Thursday, October 29, 2009

What causes your red-wine headache?

Almost certainly, sulfites are not causing you to have "red-wine headaches."

I made that comment briefly in this Los Angeles Times story this week, but didn't have the space to elaborate, so I will do so here.

The reason is simple. If you are allergic to sulfites, you wouldn't call them "red-wine headaches." White wines generally have much higher levels of sulfites than reds. There's a technical reason for this: reds have tannins to protect them from prematurely losing their fresh fruit flavors, while whites don't.

So if you can drink white wine, sulfites aren't your problem. You can test this theory by eating some dried fruit -- that has higher levels of sulfites than wine.

It's important to make this point up front because so many people mistakenly believe sulfites are some sort of evil chemical addition to wine, when in fact they naturally occur in grapes, and are crucial in keeping wine good-tasting and long-lasting for the more than 99% of us who are not allergic to sulfites. Some people are allergic to sulfites, and that's why the U.S. government requires wine labels to show "added sulfites." But sulfites are not the cause of headaches that occur only after drinking red wine.

So what is?

Every time I have interviewed doctors on this question, they tell me that people ignore the first and most obvious answer: Alcohol. Red wines are generally higher in alcohol than whites, often significantly so. Many people can't process alcohol well.

Can you drink a double shot of straight whiskey without a headache? If not, look no further.

If alcohol is your problem, the obvious solution is to drink red wines that are lower in it. That's a challenge in this era of big and bold wines, but it's not impossible. Try Beaujolais, Austrian reds, reds from the Loire Valley. Look for the alcohol percentage on the label and ask about it at restaurants before ordering.

For a cheap alternative, consider the Charles Shaw "Two Buck Chuck" wines. They're reduced down to 12.5% alcohol, which is pretty low for reds these days.

What if alcohol isn't the problem, and sulfites aren't the problem? Then what?

Unfortunately, then it gets complicated. Red wines soak on the grape skins for days or even weeks, and a variety of natural chemical compounds enter the wine in far higher quantities than in whites.

Check your sensitivity to tannins first, mainly because that's an easy allergy to work around. Black tea has tannin, particularly if you let it steep for a while. If that gives you a headache, you've got your answer.

While all red wines contain tannins, some contain far less than others. Grenache (Garnacha in Spain) is notably low in tannin; 100% Garnacha wines from Spain are often delightful. Other low-tannin reds include Gamay (Beaujolais again), Dolcetto and Barbera.

Avoid anything that says it was fermented or aged in new oak, which contains tannins of its own.

Merlot and Pinot Noir aren't naturally high in tannins, but you have to be careful to avoid the new-oak treatment.

Sulfites, alcohol and tannin are the three easiest problems to test for. What next?

Red wine is full of naturally occurring histamines (thanks to Jon Bjork for pointing this out in a comment). You might try taking an antihistamine before drinking red wine. That's a rather extreme solution, because antihistamines combined with alcohol can make you drowsy. Perhaps if you have other allergies acting up and are taking antihistamines anyway, you might try a glass of red that night.

Suppose histamines aren't your problem. Then what?

I wish I had a good answer for you, but I don't. Red wines are full of chemical compounds, and while corporate wines have a few added ones (like "mega-purple," a grape-based dye that makes wines darker), the overwhelming majority are naturally occurring. None of these chemicals are required to be listed in material anywhere, so even if you could figure out what compound bothers you, you can't know which wines contain it.

This is why some people claim they can drink one type of red wine and no others. Wine lovers sometimes say that well-made reds won't cause headaches, but there's no evidence of this, and I've never heard a doctor say it (and I've asked). Basically, if you find you can drink one brand of wine but nothing else, consider yourself lucky and keep drinking it.

Before giving up, though, I recommend trying biodynamic wines. Not "organic wines," which have no added sulfites.

Brief explanation: "Organically grown grapes" are a good thing. "Organic wine," in the U.S., is not. Without sulfites, wine quickly oxidizes and bacterial contaminants can make it taste nasty within months. The European Union allows sulfites to be added to "organic wine," but the U.S. government listened too much to some self-righteous, self-serving marketers of bad wine and wrote a bad rule forbidding this.

Thus most "organic wines" on the U.S. market are indifferently made wines from lesser growing regions that exist to serve a self-righteous but under-informed market (including, but not limited to, white people in dreadlocks.). If you like the aroma of fermented sock sweat, go ahead and enjoy them. Just don't kid yourself that they're better in any way. You have been successfully marketed to.

Biodynamics is as much superstition as science. That said, I've had enough readers tell me they can drink these wines without headaches, but not others, that I have to listen to them. I must point out that biodynamic wines tend to be lower in alcohol than others, and often don't have new-oak aging, so the answer might be contained above. But what the heck, just because a placebo is a placebo doesn't mean it doesn't work.

To summarize, before giving up on red wine, try testing your sensitivity to alcohol, then tannin. You might try taking an antihistamine. Then try biodynamic wines. But if you can drink whites, don't blame sulfites. And be happy that you still have half the world's wines available to you.

I'm sorry if this post doesn't solve your problem. Let me tell you something that might make you feel better. All my life, I have been allergic to tomatoes. I have had Italians ask me, "How do you live like that?" Quite happily. I don't mourn bolognese any more than a middle-class person should moan about not having Romanee-Conti every night. Instead, I just order pesto.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Tasting Chateauneuf du Pape with Robert Parker

Robert Parker is not what you think he is.

The most common misconception of Parker -- the world's most powerful critic -- from both his acolytes and his detractors is that he always rates highest the biggest, most powerful wines on the table. I had the opportunity last week to taste wine with Parker for the third time, at the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena, and can say this is simply not true.

Parker has real affection for wines made in traditional ways: whole-cluster fermentation (with the stems) in cement tanks. He spoke repeatedly about how he likes Grenache that never sees oak. And he praised elegance in wine and encouraged the Napa vintners in the crowd to pursue it.

"I'm sorry to serve all these wines that are not made in 100% new oak and overextracted," Parker said. "It might not help my reputation."

Parker chose 2007 Chateauneufs du Pape for this year's tasting because, he said, "This is the greatest vintage I've ever tasted in the southern Rhone."

"The interesting thing is, 2007 is not a great year in France," he said. "But in the southern Rhone, it's extraordinary. This was a warmer than normal vintage, but it had the coldest nighttime temperatures of the last 40 years. I think that's why the freshness was preserved."

While the wines we tasted were expensive, Parker also said, "The $12 and $15 wines from the Rhone from '07 were the best I've ever tasted. It was virtually impossible to taste a bad wine at any level from the southern Rhone from 2007."

Parker said he believes Chateauneuf du Pape is "the epicenter of great Grenache in the world," and he has a number of theories on making great Grenache, some that conflict with his public image and some that reinforce it.

He's dead-set against new oak for Grenache, saying something that would shock his haters: "People talk about Romanee Conti and La Tache as great wines. But they're 100% new oak. So what you're tasting is often the oak. What would they taste like without the new oak? (With most Chateauneuf du Pape) what you're tasting is the juice from the old vines. I don't think you can do that with Cabernet or Shiraz. They need the oak, they need the oxidative process of the oak."

"I call them naked wines. There is no makeup."

But he also said this: "It's almost impossible to make good Grenache unless you pick it over 25 Brix. We're talking 14% alcohol and up. It's almost impossible to find good Grenache at 13% alcohol. It needs to be picked very ripe. I think Grenache is a much more difficult grape to make great wine from than Pinot Noir. You have to pick it very ripe, very late."

That said, he does not believe big = good.

"The great wines of the world are wines of exceptional concentration, but they're not heavy," Parker said.

