Rosé for people who don’t like rosé?

I’ve never been much of a rosé guy.   Since its resurgence in recent years, rosé has pretty much become de rigeur in the summertime, from rooftop bars to Hamptons blowouts to backyard barbeques. I love reds, I love crisp whites in the summertime, and rosé is a little bit of both, so what’s not to love, right? Yet rosé has always left me a little flat – neither here nor there – either watered down compared to a red, or having a cherry bitterness compared to a good white wine, and usually not complex enough to keep me interested.

There have been exceptions- I have liked Domaine Tempier’s Bandol rosé, a blend of mostly mourvèdre with ample parts grenache and cinsault with some earthy complexity, but at roughly $40 a bottle, it has never become a part of my regular wine rotation.   With summer hitting full swing in recent weeks, I decided I should revisit the world of rosé, to see if my perspective had changed over the years, and to see if I couldn’t find something I liked to add variety to our summer outings.

My first few attempts were mixed.  Lucien Albrecht’s cremant d’Alsace Brut Rosé NV was a refreshing sparkler at a decent price (can be found at about $13 retail), and well loved by the crowd at our Memorial Day gathering, but I honestly don’t know if I’d personally choose it over my favorite whites, or even a craft beer.  I next tried the 2015 Bedrock Ode to Lulu rosé.  If ever there was a chance for me to really love a rosé, this was it – made by a winemaker whose wines I have dug in the past and featured in these pages, and from a blend not unlike the Tempier, with mataro (another name formourvèdre), grenache and carignan.  Yet while it was fine for most rosé drinkers we shared it with, it just did not ring my bell.

The search went on, and my next round of attempts yielded promising results.  The Prieuré de tavel zweigeltMontezargues rosé from Tavel, an AOC in the Rhone Valley of France, brought the light red fruit flavor that the other rosés did, with good acid, but also a bit of the earthiness and florality that I like from the Tempier Bandol.  And I suppose it makes sense, Tavel is a few hours away from Bandol, and I have always found a certain similarity in rusticity and spice between Rhone wines and Provencal wines.  The Prieuré de Montezargues finished a touch bitter on the finish at first, but I liked it better after half a day’s aeration.

It was an unexpected place that helped me hit rosé paydirt.  Enter Austria!  As a pinot noir devotée, I might’ve thought that the Biokult Rosé Secco (organic)might be the wine to convert me, being from 100% rose seccopinot noir (as was the Albrecht), and I did like it and its light effervescence, but it was the Biokult Rosé, (also organic, and can be found as low as $10) from zweigelt, an Austrian variety created by crossing St. Laurent and blaufrankisch, that I liked the most.   The fruit had an oomph to it, that was impactfully flavorful without overt bitterness.  Put simply, it brought me the most pleasure, and isn’t that what rosé is about?  I’ll admit, I might’ve liked this one most because it was most like a red.  But for a red wine drinker looking for a rosé to love, this one did just the trick.

The Albrecht, Prieure de Montezargues and Biokult wines were tasted from complimentary review sample bottles received from the respective distributors for these wines.

Leveling up in blind tasting: prepping for a test, GuildSomm, and Uncorked

IMG_4683“Dear Finalists,

Congratulations again on your impressive tasting thus far! You’re the cream of the crop in your respective cities. Now the time has come to see which taster, which city, indeed which COUNTRY is the best of the best.”   The email continued, “Please join us in Las Vegas, Nevada for the BLIND TASTING FINALE, in which the top twelve global finishers will compete, followed by a fantastic dinner.”

The gauntlet had been thrown down, and the finals of the Heritage Auctions Blind Tasting Challenge was in the offing. Three finalists from each of four cities — Los Angeles, New York, Dallas and Hong Kong –were invited to duke it out for a trophy and bragging rights.

While this may all sound a tad dramatic, I’m just having a bit of fun with the write-up; this competition is in its inaugural year and it’s more a lighthearted friendly competition than an intense battle of deadly serious contestants.  Earlier in the year, I wrote about participating in the qualifying round of this blind tasting competition in this blog post.  As the 3rd place finisher in the New York sessions, I qualified for the finals in Las Vegas.  The tricky part: the competition would focus on auction-level wines, which essentially meant wines that I don’t often drink: expensive, and with age on them.  I expected the other finalists to likely be older than me, or at least have more years of collecting and more experience with auction-level wines than I do.  Even though it’s an informal competition, independently I had been trying to get to a new level with my blind tasting, so this was a good excuse to get a bit more rigorous in approach.

The first component of my plan: practice.  My companions in Leo’s Blind Tasting Group are a great resource, and the wines they’ve poured at club dinners form the vast majority of my experience with auction quality wines. But it only meets once a month, and we are very informal about it – the ethos is sort of ‘guess if you want to’.  I had about 5 weeks to go until the Finals; time to step it up. So I started weekly blind tastings, turning again to Morrell Wine Bar, not only because it’s convenient to my after-work commute, but also because of their wide range of wines that the somm could pour for me blind.  Most wine bars can pour you some good young wines by the glass, but Morrell’s had options you will find scarce elsewhere: big names in tasting pour sizes I could afford, with age on them. To wit, the wines that the wine director, Anna-Christina (herself a candidate for the Court of Master Sommeliers Advanced Level, so she had a great bead on how to test me), poured for me included: Coche Dury Meursault 2006, 1980 Bertani Amarone, 1998 Leoville Barton, 2003 Chapoutier Hermitage Le Méal, 1985 Opus One, 1991 Vega Sicilia Unico(!).  Real classics, and mature examples.  I committed to always giving an answer, even when I was lost as to what the wine in question was.  Anna-Christina was great about keeping me challenged while also giving hints and tips as needed.

