May 30, 2009

2007 Biggio Hamina Syrah

Tonight we tried a very interesting, ethereal syrah from here in the northern Willamette Valley of Oregon. The 2007 Biggio Hamina Syrah Duex Vert Vineyard is from a site in the Yamhill-Carlton district known for unusal (to our area) grape varieties such as melon de bourgogne. While this vineyard produces pinot noir, I'm most fascinated by its syrah, something you don't see much around here. This must be a warm site to ripen such a grape.

2007 of course was a relatively cool year with a rainy harvest, challenging for earlier ripening pinot noir. One would surmise that local syrah would have been a washout, but not so. Not at all, and I find that particularly exciting given my interest in local alternatives to the lovely but ubiquitous pinot noir.

Here's a wine that's light bodied and translucent in color, a product of the vintage but perhaps showcasing the style of a producer that wants to make "challenging" and delicious wine. They've succeeded here on both counts.

The aroma is all syrah (with 8% viognier actually), smokey with notes of cured meat, cranberries and raspberries, white pepper, flowers and sweet smelling earth. It's not intense and deep, but so complex and savory I could smell this all night.

In the mouth, it's nervy and lean, clearly built for food. It was delicious with grilled copper river salmon on a cedar plank. The wine is light in body, but captivating and piquant with a sense of meat and iodine and nicely gripping tannin. The finish is long and lean, a complete opposite to most domestic syrah that overpower with flavor but lack finesse.

In sum, I love this wine. Yet my wife and a neighbor both found it more challenging than satisfying, at least this night. They didn't hate it, but just make sure you want this kind of thing. If so, you might find again as I do that the future of syrah in these parts is very promising.

May 26, 2009

The Parker Brouhaha

Are you as worn out as I am by the Wine Advocate's ethics flap? Yet somehow I am compelled to write to try to figure it all out so you and I can sleep at night.

Head Wine Advocate Robert Parker has long championed his critical independence from the wine industry. That's to be applauded. Yet there's more to the story now, with the Wine Advocate featuring several other writers who apparently aren't asked to uphold quite the same standard as Parker.

In recent months, everyone in the wine internet-o-sphere seems to be frothing at the mouth. ETHICAL LAPSE! Bloggers have uncovered the goods. The Wall Street Journal has now weighed in. The story is blowing up.

Only one problem. Where are the bodies?

Ok, let's back up. More than year ago, Wine Advocate writer Mark Squires was featured prominently in a CNN report on Israeli wine. According to reporter Atika Shubert's voice over narration:

Israel wants the world to know [about its wines]. In March [of 2008], the government launched a PR offensive to literally wine and dine critics and diplomats the world over. Mark Squires is one of the traveling critics.

The video continues with several comments from a notably happy Squires, whose affiliation with the Wine Advocate is highlighted and perhaps the reason for the face time.

The smiles continued back at the erobertparker wine discussion forum that Squires runs. In a love-fest of a thread posted when the video went public, several regular posters congratulated Squires on his CNN appearance, among them former longtime Wine Advocate writer Pierre Rovani. Only one person asked who paid for the trip, and Squires answered the question clearly. No one else seemed concerned with the potential conflict of interest.

Then last month, Dr. Vino published a bit of an expose that brought up another potential conflict of interest. Mike Steinberger had published an article in Slate questioning the direction of Australian wine. Squires rebutted on the discussion group, but the thread was locked (and deleted) before Steinberger could respond. Dr. Vino published the private correspondence from Steinberger and Squires, where Steinberger brought up another thread (also now deleted) on the discussion group about Wine Advocate writer Jay Miller's high profile dinner at Bern's Steakhouse in Tampa, FL, with three Spanish wine importers. Miller's beat for the Wine Advocate includes Spain. Needless to say, Squires appeared less than gentlemanly and perhaps gave the story additional legs for his defensiveness and outright rudeness. Where's there's smoke there may be fire, and Squires was smokin' that day.

Now comes the Wall Street Journal with a summation of the story delivered on the doorstep of the mainstream media. Wine may be a niche subject, but Parker's had movies and books made about him. Something tells me this story isn't done.

Yet where are the bodies? Where is the meat? So far, the issues are two, neither than impressive to me.

