March Madness and April Angst

March and April form the heart of the wine season in New York, with tastings – frequently multiple – almost every day, while at the same time wine fairs, new-release events, regional shows and such are taking place all over the US and Europe. Anyone trying to attend even half of what was going on could end up exhausted, obese, and alcoholic – all occupational hazards of a very real order at this time of year. I made the mistake of seriously overscheduling myself this year: hence the absolute necessity of my taking last week off, to save myself from palatal burnout and prose fatigue.

Two events stood out for me, however, in that blur of vinous activity: a chance to taste the fine range of Champagnes that come to the US under the Moët-Hennessy umbrella, and an amazingly comprehensive tasting of Portuguese wines presented by Viniportugal. Both offered unusual opportunities to make side-by-side comparisons as well as the chance to taste wines or vintages that are otherwise not easily available, so – overscheduled or not – how could Ubriaco say no?

The afore-mentioned Moët-Hennessy umbrella is quite a large one: It covers Moët Champagnes proper, as well as Veuve Clicquot, Ruinart, Dom Perignon, and Krug – some heavy hitters for sure.

The basic, non-vintage wines from all houses mostly showed very well, with the surprising exception of Veuve Clicquot, whose nv and nv Rosé both tasted a bit bare-bones to me. In contrast, Moët’s Imperial nv and Imperial Rosé nv both showed lovely freshness, the Rosé in particular displaying lovely fraises des bois and wheat flavors. The Ruinart nv Blanc de Blancs also was quite enjoyable, tasting light, fresh, and toasty. Krug, of course, was exceptional in the other direction, its nv Grande Cuvée showing the classic Krug size and power – a basic, nonvintage wine the equal of most makers’ premium Champagne, as its hefty price tag accurately indicates.

The vintage wines and têtes de cuvées performed exactly according to my expectations – that is, all were wonderful wines, though a few reached dimensions above and beyond the others. Dom Perignon 2000 was lovely: austere, but still mouth-filling and long-finishing. Dom Perignon Rosé 1998 tasted even better to me – full and floral and appealing. I suspect the difference is not just Pinot noir but also the vintage: 1998 is a year to look for in Champagne.

Veuve’s 1998 Grande Dame corroborated that point, showing fresh and live and fine.   Veuve’s 1985 Rosé gave even more: Fresh despite its 25 years, its lovely color, attractive nose, and big, balanced palate showed it to be a really great wine. Fine as it was, the Dom Ruinart 1998 was for my palate even better, full of sottobosco-tasting fruit and extremely long-finishing. Krug once again capped the procession with its 1998, an astonishing medley of toast and strawberry flavors, characteristically huge in the Krug style yet still limber and graceful.

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The Portugese tasting too was overwhelming, from its sheer size. Held in the cavernous Cipriani space on 42nd Street, it presented 50 – yes, really fifty – tables of Portuguese producers, each with multiple wines to pour. Clearly, completeness was impossible: that way led to crise de foie and DTs. So I focused on two red wines I love: the Dão appellation and wines vinified from Touriga Nacional, one of the best of Portugal’s myriad of indigenous grape varieties.

Like Italy and Spain, Portugal amounts to a treasure house of ancient grapes, many of which make really lovely wines. For my palate, Touriga Nacional is one of the most intriguing. While it is prized for making Port – a kind of wine in which I have zero interest – it also makes superb table wine. It used to be a major component of Dão wines too – you can see the thread of my interest here – but its use there is declining, partially because it’s being vinified more by itself and partially because it is not a generous bearer. Touriga Nacional usually yields a big wine that is kept lively by characteristically Mediterranean (ironic, since Portugal’s coast is entirely Atlantic) acidity. I liked particularly Valeda Reposa Reserva Touriga Nacional 2007 (DOC Douro), a wonderfully structured wine, big and dark. Even better was Follies Touriga Nacional 2006 (DOC Barraida) from Aveleda: equally big, with fine, berry fruit and a distinctive, racy mouth feel.

The Dão wines are always fun: Because blended, their character can vary from house to house, but they are all designed to be food wines. That means they may not bowl you over when tasted solo – but pay attention to the nature of their fruit and their acid/tannin balance. That will tell all you need to know about how well they will perform with dinner. I liked very much the Cabriz C. S. 2008 Dão from Dão Sul, a soft, simple wine with pleasing fruit and good balance. Bigger and better was the Cabriz Reserva 2006 – still soft and pleasing, but better structured and more intense. Dão Sul also produces Casa de Santar Dãos: both the basic 2007 and the 2006 reserva are quite fine, with sturdy structures and a marked touch of elegance. The Callabriga Dão 2007 from Sogrape Vinhos shows the characteristic Dão heft: big and full, with black fruit understrapped with enlivening acidity and firm tannin.

I tasted more wines than this, but some of my notes no longer make any sense to me. I wonder why that should be?

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