The second component of my cramming: I started listening to the Guild of Sommeliers podcast, especially the episodes about blind tasting.  Yes, this is wine nerdy to the extreme for someone who’s not a sommelier.  I admit to feeling elation as I listened to a master somm describe a wine he was tasting, venturing my own guess of “Chablis”, and then finding out the wine was indeed a Chablis.  The person next to me on the train probably thought I was deranged when I let out an audible reaction.  One nice by-product of listening to the podcast was that it got me into really into understanding some grapes I’ve never really delved into, like Albariño and Chenin Blanc.  This wasn’t really going to help me with the contest, as such wines were unlikely to come up in the auction-wine-driven finals, but it did get to the heart of what I think the point of blind tasting is: not to pull off what seems like a nifty trick, but to really deeply understand what’s in your glass. and what makes it what it is.  I found myself looking forward to focusing on non-auction-type wines after the contest was over.

Another by-product of listening to the GuildSomm episodes was changing the way I taste wines blind from the bottom up, relying less on instinct (which can serve you well but also lead you astray) and more on analysis of the wine’s structure and relying on deduction to get to the right answer.  I had always done this to some degree, but putting more thought into it made me see that this was the only way to really get to next-level skills.

All this really helped me put things into perspective ahead of the contest finals.  A single tasting of eight wines would be a fun test, but the true measure of where I stood as a blind taster was better captured by how I did over the five or so weeks I practiced, and how I would build on that in the future.  In some sessions I rocked and essentially got 3 out of four wines; others I was 2 for 4 with reasonably close wrong guesses on others; sometimes I was 1 for 3 or 4 with some wildly wrong misses. I got better at deduction over time, but I also learned how far I have to go, how much better I can be, and a path to get there.  No matter how I did in Vegas, I knew the retooling process that I had begun meant that regardless of outcome, a year from now I will be miles ahead of where I am now if I keep at it.

One more blind-tasting-related obsession was more of the guilty-pleasure type: watching the new show “Uncorked” on Esquire TV, which was essentially the documentary “Somm” turned into a six-episode long season. Watching the MS candidates (including a friend, Morgan Harris, currently a somm at Aureole) practice their blind tasting in prep for their exam was entertaining and inspiring.  Not quite inspiring enough to make me study tons of theory and trace maps of wine regions, but got me into the mindset of gearing up for one winner-take-all tasting to see where I really stood when you have to put an answer whether you know what the wine is or not.  One fun bit of inside baseball when you’re watching the show: any scenes where one of the judges, Laura Maniec MS, is giving a Morgan a hard time are a little extra fun to watch if you know that Morgan used to work for Laura at Corkbuzz so there’s a mentor relationship subtext going on.

Next post: find out how the finals in Vegas went!

An oasis in Midtown: Morrell Wine Bar and Cafe

This past week, I was meeting a few friends for what we knew was going to be a lively conversation; the task was to find a fun place to enjoy some good food and great vino but it also had to be centrally located in Manhattan since we were all scattering in different directions afterward, ranging from the UES to downtown to New Jersey.  Midtown has a lot to offer but it doesn’t leap to mind first when it comes to cool wine bars – places like Ten Bells, Terroir and Racines are mostly downtown.  Not a lot of people know that a good answer resides right in the midst of Rockefeller Center: Morrell Wine Bar and Cafe.IMG_4467

A few of you might be raising an eyebrow or two at me right now, perhaps with good reason.  Until recently, my own concept of Morrell‘s was shaped by visits to the retail store more than a decade ago, and it was always a good store but the style was traditional, perhaps even a bit stodgy.  Well, times have changed.  You can still go there to pick up your favorite classified-growth Bordeaux, but with a few hip young folks at the helm like Eric Guido (a former pro chef and writer of The Cellar Table@Morrell wine blog) as wine director on the retail side (full disclosure, he’s a friend) and Anna-Christina Cabrales as wine director in the wine bar, Morrell‘s has quietly become the kind of place that winos with palates seeking a bit more adventure can turn to to find their Foillard and get their Ganevat on.

The choices are extensive for those looking to try a vinous variety – the list of wines by the glass alone runs 9 pages and is nicely balanced between traditional stalwarts and hipster somm favorites.  Wines are also available in tasting pours and so I asked Anna-Christina if she could put together a flight for us to taste blind.

She was all ready for me and snapped into action, arranging a flight of whites presented, as she put it, “Court of Master Sommelier” style (she’s prepping for the Advanced level currently).  She pulled no punches either – giving us a Vouvray from Pinon (one of my fave producers from Dressner tastings past), a Pazo Señorans Albariño, and a Domaine de la Pepière Cuvee 4 muscadet.  I went 1 for 3, with thankfully no terribly embarrassing misses, but the most important part was this – she made me justify my answers, right or wrong, which is exactly the step I need to take to get to the next level.  I learned a ton.

The food was tasty, above average for a wine bar. A pulled pork tacos app and a short rib entree paired well with the bottle of red we asked Anna-Christina to pick for us – a Cote-Rotie “Neve” by Louis image1Barruol.  Boy, did she have me pegged; I love Cote-Rotie and I’ve been a fan of Louis Barruol’s Chateau St. Cosme for years.  This wine had a beautiful soaring nose with lots of high-toned but sweet red and purple fruits, present oak lending a bit of caramel nuttiness, and classic Côte-Rotie herbs and underbrush, with a suggestion of meatiness too.  The exuberant fruit combined with the other elements placed this somewhere between traditional Northern Rhone and New World syrah; this could be the gateway wine from Alban to Allemand.

Alas, we didn’t have time to sample the sweet wines, but there’s always next time: I will definitely be back to try more of the wines-by-the glass and challenge myself to more trial-by-fire by the Morrell staff.  -Alan

You can follow Eric Guido’s writing at: http://morrellwinebar.com/author/eric-guido/

You can follow Anna-Christina Cabrales on Instagram under the tag @annachristina722

Blind Tasting Challenge, NYC edition

The email came in mid-week, at the end of a long workday, from my friend Leo F:

“blind tasting challenge, Saturday”

The skinny:  being put on by Heritage Auctions, and in their own words, “The Blind Tasting Challenge is an opportunity for wine lovers to put their palate to the test. Tasters will be given 8 blue-chip wines to identify in a friendly and relaxed environment. Answers will be evaluated and scored according to the correct identification of: country of origin, growing region, varietal, vintage, appellation, vineyard and producer.”  

