Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Slow Wine

There was an article on slow wine in the Summer edition of Edible San Francisco, that featured an interview of Randall Graham, the iconoclastic winemaker of Bonny Doon Vineyard. Most of us are familiar with Slow Food, the international movement opposing fast food, but who has any idea of what a slow wine is?

“Essentially, slow wines are complex.” explained Grahm when asked to share his latest thoughts on slow wine and slow winemaking, “They're rich in minerals. The more minerality that one is able to extract from the vines, and the less obscene the degree of overripeness at which one harvests the grapes, the slower the wines tend to be.” And then he added on the virtue of slowed wines: “Slow wines are unique and therefore irreplaceable. They cannot by definition become commodities. Slow wines are the ones that enliven the spirit, take your breath away with their complexity, and generally make you believe that despite all the travails of this mortal existence, life is worth living.” The whole interview can also be found on the slow food forum.

Curiously, a few days ago, as I was reading Lawrence Osborne's excellent book The Accidental Connoisseur: An Irreverent Journey Through the Wine World, I found a similar quote from Mitchell Klug, at the time vineyard manager for Mondavi: “You can see it everywhere, this culture of instant change. But with wine you hit a problem. Our culture is fast, but wine is slow. It takes decades. The irony with all these novelty cult wines is that wine has a different mentality from commodities that can change very quickly. It isn't music or fashion or software. You can't change a vineyard overnight.”

I had not realized until now how trenty the slow wine concept was, but now I am wondering: what is more important, the quality of a product or how it is consumed? Can a slow wine really be slow unless it is enjoyed by a slow consumer, I mean someone with a convivial attitude, someone that can take the time to share long meals with friends? Who really makes a wine slow? The winemaker or the consumer?

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Thursday, August 24, 2006

Tasting the 2005 Hook & Ladder The Tillerman White and the growing influence of wine blogs

Do you think that wine blogs have a growing influence on the wine community? Tom Wark from Wark Communication and the Fermentation blog believes so: “The Wine Blog is one of these new information sources that people are paying attention to on a daily basis and using to shape their worldview. And their numbers are growing as well as their influence.” he told a group of wine professionals in a presentation entitled Blogs, Wine Blogs and Communication.

Michael De Loach, head of sales & marketing at Hook & Ladder winery, agrees: “Our family has been in the wine industry for more than 30 years. In that time we've seen lots of changes. When the growth in personal websites and wine blogs was pointed out to me, I was amazed and heartened. It appears that technology has helped ferment a renaissance in wine publishing. I couldn't be happier. It is exactly what this industry needs.”

And therefore, he sent me and other wine bloggers a sample of his 2005 The Tillerman White so that we could talk about it on our blogs.

The owner and winemaker of Hook & Ladder is Michael's father, Cecil De Loach. He is a former San Francisco firefighter and the winery was named to honor this 16-year career: Hook & Ladder is another name for a fire truck. Before launching the winery in 2004, he was also known as the founder and winemaker of De Loach Vineyards, pioneering the Russian River Valley as one of California's premier grape-growing regions since the mid 70's.

The Russian River Valley

I was pleased to read on the winery website that Cecil and his wife Christine De Loach were both very committed to keeping the Russian River Valley environmentally sound. They have implemented a number of environmentally friendly actions such as creating an oak tree nursery, placing barn owl boxes and raptor perches to promote natural predator-prey relationships, and conserving water.

The winery grows many different grapes from various parts of the Russian River Valley, including Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Sangiovese, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Grenache, and Mourvèdre. Two blends are produced, a red and a white, which are both named The Tillerman. This is another reference to Cecil De Loach's firefighter job: because a fire truck needs two steering wheels, there are two drivers; one is in the front, and one, called the tillerman, is in the back.

According to the winemaker notes, the 2005 Hook & Ladder The Tillerman White is a proprietary blend of three estate varietals. It is made using a 100% stainless steel/cold fermentation technique to get a fruit-forward, crisp, expressive wine. The winemaker would not disclose the exact composition of the blend because it will eventually change over time in order to create a consistent flavor profile.