Parker says that he's not the first to notice the great qualities of the '07 vintage in CDP.

"I've been going at the end of August to the Rhone for more than 20 years," he said. "I have never seen more Danes, Dutch, Swedes and Belgians than this year. They were like locusts, filling up the trunks of their cars with these wines."

Given the quality of the wines we tasted, I can see why.

A few more notes about Parker: He has an impish sense of humor. He was amused by tasting Chateauneufs du Pape in the heart of Napa Valley, mostly with highly successful Napa Valley wine people, and said he planned to send the mayor of CDP a letter describing the event. He's also a charitable guy, as the proceeds from the event go to culinary students for wine-education scholarships.

He's so enthusiastic about wines he likes that he had to be prodded several times, because he wanted to linger and tell stories while tasting some of the great ones.

He must not be a sake drinker, because he told of taking Chateauneufs du Pape to Masa's in New York to have with sushi and sashimi. "Even Masa thought I was crazy," he said. On this issue, sorry Bob, but I'm with Masa.

As for his palate, you can agree or disagree with his preferences, but his descriptions are very accurate.

Last week I told an editor I'd tasted with Parker and he shared this story: "I remember defending him at a very drunken dinner with some wine friends, and as a joke, they decided they’d pull the Parker reviews for those wines and compare them to what they were tasting. They came away very humbled."

"Humbled" isn't the word I'd use for my experience; I have done this before, and besides, I'm already aware that I'll never be better than the 2nd best wine writer from Maryland (though you may judge for yourself which of us, above, is better-looking).

"Impressed" is more like it. The man's bold and full-bodied, but with great longevity, surprising balance and natural elegance.

Tasting notes

Chateau Rayas Reserve Chateauneuf du Pape 2007
Wow. Made from 100% whole-cluster (with stems!) Grenache, this is the best current-vintage wine I've tasted so far this year, and I've had some big names. So lively and interesting, it's elegant enough to taste great and complex enough to fascinate. Peppery, with nice red cherry fruit, notes of tobacco and licorice and lip-smacking acidity on the finish. Delightfully aromatic; you can smell the famous "garrigue" of the region. The tannins are so soft you don't notice them, but Parker says, "The '83 and '85 are still in fine form. It's an incredibly long-lived Grenache." I'll give it 99 points, which means anything I want to give 100 this year has a high bar to cross.

Les Cailloux Cuvee Centenaire Chateauneuf du Pape 2007
Made from 80% Grenache with 10% each of Syrah and Mourvedre, the latter two aged in new oak. You can smell the oak, but you don't taste it; instead it's quite spicy, with cherry and cinnamon intermingling, voluptuous tannins and a silky yet cinnamony finish. Parker calls it "a big wine with elegance." Not heavy at all. 94

Bosquet Des Papes Chante Le Merle Vieilles Vignes Chateauneuf du Pape 2007
80% Grenache with 10% each Mourvedre and Syrah. Red and black plums, allspice, clove, pepper, cinnamon and a little lavender on the spicy finish. 93

Domaine Giraud Grenaches De Pierre Chateauneuf du Pape 2007
100% Grenache from 110-year-old vines. Parker said, "This is a wine I never really liked until 2006. In 2007 it's beautiful." This one feels big, with cherry and kirsch liqueur, very soft tannins, and notes of lavender. 90

Domaine Olivier Hillaire Les Petits Pieds d'Armand Chateauneuf du Pape 2007
Aromatic, but I think this one's overripe -- I smell raisin in addition to cherry, green herbs, spearmint and "garrigue" (think scrub pines and lavender). The fruit is quite ripe, the tannins are soft, and it's raisiny on the finish. 88

Clos du Mont-Olivet La Cuvee Du Papet Chateauneuf du Pape 2007
Parker says, "This is as traditional as it gets. The father, son and wife all look like 100-year-old vines." Ba-dum-dum. It's 80% Grenache with 10% each Mourvedre and Syrah. This cuvee is only made in good years, three times so far this decade ('01, '05, '07). Cherry with eucalyptus, spearmint, allspice, clove, pepper and lavender; spicy on the finish. 92

Domaine Charvin Chateauneuf du Pape 2007
Parker says, "I find it the wine that comes closest spiritually to Rayas." It's all whole-cluster fermented, with the stems. It's 85% Grenache, with the remaining 15% taken up by Syrah, Mourvedre and "mixed blacks" -- 13 grapes are authorized in CDP, but many wineries now use only three for their reds. This wine tastes like Christmas: spicy, with red plum flavor, a little kirsch on the midpalate, lavender and scrub pine, allspice and clove. Very aromatic and interesting, though the finish is a little hot. Parker says, "This is atypically rich and big for Charvin." It's excusable. 94

Domaine Font De Michelle Cuvee Etienne Gonnet Chateauneuf du Pape 2007
A "modern-style wine," Parker said, of 70% Grenache with 15% each Mourvedre and Syrah, some of which spent time in small new oak barrels. There's a pure, ripe, sweet black cherry fruitiness that I like, but only a tingle of pepper on the tongue and a hint of garrigue in the aroma tells its origins. 88

Domaine La Barroche Chateauneuf du Pape 2007
100% Grenache from 100-year-old vines. Though aged in old wooden foudres, it still tastes New World: syrupy cherry with Concord grape and a little licorice. Rich and silky, with jammy fruit. Parker said, "It's almost like a liqueur of Grenache." A nice beverage, but I don't know if I'd be happy with it if I ordered Chateauneuf du Pape and wasn't warned. 89

L'Accent De La Roquete Chateauneuf du Pape 2007
90% Grenache and 10% Mourvedre. Dense cherry fruit with kirsch notes and silky tannins and just a hint of lavender in the aroma. 89

La Bastide Saint Dominique Secrets de Pignan Vieilles Vignes Chateauneuf du Pape 2007
Concentrated ripe and rich cherry with kirsch liqueur, but also spearmint and eucalyptus notes. Interesting green mango scents lift an aroma that, with all the eucalyptus, is slightly medicinal. Dense and rich, but interesting. 91

M. Chapoutier Barbe Rac Chateauneuf du Pape 2007
This is the wine where my taste and Parker's most diverge. From 100% Grenache planted in 1902 in "an area that's not considered one of the best areas," Chapoutier created a wine about 16.5% alcohol about which Parker said, "I think that's a really strong wine from Chapoutier. It's a big, big wine." Nice cherry and kirsch flavors with some peppermint and lavender on the finish, but it's huuuuge, and I can't imagine drinking it with dinner, or even finishing a full glass of it. Hot on the finish. 86

Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape 2007
Always one of the most controversial wines in the region, this was the only wine in the tasting that wasn't mostly Grenache; instead it's 60% Mourvedre with 20% each of Grenache and Syrah. The question is always whether that dusty, earthy aroma is Mourvedre or brettanomyces, and if the latter, whether it's spoilage, as UC Davis claims, or an element of terroir. A tannic, austere wine that smells to me like brett, with nice cherry fruit, kirsch and some stemminess. 89

Domaine du Vieux Telegraphe La Crau Chateauneuf du Pape 2007
65% Grenache with a wider range of other grapes than most. Parker said, "They think the 2007 is the greatest wine they've made since 1978. I think this is going to be a wine to forget for 4 or 5 years." That said, one of the most elegant, balanced wines of the tasting. Nice cherry fruit with pepper and lavender and an excellent long finish with nice sweet cherry on it. I'm sure it will be more complex and better overall in 2014, but I could enjoy a bottle right now. 94

