Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Aglianico — Southern Italy's Big Red

This is the first in a series of posts on red wines from Southern Italy. Ever since I got into wine I've been buying and drinking red wines from Puglia (the heel of the boot), Basilicata (the curve at the bottom of the foot), Calabria (the toe), and Campania (the shinbone). With a seemingly endless variety of unique local grapes negroamaro, nero d'avola, primitivo, just to name a few  Southern Italy can produce a tremendous range of wines.

Sure there are some white wines produced from these regions, the best coming from Campania, but when I think Southern Italian wine, I think red. And today I'm thinking specifically about a red wine made from the aglianico grape. The wine in question is the 2006 Mustilli Aglianico Cesco di Nece, a 100 percent aglianico from the Campanian appellation of Sant'Agata dei Goti.

I appreciate aglianico for its dense tannins and rustic, savory Italian flavors. This wine in particular comes from a mix of clay and limestone soil. The wine is aged 18 months in French oak and another year in the bottle before it is released, which helps tame those intense tannins that are so evident in young aglianicos.

This wine is dark purple color and thick as it streaks down the sides of the glass. Right out of the bottle, the nose explodes with cocoa powder. It's seriously like smelling Nestle Quick mix. There's also some red plum, sour cherry and nutmeg. Over time, I picked up some rose petal and orange rind as well.

On the palate, this wine is as tough as Sicilian mobsters. It’s feels like coffee grinds mixed with ink. The tannins grip my palate and refuse to let go. The wine smoothed out a bit over the course of a few hours, but the tannins were always there in force. Cocoa powder and coffee are the lead flavors, backed up by some red plum and black licorice. The 18 months this wine spent in French oak is noticeable, but not overwhelming. In my opinion, the oak actually helps tame the dense tannins a bit, adding some creaminess to the wine. Overall, the acid in this wine is lower than I usually like. Cocoa powder and green bell pepper linger on the finish.

This is a solid wine, and I mean solid. I scored it 90 points. It tastes great, but it is so young that a couple years in the cellar would seriously pay off. Unless, of course, you’re cooking a lamb shank with chocolate sauce tonight, in which case, pop this wine and prepare for quite a hedonistic evening. Just like many Southern Italian reds, this won't break the bank either. I picked this up for $16 from Wine Library last year. It appears to be sold out, which is a bummer because I'd love to age this wine for five years or more. But keep your eyes peeled for future vintages from this producer. It's a great example of a unique Italian grape.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

A 1998 Australian Cabernet

1998 Veritas Winery Cabernet-Merlot (Australia, South Australia, Barossa, Barossa Valley)
A friend of mine, gave me this in honor of my first novel getting accepted for publication. It's a 70% cabernet sauvignon, 30% merlot blend from Barossa. It’s really interesting in color, a ruby-purple color with clear, glassy rims, a bit of cloudiness around the rims, an opaque purple core. The aromas are just beautiful. Plum compote leads the way, followed by earthiness, just a hint of dill pickle, and some fresh, snappy cassis. There’s a hint of warm pie filling on the end of the nose as well. This wine is wonderfully aromatic, and it evolved a lot over time, getting better and better.

The wine starts off with bouncy red fruit. The tannins are fine and the creaminess of the fruit is delicious.  It tastes like raspberries picked from the side of a dirt road. There’s this creamy, tangy fruit, but also this dusty, loamy aspect. Endless black cherry jam, pure and ripe plums, sweet tobacco, but balanced by these fine tannins. Then there’s a hint of toast on the finish, with some vanilla to accent it.

This is really delicious. It smoothed out more with time, and became like silk on the palate. Time has mellowed this out, because it was probably really dense and fruity upon release. It’s aged well and has five-plus years of maturity at least .

Thanks, Jeremy, for the gift!

