Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Everything is relative. Are you drinking the better wine?

Forget trying to learn whether you like a wine or not by just ordering it in a restaurant or buying it in a shop, or even if you are lucky enough to be at an occasional dinner where several bottles of wine are served. The way to know what you really like is by going to tastings!

Why? Because (almost) everything in life is relative. You might like something. But you might like something else better. And after trying the latter, you may not want the former. Doesn't mean the former is bad, but the latter is better. There are all kinds of reasons why in life we settle for “not-as-good”: cost, availability, and obliviousness to the variety. But cost and availability are often on par for many available choices. That’s where your awareness of the selection plays a crucial role. And that’s where there is no substitute for tasting, tasting, tasting. Did I say “tasting”? Tasting!

Some people buy based on critics' scores. You have all seen those on the labels at your local BevMo, Trader Joe’s, Costco, supermarket, or wine shop. First of all, you need to calibrate what the critic likes against what you like. A critic’s rating of the quality of a wine often doesn’t reflect on the type, taste, or style of the wine, which means that you may not like it at all, even if it's rated highly. For instance, as far as the world’s most famous wine critic – Robert Parker (aka the "Wine Advocate") – goes, I don't normally like the wines he scores highly, because he tends to prefer very rich, strong and alcoholic wines. I think Wine Spectator is similar in that regard. I like to think of critic’s scores as additional data points, but there is no way you should be buying simply based on a critic’s score or a wine description on a label, unless you’ve tasted many wines scored by that particular critic and trust their palate from personal experience. And you should certainly not be buying just because someone (even a friend) told you they like a particular wine.

Your local wine shop most likely offers tastings. Good ones will do it several times per week. Even better ones (like Vineyardgate in Millbrae) will make careful selections of what is offered, in order to expand your palate, not just move the inventory that is not selling well. Tasting is a very small price to pay for expanding your awareness of wines, and thus helping you choose better wine for you.

Tasting is also great because you get to hear other tasters’ opinions about what you are tasting, which helps you calibrate your palate in an environment focused on learning about wines, rather than just socializing (as would be the case in a wine bar, for instance). Sometimes a fellow taster's remark will nudge you to give a wine another chance - and after all, wine appreciation is an acquired taste - like certain foods (and people), give wines a chance to grow on you before moving to more obvious or familiar pastures. I don't know any wine connoisseur whose wine tastes remained static from the moment they began liking wine.

The next step up from tasting at a wine shop is going to wine tasting events. For instance, the super-popular ZAP (Zinfandel Association of Producers) Good Eats event that takes place every January at Fort Mason in San Francisco. The more wines they have the better, but you absolutely must learn to spit the wine. In my early days, I just sipped the wines, and by the time I went through a dozen, I could no longer judge anything, plus I became a safety hazard, and I had a huge hang-over the next day (the subject of hang-over should be focus of a whole other post). But the goal of a tasting should be to expand your wine repertoire, not just drink or get immediate gratification. If you can get through 30-50 wines, while taking notes, and really thinking about what it is that you are tasting, you will be drinking far better wines in the future.

Rudy Wiest German Riesling trade tasting in SF on Jan 26. 62 wines sampled. Great selection, with at least a dozen wines clearly deserving a place in my wine cellar. Had I had these wines individually, I probably would have found at least 2/3 of them very good. But tasting them side-by-side truly allowed me to identify the cream of the crop.

Wine tasting events for general consumers can get quite expensive and the wine selections are often not as varied or exclusive as in your local wine shop – but they are a lot of fun, and often great food is paired with wines, as is the case at the ZAP event mentioned above. But if you are lucky enough to be in the wine trade, or can accompany someone who is, there are a lot of “trade tastings” all the time, and those are fantastic, because they cater to wine influencers, and so you really get more serious and interesting selections – typically latest vintages of great wines that the wine producers are marketing to retailers, restaurateurs and wine writers. Often the latest vintages are coupled with older vintages, to highlight and contrast the aging potential. And of course, if you read this blog, you know that I have a weakness for aged wines.

Brunello de Montalcino trade tasting in SF on Jan 22. I tasted 3 dozen solid Brunellos, but I really loved only a couple (all in comparison).

Next, join a wine tasting group. If you ask your local wine shop guru, more likely than not he will be able to point you at one of the neighborhood wine tasting groups, like Ross Bott group in Palo Alto area. Wine tasting groups are usually a win-win for both the organizers and the tasters, because the organizers get to recoup the costs of their wines while enjoying them with appreciating audience, while the tasters get to taste taste taste, while paying a fraction of what it would cost to buy those bottles, even if they could find them, which in many cases (especially of old vintages) they can’t.

Another way is wine touring. Make wine touring a part of your vacation, but treat it seriously, not a way to hang out in Napa Valley – but a way to learn about wines – make appointments, tell the winery that you are a student of wine, take notes while tasting, and make sure you spit the wine. If the winery staff see that you are serious about wine, oftentimes they will bring out the “good stuff” – their higher-end and more treasured bottlings. I found that to be particularly true for France, while Napa remains more touristy and commercial in my view, where it's harder for a mere mortal to get a meeting with the winemaker (which is a pity).

One down-side of wine touring is that it gives you a sense only of a particular area, and you have to spend weeks, months, and years touring in order to get enough breadth, and by that time of course, the wines and wineries you tried may have changed their style, as well as the there could be dramatic differences from vintage to vintage. In that regard, wine shop tastings, consumer and trade tasting events and local tasting groups are a lot more immediate way to learn.

