Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Two tasty wines from Campania

I recently attended an Italian cooking class organized by one of my friends for which I had volunteered to bring some wine. Based on my recent improved knowledge of Italian wines, I selected a couple of bottles from Campania, to be tasted at lunchtime with the result of our cooking session. Campania is a region that is currently experiencing a winemaking renaissance and is producing an increasing number of exciting — and still reasonably priced — wines made from unusual native grape varieties.

The white wine was made from Falanghina grapes grown in the Pompeii area. Falanghina is an ancient varietal that has been recently rediscovered as it can produce wines with high acidity and good aging potential. The 2003 Sannino Falanghina Pompeiana had a golden color and a delicate nose of white peach and honey. On the palate, it was round and mouthfeeling with a fresh, lively acidity. The wine was delicious with our Caponata, a full-flavored eggplant-based Sicilian appetizer.

The red wine was made from Aglianico grapes grown in the mountainous province of Beneventano. Aglianico is considered to be the greatest red grape of the South as it can produce tannic and dense wines suitable for long ageing. The 2003 Sannino Aglianico Beneventano had a bright red color with a peppery nose of blackberries. On the palate, it was medium-bodied with a soft texture, followed by a lively finish and an aftertaste of cocoa powder. Not the tannic and dense kind but it was very tasty with the other dish we made, a wonderful stuffed veal dish called Cima.

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Friday, January 27, 2006

Good and bad surprises from the cellar

Knowing when it is the right time to drink a wine is always a challenge. You can always try to compute a window of drinkability based on numerous factors such as tannins, acidity, appellation, vintage, varietal, winemaker, ageability of the wine in past vintage, not to forget the storage conditions. But far too many parameters influence how wine ages and whatever you compute is only a rough approximation. Consequently, opening a bottle of mature wine often produces surprising — and for me, fascinating — results. A wine that you expected to age well can be disappointingly passed its prime time. On the contrary, a modest wine may turn out to be delicious.

I prefer drinking my wines in their full adulthood, when they have shed their baby fat and picked up complexity. But at the same time, I am always afraid to wait too long and miss their peak. In fact, I regularly check my cellar inventory looking for wines that might have started to decline.

This is how I recently found two bottles that looked suspicious: a 1996 Puligny-Montrachet Premier Cru Les Folatières Domaine Jean-Marc Boillot and a 1995 Geyser Peak Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County. I opened the Puligny-Montrachet first. The wine had a encouraging bright golden color but the nose was rather shy with hints of cheesy aromas. On the palate, the wine had more cheesy off-flavors covering a once opulent nutty body. I retasted the wine the day after. It had become completely undrinkable and I immediately poured it down the sink.

Then I tried the Geyser Peak. This Cabernet Sauvignon has always been known for its excellent quality-price ratio but not specifically for its ability to age. The wine had a deep red color that hardly showed any sign of age. On the nose, I found black currant and earthy aromas more typical of Bordeaux. On the palate, it was soft and elegant with hints of mushroom and chocolate flavors. Retasting it the day after, the wine was surprisingly even more delicious, exhibiting additional sweet raspberry flavors.

So how do you known when a wine is too old?

“My answer to this is straightforward,” says Matt Kramer in an humorous Wine Spectator article called When Good Wines Say Good-Bye. “A wine is too old when you have to imagine it. When you have to bring to a wine a lot more than it's bringing to you, time's up. The wine is no more.”

But when the wine is good, you don't need to use your imagination. The wine is present. It still has the power to charm you...and let you forget the other bottles that you had to pour down the sink.

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Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Dining with robots or drinking like robots?

I just read a wonderful story written by software engineer and writer Ellen Ullman. In her essay called Dining with Robots, Ellen Ullman wonders how much pleasure robots could ever experience. She also worries that with our long working hours, our well organized life in which so many processes are automated, we may just become robots ourselves.

Everything started when she decided to make a Beuf à la Parisienne, a recipe from Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, for dinner. This is a sauté of beef served with a cream and mushroom sauce. The book also recommends buttered green peas and a good red Bordeaux to accompany the dish. While cooking that evening, she imagined having robots as guests for dinner.

Eventually, this may not be a fantasy anymore. According to Dr. Cynthia Breazeal who works at MIT's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, we will one day be able to build robots that can become socially intelligent machines, learning things as we learn them, through social interactions. Her team is currently developing the first robotic creature that takes an active interest in its world, and learns and develops over time. It learns by trial and error and remembers its mistakes, making incremental improvements. This is a cute little robot called Kismet who, like a child, is learning how to communicate a number of emotion-like processes such as happiness, fear and disgust.

For Ellen, having well behaved guest robots for dinner means that she will have to teach them many different things, and above all, explain what a good red Bordeaux means.

