Friday, February 26, 2010

Napa and Sonoma trip: visit of Quintessa

Time flies so fast that I haven't had the time to blog about a trip to Napa and Sonoma that I did before the holidays. The trip was particularly interesting as it was organized by a friend that works in the restaurant business. Thanks to him, we enjoyed a VIP treatment at the wineries and even stayed overnight as guests at one of them.

Our first meeting was at Quintessa on Silverado Trail in St. Helena. It's a beautiful 280 acre property that includes a valley, a lake, a river, five hills, four microclimates and numerous soil types. 170 acres of vines are planted to the classic Bordeaux grape varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon (129 acres), Merlot (26 acres), Cabernet Franc (7 acres), Petit Verdot (4 acres), and Carmenere (4 acres). Thanks to the diversity of the microclimates and soil types, 40 different wines lots have been defined from 26 different vineyard blocks.

We were welcomed by Niesa Granger from the Quintessa Hospitality team, who had prepared for us some wine samples and documentation.

We first tasted two 2008 Vineyard Block Cabernet Sauvignon barrel samples. One was from the cool Bench block. The wine had a rather closed nose with lush, sweet berry flavors on the palate. The other one was from the Cruz del Sur block, a warm area without much water. The wine was very different with a more expressive nose and enticing minty and cocoa aromas.

We also tasted the 2005 and 2006 Quintessa. Quintessa is a meritage blend of multiple vineyard blocks. Fruit from each block is harvested, sorted, and fermented in either oak or stainless steel tanks. Then each block wine is aged separately for up to two years in French oak barrels. Finally, the components are brought together to create the final Quintessa blend.

The 2005 Quintessa had an fragrant nose full of minty and tobacco aromas. The palate was rich, full-bodied with sweet tannins and a peppery finish. The 2006 Quintessa looked more tight with toasty oak aromas and firm tannins, definitively too young to be drunk now but promising.

Tasting with Niesa Granger from the Quintessa Hospitality team

We ended our visit with a tour of the property. As we reached a scenic spot overlooking the lake, we stopped to have a sip of the winery's Illumination Sauvignon Blanc. The place was idyllic and it was quite unfortunate that we couldn't stay longer but we had to drive over the Mayacamas Mountains to the Sonoma side for our next appointment: Hanzell Vineyards.

View of the lake at Quintessa

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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Tasting the Slovenian wines of Ivan Batič

Last month, I was invited by Frank Dietrich of the Blue Danube Wine Company to a special tasting of Ivan Batič's wines at the newly opened restaurant Hibiscus in Oakland. Ivan Batič and his son Miha were present to talk about their wines and winemaking philosophy while we were sampling the restaurant's delicious Caribbean specialties.

The Batič winery is a 18 hectare estate located in the Vipava Valley, a narrow valley in the western part of Slovenia connecting the Friuli lowlands to central Slovenia. The valley is renowned for its quality wines, mostly white, as it enjoys a submediterranean to continental climate with dry and warm winds coming from the Adriatic sea. The valley grows a mix of indigenous, Italian, and international grapes.

For Ivan and Miha Batič, the best wines are made in the vineyard, not in the cellar. They pay the greatest attention to vineyard management and employ the same viticulture methods that were used hundred years ago. The vineyard is farmed organically, although it is not certified as such. Grapes are harvested manually and selectively, fermentation occurs with native yeasts, and wine is aged in Slovenian oak barrels, some of them older than one hundred years old.

White wine accounts for nearly three-quarters of the production. White grape varieties include the native Pinela, Zelen, Vitovska, and Rebula (known as Ribolla Gialla in the nearby Friuli) as well as Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc. Red grape varieties include Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc.

Opening the Batič wines

Ivan Batič

Miha Batič (left)

Here are my notes:

• 2004 Batic Pinela: golden color, flowery nose with notes of pineapple, luscious and thick on the palate, rich aftertaste.

• 2005 Batic Sauvignon Blanc Reserve: deep color, mineral nose, notes of citrus, some fullness on the palate and crisp acidity on the finish.

• 2007 Batic Zaria: an amazing field blend of Pinela, Rebula, and Zelen. Orange color, mineral and herbal notes on the nose, dry, nutty on the palate, slightly oxidized character that reminded me of some of the white wines from the Jura.

• 2005 Batic Rosso: a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc made only in the best years. Deep red color, forward nose with red berry aromas, full-bodied on the palate, tasty and well-balanced with some good acidity on the finish.

“You can open a bottle of Rosso Batič at any time, all you need is good company and time, as the wine keeps developing and growing in the glass,” recommends the winery website, “Should you choose to open a Rosso in the time of the old moon, a most special taste will evolve – the Rosso Batič taste.”

