Monday, September 19, 2016

Supermodel Wine

Most professional wine reviewers, and many well-informed amateurs, too, evaluate the quality of a wine based on its craftsmanship. There's a lot that goes into that word - from the vineyard into the cellar, but there is another aspect that contributes at least as much to the enjoyment of a wine. Some call it the X factor, which is an efficient catchphrase to mean sizzle, excitement, substance, character, sex appeal, and so on. These are attributes that are just too subjective to reasonably be included in the evaluation of the product, particularly if it ultimately results in a standalone number like a score. Still, that doesn't mean that it's any less important than the craftsmanship, or that craftsmanship alone makes a wine worth seeking out. To wit, here's one that is very close to flawless in its production. 
2013 Kaiken Cabernet Sauvignon Mendoza 'Ultra' $18
Perfectly balanced and structured, there isn't a drop out of place in this cabernet. Its proportionality is elegant, and its features are nearly perfect in their refinement. It is a supermodel of a wine. And who would pass up the chance to spend some quality time with a supermodel?  Not me. 

But after the initial dazzle, as the conversation begins in earnest, the beauty of a thing becomes somewhat normalized, and we search for reasons to be compelled. We look for substance and character. To want to maintain the conversation, we look for an X factor. And if the supermodel cannot carry on a conversation, doesn't have a sense of humor, or lacks social engagement, boredom sets in. 

This wine, as nearly perfect as it is in construction, has no X factor. For some, beauty is its own X factor. And I recommend this wine if for no other reason because experiencing this level of perfection is almost impossible at this price. But for me, it's not enough. I'm glad to have had this wine.  It just doesn't compel me to come back for more.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Wine of the Week

It's baaaack.....

One of last year's most recommended wines was the 2013 Columbia Crest Gold, a cabernet franc-heavy value blockbuster that we just couldn't get enough of.  Well, the 2014 is being released and, thankfully, the price has remained at $10.

How is it?

Probably owing to the success of last year's bottling, this vintage is being released earlier and is fresh off the truck.  So, while it's not jumpy from bottle shock, it's still a bit young, closed, and tight, but yummy, and full of promise. All the right ingredients are there for a potent, dense wine of remarkable complexity and ageworthiness, particularly at this price.  Last year this was a no-brainer case buy.  Same goes this year, but with this caveat: patience will be rewarded.


Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Wine of the Week

2013 Sierra Batuco Pinot Noir Maule Valley (Chile) $10
Drinkable Pinot noir under $20 is the unicorn of the wine world. So when this $9.99 Pinot Noir from Chile was recommended to me, I almost laughed out loud. However, I am nothing if not a sucker for a bargain. 

Made in what I suspect is a style deliberately aimed at the American consumer, the mountain fruit in this bottle exhibits far more character than its price tag belies. Full, a bit on the cola side of dark cherry, and with all sorts of interesting spices happening, it is by no means a cerebral wine. But at this price it over delivers by a multiple factor. Definitely worth seeking out, even if it has that silly 88 point sticker on it. Bravo!

Best Wine During 7 Days in Washington State

Last week I had the pleasure of  traveling to the great state of Washington.  It was a fantastic experience and one which I highly recommend.  As you'd imagine, there was some wine sampling done.  So, what was the best wine of the trip?  The answer might surprise you as much as it did me.

As a preface this commentary, I'll offer two contrasting disclaimers: First, this trip was not a journalistic endeavor. Wine writing sojourns are intense with research work and grinding schedules. This was a family vacation, not an industry junket. Second, anyone who has ever gone anywhere with me knows that traveling a mile without encountering wine in some shape or form is highly unusual. In other words, though this was a trip with the family, there was plenty of wine exploration.

Having applauded Washington state numerous times as a source for quality and value, I was eager to taste some of the producers' bottlings that don't make it this far east, as well as see what lies beyond the cabernet, merlot, and syrah that the region is already famous for.  What I had hoped to find was a new collection of precious discoveries.  What I did find was something of a disappointment.

