Sunday, July 1, 2007

Salmon & Pinot

In their latest column for the Washington Post, Page & Dornenburg extol the virtues of a very popular -- and increasingly dogmatic -- food and wine pairing: wild salmon and New World pinot noir. The pairing brings together two important trends in the American culinary scene -- the greater availability of fresh, wild Alaskan salmon in the continental U.S. and the wild popularity of all things pinot. The writers quote Doug Mohr, sommelier at Vidalia, who offers the party line: "If you think 'salmon,' you automatically think Pacific Northwest -- and Oregon pinot noir with wild salmon is symbiotic. Wild salmon eat a diet of shellfish, which translates into their meat being sweet -- which plays off the natural cherrylike sweetness of Oregon pinot noir."

With all due respect to Mr. Mohr -- whom I've had the pleasure of meeting and who is one of the finest sommeliers in D.C. -- I have to disagree. I've always found the inherent "cherrylike sweetness" of New World pinot -- whether from Oregon, or California, or New Zealand -- to be cloying, rather than symbiotic, when paired with the richness of wild Alaskan salmon. A recent tasting of Copper River King salmon (ordered fresh from a Seattle fishmonger and simply grilled) confirmed for my palate the unhappiness of this pairing. Unlike the magical union of foie gras and Sauternes -- where sweetness enhances sweetness -- the pairing of salmon and New World pinot is a profound mismatch, with sweetness overwhelming sweetness. Salmon cries out for something more savory, something more minerally.

I'm reminded of the words of Pierre-Antoine Rovani -- Parker's longtime collaborator at the Wine Advocate -- who once observed: "As much as it's politically incorrect to say it, I believe that nobody would sing the virtues of matching Pinot and salmon if Pinot Noir had never been planted in Oregon." Rovani prefers Chardonnay with his salmon and delineates his preferences as follows: "Grilled, with the fatty skin charred into a bacon-like state, calls for a big buttery California Chardonnay. Grilled lightly calls for a Kistler-like bottle. A delicate preparation (like Troisgros's Salmon with Sorel) calls for a white burg from a not-too-rich year, poached with a cream-based sauce calls for a richer burg." I could not agree more, and only wish I had that range of choice in my personal cellar.

So if anyone happens to have, oh, I don't know, a great Montrachet they're willing to share, I'll order up some Yukon River King fillets before the season closes, and we'll have ourselves a proper meal.


Monday, June 25, 2007

Negociants dismayed by US, UK reaction to '06 en primeur

"I'm surprised by the negative comments made by merchants and journalists," said Laurent Ehrmann of negociant Barriere Freres. Ehrmann claims that the criticism of the 2006 en primeur campaign by Robert Parker, Jancis Robinson and others have not affected sales at all, but other negociants are less sanguine, lamenting the loss of sales from the two traditional overseas markets.

It strikes me that the hostile response from the American and British press -- while startling in its vehemence and striking in its near unanimity -- is nothing more than the predictable and inevitable reaction to years of over-aggressive, over-reaching pricing policies from Bordeaux negociants. Perhaps they should have anticipated some blowback?


Sunday, June 24, 2007

Full Disclosure

Michael Steinberger's three-part odyssey for Slate on "the physiology of the wine critic" is well-worth reading, particularly for his tongue-in-check exasperation at the discovery that he is, alas, the lowest of the low in the latest scientific parlance, a "non-taster." Steinberger rather bemusedly asks whether this unfortunate genetic reality -- which renders him insenstive to certain tastes -- ought to disqualify him as a wine writer/critic, particularly as Jancis Robinson, Robert Parker, and others have anointed themselves as prodigious "super tasters" (with Parker admitting a particular aversion to spicy and heavily seasoned foods).

Matt Kramer commented last year on the ridiculousness of such self-designations, and Aldow Yarrow raises some searching questions about the diversity of taste and the hegemony of a single critic like Parker, who doth bestride the narrow wine world like a Colossus (while we petty bloggers ... ). It is not at all clear whether a so-called "super taster" makes the best critic for a population that, on average, is decidedly un-super. Nor is it clear that the life of a super-taster -- with the attendant hypersensitivity toward certain tastes and general finickiness -- is a particularly happy and blessed one. But, as Kramer points out, the "super-taster" designation has become one way of heightening the distinction between amateur and professional in a field that has become inundated with new, untested voices (like yours truly).

