True Gifts are all Shared: Syrah, Neyers and not; Riedel not Rabbit

December 22, 2010 § Leave a comment

From Portland Press Herald, December 22, 2010

Gifts that actually keep on giving

New federal laws state that any end-of-year newspaper column must either be a best-of list, offer gift suggestions, or discuss parties. Because I’m constantly afraid the black helicopters are going to swoop down and extraordinary-rendition my poor, inebriated butt to an abandoned Australian vineyard, I will obey.

Parties: Attend them. We’ll talk about bubbly wine next year, though. Until Dec. 31 you’re going to bring any old sparkling wine to parties and you’re not going to pay attention to the quality — or to the fact that many sparkling wines make the most incredible food wines. You already know how to buy a get-happy-and-a-little-drunk sparkling wine; let’s talk in January when you’re sober.

OK, on to best-of lists and gift suggestions. As most of you know, I’m navel-gazing to the point of egotism, so I’m going to talk about a few of the best wine-related gifts I have received this year, hoping they’re instructive for you.

I finally got some Riedel wine glasses, for Hanukkah. The difference is astonishing, and supports a friend’s comment, upon tasting wine from my old (wedding-gift) glasses, that no one should ever have trusted my response to a wine tasted from them. I poured a nothing-special red wine into a Riedel Vinum Bordeaux glass and a wedding-present glass, and even a non-wine-lover guest was floored by the difference — in aromas, palate complexity, mouthfeel.

There are thousands of people who spend 50 American dollars on over-engineered junk gifts such as the Electric Rabbit Wine Opener, which has no positive effect on one’s wine experience (and cultivates sloth, weakness and stupefaction), when they could buy a two-pack of Riedel glasses. Infuriating, if not surprising.

What emerged from the Riedel glass was another gift: the understanding that vinifying without filtration is the single most crucial cellar behavior in determining the quality of a wine. The “nothing-special red” mentioned above is the Domaine la Bastide “Les Genets” Syrah 2008 VdP, available for around $12 (Wicked). I’ve had enough mediocre Syrah to know that it’s very difficult to find anything under $20 with this wine’s true Syrah character: Californian at first in its ripe burst, but evolves over an hour into fresh asphalt, licorice, drying plums, and smoky bacon. The wild aromas keep coming as it opens up, countered by silken texture and perfectly tuned tannins.

The wine’s importer, Peter Wygandt, emphasizes unfiltered wines because he knows how thoroughly the act of filtering “impurities” from natural wines strips much of their true character. Sometimes filtration is necessary, but it’s often used to anesthetize wines for the hypothetical “market” that supposedly doesn’t want to encounter any sediment. The gift you could offer the wine market is proving that attitude wrong, by asking your wine merchant for unfiltered wines.

Speaking of Syrah, another gift I recently received was the opportunity to be proven wrong about it. California wines generally underwhelm (or overwhelm) me, but the Bruce Neyers Old Lakeville Road Syrah 2006 from Sonoma, California, is $35 (Nappi), worth more and utterly giftable. No, it’s not Hermitage or Cote-Rotie (French home of the greatest Syrahs), but it is true to self and truly terroir-driven. It unwinds, from ripe plums into an almost existential darkness, packed with charcoal and fresh, loamy earth. A slow, harmonious, tender wine, to accompany slow, harmonious, tender food and people.

Thanks, too, to the folks at Vias Imports, who earlier this year conducted a tasting of the 2005 Cru Barbarescos from Produttori del Barbaresco (Pine State). Prices vary according to the cru, but give the Pora or Rabaja to your favorite (patient) wine-lover. Barbaresco is famously slow to mature, and a 5-year-old is preposterously young, but 2005 was so good that for the first time in my life I saw the potential energy contained in the Nebbiolo grape, a balance of minerality, spice and fruit like none other.

Passing time together is a gift. Magisterial importer Neal Rosenthal recently gifted me this explanation for the size of a wine bottle: “It holds too much wine to be drunk alone.” Wine is about sharing, which is the essence of the best things, and all gifts, and all parties. At a recent tasting of Rosenthal’s wines, I found signs of sediment everywhere — a sign that filtration was avoided (Rosenthal insists on this). His Lucien Crochet Sancerre Rouge 2006 $37 (Mariner), is pure Pinot noir heaven, with a glassy, glycerine elegance, fresh red fruit, and how’s-he-do-that mix of lightness and density. It’s lovely now, but when your loved one invites you to uncork it together in 2020, the gift will have arrived in full.

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