A thought for the new year (and beyond)

The world’s a little less jolly without the late, legendary Len Evans, but his memory still provides some sparks, as my wife reminded me when I was being more humble than necessary about a wine last night, offering to go ahead with a rather lackluster but palatable Bordeaux, since the cork had been pulled. “I’ll poach pears in it tomorrow,” she said. “Go get the best Barolo you can find.” So I did, and we had a lovely dinner, and I was reminded of one of Len’s Rules:
       “People who say ‘You can’t drink the good stuff all the time’ are talking rubbish. You must drink the good stuff all the time. Every time you drink a bottle of inferior wine, it’s like smashing a superior bottle against a wall. The pleasure is lost forever, you can’t get that bottle back. . . Wine is the key to love and laughter with friends—it rewards us far beyond its cost.”
       Happy New Year.

Wines of the week, from New Zealand

A couple of pleasant surprises last week—delicious white wines from New Zealand that weren’t Sauvignon Blanc. The first was the real surprise: full and peaches-and-creamy 2008 Chardonnay from Clos de Ste. Anne, “Naboth’s Vineyard,” near Gisborne; the forthright fruit was nicely buttressed by a fresh, persistent zip of balancing acidity. It wasn’t surprising to discover that the grapes were dry-farmed, grown on their own roots (biodynamically, actually), hand-harvested and bunch-pressed. Old-fashioned, indeed; the back label mentioned “luminosity,” and for once, that wasn’t typical back-label hyperbole.
       The other taste of serendipity was Greywacke 2009 Pinot Gris, from a single vineyard in Marlborough, the northernmost region of the South Island. Winemaker Kevin Judd is a talented perfectionist, and it shines through in all his wines (even his Sauvignon Blanc, all gooseberry and no cat pee). The wine is more in the style of the best of Friuli, well-rounded but still bracing, autumnal and savory, like baked apples with citrus zest. Half the juice was fermented in stainless steel, the other half spontaneously fermented in old oak casks, then both were left on the lees for a while before blending. There’s some more technical stuff involved, but the main thing is, it all added to the wine’s vibrant character. Considerably.

Quite a mouthful

Le nouveau Beaujolais est arrive! And it’s terrific, and it’s. . . um, 2009. The Beaujolais “Nouveau” 2010, untimely ripped from the wineskins after a scant six weeks to be peddled to gullible guzzlers fonder of alcohol and ceremony than of flavor, is perhaps another story. Meanwhile, the newly released traditional wines from last year are well worth getting your corkscrew out for.
       The vintage of 2009 was a very good one, warm, with useful rain in June and plenty of sunshine in August; the wines are rather full-bodied, fairly tannic, with acidity levels that are refreshing without making your teeth ache, and somewhat elevated (and natural) alcohol. Many will be even better with a couple of years to mature. At a recent tasting by Domaine Direct (http://www.domainedirect.co.uk/), the standard was generally high, with a couple of outstanding examples: Domaine Paul Janin et Fils Moulin-a-Vent “Clos du Tremblay” was dark and lovely, quite vibrant, and the “Vielles Vignes des Greneriers” was intense and velvety, even voluptuous (biodynamically farmed grapes, very old vines, no SO2). A trio of Fleuries from Domaine de la Madone promise great drinking now (the “Tradition”), next year (“Niagara”), and in 2012-2014 or even further (“Cuvee Speciale Vielles Vignes,” from 70- to 100-year-old vines, rich, serious, sensuous, sensational).
       Then, just to pleasantly surprise me and upend the conventional wisdom some more, a friend went to Paris and brought me back a delicious 2010 Beaujolais Nouveau, made by Pierre-Marie Chermette at Domaine du Vissoux and bottled for the venerable wine bar/shop Legrand—it's not chaptalized, barely filtered, and hearty and jolly as a peasant uncle in a Dumas novel. An augury? Things seem to be looking up after all.

Booked up for Christmas

Some wine books make you want to drink, and a few may make you think, but I don’t know of any that do both, except for “Matt Kramer On Wine,” recently published and the book I’m giving my godson for Christmas (while saving my copy for my son, for when he’s ready to pull his first cork).
       This is mostly a collection of previously published pieces, essays from the New York Sun and the Wine Spectator and a few chapters from Kramer’s books that underscore and tie them together, as well as a long (and fascinating) profile of Angelo Gaja commissioned but never published by the New Yorker. They are arranged loosely by subject, and seeing them in context—looking at the whole garments, as it were, rather than the threads in the weave—they’re even more provocative and thoughtful. Wine writing’s a genre not notable for subtlety or rhetorical skill, but they’re here in abundance, often presented so adroitly that you’re not quite aware of the seriousness of the point being made until it comes back around and nudges you afterward.
       For example, an easygoing essay on Rosé sidles up to some historical background about color

