July 31, 2008

1999 Balgera Valtellina Superior Sassella

I wrote recently about my trip to the iconoclastic wine shop in Santa Monica, CA, called Wine Expo. The shop specializes in unusual (at least in the U.S.) wines from around the world, with a specialization in all things Italian.

Looking for Otrepo Pavese? This is your shop. So, too, with Valtellina and its red wines from nebbiolo from a remote area in Lombardy.

Valtellina has its fans, and I've had some interesting examples from Conti Sertoli Selis, a producer I recognized at Wine Expo that I see a lot here in Portland. But I must admit that I've never had anything from this region that really excited me.

So it was with unusual interest that I observed one of the many dust ups over at the discussion group at erobertparker.com, this one featuring Valtellina.

Wine Expo's main guy, Roberto Giovanni Rogness, champions the wines of Valtellina on the board, to the chagrin of some who think he's a shill. Well one day, if it wasn't old Robert Parker himself who threw down the gauntlet to Roberto. Send some wines and I'll taste through them, he said, and see what I think.

Roberto selected some things and promptly sent them off. Needless to say, Parker wasn't impressed. You can read his amusing notes and the ensuing discussion here.

Of course, we know that no one is going to like all wines. Clearly Valtellina isn't to everyone's taste, yet the region has long had a reputation for good wine. However, Parker's raison d'etre has long been to call such reputations to the carpet, that wines live on reputations rather than intrinsic quality, and that he can taste the difference and let the world know what's what.

I'm conflicted by this. In the wine world, it seems you either agree with Parker and all that matters is in the glass. Or you disagree and believe he fails to see the beauty in wines that aren't bursting with gobs of fresh fruit and oak flavors, that other flavors may be difficult on their own yet shine in wine's true calling, as a companion to dinner.

Me, I see it a little bit both ways, and rather than explain all that, I thought I'd try one of the producers Roberto sent Parker (admittedly a cheaper, simpler bottling more fitting my pocketbook) to see how things go.

So I brought the 1999 Balgera Valtellina Superiore Sassera to meat night with some friends last night, finishing up the rest at home tonight. Balgera is reputedly a classic, old school Valtellina producer. Wine Expo has lots of Balgera bottlings to choose from if you're interested.

This wine, from the vineyards of Sassera, showed a translucent but rich ruby color that suggests some longer aging in larger wood vats. The aroma was reticent, with an oxidized notes that with time showed more dried flowers, dried cherries, nuts and old wood spice. At times it seemed tired, then at other times bursting with a complex, gorgeously integrated perfume that defies description. Then a bit flat and oxidized again.

In the mouth, the wine was more consistent lean with a slight sour character that required food to resolve. The texture though was pretty, with soft, light tannin and good length, with that high thread count feeling that instantly tells me there's something special in here.

This wasn't heat damaged wine, despite how it sounds. Rather, long aged and perhaps too long. In winemaker speak, you'd call this aldehydic or sherried in a pleasing but undeniable way. It may be the new world guy in me, or the puppet strings of Robert Parker, but I can't help wondering what this wine tasted like after a year or two in cask, and whether a bit less time wouldn't have helped find a more pleasing balance of elements.

Overall, I enjoyed this wine, but honestly I wouldn't seek it out again. Though I might look for other Balgera wines. I'm intrigued, and I know as with some of the best music, it might take time to let this wine sink in. Parker would likely call that an apology for bad wine. I think it's something more, even if I know I'd have to be pretty careful about whom I open something like this for. This kind of wine demands close attention, and even then it might not deliver.

July 29, 2008

Looking for Willamette Valley Pinot Noir

I suppose I need to use the force for good.

Who out there knows where I can get my hands on a half ton of top quality Willamette Valley Pinot Noir for my home winemaking?

Two things are essential:
  1. I'm looking for a grapes from a vineyard that's mostly if not all in commercial production.
  2. I need a grower who will "deal" with a home winemaker, for now.
If I have the choice, I'm looking for older vines and all Pommard or a majority of Pommard clone. But I'll entertain anything serious. No u-pick or homebrew-only vineyards, please. I need a grower who crops low and understands that I'm serious. I'm not rich or crazy, but I'm willing to pay for quality. I know there's no other way.

