Muhammad Ali had no problem being pretty, what about your red wine?

April 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

From Portland Press Herald, 13 April 2011

Rosé is delicious twelve months of the year, but the bulk of it is drunk from May to September. Although the past few years have seen a remarkable increase in wine drinkers’ willingness to appreciate pink wine, and the 2010 vintages are coming into stores and restaurants now, the critical mass won’t start buying for another month or so.

Consequently, let’s call this the season of pretty red wines. Pretty red wines are an easy segue into pink wine and the increased white-wine-drinking that summer brings. Pretty red wines unapologetically emphasize prettiness, which I’ll define as a tilt toward softness, smooth-edged integration of flavors, tannins in the background if anywhere, prominence of flowers and red fruit (cherries, cranberries, strawberries, certain kinds of plums; no dark plums, no blueberries) over earth and mammals.

Pretty reds are what many wine drinkers at least claim they don’t want, because as serious, substantial people they of course prefer “hearty reds” or “dry reds”. Anyone who lives in a cold climate, has adult responsibilities, eats (maybe also kills) meat and knows how to change their own oil must, of course, drink deep, dark red wine. The coffee is French roast, the flannel is thick, the boots are mud-caked, the driveway is shoveled, so the wine is dark red and bellows: The tannins are rip-snorting, the mouthfeel is Big-League-Chew, the blackberries and cocoa land their kidney punch.

To which a part of me says, Grow up, sunshine. Or at least, lighten up. It’s mid-April and aren’t we ready for something a little different? Anyway, I can’t tell you how many self-professed hearty/dry-red-wine drinkers I’ve seen taste a more supple red wine and absolutely swoon; it’s as if their souls, imprisoned by a Dostoyevsky-narrated-tale of what they’re supposed to prefer, can fly free in the honest air of joy, delicacy and grace. Some of these people even manage to crack smiles.

Here’s how you know a pretty wine: You taste the wine and all those muscles spending all that hard-earned energy “holding everything together” realize they could work half as hard and nothing bad will happen. These muscles are in your jaw, your face, your neck and shoulders; let them go.

Another way of knowing a pretty wine is when you taste it you say, “Wow, that’s just so…pretty!” And then you feel slightly ashamed, because “pretty” is one of those words our culture has come to frown on; who wants to sound like a parody of a second-grade art teacher? But it is pretty. It’s charming. Given the aggressive, overly fierce culture we find ourselves in, that smile — that connection with charm — is important. It’s not a secondary quality, it’s a kind of radical political act.

Pretty reds are, naturally, food wines, when the food is likewise unconcerned with grandstanding. The wines’ delicacy, harmony and grace come into finest focus when paired with simple, light, straightforward foods that springtime calls for: suppers made out of salads, or sandwiches; roast chicken or a simply grilled piece of fish; vegetables touched only by olive oil, salt and lemon; pasta with fresh tomatoes; soft, plainspoken cheeses.

Which grapes make pretty red wines? No iron-clad rules apply, but there are some reasonable guidelines. Pinot noir is an obvious place to start, though for the most part Pinot from France, Germany or Oregon is going to fit the profile better than California or Argentina. Gamay is often very pretty, and Sangiovese can be pretty if the winemaker knows how to tone down the sour-cherry aspect; ditto for Bonarda. Here are some recommendations, but please treat them only as starting-points for your own — smiley, charming — search:

Domaine Grand Côtes du Jura Trousseau 2009, France ($15, Devenish). This is the prettiest wine I’ve tasted in a long time, and the reason I wrote this column. Beautiful ripe fruit, soft as a baby from start to finish. (The grape is Trousseau, native to the Jura.)

Senda 66 Tempranillo 2008, Spain ($10, Mariner). Fuller-bodied than other pretty reds; let’s call it a gateway drug for those of you still skeptical. Succulent dried cherries, dried cranberries, dried roses, a little spice at the end. Gulpable, fun, playful.

Von Schleinitz Pinot Noir 2008, Germany ($22, SoPo). An amazing wine, which were it from Burgundy would cost twice as much. Mineral-rich, indeed as stony as a red wine can be and still be pretty. The cherries are the star here. Soon Von Schleinitz’s 2010 rosé will be available, and there simply are no words for how beautiful that wine is; for now, please splurge and drink this wine.

Château Bianca Pinot Noir 2009, Oregon ($14, Wicked). Perfectly supple mouthfeel, and wild strawberries dance on the tongue. What we talk about when we talk about Oregon.

Culpeo Pinot Noir 2010, Chile ($9, SoPo). Such a refreshing surprise because I don’t ordinarily associate Chilean wines with delicacy. Not complicated or even resonant, the Culpeo still expresses the softness and balance that much louder (and more expensive) wines fail to find.

Barrel tasting 2009 Burgundies. Tough Life.