While I felt honored to have been asked to review this wine sample, I have to confess that I was slightly anxious when I opened the bottle. What if I didn't like the wine? Would I still be able to talk about it? I poured a little of the wine in my glass and quickly felt relieved. The wine had an attractive light straw color and an aromatic nose of ripe apple, pear, and white peach. On the palate, it was dry, round, with a refreshing vivacity. I also detected some honey and light spices on the finish. Overall, I found the wine thoroughly pleasant and perfect for a relaxed sipping. Try it with a appetizer of lavosh bread, hummus, and olives.

As for the blend, I agree with Tim Elliott from Winecast who also reviewed the wine: Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer, the two estate white grapes, must be part of the blend. And the third varietal? The obvious choice would be the aromatic Viognier but the grape might be too golden to match the light color of the blend. My other guess is Pinot Gris, a superb cool climate grape that has recently gained in popularity in the Russian River Valley.

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Monday, August 21, 2006

The incredible lightness of Arbois Rouge

A week ago, we had the visit of my husband's parents from France. My father-in-law being a wine lover and an amateur of fruity, low-alcohol, and light-bodied wines, I took the opportunity of their visit to discover—or rediscover—some lesser-known regional wines. One evening we tasted an Arbois rouge that I found particularly noteworthy.

The village of Arbois

If you had the chance to read Edward Behr's well documented coverage of the wines of Jura in the last issue of The Art of Eating, you must be now fairly well acquainted with the region. It is a mountainous massif between Burgundy and Switzerland with Arbois being one of the main communes and appellations. Arbois, which means fertile soil in celtic, is also the childhood home to Louis Pasteur, sometimes called the father of oenology.

The appellation produces a wide variety of wines including red, rosé, and white wines, sparkling wines, sweet vins de pailles and of course the distinctive vins jaunes. The red wines are usually blends of Pinot Noir, Poulsard, and Trousseau. Pinot Noir produces a much lighter wine than in Burgundy and is mostly used for blending. Poulsart is a thin skinned grape native to the Jura producing delicate, lightly-colored wines. Trousseau is more robust and brings color and structure to the traditional Trousseau-Poulsard or Trousseau-Poulsard-Pinot Noir blends. It is also found in Portugal under the name of Bastardo where it is used for Port.

The 2002 Arbois Rouge Vieilles Vignes Jacques Puffeney had a pale red color. I found the nose very distinctive with notes of tart cherry, dried flowers and spices. On the palate, it was dry, refreshing, almost like a rosé, and certainly, incredibly light.

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Thursday, August 10, 2006

Chard No Way!

When I bought the 2004 Montlouis Clos du Breuil François Chidaine, my recent contribution to Wine Blogging Wednesday, I also found a bottle of California Chenin Blanc, the 2005 Vinum Cellars Chenin Blanc CNW (Chard No Way) Cuvee. So I bought the wine, curious to see how Chenin Blanc from a warmer climate would taste.

Vinum Cellars is one of the few California wineries that makes Chenin Blanc. The reason is that the two founders and winemakers, Richard Bruno and Chris Condos, both share a long-standing passion for Chenin Blanc: “It is our belief that Chenin Blanc (when made well) rivals some of the greatest white wines of the world. This wine was made from cool climate grapes, barrel fermented in French Oak, and aged for 9 months. Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah...REDISCOVER CHENIN BLANC!&rdquo

The Chenin Blanc grapes come from Wilson Vineyards in the Clarksburg AVA. This out-of-the-way region is located west of Sacramento and has a unique combination of soils, water, and climate. The soils are rich in organic material with a high mineral content. The Sacramento River provides an abundant source of water. Daytime temperatures are not as high as in nearby Sacramento thanks to cooling breezes coming from San Francisco Bay and rolling into the Sacramento delta. Chenin Blanc and Petite Sirah grow particularly well in this area.

The 2005 Vinum Cellars Chenin Blanc CNW Cuvee has a pale yellow color. The nose is aromatic with expansive fruity and floral notes. On the palate, the body is quite full with some good acidity and ripe fruit flavors. Although it does not have the sharp minerality of a Loire Valley Chenin Blanc, it is nevertheless very pleasurable to drink. And for the price, Chard No Way!

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Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Poetic tasting notes

Jim Harrison's latest piece in Kermit Lynch's August Newsletter, entitled Vin Blanc, was a real treat to read. The novelist and poet has to reduce his consumption of red wines due to health reasons and is therefore discovering the flavors of white wines.