Please let me know what tricks *you* use to expand your tasting repertoire.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Those Zin loving Thais, and oh yeah - the Brunello

An influential wine critic dies. The funeral organizer comes to a big-time wine producer asking:
-- Would you like to make a contribution for the funeral?
-- How much?
-- $50K – says the funeral guy.
-- Here is $100K. Bury two!

If you got the joke and are smiling even a little bit, then you must be on your way toward wine geekdom, and perhaps even becoming a "member of the trade", thus qualified to attend “members-only” events, to sample expensive wines and to nibble on gourmet food designed to accentuate the voluptuous drink, all free of charge, in hopes by the wine producers that you will promote their wines.

I knew all this blog babbling was going to lead to something! Such was the case on Thursday, Jan 22, when my friend and fellow blogger Enoch and I had the pleasure of being invited t0 the "Benvenuto Brunello SAN FRANCISCO" trade event - a Brunello tasting in the upscale Terra Gallery in the SOMA district of San Francisco. It was there in the midst of assessing two or three dozen (who’s counting!) 2001, 2003, and 2004 Brunello di Montalcino’s and munching on tasty Italian small dishes, I ran into a grandfatherly chap Alex R. who told me the above joke. He is a writer, working of all things for an Asian Seniors magazine. He was quick to enlighten us that Zinfandel is really big in Thailand - apparently the Thai love California Zin – particularly going after the high-elevation vineyard fruit, and the Amador County (fruit bombs). Good grief! Amador County! They really found ardent followers in the land of elephants and spicy chilies. I suppose this makes good sense – Zin *should* go quite well with spicy, pungent and slightly sweet Thai food. And there all along I’d been told that the new rich of Asia and Russia were really into big brand name Bordeaux, collecting them more for prestige than for tasting pleasure. At least that’s what they told me at Grand Cru chateaux in Medoc (Bordeaux) a month ago. Not the case according to Alex, who spends considerable time helping Asian seniors discover California in all of its acid-less Zinfandel glory.

But let us return to the fantastic Brunellos that I was experiencing...

What a great way to really imprint the taste of a wine variety into one’s memory! Having had Brunello a number of times in the past, I certainly knew that it’s made from Sangiovese grape variety (actually a high-end clone called Sangiovese Grosso) in the area of Montalcino in Tuscany, in a more opulent style than its neighbor Chianti (also a Sangiovese-based wine from Tuscany). Brunello di Montalcino, of course, is normally bigger than Chianti in every respect – having more complex fruit, bigger tannin, greater balance, more supple texture (disclaimer: there are always exceptions). By no means does it mean that Brunello is always preferable to Chianti, since the typically lighter and brighter Chianti is often a better complement to light and medium-bodied foods (pizza being a classic pairing), while Brunello seems to be a great match for more robust dishes, like meats. But as in Chianti and so many other Italian reds, the wine has great acidity and clear black cherry / black berry fruit. However, this time I clearly noticed that many Brunellos are also quite leathery and spicy (as in white pepper and char sprinkled on top of the fruit) – about a third of the reds had that. I also tasted several Super-Tuscans, which are unclassified blends of Sangiovese with Cabernet Sauvignon, and sometimes also with Merlot and Syrah. Obviously, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot being home in Bordeaux and Napa Valley (and a few other new world spots) are not typical in Italian reds, but the combination of a dark-berried black-curranty Cabernet Sauvignon, plummy Merlot, with tart cherry-ish Sangiovese really makes a delicious and eye-opening wine, especially the 2005 Sant'Antimo "Olmaia" from Col D'Orcia estate in Montalcino (shown on the right).

After two hours of drinking (and spitting, of course) and snacking, and drinking and snacking, and so forth, I concluded that all Brunellos at the show were enjoyable, reliable, expensive ($50-100+), and frankly, most being quite similar. When in the mood for Italian food, it's hard to go wrong with Brunello! But a couple of bottlings really stood out in terms of depth of fruit, with Riservas showing their top billing pedigree - Riservas have the best fruit, the most complexity, and are aged longer than standard Brunellos. In particular, the 2001 Riserva from Lionello Marchesi (with me on the photo) was a real stand-out, with just enough age to showcase perfectly integrated fruit and earth flavors, acid, and soft ripe tannins, still with another 5-10 years left in the tank.

When it comes to great wines of Italy, one invariably thinks of Brunello - the highest expression of the Sangiovese grape, and Barolo - the highest expression of the Nebbiolo grape. Luckily, the opportunity to dig into the great 2003 vintage of Barolo is coming up in early February at a Vineyardgate-hosted "insider" Barolo dinner, where I will attempt to compare these two Italian greats!

Enoch and I - experiencing great tooth-staining wines!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Monastrell tasting at Ross Bott

Very instructive Ross Bott blind-tasting session last night - Spanish Mourvèdre, or as it's called in Spain - Monastrell. The session was under-attended - only 5 of us, which confirms the relative obscurity or unpopularity of this grape variety here. This was great for me, as I had plenty of wine to analyze, all to myself, and had an opportunity to try something uncommon. Of course, for those who like Southern Rhone wines, Mourvèdre is one of the three main grapes used in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Lirac, and many other reds from the South of France. It is supposed to add "structure" or "backbone" (meaning "tannin" primarily) to the Rhone blends (classically consisting of Grenache-Syrah-Mourvèdre).

