Sunday, January 31, 2010

1998 vs 2007 - greatest Chateauneuf-du-Pape face-off ever?

One of the most reputable wine writers of our time Eric Asimov aptly noted in New York Times in 2007:
A good Châteauneuf-du-Pape is first and foremost a wine-lover's wine. Other wines can give you gloss and symmetry, the sort of good looks that are obvious even if you aren't much of a wine drinker. But Châteauneuf does not lend itself to smoothness and polish. It is earthy and sometimes fierce, the proverbial "brooding" wine. Yet as difficult as it can initially be to embrace, the ornery character of Châteauneuf makes it all the more rewarding when the lights finally go on. That aha! moment is like suddenly recognizing the beauty in one of Picasso's women, and realizing that conventional notions can take you only so far. A classic Châteauneuf can offer the fruit flavors that most wine drinkers love so well, ranging from cherry and blueberry to deep, rich raspberry. It can also have intense aromas of violets and other flowers, woven through with whiffs of earth and Provençal herbs, spices and a little of what is politely termed barnyard. This is all in one big package that is rarely neat. Few wines offer as visually clear a sense of place as a good Châteauneuf. When you stick your nose in a glass and breathe in, you can actually feel transported to Provence, to perpetually windy slopes and rocky terrain redolent of garlic, lavender and thyme.

Since the great vintage of 1998, with the exception of 2002, Châteauneuf has been on a roll. The pinnacle - 2007 - was heralded by Robert Parker as the vintage of the century.

What else are faithful wine geeks to do but to set up the greatest CdP face-off of our times - 1998 vs 2007, top producers, top of the line wines (prized bottles from hallow cellars of Chris B and Carlos G). Iron Chevsky was there to partake, learn, and document!

1998 Beaucastel ($150-200, 96RP, 95WS) & 2007 Beaucastel ($75-90, 96RP, 96WS)
1998 Chateau Rayas ($300-500, 94RP, 94WS)
1998 Janasse VV ($140, 95+RP) & 2007 Janasse VV ($250, 100RP, 96WS)
1998 Vieux Donjon ($100-170, 95RP) & 2007 Vieux Donjon ($60, 95+RP, 94WS)
1998 Les Cailloux "Cuvee Le Centenaire" ($250-600)
2007 Vieux Telegraphe "La Crau" ($55-70, 96+RP, 95WS)
2007 Saint Prefert "Collection Charles Giraud" ($250, 100RP, 98WS)

An esteemed line-up tasted by an esteemed panel. Below are the wines in the order of the group-rank, left-to-right from top-ranked. Take a close look.

Wines 1 through 5:

Wines 6 through 10:

Combining my own impressions with those around the table, here are the take-aways:

1. Good CdP is much better aged than young, as can be seen from the top 3 wines being all 1998.

2. Young CdP is big, fruity (even jammy), spicy and brooding. The same wines, when mature, mellow out, with some herbal / vegetable notes emerging - think "bloody mary".

3. There was not a bad wine in the line-up, with the exception of perhaps 2007 Beaucastel which at this stage is just too jammy for me. That said, with the right food, personally, I would have enjoyed any one of them, without the distraction of the others. But life is tough - for you, my readers, I had to sacrifice myself and go through all of them!

4. Price seemed to be a non-factor, as the most favored wine - 1998 Vieux Donjon - was amongst the least expensive in the lineup. The 2007 bottling is still somewhat affordable.

5. These are relatively low-acid, wild-tasting wines, even in their elder years. No wonder Laurence Feraud of Domaine du Pegau once told me, having just returned from Burgundy back to her domain in Cheateauneuf-du-Pape: "My wines are so WILD and SPICY". That they are. Makes one wonder what barbarically wild mood one must be in to shell out upwards of $100 (and far more, in some cases).

6. The tasting took place at Donato Enoteca. A fabulous multi-course Italian dinner followed. I must say, however, that CdP's go with Italian food about as well as flip-flops with an Armani suit. If you are going to have Italian food, drink Italian wine. With Chateauneuf, stick with Provençal cuisine.

