Benevolent Wine Dictator Strikes Again

July 22, 2013 § Leave a comment

You know how when there’s something you know something about, and you talk with someone who’s interested in that something but has her or his facts a bit screwy, but thinks she or he knows quite a bit, and you want to correct the misinformation but don’t want to come off like a jerk, so you’re caught between fake-smiling and letting it go, or bringing the knowledge hammer down, and in the aftermath you resent yourself for either the fake abiding or the heavy-handed pedantry?

That was how I started my Portland Press Herald wine column last week. The rest of what I wrote was my way of exploring the best way to be of true help when you know something someone doesn’t.

Along the way, I mention some particular wines I like a lot — Chablis, Pinot Noir, Riesling — which betray many calcified notions we have of grape variety, region and style.

The big lesson is: Kill your idols, smash your categories. Every moment is a new one, and the primary purpose of your knowledge is to help you see how little you know. Knowledge to make you more curious, less rigid, more open and accepting.

No need for “shock of the new”. Go old-fangled, with classic expressions of classic wines

October 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

This week I dial it back a touch. If you’re always on the lookout for the latest, weirdest, off-beatest, you’ll miss the beauty right in front of your eyes. Cases in point: four terrific wines from oh-sigh-boring grapes — Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon — from oh-sigh-boring regions: Friuli, Piemonte, Bordeaux, Cali Central Coast. Ah, but the wines…the wines…

“Their only messages are from an almost Asian sphere of pure taste, pure expression of land.”

Ascending Mount Eden, in the footsteps of Martin Ray, to reach the grail: balanced Pinot Noir & Chardonnay

October 3, 2012 § Leave a comment

Often Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in California suffer a viniferous “foie-gras effect”: grapes force-fed a diet of heat, hang-time and high yields until their organs are so engorged you’ve got to spread the wine they pretend to be onto toast in order to get them past your exhausted palate. Not this time around, as my column this week explores.  Jeffrey Patterson, chief winemaker at Mount Eden Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA, is making good on Martin Ray’s 1940 promise to make great wine in California.

Great wine, as in balanced, delicate, respectful of varietal and useful of land. At 2,000 feet above sea level with cool breezes blowing from Monterey Bay, Mount Eden is a thin skein of soil covering what is mostly shale. Not a lot of nutrients, and therefore not a lot of yield. More flavor goes into fewer grapes.

The wines are achingly elegant. Polished yet with jump in their bones. Their promo material says “Burgundian” (of course), but that’s not quite right. The wines are richer and more compacted than Burgundian Pinot and Chardonnay (more Meursault than Montrachet for the whites, but that’s only ballpark) , as is their birthright, but they still dance. And they make you kind of proud to be American.

Inman Family Wines, where eco-ethics and exceptional wine come together

July 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

Kathleen Inman makes singular Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay in Sonoma, California’s Russian River Valley. It’s singular because it’s balanced and actually expresses all the natural acidity and pure, unadorned flavors of the grapes and the land they grow in. This is the exception in Russian River, where more often than not the wines are high in alcohol with overripe fruit looking for a fight — lipstick-smeared pigs, all made up with nowhere to go.

As I write in my Portland Press Herald wine column this week, Inman is a respectful, humble woman, and she makes respectful wines. She’s also a committed environmentalist, and her entire winemaking process walks a deep eco-friendly path: no -cides (pesti-, fungi-, herbi-, etc.), no funny stuff; the winery is solar-powered and composts and recycles graywater and does 1,000 other things that are good and right to do. And Inman is convinced, rightly, that these practices make for better wine, by sustaining the health, vitality and distinctiveness of the land she loves.

California. Chardonnay. Gulp!

August 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

Today’s Portland Press Herald column goes where few wine snobs will go: California, where they make wine from…get this: Chardonnay! I tried a bunch of oaky, buttery brioche bombs and lived to tell. I really tried to not be snobby about it. I mean, I’m still one of those guys…y’know, the ones who keep talking about minerals and lemons all the time. But doing what you don’t want to do usually leads to LEARNING. And I did learn. I also probably missed some nice CCs that you know of, so weigh in if you like. Meanwhile, I’m heading back to Burgundy (or if it’s to Napa I must go, I’m drinking Sauvignon Blanc).

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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