Sometimes There are Simple Answers

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coffeeBlake Gray wonders why Americans don’t drink wine with food:

Yesterday I had lunch in St. Helena, in the heart of Napa Valley. A couple at the table next to me told the server they are in Napa Valley from New York for 8 days. Why are they here? “Wine tasting, of course,” the man said. They are visiting wineries every day.
They had Coca-Cola with lunch. Both of them. A bottle of Coke each, at a place with a reasonable by-the-glass list with selections as cheap as $10. (If that sounds expensive, the burger is $16.) And they were having at least a 2-course meal, with an appetizer and main course.
What is it with people like this?
You’re in wine country on vacation, you’re there for the wine, you’re tasting wine every day, you’re having a wine-friendly meal … what better time to have a glass of wine?

Ah. That would be because if I’m drinking wine all day about the last thing I want with lunch is more wine. There is such a thing as too much wine.

My alternative beverage of choice would not be Coke; coffee, lots of it, will prepare me for the rigors of more afternoon wine tasting. If I had more wine at lunch I would just want a nap.

The Coravin and Restaurant Wine Lists

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coravinIt may be a mistaken impression on my part, but since the introduction of the Coravin in 2013, I have not noticed an appreciable expansion of wines by the glass on restaurant wine lists. Why?

The Coravin is a device that allows a server to extract wine through the cork via a thin needle without opening the bottle. Before the wine is extracted, a layer of protective, non-reactive Argon gas is injected ensuring that no oxygen can interact with the wine. The wine is then drawn through the needle and poured into the glass; the naturally elastic material of the cork reseals itself. The remaining wine is undamaged and available to be poured another time.

When the device was first introduced I thought its most immediate impact would be to allow restaurants to make more wines available by the glass. The big obstacle for restaurants serving wine by the glass is that once a bottle is opened its contents must be consumed within a day or so or the wine will lose its freshness and spoil. Restaurants cannot afford to throw away expensive wine, so they tend to offer just a few crowd pleasers increasing the chances that all the open wine will be sold.

The Coravin eliminates that problem. Theoretically, restaurants could offer 100 wines by the glass without worrying about spoilage. Because it would significantly increase the strength of their wine list, and provide opportunities for charging premium prices for desirable wines , it seems it would be worth the $300 cost of the device. (Even if for efficiencies sake they needed more than one device, over time the costs would be recouped)

Yet, I haven’t found this to be a trend. Of course, some restaurants do a good job with their by-the-glass program but I haven’t noticed a significant increase in the number of wines offered.

Perhaps there are other practical problems with extensive by-the-glass lists that I’m not aware of. (And there was the concern about bottles exploding but that has been addressed by the manufacturer.)

So why has the Coravin not revolutionized restaurant wine service?

Domaine Marcel Deiss Alsace Grand Cru Schoenenbourg White Blend 2010

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deissJust as dogs seem to take on the characteristics of their owners, perhaps wine takes on the characteristics of the winemaker. But can grapevines take on the characteristics of their neighbors? Plants learning from plants? We’re in the neighborhood of woo here, occult forces, mystical gobbledygook, voodoo vino.

This may be the most unique and exotic wine I’ve had all year.

Let’s  get the tasting note out of the way first. Sumptuous peach and citrus with honey undertones form the core of the aroma profile but a provocative layer of petrol and top notes of lychee and slight salty notes give it lots of complexity and finesse. This is a juicy, dense wine, off-dry, almost sweet, with medium-plus weight and a creamy texture upon first sip, but bristling acidity blossoms in the mid-palate giving the whole experience a lifted, ethereal quality. The ravishingly elegant finish is a heady mineral bath.

What exactly is this wine? Who knows? It’s a field blend from a Grand Cru vineyard planted with 20+ varietals in mixed plots that including Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Muscat, and many members of the Pinot family. I’m not sure even the vineyard manager knows precisely what’s in the blend. At any rate, peach and hints of petrol suggest Riesling, and the lychee notes suggest Gewurztraminer. And I suspect touches of noble rot.

