Budget Wine: Glen Ellen Reserve Chardonnay 2014

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glen ellen chardonnayA classic cheap Chardonnay from California, this shows ripe pear, melon, and a little butterscotch. It’s advertised as “sunshine in a glass” and that is exactly what it is. Bright, ebullient, almost aggressive fruit, with obvious sweetness, full bodied, with lots of weight, but sour acidity that causes the finish to fall apart—bold and clunky but suitable as a beach wine.

I chose to review this because it was designated as an excellent test case for the claim that the music you play while drinking a wine can influence how it tastes. This thesis is advanced by winemaker Clark Smith, author of Postmodern Winemaking, and for many years a top consultant for wineries seeking his expertise in winemaking technology.

According to Smith, if you listen to the Beach Boy’s California Girls while sipping this wine it will taste wonderful because the mood of the wine matches the mood of this upbeat but silly song. By contrast if you pair this wine with Ella Fitzgerald singing St. Louis Blues there is a mismatch of emotional expression. The downtempo loneliness and mournful horns feel wrong when sipping this frolicsome, sweetish, and manifestly unserious wine.

I must say I think Smith is right about this. The Beach Boy’s song makes the wine feel like it’s a bit more integrated, the acidity balances the fruit and the finish more or less holds them in place. When paired with the blues tune the harmony is more fragile. The effect is small and it doesn’t magically transform this blowsy fruit bomb into an elegant princess but there may be something to the thesis.

Try it at home.

Score: 82

Price: $6

Alc: 13.5%

The Wines of Ningxia China

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ningxiaAs with almost every other product known to humanity, China is making inroads into the world of wine. In 2015 it was the 11th largest producer in the world and 5th in consumption. The fastest growing wine region in China and the one that gets the most attention from wine writers is Ningxia, in North Central China and home to China’s first geographically protected wine region. Wine grapes have been growing in this region at least since the Tang dynasty (620 A.D.) but international varieties were not introduced until 1982. Today there are 85 operating wineries and  over 87000 acres of commercial vines planted in this largely desert region with winters so cold they must bury the vines to prevent crop damage.

As one might expect, the government is providing massive support for the industry with a “build it and they will come” philosophy. The government funds the planting of vineyards and the construction of hi-tech, state of the art wineries, and then encourages young people to take over the facility and operate it, in many cases allowing them ten years to decide if they want to continue.

They grow Chardonnay, Riesling, and Vidal for whites and and the Bordeaux varieties, Pinot Noir, and most intriguingly Cabernet Gernischt and Marsalan along with some indigenous varieties for red wines.

I had a chance to taste several Chinese wines at the Society of Wine Educators Conference in August. My overall impression? Uneven but respectable. The better examples would score in the high 80’s, but some clear misses. With the kind of support they have and a population eager to drink I have no doubt this region will continue to develop.

Here are some brief notes on the wines I tasted:

Kanaan Winery Riesling 2013  Clean and crisp with some apparent sweetness and good acidity. Apple and white peach.

Legacy Peak Chardonnay 2014  Buttery and over-oaked. Good intensity but some oxidation on the nose.

Sha Po Tou Cabernet Gernischt 2013   This is actually a clone of Carmenere from old Bordeaux stock.  Intense plum and flowers, new leather and smoky. Medium tannins and acidity. Quite interesting. 24 months in new French oak.

Domain Pushang Marselan 2014 Dark fruit, vanilla, and smoke, very aromatic. A rich palate with complex evolution. My favorite of the tasting, Marselan is a cross between Cabernet and Grenache.

Ch. Zhihui Yuanshi Son of Mountain 2011  A blend of 80% Cabernet and 20% Merlot. Floral and earthy, minerality on the midpalate and a soft finish.

Helanqingxue Jiabeilan Qingxue 2013  A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, this was leathery and had sherry notes on the nose. In the mouth it was coarse and quite tart.

Kanaan Winery Pretty Pony 2013  Mostly Cabernet with some Merlot in the blend. Black cherry and dusty earth, a long finish with fine tannins.  A mix of French and Hungarian oak, old and new.

Silver Heights The Summit 2013  Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot  Rough and not quite integrated but with lots of structure.

Legacy Peak Cabernet/Merlot 2013  Aromatic with black cherry and blackberry, apparent sweet oak and lots of eucalyptus. 14.5% alcohol. The biggest of the wines and quite rich.

The Shaky Standard Taste Model

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standard model of tasteI’ve long suspected, based on intuition (which is often worth exactly nothing), that the standard taste model is wrong. The standard taste model claims that there are only 5 basic tastes: salt, sour, sweet, bitter and umami. Umami was just admitted into the pantheon by Western science a few years ago. Everything else we experience as taste is a function of smell according this model. The difference between a tomato and cheese aside from basic tastes is a matter of smell (putting aside texture of course). That has always struck me as implausible.

Recently, scientists have tentatively put forward the idea that fat may be a basic taste. And now an Oregon State professor has done research that suggests we can taste carbohydrates as well.

To test the sixth-taste theory, Dr Lim and her team dissolved different levels of carbohydrates in liquid solutions and gave them to 22 participants who were asked to rate how each tasted.

“They called the taste ‘starchy’,” Dr Lim said.

Previously, many scientists believed that humans could only taste the sugar in carbohydrates, as enzymes in our saliva break starch molecules into simple sugars, leaving a sweet taste in our mouths.

But even when volunteers were given a compound to block the saliva enzyme and sweet receptors, they were still able to taste the starch – which suggests humans can pick up on a starchy flavour before it has been broken down into sugar.  Thus far there is no evidence of taste receptors for starch on the tongue so this is not a done deal. But it joins a long list of other sensations–of carbonation, a metallic flavor, and amino acids as well as kokumi, a flavor some describe as hearty—that scientists are investigating as basic tastes.

It would seem the standard model of taste is increasingly under threat.

Wine Review: Pollak Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Monticello 2014

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pollak vineyardsVirginia has been noted for their white wines, especially Chardonnay, for many years. Reds, however, have been more of a challenge. Humidity and ample rainfall encourages fungi and rot, excessive cloud cover makes ripening difficult, and high temperatures at night keep acidity levels low. Combine that with clay soils that tend to be too fertile and drain poorly, and the threat of fall rains that encourage growers to harvest early, and the result is a challenging environment for late-ripening reds. But Virginia is proving that careful vineyard management can overcome many of these problems. Their reds are on the light side, and you find lots of Cabernet Franc because it ripens early, although many wineries are experimenting with Petite Verdot with the jury still out on whether this will be their big red.

Nevertheless some wineries are making good Cabernet Sauvignon and Meritage blends. RDV sets the standard with their exclusive, high-priced Bordeaux blends and Jim Law at Linden Vineyards makes elegant red blends with great depth. But the winery that really attracted my attention was Pollak Vineyards.

Black Cherry with fig bass notes and vanilla highlights are the prominent aromas. Wood notes play on the edge of the nose and will become more integrated with time in the bottle. But the palate is a mouthful of energy.  The round, full, darkly fruited introduction gives way to cranberry sailing on rollicking acidity as flavors bounce around the mouth like a pinball. The tannins are slow to come on but have some grain when they arrive joining the acidity in a tangy embrace pushing forward the medium length finish.

A bit leaner than its aforementioned peers, this wine is designed to be nimble and nervy, exhilaration that is part anxiousness.

Babba Riley by the Who is its musical match.

Score: 90

Price: $35

Alc: 13.5%

“The exodus is here,The happy ones are near,Let’s get together, Before we get much older”