Most of the relatively better known Monastrell-based wines in Spain come from the appellation called Jumilla, in the Southeast Spain in the region of Murcia near the Mediterranean, though one of the 7 wines we tasted came from La Mancha region, and another one from Yecla appellation (also in Murcia).

After tasting the 7 wines, here are my summed-up impressions:

Sweet-bitter tannins, minty-charcoal-and-black-pepper spice, funky/dusty smells, stale beef jerky, dark and not very aromatic fruit, alcoholic, not acidic, rough / unrefined.

One other exciting thing happened at the blind tasting - I hit my goal of the smallest possible rank deviation from the group rank (or as I called it in computer science lingo - "smallest edit distance"). Normally, after each taster ranks the wines, the individual scores are added up for the combined group ranking. Considering that many people in the tasting are normally far more experienced than myself, I strive for getting as close to that combined ranking as possible. Last time, I was quite far off. This time, I ranked all wines exactly in accordance with the combined ranking, except I had wines 4 and 5 reversed, but those tied in the combined group rank, with the tie-break resulting against me. (The tie-break looks at how many people preferred this wine as their #2 and so on). So my edit distance was 2! (and could have been counted as 0, with the above caveat!)

For reference, here are my tasting notes:
  1. Wine A - my rank: 3, group rank: 3 - later revealed as Vinos Sin-Ley "m3" by Diego Fernandez 2005 - Nose: moss, dust, warm funk, some cream & raspberry. Taste: bitter, tannic.
  2. Wine B - my rank: 5, group rank: 4 (tied with 5) - later revealed as Altos de la Hoya 2003 - Note: meat, jerkey, funk, stinky, barn. Taste: soapy, charcoal
  3. Wine C - my rank: 1, group rank: 1 - later revealed as Casa Castillo Las Gravas 2000 - Nose: less funk, the cleanest of the bunch. Taste: good, a bit green, tannic, I like it.
  4. Wine D - my rank: 2, group rank: 2 - later revealed as Bodegas Hijos de Juan Gil 2003 - Nose: cream & lush, coffee. Taste: soft, creamy, ripe, sweet tannins. I like it.
  5. Wine E - my rank: 4, group rank: 5 (tied with 4) - later revealed as Bodegas Olivares Jumilla Panarroz 2004 - Nose: dust. Taste: sweet, low acid, bitter fine texture, tannic.
  6. Wine F - my rank: 7, group rank: 7 - later revealed as Castaño Solanera 2003 - Nose: dust, leather, canned fish. Taste: bitter burnt sweet blueberry.
  7. Wine G - my rank: 6, group rank: 6 - later revealed as Bodegas Luzon Monastrell 2004 - Nose: funky, cured dust, blueberry, pepper, green berry, green wood, weedy, a bit alcoholic. Taste: green tannins, soft texture, sweet bitter spice & tannin.
Though I am glad I came to the tasting to learn about Monastrell, frankly I wasn't impressed by any of the wines we tasted, and can see why this makes a far better blending grape for Rhone-style blends than wines on its own. The wines were in the $10-30 range, and they did NOT seem to get better as they got more expensive. Bandol (in Southeast France) is supposed to have higher end Mourvèdre-based wines that Gary Vaynerchuk was impressed with. So if I must try this again, it will be something from Bandol.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Cantonese-style crab and the latest "session" of ABWAS

Here is another shout-out to the perfect marriage of Riesling and Chinese food!

Ever since my wife and I got introduced to the wine expert Alex Bernardo who runs the Vineyardgate wine shop in Millbrae with Yoda-like aura, our dining and drinking experiences have definitely kicked up another notch.  Not only does Alex carry a great selection of wine (particularly French) at great prices, but also he introduced us to his good friends and customers who share our passion for wine and food. Collectively, I call this bunch "the Alex Bernardo Wine Appreciation Society" (ABWAS) of which I am gladly a member. Right, guys?

As is Andrew C., who was gracious enough to invite my wife and me to his town-home for a wine & dine experience I won't soon forget. Andrew and Alex Bernardo put on a bona fide Chinese seafood cooking show. But as in pretty much all ABWAS gatherings, food is just the means to drinking great wine. Thus, the whole affair had been fundamentally planned around wine, although by no means would I dare minimize the significance of the great company and the amazing food that surrounded the drinking! And not just random drinking -- one punctuated by uncommon selection of bottlings that should make any wine enthusiast drool silly. Alex and Andrew had sent out the wine category suggestions well in advance - and clearly much thought had gone into those. These wines not only had to pair well with the Asian seafood, but they also had to inspire even the most experienced wine palates before, during, and after the feast. Andrew worked up a mouth-watering crab - the Cantonese style - with overload of ginger and green onions, served with slightly fried buttery garlic noodles. In the meantime, Alex cooked beautifully fresh black mussels from a secret source with a coconut-Prosecco-cilantro concoction until the mussels had just opened up, but were still incredibly tender and fresh. Both the crab and the mussels came out super light, moist and flavorful - thankfully, Andrew and Alex cooked up pounds and pounds, because the feasting continued all night - just thinking about that now makes me salivate all over again!

The crabs and the mussels -- is good!

