Budget Wine: Soliluna Viura 2013 Cariñena

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soliluna viuraThis is one of those popular wine varieties you’ve perhaps never heard of. It’s primarily grown in Northern Spain, especially in Rioja, where it is the dominant grape in the blend sold as White Rioja, and in the Cava producing regions near Catalan where it goes by the name of Macabeo and is part of the blend for that sparkling wine. (There is a small quantity grown in Southern France as well)

Traditional white Rioja can sometimes be heavily oaked and is made from relatively ripe grapes producing a rich, creamy wine that will age for many years. But in modern styles the grapes are harvested young with no oak and the result is a light bodied, zesty quaffer that is usually a good bargain.

This one is from the wine region of Cariñena  well to the East of Rioja nearer the Cava production region and is in the modern style intended to be consumed young.

Apple and floral notes with tangerine hints on the nose form the background for a blast of gunflint minerality, generic citrus flavors on the palate with no trace of oak, very crisp and refreshing, with a pleasing chalky note on the mouthwatering finish.  Simple and light-bodied with a mouthfeel that will make you pucker, the acidity could use more fruit to achieve balance but on a hot, summers day this will satisfy.

The Spanish government in its infinite wisdom has decreed that no more Viura be planted—it should be replaced with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. This is just what the world needs—more Chardonnay. It would be a shame to lose one of those white wines that really will age nicely.

This wine reminded me of a song I haven’t thought about in years. If you want to get in the mood for summer try Bananarama’s “Cruel Summer”. Here’s hoping yours won’t be.

Score: 84

Price: $5

Alc: 13.5

Food in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

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warhol soupInterest in food (and beverages) has exploded in recent years because the artisanal, farm-to-table, locavore, slow-food ethos of the food world is an antidote to the globalized, time-compressed, impersonal, highly-administered, constantly disrupted corporate world in which most of us work. The romance of food is an escape from the bureaucratic nightmare that can best be described as Weber’s Iron Cage on steroids.

The digital revolution is part of this world of post-industrial capitalism—the loss of a sense of the local, the hands-on, and the face-to-face is accelerated when all of visual and auditory experience can be translated into bits of digital information instantly transmitted around the world and accessible to anyone with a computer. The fields of music, journalism, publishing, photography, finance, and education have all been radically transformed, for better or worse; and with 3D printing expanding and driver-less cars on the horizon, most of us mere humans will become obsolete in a matter of years.

So it is comforting to know there is one area of life that is relatively immune to mechanical reproduction—food. As Joe Satran writes:

But here’s the thing: In the age of digital reproduction, that which cannot be digitally reproduced only becomes more alluring. And good food cannot be digitally produced, at least not until the Replicator from “Star Trek” becomes a reality. Yes, the Internet has made it easier than ever before to look at pictures of dishes and written accounts of meals from restaurants on the other side of the world. But it has not made it much easier to actually taste that food. This sets food apart from almost any other cultural artifact. You can access just about any book, song or photograph in the world using a computer or phone, but in order to eat the food from a specific restaurant, you have to go there yourself.

Food may be the last frontier that resists transformation into digital code, the last reminder of what life on earth was like before the singularity.

The food revolution is not a trivial playground for the wealthy. It supplies a deep need people have for real geographical connections and work that engages all the senses.

Aging Report: Lancaster Estate Cabernet Alexander Valley 2006

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lancaster estateGiven the reputation of the winery I had high hopes for this wine that I had cellared for many years. It should be at its peak. But it is one of the more curious aspects of wines that they sometimes go through a closed, inexpressive period which can last several years. When I poured the first glass, this wine was tighter than skinny jeans. Really nothing on the nose, some generic flavors on the palate. I put the cork back in hoping it would taste better tomorrow, maybe with some decanting to help it along. (I often don’t decant because I enjoy seeing how a wine develops in the glass; decanting tends to advance a wine too quickly.)

It is amazing what 24 hours and a little extra oxygen will do. This silent bore became a loquacious preacher overnight.

Characteristic Alexander Valley herbaceous aromas leaped from the glass providing contrast to the dominant cassis and coffee notes. Vanilla was nicely integrated into the background at this point exposing the developing earth tones. Chocolate flavors on the palate were cut by a midpalate seam of ostentatious graphite giving this wine a unique expression more reminiscent of Bordeaux than California. It doesn’t sit rich and luscious on the palate; the acidity and minerality draw the flavors up and give it a lifted, vibrant quality. No bombast or sappy sugar here; the savory qualities are striking. A serious, slightly ascetic but very satisfying wine.

There is no way to predict when a wine will be closed; even the same wines from the same vintage can react quite differently in the bottle.

84% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Malbec, 2% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc and 1% Petit Verdot, unfiltered with 22 months in French oak.

