Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Marichal's two unique Pinot Noir blends: with Chardonnay and Tannat

Juan Andrés Marichal with the Tannat vines outside his winery
Outside of Champagne, few wineries admit blending Pinot Noir, and when they do it's usually in a low-end wine. Marichal winery in Uruguay makes two exciting blends of Pinot Noir I hadn't previously imagined, much less tasted.

The first is a commonplace blend for bubbly, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but I don't think I've ever seen it in a still wine.

Marichal Reserve Collection Uruguay Pinot Noir Chardonnay blanc de noir 2012 ($16) is a very light pink that tastes like a fairly full-bodied white wine (though just 13% alcohol) with a few pink notes. Rarely do you taste leesiness and tannin in the same wine. It's not fruit-driven, but fresh, with great texture. You taste fresh vanilla bean on the finish (the Pinot Noir, 65% of the blend, is all barrel-fermented) and you have to strain to taste a little strawberry. The closest thing to it are white wines made from Pinot Noir in Oregon, which I love, but this is more Chardonnay-like than those.

"We wanted to make a Pinot Noir, but we thought on its own it didn't have enough acidity," says Juan Andrés Marichal. "It wasn't interesting. Not enough character. So we added Chardonnay."

Marichal made less than 100 cases of the first vintage in 2007, but the wine proved popular, so he's up to 750 cases.

But as with most Uruguayan wineries, his expansion potential seems limited because it's a small family operation.

His great-grandparents, immigrants from Lugarno, Italy and the Canary Islands, started Marichal winery in 1916.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Why I wish Wine Spectator gave sake 100-point ratings

Wine Spectator's current issue has a cover story on sushi, and inside there's a feature on sake. To tell you the truth, I haven't read it. But I know from the Colorado Wine Press blog that Spectator published sake tasting notes, with no 100-point-scale ratings.

Wine Spectator Executive Editor Thomas Matthews commented on the post:
After decades of experience tasting and evaluating wines, we feel confident in our ability to use the 100-point scale in a way that's consistent, reliable and useful for readers.

We have much less experience with sake, and felt that broader categories would be more appropriate to express our opinions on their quality. However, I could easily see a critic with deeper experience in sake using the 100-point scale, and perhaps if we taste extensively enough, one day we will too.
I applauded Matthews' comment for its humility, something wine ratings organizations show too little of. And I still do.

Having had a week to think about it, though, I wish Spectator had been its usual self and said, "This one's a 92, this one's an 87." Here's why.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Domaine Chandon shows the impact of SO2

Tom Tiburzi
What would commercial wines taste like without SO2?

SO2 is a necessary preservative for wines in the US distribution system. With the exception of Beaujolais Nouveau, we don't know how long a wine has been sitting in uncooled ships, warehouses or stores. Often I write about a current release of a wine and learn that in other states they're still selling a wine two years older. There is an undercurrent of people who oppose SO2 addition to wine, but I will not join them because I'm a pragmatist.


Last month I went to Domaine Chandon's 40th anniversary party. We drank a number of library wines with dinner, and all were disgorged specifically for the event with no added SO2.

"Typically we add sulfur dioxide to knock back that oxidative quality," says Tom Tiburzi, Chandon sparkling winemaker.

But in this case, Tiburzi had an audience of sommeliers, wine buyers, longtime Chandon fans and writers, and thought we would enjoy the taste of maturity.

And we did, we really did. The sparkling wines which had spent years on the lees -- 40 years, in one case -- had a smoky quality, with a rich mouthfeel and sherry flavors. Tiburzi says this isn't something most people necessarily want in sparkling wine.

Tiburzi's a microbiologist: in fact, that's how he got a job at Chandon with no wine experience 21 years ago. "Winemaking is just yeast. It's all microbiology," Tiburzi says. "They wanted somebody to look at wine as yeast."

Monday, April 22, 2013

What Uruguayan Tannat tastes like

Francisco Carrau shows Tannat's characteristic broad leaves
You may think of Tannat as the tannic grape of Madiran in southern France, nearly undrinkable on release. Rare versions of Tannat in other countries tend to be full-bodied.