February 2, 2011 § Leave a comment

The main point here is: Plan for your future (and that of your children), by planning to buy some 2009 Burgundy in September when they become available. Charmingly accessible for-American-palates whites (Chardonnay), with ripe but precious and ageable reds (Pinot Noir). The whites especially are drinkable now, while the reds will be fun (and sufficiently loose) young but soulful as years go on.

From Portland Press Herald, 2 February 2011

I had the privilege of tasting 2009 Burgundies “from barrel” last week. The wines will not be available anywhere until autumn, but when that time comes you’d be a fool not to buy some.

The wines are expensive, by the usual criteria of this column and most people who read it. But there’s a time for expensive wines. Yes, wine is meant to be enjoyed heartily, without fetishizing; yes, wine should be an everyday meal companion; yes, there are currently many terrific $10-15 wines; yes, there’s danger in over-thinking it. However: Wine can also be a unique connection with land, with exquisite beauty, and with pleasures so delicate that if we experienced them too frequently we’d dissolve. These are those kind of wines, and $30 to $100 a bottle is a more-than-fair price for such encounters. (How much did you spend on dinner and a movie last time you went out, and how exalted was the experience?)

If you’d like some background on Burgundy, use Wikipedia or a good book. My only task here is to convince you there’s a good chance you will love these ethereal, infinitely complex wines, and get you to start and/or continue a relationship with them.

The barrel tasting was with Maison Louis Jadot, one of the great names in Burgundy. The wines are still aging in barrel (hence the Fall 2011 release), but for promotional purposes Jadot (and others) get small amounts of several of their wines into bottles for professionals to taste. The intention is to provide a “picture of the vintage”, rather than drill down on the nuances of any one wine.

Vintage is extremely important in Burgundy because, as Jadot’s export director, Marc Dupin, told me, “We don’t have a stable climate.” 2003 was the hottest summer in 500 years; 2004 was the coldest in 600. In 2009, lucky for us, “everything worked”. The summer wasn’t so warm it killed off the necessary acidity, and September brought some rain which can effectively restart the maturation process, raising alcohol to the appropriate level and ripening the skins sufficiently.

Jadot is both a winemaker and négociant-éleveur. They make wines from their own grapes, but also buy grapes from selected growers and then age and bottle these. Dupin told me they’re as proud of their négociant wines as they are of their proprietary wines. Indeed, he said, the ability to pick and choose grapes can sometimes render“négoc” wines more complex than single-property wines; the disadvantage is a loss of some gôut de terroir, that singularity of taste that a wine made only from these grapes in this spot can elicit.

The 2009 whites are fascinating. Dupin said the Burgundians won’t love them, because they’re a bit too viscous and generous, with not enough acidity. But that’s perfect for many American tastes, especially those Americans who are ready (I say that as condescendingly as possible) to move from New World Chardonnay to Old. Austere 2008 belongs to the French, but gregarious 2009 is for us! Austere 2008 will age decades, while 2009 will be prime by 2015.

For example, the Pernand Vergelesses (roughly $35), a great “Villages”-level value grown on a slope facing the famed Corton Charlemagne, presented distinct toast aromas, but toast without butter. That is, it wasn’t too oaky, even as its lemon spongecake character gave plenty to smile about. Those weaned on oaky, buttery Chardonnay will find so much to like, even as those seeking purity of fruit and minerality don’t have to feel dumbed down. The Jadot Puligny Montrachet Clos de la Garenne (roughly $67) is totally different: explosive, racy, and oily, it’s Chardonnay stripped down to essences. Both are singular, and transporting. Also look for: Santenay Clos de Malte Blanc, and Meursault-Genevrières.

The reds were just oh-so pretty, like the great 2005 but a bit riper, with plenty of backbone hinting at decades’ worth of ageability. Still, several will be wonderful from this September onward: Beaune-Boucherottes (roughly $40) was fungal, packed with white pepper and herbs, 1,000 edges and corners like an M.C. Escher drawing that makes sense despite itself.

We also tasted the Chateau des Jacques Moulin-à-Vent, technically a Beaujolais but that was the point: It’s vinified like a Burgundy (handpicked, handsorted grapes, destemmed, with long maceration), and it’s massive. When I asked Dupin how long this one could last, he said “forever” — only a slight exaggeration. It was bottled last fall, when I wrote this about it: “brooding wisdom-soul…an untracked forest…earthy, gamey, brambly roses.” Still true.

The best a critic of anything can do is persistently point at the moon, saying, “Look! See what’s there! Take this in!” My scribbled notes from the Jadot tasting include phrases like “roasted”, “prettiest thing ever”, “spice-rubbed”, “oh strawberries”, “what is that flower?”, “flesh”, “so calm”. Those are the words; the wines are beyond them. All I really want to say is, Please: staple this column to your calendar, and buy 2009 Jadot Burgundy in September.

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