I’m sorry to see the bottom of this one:

“Oh late bloomer the rumors were true
Scattered leaves are all that’s left of you”   from Canadian singer/songwriter Sarah Harmer “Late Bloomer”

Score: 92

Price: $67

Alc:  14.5%

Opened: 3/21/2015

Budget Wine: Cono Sur Bicicleta Cabernet Sauvignon Valle Central Chile 2013

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cono sur cabChilean Cabernet has a distinctive vegetal/herbal aroma note that ranges from green pepper to eucalyptus and mint. This budget wine tends to the green pepper side of the spectrum although there is plenty of vanilla-encased black cherry and tobacco notes to give the nose some complexity. On the palate the wine is spicy with hints of chocolate. The medium body, crisp acidity and a mineral core leaves a vibrant, zestful impression. The finish is short with soft tannins. A polished, approachable wine with the acidity to enhance a meal. Recommended as an everyday beverage.

The mood is middle-of-the-road perky like Sia “Clap Your Hands”

Score: 86

Price: $9

Alc:13.5%

Great Wines Think Alike

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greatest winesAs a wine writer engaged in wine criticism, I taste a lot of wine. Some of it is dreadful, most is enjoyable but ordinary, occasionally it is luscious, delectable and captivating, and on rare occasions the experience is earth-shatteringly profound. Wines such as Screaming Eagle,Vega Sicilia, Chateaux Margaux, or Romano Dal Forno Amarone transcend ordinary experience–not merely delicious but life-changing, beyond measure, a vinous work of art.

If you have read many wine reviews you know what makes wine excellent. Intensity of aromas and flavors, complexity, balance, and structure adding up to an overall impression of unity and completeness–these are the main elements in an excellent wine.

But the best wines go beyond mere excellence. What distinguishes an excellent wine from a work of profound, awe-inspiring vinous art?

The cynics claim it is fascination with the price or reputation. But I drink a lot of high priced wines of reputation that I find unexceptional, so this explanation can’t really get off the ground.

Others will claim it is the story behind the wine that is most fascinating. And there is something right about this. Wine tells a story about its place of origin or its vintage year written in the flavors and textures of the wine itself–the weather, the soils, the sensibility of a culture and the decisions of the winemaker all leave their marks that can be read off the features of the wine. But ordinary artisanal wines have such stories, yet they do not fascinate in the way Screaming Eagle or Chateau Margaux fascinates.

Great wines are an achievement of human ingenuity in collaboration with nature and are noteworthy in their originality and expression. For instance, the 1982 Chateau Margaux set the standard for what a great left-bank Bordeaux should taste like. Like an original work of art, it involves a creative idea and its execution, which required solving particular problems that confronted the winemaker at the time of creation. This achievement is part of the aesthetic value of a work. Just as an exact replica of a work of art lacks the value of an original, a $90 knockoff of Margaux lacks the value of the original—they are not achievements, not works of creative originality.

But many things have origins and a story and exemplify human ingenuity. Yet they don’t fascinate the way a great wine does. Great wines stimulate the imagination because, in addition to having an origin and a story, they are beautiful. Their beauty is not incidental to the story; it is what stimulates us to care about it. Just as great works of art grab our attention because they promise something more, in great wines we sense an unrealized potential for further experience, we feel our interest aroused, curiosity piqued, as if we can never quite get enough of it.

In other words, great wines induce a sense of wonder. They silence conversation and change the mood of a room from lively, sociable chatter to wistful surrender to the sublime, a contemplative state in which the wine itself seems to probe its own nature, searching for a more discursive means of expression.

In this experience we discover the margin that separates pleasure from serenity, satisfaction from awe.

The presence of contradiction and anomaly are essential to wonder, for wonder presents something that we can’t quite comprehend. We are transfixed by objects that are capable of harboring incompatible qualities. All of the great wines embody contradiction at their core: power and finesse, complexity and simplicity, weight and delicacy, solidity and agility.

The finest wines, which are not necessarily the most expensive, are as mysterious and engrossing as a painting or musical work. They beckon as if avowing “Make me a part of your life and I will promise eternal happiness.

Arsenic in Your Wine?

arsenic and old laceThe Internet is aflame with the news, released from a commercial testing lab last week, that levels of arsenic up to 4-5 times what is permitted in water have been found in a variety of supermarket wines. Some of the producers of these wines are being sued by the company that did the testing.  Since everyone else is discussing this story I guess I should to.  Because the story is all over the Internet I won’t bother repeating all the gory details. Here are three thoughtful accounts if you want to read more. (Here, here, and here)

My take:

1. Arsenic is present in lots of foods and beverages. The arsenic that is present in wine is probably from the soil, water, or some of the processing compounds used by wineries. I wouldn’t assume, as some writers have, that it exists only in cheap wine. It was cheap wine that was tested, but I don’t see any reason to think expensive wines are immune since soil, water, and processing compounds are factors in all winemaking.

2. I’m not worried about my intake of arsenic. To my admittedly untrained eye, the levels look too small to worry about. Yes, the levels are in some cases 4- 5 times higher than what is permitted in water but I drink a lot more water than wine everyday. Frankly, if I were to worry about every news article suggesting my health was under threat, I would crawl under a rock. So this story can get in line if it’s intended to cause panic.