Do I sound crazy? Well in 2006 I got fruit from the Wahle vineyard, mostly 30 year old Pommard. I got shut out in 2007 and am on the "list" for grapes there this year. I just can't wait around to get shut out again, much as I'd love to be a buyer here. This grower sells commercially but doesn't mind (sometimes) working with home winemakers like me.

In 2007 I lucked into some 20 year old Pommard from a prized vineyard that I can't name. Unfortunately, that source isn't available to me this year, but that's life. I'll take what I can get.

I'm looking to make Pinot Noir at home for one more year (2008), then jump into limited commercial production in 2009. I'm not looking to mess around, so I want to make wine from top quality grapes. Ideally I'll make a connection that leads to more quantity next year and beyond. I have samples of wine I've made, if someone wants to make sure I know what I'm doing.

I didn't envision using this blog to fish for grapes. But it's almost August and, hell, the internet's a powerful thing. If anybody out there has grapes, or a connection or idea of who I might talk to, let me know here or at vincentfritzsche(at)yahoo(dot)com. I'd really appreciate it.

Now back to your regular consumption.

July 28, 2008

2002 Vincent Girardin Rully 1er Les Cloux

I've been enjoying some better wines recently. Meaning wines that are worth writing about. Not because of price or pedigree. They just strike me as worth time and words.

So it is with the 2002 Vincent Girardin Rully 1er Cru Les Cloux, from the Côte Chalonnaise. Yes, that same tidy locale as last week's 2004 A. et P. de Villaine Bouzeron Aligote.

Rully is known for white wine from the chardonnay, and a fair amount of red from the pinot noir. This of course is the white, and what a nice, mature bottle of little white Burgundy it is.

Pale gold in color, the wine at first seemed a little tired. With air and especially with dinner centered around a delicious fresh corn soup, nice scents of red apples and sweet cream butter emerged. This wine is certainly maturing, but it's in a nice place if you have any.

The wine is brightly acidic in the mouth, with lemon, red apple and soft oak tones. Initially it seemed a bit sour, but again air and food revealed something more youthful and long flavored.

I'd heard Girardin had sworn off red wines to focus on whites alone. Turns out that's not true, but I must say I've always preferred the whites I've tried to the reds.

I'll never forget the '99 Girardin Santenay Les Gravieres I tried blind and thought was an herbal Napa cabernet. Pleasant red wine, but not red Burgundy. And before you jump all over me, yes, that isn't exactly top shelf stuff. But it makes the point, when compared to this equally humble white Burgundy, maybe the whites are where it's at with this producer. Just saying.

July 27, 2008

1999 E. Vallania Vignetto della Terre Rosse Petroso

Never mind the movie Sideways. I'm simply not much of a merlot drinker simply because most merlot is lousy. Whether it's herbal or overoaked or simply boring, merlot seems to be among the most abused grape varieties out there. Yes, great wines from Pomerol and St. Emilion on the right bank of Bordeaux mostly come from merlot. Even there you'll find plenty of bad merlot.

So imagine my surprise last year when I tasted 1999 E. Vallania Vignetto della Terre Rosse Petroso at Liner & Elsen in Portland. The referred to it in their May 2007 newsletter as a Pomerol-like blend of 87% merlot and 13% cabernet sauvignon, and it's true. Perhaps the only complaint with this wine is that it didn't exactly taste "Italian," though it comes from the Emilia-Romagna region.

L&E's description of the Petroso is right on. Lots of plums, bitter chocolate and graphite, with terrific richness, resolving tannin and still bright acidity that carries the rich flavors. So much ripe new world merlot fails the taste test because of acidity. The flavors might be there, if they are buried in new oak. It's just that you need a glass of water to rinse your mouth after each sip because there's nothing in the wine to refresh the palate. The Petroso is alive with acidity, but so dark and rich with a youthful black ruby color even at nine years old.

We paired this wine with homemade pizza with porcini mushroom, sweet Walla Walla onions, minced garlic, and finished with chopped parsley. What a delicious pairing on a summer evening in the backyard. Read more about this wine and producer if you like. This wine isn't available locally anymore I don't believe, but other bottlings and other vintages surely are. Check them out.

July 22, 2008

de Villaine Aligoté

Wine geeks already know, but I can't help repeating how good A. et P. de Villaine's Aligoté is. This white wine, from the town of Bouzeron in the Côte Chalonnaise just south of the Côte d'Or.

