Archive for the ‘California’ Category

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.

 

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.

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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.

The Feast of St. Apoconarcoleptis Magna

January 1, 2012

St. Apoconarcoleptis Magna is the patron of naps, endings, the last days, and ruins, of which I am rapidly becoming one – the latter not merely a function of age and slow time but also the direct result of far too much holiday eating and drinking. Like a volunteer Strasbourg goose, I have been reporting regularly for some first-rate gavage – so here is a roundup of the best of that: my Twelve Wines of Christmas.

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As a preliminary, much bubbly found its way into my glass and thence into my gullet this season. I’ve already given my account of the Wine Media Guild’s Champagne luncheon. The New York Wine Press’s fête at the Brasserie was only slightly less spectacular. It featured rosé Champagnes – eleven of them, so they don’t count in my Christmas dozen – around a nicely balanced luncheon that concluded with a positively sinful dose of triform chocolate.

Rosé is the hottest category of Champagne these days – why, no one is quite sure, though Ed McCarthy opines that rosé makes an ideal dinner Champagne, because of its slightly fuller body and slightly greater complexity. Pinot noir always seems to make a difference, and its greater presence in rosé Champagnes could be the factor behind their current popularity.

All the wines tasted that day would rank as excellent on any scale, but my favorites all bunched up in the middle luncheon flight: two prestige Champagnes, 2004 Perrier-Jouet Belle Epoque (approximately $300) and 2004 Taittinger Comtes de Champagne (about $250), plus 2006 Louis Roederer, the youngest and least expensive wine of the flight ($75), and finally my favorite, 2002 Pol Roger Extra Cuvée de Reserve ($100), a great wine from a great Champagne vintage.

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The Twelve Wines of Christmas all came from my own so-called cellar, over multiple dinners for Diane and myself and family and friends. Inevitably, these included some more bubbles: my old reliable Pol Roger NV Brut, a consistently pleasing, medium-bodied, mineral-driven Champagne, and Roederer Estate, vinified by the French Grande Marque in California’s Anderson Valley, and for my palate the best and most persuasively Champagne-tasting of California sparkling wines. Pommery Brut NV made a fine aperitif, working equally well with some duck rillettes and with Diane’s version of Torino aperitivi.

For my palate, the red wines formed the pièce de résistance. Despite that piece of French, they were a varied lot: some French, many Italians, and even some Californians. The latter included my last (sob!) bottle of Ridge’s 1993 Montebello Cabernet Sauvignon, as lovely – and as European-styled – a wine as California produces. It gorgeously accompanied a rack of lamb and garlicky rissolé potatoes, as well as a subsequent cheese course, where it fell in love with a ripe pont l’éveque only to jilt it in favor of a creamy gorgonzola dolce. As you can see, this was a wine of many faces and facets, and I’m only sorry I don’t have any more. I said this very loudly several times, but Santa did not take the hint. Another win for St. Apoconarcoleptis.

One of the most enjoyable Italian reds was an almost archetypal Chianti Classico, 1997 La Selvanella Riserva from Melini. This is a very traditionally made wine from a fine vineyard near Panzano, in the Classico zone’s prized Conca d’Oro. It also has special resonances for me, in that I participated, way back in 1998, in the process of choosing the blend for this wine. This occurred at the estate, in a session led by the very able winemaker, Nunzio Capurso, and attended by Italian and North American wine journalists. Aside from the astounding quality of each component wine that we tasted, my major memory of the session is of an idiot from Rome loudly and persistently declaiming that the wine wouldn’t be any good unless it was aged in barriques. He couldn’t have been more wrong, then or now.

We enjoyed another fine wine of this type – i.e., primarily Sangiovese blended with other native grapes – Lungarotti’s 2001 Rubesco. Although from Umbria, this wine is a kissing cousin of Chianti Classico and fully matches the very best of them in suavity and depth: a lovely wine, from an equally lovely vintage.

Of course I could not long stay away from the wonderful wines of the Piedmont, so I took the opportunity to test a few Barolos of the 2003 vintage, a hot, forward year that, frankly, I feared might already be over the hill – some bottles I’d tasted over the past year were. Well, in these two cases, no worries: Both Conterno-Fantino’s Barolo Sorì Ginestra and Einaudi’s Barolo Costa Grimaldi were live and, in the most complimentary sense of the word, typical. The Sorì Ginestra showed the merest trace of the vintage’s too-ripe fruit and green tannins, the Costa Grimaldi none at all – a nice tribute to careful grape selection and restraint in the cellar.

