Monday, April 30, 2007

The Week in Alcohol

Moses comes down from Ararat Robert Parker releases his judgments on the 2006 Bordeaux crop in The Wine Advocate today. London merchants are panicking, but the Bordeaux negociantes are more hopeful. To the North American wine-seller who counts on using shelf tags covered with Parker raves to sell his wines, the early scores look catastrophic.

It’s all the fault of those damn secular humanists, again 75% of the Texas wine crop was wiped out by a late spring frost. Texas is the US’s fifth largest producer of wine, having 139 commercial wineries and 3700 acres under vine. (There are more wineries in Texas than in British Columbia.)

Bring on the usual billionaires Non- subscribers to The Wine Advocate looking for a succinct summing-up of the prospects for Bordeaux 2006 will find a friend in Jancis Robinson, who notes that (contrary to producer claims) yields were higher in 2006 than 2005 or 2004; quality was spotty at best with wines generally being over- tannic, over-acidic and short on fruit; and that the negociantes are going to have to rely on the suckers, marks and wannabes to keep prices up.

But would you want to have a beer with him? An informal poll of French winemakers revealed a preference for right-wing candidate Nicolas Sarkozy over the socialist Segolene Royal in the upcoming French Presidential election. Sarkozy has hinted that he might roll back the Evan Law, which bans most forms of advertising for alcoholic beverages in France. (A teatotaler, Sarkozy has also hinted at changes to France's 35 hour work week.)

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

RSVP Zanatta Winery tasting, April 23 at the Mansion on Mary

Seven offerings this week from Zanatta winery, located in the Cowachan Valley, Vancouver Island. Zanatta has 30 acres under vine and concentrates on Ortega, Cayuga, Auxerrois, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Nero and Madeleine X Sylvaner. Zanatta has been producing since 1990, and their wines can be found in better wine stores throughout Vancouver Island and the lower Mainland.

Wine Zanatta Ortega 2005
From Cowichan Valley, BC
Price $15.87 (Spinnakers, Victoria)
Alcohol Content 12.5%

Smells a lot like a baby Riesling, with what one taster thought ‘a petrol-like nose’. Flavor a bit Riesling-like as well; light, a tiny bit of carbonation, and a mildly congested, acidic finish. A typical wine to open a tasting: it sets up a benchmark for the rest but you don’t really miss anything by showing up late.

Wine Zanatta Pinot Grigio 2005
From Cowichan Valley, BC
Price $17.84 (Spinnakers, Victoria)
Alcohol Content 12.5%

More nose than the Ortega, though not distinct—a hint of green apple, maybe. Definite notes of apple on the attack, but the middle drops out on the palate completely, leaving one sampler to overstate the case somewhat: “there’s no fruit in that at all.” Some flavor returns for a mild finish; smoked salmon helped it along.

Wine Zanatta Damasco
From Cowichan Valley, BC
Price $14.47 (Spinnakers, Victoria)
Alcohol Content 11.0%

Very characterful, and wears its Bride-of Frankenstein lineage well: Four kinds of grapes (New York Muscat, Ortega, Auxerrois, and Madeleine X Sylvaner) from two different vintages go into this, and something like an olfactory tornado emerges. Insane nose—trying to identify nuances is like being pounded by a gang of bikers: identifying where the individual blows are coming from is a chore you’re uninclined to take up. An outrageous fruit-cocktail on the palate could probably tame a curry made by the natives of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. A great party-trick wine; not for people who mind getting their elbows dirty.

Wine Zanatta Glenora Fantasia Brut
From Cowichan Valley, BC
Price $27.83 (Spinnakers, Victoria)
Alcohol Content 11.0%

Nonvintage bubbly from Cayuga grapes, left sur lees for 3 years. Winemaker claims of green-apple bouquet was neither contested nor really confirmed, so fleeting was the nose. Fine bubble action, acid not too brut-al; no huge fruit; easygoing in all respects. (But perhaps too pricey for easygoing.)

Wine Zanatta Allegria Brut Rose 2003
From Cowichan Valley, BC
Price $30.33 (Spinnakers, Victoria)
Alcohol Content 12%

Sparkling Pinot Noir and Auxerrios combination left sur lees 2 years. Winemaker claims of kiwi and raspberry not easily detected; less fruit on the palate than the Fantasia, although it reacted better to the oysters it accompanied. But ultimately, pretty hollow—the unkindest one of us referred to it as ‘empty fizz.” Price also just not up to the competition.

