Wine Review: Fidelitas Cabernet Sauvignon Red Mountain 2014

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fidelitasKnown as the Cab King of Red Mountain, Fidelitas’ winemaker and co-owner Charlie Hoppes, makes up to six different expressions of Cabernet Sauvignon each vintage, all from Washington State’s Red Mountain AVA. Hoppes was head winemaker at Chateau Ste. Michelle in the 1990’s and worked on the early vintages of Col Solare so he knows his way around Washington Cab.

This elegant, savory Cabernet, a blend from several vineyards, brings to mind left bank Bordeaux.

Inky in the glass, dark aromas of black currant and blackberry play well with  hints of red fruit, sweet cedar, dust and a subtle smokiness. On the palate, restrained fruit takes a back seat to coffee as the medium-plus frame shows a firm yet lustrous texture, like polished granite. A graphite seam becomes increasingly prominent resting on lovely, elegant tannins, launching the medium length finish.

Neither dynamic nor deep, the tension between the soft, elegant tannins and the sinewy graphite seam gives this wine a lean, arduous grace with understated strength, which pairs nicely with the polished, hard blues of Jonny Lang’s Lie to Me

Technical Notes: Aged in 58% new French Oak, 17% new American oak.

Score: 91

Price: $50

Alc: 14.4 %

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Tension is the Key to Great Wines

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tension in artIn my Three Quarks column this month I argue that it is tension and contrast, not harmony, that makes great wine.

Here is an except:

Especially as wines age, the dominant fruit, floral and herbal scents are surrounded by aromas that remind us of gravel, tar, barnyard, cat pee, petroleum, musk, sweaty saddle, smoke, gunflint, and bacon fat, not to mention the less prized aromas such as band aid, nail polish remover, and rotten egg. These are not pretty and introduce elements in the wine that are disruptive, deviant, and in themselves often ugly.  If we think of wine as exhibiting flavor themes, these divergent aromas are clearly in tension with the dominant fruit and herbal themes. A pretty peach-and-apple-inflected Riesling from Germany’s Mosel region that begins to develop diesel fuel aromas in the bottle is acquiring tension and conflict that adds to the impression of depth.

Budget Wine Review: Root: 1 Carménère Colchagua Valley Chile 2016

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root 1Root 1 is an brand owned by Viña Ventisquero, a large Chilean producer with an agro-business history.

This entry level offering is a bit too slutty. Lurid flavors pop from the glass—gobs of ripe, dark berries hide behind red bell pepper, a wild herbal scent, vanilla, and charred wood. Carménère character on steroids.

The palate is rich and full bodied up front. But the soft midpalate is marred by excessive wood notes and the finish is beyond weird. Disjointed, sour acidity fights with the fruit, and the tannins are too soft to matter much. The first sip seems sensuous and promisingly powerful but the more you drink the more it tastes lewd and dissolute, its flavors pumped up and garbled.

Flamboyant and tawdry like a bogus glam rock band from the 70’s,

Score: 82

Price: $10

Alc: 13%

Thanksgiving Past and Present

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thanksgivingI remember my Dad telling me, when I turned up my nose at some canned peas, “Don’t worry about what it tastes like. It’s just fuel”. (My Dad also drank Old Moxie and claimed to like it, which tells you something about his palate).This was New England in the 1950’s, when TV dinners promised a hip future of standardized, sanitized consumption, and wine was just a cheap beverage consumed by the bedraggled, lost souls snoozing under the pier on the river.

Of course food was not always merely fuel, even for “practical” folk like my father. Thanksgiving was an occasion for much praising of Aunt Emma’s mince meat pie, a dubious concoction of venison, dried fruits and baking spices, served after a desiccated turkey, marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes, and green bean casserole baked with cream of mushroom soup. It was all enthusiastically consumed with much gratitude and good cheer. Food symbolized sharing, family continuity, and cohesiveness, but none of this had much to do with flavor. Only those magical moments—the pure joy of an ice cream cone after pitching hay in summer heat or a warming soup after digging out from under a blizzard—were akin to pleasures of the palate, but they were more a matter of biological readjustment than a response to flavor. In mid-20th Century United States, the connoisseur was an eccentric, flavor a minority taste.