So, in the interests of full disclosure, I thought I'd lay out my own taste profile, so readers can make up their own minds about the reliability of my judgments. While I don't have access to the same battery of tests and team of scientific experts that put Steinberger through his paces, I can answer the range of questions they put to him:

  • Do I have a low threshold for sweetness? Yes. (Supertasters: Yes)
  • Do I like Scotch? Yes (with a preference for Island and Speyside malts, as opposed to Islay. Current favorite: Talisker 25). (Supertasters: No)
  • Do I take my coffee black? I don't drink coffee. (Supertasters: No)
  • Do artificial sweeteners taste different to me than regular sugar? Yes. (Supertasters: Yes)
  • Am I a heavy salter? No. (Supertasters: Yes)
  • Did my mother suffer a lot of morning sickness when she was pregnant with me? Yes. (My mother still seemed bitter about that when I asked her yesterday.) (Supertasters: Yes)
Alas, as best as I can tell, these answers are a bit inconclusive -- all that's left for me is the genetic test, which will prove once and for all my natural prowess (or lack thereof). Seriously, arrangements for the test are in the works (though details remain murky), and I shall dutifully report back when the results are in.

For now, all I can say is this: for all those wine lovers who have always found Jancis overly fussy, it turns out it's not (just) because she's English.

Addendum: In a chat over Gmail, my co-blogger Jeffrey points out that Jancis is absolutely right in observing that this "super-taster"/"non-taster" business tells us nothing about the most crucial element of wine tasting: the nose. There is no evidence to suggest that being a "super-taster" makes someone more attuned to the complex array of aromas that gives wine its remarkable flavors. Most of taste derives from the sense of smell, yet all this test tells us is whether someone is more sensitive to bitterness, acidity, sweetness, astringency, etc. -- only the qualities one can deduce from the tongue alone.

I responded by noting that this test is probably most useful for determining broad stylistic preferences -- bigger, sweeter, more alcoholic New World wines versus more restrained, more classical Old World wines. This dichotomy certainly makes sense in the case of Jancis. But if Parker is, as he suggests, a "super-taster," then all bets are off.


Wednesday, June 20, 2007

À la recherche ...

I have written before that I have never had a fully satisfying Viognier that wasn't a Condrieu, yet like Charlie Brown lining up to kick Lucy's football, I keep searching and searching for that magic New World elixir, only to land flat on my back each and every time. The aim, of course, is to discover a Viognier that has the same perfumed richness, depth of flavor and concentration, and harmonious balance of a Condrieu, but at one-third or one-half the price. Yet I have only ever found wines that were cloying, dilute, or imbalanced, with none of the power and grace of Viogniers that originate from the grape's traditional home.

The 2005 Fess Parker Viognier "Santa Barbara County" ($19; 15.2% alc.) I tasted last weekend was no exception, though I have do have to say that it is one of the more admirable basic California Viogniers I've tried, and not a bad wine at all. It has a very pretty nose of floral and white peach aromas, quite understated and attractive. On the palate, it has the same obvious, exotic, slightly dilute sweetness of fruit that I associate with California Rhone whites, like the Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc, yet it also has good acidity that carries through well into the lengthy finish. The wine also has a spiciness from the oak that gives it an added kick. Yet the problem is that these three main components -- fruit, acid, oak spice -- aren't entirely integrated into a harmonious whole, so the wine, strangely, is at once cloying and edgy. It's a big, powerful wine whose acidity makes up for a lot, yet the fruit has a slight saccharine quality about it -- upfront and easy yet not quite the real thing.


Friday, June 15, 2007

Jancis: "I hope 2006 fails"

Jancis Robinson blasts the en primeur system and adds her voice to the chorus hoping for failure in the 2006 campaign: "Wouldn't it be nice if we didn't have to play this game?' I hope 2006 will not be a success. I hope it will really show the Bordelais the shortcomings of the system." Jancis's remarks come from a "podcask" interview with the sales director of London merchant Berry Bros. -- well worth a listen.


Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Juanita Swedenburg, RIP

The woman who fought the interstate wine shipping ban. A remarkable, courageous winemaker and American whose life and legacy deserve to be toasted. Preferably with a wine shipped in from out of state.


Friday, June 8, 2007

The Unanswered Question

Importer Terry Theise has published his 2007 Germany Catalog, and as usual, along with his invaluable tasting notes are extended ruminations -- evocative, poetic, pseudo-philosophical -- on the state of the wine world and, in particular, German Riesling. Especially noteworthy, given the most recent flare-up in the so-called "terroir wars," are Theise's thoughts on minerality -- a favorite subject of my co-blogger Jeffrey. Jeffrey would find a kindred spirit in Theise, who exalts minerality as "a higher form of complexity than fruit."