Equally lovely, by the way, and much less expensive, was an in-theory lesser wine, a simple Nebbiolo, but from a fine maker in an excellent vintage. Poderi Colla’s 2006 Nebbiolo d’Alba was fully ready to drink, with excellent Nebbiolo character (black fruit, leather, tobacco, miles of depth) and no sign that it might not last another five years. All “simple” Nebbiolo should be so good.

Our French selections played up very gamely as well. For me, Musigny is the red-wine sweet spot of the whole Côte d’Or. Its wines have a velvetiness and an elegance of fruit and mineral that for my palate define red Burgundy. Drouhin’s 2002 Chambolle Musigny didn’t let me down: it was a soft, luxurious wine whose flavor persisted long in the mouth. More forceful and in a leaner style – mineral to the fore, fruit after – Moillard’s 2005 Beaune Premier Cru Grèves matched quite beautifully with our Pintadeau Jean Cocteau. The wine we drank with the cheese course that evening was in a very different style, being a Bordeaux. 1989 Chateau Brane Cantenac showed the wonderful elegance of Margaux combined with the kind of structure and heft I more often associate with Pauillac: It worked beautifully with a challenging set of cheeses.

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Those are my top twelve, but I’ve also got a few Honorable Mentions. Amidst this red tide, we did manage to fit in a few lighter meals that leant themselves better to white wines. Pieropan’s 2005 Soave La Rocca shone with some shrimp. This single-vineyard wine has always been in the forefront of this too-long-abused appellation, and it remains a standard-bearer even now that the Soave Classico denomination is undergoing a tremendous resurgence. In a totally different style, but equally fine, Umani Ronchi’s 2002 Casal di Serra Verdicchio dei Castelli di Iesi Classico Superiore offered a mouthful of wine almost as big as its name. Still at nine years old showing a light touch of barriques, its biggish body and rich fruit very nicely accompanied a creamy veal and mushroom stew. Both these wines showed very dramatically, for those who may still be skeptical, that well-made Italian whites can age very well indeed.

Finally, lest anyone think that my holidays were just one triumphant sip after another, honesty compels me to record my great disappointment. I had reserved a place for one potentially excellent white wine to serve alongside the oeufs en cocotte and Alsace onion tarts that were part of our Christmas dinner. I was really looking forward to Labouré-Roi’s 2003 Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru, so you can imagine the depth of my chagrin when my only bottle turned out to be totally oxidized – just plain dead.

There has been a great deal of buzz in wine circles about the problem of premature oxidation in white Burgundies. Apparently the vintages between 1996 and 2006 are involved, and the blight strikes randomly, at every quality level. Some bottles pour brown and dead, while others even from the same case remain sound. No one knows what causes it, and the producers are loath to talk about it – not only because it’s embarrassing to them, but also because (I strongly suspect) they don’t have a clue. So since St. Apoconarcoleptis Magna looks after ruins as well as endings, I’ll conclude on this note: There is nothing like white Burgundy at its best – but be warned: that bottle you’re so keenly anticipating might be pinin’ for the fjords, and might already have joined the Norwegian Blue in the choir invisible.

From that comic note to a serious one: May your 2012 be happy, and both your New Year and your old wines healthy and enjoyable!

US Palates and Brit Reviewers

September 1, 2011

The September issue of Decanter comes to subscribers with a supplement entitled California 2011. This represents a gallant effort by numerous British wine writers to come to honorable terms with California wine. Unfortunately, they can’t.

Oz Clarke tries hard. He confronts the problem head on. He wonders “if it’s a British disease, this need to go to other people’s countries and tell them what style of wine they should be making.” Margaret Rand is just as direct: “one simply has to accept that while Napa winemakers have adopted the language of the Old World, and can talk about finesse and terroir expression with great conviction, what they mean by these terms is not what we Brits mean.” As an example of this, she cites Tim Mondavi’s saying to her, “I never want to taste alcohol,” while she can taste alcohol all through his wines.

