February 28, 2011

What do you blind taste?

Right now I'm working on the format for a new wine tasting group. With the success of our Vancouver club, I wanted to incorporated ideas from that experience, but also I think critically about formatting. One issue that concerns me is whether to conduct the tasting blind, or share all the information upfront.

From my experience in the WSET courses, I've done plenty of blind tasting. Generally, a region or style would be presented, then two or three wines would be poured for comparison. Information about the specific region/appellation, varieties, producer, or price was not revealed until an assessment was made. This is done, according to the curriculum, to train objective evaluation techniques - to get us to think about what we are tasting it and develop a logical analysis to arrive at a conclusion with out being influenced by externals or irrelevant factors. And hopefully it leads to useful notes about a wine's structure and the experience of tasting it, and not to more wine bullshit. This idea is pretty much standard industry practice, but the blind tasting has also taken on an almost mythical quality. Stories abound about sommeliers identifying obscure wines precisely down to the smallest detail. My feelings on this? Sure, thats a nifty trick - you do have to be very experienced to pull it off. But what purpose does it serve? Anybody who can read could tell you about a wine by looking at the bottle. Even many sommeliers will dismiss this as nothing more than a parlor trick. The real skill lies in evaluating a wine's characteristics and pairing the wine and food to best reveal the character of each, not in identifying its vintage and origin. Beyond this, wine is meant to be enjoyed.

There is value in having information upfront when tasting. I find it helpful to know what to expect so that I can recall previous tasting experiences and benchmarks to help me judge a wine. I admit that I have fallen victim to the influence of price or a label, but blind tasting leaves the subject of wine cold and dead, and a lot less enjoyable. The anticipation and story of a wine are also part of the wine's allure and enjoyment. Furthermore, the producers name or the price are not the only elements that can mislead a taster. For one, context is highly relevant; how many wines, and what kinds are you tasting before or after. What about color? Yes, color can sometimes tell us about a wine (bricking, or browning from oxidation), but can also be manipulated through the use of grape juice concentrates. And color is not an indicator of intensity of flavors - intensity of flavors are measured with the nose and palate, not the eyes.

So, what to do about the tasting club? Well, the goal of the group is to expand peoples wine sphere's and help develop their wine knowledge. I don't really care if they can identify a wine blind, or even evaluate a wine's structure, because group is not for wine professional. They simply want to know more and try things that they might not on their own. And I believe that they can judge for themselves whether a wine is worth its price. Anyone can, if they stop for a moment to reflect, can tell you if they like something or not, and what it might be worth to them. But here is the bottom line for me, when most of us drink wine, we know what we are drinking. We've selected them, or our host has told us about the wine. We anticipate the wine, we offer up our enthusiasm or share in our hosts excitement. Even as part of a tasting group, shouldn't we all get more excited about wine?

February 27, 2011

Friday Tasting at Storyteller Wines - Dueling 1985's

On Friday I had the wonderful chance to catch a unique tasting at Storyteller Wine. Owner Michael Alberty poured five diverse wine as part of his normal tasting, but also brought out two special bottles just for fun, both of 1985 vintage: Stag's Leap Wine Cellar Napa Cabernet Sauvignon and Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou St. Julien Second Growth. Here's a run down of the tasting.

(+) Jean Marc Chardonnay 2009 $20
A chardonnay with just enough for me to recommend. I've talked before about my apathy towards this grape, but I may be coming around. This wine was certainly interesting enough and in balance. Mellow medium body, with restrained use of oak, sadly the acid trailed off at the back end. Good porch sipper.

(-) Apolloni Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2008 $24
All hail the 2008 Oregon Pinots? Well, maybe not all of them. This particular bottle was too forward with the oak, vanilla, & baking spice, that eventually gave way to some dark fruit. A balanced body with fine grained tannins, though still young. To me, not terribly interesting, but it could be all the hype that let me down.

(+) Felsina Chianti Classico 2008 $2
I reviewed the 2007 a few weeks back...or was I mistaken, and mislabeled it in my notes. In any manner, Felsina was consistant. The pressed flower scent set me onto the topic of old photo albums with yellowing film coverings. Still a Sangiovese classic in my opinion.

