February 29, 2005
The DC Wine Expo is in no way as insane as the Boston Wine Expo. It’s also far less organized. This year is no exception – wines are missing, the help is missing, the crowd is missing.
I showed a group of Spanish wines again, this time a group of intense reds including Marques de Caceres’ Gaudium 1996,Bodegas Aalto 2000 from Ribera del Duero, Guelbenzu EVO 2000 and Numanthia 2001 from Toro. Those were the well-mannered wines. Of the ill-mannered wines there will be more tomorrow.
These polite wines are not stylistically similar. The EVO is Grenache and Bordeaux varieties blended together into something soft, compelling and mild, as Spain has been so good at doing for a few decades. The Gaudium is intended to be over-the-top Rioja, but is balanced and soothing instead. The style of House Caceres is not so easily abandoned.
I’ve been critical of Numanthia at times, but not this bottling. Like its predecessors, the 2001 is oak-laden and powerful. It’s very backward now but shows lovely balance. Bodegas Aalto is powerful Ribera del Deuro, an appellation than can as often be difficult as it is impressive. This is nearly over-the-top Ribera, nearly over-ripe and over-wrought. As such, it’s a nice segue into the other wines of the tasting, which were mostly from new (old) areas and built for body not balance.
Dry Comal Creek is making a small amount of Black Spanish, a grape about which the experts cannot agree. Is it a wild hybrid? A Vinifera? The grape was widely grown in the 1830’s in Texas and used to make a kind of port there. Messina Hofuses it to make their pleasing port.
Dry Comal’s Black Spanish is turning a few Texas winemakers’ heads. Their interest lies in revealing its Petite Sirah like intensity, if only they can tone down the tannins. In the tasting, I’m fussy about the tannins. Tom likes it a great deal more than I do in the blind tasting. I like it so much better when I know what the label says. That could be said of a lot of wines.
Chardonel has yet to convince anyone but the winegrowers and winemakers that it can be important to the wine industry. Tom has few kind words to say about the Chardonel flight, quoting a friend who believes that the proper name for the grape is “Chard in hell”.
Montelle’s great Seyval Blanc 2002 is in the tasting. It’s won sweepstakes at the Riverside and San Diego competitions last year. But Tom’s not impressed. He says that there are far better Seyvals in England. I’d like to taste the proof of that. My next trip to Scotland, I will be trying to find some of those.
The first flight of the day consists of some sparkling wines from a few different areas: New Mexico, Michigan and California. Tom finds them all disappointing, but then he routinely drinks and writes about the world’s greatest sparklers. He practically bathes in Champagne.
New Mexico’s Gruet is highly regarded American bubbly and for good reason. While their standard Brut can be a bit simple and the Blanc de Noir straight-forward and short, the vintage dated Blanc de Blanc is exciting. The 1999 is in the tasting, but it’s too young, at this point
Michigan’s Larry Mawby makes delightful bubblies too. His Grande Reserve 1997 is as exotically leesy as a bottle of Bollinger RD. Frustratingly, it’s not in the tasting. Instead, the Talisman and the Blanc de Blanc have to stand in for Larry’s excellent work. They don’t.
I’m preparing to taste a bunch of American wines with Stevenson. The wines are all leftovers from the Jefferson Cup Invitational and are almost all from the Midwest – that could be good, that could be bad.
Mostly, it’s just okay. The tasting is disappointing. The wines are good but rarely great. The kind folks at the Missouri Department of Agriculture collected the bottles from the bottles not used but sent for the Jefferson Cup. They didn’t focus upon bringing the best, but then, they weren’t really asked to. I should have asked.
In a conversation with Tom Stevenson, he disagrees with my complaints about Weinbach. To him, the wines simply were not on the mark in the 90’s but he believes that they are returning to form and great wines are being made there. I hope so.
A bottle of Trimbach Riesling 1995 occasions a reverie upon the changes in Alsace viticulture. With Zind Humbrecht leading the way, producers in that tradition-bound area are breaking some shackles, and freedom can have some ill effects.