Times have changed. Today, conversations about food and wine multiply on the Internet like radioactive rabbits. Food magazines explain how to entice every molecule of flavor from the freshest ingredients available and trumpet the virtues of exotic ingredients that would have made our parents cringe. And tonight all across the country home cooks will be hoping their kale, cornbread, hazelnut, and chorizo stuffing will pass muster.

I wish everyone a Thanksgiving full of sharing, gratitude, celebration—and lots and lots of flavor.

On Thanksgiving Wine Pairings

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thanksgiving wine pairingMy best advice? Don’t bother. Two principles should regulate any discussion of Thanksgiving wine:

1. No single wine will pair well with all the dishes at a typical Thanksgiving meal, and;

2. No single wine will please everyone at your table.

The cardinal sin in food and wine pairing is to serve a dry wine with sweet food. Sweet dishes will inevitably make a dry wine taste thin and sour. Since many Thanksgiving dishes have some sweetness, your dry wines will suffer. White turkey meat requires a light, delicate wine. Dark meat and mushroom stuffing requires a dry, bold, earthy wine. Most vegetables will need a wine that won’t amplify bitterness. No single wine can do all this work.

In light of those two principles, the best thing to do is open a variety of affordable wines and let people choose what they want to drink. However, if that sounds too spiritless and half-assed for your guests (or for your ego) you might try the following approaches:

— Serve a good, modestly priced sparkling wine like Toques et Clochers Crémant de Limoux. No one ever complains about being served sparkling wine even if it doesn’t pair perfectly with your dishes.

–Serve two wines: an off-dry Riesling from Germany’s Mosel region and an elegant Pinot Noir from Santa Barbara. Neither will work with all the dishes but both will be a good compromise.

–or serve a quality apple cider such as Eric Bordelet’s Brut Tendre. This is an off dry cider with autumnal flavors that comes closer than anything I’ve tried to a perfect Thanksgiving beverage.

And most of all remember, Thanksgiving embodies more important ideals than getting the wine and food pairing right.

If the Wine Review is Dead, so is the Wine Community

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tasting panel magJeff Siegel, aka The Wine Curmudgeon, was rather curmudgeon-like in his post last week arguing that wine criticism was no longer relevant or effective. Asking the question “Have we reached the end of wine criticism?” he writes,

The answer, to listen to the surveys and the polls, is yes. One recent study found that just nine percent of wine drinkers relied on critics, while almost half of those surveyed said wine descriptions were pompous. This is far from the only such study – wine drinkers have rated wine criticism this poorly for years. Increasingly, it seems, they could care less about what people like the Wine Curmudgeon have to say.

His argument is that “winespeak”, with its fruit basket descriptors and numerical scores, is unintelligible to ordinary wine drinkers who are clamoring for a different, more informative kind of review. But, he argues, there is no incentive for wine writers to change since the delusional wine industry is happy with the system that uses critics’ inflated, meaningless, numerical scores to market their wines.

Tom Wark pushed back against Jeff’s dismay by pointing out that wine reviews are not really for the ordinary wine drinker but are aimed at connoisseurs who are willing to spend considerably more for a bottle and want some assurance that the wine is of quality before buying.

So, Jeff, wine criticism isn’t dead. However, the audience of drinkers you write for, those who buy less expensive wines, don’t care much about scores. They care that the wine is in liquid form, a little sweet, isn’t too rough around the edges, has a tasty character and possesses alcohol. I don’t need a Wine Advocate handbook by my side to find one of those when I’m staring at an end stack of wine at a Lucky Supermarket.

Both Jeff and Tom make compelling points but I have a somewhat different take on this issue.

1. “Winespeak” is unintelligible to ordinary wine consumers because they lack the training and/or experience to grasp it. Wine is a vague object and difficult to describe and it takes years of disciplined study before it makes sense. No doubt “winespeak” sounds pompous to those who haven’t studied it. So does “physics speak” or discussions of formalist art criticism. These are technical vocabularies for specialists. (Which does not of course mean that their aren’t some really poorly conceived reviews out there.) I know this sounds “elitist” but that’s the way it is. We should be careful about treating wine as if it were orange juice. There is therefore an important question about how to talk to novices so they learn and are not put off. But that problem exists with all technical vocabularies and is not unique to wine.