Roll out the Barolo

Some of my happiest times in Italy have been in the Piedmont (including my honeymoon), so when my favorite Italian restaurant, Enoteca Turi, announced a Nebbiolo dinner, I moved a lot more quickly than usual—the food is dependably excellent, but also, owner Giuseppe Turi is as knowledgeable as he is passionate about wine. With a superb five-course meal, we enjoyed six wines from the Piedmont (a Spanna, three Barbarescos, and two Barolos, notably from the 2001 vintage—classic, still nicely developing—and the 2004, which is at once sensuous and powerful, fulfilling all the promise of a fine vintage; best of all, though, was a 2003 Barbaresco Asili from Bruno Giacosa).
       There was an anomaly included, and a marvelous one at that: a Valtellina Superiore (DOCG) “Ca Morei” 2006 from Sandro Fay, in Lombardy, up in the mountains north of Bergamo. The vineyards are high-altitude, steeply terraced, in a beautiful alpine landscape, and the wine is a tart, vibrant, even slightly nervy rendition of Nebbiolo’s classic aromas and flavors (a little less tar and more roses). It’s definitely a wine worth searching for, and a good reminder of why we trust great sommeliers: they know more than we do. http://www.enotecaturi.com/

Let the chips fall. . .

I’m working my way through a case of 2008 Chablis, unfortunately without much enthusiasm, even though most of them are from the legendary Fourchame vineyards. The problem isn’t the vintage, it’s the international plague—the blight of oak. I know the conventional wisdom is that winemakers are (finally) practicing restraint these days, but there’s still a lot of barrel in the glass. And it’s not just with Chardonnay, the usual victim. At a recent lunch celebrating Sydney’s chefs and restaurants, no one at our table got past the first sip of a very woody Clonakilla Viognier (Blockhead question: what attribute of Viognier might sensibly suggest an affinity for oak?). Last month, much of a case of 2006 Chianti Classico Riserva I drank had more wood in the wines than the box they came in, their Sangiovese character completely flattened.
       But the biggest travesty may be over-oaking Chablis, which ought to be the most straightforward expression of Chardonnay. Twenty-odd years ago, when the winemakers of Chablis used to come to San Francisco for what were fascinating, unmissable tastings, they used to brag about their soils and climate, implanting the idea of terroir almost before anyone else did, and they disdained oak, or at least new oak, or very much of it at all. The wines backed them up. Now, too many of them are buried in oak coffins, their flinty minerality dulled into mediocrity. So far, only Domaine Alain Geoffroy and Domaine Pommier have stood out in style, while Louis Moreau was perhaps a half-step behind them, but a long way ahead of the pack. What a shame.

Wines of the week

At a seminar on South African wines early this year, several winemakers said that a big chunk of the country’s future lay in blends. Their idea was that, while varietals offered a chance to compare their wines, and therefore, terroirs, with other wines of the world, the still-developing perceptions of South African wines offered them considerable freedom in creating interesting blends.
       Not all the wines on offer right then made the point, but two wines I drank last week did, most
 emphatically. Over dinner at Lime Wood, a thoroughly splendid new country-house hotel (http://www.limewood.co.uk/), and at enough leisure to savor the wines, I tried Sadie Family Vineyards “Palladius” 2007, a white blend of Chenin Blanc, Grenache Blanc, Clairette,

Go ahead, make my day

This September 24th is International Grenache Day. The idea originated at the First International Grenache Symposium in June in the Southern Rhone. Over 250 Grenache producers, journalists, and retailers from 23 countries pledged to make it the day to celebrate Grenache each year as "the grape you know, you just don't know it." A Grenache "Primer" is part of a viral email campaign, and events will be taking place in the USA, UK, Spain, Australia, India, Brazil, China and Nigeria. The Australian contingent suggested that loud, colorful shirts be worn on the day by restaurant/retail staff, attendees and winemakers to further amplify it. (That would make it a year-round event in San Diego and Florida, wouldn’t it?) Grenache Day activities around the world will be profiled with ideas, menus, and food pairings on http://www.grenachesymposium.com/GrenacheNews/

Tango through the tulips

A walk-around tasting like the Argentine event below can only provide a snapshot, of course, but I did have the advantage of tasting some wines in advance, at the Decanter World Wine Awards, as well as some tips from my colleagues. I dipped in and out of several Torrontes that were on display, but they were generally disappointing, in the sense that they were all over the place in terms of style, weight, and flavor—there’s nothing remotely like a consensus here. The best, like the Alta Vista 2009 and Bodega Colome 2009 (both from the northern region of Salta) were intriguing, lovely wines, intensely aromatic

This sporting life. . .