Related posts:
•  The wines of Slovenia
•  Wines of Germany and Eastern Europe class: Croatia, Slovenia and Romania

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Tuesday, February 09, 2010

For Beaujolais, a "Villages" is the way to go

It is unfortunate that over the years, the wines of beaujolais have developed a negative reputation among consumers that tend to associate them with the sweet cotton candy and banana gum flavors of Beaujolais Nouveau. That's too bad because wines from the Villages appellation or one of the 10 Crus are definitively worth checking out.

Beaujolais Wine Region

Beaujolais is a large wine region located south of Burgundy, along the Saône River between the towns of Mâcon and Lyon. The Beaujolais AOC is the broadest appellation covering 60 villages, with nearly half of the crop being released just a few weeks after harvest and sold as Beaujolais Nouveau.

Beaujolais-Villages covers 39 villages located in northern Beaujolais. It is a more hilly region with soils containing more granite and schist. Due to better growing conditions, the Beaujolais-Villages wines have more complexity and depth.

The finest wines come from the 10 Crus of Beaujolais located in the foothills of the Beaujolais mountains. Seven of them (Saint-Amour, Juliénas, Chénas, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Régnié) relate to actual villages. Côte de Brouilly is grown on the volcanic hillsides of Mont Brouilly and Brouilly is found in the flatter area around it. Moulin-à-Vent, a more serious wine with great aging potential, is named for the last remaining windmill in the Beaujolais.

Ninety-eight percent of the area is planted with Gamay, a grape with a thin skin and low in tannins. Gamay ripened two weeks earlier than Pinot Noir and is less difficult to cultivate. It produces a light wine with a bright and fruity style.

I recently tasted the 2008 Beaujolais-Villages Louis Jadot that was sent to me by Kobrand Corporation. Maison Louis Jadot is the largest Negociant in Beaujolais that purchases grapes instead of juice or must in order to keep full control over winemaking decisions. Half of the wine is matured in oak barrels and the other half in stainless steel. The final cuvée contains up to 40% of declassified wines from the various crus of Beaujolais.

The wine had a bright color with red cherry aromas on the nose. On the palate, it was light-bodied and juicy leaving a clean and fresh aftertaste. Try it with a Frisée aux Lardons Salad, one of the classic Bistro specialties from Lyon.

Now for your February 14th dinner, why not share a bottle of Saint-Amour with your Valentine?

Related post:
•  Visiting Fleurie in Beaujolais

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Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Wine and Neuroscience

In his book Proust Was A Neuroscientist, journalist and author Jonah Lehrer has a whole chapter explaining the neuroscience behind our sense of smell and taste. He describes how Escoffier invented the veal stock, therefore the secret of deliciousness: the denatured protein from the bones, the burned bit of meat in the bottom of the pan are full of L-glutamate, which is now known as umami. Additionally, we enjoy food that smells good. According to Neuroscientists, up to 90 percent of what we perceive as taste is actually smell.

But our sense of taste and smell, says Lehrer, is greatly influenced by subjectivity. “Impressions are always incomplete and require a dash of subjectivity to render them whole. When we bind or parse our sensations, what we are really doing is making judgments about what we think we are sensing. This unconsious act of interpretation is largely driven by contextual clues.”

That's because the olfactory bulb is flooded with information from higher brain functions, like the memories of past experiences.

To illustrate this point, Lehrer describes a couple of mischievous experiments conducted by Frédéric Brochet, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Bordeaux. In the first test, 57 wine experts tasted a white wine and a red wine and were asked to describe them. Adjectives like "fresh, dry, honeyed, lively" were used for the white wine, whereas the red wine was found "intense, spicy, supple, deep." In reality, the two wines were identical, the red one was just dyed red.

In the other experiment, tasters were given two wines in two different bottles, one labeled as a cheap table wine, the other labeled as a Bordeaux Grand Cru. The Grand Cru was characterized as "woody, complex, and round" and the cheap wine as "short, light, and faulty". Here again, the two wines were the exact same mid-range Bordeaux.

“What these experiments illuminate” says Lehrer, “is the omnipresence of subjectivity. Our human brain has been designed to believe itself, wired so that prejudices feel like facts, opinions are indistinguishable from the actual sensation. If we think a wine is cheap, it will taste cheap.”

“Without our subjectivity we could never decipher our sensations, ” concludes Lehrer, “ and without our sensations we would have nothing about which to be subjective. Before you can taste the wine you have to judge it.”

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