Monday, September 29, 2008

A Quick Defense of Riesling, and the Perception of Terroir

The Fabled Vineyards Whelener Sonnenuhr, Erdener Pralat, and a Close-up of the Blue State of Bernkastele

Terroir is the sense of place of a wine, the characteristics of that wine that preclude it from coming from anywhere except it's actual origin. It is the sum total of all the elements that create the wine itself, and no grape better transmits that sense of place better than Riesling.

With Riesling, there is a dynamic tension between the sweetness of the fruit and the fruit's acidity. This pulls the wine open, making it transparent, we taste the wine, but also through it, and into the soil and stone from whence it came. It is because of this openness that Riesling is the great transmitter of Terroir, the perfect lens through which to examine the Vineyards of the Mosel.

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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Pre-Phylloxera Vines in Rioja

Rioja is an ancient wine region in north central Spain. Phoenician settlers were producing wine in Rioja by the 11th century B.C.E., and it has continued there unabated for three millennia. The region is a large basin filled with alluvial deposits of limestone, sand and red ferruginous clay, washed down from the Sierra Cantabria mountains by eons of melting glaciers, ice age after ice age.

By the 1890's phylloxera, a root louse, had come to Rioja and the vineyards were devastated. The solution was to graft Vitis Vinifera, like Tempranillo, to hearty American rootstock, which is resistant to the pest. As with the great wine producing regions of France and Italy, the vineyards of Rioja were replanted en masse. Ungrafted ancient vines are almost impossible to find in Rioja, but they do exist.

Most of the vineyards of Rioja are on plateau, or low lazy hills of red clay and hard scrabble dirt, but just above the banks of a small creek I found a bed of white sand and some truly ancient vines. The fine dry sand, barren of organic matter or humus, was inhospitable to everything, except vines that could send tap roots dozens of feet down in search of food and water. Even phylloxera, the tenacious little aphid, could not survive the barren soil.

This vineyard, free from phylloxera, had never been replanted, all of it's vines were on original rootstock. When a vine is grafted, scar tissue forms a small necrosis which ultimately leads to the vine's demise by inhibiting it's ability to absorb water and nutrients. An ungrafted vine, free from this defect, can live for hundreds of years. The vines in front of me were at least 120 years old.

As a vine gets older it produces ever decreasing quantities of better and better fruit. Vines of this age are prized. Their fruit produces wine of tremendous concentration, with a texture that can be mimicked with extraction techniques and new American oak but never quite achieved.

As these vines had aged and their yields had fallen, one arm had been driven down into the soil where it reemerged as a new vine. The offspring in turn had also been woven back down into the soil, and again a new, younger vine arose. In front of me were three generations of Temparnillo , all connected, one glorious vine. Grandfather, Father, and Son.

Special Thanks to Drew Viner who had the presence of mind to take photos, while the rest of us ate and drank like Satyrs

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Monday, September 22, 2008

Special Club Champagne

I opened a bottle of Gaston Chiquet 1999 Special Club Champagne Friday night. These wines go through two rounds of blind tasting, by the winemakers themselves, before they can be released in their squat little bottles, with their old fashioned labels, looking like something you might be served on a White Star or Cunard line.

Upon first sip my vision blurred and I stared out a window that wasn't there. The wine was vertigo inducing, such was it's depth. It was like falling into wine more than drinking it. It was broad, a thousand rivulets woven into one wide cataract. The wine was profound, yet other than it's extreme quality, age and extended yeast contact, the wine was for the most part quite classic. This was to change dramatically.

We pulled the wine off the ice. It is my habit with Champagnes of this quality to serve them cold, but drink them slowly over hours, letting the wine warm, breathe, open up, even go flat. It is an exercise in discipline to simply nibble at something so delicious, as it is a leap of faith to let your $70 Champagne go warm . Yet, I have done this many times, and while I don't always know where I'm going, I know I'm going somewhere.

So we put down the Champagne. My head was swimming from one sip. I needed a bracer. So out came the Gaja Sperss Grappa, made from Nebbiolo pomace from the Sperss vineyard and Angelo's $400 wine. It was perfect with a plate of charcuterie and cheese. Properly tuned up, we sat to dinner and cracked a bottle of 1983 Cheateau Cantemerle.

The Bordeaux was a little past prime, thin of texture, lacking the fruit and volume, muscle and penetration of flavor one would expect from Bordeaux. I, of course loved it. What it lacked on the plate, it had retained on the nose. From the first smell, I was taken. Dried rose petals, horse hide blanket, the smell of wet gravel, and the very smell of your lover after sex.

