Wine Review: Azul y Garanza Garciano Navarra, Spain 2012

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garcianoAside from Sherry, Spain is best known for its elegant, vanilla-scented, aged Riojas made primarily from Tempranillo, and the massive, rugged, deeply concentrated, wines of Priorat anchored primarily by Garnacha. But times are a-changin’ and innovation is busting out all over in Spain, with modern fruity styles of Rioja challenging the old oak regimes and new regions popping up like Starbucks.

Here is one example from Navarra, a very old wine region but for many years under the radar and only now beginning to gain the attention of the wine world.

This wine is innovative because the minor blending grape Graciano (50%) gets equal billing with its more famous partner Garnacha (50%). Spanish Garnacha can be very ripe and alcoholic. But when blended with the searing acidity and perfume of Graciano you get a wine that is both fleshy and taut.

Spicy cherry and blackberry fruit flavors play with gentle floral and herbal aromas before it explodes with vivid acidity and a lovely graphite minerality, all supported by sleek tannins. Intense and bold but not heavy, it has a lifted quality that leaves a refreshing impression with very little overt oak.

Fermentation happens in concrete vats. The wine sees 12 months in French, American, and Hungarian oak.

Navarra is in Northern Spain near the lower slopes of the Pyrenees, and features arid, shallow soils, and great temperature extremes between day and night, a harsh landscape that produces small yields, but very concentrated fruit.

New directions in wine call for new directions in music such as this lovely blend of classical, folk, and jazz themes by John Hollenbeck’s The Claudia Quintet

Score: 91

Price: $17

Alc: 14%

Why Are We Still Having This Debate?

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natural wineThe debate about natural wine just doesn’t seem to go away. Here’s a recent tête-à-tête between Jamie Goode and Christy Canterbury on the  pros and cons of this controversial movement.

If you haven’t heard about natural wine, it is essentially the practice of using as little intervention and manipulation as possible in the winery in order to achieve the purest expression of the grapes and vineyard site. I know that doesn’t sound like the end of civilization but critics of this approach to winemaking are outraged. Unfortunately, they seem to have honed their rhetorical skills in law school or in a bad philosophy class. Here is Ms. Canterbury:

The Oxford English Dictionary defines natural as “existing in or caused by nature; not made or caused by humankind”. So natural wine is impossible because humans must intervene for its production. ‘Natural’ wine does not actually exist.

Ugh.  I have yet to talk to a “natural” winemaker who claims she isn’t making the wine or that the wine makes itself. We know that wine is a human product; no one denies it. Words get their meaning from context and a history of use. In the context of natural winemaking, “natural” does not mean “not caused by humankind”. Dictionaries are handy devices for introducing us to word meanings; they don’t settle conceptual debates.

Ms. Canterbury further laments:

I have a quibble with natural wine because the term is defined by whoever uses it. It has no official meaning. Hence, I reject blanket statements about natural wine’s superiority.

Right. “Natural wine” has no official meaning. Neither does the word “pen” or the word “knowledge” but we can usually figure out what they refer to. Thankfully for our ability to communicate, language is flexible and words mean different things in different contexts. We don’t need “officials” to police discourse, aside from the gentle suggestions found in the dictionary which follow usage rather than dictate it. When someone claims to make natural wine we have a pretty good idea about what their intention is—minimal or no sulfur dioxide, minimal oak, no fancy micro-ox or additives, etc. Within that general desire to minimize manipulation there is a wide range of possible techniques and countless decisions that must be made—different winemakers have different ideas about what makes good wine.  The fact that people who use the term mean something slightly different by it is a feature not a bug. Why would we want to regiment a practice that is inherently experimental and in some cases wildly creative?

As to natural wines’ “inherent superiority”—who makes this claim? Some natural wines are good; some of them not so good. They are not inherently anything.

Ms. Canterbury also seems to have a low tolerance for risk:

Perhaps the most divisive point is sulfur dioxide use. A winemaking by-product, sulfur dioxide protects wine from spoilage. Natural wines may or may not have it, but not protecting wine with reasonable sulfur dioxide levels is like refusing a vaccine. The faults that can ensue – oxidation, acetic acid, Brettanomyces infection – are often the nemesis of pleasurable flavors. Why subject a year’s work to possible ruin?