There were about 10 of us, and every guest (or guest couple) was asked to bring at least one bottle of a special wine.  And since every guest was *into* wine, we ended up with an instructive array.
  1. 1995 Meursault, Cloz De Mozeray, from Domaine Jacques Prieur (Burgundy) - corked (unfortunately)
  2. 1998 Kistler Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, California - buttery, balanced (enough acidity), tasty and remarkably Burgundian for a California chard, definitely exceeding my expectations
  3. 1997 Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru, from Louis Latour (Burgundy) - very nice, but a bit light on flavor and texture for me
  4. 2001 Meursault 1er Cru, from Vincent Girardin (Burgundy) - my favorite chard of the evening - big, complex, super-flavorful
  5. 1976 German Riesling Beerenauslese, Urzinger Wurzgarten, Mosel, from Jos. Christoffel - amazing!  the sugars have subsided (probably closer to a Spatlese level) and integrated with fruit, acid, and mineral -- incredibly complex with enormity of petrol and rubber (which I loved!) - this was my other favorite wine of the night.
  6. 1988 German Riesling Auslese, Wehlener Sonnenuhr, Mosel, from Jos Christoffel - tasty, not very acidic (i.e. acidity has integrated with the sugars, so it's harder to pinpoint), mineral, lots of petrol
  7. 1990 German Riesling Spatlese, from Eitelsbacher Karthauserhof - delicious, super fresh and acidic (not as integrated as Christoffel), balancing out the sweet fruit
  8. Champagne AR Lenoble Brut Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs NV - complex and not very fruity - excellent!
  9. 2007 Tavel Rosé, from Domaine de la Mordorée (Southern Rhone) - I brought this one from my recent trip to France - it was very good Rosé, signed personally by the winemaker, but too young and not nearly as complex as the mature line-up preceding it.
All of the above were super enjoyable (even the corked Meursault was put to good use when Alex added a splash to the crab -- I can see the chefs out there cringing -- relax, it worked!)

But in the end of the day, not only did the Rieslings (especially the 1976) steal the show in terms of being the best wines on their own, but they once again proved to be the best match for Chinese food. The 1976 was a marvel - super rich yellow-orange color, almost nutty complexity, it was mellow and balanced, with loads and loads of petrol. This wine being approximately the same age as my wife, I was thinking - wow, good things do take time to develop :)! The sweetness, fruitiness, mineraliness, and the acidity integrated together (in both of them) so beautifully that I vowed to myself that from now on I am on the lookout for mature specimens (talking about the Rieslings, of course) - as trying them young is often a waste (- the same conclusion that I arrived at with Burgundies).

The amazing 1976 Riesling brought by Steve R. -- just look at the orange color!

As my wine expert friend Eric Lecours pointed out, Rieslings often enter a dumb phase in their 2-10 years of age, when they don't show very well. That explains a number of disappointing tastings I recently had with wines from great producers. So drink them very young, or wait for over ten years and drink them when they are older! And especially with Chinese food!

This sort of evening once again reminds me why great wine is all about bringing people together, lifting their spirits, caressing their senses, intriguing their minds (and sometimes straining their wallets - but who's counting!) With my taste buds tingling, I look forward to the next ABWAS session!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Got Fabre?

Our last scheduled appointment in Languedoc was in the afternoon on a cold and cloudy Dec 27 in Chateau-de-Luc in Corbières. That day we got up at 8am to make it to a 10am visit to Borie de Maurel in Minervois, another appellation about an hour away. It was now 3pm. We were tired of driving and tired of tasting. The weather and the deadness of the surrounding area this time of year weighed heavily on our moods. But being the wine "professional" that I am, I pressed on, eventually ending up in front of the wall of Chateau de Luc in a little town called Luc-sur-Orbieu. Everything looked locked down, only an occasional car disturbing the quiet of the streets. We tried several different entrances – nothing. "We’ve seen enough – haven’t we?" – Rona asked. "Time to call it a day, perhaps? Do we really need more tasting?" Well, I came this far! Pessimistically I gave it one last try by driving around the block and eventually noticing a private back entrance to what I thought might be the inner courtyard of the chateau. Despite my wife’s protests for fear of being put in jail for trespassing, I drove right through the gate, parked by the porch, and peeked through the window, seeing a bunch of teenagers sitting around a table. I proceeded to ring the bell, my wife already bracing herself for police sirens. To our relief, a very friendly 17-year-old girl jumped out and confirmed that this was indeed Chateau-de-Luc, and upon discovering that we had an appointment, asked us to wait while she called her father – the winemaker Louis Fabre, who was still out at lunch, apparently having lost track of time (the French eat their meals late and long). When we suggested that we might just go and it wasn’t a big deal, the girl insisted that we came all the way from California, so showing us around and getting her dad to return from lunch “early” was the least they could do. While Louis Fabre was driving home, his daughter and her friends showed us the underground cellars of their magnificent chateau (originally built in the 13th century) filled with vintages going back many years. Right away, we could tell that this was a warm and welcoming family, and while the weather got colder, our spirits warmed up considerably.

Louis Fabre hurried to greet us. He was pleased to learn that we were interested in as much as he was willing to share – his vineyard management techniques, winemaking philosophy, the history of his chateau, and of course ALL of his wines. Too often – he noted – he gets unscrupulous visitors who ask him to just let them taste his “best” wine. This sort of request turns him off – as he thinks of all of his wines as interesting and worthy of discussion.