“8 blue-chip wines? Free? Say no more”, I thought.  I really didn’t care if I embarrassed myself with my guesses, how often do I get to drink auction-house caliber wines?  And, ever since watching the documentary “SOMM”, I’ve been kind of curious to see how I would do under more formal testing conditions, rather than our informal “guess if you want to” format for my regular blind tasting club.

The folks at Heritage welcomed us graciously into their offices, where a friendly rep from a champagne house was pouring some bubbly to welcome us. Ok, not just any champagne house – Moët, and she was pouring 2004 Dom Perignon.  Boom.  My first time having the 2004 vintage of DP and it was less mineral than the 2002 and 2003, but mighty fine – crisp but also with a bit of richness.  Along with the tasty hors d’oeuvres coming around, the Dom has us off to a great start.

We were then seated for the tasting challenge.  After I sat down, I realized I had a problem: someone sitting near me was wearing an overpowering amount of cologne, which obliterates your ability to smell the wines analytically.  It’s a simple rule that pros know, but consumers may not have thought about: never wear cologne or perfume to a wine tasting.  I made a brief attempt to find another seat, but the tables being used for this session (there would be two more later) were mostly filled, and I decided, “who cares how you do anyway”.

A team of servers brought out the first two wines, both whites.  The first had some golden color and some slightly oxidized caramel notes that made me feel this wine had not aged well. Sort of reminded me of the Kongsgaard The Judge that Jay H had poured recently for the blind tasting group.  Viscosity-wise, this also fit, so I was leaning California chardonnay already.  Could it be a Rhone white instead?  Yes, but I wasn’t getting the waxy, lanolin impression I often get on Rhone whites, and it just didn’t smell or taste like Hermitage blanc or Chateauneuf blanc to me.  Could it be white Bordeaux?  Yes, because the aged caramel part fit – I’ll be honest, I don’t think white Bordeaux in general ages very well; examples older than ten years from vintage often feel over the hill to me.  But, I didn’t pick up any Graves mineral here.  So I followed one of my rules of thumb when it comes to blind tasting:  go with your first hunch.  I decided to guess California chardonnay, but without thinking too much about what producer and vineyard this might be, I decided to check out the other wine on the table (It turns out I was pretty wrong on this particular guess, but I stand by my advice to go with your first hunch generally).

The mineral on the nose of wine #2 made me think it had to be white burg; I rarely get this on, say, California chardonnay.  Plus since I thought wine #1 was Cali chard, a Burgundy next to it would make sense.  The wine was elegant, composed, and possessed a depth of flavor that I really only get with white Burgundy.  Thinking of chardonnay from other countries besides France and the US, I have had some wines from other countries that have passed for Burgundy but I couldn’t think of any that I thought would be considered “blue-chip”.  For now, my guess would be burgundy white, but the reds were arriving on the table so I moved on, and I often find it helpful to come back to a wine later to see if my re-check matches my first impression.

Wine #3, the first red, has a lot of mineral on the nose – a slatey rock that made me think Bordeaux at first.  I picked up glass #4, and that smelled like Bordeaux to me too. #5 on the nose, had me completely lost. And #6 smelled like Bordeaux to me as well.  “Uh-oh,” I thought.  This was going to be a tough tasting – they couldn’t be pouring us that many Bordeaux, so they must’ve picked some Californias that hew very closely to a Bordeaux style, and it seemed the main task in these reds would be to pick out which were Bordeaux and which were Napa – no easy feat when the wines get enough age on them.

Going back to wine #3 to taste, and attempt to identify:  again the rock on the nose, but also I noticed it was very bretty which made it hard to read.  This made me lean towards the Rhone, which I don’t drink often, but is one of the regions that I tend to get brett from more often than from other regions.  On the palate, though, it didn’t taste like a Rhone to me.  No confidence on this one, so I punted and said I’d come back to it.

Returning to wine #4, this still felt like Bdx.  Right Bank or Left?  Could not get a read.

On to wine #5 to taste.  This was still utterly confounding.  Color seemed a bit lighter than the others, but it didn’t taste like pinot noir to me.  Also, would they place a light-bodied pinot-noir after two heavier French reds?  It didn’t add up.  It didn’t have the profile of a nebbiolo either.  What could be blue-chip, but be this much of a mystery to me?

Trying to regroup, I went to wine #6.  Still seemingly Bordeaux.

By now, wines 7 and 8 were on the table.  Wine 7 has the lush fruit of something New World. Gosh darn if wine #8 doesn’t feel like Bordeaux varieties as well, but from somewhere New World.

At this point, I realize that I think that 4 or 5 of the 6 reds are composed of Bordeaux varieties, and the remaining red is an utter mystery.  I am screwed.  I go back and forth among all the glasses, and my feeling of being lost doesn’t get much better.  I decide I have to divide and conquer – focus on one wine at a time and try and nail down what it is.

What’s a wine that seems pretty clear as to region? #8 feels pretty definitely New World. Napa probably.  Tasting again, seeking clues on producer: doesn’t seem as austere and Bordeaux-style as a Ridge Monte Bello, Montelena or Togni.  This wine is more ripe than that, but not over the top.  I can’t help but notice the quality.  Whatever it is, it is very good.  What’s this good, but midrange in style for a New World red?  I consider Mondavi Reserve, but this seems still more bold than that.  Shafer Hillside Select has blown me away like this in the past, and fits the style, so I go with that guess.  I haven’t had many vintages of HSS, but 2006 is one of them, and I just guess that for the heck of it.  One wine down.