All of these “nemeses” in the right amounts can be a source of interesting flavors as well. Yes, winemakers who use no sulfur dioxide take a risk; so do people who plant grapes in cool, rainy climates. Winemaking is risky and it’s an individual decision whether the risk is worth the reward. As a consumer if you are unwilling to risk purchasing a bad bottle, don’t. But don’t condemn others who are willing to take the risk.

No doubt, winemakers have been making “natural wines” for centuries, long before there was such a term. The contemporary natural wine movement has arisen because those traditions are eroding as  the wine business is trending towards industrial winemaking, and many people feel a need to resist that trend. Is there anything wrong with industrial made wines using advanced technology? No. Not necessarily, although they tend to be standardized in style and one-dimensional.

But it would be a shame if the industrial approach to winemaking were to colonize the wine business with no resistance from people convinced there is a better way.

It seems every week an independent winery is swallowed by the big guys.This past week saw the announcement that Talbott Vineyards, producers of some of the best Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the Santa Lucia Highlands, is being purchased by Gallo.

Thankfully, there are winemakers who want to go in a different direction. And we shouldn’t let this pedantic discussion about a word get in their way.

Budget Wine: Vale Do Bomfim Red Blend Douro, Portugal 2013

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vale do bomfimIn the budget wine category, Portugal is producing some of the best value on the market. This is one example.

Rich, ripe blackberry with fresh wood notes and hints of damp leaves accompany the characteristic savory herbal aromas that give Douro wines their distinctiveness. Good complexity at this price.

Concentrated forward fruit is enlivened by stealth salami flavors that foretell thick, hefty tannins on the medium length finish. This is a robust wine, solidly built, that maintains a rugged aspect despite having the harsh edges sanded down. Hovering between rustic and polished, this indeterminacy is part of what makes the dry wines from the Douro interesting.

Produced by the Symington family with grapes grown in vineyards that supply Dow with its better known Port wines, the blend for this wine changes each year. The 2013 is 40% Tinta Barroca, 30% Touriga Franca, 20% Touriga Nacional, 10% Tinta Roriz.

I can’t think of a better value wine.

Nobody does polished rustic like Bonny Raitt “Used to Rule the World”

Score: 89

Price: $11

Alc: 14%

Shameless Self-Promotion

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american FoodieMy book on the philosophy of food is now in production. Cool cover, eh?

Entitled American Foodie: Taste, Art, and the Cultural Revolution, it is all about how a love of food will set us free. I attempt to explain the emergence of food and drink as a dominant cultural force in the U.S. and assess its prospects for producing cultural change.

The publisher Rowman Littlefield has scheduled the release for January.

Wine Review: Saved Red Wine California 2012

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savedA collaboration between Paso Robles winemaker Clay Brock from Wild Horse Winery and well-known tattoo artist Scott Campbell, who contributes the name (from his tattoo studio in Brooklyn) and the label art. The label art carries the message “Reverence of Beauty. Eradication of Doubt. Through Systems of Superstition”. Huh? I don’t feel saved from doubt least of all by “systems of superstition”.

But I did like the wine.

Some pert freshness on the nose, showing big, blackberry fruit with fig undercurrent, dusty top notes over a layer of medium-toast wood, and hints of vanilla. Gentle earth and some subtle mint notes unfold with aeration. It makes a simple,  bold initial statement but acquires complexity in the glass. The palate is smooth with some apparent residual sugar but the berry flavors have depth and produce a medium-length, fruit-filled finish with no drop off in flavor as it evolves on the palate. Tannins are very fine grained but robust enough to sustain the impression of structure, with enough midpalate acidity to leave a fresh impression.

A blend of 27% Merlot, 19% Malbec, 17% Syrah, 13% Zinfandel, 7% Sauzao, 6% Petit Verdot, 4% Petite Sirah, 4% Grenache and 3% Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from a variety of California vineyards, aged in 30% new French Oak for 16 months.

It’s like a big, juicy kiss but with enough substance to be savored. Nicely put together.

Like Shakira “With Eyes Like Yours”

Score: 90

Price: $22

Alc: 15%

Terroir: Is it Real or Is it Marketing?

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terroir 2I’m giving a presentation on terroir this week so I’ve been thinking about the controversies that surround this mysterious concept.

Is terroir real or is it a cheap marketing device used to encourage the romantic idea that wine is not just fermented grape juice but a reflection of a unique piece of hallowed land?