2. “Winespeak” when used to describe most inexpensive, everyday wines is fundamentally deceptive. Most of these wines do not deserve the florid descriptions they are often saddled with. (There are exceptions to this, which is why its worthwhile reviewing these wines) And on a related note there is nothing more inaccurate than a winery’s description of their wines  which they put on the label. That is marketing, not criticism.

3. Thus, Tom is right to argue that the audience for wine reviews is not the ordinary consumer buying wine at the supermarket. They don’t care about wine reviews nor should they. The audience for reviews are people who have expertise or aspire to gain it

4. Jeff is right that a list of fruit aromas tells a reader nothing about whether they will like a wine or not. Fruit notes are part of a description of the features of a wine, not an assessment of its aesthetic value. Reviews that don’t address aesthetic value are useless. Jeff’s reviews address aesthetic value because he focuses on whether the wine is authentic and typical of its region or varietal.

5.  Jeff is also right that the wine business is cynical about this issue. They view wine writers as extensions of their marketing departments and care little for accurate descriptions of their wines.

But it the end I would want to question the underlying assumption of this whole debate. I doubt that the constitutive aim of wine criticism is helping people to make purchasing decisions. After all a significant number of wine reviews are written for wines that are unavailable for purchase. I devoted a good deal of attention to this issue in a recent Three Quarks column.

Essentially my argument is that wine criticism serves a larger function for the wine community. We need to know the meaning and significance of a wine, the kinds of experiences we can expect from drinking it and whether it represents a new trend, a typical flavor profile or a departure from accepted norms. The wine community is an aesthetic community that can sustain itself only if we can communicate about the shared object of our passion. It’s only through such communication that norms and standards are set. The wine review is the main vehicle for that. If the wine review is dead, so is the wine community.

For more on the philosophy of wine visit my Monday Column archives on Three Quarks Daily

Budget Wine Review: Domaine Du Bouscat Caduce Bordeaux Superieur 2010

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domaine du bouscatI found this lurking in a liquor store in Salt Lake City for $13. Such finds are to be treasured, not because this is a great wine (it’s not) but because it’s an honest wine sourced from average grapes (the vineyard is near Fronsac), albeit from an excellent vintage, and not manipulated to taste sweet, soft, or smooth. In France, even ordinary wines are sometimes made with the assumption that the buyer may lay the wine down for a few years. The wine is allowed to develop on its own schedule without the new world’s obsession with making wines that are ready to drink as soon as they’re bottled.

It’s always interesting to see how inexpensive wines designed to age turn out. I imagine this was a beast when young but after several years of bottle age, it’s developing a soul, albeit a soul with an irascible core.

An aromatic dark knight with scents of black cherry, black plum, dry autumn leaves, and a hint of barnyard, immediately identifiable as French.

In the mouth, an overlay of gravel and dark chocolate buries the lush, ribald fruit and a seam of hard acidity gives the wine a truculent, unyielding personality. But it has personality–like your curmudgeonly uncle whose candor you find refreshing. There’s a lot of savory flavor, black olive and bitter herbs, and eight years after vintage date the tannins have a sandy texture with little grip, propelling a long, mouthwatering finish.

A bittersweet wine, like a rough hand, tender and calloused. Night Driver by Tom Petty shows the best side of this wine.

Technical Notes: A blend of 70% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Cabernet Franc and 5% Malbec. Cold soaked, and then fermented in unlined cement vats, macerated for 25 days, and aged on the lees four months before aging in new and used demi-muids.

Score: 89

Price: $13 (not much of this left but check out Wine Searcher for other vintages that might be worth purchasing)

Alc: 14.5%

Wine Blog Daily is Going Away

My daily summary of wine blog activity is no more. With spring semester looming and new writing projects to launch, I need to find more hours in the day, and WBD is simply taking too much time.

