Saturday, October 29, 2011

Underpriced or underwhelming? A 21-year-old wine for $19

MFWC (okay, Marcus) is a sucker for affordable wines with bottle age on the theory that they're generally underpriced. Take, for example, the Lopez de Heredia rose, which generally ages in oak for several years, is released about a decade after the grapes are harvested and generally retails for under $25. The winemaker cares enough to defer the return on his investment for many years, and he's not making a massive profit. That's a good sign. The tradeoff is that the wine probably isn't wildly popular, or the winemaker would be charging a lot more for it. You can get modestly priced Riojas or wines from the southwest of France that are a decade old; go to Bordeaux, and it's a different story.

So MFWC couldn't resist a Mosel riesling from 1990, the Kestener Paulinsberg Spatlese from Gunther Steinmetz. Spatlese is made form grapes that are picked late in the season and so have more sugar, which leads to sweeter wines capable of long aging. Presumably Steinmetz cares about his wine, but in this case he just wanted to get something, anything, for it, because over the last few decades, or depending on whom you read several decades, German drinkers have turned away from wines they perceive as sweet, as explained in this blog post and response:

2B sales was looking for a bottle to go with salmon, and when I asked about the Steinmetz, the salesman suggested it would work with a salmon prepared with dill and lemon. I also picked up a bottle to take to my sister's this weekend, and my brother-in-law channeled the Germans with his response: too sweet, tastes like the apple juice he gives to his kids, no finish. I'm going to stick up for my wine, though. I found the nose consistently interesting if not overly complex, with some citrus, maybe a little lavendar, that riesling smell that eludes definition but is often labeled as petrol (a turn-off, another MFWC member reminded me), all of which shifted as I sniffed. I thought the acidity and the sugar were in balance and didn't find the wine too sweet, but that's the great divide about rieslings from the Mosel. A beverage that leaves one man lusting for a pairing of boudin blanc with mustard leaves another shuddering at the thought of filling sippy cups with apple juice.

Careful readers of the MFWC blog have seen this story of shifting fashions at least twice before, in the changing French attitude toward Beaujolais that Kermit Lynch lamented and in the decline of Maderia consumption in the U.S. after 1815. Tastes in wine change, sometimes quite rapidly, for a host of reasons that may be difficult to untangle.

Steinmetz may have misjudged his audience with the 1990 Spatlese, but whoever he is, he knows that if you give people a full liter of booze for $15, they will think they're getting 250ml for free and snap it up. Thus I bought two liters of Steinmetz's, one for the harried mommy (HM) and the other for steady quaffer of lighter whites (SQLW).

We probably won't be getting the coffee connoisseur any riesling given his horror of drinking white wine, but CC grooved on the Vid Sur, a Negramoll Tinto that he pronounced powerful but interesting, a response enthusiastic enough that I bought bottles for Big Green and a relatively new MFWC member who's been drafting on the Spanish explorations of CC, Mr. M. and others. CC let his palate rest this week, while Mr. M celebrated a new job with a 2009 Pares Balta Mas Petit, a Cabernet Sauvignon from Penedes, an hour west of Barcelona on the Catalan coast. It's an appropriate venue from which to choose a celebratory beverage, since Penedes is one of the primary sources of Cava, the Spanish sparkling wine.

The Boss-man went back to the 2005 Raffault Les Picasses cabernet franc. As the weather gets colder, maybe he'll head back to the Cotes du Rhone, where he happily lingered for several months last winter.


Saturday, October 22, 2011

Wine and the single drinker

One of Madeira's great strengths is its indestructibility. It flourished in the brutal conditions of a transatlantic crossing, after which questions of storage proved virtually irrelevant. There is no need to put it in a cool place, or lay it on its side, or drink it all in one sitting. These traits made it ideal not only for the 18th century Virginia aristocrats but for 21st century drinkers who can't or don't want to down 750ml at one sitting.

Jura wines have some of the same traits, as I learned at a tasting yesterday evening when Savignans and chardonnays that had been open for a week were poured. Because of their exposure to oxygen during the production process, the Puffeneys and Montborgeaus tasted fine after a week in an open bottle, as would sherry. A Sauvignon blanc would be wickedly acidic by then. This raises a key question for the MFWC given its number of members who drink a bottle over several days: which wines lend themselves to such consumption? The answers I've received to that question over the years have had a disturbingly low accuracy rate, but perhaps the club has the critical mass can bring some precision to the issue.         

