Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Sizing Up The Critters

One of the most written about trends in wines last year was the runaway success of wines sporting critters on the label. The numbers are hard to argue with. Forget Wine Spectator scores, if your wine had an illustration of some member of the animal kingdom on the label, odds favored strong sales.

Of course, I've lived by wine reviews, scores and word-of-mouth for so long that the idea of buying wine based on the art on its lable seems laughable. But then I began to wonder, would I really make out all that bad? I mean, we've all heard about amateur investors with their own peculiar stock strategies who regularly beat the advice given by the pros. So, could interesting labels be a legitimate path to wine enjoyment?

I had to put this to the test, a very unscientific test. Recently, I went out and bought the most interesting critter labels I could find in a large nearby store. I decided to buy the same varietal, so I could find out whether there's any consistency in this low-priced realm. And, I chose cabernet -- in part because there were plenty of critter cabs out there, but also because most of us have a pretty good idea of what a good cabernet flavor profile should be.

How did these four labels stack up? Well, precariously. But all was not lost. All were wines under $10 with labels that my wife wants me to save -- nuff said about the labels. Half of the wines were actually pretty good. Half were pretty bad.

The first wine we tasted was a 2003 Dancing Bull cabernet with a California designation. All but one have the California designation, by the way. Dancing Bull actually had some pretty things going on, black cherry and raspberry flavors with vanilla and cedar on the finish. On the whole, it was a pretty well integrated wine with a medium body -- definitely worth the price tag. Very true varietal flavors.

The next wine we tried was a 2003 3 Blind Moose. This also was a pretty good example of a medium-bodied, low-end cab. Again, there were some nice black cherry and oak aromas, though just a bit less structure than the Dancing Bull. All in all, a pretty good, under-$10 cab for mid-week quaffing.

Hey, I was feeling pretty upbeat. So far, two out of two cabs were pretty satisfying for less than $10. I might be shaving some dollars off of my next wine purchase, I thought. But then I tried the 2003 Big Fat Frog with its colorful green label. Now, I have to admit, this is what I (smugly) had been expecting all along. The Frog turned out to be a bit flabby with dull, prunelike flavors and almost no acicidity. Decidedly unbalanced, un-cablike and not worth even $9.

Then it was time for Rex Goliath, with its colorful rooster on the label. I actually had hope for this purchase, since I once tried another Rex Goliath wine that wasn't too bad. But the Rex cab made the Frog taste like Opus One. This was a thin, underdeveloped wine that was virtually joyless. It was a trial to drink. There was some simple red cherry going on, but no typical cab structure.

What does this little test prove? As you might expect, picking wine based on the label is not very reliable. Two out of four was actually a higher percentage of decent wines than I expected to find. I have a feeling this is the best you can ever hope to do, with art design as your guiding spirit. In short, reading wine reviews and talking to your friends are still the way to go. But then again if you've got a couple of hundred dollars burning a whole in your pocket, you could do a lot worse than picking up a Mouton Rothschild because of their labels while strolling down the Bordeaux aisle!

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Sincerely Good Wine

I just love surprises, at least when they come with inexpensive bottles of wine.

Case in point: I just opened a bottle of 2004 Sincerely Shiraz from Neil Ellis Wines of South Africa. We all know what to expect from inexpensive shiraz -- lots of jammy fruit with an exuberant, friendly personality.

At first blush, this $14 wine was exactly what I expected. Dark purple in the glass, it was brimming over with charming black cherry flavors and a bit of cassis. It seemed like a great sipping wine or a terrific wine to match up with burgers or pizza.

But then I walked away from half a glass of this quaffer and got busy. It was an hour later before I returned to it. Prepared to knock back the rest quickly, I suddenly froze, glass under my nose. Was this the same wine? Suddenly I was smelling leather and smoke. What a fascinating wine! Now I was forced to take my time and savor. I was stung by the realization that I almost didn't do this wine any real justice at all.

I gather that the 2005 vintage is now available, but if you can find any more of the 2004 -- buy it. And, I love the fact that it comes with a screw top -- the way every wine meant to be drunk young should.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

All The News That's Fit To Drink

I've been trying to catch up on my wine reading, and I found a few things of particular note that I thought I'd pass along. This article or book review from the LA Times is one of the best of its kind that I've read in a while -- thanks to Emily for this one.

What I like about this review of a Vincent Gasnier wine book, A Taste For Wine, is that it's so personalized and insightful. Leslie Brenner, the reviewer, in no way uses formulaic writing to assess this wine tome. Instead, she offers lots of personal opinion rooted firmly in a deep exploration of the content.

Sure, she takes a few uncreative swipes at the book's writing -- the opening section is a "snore," she says. But she correctly points out that wine books do not have to be brilliant from beginning to end to have something good to offer. And, in this case, the middle section of the book offers a very instructive "tour" through the wines of the world, including many obscure but distinctive varietals.