I have enjoyed reading and discovering new wine blogs and I know there are some dedicated readers who visit the site regularly for their wine blog fix. I am profoundly grateful to those readers and I hope my backing away will not inconvenience you.

I will of course continue my usual posting on wine and food aesthetics.

When a Chef Becomes an Artist

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imageJust as Van Gogh revealed the secrets of the landscapes near Arles in his paintings of Southern France, culinary artists reveal hidden dimensions of ingredients and dishes, dimensions that previous cooks overlooked that create a new way for that dish or ingredient to be. The idea is not merely to create a fantastic concoction or to add a new flavor note to a dish. It is to capture the essence of something that has hitherto gone unnoticed and to impress upon the diner that there is something here to be explored and understood. Unlike craftwork, art works reveal some new treasure that solicits our attention and demands the kind of studied focus we give to the visual arts or music. A chef who has mastered the craft of cooking will prepare food that squeezes every bit of flavor from her ingredients. The chef who is an artist will challenge a diner and provoke a revelation that will be arresting, illuminating—and ultimately pleasurable.

salmon-and-rhubarb-editWorks of culinary art, it should go without saying, must be pleasurable as well as revelatory. Pleasure is the seducer that makes knowing the secret worth our efforts. But the chef’s intense focus on giving pleasure is not peculiar to the edible arts. Music or painting that is flat and inexpressive will fail as art as surely as a watery, under-seasoned bisque. We would not be discussing Van Gogh today were it not for his voluptuous brush work and color palette.

Thus genuine culinary art creates something in addition to pleasure—a revelation that not only tastes good but is arresting and illuminating.

Even relatively simple dishes can be revelatory such as Rod Butters’ Grilled & Smoked Pacific Salmon with rhubarb broth, and rhubarb jam from Raudz in Kelowna BC that revealed rhubarb’s affinity for smoke, or Chef Massimiliano Alajmo’s Risotto with Saffron and Sorbet of licorice and rosemary from Le Calandre near Padua, Italy  that brought out the licorice note in the saffron.

saffron-risotto-with-licorice editFor more on the philosophy of food and wine visit my Monday Column archives on Three Quarks Daily

Wine Blog Daily Thursday 11.15.18

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burgundyA daily sample of thoughtful writing and discussion from (mostly) independent wine blogs:

Alder Yarrow urges all wine lovers to contribute to the GoFundMe campaign to get the consumer’s voice heard in the upcoming Supreme Court case concerning interstate wine shipments.

Kathleen Willcox reports on the disabilities law that is causing problems for some wineries.

Lisa Johnston speaks with the Bourgogne Wine Board’s Amaury Devillard about the latest news from Burgundy.

Drunken Cyclist has the latest news on the lawsuit against WTSO *Wines ‘till Sold Out, a case he’s been following for some time.

Sarah Lehman reports on the sweet wine wines of Bordeaux, including Sauternes.

Winery Visits and Travel Posts:

1 Wine Dude reports on the little known Tuscan region of Orcia.

Luscious Lushes witnesses the biodynamic transformation at Troon Vineyards on Oregon’s Applegate Valley

Crushed Grape Chronicles describes a mystery dinner and a tasting at Doubleback Winery in Walla Walla Washington.

Brianne Cohen visits Kiona Vineyards and Winery in Red Mountain AVA, Washington.

Selected Wine Reviews:

Jamie Goode reviews the Beaujolais Nouveau from Châteaux de Vaux

The Wine Curmudgeon’s wine of the week is the Alois Lageder Pinot Bianco 2017

Reverse Wine Snob lists the best Thanksgiving Wines.

Kelly Magyarics gets to know the other Cab, Cabernet Franc, and reviews several from California, Virginia, and New York.

Miquel Hudin reviews Finca Barqueres 2016, a Carignan from DO Costers del Segre in Spain.

Tom Lee profiles River’s Marie, a small winery in the Napa Valley.

Vino Sphere reviews Dave Phinney’s Department 66, a French Grenache.

Good Vitis reviews the 2016 Château Peybonhomme-les-Tours le blanc Bonhomme, a white Bordeaux.