Welcome to the Wine Islands

Since his first taste of the Pedralonga '07, a wine that's made it onto the MFWC's faves list as sure as a catchy song from Glee is downloaded onto iPods everywhere, the Coffee Connoisseur has been searching for a Spanish red that he likes as much. The man is a walking geography lesson. We've tried Galicia, Cigales, even the region near Madrid, and nothing has captured CC's palate. This week, the Spanish guru at Chamber St. recommended a red from La Palma in the Canary Islands, the Vid Sur 2009 Tinto. The Canaries are a string of islands off the coast of Morocco in the Atlantic, and the grape is Tinto Negramoll, one of the primary varietals used for Madeira wine, which is made on the eponymous islands 250 miles north of the Canaries.

Madeira was the preferred source of wines in colonial America, since it was a convenient layover point on the shipping routes from Europe to America and the wine produced there improved on the journey. That's an exceptionally unusual trait, since excessive heat (temperatures in shipholds could reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit, which would cook most wine to oblivion) and motion tend to harm wine, but those influences were so beneficial to Maderia that American customers often demanded that the wine be shipped to India and back to improve its flavor. Those with a taste for history can macerate themselves in David Hancock's 2009 tome Oceans of Wine: Madeira and the Emergence of American Taste, an excellent case study of the interaction among merchants, producers and consumers of wine and its commercial aspects.

The product of CC's Vid Sur recalls the production of those legendary beverages in at least one way: Juan Mattias Torrez Perez, the producer, imposes no temperature control on his wines during their fermentation. La Palma is also known for its sweet wines made from Malvasia, another one of the primary grapes grown in Madeira.

While CC has been wandering all over Spanish wine country, the Boss is staying focused on the Loire reds with the 2009 Baudry Chinon from the plot Les Grezeaux, "a unique parcel of gravel over a bed of clay, sand and limestone at the base of the Coteaux du Sonnay, just west of Cravant." This is reputedly one of the best wines to come from the Loire in this vintage, and it's easily under $30. That right there should lure some of you to the Loire. Thirty bucks won't get you a lot in Bordeaux, Burgundy, or even the hillier part of the Rhone (long story short, hills are good for grapes, the steeper the better), but it gets you a great bottle from a place where for centuries they've been growing grapes in a serious way for seriously rich people like the ones who built all those castles to which tourists flock. Try one of the Olga Raffault Cabernet francs if you're a skeptic while we wait to hear back from the boss on the Baudry Grezeaux.

The rest of the club was fairly tame this week. I fulfilled a request for a Pinit Grigio with a Falaghina, an Italian white grape grown on the coast of Campania north of Naples since Roman times, and after buying more bottles of Broadside Cabernet Sauvignon than I can count, for variety's sake I shifted to the Ex Libris Cab, which is made from grapes grown in a variety of Washington state vineyards. 

Friday, October 14, 2011

A detour on the Spanish wine route

The club's cry for Spanish wines has me wandering all over New York. Last week, the Coffee Connoisseur and Mr. Marathon had the entry-level 2010 Garancha from Bernabeleva, a vintner in Navaherreros about an hour and a half west of Madrid. Both CC and Mr. M enjoyed it and asked for another Spanish red. I obliged with a tempranillo, the 2008 Lezcano-Lacalle Maudes Crianza from Cigales, which is about 150 miles northwest of Madrid and which a new club member - call her LRB for lover of big reds - very much liked. She also had a Conde de Hervias Rioja Joven the previous week, another tempranillo. (Joven means "young" in Spanish, and such wines see little or no aging, while crianza must age for at least six months in barrels and two years total.)

Garancha, or Grenache, is famous for its fruitiness, but the 2009 Bernabeleva tino I tasted was woodsy and earthy, a product of vines planted in sandy soil that sits on granite, I was told. CC dislikes fruit bombs intensely, so I'd guess that his bottle had the same basic profile. I don't know how he feels about freshness, though, so maybe he should try the joven as a test.

