Sunday, August 31, 2008

Waiting For The Barbera-ians

The bottle cuts a curious figure on the table--stately and somehow blacker than a red wine container has any place being, Sicilian ruminant cartooned across the face in crisp relief. It's Fairview's "The Goat Father", a wine that I reasonably expected to be terrible based on the fact that it's affordable, from South Africa (bear with me here), and attempts to blend Shiraz, Cab Sauvignon, Merlot, Barbera, Primitivo, and other cultivars that you need a faithful hound's nose to discern.

But it was good! Sexy, translucent color, spicy nose redolent of red berries, and dueling bright/earthy flavors that land halfway between Piemonte and Paarl (technically Cameroon, but whatever). The wine is a keeper. A head-scratcher, but a keeper nonetheless. I remain intrigued by the willingness of South African winemakers to try anything, whether doing this sort of mad-scientist blending, making dirt-cheap viognier, or going the distance with a home-spliced grape.

From this Thunderdome of vinification I've found that you're as likely to get a consummately delicious wine as a disorienting sensory experience more akin to eating meat than drinking juice. The latter can be a particular hazard in "value" South African wines, where some truly bizarre flavors lurk.

The good ones, though, are wowwww. Are we looking at a gawky McDonald's All-American suffering its last bout of growing pains? Count a yes vote here. The not-so-invisible hand of U.S. taste seems to have wreaked its confusion in the early noughties and now, tasting South African wines, one senses that it's starting to marry a fierce individualism with the opulent delectability inherent in its terroir.

Having had nearly two decades to sweat out the economic poison of the apartheid regime, innovation has nowhere left to hide in the wine world's erstwhile palate of darkness. Proof is in one taste of Rudi Schultz's "suck on this, Hunter Valley" 2005 Syrah which is as mind-blowingly good as the villians in Lethal Weapon 2 were bad. Or, in Brampton's $11 "I killed the Yellow Tail kangaroo" wine from the same grape . (Preceding proprietary names not real.)

Give it 5-10 years, but I'm betting the ruthless inventiveness of South Africa will push it past its wine-producing fraternal twin Australia in the price-quality ratio of its product. Inklings of this are evident, as it just came up huge at the Decanter World Wine Awards. Gelukwensing!

Recent notables:
  • Chateau Pavie-Macquin 2003: Deep red color, not quite inky-purple. Rich nose of spice, ripe raspberry, stone, and violet. Soft tannins but substantial acid for a reputed fatso blockbuster. End result is a major black cherry-ish intensity that finishes forever.
  • Domaine J. Chartron Puligny-Montrachet "Clos du Cailleret" 2005: Glistening gold intoduces typically luxurious nose of red apple, pear, and a curious note of slate. A low-acid Puligny that's almost more a cocktail wine, albeit a supremely delicious one. Could probably use some time in bottle.
  • Clos Apalta 2004: Dark color that barely disperses, even at the rim. Has Rolland written all over it with sweet vanilla, blackberry, and crushed rock aromas. Velvety texture with notes of mocha and licorice on the finish. Decanting is valuable here.
  • Damn it, there are so many others and I just haven't been doing this enough.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Sense For Sale

"I'm stupid rich, got r*tarded money
I'm special ed, I got special bread" ~G-Unit

As the only legitimate partnership of luxury and drugs, wine offers endless opportunities for financial idiocy. To their credit, 50 and Tony Yayo never dropped 80% of their weekly income on a bottle of '98 Margaux. Still, there is no shortage of "special bread" changing hands in the booze game. The consumoisseurs who know how much better Serralunga Barolo ages in a bowlegged garcon wine rack and how nothing carbonates your johnson like a skankified bottle of Piper-Heidsieck will always have a gaping hole in which to jettison their cash.