This is so important for anyone truly interested in wines, especially given the growing concerns in wine circles that globalization will grind under many worthy but hard-to-sell varietals around the globe. Does the author know his stuff in writing about these many different styles of wine? Well the reviewer put together her own tasting group to test the author's contentions about style and other characteristics. Her findings make for interesting reading -- the author is given credit for really knowing European wines but no so California. I think we can all learn from the article as well as the book -- what a great review!

Another article that caught my eye has me shaking my head. It seems that many California vintners have decided to oppose a new federal proposal that would require wines to list any and all ingrediants, including minute traces of foods such as egg whites and even fish parts sometimes used in fining wines -- the process of pulling out solid particles to help clarify the wine.

The feds believe even tiny traces of these fining agents could produce potentially lethal allergic reactions in some people, but the vintners believe the law is trying solve a non-existent problem. They also fear consumers will be turned off to wine if they see these things listed on labels. While not a fan of excessive regulation, I say to California vintners, pick your battles better because this one's not worth fighting.

First, all it takes is one fatal reaction to suddenly have a huge crisis on your hands. And, second, it's ridiculous to think anyone is going to give up wine because of such disclosures. Wine is riding such a wave that the dirty, dark secrets (not really) of fining will do nothing to stop it. The marketers need to step out of the way on this one.

Here's a fun one that says, I think, the Aussies believe size really does matter! The world's largest bottle of wine made its way to New York this past week and has created a bit of a stir. I thought I knew a thing or two about wine bottles, from magnums to nebuchadnezzars, but this is a new one on me. Planning on having 400 of your closest friends over soon? Well, this is the wine bottle for you.

Monday, January 15, 2007

"X" Marks The Spot

After feeling under the weather for the better part of a week or so, I hit the trail again this weekend in search of some wine bargains -- and I did not come home empty-handed. I scored a couple of great inexpensive wines from Spain, not in and of itself a surprise. I've blogged about this before.

But, based on what I tasted, I think consumers are going to be delightfully surprised in the next few years by the wide range of varietals and styles available from Spain that most of us have barely heard of at this point.

The first wine I'm really nuts about is 2004 Alaia Dehesa de Rubiales from Galiciano. At $8 a bottle, this may be my new favorite mid-week wine under $10. It's tempranillo based but with more extraction than you'd expect from the bargain isle. It's loaded with black cherry fruit and a slightly spicy finish.

The other great find really blew my socks off -- and not because of its weight or extraction. With 14 percent alcohol, it certainly has body. But what really impressed me was the generous brown spice I got on the nose and the sophistication of its smooth style. I'm talking about the 2005 Xavier vino de la tierra de Castilla y Leon, which goes for about $14. Sporting a large X on the label, this wine is made from a little known grape, prieto picudo, but its flavors and aromas are idiosynchratic and impressive.

You could argue that Xavier is a good example of why the internationalization of wine styles can be a bad thing. There's no doubt there are great, little known varietals out there that winemakers are afraid to export because the wine contains none of the prestige grapes.

But I'm told the winery in this case finally decided they have a good enough product to send overseas -- good news for us. Cleverly, they decided to slap a slick label and marketing name on it, rather than the varietal name -- the label almost looks like it came from the set of the X-files. Fine by me. As long as I continue to see and taste unusual wines like Xavier.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

An Overlooked Bargain

When retailers I meet talk about bargain wines, they usually steer me toward wines from Spain, Portugal, Argentina and Chile. Usually with good reason. But with so much attention currently focused on these parts of the globe, we often overlook the bargains, if not numerous, to be found in California.

Take Cline Cellars, for example, located in Carneros. It seems to me that Cline does not get a lot of ink, as a fairly large producer that does not make the big, blockbuster cabs. But they do make some terrific zinfandels and a number of distinctive Rhone varietals. For example, I was a huge fan of their mourvedre for $10 -- the price is now $18 and I assume it's still great, but I haven't been able to find this wine around here in years.

Thankfully, I continue to find their $9 syrah. I've always enjoyed this inexpensive, peppery black cherry-laced wine. Still, I was not prepared to be bowled over -- and I was -- when I opened a bottle recently. It was a '99 that I found in the basement, more or less hidden from view and forgotten about for several years. So, it had aged about four years longer than I would normally lay down a cheap wine.

Wow, what a surprise. Instead of exuberant spicy black cherry aromas, I was greeted by hints of leather, earth and smoke. This isn't supposed to happen in this price range. Don't get me wrong -- I love many inexpensive wines. I just don't expect a lot of complexity. And, age a wine like this? Perish the thought!

We visited Cline almost 10 years ago and tasted a lot of good zins. I don't remember the syrah standing out then. But over time I think the syrah has been more consistent than Cline's ubiquitous low-end zin. So, Cline has proved to be a year-in and year-out bargain...and from California. Cool!