Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Light on La RIoja

"We must be in Haro; you can already see the lights," the saying goes in the town where La Rioja's wine trade is centered. The bon mot dates from the 1890s, when Haro was one of the first towns in Spain to get electricity thanks to the success of its wine merchants, who prospered by selling wine to the France after its vineyards were devastated by phylloxera in the 1860s and 1870s. La Rioja, which is in north central Spain just below Basque country, remains one of the country's leading wine-producing regions, and one whose winemakers are often influenced by the foreign markets they try to sell to. Spanish wine writers Jesus Barquin, Luis Gutierrez and Victor de la Serna offer a solid introduction to the region in The Finest Wines of La Rioja and Northwest Spain, which includes Navarre to the east and Galicia and Bierzo to the west.

The easy, and familiar, organizing principle to the book is the tension between old-style Rioja - lighter in color, usually aged in older American oak and often the product of grapes sourced from different vineyards - and avant-garde wines that are bigger, richer, higher in alcohol, tend to be aged in new French oak and come from grapes of a single vineyard. It's a familiar story in a wine world that's become increasingly international over the last generation. Many winemakers fall into one of the two camps. Lopez de Heredia is the classic traditionalist; Contador, whose wines rocketed in price after the American guru Robert Parker gave one of them a 100-point score, is what the new wave hopes to become.

As always, the more fascinating parts of the story are the ones that scramble this picture. Sometimes efforts to imitate more successful competitors can backfire. Winemakers in Navarre ripped out much of their Granacha, or Grenache, in the 1980s in favor of Tempranillo, the dominant red grape of La Rioja, as well as cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and chardonnay but were largely unable to replicate La Rioja's success. On the other hand, growers from Bierzo have started making a name for themselves with wines from Mencia. The coffee connoisseur and Mr. Marathon have both enjoyed Mencias in the mid-teens (the Pedrolonga and the Brezo Tinto, respectively), and another member of the sales crew raved this week about the 2009 Ultreia St. Jacques from Raul Perez, a winemaker and consultant born in Bierzo who now seems to be all over Spain. The authors argue that Bierzo could be the next Priorat - a region that could become hot with wine buyers and see a spectacular increase in prices.

The authors also offer fascinating glimpses of La Rioja's past. They note in passing that Marques de Riscal's 1945 Cuvee Medoc, named for the most famous region of Bordeaux, is perhaps the greatest red wine ever produced in Spain even though more than 60% of it is cabernet, the Bordeaux grape par excellence. Going even further back, in the 1890s Gustav Eiffel designed the cellar for CVNE, Compania de Vinicola del Norte de Espana, which is next to Lopez de Heredia on the banks of the Ebro. Far from being extraneous bits of trivia, these touches suggest that Raul Perez and the winemakers of Bierzo and other emerging regions follow in a long line of Spaniards who's had to interpret the desires of the international wine market in their own distinctive ways.  

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Wandering the Village wine stores on a Friday night, one good, one bad

MFWC needed to restore a sense of equilibrium after walking out of Parm on Friday night. The meal was so good it reduced him to expletives: a slice of toasted garlic bread topped with salami and a shirred egg to start, then an utterly satisfying plate of slightly spicy sausage and sweet peppers with a side of ziti run under the broiler and topped with a scoop of fresh ricotta and to finish an ice cream cake of coconut, chocolate and almond. F'ing awesome seemed the most appropriate tribute to a meal meant to evoke traditional Italian-American cuisine, and that was exactly the tribute MFWC paid to the guys behind the bar.  

After heading up Mulberry and crossing Houston, MFWC decided to contemplate the meal and compose himself at Astor Wines, which has as deep a selection as any wine store in New York. Astor Wines has a selection of bottles from the Jura and the Loire in the same lightly refrigerated room where it keeps its reserve bottles, but it also has plenty to appeal to those who favor the the new world and classics from Bordeaux and Burgundy.