3. BeverageGrades, the company that did the testing, seems to have an interest in encouraging wineries to hire them to test their wines. And, as this story points out, their testing methodologies and the reliability of their results are not transparent. Is this a publicity scam designed to drum up business as many in the wine industry are asserting? Maybe.

4. Knowing the levels of harmful substances in our food supply is a good thing. High levels of arsenic are not something to be simply dismissed. There is too little regulation of food safety because government agencies are understaffed and overwhelmed. The only way to get the attention of the food and beverage industry is to sue them—otherwise they will ignore you. So I don’t think the lawsuit is evidence that there is a scam going on. This is the way business is done in the U.S.

So pop another cork and drink to more testing.

Wine Review: Romano Dal Forno Amarone Della Valpolicella 2008

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dal fornoLogic suggests that we should experience a sense of deflation and disappointment when we taste the very best wine of certain type. The sense of disappointment, one might think, comes from the recognition that a peak experience has been attained and there is nothing more to which to aspire. Happily, experience doesn’t always follow logic. Pleasure is the great reinforcer, creating a desire to repeat the pleasure again and again. Furthermore, when it comes to wine, our taste memories are so poor that a peak experience will only exist in memory as a dim awareness. Tasting the best never gets old.

I cannot wait to taste this again.

Romano Dal Forno’s Amarone is generally acknowledged to be the best, routinely receiving scores in the upper 90’s, and it has a price befitting its reputation.

But I didn’t have high expectations. I enjoy Amarone, but it is far from my favorite style of wine. Traditional styles can be rough and rustic. The more modern styles can be one-dimensional, prune-like and sweetish, and show too much alcohol.They are usually powerful but seldom elegant. But the great ones, like all great wines, manage to bring unity to opposing features—powerful yet elegant, sweet yet savory, massive while light and fresh on its feet.  The Dal Forno is all of those. When Amarone is this good, it is glorious.

Dark, almost black in color, and aromatically intense, the subtle scent of violets  modulates the bursting olfactory orgy of blackberry jam, coffee, smoke, and pepper all imbued with an aura of freshly-turned earth. On the palate, the flavors of fig and chocolate swell like a sea attracted to its moon, filling the mouth with darkness but bound together with vibrant acidity that gives the wine finesse despite all its power. The tannins are fierce but so fine-grained they don’t ravage the mouth. As it sits in the glass, caramel flavors develop as the wine goes through its phases, “ever changing, like a joyless eye that finds no objects worth its constancy” to quote Shelley. It is especially impressive that despite 16.5% alcohol, you don’t notice it. This has the stuffing to age for 30 years.

Grandiose beyond mere arrogance this is about as masculine as wine gets (if you will excuse the gender stereotypes). But there is so much life and finesse, it’s more like James Bond showing his Dalai Lama side.

Made from the same grape varieties from the same region that produces the lighter, food-friendly, affordable Valpolicella, Amarone-style wines are made by laying very ripe grapes in a drying chamber for 3-4 months until they turn to raisins, which concentrates all the flavor components and eliminates excess water. The grapes are then crushed and fermented until dry with extended maceration on the skins. and then aged in French or Slovenian oak and in the bottle for a combined 2 years (4 years for riserva). The need for more grapes per bottle, the process of drying the grapes, and the lengthy duration of fermentation, maceration, and storage add up to more costs for the winery and higher prices for the wine. To this standard method, Del Forno adds an unusual blend replacing the standard Molinara grape with Oseleta which amps up the acidity and an additional year of ageing before release. With very low yields and carefully selected grapes, the production on this wine tends to be low, under 1500 cases, making the wine hard to get.

If you don’t mind occasionally dropping serious coin on a wine and can put up with some inconsistency in their performance, the search for Amarone perfection could be a worthy life plan.

Drink while blasting the exquisitely massive, gorgeous, dark, brooding delicacies of Sigur Ros

Score: 97

Price: $300

Alc: 16.5%

Tasted on 3/14/2014 at WineElite

Budget Wine: McManis Family Vineyards Merlot California 2013

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mcmanis merlotPlying the bargain bins and bottom shelves of supermarkets is a frustrating, occasionally rewarding task.  The McManis Merlot is one of those rewards.

Precise, pretty layers of red plum, chocolate, and vanilla inflected with black pepper and earthy highlights make for a very seductive nose. The palate is soft, smooth, and sexy, medium-bodied with a hint of glycerol, just enough acidity to keep it in balance and reticent tannins that provide subliminal décor for the acts of cajolery upfront. A bit of tart berry shows on the short finish. This is a wine very comfortable in its skin, poised and controlled, too slender and elegant to strive for bombast, a little thin on the midpalate but knowing its charm will carry the day. It won’t satisfy the power hungry, but if you enjoy delicacy and polish this will satisfy. As an inexpensive date-night wine you can’t miss with this.

And for accompaniment you want ultimate cool, the slickest song in history, a song so luscious it’s like listening to chocolate:

Score: 88

Price: $10

Alc: 13.5%

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