Louis explained that he divides his vineyards into those organically farmed and those where he still uses chemicals to treat the vines. The organic ones allow the wines to be certified as AB (Agriculture Biologique, i.e. “organically grown”). Louis was well positioned to compare the organic vs the inorganic methods. Importantly, he noted, it didn’t really affect the taste of the final wine. Organic is more about the long-term sustainability of the soil, and is driven by deep philosophical and environmental considerations. Growing grapes organically is more expensive because many grape conditions require more intense and repetitive handling if one cannot use the potent pesticides. One is also more likely to lose grapes since it’s harder to fight the disease in the vine without the powerful chemical treatments. But losing grapes could be a good thing for the quality of wine, because lower yields result in more concentrated fruit. So all things being equal, organic wines should cost more than inorganic. Certain areas of the world are more suitable for organic growing simply because their climate and soil conditions provide for inherently healthier grapes – for instance, in the areas that are drier, there are fewer mold-related illnesses. In other areas, growing organically may simply be next to impossible, since otherwise the harvest would be decimated by disease. Proponents of organic viticulture believe that over time organically managed vineyards are healthier than chemically treated ones.

Most of the winemakers we met, one way or another are striving toward minimizing the use of chemicals in their vineyards, and toward treating the soils more naturally and more gently, even if they cannot (or wouldn’t bother to) qualify for a full-blown AB organic certification. Rather than fight either camp, Louis has it both ways – producing both organic and non-organic lines of wines. This makes perfect sense when you get to tasting the multitude of his wines – he is clearly an experimenter, working restlessly to discover and perfect all that his terroirs have to offer. Unlike Bordeaux and Burgundy crus, where famous chateaux have figured out the recipes for world-renowned wines generations ago, Languedoc is still a “wild wild west” of France. Where past generations made low-quality bulk wine, today's winemaker armed with technology and viticultural knowledge is re-discovering what all this land can produce and planting a spectrum of different grape varieties. A dozen or so grape varieties are officially allowed on the Corbières AOC bottlings – i.e. those that can carry the official designation of the Corbières appellation. Louis Fabre makes at least a dozen wines from blends of those. But in addition, he also makes single-varietal wines from grapes that are not common in this region – Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Viognier, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. These wines range from light (as in his Sauv Blanc, Chardonnay and intro-level Viognier) to very big (like his higher-end Viognier Chimere, and his Cab Sauv and Merlot). Both the whites and the reds manifest the characteristic South-of-France spice (see my previous post explaining the “garrigue”). These wines are really solid – from simple enjoyable easy summer drinks like Louis Fabre Vin de Pays D'oc 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (€4) and the 2007 Chardonnay (€4.5) to amazingly concentrated, rich, flavorful, teeth-staining, steak-evoking, alcoholic beasts like his Chateau Pechlatt 2007 Merlot (€8) and the Rhone blend (Carignan, Grenache, Syrah) Chateau Veredus Corbières 2007 (€6.8). The prices are incredible! Indeed, in Languedoc, you can still pay this little for a wine that tastes 10x the price – if only consumers knew, rather than focusing solely on brand-name blockbusters like Chateauneuf-du-Pape all the time.

Louis Fabre's array of whites we tasted

Louis Fabre's array of reds we tasted

We ended up spending over 4 hours with Louis Fabre, bouncing in his nimble Jeep around the hilly vineyards of Corbières and the recently-classified adjacent appellation of Boutenac, sampling over a dozen of his wines, and feeling like this classy man living in a huge 13th century chateaux and running practically a wine empire consisting of several estates and multiple labels that together make up over a million bottles of wine each year was as warm and understated as if I’d been visiting my grandparents’ home. This to me embodied the South of France, and is reason alone to add Corbières and the wines of Louis Fabre into your wine drinking repertoire. He was genuinely interested in our feedback too. Needless to say, I thought these wines offered great value and would find many fans in the US.

It was now past 7pm, and we reluctantly said our good-byes and were on our way back to Carcassonne. I could see the look of approval on Rona’s face – I guess my brash trespassing paid off after all!

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Languedoc - the wild wild wild South of France

In the world of general wine consuming public, hardly anyone ever heard of Languedoc. But of course, people in the wine circles have long recognized this biggest wine producing region in France (often grouped together with its southwesterly neighbor into the Languedoc-Roussillon wine region) as something of a curiosity due to the incredible amount of diverse wines that come out of that area, many very very good, and most very cheap and deep under the radar of the average wine drinker. I think there a couple of primary reasons for this:
  1. Lack of a global marketing machine - unlike Bordeaux or Burgundy, Languedoc has never been marketed as serious wine region and thus most consumers never heard of it.
  2. Situated in the south of France, with Roussillon to the left and Southern Rhone and Provence to the right, there is a lot more cheap land in Languedoc that perhaps in any other regions in France, so production volume is large, and that keeps prices low even for high-quality wines. 
Low prices + Lack of global marketing = Lack of respect by the interational public.

But that is slowly changing, as the wine producers in Languedoc are more aggressively reaching out internationally to market their wines.  The region is fairly flexible in its wine regulations and because of the relative obscurity of the wines produced here, winemakers have little to lose by experimenting in search of better quality and more interesting expressions of various grape varieties and the terroir here.  This gives opportunity to talented and creative winemakers like Louis Fabre of Chateau-de-Luc in Corbières to experiment in ways that noone in Medoc or Cote-d'Or would dream of today. Louis Fabre produces a dazzling array of single-varietal wines (or as they say in French "mono-cépage") as well as blends, and will be the subject of a future post.

With owner and winemaker of Chateau de Luc - Louis Fabre, examining the terroir of his hilltop vineyards in Corbières.

