Monday, November 21, 2011

A golden wine in La Rioja

You know you´re in the sticks when you ask someone at the hotel desk where the nearest Internet cafe is, and she suggests going to the local library, which is on the second floor of the building containing the local tourist office and is only open in the afternoon, which in this case means from 5PM to 9PM. Such is life in Ezcaray, a small town in mountainous La Rioja that´s home to Echaurren, a hotel and restaurant run by the same family for five generations. I´m writing from one of the five computers in the library.

The wine list at Echaurren suggests the region´s isolation and its unaffected approach to wine. Most of the entries are local products that go for under €30, and there were several older reserve reds from CVNE, a respected producer in Haro, the center of the region´s wine trade, for €60. Virtually all of the whites are young with the notable exception of three from Lopez de Heredia, including the 1993 Vina Tondonia that I ordered to go with a salad of raw mushroom (in season now), arugala, and a few raw shrimp followed by hake with clams and a few mushrooms.

Lopez makes all of its wines to age, even its roses, which it generally releases about a decade after the grapes are harvested. The Tondonia blanco is a blend of 90% viura, also known as Macabeo, a grape grown primarily in La Rioja, the area near Barcelona where it´s used to make Cava, and Languedoc-Roussillon in southern France, as well as 10% Malvasia. The producer aged the wine in oak for six years, and the result after more than a decade in the bottle is delicious. Lopez´s whites have a sherry-like nose and taste that can be quite strong in the younger wines, which are still ten years old, but in this bottle had mellowed and receded to blend with honey and even floral smells on the nose. The wine was perfect with the mushrooms and shrimp, whose sweetness accentuated that trait in the wine, and went very well with the hake, where the clams brought out the acidic backbone in the wine which the mild fish smoothed over. MFWC drank only half of the bottle at dinner on Saturday, and the restaurant graciously saved the rest for Sunday lunch, a soup of chickpeas, clams and hake in a fish broth. The wine lost a fraction of its subtlety, but the nose was still entrancing and the soup accentuated the wine´s sherry-like elements - again, though, in an understated way, not like, say, the 2000 Lopez de Heredia Gravonia blanco, which was majestic when I had it last year, or, to be less affected, the Harvey´s Bristol Cream that your grandparents drank before dinner and you could smell three rooms away.

I´m headed to Lopez´s Haro winery tomorrow and will post on that later this week, but I should give a final shout-out to the folks at Echaurren, who run a fine hotel and restaurant in a gorgeous region.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Toasting the Redbirds, the Nuns, and the Club

The last Friday in October, I was headed down to Washington, D.C. to celebrate my niece’s fourth birthday. A St. Louis native, my brother-in-law was keenly focused on game seven of the World Series after witnessing the Cardinals’ miraculous comeback the evening before. I told him I would bring a wine worthy of the event. He suggested that some Anheuser-Busch might be a more appropriate beverage. I said I would take my chances with a 2006 Umbria Rosso San Valentino from Paolo Bea, a blend of Sagrantino, with Sangeovese and Montepulciano by one of the region’s great winemakers.  
The Italian regional wine authorities claimed that the wine was too light in color and slightly oxidized and refused to award it DOC (denomination de origine controllata) status, so the wine sold for about $30 in the States instead of the $60 it would otherwise have fetched. I loved the ounce I had at a tasting last September, bought a bottle, stuck it in my desk, and more than a year later nervously pulled it out, wrapped it in a tee-shirt and put it in my luggage before going to Penn Station to catch the train.
Not to worry. The Paolo Bea was delicious, earthy in a controlled way, very interesting to drink over the course of a three-hour baseball game despite my poor handling. (Six months in a dark desk drawer in a temperature-controlled office is probably fine; a year is not.) I probably killed some of the nose, but it remained intriguing to sniff and drink all the way to our bottle-ending toast to the Redbirds’ 6-2 win.
Fully convinced of Bea’s ability, I turned to another bottle that had lingered in my mind since July, one made by nuns in Lazio with the help of Bea’s son Giampiero that I ran across in a Berkeley, California wine store, Vintage Berkeley. The Coenobium Suore Cistercensi, a blend of 45% Trebbiano, 35% Malvasia, and 20% Verdicchio, has an appealing label that looks hand-written and features the logo of the Trappist monastery in Vitorchiano, which is in the province of Lazio about an hour north of Rome, and a relatively gentle $20 price tag.
Last week, 2B Sales asked me to pick up a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc for her. From the Loire? Yes, from the Loire. I got to the wine store, thought about the Coenobium, and for entirely selfish reasons went with a 2009 bottle of that instead. I started to worry about 2B’s reaction when I got back to the office, since the Coenobium gets extended contact with the grape skins, which is unusual and certainly not like a Sauvignon from the Loire. A nip of the Coenobium last weekend set me at ease, though: gingerbread, maybe a little yeast, rich taste but reasonably light mouthfeel.
2B Sales loved it. Could barely stop drinking it, she said. Wanted two more bottles. Just hearing her talk about it convinced one of her brethren on the sales team to take a bottle. The chief took one. Big-Time Spender, ever suggestible, signed up. I took the seven bottles the store had left, which left me short a bottle for someone who wanted to take a few home for Thanksgiving, so I got him a white from the Jura, a Montbourgeau. (Speaking of whites from the Jura, the ’07 Gahier Chardonnay was a terrific bottle as well, its nutty character evident but restrained, with enough acid to balance the richness that can often be excessive in wines from the region.)
The seven Coenobiums were only a third of the orders for the last MFWC run before Thanksgiving. Given the boss’s enthusiastic endorsement of Bernard Baudry’s Chinons, which are made from Cabernet Franc, I picked up three of his entry-level (i.e., under $20) wines as well as yet another Loire red for the Boss himself and a variety of bottles for the rest of the crew, which welcomes a new member, the Pinot Grigio drinker who wants to branch out—call her PG Branch.
I selected a 2009 Beaujolais from Edmunds St. John in California for PG Branch on the theory that it’s a light, easy-drinking wine that will go well with turkey. Steve Edmunds has a California hippie affect, but he’s a meticulous wine-maker who favors the Rhone style, and a sniff of one of his 1996 Syrahs sent me into conniptions at a wine dinner in May 2010. PG Branch, welcome to the club, and a happy Thanksgiving to everyone else.
The next blog posts will come from La Rioja, where I’m headed on Tuesday.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