Now, Theise still clings to the unscientific notion of the direct transmission of minerals from soil to vine (he praises the long hang-time of German Riesling for allowing the vines "lots of time to leach minerals from the geologically complex sub-soils"). Yet unlike many like-minded adherents, Theise argues that minerality "doesn't yield to literal associations":

Search for "fruit" and you'll find it eventually: some combination of apples and pears and melons and limes and there they are all. But search for the detail in mineral and you grope fruitlessly ... An answered question halts the process of thinking, but an unanswered question leaves wonder awake, and this is why I prize minerality highest among wine's virtues.

It is this quality of ineffability that make these wines, in Theise's view, a deeper, more profound reflection of the beauty, mystery, and ambiguity of the natural world. In Thiese's tasting notes, one can find the stray reference to "slate" or "chalk," yet more often "minerality" is described in terms of its character: "steely," "powdery," "salty," "pungent," "craggy." And even more frequently, the term "minerality" or "minerally" is left completely unmodified, posed again and again like Charles Ives's Unanswered Question, ever without resolution.

Of course, it is crucial to observe, as Theise does, that minerality is not synonymous with acidity, "nor does it relate to acidity" (I wonder how much of what some call a wine's "mineral cut" actually relates to the acidity, as opposed to the mineral flavors, of a wine). Nor is minerality synonymous with austerity, or merely a means "to excuse underripe wines." Rather, at their most extroverted, these are "wines of gushingly lavish flavor ... you could swear had rocks passed through them." Or at their finest, wines that "pass beyond the mere sense of stone into flavors mysterious enough to compel thoughts of jewels."


Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Wine: Menace to Public Health?

So much for the notion that wine is good for your health. While in America fatty foods appear to be the next target of the public health crusaders, England seems to be gearing up to take on wine-drinking in the privacy of one's own home.

Today’s strategy, by the Home Office and the Department of Health, broadens the Government’s offensive against excessive drinking, with the focus moving beyond teenagers and the binge-drinkers to include those regularly sipping wine at home.

The motivation seems to be to save the National Health Service treatment costs for liver disorders, which is a slightly different emphasis from the straightforward public health rationales offered in the United States for bans on smoking, trans-fats, etc.

I'm not sure how I stand on this. Generally I am pretty sympathetic to efforts to reduce unhealthy behaviors. And I'm definitely in favor of smoking bans in restaurants and bars. But when the fight against trans fats starts to proscribe foods I like, I become a lot less enthusiastic. Ditto for wine. Of course this opens me to charges of hypocrisy, but there's a crucial difference between banning smoking and banning trans fats or "excessive" wine consumption.

The trouble with these public health campaigns is that they justify restrictions on "risky" behaviors by reference to social harms such as increased obesity rates or health-care costs that are easily identifiable (and often easily quantifiable) by third-party observers, while the benefits are appreciated by no one but the consumer and are totally unquantifiable. This creates a tendency toward overly-rigorous public health rules.

Moreover, it's not clear to me that the fact of public provision of health care is a legitimate justification for enforcing certain lifestyle choices. The idea of government-sponsored health care is to provide people a guaranteed minimum safety net no matter what their circumstances. That shouldn't be denied to someone who is predisposed to like wine anymore than it should be denied to someone who is predisposed to breast cancer. Of course, people can choose not to drink wine while they cannot choose not to have breast cancer, but to embrace that logic is to turn the arguments for public social provision on their head. The idea of the social insurance state is to provide benefits to citizens, not to justify re-ordering their lives. That the social insurance state has to operate in a world of individual lifestyle choices is just one of many factors that justify generous public health care expenditures. (The libertarian flip-side of this argument would be to cite it as a reason not to have public health care expenditures at all.)

Restaurant smoking bans are different in that their motivation is not only to save health care costs but to protect specific other individuals (ie those sitting next to the smoker) from the direct effects of smoking--ie to allow them to enjoy their Meursault without interference from noxious fumes. That's a far more legitimate goal and one I can embrace.

Of course, none of the specific proposals currently on the table in England are all that problematic on their own. The stuff about better labeling of alcohol content on bottles and in pubs isn't particularly objectionable. "Hard-hitting advertising campaigns" about the dangers of alcohol and targeted against so-called "binge"-drinking seem more foolish than anything else. And by definition, no one is planning to defend "excessive" public drunkenness. Rather, the problem is that these sort of policies are only the first steps rather than the last. Clearly the goal of this campaign is to change attitudes over time. "Excessive" is a term that lends itself to shifting definition--what we consider acceptable today may well become defined as "excessive" tomorrow. What I find particularly menacing is the suggestion that the ultimate targets include people drinking at home. While none of the currently proposed policies will prevent you from drinking in your home if you so choose, they are designed to generate a consensus willing to support more far-reaching policies in the future. That does not bode well.


Tuesday, June 5, 2007

What Would You Do With a $3000 Evening From a Giant Law Firm?

