Thursday, October 28, 2010

Tasting Wine & Spirits Top 100 of 2010

Wine & Spirits Magazine is a venerable publication that's been around since the 1970's. "Spirits" is in the title, but today it's primarily about wine. While not as widely known by consumers as the Wine Spectator, the publication manages to do a great job influencing wine professionals who in turn influence consumers.

Second year in a row I had the pleasure and privilege of covering the Wine & Spirits Magazine's Top 100 Wineries of the Year tasting. Last year's article was showcased on August 12 to their 10K+ Facebook fans, and it also led to a launch of the quite successful Ridge blogger tasting program. Let's see what this year brings!

"Never let work get in the way of wine!" That ought to be the motto. Alas, I spent all day in a YouSendIt Quarterly Business Review, doing my "executive duty", and by the time I got to the event in the city, the Leflaive's 2007 Chevalier-Montrachet Grand Gru White Burgundy ($550) was GONE!

Now let me put it in perspective for you, non-wine-geeks, who are not familiar with Leflaive domaine or Chevalier-Montrachet vineyard or the 2007 vintage for white Burgundy. Imagine scoring a steamy date (in your pre-married days, of course!) with Jessica Alba, and then arriving 2 hours late when she'd already left with another guy. Devastating! The apologetic Wilson Daniels (Leflaive importer) rep tried to soothe my pain with a "second tier" (Premier Cru) Leflave's 2007 Meursault "Sous le Dos D'Ane" (which was awesome wine, btw) and with a Faiveley's 2008 Batard-Montrachet ($400, a wine of stature), but alas, I was inconsolable, damage done, irreparably. Wilson Daniels & YouSendIt, I just wanted you to know the pain you've caused me! :)

But on a more serious note, W&S Top 100 Wineries is one of those fabulous wine events I look forward to all year, akin to Tre Bicchieri, La Paulee, and Institute of Masters of Wine Champagne tasting - grand affairs featuring top wines, often paired with delectable dishes. But unlike the other three events I mentioned which focus on a particular country or region, W&S Top 100 covers wines from around the world. So in the course of maddeningly short 3 hours or so, you get to taste some of the best of France, Italy, Spain, California, Germany, and many other countries, along with scrumptious culinary creations of Northern California's hippest fooderies.

Top honors for the food go to Daniel Isberg from Mind Your Toungue. His wasabi cheesecake with tobiko was disgustingly good!

In the second place of my virtual food competition was the Japanese Wagyu beef tataki from Nombe, served almost raw. I had 3 plates!

The quality of the wine at this event was insane. And while I regret not getting to each and every one, as undoubtedly my colleagues Alder Yarrow and Richard Jennings would, I did have a hell of a time with several friends of mine who eventually got banned from the mind-boggling rare vintage 1988 Veuve Clicquot Champagne ($120) paired with Hog Island oysters, but not until they had about a 100 of them (I exaggerate). This was one of the most divine food and wine pairings I'd ever had, because the slightly oxidized, almondy, a hint sweet, and infinitely energetic 22-year old Champagne played a virtuoso symphony with the sweet and saline oyster. My buds were titillated (pun intended).

Thankfully, the event was not as elbow-to-elbow crowded this year as last. I ran into many friends in the wine biz, and even cozied up to some bona-fide legends, like Bill Harlan (of Harlan Estate and BOND) and Franco Massolino (of Massolino Barolo).

Bill Harlan's BOND is one my favorite California Cab producers (Ridge is another one). Perhaps more famous for his eponymous Harlan Estate cult wine (second in hype and price tag only to Screaming Eagle), his single-vineyard brand BOND routinely gets classical scores from the critics. Although normally I give little credence to Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate reviews, BOND is where we tend to agree. My Napa passion days are long gone, yet still to this day I cherish the multiple vintages of BOND aging in my cellar. Their hillside single-vineyard Pluribus 2006 manages to achieve balance between incredibly dense and plush fruit and a touch of eucalyptus and herb, rounded by decent acidity that makes for a very satisfying package ($275) - a rarity for me in California. There is nothing in Napa Valley quite like tasting through a horizontal of all of the single vineyards of BOND - a moving experience, which I shall cover one day soon on the pages of this blog.

Franco Massolino's Barolo Parafada 2005 ($80) was spot on - complex, plush, balanced.

Ceretto's top of the line Barolo Bricco Rocche "Bricco Rocche" 2004 ($190-250) was perfumey on the nose, balanced and satisfying on the palate.

I was impressed by a producer whose wines had not crossed my radar before - Antonin Guyon. His 2008 Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru (white Burgundy) was beautiful and classic - creme brulee without heaviness and sweetness - my white wine of the night (excluding Veuve Clicquot Champagne). Guyon's 2008 Savigny-les-Beaune (red Burgundy) had translucent color, light texture, character and elegance in a glass - wonderful Pinot Noir from an unheralded village.