The social season kicked off with a whump at Decanter’s World Wine Awards dinner at the Royal Opera House (than whose glitz few can hardly be glitzier)—plenty of great wines and winemakers, and a few surprises. There was a huge roar when the International Trophy for “best sparkling wine” was announced—it went to Ridgeview, a British wine producer, based in Sussex (southern England, of course). The wine’s made 100 percent from Chardonnay, and it is indeed refined and vivacious. It won a

Getting warmer

For those of you still skeptical about global warming, I offer three little words: English Pinot Noir. For years, English vineyards have struggled along in their cool climate without an abundance of sunshine, producing wine from hybrid forms of early-ripening, mostly white grapes; often the wines have been sparkling, where the tartness of less than total ripening could be considered a virtue. It was easy to be a skeptic.
       Last year, there were rumors that it had all begun to change, with the 2008 vintage. An English Pinot
Noir, from Bolney Wine Estate, in Sussex, trumped a red Burgundy in a televised tasting; other

Wine to go, but where?

There’s a Biblical injunction about putting new wines in new bottles, and a savvy marketing man has taken it to heart—and the bank. When James Nash thought of putting wine into single-serve plastic glasses, with a peel-off top, he did what most people do these days: He went on TV. The show was “Dragons’ Den,” where would-be entrepreneurs present their ideas to a panel of business experts, in hopes of getting funding. He was turned down by the entire panel, and scornfully. He went ahead anyway, secured a partnership deal with Marks & Spencer, and now his product is on sale in their stores all over England, and selling very well indeed—“flying off the shelves,” as an M&S spokesperson said. (They’re sold in the “to go” section of the stores.)
       The wines are Chardonnay, Rosé, and Shiraz, all from the south of France (Vin de Pays d’Oc), all
Thought for the day: If wine were the cure for sciatica, the world would be an immeasureably better place. (Or, at least, my place would be an immeasureably better place.)
Wines of the week: At Galvin’s Café a Vin, a splendid dinner to introduce a range of organic, biodynamic, and "natural" (unfiltered, etc.) wines was really brightened by a 2008 Roussette de Savoie “Cru Frangy” from Domaine Bruno Lupin. Most white wines from Haut-Savoie are benumbingly boring, but Roussette (which has its own appellation) can be enormously charming; this one certainly is, quietly pear-like fruit, gingerbread spice, restrained but very fresh acidity. Then, 2009 Vin de Table Raisins Gaulois, from the irrepressible Marcel Lapierre, who was often inclined to organic, mostly hands-off winemaking long before it was fashionable; this one’s organic Gamay, quietly carbonic-macerated, in the accurate words of the sommelier, “a redcurrant-jam jamboree.” Lovely. http://www.galvinrestaurants.com/

Watered down

Here’s a victory for common sense: A new YouGov survey reveals that 60 percent of UK adults think bottled water is a waste of money, with almost three-quarters of respondents (71percent) agreeing that tap water is as clean as bottled water. The results echo the findings of a survey carried out by the charity WaterAid in 2009, which found that around two-thirds of consumers are now opting for tap water when they visit restaurants.
       Only 27 percent of respondents drink bottled mineral water in any average day. Interestingly, those better off are most likely to choose tap water--62 percent of the more affluent drink it.
Wines of the week: At Franco’s restaurant in Mayfair, a tasting of Rosés from 12 countries, great fun and some nice surprises: Rallo “Normanno” Nerello Mascalese 2008 (Sicily), from the slopes of Mount Etna, quite dry, well-structured, medium-bodied, fairly serious; intriguing. I had it again later with garganelli and n’duja (hot and spicy sausage) and smoked ricotta, and it more than held its own. Also, a charming, refreshing sipper, Agricola Vinosia "Rosmunda" 2008 (Catania, made by Mario Ercolino), from the Aglianico grape, a surprisingly light wine, with a zip of acidity and lovely fruit—think strawberry fields forever.

Just add Burgundy. . .