The common story is that aligoté is the underappreciated grape of Burgundy, acidic and neutral tasting, most commonly mixed with cassis to make kir. You either know all that or you can probably read more elsewhere.

The point is...this is simply delicious, inexpensive white Burgundy from a producer that even I underestimate. It's a cliché but it's true. Every time I have a wine from this de Villaine, I wonder why I don't drink more. (The truth is that I prize variety, but that's beside the point.)

After a couple years of bottle age, this wine is lightly golden in color with a waxy lemon and honey aroma, all surrounded by a difficult to describe mineral and floral quality that's simply entrancing. Star fruit? Star anise? Who knows, this is amazing. Actually, the more I think of it, the more it resembles a fine and mature Savennieres.

In the mouth, it's deliciously acidic with sweet lemon, mineral and round waxy flavors and a tangy, savory finish. How do they do this with the lowly aligoté? I imagine the producer is just that good, and that the grape isn't all that bad, provided you treat it with respect.

Precisely the point I wanted to make recently in this discussion about rosé. Perhaps the reason most rosé, or aligoté, isn't so inspiring is that producers have low expectations, when the reality is that, if we choose to get the best out of something, we truly can. This aligoté again denies the critics of this grape. Thanks for de Villaine for taking this stuff a bit seriously.

July 21, 2008

Txak Full of Minerals

A while back, the ever bashful "slightly buzzed floozy" (her words, not mine) Melissa M. posted a request in a well know wine forum for driving directions here in Stumptown. The winner would get a free bottle of her favorite summer wine. Turned out to be my lucky day, because she wanted to get from essentially where I work to the rough location of my favorite local bakery St. Honore. How easy is that? I posted my directions and, viola, I'm a winner.

I wish life were always so simple.

The prize was a bottle of 2007 Ameztoi Getariako Txakolina Rubentis, perhaps the most pink rose I've ever seen. The color was a shade lighter than watermelon candy (think Jolly Ranchers), with no shades of red, orange or salmon. Just bright, brilliant pink unlike any rose I've seen before.

The aroma showed salted watermelon with floral notes and a bracing citrus quality. In the mouth, it had strong mineral and citrus flavors, then light cherry candy notes and a surprisingly (relatively) soft texture for such an austere, even nervous wine. I could gulp this down all by myself, and at only 11% alcohol I might have done just that had my neighbor not shared it with me.

The only possible issue with this delicious, unique rose is that it's not necessarily a crowd pleaser, unless you're hosting a gaggle of wine geeks. This is more akin to vinho verde than more common French rose. I think its severity might turn off the less choosy wine drinker.

According to Julian Jeff's old Faber book "The Wines of Spain," this producer is a family run bodega in the Basque area of Spain, on the northern Atlantic coast. The importer, Demaison Selections, suggests it's a blend of hondarribi beltza and hondarribi zuri, grapes I've never heard of much less tried. If you're adventurous and can manage to track of this down, definitely go for it. Thanks Melissa. I owe you. Maybe a croissant at St. Honore?

July 18, 2008

Wine Expo and Torre di Ciardo

I recently spent some time down in California, my home state, on a family trip. Mostly I spent time seeing friends and family, and old places I lived before moving north to Oregon some years ago. However, I couldn't help but visit some of the great wine shops of California in the spare moments I had to sate my wine obsession.

One such shop is Wine Expo in Santa Monica, close to where I grew up. Wine Expo is the roost of Roberto Giovanni Rogness, infamous contributor to online wine sites such as erobertparker.com. Roberto, or Robert as his co-worker (employee?) calls him, is legendary or notorious (depending on your opinion of him) for championing Italian wines.

Occasionally Roberto has been known to brush up against certain internet taboo, such as promoting wines he sells in his store, which has won him some reputation for being a bit of a shill. I can't fault him too much though. Anybody who repeatedly gets Mark Squires' goat is ok with me.

