adds? I'll have to read up on that.

VA is both higher than I'd like, but lower than I feared. Actually, I have no idea about how much VA I should tolerate. I've just read Peynaud and he suggests keeping it below 55-60ppm. My wine shows some lifted notes that suggest a little VA. I want more purity in the wine. Maybe it's not VA. Maybe it's just the ripeness of the vintage. Seeing the VA at 56 ppm makes me think it could have been lower with a better ML. Yet, I'm relieved that it isn't higher. At this level, is it generally noticeable?

TA is about what I would expect, but given where I thought I started with pH and how the wine tastes, I would have thought my pH now was 3.7. The lower number simply helps me keep bugs out of the wine with less SO2. Meaning, molecular SO2 is very good, I think. I need to read up on this some more. Molecular SO2 represents the anti-bacterial properties of sulfur (anti-oxidation is the other main property). One table I found so far suggests I'm in great shape, but I'll read further before drawing conclusions.

Anybody have thoughts? Am I a slave to science? Or is this like putting a instant read thermometer in the bird you're roasting in the oven?

I'm hardly a technical guy

March 03, 2008

Wine That Tastes Better Than Its Price

I'm always looking for good, inexpensive wine that is really worth drinking. Sometimes unknown labels deliver pleasant surprises. But the easier bet for finding worthwhile bargains in my experience is in the cheaper labels of the better producers. It's not always true (ahem...Mouton Cadet), but the exceptions prove the rule.

But let's get one thing straight. I'm not advocating for those who hype those "just outside the AOC" wines. You know the ones you read about in wine shop newsletters. "This would be Chateauneuf but the owner didn't bother with the forms, so it's Cotes du Rhone in name only." These stories are sometimes true. But more often they seem as ridiculous as the idea that some generic Bourgogne is distinguished because it's "just a nine iron from [such and such] Grand Cru." A nine iron? Isn't the basement just an elevator ride away from the penthouse? That's a short ride but a big difference.

N0, I'm thinking of the bargain bottlings from producers that don't typcially mess around with bad wine. Evesham Wood in Oregon is a great example with its red wines. The basic Pinot Noir is always nice. Even the "Bruno" label they do for their local distributor for even less money is worthwhile. A. et P. de Villaine in Burgundy is similar. Their wines always seem interesting, no matter the price. They even make reference standard Aligote, and if anything is going to get its corners cut, it's Aligote.

With that in mind, I don't have much experience with Guy Bocard wines from Meursault. But I've heard they're good and figured they probably make good cheap wine. So I bought a bottle of Bocard's 2002 Bourgogne Blanc, and sure enough this was delicious and, while certainly not Meursault, really showed Cote d'Or character for very little money. This isn't a current release, so I had the added chance to see how good cheap wine might keep for a few years.

The wine started a bit stale, not oxidized as many people are finding their aged white Burgs. Rather, something less severe that just suggests the wine is getting a bit too old. Happily this element receeded with air time in favor of really nice baked apple and seashell aromas. In the mouth the wine was bright but flavory, with nice length and a mineral note that mixed well with the ripe yellow fruit flavors. I wouldn't keep this too much longer, but at 5 1/2 years this is terrific, distinct and inexpensive white Burgundy.

Who says you have to pay a lot for interesting wine? And no 9-irons required. Just don't refer to it as "baby Meursault."

March 02, 2008

Selbach-Oster Tasting

Yesterday I stopped by Liner & Elsen in NW Portland for a free tasting of Selbach-Oster rieslings. Johannes Selbach was scheduled to be there but apparently wasn't well and had to return to Germany. Local German wine guy Ewald Moseler -- the last name sort of gives away where he's from -- filled in and poured six wines.

The first few were fine enough but nothing special. Noteably, the 2006 Selbach-Oster Estate Kabinett and Spatlese Riesling both showed the gushing ripeness of the vintage. I prefer a bit less sweetness and lushness in these lower pradikat levels, but these aren't bad wines at all. I didn't note the other initial wine, but it was equally fine if a bit too sweet and fat.

A few people commented on how well the 2006 Selbach-Oster Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Riesling Spatlese showed. Again, it's nice wine, but the ripeness of the vintage seems to overwhelm any other element in the wine at this point. I enjoyed it and would recommend it if sweet fruit is what you're looking for.

As a nice contract, the last two wines showed more acid structure. The 2005 Selbach-Oster Zeltinger Himmelreich Riesling Auslese was hardly sweeter than the other wines. But it showed a spectacular aroma of red and yellow fruit and lots of slatey mineral notes. The taste was piercing, nicely sweet with zingy acid. I don't usually buy $34 wines, but this is one to buy if you're looking for something special. Wow.

Finally, the 2004 Selbach-Oster Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Riesling Auslese was a bit more tight, without the incredible aroma and more coiled in the mouth. This isn't tart wine, but coming after some fat examples of riesling, this seemed almost austere. Very good but I think you might hold this one for a while to see its best.

All in all, a couple very impressive wines and the rest, if made in Oregon, would be revelations. Maybe German rieslings, even sweeter than I prefer, are still so good and pure that really I'm just jaded.

March 01, 2008

Wine As Background Music

I love music, but the older I get, the more music seems to be in the background of my life. In my teen years, I largely spent weekend nights with friends in secondhand record shops -- usually Rhino in Westwood. We'd always go straight home to listen intently to our latest purchases. These days, music is mostly something I listen to alone, unless we have friends over. Only then we rarely listen to the music. It's usually just background noise.

Wine seems to be similar. With non-wine geek friends, wine becomes background music, something considered for ambiance. At the least, something that should be inoffensive. But I wish you could talk about the background music more without interrupting the evening. Especially if you want to be a bit critical.

For example, the other night our neighbors had us over and we drank the 2006 Gascon Malbec from Argentina, which seems to be the latest brand to saturate the local market. To my taste it was sweet, either from sugar or some other enhancements that give a sweet impression, and had a "liquid smoke" smell and taste that just repulsed me.

I countered with two wines, one a 2006 Casa Silva Carmenere Reserva that I'd opened the night before as an experiment. I never drink Chilean wine after tasting too many long ago and learning to hate the weedy, vegetal flavor that seemed pervasive in the category. Then I heard about Casa Silva on a GrapeRadio podcast that mentioned their syrah, with the suggestion that things have changed in Chile. Researching the producer on the internet, I found positive tasting notes on this Carmenere, which is available locally. I bought one and wouldn't you know it -- it has all the vegetal notes of the old days of Chile. But this wine, like so many others these days, has twice or three times the level of extraction and a most unoriginal mix of unripe and overripe qualities that defy taste imagination. This is simply bad merlot.

Of course, the wine geek pick didn't do much better. The 1998 Chateau la Roque Pic St. Loup Cupa Numismae from southern France smelled and tasted a bit old though the cork looked fine and storage hasn't been an issue. The last bottle was considerably richer and youthful, but this one was more gamey and lean with some bottle sweetness but some oxidation as well. Still, I'd rather drink this flawed example of a good wine, but I'm sure the non-geeks hated it. But who knows? We didn't discuss the wines, and I'm not sure how much we even heard them. But like the other two bottles, we had no problem consuming this one. The background music keeps playing.