92 points

Friday, January 13, 2012

A $15 Super Tuscan that delivers

2009 Fattoria Le Pupille (Elisabetta Geppetti) Pelofino Maremma Toscana IGT (Italy, Tuscany, Maremma, Maremma Toscana IGT)

I'm always on the hunt for affordable Tuscan wines, and since good ones are few and far between, I like to spread the news when I come across a solid bargain.
We have here a blend of sangiovese, syrah, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc. It's from the 2009 vintage from a coastal region of Tuscany called Maremma.

This wine is a vibrant plum color in the glass. The aromas started off with sour cherry and an aroma that reminded me of copper. It opened up to show more red plum, dried rose petals and a bit of musk. The palate displayed fine-grained tannins along with fresh and vibrant fruit, that classic Super Tuscan dusty cherry and plum fruit. There's some vanilla and chocolate-covered cherry flavors as well. This is a very ripe wine, and there's a decent amount of oak here. Just a hint of pipe tobacco on the finish. It's a really creamy, fruity wine. So if you like fruity Super Tuscan wines and you like saving money, this is your wine.

88 points - IJB

I got this wine for $15 at Calvert Woodley in Washington, DC.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Missionary Mayhem in "The Poisonwood Bible"

“We constructed our lives around a misunderstanding, and if ever I tried to pull it out and fix it now I would fall down flat. Misunderstanding is my cornerstone. It’s everyone’s come to think of it. Illusions mistaken for truth are the pavement under out feet.” 

I’ll get right to the point: this is one of the best novels I’ve ever read. It may be a 500-plus-page behemoth, but it’s near perfect in every way.

At its core, “The Poisonwood Bible” is the story of five women, a wife and her four daughters, and the ruler of the family, Nathan Price, the husband, father and Baptist minister. It’s 1961 and Nathan Price decides that his family must leave their home in rural Georgia and move to a remote village in the Congo jungle to share Jesus with the locals.

The village, Kilanga, is a tiny smattering of thatched huts buried deep in the darkest part of Africa, so remote that it is unimaginable to a Western mind like mine. The only way into the village is by propeller plane, and the only man who can fly the Price family in and out also moonlights as a diamond smuggler. What the village lacks in charm, food and clean water it makes up for in snakes, mosquitoes and parasites. And war, both local and international, is on the horizon. If it sounds like a disaster waiting to happen, well, then Barbara Kingsolver does a damn good job of setting the scene.  

The scope of this novel is ambitious indeed. It spans three decades and the entirety of the African continent, and all the warzones, graveyards and floodplains therein. Portions of the novel are also set in the United States, when Orleanna Price, the mother, and some of her daughters return from Africa. The narrators rotate between Orleanna and her four daughters: Rachel, who is the oldest at 17; Leah and her disabled twin Ada, who are in their mid-teens; and Ruth May, who is five. Kingsolver weaves together these different narrators, times and settings into a true work of art. With such high aspirations, Kingsolver actually delivers. The book flows smoothly from one narrator to the next, and each one of the Price women have a distinct and unique voice.

In the early 1960s, the Belgian imperial kleptocracy in Congo is being challenged by a surge of nationalism. Patrice Lumumba is gaining popularity, and his message of anti-imperialism and self-determination reaches even to the depths of the jungle. The Belgians are leaving, and change is coming.

The convergence of family and political upheaval is integrated seamlessly into the story. The shifting political stage creates a rift between Nathan Price, the pro-Belgian self-appointed savior of the lost people, and ordinary Congolese who are trying to understand what it might mean to actually govern themselves.

Rachel, the oldest and most cynical of the Price girls, doesn’t see the sense of Lumumba’s rise. “So Mr. Patrice will be the Prime Minister of the Congo now and it won’t be the Belgian Congo anymore, it will be the Republic of Congo. And do you think anybody in this hip town we live in is actually going to notice? Oh, sure. They’ll all have to go out and get their drivers’ licenses changed. In the year two million that is, when they build a road to here and somebody gets a car.” After all, with no food, water, money or infrastructure, can independence actually exist in a meaningful way?

