Thursday, August 30, 2012

A Tale of Two Chardonnays

I love chardonnay. While my palate tends to favor the leaner, more acidic and mineral-driven chards of Burgundy, I can't really afford to sip Chassagne-Montrachets all the time. So I'm constantly on the lookout for chardonnays that offer complexity and balance for a reasonable price. I also try not to limit my chardonnay drinking to one or two specific regions, because the grape can be grown in so many different places and made into so many different styles of wine. Here are two recent examples of solid chardonnays that reflect their time and place. And, hey, not too bad on the wallet either.

2010 Domaine Bernard Defaix Chablis 1er Cru Côte de Léchet (France, Burgundy, Chablis 1er Cru)
I’ve enjoyed this wine over the course of several vintages, dating back to the 2005, which was some of the first white Burgundy I started buying. Clear straw color. Aromas of freshly-cut grapefruit, limestone, quinine and a just a hint of hazelnut. Just like a 2010 Chablis should, this wine shows snappy acid and fresh fruit. The flavors of green apple, pear and a hint of honeydew are bright and youthful. There’s a lovely creaminess to this wine, but it’s so balanced. Very elegant and fresh, with opulent honeysuckle and peach blossom, and the tangy citrus aspect, along with a sugarcane flavor, reminds me of Smarties candy. Acid and limestone crackle on the finish. I’d love to taste this again in five years, as it’s clearly a young wine. What a steal for $12 per half bottle! 89+ points.

2009 Melville Chardonnay Estate (California, Central Coast, Santa Rita Hills)
Melville was one of the first California wineries I visited back in 2008. I was impressed by their chardonnays and pinots, which I find rich but also elegant. I picked up this chardonnay for $22, and it delivers for the price. It’s the neon yellow color of Tweety Bird in the glass. On the nose, explosive aromas of toasted nuts, lemon zest, baked apple and something that reminds me of orange Pez candy. The palate is expectedly rich, with creamy apple, pear and lemon fruit. What’s surprising is the acid, which is of medium intensity and provides solid structure. It tastes juicy, not goopy. Be warned: there’s some significant oak here, dosing the fruit with flavors of toasted marshmallow and buttered biscuits. The tanginess and sweet tart flavor make this wine unique in a sea of vapid chardonnays. If you criticize California chardonnay for being too buttery and oaky, this might be one to try, because it is far more restrained than most Cali chards. 87 points.

Friday, August 24, 2012

A Night of (Mostly) Rhone Wines

Ah, the wines of the Rhone Valley: Northern Rhone syrah; the grenache, syrah and mourvedre (GSM) blends of Châteauneuf-du-Pape; viognier, roussanne and marsanne, those big and bold white varietals. Rhone Valley wines have always been my favorite in the world. Suffice it to say I was excited when some wine nerd friends and I decided to have a tasting dinner focused on Rhone varieties. The theme of the dinner was loose: bring a wine from the Rhone Valley or a wine from somewhere else made from a Rhone grape variety or a Rhone-style blend. The result was a great tasting of diverse wines.

The wines were consumed along with a lovely mix of rich Italian-inspired food at Dino's in Washington, DC's Cleveland Park neighborhood. It's long been one of my favorite restaurants, and a long-time gathering place for my wine crew. The food was spectacular, as always, and the service top-notch. I got a three-course meal, which started with Dino's house charcuterie platter containing lamb tongue, "truck patch pig head terrine," Tuscan liver spread and a wild boar and mustard pate. The compelxity of flavors and textures was crazy. For my main course I ordered my favorite dish: a pappardella ai cinghiale bianco, which is a lovely pasta served with ground wild boar, onion, wine and shaved pecorino. To finish it off I had a homemade ice cream topped with fresh espresso.

Now, to the wines...

The Whites

1990 Domaine du Viking Vouvray Tendre - France, Loire Valley, Vouvray
Okay, this isn't a Rhone white but it was a welcome addition to the tasting. The cork was crusted on top, but it came out without a problem. It was soaked almost to the end, but the wine inside was still lively. What a unique nose on this chenin blanc. Apricot, oil, white tea, apple sauce and, here’s the kicker, a distinct note of arugula and garlic. Crazy stuff. The palate has nice plump feel to it, almost waxy. Flavors of candied orange rind, lamp oil and a pungent flavor of green onion and arugula, no kidding. There’s a hint of sweetness that makes this wine easy to drink and fresh acid for balance. Quite nice, although clearly a wine for the open-minded. (87 pts.)