After tasting a number of 2008 Burgundies and talking to producers and importers, my impression so far is that W&S had done well picking out the stars in the otherwise supposedly tough 2008 vintage in Burgundy (whose challenges are well documented by Jancis Robinson on her site. The vintage was besieged by terrible weather, and was saved by a month of drying wind and sun at the very end). The 2008's I tasted were good - fleshier and flashier than great many 2007's, with fuller fruit rounding off acidity, which made wines more approachable, enjoyable, and balanced (IMO). Given my own impressions vs. many mixed reviews of 2008 I've read, I will reserve judgment on the vintage. As with the 2007's, it's hard to generalize - I would not buy 2008's without tasting first.

Here are a few photos of some tasty wines that didn't shake my world but certainly left an impression. And with a few years in the cellar, they will undoubtedly improve. I was also happy with Bruno Paillard's non-vintage "Premiere Cuvee" Champagne - nice effort, as well as by some of the Rhones. Must always mention Moric (Austrian wine producer specializing in Blaufrankisch grape variety that screams peppery salumi or a thick pastrami sandwich from The Refuge).

Truth be told, these wines are not for every day or for the faint of wallet. When faced with bottles of this caliber and pedigree, the difference between a $10-20 wine and a $100+ wine becomes painfully apparent. By no means, however, is the wine that costs 20x tastes 20x better - it's not a linear scale, it never was, it never will be. You are paying premium for quality and scarcity, and oftentimes (particularly with Champagne) for brand name. That learning alone IMO is worth the price of admission. And if you got the dow...

Kudos to Wine & Spirits Magazine for putting together an incredible portfolio of people and wines, and for inviting Iron Chevsky to be a part of the celebration!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Most expensive Cognacs in the world?

In case you have some spare change...

10. $5,000 – Courvoisier L’Esprit Decanter

Made from a variety of blends, some which date back to Napoleon I, Courvoisier’s L’Esprit is smoky and rich, with fragrances of cinnamon and dried apricot flowers. The flavor is initially powerful but has a mellow aftertaste.

9. $5,500 – Jenssen Arcana

Aged 98 years in Oak barrels, Jenssen’s Arcana is powerful, “extraordinarily” concentrated and only bottled, sealed and certified upon request.

8. $6,000 – Hine Triomphe Talent De Thomas Hine Crystal Decanter

Each bottle of Hine’s high-end Talent de Thomas is bottled in a Baccarat decanter and placed within an actual cigar humidor made from Maccasar ebony and Honduran Mahogany which helps preserve the spirit’s delicate floral bouquet.

7. $6,400 – Frapin Cuvée 1888

A rare blend of Cognacs from Frapin’s reserves, the Cuvée is bottled beneath a 24-karat gold stopper in a twisty crystal decanter that looks like a prop from a community Shakespeare staging. Flowery flavors combine with sweet spices, honey and toasted vanilla notes.

6. $7,500 – Martell Creation Cognac In Handcarved Baccarat Decanter

Martell’s rare cognac is a “reinterpretation” of a batch first casked at the start of the 19th century. The Grand Extra has a soft flavor that starts as dried fruit and marmalade and fades into notes of walnuts and cedarwood.

5. $7,900 – Le Voyage de Delamain

A blend of cognacs from Delamain, Le Voyage was bottled in 500 crystal decanters, most of which were quickly bought
or reserved by eager collectors. It’s rumored to have a complex taste that fades from Russian leather to tobacco, coffee and Eastern spices.

4. $12,900 – Hardy Perfection 140 years Cognac

Supposedly the “World’s oldest known unblended cognac,” this offering from Hardy was limited to 300 Daum crystal decanters. It’s an exceedingly rare cognac that is said to taste of coffee, chocolate and oak.

3. $55,000 – Remy Martin Cognac Black Pearl Louis XIII

When you swish Remy Martin’s deep amber-colored Black Pearl Louis XIII around in your mouth, you’re actually tasting 1,200 40 to 100-year old cognacs blended together. The swill is said to smell of flowers, fruits and spices, it’s flavor a mixture of ginger, cinnamon and Cuban cigars.

2. $200,000 – Hennessy Beaute du Siecle Cognac

Insert a bronze key, turn, and Hennessy’s Baccarat crystal-bottled Beaute du Siecle rises up on a tray. Housed in a melted aluminum and mirrored glass case this mixture is blended from Hennessy’s reserves of 47 to 100-year-old cognacs.

1. $2 million – Henri IV, Cognac Grande Champagne

An elixir mixed since 1776 by the direct descendants of King Henri IV, each batch of Henri IV Dudognon Heritage is aged in a barrel for more than 100 years and capped inside a 24-karat gold-dipped and 6,500 diamond-bejeweled bottle.