As good as this wine is, the story behind it is fascinating in a geeky way.

The winemaker is Jean-Michel Deiss, proprietor along with his partner Marie-Hélène Cristofaro, of Domain Marcel Deiss, named for Jean-Michel’s father who started the Domain in 1947. Deiss’s wines are highly regarded but he is a maverick, labeling his wines as vineyard designates rather than according to region and varietal as most of his fellow Alsatians do. But his vineyard labeling is more than just contrariness. Not only does he think vineyard expression more important than varietal expression, in his vineyards, Deiss claims, these multiple varietals ripen at the same time! This is a bizarre claim. Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris ripen early in the season, Riesling typically takes longer especially in cool regions. The problem with field blends is that you get a mix of varietals and various degrees of ripeness.

Why would varieties with significantly different ripening characteristics, when planted together, ripen at the same time? Are they communicating? Mind melding with Deiss?  Botanical channeling? Like I said–Voodoo Vino.

Maybe it’s the stress of being a Deiss vine. Rumor has it, he sometimes builds a fence around the vine roots underground to force them to grow down through layers of rock instead of outward in the more fertile, moisture laden soil. Vine density is sometimes over 4000 plants per acre, three or four times the density of many quality vineyards, forcing each vine to struggle to get nutrition. But he then drops so much fruit that his yields are half of the average Alsatian vineyard.

In the winery, it’s low intervention, bio-dynamic winemaking for Deiss.  Minimal use of sulphur, native yeasts, fermentations that can last as long as a year depending on what the grapes want to do, months on the lees in large casks, and no filtration or fining. The grapes have a mind of their own.

But you can’t argue with results. A wine of extraordinary beauty and of course there is nothing as beautiful as mystery.

This can be consumed only while listening to lush, inscrutable, ambient sound in a language that can only be felt:

Score: 96

Price: $110

On The Road Again

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lenne-vineyardAfter 5 weeks, 78 winery visits, and about 550 wines tasted (yes we spit), the research for our guide to the Willamette Valley is finished. So today we say goodbye to these wonderful people, their gorgeous scenery, and fantastic wines and head towards Colorado.

We’ve had a great time getting to know this region; the only negative was the weather. Several stretches of consecutive days with temperatures over 100 degrees—in Oregon. This does not bode well for Oregon Pinot Noir. Pinot Noir does not do well in hot weather. The Oregonians have made their reputation by taking advantage of their cool temperatures and long hang time in the summer months to produce wines of structure and elegance.

Oregon Pinot Noir has beautiful crushed rock aromas and bracing minerality that distinguishes them from Pinot Noir grown in the warmer sites in California. Some of the more talented winemakers here manage to get close to a true Burgundian style–with even a few years of bottle age they develop the barnyard and mushroom aromas that pinot fans adore. These characteristics tend to get lost when when the grapes get too ripe.

The Willamette Valley’s distinctive character is threatened by climate change, which seems to be advancing quickly here in the Pacific Northwest. 2012 and 2014 were abnormally hot and 2015 is shaping up as a real scorcher. Too much heat means sunburned skins, high sugar levels that create excess alcohol, and dehydration which requires winemakers to “water back” to keep wines in balance. Worse, quickly rising sugar levels may require harvest before the phenolics have fully developed making for simple, fruity wines without much complexity. In fact we tasted some 2012’s that were big, bold, and fruit-driven but lacked character.

Much depends on what happens next but most of the winemakers we talked to were preparing for an early September harvest, weeks before a normal harvest which typically happens in October. All of them say we are in uncharted territory

If I were a young winemaker committed to making great Pinot Noir, I would think twice about investing too many resources here.

Has anyone taken soil samples in Alaska?

Budget Wine: Alto Real Roble Bullas 2010

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alto real robleWild, wild Monastrell (Mourvedre if you’re French). If you like structured wines with a bit of toughness (I do) you will like this. There is no concession to the soft and sweet crowd here.

