Tuesday, September 19, 2006

20 September 2006 - Where is Great Wine Made?

Tuesday Tasting Notes from 20 September 2006:

I have a confession to make. I have said many times that at least 80% of a great wine is made in the vineyard — the cliche goes like this: you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Most people who make great wine will say this very same thing, playing down the importance of their contribution to the wine in the bottle. But, this argument fails to explain what makes great wine.

People choose the right grape vines to put in the right places. People farm the vineyard, choosing to coax vines to push out fewer, if higher quality, grapes. People choose to allow grapes to ferment on their own wild yeasts; people taste, deciding when a wine has seen enough wood, deciding when it should be bottled, then choose to bottle their wines with little or no fining or filtration.

In other words, great wine people will make great wine in great vintages — and they’ll make delicious wine in less than great vintages. Lousy wine people will make better wine in great vintages — but odds are they’ll never make great wine. The great people behind tonight’s wines are the Perrin brothers (Beaucastel, Perrin et Fils), Louis Barruol (Saint Cosme), and Serge Ferigoule (Sang de Cailloux).

The Rhone Valley went through two dramatically different experiences in 2002/2003. In ‘02 they were virtually flooded out of their villages — the rain was torrential enough to send some vineyards right down the Rhone River. In 2003, a record heat wave killed hundreds of people throughout Europe, including the Rhone. Lots of extremely ripe-to-over-ripe wine was made in the Rhone in 2003. 2004 was less extreme, but supremely beautiful for wine grapes — you can taste
it in tonight’s wines.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

12 September 2006 - Southern Hemisphere

Here are some random thoughts about the current state of wine in the Southern Hemishpere:

South Africa is best known for Pinotage, that weird hybrid created in 1921, from crossing Pinot Noir and Cinsault. Recent trends are Shiraz (if you can’t beat Aussies, might as well join ‘em), and new regions like Tulbagh (see wine #8). My big question (which no one in South Africa has been able to explain, though some have agreed it exists) for South Africa is, what's up with that nasty, rusty/earthy/metallic funk that mars so many of its red wines? I used to find a slightly different funk regularly in wine from Chile -- no explanation there, either. If you ask me, I think it has to do with old equipment in old spaces, but I won't be the shop on that one. Meanwhile, check out Moreson's "Cuvee Cape" bubbly made from 79% Pinotage (the balance is Chenin Blanc) -- what a great thing to do with Pinotage!

Australia is the land of innovation, for better (no other country tries such adventurous, intriguing blends) and for worse (Oz is the hotbed of reverse-osmosis and other ways of de-alcoholizing over-ripe, otherwise useless grapes). Still, their Shiraz is so successful every other
country that grows Syrah is using “shiraz” on their labels. In other words, Australia has two distinct wine faces -- incredibly successful in the bulk wine business, yet still with incredibly creative individual wine growers who can come up with things like Cabernet Sauvignon made from partly air-dried berries (ala Amarone, at Mitolo Vineyards, McLaren Vale).

New Zealand is too new to put in any kind of perspective, but you gotta give them credit for making Sauvignon Blanc much more popular than it ever was. The big question here is, what's next? Where do they go after Sauvignon Blanc? Pinot Noir? In some spots, perhaps. Riesling and Gewurztraminer? First, the demand isn't there, second, several other regions in the world are way, way ahead. No worries (I know, that's an Aussie cliche, but it's appropriate here), New Zealand is a vinous infant -- give it time.

Chile might be breaking out of it safe position as producer of cheap, ordinary-but-inoffensive Bordeaux varietals — finally! Quite by accident, they discovered that much of the wine they’d always thought was Merlot turned out to be Carmenere — a much more obscure, but worthwhile
Bordeaux varietal that doesn’t exist in the homeland (France) anymore.

Argentina’s signature grape is Malbec — another Bordeaux transplant that is doing better in its new home than it did in Bordeaux. However, it seems to have a quality ceiling -- most of the Malbec I've tasted that costs over $30/bottle comes up short. I thought Torrontes might have a shot as South America's most interesting white wine grape, but recently they all seem to be too alcoholic -- 14+% seems too much for a grape whose most charming quality is fresh, lively fruit. The greatest promise for great red wine in South America could be in Argentine Malbec/Cabernet Sauvignon blends -- wines like mapema's red blend, Catena Zapata.

12 September 2006 - Back to School (with Billiot Champagne)

July and August came and went without one blog entry -- call it summer vacation. What did I do over my summer vacation? As far as wine goes, I did make one winery visit -- to H. Billiot Fils in Champagne, France. This family makes fantastic Champagne, just not much of it. With annual production of around 3,300 cases out of their 2 hectares of vineyard covering 18 separate parcels, this is as small as a Champagne winery can be. Despite the diminutive size, these guys make six different wines: Tradition (labeled "brut" but at least demi-sec); Brut Reserve NV; Brut Vintage; Brut Rose; Cuvee Julie (named for Serge Billiot's daughter) and Cuvee Laetitia (named for my guide, Serge's sister and partner, Laetitia Billiot). Being located in the Grand Cru village of Ambonnay, these are predominantly Pinot Noir wines, and they all show wonderfully intense Pinot Noir fruit. What sets them apart is an uncanny clarity -- I mean, these are big, concentrated wines, but they are so pure and fresh and sharply defined, flat out beautifully balanced. Laetitia gave me a bottle of '99 Brut to take back to Paris. I asked her how she thought it stacked up to their '96 -- she insisted the '99 was better -- her favorite Billiot vintage of all time. Tasting the '99 later that night in our hotel room in Paris, I agreed. Tasting another bottle the other night here in decidedly less romantic Baltimore, I still agreed.