Wine and Chocolate? Go Sweet or Go Home

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chocolateValentine’s Day is almost upon us and we are again accosted with recommendations to pair wine with chocolate. Some of those recommendations are nonsense.

The cardinal rule of wine and food pairing is that the wine must be sweeter than the food. Since even dark chocolate has a significant percentage of sugar in it, only dessert wines will match the sweetness level of chocolate. Dry wines will taste thin and tart and may make the chocolate taste excessively bitter.

The best pairing is a good semi-sweet or dark chocolate with Madeira Malvasia or Bual, such as this one.  Banyuls, Grenache-based fortified wine from  Southern France, is also a great pairing. Both wines have good acidity which helps give life to the viscous chocolate.

Port, Sauternes or Tokaji (at least puttonyos 3) are also good choices depending on the flavors you want to bring out, as are late-harvest Zinfandels.

But if you are tempted to pair a dry Cabernet, Merlot, Pinot Noir or Zinfandel with chocolate your date or guests will smile and go yum while thinking you’re an idiot. And don’t even think about Champagne.

Wine Review: Scotto Family Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Lodi 2012

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scottofamilycellars-bottleimage-caberntsauvignon-2012For everyday wines under $15 you can’t expect greatness—the economics of winemaking do not permit it. But what I look for are hints of originality, a winemaker striving to distinguish her product from the sea of ordinary sitting on the bottom shelf. Too often wines in this price range aim for the same style–big and juicy, but soft and smooth, flashy but innocuous and safe, concerned to leave a good first impression but with little for the more attentive drinker to appreciate. Bold but safe usually ends up just being confused.

So when I find a wine with that spark of originality it’s cause for celebration.  So let’s celebrate.

The first impression is  juicy blackberry with  a little earth, but intriguing spice notes, nutmeg wrapped in milk chocolate woven with whispers of smoke, creep in to set this wine apart.  On the palate, there is plenty of flavor though not excessively ripe. It is medium-bodied, svelte, graceful, and lively, with very refreshing acidity, especially on the finish which shows lingering after-flavors of tart cranberry and slightly charred wood, supported by tannins that have some grain but don’t grip. More spice-driven than fruity, more elegant than bold, great clarity and complexity for the price.

A unique blend of 78% Cabernet, 18% Barbera,  4% Petite Verdot

Outstanding  quality to price ratio. If you want a little sophistication for your daily drinker this is it.

Sip with this lovely version of Sophisticated Lady by Sarah Vaughn

Style: spicy, lively,refreshing

Score: 88

Price: $12

Alc: 13%

Industry sample

Budget Wine: The Naked Grape Cabernet Sauvignon California NV

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naked grapeCourtesy of E.J. Gallo. Simple blackberry with earth undertones, smells like a cab. Fruit forward and very juicy on the palate, a smooth mouthfeel, with aspirations to be rich, a  little sweetness, low acidity, almost no tannin, a fast fade on the finish. A pleasant enough sipper, clean and simple fermented grape juice with little oak which I take it is the point of the name. Nothing to write home about, but nothing too offensive either which is a real virtue at this price. You could do worse; or better. Which way do you go?

Kind of like John Legend’s Ordinary People:

We’re just ordinary people
We don’t know which way to go
Cuz we’re ordinary people
Maybe we should take it slow

Score: 82

Price: $7

Alc: 13%

No. Science Won’t Destroy the Art of Wine

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terroirThis article in Cosmos magazine is a fascinating and very readable account of new research into the origins of terroir, the regional differences in soils and environment that explain variations in wine flavors.

It has traditionally been assumed that compounds in the soil explain those differences, but the new hypothesis gaining support is that various configurations of microbes—yeasts, bacteria and fungi—explain why a Napa Cabernet differs from a Cab from Stellenbosch.

The article is a great read except for the headline—Is Winemaking an Art or Science?—and the writer’s repeated implication that perhaps once science discovers the origins of flavors in wine, winemaking will no longer be an art. This seems to assume that something is an art if we don’t understand how it works. Once we understand why something has the characteristics it has, somehow it loses its ability to stimulate the imagination.

But this assumption is ridiculous. We now know a lot about light, pigment, and how they interact to form colors, and we’ve known about the geometry of figuration and perspective for centuries. Does that mean painting is no longer an art? What matters is how painters put together paint and line to create something intriguing. Science explains what they do but doesn’t harm their ability to do it.

If winemakers learn to manage microbe populations not only will they be better able to protect the expression of terroir in their wines, they will have more tools to creatively shape their product. If they are able to resist the corporate tendency to standardize and homogenize wine flavors to sell to a mass market they will have the control to introduce more differentiation, more subtle distinctions, more original expression, not less.

