Archive for the ‘New World’ Category

One Fine Wine: Ridge Geyserville 2010

May 10, 2018
“One Fine Wine” is an occasional series of short posts about wines I’ve enjoyed recently.

I’ve never made any secret of the fact that I don’t enjoy much California wine. I’m not crazy about many New World wines, for that matter, but I’ve always made an exception for Zinfandel, a grape that has acclimatized itself so thoroughly as to be legitimately considered a native variety, especially in California. And for my money, nobody in California makes it better than Ridge.

All that being so, when, a little while back, two successive days of sunshine and no rain prompted hopes of spring in me and thoughts of an American spring-ish dinner in Diane, the idea of drinking a Ridge Zinfandel followed hard on their heels. Of the several Zinfandels Ridge makes, Geyserville has always been one of my favorites.

It’s an old-fashioned field mix of Zinfandel, Carignane, Petite Sirah, Alicante Bouschet, and Mataro – the kind of mixed grapes from all over Europe that used to be the staple of many small California vineyards before the homogenizing blight of Cabernet hit. In fact, since there is only 64% Zinfandel in this bottle (that’s roughly normal for Ridge’s Geyserville), it can’t be labelled Zinfandel, so it’s just Geyserville. For those of us who love it, ‘nuff said.

Our American-ish, spring-ish dinner started with a few crackers topped with fresh cream cheese and wasabi-infused flying fish roe. The main course was a thick, bloody-rare NY strip steak,  fried shoestring potatoes, asparagus (still not local, alas) and – especially – the first morels of the year. After that, two cheeses with which to finish the wine: Podda and Boucheron.

We were very, very happy. The Geyserville enjoyed everything, even the wasabi fish roe; and with the steak and morels, it opened wide and tasted like a berry-filled forest, all brushy and dark-fruited with over- and undertones of leather and tobacco and even a little juniper.

This is where I have to stress the vintage, 2010. This is not a newly released wine, but a seven-year-old. Not ancient, by any means, but anyone who thinks that Zinfandel is all about big, in-your-face, youthful fruit would have been surprised/shocked/distressed/bowled over by what Ridge made of it. Even though this Geyserville is still in the process of maturing, its fruit has evolved into a complex blend of restrained flavors. It’s an intensely civilized wine, very claret-y (does anyone still remember claret?) in style and texture, flavors and attack. On the bottle’s back label, the winemaker says “Rich, elegant, and structured, this fine zinfandel will provide enjoyment over the next decade.” That’s not hype: That’s understatement.

All Ridge Zins evolve roughly this same way, and I think they’re at their best around 10 years old, if you can hide them from yourself for that long. They just keep getting more and more elegant, demonstrating just how much power and fruit they have by the grace with which they rein it in.

Radical Simplicity: The Caparone Way with Italian Grapes

March 28, 2018

I’ve marveled here before about Dave and Marc Caparone’s unmatched success with the three great Italian red grape varieties – Aglianico, Nebbiolo, and Sangiovese – in California. It made me wonder what they know and do that other California growers seemingly don’t. Dave Caparone is essentially publicity-shy. He is passionately committed to his craft, however, and when his son Marc suggested he write down some of what he has learned about growing those grapes, he complied.

Marc gave me a preview of Dave’s remarks, which are now available on the winery’s website.

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I was bowled over by the simplicity and directness of Dave’s approach to the three varieties, all which have a reputation, even in Italy, for being difficult to cultivate. He doesn’t go into the arcana of soil analysis and root stocks – though obviously he paid attention to those issues, since he was scrupulously careful about choosing his vineyard sites and about the sources and origins of the vines he chose to plant. (See his earlier-written remarks about his winemaking history.)

Rather, he cuts through the whole thicket of issues the concept of terroir has become entangled with. His working premise starts with the most critical element of microclimate: the amount of heat each geographical area provides for vines – which determines whether a particular variety will mature properly or not.

Some varieties such as Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon seem to work well over a wider range of microclimates. Others, such as Sangiovese, Nebbiolo and Aglianico do not. In the Paso Robles region, Zinfandel will mature properly in places where Sangiovese, Aglianico and Nebbiolo do. Zinfandel will also mature properly where there is not enough heat for Sangiovese, Aglianico and Nebbiolo…. Heat requirements are inherent in the grape and are the same whether the grape is grown in California or Europe.

It’s difficult for me to make clear the radical directness of those seemingly simple statements. The Caparones’ experience in Paso Robles has shown them that many different varieties will do well in their soils and climates. If the soil and exposures are suitable for growing grapes, the microclimate seems to them to be the key determinant of what varieties will do well there. The Caparones’ remarkable several decades of success with Aglianico, Nebbiolo, and Sangiovese amply demonstrate that their position in one of the warmest stretches of the Paso Robles appellation provides the proper microclimate for all three varieties.

Nebbiolo *

Not entirely by the way: That accomplishment – that a single locus could succeed with all three of those great red grapes – would, in Italy, be a priori deemed impossible, and I think in most of California it would be judged improbable.

Quoting Dave again, “If a grape variety is grown in an area that is too warm for it, the wines produced will lack balance and proper varietal character. If the area is too cool, it may not reach full maturity at all.” This seems to him to be the major source of difficulty in growing and vinifying grapes of almost any variety in California – or almost anywhere else, for that matter.

In California with its lack of rain during a long growing season, there is very little annual variation. In all my years of winemaking I have never had to work with grapes that were not fully mature. In Europe, the situation is much more variable and grape maturity is an ongoing problem. No grape variety is inherently difficult or tricky, although weather and climate often are. Sangiovese, Nebbiolo and Aglianico are as easy to grow in our vineyard as Zinfandel.