To health!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Iron goes to Hollywood

No, I am not talking about Iron Man or Iron Chef. I am talking about Iron Chevsky. And technically - it's "Hollywood comes to Iron", because it was a couple of blocks from the Union Square in San Fran where yours truly found himself bedazzled by Hollywood glamor.

Going back to it now, seems more like Al Bundy's dream from Married with Children than an image of a highbrow wine snoot expected from an avid old-world francophile. (But then Gary Vaynerchuk knows very well what I am talking about - having "dumbed it down" for mass consumer audiences of Conan O'Brian and Ellen Degeneres.) Surrounded by the babes from Hollywood's Celebrity Wine Review, it's not entirely clear who the celebrity was - me? - the modestly famous Iron Chevsky, an ex-founding member of Ask Jeeves that sold to IAC for $2B in 2005, or the professional female hosts that had graced the covers of many a TV? Be that as it may, Al Bundy's dream and all, I felt one step closer to making it.

Celebrity Wine Review is the newest concept and the next step in "productizing" wine into mass-media entertainment, and you can be sure that when glamor biz meets wine biz, Iron Chevsky will be there!

Watch for a deeper dive into the world of Celebrity Wine Review, the concept and the folks behind it in the upcoming posts...

Monday, October 4, 2010

Champagne and dreams

It was the rarest of weather in San Francisco. 95 degrees in late September. Magnificent view from the second floor of the Ferry Building, overlooking the San Francisco Bay and the Bay Bridge. Ice-cold vintage Krug, anyone?

Three hours flew by like a fairy-tale. Friends, laughs, Champagne of the highest order, multiple pours... toward the end, the crowd dissipated... and all that Krug was still there, beckoning me like a lighthouse in the dark of night.

The three Champagnes shown below together retail for around $500. Is it too much to ask for my three favorites? Does it get much better than '96 Henriot, '98 Krug, '98 Veuve Clicquot "La Grande Dame"? Living in the Bay Area, I am soooo lucky to have the Institute of Masters of Wine Annual Champagne Tasting come to San Francisco, and for a measly $50(!!!!) I get to taste (and taste and taste and taste again...) the cream of the crop.

Champagne is polarizing. Some people love it above all. Some people don't get it at all. Some drink it, 'cause it's bubbly and fancy. I am close to the first camp. But it hasn't always been that way. I used to not get it - it was sour and carbonated and kind of "not wine". But I had an open mind, listened to my friends who knew more about wine than I did, and kept at it, until eventually the light bulbs went off. It may have been the Magnum of 1990 Ca'del Bosco Franciacorta "Annamaria Clementi" (from Lombardy, Italy) that Chef Donato served at a friend's party. Or maybe it was some other complex, nutty, bready, yeasty, tiny-bubble marvel - but my wine life changed forever when I finally got Champagne (or I should say sparkling wine?)

I drink it with sushi. I drink it with fries. I drink it with eggs and bacon. I drink it with tomato soup. Certainly with triple-cream cheese. And a million other things. Every thing. Too bad the darn thing is so expensive. But for $50, for three unforgettable hours of tasting the finest bubbly, money was of no consequence.

Champagne and dreams!

And now my favorite Champagnes of the tasting in the order of loving...

1. 1996 Henriot "Cuvee des Enchateleurs" Brut - all Henriot Champagnes at the tasting were impressive: the non-vintage Blanc Souverain Chardonnay, the 1998 Millsesime Brut, the 1995 "Cuvee des Enchanteleurs" Brut, and the ultimate 1996 "Cuvee des Enchateleurs" Brut. Across the board, Henriot is regal. 1996 was a classic vintage for Champagne. Several of my wine friends preferred the '95, but for me - the '96 Henriot was the clear, incomparable front-runner.

2. 1998 Krug Brut - must be the world's most famous Champagne. (Possibly Cristal and Salon are in the league). Powerful and full-bodied. The non-vintage Krug Brut was fantastic as well (~$120/btl).

3. 1998 Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin "La Grande Dame" - had this Champagne almost a year ago, and it wasn't nearly as enjoyable. Perhaps the wine has evolved, but more likely - my palate has! This wine was elegant, balanced, powerful yet not heavyweight (like the '98 Krug). Very classy.

4. Non-vintage Krug Brut "Grande Cuvee" (as mentioned already) was textbook. My friend Enoch and I must have snuck at least 5 or 6 pours! (shhhhhh.....)

5. Jacquesson Cuvee #734 non-vintage Brut - lots of character, very nice.

6. Vilmart "Grand Ceillier" Brut Premier Cru, along with Jacquesson and Krug, was the top non-vintage Champagne of the show.