New York law firms are known for the lavish treatment they provide their summer associates (i.e. law students they hire for the summer as a recruiting gambit). But this sequence is impressive even by the standards of New York summers. Basically, a couple of summer associates at the New York office of Skadden Arps ran up a $3000 tab at a club and had the temerity to ask Skadden to pay for it, which Skadden did.

That $3000 covered six bottles, including a bottle of Cristal, which frankly isn't a very good use of Skadden's money. If DC firms were willing to pay for escapades like this--and I were a devotee of these high-end cuvees from prominent Champagne houses--I think I'd go for Perrier Jouet Belle Epoque (96?) or Taittinger Comtes de Champagne. I mean, after Frédéric Rouzaud's quote in this Economist article, I hear the cool kids aren't even drinking Cristal anymore.

Of course, why go to the club. Even with restaurant markups, you could get some damn good wine for that $3000.


Wine of the Week: 2005 Les Cailloux Chateauneuf du Pape Blanc

In my former life as a student of literature, I spent much of my time contemplating the relationship between canonical and marginal texts (or, rather, resenting I had to divert my attention at all from Shakespeare and Donne but nevertheless wading through travel journals, diaries, and the "voices of the oppressed" in order to engage in the "professional conversation" -- but I digress). And it's an interesting exercise to apply that paradigm to the Old World - New World divide and dynamic in the wine world. Indeed, it's worth contemplating for a moment that European vineyards are in many ways a post-colonial legacy of the Roman Empire -- and, in another scholastic parallel, that the tradition of vinification survived largely through the work of devoted monks during the Middle Ages.

While I won't even begin to sketch out what such a thought experiment would conclude, I would like to turn my attention to the historic Rhone varietals, which have found their way into all parts of the New World as the next big thing (or rather things -- there are something like twenty-two individual varietals). This week's Grape Radio segment broadcasts a seminar from the 2007 Hospice du Rhone that features Viogniers and Syrahs from such exotic locales as Chile, Baja California, Italy, and Southern Oregon. These are grapes that, in many cases, have replaced the traditional Bordelais varietals in New World vineyards. Host Patrick Comiskey opines that "these varieties tend to seek out the fringes ... because their terroir expression in exotic locales ... never fail to surprise and delight people." These are hot growing regions that often have much more in common with the South of France than with Bordeaux or Burgundy. And the tradition of blending these varietals in the Rhone lends itself to the sense of creativity of a young winemaker seeking to put a New World vineyard or winery on the map.

Of course, the conversation works both ways, as Eric Asimov observed in a recent article on Condrieu. It took the attention and ingenuity of New World producers of Viognier, who revived interest in this long languishing varietal, to resuscitate demand for wine from the grape's traditional home in the Northern Rhone. I must admit that I've never had a satisfying Viognier that wasn't a Condrieu (of course, I have absolutely fallen in love with many other New World expressions of Rhone varietals) and comparisons to Old World benchmarks will always be made. These wines (unless graced by genius marketing) will always be defined in relation to those from the historic estates of France. The marginal only exists because of the canonical. The labeling of wines with varietal names, as opposed to only an AVA or another geographical designation, and all the talk of "varietal correctness," make even more inevitable the backward glance to Europe.

All this is a long-winded way of introducing our third "Wine of the Week": the 2005 Les Cailloux Chateauneuf du Pape Blanc ($30; Bobby Kacher, importer). Having made my own inclinations clear at outset, I thought I'd turn our attention back to the canonical -- but to a relative rarity in the French canon. Ninety-seven percent of the wine produced in Chateauneuf du Pape is red, making the white wines from the appellation both rare and expensive. Yet the best efforts are undoubtedly worth seeking out, as they offer great character and presence and are unlike most other whites on the market.

The 2005 Les Cailloux Blanc, made by Andre Brunel, is a relative bargain at $30 (two benchmark wines, the 2005 Clos des Papes and Beaucastel whites, cost around $60 and $80, respectively) and is an outstanding white Chateauneuf, irrespective of price point. Pale gold, with a slight greenish tinge, the Les Cailloux Blanc has a delicate floral nose and is far less extroverted than the more typically heady whites dominated by notes of peaches and apricots. Blended from 80% Roussanne and 20% Clairette and vinified in tank, the wine is full-bodied, with great weight and undeniable class. It has good acidity, yet it manages to be both lively and poised on the palate and makes for a good food wine. When the Les Cailloux is served at the proper temperature (around 50-54 F, warmer than most whites), the wine's relatively high alcohol content (a stated 13.5%, but probably a bit higher) peeks through slightly on the finish. Yet this doesn't disturb the overall balance too greatly, and the wine's fruit undeniably sings at the warmer serving temperature. A wine of truly distinctive character. Ah, back to France.