Terroir” refers to the natural environment in which a particular wine is produced, including the varietals planted, the climate/weather system, landscape and soil. The term also sometimes refers to the characteristic flavors imparted to the wine by that environment. The concept has been used for centuries to market wine and sell regional characteristics, especially in Europe where wines have traditionally been labeled according to their geographic origin rather than type of grape.

For many wine connoisseurs, the ability of a wine to express it’s terroir is the very essence of wine quality.

Other’s think it’s a lot of bunk and of relatively little importance in explaining wine quality. For these terroir skeptics, it’s the decisions made by the winemaker about vineyard practices and winemaking techniques that explain wine quality. By itself, the vineyard won’t produce quality wine without the right judgments made about canopy management, yield, watering program, when to pick, fermentation temperatures, use of yeast, aging program, etc.

So who is right? Does the vineyard or the winemaker make the wine?

Both sides have a point. Wine doesn’t make itself. It’s a human product that requires very careful cultivation in the vineyard and winery. Score one for the skeptics.

But on a good site, in a good year in which the weather cooperates,  following standard practices in the vineyard and winery, with careful monitoring to make sure nothing goes south, will produce good wine. Score one for the terroirists. But even the terroirists will admit that it’s in bad years where the winemaker really earns her salary. Score another point for the skeptics, although in bad years obviously the weather matters which shows the importance of terroir—so let’s call that a draw.

Well this is getting tedious. Look, everyone in the wine business knows that there are good and bad vineyard sites and that climate and weather have a huge effect on wine quality. It is also well known that aspect to the sun, elevation, and other characteristics of the terrain explain differences between vineyards. The influence of soil is more complicated. Drainage and aeration matter and soil types help determine which varietals will flourish in a particular vineyard. But on the question of how soil composition effects flavor there is lots of disagreement, and the science is a long way from providing an answer. I just spent 5 weeks in the Willamette Valley Oregon where everyone talks endlessly about dirt—but I came away thinking the clonal mix in the vineyard was more important than soil type. And there is some evidence that yeast and microbial life in the vineyard plays a significant role as well.

To deny that terroir matters is foolish. Of course it matters. The question is to whom.

The real issue is whether these geographical factors leave a signature in the wine, a distinctive flavor peculiar to a region or vineyard, that attentive tasters can discern. The answer is yes if the winemaker has taken pains to preserve those distinctive flavors and if a given taster has the breadth and depth of tasting experience to pick out that subtle signature. But that means it matters to only a small subset of all wine drinkers and winemakers.

If you buy your wine from a supermarket, terroir does not matter. Wineries with a distribution large enough to fill supermarket shelves harvest grapes from multiple vineyards in many locations. These wines are blends and any distinctive characteristics from a single vineyard (or in most cases a single region) have been blended away, not to mention the processes of industrial winemaking that tend to strip away the subtle, distinctive flavors that reflect terroir. And unless you constantly taste wine thoughtfully from a particular region you will likely not develop the discernment to recognize those flavors.

Terroir is the playground of committed winemakers seeking a unique expression of place and connoisseurs who revel in those particularities that only terroir can provide.

The rest of us can pound sand or clay or whatever.

When you see the word terroir on the back of your supermarket wine, it’s marketing, not quality. But if you want to really explore the full potential of wine then learning to taste terroir in the glass is the only way to get there.

Budget Wine: Smoking Loon Merlot “The Original” Central Valle 2013

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smoking loon merlotWhere would we be without knock-offs? Without cheap imitations of sunglasses, designer jeans, or handbags, most of us would be forced to scour thrift shops for something to wear. And generic drugs are a real boon to humankind. So there is a real need for cheap wine that mimics the icons. This wine does a passable imitation of quality California Merlot even though the grapes are from Chile.

Nicely delineated layers of plum, spice, and cocoa, wrapped in gentle vanilla. Not much intensity, complexity, or depth but all the elements are there.

A medium body, soft, round, and mercifully dry with an acid burst at the back end of the midpalate which propels a short but juicy finish developing herbal notes as it fades. No tannins in evidence so it comes off a little wimpy but after the second glass who cares—amirite?

A few layers, a little evolution, a shapely body, at a gentle price—it’s no Pahlmeyer but hey it’s not that hard to imagine that replica bag makes you a fashionista.

Recommended if your income is under 1/2 a million.

Pair with some replica reggae:

Score: 86

Price: $8

Alc: 13.5%

Is Big Wine Bad Wine?

