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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

French Tasting - Seattle, Feb. 16th 2011

We will get back to Italian wine very soon here, believe me, but as an on the road correspondent it is important to maintain a somewhat global perspective to anchor our little regional corner of the world. Think globally, but drink Italian.

The French Trade Commission and UbiFrance sponsored three tastings recently based loosely on value-driven wines from France. Prices varied of course as things like traditional method Champagne can only go so low (about $30ish), but prices went as low as $7 on the shelf for Languedoc wines. Here is a very brief summary avoiding specific producers, largely because some of the wines are not yet available, or may be available in one state but not another.

Alsace - Wines of Alsace have been rather stable in price and quality, offering great value in the $15 range with aromatic gewurztraminers, pinot blanc and gris, and of course riesling in the rounder fatter style. Muscat can be a bit confusing if you find them due to the use of the peculiar ottonel selection which is not very aromatic (but still interesting). While Alsace wines can be beautifully aromatic the structure can be a little lacking or a little sweetish, this is where knowing the serious producers comes in to find structured wines and bright acidity. Sparkling Cremant de Alsace can be a tremendous value as well. 2010 is reported to be as good as 2009.

Bordeaux - Always a touchy subject, good rustic Bordeaux was well represented, with many Right Bank Merlot-based value wines. If you love gravel and graphite-driven reds, this is your ticket. Much St. Emilion was represented and some Graves. Moving up the price scale directly correlates with increasing oak use in the $10-25 range. Bordeaux is in a state of flux market wise, and with the amount produced it is all over the map - this applies to whites as well. Never pass up Sauternes.

Burgundy - Oh Burgundy. We want to love it all but you get what you pay for. Value wines from the Maconaisse were all disappointing from the importer I tasted with residual sugar way too high in what seemed to be an attempt to "California-ize" their body. From this selection you will hit $40 before it gets good. Of particular note though (for me) was Crémant de Bourgogne (champagne method from Burgundy) with 20% Aligoté - the other Burgundy white - creating an excellent value driven food wine from Domaine Vitteaut Alberti. Got $15, go buy Cru Beaujolais - few better value food reds exist.

Languedoc - This huge area is where the game is on. It is painful to taste $10 wines that blow away your own $20 bottles, but here they are. I was told once that real men don't drink Minervois, but only fools will pass it buy - there are tremendous GSM (grenache, syrah, mourvédre) values here. For me the best are always free of new oak. Want it a bit bigger, then go next door to St. Chinian. Interesting white blends in the clean stainless style were drinking well with Grenache Blanc and Marsanne well represented. If you see AOP instead of AOC, it is the EU version of AOC and should be regarded the same. A plus for us is that AOP allows grape varieties to be stated on the label, which can only be a good thing. If you want a $10 bottle with dinner, learn the regions and you are pretty well set once you know the importer or producer.

Loire - Find good Muscadet - check. Some producers are really working hard to create more aromatic Muscadet, although the old timers will argue for its utter neutrality. Fantastic Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé were had - Reuilly and Qunicy as well, though in a more aromatic New World format. Less funk, more modern fruit/ester-reductive styles were strongly represented. Reds where conspicuously absent, but herbal cabernet franc is a personal favorite from St. Nicolas and Saumer-Champigny - just watch your vintages if you don't like bell pepper in your wine (I take it with eggplant). Curiously absent was chenin blanc as well, sadly neglected as always. 2010 was a good year here as well.

Champagne - An expensive game to play but with the explosion of grower champagnes you must sample and find your preferred producers. All tasted where clear, concise and consistent showing their terroir as well with excellent overall quality. Be alert to differences in dosage (sugar to balance acidity) as this often defines pairing possibilities. 5 grams sugar can make all the difference, but please do not be afraid to explore wines with a bit of sweetness. Some producers will bottle a single cuvée with different dosage levels to show off the stylistic difference and food flexibility. Also, the difference between chardonnay (Blanc de Blanc) and pinot noir (Blanc de Noir) versus the traditional three variety blends is huge as well and worth exploring. This is one area to have fun with. Find local pourings and save names.

The Rhone Valley and Provence were not really represented at this tasting but Cote du Rhone Villages are well known values while Provence is a bit random. For $20 I say go to Rasteau and Gigondas. Cheers.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Cahors - Defining a Place (the home of Malbec)