Monday, June 4, 2007

Pretty in Pink

Domaine Tempier's Bandol Rosé is, as Robert Parker writes, one of the "rare rosés produced in the world today to actually have a cult following." And as such, it challenges the conventional notion of rosé as a mere summer quaffer, if only through its price tag (the 2006 costs around $30). Jamie Goode has written that rosés "are not wines to dwell over too long, but are best glugged joyfully," and that one ought not to devote extensive tasting notes to these wines which are drunk by the "tanker-load." I must admit that I have long avoided rosés as unfashionable and, worse, unmanly (bring me Mouton!) but have recently turned my attention to them as I pondered alternatives to the latest supermarket selections from The Washington Post.

Compared with the Mordorée Tavel Rosé I wrote on last week, the 2006 Domaine Tempier Bandol Rosé ($30; Kermit Lynch, importer) is a more refined, far prettier wine. The Mordorée is a big, aggressive wine for a rosé, with a heady alcohol level and relatively dark fruit flavors. It needs food to tame it -- and itself can tame big foods -- and never quite comes to rest on the palate. Meanwhile, the Tempier Rosé brings a sense of harmony to the table. Light salmon colored, the wine has a fresh, delicate nose of strawberry and watermelon. It is medium-bodied, with refined, almost mellow fruit, good lively acidity, and impeccable overall balance. It is a classy, poised yet refreshing effort from one of the most famous of Provence wineries. Is it worth the $30 tariff? Maybe not, but it is one of the best French rosés I've ever had, and properly savored, rather than quaffed, the Tempier Bandol Rosé isn't an unreasonable buy.


Friday, June 1, 2007

Wine Blogging Interactive Edition: The Tasting

It's been two weeks since we first announced our inaugural blogospheric wine tasting, and we think it's now time to get on with the actual tasting. As readers may recall, the goal was to suggest an affordable, readily available wine that readers could pick up, drink, and ruminate over, and later discuss with us on the blog.

The wine was the 2004 Las Rocas de San Alejandro Garnacha ($10), a wine that neither of us had tried before but one we both ended up enjoying. As we noted before, the wine is from Calatayud in Spain and sourced from 70-100 year old high-altitude vines. It is made in a traditional style, with no new oak, so the low-yielding vines deliver exceptional purity of fruit for the price point.

We offer our individual comments below in the hopes that readers will chime in with their own thoughts. We're very interested in what you have to say, about any aspect of the wine. And if you haven't picked up the wine yet, feel free to comment at any time, as we'll be checking in on this post frequently. (The wine's available at, among other places, Calvert-Woodley in DC, and Sherry-Lehmann and Zachys in New York.)

Jeffrey: I really enjoyed this wine, and it's a steal at $10 a bottle. It's very well balanced and is neither overly tannic nor overly fruity. Interestingly, it wasn't somewhat rough and rustic as I'd expected, but rather more refined. There were strong earthy--almost barnyard--notes on the nose, which I quite enjoyed, although these didn't begin to show on the palate until about half an hour after we'd opened the bottle. Simon can list all the fruit flavors if he wishes--as I've said before, I don't go in for that sort of thing. Definitely recommended if you haven't tried it already.

Simon: I agree with Jeffrey -- this wine is a fantastic value. Deep purplish-red in color, the wine offers up wonderful notes of raspberry and earth on the nose. I would not, however, call the earthy notes anything resembling barnyard. There is no "brett" in this wine, and readers averse to that taste can rest assured this is a "clean" wine. On the palate, the wine initially presented bright raspberry and kirsch flavors, but as Jeffrey noted, over time the wine gained in complexity, picking up weight and offering darker fruit and earthier notes. (I would however, not recommend extended aeration, as the wine had faded by the next evening.) With a good balancing acidity and fine tannins, the Las Rocas is by far the most polished $10 wine I've ever tasted. I did find the acidity a bit more prominent than Jeffrey did, perhaps a touch too high for the level of refinement it strives for. But that's really not a fair criticism, as that would be comparing it against $30 wines, and the racy finish does make it a great food wine.

Update: The wine is also available at MacArthur Beverages in D.C.; Blanchards, Andover Liquors, and Nejaime's Wine Cellars in Massachusetts; and Woodland Hills, San Francisco Wine Trading Company, and K&L Wines in California. For other states, try a search for "Las Rocas Garnacha" on Wine-Searcher.