2004 Alban Vineyards Roussanne Estate - California, Central Coast, Edna Valley
I opened a bottle of this wine in March and absolutely loved it. I figured it would be fun to share another bottle with the group and see what they thought. I love the cloudy pineapple-copper color and the thick legs on this wine. You know this is gonna be a big wine just by looking at it. Aromas of pineapple, peanut shell, chestnut, mango and wax. (Is there such a thing as a mango candle?) Plump and rich on the palate, full of nutty flavors and tropical fruit, accented with honey and brown sugar. The acid, which tingles the palate, saves this wine from being too big and overdone. There’s some oak here (the wine is aged in two-thirds new French oak) but somehow it’s integrated. Age has done some really interesting things to this wine. The wine was even better the next day. (92 pts.)

2007 Kenneth Volk Viognier Live Oak Vineyard - California, Central Coast, Paso Robles
Vibrant light gold color with fat legs. This viognier bursts with aromas of white peach, lemon zest, white flowers and fresh biscuits. On first sip, it’s evident we’re in California. Huge and fat, like oil on the palate, with flavors of honey, peach, mixed nuts and toast. This wine is very big and viscous, and the oak is a little too much for my palate. The alcohol burns a bit. I could see a lot of people loving this, but it’s not exactly my style. I like this producer a lot, and at least they warn you with “oak” right there in the name of the vineyard. (85 pts.)

A Blind Red

2005 Bodegas Dos Victorias Toro Gran Elías Mora - Spain, Castilla y León, Toro
This was poured blind before we moved into the Rhone wines. Bright purple color, showing a bit of age in the sour cherry-tinged rims. Dark, brooding aromas of sweet plum, cassis, clove and a hint of tobacco. The palate is packed with tight tannins and sweet cassis and blueberry fruit. A little low on the acid. The dark fruit is mixed with toasty oak and a distinct flavor of clove tobacco. My guess: a Toro with 5+ years on it. I don't mean to brag, but I was pretty excited that I nailed this one. This wine probably needs a decant or a few more years to unravel. (90 pts.)

(Mostly) Rhone Reds

2000 Domaine de la Charbonnière Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée Mourre des Perdrix - France, Southern Rhône, Châteauneuf-du-Pape
I was pleasantly surprised by this wine. It was a good Chateauneuf to start with, being elegant and fresh. Ruby color, tinged with beef broth. Aromas of sour cherry, wild raspberry, tree bark and a bit of tomato paste. Silky and light on the palate, with fine tannins and fresh acid. Tangy, snappy red fruit, black pepper and charcoal flavors glide over the palate. Very nice, restrained wine. Almost Burgundian. (88 pts.)

1999 M. Chapoutier St. Joseph Les Granits - France, Northern Rhône, St. Joseph
Northern Rhone syrah, now we're talking. Vibrant, clear plum color in the glass. The aromas are elegant and complex: rhubarb, red currant, bacon fat, rosemary... just beautiful. On day two it was even more elegant and exotic. On the palate, this St. Joseph is everything I love about Northern Rhone syrah: solid tannic grip, fresh acid, and a beam of minerals and iron. Flavors of red plum fruit, grilled steak, a bit of charcoal. Lovely finish with hints of red licorice. This is still going strong. (91 pts.)

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Radical Reinvention in Hari Kunzru’s Novel “My Revolutions”

Michael Frame is a mild-mannered bookseller who lives in suburban London with his wife Miranda, her daughter and a closet full of skeletons. Michael Frame is the assumed name and reinvented personality of Chris Carver, a left-wing agitator and member of a loosely-knit group of Vietnam era revolutionaries. Hari Kunzru’s philosophical-political thriller “My Revolutions” is the story of Chris Carver’s shady history catching up with his new persona, and his attempt to keep his past from invading his new life and family.

As a teenager Chris Carver's activism kicks off when he joins the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. His family objects to his growing radicalism. “That day was the end of something in our family,” he says as he parts ways with his family. “I couldn’t give it a name, but after that it had gone.” At 18 years old Chris is imprisoned for his participation in a protest, a process which only serves to radicalize him further. Chris could be called a libertarian socialist. He believes in government only to the extent that it operates according to the consent of the governed. “The problem was that I couldn’t remember giving my consent,” Chris says. “What paper had I signed?”