A nose of savory herbs over dark and red fruits, blackberry with cranberry highlights, the slightest hint of a salty top note competes for attention with mild vanilla notes. There are plenty of intriguing aromas here right out of the bottle though it turns simple with time in the glass.

Intense fruit and coffee on the palate with some nice acidity, this makes a good food wine to accompany strong flavors. It is just short of  full bodied; the acidity gives the texture a lift so it feels light on its feet. The tannins are sandy which along with some herbal bitterness on the finish gives the wine a rustic edge. Obviously held back from immediate release to soften the tannins.

An honest wine with great price to quality ratio.

Bullas is a Denominaciones de Origen (DO) in the Murcia region of Spain, growing mostly Monestrell. This is 75% Monastrell and 25% Tempranillo.

A firm and flinty wine like this calls for some Steve Earle. How about Telephone Road?

Mama never told me about nothin’ like this
I guess Houston’s ’bout a big as a city can get
Sometimes I get lonesome for Lafeyette
Someday I’m goin’ home but I ain’t ready yet

Score: 86

Price: $8

Alc: 14%

Sweet Reason

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thinking about wineHere is a little mental misdirection for a Thursday.

If you drink aged dessert wines you’ve probably noticed that as a wine ages it seems to taste less sweet. Old Tawny ports are not as sweet as a young ruby, German Auslese or French Sauterne lose some of the over sweetness they have when young.  Does the aging process reduce sugar levels? Apparently there is no science to answer the question.

Wine science writer Jamie Goode has an interesting hypothesis about why this might be the case–although the sugar levels remain the same in the aged wine we perceive less sugar because the mind plays tricks on us. We have learned to associate sugar with fruit and so as the primary fruit flavors diminish with age and are replaced with nut and oxidized notes we interpret that loss of fruit as a loss of sweetness. And there is some science to support this hypothesis:

Support for this idea comes from a couple of recent studies on tomatoes and strawberries, carried out by Linda Bartoshuk and her colleagues at Florida University. They looked at the composition of a range of tomato varieties, testing the levels of sugar and also a group of volatile compounds. They then got a sensory panel to taste these tomatoes, rating them for a range of attributes, including sweetness. They then looked at which compounds contributed to this perception of sweetness: it turned out not to not only be sugar, but also a group of seven volatiles.

For example, one variety had 45 g/l of sugar and was given a score of 13 on the perceived sweetness scale, while another had less sugar (just under 40 g/litre) but got a score of 25. It got this big score because it had about twice the level of a group of six volatiles that were correlated strongly with sweetness.

It may be that the aging process modifies the sugar molecules just as it seems to modify acid molecules; perhaps perceived sweetness is a combination of both processes. But there are good evolutionary reasons why we might associate fruit aromas with sugar since doing so helped supply nutritional needs when our forbears were traipsing about the East African plains.

Once again it appears taste is not just a sensation but an idea.

Wine Review: Piluso Vineyard Gamay Noir Willamette Valley 2011

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piluso gamayThe Gamay varietal is famous for producing the simple, light wines of Beaujolais, a wine region consisting of 10 villages just north of Lyon, France. For some reason the grape, when vinified using carbonic maceration, captured the attention of wine marketers in the 1970’s who succeeded in making the November release into a national event, and subsequently a worldwide event that has customer’s falling over each other to get a bottle of this insipid wine that smells and tastes like bubblegum. It is indeed one of the silliest marketing ploys in the wine world, and that is saying a lot.

But in Beaujolais there are some serious producers that make a wine of some depth and complexity via conventional fermentation. Unfortunately, in the rare instances when the varietal is grown in the United States, producers tend to make it in the Nouveau style, I suppose in order to capitalize on that marketing magic.

Happily, Piluso Vineyard and Winery, a small Oregon producer on the often-ignored East side of the Willamette Valley makes Gamay in the more serious style of the better Beaujolais producers.