#6 really feels like Bordeaux to me – but Right Bank or Left Bank?  Searching for more specific clues, I am struck by a bit of perfumed quality on the fruit on the nose.  What place is known for perfume?  Margaux.  What blue-chip Margaux do I know?  Chateau Margaux, and Palmer are the top 2.  But then, plenty of Right Bank reds come off as very perfumed to me too.  Tasting it, I realize that this reminds me of an early-90s Chateau Palmer I had once (I’ve only had Palmer twice), but this wine is more tannic.  I put down 1996 and move on.

I go back to wine #4, which reminds me a lot of 6. Since I decided went Left Bank for wine 6, I decide to go Right on this. It has a stoniness, and seems fairly well resolved, so I go with ’82 La Conseillante.

Frank Martell of Heritage comes around and tells us to start wrapping it up, as time is running out.  I only have 3 guesses down, and I’m flailing.  Time to speed-guess.  Highest confidence wine remaining is wine 2, which I’m pretty sure is white burg.  Puligny? Chassagne?  Could be, but as I start thinking about filling out vineyard, I realize my experience is not deep enough to guess vineyard.  I might have a better shot at producer.   I decide it is reasonably similar to some Henri Boillot Batard-Montrachet I’ve had once, the 2010.  This doesn’t seem like the same wine – I try to judge approximate age and vintage character and I go with 2009.

Wine 1 was my Cali chard guess.  What’s blue-chip but probably not aging well?  Something big like Marcassin, though I’ve never had an older example.  No time to quibble; I put Marcassin chard, Marcassin vineyard.

Wine #3 seems like a Bordeaux, but they couldn’t give us that many Bordeaux in one tasting, right?  So what do I mistake for Bordeaux, that would have that bretty note?  I once guessed Bordeaux on a Jamet that someone in the group poured so I decided to go with that with time running out, even though I got no Northern Rhone spice or herbs. A totally no confidence stab, made all the better because in my scramble to get some answers down, I actually guessed a wine that does not exist.  I wrote Jamet, Cote Rotie, La Chapelle for the vineyard – and of course I was actually thinking of Jaboulet’s Hermitage called La Chapelle.  Did I mention that blind tasting is humbling?  Wine nerds, go ahead and have a good laugh at my expense.

Wine 7 I get lush fruit, but also a bit of peppery spice, so at the last minute I decide to guess Cali syrah. That left Wine 5, the complete mystery.  I ended up guessing as a nebbiolo given the wine’s lighter color and body but also recognizing what seemed to be un-pinotness.

Frank ended up scoring my guesses before I left, and told me that I did pretty well – a total surprise to me.  I held onto glass #2, and enjoyed it to the last drop, though the wine I regretted not keeping was wine #8.  I enjoyed one more lovely (and shamelessly full) glass of Dom Perignon that the rep was kind enough to bring over as a reward for finishing the challenge, and was on my way to the rest of my Saturday.

The next day, we got an email revealing what the wines were, and I wasn’t feeling so great about my guesses after all.

Wine #1 – 1996 Domaine de Chevalier Blanc, Pessac-Leognan

A big swing and a miss for me on this one.

Wine #2 – 1992 Puligny Montrachet, Les Pucelles, Domaine Leflaive

Whew.  At least I’m not getting a zero today.  The fact that I guessed this crisp, amazingly fresh 20+ year old wine as being a 2009 just shows how great white Burgs were before the awful phenomenon of premature oxidation started afflicting the region’s whites.  The thought of that makes me weep..

Wine #3 – 1966 Chateau La Mission Haut Brion, Pessac-Leognan

Friends who tasted in later sessions thought this was great; I think I got the 66 La Miss from a different bottle – mine was borderline flawed.  In retrospect there was a lot of crushed rock on the nose which at least made me sure it was France, but it should have clued me in that this was a wine from the Haut Brion diaspora (scorched earth). I was a little lost because it was unlike Bordeaux that I’ve had, but then this is the first bottle from the 60s I’ve ever had.

Wine #4 – 1978 Chateau Mouton Rothschild, Pauillac (from double magnum)

Nice wine.  I suppose I’m happy enough with my ’82 Conseillante guess.

Wine #5 – 1999 Clos de la Roche, H. Lignier

Like I said, confounding.  For someone who considers red burgundy to be my favorite category, this is a big miss.  Ben G loves to make fun of me for ever calling Burgundy as Barolo, and he has more cannon fodder on me now.  I’m later consoled by the fact that my friends in other sessions didn’t pick this out as a Burg either.

Wine #6 – 2001 Chateau Palmer, Margaux

Got most of the points here – my ’96 Palmer guess helped me save a little face today.  Whew!

Wine #7 – 2003 Blankiet Merlot, Paradise Hills Vineyard

My last minute stab at calling this Cali syrah was probably ill-advised.  I need to remember that Napa cabs and merlots can show pepper sometimes.

Wine #8 – 1999 Penfold’s Grange, South Australia

     My guess was not close, but I’m at least glad I detected the undeniable quality here.  I think HSS is a great wine so I’m alright with it turning out to be Grange, which based on this example, absolutely lives up to its iconic reputation.  Thanks to Frank Martell and crew for generously sharing this stupendous wine as well as all of the others.  My guesses were pretty spotty, but at least I drank well!  And learned a lot in the process.

 



An Evening of Rhys

In the pages of this blog I have over the years made various references to the wines of Rhys Vineyards in the context of other wines I have written about, but I’ve never written directly about the Rhys wines before. This is partly because there has been no shortage of press about Rhys, as writers like Eric Asimov of the New York Times, Mike Steinberger (then with Slate) and critics like Allen Meadows and Josh Raynolds have written effusive praise. I have been a buyer of the wines however, going back to some wines from the 2006 vintage, but mostly of small allocations due to budgetary constraints. Given that Rhys’ wines are made in a style that is thought to require age to show at their best, I’ve opened relatively few bottles, and never more than one at a time. Recently given the chance to join a group dinner sampling more than a dozen Rhys wines in a single evening, encompassing a number of vintages and including some bottlings I’ve never tasted, I jumped at the opportunity to gain a little knowledge to help inform my future purchases.

