Saturday, November 29, 2008

Blind-Tasting Thanksgiving at the Chevskies, 2008

This was the second year in a row that my wife and I hosted the "day-after-Thanksgiving" party for our friends at our historic home in Palo Alto - hopefully two years in a row means "tradition".

This time we focused on making the juiciest turkey possible (free-range willie bird from AG Ferrari that we brined for 24 hours in salt-herb-and-spice solution), stuffed with oranges, lemons and herbs from our garden, accompanied by home-made gravy (infused with Pinot Grigio) and oven- and grill-roasted autumn vegetables (beets, carrots, butternut squash, sweet potatoes, shallots, brussels sprouts with sea-salt and dressing drizzled on top).

Our friends brought various appetizers and desserts: home-made cheese spreads (zesty!), marinated cooked grapes (tasty!), crab cakes (always satisfying!), pickled veggy salads (interesting), bean & walnut salad (yum!), stuffing (of course), pumpkin cheesecake (delicous), pecan pie (sweet), and more things I can't remember. So it ended up being plenty of food, with a manageable amount of prep for Rona and me, and tons of left-overs!

Guests started showing up around 6:45pm, and by 7:30 they were all in.
And thus the blind-tasting contest began.

Blind Tasting

Depending on the crowd, I'd vary the rules. This time, I pre-announced all 5 wines, and challenged the teams to identify which bottle was which. In the past, I had also experimented with not pre-announcing the wines but instead asking guests to rank them by price - which is always a lot of fun too!

Generally speaking, while this group of friends enjoy wine occasionally, they are not wine experts or connoisseurs. In fact, one is much more likely to catch some of them drinking vodka, tequila, mixed drinks, and even home-made moonshine, while dancing to loud Russian, Jewish, and Italian music from the 80'es (some of which is actually pretty good) than with a glass of Cote Rotie (though I am single-handedly attempting to change that - Felix is showing early signs of wine aptitude :)

This time I picked 5 wine types that I thought would pair well with the Thanksgiving dinner, and at the same time educate my friends a little bit.

Wine Menu
  • Riesling, Kabinett, from Maximin Grunhauser Abtsberg 2007, Mosel, Germany ($23)
  • Pinot Gris Bollenberg from Chateau d'Orschwihr 2005, Alsace, France ($18)
  • Beaujolais-Villages from Domaine Des Vignes Des Jumeaux 2002, Beaujolais, France ($12)
  • Cotes du Rhone from le Clos du Caillou 2006, Southern Rhone, France ($14)
  • Pinot Noir from High Pass Winery 2002, Willamette Valley, Oregon ($30)
I divided guests into two groups - men and women, and asked Russ and Elena to captain their respective teams. I find the "men vs women" battle-of-the-sexes to be the most fun.  Rona (my wife) and I administer the blind-tasting with the respective teams, keeping the opposite-sex spies away, and making sure no peeking at the labels takes place. 
After about 30 min of tasting and re-tasting, with lots of back-n-forth and crazy suggestions about wines that were not even on the list (from Roman, who also stated that my Comte cheese tasted like canned fish), disclaimers that some players only know vodka (from another Roman), debates as to whether Pinot Gris is a white or a red (!!!) but still plenty of lip-smacking satisfaction from the all the vino and cheese, both teams were ready for the unveiling.

With the score sheets collected, I directed everyone to the kitchen where I tallied up the scores on the blackboard.

Both men and women named the whites (Riesling and Pinot Gris) and the Cotes Du Rhone right. But they made opposite picks of the Beaujolais vs the Oregon Pinot Noir. Women seemed very confident and were taunting men, who really struggled with the reds this time.

And the results?
The women were right.
Husbands lost, to women's deafening cheer. Alex (who loves wine) was particularly distraught - he kept saying that he had got the wines right, and that we was ultimately swayed in the wrong direction by his less discerning compadres. Felix also attempted to make a similar claim. All fell on deaf ears, as women victoriously posed for the camera.

I had a tie-breaker round ready to go, but it was not necessary this time. It's the 2nd year in a row when women beat men. More generally, out of the three "men vs women" blind tastings I have done, all three were won by women -- hm...

