Sunday, February 26, 2006

A Look Back At '89

What a great idea "Open That Bottle Night" is. Instead of waiting for a special occasion to open up those treasures you've been storing, OTBN inspires you to look at your cellar and determine whether you may be sitting on some things too long. Then, you create a special occasion around the bottle or bottles you find and open.

On Saturday, we invited our friends Tony and Kristen over to help celebrate OTBN, each of us offering up something special from the cellar. It turned out to be an exploration and celebration of the joys of the fabulous '89 vintage in France.

Trimbach Cuvee Frederic Emile Riesling (Selection de Grains Noble) '89
Tony, not surpringly, came bearing an Alsatian riesling. Tony, you see, is a first-class schlepper. Like many of us, Tony has returned from numerous trips abroad loaded down with more than a dozen bottles in carrying cases or otherwise attached to his person. I've gotten to taste a number of Alsatian treasures thanks to Tony's capacity for schlepping. Tony enjoys all the great wines, of course, but has developed a special fondness for the outstanding wines of Alsace, where his maternal roots lie.

Consequently, the Trimbach we enjoyed Saturday was not in itself a surprise, but its source was. Several years ago, Tony and Kristen were enjoying a California vacation when they decided to check out a wine shop near Pebble Beach. Inside, Tony quickly zeroed in on four bottles of the '89 Trimbach -- not easily found any longer. Being the Alsatian enthusiast that he is, Tony knew he had stumbled on a potentially great score. Just one problem -- the bottles showed all the classic signs of improper storage, notably substantial leakage.

The bottles were priced at $123 each, a fair price for perfectly stored wines but a risky investment for bottles that outwardly appeared to be tainted. Skilled at walking the wine, Tony haggled with the proprietor who appeared to know very little about Alsatian wines. All he knew was that these bottles had hung around an awfully long time unsold. End result, they agreed to open the worst looking bottle right then and there. If it was in good shape, Tony would buy the rest -- at $50 a piece. The wine turned out to be joyous, but Tony did not get all of the remaining three. The proprietor decided he had to take one home for himself.

The bottle we tasted Saturday was a rich, mouth-coating treat. It had a deep golden color that was almost honey like. The aromas were layered, with honey, peaches and apricot coming through nicely. This intense but balanced wine tasted like it was at its absolute peak. The finish wasn't just long it was epochal.

Chateau Beychevelle Saint Julien '89
Looking back, I'm so glad my wife and I got married in '89. Of course, the year is not really so important, but it sure is a nice bonus when an important year like the year of one's marriage also happens to coincide with a great vintage like '89 Bordeaux. It helped me build a small but decent wine cellar.

I first caught the wine bug after Kathy and I attended a wine dinner (still unusual in those days) at an area restaurant in 1991. Dinner was served with three different vintages of a California cab, and it was a revelation. I didn't know how smooth and complex a well-made, well-aged wine could be. The couple with whom we were seated were more experienced, and I took mental notes as they told us about their habit of buying and cellaring great Bordeaux -- especially for particularly significant years.

I started reading and researching, and a year or two later began buying as many '89 Bordeaux as I could afford so that we could make our anniversary celebrations that much more enjoyable with a great '89 wine. It has indeed added something special to our celebrations. But, just one problem. It seems like more often than not we've been traveling during our anniversary or going out to good restaurants. Consequently, I'm not using up very many '89s. OTBN seemed like a good time to dip into them.

I checked the inventory and also did a little reading of online tasting reports. With a couple of sources saying that the '89 Chateau Beychevelle is maturing fast, I decided a bottle of Beychevelle had to be my first contribution.

It was a wonderful accompanyment to the beef bourguignon. It was mature and smooth, showing lots of black fruit encased in smooth tannins. As the wine opened up more, I got hints of anise, smoked meats and coffee. It's not past its prime, but I doubt it will be more enjoyable than it is right now. No need to wait.

Cos D'Estournel Saint-Estephe '89
Of course, one bottle with dinner just wasn't going to cut it, so we also delved into a Cos D'Estournel. We clearly saved the better red for last. The '89 Cos was without a doubt intense with a longer finish than the Beychevelle. It had an earthy character with just a bit of barnyard on the nose, along with cocoa and leather. It was a real indulgence wine that should be great for years yet.

