Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Rediscovering the wines from Pessac-Léognan and Graves

For some obscure reasons, the wines of Pessac-Léognan and Graves — with the exception of a few top estates — attract less prestige than the wines from other main regions in Bordeaux, such as the Médoc, Saint-Emilion or Pomerol. Therefore, Arnaud's last wine tasting event dedicated to the wines of Pessac-Léognan and Graves, was a great opportunity to rediscover the fine wines of this region.

Bordeaux Wine Office

The region has not always been out of fashion. In the Middle Ages, at a time when the Médoc was mainly marsh, moorland, and forests, Graves was renowned for its Claret, a light wine much enjoyed by the English and shipped in large quantities to England. Château Haut-Brion, Graves' most famous estate, was the first Bordeaux Château to achieve international recognition. Its 1784 vintage was one of Thomas Jefferson's favorite wines. In the 1855 classification, Château Haut-Brion was ranked First Growth along with Château Lafite-Rothschild, Château Latour, and Château Margaux. In 1959, Graves created its own classification system that recognized 13 Châteaux for their red wines and 8 Châteaux for their white wines.

Graves gets its name from the soil, a mix of gravels, clay and sand carried out by the river. The gravel pebbles work as thermoregulator: during the day, they reflect the sun and accumulate the heat that they radiate back to the vines at night. The soil is also very porous, which creates a semi-arid condition producing low-vigor vines.

It is the only region in Bordeaux that is renowned for both its red and white wines. Two third of Graves wines are red and made primarily from Cabernet-Sauvignon with smaller amounts of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. The white wines, generally fresh, fruity, and dry, are among the best white wines in Bordeaux. Usually vinified in oak, they are produced from three grape varieties, Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, and Muscadelle.

Tasting the white wines

Our first wine was the 2003 Les Plantiers du Haut-Brion. A blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon, this is the second white label of Château Haut-Brion. The wine was delicious and my favorite white wine. It had a pale yellow color and an attractive nose of pear, apple, and honey. On the palate, it had a fat mouthfeel with citrus and butterscotch flavors and a nice long finish.

The next wine was the 2000 Vieux Château Gaubert Blanc. The Vieux Château Gaubert, from the Graves appellation, is considered to be a good value both in white and red. The white wine, a blend of 45% Sauvignon Blanc, 30% Sémillon, and 5% Muscadelle, had an aromatic nose of candied fruit, with grapefruit aromas on the palate. I found it to be crisper and leaner than the Plantiers du Haut-Brion.

Our last white was the 1997 Château Pape Clément Blanc. Château Pape Clément is one of the most ancient estates in Bordeaux. One of its original owners, Bertrand de Goth, was elected Pope Clément V in 1305. He was the first of seven Popes to rule from Avignon. He was also the one that established the Pope's country residence and named it Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The white wine, a blend of 45% Sauvignon Blanc 45% Sémillon 10% Muscadelle, represents only 10% of the total production. Unfortunately, the wine that we tasted was oxidized. It displayed a pretty amber color but on the nose, it had unpleasant cheesy and sherry-like aromas.

Tasting the red wines

Our first red wine was the 2000 Vieux Château Gaubert Rouge, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc. I found the wine very pleasant with a red fruit nose, peppery aromas, a smooth palate and a well-balanced finish.

The next wine was the 1997 Château Smith Haut Lafitte. The vineyard of Château Smith Haut Lafitte is planted with 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Franc for the red wine, a classified growth in the Graves classification, and 95% Sauvignon Blanc, 5% Sémillon for the white wine. I really enjoyed this wine, which was my favorite red wine. The nose was full of dark fruits, chocolate and coffee. On the palate, it was full-bodied and tasty with a long finish.

Then, we tasted the 1994 Château Haut-Bailly. The Château Haut-Bailly, another classified growth and one of the few properties that cultivates red varietals only. The Haut-Bailly vineyard consists of 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Franc, and finally 15% still planted with vines on pre-phylloxera French rootstock. This means that there are still many plants of Carmenère, Malbec and Petit Verdot in the vineyard, as it was common in Bordeaux in the 19th century. The wine had a red fruit nose, nice cocoa powder flavors, and a lighter-bodied palate than the Smith Haut Lafitte. For many guests, this was their favorite red wine.