Out of jail, Chris falls in with a group of squatters, vandals, stoners and wanna-be Che Guevaras. They're a mix of pissed-off middle class students, self-righteous yuppies and pre-punk rebels.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, with the Vietnam War in full swing, these self-described anti-imperialists do whatever they can to throw some wrenches in the official gears. But as their dissatisfaction grows, members of the group become increasingly combative. They lose sight of reality and begin acting not like activists, but terrorists. It’s not long before they’re manufacturing home-made bombs and smuggling automatic weapons into Britain.

As he ages Chris begins to doubt the morality and effectiveness of the group’s actions. “Despite my militancy, I was privately pessimistic. I didn’t believe that a protest, violent or not, would change anything.” After a particularly rough protest he asks his comrades: “Can someone tell me what the hell the point of today was?” No one answers.

Chris can’t grasp what exactly it is they’re fighting for. He wonders what a post-revolutionary society would look like, and he is concerned when none of the miltants give an explanation. Perplexed, he asks a comrade:

“What do you think it will look like?”
“After the Revolution. What kind of place will this be?”
“That’s not for us to know.”
“What do you mean, not for us to know? That sounds just like mysticism.”

Kunzru does quite a good job of tying together different times and places into a single narrative. But there are points in the novel where Michael Frame’s current action and Chris Carver’s past become seemingly intertwined. Kunzru frequently starts off with Michael Frame’s day-to-day life, slips into five or six pages of Chris Carver’s flashbacks to the 1960s, only to drop right back into Michael Frame as if he hadn’t skipped beat. It’s a bit confusing, and sometimes it’s difficult to tell who is who and when is when. Perhaps this is intentional on the author’s part, but it requires the reader to stay quite focused on the text.

While the novel has its rough patches, it’s clear that Kunzru has done his homework. I'm 28 years old, so I obviously wasn’t alive during the 1960s, but Kunzru's description of the revolutionary fervor of that time strikes me as authentic. Michael Frame’s life in the 1990s seems equally real. “You’re lucky that politics feels optional, something it’s safe to ignore,” Chris says of the political climate of the 90s. “Most people in the world have it forced on them.”

As the novel nears the end, Chris Carver/Michael Frame begins to run out of time and places to hide. Kunzru steers clear of melodrama and forced epiphanies as he unravels Michael Frame's adopted personality and forces Chris Carver out of hiding.

But who can Chris trust with his damning secrets?

"My Revolutions" is the story of one man's secret past coming back to haunt him. This is not a unique form, but it's a hell of a good way to kick up the tension. This same structure is what makes David Cronenberg's film "A History of Violence" such an intense and powerful story. This novel is full of philosophical and political nuance, but it packs the punch and plot twists of a great spy thriller. "My Revolutions" is the rare novel that I recommend to philosophy nerds and thriller fans. 

4/5 stars?

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Vive California Viognier

All week I've been watching Discovery Channel's Shark Week with a religious intensity. As a bodyboarder and someone who has spent more than his fair share of time in some sharky waters, it's probably not the best idea to watch story after story about sharks attacking surfers and bodyboarders. But I can't stop. Last night a buddy of mine came over to hang out and watch some shark attack re-enactments, and I opened a California wine in honor of all the West Coast shark attacks.

I opted for a 2009 Alban Vineyards Viognier Alban Estate Vineyard from California's Edna Valley, located in the Central Coast region. Why? Because Alban's white wines wow me every single time, without exception. Alban specializes in Rhone Valley whites like viognier, marsanne and roussanne, in addition to amazing syrah and grenache. Alban's interpretations of the classic white grapes of the Rhone Valley are clearly Californian in their boldness and ripeness, but Alban pays homage to its French counterparts by delivering wines with freshness, complexity of flavors and serious aging potential.

The unfiltered beauty of viognier
In the glass, this wine looks unfiltered, showing a pear-apricot color with just a hint of smokiness lingering inside. It's downright beautiful to look at, but that's just the beginning. Aromatically, this viognier kicks ass. At first I got a shot of lemonade and some peanut shell. With time the aromas got bigger and more complex, showing honeysuckle, pixie stix candy, oil and apricot. This wine is big and bold on the palate, but the most surprising thing about this wine is the acid. That tanginess provides balance to the apricot, lemon zest and papaya flavors. The fruit flavors are accented with almond shell and honeycomb. This wine shows tremendous weight, like melted butter on the palate, but the balance is so impressive for a Central Coast viognier. This is not a gloppy or overpowering viognier by any means.

I would love to try this wine again in five years to see how this complex flavors unravel.