A group of ten dedicated Rhys fans gathered at Peking Duck House, and we kicked the evening off with a look at three pinots from Bearwallow Vineyard, one of Rhys’ newer vineyard holdings, in Anderson Valley. The 2008 Bearwallow pinot showed a perfumed nose, but the palate doesn’t quite live up. The 2011 and 2012 Bearwallow showed earthy mineral noses and lots of tannin structure, too much to be approachable at this early stage, but the 2012, while painfully young, showed a bit more generosity of fruit that suggests that this will be the best wine of these three when given some proper aging.

On the whole the Bearwallow wines show a consistent licorice-inflected cherry profile, but the wines have not yet reached the gorgeousness of the Copain wines from the neighboring Kiser vineyard, even compared to tastings at similar stages of youth. To be fair, though, only the 08 Bearwallow has had time to become wine, and a pretty wine it is. Judgment reserved on 2011 and 2012 for now, but a side by side comparison with AV wines from producers like Copain, Continue reading

An awesome birthday meal at Pearl and Ash

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A few weeks ago, P and I stopped in to Pearl and Ash, one of NYC’s hottest new 20140406-095627.jpgrestaurants, known to be especially popular with restaurant industry types and the wine-minded set. After enjoying a wonderful meal there, I can only say, I certainly understand why the place is popular – the food is delicious, the service impeccable and the wine list is both well put together and affordable.

The first thing we did was order wines, of course. A good variety of wines by the glass are offered, and I got my spätlese-loving wife a glass of Vollenweider 2012 Krover Steffensberg, which was light in its feet and not overly sweet – perfect as a companion to some of the seafood small plates we ordered: diver scallops (outstanding with crème, shiso and was that a corn chip(?) as flourishes) octopus, grilled squid. I went for a bottle of premier cru red burgundy, the 2010 Bruno Clair Gevrey Chambertin Cazetiers, an absolute steal at $125 off the list. The markups throughout the list are pretty reasonable, but this one is a gift to those in the know. I will say no more. Trust me, order it.

The servers work as a well-oiled machine of a team, as at least 6 young hipster servers visit our table with perfectly efficient timing to deliver or clear plates. The short rib is pleasing, the pork meatballs perhaps the only slightly false note in that it’s a touch too salty when combined with bonito flake20140406-095803.jpgs, and the duck with salsify is just dreamy in combination with my Burgundy.

After the dark chocolate/almond dessert and an ice cream sandwich, we swirled our Burgundy and basked in the ambiance and each other’s company, determined to return again soon.

 

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Blind Tasting Chronicles, March 2014

Regular readers of these pages know that I enjoy doing blind tasting from past posts like this, this and this. After watching the entertaining documentary “SOMM”, about sommeliers preparing for the demanding Master Sommelier exam that includes rigorous blind tasting training and testing, my interest has only deepened. (I couldn’t help but wonder if some of the testing of obscure knowledge shown in SOMM really improves wine service in a meaningful way, but I do believe that blind tasting with the kind of precision shown does seem to hold some value in terms of forcing one to really hone in on and learn the characteristics of recommendable wines out there). So, I went to this month’s Blind Tasting Club dinner with a little extra anticipation.

The ground rules: one host for the evening selects all wines, allowing for planned flights and themes. Tonight’s host was Leo F., our club’s namesake. In the past, Leo has poured many wild card wines, so I was prepared for a crazy ride.

Arriving a bit late, I missed my chance to guess at the first wine, but got a taste of it: a 1997 Domaine Carneros by Taittinger California brut sparkling wine that showed some age in its golden hue but was quite refreshing on the palate. The first flight of four wines was pretty clearly chardonnay to me, and all lovely ones at that. They all showed beguiling noses of gorgeous but tasteful fruit framed by a touch of vanillin oak, and the real question was, where are these from? Wines three and four had a more pronounced racy acidity that I rarely encounter in Californa chard, so I seized upon this clue to guess that wines 1 and 2 were from California and wines 3 and 4 from Burgundy. Answer: the flight was a vertical of 1997-2000 Mayacamas chardonnay. Leo had thrown one out over the plate, and I only managed to foul it off into the seats.20140327-071036.jpg

Next was a flight of reds. Wine 1 had ripe dark red-to-purple fruits on the nose and some evident oak, which planted the hypothesis of a New World wine based on Bordeaux grapes into my head. Wine 2 was more controlled but also pointing toward Bordeaux grapes. Wine 3 felt like another key clue to the flight – the combination of slightly green herbal varietal character and stony mineral definitely felt like Bordeaux. Wine 4 was open, ripe and oaky – a prototypical modern international red. I guessed that the flight was Bordeaux blends from 4 different regions. Answer: Merlot or Merlot blends from 4 regions – 2001 Duckhorn merlot, 2002 Craggy Range Gimblett Gravels from New Zealand, 2001 Hosanna from Pomerol, and the blockbuster (by price anyway) wine of the flight, 1998 Masseto. In voting before the reveal, I picked Hosanna as my favorite of the flight, followed by the Masseto. The Craggy Range showed well too – composed and elegant. I’m happy enough with my guess – call it a standup double.20140327-071128.jpg

The next flight of 4 wines all read like #3 from the last flight – Bordeaux varieties with a touch of green, and stony mineral. My first guess was all Bordeaux from the same vintage, but the host let slip that they weren’t all the same vintage, so I reformed my guess: a certain similarity among all four wines led me to guess all four wines were from the same Bordeaux producer. It seemed a reasonable guess that Leo was progressing to Left Bank. Given the nature of the slightly green fruit character and amount of stony mineral, I guessed Pichon Lalande. Answer: two Pensées de Lafleur (’97 and ’98), and two vintages of Ch. Lafleur, ’98 and ’99. Because of its cost and rarity, this was my first time having Lafleur – thanks Leo! The wines did not disappoint. The Lafleurs did outstrip the Pensées, showing perfumed noses that were a virtual tie in quality. On the palate, the ’98 lived up to the vintage’s reputation as strong in Pomerol; there was more depth here on the palate than the ’99. Both Lafleurs showed more generosity of fruit than the Pensées; while form held here, this was an enjoyable and educational flight. I would’ve been happier if I had guessed La Conseillante, another Pomerol that leans stony and slightly green in some vintages, but I’ll give myself a bloop single in this flight.