My search for Spanish wines that the gang might like also led me to Tinto Fino, a shop on 1st Ave. in the East Village. I wasn't expecting much when they poured an Albarino, a white grape with which I associated the citrus flavors of Sauvignon blanc. But the Abadia San Campio from Rias Baixas in Galicia was a different, higher-class animal, with a floral nose reminiscent of Muscat and a delicate taste that nonetheless had more backbone than the nose led me to expect. I asked the guy pouring the tastings if my impression had been formed by drinking too many crummy Albarinos made for U.S. palates. Apparently, it had. There's also Despana Vinos y Mas in SoHo for the Spain gang, and several of the salespeople at Chamber St. Wines are serious fans and buyers of Spanish wines, so CC, LBR, Mr. M will be able to familiarize themselves with Spanish wine geography in the months ahead.

I was on my way from the office to Chamber St. to taste more Spanish wines (Marcus Wines: We spit so you can taste) when I happened upon a tasting at Frankly Wines from the Jura in northeastern France (Jura as in Jurassic). My obsession with Jura wines could fill many posts, but for now the reader need only know that the region is most famous for the Savagnin grape (not a misspelling), from which vin jaune, or "yellow wine" is made. Like sherry, vin jaune is fermented and aged in oak barrels under a veil of yeast (voile in French, flor in Spanish), as are Savagnins that aren't subjected to the long aging needed to produce vin jaune. Frankly Wines offered pours from several bottles by Jacques Puffeney, a classic Jura producer, as well as some from the younger vintner who lives across the street from Puffeney, Michael Gahier.

The Puffeney '09 Savagnin was nutty and intense, perfect for the classic pairing with nuts and Comte cheese, but the Gahier was suaver, more subtle, and led me to think his Chardonnay might be a deal at $20.


Monday, October 10, 2011

Beaujolais and the boss, with a brief endnote on chaptalization

The boss so loved the Tue-Boeuf Cheverny, a blend of 70% Gamay and 30% Pinot noir, that I figured he might like a 100% Gamay - i.e., a Beaujolais. I sent him an email with some prospects, but he was not enthusiastic. "There's a lot to that bottle," he said of the Cheverny, "and not a lot to a lot of those Beaujolais." The boss had heard great things about Beaujolais before and always been disappointed, but he agreed to give it one more shot. If my choice failed him, though, he'd never drink another one.

The boss's displeasure, not to mention the promises made for some Beaujolais, are products of a major change in the way some wines are made in the region, which is about 30 miles north of Lyon, a city famous for the richness of its cuisine. Old-school Beaujolais was a light, relatively low in alcohol, occasionally fizzy and acidic enough to copy with tripe and blood sausage and other such fat-laden delicacies. "Beaujolais should not be a society lady," Kermit Lynch wrote in a lament for its alleged demise in Adventures on the Wine Route. "It is the one-night stand of wines." 

But even the French don't eat like they used to, and their per capita wine consumption has fallen by 17% in the last decade, which has to have given all French winemakers incentive to try to move up the value chain. The resulting wines are the ones that have presumably disappointed the boss, who wouldn't get mad at a $7 bottle of Georges DuBoeuf Beaujolais Nouveau that offers nothing more than good quaffing. Even in the 1980s, Lynch complained that Beaujolais had betrayed him as winemakers added sugar to the fermenting grape juice to increase its alcohol level, a process known as chaptalization. Higher-end Beaujolais aren't chaptalized, but they are the product of a more involved winemaking process than Lynch's Beaujolais of yore, one that's meant to result in a wine more like red burgundy, a wine made in the region just north of Beaujolais and one that commands higher prices.

The boss got one such wine, the 2010 Terres Dorees by Jean-Paul Brun from Morgon, a Beaujolais town known for its more elevated reds. The boss liked it OK, but he said it was still a Beaujolais, a wine he wasn't quite in the mood for. He's heading back to the Loire.

Footnote on chaptalization
The process is named for its champion Jean-Antoine Chaptal (1756-1832), a chemist who was Minister of the Interior under Napoleon. Chaptalization was particularly helpful in northern Europe, where cool temperatures didn't allow grapes to develop as much sugar as those grown further south did. Chaptalization has declined in recent years as grapes are picked later and - perhaps - as climate change has led to warmer temperatures. Thank you, Oxford Wine Companion. 

One cagey romantic

Kermit Lynch is at once incurably romantic and relentlessly, brilliantly commercial, a combination that's made him one of the country's most successful wine importers. Lynch opened his store in Berkeley, California in 1972, and he was soon heading off to France on long buying trips where he scoured the country for distinctive, highly personal wines to sell to his clients.