7. The '98 Donjon was ranked the best wine, with '98 Rayas - the second. Once the blinders went off and dinner went on, the crowd thought that 1998 Rayas was by far the best wine. I suppose Rayas' reputation as being Southern Rhone's classiest export had nothing to do with that :)!

8. I have to give it to Beaucastel. The 1998 did not taste old, and the medium body of the wine made it infinitely more attractive to me when the food arrived.

Well, all that is fine and dandy. I felt special. Intellectually, I enjoyed. But truth be told, I find Chateauneuf-du-Pape to be in the same bucket as Bordeaux - wines of limited applicability - good with robust meat dishes. But with Burgundy and Barolo being in the same $$ range - with their more etherial textures and classier flavors - it's a tough sell for the very expensive CdP's. Yet when American consumers are exposed to French wine, I know Chateauneuf-du-Pape's are often the most popular of all French regions (granted - most consumers cannot afford the astronomically priced top-of-the-line wines we tasted that day). Why are they popular? In my humble opinion, these are transitional wines for new world wine lovers looking for the next step up - big, fruity, but with more character than Cali and Aussie fruit bombs. The wines we tasted are certainly fine examples of their terroir. There is a place and time for everything, and if it's roasted lamb with rosemary that I am in the mood for, perhaps a Beaucastel would be just what the doctor ordered. But that right place and right time are increasingly rarer at my table. As much as I cherished the opportunity to experience these wines, when the food came, I reached out for a Barbaresco (Produttori del Barbaresco's Moccagatta 2004) - bright, juicy, medium-bodied, high-acidity joy of a wine.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Spontaneous goodfellowship at Donato Enoteca

Author Dianne Hales writes:
"Italians say that a good meal requires two arts: the art of cooking and the art of eating. I would add a third: the ever-so-scrumptious art of talking about what you have eaten, are eating or are thinking about eating. In Italy food and language meld together as smoothly as cacio sui maccheroni (cheese on macaroni). Both boast a rollicking history dating back to ancient times. Both vary greatly from region to region, even from village to village. Both reflect centuries of invasion, assimilation and conquest. And both can transform daily necessities into joyful celebrations."

Last night while having a business dinner at Donato Enoteca, I saw the proof of Dianne Hales' insight right before my eyes. The 4 of us told the server: "Just bring whatever Chef Donato decides!" (5 mouth-watering dishes followed, plus a dessert platter! - for such an insanely low price that if I tell you, they will have to shoot me!)

Somewhere around 10:30pm, as the restaurant started slowing down, Donato, Eric (the wine director), and a Gianluca Gugliemi - a visiting Michelin-starred venetian executive chef of A.G. Ferrari Foods (one of my fave Italian specialty shops), settled at the next table and were gracious enough to invite yours truly to join the party. After the initial polite refusal (since I didn't want to ditch the 3 ladies I was with), the scent of cheese and Nebbiolo didn't have to travel far to make me do the unthinkable - excuse myself from my business meeting (I admit, the business part of the meeting had ended by then!) and do a full-frontal assault on the tavola Italiana (well, in reality, there were only two Italians - Donato and Gianluca - the others: a Los Angeles County native, a Swiss, and a Latin American were all swept up by the tsunami of Italian spirit). Now Joined by a Russian Jew, the "goodfellas" proceeded to gobble up globs of extraordinary cheeses washed down with the delicious Bruno Rocca's 2005 Barbaresco - amazingly approachable even in its 5-year-old infancy (2005 is the newest release). What did the fellas shoot the shit about? The usual. Northern Italians vs. the Southerners ("Are they even Italian?" :) They shrugged for Roberto Saviano, an author whose days were surely numbered after he'd exposed inner secrets of the Gomorrah (I found out that "mafia" is specifically a Sicilian term, while "Gomorrah" or "Camorra" is Neopolitan). "It's nothing to worry about, simply he is a marked man and he will soon not be with us - everyone knows that", the Italians explained to me matter-of-factly, while chowing down another slice of the exquisite and very expensive truffle cheese. "I hate this cheese" exclaimed Donato. "Truffles should not go into a cheese!" quite offended by the concept.