Let me underline that. Dave’s saying “no grape variety is inherently difficult or tricky” amounts to a major heresy in terms of wine-growing orthodoxy. I can’t count the number of times, over my journalistic career, that I’ve been told this or that variety is very difficult and requires lots of special attention. What Dave is saying is that the problem isn’t the variety but where you’ve planted it. If he’s right about that – and he certainly has the field experience to back up that contention – then a lot of professional enologists have been talking through their hats for the last 50 years.

Sangiovese *

The other thing that strikes me about Dave’s words is his saying “I have never had to work with grapes that were not fully mature.” First, that’s amazing in itself, and second, look at the alcohol levels of Caparone wines in that light. They almost never exceed 13.5 degrees, and often fall as low as 13 – this at a time when alcohol levels of red wines all over the world, but especially in California, are soaring. So full ripeness doesn’t have to mean huge sugar levels and consequently huge alcohol levels?  This ought to be big, big news to a lot of people – growers, winemakers, and consumers alike. It means that balance and restraint are intrinsically compatible with the fullest expression of fruit. The runaway train that was rushing all red wines in the direction of Port just got derailed, and I for one am dancing with joy on top of the wreckage.

Dave Caparone’s conclusions about his experience growing Aglianico, Nebbiolo, and Sangiovese for 40 years in Paso Robles are among the most important reflections on the cultivation of those varieties that I have ever encountered. His experience ought to be a wake-up call for winemakers everywhere. His remarks deserve further publication in a journal of note – which my blog certainly isn’t – and the widest possible circulation. I hope they may receive that, and soon.

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* Grape images: Aglianico from Jancis Robinson et al., Wine Grapes, Ecco, 2012; Nebbiolo from Atlante delle grandi vigne di Langa, Arcigola 1990; Sangiovese from Il Chianti Classico, Vianello Libre e Fulvio Roiter, 1987.

More Splendid Caparone Cal-Itals

January 15, 2018

Caparone Vineyards, in Paso Robles, continues to impress me mightily. Some time back I wrote in praise of its 2002 Aglianico, Nebbiolo, and Sangiovese, the most delicious and elegant California versions of those varieties I’ve ever tasted. Recently I’ve had the opportunity to taste bottles of the same grapes from the 2014 vintage, and I was almost reduced to a barely articulate Oh wow!  (Be assured: My normal verbosity quickly reasserted itself.)

Naturally, these younger wines were not as complex or developed as their older relatives – but the vines are older too, and that adds dimension to even a newly released wine. These were all beautiful specimens of their varieties. They seemed perfectly worthy of standing on the table with the best young examples of their kinds I’ve had in Italy, though patently different from them in the character of their fruit and their balance.
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Sangiovese

The Sangiovese showed a brilliant light garnet, very pleasing to the eye. The nose came across as all underbrush and fresh red fruit. The palate tasted youthful – bright cherry – with medium body and a lively acid/tannin balance. The overall impression was freshness and elegance, spot-on for young Sangiovese. This wine differed from a young Chianti, for instance, in being not so markedly acid-forward: It was also slightly fuller-bodied, with more generous fruit. The latter quality I think of as quintessential California.

It’s worth noting, since this is a young wine, that it got better and more interesting as it opened in the glass. What it will do with some years of maturity makes for very pleasant speculation. The Caparones aren’t given to exaggeration or over-hyping their wines, but their back label claims that this wine (and its sibling Aglianico and Nebbiolo) “will continue to age for 25 years or more.”  I’m not likely to be able to test that statement, but I sure hope some of you will.

It’s also worth noting that the alcohol level of this wine is a modest 13.3 degrees — by current California standards, almost a soft drink.
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Nebbiolo

I enjoyed the Nebbiolo just as much, but it was an animal of different stripe. Its color was a pale garnet, with a thin orange edge, perhaps to an eye unused to Nebbiolo suggesting it’s already old and fading. Far from it: this wine was an infant, tasting of fresh berries (strawberries kept peeping out) and earth. It had good acidity and very soft tannins, with low – by California standards, very low – alcohol: 13 degrees – and a long licorice and leather finish. But what really grabbed my attention right from the start was the aroma: Damned if it didn’t smell delicately of tar and dried roses and earth. That’s textbook Alba Nebbiolo, folks, and I am in awe of a New World wine capturing that quality of this great, cantankerous grape.

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One major difference between Caparone’s Nebbiolo and any young Barolo or Barbaresco I’ve experienced: No Piedmont Nebbiolo would be as pleasant drinking as this wine at first release. In many vintages, a Piedmont Nebbiolo’s tannins would rip your throat out. Even 2004, which was – and is – a great vintage and a very forward one, was much sterner and more sharply tannic at a comparable age. We’ve all always assumed that such early toughness was a necessary concomitant to the structure that made long aging possible – but if David and Marc Caparone are right about the aging potential of their wine, then received wisdom has been dead wrong about that. And that should give us all – consumer, critics, and producers alike – a lot to think about.
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Aglianico

The 2014 Aglianico certainly gave me a lot to think about. The darkest, most deeply colored of the three varieties, it also had the most intense aroma: earth, toasted nuts (hazel? almond?), and rich, black, plummy fruit. The earth and black plum flavors emphatically followed through on the palate – just huge fruit flavors, understrapped by lovely acid/tannin balance. The tannins were abundant, but soft, making a well-structured and long-finishing wine, but also a very accessible, enjoyably drinking wine, even so young.

With food, the flavor components rounded and broadened and deepened remarkably, revealing an extraordinary balance and structure, yet still soft and open. Diane and I were bowled over: We thought this a wine destined for greatness. And, oh, by the way, it was only 13 degrees of alcohol, which ought to be a slap in the face of all those overblown California wines that substitute big alcohol for any real winemaking quality.
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I’ve never particularly wanted to live to any great age, but the way the Caparones make wine is causing me to think again about that. .