I wonder if I've suckled the bait myself by purchasing the red wine edition of Le Nez du Vin, a kit promising to hone your all-important olfactories via twelve vials of concentrated scents--cassis, raspberry, licorice, violet, etc. There is some accompanying literature more akin to a pamphlet than a book. The whole thing is expensive enough that the price per milliliter of the liquid essences is on par with an above-average vintage of Mouton.

I've been "seriously" into wine for lo these past two years, and I guess I've grown impatient with the development of my sensory apparatus. Between publicly misidentifying Cabernet as Chianti more than once and regularly scourging myself with Jay McInerney's boasts of his blind-tasting mojo, I yank corks and crack Stelvins every day in fear that I'm doing more wanton consuming than wise considering.

Jean Lenoir
, assuming he exists/existed, had me in mind when he created his product. Me and everyone else tortured by our inability to parse the fury of white noise that roars in our brains every time we nose a glass: Black Cherry? Truffle? Red Cherry? Chocolate? Strawbecznxcj,dncksdvkn... Ability to confidently name these elements and arrange them into a tidy profile of the wine's character is the men-from-boys divider of intelligent drinking. The names themselves are fraught with complications, but they're the only train running if we're to get as far away from "it just smells like wine" as possible.

Sold. To all of us dreading mediocrity in wine appreciation, Le Nez du Vin represents a blast of buckshot for the wolf at the door. If RMPJr is willing to insure his schnozzle for a cellar-temperature million, I can part with a the cost of a top Meursault to make every red wine I drink from now on more. . . sensible.

Most importantly, I've had it for two weeks and it's working. I can remember what cassis smells like, and the differences between white and green peppercorns. I'm recalling the scent of blackberry right now--something I could never do before getting these neat little bottles, even though I've always scarfed blackberries by the handful. Unraveling these olfactory threads with a bullish glass of Madiran hoofing the dust in front of you is another story, but it's an incomprehensible one if you can't place the scents to begin with.

I believe this was a good investment, and I'll probably get the white wine counterpart when I run out of guesses about the ethereal aromas in my next bottleful of bub.

Recent notables:

  • Stone "Ruination" IPA - Alluring dark amber color. Aromas not as floral as many IPA's. Intense--not f'ing around with the bitterness. For serious IPA addicts only.
  • Chateau Rouget 2001 - Brooding low-acid Pomerol has developed rich, mellow red fruit flavors with an edge of earth. Velvety and easy to drink. The finish is pure smoke on the water and I guess you could describe the color as... Deep Purple? Hah!
  • Excelsior Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 - Opulent and full with dark berry/plum flavors and a sticky kiss of residual sugar. Great value for anyone who likes porty reds.
  • Concha y Toro "Casillero del Diablo" 2006 - Restrained without being wimpy, featuring peppery spice and earth flavors framing black black cherries. The bookend to the Excelsior on the "Great cabs for under $8" shelf.
  • Mitolo "Jester" Shiraz 2006 - Not as syrupy as some other Parker darlings, but with supposedly 20% dried grapes used in the blend, this doesn't lack for weight. No over-the top flavors--instead, smoke, blueberry, etc. converse civilly in a well-balanced Shiraz.
  • Salomon Finniss River Shiraz 1998 - Bet you don't have this in your cellar. I was worried that it would be a dead dog, but its core of tarry fruit hasn't gone anywhere. Age has brought out some bonus acidity and what I'm going to guess they call "terroir". The pale maroon halo around a deep center color may be the most memorable thing here.
  • Domaine de Blanes Muscat Sec 2007 - If you will, glance at the prior post about whites I can't stand. I wish every "refreshing" wine tasted like this tropical, honeysuckle-drenched beauty. Still bone dry, great acidity, and crisp as H20.
  • Mas de Daumas Gassac Rouge 2006 - Not the reputed "Latour of the Languedoc", but a serious red nonetheless. Cassis, dark cherry, and loamy earth rides in on chewy tannins and takes an impressively long time to quit your mouth. Supposedly ages forever--anyone know where to find an old bottle?
  • Chateau Pibarnon 2004 - Clear aroma of... Prosciutto? Won't find that in Le Nez du Vin, but it's unmistakable on the Pibarnon nose. I'd heard cautionary tales about these Bandol bruisers, but this is more elegant and less gamey than your typical Monastrell or Mourvedre-heavy Rhone.