One, there's the potential for conflict of interest. But so far, the best people seem to have is that Miller was brought to Australia on a junket and now he's published high ratings for lots of Australian wines. What's new? Miller's busy publishing gobs of high ratings on pretty much everything he reports. It's a new running joke. "Jay Miller didn't like the wine. It only got a 93." The issue here isn't proven conflict of interest. It's grade inflation.

Two, there's a lack of transparency and consistency in the Wine Advocate's ethics policy. Perhaps. It is puzzling that Parker has published a policy now that sets one standard for himself and another, less rigorous standard for his writers. Really though, the junkets haven't been a secret. Sure, the newsletter could (and probably now will) be especially clear about who's paying for what, but it's not like these were deep, dark secrets. From the WSJ article, it sounds like a few of the trips in question were unearthed with a phone call. Others were hidden in places like...CNN and on the Parker web site!

If -- and it's a big IF -- if more news comes to light, perhaps this whole to-do will seem more worthwhile. I'm sure people will keep digging. It isn't helping that Parker's been calling out bloggers as essentially worthless parasites. Maybe that will bite him in the rear. If there is pay to play in the Parker kingdom or any other kind of major dealbreaker, well wouldn't that be interesting. But that's not the case yet, and I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for it. Just a hunch. Meanwhile, if you're really worried about all this, why not taste wines for yourself and give up worrying if something's a "92." Spend more effort of your food match.

May 22, 2009

NZ Sauvignon and a Rhone

I found the 2008 Isabel Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand's Marlborough region at a local store and bought one to try. What a delicious wine. Screwcapped and fresh, with a fragrant vegetal aroma of green peas and a bit of stinky reduction notes that unwinds to a more golden fruited, leesy but still pleasantly vegetal fragrance. It's hard to explain but I really enjoyed the changes and overall complexity this wine showed. In the mouth, it's a bit fat from lees aging and maybe some barrel time, but crisp and focused too. I suppose "well balanced" would be the right thing to say here. Just delicious, and a search of internet notes suggests this wine can age. I don't usually think of NZ sauvignon as something for the cellar, but who knows, maybe this has some potential to last.

Then another excellent Cotes du Rhones from Domaine Milliere. This, the 2006, is darker colored, more extracted and intense than I remember older bottlings (going back to the stunning 1996), with a bit of a gummy, fruity syrah/shiraz aroma. Still, this is all southern Rhone wine with minerality, pepper and a sense of savor to the aroma that more modern, purely new world wines just don't usually show. In the mouth, there's rich berry flavors with chewy tannin balanced by a fresh, sweet impression. There's a bit of alcoholic warmth here, in a good way. This is wine for a cool, sunny evening when you're out back, feeling the need for a sweatshirt at dusk but still enjoying some grilled food and hopefully your friendly neighbors. If this was from California, people would be drooling over the mix of complexity, intensity and finesse, and paying a handsome price. From the lowly Cotes du Rhone appellation, this is inexpensive, somewhat ageworthy and unquestionably interesting red wine. Hard to go wrong here.

May 18, 2009

More Valtellina

Robert Parker doesn't like Valtellina. At least, that's how it appears to this reader. Any time I've read him comment on these nebbiolo-based wines from far northwestern Italy, he doesn't just sound unimpressed. Rather, he sounds inspired to criticize in a way he hasn't in years in the pages of his Wine Advocate newsletter. It's kind of refreshing, even if I might not agree.

Tasting another wine purchased from Wine Expo in Santa Monica, CA, where Parker got the Valtellina he mentioned above, I think I see what was objectiving to. The 1998 Balgera Valtellina Superiore Grumello isn't a Sforzato-style wine like he tried, those made from dried grapes a la Amarone. But this has all the dried fruit, leather, and baked fruit aromas Parker seemed to like, and all the piquant flavor and tannic texture he seemed to hate. Sipping wine this isn't.

But then with galettes of feta and farm cheese with dill and thyme, this wine was absolutely gorgeous. Perfumed with fragrant herbs and fresher seeming cherry fruit, then silky, complex and refreshing in the mouth. What a terrific match, where again the earthy and herby flavors of the food brought out the freshness and sweetness in otherwise earthy, herby wine. It just goes to show how important food is with old school wines. Parker didn't mention trying his Valtellina with food. I wonder how that might have changed his impressions.

