Archive for October, 2008

Chardonnay Comparison Tasting Recap

Wednesday, October 29th, 2008

Fairly light turnout last night, only 9 people participated. It worked out fine, though, as we had enough people to cover our bottle cost, and we got a few people who otherwise wouldn’t have been there on a Tuesday night. And most importantly, the people that were there had a good time and really enjoyed the wines.

As usual, I wish I had more time to put together materials for people. I always write up a couple of pages on the region / wines, but especially with this tasting, there’s so much information it’s hard to condense it down, and I’m so busy day-to-day that I always end up scrambling on Tuesday morning/afternoon to pull something together. Fortunately, Burgundy & CA Chardonnay is something I’ve had a fair amount of experience with so it seemed to turn out ok.

The theme was Burgundy vs. California Chardonnay, with one moderately priced example of each and one more expensive. It wasn’t meant to be comprehensive (that would have required a lot more time and many, many more wines), but an overview of the stylistic differences between the two regions, and quality levels within each.

The wines:

Olivier Merlin 2005 Macon-La Roche Vineuse ($19.95)
Merlin is one of the top producers in the Macon, and this wine showed off why. Very Burgundian in character, with fruit just one component of the wine as opposed to dominating. Lots of nut, cream, and lemon curd, yet still fresh and vibrant. Fairly subtle and nuanced; great food wine. Drinking well now, won’t improve. A nice start to the tasting.

Solex 2006 Chardonnay, California ($14.95)
The California appellation is misleading, as this wine gets its fruit from top Chardonnay regions of Sonoma County (49%), Monterey (28%), and Santa Barbara (23%). Aimee’s liked this wine for awhile; I only tasted it for the first time a couple of months ago, and it’s a steal. Very well made CA Chardonnay, with nice balance of acidity, oak, and fruit. Much more fruit forward than the Merlin, with tropical pineapple notes combined with the citrus flavors. Reading the tech sheet before the tasting, I got a clue why I liked the wine – it’s 75% barrel fermented and aged (25% stainless steel) and 60% malolactic fermentation. The numbers aren’t important; what mattered to me was that the winemaker cared about balance and proportion. He/she thought that all barrel aging would make the wine too oaky, and full ML would have made the wine too buttery and low-acid. Balance is all-important to me, and this wine has it.

Daniel Barraud 2006 Pouilly Fuisse “La Verchere” ($47.95)
The star of the night. This wine is absolutely amazing. I hadn’t had it before last night (one of the reasons I chose it, actually), and it was a show-stopper. Very rich and fleshy for a Pouilly Fuisse, yet the acidity and concentration despite moderate (13.5%) alcohol made it undisputably Burgundy. Ripe poached pear, lemon curd, spicy oak, lemon, minerality….this wine has it all. Still young; will be even better in about 3 years. The La Verchere is made from 50-year-old vines, and the depth shows through in the wine.

Flowers 2006 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay ($44.95)
In retrospect I should had put the Flowers before the Barraud in the tasting order – the wine tasted a little tigher than it should. I tried to pick wines that blurred New World/Old World lines, and these last two definitely did – the Barraud was the showier of the two, while the Flowers showcased minerality and taut concentration. It’s an absolutely beautiful wine, but one that shows its charms over time and with a meal; it’s not one that you take one sip of and are wowed by. Those kinds of wines are generally my favorites; in a comparative tasting, though, where you’re taking an instant snapshot and not savoring them over time, they don’t show as well. (Probably one reason why I disagree with the Wine Spectator and other magazines about their ratings so often; they rate wines based on initial impact only and in comparison with dozens of others; obviously the showiest will stand out the most.) Anyway, back to the wine. Long and concentrated; tightly wound, great acidity combined with a round mouthfeel; like the Barraud, needs a couple of years. Pretty, elegant, yet with a lot going on. Always one of my CA favorites.

To Point or Not to Point?

Monday, October 13th, 2008

I don’t like wine ratings. I think they fully objectify what is a partially subjective thing. That sounds confusing, but to me a wine can be divided into objective and subjective – the objective part is that a wine is well-made & defect-free or not, while the subjective part is if you like the wine. Critics and those with a lot of tasting experience can sort out if a wine is well-made, but beyond that the scores are if that particular critic likes the wine, which may not be to your taste at all.