Art is mysterious because of the profound effect beauty has on the imagination, not because artists don’t understand what they’re materials.

Wine Review: Trisaetum Dry Riesling Ribbon Ridge Estate Willamette Valley 2013

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trisaetumRiesling is a bit of a mystery. Intensely aromatic, with bright fresh fruit, a rich mouthfeel, and bracing acidity, it should be everyone’s favorite white wine. It is refreshing, complex, a great versatile food wine, and the good ones will age well. Somms have been predicting its ascendency for years. But it never quite seems to happen. Although sales of Riesling showed strong growth for many years, recently, the growth has flagged, and in any case, it still remains a very small part of the wine business.

Why is Riesling such a hard sell? Perhaps it’s the residual bad rep from Blue Nun, the intimidating labels from Germany with its odd quality levels, or the inconsistency in styles that leave customers wondering what they’re buying. But I suspect it’s the fact that many Rieslings have a little sweetness to them and Americans think they don’t like sweet wines (although they’ve been buying Moscato like kids in a candy store, so go figure)

At any rate, perhaps the answer for Riesling’s woes is to make more in a consistently dry style—like this knockout from the Willamette Valley. If the wine public could taste this, most Chardonnay would hide in shame

Well-delineated apple wrapped in pear with faint apricot highlights and delicate floral notes, the aromas leap from the glass but it’s the clarity that makes this wine great—each aroma note is distinct, as if they were carefully etched in crystal.   The apple/pear profile makes its appearance on the palate as well, but intense minerality fills in the background giving way to a long finish, almost tannic in its grip and laced with lemon. It is of medium weight and ravishingly elegant but has too much character and strength to be described as lush.  Some dry Rieslings can be austere but this wine is warm and endearing yet poised with a slight attitude of superiority.

Trisaetum makes several fine Rieslings as well Pinot Noir from their estate-grown grapes. And they are a must visit if you are in the Willamette Valley—winemaker James Frey’s art, on display in the tasting room, is nearly as impressive as his wine.

Who is ravishingly elegant, endearing, and poised with an attitude of superiority and sings with crystalline clarity? Why of course Kate Bush, “Running Up That Hill”

Score: 93

Price: $26

Alc: 12%

Budget Wine: Algorithm Red Blend California NV

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algorithmThis is a mystery wine. There is a website with one wine and no information. It is vinted and bottled by WX Wine Company—no website, no info.  The back label is full of pretentious, feel good winespeak–and no information.

If the wine were good it would be intriguing.

Light ruby in the glass but transparent, obviously under-extracted. Simple red plum and cinnamon flavors show but hints of something vaguely cabbage-like on the nose are distracting.

On the palate, it  manages to be watery and tart but slightly sweet and oily as well. Some chocolate notes on the palate but there is little structure and no integration, no tannins and a sour finish.

This is all too common in the wine business. Design a clever, eye-catching label and write some babble for the back, finagle shelf space in the supermarket and sell, since no one knows what’s in the bottle.

If you’re looking to drop $10 on a fancy label, this is your wine.

Score: 78

Price: $10

Alc: 13%

After drinking you will need to listen to Cass McCombs “Empty Promises”

Hooray for the Little Guys

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craft beerBig may not always be bad, but it’s seldom beautiful.

Although refreshing on a hot day, U.S. commercial beers are thin and watery with almost no flavor. Now we know why:

The USDA researchers crunched data on the US barley and beer markets, and found that craft brewers on average use four times more barley per barrel of beer than the giants do

And craft brewers use more hops as well.

In essence, Big Beer (like Big Almond) has hit upon a profitable strategy for reselling tap water at a high markup.

It is no wonder sales of craft beer are exploding while sales of commercial beer are falling.

And although malted barley is usually produced by large global companies, that may be changing as well.

Currently, the malted barley industry is global in scope and dominated by a handful of companies (PDF), including Cargill. But alongside the craft-brew explosion, small, locally oriented malt houses are springing up nationwide, providing a link between brewers and nearby farmers. And that could be a good thing for the environment. If US farmers incorporated a “small grain” like barley into the dominant corn-soy rotation, it would break insect, disease, and weed cycles, drastically reducing reliance on toxic pesticides, a 2012 study conducted at Iowa State University found.

And while we’re on the subject of craft beer, remember that the dark, smoky varieties with high alcohol will improve with age, just like wine and whiskey:

For a beer to benefit from aging, there are several basic prerequisites. First, it should be strong — at least 8 percent alcohol by volume. Alcohol acts like a preservative against a beer turning stale or skunky. Virtually all beer bottles display the alcohol content.

Sweetness, from residual sugar that didn’t ferment during brewing, also helps, as the sugars develop malty, caramel-like overtones. Smoky-flavored beers, as well as those affected by souring yeasts or bacteria, can also do well in the cellar.