Vive Viognier! Vive Shark Week!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Like Dry Riesling? Look Down Under

Riesling is the world’s greatest white grape. I’m sorry if you don’t agree, but that’s just the way it is. Chardonnay, with its endless regional interpretations, is a close second in my mind. And Chenin Blancs from France’s Loire Valley are also up there with the best white wines in the world. But Riesling rules.

In my mind, there’s a hierarchy of regions where Riesling achieves its greatest heights. The slate slopes of Germany’s Mosel Valley are filled with old Riesling vines that produce some of the most focused and complex Rieslings in the world. Germany’s Nahe, Pfalz and Rheingau regions also produce rich yet balanced Rieslings in a range of styles. If I’m not drinking German juice, I’m probably drinking one from Austria, where producers like Rudi Pichler and F.X. Pichler turn out Rieslings that defy description.

But what about Rieslings made outside of Europe?

That’s when it gets a bit trickier. Canada? Maybe, although they’re hard to come by. New York’s Finger Lakes region? Sometimes they deliver. Califoria? Not so much.

After Germany and Austria, there’s one place to go for Riesling: Down Under.

Known more for warm-weather varieties like Shiraz and Grenache, Australia boasts several unique regions that are ideal for Riesling. One such region is the Eden Valley, a sub-appellation of the famous Barossa Valley. The mix of sunshine, soil composition and higher elevation allows Riesling grapes to ripen wonderfully while still maintaining fresh acid. I drank an Eden Valley Riesling recently, the 2010 Pewsey Vale Dry Riesling, which reminded me once again of the quality Riesling coming out of Australia. The Pewsey Vale vineyard, which sits at about 1,640 feet, was first planted to Riesling in 1847! The property changed hands various times over the years, but Pewsey Vale is a source of consistently delicious Riesling.

Here are my notes on the 2010 Pewsey Vale Dry Riesling: Pretty lemon color, and it shows a bit of a spritz upon unscrewing the cap and pouring a glass. The aromas on this wine are sharp, like a medley of freshly cut citrus fruit. The palate starts off with a kick of acid and a burst of Granny smith apple flavor. The 12.5% alcohol adds a bit of thickness to the mouthfeel. This is a very intense and focused Riesling that has a brisk sense of minerality. Margarita salt and key lime flavors dominate the palate, with hints of petrol and green tea. This wine is so big and bright now, and I actually think it would be better after a few years. There’s a flavor on the finish that reminds me of lime zest along with some fresh mountain spring water.

I scored this wine 88+ points for now, but I think it will improve for at least the next two-to-three years. But at $14 from MacArthur's Beverages, this is a serious bargain. Anyone who likes acid and fruit in their Rieslings, but not the sweetness, this baby's for you. This was a fun diversion from my usual German Rieslings, whose varying amounts of residual sugar add a sense of balance to the searing acidity. My only warning to you before you try some Eden Valley Riesling is this: you must enjoy acid. If you do, and if you're one of those sugar haters, look for Eden Valley Rieslings, and this bottle in particular.


Tuesday, August 14, 2012

At 11-years-old, a California Pinot Shines

A newer release of Belle Glos pinot noir.
Not a bad marketing and design job.
You might recognize Belle Glos pinot noirs from their flowingly scripted labels or the trademark wax cap they use to cover their wines. Belle Glos is a pinot noir pet project of Chuck Wagner, who gained a reputation for making stellar Napa cabernets under the Caymus label. Named after Wagner's grandmother, Loma Belle Glos, the label releases three vineyard-designated wines each year: Taylor Lane Vineyard (Sonoma Coast), Las Alturas Vineyard (Santa Lucia Highlands) and Clark and Telephone Vineyard (Santa Maria Valley).

I enjoyed the hell out of a 2008 Taylor Lane Vineyard bottling in the past, so I was intrigued when I came across a 2001 Belle Glos Pinot Noir from the Santa Maria Valley at a random wine shop in New Jersey. It's not every day you see an 11-year-old pinot on the shelves, so I picked up a bottle at $40 to give it a shot. I found out later that this was the first pinot noir Belle Glos released, and it's the only Belle Glos bottle I've seen without the wax capsule that they're known for.

I popped and poured this wine last night. It showed a pretty cherry color in the glass and I could actually my fingers through it, which is exceedlingly rare among California pinot noirs..

It has lovely fountain cola and black cherry aromas, but it smells fresh, not as hedonistic as a young Kosta Browne, for example. Lovely raspberries and a bit of carmelized sugar linger on the nose as well. Aromatically, this wine is something to be reckoned with.