However, there’s no doubt that ratings sell wine; they also give consumers who are unsure of what they want something tangible to base their selection on, especially with wines unfamiliar to them. Our shop has loads of unfamiliar wines, but I want the fact that it’s on our shelves – we tasted it, we stand behind it and recommend it – to be the seal of approval, not some score.

The Wine Spectator to me is the worst – they use different critics for different regions, so a 91 for a California wine isn’t necessarily the same as a 91 for an Italian wine. The descriptions are usually only a sentence or so long (and generally sound the same), so it’s hard to tell what the wine is actually like. And, frankly, some of their critics are comically bad. (Jim Laube, who rates California wines, has a particularly poor palate.) With Robert Parker (Wine Advocate), though his tastes are generally different from mine at least his descriptions are detailed enough that I know if I’ll like the wine or not. Steven Tanzer (International WIne Cellar) is the critic who I follow the most – he tends to appreciate balanced, elegant wines more than the other two, who favor extracted, big, less nuanced wines.

We have many wines that happen to score well with the publications listed above, but we haven’t listed ratings on our shelves. We’re in the process of creating shelf labels that give our descriptions of the wines to give customers more information (we’ll also list if the wine is organically/sustainably/biodynamically farmed; we’ve had several requests for that), and I’ve been wrestling with whether to include ratings. I originally didn’t want to, but now I’m leaning toward it – like anything else, it’s another piece of information, and we do have some customers who ask about them. The shop’s not about me, after all, it’s about our customers, and some of them happen to like knowing how many points a wine got. For those that don’t care, our descriptions will be the main point of reference, so hopefully everyone will be happy.

Champagne Taste-Off Results

Sunday, October 12th, 2008

We had a Champagne Taste-Off this past Tuesday, spurred in part by my ordering in a case of Veuve Clicquot after several customer requests. I’ve always thought Veuve was overrated, driven more by omnipresent advertising and a sophisticated marketing machine than by the actual quality in the bottle. But, I hadn’t tasted it in a while and thought it would be fun to compare it to a few Champagnes that I like at about the same price point – hence the taste-off. We had a nice turnout of about 20 people; I gave people the choice of doing it blind or knowing what the wines were; most people did it blind, which was fun. After they tasted all the wines, they rated the wines 1 through 4 with 1 being the favorite.

The wines were: Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin, Bollinger Special Cuvee (long my favorite of the big houses), Pierre Gimmonet 1er Cru Blanc de Blancs (a small grower Champagne), and Philipponat Royale Reserve (my current favorite at this price.

And the winner? Drumroll please……Philipponnat! I did the scores two ways: Adding up the points for each wine from 18 respondents, Philipponat far outpaced the pack with only 38 points (lower is better, since 1 point for 1st, 2 for 2nd, etc.), Bollinger came in second with 44 points, Gimonnet was third with 48, and Veuve was last with 52. Going by more of an Olympic scoring system of 5 points for a first place vote, 3 for second, 1 for third, and none for fourth, the results were the same but even more dramatic: Philipponnat led with 57 points, Bollinger 2nd with 41, Gimonnet had 35, and Veuve had 29.

My personal ratings were in line with the overall results. I did it blind, and Philipponnat was by far my favorite. Rich brioche yeasty character, creamy mouthfeel, red berry, lemon, and apple fruit, integrated acidity, nice balance and a long finish. Also had a distinctive nutty character that added depth; in general, it just seemed to have more going on than the others. It’s also the cheapest of the bunch at $44.95. Bollinger ($54.95) and Gimmonet ($49.95) were neck and neck for #2 for me; Bollinger was more intense and powerful, with great brioche character; the Gimmonet, being pure Chardonnay, was lighter, more elegant, with a lovely creamy apple mouthfeel. Lots of character. The Bollinger won by a nose. Veuve ($49.95) was simpler than the other three, with zingy lemon-lime fruit. Thinner mouthfeel for Champagne, and a shorter finish. If someone poured me a glass of this, would I enjoy it? Of course – it’s Champagne. But in my mind, it clearly wasn’t in the class of the other three.

A word ( or many) about grower Champagnes. When you’re buying Champagne, look closely at the small print on the front of the label; you’ll see either RM or NM followed by numbers. NM (Negociant Manipulant) is what you’ll see most of the time; it’s a producer that buys most of the grapes. RM (Recoltant Manipulant) is grower Champagne; those producers can buy only 5% of grapes for their total production. RM is worth seeking out; these are smaller, artisanally made Champagnes with true character. Are they better than NM? Not necessarily, for a variety of reasons, but they’ve got soul. (Note: you will also occasionally see CM; this is from a Cooperative, and can provide excellent value.)