On Dec 27, 2008, I visited Corbières (with the adjacent sister appellation Boutenac) and Minervois (with the adjacent sister sub-appellation Minervois La Liviniere). Corbières and Minervois are two of the more recognized appellations of Languedoc. I found the wines from these areas to be of pretty similar profile. Under the hot southern sun, they make very full-bodied and high-alcohol whites out of at least 6 different white grape varieties (Rousanne, Clairette, Bourbalenc, Picpoul, Muscat, Grenache blanc) that have “lazy” soft flavors (as opposed to laser-focused acidity of Sauv Blancs), often taste quite gentle and thick – baked apple, pear and diffused grapefruit flavors abounding, reminiscent of the whites from its easterly neighbor Southern Rhone (and Chateauneuf-du-Pape in particular). Of course because of the grape varieties and different types of blends, there are exceptions to the above. But clearly the wines of this region are more recognized for their strong reds. Due to hot climate, as with the whites, the reds of the South of France reach high level of ripeness and sugar content, and thus upon fermentation they achieve high degree of alcohol, fruit intensity, as well as ripe tannins and often quite plush texture. They also have an unmistakable spice that is present in virtually all reds and most whites that I tried in Languedoc. That “spice” is a combination of white pepper and dried herbs (thyme, rosemary) that along with the aroma of the pine tree bark are called “garrigue”. On your tongue and in the back of your throat, that spice gives way to smoky, burnt, minty, and often bitter aftertaste, which is sometimes very enjoyable (as in lime peel) but in some examples is overbearing. Despite the delicious often port-like sweet fruit, these wines are not easy to drink because of the strong tannins and this spicy aftertaste. But with grilled meats with burn-marks I think they can be magical.

The ingredients of the "garrigue"

Now that you have the general sense of the wines made here, my future post will drill down into some of the specific experiences I had in the region and the conclusions I drew from those.  So be sure to tune in soon.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Sauternes epiphany

Note: please make sure you read my previous post. The story picks up where that one left off. It covers my visit to Chateau Guiraud, the conversations with the winemaker Xavier Planty, and some of the recommended food and wine pairings for Sauternes.

I had not tasted many Sauternes before. And the ones I had, were tasty sweet wines but hardly special. I had never tried a Guiraud from a great vintage.

On the cold sunny afternoon of Dec 23, 2008, an hour south of Bordeaux in the French countryside, it was all about to change…

A man came toward us in the parking lot and smilingly introduced himself as Xavier Planty, a co-owner of Chateau Guiraud (pronounced "Gee-rrraw"). Xavier had been managing the Chateau since the 80’s, but only recently acquired a 10% stake in the business. Though only a 10% co-owner, it was obvious that he was the heart-and-soul of this whole operation.

Standing in the parking lot in front of his tasting room, after a brief introduction, Xavier answered a couple of my questions... and after quickly realizing that he is not dealing with your average tourists, things got interesting.

As we headed to his impeccably neat production facility, he began pouring juicy morsels of his Sauternes wisdom on us.

The Sauternes is primarily made in the vineyard, Xavier Planty explained. Grapes have to be perfect when picked. For Sauternes, of course, the definition of perfect is totally different than for most other wines. For Sautneres, perfection refers to the level of rot, or rather “noble rot” aka Botrytis, that afflicts each grape until the grapes reach the highest levels of sweetness while still maintaining enough liquid and acidity to keep the resulting juice from turning into syrup. Because Botrytis attacks each cluster unevenly, the pickers go through multiple iterations (ranging over many days) hand-picking only the clusters (or grapes within clusters) that are “perfect” – a labor-intensive and costly process. This is the most critical time in the cycle of Sauternes making.

Once the grapes are picked, Xavier follows a fairly conventional procedure of fermenting grapes from different parcels and different harvest days in separate barrels, using barrels from several different makers, each one imparting a slightly different oak flavor into the wine, and eventually combining them at a later point, when he determines the final blend.

Fermentation finishes at different times in different barrels, depending on the date of grape picking and the vigor of the yeasts in that barrel. In Sauternes, fermentation finishes naturally, since the extremely high level of sugar in the grapes results in high-degree of alcohol which kills the yeast that created it in the first place, before all sugars are fully digested. Xavier proudly pointed out that he does not add any sugar to his grape juice, as some less scrupulous chateaux (he declined to name them) might, because his grapes achieve high sugar naturally. In those years (like 2008) when not all of his grapes ripen perfectly, he throws away the imperfect grapes, thus resulting in much smaller production for that vintage (the winery takes a costly hit in order to maintain quality). Deciding when each barrel has finished effective fermentation is a process of continuous testing and sampling.

Once satisfied, Xavier applies a very small amount of sulphur dioxide to stop any remaining fermentation in the barrel. After the grapes are harvested, the blending (or “assemblage” as the French call it) is the most important step in Sauternes-making process. The winemaker’s experience, taste, and vision for the wine are key, as the vast number of possible blending options are mind-boggling. (But at least in the case of Guiraud, only two grape varieties are used – Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon - imagine other regions like Southern Rhone, where they are permitted to use 13 different grapes varieties, often blending 6 or more together into a single wine!)

In this NFL playoff season it occurs to me that wine-making is a lot like coaching. It starts with picking the best raw material - be that players or grapes. It then continues into maturing them such that finally the inherent strengths of individuals blend into a seamless whole. It is not about having any particular piece stick out, but about balance, harmony, completeness, and depth. And when that happens, a championship vintage is born!

30 minutes later, we were in his spacious tasting room, where he proceeded to open the 2004 and 2005 vintages, in addition to his normally offered-for-tasting 2001.

All I knew at this point is that his 2005 had just been picked as 2008's #4 wine of the year by Wine Spectator magazine. Later, I also looked up that this is Wine Spectator's highest-rated Sauternes of 2008, scoring 97 points - a "classic" raitng. (In my infinite foresight, I had scheduled the appointment with Chateau Guiraud a month prior to the Wine Spectator's ranking.)