Thursday, August 7, 2008


It's August and I'm tired of scrawny, sour white wines being canonized as "refreshing", "light", "crisp", "pure", etc. by sniveling Parker-bashers who hate America(n wines) on principle and think oak is a four-letter word.

Deep breath.

Spain is responsible for lots of these insipid enamel solvents, with Italy and Portugal trailing at spitting distance. These countries also make some good or great whites (Spain and Italy at least--that anyone seriously enjoys Vinho Verde blows my mind), but if the distribution in stores and on wine lists is to be believed, they trade primarily in nasty juice. Even Alice Feiring, an enemy of the state on multiple levels, recently called out Albarino for being a waste of yeast.

I wasn't drinking when the buttery, low-acid, pineapple-and-cream style of New World Chardonnay was at its apogee and I imagine it got pretty frustrating, as did the gauche attempts to beef up Sauvignon Blanc with barriques. But as is the wont of backlashes, the "ABC" movement outlasted its usefulness.

Not every white has to be thick and rich, but it seems that being the opposite is an automatic virtue nowadays--especially once May rolls around and columnists herald the arrival of Summer Wine Season, when locusts play Chopin and everyone with a dribble of taste is epoxied to their deck (because they all have decks) quaffing buoyant goblets of helium-light grapeade.

Look, just because the trees have leaves doesn't mean that indulgent Chardonnays, Viogniers, and reds have to be in hibernation until Election Day. (Likewise, woe unto anyone who's never slurped a snow-chilled bottle of Gavi fireside with Pecorino and almonds.) Using summer as a selling point for horrid wine shouldn't be as easy as it apparently is. When the mercury surges, there is no shortage of beers and cocktails that do a much more flavorful and heartburn-free job of cooling the soul than (virtually) any $8 Muscadet or white Rioja Crianza.

Or just try this: drink 2-4 generous glasses of Albarino, Txakoli, Pinot Grigio, Fiano di Avellino, or whatever else the cognoscenti are touting as this year's "perfect summer refresher". Pass out, then wake up and chew a big handful of Tostitos. While the nerves under your molars re-enact Marathon Man, ponder whether or not the romantic ideal of summer is really Hondarrabi grapes trembling as they await their destiny beneath a leathery Basque foot.

Recent notables:
  • Trimbach Riesling "Cuvee Frederic Emile" 2002 - Fermented bone-dry to 12.5%, this silky, massive-bodied wookie from Alsace is starting to deepen in color to a dark gold and develop tantalizing rubber and petrol aromas. A snap of acidity without sugar to balance makes pairing this with typical Riesling foils tricky, but oh man is it worth it.
  • Chateau Brisson 2005 - Against my contrarian will, I'm getting very excited about BDX '05, particularly since stunners like this are available for under $20. Amazing grip and typical but ultra-pure and delicious cassis, cedar, and mineral notes.
  • Guitian Godello "Sobre Lias" 2006 - Sweet stone fruit perfume continues on the palate as peach, lemon, and cinnamon(?) flavors. Good structure and just a suggestion of tannin. Great Spanish white.
  • Rustenberg "John X. Merriman" 2005 - A curious South African Bordeaux-5 blend lent exceptional gravitas by 13% divided amongst Petit Verdot, Cab Franc, and Malbec. A year or two might soften some rough edges, but there's good stuff here now.
  • Egly-Ouriet Brut Tradition NV - Arrestingly deep brass color forecasts the full, nutty body. A pleasant sour raspberry flavor (likely from the 75% Pinot Noir) duets (duels?) with yeast notes aplenty. Substantial.

Ed. Note 8/13: Eric Asimov is a fine columnist and an even better blogger. But his 8/13 column: ugh!