May 31, 2008

Dinner at Alba Osteria

Elevage readers will likely know the names Carolyn and Marshall Manning. They host the annual Manning's March Magnum Madness soiree, and otherwise regularly open their home and their cellar to friends and strangers alike who enjoy good wine.

For Carolyn's recent....significant birthday, they topped themselves by hosting a dinner at one of their favorite restaurants here in Portland, Alba Osteria. They only asked that guests bring a special bottle of wine, or as Marshall clarifed for me, something you wonder "when am I going to open that?"

The evening was perfect. There are many accurate reports out there about how good and authentic Alba's cooking is, but this night seemed even better than ever. Add in a nice mix of people and a highly unusual Portland lightning storm, and of course some excellent wines, and it was truly a night to remember. Thanks to the hosts for their example of generosity, yet again.

For starters, we enjoyed the 1998 J. Lasalle Champagne Special Club, with its biscuity aroma and focused, long flavors. Then the 2005 Francois Cotat Sancerre Les Monts Damnes, fresh and piercing sauvignon that was predictably nice with oyster fritters.

The 2007 Tempier Bandol Rosé was very pale, with a simply beautiful rosé aroma with strong mineral flavors and wonderful length. Too bad that the bottle price has soared to the mid-$40s, though if any rosé is worth it, this really might be. It's fine wine, plain and simple.

The first red was the 1995 Bartolo Mascarello Barolo, youthful but not young, finely tannic but open and long. I was surprised how well this showed for being just a ’95, which is early yet for a wine that should last for decades.

A decanter came around with the 1988 Tempier Bandol Tourtine, a bit farmy and tight, not my favorite Tempier and actually, the more I think about it, the more I find that many Tempiers red are like this for me. Hardly bad, but just very good, if that’s damning. Is it just too young yet?

Then we tried the lone Burgundy, the 1998 Rousseau Clos de la Roche. And wow, this definitely showed itself as Grand Cru. Medium translucent ruby color, sweet fruit and lovely floral and old wood aromas, silky and long in the mouth with some tannin on the finish, but nothing obtrusive. If you want someone to know what Grand Cru is all about, just give them a glass of this.

I didn't pay too much attention to the 1995 Pegau Chateauneuf du Pape Cuvee Reserve, but it was really nice grenachey Chateauneuf, with a worsted texture with fine tannin that still needs time to resolve. It was tasty but will hold a while yet.

I also only had a quick taste of the 1990 Rocche dei Manzoni Barolo Riserva, which is still fairly tannic but nice if not a stand out tonight. Instead, I paid more attention to the 1958 Borgono Barolo Riserva, a relic in my wife’s words, but in a good way. Pale almost pink color, old yet fresh aroma and a light bodied but silky and flavory in the mouth. My wife later commented that it was like an old guy who’s well dressed and well kept, but still elderly. A treat. Thanks Mark.

Then a trio of dessert wines. First the 1988 Sudiraut Sauternes, which was nicer than I remember this one, more golden than ever with good sweetness and not the bitterness I remember from its youth. Then the 1995 Champalou Vouvray Tris des Vendanges, which was very sweet and fat, simply delicious but not so light on its feet.

But the true surprise amid this excess was the 1983 Argyros Vin Santo, what is apparently a legendary wine from Greece. Thick and rich, it was very full bodied with maple notes and all kinds of complexity, really tasty and a revelation about what might be out there from Greece that I’ve never even tried or thought existed.

The meal itself was long and delicious at every turn. I'll spare those details, but if you find yourself at Alba, simply order Tajarin and let the rest fill itself in. Alba makes and serves perhaps the best pasta in Portland, enough said.

May 21, 2008

Bouchard is not Bouchard

It's a rookie mistake, one I've made in that past. But I'm not a wine rookie anymore, right? I guess not. Maybe that would explain how I bought one producer's wine thinking I was buying another producer's.

Did you know there are two Bouchards in Burgundy? Even just writing that makes a voice in my heard scream, well, duh. If nothing else, France is legendary for having multiple wine producers with the same name.

I should know. I was a good 16 years ago that I found Mouton Cadet. Hmm, what's this? Mouton? For $7? Of course, I knew is wasn't really Chateau Mouton Rothschild. But maybe it was a close sibling, something of quality well above its price.

Well, no, that wasn't the case then and still isn't. Mouton Cadet may still be close enough to that same $7 price, but it's also still about as far from the first growth Bordeaux that it's named for as it ever was. If you look up the word "plonk" in the dictionary, you see Mouton Cadet. If you look up the word "fool," perhaps on that day you'd have seen my face.

Wish I could say that isn't true today.

I should know better than to assume one Latour is the same as another Latour, or that one Chave is just like the other Chave, and so on. Or that one Bouchard -- that's Bouchard Aine & Fils -- is the same as Bouchard Pere & Fils.

Now I didn't question the "Aine" vs. the "Pere," which of course is my mistake. A simple web search will show you that the two are quite different. One, that's Pere, is among of the larger producers of fine Burgundy out there. The other, Aine, is infamous for lackluster wines.

Of course, it was Aine that caught my eye when shopping for inexpensive Burgundy (probably the other mistake, but I'm afraid I'll never learn that lesson). So I ended up with a few bottles of what Burg geeks would undoubtedly turn their noses up at. At least they were indeed cheap. And what do you know, what I've tried hasn't been half bad. Maybe not worth my time, or at least my liver, but not completely void of pleasure and, well, education.

I reported recently on the decent if unspectacular 2000 Bouchard Aine & Fils Pommard "Signature." Tonight I opened a 2001 Bourchard Aine & Fils Nuits Saint Georges "Les Chaboeufs" 1er Cru. It's not a great year and not a great vineyard, but still it's in a nice neighborhood in a fine village.