Le Clos Du Caillou Reserve Chateauneuf du Pape 2007
60% Grenache with 20% each of Mourvedre and Syrah, the latter two aged in new oak. In 2001, Parker gave 100 points to this wine. He said of this vintage, "I think Cabernet fans would like this wine." Hearing that, I wanted not to like it. It's really, really ripe -- blackberry, vanilla, alcohol. In fact, it smells like Barossa Valley Shiraz, and I doubt I could even guess the continent in a blind tasting. But it has prickly acidity and some pretty black raspberry on the finish, and I won't deny that it's delicious. 92

Domaine de Saint Prefert Collection Charles Giraud Chateauneuf du Pape 2007
60% Grenache, 40% Mourvedre. Parker said this estate made bad wine until sold in 2002, the worst vintage in 70 years because of a catastrophic flood (that also submerged his rental car). Imagine taking over a winery and immediately being hit by that. They recovered to make this interesting wine with black cherry fruit, tangy acidity and notes of raw meat, green herb and garrigue. 92

Clos Des Papes Chateauneuf du Pape 2007
65% Grenache with 20% Mourvedre and "mixed blacks." Parker says this winery makes CDP with "a Burgundian sensibility. It's rich, concentrated and structured. But it's fresh and it's elegant." That's all true: Very nice cherry fruit, some kirsch, aromatic notes of licorice, pepper and horehound. Nice light-medium body, nice acidity, wonderful balance. I love the brightness of it. 95

Domaine Pierre Usseglio & Fils Cuvee de mon Aieul Chateauneuf du Pape 2007
95% Grenache, 5% Syrah. A New World wine but a nice one, with ripe and rich blueberry flavors, some licorice and coffee and pretty raspberry on the finish. 93

Domaine Grand Veneur Les Origines Chateauneuf du Pape 2007
50% Grenache, 30% Mouvedre and 20% Syrah, the latter two in 100% new oak. Parker said, "This has as much new oak as any wine in the tasting." The aroma is closed tight, but there's nice blackberry fruit on the palate with decent acidity, a hint of Concord grape and some Cabernet Franc-like herbaceousness. Tannic on the finish. Though all these wines will probably be better in 5 years (or more), waiting on this one is mandatory. 90

Domaine De La Janasse Vieilles Vignes Chateauneuf du Pape 2007
85% Grenache with 15% Syrah, the latter aged in small new oak barrels. Over 16% alcohol. Parker said, "It's the most powerful wine of the day. It's a hippo with a ballerina dress on." I liked it better than that image, and better than most of the other hippos. Really ripe and rich blackberry fruit with a hint of chocolate. Soft, syrupy tannins. There is more elegance here, like a hippo bathing in blueberry pie. Daintily. 91

Monday, October 26, 2009

Dinner at a French winery

What's it like to eat dinner at a Bordeaux winery? I recently did this several times on a visit and, since all had very similar aspects, thought I'd share the basics.

First, you chat standing up in an antechamber of some sort, while having either a glass of bubbly or white wine, or even possibly an aperitif cocktail. One -- only one -- type of hors d'oeuvre is served. Whether you have been tasting wine on official business for an hour, or you just arrived at the door, this standing-making-polite-conversation step is never skipped.

Then, you move to the dining room. You stand and wait as the hostess (or host, if there are no women, which happens), assigns seats. The French aim to break up friends and partners so that people will talk to strangers.

Once seated, you have a beautiful plate in front of you. This will be whisked away nearly immediately. Not being a cultured guy, I don't understand the need for this decorative "don't touch" plate. But it's always there.

The first course is brought out and always served to the women first, guests or hosts, then the male guests, then the hosts. The first course at winery dinners is quite often foie gras (right), both because French love it and it represents luxury. But it might be some other style of meat, or it could be fish or pasta -- we had outstanding homemade pasta with truffles a couple of times. You'll get a single crusty piece of baguette (or possibly a roll), and if you eat it, somebody will give you another from a silver tray.

Wine service is very formal; it's very hard to convince Bordeaux winery people to let you pour your own. Again, women always get filled or refilled first.

Speaking of formal, this is a rich part of the world and many people actually have servants, though the majority hire servers for the night. White gloves are common. They're universally good about refilling your water glass, which makes me happy. But I can't joke, "Pass the foie gras," because nobody passes anything -- you ask, and a servant brings.

The main course is invariably meat, but even in Merlot-Cabernet country it's not a fait accompli that it's beef: we also had duck, veal, lamb and poulet, which was outstanding because the French like free-range young chicken with flavor. You almost always get green vegetables on the side, and possibly potatoes as well. Most French cooks are good with meat, but I found their skill with vegetables varied a lot, from carefully sauteed to boiled flavorless. Sauces, the hallmark of classic French cuisine, are such work that they have become uncommon.

When I did volunteer work in France nearly 20 years ago, I used to eat rapidly, and Pierre, our French leader, admonished me, telling me something I've never forgotten: "You Americans eat like it is a contest. Well it is, and the person who finishes last, wins." His point was to savor every bite. I often hear Pierre in my head at dinner, but apparently his message is 20 years old; the French people almost always ate faster than the Americans, rapidly working through their meat. The French rarely leave anything on the plate, whereas I almost always did, as portions are generous -- though not as enormous as, say, a Midwestern restaurant.

Usually after everyone is done or mostly done, the servants will recirculate with a meat-and-veggies plate for seconds. Once I took a second piece of meat but didn't finish it, and while everyone was polite I got the impression that that's usually not done.

Conversation continues throughout the meal, but actual controversy is carefully sidestepped. This is very different from my experiences dining with French people in foreign countries, who always seem to want to question U.S. foreign policy. Wineries are entirely too polite for that.

I had one green salad out of 15 meals in France, and it was such an event that the hostess went into detail about her effort to procure the greens for it. That said, I love and try to emulate the French style of dressing a salad, on those rare occasions when they provide one: tossing it with very good vinegar and oil and carefully removing the excess dressing, in contrast to Americans, who seem to spray on dressing with a garden hose. I might have to beg for a green salad in France, and it's likely to come with crispy pig ear or roast duck kidneys, but at least I never have to ask for dressing on the side.

On those red letter days when you get a salad, it comes between the main (meat) course and the cheese. The idea is to refresh your palate as well as your digestive tract, and I agree. I like salad after the main much better than the American restaurant way of serving it first and not bringing your main course until you eat every last leaf.

After the mains are cleared away, you're soon brought exactly 3 cheeses. After seeing this 15 times in a row, I felt Monty Python-esque: "Three will be the number of the cheeses, and the number of the cheeses shall be three." It was almost always one goat's milk cheese and two cow's milk, a soft and a hard, though there was some variation. Surprisingly, while the French NEVER drink any other country's wine (with the exception of Port, which they drink as an aperitif), they are open to cheese from Spain and Holland at least, and possibly others as well. Usually you're brought three smallish slices of cheese but occasionally you can slice your own. You always, invariably, get one piece of nut bread.

After the cheese course, there's dessert. Always both, unlike some restaurants that offer one or the other. French still have a way with chocolate. You're offered coffee about halfway through dessert and I was surprised at its consistency -- it's like an Americano, supposedly espresso but not as concentrated as I have become accustomed to. Even though you may still have dessert on your plate, you always get a small sweet, usually a commercially made one (a wafer cookie, for example), with your coffee.

Afterwards, you leave the table and retire to another room. If it's dinner, you're likely to be offered one glass (but only one) of a digestif, which might be Cognac, Armagnac or even Scotch. I did not see Pastis served even once; it's too low class for the genteel set.

People generally do not smoke at the table, even those who smoke like factories. Thus the post-prandial digestif room can get hard to breathe in. But generally the French will step outside to smoke, though that may have been because they were hosting Americans.