(++) Domaine Cabirau Côte du Roussillon 2009 $20
A blend of 70% Grenache, 20% Syrah, 10% Carignan. Delicious, and appealing right off the bat. Herbal and meaty with intense nose, but ripe (not cooked) fruit character in there as well. Full bodied and soft tannins from the high Grenache content. Rich and warming for the cold weather we've been having.

(+) Matello Fool's Journey Willamette Valley Syrah 2008 $28
One of the bottles that we walked away with. Made from 87% Syrah, and 13% Viognier, cofermented, this wine was decanted three days prior, and was still very upright. A clear sharp cedar and black pepper attack on the nose with dark fruit on the palate and the tannin structure very much in place. Clean long finish. Could it have opened up more? Maybe we'll see when we open ours at home.

As we were getting to the stars of the show, those present started talking about the events going on in 1985. Talk of Regan and Michael Jackson. I always find it interesting when old wine is opened how it inspires this kind of talk. The presence of old wine is like a key to a time capsule, one that opens up the hidden events in our memories that we have stored away.

(++) Stag's Leap Wine Cellar Napa Cabernet Sauvignon 1985
This wine was vibrantly fresh, even after 25 years! Beautiful red cherry and sweet blackcurrent (more like crème de cassis), but most of all, that lovely smooth structure that comes from well aged Cabernet tannins. Excellent balance with a long finish. A very exciting wine, and my favorite of the evening. I was especially pleased to try this wine and see what Napa had made of itself after a couple of decades of experience, but before the rock-star winemaker era. Stag's Leap Wine Cellar's reputation is well earned, and this vintage shows why.

(+) Château Ducru-Beaucaillou St. Julien 1985 $135
I will admit upfront that I am not familiar with the St. Julien appellation other then it being on the Left Bank. My "mouth-on" experience with these wines is nil, so I did not know what to expect. All I had to go on was my experience with other Left Bank wines - mostly Médocs or Haut-Médoc.
The color was a beautiful pale red with lots of bricking apparent at the edges. Nose reminiscent of camomile tea with a menthol under-current and earth character, in contrast to the Stag's Leap fruit. I couldn't get the picture of stones out of my head - was it the scent of graphite or the fact that the château's name means "beautiful rocks"?  Medium bodied with silky, evolved tannins and very long finish.

February 23, 2011

Tasting notes...again

It's hard to get tired of debating the topic of tasting notes. Seemingly, the more people bring up the topic of a new approach to describing a wine, the more the critics using the 100 point system and flowery (Quixotic?) terms seem to persist in presenting an understanding of wine as out of reach and complex. Even Gary Vaynerchuk, who claims to be "Changing the wine world," falls into the trap of using a long string of descriptors and scoring wines. That's not change I can believe in. (For a comparison of scoring systems, check out this great graphic, by De Long Wine Discovery Tools.)

In contrast to the prevailing notion in most wine media, Eric Asimov just proposed a binary system of describing wine; sweet or savory. I completely agree that tasting notes should be simpler, but he has taken it too far. There's no doubt that proponents of scoring systems (100 points or otherwise) see their way of measuring a wines merits as simple and un-intimidating to the consumer - yet they do nothing to tell us about the experience of the wine, or its place in the world. And neither does Asimov's two choices, which are loaded with potential for misunderstanding.

There is the issue of why one would want to write a tasting note. In response to Asimov's column, Alder Yarrow wrote up this reminder of what tasting notes are good for. The list focuses on information being conveyed from wine writers to consumers. But lets not forget that tasting notes are also written by wine consumers for themselves as a tool to remember wines they have drunk. In this case, my advice is to write what suits you and makes the most sense of your experience.

Personally, I would rather see tasting notes that showed restraint when using descriptors (a la Broadbent), but conveyed what I think are the two most important aspects of a wine: its structure, and its typicity. Why these two elements? A description of a wines structure can convey how a wine is made, what it feels like in the mouth, if it is balanced or not, if it should be paired with food and what sort of food, and its ability to age. Also, a wines structure, though it evolves, is more permanent than any flavor. A wine out of balance cannot evolve into a balanced one. As for typicity and style, I believe its important to say whether a wine reflects its place of origin, or fits a style. Humans use broad categories to describe all sorts of things, why not wine? Furthermore, wine writers tend to make such a big deal of terroir, and seek out true vins de terroir. Why then don't we use this in tasting notes, and in this way educate consumers by pointing out useful benchmarks in a given category. Perhaps instead of trying to dumb down the discussion with reductionist descriptions, we should move the discussion towards expanding our understanding of the diversity of wine and where it comes from.