Lynch describes his journeys in Adventures on the Wine Route: A Wine Buyer's Tour of France, which was published in 1988. He loves the personalities of the French wine world, from the the alcoholic Burgundy wine merchant whose "car smelled like horse shit, anise, and after-shave," to a 90-year-old Vouvray merchant who survived mustard gas as a soldier in World War I and the German destruction of Tours in 1940 and has an encyclopedic knowledge of Loire wine to the elusive Francois Raveneau, one of the great producers of Chablis, a small Burgundy town famous for its Chardonnay. Lynch plays every card he can to import Raveneau's wines, and the crusty Frenchman finally consents. Lynch still imports Raveneau Chablis in what must be a very lucrative trade for both of them - the wines often cost more at retail in the U.S. than the older bottles do on French restaurant lists.

Like a great investment banker, Lynch never forgets whom he's talking to of what his goal is. He realizes he must measure his words carefully when talking to the sly Burgundians. He negotiates special deals with producers to get wines made exactly the way he wants, and he cuts producers loose if they get lazy.

Lynch was an early advocate for natural wines, those made without added sugar or sulfur, preferably by small producers. The term suggests a drink that's been made simply by a producer who's a mere handmaiden to nature. But Lynch effortlessly describes the myriad decisions that must be made in the process: where to grow, what to grow, how to handle the vines, when to pick, how to ferment, and so on, all of which are affected by ecological, social and commercial factors. When Lynch looks at a vineyard or tours a cellar, he sees and tastes those decisions and translates them into dollars.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Acquired tastes

"It's remarkable that you can get that bottle of wine for $16," the boss said last week of a 2009 2009 Clos du Tue-Boeuf Cheverny Rouillon, a blend of 70% Gamay and 30% Pinot noir from a small town in the Loire. "Now, not everyone is going to like it. It throws a little sediment, it's a little effervescent, it's nto a fruit bomb." The boss's Cheverny apparently demands a palate attuned to finesse, as Kermit Lynch put it in his chapter on the Loire in "Adventures on the Wine Route," about which more later.

With those caveats I found five takers for a boss-man special, showing that Japanese salarymen aren't the only ones who mimic their superiors. I could have been the waiter in this great scene from the movie Tampopo:

Responses to the boss-man special were equivocal. One taker found far more exalted wines on a weekend outing and ended up selling his bottle back to the boss; two others have yet to drink their Cheverny. Another club member, call him DB for Database, liked it, but the Coffee Connoisseur wanted a more robust wine, which he'll get next week in the form of a red from northern Spain.

Like the boss, I stayed in the Loire with a 2002 Baumard Savenierres I thought would go with scallops. It did, for about a glass and a half, with a delicate nose and just enough honey on the tongue to balance the richness of the seafood, but then the acid took over and trampled my palate. "This is a wine for intellectuals, not neophytes," the Oxford Companion to Wine warns of Baumard's wares, and I'd have to agree, though I did enjoy the glass I had last year in San Francisco.

While I was getting my tongue seared off, Mr. Marathon stayed on a roll with a 2006 Guelbenzu Evo from Cascante in Navarre, which is in north central Spain just east of La Rioja. Mr. M wanted to celebrate eeking into the Boston marathon with a $30 cab that recalled Francis Ford Coppola's Rubicon wines, which go for $150 or so a bottle. Instead of staying in California, I ended up with the Guelbenzu, which is 70% cab, 15% Merlot and 15% Tempranillo. Mr. M drank it with an Asiago cheese fondue that he found went well with the robust wine. Mr. M's verdict echoed another one in the office; upon hearing that the Evo was reduced to $20 from $25, the chief snapped up the store's several remaining bottles, so much did he enjoy his bottle last month.

Given their responses to recent wines, the chief, CC and Mr. M are headed for a group trip to northern Spain, which means La Rioja, Navarre and Cataluna, whose red blends aged in oak seem likely to appeal to their palates at relatively gentle prices. The region also features a fair amount of Cabernet, a grape that became prominent in the region in the 1860s when French vineyards fell prey to disease. The Spanish were able to profit by fulfilling the French demand for, among other things, cab-based blends, the most famous of which is Bordeaux. Several of the great Rioja producers in fact date from this era. The Spain gang will sample some of their wines in the weeks to come.