We finished the tasting with the 2002 Château La Mission Haut-Brion. The Château La Mission Haut-Brion property is planted with 48% Cabernet Sauvignon, 45% Merlot and 7% Cabernet Franc and lies on the opposite side of the road from Haut-Brion. For several decades, La Mission had been Haut-Brion's direct rival until the Dillon family of Haut-Brion acquired the property in 1983. Compared with Haut-Brion, La Mission tends to produce bigger and richer wines. The 2002 that we tasted was powerful indeed with smoky and chocolate aromas on the nose. It had a young and tannic palate with notes of crème brulée, followed by a vivid, lengthy finish.

Many thanks to Arnaud for another great tasting and to Marie-Christine and Edouard for sharing their house!

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Thursday, March 23, 2006

Pinot Blanc, not always a poor man's Chardonnay

What is Pinot blanc? It is thought to be a white mutation of Pinot Gris, which is itself a lighter colored mutation of Pinot Noir. Originated in Burgundy, most of the Pinot Blanc that is grown in France nowadays is found in Alsace where it is one of the most widely planted varietals. For a long time, the grape has been confused with Chardonnay as the two varietals look similar. Often referred as poor's man Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc has the reputation to be rather neutral in flavor with a high acidity, but at its best, it can produce full-bodied wines with distinctive flavors.

Take for example the 2004 Meyer-Fonné Pinot Blanc Vieilles Vignes. It is produced by the Domaine Meyer-Fonné of Katzenthal, a small wine village just 6 miles west of the main city of Colmar, on the Route des Vins d'Alsace. The wine was made from old Pinot Blanc vines, planted on a small lot of less than 3 hectares. It shows a pale yellow color and a floral nose with mineral aromas. On the palate, it is dry with a generous mouthfeel, honeyed apple flavors, notes of spices, followed by a clean, lively finish.

I like to serve this wine as a aperitif, and last night, it was delicious as usual. It went particularly well with my sweet onion tart, an adaptation of the Alsatian onion tart where I substitute bacon with carrots and mushrooms.

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Monday, March 20, 2006

Mia's Playground Merlot

At a recent visit to my local Safeway wine aisle, I was surprised by all the new animal brands or fun brands with wacky names and catchy labels that you see on display now. One of them got my attention: the 2003 Mia's Playground Merlot Dry Creek Valley.

1. First, you read the label. The beginning is somewhat mystical:

“3's a well balanced number often representing a mystical trinity in which all things are contained in one, and one is present in all.”

But if you read the whole thing, you'll notice that there are three monkeys in a barrel and that the M in Mia's Playground is actually a 3. Three is obviously the magic number here, a reference to the three Sebastiani family members working for the Don Sebastiani & Sons company. Mia's Playground is actually named for Don's daughter, Mia (a three-letter name).

2. Then, you open the bottle. It's easy, the closure is a screw cap, like all the wines bottled by Three Loose Screws.

3. Finally, you taste the wine. “Drink this bottle with 2 other friends, making a party of 3.” says the label but we were only 2 last night. The wine had a dark color and an attractive nose of sweet blackberries. On the palate, it was medium-bodied and soft with a rather short finish.

But if you're looking for a fruit-forward, uncomplicated wine, this one is actually a well-crafted wine.

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Thursday, March 16, 2006

Cleavage Creek: just a wine for macho winos?

No, this picture is not an Ad for one of these sexy Victoria Secret tops. This is a wine label from Cleavage Creek Cellars, a winery owned by Jeff and Barbara Conners of Sonoma County, California. The couple had been home winemakers for many years until 2003 when they decided to start their own wine business.

I learned about this winery in one of Dr Vino's recent posts. And then I read that the label might be in violation of the Wine Institute's voluntary Code of Advertising Standards. The label was considered to be degrading to women and tacky.

“We wanted a label that was eye-catching and would stand out. If you look at wine labels from 20 feet away, they all kind of blend together on the shelf.” explained Jeff Conners, one of the winery owners, to the Wines & Vines publication, “We found a way we can help fund breast cancer research with a fun name, a fun look and an award-winning wine.”

In 1999, Jeff and Barbara Conners learned that Barbara's grandmother developed breast cancer. Thanks to early detection and modern technology, she is now a breast cancer survivor, but breast cancer could be hereditary and someday affect Barbara or her daughters. Therefore, the winery donates 10% of its proceeds to Breast Cancer Research.