I also asked the crowd for what wines they preferred during the tasting.
Men overwhelmingly preferred the Cotes du Rhone (to their surprise, since they mostly drink California wines), but Felix also noted the Riesling (yeah!). Women liked the Beaujolais, the Oregon Pinot, and the Riesling about equally, with Julia (Felix's wife) preferring the Beaujolais.

My personal favorite was the Riesling, with Cotes du Rhone as #2. When I told Alex that the Cotes du Rhone was only $14, he was pleasantly shocked!

Now that we got the juices flowing, everyone was eager to start the feast! Felix (our turkey carving specialist) expertly handled the turkey, and indeed it came out very juicy.  Complimented with Pinot Grigio-enhanced gravy and cranberry sauce and stuffing by Julia, everything was delicious.

I was now trying every single wine that we had blind-tasted, seeing which one matches best with the food. I also brought out another high-end Oregon Pinot - a 2005 Pfeiffer Blue Dot Reserve (sold only at the winery for $60) - a super concentrated Pinot that tasted of pure black cherry and cassis juice - huge pinot (devoid of any shyness or complexity).

So which one do you think was the best wine for the food?


According to my taste buds:
  1. Riesling - best match by far. The sweet and sour in the wine really was perfect with the turkey feast.
  2. Oregon Pinot Noir and the Beaujolais both too big for the food (lighter versions of either would have matched better). However, Rona noted that the Beaujolais was very good with the roasted root vegetables (not sure I agree).
  3. Pinot Gris was too honeyed, viscous, and round for the food. In general, a fat and boring wine for this food.
  4. Cotes Du Rhone was way too big and meaty -- it would have paired far better with steak.

So there you have it - somewhat unexpected result - Riesling (Kabinett level sweetness, with lots of minerality present in wines from Mosel) takes the top spot as a Thanksgiving wine (as far as my palate goes). I wrote about it in a previous post, describing it as an ideal match to spicy chinese food - so Riesling is quite a flexible wine! I would have expected the Pinot to have been a better match for Thanksgiving, but that's the awesomeness of food and wine pairing - there are always new turns and pleasant surprises!

Keep exploring your taste buds, and Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

1990 Chateuneuf-du-Pape tasting with Ross Bott and co.

Wow, what an experience last night.  It was the first time I came to a Ross Bott tasting event.  My wine friends have been telling me about these Ross Bott events around the Palo Alto area, and finally I emailed Ross to add me to the list, and so it began.  Ross Bott is a Bay Area wine guru, who has been running a wine tasting group in Palo Alto probably for the last 30 years.  His tastings are rather serious events, with wine geeks getting together with their own glasses, and quietly tasting 8 wines blind, taking notes, and finally ranking the wines in the order of preference.  Ross then collects the individual rankings and computes overall rankings, etc, and then announces those.  Each participant then sees how far they are from consensus.  Really entertaining and educational exercise.  Ross supplies the wines from his allegedly enormous stash, and everyone pitches in to cover his cost.

A lot of the time these tastings (which usually run twice a week)  focus on New World wines (California,  Australia, etc) which don't interest me nearly as much as Old World (France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Portugal), with France of course being the classic and the best, in my opinion.

So when Ross sent out the announcement of the tasting of 8 highly-ranked (back in the day) Chateauneuf-du-Papes from the excellent 1990 vintage, my wife and I decided we cannot miss it.  So 7:30pm sharp we showed up with 8 empty glasses to a house in Palo Alto, offered up for these tastings by one of the regulars.

Here is what Ross Bott had sent out in the tasting announcement:
"The 1990 vintage in Chateauneuf du Pape was nearly perfect weather-wise, with a warm summer followed by a long, dry autumn which allowed producers to pick grapes at optimal ripeness.  The resultant Chateaunefs showed very well when young, and seemed to promise a long life.  Of the 1990 vintage Robert Parker wrote in 1997: "1990 may be a replay of 1967 or 1959.  It is a fabulous vintage, with virtually everybody producing wines of enormous richness, power, weight, and lofty alcohol levels.  The wine ares quintessential Chateauneuf du Pape -- robust, superconcentrated, very rich, and immensely appealing.  In spite of their concentration, size and poetntial for longevity, their low acidity and high levels of glycerin have ensured a precocious, sweet style that have made these wines unforgettable from birth.  While drinkable and accessible, the great 1990 Chateauneuf du Papes should prove to be uncommonly long-lived because of three of the necessary components for longevity -- extract, alcohol, and tannin -- are all present in copious quantities.  This is a great vintage!"