When Kermit Lynch sent him a case of whites to sample, he “felt immediately trapped by the ineffable mystery of taste.”, and then added: “So this case of varied white wines trapped me both in my own limitations as a writer and in the rather obvious limitations of language itself. I make countless aesthetic decisions when composing a novel but am far less comfortable making critiques of the work of others.”

Nonetheless, can you find anything more eloquent than these little gems of tasting notes?

Domaine de la Tour du Bon 2004 Pretty good but a little sweet for my taste. Acceptable on a warm twilight watching birds from our patio in Patagonia, Arizona. One of the thousands of wildflowers I can't name even though I like them all. Naturally had to open a red for the rather musky buffalo shank stew I had made for dinner.

Philippe Faury Saint Joseph 2004 My father was an agronomist who with eyes closed could name the weeds and grasses he smelled. Naturally I can detect a herring egg sandwich when I bite into it. In this wine I can taste the stones of the Rhone Valley. The place suits me and so does the wine.

Ermitage du Pic St. Loup This was also easy because I love the terroir, and had pleasant memories of drinking it in a cafe in the grand square of Montpellier while watching the prettiest woman in France walk by. This wine tastes as soft and pleasant as the back of a girl's knee after she has taken a dip in the Mediterranean. I drank it with the light-breasted scaled quail I had shot, then downshifted to the mighty Vacqueyras, Sang des Cailloux, for the shoulder of wild pig.

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Wednesday, August 02, 2006

WBW #24: A fine Chenin Blanc from Montlouis-sur-Loire

Today is Wine Blogging Wednesday and for the second anniversary of this popular wine blogging event, Alder of Vinography has asked us to drink a Loire White as he think that the Loire Valley is the most underrated wine regions of France.

And I believe that Chenin Blanc is the most underrated grape variety. Like Riesling, it is made in a wide variety of wine styles: light sparkling wines, bone dry table wines, as well as unctuous dessert wines. Thanks to its high acidity, it can produce wines that are capable of aging for many decades. And it is also extremely food friendly.

An old Chenin Blanc vine in Vouvray

Chenin Blanc is Loire's signature white wine grape and has been well established in Anjou since the 9th century. It was later exported to Touraine, also called the garden of France, where it thrived in the highly calcareous soils of the region, especially around the towns of Vouvray and Montlouis-sur-Loire. Sadly, as light red wines became highly popular in Parisian Bistros in the 1970s, plantings of Chenin Blanc in Anjou and Touraine has been inevitably replaced by the more profitable Cabernet Franc and Gamay varieties.

Vouvray and Montlouis-sur-Loire are just across the river from each other but for some reason, Montlouis has never enjoyed the high reputation of its neighbor. Maybe it is because of its lighter, sandier soils, or maybe it is its tiny size: 380 hectares planted exclusively with Chenin Blanc.

For a long time, all I knew about Montlouis was the inexpensive sparkling wine that my grand-father used to buy from a local vigneron. It was our poor man's Champagne, relatively bland in flavor, nonetheless bright and bubbly, which was what we needed for our family celebrations.

The 2004 Montlouis Clos du Breuil François Chidaine that we tasted last night was of a different caliber. François Chidaine is one of the most serious producers of the region. He believes that “wine is born from the vine, not from artificial skills of re-creation in the winery”, and his 16 hectares estate, made of eight distinct plots, is organically farmed. Clos du Breuil is one of these plots. It has a soil of clay and limestone with flint and is always vinified separately as a Montlouis sec.

The wine had a bright golden color and a light, mineral nose with undertones of stone fruits. On the palate, it was crisp, dry, mineral, with also some roundness, leaving an aftertaste of white peach. We enjoyed the wine with some halibut filets baked in a Thai-inspired curry sauce. This reinforced my conviction that, like Riesling, Chenin Blanc loves Asian spices.

Thanks Alder for hosting and choosing this inspiring theme!

“et avec gros raisins chenins estuverent les jambes de Forgier mignonnement, si bien qu'il feut tantost guery.” (and with big grapes of chenin cutely bathed the legs of Frogier, so that he soon was cured)
François Rabelais, Gargantua.

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