Dave Caparone at his tasting room, with Tom’s whilom student and old friend Magda Gilewicz. Photo by Mike Chen

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Caparone Vineyards: Great Aglianico, Nebbiolo, and Sangiovese – from California!

August 28, 2017

This is a post I never thought I’d write: I’m about to go bananas over a California winery that isn’t Ridge, and over wines other than Zinfandel. Surely the Rapture is upon us, and we are entering the end of days.

I’ve known about Caparone Vineyards for a long time, and I’ve always thought that it made the most successful versions I’d ever tasted of Sangiovese and Nebbiolo from California, which many of my readers will probably identify as pretty qualified praise. I visited the vineyards in Paso Robles back in the late ’80s, when Dave Caparone was not only a pioneer in the Paso Robles area but a voice crying in the wilderness about the potential of Italy’s great red grapes there.
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I was impressed both by what he had already accomplished and by what the future might bring, but Dave Caparone wasn’t in it for fame or fortune (neither of which I could have provided, in any case) but for the love of the land, the grapes, and the wines. So when he asked me not to write about him or his wines, I complied – reluctantly. One more item entered my already bulging files, and I shamefacedly confess I then forgot about Caparone.

Somewhere in the early years of this century, a friend put me back in touch with Caparone, and Dave’s son Marc, now active in the company, sent me a batch of samples. I tasted, liked, remembered how I had been impressed by my visit, and resolved this time to write up the winery. No such luck: I couldn’t rouse any editorial interest anywhere. Antinori was then conspicuously failing in its attempt to produce Sangiovese-based wine at Atlas Peak, and the feeling seemed to be that if Antinori couldn’t do it, then Italian grapes probably had no future in California – so once again the data went back into the files and out of my memory.

Until this month. I was scrabbling through my wines, looking for something for dinner, when, in a remote bin, I found three Caparone bottles that I had totally forgotten I had: an Aglianico, a Nebbiolo, and a Sangiovese, all of the 2002 vintage. I more than half suspected that at 15 years old they would be over the hill, but I had to try them – and I assure you, I am very, very happy I did.

All three are superb examples of their variety, although not Tuscan, not Piedmontese, not Campanian, and not what I normally think of as the brash California style either. But richly fruited, balanced, restrained, and elegant wines they emphatically were. They remained extraordinarily fresh despite their almost 15 years of very mediocre storage with me. These were thoroughly enjoyable wines of a kind and quality I could happily drink every day, if California would make more of it. There is gold in them there hills, and Caparone is vinifying it.

Wine making in Paso Robles has exploded since I long ago visited Dave Caparone. There are now several named American Viticultural Area subdivisions within the Paso Robles appellation, and – I believe – upwards of 200 producers working there. The zone has become a homeland for what are by Napa standards maverick varieties: More than 40 different wine grapes are grown there. Only a few growers are trying the three great Italian red varieties, and that’s because, even in Paso Robles’ highly varied soils, they are difficult. Think about it: They thrive in Italy in three very different parts of the country, with widely different soils and microclimates, and even within their home turfs these are cantankerous varieties. The challenge to grow all three within the confines of a single California AVA is impressive, to say the least. Think how much more so in a single small estate!

I remember that in my long-ago visit, Dave Caparone stressed how crucial it was to site each variety appropriately, to fit the grape to the soil and the microclimate as perfectly as possible. No one who knows how cranky Aglianico, Nebbiolo, and Sangiovese can be will be surprised to hear that, and from what I’ve tasted, it seems he’s done that job spectacularly well.

I tasted the Sangiovese first, with a simple dinner of good grilled meat and fresh Greenmarket vegetables.
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From my first sniff, the wine had my attention: a rich, complex aroma of sottobosco and mint, raspberry and red currants. The color showed as lovely pale garnet, looking properly but not excessively aged. In the mouth, it was delightful – light, balanced, and round, tasting of berries and red fruits, still fresh and vigorous, but well-bred and restrained. It loved food, all sorts of food. What struck me above all was that it showed excellent Sangiovese character without being in the slightest respect Tuscan. That fruit was pure California in its vitality, but without any of the bold, jammy style that I dislike in so many California wines.

A few days later I tried the Aglianico.
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If anything, this wine was even better than the Sangiovese. It sported a lovely deep garnet color, very live looking. The nose was powerful, deeply vinous, slightly acetone, but mostly black fruit. On the palate, deep dry plum, leather, tobacco, and more fresh fruit – all very live. It finished long and complex – licorice, plum, and leather. This was a big, mouth-filling wine, very elegant and extremely persistent: The flavor went on and on. It loved food: It just sang alongside a soft, young Gorgonzola dolce – in fact, at that point, it tasted a lot like a great Piedmont Nebbiolo. I have noticed before that Taurasi and Barolo grow to resemble each other as they mature, so that didn’t completely surprise me – but it is a great testimony to how completely the Caparones have captured the essence of this great, tricky variety.

Finally, a day or so later, I tried the Nebbiolo.
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I was not disappointed of my by now-high hopes. A properly orangey-garnet color, slightly paler than the preceding two wines. A huge nose of blackberry, cherry, and roses. In the mouth, big, round, and soft, with elegant tannins and fruit following through on the promise of the aroma. Raspberry and leather in the long finish. All in all, an elegant and restrained wine of lovely, pure varietal character.

These three wines to me represent the best sort of winemaking, where nothing has intervened to alter or disguise what the grapes have to say. Wines like this give me great hope for the future of California winemaking: They set what I consider a benchmark for other California wines to aspire to.

And, as far as I can tell, they are very reasonably priced – at last look, under $20 for new releases. You’ll just have to be patient and let them mature. Believe me, it’s worth it.