May 17, 2009

White and red

With summer weather in Portland, we got the dry season off to a nice start last night with dinner in the backyard with neighbor friends. After a little Blind Pig ("Swig a Pig") ale from Russian River Brewing, we tried two very interesting and delicious wines.

First, the 2008 Torbreck Woodcutter's Semillon from the Barrossa Valley of Australia. I found this for $8 locally, which is aberrant pricing. Still, at $15 or so, this is a seriously nice wine for summer. Light gold in color with a slight greenish cast, this is fresh smelling, lemony with light wax and mineral notes. Nothing complex but just so beautiful and pure, I loved this. The flavored followed, with bright, crisp lemon and steely notes, pure and focused but with just enough fat to give a sense of richness. This is excellent Aussie semillon, exemplifying yet another wine category beyond the usual shiraz that merits your attention. I don't know if this is worth aging, but semillon from down under can have surprising cellarworthiness.

Then the 2000 Thunder Mountain Star Ruby, a Bordeaux variety blend from the Cienega Valley of California. Check out this old Elevage post from 2005 when I detailed the sad but uplifting story of this winery. Sad in that Milan, an old acquaintance from wine board days, is no longer with us. Uplifting because he was a homebrewer who went pro and made excellent wines like this one.

So how's this bottling holding up? From that old post, I see that I found this wine tight and needing age. Nearly four years later, it's rocking good. Certainly in no danger of fading, but this is drinking really nicely. Lots of berry, cassis and barrel toast on the aroma, all nicely integrated as age does for good wine. There's some tobacco in there and other spicy notes. The flavors follow, with lovely fine tannin that's beginning to resolve. This has terrific balance and a long finish, just what I look for wine a wine. Four years ago I said this could easily go for 10+ years, and I still feel that way. You can drink it now or over another decade. Thanks Milan.

May 13, 2009

Bodega del Fin del Mundo

I found a cheap bottle of red wine the other day from an Argentinian property with a strange name that I somehow just had to try. So I bought a bottle of 2006 Bodega del Fin del Mundo Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva, which came to Portland all the way from the arid plains of Patagonia. I find I don't often try wines from South America, so here's a chance to find something new and different.

I didn't look too closely at the back label until getting home. Get this:
The mysticism and romance expressed in the wines of Bodega del Fin del Mundo (From the end of the earth) come from the vast landscapes of Patagonia our wines pay honor to this land of immense beauty where the final touches of creation can still be traced.

The sand and rocky soils. Intense sunlight. Dry breeze warm days and cool nights. Plus the use of drip irrigation yield grapes of uniform ripeness and excellent color.

This wine is the perfect expression of its orgins. Bright in color. With full fruity aromas. Fresh and rounded in the mouth. With persistent length.
WOW! The obvious translation issues aside, can we get an editor? Grammar is universal I think. But who knew the selling powers of ... DRIP IRRIGATION. I must say, I've never seen boasts about drip irrigation on a wine label. Makes me want to drink straight from the little black hoses down each vineyard row.

Ok, seriously, the wine's ok for what it is. Manufactured and adjusted for inoffensiveness, with a glossy texture akin to highly conditioned sandwich bread. I wouldn't call it "bright in color" and the "full fruity aromas" have a 'vegetal, we cropped this high but still pushed for high sugars so its rich but still not quite right' edge. In the mouth that glossy, candy texture has just the right amount of tannin, a sweet / tart edge of acidulation (I'm guessing on that), and a sense of harsh intensity like poorly mixed fruit juice from concentrate.

So I'm not a huge fan of the wine, but it's certainly good in the cheap wine for a party idiom. For more information on this producer, check their highly interactive website or Jamie Goode's write up from a couple years back on his terrific Wine Anorak site.

Du Vin and Ott Bandol

Two days ago I drove around west LA on a quest to see my dad's childhood home in Hollywood. On the way I stopped at a couple of wine shops.

One is the relatively new Hollywood location of Bay Area leader K&L Wines on Vine Street near Hollywood Blvd. K&L was long a favorite of my when I lived in San Francisco. K&L Hollywood has a parking lot, which is saying something these days in LA, and a deep selection of mostly conventional domestic and international wines. It lacks the depth that the Redwood City store has in the rarities section, but I'm sure I'd be here regularly if I were still an LA local. Prices are very competitive.