”How to explain wine at all?“ she asks, ”You could spend the rest of your life tasting wine and still not exhaust its variations, each bottle is a little ecosystem of grapes and soils and weather, yeast and bacteria, barrels of wood from trees with their own soil and weather, the variables cross-multiplying until each glassful approaches a singularity, a moment in time on earth. Can a creature that does not drink or taste understand this pleasure? A good red Bordeaux!“

One day, robots may become more like us and show human-like feelings. However, in our effort to quantify everything, even the pleasure of drinking wine, aren't we becoming more robot-like? We buy wine based on ratings, classifications, even computerized wine matchmaking services. Wines have become numbers from which we compute means, medians and standard deviations in order to declare one vintage or wine region better than the other. I guess we trust numbers better than our own palate.

”Quand le vin est tiré, il faut le boire, surtout s'il est bon“ (When the wine is poured, you have to drink it, especially if it's good) says César, the jovial character in Marcel Pagnol's Fanny Trilogy. Isn't it still the best way to enjoy a nice glass of wine?

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Saturday, January 21, 2006

Big is beautiful

Isn't it funny that a magnum size bottle seems always so festive? For some reason, the unusual size of the bottle makes the juice it contains more special and delicious.

Last night, a friend of ours brought a magnum of 2002 Quintessa and also cooked a delicious beef roast with garlic potatoes. The wine had a deep red-purple color and an attractive nose of berries and spices. On the palate, it was dense, very smooth, well balanced, with vanilla notes and a lively finish. We finished the whole roast and the magnum!

This make me think that I should have more magnum sized bottles in my cellar. They are not easy to find but the satisfaction you get when you open one with your friends is definitely worth the effort.

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Thursday, January 19, 2006

The appeal of mature German Rieslings

I love Riesling but I rarely drink German Rieslings. I usually find them too sweet and hard to match with food. But the other day, I had guests at home that were German wine lovers and so I took that opportunity to open a bottle of 1996 Egon Müller Scharzhofberger Riesling Spätlese that was quietly lying in my cellar since 1999.

The Scharzhofberger Riesling of the Müller family comes from a 8 hectare lot that the estate owns in the famous Scharzhofberg vineyard along the Saar river. Scharzhofberg is renowned for its wines of great elegance and finesse thanks to its well drained slate soil where grapes enjoy a slow and long ripening season. Good drainage is necessary because the region is cool and rainy and slate allows the soil to warm up quickly.

1996 was a good vintage in Germany that produced ripe, healthy grapes with good acidity. Because of a relatively cool and dry summer, the harvest started late but the weather remained fine during the fall months and grapes could be safely picked for the Spätlese wines at the end of October.

Did the wine hold its promise? Absolutely! It exhibited a light golden color and a characteristic nose of petrol-mineral aromas. On the palate, it was slightly sweet with a refreshing acidity, along with complex flavors of peach, pear, grape, honey and citrus. On the finish, it was rich and juicy.

Now, am I turning into a German Riesling fan?

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Sunday, January 15, 2006

Snow and Shiraz

This weekend, we skiing at Tahoe. It snowed all day yesterday, and after half a day of ski and some snowshoeing, I was pretty wet and ready for a full, hearty wine.

At the local Safeway, I found a bottle of 2003 Cape Mentelle Shiraz Margaret River that looked promising.

Cape Mentelle is one of the first winery established in the Margaret River region of Southwest Australia. Located within three to seven kilometers off the Indian Ocean coast, the Cape Mentelle vineyards enjoy a maritime influenced Mediterranean climate with mild winters and warm summers. The wine had a deep red color with a nose of ripe fruits and spices. On the palate, it was rich and smooth with sweet flavors. This is a wine that keeps you wonderfully warm and cozy while it is all white and snowy outside.

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Thursday, January 12, 2006

Burgundy High

In her delightful memoir Tasting Pleasure : Confessions of a Wine Lover, Jancis Robinson describes her fascination for Burgundy and her relentless pursuit of the Burgundy High:

”Burgundy of both colors reaches parts of you that other wines cannot. Great burgundy is the ultimate sensualist's wine, but it is even rarer than great bordeaux, at a much, much riskier purchase. This makes one treasure bordeaux's somewhat plodding predictability, but when burgundy succeeds—which it can do for me at all price levels, even some of the most modest appellations can be a real, heady, flirtations joy—it brings such singular pleasure that it spurs me on to keep trying [...] I see a pathetically obvious, relentless pursuit of the Burgundy High. Like a drug addict determined to duplicate the seminal experience at whatever cost, I track myself continuing to choose burgundy from the lists of restaurants and wine merchants in the often futile hope that this will be the bottle.“

Well, I recently experienced my own Burgundy High. We were celebrating the New Year with our close friends Catherine and Pierre when Pierre decided to open the oldest bottle of his collection, a 1983 Nuits-Saint-Georges Les Brulées Domaine de la Poulette given by his father-in-law a long time ago. Pierre has an excellent underground cellar room and the bottle's condition seemed perfect. We opened it religiously and sniffed it. The nose was tight but very promising.

