Monday, January 25, 2010

Crumbling Rock vs. The World

The folks at Black Ankle Vineyards (Mt. Airy, Maryland) invited me to a blind tasting on Sunday. The theme was "Crumbling Rock '07 vs, The World" - at which they pitted their Bordeaux blend against similarly priced Bordeaux blends from France, California and South Africa. It is the third such event they have staged and it speaks volumes about their goals and aspirations. Oh, by the way, their Crumbling Rock '07? It won, with 18 out of 30 first place votes (runner-up wine received 8 first place votes)!

The wines, in order of group preference (approximate retail price):
  1. Black Ankle Vineyards '07 Crumbling Rock - Mt. Airy, Maryland ($45)
  2. Girard '06 Artistry - Sonoma County, California ($45)
  3. Bennett Lane Winery '05 Maximus - Calistoga, California ($45)
  4. Cain '05 Concept "The Benchland" - St. Helena (Napa Valley), California ($55)
  5. Sur Luchtel '06 Mosaique - Napa Valley, California ($38)
  6. Chamberley '07 Philosophers' Stone - South Africa ($28)
  7. Chateau Clerc Milon '06 - Pauillac (Haut-Medoc), France ($48)
  8. Chateau Fonbadet '05 - Pauillac (Haut-Medoc), France ($45)
A few observations. Ed and Sarah (Boyce and O'Herron, partners in Black Ankle and marriage) do these tastings to learn as much as to show off what they've accomplished. While '07 Crumbling Rock is only the second vintage ever produced at Black Ankle, they have been at this thing for eight years, having spent the first six toiling in the vineyards just to produce their first crop. Their goal was to produce world class wine at Black Ankle, but it wasn't until their first tiny harvest in '05 that they had any proof that their hard work might amount to something. It's not like they had many serious benchmarks they could measure success against that were actually grown and produced in Maryland. If locals find that statement harsh, well, sorry, but it's essentially true. And it's not like they're doing anything radical compared to other great estates around the world. Black Ankle would look familiar to any well-traveled wine professional. They simply started with a different viewpoint, and asked a different set of questions of a different group of experts than anyone else in Maryland had started with.

So, with just two vintages under their belts, Ed and Sarah wanted to find out how they would stack up against the best wines from around the world that they could find in local wine shops. I would expect, knowing that they're always drinking wine from other places, always curious about what's going on out there in the big wine world, that they had an inkling they'd do ok in a comparative tasting with their peers. Still, to stick their necks out in public, wow, I am amazed at their courage - or is it audacity? I mean, sure, I believe they do these tastings to learn and to grow, but it would be nice to have their wine, their baby, show well. Their first such tasting, pitting the '06 Crumbling Rock vs. the world, netted them 3rd place - they were happy with that (last place would've sucked for sure) and they learned a lot. The second event matched their '07 Leaf Stone Syrah against some heavy-hitting Syrahs/Shiraz - Leaf Stone took 1st place! And they netted another first yesterday. Bravo! Three Cheers!

Now, let's step back a second and put this achievement in perspective. By great wine estate standards, Black Ankle is a newborn. When I was tasting yesterday I noted that '07 Crumbling Rock - which I failed to identify - certainly did not exhibit any characteristic that would mark it as "Maryland" wine. On the other hand, I didn't actually guess that it came from anywhere. For me, terroir, that sense of place in wine, is a wonderful thing. Crumbling Rock doesn't show it because it can't yet - the vines haven't been in the ground long enough to develop roots in the parent rock which will draw in components that will eventually give the wine a sense of being from a particular place.

Ed also made a critical point in his comments - '07 is a bit of a freakish vintage in Maryland, with virtually perfect weather conditions throughout the growing season. He likened it to 2005 in Bordeaux (I would add Burgundy here as well) - a great growing season, if not typical. The result of that perfect weather of course, is lots of ripeness - grapes with a particularly high percentage of sugar - which makes for wine with high alcohol content. While '07 Crumbling Rock shows no heat - in other words the alcohol is not out of balance with the terrific fruit - it is a "big" wine, and not necessarily what Ed and Sarah want to make on a consistent basis. This is wonderful news to me. It reminds me of the first time I tasted Black Ankle's '08 whites; it was at their tasting room, with Sarah. '08, in contrast to '07, was difficult to say the least - extremely rainy and overcast, it was tough to imagine getting even a marginally ripe crop. Tasting through the white wines, however, erased any worries. The wines ranged from 11.5 to 12.5% alcohol for varietals (Albarino, Viognier, Gruner Veltliner, Chardonnay) routinely found carrying 13-15% alcohol; yet they were bursting with varietal character and freshness and persistence - all the attributes of complete, brilliantly made wines. Nothing was lacking.