The other is a store in West Hollywood that I found back around 1992 called Du Vin. It's on North San Vicente just below Melrose and is one of my favorite wine shops ever. Not because it's big, because it isn't. And not because it's particularly inexpensive, because it isn't (though there are some exceptional values if you dig around).

Rather, Du Vin is great because it's like entering another world, one authentically rooted in French wine but squarely LA. From the tile-roofed San Vicente frontage, you walk down a red brick driveway to a shady courtyard with the wine shop in a rear building. Past the "Ouvert" sign, the shop is dimly but satisfactorily lit and cool, bottles arranged everywhere, the most prized in plastic bags to protect fragile labels.

Back in the early '90s the shop featured sandwiches and other light snacks, and the courtyard made for a nice place to grab a bite to eat and catch up on the LA Weekly. These days things are focused solely on wine, high quality wine that's mostly from Europe and well selected. The Burgundy selection is nice, the Champagne well chosen, Rhones attractive, and the Bordeaux deep for a smallish shop.

But for me, the prizes are in the lesser traveled appellations, like Bandol or Rasteau Vin Doux Naturel, which Du Vin seems to specialize. On my last visit five years ago, I found 500ml bottles of Trapadis Rasteau VDN that apparently aren't available in the US anymore. This time I found the oddly shapes bottles of Bandol from Domaine Ott at relatively discount prices (Ott isn't ever cheap).

Since I was leaving the next morning for Portland with only carry on luggage, and I wasn't looking to ship a bunch of wine, I purchased only a half bottle of 2001 Domaine Ott Bandol Chateau Romassan to try back at my Mom's. What a terrific little Bandol, very interesting and quite good if not great.

The color is bricking and the perfume woodsy, very mourvedre, with some fruitness but much more to the earthy side of things. In the mouth it was much softer than I expected, but pleasantly so. Mourvedre can be so tannic when young, and while this isn't new wine, even at 10 years a true vin de garde can still seem primary and ungiving. This wine was flavory with a round but natural texture, nothing glossy or candied, and fine tannin that's nearly resolved.

My brother tried the wine and described it as having different flavors after a few moments in the mouth, which I interpret as "finish." This wine has a finish, which so many big, bold wines lack. I think that quality alone makes a wine interesting and worth drinking. I wouldn't keep this wine in the cellar too long, but what a delicious Bandol for the dinner table. If you're in LA, head down to Du Vin and pick some up. And for those Sine Qua Non fans flush with cash, I noticed some bottles of the Raven series wines for a clean $200 per. Some might find that a bargain.

May 10, 2009

2004 Don Jacobo Rioja Crianza

I picked up this bottle yesterday here in LA thinking it might be nice for dinner tonight. What a terrific, traditional Rioja it turned out to be. Check out Wine Expo in Santa Monica if you're interested. I don't think you'll find this wine many other places.

I wrote about Wine Expo last year. It's unusual in that you probably won't recognize many producers and possibly appellations. The store undoubtedly has more Oltrepo Pavese than Napa cabernet. But be careful about prce, at least for the wines you can find elsewhere. On this visit, the Valpolicella of Vaona caught my eye as something I'm familiar with but can find elsewhere for much cheaper.

Nevertheless, the store has an amazing selection of Champagne, among other things. (I salivated at the big bottles of Scaldis Noel beer.) And pretty much everything is going to be in a super-traditional style, meaning drier and winier in character than the typical dark colored, fruit sweet and powerful wines so in favor these days.

I figured this was a good place for traditional Rioja. That is, ruby red colored, with floral aromas of pepper, tobacco, cherries and old wood spice. Then bright, racy flavors that mirror the aromas and come alive with a plate of lasagne and bread. This is the 2004 Don Jacobo Rioja Crianza. There's no jelly doughnut, pain grille or alcohol burn here. Just spicy, racy wine. Perhaps a touch dirty, with musky notes, but delicious and right like mildly stinky cheese.

I understand this kind of wine isn't for everyone. You're not a better person for liking this kind of thing. I just find an uncommon joy in such a wine. Simple and delicious, yet also subtle and complex. And this is just the crianza. I'll have to try reservas and gran reservas from this producer. The few notes I've found online suggest good things, but a look on winesearcher doesn't show anyone in the US carrying it (obviously not true, but clearly this isn't common stuff). Thanks Wine Expo.