 

Paumanok Vineyards’ Chenin Blanc

April 12, 2016

Every now and again, a wine comes out of left field and just bowls me over. This happened last week when I opened a bottle of Paumanok Vineyards’ Minimalist Chenin Blanc. To say the wine impressed me understates the case: I thought it was gorgeous. The dry and sweet white wines of the middle Loire are pretty much the gold standard for Chenin. This Long Island wine tasted fuller and richer than most dry Vouvray, less austere and almost as structured as Savennieres – which, god knows, is about as good as Old World Chenin gets. An eye-opener, an attention-getter of a wine. So I decided to look further into it.

paumonok sign

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Paumanok Vineyards got started in 1983, which makes it an old-timer among Long Island wineries. There were only a few of them then, pioneers excited by the possibilities of the North Fork’s long growing season and well-drained soils, as well as a loose similarity to the climate and terroir of France’s prized Médoc. The basic agriculture that had sustained the region – acres and acres of potatoes, cabbages, and corn – was fading, and land was available. If wine-growing did nothing else for the region, it scored a major triumph in saving the North Fork from developers and their battalions of boxes.

Kareem Massoud

Kareem Massoud

The Massoud family, owners of Paumanok, has roots in Lebanon and Germany, but from the start they planted French varieties: Cabernet sauvignon, Cabernet franc, Merlot, Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon blanc, even Petit verdot. Kareem Massoud, son of the founder and now winemaker, says that there is nothing distinctive about the terroir of the Chenin vineyards, but that all the Loire varieties – especially Sauvignon blanc and Cabernet franc – seem to do well on Long Island. Chenin blanc, he says, they found growing on a plot they acquired in the late Eighties – and they almost ripped it out, until they realized how well it was doing.

I lived on Long Island way back when, and find it hard to imagine how Chenin blanc had ever found its way there among the potatoes and pumpkins, but a wonderfully serendipitous find it was. Paumanok’s Chenin blanc every year ranks among the best in the US – and yet it remains the only one made on Long Island. Hello? How can that happen?  Do all the other producers hate Vouvray?

minimalist cheninPaumanok’s Minimalist Chenin blanc stands a whole level higher, in my estimation, than the very fine “ordinary” Chenin, which wins the prizes. The back label of my 2014 bottle tells its story concisely:

This wine was produced using minimalist winemaking techniques. The fruit comes from our vineyard planted in 1982. Select clusters of unblemished Chenin Blanc that had attained total ripeness were carefully hand harvested and whole cluster pressed. The juice was transferred into stainless steel barrels where alcoholic fermentation spontaneously occurred. Only 84 cases were bottled.

As Kareem pointed out to me, this is a purely variety- and terroir-powered wine: Nothing intervenes to modify the expression of the grape and the soil. That purity comes through on the palate with lovely intensity.

Diane and I drank this Minimalist Chenin with some Scotch smoked salmon, followed by simply sauteed filets of John Dory, and it made a wonderful match with both. Its fruit was rich and dry, but hard to pin down: The closest I can come to an accurate descriptor would be half-ripe white figs with an amazing underlayer of minerality and structured by vivid acidity. I would guess that, like many Loire Chenins, this wine could age very well – but I can honestly say that I would be hard put not to drink it all before it had any chance to mature. For me, this is a masterly American wine. I wish there were more of it, and I hope there will be, eventually.

Old World/New World: Cahors/Malbec

November 2, 2015

I have never been a great fan of New World wines. For my palate, they are – generally – too fruit-forward and simplistic, lacking in depth and complexity, and often too tannic and insufficiently acidic to match well with food.

I recognize, however, that what I call deficiencies many wine lovers regard as plusses, and that that style has many admirers. Just read the tasting notes in any issue of The Wine Spectator to see what I mean. More important, New World wines are evolving (so are Old World wines, for that matter, but that is a topic for another post). Many of them have been, by my standards, steadily improving, becoming more food-friendly, which I think is crucial. Almost as important, many have dropped the almost confrontational, fruit-forward style in favor of an increase in elegance and complexity that makes them for me much more interesting to drink.

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Trivento vineyard, Andes in the background

Trivento vineyard, Andes in the background

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I had this change underlined recently when I had the opportunity to taste a few Malbecs from Bodega Trivento in Argentina’s Mendoza Valley. I don’t attend many of these occasions, anticipating disappointment, but it seemed about time I opened my mind and my palate to see what was going on below the Equator. I’m glad I did.

Malbec first entered my consciousness decades ago as the major grape variety in Cahors. The town from which the wine takes its name is deep in the heart of La France profonde, situated picturesquely within a horseshoe bend of the river Lot in Quercy – truffle, chestnut, foie gras, and game country, well worth a gastronomically minded traveller’s attention.

City of Cahors

 

Its wine, hearty, deep, a bit rustic but capable of long aging, was once almost legendary in England as “the black wine of Cahors” for its depth of color and flavor. I loved it. Diane and I even made a pilgrimage there back in the Seventies, when Cahors was just beginning to reclaim the importance it had lost with the devastations of the phylloxera, and I still recall with great pleasure some of the meals we ate and wines we drank there.

Malbec was once a very important variety in France, grown in almost every significant wine region, even Bordeaux. It was almost always used in blends, rarely as a monovarietal wine. In South America, where it has established a new homeland in Chile and especially in Argentina, it is used both ways. In Argentina the monovarietal version seems to be both the most esteemed and – for my very European palate – the most successful.

Germán di CesareTasting with Trivento’s winemaker Germán di Cesare, I tried the red blend Amado Sur (70% Malbec, 20% Bonarda, 10% Syrah) and three vintages (2011, 2012, 2013) of its 100% Malbec Golden Reserve. (Charles Scicolone gives a full account of this tasting on his blog). These all derive from high-altitude vines, and they are grown on their own roots from pre-phylloxera stock. I was impressed by the wines, both for their intrinsic drinkability – no overpowering tannins, good structural acidity, prominent but not palate-drowning fruit – and because they reminded me of old-style Cahors.