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The next flight was confounding. Leo gave us a hint that these wines were about 20 years old; Suzanne remarked that these seemed Bordeaux-like again, and they did, except for a certain aroma, almost a nuttiness, that didn’t smell like 20 year-old Bordeaux or California cab to me. A stony mineral was present here that signaled Old World to me. I thought back – what had I ever mistakenly guessed as Bordeaux at about 20 years of age? Odd as it sounds, I have guessed Chateauneuf du Pape around that age as Bordeaux before, so I went with that guess, unconfidently. The wines turned out to be a staggered vertical of Lupicaia, a Tuscan (Bolgheri) blend of Bordeaux grapes, including vintages 1993, 1995, 1997 and 1999.

20140327-071101.jpgIn expecting Leo not to give us such a similar flight again, I had done something I’ve heard master somms warn against – forming a hypothesis too early and then making your guess fit that hypothesis and ignoring some other signs that point in another direction – or lack of signs that should be present if your hypothesis is true. Here I knew there were Bordeaux grape characteristics, but the nutty character that led me toward guessing CDP (and that’s not even something I strongly associate with CDP) was not accompanied by other classic Southern Rhone character like spice or grenache or syrah flavors. A total swing and a miss on this flight; I was looking for the breaking ball so much that I missed a cut fastball in the strike zone.

In the end though, it’s the wines I get wrong that I love in blind tasting – that’s when I really learn. Bolgheri, I’ll be ready for you next time!

My Top Wine Experiences of the Year

Dear Amateur Winos out there,

I apologize for the length of time that has passed since my last post – it’s been a busy last quarter of the year for me. As the clock winds down on 2013, I wanted to take a look back on the year and mention some of the great moments with wine that I had.

I dubbed this post “Top Wine Experiences” because these aren’t necessarily the best wines I tasted all year – but the experience of wine is also about context. Where you had it, what food you had it with, and who you had it with often defines what you take away from having had a particular wine. Some top experiences, like tasting wine in Germany with the people of Weingut H. Donnhoff and Weingut Gunther Steinmetz, have already made it into these pages. Others, for one reason or another didn’t get blogged at the time, but have stayed with me in some way. So here goes, in no particular order:

2013-01-29 20.47.341. Tasting California cabs at a dinner with Antonio Galloni. This dinner took place in January shortly before Antonio left Robert Parker’s publication The Wine Advocate to start Vinous Media. Antonio was personable, generous, articulate, and fun to taste with. He is certainly confident in his tasting abilities, but one nice takeaway from this dinner was confirming my confidence in my own palate. Although I think Antonio and I enjoy a similarly broad range of wines, from restrained to hedonistic, where he and I differed on our evaluations of certain wines, I am confident in my take, his status as an established wine critic notwithstanding. Some of the memorable cabs on the night for me were a 2001 Abreu Madrona Ranch, a 2001 Bond Vecina, and a 1997 Philip Togni. 2007 Corra and a few Schrader T6’s (2006 and 2007) had the group split; though most in attendance disagreed with me, look for the beautiful, high-quality fruit on the 2007 Corra to outlast the time it takes for the considerable oak treatment on it to resolve. A special shout-out is due to Mike Pobega for organizing.  His fuller write-up of the night can be found here.

2. A couple of terrific 1982 Bordeaux.  A 1982 Pichon Lalande poured by a dear friend to celebrate his 50th birthday and a 1982 Grand Puy Lacoste poured by SteveC at a Leo’s Blind Tasting Group dinner showed that well-stored bottles of 1982 Bordeaux still seem to be drinking at peak.

3. A bottle of MV Krug brut champagne to celebrate the birth of a much-anticipated child to good friends wasn’t as opulent as other bottles I’ve had, but this was refreshing and most of all, incredibly meaningful.

Emrich-Schonleber tasting room

Emrich-Schonleber tasting room

4. Tastings in the Nahe with winemakers at Emrich-Schonleber and Gut Hermannsberg.
At Emrich-Schonleber, it was a real treat to get an object lesson from Frank Schonleber himself in the Monzinger Fruhlingsplatzen and Monzinger Halenberg terroirs (pictured here) that are the source of their top wines.  A lovely stay at the Guesthaus at Gut Hermannsberg was topped off with an interview with rising young winemaker Karsten Peter, who is doing some great things with historically great terroirs in need of revival – Donnhoff fans should take note given the geographical proximity. I hope to have fuller posts on these visits in the New Year.

5. New pairing epiphanies.  Credit to salilb for showing us at another Leo’s BTG dinner what a great pairing gruner veltliner could be with salmon crudo.  And sometimes, the best wine pairing is… not wine at all.  Local German beer enjoyed with good friends over heaping plates of schweinehaxe was unforgettably good.

beer2schweinehaxe

 

 

 

 

6. Opening some great wines on ordinary nights with a Coravin.  Many of you know about a nifty new gadget called the Coravin, that allows you to pour some of the wine out of a sealed bottle without removing the cork, replacing the removed wine with argon.  One of my experiments with the Coravin involved accessing multiple pours from a 2006 Arcadian Hommage a Max syrah (one of the two best syrahs I have ever had) and a 2010 Saxum Broken Stones. Pours of these wines poured two months later tasted just as fresh as the first two glasses accessed.  Color me impressed.

7. Some great nebbiolos and a lesson in proper aging. A bottle of 2001 Renato Ratti Marcenasco with family at Barbetta NYC, and an early 2000s Ceretto Barbaresco Asij enjoyed at Allegro Romano in SF were magical, and just entering their prime drinking windows.  They were mere babies compared to numerous barolos and barbarescos from the  60’s, 70’s and 80’s poured at various Leo’s Blind Tasting Club dinners, which were youthful and still showed noticeable tannin.  These wines need 40 years to mellow!

