Thursday, May 31, 2007

Your Dinner With Conrad

As we all know, the clinically insane have so far invested enough in '05 Bordeaux futures to drive the price of the more prestigious wines out of the reach of all but the Conrad Black/David Radler set. So for the merely wealthy, who want to guzzle a bit of the action by placing themselves somewhere between the Moutons who produce and the muttons who buy, it's becoming fashionable to sniff out a Wine Investment Fund. Unfortunately, like a lot of other hedge funds, when you dig a little, a lot of WIF's smell pretty corked.

Take the International Wine Investment Fund---please. While their website paints a picture of a company where every day is like the 2000 Bordeaux harvest (a disclaimer that the site's authors can't actually vouch for the truth of their claims is a particularly nice feature) a look at the books shows a lot more red ink than red wine. (Further oxidizing details here.)

Independent journalism about WIF's can be hard to come by---a typical press-release-disguised-as-news can be found here---although at-home research can start as simply as a Google search. Still, it's a grim subject, and you're never really able to shake the feeling that arm's-length investing in classic wine amounts not only to a guarantee that you'll never drink it, but that you'll ultimately end up selling it to somebody you don't like.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

RSVP Tasting: Pinot Gris

Wine Val D'Adige Santa Margherita 2005
From Italy
Alcohol Content 12%
Price $21.35 (Spinnakers, BC)
Modest nose; a bit watery on the attack. Pleasant, nothing obnoxious, no huge acid (no huge fruit, either.) Mostly pretty indifferent--- you don't learn much about either the grape or where it's grown. Is inoffensiveness worth 20 bucks? This is a big seller, so there are obviously drinkers who think so.

Wine Lurton Pinot Gris 2006
From Argentina
Alcohol Content 12.5%
Price $11.99 (BC Liquor Stores)
Nose is a bit indistinct but it's there; tastes a bit green---both in the sense that something's unfinished, and the wine's tendency to veer towards notes of stems and seeds, as opposed to mineral on the palate. More intense than the Santa above, although its personality a bit unfinished. Nicely balanced overall (even the colour is attractive) and altogether a package that the group's eminance grise pronounced ‘a steal---a gorgeous wine for eleven bucks.’

Wine Mission Hill Pinot Grigio 2006
From British Columbia
Alcohol Content 13%
Price $18.30 (Spinnakers, BC)
Pretty big nose---big everything else, too. Citrus on the palate; decent balance; overall, this is nicely managed. But there are murmurs from the table that this doesn't really taste like Gris... (one taster: ‘there's been muscat added!’) Wine has been manipulated, possibly so you can pair it with anything; more likely to broaden its appeal. Still tasty; although it's more of a marketing scheme than a wine. Intelligently designed rather than compelling; tries for the big audience and will likely get it.

Wine Cedar Creek Pinot Gris 2005
From British Columbia
Alcohol Content
Price $16.99
Nice, balanced nose leads to an attack watery enough to seem more like a retreat. Recovers for a nice, dry finish with hints of wood. The overall effect convinces you at least that the grapes came from one place (the Mission Hill above was widely-sourced and tasted it), tasting both of grapes and geography. But the taster-in-chief was unconvinced that it was more than a one-dimensional flash-in-the-glass: '20 bucks? I wouldn't do it.'

Wine Tinhorn Creek Pinot Gris 2005
From British Columbia
Alcohol Content 13.7%
Price $16.06 (Spinnakers, BC)
A mild nose and good finish that divided the room about everything in between. Reactions to the impression this wine stamped on the palate ranged from 'too acid' to 'sweet' to 'flabby' to 'an everyday party wine'---this last a potentially-deadly veiled insult. There was a consensus that it tasted tinkered-with (one taster thought it tasted like Chardonnay), and none too successfully.

Wine Mezocorona Pinot Grigio 2006
From Italy
Alcohol Content 12.5%
Price $17.11 (Spinnakers, BC)
Light, user-friendly, generic, not-unpleasant afternoon spritzer-stuff. Easygoing, but nothing to make a case for the grape. In the words of one (perhaps rapidly-tiring) taster, 'redundant'.