February 18, 2011

What the hell is Cassis?

I won't mention where, but I once sat down in a tasting room ready to taste a beautiful Napa Cabernet. After forming my own impressions I glanced over the tasting notes that were provided (apparently for my amusement). I joke you not, it read "Blackcurrent, Cassis". They were literally side by side (and yes, I mean literally).

Speaking French, I know that cassis is what the French call black currents. I was astounded that the marketing team would be so stupid as to provide two terms, identical in meaning, one after the other. I dismissed it as an oversight, and moved on with my life...

Until I ran across this factoid: until 1966 it was illegal to grow black currents in the US, and not until 2003 was the ban lifted in states like Nw York and Oregon, all due to a disease associated with the plant.
Thanks to De Long Wine Moment for their post on the tasting term. They go on to discuss that Americans tend to use the term "Cassis", because the US's exposure to the flavor of black current was primarily from Crème de Cassis. The British, on the other hand, use the term "Black Current" being familiar with widely available black current juice.

Perhaps the afore mentioned Napa winery was trying to appeal to a broader set of tourists. My suggestions? Try this "Black Current/Cassis"

February 14, 2011

Understanding Volatile Acidity

One of the things I've noticed about wine makers is that when they taste a wine they tend to evaluate it for faults, not for merits. To me, this seems a little backwards. My philosophy is that a wine, like people can have faults, but still be worthwhile, even enjoyable. Then again, its their job to asses wines in order to produce the best possible product. But every so often I come across a wine that is, in fact, faulty. Most often it's "cork taint", or TCA. But there are other, less common faults in wine. I recently came across a wine that I thought had a touch of Volatile Acidity on the nose. I was a turned off, and sadly I could not recommend what could have been a great wine. Everything else was fetching, but the nose was unpleasant.
So what is VA? Where does it come from? Volatile Acidity is primarily acetic acid, as in vinegar, and ethyl acetate, which smells like nail polish remover or paint thinner. It can develop throughout the wine production process though aerobic yeasts. That means that excess oxygen during fermentation can encourage microbial activity that causes VA. Jamie Goode's site, the Wine Anorak gives a good description of VA's role in a wine:

Volatile acidity (VA) is caused by naturally occurring chemicals in wine, produced by the actions of acetic bacteria. It can be shown that there are measurable levels of VA in all wine. (Emphasis mine) VA is split between two types of chemical – acetic acid and ethyl acetate. Rightly or wrongly, I tend to think of the acetic acid affecting the taste with the sourness or edge to a wine which recalls vinegar, with the ethyl acetate leading to various volatile traits from a mild ‘lift’ to the nose which isn’t directly noticeable, through a boot polish kind of aroma, to nail varnish remover in the worst cases. The fact is that acetic acid and ethyl acetate are formed together and such a distinction may not in fact be so straightforward. But then that’s wine for you – it is more than likely that a complex picture of elements are involved in whether we perceive an issue or not. In the case of VA, it’s not just the level – but also the wine style and type. The richer, bigger wines (Port, for example) can carry greater amounts of VA without detriment. In fact, the sweet dessert wines styles affected by noble rot actually seem to need high levels of VA in order to help form the nose. Without these more volatile elements, the heavy, sugary wine would not give much on the nose at all, and the VA provides an essential ‘lift’ to bring the less volatile elements to our nose.

Whats important to note is that acetic acid and ethyl acetate are produced during fermentation and therefore present in all wines. Perception thresholds are different from person to person, and from wine to wine. It is when these elements are in excess, i.e. out of balance with the rest of the wine, that they becomes perceptible and unpleasant. Think of wine as a harmonious, yet complex network of elements, each must be weighted proportionally to the others.
In this light, VA is not a fault, it is an integral part of the wine. Rather, the fault is that the wine is not in balance. The wine I came across suffered from this problem. What I experienced on the palate was a wine that displayed interesting fruit and development, but on the nose had excess VA in proportion to its other aromas.