In my book, that is very definitely a compliment, and it’s what prompted me to try re-tasting the Golden Reserve Malbec at home, side by side with a respectable Cahors, Le Petit Clos from Triguedina, a long-established Cahors producer.

two malbecs

Both wines were from the 2011 vintage (that made the Trivento about six months older than the Petit Clos). The Golden Reserve was 100% Malbec, the Petit Clos 80% Malbec and 20% Merlot. We tasted them both by themselves and with food (a broiled steak) and finished them up over the next several days. Both held well and were still pleasantly drinkable a few days on.

Both wines showed the deep, dark coloration that gave Cahors its traditional name. The Cahors had an earthy, grapey aroma, strong and assertive. So too did the Golden Reserve Malbec, with a slightly more evident berry note.

On the palate, some differences began to show. Le Petit Clos felt smooth and soft, with good underlying tannins and decent acidity. It offered blackberry/mulberry flavors, with a hint of black pepper, and a long, slightly tobacco-y finish. It impressed me as a somewhat rustic wine, hearty and enjoyable.

The Trivento Malbec showed its New World origins clearly in its fruit-forwardness, which was the initial palatal impression it made – all dark berries and plums. To my surprise, however, that ostensibly big fruit attack was mollified and balanced by its acidity, more perceptible than that of the Cahors, making it lighter in the mouth. It too finished long, with berries and leather. Overall, despite the differences it was quite comparable to the Petit Clos: The family resemblance of the two wines’ fruit stood out clearly. I found the Trivento thoroughly enjoyable though perhaps a bit simpler, at least at this age.

Both wines are definitely capable of a good amount of bottle-aging and development. And both seemed a tad more sophisticated when tasted alongside that juicy steak, which may seem like no news at all – except that in the not far distant past it used not to be the case with many New World wines. As far as I am concerned, that is very good news, as is the fact that you can buy an almost-Cahors-equivalent wine at a very reasonable price (around $22).

The Case of Wine

October 3, 2014

A post or two back, in the course of celebrating Chateau Gloria, I waxed nostalgic about my long-ago teaching myself wine by drinking through a mixed case that a knowledgeable retailer put together for me. Shortly after writing that, I received an impressive solicitation – from The Wall Street Journal, no less – to try a steeply discounted 15-bottle case (?!) of wine and  sign up for regular future shipments. “Some of our favorite wines,” the letter said of them: “High-quality, low-production specials” – “the inside track to the world’s smartest wine buys.”

Intrigued, I went on line to the Journal’s wine website to find out more.

WSJ wine 4

 

What I found is that WSJ has entered competition with wine retailers, and it seems to be bottom-fishing, looking for wine novices who can be told that some fairly ordinary wines are really prestige items. The newspaper sponsors numerous wine clubs and even more sales items, all marked by the kind of this-is-the-greatest-whatsis-you’ll-ever-see hype that my generation used to associate with sleazy used-car salesmen. A bit of a shock to (probably naïve) me, who always associated WSJ with the higher reaches of capitalism (though clearly that has become a contradiction in terms).

Undaunted, I read on. Who exactly were the guys whose favorite wines were being offered to me was never made clear, nor was the rationale for a 15-bottle case, since it contained only 10 different wines. The red wine collection (you could choose red, white, or mixed) contained the following wines:

  • an Argentinean Pinot noir
  • a Rioja Riserva
  • a red Bordeaux
  • a California Cabernet
  • a Côtes du Rhône
  • a Chianti (2 bottles)
  • a Chilean Malbec (2 bottles)
  • a Languedoc Cabernet (2 bottles)
  • a Gran Riserva “Tempranillo Cabernet Sauvignon” (2 bottles)
  • a “Nero di Troia” (2 bottles)

As an introductory lot, that’s an odd selection, to say the least – a non-Burgundian Pinot noir, 3 or 4 (or is it 5?) Cabernets, and as the second wine from Italy, the fairly recondite variety better known as Uva di Troia.

The specifics of the wines grow more bizarre still. The Riserva and Gran Riserva are all of 8 years old (both 2006 vintage), fairly young by Spanish wine standards, and nowhere near the maturity they need to show what Spanish riserva is all about. The very young Chianti (2013) is conspicuously not a Chianti Classico, and exactly what its region of origin may be is not specified, though it is described as a “Tuscan Maestro’s Prized Chianti” – the maestro in question being one Paolo Masi, whom I know primarily for decent but not spectacular Chianti Rufina. The equally simple red Bordeaux, which could be made up from grapes of several varieties grown anywhere within the huge Bordeaux appellation, is billed as “Big Name 2010 Bordeaux” from J. P. Moueix:

Christian Moueix for 38 years was in charge of $3,000-a-bottle Chateau Petrus – perhaps the most sought-after Bordeaux of all. Today you’re invited to enjoy his Private Reserve from blockbuster 2010.

If that isn’t deliberately misleading advertising, then there is no such animal. “Private Reserve” is just a meaningless commercial name without either legal standing or descriptive accuracy. The wine in question is in essence a simple shipper’s generic red Bordeaux, pretty much the lowest common denominator of wine from the area. The rest is piffle.

???????????????????????????????A parallel instance: A full-page ad in a Wednesday Dining section of the New York Times puffs a wine-rating app from The Wine Spectator to “help you choose the perfect wine.” “Are you getting advice you can trust?” the ad asks; well, “300,000 ratings and tasting notes . . . from your friends at Wine Spectator” will take care of that.

As Mad Magazine used to say, Aaaarrrggghhh!  Give me a break! There is no such thing as “the perfect wine.” As I argued decades ago in my book, The Right Wine (where I learned never to use an ironic title), there are many wines that can be right for the occasion and for your palate, but “the perfect wine” is a chimera to intimidate novices. And what good are any number of tasting notes (300,000? Really?) if they don’t match what your palate experiences? They taste wild gooseberry, you taste asparagus: Who’s right?