A Real BBQ Wine: 2006 Domaine de la Mordorée Tavel Rosé

Okay, I admit it, my suggestions for "barbecue wines" were pretty absurd. As one poster on Don Rockwell's board put it: "Surely there's a happy medium between painfully 'middlebrow' and unbearably upscale. Next time I'm cruising Charles County for 'cue I'll be sure to bring my iced Billecart-Saumon and a couple of flutes. Nothing says authentic barbecue like bubbly." Point taken. (Though the sheer absurdity of my picks was largely the point.) As I replied:

I absolutely agree that there's a happy medium between the industrial wines written up in the Post article and my "unbearably upscale" counter suggestions. My post was deliberately reactionary -- to bring out the big guns that would still pair well with barbecue in taste, if not necessarily in spirit. I'd probably prefer a beer or two with Charles County 'cue, myself. I just found it incredibly frustrating to see the Post's wine writers trotting out four seemingly arbitrary "factory wines," as someone called them, without any discussion of where they come from, how they're made, or how they relate to other wines. Of course, as Mark pointed out, they weren't that arbitrary after all.

If I had been writing in a more temperate frame of mind, I probably would have suggested something like Tempier's Rose or Mordoree's Tavel Rose. Usually, my co-blogger Jeffrey and I try to stick to writing about wines $20/under. There definitely is a sweet spot to be found for the Post's audience of reasonably priced, artisanal wines, particularly given, as someone noted, DC's lax importation laws and quality retailers. But, again, it's frustrating to have these writers based in New York with little apparent knowledge of or curiosity about the DC market -- on their website, they ask distributors sending in samples to New York to document that these wines are available in DC stores, which puts the onus on the wrong party. It's not surprising that they ended up with three Constellation wines.

I haven't yet had the 2006 Domaine Tempier Bandol Rosé, but I can heartily recommend Domaine de la Mordorée's 2006 Tavel Rosé ($17), which I drank over lunch today. Beautifully colored (trying to think of words to describe it, I couldn't come up with anything better than "rose colored"), the Tavel Rosé is heady and full-bodied (a stated 14.5% alc., probably higher) with delightful strawberry and framboise flavors. The wine is voluminous (from the alcohol) but not weighty, and the fruit is well balanced by good acidity. It's a bit one-dimensional in the mid-palate, but it is undeniably a great food wine. Served well chilled, it is an ideal pairing with BBQ -- refreshing and hedonistic -- if one can do without PBR.

(For D.C.-area readers, the 2006 Tavel Rosé is currently on sale at Calvert-Woodley for $14.99; no commercial affiliation.)


Thursday, May 31, 2007

EU Wine Reforms, Perspective

It's easy to mock the European wine glut. And Simon gets in a few shots at the Eurocrats for good measure. It's worth remembering two things, however. The first is that there are two entirely separate European wine industries. One makes origin-controlled, excellent wines (think the AOC, DOCG, DO, etc systems, or even VDQS or VdP) that are quite marketable. These are the wines you see in the United States, and there is no crisis involving them. The problem is with the enormous mass of table wine, of which there is far too much produced. This is a wine universe totally separate from what Americans think of when French or Italian wine comes to mind. The glut of table wine has nothing to do with the other wines.

Second, the wine glut is not the result of some unfortuitous happenstance. It's the predictable result of perfectly well-considered policies designed to subsidize farmers and thereby preserve the traditional character of the European countryside. These policies apply to categories other than wine with similar side effects (think of the butter mountain), and they have largely succeeded. Rural areas in France have not been transformed by massive agribusiness, and the world is better off for it. That fabric of life is something worth saving.

I always find it amusing when Americans make fun of European agricultural policy and the resulting surpluses. Like the Europeans, we spend vast sums (in our case tens of billions of dollars a year) on farm subsidies and other agricultural price supports. Here too, the result is enormous agricultural overproduction. But, unlike the Europeans, we subsidize massive agribusinesses rather than small farmers and therefore get none of the cultural and aesthetic benefits their policies obtain. Agricultural gluts are a price worth paying to preserve the hedgerows of Normandy or the charm of Languedoc. They are not a price worth paying to improve the bottom line at Archer Daniels Midland.


EU Wine Reforms, Update

The European Union is expected to scale back its proposed reforms for its ailing wine industry, reducing the number of vineyards to be ripped out and signaling a willingness to compromise on its intended ban on chaptalization.

The proposed ban on chaptalization has run into fierce criticism from major northern European countries, with Austria and Germany already on the record as being opposed. According to one diplomat, the proposed ban will likely be used mainly as a bargaining chip and will not be a "deal-breaker."

The practice is already banned in Mediterranean countries such as Italy, Spain, and Portugal but remains commonplace in France and other traditional wine making nations. EU agriculture commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel had hoped to supplant the traditional enrichment of wine with sucrose with the more expensive practice of adding concentrated grape must as a means of reducing the sucrose surplus. With chaptalization banned, it would be easier for Fischer Boel to push through her proposed reforms of the sugar industry, including reduced quotas and subsidies.