Eleven years in, this wine is still going strong and I think it’s drinking quite perfectly right now. I’d be surprised if people purposefully aged this wine for 11 years, but if you were lucky enough to cellar a few bottles or, like me, pick up a random one, you’re in for a treat. The wild raspberry and black cherry fruit is so pure and smooth. Hints of caramel, dust, chocolate shavings and vanilla bean give this wine a dessert-like aspect. The tannins are soft and the oak is very nuanced. The finish is long and seamless.

Overall, this wine is very elegant. It’s obviously still fruit-forward and the aromas and flavors scream Central Coast pinot noir. It’s full of a lot of fruit, but it’s rare that I find fruit with this kind of freshness. No alcohol heat, no overbearing oak, no goopy fruit, just pure deliciousness. 

I scored it 91 points. Next time I get a chance, I’m picking up some more Belle Glos pinot. I haven’t been let down yet. 

Monday, August 13, 2012

Hungary's Mythical Bull’s Blood Wine

Egri Bikavér, or “bull’s blood,” is a Hungarian red wine seeped in history and myth. The name of the red blend supposedly dates back to the 16th Century invasion of Suleiman the Magnificent. The invading Turks thought the hard-fighting Hungarians must’ve been getting some sort of strength from the dark red wine they drank. According to legend, the Turks suspected that this Hungarian wine was blended with the blood of bulls. No bulls are actually slaughtered in the making of Egri Bikavér, but it’s a dark, brooding and somewhat scary wine nonetheless.

According to Hungarian wine laws passed in the 1990s, Egri Bikavér must contain at least three of the following 13 grapes varieties: kadarka, blaufränkisch, blauer portugieser, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, menoire, pinot noir, syrah, turán, bíborkadarka and the modern Austrian hybrids blauburger and zweigelt. The blend that makes up bull’s blood has varied over the years, although it is rooted in the ancient kadarka variety. Kadarka is a tough grape to work with, and over the past few decades many vintners have replanted with the blaufränkisch variety, known as kékfrankos in Hungary.

I don’t drink much bull’s blood, mainly because these wines are difficult to find in the United States. But I pulled the cork on a bottle over the weekend and it piqued my interest again in this strange red wine. The wine I tasted is labeled simply “bull’s blood of Eger” and “Bottled by Vitavin Co.” The whole package seems a bit shady, and the label looks like some sort of combination of a Soviet propaganda poster and a Norwegian black metal album cover. 

I poured the wine into a decanter and drank it over the course of two days. The color reminds me of a farm-fresh cherry juice. The wine smells like cherry juice as well, with an herbal-toasty kick to it. On the palate, this wine shows high acid and astringent tannins. With time this wine became more balanced. Sour cherry fruit leads the way to a dusty and earthy flavor. This bull’s blood isn’t corked or faulty, but it’s definitely funky. It’s not just the name, but this wine really does have a meaty aspect to it. The taste and mouthfeel also remind me of fruit compote I used to drink when I lived in Ukraine. There’s also some herbal liqueur and some wild raspberry flavors that are interesting. By the second day the fruit started to taste creamier. A sweet and tangy flavor on the finish reminds me of southern style rhubarb pie. This wine is actually well-made, and because it’s fun and unique, I rated it 83 points.

To be honest, I don’t remember where I picked up this crazy red wine, or how much it cost. But I’m thinking I may need to track down some more Egri Bikavér for a proper tasting.

For some reason now I’m craving a big burger... medium-rare of course.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Tasting Report: 2010 Châteauneuf-du-Pape

Anyone who has shared a glass of wine with me or talked to me for more than two minutes knows I love Châteauneuf-du-Pape. These red blends from France’s Southern Rhone Valley are made from a mix of grape varieties, mainly grenache, syrah, mourvedre and cinsault, although 13 different varieties are technically allowed in the blend. The grape vines, many of which are knotted and gnarly from decades of work, grow in a uniquely diverse range of soil types: clay, sand and rocks that have been tumbled smooth by millennia of geological chaos. (The whites, made from grapes like roussanne and marsanne, are great too, but there are no blancs represented in this post.)