After brief introduction to a crowd of wine affectionadoes (aka "wine geeks"), we settled at one of the tables, along with 4 other compadres (another 8 or so people sat at another table, and 2 more guys settled down on a couch - very cozy!)  The host was nice enough to offer some very fancy cheeses and loaves of warm and crusty baguettes.  But the stars of the shows, of course, were the wines.

With my palate swinging toward moderately aged wines and enjoying Southern Rhone wines lately, I had really been salivating by now.

The blind line-up included:
  • 1990 Clos du Mont-Olivet "La Cuvee du Papet" (12.5%): "This wine's evolution has been surprising. Believe me, if I had known it was going to develop into a nearly perfect wine, I would have bought more. The dark ruby color reveals slight lightening at the edge. Stunning aromatics offer up classic Chateauneuf du Pape aromas of balsam wood, garrigue, kirsch liqueur, blackberries, and pepper. An extraordinarily voluptuously-textured effort, with layers of concentration, no sense of heaviness, mouth-staining levels of richness, and more than 14.5% alcohol, this astonishing wine proves what old vine Grenache can achieve. Given its vigor, exuberance, and extraordinary richness, this wine has remarkable freshness for such size and power. It will drink well for another 15-20+ years." (98/100, Robert Parker, Jan 2003)
  • 1990 Chateau du Beaucastel (14%): "Two great back to back vintages are the 1990 and 1989. The more developed 1990 boasts an incredible perfume of hickory wood, coffee, smoked meat, Asian spices, black cherries, and blackberries. Lush, opulent, and full-bodied, it is a fully mature, profound Beaucastel that will last another 15-20 years." (96/100, Robert Parker, Jan 2003)
  • 1990 Andre Brunel "Les Cailloux - Selection Reflets" (13%): "Les Cailloux's regular cuvee has evolved into a blend of 65% Grenache, 20% Mourvedre, 10% Syrah, and 5% miscellaneous varietals aged both in barrel and foudre. The traditional cuvee of 1990 is stunning. Fully mature, it offers up a delicious perfume of Asian spices, cedar, leather, black cherries, plums, and prunes. Luscious and viscous, it is a terrific effort. Anticipated maturity: now-2010." (95/100, Robert Parker, Jan 2003)
  • 1990 Chapoutier "La Bernardine" (14%): "While it is apparent that the Chapoutiers are making thrilling wines from Hermitage and Cote Rotie, they have also made extraordinary progress with their vineyard in Chateauneuf du Pape. The 1990 Chateauneuf du Pape-La Bernadine is significantly better than the 1989. The deep dark ruby/garnet color is followed by a huge nose of sweet, roasted, raspberry fruit intermingled with scents of peanuts, fruitcake, and spicy pepper. This enormously rich, expansive, full-bodied wine exhibits an unctuous texture, exceptional concentration, and a long, moderately tannic finish. An intense, velvety wine" (92/100, Robert Parker, Oct 1992)
  • 1990 Guigal (13.5%): "Marcel Guigal was shrewd enough to recognize the greatness of this vintage and bought heavily from all his sources in Chateauneuf du Pape, resulting in one of the finest Chateauneufs this firm has produced. Already delicious, it is a full-bodied, rich, thick, boldly flavored wine with gobs of fruit. With over 14% alcohol, it is a blockbuster in terms of its power and fiery richness." (90/100, Robert Parker, Jan 1997)
  • 1990 Vieux Telegraphe (14%): "... full-bodied, alcoholic, and fleshy, with plenty of Vieux-Telegraphe's telltale nose of herbs, olives, black pepper, iodine, and sweet, jammy fruit. Soft, round, and generous" (90/100, Robert Parker, Jan 1997)
  • 1990 Chateau Cabrieres "Prestige Tete de Cru" (15%): "One would have to go back to their exquisite 1961 to find a Chateauneuf du Pape from Cabrieres as superb as their 1990 Cuvee Prestige. This selection from their oldest vines is superb. ... exquisite. It had obviously seen some new oak given the subtle vanillin, smoky character in the fabulously dramatic, earthy, black-fruit-scented, sweet nose. In the mouth the wine displays full body, exquisite depth and richness, as well as fine grip and focus. This flashy, immensely impressive, velvety-textured wine can be drunk young, but it should easily last for 15 or more years." (90/100, Robert Parker, June 1994)
  • 1990 Bosque des Papes "Cuvee Chantemerle" (14.5%): "The opaque purple/black-colored 1990 Cuvee Chantemerle is a spectacular wine with a staggering perfume of black fruits, minerals, pepper, and flowers. Exceptionally rich, with stupendous concentration and a viscous texture suggesting low yields and old vines, this profound Chateauneuf du Pape is outrageously delicious, even decadent; it should last for two decades or more. An exceptional effort! Anticipated maturity: now-2012." (98/100, Jan 1997)
What you should take away from the above list is that these are some high-end highly rated (and high-$$$) wines from the most prestigious appelation in the Southern Rhone.