The high alcohol and slightly sweet wines Zind Humbrecht produces are impressive but they are never elegant. I like elegant. Domaine Weinbach has always been my benchmark for elegant Alsace. But no longer. Now the Weinbach wines are high in alcohol and somewhat sweet.
A dinner at a Sullivans Steak House begins with some pointed jabs. My host insists upon selecting the wine because he’s sure that I’ll “pick something too expensive, you know you guys just buy that esoteric crap.” I’m wounded deeply. Doesn’t he realize that the whole point of being good at this wine thing, is to find the BARGAINS??
Worse yet, he orders Sonoma Cutrer Chardonnay and an $80 bottle of Napa Cab. Yeah, way to save money.
At a little bar in Miami, a friendly waitress serves me a real Mojito, a tasty one, absolutely chockfull of fresh mint leaves. A few weeks later I will search for something similar in the Caribbean – that shouldn’t be hard to find. San Juan’s Parrot Club does me right. But the boat we’re on, a gorgeous and gargantuan ship called the Constellation, serves Mojitos with something like an ounce of bitters and one mint leaf. No. And the boat doesn’t possess a single bottle of good tequila.
The last day of the COEX conference. I talk to chain restaurant people. They listen. Some of them attend. Most are golfing.
The most interesting things in restaurant wine sales are happening in the underestimated chains. Olive Garden tastes wine at the front door on Saturday night. They offer the greatest number of wines by the glass of any chain; including the big money, steakhouse chains.
The Del Maguey Mezcals are superlative products. Those who think Mezcal is worm laden or worse need to drink one of Ron Cooper’s world class spirits. He bottles mescal with indelible regional character and one of the greatest spirits in the world, the Mezcal from the wild dwarf Maguey called “Tobala”. People need to know about these spirits; they inarguably prove Mezcal’s importance.
But the market is comatose. There’s a new substandard product called Scorpion that has a scorpion in the bottle.
Wine is good. Beer can be better, at least at certain times. Beamish remains the most underrated stout, and one deserving of a fresh look by beer lovers.
Lowenbrau has been nearly reprehensible beer for years. It’s now being brewed back in Germany and, while it won’t set your world on fire, at least it’s worth a drink now.
Wine geeks have a pretty bad reputation. Most of that is deserved. We sniff corks, reject perfectly well-meaning wines, and wax poetic about wines, grapes and places no one has ever heard of.
Beer has a populist reputation that makes it America’s drink of choice. So why do still have beer people interrupt me when I’m pouring a bottle of beer into a glass, to tell me I’m doing it wrong?
In every case this has happened, I’m not doing it wrong. I’m just not doing it the way they think it should be done. At the end of the day, the beer should have a decent head, some released gases and be drinkable – that is, not too much head. I agree, too much head is an oxymoron in many cases, but not with beer.
I was twice corrected while pouring a beer at the Cheers Conference. “Pour it faster, it’s got the nitrogen plug!”, one said. Another told me that I HAD to tip the glass while pouring. Well, that’s preferable, but when your other hand is engaged and you’ve got to pour it now into a glass some idiot bartender is holding straight, you just aim for the other side of the glass and pour hard. It’s tricky, but works.
In each instance, the well-meaning and ill-informed beer specialist was drinking straight out of a bottle of beer. Gimme a break.
At the Cheers conference the attendees are far less demanding than one might expect. Bear in mind, this is a group that comprises the who’s who of chain restaurant alcohol buyers and the salespeople who love them. They should know good drink from bad, and good service from bad.
I’m sure they do, but it’s a conference and so no one’s very demanding. The beers are all mainstream, and the cocktails all made by banquet bartenders at portable bars. It could be different, but somehow the restaurant industry doesn’t demand anything more than a mediocre drinks experience, in a hotel setting like the Cheers Conference.