Wine Zanatta Fatima 1996
From Cowichan Valley, BC
Price $30.10 (Spinnakers, Victoria)
Alcohol Content 11.0%

Pinot Gris meets method champagnoise; 10 years sur lees. Indistinct attack; acid middle. Fruit is largely gone; 10 years on the lees is too long—the wine is as exhausted as its tasters by this time.

Wine Zanatta Pinot Nero 2004
From Cowichan Valley, BC
Price $21.80 (Spinnakers, Victoria)
Alcohol Content 12.0%

Aged in a combination of new and not-new oak. Mild, indistinct nose opened up after half-an-hour. Oak is nicely balanced on the palate; perhaps pleasantly dominant with notes of vanilla. There is a sense of a sort of cotton-candy sweetness to the customary pinot flavors—which is usually a sign that the wine has been de-acidified; in this case it doesn’t hurt, although purists may find it disconcerting. A plush, soft, creamy finish. User-friendly in a way best appreciated by the neophyte with no expectations from the varietal. Along with the Damasco, the consensus favorite of the wines offered.

Monday, April 23, 2007

The Week in Alcohol

At last, a French terrorist group we can understand Activists from CRAV (comite regional d'action viticole, a militant French wine-industry group), firebombed stores in the south of France as part of a campaign to fight price-cutting and unrestricted imports of non-domestic wines. According to Decision News Media, "[the] left-wing French farming group, the Confederation Paysanne, said Monday it stood 'in solidarity with winemakers facing crisis'. It described the recent supermarket attacks as 'moderate'.

With pornstar Ron Jeremy as Robert Parker
Robert Parker Online has introduced a feature called "Parker in your Palm"

Flash! Sun discovered rising in East! Garagiste Movement co-founders Jean-Luc Thunevin and Francois Mitjaville have declared the Bordeaux Garage Wine movement as dead as Thunevin's 1995 Valandraud. According to Decanter, "Thunevin has told La Revue du Vin de France that 'garage wines are made by winemakers who try to compensate for a lack of means and poor terroir by applying modern techniques and efficiencies'."

Let's call it Valandraud The Washington Wine Company announced a contest to name its new winery. Prize is two cases of WWC products a year for a decade.

That'll be $49.99 for your bottle of Yellow Tail It's official: the worst drought in living memory has cut Australia's grape harvest by 30%. Grape pickers have been referred to by commentators as 'search parties'.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

RSVP Averill Creek Winery tasting, April 16 at the Mansion on Mary

Six offerings from Andy Johnston’s Averill Creek winery in the Cowichan Valley, near Duncan on Vancouver Island. Averill Creek currently has 28 acres of grapes and its first vintage was in 2004. Avril Creek wines are available here.

Wine Averill Creek Gewurztraminer 2005
From Cowichan Valley, Vancouver Island
Price $16.- (Producer’s retail)

Some judicious prompting by the winemaker Andy Johnston reminded tasters of notes of lychees on the nose. Light flavor; not hugely extracted as many examples of this grape are in this province, but balanced and decently-made; finishing a little green. (One taster asked whether we could expect this wine to evolve; winemaker replied that he got closer to what he was aiming for in the 2006 vintage.)

Wine Averill Creek Somenos Rose 2006
From Cowichan Valley, Vancouver Island
Price $17.-
Alcohol Content 13%

A 50/50 Merlot-Pinot combination; no oak. Given that the most exalted of the vineyard’s Pinot and Merlot grapes went into their respective namesake cuvees, it’s no surprise that this rose is light, light, light—almost colorless. Indistinct but pleasant nose; hints of a light-afternoon Pinot and Merlot character on the palate whisper through well-disciplined astringency and snappy acid. (That’s enough Parkerisms!—ed.) Fun stuff, mostly for when the temperature’s above 30 degrees.

Wine Averill Creek Pinot Grigio 2006
From Cowichan Valley, Vancouver Island
Price $22.- (Producer’s retail)

Nose oddly but not distressingly reminiscent of something like hydrogen peroxide—one taster labeled it ‘medicinal’ but it was not so bad as all that. The wine’s pleasant, light appley flavor is a bit overwhelmed by its residual sugar, which according to the winemaker, resides there because of his use of the dreaded ‘71b yeast’ in the fermentation, “which makes it tough to get dry”. Cold fermented and cold-stabilized with no malolactic fermentation, the wine “has patio written all over it” in the uncontested words of one taster.