To summarize (in blunt terms), the red wines ($35 and under) were monolithic; large, dense, somewhat brutish, and generally dull.  There's only so much of that a thinking person can handle.  The whites were fine, just simple. 

There were two notable exceptions to these generalizations.  Chateau Ste Michelle's Indian Wells chardonnay is very good - and can be bought just about anywhere in the country for $20 or less.  Refined and full of flavor, I wish restaurant wines offered this kind of consistency and value.  The other, a red, was not an insanely intense and extracted Syrah, nor was it one of the new breed of lean, green Cabernets. It was, a Nebbiolo from the Val d'Aosta region in northwestern Italy, made by a village cooperative of growers in the shadow of Mont Blanc.

Light in body, but confident in its delivery of a kaleidoscope of bright flavors, the lip-smacking acidity made it sing with a pork ragu papardelle.  An absolutely fantastic antidote to garish reds and a relative bargain at $24.

Is this as much a commentary on Italian wine as it is on Washington's?  Or something else entirely?  There were a few experiences on this trip that suggest the latter, that our perspectives are shaped by our conditioning more than anything.  Bear with me.

The pleasure one derives from any experience is only measured in absolute terms the first time around.  Thereafter, it's relative.  And if the benchmark for an experience is set in a particular style, then that will impact the relativity of future pleasure.  So, past experience is crucial to informing future.

For example, living in a land-locked midwest state, the standard bearer of quality salmon is farm raised in the Faroe Islands, the benchmark gin and tonic is made with Watershed Four Peel, and Washington wine means, with some exceptions, Columbia Crest or Chateau Ste Michelle.  So, it may stand to reason that the wild, line-caught Columbia River salmon we had in Seattle tasted weird, the artisanal G&T at Rosario was a flunker, and that the Robert Ramey Rhone bottlings were uninspiring.


We are all a product of our own conditioning.  If my palate has - for better or worse - been trained to expect the styles represented by Chateau Ste Michelle's brands when drinking Washington wine, then I'm going to experience an deviation as an aberration - and not necessarily a positive one.

Still, I'm looking forward to returning for more in-depth exploration of the region soon.  In the meantime, I'll be on the lookout for more of that Indian Wells chardonnay.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Recycle Bin, Week of Aug 1

A complete mixed bag of goods here, many (but not all) of which are worth seeking out.  A lot of wines are switching over vintages this time of year, so be on the lookout for clearance pricing - there are some deals to be had.  But sometimes if it's too good to be true, well...

2013 Pieropan Soave Classico $15
This crisp, refreshing white is at home on the dinner table as it is on the front porch. Quite delectable and a great introduction to Soave. Note that this is the 2013 which carries the Classico designation. For 2014, it moves to the declassified (non-Classico) bottling, but the price remains the same. Boo for that. 

2013 Snoqualmie Syrah Columbia Valley $12
Smooth, round, rich, friendly, and affordable. What the hell else do you want for $11.99? Food friendliness? Yep, it's got that, too. Case buy. 

2010 Sanctus de la Bienfaisance Bordeaux $65
Boom. This. Is, The. Bomb. Yes, it's expensive. Yes, it's probably too young to drink.  And, yes, late July is not exactly red Bordeaux-drinking weather.  But this is an irresistible special occasion wine that will not disappoint.  Full, generous, elegant, and inescapably delicious.  Wow.   

Long time Paso Robles fixture at the value priced end of wine, Liberty School has been a mainstay for years at the $10-$12 entry level. This year, the brand is being released under a new label. Along with this change comes a very substantial/heavy bottle and a corresponding price hike to $16. 

2014 Liberty School Merlot Central Coast $16
The merlot, sourced from across the Central Coast appellation, is simple, but enjoyable. In addition to the soft, around deep black flavors, there's actually admirable acidity here making it an easy wine to reach for when barbecuing chicken or other saucy fare.
2013 Liberty School Cabernet Paso Robles $16
Boy, this sure is pretty in the glass. The nose is also inviting with heavy doses of toasted oak and dense cassis, which carries through to the palate. Like the merlot, there's nice acidity lending the round fruit some shape and structure. 2013 was a very hot, dry year and it shows here.