The Conners purchase wine from wineries in Northern California. Then the juice is blended and bottled at Cleavage Creek. Their Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay come from Napa Valley grapes, their Sauvignon blanc is from Mendocino County, and their White Zinfandel is a California appellation. Four of the winery's five wines won medals at the 2004 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.

So, is the wine any good? I decided to buy some and donate to breast cancer research at the same time.

The 2002 Cleavage Creek Sauvignon Blanc Mendocino County has a blond model with a white top on its label. it has a light straw color and citrus aromas on the nose. The palate is light-bodied with grapefruit and lime flavors and high acidity. This is a very crisp wine that needs to be paired with a lemony dish.

With a pink ribbon on the label, the 2003 Cleavage Creek Catherine's Blend was created to honor Barbara's Grandmother. The wine is a blend of different Bordeaux varietals from diverse regions of California. it has a deep red/purple color and a nose of sweet fruit. On the palate, it is light to medium-bodied, with red fruits and mint flavors, followed by an acidic finish. Try this unsophisticated wine with a pizza or with spaghetti and meatballs.

The 2000 Cleavage Creek Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley has a blond model with a red top on its label. It has a deep garnet color and a more complex nose with blackcurrant and spicy aromas. On the palate, it is smooth, medium-bodied with a balanced finish.

After tasting these wines, I think that they are overpriced, even if 10% of the proceeds is donated to Breast Cancer Research. But the winery's website encourages you to join the Cleavage Creek Clinkage Club: as a member, you will have the privilege to access the photographs of prospective models and help selecting the ones for the new 2006 labels!
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Sunday, March 12, 2006

A taste of Israel

Yesterday, a friend of mine brought a Israeli wine for dinner. I had never tasted a wine from that country before and I was curious to see what it would taste like. While not so long ago, most of the wines produced in Israel were reputed to be thick, sweet and unsophisticated, I am reading that today, the wine scene is booming with an increasing number of new quality-focused wineries.

The wine was from Domaine Castel. It is a winery located in the Judean Hills, west of Jerusalem, and named after a nearby Crusader fortress. The estate vineyards are situated at an average altitude of 700m on slopes facing the Mediterranean sea and deep valleys enjoying cooler summer temperatures and shorter hours of sunshine. The premium red wine of the Domaine is the Castel Grand Vin, a Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Petit Verdot. It is aged for 24 months in 100% new French oak barrels, as well as unfined and unfiltered. The winery also produces a Chardonnay and another Bordeaux blend called Petit Castel.

Last night, we drank the 1999 Domaine du Castel Castel Grand Vin with braised lamb shanks. The wine exhibited a dark purple color and opulent aromas of black fruits. On the palate, it was ripe and full-bodied with spicy dried fruit flavors on the finish. It went really well with the rich flavors of the lamb.

I love discovering new wines, especially when they are good, and for me, this wine compared very favorably to many Cabernet Sauvignon blends from better known wine regions of the world.

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Wednesday, March 08, 2006

WBW #19: the true taste of Counoise

I can't believe we're already in March and today is Wine Blogging Wednesday. This month, the event is hosted by Jathan at Wine Expression, and the theme is When in Rhone.

I love the rich flavors of the Syrah-based and Grenache-based wines whether they come from the Rhône Valley, Spain, California or Australia. But what about the lesser known varietals that also thrive in the Rhône Valley and other wine regions with a similar climate? What about Counoise for example?

Counoise is one of the thirteen authorized grape varieties of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Although rarely used nowadays, it was well established in the Rhône Valley in the late 19th century. At that time, Joseph Ducos, who was the owner of Château La Nerthe and the first French grower to import rootstock to overcome the phylloxera epidemic, had selected Counoise as one of the ten grape varieties that he would grow in his vineyard, because of “its personality, charm, freshness, and bouquet”. The origin of the grape is unknown but the Provencal poet Frédéric Mistral, who was also an accomplished gourmet, claimed that “the Counoise grape variety was a gift from Spain to Pope Urbain V”.

Today, Château de Beaucastel is one of the rare domains that use Counoise for its Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine. It typically includes 10% of Counoise to the blend to add peppery notes and lively acidity. In 1990, Tablas Creek Vineyard imported some Counoise cuttings from Château de Beaucastel and the winery started planting the varietal in the Paso Robles Hills. Since 1999, Counoise usually comprises 5-10% of Tablas Creek's Esprit de Beaucastel.

Counoise is a blending component allowed in most of the South of France appellations but it is almost never used on its own. So how can we identify the true flavor of Counoise?