More commonly, Roberto's sheer exuberance for off the beaten path wines tells the real story. The guy loves Italian wine, and wine from all over for that matter, but generally off the beaten track stuff that the mainstream wine industry overlooks. He's knowledgeable and passionate, and is a champion for wines you simply haven't generally heard of. At Wine Expo, even a geek like me sees a majority of wines he's never heard of. What I do know suggests to me that Roberto and his associates generally bring in quality stuff. And his newsletter is worth reading, with musical references and the occasional bust on so-called "deals" at unique grocers like "Pirate Bob's." Pirate of course might be another name f0r Trader, Bob perhaps referring to a common man's name like, maybe, Joe. You think?

The only real issue I have with Wine Expo is equal parts pricing and promotion. Pricing is a tricky thing, because each market has its own benchmarks. Things that are cheap in one town might be generally more expensive in another town. So it's tricky to compare pricing sometimes city to city, or state to state. Wine Expo deals largely with wines other stores don't have. You can't really compare pricing directly if no one else carries the wines. But a few that I'm familiar with from overhead high Oregon are noticeably higher priced at Wine Expo than I find locally. I'd expect the opposite, because Oregon isn't exactly low-priced wine central. Cases in point. Pierre Peters NV Champagne is mid-$40s here. It's $60+ at Wine Expo. Provenza Negresco is nearly $30 at Wine Expo. I find it locally for less than $20.

I wouldn't think too much of that. This is west LA and everything's more expensive I suppose. But then I see the 2001 Marchesi Torrigiani Torre di Ciardo promoted as a $21 or $22 wine on major discount for just $10.99. I'm intrigued and buy a bottle. Turns out a simple web search shows that this wine is quoted in the Wine Spectator as $15 full retail and is available a few other places for the same $11 or slightly more. The wine itself is a nice drink, favorably and accurately reviewed here. But it's not $20+ anywhere that I can find, and that kind of promotion (essentially "we have a MAJOR deal here...") is misleading and, really, unnecessary. This wine is a good buy and you should pick some up if you like somewhat modern Tuscan red wine that still shows its Italian roots and pairs well with a simple dinner. Just don't think you're getting some GREAT bargain. It's just a good buy. Isn't that good enough?

I'm left feeling mixed about what I hear and read at this shop. Bypass that and focus on the wines and you'll do fine. Pierre Peters Champagne and every other I recognized at Wine Expo is very good stuff. You may not pay a rock bottom price all the time, even if you think you are. But you'll get quality.

I'd give a web link to Wine Expo, but they don't have a site. Find them on Santa Monica Blvd. I'll report later on a Valtellina I also picked up. There's a good story involving erobertparker.com regarding the wines of this region. I'm interested to see what I find.

White and red

The other night I opened a bottle of 2001 J.L. Wolf Riesling Wachenheimer, a dry German wine from this Loosen-owned property in the Pfalz region. You should be happy I'm not like some Boston-based wine writers who can't resist puns. Don't blame me for his affliction. It's not my Pfalz!


The back label of this wine suggests it's actually Wachenheimer Goldbachel Rielsing Spatlese (AP 16 02 for the truly geeky). I'm not sure why it's marketed simply as Wachenheimer.

When first poured, my wife suggested dryly that it does still have some life to it. Indeed it seemed a bit old at first, not sour but lacking interest. Good enough to drink I suppose but nothing more.

Then two nights later it's blossomed. Fresh yellow in color with flecks of mint, apples, stones and diesel, wrapped with the roundness of middle age. In the mouth it's indeed dry, with diesel and lemon flavors, some apple freshness and a soft, lingering finish with a bit of mushroom. Nothing earthshattering, but delicious, authentic German wine without any sweetness to get in the way. Sometimes I find lower level German wines blurred by sugar. That and they just don't seem as refreshing as cheap white wine really ought to be. Drink this wine sooner than later though. It's not meant to age and it's really about as good as you could hope for at this point.

Then last night we opened the 2000 Argiolas Korem Isola dei Nuraghi, a fancy bottling from a well known and well regard co-op on the island of Sardinia. Sadly, my other bottle of this was completely maderized, or cooked, with a brownish color and sour, cooked fruit aromas and, yes, flavors. I did taste it, then spit out the taste and poured out the bottle. It literally pains me to do that, and I can't do it without at least trying the wine to see just how bad it is. This wine was BAD.