"Well, it's time to head back", the ladies were standing behind me ready to go. I was both sad and glad to leave, in one piece. Ciao!

Saturday, January 16, 2010

1984 Chateau Margaux

Ross Bott was conducting the 4th in the 5-part retrospective series on 1984 Cabernets. The only one I zero'ed in on due to the French representation, specifically Chateau Margaux.

My lukewarmness toward new world cabs is rather publicly stated. An inspiring example now and then keeps the faith alive, but serve me a Bordeaux 1st growth, and now we are talking! Hundreds of $$ a bottle a rare treat, but more than that - it's a Margaux, the most feminine of the Cabernet-based left-bank appellations in Bordeaux, and feminine is my kinda wine!

The tasting started at 7:30. I came late, very late, 9. I was glad to be late. Ross accommodated, more than enough left in the bottle waiting for me - I love the "Bott crowd" - quirky always, grumpy sometimes, but always a caring bunch of geeks. I didn't want to do the blind tasting and ranking like the usual. I was there to take my time with Miss Margaux 1984, to give her my respects.

For all the truthfulness and fairness of blind tastings, I do not like them. While scientifically interesting, I've grown to think of blind tastings in the same way I imagine picking a date from a speed-dating meetup. When it comes to wine of stature, no I don't want to be objective. I want to know what I am dealing with. I want to anticipate or be put off by my prior knowledge of it, whatever baggage may come. I want the wine either to fulfill or to overcome the preconceived notion. And most of all, I want to take my time with it, have a date with it, smell it, taste it, caress it, look at it, and then do it all over again. It cannot be a ménage à trois or worse - an orgy. No, it is a tango, me-and-her, to the bliss or to the dumpster. And if that is wrong, I don't want to be right!

So what did I expect from the 1984 Chateau Margaux coming in? A grand wine from a weak vintage. A great chateau will make a good wine even in bad year - in fact it could be a great value. The pedigree could come through with age, leanness turned to character, harshness to smoothness. penned it beautifully:
"Beyond its reputation, people's considered opinions about it, and the sensations it provides, a great vintage stands out in our memories above all for its fantastic capacity to move us. Château Margaux 1953, 1961, 1982 and 1990, to mention just a few, appear to touch our hearts before, or at the same time as, they overwhelm our senses. While a very good wine impresses us, a great wine moves us. A difference which is ridiculous, elusive and considerable, all at the same time.

And what about the lesser vintages? Harvested in tricky conditions and aged with indifference, they are forgotten as they mature, until the day when, a bit by chance or out of curiosity, we finally decide to drink them. Of course, we should not expect miracles; we are neither overwhelmed with emotion nor deeply impressed. Most often, however, a straightforward pleasure without frills awaits us. It is all the greater because it is completely unexpected.

« Lesser » vintages are greatly appreciated by shrewd wine enthusiasts. The advantage they have over great vintages is that they develop more quickly, and after ten or fifteen years, display, in the absence of power, that subtlety which is the hallmark of great terroirs. Most of them are by no means « lesser », but the reputation they have been given sticks with them. Technical advances and strict selection, helped by a certain refusal to let fate decide matters, now enable us to produce a very good, good or ..... no vintage. One day, perhaps, we will no longer remember the unexpected, subtle charm of discovering a lesser vintage."

Well, 1984 was a mediocre vintage in Bordeaux at best. But it's Chateau Margaux after all, one of the five greatest growths, a pillar of France's wine reputation for over two centuries! So I tasted. For an hour, no less, not allowing the other 7 wines including the bright and plummy 1984 Opus One, to distract me. I was still there when the rest had left, contemplating my date of the night, perhaps trying too hard. Tannin still strong, even after two hours after opening. Not much on the nose. Typical Bordeaux on the palate - tobacco, little fruit, restrained, balanced, firm. With the 2005 Chateau Margaux going for north of $800, the 1984 may seem like a bargain for $200+. But to be honest, it tasted like a $30 Bordeaux to me... not bad... but... well... uninspiring.