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bulk wineryThe short answer is no, but that isn’t the point.

The usually reliable Steve Heimhoff took up this issue last week and fumbled it badly.

I’ve had awful wines made by tiny little producers. I’ve had fabulous wines made by wineries owned by giant corporations. I think this distinction between “artisanal” and everything else is a fabrication concocted by some people with agendas, and picked up by a gullible media looking for something cool to write about.

This is just nonsense.

The rap against large production wineries is not that they make bad wine.  Certainty Hahn Estates, Hess, J. Lohr, Beaulieu, etc. make good wine despite their high case production. For that matter the production level for Chateau Petrus’ first wine is around 25,000 cases. That is not exactly boutique.

With modern technology, excellent wine can be made via industrial processes or in large batches and at relatively low cost.

The problem with most large producers is that they make wine according to a flavor profile that must be consistent from year to year. In some cases, this might involve a formula that is unresponsive to vintage variation and involves extensive use of chemicals and other additives to create the desired flavors and textures.   Furthermore, in order to produce hundreds of thousands of cases of wine you can’t harvest from one vineyard but must source grapes from  from multiple vineyards in diverse locations. All of this breaks the vital connection between the wine and a sense of place that some wine connoisseurs crave.

Moreover, when millions of dollars and shareholder profits are at stake, the product will likely be the result of carefully focused-group flavor profiles and deftly-crafted stories that support their marketing program. In any case there is little room for creativity, individual vision, or personal connection between producer and product.

It is that creativity, individual vision,  personal connection and sense of place that makes artisanal products worthy  of pursuit.

Heimoff writes:

When is a “big brand” not a big brand? Is Apple a “big brand”? Sure it is, but everyone loves it. We don’t hear complaints about Apple not being “craft” enough to satisfy the most demanding of users. Somehow, Apple has managed to be a financial behemoth while still retaining the allure of the brilliance of the garagiste creativity that the two Steves, Wozniak and Jobs, embodied.

Well, yes. If you want your wines to be commodities like the machines we use to access the Internet then you want standardization. You want each device to be well-made but identical. There is a place for wines that are like this when you just want a simple beverage with dinner. But those of us who love wine don’t want standardized product. We find differences and particularity to be fascinating and  seek that sense of discovery in the wines we drink.

Now of course not all small wineries are concerned with uniqueness and vision.Some make boring wine.  But many are concerned to make something that expresses their vision and that is why we treasure their existence. Moreover, some large wineries do devote some resources to single-vineyard wines, or cuvees that provide something unique—they are distributed through their tasting room or to club members. After all, large wineries have the money to hire talented winemakers and if they are concerned enough about quality and the company is  willing to provide resources to projects that don’t maximize profit, then some of their offerings might be worthy of attention. But the instances of such originality among large producers are relatively rare.

To claim there is no distinction between the “ artisanal and everybody else” is bullshit. Heimoff knows better.

Anam Cara Gewurztraminer Nicholas Estate Chehalem Mountains 2014

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anam caraAlthough I’ve occasionally had a dry, austere French Gewürztraminer, they tend to be full-bodied and round, sometimes a little oily in texture, with explosive fruit aromas and some residual sugar to balance the characteristic bitterness on the finish. But all that ripeness means low acidity—it’s a naturally low acid grape anyway and the  Alsatians are prohibited from adding acid in the winery.

I enjoy that style of Gewurztraminer—it’s a unique grape, unmistakable, and a welcome respite from the acid-driven white wine styles that are more common.

This wine is not one of those.  It has the expected lychee and floral aromas cloaked in a halo of ginger—a very representative nose. But this wine seems almost bone dry, light in body with orange zest turning to lime and enough acidity to rip the enamel of your teeth. Well, I’m exaggerating a bit. But the acidity is piercing with no hint of a waxy or oily texture and a long acid-driven finish that evolves from lime to fresh spring water and back to lime all buttressed by a layer of bitter notes that are left in tact with no sugarcoating.

In short there is no concession to easy or lush. An acid head’s reverie. A solid wine if you like this style. But of course it’s from the Willamette Valley, Oregon where acid is king.

It is always interesting to taste offbeat expressions of a varietal, taking things in a new direction. The Willamette Valley is Pinot country; Gewurztraminer is one of its charming secrets.

Serve with some Acidhead by John Schofield. 1968 was never this good.

Score: 88

Price: $22

Alc: 13.8%

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