Brunch isn’t an idea that ever caught on in England, but if anything could change that, it would be the new good idea from Sam and Eddie Hart, who run some of London’s best restaurants. They’ve combined it with Burgundy—always a good idea—to be convened the first Saturday of the month at Quo Vadis restaurant in Soho, hosted by Tom Harrow, an affable, knowledgeable consultant known as WineChap.
       The menu consists of “London cure” smoked salmon (delicate, tasting more of salmon than smoke) with four white Burgundies, followed by Egg Bledisloe (potato rosti topped with layers of

Bella Venezia

Venice was even more crowded than usual, as Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp were shooting a movie there. Our usual hotel was booked solid, but a friend got us into Locanda Orseolo, moderately priced, well-appointed,  near St. Mark’s Square (http://www.locandaorseolo.com/). We had several meals at Osteria Alle Testiere, where the wine list is as terrific as the cooking (which is really terrific)(http://www.osterialletestiere.it/testiere/home.html ).     
       On my birthday, co-owner Luca di Vita poured us Miani’s tightrope-taut, vibrant Friuliano 2008 to go with grilled razor clams with ginger, and then Le Due Terre Sacrisassi Rosso 2006 (a fresh, lightly astringent blend of Refosco and Schioppettino) to go with the San Pietro (known as John Dory in England, and St. Pierre in France, ho-ho-ho), which was steamed in white wine with aromatic herbs. Both wines were new to me, and lovely surprises. We also ate and drank well at Enoteca ai Artisti (http://www.enotecaartisti.com/) , an informal, jolly wine bar near the Guggenheim Museum—a good range of tapas-style snacks, and fresh fish simply but precisely cooked, and a choice of about 60 wines by the glass; it’s a little cramped, but great fun.

Bella Italia

Just before we got ourselves out from under the dark gray mantle of England, we had some good Italian cheer. Paolo de Marchi came to town with new vintages of Proprieta Sperino, his revival of the family’s original estate in the northern Piedmont. Though Paolo made his name in Tuscany with Isole e Olena, he’s always missed the high country around Lessona, where vineyards once abounded in the Alpine foothills and plateaus, and in 1999 he and his son Luca replanted

Spring can really hang you up the most. . .

Our birthdays and anniversaries arrive in the Spring and, after four months of gray skies, cold, and rain, we celebrated by getting away to the sun and friends, in Italy and France. After that, the unpronounceable volcano in Iceland was a last bit of gray unpleasantness, and then the sun came out, and it’s finally Spring for real, and we’re back, overflowing with good cheer and tasting notes.

Prego!

After the elegant rigors of Burgundy last month, it’s now the Italians’ more exuberant turn; the long build-up to Vinitaly begins to look like the awards season in Hollywood, although our progression may be more fun, for the journalists anyway. First up was the Gambero Rosso Road Show, a tasting of wines that have won the top awards from the magazine-and-book publisher’s panels. The format is a kind of once-over-lightly, eclectic grouping, too kaleidoscopic to get much meaning from, but there were two wines that stood out, worth reflecting on.
       Both were Amarones, Masi’s “Riserva di Costasera” Classico 2004, and Allegrini’s Classico 2005, beautifully made, carefully polished, the sort of wines that just stop you in your tracks and command your attention and appreciation without effort. Both are made in a dry style, the Allegrini a bit more spicy, the Masi a bit more complex, the Allegrini a well-toned partner for some food (beef or pork cheeks slow-cooked a la bourguignon, say), the Masi a classic, companionable after-dinner wine, as welcome and comforting as an old friend. A good start to the campaign.

The long tail of the law

The case of the phony French Pinot Noir rolls on, still generating more heat than light. . . Twelve French wine suppliers were found guilty in a French court of selling "Pinot Noir" that wasn’t Pinot Noir to Gallo, for its Red Bicyclette brand. Their punishment was a small joke, a shrug of dismissal: Suspended sentences and relatively small fines. Apparently, fooling Americans is only a misdemeanor.
       That’s not the end of the story, though. It’s been revealed that Constellation also bought Pinot Noir from the same French suppliers, though the company says it’s sure the wine was genuine. Which of their numerous brands it went into hasn’t been revealed yet, so it remains to be seen whose credulity will be tested.
       Then the U.S. government stepped in, sort of. The Treasury Department’s Tax & Trade Bureau is investigating the affair, or will as soon as the French court documents are translated (um, no one at Treasury speaks French? no observers were sent to the trial, despite tax and trade issues involved? no liaison between or among government agencies here or there?). 
       Now, inevitably, come the lawyers. A California law firm has filed a class-action suit seeking damages against Gallo and the French wine firms involved, according to www.decanter.com, on the grounds of unfair competition, fraud, and false advertising. I’m sure they will have no trouble finding a couple of “wine lovers” who feel wronged by buying a Merlot-Syrah-Whatever blend, under the impression that it was Pinot Noir, to act as clients. Will the fact that “decent Pinot Noir for $7 a bottle” is an obvious oxymoron carry any weight in this case? Don’t bet on it.