Wine Gehringer Private Reserve Pinot Gris 2005
From British Columbia
Alcohol Content 12.5%
Price $16.02 (Spinnakers, BC)
'An almost... happy nose' in the words of a now-unidentified taster. Big and sweet in every way with all flavors nicely in balance. From virtually the same location as the Tinhorn Creek, but with an obviously different game-plan. Consensus best B.C. Gris amongst those tasted.

Wine Willm Tokay Pinot Gris 2005
From Alsace, France
Alcohol Content 13%
Price $23.99 (BC Liquor Stores)
Why did we drink all the others? Sweet and structured; rich fruit, gobs of finesse; wine for grown-ups. This is how it's done.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Week in Alcohol

They celebrated with a jug of Gallo Hearty Burgundy The European Union has recognized the Napa Valley as a unique geographical designation, and will forbid the name's use on wine labels from any of its 27 member countries. (At issue were a total of nine European brands using the word 'Napa' on their labels.) The action was widely seen as a warm-up to the California industry's real problem down the road: China has a burgeoning low-cost wine industry, and as yet no agreement over forthright geographical designation with anybody.

No news yet of any reciprocal action on the part of American producers to keep false geographical claims like 'Burgundy', 'Chablis' or 'Champagne' off American wine-labels.

That's nothing---a week before, they offered absinthe to George W. Bush Recovering alcoholic Keith Urban was offered a bottle of wine while flying Quantas airlines; the press overreacts somewhat with 175 papers at last count covering the incident.

We'd noticed that Keith Urban's skin has looked better recently
A transdermal patch has been developed to deliver resveratrol, the alleged anti-aging and anti-everything ingredient of red wine, through the skin. One patch delivers the medicinal equivalent of 85 bottles worth of wine. Meanwhile, in other health news this week, red wine has been found to reduce the incidence of prostate cancer; and bulk wines were announced to have a smaller carbon footprint than bottled.

French Terrorists we can understand, part II As reported last month, France's Comite d'Action Regionale Viticole bombed grocery stores as an unorthodox method of forcing the national government to support prices in the flagging Languedoc wine industry. With the election of the tea-totaling but apparently wine-friendly president-elect Nicolas Sarkozy, the group has stepped up its rhetoric. In a tape sent to local television, balaclava-clad gunmen whipped up support for their industry: "Winemakers, we call on you to revolt. We are at the point of no return: If Sarkozy does not have the sense to support the wine sector, he will be responsible for what happens."

And we've got some Languedoc wine-people to chat with you as well In his second trip down Mount Ararat in a month, Robert Parker has predicted disaster for the 2006 Bordeaux futures---at least in North America. The folks at Decanter at least have a sense of levity about it all, attaching an ad for Ducru-Beaucaillou to their coverage.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

RSVP Tasting Mk. III - Spanish Reds

Wine Altos de la Hoya 2005
From Jumilla, Spain
Price $17.99 (BC Liquor Stores)
Alcohol Content 14%

Mix of 90% Monastrell and 10% Grenache. Monastrell was once thought synonymous with Mourvedre; as of this writing, the sages now have it pegged as Graciano. Whatever its heritage, this wine is close to Southern Rhone in its ambitions, though speaking with a definite Spanish accent. A peppery scent in balance with berry (raspberry?) fruit inclines you to keep your nose in the glass; dry and somewhat tannic on the palate—if the fruit lasts, balance will be extremely nice in a couple of years.

Wine Ercavio Tempranillo 2004
From Toledo, Spain
Price $20.29 (Spinnakers, BC)
Alcohol Content 13.5%

The grizzled veteran among our tasters commented that ‘this smells like Burgundy’. Righto—wine was aged in 1 year-old Burgundy barrels. Gamy nose skillfully straddles the borderline between gaminess and what’s usually referred to as ‘barnyard’ notes (and what an unsympathetic nose might find reminiscent of sewage) without falling in. Yummy old-world palate with a nice finish of gentle oak. A crowd-pleaser.

Wine Gos Monastrell (Bodega Juan Gill) 2004
From Jumilla, Spain
Price $13.91 (Spinnakers, BC)
Alcohol Content 14%

Nose reveals another trip past the barnyard without actually opening the gate, with the additional advantage that it smells like the fruit more than what was done to it. A friendly tannic finish to a mild, balanced Cotes-du-Rhone style—at a better than Cotes-du-Rhone price. Perhaps a tiny bit faceless, simply because there are a lot of other decent Spanish Grenache-Syrah combos out there these days.