Light ruby in the glass, the nose shows tart raspberry with pretty rose petal notes and  a beautiful overlay of baking spices against a background of freshly turned earth.  Very aromatic and expressive for this grape; and no bubblegum. The palate is light and fresh without much concentration, tasting of tart cranberry with hints of ginger and a peppery finish supported by barely discernable, powdery tannins. High in acidity, the aggressive tartness was a little much for a simple chicken dish but pairs well with fresh tomatoes and would be wonderful with a cranberry garnished Thanksgiving turkey.

Gamay is an inherently limited grape varietal but this version shows its true potential.

Owner/winemaker Sandee Piluso has wanted to make wine since she was a teenager and since 1998 has been living that dream. In addition to the ubiquitous Pinot Noir and this Gamay, she makes Dolcetto, Tempranillo, Gruner Veltliner, an impressive port-style dessert wine, and a stunning white Pinot Noir, all in the same elegant style with an emphasis on alluring aromatics.

This is a very small production and unlikely to be available outside the winery. But these small operations,  labors of love, are the beating heart of wine culture and deserve recognition. A good reason to support your local winery.

This wine reminds me of the light-hearted, spicy, exuberance of Lily Allen’s Air Balloon

Score: 88

Price: $26

Alc: 12%

 

 

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In Defense of Tasting Notes

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Wine-NotesEvery summer, it seems, the wine blogosphere contracts a  case of morose self-reflection and finds some esoteric issue to endlessly fret about—the objectivity of wine scores, the marketing of “natural” wines, the demise of the wine critic, etc.  This summer the issue seems to be the literary status of tasting notes.

Wine science journalist and world traveller Jamie Goode doesn’t like them.

I don’t think my tasting notes are absolutely the worst of all. But I still dislike them, for several reasons.

First of all, most tasting notes are silly. This is largely because it is incredibly difficult to describe the sensations we experience as we taste wine in a verbal way….Second, tasting notes are opaque to normal people….Third, tasting notes are mostly over elaborate. As such, they intimidate normal people, who feel that they are clearly having a diminished experience of wine, because they just don’t get all those exotic flavour descriptors….Fourth, the language we have for wine is more of a learned code than it is an accurate description of what we experience as we taste wine. Fifth, tasting notes tend to be reductionist. We break down the wine into separate components as we describe it. This is a mistake, in that we forget that the wine is a whole.

Wine writer Charles Olken is having none of this: “I hope I am not insulting Mr. Goode, but these arguments only make sense to someone who is either tipsy or hates his own writing.” Oi. A vain hope there, no? Truth be told, it is an insult and it is deserved.

Jamie’s jeremiad seems to be channeling this tiresome article in the New Yorker which Steve Heimoff took apart recently. (Why can’t the mainstream media write intelligently about wine? That’s another story)

The New Yorker article complains about “extravagant tasting notes” that are “overwrought and unreliable” and then documents the many studies that show how wine drinkers are easily fooled when given misleading information about what they are tasting. For example:

Suckling extols this Montalcino as “delicious”; a drink with flavors of “graphite” mixed with “pâte de fruit, hoisin sauce, warm ganache, and well-roasted applewood” calls to mind a dinner party gone wrong, not a Wine Spectator Pick of the Year

And finally the Wine Curmudgeon weighed in arguing that computers can write better tasting notes than humans, another insult but in this case undeserved.

There are common features in all these complaints about tasting notes. All assert that wine is complex; the words we have available in the English language are not adequate to describe this complexity, causing wine writers to exaggerate or make stuff up, and as a result ordinary people lack the background and discernment to understand the tasting notes, which are written in a language only the initiated understand.

All of these claims are true. Wine is complex, our descriptive language limited, some tasting notes are overdone, which puts novices off.

But the proper response is–So what!

Try describing music, paintings, poetry, or the way film subtly influences perception using ordinary language. Wine sensations are not unique in being difficult to describe. In all the arts, in order to describe a work, a critic must rely on metaphor or revert to a technical language that only its practitioners understand. And metaphors if they are living and not clichéd often require leaps of the imagination in order to make sense. That a metaphor taxes the imagination is a feature not a bug. Of course, some metaphors miss their mark; they create associations that lack precision. But, really, consider another example from the New Yorker article:

And how can one know whether a bottle that the bimonthly newsletter Wine Advocate dubbed “liquefied Viagra” pairs better with salmon or pork?