French people incorporate real art, not posters or prints, into their homes and offices much more than Americans, and if you didn't get a tour before dinner, you might get one now. I was constantly impressed by the variety and daringness of the art we saw. This is a cultural thing at all levels, as some of my old French backpacking buddies have hand-me-down furniture but real paintings on the walls.

That's it, that's the dining-in-a-French winery experience. Was it vicariously good for you too?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Why Bay Area wine lists hate our freedoms

Many snobbish Bay Area wine lists have downplayed or excluded California wines for several years. This week we were treated to two stories on the issue, by the New York Times' Eric Asimov and the San Francisco Chronicle's Jon Bonne.

Why two stories this week? My theory is that Asimov was out here working on a story for the Times' new Bay Area edition, and Bonne got wind of it and wanted to publish first. The funny thing is, do you ever read either of these guys praising California wines in their regular columns? But I digress.

An issue neither one addressed is the political aspect of wine drinking.

Unlike food, which may be stylish but is also sustenance, wine is often a personal statement. Some people express wealth through the wine they order; others (the middle-class "Two Buck Chuck" crowd) express pride in their down-to-earth refusal to put on airs.

Some wine geeks are truly interested in dry Hungarian furmint (guilty!). There are also many young drinkers who express counter-culturalism through ordering wine they've never heard of; it's not so different from looking for music from bands that aren't seeking a hit single.

I often talk to people who express a great interest in one country's wines: Italy, Spain, France, and yes, the US. For them, wine is inextricably tied with culture. Maybe they lived in Italy and loved the food culture. Maybe they love flamenco music. Maybe they're into NASCAR and they're patriotic.

As any honest person who lives here will tell you, the Bay Area is full of anti-Americans. They're not as loud now that George W. Bush is finally retired, but they're still here. I live near a park where they assemble frequently on weekends, bearing placards equating the Stars and Stripes with a swastika or calling our military racist. Sometimes it seems like San Francisco is in a perpetual state of protest, and Berkeley is even more so.

I'm an international guy; I lived 10 years abroad. But I'm a patriot, and a locavore. I have often asked sommeliers at the restaurants with few or no California wines why they don't carry more.

The first answer is usually, "They don't go with the food," to which I sometimes reply, "Are you sure you've looked hard enough?" Sometimes I recommend a food-friendly wine I've had recently.

The conversation then often turns social/political, with an underlying theme that California wines represent American culture in ways the wine buyer doesn't like (i.e., too loud, too extreme, no finesse, no terroir, no respect for tradition, etc.)

Of course this is crap. There are plenty of California wines that are balanced, food-friendly, and a product of their terroir. You just have to look for them. Those that refuse to do so are making a political statement, and it's a statement that finds many anti-American advocates here.

I'll say it again: I'm a patriot and a locavore. Restaurant wine buyers who refuse to carry American wines are stipulating that they are neither. The first won't upset them. But the second?

If you have an Italian restaurant and you want to offer only Italian wines, fine -- that's a theme. But if you have international cuisine and wines from various countries, then you need to have several good choices from your local area. I would believe this if I lived near the wine regions of New York, Virginia, Texas, Michigan or Missouri, and I believe it even more strongly since I live within two hours' drive of the best wine regions on the American continent.

So please, Bay Area sommeliers, don't kid yourself that there aren't any American wines that can match your precious cuisine. Have you never had Schramsberg or Iron Horse bubbly? Donkey and Goat Chardonnay? Siduri or Black Kite Pinot Noir? How about Geyser Peak Sauvignon Blanc -- that's under $10. None of these fits your rarified palate?

It's OK to hate this country we live in; freedom to protest is one of the things that makes us great.

But you don't hold our farmers' nationality against them, do you? Then why do so to our winemakers?

At least be more honest with us, and yourself, about it.

Maybe you can put on the wine list, "We don't carry California wines because we don't believe in the Guantanamo prison camp." It's the same message, just more overt, and in Berkeley it would probably help increase traffic. You might even make Glenn Beck cry.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Vegan wine: For Vegans only

Recently I've been drinking a lot of natural wines: wines made from biodynamic or organically grown grapes, fermented with natural yeast. I like them because they taste pure and wild, like true products of their terroir.

I never gave any thought to vegan wines until I read this excellent article by Katherine Cole in The Oregonian.

I'll summarize in a way Cole does not. "Vegan," for wine, says nothing about how the grapes are grown, which is the most important aspect of wine. It says nothing about the key decisions in winemaking -- type of yeast, barrels or tanks, time spent on the lees.

"Vegan" applies only to an aspect of winemaking so unimportant that it's optional -- "fining," in which some sort of protein is added to the wine to precipitate out particles that can make it cloudy.

Personally I like wine unfiltered and unfined, which would be vegan by definition. But most commercial wines are fined, often with egg whites. This adds no flavor; if anything, it removes flavors (particles do have flavor). It's not a nefarious new technology: the Romans fined their wines. I suspect few Romans were vegan.

The point is, it's really easy for an industrial wine to be vegan. Grapes can be grown on a factory farm anywhere, with the vines irrigated and fertilized and dusted with all manner of herbicides. The grapes can be harvested by machine and fermented in giant steel tanks. As long as the wine is fined with algae extract or bentonite instead of egg whites, it's vegan. Whoopee!

There's no reason to be against vegan wines; as I said, I prefer my wine unfined anyway. But just because a wine is vegan is no reason to give it any extra credit at all -- unless you're vegan. So you vegan folks just enjoy those wines; I'm going to leave off now because it's time for dinner, and we're having salmon and Pinot Noir. I can almost hear the fish crying.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Wine & Spirits Top 100 tasting

I suppose I have to comment on last week's Wine & Spirits Top 100 winery tasting because the magazine used my effusive praise in its marketing material.

I feel a little sheepish for being that bubbly. Reading the quote, I imagined myself handwriting it with little hearts for the o's, and maybe a unicorn for the exclamation point.

Fortunately, the tasting didn't disappoint. The lineup of wineries ranged from the exotic (Movia) to the sublime (Krug). So many great wines were poured that I tasted for four hours and felt immense regret when the event ended, and I never even sampled all the food items.

My friend Alder Yarrow, as always, managed to taste everything. He doesn't take tasting notes, which helps, but I'm still in awe of his speed. I ran out of time before I ever got to the Cabernets, partly because I saw so many winemakers and other friends in the industry there, and I just couldn't stop yakking about all the great wines around us.

The picture is of David Ramey, who reminded me that the last time I spoke with him, I was coy about whether or not I was going to take a buyout from the San Francisco Chronicle (because I already had). Ravenswood's Joel Peterson, another great guy to chat with, will probably come to pour his wine at any old clambake, but David Ramey won't.

I won't attempt to do a comprehensive list: that's why I gave the link to Alder's site, and of course you can read about the wineries at the Wine & Spirits website. Instead, here's a list of a few of my favorite wines from this year's fest.

And a memo to Josh Greene: You can use that quote again next year. You earned it. But please, no unicorns, OK?

Tasting notes

Gramona Brut Nature Gran Reserva III Lustros Cava 2001 ($45)
A rare medium-sized (42,000 case), family-run Cava producer delivers one of the best Cavas I've ever tasted. Five years of bottle aging give it a nutty, Sherry-like aroma. The flavors are dried apricot and persimmon fruit; I love the long, Sherry-like finish. Comparable to a tete-de-cuvee Champagne, which makes it great value, even at $45. Wine & Spirits gave this 92 points, but I say 94.