These articles and others like them prompted Guy Woodward to an editorial deploring the cultural divide – “Wine, after all, is about democracy, not dictatorship” – even as he honestly reaffirms its existence: “what to a British palate can seem elegant and refined can seem thin and weedy to a US taster.”

Woodward’s assertion that wine is a democracy seems contradicted by Clarke’s emphasis on the dominance of Robert Parker’s scores as the definer of success for California winemakers. Put aside the British wine press’s obsession with Parker, who for most of them is the bête noire of wine: If Clarke is reporting accurately what he was told and what he inferred from his California tour, then indeed California wine producers have elected Parker king and allowed themselves to be buffaloed or bullied into making the big, high-alcohol fruit bombs we think of as, depending on our palates, the epitome or the extreme of California winemaking.

And not just California winemaking either. I have been told by more winemakers than I can count, in Italy and in France, that the undrinkable, high-alcohol, over-wooded concoction I just spat out was not what they drank themselves but “what the market wants.” More specifically, “what the international market wants.” Most specifically, “what Americans want.” My pointing out that I am American and I hate that kind of wine never so much as ruffled an eyebrow: In every case, the winemakers remained supremely confident that they were on the right track and, by clear implication, that I didn’t know what I was talking about. I wish I could believe that their serenity was the result of deep and thorough market research – but I really think it was nothing more than the complacency conferred by retaining a high-profile consulting enologist who promised them high scores in the Wine Advocate or the Wine Spectator in return for a free hand in the cellar and a large budget for barriques.

That’s not all: comparable to Margaret Rand’s experience with Tim Mondavi, I’ve also had the displeasure of tasting with a producer who assured me that I wouldn’t – couldn’t – taste oak in his wines, an assurance he imperturbably repeated several times as I tried to tell him oak was all that I could taste in his wines.

What do I conclude from all this? First, that to cast the problem as British palate vs. California palate is an oversimplification – in fact, a distortion of the problem. For one thing, the British palate isn’t a single thing, nor is it infallible. For example, many Brits are by my lights way off the mark when it comes to Italian wines. It’s not just that a lot of Brits automatically classify all Italian wine as plonk, though many still do. But even MWs often find Italian wines hyper-acidic or too tannic or unbalanced: They don’t fit the pattern of the French and German wines that have been for so long “Britain’s own,” as it were, and which are the norm by which they consciously or unconsciously judge all other wines. Not a bad norm, I’ll concede – but hardly universal or exhaustive. For another thing, there are European producers and consumers, including a fair fraction of Brits, who like fruit bombs and new oak.

Then too, the US palate isn’t a single thing either. There are California producers and American consumers who have much more Europe-oriented palates than the mass-market or cult-market in the States would indicate. The US is not a single market, and the sooner producers begin dealing seriously with that fact, the better off we will all be. Just in the broadest terms, the Bo-Wash corridor (itself a string of separate markets with differing individual preferences) is radically different from, again in the broadest terms, the West Coast or the Southeast.

It makes more sense to me to see this whole palatal knot as, at least in metaphoric terms, a “generational” problem – and in these terms the so-called American palate serves as an illuminating example. It’s not that long ago – a generation back, let us say – that the US thought of itself as a beer-and-whiskey country, and wine was a very isolated affectation. In fact, the US then was, and to a large extent still remains, a milk and soft drink country, and the palatal learning curve to ascend from those two drinks to what Bordeaux and Barolo used to be is steep indeed. Another generation has been riding that road for some years now: Some folks got off at the Boone Farms station, some at Lambrusco, some went on to Napa Cabernet in the hugely fruited, soft tannin style (Parkersville or Spectatortown), while a few even worked their way in a different direction and ended up with traditional-style Rioja and Taurasi and Hermitage and Ridge Montebello Cabernet.

People drink what they are comfortable with, and what they’re comfortable with is, in most cases, what they’re used to (just like the British sailors in the Aubrey-Maturin novels). A better wine will eventually change most people’s palates – if they have a palate to start with (face it: most people don’t actually taste what they put in their mouths), and if we can get producers to make it and consumers to try it.

Big ifs – but Ridge and some other estates that break the California stereotype have been showing for years that it can be done profitably. Now is the time for those producers who currently tell us – or themselves – that they’re making the wine the market wants to drink to start making the wines that they themselves like to drink. (Believe me, I’m not speaking here just of California, by any means.) That, my friends, would indeed be a consummation devoutly to be wished.