A European Commission spokesperson also announced that the proposed 400,000 hectacres of vines targeted for its "grubbing up" scheme will be reduced to 200,000ha. Instead, the EU plans to shift its efforts toward increased marketing.

The EU faces a real crisis in its wine industry, with a reported 1.5 billion liter "wine lake" of surplus. Once again, Brussels has proven itself to be a model of efficiency.


Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Age of Anxiety

When reading posts like all of these, I can never be quite sure whether I'm exhilarated or depressed. The imagination takes flight, and I definitely enjoy fantasizing about the wines, but that's tinged by the despair of knowing that I'll never be able to taste the vast majority of them. It's quite distressing--the unfairness of it all.

It's enough to make me wish I were born seventy or a hundred years ago when these wines were affordable. I'd happily give up my various electronic devices in exchange. As long as no one else had them, I don't think I'd much miss the conveniences of modern life. This will sound odd coming from a blogger but, frankly, I'd probably be better off without a computer. And document review would be a lot less unpleasant in the absence of e-mail.


Just Because It's Summer Doesn't Mean You Should Drink Bad Wine

Ever since the Constitutional Convention during that long Philadelphia summer of 1787, the languorous expanse between Memorial Day and Labor Day has been an indelible part of the rhythm of American life: the days of summer holidays and roadtrips, weekends at the Hamptons or the Shore, the party season at Gatsby's, the height of baseball season and Presidential campaigns, and lazy afternoons of Ultimate and barbecue. And accompanying that all-American tradition of outdoor grilling of late have been the obligatory articles from wine writers detailing the appropriate pairings for pulled pork, beef ribs, brisket and the like.

Wine writers for middle-brow newspapers tend toward the condescending, and never more so when recommending the "ideal summer wine." (Do they really drink Ravenswood themselves at home?) Exhibit A is Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg's "Four Hot Prospects for Summer Sipping" in today's Washington Post, which offers recommendations for "BBQ" wines: "big, bold and quaffable." (No doubt a dozen other writers this week have arrived at a similarly egregious acronym.)

While I admit that many barbecue dishes, especially those slathered with thick sauces, require wines of some brashness and verve, just because the mercury's risen and you're drinking outside doesn't mean you've taken leave of your senses or, more importantly, your taste. Therefore, I humbly propose to offer four counter recommendations to Page and Dornenburg, all with the proviso that these wines are a bit splurgy and not meant for mindless quaffing. But, hey, you only live once, and with all that barbecue you've been eating, the man may come around sooner than you think.

As an all-purpose barbecue wine, Page and Dornenburg suggest the Sauvion Rosé d'Anjou ($10), a simple Loire rosé made from gamay and groslot. A perfectly respectable wine and probably the most apt of their four choices. But if you are indulging in the frivolity that is rosé, why not go all the way and have a Rosé Champagne, one of the most delightful mood wines there is (remember Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr in An Affair to Remember?). Rosé Champagne is an excellent match for barbecue, as it has the fruitiness, acidity, and bubbles to complement traditional sauces. Most of the famous Champagne houses put out a very good non-vintage rosé, and few are better than the Billecart-Salmon
Rosé ($65), with refreshing cherry and strawberry flavors, good acidity, and impeccable balance.

For that "red-meat person" in your party, the Post writers recommend Ravenswood Icon Syrah ($17). The less that is said about the monstrosity that is Ravenswood the better (it's owned by the corporate giant Constellation Brands, whose portfoilo also includes Corona Extra and Corona Light). Admittedly, my next choice is a splurge wine, but it is also by far the finest New World Syrah or Shiraz I have ever tasted: the 1992 Henschke Hill of Grace ($300). Bearing little resemblance to the over-extracted, over-oaked Shiraz currently in favor in Australia, the Hill of Grace offers stunningly pure red fruit, with hints of spice and eucalyptus. Accessible now but still youthful, with a long life ahead.

As a pairing with "pork, chicken or virtually anything other than red meat," Page and Dornenburg suggest the Hogue Columbia Valley Riesling ($9), which throws in a dollop of Gewurztraminer for good measure. Yet if you're in the market for an off-dry Riesling, why not go for the real thing and pick out a good German Kabinett or Spatlese. German Rieslings are one of the few remaining bargains from Old World noble grapes, and a top producer like Ernst Loosen (whom I've written about previously) puts out excellent wines from top to (almost) bottom. Even mature German Rieslings can be found on the market for reasonable prices. The 1990 Weingut A. Gessinger Riesling Spatlese Zeltinger Sonnenuhr ($30) displays classic Middle Mosel notes of kerosene, apples, minerals, and honey and features a juicy mid palate and a nice, fresh acidity despite its maturity. An especially good pairing for foods inclining toward the sweet or the spicy.