We finished off the evening with a Cuilleron Condrieu '99, a copper-colored sticky that went absolutely perfectly with Kristen's delicious pear tart.

As far as I'm concerned, OTBN has got to be up there with the three or four best holidays of the year. Any time you open up wines like these, you've got a day to remember for a long time. And, we had the added bonus of remembering and celebrating all the wonderful things that sprang from the year 1989.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

LongGuyLand Appeal

Just read an amusing post over at Basic Juice about a tough-as-nails cabernet franc from Macari. I had to chuckle at the story, but also nod in agreement about the wine.

You see, the wife and I, being just a stone's throw away in Connecticut, love to do a jaunt through the wineries of Long Island's north fork now and then. If you haven't been, you might be surprised at how enjoyable the exerience is -- there's a lot of beautiful facilities and a lot of very good wine. Each year we've made the trip, a different winery impressed me for its consistent quality across all of its product.

In 2004, the last time we made it out there, Macari really impressed the hell out of me. Everything we had there was beautifully made, from a zesty sauvignon bland and a creamy but blanced chardonnay to the wonderfully spicy cabernet franc. Their reserve merlot is just fabulous as well. We enjoyed their wines so much that when we went out for dinner in Greenport that night we ordered the cabernet franc and found it to be just as delicious with our meals.

The current vintage sounds as though it may be a bit thin compared to the '01 we enjoyed, but these guys know what they're doing. If you have a chance, try a Macari.

When we stopped at a wine store to pick up a few more wines on our way home in '04, the proprietor remarked that some of the North Fork wineries have their share of problems, but Macari, he smiled, has been just fabulous in recent years. I already had a couple of bottles of Macari merlot and cab franc for the road, but I was overcome and had to get a few more. I enjoyed them immensely over the next month, even though they got much warmer than they should have in the car. There is great wine a lot closer than you think.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Decanting the Emperor

I just finished reading Elin McCoy's The Emperor of Wine, and came away from the book mostly impressed by the work and the man. Since the book was released mid-year '05, I know I'm late in addressing this tome about Robert Parker. But I'm glad in a way that I did not tackle the book before becoming a blogger and a reader of so many enlightening wine blogs. Let me explain.

Parker without a doubt has the single most influential nose and pen in the business. Wines that please Parker can soar in terms of sales and prestige while those suffering poor reviews stand to lose big time. His Wine Advocate reviews have such a huge impact that many Bordeaux labels in the past decade began waiting for Parker's assessments to come out before setting their futures prices.

As a result, Parker, who started out as a Ralph Nadar-type savior of wine-writing has become over time a lightning rod for criticism because of his profound and imposing preference for fruit-driven wines. The French have a love-hate relationship for the wine world's 800-pound gorilla while the English, in particular, seem to have developed a particularly nasty dislike of him. All because Parker has a lopsided share of influence, and a profoundly "American" palate.

My view is that, of course, no one person should have such a monopolistic influence on such a huge and diverse business. But unless you have no appreciation for context and history, I don't see how you can blame Parker, a self-made millionnaire. He basically transformed wine writing from the pompous, unethical practice that it was into a consumer-focused, more or less fair and above-board craft. His creation of the 100-point scale for judging wines, as despised as it is by many, gave consumers a tool that they could understand and embrace. If it's often abused as a one-dimensional yard stick, it's also an important part of demystifying wine for millions.

As for his palate, if it is biased toward "fruit bombs" that show well early but lack the stamina for long-term aging, it is also perfectly suited to American tastes. Not everyone's, mind you. But it's been my experience both socially and in retail that most Americans prefer Parker-type wines. His recommendations, consequently, have helped more Americans get on board the great journey that is wine.

I'm not saying Parker is without fault; he can be overly sensitive, prickly and sometimes surly toward others. He's human. And, it's clear the wine business and consumers would benefit from more voices to consider. I'm just saying Parker came about his success and overwhelming influence honestly.