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It’s been a long, hard summer, and Ubriaco needs a nap. Look for my next post after the middle of the month — say around the 22nd/23rd. Thanks for your attention all through the heat, the earthquake, and the hurricane.

High Grades: Three 88s and a 96

June 15, 2011

June brings a high concentration of private and public occasions to Casa Maresca.  I’ve never been able to forget either Diane’s birthday or our wedding anniversary because they are separated only by D-Day, a date impossible to ignore.  From our earliest time together, this concatenation has led us into several-day-long fits of cooking and dining – pushed into glorious excess, of course, by the final departure of winter gloom and the arrival of sunshine, fresh vegetables, and the first sweet fruits of the year.

This year was no exception, except that, out of respect for our own increasing age, I substantially raised the age of the wines we drank with our Hail to Sunshine! Hail to Us! dinners – thus, three 1988s and one 1996, and every one of them high grade indeed.

The First Fit: Warm-up. This pre-festivity dinner consisted of the Balthazar-inspired short ribs that Diane has blogged about. They were rich, lush, and filling. Luckily, I had chosen a wine that stood up to them very well. In fact, the wine collaborated with them to enhance their richness and to plump itself up in the process. What we drank with that beef protein-and-calorie bomb was Caparone Vineyards Paso Robles Nebbiolo 1988, and a thoroughly gorgeous wine it was.

As near as I can gather, 1988 was not a great year for Napa and Sonoma. It appears to have been the second of two drought years, and produced some fearsomely alcoholic, harsh-tannined Cabernets. Further south, the harvest fared better, because ’88 was highly esteemed for Rhone varietals. Of course, no one was tracking what the harvest was like for Nebbiolo: Far too little of it had been planted, and most of the growers who tried it were struggling. Nobody ever said Nebbiolo was an easy grape.

Dave Caparone set in his first Nebbiolo in the mid-Seventies (and Sangiovese and Aglianico too), and he tended it like a first-born child, an attitude now continued by his son Mark. As Dave wryly says, Nebbiolo is a grape for those who have mastered Pinot noir and are looking for a challenge. His ’88 answered the challenge, and then some. It was, as you would expect, fully mature, with the classic Nebbiolo pale garnet color and orange edge – but, as I didn’t entirely expect, it was still fresh and live, filled with classic, mature Nebbiolo flavors with a fascinating overlay of bittersweet dark chocolate – unmistakably Nebbiolo, even though equally unmistakably not Piedmont Nebbiolo.

This is just plain classy winemaking, to produce a wine that tastes of both its variety and its terroir. Wine like this reflects a lifetime of labor devoted to what is in California an unfashionable variety: more’s the pity for California. I only wish that more winemakers showed this kind of passion and dedication.

The Second Fit: Aperitif. For special occasions nothing serves better as an aperitif than Champagne, and few things are better than a top-flight vintage Champagne from a great producer. So we started Diane’s birthday celebration with a glass of Gosset Celebris 1996. ’96, as Champagne buffs know, made a great vintage year for Champagne, and the Gosset firm, one of the very oldest in the Champagne region, did a beautiful job with it. This wine exhibited a golden color, minute perlage, and all the classic Champagne wheaty/toasty aromas and flavors, with just the slightest edge of oxidation, which rather than detracting from the wine lent an attractive touch of le gout anglais (as the French call it).

So enjoyable was this Champagne, and so hefty, that we were strongly tempted to keep drinking it through dinner, which it could have handled very nicely. But we had already made up our minds to drink the other half of the bottle for our anniversary aperitif, so we proceeded to . . .

The Third Fit: Birthday dinner, in this case asparagus mimosa followed by sweetbreads prepared in puff pastry packets, as at Chez Pauline, one of our favorite Parisian restaurants back in the days when we got to Paris often. (Where are the snows of yesteryear?) The asparagus were fresh from the Greenmarket, as were the luscious, first-of-the-season shell peas we served alongside the sweetbreads.