And, finally, Conundrum ($27, né Caymus Conundrum) is the authors' choice of a somewhat more "upscale" white to pair with grilled fish or chicken ("its price tag means we save it for dinner with guests, who invariably thank us"; perhaps they're just being polite). Conundrum, which is blended from some combination of Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Muscat or Semillon, has gone steeply downhill since the heady days of the early '90s when the wine garnered positive reviews from Robert Parker. For another proprietary white that is upscale enough to reserve for the table, I would suggest the 2003 Clos des Papes Chateauneuf du Pape Blanc ($60). It is a rich, full-bodied wine with floral notes and white fruit flavors that despite the scorching heat of the vintage has great acidity and fine poise. An incredibly versatile, food-friendly wine -- perfect for that West Egg dinner party.

Update: As Mark Slater, sommelier of Citronelle, helpfully points out in a post on Don Rockwell's board, Constellation Brands had a bigger hand in this article than I initially thought. In addition to distributing the Ravenswood Icon Syrah, Constellation ("THE LARGEST WINE AND SPIRITS COMPANY IN THE WORLD," as Slater notes) also distributes Hogue Cellars and owns Caymus Cellars, producer of Conundrum. (Sauvion is part of W.J. Deutsch & Son's portfolio.)

This certainly calls into serious question Page and Dornenburg's method of selecting wines for review, as well as the New York-based writers knowledge, or lack thereof, of the DC wine market.


Monday, May 28, 2007

Wine of the Week: 2005 Clos du Caillou Cotes du Rhone

Continuing with our theme of reasonably priced wines of the week, I tried a 2005 Cotes du Rhone from Clos du Caillou. This domaine, also known as Vacheron-Pouizin, is a small grower in Chateauneuf du Pape and the surrounding areas that has quickly been developing an excellent reputation. Much of this reputation comes, of course, from their Chateauneufs (tending toward a modern style) rather than from their other wines, but I decided to taste their least heralded wine: a plain Cotes du Rhone--not even a villages or their impressive Bouquet des Garrigues.

The wine is definitely young--it could probably use a year or two in the cellar. But it is very drinkable right now. It was a little forward, even brash, initially. After getting some oxygen in the glass it calmed down and came nicely into balance. Like almost any wine you can get at its price, it wasn't terribly complex (although it certainly was not dumb either). The bottom line is that this is a very enjoyable drinking experience with moderate, well-integrated fruit and an appropriate level of acidity to complement. It's perfect to drink after a hard day of work when looking for a wine to casually appreciate rather than to subject to the full intensity of one's intellectual and tasting capacity.

Update: The wine should be available in the neighborhood of $15.


Parker: "I would not spend a dollar on '06 Futures"

Robert Parker has bluntly reaffirmed his pessimistic view of the U.S. market for 2006 Bordeaux, saying, "I would not spend a dollar on '06 futures."

These remarks, made at the Duquesne Club in Pittsburgh two weeks ago, come on the heels of his prediction earlier this month that "the 'futures' market in the USA will be largely a failure." (A self-fulfilling prophecy, perhaps?)

A weak dollar, combined with large expenditures on the outstanding '05 vintage and the availability of strong buys among the '03 Northern Medocs, all lead Parker to advise against any spending in the '06 en primeur campaign.

Curiously, Parker's latest column for Business Week offers his picks on "Where To Place Your 2006 Bordeaux Bets." He is less blunt for the "Executive Life" crowd than he was at the Duquesne Club, advising, "I wouldn't load up on 2006 futures, as the vintage is good but not great."

Nevertheless, Parker offers up his recommendations for futures worth a gamble if priced below $45: Branaire-Ducru, Malescot St.-Exupéry, Haut-Bailly, Duhart-Milon, Fleur Cardinale, Monbousquet, Smith-Haut-Lafitte and Clos de L'Oratoire.

Anyone care to bet on how many of these wines come in under that price point? (My prediction is three: Duhart-Milon, Fleur Cardinale and Clos de L'Oratoire.)


Friday, May 25, 2007

On the Map

This is great news. We can only hope that it will encourage efforts to further entrench the sense of place of American wines. Moreover, if American wines start to benefit from protection of the names of their geographic origins along with European wines, it can only increase the likelihood that American negotiators will be amenable to further protections in future trade deals.


A Toast to the Long Weekend

Classic Orson Welles ad for Paul Masson, the "Champagne King of California," abandoned after three sublimely loopy takes (Hat tip: Dan Tobin). Some of the greatest American screen acting on record.