February 21, 2009

Recent Northwest wines

The other night I had the opportunity to try a variety of wines, among them some from here in the good old Pacific Northwest. They were each so interesting, I must write about them.

First the latest of non-vintage Cameron Chardonnay Willamette Valley, apparently mostly or all 2007 from the great Abbey Ridge vineyard, just younger vines and particular barrels that didn't finish their malolactic fermentation in a timely fashion, leaving them out of other blends. This is pure, crisp, clean, and delicious Oregon chardonnay for around $12. Ridiculous quality for the price.

The only problem with that wine was trying the 2006 Cameron Chardonnay Abbey Ridge right after it. If the first wine was nice music, this bottle made you realize you were listening in mono. One sniff and you're now hearing in full dimension stereo. Clear French oak aromas that will soften with age, this is very fine wine. Apples and pears, lemon curd, hazelnuts, all lithe and lean but rich at the same time, this isn't "white Burgundy" (not should it be), it's just at that quality level, premier cru at least. Dang.

Ok, back to earth, but pleasant earth on the Washington side. First the 2007 K Vintners Syrah Millbrandt, which was surprisingly gamey, floral, and pure smelling, with subtle perfume rather than a blast of jammy fruit and whiskey barrel smells that I find in too many Washington reds. I know, broad generealization. I need to taste more from our neighbor state, especially if there's more wine like this. In the mouth, it's rich but not heavy, with good structure that makes me think of dinner, not cocktail hour. I like this.

Then the real surprise, a zinfandel made in Carlton, OR, from Washington state grapes that's really good. It's the 2007 Three Angels Zinfandel Avery Vineyard, with nice pepper and plum aromas, full flavors but not overly ripe or alcoholic. If I hadn't seen the label, I might have guessed this was Lytton Springs area stuff from California's zin-centric Dry Creek Valley. A data sheet suggests this was picked in early October a little over 23 brix. I'm not sure how it ended up at 15% alcohol as the label suggests, though the wine didn't seem so large. Nice.

Sure enough though, Three Angels has a fatter zinfandel from the Les Collines Vineyard that, according to the data sheet, was picked closer to 27 brix near the end of the same month. Similar three to four week vatting time, but more new oak, more obvious alcohol, and not the interest to me of the Avery bottling. These are real zins though. Somewhere deep in me there's a dream to make zinfandel. It was my first winemaking love, back in California. Tasting these, that dream came alive. Maybe someday.

February 18, 2009

Yarden Mount Hermon Red

If you've read even a few of the now 250 posts on this blog, you know I like to drink broadly. I'm not a cab guy, or syrah guy, or Burgundy guy, or what have you. I value diversity in all things, and wine is no exception.

I've reported on Austrian gruner veltliner, Australian stickies, Oregon pinot noir, Loire romorantin, fizzy red wine from Italy's Oltrepo Pavese, and any number of other common and uncommon things on this blog. To this point, however, I've neglected the wines of Israel.

So, the 2007 Yarden Mount Hermon Red from the Golan Heights in Galilee. I've tried a few things from Israel over the years, but never this Israeli favorite that I heard about this past harvest working along an Israeli winemaker who happens to live here in Portland.

As I've learned, the Mount Hermon is an unusual wine in that it's released just a few months after harvest. If the Bordeaux variety grapes come in to the winery in September, they're in bottle as new wine in time for Hanukkah three months later. Hearing about the wine, I thought it must be bubble gummy or otherwise "fake" tasting. How else to make cabernet and family palatable by December?

Sampling the 2007 offering, I'm very impressed. This is quinessential table wine, and at $9 or $10 in Israel and a few dollars more here in the U.S., this is much more what inexpensive table wine ought to be compared to the typical mass market stuff you find in that price range.

Instead of the sugary sweet but harsh, even green flavors of so many domestic red wines in this price range, the Mount Hermon red is ripe without sweetness, with a nicely fruity but savory aroma. The flavors are varietal, with cherry and raspberry fruit and a pleasant green pepper and tobacco quality from the cabernet sauvignon or cabernet franc. The tannins are light but finely textured with juicy acid and a nice winey character overall.

This wine won't change your life, but I really enjoyed it's honest expression of Bordeaux variety wine. I'm not surprised to hear this is popular wine in Israel, and apparently it may soon be distributed here in Oregon. I'll look for it.

February 16, 2009

Weekend imbibage

After the quick tasting of Antica Terra Pinot Noir and Lillian Syrah on Friday evening, I went home and opened the 2004 Neudorf Pinot Noir Nelson. This New Zealand red wine comes from the lesser known, here in the US anyway, Nelson region on the very north end of the south island.

At first the wine seemed overly vegetal, somewhat remeniscent of older Monterey county pinot noir before that region in California got things together pinot-wise. It wasn't bad, just underwhelming. I probably shouldn't mention that I found myself again pairing pinot noir with unadorned steak. When will I learn that's not a good match?

Saturday was Valentine's day, so we had what turned out to be a lovely rose Champagne with dinner at home. After the overly dosaged NV Drappier "Brut" last week, this NV Henriot Brut Rose was just the thing. Bright, lithe, nervy with pretty but restrained red berry fruit and that telltale chalk of Champagne. This won't make me forget Lassaigne, but it's far closer than the Drappier.