There’s no point beating a dead horse, so I won’t go on with this, except to say that for me these sorts of things epitomize everything that is wrong with the hyper-commercialized world of contemporary wine. They are misleading at best, and can conduct people curious about wine into total dead-ends, leaving them thinking that the wine they’ve just drunk, which they found ordinary or distasteful, is actually A Great Wine – and therefore that maybe wine isn’t for them after all. Wine enjoyment doesn’t come from “big names” attached to little wines or from somebody else’s elaborate tasting notes: It comes from finding out what your palate can discern and what you enjoy. The rest is piffle.

Color me an old curmudgeon, but I much prefer – and still believe in the validity of – learning wines by judging them according to your own standards, not somebody else’s overwrought opinions. Eons back, in my book Mastering Wine, I tried to help people do that by presenting some reasonable tracks for understanding wines by tasting them in pairs. Many of the particulars of that book are now dated, but the learning method remains rock solid. Tasting in pairs is the surest way to learn wines and to shape your own palate. It doesn’t matter how little you know about wine or how limited a vocabulary of scents and flavors you may start with: Put two wines side by side, and you’ll always notice some difference between them – and you’ll probably like one better than the other. That small something will give you your point of entry, the thin edge of the wedge that will let you open up the whole world of wine.

two books

If you’re a novice (and things like the WSJ Wine Club seem aimed at the insecurities of novices), start broadly and start classically, because that’s where you’ll most easily see the biggest differences. Don’t begin with a California Pinot noir, which might taste of anything (sometimes even Pinot noir). Start with a decent red Burgundy of a not rarefied level – say a Côtes de Beaune – and taste it against something else equally characteristic. A small-château Médoc or St. Emilion, an inexpensive Langhe Nebbiolo, a simple Rioja, a Chianti Classico: Any of those would do because each has an identity of its own, so that the differences you’re bound to perceive between any two of them will teach you about both. And take notes, because the first few times you won’t remember what you’ve tasted: Aromas and flavors are fleeting, which maybe is why we pursue them so ardently.

Once you’ve got that initial round of tastings under your belt or over your palate, the rest is easier, though it can be more expensive. Either look into more pairs of the kind of wine you preferred from the first pair, or step up a quality level with the next pair. Try a Burgundy Village wine – a Nuits St. Georges or a Pommard – and a non-cru Barbaresco or Barolo, for instance. Just pay attention to what’s going on in your nose and mouth, to the aroma and taste of the wines, and continue to take notes. If you can make yourself focus (and for many Americans, paying attention to what they’re eating or drinking seems almost unnatural), you’re well launched on your way to understanding and enjoying wine. There is a whole world of grape varieties and wine styles ahead to explore as much or as little as your pleasure and budget will allow.

Just don’t let alleged prestige or hype or other people’s opinions (including mine) sway you: As I’ve said often in this blog, you taste only with your own mouth, and you can learn wine only with that same instrument. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but it’s no match for the tongue.

Confessions of a Heresiarch

March 10, 2014

It’s time to ‘fess up and face the shame. Brace yourself: I just don’t like California Cabernet. I’ve never really liked California Cabernet. Oh sure, there have been a few exceptions over the years – Ridge, Trefethen, Montelena – but for the most part, I just don’t get it. Cabernet sauvignon, from almost anywhere in California, leaves me cold.

It’s not that I actively dislike most California Cabs: I just don’t find them exciting. For my palate, they rarely – very, very rarely – taste of any place at all, and their expression of varietal character is always for me obscured and over-ridden by their one truly California characteristic, an aggressive, abrasive, sandpapery set of tannins. To be sure, these are not as powerful as they were a few decades back, when I really believed that whenever people spoke of “Cabs” they were using an acronym for California After-Burn – but for me those harsh tannins are still there. Consequently, 99 times out of 100, I will drink anything in preference to a California Cabernet. So stoke the fires: here’s your heretic.

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heretic burning

What spurred this confession wasn’t any sort of an Inquisition, but an honest attempt to try to understand California Cabernet better. The Wine Media Guild, in its ongoing efforts to illuminate the dark recesses of its member wine journalists’ minds, staged a tasting of Napa and Sonoma mountain wineries, largely featuring Cabernet sauvignons. This, I thought, is my chance to learn something about wines that have so long put me off. The wines selected for the tasting represented a varied set of winemakers and estates of different scales from two key Cabernet-producing valleys of California. All the winemakers were serious, knowledgeable professionals who worked hard at their craft and thought seriously about what they’re doing. If ever I’m going to come to appreciate California Cabernet, I thought, this is my chance to start.

Alas, it was not to be: I continue not to get it. All around me my colleagues – people whose palates and opinions I respect – were tasting with pleasure and even enthusiasm, while I made notes like “blah,” “characterless,” “harsh tannins,” “how much?!” I don’t claim to have an infallible palate – nobody does, whatever the PR might suggest – but I do have a fairly decent one. And I’m a habitual Barolo drinker, so I know about tannins. So I have to ask myself, What is the disconnect here? What is keeping me from enjoying these wines?

It isn’t the grape, that’s for sure: I learned wines on Bordeaux, and I still love it. But it is true that over the years I have encountered increasing instances of over-aggressive Cabernet, and not just from California. It is certainly a possibility that what’s putting me off is what California soils and climates – and maybe California winemaking techniques – do to and with Cabernet. Certainly the kind of ripenesses that California vineyards routinely achieve were farfetched dreams in Bordeaux in pre-global warming days, when I formed my ideas of what a wine should be. Perhaps I’m stuck with an outmoded notion of wine in general and Cabernet in particular – but what I’ve observed of Cabernet in Italy (and increasingly in Bordeaux) leads me to think that warmer is emphatically not better for this variety.