Of course, anyone who knows anything about Congo and international relations knows the powers that be (Belgium, America, multinational mining corporations, diamond-hungry white mercenaries) would never let the Congolese figure out this answer on their own. Congo is one of the most mineral-rich places on the planet, and the Western powers refuse to give it up to a bunch of nationalists. Kingsolver does a terrific job of accurately portraying the rise of Lumumba, the hope he inspires in the Congolese people, and his subsequent demise at the hands of the CIA death squads.

Against this backdrop, the Price girls are just trying to survive. Whatever childish notions of life the Price girls had coming into Congo are dismantled by the bitter realities of life in the Congolese jungle. Leah writes: “… in Congo there’s only two ages of people: babies that have to be carried, and people that stand up and fend for themselves. No in-between phase. No childhood.”

And in this harshest of worlds, Orleanna and her daughters must do without the love and support of Nathan Price. Possibly one of the most despicable fictional characters I’ve come across, Nathan Price prides himself with undertaking his god-given duty of converting the savages. He rules his family with that good Old Testament brutality. He loves doling out orders, but loves punishment even more. Nathan Price has a supercharged Protestant punishment fetish, and in his mind suffering is nothing more than a reward for doing god’s work. Yet, when he is thrust into the jungle, he is both unable and unwilling to act like a man and provide for his family. He doesn’t hunt or cook, and seems fine with his wife and daughters starving to death as he rampages around the village upsetting everyone with his firebrand speeches. His wife and daughters resent him for all his chest pounding and male dominance, while he neglects the most sacred of his duties: caring for his family.

As I wrote earlier, this is a 500-page book, and a proper literary analysis would require thousands and thousands of words. So here are some of high points: malaria-induced insanity, families breaking up and reforming, murder, green mambas, Mobutu, diamonds, more murder, love between American girls and locals, and some of the most beautiful descriptions of motherly and sisterly love I’ve ever read.

My grandparents were missionaries in Kenya for more than a quarter century. My mother and father worked as missionaries in Ukraine, and many of my aunts, uncles and cousins have conducted missionary work in places like Uganda, Yemen and Albania. So the ethical complexities and moral quandaries of Western missionary work are not new to me. I myself am writing a novel based on my experiences at a missionary boarding school in Germany. As an agnostic, I’ve always struggled with idea of a Americans (particularly white and male) spreading narrow religious customs to other nations and indigenous cultures. It seems impossible to separate religious conversion from Western imperial dominance, especially in a place like Congo that has been raped by foreigners for centuries.

While I’ve spent years thinking about these issues, “The Poisonwood Bible” is clearly the best analysis of these moral and ethical complexities. As Orleanna puts it, missionaries are, “messengers of goodwill adrift on a sea of mistaken intentions.”

After finishing the last page of this massive novel, I only wanted more. I cannot give this novel any higher praise than that.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Waves of Champagne

This is what New Year's eve is about, getting together with good friends and drinking Champagne. We started off at Weygandt Wines in Cleveland Park for a serious of Champagnes, many of which were vintage-dated (meaning all the wine comes from that vintage), and many of them came from Grand Cru rated vineyards. It was a great collection of wines, and a lot of fun for wine nerds and casual wine drinkers alike. We had a few non-Champagnes thrown in for good measure.

Here are some notes for your reading pleasure...

2006 J.L. Vergnon Champagne Confidence Brut Nature Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru - France, Champagne
Aromas of apple, hazelnut and some waxy, somewhat oxidized aromas. The palate is zingy with lots of slate, lime, green apple and mineral-driven intensity. This is a bold and unabashed Champagne, but it has a lot of complexity. A lot of people loved this wine, and I think it has a long and increasingly complex life ahead of it. (91 pts.)

N.V. Chartogne-Taillet Champagne Brut sainte-Anne - France, Champagne
This was one of the few non-vintage wines of the tasting, but it was really impressive. The aromas were very perfumed, showing orange rind, hazelnut and baked apple. The palate is bone dry, with searing acid and tangy minerals. The flavors of seashell and limestone are pure and vibrant. I love this style of Champagne, and this is a really solid bottle. (90 pts.)