We’ve got a few grower Champagnes in stock, and will be getting more soon – I’m going to Terry Thiese’s grower Champagne tasting in Chicago next week and will be bringing in the best of what I taste. He’s a fantastic importer who’s passionate about small growers – for a truly interesting and eye-opening read about the state of Champagne, check out his latest catalog

Right Bank Bordeaux Tasting

Friday, October 3rd, 2008

We held a tasting of four wines from Bordeaux’s Right Bank on Tuesday, which went really well. It was a casual drop-in style tasting, and we had about 15 people participate. The overall reaction was quite positive, so we’ll be repeating them often. (We’ll be doing one this Tuesday, actually – we had a disappointingly poor reaction to the seminar that was scheduled, so I’m changing it into another casual tasting. It’ll be a champagne taste-off; check our events page for details.)

The wines were:

2003 Chateau de Fontenay, Cotes de Castillon ($13.95)
2003 was a very hot vintage, but this wine displays none of the pruniness or overripeness that you might expect. Right-bank wines generally did better in ‘03 because there’s more clay soil as opposed to the gravel-dominated soil on the left bank, and since clay retains water better than free-draining gravel, when the heat hit the vines on clay soil had more water to help them make it through. The Fontenay is 90% Merlot, 5% Cab. Sauv., and 5% Cab. Franc. Good acidity, lots of fresh cherry and red plum flavors, nice balance, no overt oak influence. Not the most complex Bordeaux, but drinking well for the price. I think this would be a great food wine.

2005 Chateau Ste. Colombe, Cotes de Castillon ($21.95)
If I had to pick one of these wines to drink now, it would be this one. It’s lush and open, with a fuller body and darker fruit than the Fontenay, and some noticeable toasty oak that’s well integrated. Dark cherries and black plums, with a hint of chocolate. I think Cotes de Castillon is a very underrated AOC; it’s one of the “satellite” appellations of the Right Bank, but unlike most of them that have very little connection with the top two regions of Pomerol & St. Emilion, Cotes de Castillon is a logical extension of St. Emilion, with a very similar limestone / clay soil structure. Producers in St. Emilion are increasingly realizing its potential and buying chateaux and vineyards there – Ste. Colombe is owned by the owners of Chateau Pavie & Chateau Monbousquet, so it’s got a great pedigree.

2005 Chateau du Pressac, St. Emilion ($38.95)
Moving on to the heavy hitters. I decanted both this and the Destieu for about an hour and a half before the tasting, and they were still tight. I’d say lay them both down for another 6-8 years. That being said, the Pressac was the more accessible of the two. Great structure, with French oak and vibrant acidity framing the concentrated fruit. More of a red-fruit spectrum on this wine, with dark cherries and raspberries combining with minerality and that Bordeaux scorched earth character. It was even better the next day. This will be a beautiful wine; I thoroughly enjoyed both this and the Destieu, but if I had to pick one, it’d be the Pressac.

2005 Chateau Grand Destieu, St. Emilion ($41.50)
Tight as a drum, but you could see what’s there. This will end up being a bigger, more opulent wine than the Pressac, I think, with lush fruit and ample oak. More black fruit than the Pressac – black plums and currants, with a bit of black olive character as well. Again, great structure. 2005 was an ideal vintage – warm but not extremely hot, no rain, even ripening – and this wine will be a stunner in a half-dozen years.

Engagement Wine

Thursday, October 2nd, 2008

Aimee & I got engaged last night and to celebrate we opened up a bottle of Philipponnat Reserve Rosee (not a typo – they spell it the old-fashioned way) Champagne. It’s always been one of my favorites – great yeastiness and brioche, a creamy mouthfeel, lots of red berry fruit, and a wonderfully long finish. It’s fairly dry for a Champagne (only 9 g/L dosage), which gives it a crispness that counterbalances the richness from the three years spent on its lees. Good enough for a truly special occasion, affordable enough ($48.95 in our shop) for a start-up business owner with a good amount of debt.

Plus, the Red Sox won in Game 1 of the playoffs, so a good night all around.