The rest is somewhat of a blur. I distinctly remember having two glasses in my hands, one filled with 1999 Special Club Champagne, the other with 1983 Bordeaux. I remember trying to break my mind and confuse my senses, smell the Bordeaux, and drink the Champagne, back and forth until everything was gone, including the Grappa. In the morning I had an E-mail from Dr Hank Mann, apparently in response to this missive that I had sent him the night before.

" I found some stupid good Champagne. Gaston Chiquet Special Club 1999, disgorged 2007 (!!!!) that's 8 years on the lees. It's like a Spatlese by Willie Shafer, all Orange blossom and tropical fruit, shored up by a briney little breeze of caper berries, with brioche curtains, and a Chardonnay coffee table. "

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Saturday, September 20, 2008

R Wines Boarding Pass Shiraz

Jay Miller, taken from Robert Parker's The Wine Advocate

"The 2005 Shiraz was aged in French and American oak for 12 months. Purple-colored, it is very expressive, with a nose of smoke, spice box, blackberry, and blueberry jam. Layered, supple-textured, sweet, and full-bodied, this seamless, crowd-pleasing wine offers a remarkably long finish for its humble price. Drink this awesome value over the next 6-8 years. The Boarding Pass label is just that, a dead ringer for an airplane boarding pass. According to Dan Philips, it is like going on a trip to Australia without leaving home while the First Class is a luxury upgrade. Aside from the humor, these two wines have more in common with Fed-Ex, delivering the goods right on time. R Wines is a new company founded by importer and marketing genius, Dan Philips, along with co-owner, renowned winemaker, Chris Ringland. 92 PTS "

Stephan Tanzer of The International Wine Cellar reviewing the same wine, sent to me by wine professionals who like Irony

"Inky ruby. Raspberry and blackberry aromas are complemented by cinnamon, nutmeg and vanilla. Sweet dark berry preserve qualities verge on sickly but are firmed by gentle tannins, which barely keep the wine's sweetness in check. Many wine lovers will find this undrinkable. At least one foot here is squarely planted in the critter-label school of cloyingly sweet beverage products that contain alcohol. (The 2005 First Class Shiraz South Australia was cartoonishly confectionary, with off-putting mucoid texture and disturbing persistence. The 2006 Evil Cabernet Sauvignon South Australia smelled and tasted like chocolate-coated asparagus, while the aptly named 2006 Suxx Shiraz South Australia and 2006 "r" Cabernet Sauvignon Barossa Valley both resembled wine.)"

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Monday, September 1, 2008

An Occasion for Champagne

As you leave the city on an asphalt path into the hills of Ledyard you are flanked by the old hardwood forests of Connecticut. At night they are thick and deep, and as I ride my motorcycle to Shane's house, I'm reminded of Joseph Conrad's description of the jungle. I too am traveling up river, borne on a well worn Harley whose churning engine under the late summer sky is positively hypnotic.

I arrive and six or seven people are barbecuing. I begin drinking immediately. I start with Francois Cazin Cour-Cheverny, a wine made from the local grape Romartin. It drinks something like a Sauvingnon Blanc or a Chenin Blanc, which makes sense hailing as it does from the Loire Valley in France. The fruit and texture of the wine are reminiscent of Vouvray, with a clean and focused finish you would expect from Touraine Sauvignon Blanc. There is also, thankfully, that herbal, slightly vegetal note that I've come to call Loire Garrigue, a slight greenish flavor that is present in all good Loire wines and serves as a signature or thumbprint left on the wine by it's origin. It's the smell of broken vines as you push through the brambles looking for more blackberries.

Then a very pleasant suprise as Loree breaks out two bottles of H. Billiot Rose Champagne. This is my favorite Rose Champagne. After years of drinking Billecart-Salmon with it's fine and delicate flavors, it's high toned aromas and ethereal fruit, I've come to love Billiot in it's place. Where Billecart is a summer breeze at the shore, Billiot is an off shore wind filling the sail that is your tongue, pulling your entire palate out into the deep water.

Billiot is a very small estate producing only 3570 cases of wine from 5 hectare, all limestone Grand Cru. The wine is defined by it's ripe and muscular Pinot Noir. Billiot does not put it's wine through malolactic fermentation, nor do they use a dosage. Therefore the fruit, that Cote d'Or-esque fruit, sits on lightning acidity that delivers the red berry flavors with a fullness and volume, a precision and force that belies it's relatively light rose color. I nurse the wine with my nose, poking at it with my senses, turning it over in my mouth and in my mind.

We drank and ate, and started a bonfire for amusement, a fallen pine tree ample fuel for our fire. We lit unfiltered cigarettes and danced under a sky littered with stars, and waited for the cops to come.

Thanks to Larry St. Pierre who provided these Photos.
To visit Larry, who is a hell of a nice guy, go to

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