More importantly, the salespeople know the stock, or know someone who does. I asked one of them if the 2005 Chateau Montus, a robust Madiron from southwest France was ready to drink. He replied that it was a lot better than he thought it wouudl be when he tasted it but would improve with age. I asked another about a Beaujolais, and he directed me toward a colleague who discussed three Beaujolais in detail, recommended against buying a 1994 Savennieres that the store was offering for $35 or so after finding a few cases in storage, and for good measure threw in a few well-considered opinions about sparkling wines - buy the Huet sparking brut petillant 2005 and when in Germany keep an eye out for sparkling rieslings, which the Germans love so much that they keep it all for themselves.

Don't expect that kind of service - or any service, for that matter - at Union Square Wines a few blocks north, whose staff is so disinterested that they could be shipped straight to an Italian post office. Union Square's pricing is generally on the expensive side, but a few times a year they offer 30% discounts on mixed cases, events where the careful shopper can find some deals.

MFWC took up the challenge and was pleasantly surprised by the 2008 Niepoort Twisted for $12.60, a Botani Muscatel from Malaga for $12 and the Cos Frappato for $22, among others. A Gahier 2009 Trousseau for $24.49 may not have been a great deal (the $35 at which USW initially offered it was absurd), but it's probably not an easy wine to find. A few bottles of the 2000 Lopez de Heredia Rose helped round out the case, no thanks to the slugs behind the counter. USW is a very good wine store when it's running a sale. Otherwise, go elsewhere.         

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Not bad for a fresh slap across the face

Last week, MFWC bought the Etz Austrian Gruner Veltliner at $14 for the liter (that's $11.50 for 750ml) for Samba. The label describes the wine as "a fresh slap across the face," which MFWC would not have thought was the best way to sell a product. The wine turned out to be lovely and refreshing, crisp with a light citrus nose, and more than fairly priced, but MWFC would bet that a lot of stores wouldn't stock a wine with such a label. If we’re lucky, the Etz Gruner will end up in discount bins across the city. 

The tasting game

The blind tasting is the classic test of an oenophile's expertise. The drinker swirls the wine in his glass, sniffs it intently, takes a swig and gargles it, gulps it down or spits it into a bucket, ponders, and then writes a few notes and perhaps a number on a pad. When the drinker describes his conclusions, the truth about both his taste and the beverage is revealed.

But what if it's all a fraud? Less dramatically, what if the components of sensory perception are so numerous and intimately related that the blind tasting is a pointless exercise for all but the most expert, or for those in the business who have to make decisions about what to put on their shelves or their wine lists? 

MFWC has stuck his tongue into the blind tasting waters twice in the last month thanks to invitations from a former co-worker - call him the Scholar of Private Equity (SPE), a generous, genial man whose great passion is wine. He collects it, reads about it, structures many of his vacations around it, and bases much of his social life around it. Had Nicholson Baker seen SPE's apartment, Baker might have written "Wine Bottles as Furniture" instead of, or in addition to, his 1995 New Yorker piece "Books as Furniture." SPE fell in love with wine as a college student at Berkeley in the 1970s, when college students could still conceive of shopping at Kermit Lynch's shop in that academic Shangri-La, and has continued to deepen his knowledge. Tasting groups are one way SPE continues to learn about wine. When he moved to New York from San Francisco in the mid-1990s, he immediately set about joining one, and it was a descendant of this group that MFWC joined for two recent monthly tastings, one of 2006 Brunellos, the other of 2009 red burgundies.

SPE's group is impressively sociable. The ten or so guests talk and munch on bread and the occasional nibble of cured meat or cheese as they sniff and taste. SPE noted that the group once displayed a much more puritanical discipline, though the focus remains firmly on the eight wines featured at each tasting. The bottles are opened a few hours before the event to breathe, and tasters record the appearance, aroma, taste and finish of each 55ml sample before ranking the wines in order of preference from one to eight. The scores are tallied and the wines taken out of their paper bags in reverse order from worst (highest cumulative score) to best.     