Pierre Gimonnet & Fils Blanc de Blancs Brut Gastronome Premier Cru Champagne 2004 ($64)
It's actually the fils de les fils, because Pierre Gimonnet started the label in 1935 and his grandsons now run the 20,000 case estate. The Gimonnets believe in old vines, unusual in Champagne. The Gastronome is bottled at lower-than-usual pressure, intended to match fine cuisine rather than toast the New Year. It's aromatic, with notes of yeast, Sherry and almonds, and it finishes savory with a delightfully chalky mouthfeel. 93

Aveleda Vinho Verde Quinta de Aveleda 2008 ($9)
Is Vinho Verde the best value in the wine world right now? If you're buying from Aveleda, it certainly is. Wine & Spirits preferred this winery's 100% Alvarinho bottling, but I liked this blend for its complexity: peach fruit with notes of lavender, and a round mouthfeel despite refreshing acidity. I could drink this all night long and never get tired, in either sense, because of its 11.5% alcohol. 92

Gaia Santorini Wild Ferment Assyrtiko 2008 ($35)

This was the buzz wine of the event for wine geeks, and it's a shame that there are only 30 6-packs in the U.S., all at New York restaurants. Winemaker Yiannis Paraskevopoulos discovered that 18 different wild yeasts lived in his winery and vineyards, so he let them ferment the Assyrtiko -- one of Greece's best wine grapes -- on their own. Some of the wine he later poured down the drain. The tanks that he kept, he aged in barrels made not of oak, but of acacia wood, which is native to Santorini, giving the wine an even greater sense of terroir. I loved this wine: It tastes of Parma ham, white pepper, lemon, sage, lees and sea salt. It's both delicious and intellectually pleasing. You lucky, lucky New York diners. 97

Gaia Santorini Thalassitis 2008 ($28)

Also made from 100% Assyrtiko, this wine has lemon fruit with a foresty aroma, some peppery notes, and some Parma ham on the long finish. Love that pine/eucalyptus note. Since you can order it online, it's reasonable consolation for all of us unable to get the wild fermented wine above. 92

Sheldrake Point Finger Lakes Riesling Ice Wine ($65)
Owner Bob Madill seemed sheepish to be in this company; he felt the need to explain where New York is, and that the Riesling is good there. This wine speaks for itself: rich, but good acidity, with peach fruit and strong floral notes and a long finish. I didn't taste a better dessert wine. 94

Nigl Kremstal Kremsleiten Riesling 2007 ($46)
I think of this Austrian winery for its Gruner Veltliner, which is popular with Bay Area sommeliers. This was the first time I tried the Riesling, and it's impressive: spicy and peppery, with apricot fruit and a pleasantly stony minerality. This wine made me hungry, and that's a good thing. 93

Donnhoff Schlossbockelheimer Felsenberg Riesling Spatlese 2006 ($48)

This was the first vintage where Donnhoff separated out grapes from the highest-elevation portion of this vineyard and made a separate, more expensive wine. Wine & Spirits liked that one better, but I preferred this one: Bright apricot fruit, characteristic diesel aroma, strong slate minerality and wonderful floral notes. It's also more widely available. 93

Domaine Faiveley Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru 2007 ($305)
I didn't know the price when I tasted this; I just thought, wow, very nice wine, with lemon fruit, toast, a round mouthfeel and above all, excellent balance. Of course, for $305, it ought to be nice, and I ought to have used pricier descriptors ("kissed by sunlight, with elegant flavors of garden-grown Meyer lemon and sumptuous blah blah blah"). But I have to tell you that plenty of times very expensive wines at these tastings don't stand out above their cheaper peers. This one did. 94

Ramey Hyde Vineyard Carneros Napa Valley Chardonnay ($62)
Ever wonder what liquid toast tastes like? Throw in some ripe green and golden apple and you've got this wine, which clearly shows why, for Chardonnay, toast is good but butter is bad. The mouthfeel is just the right balance of rich but not over the top; plenty of acidity keeps you coming back for sip after sip. No wonder, when I asked Jay McInerney if he ever drank California wines anymore, he said, "I always have room for a Ramey Chardonnay." 92

Lioco Klindt Vineyard Anderson Valley Pinot Noir 2007 ($45)
Natural wine purists, Lioco is best known for their Chardonnays, but I prefer their reds. I tasted through all the red Burgundies on offer and then immediately tasted this wine, and it showed what California has to offer in Pinot Noir: very bright raspberry fruit with a lovely nose and gentle mouthfeel. Burgundy has great complexity and all that interesting barnyard stuff, but it's hard not to love fruit this pure at a price that gets you only a village wine from Burgundy. 92

Peay Scallop Shelf Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2007 ($52)

This wine from extremely cold-climate vineyards out-Burgundied the Burgundies. It's very savory, with smoked meat and fish sauce notes and very dry raspberry fruit. This is the kind of wine that would be great to spend an evening with. 93

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Mother Nature punishes hang time

Mother Nature stepped in yesterday and said, "Enough with the hang time!"

"I've had it with these over-extracted fruit bomb wines that don't represent the good earth I've given you people," Nature said. "Look what I've given you: a fruit that turns itself into wine. All I ask is that you pick the grapes at their proper time. And what do you do? You walk around these vineyards with these shiny sticks of metal, measuring sugar. Birds know when the grapes are ripe. Why don't you just watch them?"

Displeased, Mother Nature sent 4 inches of rain to Northern California on Tuesday, rewarding grape growers who had picked already, and punishing those who had hoped for another two weeks of ripening so they could make bigger bodied, more concentrated wines.

Those growers will now have to contend with botrytis, watery grapes, muddy conditions that will make harvesting difficult and more expensive, and the potential for even more rain and havoc. Some might even lose the crops they had been waiting for.

"Put that in your brix refractometer," Nature said. "It's October 14, people. It's time to be indoors in the winery, letting my native yeasts enjoy the fruits of your summer's labor. It's time for the vines to shed their leaves and prepare for a restful winter's nap. Why are you keeping them awake for an extra month? How would you like it if I did that to you?"

She pointed out that many veteran winemakers and grapegrowers had finished picking well before Tuesday. "Theirs are the wines I like to drink myself," Nature said. "Those are wines with elegance, wines worthy of the name, not boozy fruit juices. Even Bacchus turns his nose up at some of these 16-percent Syrahs: I've seen him do it. And normally that guy will drink anything."

When asked her favorite wine, Mother Nature said that she doesn't play favorites with grapes, saying, "They are all my children, in a manner of speaking. What I like is when their shepherds let the grapes express themselves. I can't stand opening a bottle of Pinot Noir that tastes like Syrah, or a Chardonnay that tastes like melted butter. When I get one of those, sometimes it gets me so hot under the collar that I forget myself, and there's 110 degree temperatures in Napa for days."

I pointed out that she wasn't helping the situation with such tantrums, as summer heat makes the grapes produce more sugar that turns into alcohol. She gave me a glare that froze a bottle of Irish whiskey I had sitting nearby.

"Haven't you read Rudolf Steiner?" Nature said. "There's so much goofiness in there, but he gets the general idea -- a farm should be in balance, and if the vines have sunk their roots deep into the soil and are in healthy balance themselves, then the wines will be in balance. It's really not that hard. I took care of things for millenia before reverse osmosis and spinning cones, and it worked pretty well."

I asked if she was done with Northern California, and she said, "For now. I've got business elsewhere. There are some mobile home parks on the East Coast that aren't recycling their trash, but instead are just tossing it amongst my trees. I'm going to see about sending them a little swirly wind. But don't worry, I never stay out of touch for long. I love California; you can tell by the bounty it gives you every year. Just don't mess it up."

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Tasting Malbec by telephone

Though it's a solitary sensation, wine tasting is usually a communal experience. Not many people, even professionals, open a half-dozen bottles to sample by themselves -- it's always good to hear a second opinion.