Wine Averill Creek Pinot Gris 2005
From Cowichan Valley, Vancouver Island
Price $22.- (Producer’s retail)

Color verging on manila-envelope hints at a history lacking in the Grigio mentioned above; confirmed by winemaker: this was 100% barrel-fermented (in old barrels from the Burrowing Owl winery), and underwent malolactic fermentation. But like the Grigio above, it had something of an un-wine-like nose: odors of new plastic with ripe adhesive tape. (By no means unpleasant, just counterintuitive.) Texture variously described as ‘oily’, ‘viscous’ and ‘buttery’; warm finish shows a nice alcohol-acid balance and a good use of oak. A better use of the grape than the Grigio, and according to one taster, “superior for pairing with food”.

Wine Averill Creek Pinot Noir 2005
From Cowichan Valley, Vancouver Island
Price $22.-
Alcohol Content 12.8%

Very pretty in the glass, with a peppery, comfortingly old-style Pinot nose—like a good, light-bodied California Pinot before the steroid revolution kicked in down there. Balanced on the palate, with the expected strawberry-raspbery-berryberry hints, and none of the greenness or cooked feel too often present in reasonably priced new-world Pinots at this time. Ageing this Pinot in 50/50 new and 3 year-old French oak barrels from Okanagan Barrelworks (medium toast, for those trying this at home), winemaker Johnston claims to be attempting a Burgundian style; at 22 bucks the result is even better than that: a good match of new-world virtues and local possibilities. Very well-made; consensus top wine of the tasting.

Wine Averill Creek Merlot 2005
From Cowichan Valley, Vancouver Island
Price $23.-
Alcohol Content 13.2%

A Burgundy-sized plot of 1 acre produces the grapes for Andy Johnston’s Merlot; a grape he admits he’s not convinced is possible to successfully make into an unblended wine in the Cowichan. Fortunately, the wine itself mostly give the lie to this opinion: By new-world Merlot standards, this wine is light almost to the point of anonymity; but in the context of the producer’s other wines, it smells and tastes a lot like his Pinot’s more robust and tougher older brother: Well-made in a European style, with peppery berry flavors and tannin kicking in at the finish. If some outlaw producer in Burgundy tried to make a Merlot, it might taste like this. (Sadly, the winemaker darkly hinted that he wasn’t going to make it again—“enjoy it while you can, folks!”)

Thursday, April 12, 2007

RSVP Inaugural EAT Winetasting

This marks the first EAT weblog posting for RSVP. RSVP is an irregular group of Victoria wine-fanciers dedicated to systematic wine-tasting under real-world conditions. Wines for review are generally to be sampled 6-10 at a time, and structured around a meal. The idea is to give readers a sense of how wines they’ll likely be able to purchase themselves will perform under the conditions that they’ll most often be consuming them.

Analysis will be real-world in nature as well: As convenient as a point system appears to be, it’s too often an abstraction shorn of any useful context for an individual consumer (Nothing is quite so disappointing as wine you bought because somebody, somewhere gave it 90 points, but that you ended up not really liking.) So the analytic language will be evocative and inexact; where we’ll try to be precise is in forecasting prices.

This merely reflects that for the real-world consumer, the difference between $19.99 and $12.99 is more au point than the difference between 85 and 87 points; that 90-point wine that disappoints at $20.- may prove a lot more bearable at $13-. Wines will be ranked in order of precedence against each other; as in the real world, the ones that come out on top are usually going to be the best combination of taste and price. Also, if a winery is going to put it’s own tasting notes onto a bottle, we’re going to hold them to the test as well. (Which is only fair, actually: if the maker of a $10.99 bottle claims that there’ll be gobs of ripe tropical fruit on the nose and there isn’t, he needs to have his nose rubbed in gobs of something.)

Anyway, on to business.

April 10 tasting

Three reds and three whites were sampled, with a meal whose main course was chicken cooked with tarragon.

Wine Peller Private Reserve Chardonnay 2005
From Okanagan VQA
Price $16.99 (BC Liquor Stores)
Alcohol content 14%

We discovered a wine of light body and color, with an alcohol content carrying a pretense not followed up in the flavor. Label claims of ‘round creaminess’ and ‘richly complex intense aromas’ were judged inflated at best, and downright inflammatory at worst. Miscellaneous impressions included some intrusive acidity; a hot finish; a reticence in expressing any real Chardonnay character (the Philosophy grad in this week’s group); notes of banana-skins on the nose; and a fair consensus that any other fruit-impressions that made it to the palate weren’t nearly ripe enough. Overall: No great enthusiasm; too expensive for what was there.

Wine Mt. Boucherie Estate Collection Chardonnay 2004
From Okanagan VQA
Price $13.90
Alcohol content 13%

Wine is unoaked. Body found to be light but nicely balanced; everything on the nose and palate was turned up a notch from the previous wine. Label claims of pear and ripe apple borne out in experience; label claim of citrus upgraded by panel to notes of grapefruit. (Label exhortation to ‘enjoy with friends and family’ was found hard to argue with.) Worked very nicely with the main entrĂ©e. Consensus was that the wine represented good value for the price.