The wines were poured into glasses marked A through H, in secret order.
And so it began... and lasted for the next two hours...
At first, sniffing...  I went through the whole line-up twice -- once in the order of the glasses, and once in random order.  I made the following notes (mind you - these are not in order of the wines listed above, so I had no idea which wine is which)
  • A - little on the nose, some barn
  • B - not much
  • C - roast meat (beef)
  • D - dusty attic
  • E - jammy-oxidized
  • F - alcohol
  • G - balanced
  • H - greenish
I then attempted to rank them just based on the nose.  Here is all I could do at this point, from best to worst:
  1. E
  2. G
  3. C
  4. H
I couldn't rank the rest, since they seemed all about the same level of enjoyment (or should I say "lack thereof").

General impressions - rather neutral -- this was my first ever tasting of aged Chateauneufs, and they smelled kinda sour, dusty, moldy (which sometimes can be good), and only some smelled pleasant or intriguing.  Definitely less than what I had expected, and not nearly as alluring as moderately aged burgundies I had tasted in the past.

Next, the tasting...  Similar to sniffing, I went through the line-up multiple times, in multiple orders, spitting all but a couple of wines that prompted deeper inspection.

The overriding impression was that of disappointment (though the crowd around me seemed to rather like some wines a lot, and hate some with equal level of disgust).  While all the wines were still drinkable, only a couple really tasted good, and most were too funky.  So rather than ranking my favorites, it was more of an exercise of ranking which ones I disliked less than others.

Here are the tasting notes:
  • A - good/ok/still acidic + tannin, not great
  • B - moss, chocolate, tomato
  • C - dusty (not pleasant), pickle, can't stand it
  • D - pickled cured meat, glue, (no!)
  • E - dark raspberry, not good
  • F - neutral, boring
  • G - dusty, tomato, smoke, (not bad)
  • H - still nice fruit, but not much character, tomato aftertaste -- good
Of the entire line-up, I could honestly say that only G and H were wines I could see myself enjoying with a meal.  The rest, I wouldn't touch.

Based on the above sniffing and tasting notes, I arranged the final rankings (it was not easy to make up my mind), and submitted the sheet to Ross for aggregation.

The results

The ranking are listed from worst to best:

My ranking:  C D B A F E G H
Aggregate  :   B C E D A H F G

I then proceeded to compute my own "edit-distance" (or deviation) from the consensus, by adding up the number of ranks I was off for each wine.  It totalled 14, which I think is not bad - although experts in the room scored a much lower number, as I guessed from their comments.  (My wife's "edit-distance" was 24 - haha - she was totally off! :)

Two and a half hours later, after scores had been tallied, and delicious cheese and bread consumed (except for the stinky stinky custom-aged red-hawk cheese - oh god - that was baaad, but that's a story for another day), my wife and I were saying good-byes to our new wine friends, and leaving with fascination and puzzlement from the intellect- and palate-provoking experience not for the faint of heart.