The flipside to blow out pricing is when those prices are still too high for the wine. To wit, two examples of Italian reds that, even a discount, are twice as expensive as they should be. The 2014 Rocca della Macie Chianti Classico and the syrah-dominated 2012 Gabbiano Solatio Toscana, both $11.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Yay Sudtirol!

Sudtirolean wines are no strangers to this site.  Delivering equal parts value, consistency, and excitement, there's an involuntary "buy" reaction every time I see that capsule logo. Another installment of these come with strong recommendations for hot weather porch drinking.  For more, read here.)

2015 Kelerei Kaltern Cantina Pinot Grigio Alto Adige $17
Light, clean, and almost austere in the glass and nose. But all that changes at the first sip. Prominent honeysuckle framed by bracing minerality and delicate acidity unfold quickly. Delightfully balanced and with a clean finish, it's tough not to reach for the bottle and pour yourself another glass.  Again and again and again.

2015 Erste+Neue Pinot Bianco Weiss Burgunder $16.50
Crackling with crystaline energy. Pure, clean, and delicately honeyed. Acids are soft but enough to provide a hint of structure. Perhaps a little too easy to drink. Very satisfying on its own, but will complement summer fare quite well indeed

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Wine Of The Week

2012 Primus Red Blend Colchagua Valley Chile $9
What a sensational valued this is! A soft, round blend of satisfying rich, dark flavors. It's even got a touch of oak and some structure to hold it all together. If this were from California, it would cost $25. Don't look for earth-shattering complexity, but this value is worth buying by the case. Perfect for summertime barbecue fare. 

Friday, July 8, 2016

Wines Of Altitude

Before we get to each of these wines, a quick comment regarding where they are grown. If you look carefully in the picture above, you can see that they indicate that they all come from high-altitude Vineyards in the Salta (spanish for "jump") region. Well, that is an understatement.  The first Malbec reviewed below is from vineyards at 5900 feet above sea level.  Whaaa???? For comparison, the Val d,Aosta region of Italy is home to Europe's highest altitude vineyards which are shy of 4000 feet above sea level.

What changes the higher you go? As it turns out, quite a bit. The air gets thinner, the sunshine more plentiful, and days get longer. It also tends to be a drier and more austere environment all around. This means that, in addition to forcing the routes to go deeper for sustenance and creating more opportunity for phenolic development, it's also a less hospitable place for pests. These all translate into not so subtle differences in the wines. Read on for details. 

Another quick disclaimer: malbecs and torrontes have never been my favorites. In fact, I've deliberately steered clear of them because my experiences have been lackluster. These may change things, though.

2015 Colome Torrontes Valle Calchaqui $12
Seductive, high-energy aromatics of sweet honeysuckle over wet slate beckon. Very alluring. Light bodied and bracing on the attack, the soft, pretty fruit gets a bite of acidity to offset the nectar-like flavor and keep the finish clean. 

2015 Amalaya Torrontes Salta Argentina $12
A disco ball on Friday night. The addition of 15% riesling is a simple stroke of brilliance. Softening torrontes' bite while enhancing the blossoming aromatics, these unexpected bedfellows help elevate the package to another level. As an added bonus, the profile of the resulting wine makes it a companionable addition to a huge spectrum of cuisines - especially summer dishes. Great value. 

2015 Colome Malbec Estate Salta Argentina $25
Very deep in color and density in the glass. Mysterious looking. Aromatics channel a refined elegance with a preview of the mouth-coating tannins to come. (And do they ever.) Tight and potent, there's blue-green vegetal character at the edges and a finish that tempts. Delivers a lot without getting anywhere yet close to overblown or extracted . Those with patience to lay a few of these bottles down should be rewarded in 3-5 years. 