I left the winery that day wondering how in the world they could have learned so much, so fast. Next week I hope to get a glimpse of Black Ankle's 2009s. Can't wait.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Two Faces of Wine

One of my wine class "students" sent me the link to a fascinating article titled "French Wines Learn New World Marketing and Branding." It seems to suggest that the French concept of labeling wine according to "terroir" is facing imminent extinction. Yes, it is true that the French have been slow to adopt the use of cute animal labels, and that their wine exports have suffered accordingly. It is also worth noting that per-capita wine consumption in France has declined by 50% in the past ten years or so, as their younger generation copies ours by consuming more Coca Cola and McDonald's fries - and gaining more weight (France also has the toughest drunk-driving laws in the world). Welcome to globalization - as we US Americans become more internationally sophisticated (sushi/crudo, tapas, wine bars) Europe the rest of the world becomes more American brand obsessed (Coca Cola, Pepsi, McDonald's).

As France learns to capture more of the supermarket wine business (animal labels, smooth, homogenized flavors) a few winegrowers in the New World learn about terroir. The technical wine/terroir wine dichotomy is nothing new, though the divide has widened as technology has developed. Wine is simply following the path of any other consumer product. France has long had bulk wine in their supermarkets and fine terroir-driven wine in their
caviste wine shops. Maryland still doesn't allow wine to be sold in its supermarkets, but stores like CWC offer a clear alternative to stores like Beltway Fine Wine or Costco (oh, that's right, Costco and Sam's Club can't sell wine in Maryland either). You get the idea.

The current lousy economic situation notwithstanding, terroir wines have been around since the Romans (Falernum is a place, a terroir if you will) and they'll survive, even thrive, as more wine drinkers pop up in the most unexpected places around the world. China has barely started consuming wine but they're learning fast. And they're not drinking just the stuff with the cute animal labels - just ask Chateau Lafite where they're shipping most of their wine now.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Spain Redux

I've got Spain on the brain. This week's Tuesday Tasting included the just-arrived Martinet Bru 2005, from Mas Martinet (owned by Jose Luis Perez and run by his daughter Sara). The first whiff of this wine took me back to April, walking through vineyards fragrant with wild thyme and crumbling slate crunching underfoot, listening to Sara explain her winegrowing philosophy.

Colin Gent, our guide, driver and drinking/eating buddy in Spain last April, visited CWC yesterday (Wednesday, the day after the Tuesday Tasting - and Todd Ruby was the driver this time). No mean trick, given that Colin lives in Bordeaux, France. I don't know many MWs (Master of Wine), but I'd be surprised if there was another as nice or unassuming as Colin. He brought some wonderful stuff to taste, too! Here's the list:

Nelin '08 - Priorat
Rene Barbier (Clos Mogador) continues to tinker with his white Priorat, adding a barrel of Pedro Ximenez and an ancient Catalan grape called Escanya Vella ("old strangler") to the '08 blend - extraordinary.

Oremus (Vega Sicilia's property in Hungary)
Furmint Dry '06 Mandolas - waxy/apricot/celery/mineral/lees/spice smells and penetrating, intensely concentrated flavors - barrel-fermented and aged for 6 months in Hungarian oak. The hint of celery reminded me of Gruner Veltliner.

Furmint Late Harvest '06 - fresh apricot/orange zest/custard smells and sweet though sappy, juicy, balanced flavors. Terrific.

La Rioja Alta
Vina Alberdi '03 Reserva - new label for this most traditional estate; perhaps that explains the sprightly feel of this release; 100% Tempranillo; spicy oak/red fruit; sappy and young.

Gran Reserva 904 '97 - the latest release, can you believe it? 12 years of aging between barrel and bottle before it leaves the bodega! Incredibly gamey and spicy, with a rich layer of oak, but not as much as you might expect given it spends about 6 years in barrel - profoundly complex and long. Wow.

Clos Figueras - Priorat
This bodega is owned by importer Christopher Canan, who represents many of the wine projects of the families of Jose Luis Lopez and Rene Barbier.
Serras del Priorat '08 - a new cuve of predominately (65%) young vine Garnacha blended with older vine Mazuela (Carignan) and Cabernet Sauvignon; brilliant, dark wild strawberry/slate/floral smells and peppery, sappy young flavors balanced by a mineral/gamey spine - delicious, and a great introduction to Priorat.

Font de la Figuera '07 - (Garnacha/Carignan/Syrah/Cabernet Sauvignon) Almost jammy it's so young - sappy berry fruit over flowers, with some slate.

Mauro - Tudela de Duero
Mauro Tinto '07 - Glorious fruit over rocks and oak - young, but perfectly balanced and so, so long - gorgeous young wine. 90% Tempranillo/10% Syrah.

Alion (Vega Sicilia's Ribera del Duero estate)
Tinto '04 - Seamless - balance similar to Mauro, but darker, some bitter chocolate and game on top of the rich Tempranillo - sensational.