Oh, and here are the wines revealed.  For those not super-experienced in Chateauneuf-du-Pape wines, basically in terms of reputation, Chateau de Beaucastel is the king.  You can preview Robert Parker ratings above to see what the expected ranking was, but here is what the final rankings were:

Consensus Ranking with Wines Revealed (best to worst)
  1. G - Bosque des Papes  (the best overall, and my #2)
  2. F - Cabrieres (my wife's favorite, and my #4)
  3. H - Beaucastel (this was my favorite)
  4. A - Vieux Telegraphe
  5. D - Guigal
  6. E - Mont-Olivet
  7. C - Chapoutier
  8. B - Andre Brunel  (the worst overall, and my #6)

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Example of a beautiful tasting note - 2004 E.Guigal Cote-Rotie

Vinography blog --

A controversial Torrontes

For those who don't know -- Torrontes is the white wine of Argentina, and their answer to Sauvignon Blanc. I had never tried Torrontes until several days ago. Since this grape was in my WSET training materials and came up at the WSET exam I had taken a week earlier, I finally decided to dig into it a bit further, and picked up a bottle of 2008 Crios de Susana Balbo Torrontes for $11 from a local Costco. BTW, spending $11 at Costco for a little-known grape variety from Argentina is not cheap (it's $13 at K&L Wines) - so I expected a fairly ok bottle of wine.

An excuse to drink it presented itself the next day, when my lovely wife and I settled for some simple lunch at home, consisting of turkey avocado sandwich, eggs, and home-made fries, with a little spicy sauce for dipping. Seemed like a refreshing bottle of white could go with that.

First thing I noticed was the color -- very light lemony. But the alcohol on the bottle says $13.5%. So clearly this was not going to be a super-light wine, despite the light color.

The first whiff of Torrontes was interesting. Slightly sweet and very floral on the nose. My wife Rona immediately said "viognier"! (I wasn't so sure).

Defying the sniff test, the taste was totally different. Very crisp (sharply acidic) which I liked. But the sweetness was completely gone, and the floral tones changed to mediciny. Reminded me of watered-down juniper-flavored gin. Not the most pleasant of the tastes, to say the least. Rona said this wine is really not good. I then shoved the bottle into the freezer to see if chilling would improve the outcome. 15 minutes later we gave it another try. After several more tastes, I politely put the screw-cap back on, and put the bottle into the refrigerator, more as a habbit rather than really intending to drink it again. Rona proclaimed with authority - this is the worst wine she's ever had! Hm... something ain't right, I thought, as we finished lunch, wine-less.

Next day, after calming down, I started wondering about Torrontes again, and remembered what Gary Vaynerchuk had said on his show -- don't dismiss a whole region or a whole grape variety because of one bad experience. So I went online and read a bunch of Torrontes reviews. Amazingly enough - so many people out there have recently discovered this grape, and are enjoying it -- as a better value and more interesting taste than other white wines. I found reviews of this particular Torrontes Crios -- also raving. It is also highly rated by Wine Spectator in previous years. I then went a step further and watched an entire Torrontes episode on Wine Library TV. The host of the show Gary V was very enthustiastic about this grape variety. As I was watching the show, I decided to give my Torrontes another try. So I pulled out the bottle, got my spit cup ready, even grabbed some cheese and salty speck ham from AG Ferrari deli, and settled in front of my laptop watching Gary V rave about Torrontes.

Call me impressionable, but as I tasted (and spat) about two more glasses, I started appreciating the taste a bit more -- the thing that I called "mediciny" started reminding me of oysters, oyster shells, and that vinegary dipping sauce often served with them. I still didn't really enjoy the wine, but I didn't think it sucked either.

The next day (two days after the first try), my wife and I were having a simple dinner at home -- beef burritos, with guacamole tomato mix I made, and again we thought of having a crisp white wine. I pulled out a relatively inexpensive (teens $) Pinot Grigio (from Venezia area in Italy), tried it - seemed like a perfectly good Pinot Grigio, but after the 2nd sip, I got bored with it, and frankly couldn't drink it anymore. It just seemed too basic, not fresh enough - not enough acidity or spice or anything. Just your typical decent Pinot Grigio, tasting like a little brother of an unoaked Chardonnay. Guess what? I ran to the refrigerator and grabbed that 2.5 day old bottle of Torrontes.