And what do you know? The wine is alright. Not great, but not horrible. Maybe worth the $20 I paid but not at all the bargain I hoped I had found. The color is translucent ruby, the aroma pretty and perfumed, with cherries and classic Burgundian forest floor notes. It's certainly more youthful than that Pommard.

But in the mouth...let's just say this is a wine that Burg haters would really hate. It's acidic, even tart, with decent flavors but a short finish. It's the kind of wine that gets you thinking of what's NOT wrong about it. Not too extracted, not alcoholic, but also not so great without food. This is just the kind of wine that people call "elegant" to be kind, which is too bad because the greatest wines are truly elegant, not simply lean and needing food, but gorgeous in a simple yet profound way.

This wine is not elegant. It's simply decent Burgundy but nothing better. Certainly nothing worth its premier cru status, but that only leads to the greatest Burgundy lesson of them all. Don't buy vintage. Don't buy vineyard. Do buy producer. Although these Bouchard Aine wines could be a lot worse, don't buy them. You can do much better for less, and I guess that's a lesson I'll probably continue to have to learn again and again...and again...and...again.

May 13, 2008

Mother's Day Wines

My parents were up for Mother's Day weekend. With Sunday diner, we had two remarkable Oregon wines, a white and a red. It just goes to show that some now older, well established local producers are famous for a reason.

First, the 2007 Cameroni "Giuliano" from Cameron that's apparently a mix of chardonnay, auxerrois, pinot gris and maybe other things. I must admit, I've mostly ignored this bottling in the past. It's in a different bottle, it has a radically different label. I just looked past it in favor of the more common, delicious pinot noir and chardonnay bottlings.

But this wine was really good. Fresh and clean as you'd expect in such a young wine, and then brightly aromatic and complex, with great focus. The flavors were also bright and fresh, with terrific balance of fruit and acidity and a long finish. This is aptly labeled in Italian, but shows the distinction of good, affordable Oregon white wine. Highly recommended. I'm not so sure about I can say the same for MondoEgo. Is there really more?

Then an old friend, my last bottle of 1999 Evesham Wood Pinot Noir Seven Springs. This bottle again shows why Evesham Wood has been and remains one of the best red wine producers in Oregon. It doesn't hurt that their prices, while higher lately, are still cheap for the quality. Like Cameron, everything's handmade here.

This wine showed a maturing and translucent dark red color, and with some airing it became one of the most interesting aromas I've smelled in Oregon pinot noir in a while. Spicy but not oaky, with just the right amount of fruit and undergrowth as you'd expect in a good, maturing wine. In the mouth it was silky and resolved, but with good acidity giving nice freshness to this nearly decade old wine.

This wine didn't have the amazing depth and complexity of the best grand cru. But, like the Cameron, it was damn good and a clear example of what's good, even great, about local wine.

May 05, 2008

Two Whites From Edmunds St. John

I've long enjoyed the red wines from California producer Edmunds St. John. But I haven't always loved the whites, probably because I haven't tried enough. Because I recently tried two somewhat recent releases, and they were both delicious and interesting, though not at all what you might expect from a California winery.

As a native Californian, I'm not going to get into wine geek scuttlebutt about how California wine is all oaky and overripe and horrible. It's true, there are some ghastly wines out there. But that's true of pretty much any region in the world. If you look deeper, you'll find many great producers of wine. One is Edmunds St. John.

There's some irony that noted wine critic Robert Parker is the one who introduced me to Edmunds St. John many years back. Parker then loved the Rhone-styled wines from this producer, but lately he seems to have changed his opinion, decrying the tendency toward prominent acidity and preference for soil and mineral flavors rather than simply gobs of hedonistic fruit.

To me, the wines haven't changed. What was admirable then is admirable now, perhaps moreso as the wines seem less variable in quality bottle to bottle. Of course, that might be simply my anecdoatal experience. It's true that back in the early '90s, my first experiences of Edmunds St. John wines were mixed, with some bottles delicious and some flawed. Perhaps it was just back luck, or perhaps it was due the lack of winemaker intervention that Parker claimed to love. But I certainly had some, shall we say, wild bottles of ESJ wine.

The good ones were great, and they've kept me coming back for more. I can't recall the last time any ESJ wine let me down, and here are two whites that hold that line without any issue.

First, the 2006 Edmunds St. John Pinot Gris Witters Vineyard high up in the Sierra Foothills of El Dorado County. Here in Oregon, Pinot Gris is king. But is anyone making such gutsy, perhaps challenging Gris? This wine is more like Austrian Gruner Veltliner than anything else, and it's certainly more interesting than most local Gris. Rich, round and very clean tasting, there's a distinct green pea note that suggest meine liebe Osterreich.

I think this is what my winemaker friends would call a "phenolic" wine, meaning there's extract from the white grapes that can sometimes give undesirable tannin or other bitterness. In this case, the phenolic quality gives a nice richness to the wine. I think this would be good with salmon and capers or something similarly rich with a green element.

Then the 2004 Edmunds St. John Shell and Bone white wine from Paso Robles. This particular blend of marsanne, roussane and viognier from the Rozet and Tablas Creek vineyards is simply gorgeous. Not a heavy wine, it's true to its limestone soil and grapes without any oak flavor. The round yet precise aromas and flavors echo the northern Rhone valley, but there's a ripe sort of golden character that's pure California. I have a single bottle of the 2004 ESJ Rousanne Tablas Creek, and I'm very interested now to see what it's like.