Happy Birthday, Ridge

Ridge Vineyards celebrates its 50th anniversary this week, which is also winemaker Paul Draper’s 40th year at the helm—a pair of remarkable achievements. Aside from making one of the world’s great Cabernet Sauvignons, Ridge Monte Bello, Paul has always set a high standard for poised and polished Zinfandel, one I wish more people would follow.
       One reason has always been that he lets them speak for themselves, without interceding, imposing his ego and amping them up. Here’s an example: Years ago, I drove up the long and winding road to the weathered wooden buildings (once nicely described by Charlie Olken as

California wine takes a dip

Shipments of California wine to market, the numbers that track the volume of wine actually sent out from wineries, bottled or in bulk, are the most useful indicator of the status of the California wine business. For most of the past three decades, they’ve increased year-to-year, with only a few occasional and slight recessionary dips; progress seemed pretty much inevitable as wine became more and more commonplace in American life. However, 2009 saw a decrease, the first in 16 years, that may be different—and telling.
       On a percentage basis, it wasn’t a lot: shipments were down by 1.6 percent; still, that amounts to more than 4-million cases of wine. Furthermore, while past decreases reflected temporary

Cheese, please

I’ve almost given up trying to convince people to try having white wine with cheese after dinner, but not quite. (I hardly ever have dessert, preferring a bit of cheese, something simple like Comté, aged Gruyere, Cheddar, or Fontina—just one to relax with.) Slightly sweet white with good acidity just seems to make a perfect fit with a lot of different cheeses, and it doesn’t end the meal on a heavy note, the way many “dessert” wines can. We had a good example a few weeks ago when a bottle of Alsatian Riesling turned out to be a little too sweet for the grilled fish we were having for dinner (the back label just said “opulent,” which was not quite helpful); we had some Comté in the fridge, left over from a weekend splurge, so that match-up was a treat afterward.
       A few days later, we went to dinner at Le Café Anglais, chef Rowley Leigh’s classy bistro. It was a set dinner, for a group of favored customers and one lucky journalist, with Olivier Humbrecht, of Domaine Zind-Humbrecht, and featuring a splendid array of his wines. The food was mostly of the sort that you and I aren’t going to cook, so descriptions aren’t really relevant (except perhaps for an assemblage of smoked eel, beets, and horseradish cream that was a knockout with two of his superb Rieslings). The notable match, though, opened a door to an interesting set of possibilities that had never occurred to me: Gewurztraminer (Hengst 1998) with Montgomery Cheddar (pretty sharp). The wine was moderately sweet and quite spicy, classic lychee-and-gingerbread, and the alternating bites and sips just kept reinforcing each other in a delicious interplay of flavors, never flagging. I’m sure most of us haven’t lost any sleep wondering about food matches with Gewurztraminer, but this one (and probably Gruyere, aged Monterey Jack, Pecorino, or even Taleggio) really should be tried.

News: What the world needs now. . .

The Bronco Wine Company announced today a new Pinot Grigio from a patented clone discovered in 2001 in its Tehachapi vineyard. "We noticed a separate genetic variation with lighter color, found that it made a fuller, better-tasting wine, and grafted it in the vineyard," said Bronco president Fred Franzia. The wine is being released as Forest Glen Tehachapi Clone Pinot Grigio (suggested retail price $11.00).
       Ed. Note: For those unfamiliar with California’s geography, Tehachapi (pronounced Tee-HA!-chapee) is about 100 miles north of Los Angeles.

The closer to Beaune, the sweeter we meet. . .

Q: How many Londoners does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: If it’s snowing, all of them.

This is Burgundy Week in London, and it would be as close to Heaven as I’ll ever get without moving to Beaune if it weren’t snowing, which has shut down the railroads, delayed almost everything else, and left us with icy sidewalks and streets (we usually have snow once a decade, so we’re always unprepared, quite out of practice; as an ex-New Yorker, I usually shift quickly from arch amusement to exasperation, ending with my Tony Soprano moment: “You call this a snowstorm?”). The good news is, you can get a seat on the Underground at rush hour; the bad news is, the train will be late. The further good news for some of us is that when we arrive at our destination, there will be Burgundy. Importers, individual domains, and regional organizations are

Drink your pebbles

Sometimes when the best-laid plans go awry, they do so in delightful ways. At the fish shop the morning of New Year’s Eve, my idea of sea bass disappeared when I saw that they had fillets of John Dory, a noble and irresistible fish, expensive but worth it. Back home, I presented my lovely wife with this surprise, and she reciprocated: Instead of the Macon we’ve been drinking this month,
copyright 2010-2015 by Brian St. Pierre