I think there is an aura and regalness about older wines. We give them respect like veterans, and because truly majestic examples haunt us. But we forget that most old wine is just that - old wine. God bless the 1984 Chateau Margaux, certainly not a bad wine in my estimation, and not something I would turn away. It reminded me why vintages, especially older vintages, are so incredibly relevant in the wine world, and are not just pretentious invention of the wine snob. Sometimes an awkward wine will come around with age, but more often than not - stars need to align perfectly to produce a wine that will dazzle in its elder years. For long-term aging - great producer, great vintage, great terroir, great storage are those stars. Don't bet against them (sorry, Miss 1984).

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Shaoxing rice wine - lunching at Ming's

This is part 3 of the Shaoxing rice wine series. Click here for Part 2.

While the in-laws are staying with us, our neighbors Vicky and Wu-Chung invited us for lunch to their famous restaurant Ming's - one of the oldest in Palo Alto, named after a powerful 14-17th-century Chinese dynasty. Originally from Taiwan, which according to Vicky is a melting pot of a variety of Chinese and other Asian cuisines, she comprises her menu mainly of Cantonese recipes, but with creative touches that extend beyond, and with the modern sensibilities of organic and more health-oriented diet. With a few dishes from the menu and some "owner-only" specials, they graciously presented me with an opportunity to continue my Shaoxing wine research against a variety of flavors. I brought the 20-year aged wine by Kuaijishan company - the best one I was able to find in the Bay Area so far. It's been mellowing out open for a few days now, and we decided to serve it warm - the traditional way. Tasting it on its own rather than in a line-up with other Shaoxing wines, it seemed smoother and more refined than I remembered, with a pleasant fragrance about it. At 15%, it was also the least alcoholic of the Shaoxing wines I'd been tasting. Or perhaps I am simply getting used to the flavor...

An array of delectable dishes with a rainbow of flavors and textures were served family-style:

1) Concubine walking chicken with ginger scallion sauce (Cantonese)
2) steamed soy curd milk with fried dough (Taiwanese)
3) dumplings filled with fish and chives served on top of noodle with Cantonese XO and Sichuan chili sauce (Chinese fusion)
4) steamed egg custard with dried scallop (Shanghainese)
5) surf-and-turf pepper beef and fried scallops with onions in XO-like sauce (modified Cantonese)
6) Organic mustard greens (Shanghainese)
7) steamed cured sweet pork sausage (Cantonese)
8) cured pork belly jerky (Cantonese)
9) cured duck jerky (Cantonese)
10) chicken lettuce salad (American/Chinese fusion)
11) and finally sweetened red bean soup for desert with sesami rice balls and water lily root (Cantonese).

Even though I couldn't understand most of the Mandarin spoken, I could tell the two families hit it off rather well. A lively conversation never subsided - no topic was left unturned, from Chinese politics to Chinese history to the history of our neighborhood. (They occasionally switched to English, for my sake.) The warmth of the people and the warmth of the wine blended into a single warm feeling that kept us going for hours. Wu-Chung and baya are from the same Zhejiang province as Shaoxing, they needed no introduction to the Shaoxing wine. To them, the familiar comfortable flavor went with the food naturally. Sipping, I couldn't help but think that the wine had found its true purpose - at the table with food, in the company of good people, enjoying life and each other. Oh, and it tasted so right!

I also brought a 2005 Dumol Pinot Noir from Russian River Valley, which predictably did very well with Cantonese flavors. The crowd seemed to savor both wines with about equal amount of appreciation. For them, Pinot was the acquired Western taste, rice wine - the familiar and homey. For me, rather the reverse - charmed I kept reaching for refills of the Shaoxing wine.

Needless to say, 4 hours later, stuffed and very satisfied, I could clearly see that the Shaoxing wine paired quite well with the heavier, meatier dishes, especially those with a touch of sweetness and funk.

After the meal, Vicky was nice enough to give me a tour of the kitchen at Ming's. Enormous pots where they roast meats were big enough to engulf little children. Gigantic soup pots with simmering broth, bones macerating for hours until every last ounce of flavor is extracted. Burners the size of wine barrels, rows of stations enough to feed an army. A big operation commanded by this energetic, enterprising lady.

Click here for Part 4.

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