But in Uruguay, where it is the best grape variety, Marichal blends it with Pinot Noir, which grows alongside it. Alto de la Ballena blends it with Viognier. Pisano blends it with Syrah and Viognier.

And each of these is among the best wines at those excellent small family wineries.

As with most red grapes, Tannat's character is in the hands of the winemaker. There are potent 16% alcohol versions and racy, savory versions. There's unoaked, very oaked, moderately oaked. There's Tannat that's tannic like tarbrush and fresh like cherry juice. Even though Uruguay as a nation makes half as much wine as a single winery (Concha y Toro) in nearby Chile, the styles of single-variety Uruguayan Tannat vary like the styles of Syrah in France.

What Tannat wants to be in Uruguay is revealed by what it plays well with.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Insane meat parties with delicious Tannat: This must be Uruguay

This is not lunch for four -- it's HALF of lunch for four, not counting side dishes
I'm in Uruguay visiting wineries, drinking some very good Tannat as well as some other interesting wines I'll comment on more later.

A world-class wine, intense and delightful
The first takeaway is that a lot of investment money is flowing into Uruguay's wine scene. One of the main impacts of money on wineries is tannin management, and this is the biggest issue with Tannat, the grape actually named after tannin; the grape that provoked the creation of micro-oxygenation.

A couple decades ago you might expect to scrape your tongue dry with a glass of Tannat. This week I've already had several delicious wines with plenty of fruit, great freshness and good structure. The climate here allows the wines to get quite ripe without excessive alcohol, so the best of these are really excellent, world-class wines, nothing like the Tannat you may have tried elsewhere.

But that's all I want to say about the wines tonight, in my Montevideo hotel room, only halfway through my week here, after coming back from a desperate hunt for a salad with only a little meat on it.

Uruguayans are proud of their cattle; more than one person has told me they have the best beef in the world. I'm still in the country so I'm not going to comment on that. I will say that Uruguayans rival their neighbors in Argentina for their enthusiasm in serving a lotttt of meat.

The Uruguayan peso is very strong, because the economy is thriving, so unfortunately these insane meat feasts aren't as cheap as they are in Argentina. But that doesn't appear to stop anyone from their accustomed way of ordering. That platter of meat at the top -- you see heated platters like that arrive at tables for four all the time. If you like your meat rare, as I do, you need to let them know that early and snatch your share off the platter right away, because it continues to cook in front of you. Sauces are popular, probably for this reason. I have had some excellent, mildly spicy chimichurri.

Uruguayans butcher the cow differently than most. Instead of long ribs with delectable (and fatty) meat alongside, they cut across the bone, so you get short knuckle-like ribs; you can see some in the plate at the top. These are still the best pieces but please don't tell Joe Roberts or Richard Jennings that.

The national dish is the chivito: a sandwich with grilled beef, bacon, hard boiled egg, mayonnaise and lettuce on a mildly sweet roll. We stopped at a highly regarded roadside place called American Bar for the sandwich at left, and it cost about $10 US -- and this was the cheapest one we've seen. It's a decent sandwich, but the appeal of chivitos historically was that they were cheap. My colleagues had lesser chivitos our first night for about $16 each. I balked and ate supermarket empanadas, and even those were $5. So while the wine in Uruguay compares very favorably with the wine in Argentina, for travelers, budget-wise, be advised.

One of Alto de la Ballena's formerly two toilet frogs. Sorry!
One last traveler's point: I'm sorry, froggy, for flushing your spouse down the toilet. I didn't know he/she was in there. Both of you startled me when I flushed and suddenly there you were, fighting a tidal wave for a foothold on the porcelain. The froggy in the picture made it out, but his/her spouse went down, all four limbs battling the whole time. The owners of Alto de la Ballena winery told me afterward that you two are always in there (if only they'd warned me), so I have to assume that your spouse has some way of crawling back up the pipes. Poseidon Of The Yellow Tsunami is not how I wish to be known in the frog community.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook. And be kind to frogs, wherever you find them.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Napa Valley Vintners contest global warming data

Wine drinkers will be happy to know that Napa Valley is taking global warming seriously, according to Napa Valley Vintners spokesman Rex Stults. Plus, they don't believe that current studies are accurate -- and say they have photographs to prove it.