The wine I picked to match with all this was a 1988 Drouhin Chambolle Musigny Premier Cru. For me, Musigny is the sweet spot in the Cote d’Or: I just love those wines for their delicacy and grace. Rarely do they show power: Though they have it, they’re just too suave to flaunt it. Most vintage charts will tell you that 1988 was a good but not outstanding vintage in Burgundy, and for all I know they may be right. All I can swear to is that this bottle was outstanding – pale garnet in color (looking remarkably like a mature Nebbiolo, in fact), enticingly floral/herbal/mineral in aroma, on the palate elegant and restrained, yet live and persistent. Understated elegance is as close as I can come to summing up this Chambole Musigny. It meshed beautifully with the sweetbreads, whose presentation in puff pastry created a paradoxical combination of elegance and earthiness (no matter how you wrap them, sweetbreads are an organ meat). A lovely dinner matched with a lovely wine.

We took a breather on D-Day, and dined lightly on the season’s early radishes (the Greenmarket again) and simple omelettes, to make room for

The Fourth Fit: Our anniversary dinner started with the second half of the Gosset Celebris, and I thought it was even better than the first day. I’m not sure Diane agreed, but it was not something we would argue about, especially not before our anniversary dinner: tagliarini dressed with mushrooms and white truffle (both the egg pasta and the truffle paste carried back from my last excursion to Alba), followed by a dish that was a throwback to the ’60s, Steak Diane from Craig Claiborne’s old New York Times Cookbook. The wine I chose this time was a 1988 Barbaresco Bricco Asili from Ceretto. By pure luck, I think this one was the wine of them all.

The 1988 harvest was the first of modern times in the Barolo and Barbaresco zones. I mean that in two senses: that it was the first of the warmer (climate-change induced?) growing seasons that the zones have since enjoyed, as well as the first of an unprecedented trio of top-flight vintages – 1988, 1989, 1990 – that heralded good times for Piemonte winemakers. Growers and Nebbiolo fans alike still argue about which is the best of those three.

Our ’88 showed a lovely crystalline color, a live, bright garnet, with a narrower orange edge than I expected. The aroma was classic – white truffle, tar, dried roses, leather, underbrush – complex and intriguing. On the palate, it gave lovely sweet black cherry fruit, with soft, soft tannins and great, lively acidity, everything finishing in a long-lasting burst of dried cherry. It tasted wonderful with the pasta, in which it recognized a kindred spirit, and almost equally good with the Steak Diane. The last few sips of it, by themselves, practically eliminated the need for dessert. (We ate it nevertheless: the season’s first local strawberries. How could we not?) A gorgeous, gorgeous wine, and a fitting conclusion to our few days of feasting.

After that, it was compensatory salads and Barbera and Beaujolais for a few days, to get us back to normal. Sigh! Who wants to be normal?

The Emperor’s Flimsy Wardrobe

December 8, 2010

Every year around this time, The Wine Spectator publishes its list of the year’s 100 most exciting wines. This year’s list has duly (you may read that with two “l”s) appeared, and it disappoints as deeply as ever. For years now, for me the most exciting thing about the Spectator’s Hundred Best List has been its omissions.

If the Spectator was as insignificant as this blog, I would have no quarrel with its listing anything it wanted. But the Spectator is influential, if only because retailers and public relations people keep citing its numbers – its numerical scores, based as near as I can tell, on a 20-point scale of 80 to 100 – as if they were engraved on stone by the finger of the Almighty. In my opinion, they are written on water by very fallible human beings, and I often find the Spectator’s evaluations and comments on wines wildly off the mark. For me, the Spectator’s Hundred Best List concentrates all its quintessential off-the-mark-ness in one splendid spot.

Let’s start with some numbers, since the Spectator is so fond of numbers. Of any given year’s hundred best wines, how many would you reasonably expect would come from the Old World, the homeland of Vitis vinifera? Just think of France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal: Let’s not complicate things with Germany or Austria, Greece or Hungary. Would you say fifty percent? Maybe even two-thirds? Dream on: Those four great, historic wine-producing nations get fewer citations among them than does the American west coast. California, Washington, and Oregon, according to the Spectator, last year produced a full third of the world’s one hundred finest wines. California by itself gave the world one-quarter of them – 25 listings to France’s puny 17, Italy’s weakling 9, and Spain and Portugal’s near-insignificant 6.

Does that – even as bare numbers – seem plausible to you?