Wine Joven Valdelosfrailles
From Cigales, Spain
Price $13.07 (BC Liquor Stores)
Alcohol Content 14%

Wild, semi-insane nose that the eminence grise among us described as ‘fishy’, which is pretty close to the truth, but almost beside the point. Who would want a wine to smell like this? But it’s fabulous. Not quite so impressive on the palate, but still pretty crazy: tannic, a bit acid, and almost nutrasweet-sweet. Confused, although it might be set straight by some food. ‘Earthy fecundity’ (eminence grise again) like this doesn’t often come your way for 13 bucks.

Wine Arrocal 2004
From Ribera del Duero, Spain
Price $23.48 (Spinnakers, BC)
Alcohol Content 14%

A couple of terms in reform school might see the winemakers of the Valdelosfrailles above turn out something like this: nose is a much saner; a more elegant class of gaminess just hinting at the pasture over the hill. Elegance and style all the way through, actually; for impressing your guests rather than laying a sink-or-swim religious experience on them. (This is the bottle everyone wanted to take home with them.)

Wine Conde de Valdemar Reserva 1999
From Rioja, Spain
Price $24.99 (BC Liquor Stores)
Alcohol Content 13.5%
Marvelous nose redefines the notion of 'gamy': usually a euphemism for the scent of an unraked dairy-barn floor, 'gamy' here actually means the smell of wild game---and game that's been hanging for a while, to boot. Why a scent like that is so fabulously attractive in a wine, was a mystery that the mere mortals present around the table had a hard time putting their collective finger on---although they were so intently maneuvering for seconds most didn't stop to ponder the question. Lovely, classic Rioja: Manly, balanced, subtle, old enough for the oak and tannin to have softened and melded into the fruit. Like late-period Clint Eastwood: an enological Bridges of Madison County.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Week in Alcohol

Sun judged largest star in solar system In their annual survey of the worldwide alcohol trade, Intangible Business found Gallo to be the most powerful wine brand in the world. Unfortunately, this makes it merely the 17th most powerful brand of alcoholic beverage in the world market, far behind #1 Smirnoff’s and barely ahead of #19 Jagermeister. The five most powerful wine brands were calculated to be: Gallo, Hardys, Concha y Toro, Robert Mondavi and Yellowtail. Intangible Business bases its power ranking on a complex formula in which sales and market share play only a modest part.

Flash! People with small brains drink more! A study presented to a gathering of the American Academy of Neurology in Boston showed that people who average more than 14 drinks a week had a reduction of their brain-volume-to-skull-size ratio of 1.6%, compared to non-drinkers.

Bring on the Asian Billionaires Part II On the heels of the third or fourth ‘vintage of the century’ in the last 50 years, and with prices largely beyond the reach of the mass market, top-rank Bordeaux growers are in a bind: how to keep prices up with a 2006 crop universally derided as a lousy investment? A hint at the answer is provided by Gary Boom of Bordeax Index. Describing the first growths as “completely overpriced”, Boom forecasts that the 2006’s “won't sell well and will be a bad investment” but might also prove to be “a classic vintage for new buyers – especially in the Far East – who want to secure allocations in future.” Translation: We’ll sell inferior, overpriced wine to the suckers of the nouveau riche, with the promise that this will give them entry into the club in time for the next vintage that’s really worth buying.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

RSVP Tasting: Australia with a side of Island Pinot

Wine Jacob’s Creek Shiraz 2004
From South-Eastern Australia
Price $14.56 (Spinnakers, BC)
Alcohol Content 14%

A big wine that aims for an international style had the berry-identifying types in the crowd hopping up and down: big, jammy, forward fruit (but not much else); strawberry jam with hints of smoke and pepper; noticeable alcohol. A short finish one taster described as ‘tart’ and a peculiar dryness leading to speculation about winemaker acidulation. A fruit-bomb for the masses, though the consensus was that the wine was unstructured and ham-handed.