2015 Amalaya Malbec Salta Argentina $16
While I will confess to not being a big Malbec fan, all of my complaints for the way the wine is typically bottled don't apply to this one. Absent is the harsh, garish nature often present. Instead, this is a fresh, feminine red wine that bears a close resemblance to many from southern France. It's got tight fruit framed by proportional acidity, a combination that makes for terrific versatility, especially around summertime menus. Easy drinking and chewy tannins to boot. 

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Wine of the Week

2014 Pedres Cannonau di Sardegna "Sulitai" $11
Cannonau is vastly underrated.  Unfortunately, it's also not exactly plentiful.  That's beginning to change as consumers catch on to this delightful value red.  Made from grenache on the island of Sardinia, cannonau can take on many different faces, from Barbaresco-like acidity (Sella y Mosca) to smoky, seductive intensity (Nuraghe-Craboni), to simple, fun-drinking whimsy like the one below.  So far, I have yet to be disappointed by any of them.  Pedres makes a couple of different cannonaus, the less expensive of which is the Sulitai bottling.  Loaded with lip-smacking flavor, this is a terrific summertime wine that will go with anything from lemony pasta to grilled fish.  Stick it in the fridge for 20 minutes before pouring.  YUM.  Added bonus: cannonau is said to have triple the normal levels of life-extending polyphenols.  Who said wine can't be good for you?


Friday, June 17, 2016

Why Did I Feek Like Such Crap This Morning?

A few observations on wine, alcohol, and aging.
The two of us split a bottle of wine last night, so why did I feel like such crap this morning?

Though the process begins at birth and continues throughout life, the last few years of my own aging have manifested in a multitude of ways, some surprisingly pleasant and others less so. Two of those ways relate to wine: taste and how the body processes alcohol. Bitching about getting older is easy fodder for water cooler talk, especially when we feel the cold, hard slap of waning resilience. But that this might be an interesting topic to write about didn't occur to me until I made the connection between the changing contents of our wine cellar and these two aforementioned symptoms.

Five years ago, many, if not most, of the bottles I had put down to age for future special occasions were big, serious reds from Northern California. But on a recent trip downstairs for weekend provisions I only spotted a few left. What dominates now is almost exclusively European, with a strong bias towards Italy. Why this change? Value, certainly, but the rest of the story has more to do with the evolution of aversions rather than wallet-driven intention.

While acknowledging an abundance of ignorance on the complex science of taste, without question my personal preferences have begun a strong gravitational flow from power and heft toward finesse and ease - a journey that applies as much to whites as to reds. Though I still enjoy and respect the winemaking alchemy of a powerhouse vino that manages to keep all its bit in balance, if you strip away density and weight, most average wines are left insipid.  Filling that void is a hankering for artful acidity.

Articulating what that actually means is beyond my skill as a writer. As a proxy, however, I'll offer a few examples which do not require syrupy viscosity to deliver drinking delight:
  • Schiava Vernatsch, a lovely, lilting, and light-bodied red from the Alto Adige region that clocks in at 12.5% and can be had for as little as $12-16. 
  • Macon, the less expensive cousin to Burgundian big boys, is made of chardonnay, and prizes delicate honeysuckle and apricot flavors framed by lacy acids that tickle the tongue. Rarely are these subjected to oak regimens, which not only keeps the bulk in check, but makes them more affordable. You can find many options under $18 in this category. 
  • Finally, Bordeaux. Though we mostly hear murmurs about prodigious reds from chateaux with long histories, there is a vast price spectrum with infinite options coming from this region unified by a shared philosophy to channel place over fruit or winemaking.
With a correction in taste in process, we arrive at the subject of how the body processes alcohol differently as we age.

For the sake of social responsibility, I'll take a moment to state what should be obvious: the cerebral prefrontal cortex does not develop fully until the early to mid 20s. Overindulgence prior to this age has proved to stunt cognitive capacity. Once clear of this developmental stage of life, we reach what we believe to be a never-ending era of invincibility. Then, well, one day we wake up to that hard slap.  Our tolerance drops and we begin to suffer more acutely the effects of booze. That third glass never used to be a problem, but seems to really slow things down the morning after once you hit your mid 40s. Again, my science on this is light, but I imagine it's fairly straightforward: as our stamina diminishes in general, so does our ability to withstand punishing quantities of alcohol.  Quantities that in our thirties we could shrug off like a cold swim.