Every year, Mother Nature, in conjunction with growers and vintners, offers a new interpretation of these world-class wines. And as a wine nerd I like to try as many CdPs from a new vintage as possible. Stylistically, wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape are all over the place, but wines of the same vintage tend to share a lot of similar characteristics. The 2010s are just hitting the shelves in some U.S. stores, so I was thrilled when Phil Bernstein of MacArthur Beverages invited me to a tasting of some 2010 Chateauneufs. MacArthur’s imports a wide array of Rhone wines, and their Châteauneuf-du-Pape selection is one of the best I’ve ever seen. Phil invited a bunch of fellow wine bloggers and nerds, and we had a great time tasting through the wines, discussing the nuances and sharing stories. 

Going in to the tasting, I’d heard a lot of hype about the 2010 vintage. Gauntley’s, a British wine importer that specializes in the Rhone Valley and imports big name Châteauneufs like Domaine du Pegau, Clos St. Jean and Clos Mont Olivet, speaks very highly of the vintage: In the 20 or so years we have been visiting and working in the Rhone, it is quite possible that 2010 has the potential to be the finest vintage we have seen.” Wow, that’s quite a statement, especially considering the recent run of spectacular and diverse vintages in Châteauneuf, from the structured and rich 2009s, the fruit-bomb 2007s, and the long-haul 2005s. “The one cloud on the horizon,” says the importer, “is that the harvest in 2010 was extremely small – upwards of 40% less wine has been produced than in 2007.” Jancis Robinson, a British Master of Wine and one of my favorite wine writers, describes the 2010 vintage thusly: “As in 2009, this vintage's quality and characteristics are due to the climatic conditions: a rainy springtime and a dry summer enabled the grapes to be healthy and have an interesting tannic structure.”

Well, let’s get down to the wines...

2010 Château de Saint-Cosme Gigondas - France, Southern Rhône, Gigondas
This wine comes from the region of Gigondas, Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s northeastern neighbor. The wine was tasted blind. Very interesting aromatics: smoke, tar, tight cassis fruit, lavender, hemp, just a bit of toasted oak. I absolutely loved the aromas, although it is evident that this wine was very compact and young, and the aromas need years to develop. Tightly-wound tannins on the palate with medium acid. I love the plum skin, charcoal, sweet black licorice and leather flavors. There’s a creaminess to the mouthfeel, which made me think this wine spent time in at least some new oak. Lovely peppery kick to the finish. This wine is nice now, but I would give this a good five hours in the decanter if you’re drinking it soon. Otherwise, this wine will reward patient cellaring. A blend of  60% grenache, 20% syrah, 18% mourvèdre and 2% cinsault. (91 pts.)

2010 Domaine Pierre Usseglio & Fils Châteauneuf-du-Pape - France, Southern Rhône, Châteauneuf-du-Pape
A vibrant purple color in the glass with thick legs. The aromas are rich and seductive: boysenberry sauce, fig paste, hints of pepper. The palate is jammy with black cherry and boysenberry fruit and accented with smoke and grilled meat. The tannins provide solid structure. I found this wine to be quite approachable young, but I imagine it will be better in two-to-five years. (91 pts.) Price: $34.99

2010 Brotte Châteauneuf-du-Pape Vieilles Vignes
This wine is an anomaly. If I tasted this blind I would probably have guessed it was a Paso Robles cabernet or something because it’s just so rich, oaky and sweet. It smells of blueberries, vanilla, oak and chocolate. It has none of those herbal or earthy aromas that I crave in Châteauneuf. The palate tastes like a mix of vanilla cream and overcooked fruit. Lots of blueberry and boysenberry fruit, but the low acid makes it feel goopy and overdone. Where’s the elegance and freshness? There are some nice silky tannins and flavors of jam and licorice, but overall this does not taste like a Châteauneuf. Of course, wine critic and kingmaker Robert Parker rated it 92-94 points, but I disagree. If I wanted this style of wine, I’d buy a Washington State cabernet. It does taste good, but maybe it needs more time before it shows any sense of nuance or distinction. (84 pts.) Price: $34.99

2010 La Bastide Saint-Dominique Châteauneuf-du-Pape "Les Secrets de Pignan"
Wow, we are dealing with a serious Châteauneuf-du-Pape here. Opaque purple color. The aromas are so seductive and elegant, showing cassis, violets, wild raspberries and a hint of rocky soil. The aromas are tight and compacted and will take at least a few years to unwind, but this wine shows tremendous potential. On the palate this wine is all about precision and focus. Tight tannins and sharp flavors of blackberries, raspberries, incense sticks and sage. Hints of toast and vanilla linger on the long finish. This wine is built to last, and I imagine it will evolve wonderfully over the next decade. (94 pts.) Price: $49.99 