Wine Rodney Strong Sonoma County Chardonnay 2005
From Sonoma, California
Price $23.99 (BC Liquor Stores)
Alcohol content 13.8%

Medium body and light color. Miscellaneous impressions included: a big California nose with floral notes and hints of citrus; some ripe red apple on the tongue; smoky, well-integrated oak in the fruit that gets bigger as the bottle goes on—marginally too big? This was the biggest chard of the bunch; fortunately not ham-handed as many in this pretense and price-range often are. You might flinch a tiny bit at the price.

Wine Chakana Syrah 2005
From Argentina
Price $14.99 (BC Liquor Stores)
Alcohol content 13.6%

Pleasant surprise of the evening: a new-world Syrah that goes for a French, rather than new-world feel, and aims for finesse more than muscle—like Brad Pitt with his shirt off rather than Schwarzenegger. Miscellaneous impressions included: hints of pin-cherry and chocolate, and a nose that the youngest and least-varnished taster among us referred to as ‘stinky but smooth’. Some argument over the tannins, (one found them intrusive; others thought them nicely-integrated) which probably comes down more to an argument over whether it should be stuffed into the cellar for a couple more years—although at this price, ageability is strictly a nice bonus. This is a wine where people wrote down its name.

Wine Rodney Strong Sonoma Merlot 2002
From Sonoma, California
Price $24.99 (BC Liquor Stores)
Alcohol content 13.8%

An entry largely lost in the shuffle between its two red companions; consensus was that it was definitely ready-to-drink; decently-made; nicely-balanced with good fruit, good tannins and notes of vanilla, and….forgettable. Price didn’t help.

Wine Jackson Triggs Proprietor’s Reserve Cabernet-Shiraz 2004
From Okanagan VQA
Price $26.99
Alcohol content 14.1%

60/40 Cab-Shiraz blend. The most expensive wine sampled; potentially the one with the most future. Big body; big fruit; pretty good tannins to match mean a few years in the bottle will likely add some sophistication to the muscle. Maker’s claims of ‘blackcurrant and plum’ backed up by a fruit-punch to the palate; mint somewhat harder to find—if you even cared to try. Least well-matched to the meal; so big and expressive that you’d better chase down a wild boar or some raw mutton to keep up. Too young (although not green) for one panelist, who’d rather put it in the cellar for about 5 years, and then taste it against a comparably-priced Bordeaux.

Final Rankings

Reds Chakana Syrah; JT Cab-Shiraz; Rodney Strong Merlot
Whites Mt. Boucherie Chard; Rodney Strong; Peller Estate Chard
Best Buy Chakana Syrah

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Oak Chips from the A.S.I.’s Woodchopper’s Ball

A profile of NYC Sommelier Aldo Sohm in a recent Washington Post serves to warn us of the upcoming International Association of Sommeliers bonspiel in Greece a few weeks from now. Sohm (who was judged “American Sommelier of the Year” by the American Sommelier Association), “clearly intends to win” in the breathless words of the Post’s Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg. Sohn’s Rocky-like training regimen is not half so unintentionally hilarious as the authors’ wide-eyed boosterism for it, but if you read between the lines, it brings out a lot of the contradictions in this upcoming sommelier’s bake-off.

At first blush, a Sommelier’s competition that’s staged like an athletic event or a competitive cultural occasion like a film festival seems completely wrong-headed; sort of like getting Margaret Atwood and Alice Monroe to face off with word-processors in front of the fans at BC Place. No matter how you stage the event, or what you require of the participants, you’re not in any meaningful way measuring what counts as excellence in their professions.

Virtually all the professional qualities that make a great sommelier are things that can’t be measured in a centralized contest. Just a few of those skills are
  • Knowing clientele: to be able to non-patronizingly tease out a customer’s tastes and preferences, and in a limited time, accurately judge what would make a customer happy
  • Knowing the menu: being intimately acquainted with the food that the restaurant serves; with what went into a dish; how the way it might have been cooked will affect the taste of the wine it’s paired with; and a hundred other local details
  • Knowing the chef: outstanding sommeliership is invariably a successful partnership with an excellent chef
  • Mastering the setting: putting it all together—the successful sommelier-chef partnership produces an outstanding unified experience matching wine, food, and a unique individual who walks through a restaurant’s front door

Competition instead measures a sommelier’s robot-like qualities, like identifying a wine blind—something that will never happen or be required in a sommelier’s job. Worst of all, a competition like the one coming up in Greece rips the sommelier out of context: If the International Sommelier’s Association honestly wants to find the world’s best sommeliers, then they should have a meal in the competing sommelier’s restaurants! Visit them on their home turf, like everybody else does.