Nuits-Saint-Georges is one of the main appellation of the Côte de Nuits that produces big, strong wines that usually demand long bottle age. Nuits-Saint-Georges Les Brulées is a single vineyard designation in the Nuits-Saint-Georges village, although Les Brulées is not a Premier Cru. The 1983 vintage in Burgundy was considered overrated by the wine critics. The grapes had much thicker skins than in 1982 but many parts of the region suffered from hail damage followed by rot. Overall, the quality of the red wines ranged from excellent to poor.

After half an hour or so, the wine started to open up and exhibit a wonderfully seductive quality. In the glass, the wine had a bright brick-orange color and a headily perfumed nose of flowers, cherries and spices. On the palate, it was well structured with complex smoky flavors—burnt (brulées) flavors said Pierre—, leaving a long, lingering aftertaste.

For dinner, Catherine had made some delicious slow cooked braised beef short ribs. We were in heaven!

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Monday, January 09, 2006

A wine journey along the Russian River

During the holidays, I read A Wine Journey along the Russian River by Steve Heimoff, a book that took me on an enlightening journey along the Russian River.

Steve Heimoff is the West Coast editor of Wine Enthusiast Magazine, and is very familiar with the region. In his book, he introduces you to the geological history of the river, the area's multiple climate and soil variations, the first Indian settlers, the Russian trappers, who established their fur trading colony at Fort Ross, and the early grape-growing pioneers. You read stories of storms and flooding and also of pleasant rowing trips down the river. You participate in comparative tasting between wines from the Alexander Valley and the Napa Valley AVAs and join the everlasting quest for great Pinot Noirs with the local vintners and growers.

It is regretful that Steve Heimoff did not include some detailed maps of the region. There are rich geographical details in the book that are hard to follow without a map.

Another weakness of the book is its disjointed flow that sometimes loses the reader. Like the river that changes course, meanders and loops several times before reaching the ocean, stories are told, new ideas are introduced, without any obvious connection with the previous ones.

In the last chapter of the book, Steve Heimoff raises an interesting issue: the Incredible Hulk-ization of Pinot Noir, and to understand the problem, he interviews different winemakers and growers. Among them, Bob Cabral of Williams-Selyem points out:

”In the evolution of Pinot Noir winemaking, where we found that, physiologically, grapes get riper at higher brix, some people are pushing things too far, for such a delicate grape.“

And when he is asked what would motivate some people to go too far, here is his reply:

”They're chasing the wine writers.“

That does not bother him but he thinks it's insane. I cannot agree more.

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Wednesday, January 04, 2006

WBW #17: A tale of two Pinots

I have been busy traveling during the holidays without much time for wine shopping. So for the 17th edition of Wine Blogging Wednesday — thanks a lot John at Corkdork for being the host and choosing the theme: Red Kiwis — I simply selected the only NZ red wine that was in my cellar at this time: a 2001 Martinborough Vineyard Pinot Noir. I also decided to open a 2001 Merryvale Pinot Noir Los Carneros as a point of comparison.

Actually, I didn't mean to buy the Martinborough Vineyard Pinot Noir. I had ordered a 2001 Ata Rangi Pinot Noir but the store shipped the Martinborough Vineyard instead. I guess they were out of the Ata Rangi and chose to replace it by a similar wine. I hate when they do this but it was not worth returning the wine.

Martinborough is considered to be the most exciting place for Pinot Noir in New Zealand's North Island, and Ata Rangi as well as Martinborough Vineyard are the two leading wineries of the area. Located on the southern tip of the island, this is the coolest wine region but autumns are sunny and dry. The 2001 Martinborough Vineyard Pinot Noir exhibited a dark red-brown color and a big nose of sweet fruits and pepper. On the palate, it was muscular and concentrated with a long, earthy finish.

The Los Carneros AVA is one of Napa Valley's coolest area and is renowned for its Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and sparkling wines. The 2001 Merryvale Pinot Noir Los Carneros showed a bright red color and a mild yet attractive nose of berry, vanilla and clove spice. On the palate, it was well-balanced with some lively acidity. I found it slightly more elegant than the New Zealand Pinot Noir and I liked it better with our Pot-au-Feu.

Two Pinots, two wine regions, two new world styles. Now I am wondering how the Ata Rangi would have tasted?

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Tuesday, January 03, 2006

A classy Cheval Blanc for the New Year

Florence is our long-time friend from Chicago, and she is lucky to sometimes receive wines from her father's expansive Bordeaux wine collection. As we were visiting her and her family for the New Year, she generously opened a 1994 Château Cheval-Blanc at the New Year's Eve dinner. We were very honored and tasted the wine religiously.

To tell the truth, we were a little bit disappointed by the wine, but to be fair, it rained heavily during the 1994 Bordeaux harvest and the 1994 vintage is lighter than most of the vintages that came after. The wine had a deep color with little sign of age and an appealing nose of spices and fruits. On the palate, it was medium-bodied, well balanced and elegant. The wine was delicious but we were expecting more concentration from such a famous Château.

Anyway, for us, it was still a memorable experience and we had a great time. Happy new year!

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