To complicate matters, this would be an incomplete story without a commentary on the glaring changes wine has gone through in just the last decade. Without question, alcohol levels have risen in step with sugar concentrations, resulting in candy-like beverages. You cannot have a conversation about metabolizing alcohol without recognizing the tremendous role this new world order chemical composition plays in the equation. Though the size of the average bottle remains at the standard 750 mL, what's inside that glass is far more potent and potentially damaging than what our parents generation drank. 

Throw all these variables together and the net result is fairly obvious, as we age we need to take better care of our bodies. Part of that is reducing intake and paying closer attention to what we are drinking. Not exactly glamorous, but neither is feeling like crap in the morning.  And if you happen to still be enjoying your thirties, well, laugh it up while you still can.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Wine Of The Week

2014 Vina Borgia Garnacha Campo de Borja $5-8
No, this is not a soul-stirring, life-affirming experience of a wine. It doesn't even have much in the way of structure or complexity. But whatever it may lack in highbrow qualities it more than makes up for in the value department. This tremendous deal delivers fresh, ripe fruit that is true to the variety. A simple but delicious table wine, this will satisfy many a thirst for a weeknight meal or a mid day nip. What's more is that you can now find this in a 3 liter box for $20. You don't need to be a quant jock to know what that translates to. Stick it in the fridge for 20 minutes before enjoying. 

Saturday, May 28, 2016

What To Drink On Memorial Day?

Like Thanksgiving and the 4th of July, Memorial Day is a uniquely American holiday.  Parades, back yard BBQs, and family reunions, we tend to think of this long weekend as the beginning of summer.  And sure feels like it across much of the country this year.

So, what to drink on Memorial Day?  It's a question I'm wresting with more than in years past. 

On Friday evening I trudged down to the basement with domestic wines on my mind (drinking
French or Argentine wine just wouldn't feel right.)  But as I surveyed my options, it hit me that what little US-produced wines are down there - a topic for another time - are wholly inappropriate for this weekend.

It's hot and humid in the Midwest. We'll be eating burgers, dogs, chicken, corn, potato salad, and other goodies done on the grill if we're lucky.  That means sweet sauces, condiments, and lots of napkins.  As it does in other seasons, the weather and the menu drive the wine choice.  Which leads to a bit of a challenge when using the criteria of a) only American wines, and b) crowd-pleasing (code for broadly appealing, but also less expensive.)

On the white side, chardonnay is the default, but they're just too rich and cloying for hot weather. Same goes for moscato, not that you'll find any of it in my hand.  So, we're left with the not-too-shabby sauvignon blanc.  Look for Geyser Peak.  At $10, they've remained true to making this wine with crisp, refreshing flavors of Grannysmith apples and fresh-cut grass. Perfect quaffing for garden gatherings.

On the red front, zin, once the go-to drink for BBQ, has become just too overblown.  Cab's too
serious (and expensive), pinot's too syrupy anymore, and many of the new, trendy blends are as overblown and gloppy as zin has become.  For the same reasons you don't want to drink and imperial IPA in the hot sun, you want to avoid these high brix/high ABV wines. What does that leave us?  Two options: syrah and merlot.  Syrah is too tricky to find consistently, so my #1 recommendation is a Columbia Valley merlot.  Snoqualmie makes one for $9 that is plump enough to stand up to grilled fare, and which novices and snobs alike will appreciate.

Whatever you're drinking, perhaps you'll find a moment of remembrance somewhere along the way for the generous men and women for whom this holiday was intended to honor.  Without them, so many of our freedoms would live only in our imagination.  Including the luxury of wine writing.

Happy Memorial Day.  Please have a safe and relaxing weekend.