Fortunately, I was able to find two 100% Counoise wines at my local K&L Wine Merchants store. One of them was the 2003 Domaine Monpertuis Vignoble de la Ramière Cuvée Counoise. Paul Jeune, owner of Domaine Monpertuis, produces wines in red and white color in the Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation. He also makes this Vin de Pays du Gard from a small parcel of vines that he recently acquired in the Gard region, just across the Rhône River from Châteauneuf. The vineyard, called Vignoble de la Ramière, is planted with Counoise and Grenache. This wine is a 100% Counoise cuvée. It had a deep garnet-red color and a discreet nose of pepper and black fruits. On the palate, it was rich, spicy and mouthfilling with a lively acidity on the finish.

The other wine was the 2003 Côtes du Rhône-Villages Sablet Domaine de Piaugier Ténébi. Domaine de Piaugier is, according to Robert Parker, the emerging star of Sablet. Jean-Marc Autran, the domaine owner, discovered Counoise while visiting Beaucastel: “In 1990, I visited Beaucastel and I tasted their Counoise in barrels and I thought that was extraordinary and since I had some planted and had time to kill. In 1991, I decided to bottle the Ténébi and it turned out even better than I thought it would”. The wine had a dark garnet color and a intense nose of red and black fruits. On the palate, it was dense and peppery with pruny flavors, followed by a long finish.

The two wines were very good indeed although I preferred the Domaine Monpertuis because it was softer and more food-friendly.

So would now be the time for Counoise to get out of obscurity?.

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Tuesday, March 07, 2006

2001 Givry Premier Cru Clos de la Servoisine Domaine Joblot

Givry is a small village in Burgundy and one of the best appellations of the Côte Chalonnaise. It used to be famous as the preferred wine of King Henri IV but later suffered a decline following the destruction of the vineyard by phylloxera and two World Wars. Today, Givry offers some of the best values in Burgundy.

I don't know the origin of the word Servoisine but for me it rhymes with Framboisine, a dessert made with raspberries. So I was not surprised when, as I was opening the 2001 Givry Premier Cru Clos de la Servoisine Domaine Joblot , I detected lovely raspberry liqueur aromas in the wine. In the glass, the wine had a medium ruby color and a perfumed nose of raspberry and blackcurrant. On the palate, it was smooth, smoky and fruity with some lively acidity. This wine was simply delicious with our braised short ribs.

Some people believe that the plants that grow next to a vineyard can contribute to the taste of the wine made from that vineyard. I will not be surprised to learn that they grow raspberries in the Clos de la Servoisine.

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Friday, March 03, 2006

Pinot Noir Blind Tasting

Our wine tasting group met again last month for a Pinot Noir tasting. It is interesting to notice that the wines that people brought were all from California except one that was from Oregon (it was also the only one from the 2003 vintage). More surprisingly, they were all from wine regions north of San Francisco — no Sideways Pinot here.

First, we tasted the 2003 Domaine Serene Pinot Noir Evenstad Reserve Willamette Valley. Located in Oregon's Northern Willamette Valley, Domaine Serene is a winery that utilizes environmentally responsible and sustainable farming practices. The wine, unfined and unfiltered, was aged 16 months in French oak barrels, of which 74% were new. It had a dark garnet color. The nose was discreet but pleasant. On the palate, it was fruity and tannic with some notes of brown sugar. Overall, some tasters found it young and irregular with some good potential while others found it fresh and well-balanced. It was ranked second in the tasting.

Our second wine was the 2002 David Bruce Pinot Noir Truchard Vineyard Los Carneros. Located in the cool Los Carneros appellation, the Truchard Vineyard has 270 acres planted with 10 different grape varieties on various types of soil: clay, shale, sandstone, volcanic rock and ash. The wine was the darkest of all. It had a powerful nose with sweet blackberry aromas. On the palate, it was big, chewy and oaky with a long finish, but some tasters found it too intense and alcoholic. It came in third place just one point behind the Domaine Serene.

Our third Pinot was the Oak Arbour Pinot Noir Toulouse Vineyard Anderson Valley. Mendocino County's Anderson Valley is slowly emerging as one of California's best region for Pinot Noir. A mere 10-15 miles from the Pacific Ocean, the valley enjoys a cool, coastal climate with night and morning fog and warm summer days, which is ideal for Burgundian varieties like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and classic Alsatian varieties like Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and Pinot Gris. This wine had a much lighter color than the David Bruce. It had also a lighter nose with floral and fruity aromas. On the palate, it was slightly sweet but elegant and well balanced. The group found it very food friendly and placed it in first position. This wine was my favorite too! There is a duck on the label so this makes me think about having a duck magret — one of the culinary traditions of Toulouse &mdash with the wine.