The good news -- what I was referring to when I said I was glad I read the book after becoming a blogger -- is that Parker's influence is beginning to diminish, and other voices are now being heard. For example, I think most consumers these days rely more on Wine Spectator than on Parker for guidance. Since there's lots I don't like about Spectator, it's not really "the answer." But it does help.

No, the really promising development lies in the wealth of guidance and opinion that's available these days through the blogosphere and the explosion of wine columns in newspapers and magazines. There's so much information available now, and meaningful tips, about wine that you don't have to wonder, for example, how long to sit on your 2000 Bordeaux. Someone out there is checking and sharing their assessments based on real experience.

There's never been a better time to be an oenophile. Wines are better made today than ever, and now we have the sources of information we need to properly keep up. That's why I suspect McCoy's book already is becoming a chronicle of interesting history rather than current events. But if you are at all into wines, you should read it. It's not just the story of one man but of the phenomenal changes in the world of wine in the past 30 years.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Valentine In a Glass

Some people ask, "what's a good wine for Valentine's Day?" It's an odd question, really. It does more or less make sense to ask about good Thanksgiving wines because you know what foods will be served for most people. But Valentine's Day? Sensible or not, plenty of people have strong thoughts about this.

I think most people who think about these things really are wondering, what would make the occasion special without getting extreme? Well, you can forget about most of the "value" wines that we wine bloggers write about so much. It's not the time for them. You want a bottle that will make you feel that the evening, with your sweetie, is special. You want something that feels like a wonderful, sensual experience that will inspire more sensual experiences a little later.

We had beef last year and a terrific cab, but this year it was shellfish. I decided on chardonnay. I know, I know. So many wine people love to dis California chards that few would consider them special, or even a worthy match for most food. I don't drink chard that often, but there are some awesome ones out there. At about $40, Newton's unfiltered chardonnay is truly delicious. The 2001 we opened last night was just great, lush and rich with apple pie and pineapple aromas that go on and on.

This is a wine that gets a lot of time in oak, but the flavors are fairly well integrated. It is not necessarily a great wine for food, but its creamy texture and vanilla nose made it a seductive glass to linger over by itself between bites. While appreciating its distinctiveness, it made me recall that one of the first Valentine Days my wife and I ever spent together, almost 20 years ago, was accompanied by a Silverado chardonnay that really opened my eyes. It was $3 more a glass than the house stuff, and I figured I'd splurge -- Mr. big spender! Though not a real top-of-the-line chard, the Silverado was a step up and it nonetheless knocked me out with its big buttery flavors.

It was a revelatory moment -- extraordinary tasting experiences are out there if you take the time to explore and spend a little more. It started a fascination with big chards that would last a few years and would morph eventually into a love of great wines of all kinds. Oh yeah, and the date went pretty nicely, too.

I remarked about the memory to my wife, who recalled the event and promptly tried to correct my recollection of the year. It occurred to me that the Newton had done its job nicely. Despite a faulty detail or two, the memories added another enjoyable layer to the evening -- made possible by the simple act of lifting up a glass of fine wine to one's nose and going where it led.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

I Sing The Body Eclectic

I Sing the Body eclectic;
The armies of grapes I love engirth me, and I engirth them;
They will not get me off till I go with them, respond to them,
And disgorge them, and charge them full with the charge of the Soul.

OK. Walt Whitman fans are probably ready to put a contract out on me. But I truly got a charge out of a South African wine I just tried for the first time, The Chocolate Block '04. It's made from an eclectic mix of syrah, 45 percent; grenache noir, 25 percent; cabernet sauvignon, 17 percent; cinsault, 11 percent; and viognier, 2 percent. Obviously, this is not a wine that is going to show off dazzling varietal characteristics, but it is a fully extracted, fruit-forward wine with very decent complexity and a great finish.

The Chocolate Block is made by Boekenhoutskloof, a name that's a mouthful, but so is the wine. I can't say I'm a big fan of South African wines, though, truth be told, I've not had a great number. But Chocolate Block, with its full-bodied, ripe personality, has opened my eyes. If you like rich, new world types of wines that show very well when young, then this $30 limited production wine is for you.