Many others were certainly not shabby - Perrier-Jouet (2002), Dom Perignon (2000, third time I've had it - keeps leaving me somewhat cold), Pol Roger (1999 "Extra Cuvee de Reserve" Blanc de Blancs and 2000), Taittinger, Louis Roederer, Bollinger (Le Grand Annee 2000 Brut), Ruinart (1998 and NV Blanc de Blancs), and many others - nothing to sneeze at, though certainly not earth-shattering mind-bogglers.

Normally, I enjoy Rosés, and the event had its share of big brands that drew the crowd. But this time, the non-Rosés ruled the show.

As the sun was setting over the San Francisco Bay, the heat dissipating with the refreshing coolness of Henriot, my friend Enoch and I headed downstars to Gott's (aka Taylor's Refresher) - the best fast-food style burger in Northern California (maybe in America?!), originally from St. Helena in Napa Valley, and now solidly at the foot of the Ferry Building. We ordered my all-time-favorite Texas burger - the mouth-watering creation of monumental proportions, with Jack cheese, fresh guacamole, salsa, mayo & pickled jalapeños on a toasted egg bun, with a side of garlic parsley fries, and just (drumroll please...) - "sorry, I can't handle any more wine tonight!" - diet coke.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

2005 Burgundy - trust the vintage

Crepes with shredded duck meat, with mushrooms and creme sauce.
Pan-fried foie gras with blueberry sauce.
Tuna tar tar with a splash of soy sauce and sesame.

The other night I was celebrating a friend's birthday the Russian style at a French restaurant in Burlingame, called La Boheme. What was common among all of the above dishes besides being French'ish?

Red Burgundy. It matches all three dishes like butter on toast, shmear on bagel, peanut butter on jelly, ... you get the point.

2005 Bourgogne's (regional level red Burgundies) at 5 years old are now starting to hit their stride, showing beautiful balance of the great 2005 vintage and signs of secondary flavors of wines entering maturity, while Premier and Grand Cru's need more time.

It got me thinking... The more I drink and learn about wine, the more I believe in criticality of a vintage, above a vineyard or a producer, particularly in France and Italy. In other words, in bad years, even great producers make bad wines from great vineyards. But in good years, even average producers make good wines from average vineyards. Buying wines from a good vintage stacks the odds of enjoyment down the road in your favor. Especially if you are getting wines from proven producers. I know there are exceptions, and if you taste something from a bad vintage that you like, by all means, go for it.

The 2005 Bourgogne Rouge from Le Moine was terrific - rich, with great fruit and acidity, starting to show nice secondary flavors, underscoring the importance of a vintage, 2005 being the best one of the past decade in Burgundy. Too bad the cost of 2005 Burgundy is now higher than two years ago (a clear indicator of a good vintage). My advise - stack up on wines when a great vintages comes around, and stay out in inferior years.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

A Burgundy vertical of legendary Henri Gouges

Henri Gouges embodies Nuits-Saint-Georges, one of the glorious villages of Cote de Nuits in Burgundy. Gouges, along with Robert Chevillon, whom I covered recently, are the two icons of Nuits-Saint-Georges, famous for its meaty, dense Pinot Noir. Our local wine shop Vin Vino Wine finished the month of September with a bang - a vertical tasting of 8 vintages of Henri Gouges, with the focus on the area's top vineyard "Les Saint Georges" - after which the village itself was named (so famous was the vineyard that the village housing it was renamed to raise its own prestige).

Henri Gouges has the reputation of someone whose wines are "never ready", meaning they take 20 years to resolve their austere tannins and reveal magnificent complexity of flavors. In my experience, however, while I agree that patience rewards those who own Gouges wines from top vintages, these wines can certainly be enjoyable within the first decade as well.

We tasted 2001 through 2007, a 1996, and a relatively rare white 2002 "Clos des Porrets Saint-Georges" Pinot Blanc (also known as "Pinot Gouges", a mutation of Pinot Noir developed by Henri Gouges, thus named after him - very good white Burgundy at a relatively reasonable price - highly recommended!)

No big surprises with the reds, the wines echoing the reputation of the vintages.
2001 - beautiful and the WOTN ("wine of the night"). Very enjoyable now, with secondary complexities.
2002 - good as well, but still not quite mature enough.
2003 - Zinfandel like, with stewy, baked fruit. Yuck.
2004 - green, like the other '04's I've had. Pass.
2005 - classically balanced - all the elements are there, but very tight (closed) right now, meaning not showing a lot of aromatics or breadth of flavor. Needs time.
2006 - surprisingly tannic and concentrated. Exceeding my expectations for 06's which tend to be approachable and fruity. This '06 is built for the long-haul, and needs time.
2007 - a bit watery, like many other '07's I've had.
1996 - nicely mature at this point, complex, but with some off-flavors of iodine - I think with certain foods, this could be a winner. Below expectations for the very good 1996 vintage.

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