Xavier started us with the 2001. It had the expected orange-yellow color, darker than both 2004 and 2005, since Sauternes gets darker and richer as it ages. Casually sitting on top of his bar counter, he observed our reactions.

From the get-go Xavier Planty was a very likable character, but until this point my wife's and mine interest in Sauternes had still been rather academic. That all changed after the first whiff of the 2001!

With goofy smiles on our faces (and a confident smile on Xavier's), Rona and I looked at each other, as we knew life as we know it would never be the same! (Just kidding! :) But seriously, I was so "shook up" by the aroma, that I failed to record my sniff impression and immediately proceeded to fill my mouth with this nectar. (Mind you, I keep notes for all my tastings - color, nose, and taste. I record the "nose" note before tasting.) Here is what I could muster to write after I swallowed, smiling even wider (I normally don't swallow anything at degustations).
"Incredibly plush, rich mouthfeel, orange/lemon peel with tasty slightly bitter finish."

That is the shortest tasting note I wrote in my entire trip to France after tasting at least a hundred wines. I just drank some more, noting the high alcohol percentage on the label (but not in my mouth), while continuing to sip... I found it impossible to describe the complexity of the flavor that developed in just 7 years after the harvest. Yes it had something apricoty, peachy, citrusy, all that good stuff. But there was definitely more - sort of liqueur-like fermented flavor (imparted by Botrytis) that made the wine richer and more amazing, unlike any other sweet wine I had ever tasted.

I later looked up the Wine Spectator score for the 2001, and not surprisingly the wine got 96-points (a "classic" rating). The most recent wine tasting note Wine Spectator quotes for that vintage is from Sep 2004:
"Golden yellow. Butterscotch and vanilla, with hints of ripe apples. Full-bodied, with lots of sweetness and a spicy apricot and honey aftertaste. Excellent concentration and balance. Loads of botrytis character on the finish. Intense. Hard not to drink now because it's so luscious and rich. Best after 2008. 11,665 cases made. –JS"

Xavier told us that a Sauternes improves for a 100 years, and anything less than 10 years old is considered (too) young. In 4 years since the Wine Spectator tasting note was taken, the wine invariably got more complex.

Now, if that lesser-decorated vintage was so amazing, the 2005 - the #4 wine of the year - must be out of this world, right?

Well, next he poured the 2005. Dying with anticipation, I stuck my nose in the glass, and immediately got a heavy doze of Sauvignon Blanc aroma that I did not expect -- leaner, greener, and fresher than 2001. Xavier explained that unlike other Sauternes chateaux, he uses a significantly higher percentage (35-45%) of Sauvignon Blanc. Freshness is a key differentiator of a great Sauternes from merely a good one. The extra Sauvignon contributes acidity and greenness that balance out the heavy sugars from the mold-shriveled grapes. The combination of green apple and lime with the botrytised sweetness was extremely intriguing on my palate. Still, while more refreshing, the wine was far less delicious and plush than the 2001. Xavier was quick to point out: that is why aging is so important for Sauternes. He is sure that with time, the 2005 will outshine the 2001. And given the Wine Spectator scores, the critics agree. I can’t wait!

For comparison, we tried the 2004, known to be a lesser vintage. This provided an excellent illustration of the importance of a vintage, as indeed 2004 was ordinary and reminded me of other Sauternes I had tasted in the past.

When I inquired into the ideal food pairing for his sweet wines, Xavier’s reaction was somewhat unexpected. With best Sauternes having freshness, acidity, and complexity going well beyond simple fruit descriptions, such wines pair not just with desserts but with many other sweet and pungent foods such as the classic pairing with foie gras (but would also be interesting to try with Asian and Moroccan cuisines). In fact, as Xavier was slightly unhappy to hear his Sauternes called a “dessert wine”, as he explained to me they don’t look at Sauternes as dessert wine, but something much more grand – an exalted complex, full-bodied and lusciously viscous white wine full of sweetness, acidity, and white fruit (apricots, citrus and lots of others) that should match with many foods of complimentary or sometimes opposing flavors (as in another classic pairing of Sauternes and blue cheese). The French, he explained, pair Sauternes much more broadly, as they consider all the Sauternes flavors, not just the sugar. To prove his point, since he knew we were from San Francisco, he suggested next time we come to visit he will "crack open some crabs". Can't wait!

With co-owner and winemaker Xavier Planty at Chateau Guiraud

Inspired with that knowledge the next day at lunch I could not resist the classic pairing of Sauternes with foie gras at a fantastic little restaurant in the town of Blanquefort in Medoc called Hostellerie des Criquets. While the Sauternes offered at the restaurant by the glass was vastly less exalted that the 2001 Guiraud, it nevertheless was a delightful match for the cornucopia of foie gras preparations on my plate, and was clear proof that Sauternes is not just for desserts! The foie gras was followed by a dish of scallops with truffle sauce and shredded turnips - for which once again the Sauternes was a supreme match!

Two hours after we arrived at Chateau Guiraud, with our taste buds tingling and our minds opened up, excited by Xavier Planty’s wine and personality, we reluctantly bid our good-byes, knowing that we should never call a Sauternes a dessert wine.

Dessert wine it is not – Sauternes it is!

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Bordeaux is not that complicated… is it?