Does anyone above the age of 15 not know what is being said about the wine? The problem is not the opacity of the metaphor; apparently some people object to the very use of metaphor to describe wine. But why make wine an exception when metaphors in all other forms of discourse are ubiquitous?

As to the endless lists of fruit and aroma descriptors that non-experts cannot detect, how else is one to describe the taste of a wine? Wine contains flavor precursors that resemble chemically the flavors of other fruits. If you detect apple and pear in a Chardonnay, what precisely is the problem with pointing that out. There is nothing inherently silly about it, contra Jamie Goode’s diatribe. No doubt, some wine writers get carried away with esoteric descriptors that obscure rather than clarify the impression of the wine, but over-interpretation is not unique to wine criticism. Literary, film, and music criticism can also manufacture meaning if the critic is not disciplined enough to stick to what she observes. Fruit and other flavor notes are not the only relevant features of a wine—texture and overall quality are more important. But the flavor notes are still essential in an accurate description.  The problem is not the tasting note but the occasional out-of-control critic.

There is a pernicious ideology that supports these complaints about tasting notes, and it is a shame good wine writers are taken in by it. Note first of all that the standard for what defines a proper tasting note is apparently the ordinary person–untrained, inexperienced, and baffled by the barrage of sensations these critics find in a glass of wine that to the uninitiated smells like, well, grapes. But why should the sensibility of the uninformed be the standard for a good tasting note? As everyone agrees, wine is complex and the sensations caused by the wine very subtle. In fact, the more subtle the better—that is what we mean by finesse which all great wines have. It takes concentration, practice and some good old fashioned “book learning” to appreciate the subtleties that give wine its extraordinary appeal. The fact that some of these aromas and flavors are inaccessible to novices is, again, a feature not a bug. If they were not inaccessible to the untrained, wine would not have the subtlety and complexity that make it interesting.

We can discover the sinister intent of this pernicious anti-tasting note ideology by looking at some of the suggestions contained in the New Yorker article for how we might improve tasting notes.

In April, the Guild of Sommeliers, a nonprofit association of fine-wine specialists, created a cheat sheet encouraging wine professionals to name the chemical compounds that are responsible for the odors in a glass. When discussing wines with other experts, the guild suggests identifying hints of raspberry and strawberry as “esters,” peppercorn or rosemary aromas as “rotundones,” and gooseberry or grapefruit notes as “thiols.”

Do we want to live in a wine world in which the wealth of personal experience with wine is reduced to generic causal mechanisms? Or consider this complaint:

Last fall, Ballester dispatched a doctoral candidate to ask Chablis’s winemakers and consumers what “minerality” calls to mind. (According to a 2009 paper presented to the Geological Society of America, grape vines do absorb inorganic nutrients from the land, but the notion of granite or schist seasoning wine in any detectable way is “scientifically untenable.”) The researcher collected hundreds of answers, from “salty” and “gunflint” to “chalky” and “mineral water.” “We never found a consensual definition of minerality,” Ballester told me. “So how can we communicate like this?”

We communicate this way because “minerality” is a useful term that can take many more specific forms such as salty, gunflint, chalk, and mineral water. It doesn’t matter whether the odors are caused by actual minerals or not. It is a metaphor, a way to imaginatively characterize the unique aromas found in wine. We don’t need a consensus about a single “correct” term. There isn’t one.

With these quotes we begin to get clarity on what these critics of winespeak are really aiming at. They want standardization–a regimented language that uniquely and sharply distinguishes each feature of the wine so there can be no doubt about what is referred to. Aside from such language giving the reader no clue about what it is like to experience “thiols” or “rotundones”, there is a deeper problem at work in these suggestions. If you standardize wine descriptors, guess what—you will have standardized the taste of wine itself. If a few simple words referring to chemical compounds are sufficient to describe a wine, then aren’t we saying that the wine we drink is simple and unimaginative as well. The words we use to describe wine, after all, create expectations. I suspect in the end that some critics of wine writers are seeking to do just that. In their view, all wine should be simple, cheap, and interchangeable, marketed via price competition and labeling—a commodity like orange juice that can be cheaply made and thoughtlessly consumed.