Visiting German wine country, Part 4: cutting edge Mosel wines at Weingut Günther Steinmetz

If visiting Dönnhoff was like heading to a venerable opera house to watch an established virtuoso perform, visiting Weingut Günther Steinmetz is like sitting in on jam sessions at the studio of a steinmetz signgenius indie jazzman.  Equally intriguing, the former is a standard bearer flawlessly executed, and the latter is about improvisation and pushing the boundaries of expectation. Stefan Steinmetz, the capable steward of the legacy created by his father Günther, showed me an accomplished and eclectic collection of both whites and reds.

steinmetz tasting

The experience at Weingut Steinmetz is an intimate one. Stefan was kind enough to accomodate my request for a visit on a weekend morning because of my tight schedule, and upon our arrival he led me into a tasting room within the family home; we are introduced to his mother,and our kids play together while we taste the wines. In contrast to the sleek and modern tasting rooms I found at Weil and Donnhoff, the tasting room here is cozy and homey – characterized by warm woods, classy and traditional furnishings, and Zalto glassware that allows the terroir-driven minerality of the Steinmetz wines to really shine through. Here are some notes from my visit in late May:

Dry whites

2012 Pinot Gris – has a bit of pinot blanc mixed in; not sold in the US.  Very nice, neutral oak treatment, fresh, slightly golden in color.  Shows typicity, in a light-to-medium-bodied package. Really quite nice.

2012 Brauneberg Riesling – shows a really fine slate minerality. From a single site, but Stefan chooses to label simply as Brauneberger.  Look for this one as an overachiever in its price class.

steinmetz 1st pic brauneberger juffer

Juffer – brown to gray slate

 

2012 Brauneberger Juffer Kabinett Feinherb Riesling – from the top part of Juffer, this showed lots of minerality.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

steinmetz 2nd pic geierslay

Geierslay – purple slated, slightly harder rock, more quartzite.

 

The 2012 Geierslay Trocken Riesling is very stony on the palate; the 2012 Piesporter Goldtropfchen even more so (and moreso than Piesporter

Goldtropfchen bottlings I’ve had from other producers); has an earthy minerality and a pine needle menthol note that Stefan pointed out to me.

 

 

 

steinmetz 3rd pic Hofberger

Hofberger: gray slate.

 

2012 Hofberger Trocken Riesling – From gray-slated soil.  Has a different kind of minerality, very fine; a little bit more body on the palate, a touch less dry than the other bottlings tasted so far but retains the signature minerality of Steinmetz.

2012 Juffer “HL” Riesling – taken from the old name for the vineyard, Hasenlaufer.  Some gravel and sand at this site gives the wine a touch more bite on the palate.  Very pretty fruit on this one – a slight perfumed quality on the nose.

Fruity white wines

2012 Kestener Paulinsberg Spätlese Riesling – a nice, very balanced style of spätlese, 60 g/L of sugar; still a touch spritzy at this point.  Still has the Steinmetz minerality coming through on the palate.  My kind of spätlese, not

steinmetz 5th pic paulinsberg larger stones

Paulinsberg: gray-slated, with harder and bigger stones; less powder than other sites.

over the top. Very very nice.  Stefan notes that in 2012, this has a bit of red apple character to it.  In less ripe years, this bottling takes on yellow and green apple notes. 92-93 points

2012 Sonnenlay Spätlese Riesling – a bit more opulent on the palate than the Paulinsberg. Pretty, fatter but again has plenty of fine slate (from blue slate I am told) on the palate that is recognizable for this estate.  In most years, this comes out lighter than the Paulinsberg according to Stefan Steinmetz, but he agrees it came out richer than usual in this vintage.  A few weeks prior, this wine was showing more effects from a blocked fermentation he says, but shows well today.  92-93 points.

2011 Pinot Meunier  – From a site called Veldenzer Grafschafter Sonnenburg (also source of Steinmetz’s Alte Reben riesling), this is an interesting red with a slightly herby quality on the nose; very pretty.  Appearance is light red with a touch of cloudiness, due to being unfiltered.  On the palate, nice touch of sweetness to the fruit, with some juicy-tart acidity to go with it.

2010 Kestener Herrenberg Pinot Noir Trocken Unfiltered – on the nose right away, shows pretty sweetish fruit and some oak, with more development than the ’11 pinot meunier.  Really interesting palate – lively and electric.  Has sweetness to the fruit, and transparency, but the dominating characteristic is that liveliness.  Some good, significant tannin lends impact to the flavor and bodes well for ageability here. 91-92 points.

2011 Kestener Herrenberg Pinot Noir Trocken Unfiltered – a slightly higher alcohol vintage than 2010 according to Stefan Steinmetz, but I don’t really feel it on the palate, not heavy at all.  Has a touch of spice that adds interest.

2009 Merlot Trocken – Also from the Veldenzer Grafschafter Sonnenburg site, this is steinmetz merlot trockenrecognizably merlot – has plenty of nice earthiness, with good leafy varietal character.  13.5% in alcohol, this doesn’t show as ripe as most St. Emilion.  Retains earthiness really well, would be fun to throw into a blind tasting someday.  91-92 points.

2010 Merlot Trocken Unfiltered – a little richer than the 2009, with fine tannins.  Shows less minerality than the 2009 at this stage.

steinmetz with stefan

 

Late for my next appointment, I find myself wishing for more time – Stefan has so many more wines he wants to show me. He’s an edgy winemaker with a vision of what he’s trying to do.  One aspect of this is to make wines that are truly transparent and terroir-driven. Everyone and their brother in the wine industry cites terroir as a goal, but at Steinmetz the wines actually reflect this. Another aspect of his vision seems to involve pushing the envelope to show what can be done with dry rieslings as well as other varieties that are less well known internationally as German wines, including pinot gris, pinot meunier (as a red), pinot noir, dornfelder and merlot. I appreciate that Stefan is not content to merely continue the traditions established by his father, but to forge new and sometimes surprising roads ahead. The high quality of the wines I tasted on this trip have me looking forward to tasting future results.