Yesterday I tasted 8 Argentine Malbecs imported by Vine Connections. This is not a noteworthy event on a wine writer's schedule -- last week alone I had about 15 similar comparative tastings. What made this unusual was an Internet and telephone conference with Mendel winemaker Roberto de la Mota and Vine Connections co-founder Ed Lehrman joining from Mendoza, Argentina.

While fun, the tasting showed me a flaw in the format: nobody offered an opinion on the wines other than Roberto and Ed, even though we all had chat capability. What's the point of tasting together if you're not talking about the wines?

I think the reason is that even slightly negative opinions look much more harsh when written in a chat. I invited a friend over to taste the wines with me, and he winced at the tone of the questions I did ask, none of which would have sounded tough in person. Looking at Roberto and Ed trapped in a tiny window on our computer screens made us feel responsible for their happiness or discomfort. What worked best were softball questions, like "Isn't it great to work with Malbec?"

The teleconference must have saved a fortune, though: To get 15 wine writers/bloggers/radio hosts together with these guys ordinarily requires renting a restaurant or other space, paying for Roberto's airfare and hotel rooms, and other incidental event expenses. Instead, they just had to send us all free bottles of the wine (There's my FTC disclosure! Happy, Mr. President?) and buy a conference on WebEx. So maybe it's the wave of the future.

If so, I encourage people to be more brutally honest, even at the risk of discomforting the faces on the screen. My friend and I, with the phone on mute, freely shared our opinions on the wines, and that was much more informative to me than the conference itself.

I have great respect for Vine Connections -- they have good taste in sake, their other main product besides Argentine Malbec. I don't doubt that their Malbec portfolio is as good as it gets.

So here's a brutally honest opinion. This tasting solidified for me a feeling I've had for a while about Argentine Malbec -- it's a big-bodied but often one-dimensional wine that best serves as a lower-cost replacement for enormous New World-style Cabernet Sauvignons. Plus, the cheaper Malbecs are often better than the really expensive ones because tarting it up -- literally, as both guys dodged repeated questions about added acid -- doesn't give it anything but more oak flavor and even less complexity.

I know this opinion makes me an outlier. Argentine Malbec is one of the trendiest red wines in the world, and this tasting explained why. If you like big black fruit, beefy mouthfeel and soft tannins -- so many people do -- you'll love these. I'm a freak; I want something more out of wine: balance and complexity. Only one of the 8 wines we tasted gave me that, and ironically it was the cheapest of all.

I should really have shared this opinion on the closed-circuit live chat so we could have debated it, but I was afraid of hurting Ed's and Roberto's feelings. Instead, I'm posting out here on the open-water Internet. Surely that won't bother them at all.

Tasting notes

La Posta Angel Paulucci Vineyard Lujan de Cuyo Malbec 2007 ($18)
Black plum flavors with some earthiness in the aroma. Plenty of acidity on the short finish, but it tastes acidified. Very soft tannins. A little hot. 87

Mendel Lujan de Cuyo Malbec 2007 ($27)
Made from 80-year-old vines on ungrafted rootstock, this is an easy wine to like. It delivers blackberry and black plum fruit, some pretty rose petal notes on the nose and a bit of sandy minerality. Medium body, soft tannins. Good value as a Cab alternative. 89

Susana Balboa Lujan de Cuyo Malbec 2007 ($27)
Black raspberry and black plum flavors covered up by oak, particularly on the finish. 87

La Posta Pizzella Vineyard Uco Valley Malbec ($18)
I saved these bottles for dinner (lamb chops) and, while this wasn't my very favorite wine at the time of the tasting, it turned out to be the only one I actually wanted to drink with food. Very different from the others: it's spicy, with more red fruit character -- red and black plums and plenty of cinnamon. The Pizzellas, who own the vineyard, are both physical education teachers who must be pleased by the restrained 13.5% alcohol. Both La Posta wines had much less new oak than the others, and I think that's an advantage. 89

Mendel Finca Remota Uco Valley Malbec 2006 ($115)
This wine is brought to you by the worship of extremes. De la Mota let the grapes hang 20 days longer than all of his other grapes. He aged the wine for 12 months in new oak barrels, then transferred it to different new oak barrels for another 6 months -- 200% new oak. What does it taste like? What do you think it tastes like? Ripe blackberry licked off a brand-new oak board. Perhaps the oak will settle one day, but that day is not soon. While I could never identify it blind as Malbec or Argentine, I must acknowledge that it does have good fruit and a pretty floral note on the nose. 88

Luca Uco Valley Malbec ($36)
Laura Catena named this wine after her son. It's fairly tannic with cherry flavor, a note of milk chocolate, and a hint of violet in the aroma. 88

Tikal Amorio Uco Valley Malbec ($33)
Ernesto Catena named this wine after his son. Seeing a pattern? I like the blueberry fruit, the note of milk chocolate and the decent acidity from the midpalate on. But it's a little hot, and there may be major-league baseball bats that weigh less than this bottle. 87

Mendel Unus Lujan de Cuyo 2006 ($50)
Without food, this blend of 70% Malbec and 30% Cabernet Sauvignon was quite good: Ripe blackberry flavors with strong structure and interesting violet notes, though it is oaky on the finish (16 months in 100% new oak will do that). It's big-bodied and fleshy, but the nose is pretty. I tried it with lamb chops, though, and it was just too overbearing. This is a good wine to use as a cocktail, and probably will be at its best 3-5 years from now. It's also better the second day it's open than the first. 89

Monday, October 12, 2009

Bordeaux's 2009: California Dreamin'

Everyone in Bordeaux is throwing out lofty comparisons for the 2009 vintage.

Most bypass 2005, considered the best vintage of this decade, and are comparing it instead to 1989 or even 1982, the superb year that established Robert Parker as the world's pre-eminent critic because he was the first to say the wines were great.

Christian Moueix, who runs Petrus and a number of other great properties on the Right Bank, even invoked 1947, one of the most legendary years of the last century.

I'm a professional skeptic. In California, every year we hear about what a great vintage it's going to be, and you have to filter the hype to hear the real message. But I believe the Bordeaux vintners for a number of reasons. It's clearly a good year, and likely a great one. The question is just how good/great/life-changing.

The second question is, what will that do to prices? Bordeaux wineries, unlike almost every other winery in the world, don't really set their own prices. They will wait for Parker to rate their nascent wines next spring -- I'm sure he's licking his chops already about tasting these wines -- and then most will turn the job of selling over to negociants.

In 2005, a very good year, prices were set so high that the wines didn't sell as quickly as everyone expected. Prices were lower for the next two vintages, for good reason, but those wines are also selling slowly because the '05s, even if more expensive, are clearly better than the '06s and '07s. Pricing the '09s will also be complicated because '08 appears to be a better vintage than the previous two years.

But I digress. Back to quality.

Early Saturday morning, rain fell fairly hard in Bordeaux for the first time in almost a month. But the rain had been forecast for a week, and most vintners were well-prepared. The summer and early fall have been so warm -- it was t-shirt weather all last week -- that a great deal of Merlot, which is much more susceptible to rain than Cabernet, has already been picked. Right Bank vintners who have high proportions of Merlot are going to have great '09s regardless of what happens weather-wise the rest of the year.

That said, the universal view of a Bordeaux vintage is set by the first-growths in the Medoc, where Cabernet Sauvignon is king. From their perspective, '09 is looking good but still not done. The rain Saturday wasn't long or hard enough to cause serious problems, but a few more days might.

However, Bordeaux wineries have come a long way technologically, and in knowledge base, from the way wine was made in 1989.