When I first opened it, I gots lots of jammy black fruit, cassis, earth and spicy oak. 20 minutes later I picked up smoky notes, tobacco leaf, cocoa and mushrooms. It complemented our lamb chops fantastically well.

I picked up a couple of bottles at a local wine shop, but I'm going back for more. What could be better for Valentine's Day than a chocolate tasting, both solid and vinous.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

And It's Good For You, Too

Yet another study has appeared adding to a growing body of evidence that red wine is not just good for the soul, it's good for the body, too. The latest is that there's new evidence that drinking red wine can help you live longer.

I couldn't be more delighted. Now my wines and I can both exhibit great length.

Surely, by now, you've heard that numerous studies have shown a link between red wine consumption and decreased risk of heart disease. And, you probably think that all this started with some research around the time of the famous 60 Minutes "French Paradox" episode in 1991. What you may not know, however, is that findings of this kind have been around for at least three decades.

Some wine writers have done their homework, and you can read about how the NIH suppressed the results of the Framingham heart study, which found in the 1970s that moderate drinkers died half as often as non-drinkers from heart disease. It seems that anything that might encourage, albeit moderate, drinking was not politically possible.

The NIH takes a more thoughtful approach these days, but it is clear that the government and medical community contributed to a lengthy delay in Americans getting good information about healthy lifestyle choices. The studies showing wine's health benefits keep coming fast and furious now, which is great. So, maybe America will become a real wine-drinking culture yet.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Port Pouring Logic

Now, the guys at Wine Lovers Page have really done it. On their website they espouse a simple and practical way to decant your vintage port -- exactly the way I've been doing it for years. I have to admit that I was never quick to own up to this non-traditional method, but now I realize it made too much sense for it not to have been discovered and promoted by countless oenophiles.

In case you don't know, vintage port -- the big kahuna of ports -- is unfiltered and bottle-aged. As a result, it throws off a ton of sediment as it ages -- and it can age forever. When it's time to open a mature vintage port, it's traditional to decant the wine so that the wine can be separated from all that sediment. Many even like to use the traditional candle method -- the neck of the bottle is held over the flame while the port is poured into the decanter. When the first sign of sediment is spotted creeping up the neck of the bottle, illuminated by the flame, it's time to stop pouring.

I never thought my eyesight was that bad, but I always had a devil of a time spotting the sediment no matter how close I held the bottle to the flame. And, it just seemed so pointless. I don't remember where I got the idea, but I simply tried stuffing some cheesecloth into a wine funnel, and poured the wine through it. It worked perfectly. I've never been tempted to try decanting any other way ever since. No need to stand on ceremony as far I'm concerned. And, don't be afraid of a little sediment however you choose to decant.

The absolute best port I ever tasted was completely unfiltered, undecanted, unceremoniously poured and consumed. I was working at the wine store then, a number of years ago. Late one Saturday morning, two scruffy workmen came in with a box of assorted wines. They had been paid to clear out a house whose elderly owner had recently died. In the basement, they found some well-aged, dusty bottles of wine, so they decided to bring them in and see if they could make themselves some quick cash.

The box they carried contained some good-looking bottles of Bordeaux from the '70s and '80s, a couple of Barolos and Barberescos and some port. The full-timer with whom I worked could barely conceal his glee, but he played it cool and offered $100 for the lot -- excluding a couple of bottles that had obviously suffered serious leakage. They settled for a little over $100, and the guys left happy. They even left the bad bottles behind, having no idea what to do with them. One of the two bottles in bad shape was a 1963 Croft.

After celebrating his triumph (if properly stored the wines could have been worth up to $1,000), Andrew decided we might as well open the bad-looking bottles just for ha-ha's. When we pulled the cork on the Croft, it simply fell apart as it came out. We simply poured the wine into some tasting glasses -- we didn't even think of decanting, so pessimistic were we about the port's condition. But when tasted, it was quite simply to die for. It was rich and silky, like creamy chocolate truffles with a subtle wiff of prunes. I was bowled over by the elegance and grace of this well-aged classic.