German Wine Country Series, Part 3: Visiting Weingut H. Donnhoff

We arrived at Weingut H. (Hermann) Dönnhoff in the middle of a driving rain. Mommy was feeling a 052713 794bit under the weather and wanted to sleep in the car, but baby M was wide awake, so I did what any intrepid and thirsty daddy/wine blogger would do: strap the baby to me in the Ergo carrier and head on in.

 

 

 

052713 796Current proprietor Helmut Dönnhoff’s daughter-in-law Anna greeted us, bemused by the rain-soaked but indomitable daddy-daughter team standing before her, and led me through the 2012 Donnhoff dry wines:

2012 Dönnhoff Riesling Trocken – Germany, Nahe (5/23/2013)

  • Very fresh, very nice – balanced, complex. A wonderful buy at the price range.
  • 2012 Dönnhoff Tonschiefer Riesling Dry Slate – Germany, Nahe (5/23/2013)
    The slate and the fruit combine here to present a very perfumed nose. Has great acidity, with a balance between minerality and generosity to the fruit. A fine, slightly smoky ashy quality on the nose makes this a very distinctive bottling.
  • 2012 Dönnhoff Höllenpfad Riesling Trocken – Germany, Nahe (5/23/2013)
    Means “road to hell”. 2nd vintage of this wine, from a vineyard bought from another branch of the family, this is considered to have been of GG-like quality historically, this is a vineyard in the process of being revived. My tasting notes seem to have been lost, but from memory this was very good, included it in my purchases at the estate. Anna Donnhoff told me this vineyard is known for a certain herbal quality, but I felt it less on this bottling than on the Felsenberg.
  • 2012 Dönnhoff Schloßböckelheimer Felsenberg Riesling Großes Gewächs – Germany, Nahe (5/23/2013)
    Not yet bottled, so this is from a sample bottle. Very pretty, tightly coiled. Mineral, and a touch herbal. Gentle, appealing note of sweetish fruit (orchard fruits, green apple) on the nose. Very dry and stony on the palate, with a green apple acidity. In sum, an elegant, tightly coiled GG.
  • 2012 Dönnhoff Niederhäuser Hermannshöhle Riesling Großes Gewächs – Germany, Nahe (5/23/2013)
    Not yet bottled, so from a sample bottle – even had a bubbly frothiness in the bottle. Immediately on the nose, you get sweeter, more present fruit than in the Felsenberg. Richer, more opulent – apricot notes to the fruit as opposed to the green apple-ish quality of the Felsenberg. Really plays to my wheelhouse. Such a floral and perfumed quality to the nose, yet the fruit also comes to the fore. Easy to understand why this is one of the great GGs of Germany.

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    Soil types of the different Donnhoff vineyards

Anna described 2012 as a vintage with vivid flavors (an apt description in my eyes based not only on what I tasted at Dönnhoff but elsewhere as well), blessed with excellent weather that allowed for each lot to be picked at optimal times.

As we reached the fruity wines part of the tasting, we were surprised to be joined by Helmut Dönnhoff himself. Because Anna had been very knowledgeably leading us through the tasting already, I hadn’t really expected to meet Herr Dönnhoff, but I was glad to do so, as he shared some terrific insights with us, and he’s one of a handful of winemakers worldwide that I regard with rock star-like status. In person, he is

herr donnhoff

Tasting with the master

conpletely down-to-earth, friendly and when tasting the wines, shows a youthful curiosity and engagement with each sip, all wonderful qualities that are certainly not a given when meeting a winemaker of such reknown and stature.

Mr. Dönnhoff told us that 2012 is a vintage in which the fruity wines at the spätlese and auslese levels especially excelled. There was no botrytis so there are no BA (beerenauslese) or TBA (trockenbeerenauslese) bottlings in 2012; even the auslesen were quite hard to get.

  • 2012 Dönnhoff Riesling – Germany, Nahe (5/23/2013)
    Very typical Donnhoff estate bottling – pretty, balanced and terrific for the price range. The 2012 edition has plenty of generosity on the fruit. 91-92 (91 points)
  • 2012 Dönnhoff Norheimer Kirschheck Riesling Spätlese – Germany, Nahe (5/23/2013)
    A very natural spätlese vineyard according to Helmut Donnhoff. The 2012 version is very good, with the strength of the vintage making this bottling on par with other Donnhoff spätlesen despite it having perhaps a bit less reputation than some of the other spätlese vineyards.
  • 2012 Dönnhoff Oberhäuser Brücke Riesling Spätlese – Germany, Nahe (5/23/2013)
    A little more floral, and richer than the Felsenberg spätlese. Really beautiful, with some of the creamy mouthfeel of past vintages I’ve had. A bit brighter, more lively and vivid than the Felsenberg, and I prefer this bottle slightly for those reasons. 94+ (94 points)
  • 2012 Dönnhoff Niederhäuser Hermannshöhle Riesling Spätlese – Germany, Nahe (5/23/2013)
    As beautiful as the Kirschheck, Felsenberg and Brucke spätlesen are, this bottling is on a whole other level. You stick your nose in the glass, and the minerality here is the final piece to the puzzle, a perfect example of what makes Germany the pinnacle for off-dry riesling. The complex interplay of minerality, luxurious but controlled sweetness, and racy acidity can’t be matched anywhere else. 96+ (96 points)
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Helmut Donnhoff greets his youngest fan.

When prodded for a recommendation for a wine to put into baby M’s birth year case, Herr Dönnhoff noted that he feels the Hermannshöhle spatlese in particular will be a special wine.  As you can see from my notes above, I agreed.  We picked up some bottles of this and the other transcendent 2012 Dönnhoff wines from our special visit and headed back off into the rain with spirits lifted.

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