Our next wine was the 2002 Robert Sinskey Pinot Noir Los Carneros. Robert Sinskey Vineyards is a winery that strongly believes in organic farming, natural winemaking, and emphasizes elegance over power. The wine had a dark color and a shy fruity nose. On the palate, it was a bit flat and tart with a short finish. A few tasters favored it over the ones with a bigger style. I personally have to admit that this wine was more difficult to appreciate coming after the first three. The wine finished in fifth position.

Then we tasted the 2002 Davis Bynum Pinot Noir Lindleys' Knoll Russian River Valley. The wine comes from a certified organic vineyard in the Russian River Valley, planted with 14 year-old vines on well-drained hillside soils. The wine was aged in French oak for 17 months, and 30% new oak was used. It had a pleasant aromatic nose with notes of strawberry. On the palate, it was tight, woody and acidic, leaving a short finish. The group found it too young and quite unbalanced and placed it in fifth position.

Our last wine was the 2002 Terra Valentine Pinot Noir Russian River Valley. The wine showed a lighter color and a discreet nose of citrus and grapefruit. On the palate, it was sweet, too sweet for many tasters, with flavors of vanillin oak leaving a somewhat bitter and acidic finish. The wine finished in fourth place just one point above the Davis Bynum and the Robert Sinskey.

Now, following the tradition that we started with our 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon blind tasting, we are saving a second bottle of these wines for a future tasting, and I am very curious to see how these wines will taste in one or two years!

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Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Making our own wine: update 4 (bottling)

I am part of a group of twenty or so wine lovers who decided to make their own wine through the winemaking assistance and facilities of Crushpad, a community winery located in San Francisco. Crushpad allows you to choose your level of participation in the winemaking process and be involved in key decisions. Making a wine at Crushpad starts with selecting a vineyard and grape variety and then creating a winemaking plan with the Crushpad team that specifies the desired wine style as well as fermentation, aging, blending and bottling related parameters.

The first time I came to Crushpad was in October 2004. Our wine was in a fermentation vat. It was a Syrah from the Clary Ranch vineyard, a cool area located in the Sonoma Coast appellation. That day, we learned how to punch down the cap and measure the brix level of the fermenting juice. A week after, the fermentation was over and we came back to press the wine and transfer it into our Burgundy barrel.

Then, last April, I was able to taste the wine after nearly six months of barrel aging. The wine was promising with a firm backbone and nice fruity and peppery flavors.

Finally, we came back to Crushpad last week for the last step. Our Syrah had been patiently aging for more than 15 months and was ready to be bottled. The Crushpad design team had already produced a label for the wine, based on a photo of the Clary Ranch vineyard taken by our friend Arnaud.

When I arrived, the Crushpad team was around an impressive bottling machine, making the last adjustments. For some reason, the labeling part was not functioning properly but the rest of the machine was working fine.

I was offered a taste of the wine. Since my last tasting of the Syrah, it had been blended with a dash (2.5%) of Viognier, in the Côte Rôtie style. The nose was very aromatic and appealing. On the palate, it was smooth and fruity with notes of vanillin oak. Overall, I found it very pleasant and easy to drink. According to the winemaker, this wine should rather be drunk young.

We quickly started the bottling process. Our barrel had a capacity of 228 liters, so we had to work on roughly 300 750ml-bottles, but in reality less because some people had also ordered some magnums.

In a bottling machine, the wine is pumped from a storage tank to the machine where it flows in pre-measured amount into each bottle.

Then the bottles move to the corking area where a cork is inserted into each bottle. Finally, the bottles receive a piece of aluminum foil that is wrapped around their cork. At the exit of the bottling line, the bottles are ready to be labeled and put into boxes.

At the end, there was no wine left in the storage tank. All the bottles were in boxes waiting for us to be picked up. It was time to leave the friendly Crushpad team and allow the wine to rest. Now, stay tuned, we will taste the wine again in a year or so and see how it had evolved after some bottle aging.

Related stories:
• Making our own wine!
• Making our own wine: update 2
• Making our own wine: update 3

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