Don’t try that with your Bud Light.

A Disturbing Trend in the Wine World

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piedmontTwo recent reports  suggest fundamental changes in the wine world in the not-too-distant future.

First up, Antonio Cevola reports on the “Burgundization of Barolo”:

Today, Gaja’s wines are approaching the DRC club. Only the wealthiest 1% of the 1%ers can savor these wines in their Lalique “100-point” or Zalto crystal wine chalices. Even a visit to Gaja today (see Gaja winery visit letter here) will set back the average Joe a €300 ‘donation’ (to one of several of the Gaja family selected charities). For such a donation (bank wire transfer, one month in advance and reconfirmed by email) one is granted a visit at Gaja that will “include a cellar tour and a wine tasting with wines selected by the Gaja family, which in total will last approximately two hours.”

Meanwhile, according to Levi Dalton (as reported by Cevola):

There are serious foreign groups – American, European, Asian, ex Italy – of course, looking to make investments in Italy, including the biggest luxury brand and mass market wines groups that you can think of. You name five of them, you’re going to get three right away, that are looking, right now, to buy vineyards in Piedmont. And that will change forever the economics of vineyard land in Piedmont. The local winemaking family can still afford to buy even top tier vineyards in Piedmont. You might have to get a loan, or securitize versus other assets that you have, but it’s still possible. But In five years, it won’t be possible. It’ll become like Burgundy where all the vineyards are slowly going to be owned by investors.

So Burgundy is now out of reach for even the most dedicated wine lovers; Barolo is headed in the same direction and I imagine Barbaresco will follow.

Next up, Decanter reports that grape growers are running out of space in Marlborough New Zealand, where 75% of New Zealand’s wines are produced.

Demand for vineyard space is being fuelled by rising exports of New Zealand wine, which hit NZ$1.3bn annually last year and could rise to $1.5bn in 2015 buoyed by a record 2014 harvest, according to trade body New Zealand Winegrowers (NZWG).
‘In five to 10 years, Marlborough will be fully planted,’ said Philip Gregan, chief executive of NZWG. ‘It’s something we are going to have to live with,’ he told Decanter.com at a tasting in London.
‘We think it will be sooner than that,’ said Simon Kelly, head of European sales for Yealands, which announced before Christmas that was seeking outside funding to buy more land.

That will inevitably result in much higher prices and less supply.

I think both of these stories point to the importance of emerging wine regions. Burgundy, Barolo, and relative newcomer New Zealand are established regions with a reputation for quality. But wine regions that in the past were on the margins of the fine wine world such as Portugal (at least for dry, still wine) and South Africa are upping their game; and wine grapes are now being planted in parts of the world from China, to India, to the UK, where they had previously been a rare novelty.

We can’t expect all these emerging regions to produce wines of quality to compete with the best from Barolo and Burgundy. But it is to be hoped there are hidden gems in these new regions, as they learn to match their vineyards with the proper varieties, that will supply accessible quality in the future.

It may be time for wine lovers with ordinary incomes to pursue their passion in unusual locales.

A Eulogy: The Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Noir Yamhill 1990 RIP

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eyrieOn Saturday, January 24, 2015 at approximately 6:00 P.M. the very last bottle of this fine Pinot Noir was poured. I claim to know this because the winery asserts it was their last bottle. Perhaps in some dusty cellar there rests another copy but that would be mere speculation. We must face facts, something remarkable has left the world.

It is not often one attends the death of a wine, especially such a glorious finale. When poets write of a “good death” they surely had this in mind.

Leafy at first, with mushroom essence, gradually like a trickling tide, leather and meat emerge woven with hints of brown sugar, only to give way to lovely floral notes as it sits in the glass. Graceful yet almost weightless on the palate, dried fruits wrapped in still vibrant acidity usher in a generous mineral-inflected finish that provokes and then fades like a memory. There is so much quiet energy restrained yet riveting, it went gentle into that good night but with all its integrity on full display.

Perhaps I cannot write a proper eulogy: I was not present at its birth, never witnessed the awkward stage before finding its voice; I  missed the full flowering of youthful energy and the gathering of patinated  wisdom. But no matter. I strongly suspect its best moments were its last. Aristotle thought that one could only assess the goodness of a life when it nears its end—only then is the fullness of its goal revealed, the end point at which all things aim. Surely this moment was the telos of Pinot Noir.

For all things that aspire to firmness of character to its last moments, this wine was an inspiration. The song has ended but the memory lives on.

We will give Lord Byron the last word:

Oh snatch’d away in beauty’s bloom!

On thee shall press no ponderous tomb;

But on thy turf shall roses rear

Their leaves the earliest of the year

And the wild cypress wave in tender gloom

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