Yes, they've known on which soils to plant which grapes for decades. But vineyard management was really lackadaisical -- and chemically based -- in the '80s even on top properties. Organic and biodynamic techniques are now widespread, even at non-certified vineyards.

And in the winery, comparing today to the '80s is like comparing a flat-screen high-definition TV to a giant cathode ray tube model. Places that use cement tanks for fermentation today, and there are many, do it by choice, not because "that's what we've always done" or "we don't have the money to change."

I saw the most amazing sorting device I've ever seen employed at a half-dozen wineries, something so incredible I plan a separate post just about it. But even the idea of careful sorting and gentle handling of grapes wasn't universal 20 years ago.

The one burr in all this optimism for the '09s is alcohol level. The summer has been long and warm, with plenty of sun. The '09s will be good/great/super?, but many will be over 14 percent alcohol and some outliers will top 15 percent, even if they don't admit it on the label (there's a 1 percent fudge factor before penalties set in.)

In fact, if you want a quick comparison that no Frenchman made, Bordeaux had a near-California summer in 2009. It's a wine fan's intellectual dream to imagine Cabernet on Bordeaux's outstanding soils with Northern California's excellent weather. This year it may have actually come to pass.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Bubbly that's better the next day

Wine is a mystery sometimes.

Last week I opened a bottle of Freixenet Elyssia Cava Pinot Noir Brut (the one on the right, $17). It was really ordinary, even boring -- maybe a hint of strawberry, but essentially it just tasted like bubbles, not even really pink bubbles.

It's also slightly dishonest, as it includes 15% Trepat. That's legal for a wine labelled Pinot Noir, but it's not what you expect, and moreover you have to get the press notes to even know that's the case, as the bottle says "Pinot Noir" once on the front and thrice on the back with no mention of any other grapes.

But it's pink bubbly, which just happens to be perhaps my favorite wine type, so I had a glass with a shrimp/crab risotto and some grilled tuna, closed the bottle and stuck it in the refrigerator.

The next night I had a sudden event worth celebrating and there was this bottle, right there. So I poured a glass, figuring it was all about the bubbles anyway.

Suddenly this boring wine had evolved into a really worthy pink bubbly, with delightful strawberry and cherry character, a noticeable brioche/yeasty note, an interesting earthy undertone, and a surprisingly long finish. Wow! It wasn't just my happy event, either -- I tried some a few hours later, and it was just as impressive, suddenly worthy of being included even with fine pink Champagnes.

I can't explain it. I sealed it well, but didn't bother using Private Preserve or any other preservation device. It gave off enough CO2 to protect it from oxidation anyway -- it was still quite bubbly the second day.

The upshot is, the first day, the wine wasn't worth its $17 asking price. The second day, it was worth more than double it. I can't advise people to buy Elyssia, open it, pour out a couple glasses, reseal it and drink it the next day, because your results may vary. But if you do have a bottle, don't give up on it right away.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Bordeaux dreams of a "perfect vintage" in 2009

It's still way too early to tell, but many Bordeaux vintners believe 2009 could be a great vintage, on par with 1989. This is particularly true on the Right Bank because Merlot and Cabernet Franc, the dominant grapes there, ripen earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon, and many have already been picked.

The shadow on the vintage forecast is rain expected on Thursday night. Wineries are deciding today whether or not to finish picking beforehand.

The region has had warm weather most of the summer, but without the oppressive heat that roasted the grapes in 2003. So far rain has not been a problem during harvest, though Thursday is circled in red on everyone's mental calendar. But some wineries are already finished harvesting.

Jean-Francois Quenin, owner of Chateau de Pressac, is one who is waiting. Quenin, who is also president of the Conseil des Vins de Saint-Emilion (a thankless job), says he can be patient because his winery is not owned by an outside company.

"If you have to answer to somebody, you pick now," Quenin says. "You don't take the risk. It's still warm, and if it rains, I could lose 30% of my crop (to rot) in a day, just like that. But I want it to get a little riper. Nobody can fire me if I'm wrong."

Over at Chateau Cheval Blanc, now controlled by the LVMH luxury corporation, enologist Pierre Olivier Clouet scoffs at the idea that picking decisions will be made safely.

"The pressure here is for quality," says Clouet (left), who is just 29 years old.

That said, the weatherman is still king. Clouet says, "We want to wait on one plot of Cabernet Franc until Friday. But we are going to get 20 mm of rain on Thursday. So we will not wait."

It's not corporate pressure, Clouet says, but a quality decision: "If you wait two days for more ripeness and it rains, you have to wait two more weeks." That said, Clouet is also very high on the '09 vintage, saying the fruit picked so far is so perfect, "We don't even have to sort it." But they do anyway, of course. The photo at the top is of Cheval Blanc workers doing just that, and those grapes do look round, ripe and, well, perfect.

I must add that one's definition of how great this vintage is may depend on how big you like Bordeaux. At Troplong-Mondot, where half the Merlot (but none of the Cab Franc) has been picked already, I tasted a sample of just-crushed grapes that tasted like sugar water. Proprietor Xavier Pariente says it has potential alcohol of more than 16 percent, which would be outrageous even for a property known for big wines. He plans to lower the alcohol percentage of the overall blend, but it may end up over 15 percent.

But Troplong-Mondot is always big: "We are the latest to pick," Pariente says. "Last year we picked on the first of November."

I haven't yet run into a vintner who doesn't think '09 will be excellent, and I believe them: Bordeaux's problem in bad years is getting the grapes ripe enough, and that's not going to be a issue for anyone. Pariente, though, was the most enthusiastic of all: "Climatically, this year is a dream. These conditions have never been seen before. It's perfect in every way. When we needed water, we had water. The days were warm, the nights were cool. We needed a little bit of rain in September, we got it. We needed some wind, and we got it. Every condition where we needed a little bit of a shift, we got it."

It is still too early to tell. But this just might be a very special year in Bordeaux.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Dry Creek Valley Zinfandels

A decade ago, I drank a lot more Zinfandel.

I've changed, but Zinfandel has changed more. No grape has put on more weight in California. It's driven to some degree by nature: Zinfandel ripens unevenly and to get a whole cluster ripe sometimes requires letting some of the grapes get overripe. But it's also driven by the more-extreme-is-better philosophy that infects American cuisine in everything from hot sauce to vegetarianism.

I wasn't sure what to expect when I attended Zintopia in Dry Creek Valley a couple weeks ago. Dry Creek Valley is known for Zin, and has some of the oldest vines in the country. Many farmers have embraced organic or biodynamic farming (that's Lou Preston of Preston Vineyards, a fully integrated organic farm, in the photo.)

As a group the wines were pretty good, though subtlety is not in vogue. Most are over 15% alcohol, and I heard one vintner brag repeatedly that his wine is a good, balanced food wine because it was "only" 14.5%. You guys need to get out more.

That said, it's not fair to judge Zinfandel by the standards of Syrah or Grenache because its natural alcohol level is higher. And that's part of the charm for its fans: when good, Zinfandel is a delightful blast of fruit with some complexity, manageable tannins and a kick like a mule.

I've listed my tasting notes in alphabetical order, but I'll cut to the chase: the '06 Sbragia Gino's Vineyard was amazing, a swoon-worthy wine, that shows that great Zinfandel really can be both full-fruited and balanced. I was also very high on the '07 Mauritson, and there were more than a half-dozen others that I'd be happy to have a bottle of -- albeit more likely while watching the baseball playoffs than with dinner.