Wine Jacob’s Creek Shiraz 2005
From South-East Australia
Price $14.56 (Spinnakers, BC)
Alcohol Content 14%

Less on the nose even than the ’04, but a much better wine nonetheless: more tannin, better balance, fruit better integrated into the whole. (Better winemaking, rather than better grapes—their technique caught up to their ambition.) Makes the ‘04 taste cloying—and unlike the ’04, you might want to drink this one with food. At this price, good competition for Ol’ Yeller Tail.

Wine Jacob’s Creek Reserve Shiraz 2004
From South Australia
Price $22.17 (Spinnakers, BC)
Alcohol Content 14.5%

Casts a wider geographical net for its grapes than its little brother and comes up with a wine that’s a step more elevated in most respects: Fruit is as big as the regular ’04 but with an extra element or two; friendlier tannins (although the wine could use a couple of years more in the bottle) and more obvious Shiraz overtones. Great nose—I spent a lot of time with mine in the glass. Similar in many ways to the kind of thing the Gallo of Sonoma line of wines gives you: high on quality; low on individuality. Well-made, but it could have been made anywhere.

Wine Memsie Waterwheel 2004
From Victoria, Australia
Price $19.99 (BC Liquor Stores)
Alcohol Content 15%
Shiraz-Cabernet-Malbec combination packs a wallop, but with surprising grace and footwork; a bit like discovering that Sylvester Stallone has learned to tap-dance. Gobs of fruit for the berry-spotters; alcohol is not at all overpowering and nicely integrated. In the words of the group’s Philosophy grad: ‘a hot kiss at the end of a wet fist.’

Wine Waterwheel Shiraz
From Victoria, Australia
Price $24.99 (Distributor List)
Alcohol Content 15.5%
Hot alcohol; big but one-dimensional; coming at the far end of a tasting it may simply have scored a TKO over intimidated palates. Robert Parker wants you to buy this ‘by the caseload’; if you’re tough enough to carry a case on your back up the Coquihalla highway from Hope to Merritt, you may be tough enough to love this.

Wine Primo Estate Shiraz-Sangiovese 2002
From McLaren Vale, Australia
Alcohol Content 14.0%
Interesting, if a bit Frankensteinian: one taster thought the two competing grapes don’t feel as subtly dovetailed as they might have been in an analogous Italian experiment (La moglie di Frankenstein).

Sidebar: Island Pinots (Part 1)

Thrust into the midst of this tasting as a sort of seventh-inning stretch were the following intriguing trio of BC Pinots. They turned out to be wines that turned heads: people hung around after the main body of the tasting had finished, and polished these ones off.

Wine Garry Oaks Pinot Noir 2004
From Salt Spring Island, BC
Price $25.46 (Spinnakers, BC)
Alcohol Content 12.5%
Nose was fleeting at first but opened up nicely in 40 minutes to a classic pre-steroid new-world Pinot aroma. Sweet-yet-dry, cherry-pitted flavor on the attack moved on to a subtly smoky middle, and an elegantly persuasive finale. (One taster’s naming it an old-world style can possibly written off to over-enthusiasm, and interpreted instead as the wine’s thankful absence of the usual new-world muscle-and-pretense.) Yummy.

Wine Salt Spring Island Pinot Noir 2004
From Salt Spring Island BC
Price $21.89 (Spinnakers, BC)
Alcohol Content 13.0%
A more immediately emphatic nose than that of the above wine brought enthusiastic (though not universal) claims of barnyard or forest-floor notes on the nose; but the sense of the soil is certainly part-and-parcel of the overall flavor. Intelligent mix of subtle oak and smoke nicely in balance with acid and fruit; elegant structure. A sophisticated effort for which the group’s eminance grise, in his best analytic form, summed up the group consensus: ‘I think this wine is swell.’ At 22 bucks, the best buy of the tasting as well.

Wine Orofino Pinot Noir 2005
From Similkameen Valley, BC
Price $31.89 (Spinnakers, BC)
Alcohol Content 13.1%
A harvest of 2 tons/acre, aged 17 months in a 50/50 mixture of new and not-new French oak, produces a vigorous nose that you keep returning to the glass to sample. Bigger and more tannic than the Salt Spring or Garry Oaks, this Pinot throws its weight around enthusiastically without actually beating you up; one taster even referred to it as ‘polished’, although the (very user-friendly) acid may be just a wee bit too intense for that. This stands to get better with some time in the bottle. Pricey, though.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

New frontiers in Euclidian wine-tasting theory: The exponential tasting

How should you describe the taste of a mouthful of wine to someone?