But that wouldn’t be an Event. Taking the actual steps required to find the world’s best sommeliers would make the IAS’s central committee more like the authors of the Michelin Guide, than the blue-bloods of, say, the International Olympic Committee. And when you shine your flashlight down around the bottom of the competition’s barrel, it’s the capital-e nature of the Event that counts.

This Event exists not to find the best sommelier in the business—at least the best in the way we restaurant patrons would most benefit from—but to publicize the organization, feed the egos of the people running it and (only incidentally) to promote the profession of Sommelier itself. Publicly endorsing the people who do the best job matching wines to foods for the people who actually patronize the world’s restaurants—and pay the tab—is way down at the bottom of their menu. It’s a reminder that the virtues of the successful critic are selflessness and anonymity. But the vices of the successful competition organizer are egomania, privilege, and vanity.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Old wine in new bags

You can usually get an idea of where BC’s Liquor Distribution Branch is going to go by observing where Ontario’s LCBO has already been: In the Toronto Star this morning comes a quick glimpse of the highs and lows of our collective tetra-pack future, as the LCBO test-flew about 75 alternately-packaged wines for the press.

The charm of The Star’s Gordon Stimmel’s enological thesaurus aside, (“the weak-kneed French Rabbit Chardonnay; the barnyardy Kressmann Rouge; the dishraggy Black Tower Pinot Noir; the cooked, rhubarb-flavoured Billy Goat Hill Merlot; the pruney, unkissable Red Lips Shiraz….”) what floats to the top of the bucket isn’t really news: The better bagged wines come from the people who are already giving us good wine in a bottle; the crummier offerings are mostly already available in a bottle on a shelf near you.

The LCBO gives Ontario consumers about a 10% price break on the new vs. old packaging, but don’t count on that happening in BC: The LDB is notorious for passing higher costs on and pocketing discounts made possible by producer markdowns themselves. When the new products arrive in BC Liquor Stores, the substance of their ad campaign will likely be “A New Way to Litter!”

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

If an oak-chip falls into a bottle of wine and there’s nobody around to talk about it, does it make a sound?

Every now and then, a big-ticket wine commentator will gingerly prod at an issue that a lot of big-time winemakers wish would go away: Wood chips. A couple of weeks back, Decanter Magazine briefly reported that the practice of adding oak chips to aging wine had increased by more than 200% in Bordeaux, which moved Eric Asimov to throw the issue open for discussion in his New York Times blog. (In the dialogue roused there, at least one chipper chip-booster rightly pointed out that if the process had a name with more cachet, the practice of using oak chips in winemaking would be a lot less controversial.)

But mostly, the sound you hear is that of a lot of wine-people walking softly. There’s a mighty oak growing in the corner of the room, but nobody really wants to talk about it. Why doesn’t anybody want to talk about it? Because everybody knows that nobody really knows anything, and controversy usually most easily thrives in an information vacuum.

What part does an oak barrel play in the taste of, say, a good Bordeaux? (The part it can play in a really crummy bottle of wine is already obvious to anybody who indiscriminately drinks a lot of new world wines.) More precisely, what part of that glamorous flavor comes from wine merely coming into contact with oak; and how much from something that an oak barrel sitting in a Bordeaux cellar can uniquely provide? Or if you really want to be paranoid in your epistemology, if the makers of Chateau Margeaux suddenly started conscientiously aging half of their output in stainless steel with oak chips, and the other half in their usual barrels, would Robert Parker notice the difference if he didn’t know to look for it in advance?

Nobody really knows: in strict symbolic logic, all counterfactuals are true; and in an information vacuum, your guess is as good as mine, or Robert Parker——or Dick Cheney and Woody Woodpecker’s. And when nobody really knows, tradition and inertia is all you have to guide you. The tradition is oak barrels for great wines, and with the stakes as high as they are for great wines, nobody in the information-vacuum continuum is going to change any time soon. (Or at least tell anybody about the changes they’ve made.)

When does tradition mutate into mystique? And has the oak barrel crossed over into that dimension? Well, without taking sides, let’s just observe that the winemakers who can charge hundreds of dollars for a bottle of their product (which you also won’t be able to drink for years) have the most to gain from science morphing into the supernatural. When your business is founded on mystique, you’re not likely to join the mythbusters.