Last week I wrote that I was surprised by the blasé reaction of the California wine industry to a National Academy of Sciences report that predicts doom for most wine here by 2050.

"The Napa Valley has been paying attention to this in great detail since 2006," Stults says. "I haven't heard anything about that from other regions, or the state as a whole looking at this."

Napa Valley Vintners hired the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego to run a project examining warming in the valley. They used 12,000 data collection points from all over Napa Valley. Some were individual temperature records kept by farmers for decades. Andy Beckstoffer, a major vineyard owner, had detailed information, as did Stony Hill owner Peter McCrea.

Friday, April 12, 2013

San Joaquin Valley farmers keep growing cool-weather grapes

Yesterday I blogged about how the California wine industry seems to not be paying attention to projections of global warming. There's a great example in this month's issue of Wine Business Monthly. It's subscriber-only, so I'll quote as much as I think is fair use.

UC Davis has been working with Constellation Brands in the San Joaquin Valley, where more than 60% of the wine grapes in California come from, on finding varieties more suited to the  hot climate. They have grown 56 different grape varieties not commonly found there now, including grapes you've heard of like Garnacha, Roussanne and Arneis.

All but one of the criteria outlined by Oren Kaye, winemaker at Constellation's research and development department, make a lot of sense viticulturally. Varieties must:

* Be economically viable, with a minimum of 10 tons/acre, but preferably closer to 20

* Be able to be farmed mechanically

* Can be harvested early (so lower risk)

* Reds must have high anthocyanins; i.e., have good color (and we thought it was all Mega Purple)

* Whites must have spice and character

* Low pyrazines (herbaceous flavors)

* Produce good mouthfeel

* Have desirable flavors that blend well

BUT -- there's a giant but, and I mean a but so big that it blocks the sun --

* "There needs to be market cachet"

Thursday, April 11, 2013

California wine industry ignores dire climate change warnings

Areas in red are projected to be unsuitable for wine grapes by 2050
Earlier this week the National Academy of Sciences published a major peer-reviewed climate change study with a handy color-coded map. And the future of California looks red hot by 2050, with most of Napa Valley unsuitable for premium grape growing.

I saw this on the TV news in the morning. There are wire-service stories from other states about it: people in Montana are excited about being the next Bordeaux. So I went to Wine Business.com, my go-to for wine news, expecting to see lots of California industry reactions.

I saw Steve Heimoff, who I don't believe to be a Tea Party guy, essentially denying that global warming in California is happening. And other than that, nothing.

Granted, global warming doesn't sound so terrifying after northern California had back-to-back cool years in 2010 and 2011. But still, with land prices at well over $200,000 an acre, you'd think people would be more worried. What's Napa Valley land going to be worth if the grapes aren't suitable for premium wines? Why isn't this a big deal?

Take a look at that map of the northern West Coast. Red areas are ones where wine grapes are grown now that are not projected to be suitable by 2050. Green areas are suitable now, and should stay suitable. Blue areas are currently too cold for wine grapes, but are expected to be suitable by 2050. So the overall picture for the West Coast is pretty good, especially for Oregon. Washington could face disruption but unlike California, it should gain a lot more vineyard land than it loses.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Server says, "Let me take that wine away" and disappears

We were eating the $65 pasta tasting menu at Flour & Water in San Francisco, and I had ordered the wine pairings for $45.

On our last pasta course, the server came over and asked, "How are you enjoying that?"

I answered honestly, "I hate this wine."