To be fair to Jamie Goode, he raised this issue with the aim of improving the tasting note. That is certainly a worthy cause. No doubt we can get better at developing a vocabulary for describing wine. The problem is not with the desire to improve but with the underlying value system that views complexity, difficulty and imagination as disposable aspects of the wine experience.

I don’t know what the future of the tasting note is but I’m sure it will continue to include flavor descriptors and metaphor. In the end even Bianca Bosker, the author of the New Yorker article admits as much:

Those of us who enjoy wine apparently appreciate a little mystery along with our fermented grape juice. As Geoff Kruth, the master sommelier, told me, “At the end of the day, we’re selling poetry.”

Indeed, but the 5 minutes it took to get to that conclusion is 5 minutes I’ll never get back.

Budget Wine: Le Jade Viognier Pays D’OC IGP 2013

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le jade viognierFrench Viognier is not exactly on the average wine consumer’s radar. The good ones from the Northern Rhone are very expensive and the less pricey alternatives are often inconsistent. This Viognier hails from Languedoc, a region long dedicated to producing cheap, bulk wine and still trying to find its way in the premium wine sector. So the price is right. Happily, so is the quality in its price range.

This is a representative Viognier—very aromatic with heady floral and peach aromas shading into tropical melon notes. Lush and viscous on the palate with perhaps a little residual sugar, it evolves from fruit to cream, and then to a chalky finish that shows too much bitterness. A little short on acidity so the acid-heads won’t be pleased but if you prefer full-bodied whites that leave a fleshy, sensuous impression this is good quality for the price. There is no evidence of oak.

It overwhelmed the salmon I served it with, but nicely picked up the floral notes of the basil pesto and was a stellar match for the grilled potatoes.

The wine is produced by the Cave Coopérative, the larege Pomérols co-op in operation since 1932.

A tropical vibe with hints of bitterness and redemption, a perfect Bob Marley pairing:

Score: 87

Price: $9

Alc: 13%

In Taste Is There No Argument?

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arguments about tasteIt’s a cliché to point out that taste is subjective, not only because people have different preferences but because our ability to taste various substances in food and drink differs from person to person. But the crucial question is to what degree these abilities are trainable. Can we learn to taste better and thus potentially overcome these subjective differences?

Science has discovered that some of the variance in our sensitivity to bitter compounds is genetic, and that suggests that some of these taste thresholds may be fixed—we can’t do much to change them. But that would be too hasty a conclusion according to some new research.  A team of scientists headed by Danielle Reed an the Monel Chemical Senses Center recently did a study of the perception of sweetness in twins compared to non-twin siblings and unpaired twins and found that about 30% of the variance could be explained by genetic factors:

The researchers gave the twins and the other subjects two natural sugars (glucose and fructose) and two artificial sweeteners (aspartame and NHDC) and then asked them to rate the perceived intensity of the solution.

They found that genetic factors account for about 30 percent of the variance in sweet taste perception between people for both the natural and artificial sugars.

This suggests that 70% of the variance is not genetically hard-wired leaving some significant room for other factors such as history and culture to influence taste.

Reed cautions,

The finding doesn’t mean that the people who have a weaker ability to taste sweet necessarily dislike sugar. And just because you don’t get a big high from a little sugar doesn’t mean you eat more of it. “How you perceive [sweet] may influence what you like in the extreme, but it’s more like shades of gray,” she says. “And we still need to see whether this has any implications for people’s food behavior.

If taste is largely a matter of enculturation and personal history, then at least in theory, tastes are up to a point educable and can be changed, suggesting that disagreements about taste are not always intractable. (Which is not to say the process of educating taste is easy)

The slogan de gustibus non est disputandum itself may be subject to dispute.

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