Over the last couple of decades, two separate theoretical camps have evolved: First, that group we might call the Parkeristas, who aim for a universal and accessible wine language, based on teasing out and analytically identifying components of taste and bouquet (i.e., ‘this wine has a palate of lychees, saddle leather and earwax.’). Facing them are the people whom Robert Parker has benevolently dubbed the terroirists, who believe the best way of conveying meaning when you’re talking about a bottle of wine should be how it meets the standards of its geography, (i.e., ‘this tastes like a well-made, medium-priced right-bank Bordeaux ought to’).

The distinction between these groups is largely a decision about what you’re going to take as your wine-taster’s fundamental atomic particle; that descriptor that can’t be understood in terms more basic than itself. What makes a good Bordeaux? An enological Bill Clinton might say that it all depends on what you want to mean by ‘Bordeaux’: is it a progressive time-space nexus leading to the wine in your glass: France→Bordeaux→ Medoc→Margeaux→Chateau Giscours→1995; or is it “aromas of licorice and sweet, smoky new oak intermixed with jammy black fruits, licorice and minerals”?

A fundamental element of the descriptive discipline for each side has to be a familiarity with those most basic elements of your vocabularies—if you’re going to talk about licorice and lychees, (or if talk about them is to have any meaning for you) you need to experience what they taste and smell like, and learn to distinguish them in the wine you’re drinking. Similarly, if type, geography, style and terroir are going to be the most basic elements of your wine vocabulary, you need to experience what they taste like, and learn to distinguish them—you need to first know what, for example, that well-made, medium-priced right-bank Bordeaux tastes like. The rest of it is simply zeroing in—and then at some point of specificity, resolution fails and you have to shut up.

If the tastings in this blog are going to lean more towards the topographical winespeak of the terroirists, it’s because this is largely how the most interesting wines come to you—by geography, not fruit-genre. While you can certainly go out and buy yourself a multitude of, say, Tempranillos, when you start to seek out real distinction of winemaking expression, you end up getting geographically specific; you start exploring estate-made Riojas and Ribera del Dueros.

So here’s a relatively inexpensive method—a party-trick, almost—to get familiar with the fundamental elements of a region. Take Bordeaux as our thought-experiment: Eight people each kick in $25 to give a total kitty of $200. (And before you gulp too hard at that entry price, remember what an average evening at a bar usually costs you.) Find a reputable store and spend half the pot on the best bottle of Bordeaux you can get for that price. Spend half of what remains on the best bottle you can get for that price. And so on. Geometrically, it’s called the Golden Spiral.

You can also follow that spiral in reverse: find the cheapest bottle of Bordeaux you can. (In my regular store, it’s about $11.) Find a bottle that’s approximately double that ($25) and so on through $50 to $100. You should find that as the price goes up you zero in on a more precise geographical designation. Walk your spiral from cheapest to most expensive and back, and by the end of the tasting, you’ll be well on the way to mastering the fundamentals of your chosen language—or at least one dialect of it.

A sample exponential Bordeaux tasting assembled from BC sources might look like the following:
Chateau de Courteilliac (Bordeaux AC) $11.99
Chateau Greysac (Medoc AC) $25.99
Chateau d’Aurilhac (Haut-Medoc AC; Cru Bourgeois) $32.48
Chateau Grand Puy Lacoste (Pauillac AC) $98.60

Or from Ontario retailers:
Christian Moueix Merlot (Bordeaux AC) $14.95
Chateau Les Cabannes 2004 (Saint-Émilion AC) $23.95
Chateau Villemaurine 2001 (Saint-Émilion Gran Cru) $56.45
Chateau Troplong Mondot 2003 (Saint-Émilion Gran Cru) $99.00

The variations are endless: all you need to remember is, spiral in geographically. And if you’re dealing with a good retailer, don’t hesitate to ask for advice—it may be the most fun the proprietor has all day.