If you count in the Spectator’s other New World listings – Australia and New Zealand, Chile and Argentina – the US and the rest of the New World last year gifted us with a full fifty percent of the top wines in the world. Oh: I almost forgot – fifty-one percent if you throw in the list’s one New York wine.

Does that – even as bare numbers – seem plausible to you?

Some inferences are fair from these numbers. Given the preponderance of New World wines and the strong presence in the European listings of international-style or “auteur” wines, it’s obvious that the Spectator’s tasters have markedly California palates. That makes it very difficult for them to appreciate wines that aren’t strongly fruit forward, that opt for elegance, balance, and restraint over vigor, or that show a marked acidity. Those three characteristics describe most of the estimable wines of Europe, which means the Spectator is largely groping in the dark when it comes to evaluating them.

This was very vividly demonstrated for me a few years back, when the Spectator’s then Italian stringer James Suckling (more about Mr. Suckling below) pronounced 2000 Barolo a perfect, 100-point vintage. When most of the rest of us who regularly cover Italian wines stopped laughing, we wept. That corps of journalists of many nations (in whose company, by the way, neither Mr. Suckling nor anyone else from the Spectator has ever been seen) pretty unanimously considered 2000 at best a middling, not to say mediocre, Barolo vintage. It had been marred by excessive heat, so that at harvest many grapes were over-ripe while the tannins were green and harsh.

To hide these defects (though you really can’t hide them, if a taster is paying attention), a lot of producers aged the wines in new or heavily charred barriques. The result: wines with plenty of fruit up front, with a layer of oaky vanilla or espresso from the barriques, and harsh, biting tannins behind – essentially unbalanced wines, with little prospect of cellar development. (Most 2000 Barolos are already dead, bitter tannic corpses.) That’s not exactly what anyone but the Spectator would call a classic Barolo vintage – but hey! It had lots of fruit. Pity the poor souls who bought it on the Spectator’s recommendation with the thought that they had acquired a classic, long-lived Barolo.

The Italian selections on this year’s list merit some closer attention. One is an Amarone (Zenato ’06; good but very, very young) and one is a Pinot Grigio (Atems ’08: a nice wine, but one of the world’s top 100?). The other seven are all Tuscan wines. Think about that: not a single Barolo or Barbaresco or Gattinara or Ghemme. No Barbera or Dolcetto. Not a wine from the Marches or Abruzzo, Puglia or Sicily. Not a single bottle from Campania – no Taurasi, no Fiano, no Greco. Not a white from Jermann or Gravner or the whole of Alto Adige.

Does that – even as bare numbers – seem plausible to you?

I am not one of those who think that the Spectator is just the journalistic arm of the California Chamber of Commerce. But I am certainly one of those who wish that the Spectator would either learn European wines or just leave them alone. As matters now stand, I really believe its pronouncements do far more harm than good: They misdirect people rather than enlighten them.

Postscript: It gave me some hope a little while back when James Suckling left the Spectator. I thought that just maybe the Spectator had gotten embarrassed about the Vintage 2000 fiasco and that we would hear no more such gross misjudgments from Mr. Suckling. Alas, I was wrong. He’s back. What his PR agent calls “the wine world’s most important voice” – so much for Jancis Robinson, Clive Coates, Parker and Spurrier, Broadbent and Sutcliffe, and all the rest of the world’s apparently-Suckling-wannabees – is starting up a website. I looked at the trailer for it (no, I’m not going to give you the URL) and I would certainly rate it at or near 100 on the pretention meter. If nothing else, I will check it regularly in the future for its inadvertent comedy content. If you can’t beat ‘em, you can at least laugh at them.

Alone on a Mountaintop: Ridge Vineyards

August 16, 2010

It has to be at least 40 years since I first visited then-young Ridge Vineyards. The now-nearly-legendary Paul Draper had only just come into residence as Ridge’s winemaker when Diane and I drove up those curving mountain roads south of San Francisco to what turned out to be, in all senses, an aptly named winery. I remember hardly seeing another car on the road, and the eerie experience, as we rounded one tight curve, of momentarily coming eye to eye with a Red-tailed Hawk, about 20 feet away and hovering with scarcely moving pinions over several hundred feet of empty air. Montebello Ridge was high, and wild, and natural: true pioneer country, and Ridge was – and is – a pioneer.