It was perhaps the smoothest, classiest-tasting port I've ever had. And, it taught me two lessons. Never judge a wine by its cover, and don't think that ceremony is essential to a great wine-drinking experience. Ceremony can be nice in the right situations, but that unfiltered port in a simple glass shared with other fans may have been one of my absolute favorite wine-drinking moments. You can keep the candle.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Lost and Found Joy

Those of us who don't have ritzy, elaborate wine cellars do occasionally find a fringe benefit to the disorganized clutter that is our wine cellars. For, among the disorganized collection of bottles that lay about in makeshift racks and untagged boxes in various parts of the cellar are forgotten, hidden gems. Here and there, a sole survivor of a stash thought long since depleted.

Usually, a momentary burst of self-scolding for poor cellar management gives way to sheer joy, as though one had just been presented with an unexpected gift. For example, last year I discovered a bottle of '94 Phelps Insignia from a stash I thought was long gone. It was a revelatory moment, that forgetfullness can be as rewarding as patience. To say that this cab-based wine was intense and delicious doesn't do it justice. For I was rewarded with an extremely well integrated, velvity wine that was awfully close to perfection. '94 was such a lush, approachable vintage that the others by no means were enjoyed too young. But it was thrilling to enjoy the more mature version as well.

I made another discovery the other day, not as exciting as finding a lost Insignia but nonethless instructive and fun. I found I had forgotten all about a bottle of an unusual and enjoyable dessert wine from Wolffer, located on Long Island's South Fork. It's unusual because it's made primarily from chardonnay, which is almost never used to a great extent in great dessert wines. The current vintage of this Long Island late harvest wine is made from 78 percent chardonnay, with a smattering of gewurztraminer, vignoles and trebbiano.

I picked up this wine while we were touring Long Island wineries about five years ago. By the way, if you're a wine fan and you're from the Northeast and you've never visited Long Island wineries, you don't have a clue. Not everything there is good, but there are jewels to be found. You don't have to go to California to go Sideways.

On that particular trip, I was really knocked out by the wines of a couple of different winemakers, one of which was Wolffer. I bought a few of their wines, but somehow this skinny bottle of dessert wine slipped out of sight in a wooden crate I use to store dessert wines and LBV ports. I opened it last night and, wow! There's a lot of flavor packed into this '99 chardonnay. I got honey and cherry blossoms and mango, and even butterscotch candy. Fairly intense, with decent acidity. The current vintage is described as light in color, but the '99 had a rich orange hue. I forgot just how much I liked this wine when I tasted it at the winery.

Yeah, I really feel bad for all those poor souls stuck with expensive, professionally installed wine cellars. Their chances of being surprised in their own cellars are so painfully slim. I don't need no stinkin' redwood racks...right!

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Nebbiolo Notions

I've exhorted often enough the joys of getting off the heavily traveled wine roads in favor of more unique and stimulating paths that can offer true vinous enlightment. I've also offered up nebbiolo, the grape of great Barbarescos and Barolos, as an example of a fine place to explore. Well, I confess I didn't know how easily and cheaply it could be done.

One of the wine stores I frequent turned me on to a very nice Nebbiolo D'Alba 2001 from Alberto Giachino. It bears the D'Alba designation because it does not come from either the prestigation area of Barolo or Barbaresco but is instead from Alba -- land of very good Barberas. But the lack of a serious pedigree also means it goes for $17.99!

Now, I've paid close to $100 for a great Barolo -- the 1989 Giacosa (enjoyed just two years ago)was one of the best wines I've ever had in my life. It had loads of leather, cigar box and smoked meat aromas, even a trace of tar. A monster. But such a wine requires a lot of patience to really enjoy.

This nebbiolo, in contrast, is chewy and delicious, without waiting eons for a payoff. It's not Barolo, but for the price there's lot to enjoy here, blackberries and prunes with a dry, somewhat tannic finish. I had it with lamb stew, and it was fabulous. And, best of all, it was not overly familiar but fresh and striking, like the scenic route too seldom taken to a favorite place.