2002 Eric Rodez Champagne Grand Cru Brut - France, Champagne, Ambonnay, Champagne
What a beautiful Champagne. Kevin, Val, Alexis and pretty much everyone loved this wine. Pretty golden color. Aromas of yellow apple, honey, biscuit and sea shell. The palate is rich and intense, but the chalk and minerals keep it balanced. It's very bold, but complex and subtle as well. Amazing. (92 pts.)

N.V. Eric Rodez Champagne Cuvée des Grand Vintages Grand Cru - France, Champagne, Ambonnay, Champagne
Floral nose, apricot, sweet orange rind. On the palate, I get a lot of apricot, orange sorbet. This one could've used a bit more acid to keep it balanced. (87 pts.)

2008 Albert Mann Crémant d'Alsace - France, Alsace, Crémant d'Alsace
We had this back at my house after the tasting. White peach on the nose, lemon and some sea salt. The palate is really zingy, with lots of minerals, brine, lemons and white peach. Always a good wine for the price, but this is definitely a wine to serve with oysters or shellfish. (88 pts.)

2005 Henri Maillart Champagne Extra brut 1er cru Les francs de pied - France, Champagne
This Champagne was golden colored in the glass. The aromas showed apricot, honey and caramel. The palate is rich with apple, honey, but also balanced by minerals and tight acid. Wonderful finish. This is very intense right now, and I'm sure it would benefit from a long time in the cellar. (91 pts.)

1999 Salon Champagne Brut Blanc de Blancs - France, Champagne, Le Mesnil Sur Oger, Champagne
Tim brought this wine, and it showed very well. The nose is just incredible, full of intense lemon, lemon cream pie, honey, sherry and intense minerals. The palate is creamy and mouthfilling, with delicious honey and apricot flavors, matched with intense saline, mineral and lemon rind flavors. I love the cocounut and yellow apple flavors as well. Long finish. This is still a very young wine, and I'm sure it will develop for many years. Still, it was a great wine to have on New Year's Eve. Thanks, Tim! (94 pts.)

N.V. Schramsberg Vineyards Mirabelle Brut Rose - USA, California, North Coast
I brought this wine, and it turned out to be the only U.S. sparkling wine. It was really popular for its freshness and ripe fruit. It's a gorgeous copper color in the glass. The nose shows lovely strawberry, white cherry and seashell. The palate has medium acid, lively and juicy white cherry, red apple and strawberry. Fruity, but fresh as well. I was surprised by the complexity of this wine as it had some air. (89 pts.)

N.V. Giesler & Cie Champagne Extra Superior Cuvee Demi-Sec
- France, Champagne
Someone brought this back from Champagne with them. Beautiful golden color. The nose shows smoke, almonds and roasted chestnut. Over time, it opened up to show more caramel apple and apricot. The palate is smooth and creamy, with hazelnut, apricot and almond paste. There's obviously some sugar, but the acid balances it out. This was a big hit with a lot of people. Any palate would appreciate this wine. (89 pts.)

2007 Domaine des Lambrays Clos des Lambrays - France, Burgundy, Côte de Nuits, Clos des Lambrays Grand Cru
I last tasted this wine in April of 2010, and I like it even better now. It had been opened for several hours, which probably helped open it up. The color is a beautiful cranberry-auburn. The aromas on this wine are just jawdropping. The nose showes gorgeous soft cherries, rose petals, loam and some toast. The palate has silky tannins and some hedonistic cherry fruit, but it's balanced by lovely acid. What a delicious wine with a long life ahead of it. This was the wine of the night for several people. (93 pts.)

2009 Gerard & Pierre Morin Sancerre Rouge Bellechaume
- France, Loire Valley, Upper Loire, Sancerre
I really like this pinot. It's got a lot of red plum, licorice and cranberry on the nose. The palate is fresh and juicy, with lots of sour cherry, cranberry and hints of tobacco. This was a nice way to finish off the evening. (88 pts.)