2010 Le Vieux Donjon Châteauneuf-du-Pape
Vieux Donjon is one of my favorite Châteauneuf producers and in 2010 they are really kicking it up a notch. This wine is young but surprisingly expressive. Aromas of pure blackberry fruit, roasted herbs along with a shot of green pepper and dried seaweed. I can only imagine what this wine will smell like with a few years in the cellar. The palate shows strikingly pure flavors, fine tannins and fresh acid. It's full of smoke, game, strawberry and fig flavors, which are complex and perfectly woven together. There’s a nice herbal kick on the finish that lingers for a very long time. I really think this wine needs 10+ years to develop, and it will probably drink wonderfully for another decade at least. This was my favorite wine of the night. A blend of 75% grenache, 10% mourvèdre, 10% syrah and 5% cinsault. (94+ pts.) Price: $49.99

2010 Domaine Grand Veneur Châteauneuf-du-Pape "Les Origines"
This wine is very primal right now, as are all of the 2010s. The aromas of blackberry and savory spices are bold and dense, packing serious depth. The tannins are strong, but there's a velvety mouthfeel to the wine, more so than the others in the tasting. Complex flavors of fig, bay leaf and cedar. It's just a bit too low on the acid for me, but maybe that's because the wine is so young. This wine needs a decade of age, but it will surely evolve into a thing of immense beauty. A blend of 50% grenache, 30% syrah and 20% mourvèdre. (93 pts.) Price: $52.99

2008 Clos des Papes Châteauneuf-du-Pape
The last wine of the tasted was served blind. Immediately, it was evident that we were dealing with a different vintage. I actually guessed this as a 2001 Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and was surprised that it was only a 2008, a vintage that has been much maligned. I don't have as much experience with this vintage, but I thought this was wine was very impressive. Lovely smooth aromas of plums, smoke, meat and spiced stew. The palate shows great balance and elegance. Fresh acid and fine tannins, along with red plums, wild strawberries and rhubarb flavors. It finishes with flavors of herbs and tinge of fresh acid. I think this will continue to evolve for another five years, but I’m not too sure about it’s long-term potential. (94 pts.) Price: $79.99

Overall, I’m quite excited about the 2010s. Despite what I’ve heard from many people about these wines being approachable young, I really think a few years of bottle age is a good idea with any of these Châteauneufs. As far as comparisons to other vintages go, these wines remind me a bit of the 2009s, but with grittier tannins. They also remind me a little bit of the 2007s I tasted on release, although the 2010s show less ripeness and more freshness. One thing’s for sure: this won’t be the last word I have to say about 2010 Châteauneufs.


Tuesday, August 7, 2012

On Téa Obreht's Debut Novel "The Tiger's Wife"

I’d heard the hype about Tea Obreht’s debut novel “The Tiger’s Wife” for far too long. The New York Times put it on their list of top 10 books of 2011 and the opening flap of the book contains glowing quotes of praise from practically every newspaper that still exists. Also, there’s the fact that Obreht is even younger than I am and she’s already got Jennifer Egan interviewing her. Is the book really that good?

The answer is: yes. The Tiger’s Wife is a complex web of magic and myth, part war story, part love story and part Balkan folklore. Obreht plays with the genre of magical realism to create a world in which the magic is quite realistic and the realism is quite magical. There are gravediggers and deathless men and tigers and bears... Oh, my!

At its core, The Tiger’s Wife is about the power of myth and the insatiable human desire to take the chaos of life and shape it into a meaningful story. Obreht’s tale is intricately designed and her prose combines poetic description with the roughness of old world folklore.

Here’s Obreht riffing on the effect war has on young minds: “We were seventeen, furious at everything because we didn’t know what else to do with the fact that the war was over. Years of fighting, and, before that, a lifetime on the cusp of it. Conflict we didn’t necessarily understand – conflict we had raged over, regurgitated opinions on, seized as the reason for why we couldn’t go anywhere, do anything, be anyone – had been at the center of everything. It had forced us to make choices based on circumstances that were now no longer a part of our daily lives, and we kept it close, a heavy birthright for which we were only too eager to pay.”

Here she goes again on the absurdity of national boundaries in the Balkans: “The border had been a joke, an occasional formality, and you used to drive or fly or walk across as you pleased, by woodland, by water, by open plain.”

The plot is too rich and the characters too many to analyze here. I won’t try because I would fail miserably. Suffice it to say that Obreht is a writer to be reckoned with. Her debut deserves the attention it is getting, and I anxiously await her second attempt.