February 12, 2011

2008 Château de Gaudou Cahors

(+) 2008 Château de Gaudou Cahors $8.50
France does not produce enough Malbec to satisfy the worlds demand, but this Cahors gives Argentina a run for its money. At under ten, this wine over performs; blackberry, dried-blueberry, herbal, tar and earth all on the nose. Very dry in the mouth, but backed with fruit, and nice finish. Very worth picking up several bottles to have around (from Liner & Elsen). It didn't go all that well with my dinner of wonton soup, but I'm thinking it could almost go with guacamole. I dare someone to try it.

Friday at Foster & Dobbs

Last friday at Foster & Dobbs on NE 15th, there was a selection of Casa Bruno Wines poured by Joe Moura. These notes are a little late, but I'm sure the wines are still in stock. Sadly I did not note the prices.

(+) 2007 Felsina Chianti Classico
Great 100% Sangiovese. It's seems rare to find a Chianti with this much honesty. A very direct and straightforward expression of red cherry, flowers and earth - classic! Well worth checking out.

(+) 2007 La Gerla Rosso di Montalcino
I seem to remember this as a blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet and Merlot, but on checking for the blend, I found that it was another 100% Sangiovese. Surprising intense fruit nose, with a full bodied structure and hint of bitterness. I'm sure the price refelected its status as not-Brunello, but I preferred this...see below

(-) 2004 La Gerla Brunello di Montalcino
Sadly, I was put of but a touch of volotile-acidity upfront on the nose. Underneath was there was complexity and depth, but that first impression lingered. Still, the balance was spot on with a lingering finish. Hesitant to recommend because of possible VA.

February 8, 2011

Tapas Bars

Léon before the evening rush

More thoughts about Spain: what I appreciated most about my time in Spain was seeing and taking part in the Spanish food and wine culture. In particular, the tapas bars. I didn't spend too much time in restaurants, and when I did, I tended towards the simple / traditional / inexpensive. But to get my culinary kicks and search for something besides plain table wine, I went to bars.
Tapas bars and restaurants have become very chic in the US over the last few years. From what I've experienced, these tend to follow American dinning standards with Spanish flavors and an attempt at Spanish portions. But the establishments I've been to bear little resemblance in terms of the culture of eating Spain. Specifically, "tapas bars" are really just neighborhood bars, usually known for serving a unique snack along with their drinks. Really, these places are simple hangouts, frequented more for socializing more than to seek culinary treasures.

Sherry on tap in Granada 
It used to be that almost anywhere you went in Spain, when you ordered a drink at a bar, it came with tapas, (in the Basque country bar snacks are referred to as pintxos and are not included with the drink). There are several origins stories for this tradition, but they seem to all underscore the association of food with drink. Sadly this tradition is dying out. I heard many stories of bars stopping tapas service when too many customers left their plates untouched. But in places that still have rich bar culture, like Léon, Logroño, and Andalucia, tapas thrives. In places like Nerja, you're often given a choice of which tapas you'd like with your drink, including some amazingly fresh seafood. I found it fun to try to pair my drink choices with the tapas served.
I would love to see bars in the states try this; whenever you order a beer or glass of wine, a small snack is served along side it. I'm not talking about peanuts, chips & salsa or popcorn. Something that actually paired well with the drink, and felt like you were eating food. Could a bar like this survive, doing only one thing, but doing it well, and building in to the cost of a drink? I'm not sure that people would be willing to pay for it. Here in Portland, I find the Happy Hour culture to approximate this. Its certainly encourages us to see food and drink as related, and many establishments have built their reputation on their happy hour alone.

February 3, 2011

Frog's Leap Merlot 2006

(+) Frog's Leap Rutherford Merlot 2006
What a pleasant reminder the other night to open up a half bottle of this merlot. Reminder of what? That merlot can be interesting, balanced and comfortingly delicious. Ripe plums dipped in mint chocolate and spiced Bing cherries. Round and fruity, but alive. Recommended.

Frog's Leap was one of my favorite wineries to visit along the Silverado Trail, with a very pleasant tasting room that looks on to a beautiful garden and the vineyards. It was certainly pleasant to sit on the porch, be served a flight of wines, and then walk around the garden and see the effort to maintain biodiversity around the vineyard. From what I've read, the grapes they use are organically grown, and the vineyards are managed without irrigation after flowering (though I'm told they do practice deficit irrigation). Taken as a whole, their wines are serious, offer good value, and represent a commitment to changing the culture of Napa in a positive direction.
Wine purchased at Frog's Leap tasting room.