May 07, 2009

1997 Ken Wright Cellars Pinot Noir Carter Vineyard

I'm always on the look out for wines from 1997 because it's the year my wife and I married. In Oregon's northern Willamette Valley, 1997 was the third rainy harvest in a row, and the rainest harvest in the decade leading up to the wet October of 2007. Farming techniques and cellar practices have advanced in the last decade, and I've heard recently from few local winemakers that 2007 would have been another 1997 if not for those changes. Meaning, 1997 was a tough harvest.

Still, I like trying local wines from my wedding year. And while today isn't my wedding anniversary, it does mark 15 years since my wife and I went on our first date, and 13 years since our engagement. So, tonight we pull out the good stuff...well, sentimental stuff. It doesn't always have to be fancy to be special. There isn't anything in the cellar queue from 1994, so the wedding year it is.

If you look online for notes about the 1997 Ken Wright Cellar Pinot Noir Carter Vineyard, what little you'll find suggests the wine is dead. Well, that depends on your perspective. Ken tends to produce pretty large scaled, rich wines. This isn't that, and I don't imagine it ever was. If you're looking for dark and purple, this wine probably is dead to you. I like it.

The color is bricking, the aroma delicate with floral and red fruit notes with light oak spice, mature with some ea / nail polish notes, nothing egregious. This wine is cracking, but like the surface of an old painting still very much alive. If you like mature wine, this is good though not great.

The wine is gently flavored and light bodied, soft at entry with stronger acid in the middle and finish. The tannin is resolved, the texture smooth and supple. There's some dilution from the rainy harvest, but the quiet autumnal flavors echo nicely. It paired nicely with lentils, roasted red peppers and feta with basmati rice.

Perhaps it's a nice metaphor for our maturing relationship, changed from youth, still very much alive, hopefully in better shape than the wine but certainly not the same as it was. As it should be.

May 02, 2009

Champalou Vouvray

Quick note on the 2004 Champalou Vouvray Cuvee des Fondreaux. This chenin blanc is essentially demi-sec in sweetness, and usually lacking the acidic cut of other more highly regarded producers such as Huet and Foreau.

Still, I have always liked this wine for its purity, honied aroma and, yes, value. We can't always afford Huet. This 2004 edition is classic with its perfume of honey, chamomile and lemon, with subtle mineral notes that come out with airing. In the mouth, there are golden fruit flavors and a mild honey sweetness, without enough acid balance to cleanse the palate and carry the flavors out for quite a while.

In sum, what delicious Loire white wine that has surprising aging ability. For $18 this is ok value. Occasionally you can find it for $14 or even less, and at that price I think it's terrific.

May 01, 2009

Lackluster Marche wine

I've written previously about how the hot 2003 vintage in Europe, challenging though it may have been, produced a variety of interesting wines for my palate. Ripe and soft, sure, but I've enjoyed many wines.

Of course, there's the downside to the vintage -- overripe wines that are fiercely tannic and lack freshness. That's pretty much the story with the 2003 Villa Pigna Rozzano Marche IGT.

Translation -- the producer is Villa Pigna, the bottling name is Rozzano, the area in Italy is the Marche, and IGT essentially means this isn't a formal DOC or DOCG "appellation" wine. IGT wines often have non-traditional grapes such as merlot or cabernet sauvignon, that aren't otherwise allowed in a particular DOC or DOCG.

In this case, the wine is apparently 100% Montepulciano, so no merlot or whatnot to wonder about. Instead, just the weather.

The dark ruby color leads to a ripe, plummy and even pruney aroma that's definitely Italian but just not fresh and appealing. There's nice spice and old wood aromas, maybe even some mint, but the raisiny quality smothers any character or nuance.

The flavors are similarly baked, with prune and spice notes and fierce tannin that suggests the grapes shivelled in the hot weather before truly ripening. The finish is short and tangy, with rough tannin and a plodding flavor.

Is this horrible wine? No. In fact, I'm surprised it's not horribly volatile. It seems rare to taste a wine so pruney that somehow didn't get away from the winemaker and start its path to vinegar. It's just emblematic of the exceptionally hot 2003 vintage. No more, no less.