I don’t ask for much, but I like a whiff of dry vermouth in my martini. I asked the bartender and he said no.
Emilio Lustau Pedro Ximinez San Emilin Sherry – there’s all sorts of ways to celebrate Valentine’s Day. Perhaps you weren’t thinking of Sherry to spark your celebration. But a great tradition in Spain is to take a big scoop of ice cream and carve a little hole in the center. Then pour this kind of extravagantly rich, fig and maple syrup flavored Sherry into the ice cream. Serve to a loved one, although it makes a nice topping for more corporeal edibles as well.
Far too many producers are sneaking a little Syrah into their Pinot Noirs to boost their color (why do wine writers still think this matters?) and fatten them up. Conversely, there’s something about the Russian Hill Syrah 2001 Estate that makes me think somebody’s blended a little Pinot Noir into it. Not that anyone would, it’s just there’s a freshness, zip and roundness to this wine that’s charming like, say Pinot Noir.
There’s a bit of Viognier in it, but that just lifts the floral notes, maybe it hides a hint of sweetness. But at this price, it’s valid – usually around $20.
And the last, a real rarity, a bottle of 1853 Port called Reserve King Pedro. It was bottled from barrel in 2001 – do the math. That’s one old Port of the vintage; today we would call it a “colheita.” The first instinct was to consider it an old sweet Madeira because of its obvious oxidative notes.
But closer inspection said otherwise. Not enough acidity, obvious sweet fruit, probably red in origin. Some thought it too dried out. I strongly disagree. Maple syrup, layers after layer of buttered nuts, butterscotch and dried fruits.
And finally two wines to anger the reader. First, the 1885 Barbeito Verdelho, which was classic nineteenth century Verdelho: sweeter than today’s versions. Nonetheless, the acidity was as pronounced as any Madeira and profoundly complex. Certainly there were some volatile acidity problems as well – this is old Madeira after all. The usual shellac meets floor polish notes. But breath past that; these sorts of things happen when you don’t top barrels up for decades at a time.
Beyond the funny aromas lie other aromas and flavours of tart green apples, tiny sweet madeleines and tangerines, molasses, maple syrup and a finish of caramel apples.
Domaine Guyon Vosnee Romanee les Brulees was young, powerful and meaty, but never unclean or excessively earthy. It’s the sort of wine to convince others that Burgundy (this was about $50) is a relatively good value, especially when a wine like this can so easily be relied upon to age greacefully. Now if only I had lots more in the basement.
Another tasting pitted the 1982 Pichon Lalande against its 1985 counterpart. The 1982 has come together so beautifully and, as opposed to some of the other once-lovely 1982’s such as Gruaud Larose, isn’t damaged by excessive Brettanomyces levels.
The 1985 is surprisingly still disjointed. There’s nothing wrong with it; it’s just that at this stage I would not have guessed that 1985 was in need of more time, even with such a great house as Pichon Lalande.
The arguments over the two finally centred upon the longevity of the 1982. I think it has already begun the long, slow slide into decrepitude. It’s twenty-one years old, it deserves that. And most of us have always believed that 1982 was a relatively early drinking vintage – there’s nothing wrong in that. Rather there’s something wrong with thinking a wine has to last twenty-five years or more.
Many other pleasant wines: Hamel Syrah 2000 from Sonoma, Stone Hill semi-dry Vignoles 2001, Mission Hill Riesling Eiswein 2001 (British Columbia), and Remelluri 2000 Rioja Crianza all deserve mention.
One of the wines I remain fixated upon was a bottle of Lindeman’s Semillon 1987. Old school Semillon has no oak, is harvested early and is nearly undrinkable for years. I identified it as an Aussie Semillon (not too challenging) but missed the vintage by a decade. That’s what Aussie Semillon is like – green apple, green pear, orange tang and something that reminds me of freshly washed linen.
The Mondavi has taken more abuse than it deserves, and I won’t heap more on top of them. We tasted a 1985 Reserve Cab that I mistook for Bordeaux of the same vintage. That’s to say there was some cedar and Brett.