The beauty of Champagne is that it pairs with almost anything on the dinner table, maybe even steak. The pinot noir in the blend of this Henriot was excellent with our soft polenta and mushroom ragout. Yet I saw the leftovers of the Neudorf calling for another chance, so we poured a little of it as well. Sure enough, the vegetal notes now seemed more root-like and gamey, with the earthy meal bringing more savory fruit out of the wine. I loved it.

We should not doubt the importance of food/wine pairings, even if paying such attention to them takes the wine geek to another level of disdain in most people's eyes. I can't deny it. My concern about what wine goes with steak is pretty small stuff in our world. Yet on a cold winter night, when I do have a modest home and the means to scoop up close outs at the discount outlet, it's real to me.

February 14, 2009

Antica Terra Pinot Noir

I enjoyed tasting two vintages of Antica Terra Pinot Noir last night at Storyteller Wine Co. in Portland, with winemaker Maggie Harrison on hand. Listen here to a recent Graperadio interview with Maggie detailing her history with Manfred and Elaine at SQN and how she came to make wine in Oregon.

First, the 2005 Sine Qua Non "The Petition," which I found extremely white burg like. Huge aroma of well integrated oak, nuts, minerals, and yellow fruit, this showed lots of chardonnay character. In the mouth it was more alcoholic than anything I've ever tried from Burgundy, but still long and well balanced. I've had this before and I liked it even better tonight.

Next came the 2007 Antica Terra Pinot Noir. This wine is not yet released. I was really impressed with the wine's fragrance. Lovely gamy and floral aromas with bright red fruit and clean dirt scents. The flavors followed in line, with little tannin but bright acid that carried the long finish. What a distinctive wine. 2007 was a challenging vintage and this isn't hugely flavorful and powerful. Instead, it's all about grace and, in another's words, seamlessness. Very nice wine.

I found the 2006 Antica Terra Pinot Noir similar in its perfume, with a liveliness that I didn't expect from this warm vintage. The wine is much more dense than the 2007, with strong black cherry fruit and a soft, round texture. I prefer the lighter, more elegant '07, but the familial resemblance of the two wines is remarkable. I'll be paying attention to this producer. You should too.

February 08, 2009

Spakling rose and a stop at Bar Avignon

Last night we sampled a bottle of 2002 Domaine de Cray Cremant de Loire Rose, which is absolutely delicious and yet another terrific value in sparkling wine. Where can you get vintage rose sparkling wine made from pinot noir that's this good for only around $13? Better yet, locals should be able to get it a bit cheaper still as the distributor has put it on post off. I'm going to load up.

The wine is a gorgeous salmon color, with a nice berry aroma that's fruity but not overly so. There's also nice yeasty, buiscuit notes that give depth to the perfume. In the mouth, it's again strikingly berry fruited but not sweet, minerally and maybe even chalky with yeast notes. The package is bright and fresh, yet round and integrated, all at once. This is high quality wine from a great Loire Valley vintage, and versatile enough to go with lots of different food. I'm impressed. I don't know how long it will last in the cellar, but I'm guessing a few years won't hurt anything.

A nice touch is the wine's clear glass bottle, which I'm saving for use as a water bottle on the dinner table. The label soaked off really easily. You see, I love water with meals, and certainly with drinking any kind of alcohol, but I'm terrible about remembering it at home. It just so happened that before getting this Cray wine, I stopped by the excellent Bar Avignon in SE Portland to pick up a gift certificate for a friend who's been a great help and support for my homemade wine. Sitting at the bar while they rang up my purchase, a server poured me cold tap water from a clear glass wine bottle. They keep a bunch of them in the fridge and pour liberally, into really nice and simple but not too narrow, not too tall glasses. I thought to myself -- I need to do that. Now, with one empty bottle of Cray Cremant Rose and several more to come, I'm excited for delicious, refreshing water. Come on over.

Finally, it just so happened that I stopped by Bar Avignon while Jay Somers from J. Christopher winery was pouring a few current releases. All four were delicious and interesting. First, a 2007 Maresh Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc, very crisp, fresh, and varietal. Nice restrained fruit flavors and persistent acidity. Then the 2007 Le Pavillon Chardonnay, again varietal and minerally, showing its no oak, no malolactic elevage. Very nice.

Jay mentioned that he won't bottle any single vineyard / reserve type red wines from 2007, for economic reasons, not vintage quality. Judging from the basic 2007 Zoot Allures Pinot Noir bottling, quality indeed isn't the issue. This is really nice, bright and pure pinot noir without any herbal or green qualities. Very impressive sub $20 Oregon pinot noir from this vintage. Finally, the 2006 Sandra Adele Pinot Noir, very rich, maybe even heavy in texture but woodsy and floral amid the strong berry flavors. Very 2006, but also very good. Thanks for the samples Jay.

February 05, 2009

Botrytized Kabinett Riesling?

After my last post about overly sweet "brut" Champagne, we move to the curious case of botrytized kabinett riesling. How is such a thing possible?