When one hears “Bordeaux”, the most common assumption a typical wine drinker makes is that of a brooding red wine. Indeed, it’s harder to find an image more stereotypical than that of an aristocratic English gentleman chewing on piece of steak, sipping on a glass of red Bordeax, and puffing on an smoky aromatic cigar. And I agree, in my mind (and on my palate) those latter three ingredients achieve something of a perfect harmony, though one can replace the English gentleman with the non-English self and still achieve bliss. In fact, the British have a more specific name for this red Bordeaux - a "claret" - which is practically synonymous with "Bordeaux".

The brooding red is most traditionally a Cabernet Sauvignon based blend that also includes a significant percentage of Merlot and lesser percentage of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot grapes (and theoretically Malbec, though I did not run into a single mention of Malbec in my 3 days of wine tasting in Bordeaux).

But as with most things in life, Bordeaux is more complicated than a stereotype would have you believe. A week ago, I had the opportunity to visit several sub-regions within Bordeaux, and while there are many areas I did not explore, I did visit the most important appellations that provide for a more complete picture of this versatile region. One particular encounter stands out in my mind as perhaps one of those "moments of epiphany" that passionate wine drinkers sometimes refer to as an event that changed how they view wine.

But before I dive into that story, allow me to set the stage by giving a very basic 2-min refresher of what Bordeaux offers.

Bordeaux is world famous for primarily 3 main kinds of wine:

1. Big powerful reds – deep dark, fruity, earthy, often with tobacco or tea leaf aftertaste. Best aged for at least 5-10 years before drinking. These, of course, divide into multiple appellations with further differentiation of textures and flavor nuances, but the most important division is between the left and the right banks of the Garonne river. The left bank is renowned for its muscular Cabernet Sauvignon dominated reds, while the right bank is Merlot dominated, with sweeter, plummier wines. Both left and right banks produce wines that are tannic, long-lasting, and go great with heavy meats like steak, stew, grilled lamb.

2. Bordeaux also does a great job at world-class dry white wines (called “white Bordeaux”) that are dominated by Sauvignon Blanc. These are are fresh and flavorful, and are riper and rounder with more body and aging potential than New Zealand, California, and Loire Valley (Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé) siblings. It is thanks to blending in the Semillon grape and aging in oak barrels that gives the white Bordeaux the extra body and longevity, and makes it a very substantial white wine that pairs beautifully with non-red-meat foods. Great examples of this come out of Pessac-Léognan area in Graves sub-region of Bordeaux.

3. And finally getting closer to my epiphany story, Bordeaux is home to the world’s perhaps most renowned sweet white wine called Sauternes, named after a village located in Graves where the best examples of this sweet wine are produced. These wines are made from Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon (and sometimes Muscadelle) grapes that are affected by a mold called Botrytis that sucks moisture out of them, thus concentrating inherent flavors of grapes as well as adding certain character of the mold itself. Wines made from such grapes are full of apricot and citrus tones. "So what?" - you might say - "There are other fruity sweet white wines that have those flavors - late harvest Rieslings, Ice Wine, sweet Muscats, Tokaji, Coteaux du Layon and Quarts de Chaume (from Loire), etc... is Sauternes really the best?"

Which brings us back to my story...

My wife and I rarely drink dessert wine, and due to its limited use in our family, she was not terribly excited about the whole 1-hr drive to Sauternes through the cold countryside of Bordeaux on early afternoon of Dec 23, 2008. And that indeed was partly my attitude as well, and the reason for my mostly academic curiosity when at approximately 3pm we turned up in front of Chateau Guiraud in Sauternes.

What happened next is the subject of my upcoming post! Talk to you soon.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Variety is the spice of wine

As I am flying back from France, reflecting upon the awesome past two weeks of touring some of world’s most famous wine regions, a lot of thoughts are bubbling up in my brain and waiting to be digested and poured onto the e-sheet. But one thought in particular is coming into focus, as my wife Rona is elbowing me from the seat to my left, asking how much I've missed Chinese food.

I can’t help but think that too much of a good thing is not necessarily such a good thing after all. Hm? Well, the wines were great, the winery visits and meetings with the owners and winemakers were exciting and instructive, but in the end of the day after drinking a ton of world-class Grand Cru Classé Bordeaux, some interesting Languedocs, and very trendy Chateaneuf-du-Pape’s (aka CdP's), frankly I can think of nothing better than to sip Burgundy or Riesling – something lighter and with more subtlety. And after eating gastronomic delights from some of France’s coveted restaurants and brasseries that we had been dying to eat at, all my wife can think about now is spicy Asian food. I am convinced now more than ever that when it comes to food and wine, variety is indeed the proverbial spice of life.

No matter how great your favorite wine is, you can only have so much of it. No matter how much you might enjoy a particular ingredient, be that foie gras or black truffles, too much of it will soon ruin your appetite. After drinking powerhouse wines for two weeks, I perhaps realize why so many long-time wine aficionados gravitate towards burgundies, rieslings, and loires, though in no way does it lower my respect for the stronger wines of Bordeaux and Chateauneuf-du-Pape, it just limits their use in my drinking repertoire.

In my opinion, bigger wines are harder to pair with food, as they tend to overpower all but strongest flavors. Particularly big reds tend to require big meats. The exception applies to nicely aged reds – which soften over time, losing the fruit explosion and the overpowering tannin, and becoming a nicer accompaniment to a more diverse range of cuisines. But waiting for a Bordeaux or a CdP to relax for 10-20 years is an excruciating (and an expensive) proposition, though often an extremely satisfying one.

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