California wine was just beginning to burgeon back then, and while entrepreneurial skills and business daring were abundant, pioneer spirit was as scarce as it always is. The cash was crowding into Napa, some was trickling into Sonoma, and not a lot of people were looking anywhere else. There had been vineyards up on Montebello for years before a few Stanford professors bought up some of them to make a little wine for themselves and discovered that it was better than drinkable. Happily, they weren’t very practical people, and weren’t looking to make a fortune (nobody did, in wine, in those days) or start a franchise, so they just found the best winemaker they could afford and slowly began expanding. Academics used to be like that. In any event, they got lucky again and found Paul Draper – not an academically trained winemaker, and all the better for it. Winemakers used to be like that too. Draper and Ridge worked well together, and the rest, as the cliché in this case accurately has it, is history.

The curent Ridge winemaking team; Paul Draper second from left

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am far from a fan of California wines, most of which I find (choose any adjective that fits) overmanipulated, overalcoholic, overextracted, one-dimensional, blatant, and uninteresting. The great exception for me has always been Ridge, which has always been alone on its mountaintop, making wines that – except for the accident of their location – are in no sense California wines: restrained, balanced, elegant, and complex. And – oh yes, let us not forget this – sensibly priced. In fact, for their quality, bargains – all up and down the line, from the humblest Zin, which I consider far from humble, to Montebello Cabernet, which I regard as the best wine made in California, period. (Sorry to be so wishy-washy.)

Actually, I will modify that last assertion to some extent. For their prices, the best wines made in California are Ridge’s Zinfandels, all of them, even the ones they no longer label Zinfandel because the percentage of that grape in the blend has fallen below the legal requirement. Ridge makes eight of them that I know of:  East Bench, Geyserville, Lytton Springs, Pagani Ranch, Paso Robles, Ponzo, Three Valleys, and York Creek. All except Three Valleys are single-vineyard wines. East Bench and Paso Robles are 100% Zinfandel, while the others are all field mixes, varying from as much as 98% Zin down to 72%.

Three Valleys and Geyserville can no longer be called Zinfandel because they contain less than 75% of that grape. But they are by no means the least estimable of Ridge’s set. The three valleys in question are Alexander, Dry Creek, and Russian River, all in Sonoma, and all excellent sources of the kind of mature vineyards and old-California field mixes that Ridge likes to work with. In addition to Zinfandel, Three Valleys includes Syrah and Petite Syrah, Grenache, Carignane, and Mataro. Geyserville’s single-vineyard includes Petit Syrah, Carignane, and Mataro – plus, of course, its old-vine Zinfandel. I notice that on the generously informative label notes that Ridge always provides, the 100% Zins are estimated to improve over 7 or 8 years, while Geyserville is credited with a growing span of 10 to 15 years. ‘Nuff said?

What differentiates all of Ridge’s Zinfandels for me from the vast mass of other California Zins is simply elegance. If I can overstate to make my point – and regular readers of this blog must by now be used to hearing me overstate – it is as if the model for most California Zinfandel is inexpensive Port, and the model for Ridge Zinfandel is classic Claret. However lovely and fresh the fruit may be in any of Ridge’s Zinfandels, however high the alcohol (usually over 14 degrees), the overall impression the wine makes is poise – great balance, great harmony, everything coming together almost symphonically. And for me, this just gets better as the wines get older. I’d rather drink Ridge’s Zinfandels at about 8 or 10 years from harvest than at release. As a matter of fact, that’s exactly what I’m going to do. I’ve just talked myself into a bottle of Ridge for tonight’s dinner. Cheers!

Tales from the Crypt

March 11, 2010

I’ve been doing a lot of wine travel lately, all of it in Italy. In mid-February I was trekking through an unexpectedly snowy and cold Tuscany, and in fact I’m in Italy right now. I wrote this post ahead of time and scheduled it to appear during the week when I’m off to hopefully warmer Sicily, followed by a few days in Piedmont. That adds up to a lot of Italian wines, mostly red and mostly very young. You’ll hear about all these eventually, but I need a little time to get some distance on them and think about them. In between trips, while I was home, I wanted to drink some wines that were neither Italian nor young, so I went scrounging in that “cellar” (i.e., closet) you’ve heard so much about recently. Here’s what I dug out.

Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape blanc 2002

The white wines of the Rhone Valley are generally not well known in this country, which is OK by me, since there isn’t a huge supply of them and they’re expensive enough already. Although they can be drunk young – they’ve all got good fruit, sound structure, and usually intense minerality – they are supremely age-worthy wines.

At seven years of age, this archetypically Rhone blend – 80% Rousanne, with Grenache blanc, Picardan, Bourboulenc, and Clairette – was still very youthful, despite its appearance. It was the color of copper, and had a scent of copper too – definitely something metallic – plus dried pear and fig and any number of other things that popped up as it opened and changed with food.

White Chateauneufs and their cousins, the white Hermitages, are big wines, with a take-no-prisoners attitude: you have to come to them. This one loved our appetizer of smoked sturgeon, but it really wanted roast turkey or pork or veal rather than the skate meuniere we had prepared for a main course. Unquestionably a great, distinctive wine, and a fine representative of the whole august family. I have only a few more bottles, which I’ll try not to drink before their tenth birthday at least. Wish me luck.

Beaulieu Vineyards Georges de Latour Private Reserve Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 1998

As should be clear to anyone who’s following this blog, I am not a huge fan of the dominant California style in wines – all that big, forward fruit and high alcohol – but Beaulieu Vineyards has never been a member of that school. It has always been one of the more European-style winemakers, emphasizing balance and elegance rather than power: diplomacy rather than a frontal assault.

This ten-year-old bottle of its flagship wine didn’t disappoint in any way. As expected, it showed itself balanced and elegant rather than forceful, though the nose is big and rich. Initially, some bitey green tannins appeared in the finish, but braised lamb shanks nicely smothered that and brought up the wine’s body and finesse. Green tannins don’t go away with bottle age – if they’re present in the grapes at harvest, they last in the bottle forever – but some foods can deal with them. 1998 must have been hot, with a lot of sugar ripeness to force harvest before the tannins completely ripened and softened – a frequent problem in California, which most producers use a lot of new oak to hide. I’m sure this wine saw some barrique, but not enough to alter its fundamentally sound flavors. A really nice wine, enjoyable and thought-provoking.

Ridge California Geyserville 1999

Ridge is another one of the California producers I trust. When push comes to shove, I’ll taste anything Paul Draper makes, and the odds are strong I’ll like it. He has a markedly European palate, and the wines he makes tend to reflect his predilection for balance, elegance, and depth. I love his Zinfandels because they become so claret-like as they age: they just seem to go from harmony to harmony, year by year. This ten-year-old was just perfect, and unfortunately my last.

Ridge’s always informative front and back labels tell a lot of the story. Front label:

68% Zinfandel, 16% Carignane, 16% Petite Sirah. Sonoma County. 14.8% alcohol. Bottled January 2001.

Back label:

Despite the season’s late start, moderate temperatures and a long, lovely autumn fully matured the fruit at Geyserville; harvest began in the last days of September. The old zinfandel (c. 1900) was picked first, then the young vines, planted in 1990. We waited until mid-October for the forty-year-old zinfandel and one-hundred and twenty-year-old carignane, finishing with petite sirah. Each of the eighteen parcels was held separate; naturally occurring yeast and natural malolactic bacteria carried out the fermentations. Twenty-five percent of the wine was aged in new, air-dried american oak, the rest in older barrels of similar wood. This Geyserville is among the finest of a great decade, and will be at its best over the next seven or eight years.

As I said above, this bottle made it ten years with ease, and tasted as if it could have gone on for quite a while yet. It had a great nose of prunes and plums and dried funghi porcini. On the palate, it tasted and felt like a fine claret – a good third-growth Bordeaux – but more intense and bigger without losing any of the polish. A great wine: I begrudge every delicious bottle of it that I’ve drunk before this last one.

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Wines like this are why I cellar wine in the first place. If I were lucky enough to find wines of these now-long-past vintages on the market today, they would cost me far more in dollars than they originally did, and they would certainly cost me a great deal of time and effort to locate and acquire. The ease and convenience of just poking my head into my closet – excuse me: of course I mean stone-vaulted, cobwebby cellar – and choosing tonight’s wine is an inestimable value to a lazy curmudgeon like myself.