The newer wines showed the same fixation with Parker-approved Brett notes. I’m not hell-bent against Brett, but a little goes a long way for my nose.
The annoying irony to my Mondavi host was that the wine I most preferred was the 1999 Reserve Chardonnay. Like, you know, Jim Laube says the wine is undrinkable and the Mondavi staff act as though they might be ready to give up on it at any moment. Please don’t. It’s crisp, lean and far more enjoyable to drink than most other California Chards, at least in this bottling.
The Master of Wine annual seminars affords fewer opportunities to taste great wine than it ought to, just because we teachers are so damn busy. But some wines stand out – for better or worse. A dinner at the Robert Mondavi Winery is always interesting; the wine and food matchings reflect good ideas and practice.
Not so at a later dinner at Beaulieu Vineyards where a disastrous course had BV Pinot Noir 2000 and a young, tightCorton 2000 matched with smoked salmon and a decidedly lumpy crème (not-so) fraiche. This is no typo. Smoked salmon is so laden with fruit drying entities (smoke, oil, massive umami) and the oil requires additional acid (not tannin!) to cut it. Bring me New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, bring me a Tom Collins, bring me a shot of tequila! Pinot Noir?
Two delightful Zinfandels from that perennially underrated Dry Creek producer, Dry Creek Vineyards – Beeson Ranch 2001 and Somers Ranch 2001.
Beeson Ranch is my preference. Its oak is more caramel in style, its fruit more blue than black, clove-dominated oak spice is easily trumped by plummy, soft fruit. This is utterly charming.
Somers Ranch has lots of spice, a touch of volatile acidity (not that uncommon in overripe wines such as Zinfandel) and warmth at the end (14.5% alcohol) and a tight and fairly oak-laden and somewhat pinched finish. The virtue is its bright, bright fruit and some curranty acidity.
A few wines to consider today: but the Kim Crawford Pinot Noir 2003 is more interesting than the rest. It’s screw-cap finished (thank you), fruity (is this just boring carbonic maceration?) and fairly short and simple (too young?). It’s a touch herbal and not very compelling. I really like the Kim Crawford whites, though I don’t think they’re great wines. But they’re well priced and tasty. This is not outside the pack of New Zealand Pinot Noirs, it’s just a typical New Zealand Pinot Noir – simple.
I still believe great Pinot Noir is possible here; it’s just that it’s almost always only a possibility.
The major props for my group of Spanish wines has to be saved for another product of a big company (like Barbadillo) surprising with high quality. The Freixenet group has a Priorat brand called Morlanda, which is nearly affordable Priorat at $45.
Priorat is a very hot place, with some wonderful soils, amazingly old vines and enough cool evenings to create something that doesn’t taste like Lodi wine. Dried fruits meet spice, and hang out with long, long fruit and spice.
It won’t blow you away with complexity but Morlanda 2000 has balance and that’s hard to do in this climate. In a word, it’s very recommended.
Amongst a group of new Spanish reds, there were some remarkable wines. Numanthia from Toro hasn’t been one of my favourite wines; it seems far too oaky to be balanced.
But the 2000 has me eating my words. It’s pretty delicious.
And Vina Mayor Reserva from Ribera del Duero wasn’t particularly exciting from the 1997 vintage – but then a lot of 97’s were pretty boring. The 1998 makes a virtue of Vina Mayor’s mildness; the nose is cedary like a soft Bordeaux, round and fruit-laden, but the tart finish possible in Ribera del Duero isn’t left behind just because it’s a ripe year.
I was conducting some Spanish wine seminars (including a Sherry seminar) and I can’t help but remark upon several of the wines. Barbadillo isn’t one of the Sherry houses the geeks love to praise, but the Principe Amontillado is genuine Amontillado, an all too rare animal.
The Principe is simply fascinating: rich like maple syrup, nutty like pecan pie, but as dry as a pile of orange zest.