Monday, August 6, 2012

A Bargain-Priced Aussie Chardonnay

This wine is four years old, which is interesting because screwtop Australian chardonnays are normally consumed within a year or two of release. And it’s probably just some slip-up in distribution that brought this wine to the shelves of a random wine shop in New Jersey last week. Whatever the case may be, this ended up being a nice way to spend $12. 

The first aroma that hits reminds me of freshly-cut Granny Smith apples, the really good farmer’s market kind that smell so fresh and alive. But there’s also some caramel popcorn and butter, giving the aromas richness and depth. I like the lively acid on the palate. There’s also some rich honey and caramel over top of fresh apple fruit. This wine shows no signs of being oxidized or in decline. Rather, it’s developed quite well. I love this honeyed apricot flavor I get. There’s even a bit of minerality and sea shell, similar to what you’d find in a basic-level Chablis. Seriously, this is an impressive Australian chardonnay. The "lightly wooded" label means about a quarter of the wine was aged in a mixture of older French and American oak. That oak, combined with fresh acid and ripe fruit, delivers a balanced package. I scored it a solid 86 points.
I cooked up some huevos rancheros to go with this using eggs, corn tortillas, parmesan cheese, fresh tomatoes, diced onion and garlic, oregano and cajun spices. The wine had enough zippy acid and fresh fruit to hold up quite well with the dish. Not bad for a Sunday night! 

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Six Summer Whites

I drink white wines all year round, but this summer I've been drinking, almost exclusively, whites and roses. It's just too damn hot for tannins.Over the past week I've tasted a few chardonnays and white Rhône wines that showed well. When it's hot, I don't necessarily bust out the most exciting and stellar whites. Instead, I look for wines that offer freshness, pleasure and value. Here are a few such whites...

2011 Saint-Cosme Côtes du Rhône Blanc (France, Southern Rhône, Côtes du Rhône)
Pineapple and mango jump out of the glass as soon as you smell it. With time, hints of clover honey and meringue came out. The pineapple and pear fruit on the palate is very fresh. There’s a creamy feel to the wine that I like, a bit of boldness, but the acid is present from start to finish to keep it all going. A hint of hazelnut wraps up the finish. Great balance and freshness. I’m really enjoying this combination of flavors. A blend of 30% roussanne, 20% viognier, 20% marsanne and 30% picpoul. Solid stuff, and a good value at $17. 86 points

2010 Domaine La Bastide Roussanne Vin de Pays d'Hauterive (France, Languedoc, Vin de Pays d'Hauterive)
Aromas of white peach, rich papaya, also some fresh flowers. Palate: some rich cantaloupe, honey, pineapple rind. This wine is full of chunky tropical fruit, but solid acid keeps it fresh. For $11, it's quite a bargain. 85 points

2011 Vasse Felix Chardonnay Margaret River (Australia, Western Australia, Margaret River)
I'm always interested in a chardonnay from Australia's Margaret River appellation. I usually like their combination of pure fruit, acid and mineral flavors. This chardonnay from Vasse Felix is no exception. Some really ripe aromas of pineapple, pear and roasted nuts. On the palate, this starts of with lots of white peach fruit, with hints of honey and toast. The acid is surprisingly high and there's a great lime and mineral aspect to this wine. Rich, but very focused. 88 points

Rich and bright yellow color in the glass. Aromas of butter, caramel and toast, warm and seductive. The palate shows rich pineapple and mango fruit, accented by a bit of buttered toast. Thing is, this wine is quite balanced. The acid on the finish makes this really refreshing, which is something I can't say for many Napa Valley chardonnays. Quite nice. 87 points

Floral nose, also some lemonhead candy aromas. The palate is really tangy, with huge acid that makes me think more of the 2008 vintage. The mineral intensity is great. White peach fruit and seashell flavors linger on the finish. A leaner style of Chablis from a very reliable producer. 88 points

2010 Domaine Michel Juillot Rully "Les Thivaux" (France, Burgundy, Côte Chalonnaise, Rully) 
This chardonnay shows a lot of finesse for $30. Explosively aromatic, showing ripe yellow apple, lemon zest and minerals. The palate is medium-bodied with laser-like acid. Lots of lemon zest in this wine and a load of sea shells and minerals. It really reminds me of the freshest oysters and lemons. You could've fooled me that this was Chablis because it has great focus and a lot of limestone and citrus elements. Delicious stuff. I bet it could age and improve for a few years as well. 89+ points