What to buy for Mom

I began buying wine by the case because of the bad California Chardonnay that my mother - call her Madame Chard du Chêne -used to buy reflexively. There was always a bottle in the fridge when I came home, and it always tasted the same when I would (always, my sister would add pointedly) pour myself a glass: acrid, no nose, no subtlety, no nothing. One Christmas, I suggested to my mother than I buy her a mixed case of whites. She could put the receipt on the fridge, check the ones she liked, take the receipt back to the store, get them to pick the next case, and over time hone her palate. This seemed feasible, since my mother is an excellent cook and sensitive to what she eats.

The plan had mixed success. Among the cases I lugged back from the store on my visits back to Baltimore, she did discover some crisp whites that she liked. There was the Kris Pinot grigio from northern Italy, a Mantel Blanco Sauvignon blanc from Spain and some others, but when left to her own devices she pulled the oaky California chard off the shelf. The varietal wasn't a kind of white wine, or even a synonym for it. It was white wine in her mind, an no amount of remediation from her control-freak son has changed that.

Mme. Chard is not alone. One MFWC member will drink only California chards if she's drinking white. She's a customer of sorts, so I don't browbeat her, but I do wonder why she doesn't branch out. Others want to spend only $10 or $12 or a bottle, which with my thrifty streak I can appreciate. They get good, solid wines at that price, if nothing all that interesting, but they'll never cook a wine in their apartment or spend $30 on a so-so bottle. 

Earlier this week, someone presented me with a Mme. Chard challenge. This person's mother is older and likes what the woman thinks are terrible wines that are made even worse because Mom takes several days to get through them. Mom's palate is, apparently, shot. A three-liter box of wine is the perfect solution for Mom. She presumably has enough self-indulgence by age 78 not to overindulge merely because she's got the equivalent of four bottles of wine in the fridge. The box wine will stay good for weeks, and it will be drinkable. If the daughter wants something good when she comes over, she should bring it herself. By the mid-2000s, according to the Encyclopedia of Wine, almost a quarter of the wine sold in the U.S. came form a box, and for good reason. It's functional, environmentally friendly, cheap, and apparently tastes at least OK. I suggested that the person go to Astor Wines, a great store that does a lot of volume and has a reasonable selection of box wines. For those of you in Jersey, I would imagine Wine Library would be even better, since they do enormous volume. 

I though of my box wine recommendation on my trip to the store the next day. A new customer - call her Samba after her preferred foot gear - likes to get a red and a white for about $12 each. I saw a $12 liter of Yellow & Blue Mendoza Torrontes, an Argentine white grape descended from Muscat and Criolla chica in box-like packaging, and I didn't hesitate to pick it up for Samba, who seems like an easy-going wine drinker. Why shouldn't she get another 250 ml in lighter packaging for the same price as a $12 bottle that would have been decent but no better? I also got Samba an $11 Cotes du Rhone that another co-worker favored last winter. The co-worker warned that the CdR doesn't keep well after being opened. Few wines do. The ones Mme. Chard du Chêne buys certainly don't. But wines in boxes have less exposure to oxygen and last a lot longer than those in bottles.

This brings us back to Mme Chard, who now drinks a range of whites from dry Riesling to Assyrtico, a Greek grape that makes a crisp white. She's always liked sherry, and so the oxidized Jura whites I bring home from time to time work well for her. Wine has become a low-cost, low-stress (stress-reducing, even) mother-son activity for her. Would she be just as happy drinking wine out of a box, and could she do that more cheaply than buying Hahn Chardonnay at $12 a bottle from the overpriced liquor store a mile from her house? Absolutely.