Tasting notes

Alderbrook Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel 2007
Ripe blackberry, decent acidity. Jammy on the finish. 88

Amphora Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel 2006
Quite tannic and firm, with blackberry fruit up front and pretty raspberry on the finish. Since it evolves so much in one taste, it would be interesting to see how much a whole bottle evolves. It's 15.4% alcohol, so find out while sharing. 90

Del Carlo Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel 2005
This is the first release from this small winery run by cousins of the famous Teldeschi grape-growing family. There's nice bright cherry fruit, some bramble, and reasonably good balance for a 15.5% alcohol wine. Nice debut; let's see where they go from here. 89

Diablita Sonoma County Zinfandel 2006
Tightly wound wine with raspberry and chile flavors. Nice label, but some will prize it for the 13.9% alcohol alone. 87

Ferrari-Carano Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel 2006
This is less a Zinfandel than an international-style red, but it's a good one, with vibrant cherry fruit and vanilla flavor from 18 months in oak. Includes 12% Petite Sirah and 5% Carignane. 88

Forchini Proprietor's Reserve Estate Grown Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel 2007
Nice dark cherry, blackberry and dark chocolate flavors, with mouthfeel slightly on the syrupy side, probably from letting those grapes hang just a couple days more. 15.5% alcohol. 89

Gustafson Dry Creek Mountain Vineyard Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel 2007
Intense cherry fruit flavor with some herbaceousness from some of the highest-elevation vines in the region. A little hot on the finish. These are young vines from a new winery (FYI: a beautiful place to visit), and it will be interesting to see where they go with this in the future. 88

Hawley Ponzo Vineyard Russian River Valley Zinfandel 2007
A ringer at a Dry Creek festival, this dense, mouthfilling wine has lots of blackberry and vanilla with notes of coffee. If you like wines powerful and intense, you'll like this. 15.1% alcohol 91

Kokomo Mounts Vineyard Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel 2007
Winemaker Erik Miller says the Mounts Vineyard grapes are naturally low in acidity. I wouldn't have believed him if I hadn't tasted his other wines. Persistent, intense boysenberry fruit is the good point; low acidity and slight sweetness are the bad points. This is not a food wine, but if you like boysenberry -- I know I do -- it would be pleasant to drink by itself. 15.1% alcohol. 89

Kokomo Timber Crest Vineyards Winemaker's Reserve Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel 2007
Ripping raspberry flavor with plenty of acidity -- couldn't be more different from Kokomo's other Zin. Perfumey, pretty nose and fine balance meant my eyes bugged out when I saw it was 15.8% alcohol. It's funny, it's a food wine that you can't drink too much of, so maybe it's a food wine for carnivores on a diet. 91

Kokomo Perotti Vineyards Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel 2007
Tangy raspberry and citrusy flavors with notes of cherry. Another good food wine despite the 15.5% alcohol. 90

Mauritson Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel 2007
One of the most interesting wines of the vintage. Lots of raspberry and cherry fruit with notes of anise and white pepper. Complex wine with a long finish. 15.1% alcohol. 92

Mazzoco Smith Orchard Reserve Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel 2007
This wine is almost a main course in itself: peppered lamb with blackberry sauce. It's very peppery with strong smoked meat flavors that cover up the blackberry fruit until the finish. 15.7% alcohol. 91

Mill Creek Beacham Downey Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel 2006
A tannic wine that's one of the few Zinfandels that seems to need cellar time. Cherry and raspberry fruit are tied with chile notes to a strong backbone. Try it in 2011. 14.7% alcohol. 89

Optima Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel 2005
Initial raspberry and chile flavors segue into a savory, smokey note on the somewhat tannic finish. Give it plenty of air and consider another year in the cellar. 14.5% alcohol. 90

Pedroncelli Mother Clone Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel 2007
Rich blackberry fruit with a mouthfeel that starts out slightly syrupy, as all the acidity comes in a rush at the end, like Underdog coming to save the day. 14.7% alcohol. 88

Ridge East Bench Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel 2007
This is the 2nd vintage of a new nationally available Zin from Ridge, made from 7-year-old vines that had been blended into Lytton Springs. It's highly promising: very savory, with smokey meat, black currant and fresh herb notes and a rugged, tannic finish. The wine and the vineyard both need some time to settle down. 15.4% alcohol. 89

Ridge Lytton Springs Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel 2007
Consistently one of the best Zins from the area, and this vintage is no disappointment. A smooth, powerful, yet not over-the-top wine with blackberry fruit, smoked meat notes and some pretty floral aromas. Gotta love that 14.4% alcohol; if Ridge can keep it well under 15%, why can't everybody else? 91

Sbragia Gino's Vineyard Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel 2006 ($28)
Winemaker Ed Sbragia's son Adam says, "This is the wine I grew up drinking." I could have called Child Protective Services, but one sip of this and I forgot everything else. This was easily my favorite Zin of the day. A very perfumey, fruity aroma with notes of lavender and raspberry leads into a melange of blackberry and cherry fruit, with excellent balance keeping it food-friendly. If there's such a thing as a Pinot Noir-like Zin, this is it. 94

Talty Estate William Talty Vineyards Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel 2005
Subtle for Zin, with red currant and raspberry flavors that leave you wanting another sip. 91

Talty Estate William Talty Vineyards Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel 2006
Initially tart, with red currant and raspberry flavors that coalesce into pretty raspberry fruit on the finish. 90

Not rated
Bella Lilly Hill Estate Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel 2007
Collier Falls Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel 2005
Dutcher Crossing Maple Vineyard Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel 2007
Everett Ridge Old Vine Zinfandel 2006
Mazzoco Maple Vineyard Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel 2007
Moni Claire Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel 2006
Moni Claire Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel 2007
Mounts Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel 2007
Rued Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel 2006
Wilson Molly's Vineyard Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel 2007
Wilson Sawyer Vineyard Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel 2007
Wilson Carl's Reserve Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel 2007

Friday, October 2, 2009

Wine grapes ripe for eating

California's wine grape growers are having a terrible year. Not with the weather -- there have been the usual occasional challenges (heat, rain), but so far it doesn't look like 2009 will stand out as a great or terrible vintage.

No, the problem is selling their grapes. Farmers without long-term contracts are finding that prices have plummeted compared to 2008, which wasn't a great year for them either. And many grapes are simply going unsold.

So what's a farmer to do? Some might make their own wine. Bottled wine has a much higher profit margin -- a similar bad year for grape sales is how the Seven Deadly Zins guys got into winemaking. But consulting winemaker Jeff Gaffner (Black Kite Cellars, profile here) says most farmers will end up spending more money to produce a product they have no idea how to sell, at a time when consumers are trading down and distributors are slashing prices. Gaffner says growers without winery contracts might be better off simply leaving the grapes on the vine to rot this year.

Here's a unique solution taken by one Central Valley grower: sell the wine grapes to Whole Foods as eating grapes.

Usually we don't eat wine grapes because they have less liquid than table grapes, large seeds, and often more tannic flavors. But there's no reason you can't eat wine grapes, and if you've ever visited a vineyard during harvest season, a highlight is pulling some Chardonnay or Zinfandel or whatever grapes right off the vine and chowing down (spitting out the seeds of course).

We bought some Carignan and Grenache and are enjoying them now. They're sweet, and I don't mind seeds in my table grapes; it makes them feel less industrial.

Financially this makes a lot of sense. Grenache and Carignan in the Central Valley both sold for an average of under $250 per ton to wineries last year. As table grapes, at $2.69 per pound, consumers are paying more than $5300 per ton. I don't know how much markup Whole Foods is getting, and I'm sure it's considerable, but I'll be these enterprising farmers are getting more than $250 per ton for these.

If the Soghomonians and Whole Foods are successful, look for more wine-to-table grapes in grocery stores next year. White Zinfandel saved old Zin vines from destruction; maybe table grapes can do the same.