So, with some pause, I opened this bottle of Korem. It too showed some likely heat damage, but was more than drinkable on its own and even delicious with a dinner based around roasted eggplant. The color was slightly rusting dark ruby, with a baked fruit aroma. My wife bluntly said it smelled like prune juice, but with time and food it seemed more fresh.

In the mouth it was rich and full bodied, with fine tannin and an earthy, cherry and brown spice flavor. I actually prefer the less intense and cheaper red bottlings from this producer, again for their refreshing quality. Perhaps that's just due to the warm summer weather we've been having and my desire for, well, refreshment. But even in colder months, with more pristine bottles, the Korem seems impressive but just not light enough on its feet to entrance me. Again though, with the roasted eggplant dish, this was delicious and we had no problem finishing the bottle.

July 13, 2008

Great tasting at Storyteller

Just back from a nice long vacation, on which I promised myself I’d take some time to catch up on blogging. Of course I didn’t. But I’m back, so some belated notes from a delightful tasting at Storyteller Wine Company here in Portland a few weeks back to celebrate the visit of noted wine blogger Nilay Ghandi and fiancé from Chicago. Definitely check out Nilay at 750mL.

First, another sample of the 2007 Tempier Bandol Rosé. Just as a month earlier, this is terrific rosé and worthy of Tempier’s reputation as a standard bearer of the genre. Fresh, bright, great balance, just delicious.

Then the 1999 Radikon Riserva Bianco Oslavje Riserva Collio, with its turbid orange color and initially slight ethyl acetate aroma. With air, this became wonderfully complex aromatically with great texture and length, hard to pin down with flavor descriptors beyond aged apples, but simply excellent if hardly typical white wine. A revelation.

The riches continued with the 2005 Faury Condrieu, so precise and pure a wine from viognier that puts any domestic version of this grape to shame. Rethink viognier if you’ve never tried Condrieu, the real thing.

We tried a local cider from I believe the former winemaker or assistant or something from a McMinnville winery. There were suggestions that this was made from grapes, but cider apparently is always from apples or pears. Sure enough, this had clear apple and pear flavors and was refreshing. The maker remains a mystery.

Returning to wine, we tried a rare bottle of the 1998 Yamhill Valley Vineyards Pinot Noir “Tall Poppy.” This special bottling in the ripe 1998 vintage seemed long in the tooth, with some volatility and zinfandel character, good enough wine but not so good pinot noir. This bottle at least. I’ve heard much better things about this one.

Then something completely new to me. The 2005 Holdredge Schiopettio from the MacBryde Vineyard in Sonoma County. This Italian grape variety is extremely rare in the US, probably also in Italy, I imagine. The wine was dark purple with an herbal, boysenberry aroma that evoked merlot, zinfandel, petite sirah, and the Rhone valley. In the mouth it was peppery with gravelly sweet boysenberry fruit balanced by pleasantly bitter grapefruit pith flavors. Very bright with fine tannin and a lingering, attractive bitterness, I really enjoyed this wine and think it would be most interesting on the dinner table. Good on winemaker John Holdredge for stumping the chumps with this one. Have you tried Schiopettio?

Then a California change of pace, the 2004 Lillian Syrah from the White Hawk vineyard in Santa Barbara county. Winemaker Maggie Harrison worked for many years with the Krankls at Sine Qua Non. Now has her own label Lillian, and recently acquired the Oregon winery Antica Terra with a few partners. The label reports 15.4% alcohol and the wine is intense, with strong raspberry and slight dill aromas. In the mouth it’s thick and rich with sweet pie fruit flavors, fine tannin and a bit hard textured but so gushing with fruit that you might not notice. The alcohol burns a bit, but this is obviously attractive wine for fans of big, intense red wine.

Finally, the 2001 Muga Rioja “Aro,” a luxury label from this old bodega. From a decanter, I guessed this was mid-‘90s Chateauneuf, maybe Pegau. Instead, it’s much younger but perhaps a bit too evolved already for its age. Finely tannic with dried cherries and raspberries, tight and more tannins on the finish. Perhaps this was difficult coming after the Lillian, perhaps this is simply nice but not outstanding Rioja, or perhaps this bottle wasn’t up to snuff. No one seemed concerned about it though. The price is very high here, and notes I’ve since read suggest there’s lots of new oak. I didn’t notice much, so who knows. But thanks Michael for this tasting, each and every bottle. What a treat.