Kabinett riesling from Germany is generally lighter bodied, lightly sweet, and brightly acidic. I like it for its pretty aromatics, elegance, and refreshing quality. It's also relatively cheap and some nights, like tonight, I want a light, low alcohol wine with dinner.

Kabinett's siblings in Germany's prädikat scale of ripeness are spätlese, auslese, beerenauslese, and trockenbeerenauslese. To qualify for any of these designations, wine must be made from grapes that achieved a certain ripeness level. If grapes are just ripe enough to make spätlese wine, they essentially aren't ripe enough to be called auslese or anything further up the scale.

Of course, things are never so simple with our German friends. Those spätlese level grapes could be made into kabinett. Sometimes grapes that could even be auslese end up in kabinett wines. Some vintages see lots of ripeness, so the kabinett is more like spätlese, the spätlese more like auslese, and so on.

Sometimes that's a good thing. You might get a little more wine for your buck. And sometimes it's a bad thing. You want what the label suggests is in the bottle. You get an untimely surprise.

In the case of the 2005 Carl Loewen Riesling Kabinett from the Leiwener Klostergarten vineyard, whoa. I don't think I've ever had such a ripe, rich kabinett. This one even smells like a light dessert wine, with figgy apple, grapefruit, and pear aromas. Is there some botrytis in here? That's the noble rot that gives the fig and apricot richness to the highest level prädikat wines? This isn't beerenauslese, but this ain't kabinett either, in my book.

In the mouth, the richness is accentuated by a lack of acidity, giving a slightly syrupy, viscous quality to the texture, with the sweetness a bit cloying. This is tasty wine if lacking percision. It's not at all what I wanted with dinner, but as a sipping wine now it's pretty good. With time the wine does seem more mineral and less overtly figgy, though it's still fat and thick, maybe in need of a bit of mineral water for refreshment.

Sure enough, looking now at broker Terry Theise's write up in his 2006 German catalog, this wine has the same "sense of sweetness" mark as the producer's spätlese and auslese. Terry calls that sweet but not obtrusive. I might argue with that. Still, too bad SOS isn't on the label (I know, just what the Germans need, more information on the label.)

Terry correctly waxes on the virtues of the wine's freakishness, "a real gob stuffer" with a "powerhouse palate." Not surprisingly, the grapes were harvested at 93 Oechsle, putting them well into auslese level.

So what do you think? Do you like hyper rich kabinett? Have you ever been frustrated when you open a bottle of kabinett only to find a flaccid auslese?

In case you were wondering, the AP on this bottle is 5 06. Those Germans.

February 03, 2009

Champagne avec dosage

I don't drink much Champagne. It's often expensive, and somehow when I have a few extra bucks in my pocket, bubbly of any type isn't what I typically reach for.

That's changing, with sparkling wine in general and, even in these tough times, Champagne proper. Did I write up the absolutely killer NV Lassaigne Champagne Brut Blanc des Blancs I had some weeks back? When researching that post, I found out about importer Joe Dressner's conjoined brain twin and got a little sidetracked.

Nevertheless, Lassaigne makes exceptional grower Champagne, and even their Les Vignes des Montgueux bottling at the base level is startlingly good. Pure, clean, complex, full of spine-tingling acid nervosity, just delicious.

Which inevitably brings me to a topic that I've found tiresome, until now. Wine geeks tend to think grower Champagne kicks ass for many reasons. One big one seems to be that these small scale producers generally don't add too much dosage to their wines, dosage being the sweet wine slurry added to sparkling wine before release to round out flavors and convey some house style. Growers lean away from the heavy dosage that the big houses overload their flashy brand names, taking what might otherwise be acidic, boring mass production Champagne and turning it into overly sweet, boring mass production "dry" Champagne.

Yawn. Seriously, even I've been rolling my eyes at such a David vs. Golaith set up.

Then I try some big name Champagne and...well...it's true. Some of these "dry" wines are way too sweet without the redeeming balance of Loire or German whites.

Take the NV Drappier Carte d'Or Brut. Brut means dry, but if you look around the internet, you'll be hard pressed to find any notes that tell you just how sweet this wine is. Sure, you see "round" and "full bodied," often synonyms for "sweet" in all kinds of wines. One prominent magazine even suggests it's "firm and refined." Maybe if you serve very cold.

I suggest people start using the word "sweet" when describing this wine.

The good news about the Drappier? It smelled and tasted like Champagne. There's no mistaking the chalkiness in most Champagne. But that dosage! It's just too much, leaving me guzzling water to refresh my mouth. Or better yet, something from Lassaigne.

February 01, 2009

Oltrepo Pavese

Just a quick Sunday night post to say how much enjoyed my first taste ever of Oltrepo Pavese. Specifically, the 2006 Bruno Verdi Sangua di Guida Paradiso. It's a lightly fizzy, deeply colored red wine with 7% alcohol and a flavor profile not unlike barbera. Dark berry fruit, bitter chocolate, and just a beautiful, savory flavor that balanced the light sweetness perfectly. I could drink a lot of this. Highly recommended.