MFWC had some confidence in his ability to distinguish among the wines, though that confidence dissipated as he moved from wine to wine and discovered that his initial impressions changed. That's a fundamental sign of a good wine, of course, but it's disconcerting when you're confronted with eight of them that must be evaluated in relation to one another. And since on both nights the wines were from the same location and vintage, they naturally showed only modest variation. MFWC begged off ranking the Brunellos, which even the veterans said were a hopeless muddle, but took up the challenge with the Burgundies, where his rankings bore a reasonably close resemblance to the cumulative group rankings - a product of dumb luck, MFWC would hasten to add.

The best of burgs to the palate of both MFWC and the group as a whole was a $55 wine from the producer Simon Bize in Savigny-les-Beaune, a small town in Burgundy's Cote d'Or. MFWC liked it, but he wouldn't have paid $55 for it or, honestly, suspected it sold for $55 had he not been told. It's possible, though, that MWFC would have enjoyed the wine a lot more had it been the only wine on the table and he been able to focus on it over the course of a meal.         

Critics of blind tastings say they deprive drinkers of that prolonged exposure and lead them to favor wines with bold flavors and higher alcohol levels. Despite my ambivalence about the value of blind tastings, I wouldn't agree. They expose even neophytes to the subtle differences among wines and the varying ways that different people respond to them. Counterintuitively, they may force drinkers to recognize the limits of their palates and thus push them away from more expensive wines. And they inspire serious thought about wine - including the thought that such musing has its own limits.     

Sunday, February 5, 2012

That's Poligny with an "o," the one in the Jura

Last week's post departed from Puligny-Montrachet in Burgundy. This week we move an hour east of Puligny-Montrachet to Poligny, a town of about 4300 people in the Jura that's most famous as the capital of Comte, a nutty cows' milk cheese very close to Gruyere. Poligny is also the home of Ludwig and Nathalie Bindernagel, who in recent years have become darlings of the biodynamic wine crowd here and in France. I went to a tasting of Bindernagel wines on Friday and was most impressed by their 2008 Cremant de Jura, a sparkling wine made entirely from pinot noir, which along with Poulsard and Trousseau is one of the three red grapes grown in the Jura. Much as I love the Jura whites, I usually find the reds a little expensive for what they are - light, delicate, pleasant wines often priced around $25. You can get a lot of Loire red for that money. The Bindernagels also run a reasonably priced B&B in Poligny ( where Nathalie reputedly sets a most impressive table at gentle prices. 

The Bindernagel wines were overshadowed by an unforgettable nip of vin jaune from Chateau-Chalon, the village where the best wines of that type are made. Vin jaune is made from savagnin (a different varietal than sauvignon blanc) that's aged in casks that aren't filled to the top with the fermented grape juice, which allows a veil of yeast to form on the surface of the wine. Sherry is made in a similar way, and vin jaune has that same nutty taste and smell. Vin jaune from Chateau-Chalon must age for six years and three months before bottling, with most of that time spent in the casks. The wine can age for decades more in its distinctive, squat bottles that hold 62cl rather than the standard 75cl.

Said nip of vin jaune was the 2003 Macle, which had an entrancing nose that incorporated sweet, rich, creamy and walnut notes and varied in intensity. Wines made from savagnin can often be unremittingly heavy and nutty, but this one bobbed and weaved with elegance. One taster suggested pairing with with scallops and bacon, which seemed an inspired suggestion, perhaps to be followed by a chicken in cream sauce or the Jura specialty chicken with vin jaune and then some Comte. This is a wine to be consumed over the course of a three-hour meal, or even over several days; the importer pouring the wines hid the vin jaune toward the end of the tasting because she was taking it to Restaurant Daniel three days later. 

Chateau-Chalon is expensive stuff given the length of time required to produce it, but frugal drinkers can search out the regular wines of Macle and Berthet-Bondet, two of the appellation's best producers.