This time, the damn thing actually tasted pretty good to me! I didn't think it had evolved (or oxidized) in the bottle - but somehow the taste was more inviting -- so much more fresh and interesting than that Pinot Grigio! My mind kept drifting back to those fresh oysters. So much so that I thought that this wine may yet be the best oyster wine I've ever had, probably better than a Muscadet (a crisp white wine from Loire) that I had enjoyed with oysters in San Francisco Ferry Building Marketplace (on Market & Embarcadero).

Rona tried it again, and was not disgusted, but still hated it. I then did the unthinkable -- I mixed the Pinot Grigio with the Torrontes!!! And voila -- it actually came out very good -- the Pinot added some fruit while Torrontes delivered the acidity and freshness.

So here you go, folks, two take-aways:
  1. Give the wine a chance - let it evolve with you...
  2. I just invented a new blockbuster blend - Torrotes / Pinot Grigio -- or should we say - Pinot Torrontes!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Pleasures of (moderately) aged wine

Recently, thanks to my wine-loving friends, I had opportunities to drink several moderately aged wines:
  • a 2000 Burgundy from Corton (Grand Cru), paired with beef bourguignon
  • a 1998 Rioja, paired with Spanish tapas
  • a 1995 Burgundy from Pommard (1er Cru), paired with short-ribs and suckling pig dishes from Manresa.
As my palate has been evolving quite rapidly away from big fruit and more toward complex non-fruity flavors, I found myself enjoying these moderately aged wines tremendously. Obviously, these must have been well-structured well-made wines to last even 10 years. But drinking them 8-13 years after the harvest reveals velvety smoothness and slight oxidation that makes these middle-aged wines sophisticated and intellectual. Due to age, they no longer boast huge tannins, sharp acidity, or juicy fruit -- they have no sharp edges, but those structural elements are still there just less aggressive and more polished, in harmony, accompanying delicious (non-vegetarian) meals with confidence and grace a youthful prodigy could never have. These wines caress your palate and evolve throughout the meal, delivering fruit in one sip and earthy vegetables in another. They make you wonder - what's going on with this wine - what is that flavor? I too one day hope to attain the level of maturity worthy of these wines.

Now, I have to say that I have also tried some wines from the 80's and 90's at a recent Ross Bott tasting in Palo Alto (mainly California Cabs and Zins) that are completely over-the-hill and are drinkable only out of scientific curiosity. So one has to know which ones are ageable and which aren't - but for experiencing the pleasures of (moderately) aged wine, particularly for pairing with food, it's certainly hard to go wrong with a high-end (Grand or Premier Cru) Burgundy, which is probably my most enjoyable wine at the moment, besides a Kabinett German Riesling.

People think they are into wine

It increasingly amazes me how many people I meet who say that they love wine and they drink a lot of it, and they are "into wine", and yet their palate and their knowledge are incredibly limited. I find folks around me all the time with what's known as "California palate" -- they love oaky jammy fruit bombs (I must admit I liked those too when I just started my wine odyssey, but I grew out of that rather quickly), and that's mostly what they drink all the time, for years. Those wines are easy to drink (like juice) and thus are very approachable, but without acidity and minerally/earthy flavors they are really not food-friendly, and are boring. I cannot convince someone who is into those wines that they are wrong -- all I can say is - please listen to Gary Vaynerchuk's video blog (ignoring his over-the-top exuberance, and focusing on the information he delivers and his tasting notes) at the Wine Library TV and expand your palate!

Food & Wine Pairings: Riesling + Chinese Food

German Kabinett Riesling from Mosel (Maximin Grunhauser Abtsberg 2007) + Mapo Tofu == perfect match.
The acidity in the Riesling cuts through the oil in the food, and the slight sweetness in the Kabinett level wine complements the spiciness perfectly.

I have tried many whites with Chinese food -- Chenin Blancs, Chardonnays, Gewurztraminers, Pinot Gris, Albarinos -- none match as well as German Riesling (apple, peach and mineral flavors). Though many people recommend a Spatlese level Riesling with Asian cuisine, I prefer Kabinett level (lowest level of sweetness in German Rieslings, but still plenty sweet for me).  And this particular bottle of Riesling was a really great example of what I expect from this grape.

Try it instead of the more traditional drinks such as beer, green tea, or prune juice with Chinese food, and you will be delighted!

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