A 2003 Calabretta from Mount Etna, it was tired and tasted merely of ash, wood and tannin. Calabretta ages their wines for a long time in neutral oak tanks and Eric Asimov raved about the '02, calling it "lively, energetic and pure, with deep, rich mineral and fruit flavors." I guess the '03 was uninteresting because of vintage variation, but after reading Asimov's note, which bore no relation to the wine I tasted, now I wonder if it was flawed.

She said, "Let me get that away from you." She snatched the wine glass and disappeared. That was it. No replacement, no question, no conversation. Nobody ever asked why I hated it.

My wife and I were stunned. "Wow," was all we could say.

This is modern wine service, I suppose. Flour & Water isn't cheap, but it's selling a casual experience, not a formal one. And $45 for the wines I received was rather cheap, in the good sense, even with the one dud. The pours weren't generous, but most of the wines were interesting and went well with the food. I particularly liked the 2009 La Biancara di Angelino Maule "Pico," an orange wine with great mouth presence and flavors more like dried apples and mangos than what you expect from grapes, with the rabbit raviolini.

At a high-end place, I would expect the sommelier to offer a taste of something else I liked better with the final course. (I would have been happy with a small repour of the previous wine, the 2011 Cascina Val de Prete Barbera d'Alba.)

Here, I suppose they don't have any obligation to replace the wine, or even to discuss it. I didn't say the wine was flawed; I said I hated it. I was surprised by what followed, enough to blog about it. But I'm not sure what they should have done differently.

What do you think? Should the server have done something differently? Should I have?

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The marketplace value of Jancis, Galloni, Asimov, McInerney and Matthews

Dinner with Galloni: more valuable than dinner with Jancis?
There's a charity auction for victims of Hurricane Sandy going on right now through Sunday afternoon, and that's a good deed and you should consider buying some wine. But what's really interesting is the price of dinner.

Four wine writers -- Jancis Robinson, Antonio Galloni, Eric Asimov and Thomas Matthews -- volunteered to have dinner with guests for the highest bidder.

In a different category ("The Good Life"), there's also a dinner with Jay McInerney.

This is a marketplace decision on which critic is what, most interesting? Most influential? Has the best table manners?

There is only a little variation in the offers. All five meals are at Danny Meyer restaurants, and I'm not a New Yorker so I don't have an opinion on which is best. With Robinson you get a bonus wine writer, Nick Lander.

You're allowed to bring five guests with Robinson, Matthews or Galloni; three guests with McInerney; but only one with Asimov. That's a big difference but I'm not sure the impact on pricing is predictable: fewer guests will depress group bids, but the dinner with Asimov will be the most intimate.

So who do you think will attract the highest bid?

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Washington makes great Gewurztraminer

Chris Dowsett makes great Gewurz
Gewurztraminer has probably the lowest success rate of any good wine grape in the world. When it's right, it's delicious and unique: aromatic, with rose petal notes and a lovely mouthfeel. But the batting average of Gewurz winemakers worldwide is lower than Brendan Ryan's.

The biggest problems are sugar and acid. Gewurz is a cool-weather grape that ripens suddenly and can become bitter, flabby and too alcoholic if the grapes are left on the vine for just one hot day too many. Alsace probably makes the best Gewurztraminers in the world, and still they're risky to buy unless a sommelier vouches for them.

It's an interesting contrast to Pinot Gris, a forgiving grape with a much higher batting average but lower slugging percentage. Pinot Gris is safer to order, but it's likely to deliver a single at best, whereas Gewurztraminer, after swinging and missing a dozen times, sometimes slugs one into Triples Alley.

I was in Washington last weekend at the same time as John Mariani, a wine critic for Bloomberg News who tasted a dozen wines and declared that the whole state's wines pack a "high alcohol wallup, little else."  I don't write many blog posts about a single wine I like. But what the heck: considering how little Gewurz is made in Washington, the Gewurz I loved -- Dowsett Family Celilo Vineyard Columbia Gorge Gewurztraminer 2011 ($22) -- gives me a much greater ratio of wines tasted/all wines made than Mariani, and he writes for Bloomberg! And unlike Mariani I actually interviewed the winemaker, so what the heck.