Which leads me to my major heresy, which will probably end up getting me drummed out of the corps and sent into outer darkness, where I will be forced to drink Sterno strained through an old gym sock: I have long thought that, though California’s wine-producing potential is fantastic, its growers are by and large working with the wrong grapes. I don’t think they have yet found the right grapes for the right places, and they won’t as long as they continue pooh-poohing the idea of terroir. They probably need a few centuries of Cistercians working the land in silence and keeping meticulous records before they discover what varieties will actually work best – and that, of course, is not going to happen.

In the meanwhile, I don’t really believe that Cabernet sauvignon ought to be the variety that California growers count on. I don’t think it does its best there, and I think many other varieties can and will give much better results – especially now, with the climate changing in the ways it is. I don’t believe, however, that the vineyard situation is going to change any time soon, because winemaking has become almost totally market-driven, and the market wants Cabernet – or thinks it wants Cabernet, or is told it wants Cabernet. Unfortunately, for me, I only drink and taste with my own mouth – and I don’t want Cabernet.

Turn me over: I’m done on this side.

heretic burning 2

Ribolla Gialla: An Unusual Grape Found in an Unexpected Place

August 5, 2013

During a short, purely escapist trip to California’s central coast, Diane and I enjoyed an excellent seafood dinner at Passionfish, in Pacific Grove, just outside of Monterey. Fine as the food was, the wine list was even better, a real departure from the almost standardized California list of Chardonnay-Merlot-Cabernet-Pinot noir. Passionfish has those wines, of course, but it focuses on the 7% of California wines that aren’t made from those grapes, and on wines that reflect a more European – i.e., food-friendly – style. It offers a very nice selection of French and Italian wines as well, and it prices all its wines at a reasonable 50-80% above cost, compared to the 200-300% (and sometimes more!) that has become the customary markup almost everywhere else. For all of which, I say Hooray!

Being there for only one meal, and having to drive some unfamiliar roads in an unfamiliar rental car after dinner, we weren’t able to do any in-depth sampling of the list. But one section really caught my eye: “Orange Wine,” it was headed, and it didn’t mean wines made from oranges.

orange wine list

ribolla-406-1-1That’s where I spotted Ryme Cellars’ version of Ribolla Gialla, a grape I know well from Friuli. There it makes a very pleasant, light-to-medium-bodied white wine that works nicely with most relatively simple foods. In Friuli it’s usually made in a bright, acid style, but the description in Passionfish’s wine list showed clearly that this California version was vinified very differently for a markedly different effect, for a roundness and fullness that promised to match well with Diane’s king salmon and my sturgeon. It did indeed, and that prompted some basic research.

Ryme Cellars sourced the grapes for the 2010 Ribolla Gialla that we drank from the Vare Vineyard in Napa. As Ryme’s website explains,

We traveled a long way to find this vineyard. Our fascination with Ribolla Gialla took us to Friuli-Venezia Giulia in north-eastern Italy. Visiting one of our favorite producers, Sasha Radikon told us that there was one guy in the US with Ribolla planted. George Vare has about 2.5 acres planted at the base of Mount Veeder in the Oak Knoll district of Napa Valley. We contacted George and were lucky enough to score a single ton from his now coveted vineyard.

Clearly, this is no big commercial project but a labor of love. Ryme Cellars – from the names of the owner/winemakers, RYan and MEgan Glaab – specializes in off-beat-for-California grapes: at present, Ribolla Gialla, two versions of Vermentino, and Aglianico. Why?

Most of our wines are made from Italian varieties simply because of the great diversity and unique character of the wines of that culture. . . . We love wines with distinctive character. They should taste great on their own, but really shine alongside good food. We love wines with ample tannin and acidity, especially if they are expected to age. We always value a great wine’s idiosyncrasies over a polished supple sameness that is so common in the wine world.

More specifically, as Ryan Glaab told me by email, he had his eyes opened by bottles of Ribolla Gialla from Gravner and Radikon at a dinner party back in 2006. “It was the most challenging, surprising, and deeply pleasurable wine experience I have had,” Ryan says. “And these wines vastly overshadowed all the grand cru Burgundy and Côte Rôtie we had that night. I knew then that I wanted to seriously pursue skin-fermented white wines. My wife and I love many orange wines, and we also make a Vermentino, but I think Ribolla Gialla is the noblest of orange wines. I sometimes think of it as the Nebbiolo of white grapes. It demands patience. It has a quiet nature and a powerful structure. There are not many grapes like it. We only make about 50 cases each year. We are very lucky to have access to the small vineyard. In the near future I hope to plant more elsewhere.”

I very much respect passion and commitment like that, and I think happening upon it anywhere is a cause for celebration. Clearly, these are two people I would like to meet, and whose kind I would like to find more of in the wine world. I hope they have a huge success without having to compromise the kinds of things they’re doing now, because what they’re doing now is very simple and very special:

The wines are produced according to simple methods. The wines are always encouraged, never controlled. We use no cultured yeast, no temperature control, no enzymes or other adulterants. We do not fine or filter. The wines are raised in used French oak barriques between 2 and 10 years old. Many of the reds are fermented on the stems. Many of the whites are fermented on the skins.

The 2010 Ribolla was all destemmed and fermented inside 2 old oak puncheons. The cap was manipulated lightly a few times throughout the fermentation. The puncheons were then sealed and the wine saw a total of about one month maceration. It was then pressed and spent two years in barrel and 9 months in bottle.

???????????????????????????????The result of that was a light-orange-colored wine with a smooth, almost waxy mouth-feel, chalky/floral aromas and a range of floral and mineral flavors that recalled without replicating Friuli Ribolla – a sort of Ribolla Plus, if you will. It made a thoroughly enjoyable drink on its own and an even better one with our two very different fish dishes. Had we been walking home, we probably would have had a second bottle, and I can’t give a wine a higher compliment than that. This wasn’t the kind of wine I expected to find on the central coast – or anywhere in California, for that matter – but I’m very happy about the serendipitous encounter. I can only hope that California continues to produce more such individualist winemakers as Ryan and Megan to make more such intriguing wines.