Here is a very nice video promoting the wines of Cahors (produced by Jay Selman of grape radio incidentally). There is a good bit of malbec doing quite well here in Lake County, but the modern historic paradigm for malbec in France is quite specific to the Cahors region. Malbec in Lake County tends toward the petite sirah side of the spectrum with a decent amount of fruit but the Old World version has an undeniable rusticity and earthiness (but not muskiness) that helps to define it stylistically. This rusticity has caused a lot of fiddling - micro-oxygenation was developed while working with the massive tannins malbec produces in Cahors - and much New/Old World conflict exists there today. The AOC minimum is 70% malbec with the possible addition of merlot or tannat (yeah, great softener there). French Malbec is a unique experience, and a wonderfully affordable one with good examples to be had for around $20. 
The video does a nice job of focusing on the food/wine/terroir link which again leads to wondering about Lake County and what a cohesive food/wine/terroir advertising campaign might look like here. Is there somewhere we can go beyond pears and sauvignon blanc? Though the sauv blanc is tasty and supremely aromatic it does not have the depth or sustain of its Loire, Austrian or Northern Italian counterparts, nor is it a transplanted "unique" varietal in the way that carmeneré or malbec took hold in South America. If Lake County hung it all on sauv blanc it would end up the Muscadet of the North Coast with according prices and starving farmers. Zin is good here (when it is dry), better than Lodi (for me, sorry), and I believe better than Paso, but a unified profile has yet to solidify - unlike Rockpile which YOU KNOW the second all that raspberry comes tearing through, or Dry Creek with its telltale chalky tannin and black pepper. Though cabernet has largely failed to deliver the petit sirah is good and Rhone varietals are probably the future, but can't help us in the present. Viognier will probably be the new chardonnay soon while roussane will be for the thinkers. GSM blends will be climbing the ladder quickly here.
It is not just a branding issue. Well, it is a branding issue, but not in a vapid or arbitrary sense. We don't want to pigeonhole ourselves or omit some of the wonderful diversity, but at some point Lake County must define itself. It sucks, being unique snowflakes and all, but for the sake of identity we need a Napa Cab, a Dry Creek Zin or a Russian River Pinot. Maybe a Coro program like Mendocino. Amador has a relatively cohesive flavor/palate profile carved out for its wines, but we are still a work in progress. Food culture is pretty much non-existant here, so that French/Italian historico-cultural angle won't work. I shudder to think of what a signature Lake County dish might be. We push elevation - which is good and valuable, but let us be honest, 1,500 feet ain't all that high for the bulk of our vineyards (Red Hills and High Valley can be much higher). Most of Burgundy's cru vineyards are at around 800-900 feet, Barolo is a little higher but no one thinks of that as real elevation, hills not mountains, and it is not a stylistic indicator in a meaningful sense - the compressed growing season at elevation can also indicate lower quality, especially in young vines, so lets not hang it all on that message.

Maybe varietal diversity is our angle, maybe organic or Bio-d (the very low pest pressure here is well documented). Lake County is known to us as the most beautiful place that no one comes to. In 1965 there were under 100 acres of wine grapes, today it is over 9,000, so we are still very much a work in progress, but also very much at the mercy of market forces. We are also split somewhat because the majority of grapes are exported, and often the lack of defining character is in fact an asset to growers and wineries looking to mix lots out of the area. Lake County is actually an extremely good terroir match for merlot in almost every way, but the market is not in a place to recognize it while cabernet is overplanted. Ditto for syrah which can be wonderful in the right spot here, but in the market it is totally neglected at the moment (don't worry, it will be back, so please don't graft it over). These things take time for the quality to rise and and separate and define itself regionally, and it will not be easy since we do not have Alba or Perigord truffles, Thomas Keller or numerous fromageries to help the picture gel cohesively. No doubt we are getting closer though.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Keep out! - The Symposium for Professional Wine Writers

Unfortunately, Napa Valley cannot attend the Symposium
What: The Symposium for Professional Wine Writers at Meadowood Napa Valley

When: February 22 - 25, 2011

How come I should boycott this event? You may not have a choice, actually. The Symposium does not allow entry to anyone who is employed in any capacity in the wine industry. Really? I mean, really? 

So, if I am a writer but I work in a tasting room, deliver cases of wine, or work for Vinquiry I am not welcome? Correct.

To maintain the intimate peer-group environment of the symposium, winery employees, winery communications, sales and marketing people, and full-time wine trade professionals are not eligible to attend.

So, I want to make sure that I understand this. If I quit my winery job tomorrow, I, as a writer,  could attend? Looks like it. One of the fellowship awardees, W. Blake Gray, who's writing I enjoy very much, was a past negociant, and several of the attendees have been in P.R./communications capacities in the past. Certified sommeliers have also attended.

Is there any obvious conflict between the fact that it takes place in the heart of Napa Valley and Harlan wine is famously poured? Obviously not.

Should I feel confused that my professional journalist friends find this "exclusivity" laughably archaic and cynically myopic? How come I can't think of another writing symposium (there are plenty out there) that do not have employment requirements? Uhm, yeah.

If I am a wine-writing professional,  and I work in the wine industry, can't I be trusted to act professionally? No.

So, in a period when traditional publications and journalism seem to be collapsing or merging with web channels, in an industry where very very few professionals have just one job (say, as a full-time salaried journalist), the Symposium wants to retreat into a defensive stance of exclusivity in the heart of the beast rather than reach out and try to affect productive guidance and maintain journalistic standards through mentorship and communication? Yes.

Sour grapes? Absolutely.