Used to be Twiggy: Sauvignon blanc

July 26, 2013

Many, many years ago, back in Mastering Wine, I described the difference between Chardonnay and Sauvignon blanc as Marilyn TwiggyMonroe compared to Twiggy. That comparison is pretty dated now, for a lot of reasons. Most run-of-the-mill Chardonnays have gotten a lot more zaftig – not to say flabby – than they used to be, moving closer to Roseanne and Melissa McCarthy than Marilyn. Some Sauvignons have gone the opposite direction and become positively anorexic, grassy and herbal as a ruminant’s lunch. And some – especially New World Sauvignons – have plumped up (to put it kindly) and become fruit cocktails.

Once upon that long-ago time, I was quite fond of Sauvignon blanc. When its grass and herbaceousness and cat’s pee flavors were moderated by some grapiness and the occasional taste of terroir, as was common then in Sancerre and other Loire valley Sauvignons, it could be a very elegant wine, useful in many dinner situations.

From Jancis Robinson's Vines, Grapes, and Wines

From Jancis Robinson’s Vines, Grapes, and Wines

I’m not sure, as time has passed, whether my palate has changed or the wine has, but the fact is that I haven’t these days enjoyed most Sauvignons. I found many of them extremely grassy and herbal, or at the other extreme so fat with oak and vanilla, that I simply couldn’t drink them. This may be just poor viticulture and viniculture – bad work in the field and worse in the cellar – but its consequences are that I had even begun to think of the grape variety as distinctly second tier, if not third.

I hate to lose a wine: The world’s repertory of truly noble wine grapes is not so vast that we can spare any. So I set out, in a modest, home-tasting way, to explore contemporary Sauvignon blanc. I tried a sort-of representative sample of Sauvignons from key parts of the winemaking world to see what, my prejudices and memories set aside, the present state of Sauvignon blanc truly is.

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The most obvious thing about Sauvignon blanc nowadays is that it’s grown and vinified just about everywhere: Name an important or burgeoning wine area, and Sauvignon blanc will be there. That’s pretty surprising for a variety whose northern European origins – all the DNA evidence points to the Loire valley, which was its epicenter for most of its history – make it unsuitable for growing in particularly warm areas. On its home ground, it became a notable wine as Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé and later spread from the Loire to Bordeaux where it became an important component of both dry white Bordeaux and Sauternes.

???????????????????????????????In the past 50 years or so, Sauvignon blanc has become the paradigm international variety: It successfully marched around the world, colonizing California, where Robert Mondavi first made it famous as Fumé blanc, then Australia and New Zealand, South America and South Africa. In New Zealand it scored spectacular success: It became the main motor of the New Zealand wine industry, after Cloudy Bay’s version set an international standard for the breed – richly aromatic, racy, and intensely herbal/grassy. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that, in the popular imagination at least, the international style of Sauvignon blanc has largely pushed the traditional Loire valley style to the margins. For my palate – and that’s the only one I can judge with – Cloudy Bay’s Sauvignon blanc (I tasted the 2012 vintage) is way over the top. Here’s my tasting note (with all my usual caveats about tasting notes):

Pale straw. On the nose, Grass!!! and cat’s pee. Some mineral on palate, but very herbal/citrus. Long grass-and-something finish – gooseberry? Lean-bodied, but big with alcohol. Gets more citrus-y as it opens, but still for my palate an extreme wine – not unbalanced in the conventional wine-speak sense, but almost freakishly top-heavy with exaggerated fruit.

Unfortunately for me, that kind of wine has become the model for most non-European Sauvignon, and probably is what most consumers now think Sauvignon is all about. But since that traditional style of Sauvignon blanc is the one I used to love, I tried to find out if anyone is still making it.

So I turned back to France. Again this wasn’t a systematic tasting, nor a wide one – but it was quite satisfying. The handful of wines I tasted – 2012 Francois Crochet Sancerre Les Perrois, 2011 Domaine Reverdy-Ducroux Sancerre, 2012 Pointe d’agrumes Touraine Sauvignon Blanc – all shared a restraint and balance that made them very successful dinner wines. None was strongly grassy – in fact I had to hunt hard in most to smell and taste grass – and all showed elements of terroir in their flavor – flint and wet stones, riding along with occasional citrus (grapefruit) notes. Home at last.

Loire wines

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Given my great passion for Italian wines, I naturally had to see what happened to Sauvignon blanc there. I tried several Sauvignons from northern Italy – Alto Adige, Venezia-Giulia, Friuli – all with some pleasure. The grassiness that I dislike was never as prominent as in New World wines – but I did find that the further west I went from Friuli the more it showed in the aroma, though rarely on the palate. So the 2011 Tiefenbrunner Kerchleiten Sauvignon and the 2012 Tramin Sauvignon (both Alto Adige) both gave a little grass on the nose while having more mineral-inflected notes on the palate. Both were fine with food. Bortoluzzi’s 2011 from Venezia Giulia showed much more mineral all through, and conveyed a nice hint of terroir.

Northern Italy wines

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Once into Friuli proper, I found that Sauvignon blanc seems to have discovered a whole new home for itself. Producers like Villa Russiz and Vie di Romans are turning out balanced, restrained Sauvignons marked by strong minerality and gout de terroir, medium-bodied and conveying a round mouth-feel despite bright acidity. You would never confuse them with Sancerre or its kin – they offer a completely different style and flavor range – but these are wines that equally convincingly convey a sense of place, that they have found their place. Normally I am no fan of international grapes in Italy, but in Friuli Sauvignon blanc turns out to be a variety I can get enthusiastic about.

Friuli wines