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Archive for the ‘Wine’ Category

Roussanne

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Posted by Burke Morton On May - 27 - 2011

Roussanne, one of the grapes at the heart of many a white wine from the southern Rhône Valley, remains among the more obscure grape varieties thanks to the lack of ubiquity of white wines from southern France. Its name is derived from the russet hue that its berries acquire when they reach maturity.

A first-rate variety with a beguiling, haunting aroma, Roussanne was once on the brink of extinction thanks to irregular yields of its fruit, which was not resistant to rot or mildew. With the advent of newer clones that provide more reliable grapes (though they are still not as steadfast as its frequent blending partner, Marsanne), its has found a more solid place at the table with other white varieties of the Rhône Valley, though it is still planted in smaller quantities than are Marsanne (with which it comprises the only varieties allowed in the white wines of Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, St.-Joseph, and St.-Péray).

The aromatic profile, while inspiring, is also rather reticent. The aromas are often reminiscent of an enchanting herb blend (occasionally it has openly bergamot and rosemary notions) steeped into tea using saltwater, though this aroma, which by this description sounds as though it should be grandly effusive, usually seems to be teasing the nose from a distance..."haunting" indeed.

It has a fine, often prickly acidity that allows it to age quite well, and in Châteauneuf-du-Pape (where it is one of four permitted varieties in Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc), its wines can have ageing potential of twenty years or more. And speaking of ageing, the most notable exponent of this uncommon wine, Château de Beaucastel's palm-sweatingly expensive Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc Roussanne Vieilles Vignes, illustrates how well top-quality Roussanne can benefit from oak ageing.

Planted throughout the Rhône Valley, it also is notable in Chignin (Savoie) and in Provence. The Italians have also taken to it, and significant plantings can be found in both Liguria and Tuscany. Small amounts of Roussanne are produced in Australia and the United States, but in every case, Roussanne is the least successful Rhône Valley export, as its yields cannot match the vigorous Marsanne, and its charms are not as dramatically proportioned as Viognier.

Roussanne with Food
Cheese, poultry, pork, smoked fish, vegetables (it even works with crisply-cooked asparagus), and pâtés.

Popularity: 14% [?]

The Dog-Days: 2003 in Europe

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Posted by Burke Morton On June - 18 - 2010

The dog-days of summer are relieving themselves on my front door. I hurried into the house just now, trying to elude the heat, and started thinking about the 2003 vintage in Europe. I don't want to sound like I think fondly of it--no one should, given the humanitarian toll exacted upon Europe, France in particular. Although many fine, idiosyncratic wines emerged that year, it was a tough vintage overall, as Europe hadn't experience that sort of heat in anyone's memory. More than a week of over 100ºF across a mostly non-air condidtioned continent...this wasn't good for anyone.

The wines of this vintage are difficult to read in a long-term/short-term sense, but the conventional wisdom is that the best made wines from '03 are still not worth keeping for an extended period (20-30 years--or more), because the acid levels never had much of a chance to build up, as grapes ripened quickly and were only minimally exposed to the cool temperatures of autumn that encourage acid development. Pundits got hold of this and pronounced that these wines would have unbelievably short lives, sounding more like a doctor telling a cancer patient how long he has to live. However, conventional wisdom regarding deleterious weather effects on wine is, at best, shoddy, and the generalized prognostication is thrown off a bit by those who dealt well the vintage conditions. However, there were a few European producers whose are always reliable that didn't get the vintage right, and what with all the heat and dryness coming out of nowhere, they're hardly to be blamed.

The 2003 vintage was relatively successful in Spain, the Rhône Valley, Languedoc-Roussillon, Provence, Puglia, and Sicily--all places that are used to hot summers. The main worries of '03 for me were Austria, middle-to-northern France (especially Burgundy, Loire, Champagne, and Alsace), and Germany. And to narrow it down further, two varieties concerned me: the Pinot family and Riesling, which don't generally perform well in oppressive conditions without some extraordinary and prescient vineyard management. Because of the heat, the 2003 vintage produced wines that were larger-than-life with ridiculously thick textures and dense fruit profiles. German Rieslings were unbelievably full-bodied, like Barry Bonds between 1998 and perjuring himself. Burgundy seemed to suffer the most as far as reliability (I know, I know, those of you who follow Burgundy will say that this true in any case): there were far too many jam-on-toast, indistinguishable-from-one-another Red Burgundies from 2003 to permit much plauditory locution. These jam-on-toast wines were actually not bad, but if wine from one Cru tastes exactly like those from another Cru, then one of the principal and most compelling reasons for buying Burgundy is gone. However, the good Burgundies--red or white--possessed both some measure of subtlety and an impertinence that reminded you that they were from a normally cool climate.

Flash forward to now, and the well-made '03 Rieslings from Alsace, Austria, and Germany presently seem to have more acidity than they did through most of 2008. I have had many within the past year that have a surprisingly fresh acidity, such that I now wonder how much longer they'll make it. The 1973 vintage in Germany produced wines that few thought would live long lives, but here they are, still full of vividness and youthful vigor. The weather wasn't so extreme in 1973 as it was in 2003, but we might see a similar evolution (however, I'm not suggesting that you test this out, because if the wines are good now, there is no reason not to drink them). The well-made '03 Burgundies have also proven resilient. The '03 Bourgognes (entry-level wines) that I bought are still a bold and assertive smash, and even continue to have that saucy character I mentioned. This element usually mellows over the course of five years or so in the lower-end wines, but here we are after six years in the bottle and they're still motoring.

Why am I writing about this today? I see many 2003s still in the marketplace. I wonder why that is? I went to four different wine shops today, doing a little survey, and there are many wines from the south of France (mostly Gigondas and some upper-end Côtes-du-Rhônes, but also a few Châteauneuf-du-Papes), the Loire Valley (mostly Vouvray and Savennières, and some sweet wines, but a couple of Sancerres from the cousins Cotat, which are unusually long-lived...for Sancerre), Alsace, Burgundy, and Germany.

Do you still have '03s left in your cellar? Are you seeing them on shelves? I'd snap them up, particularly if you have some idea of quality, because the wines from this vintage may be extreme, but if they were well-made, then I don't doubt they'll be good.

Popularity: 7% [?]

Giving Wine a Pop Quiz

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Posted by Burke Morton On May - 14 - 2010

Wine, even basic-yet-tasty wine, really fascinates me. This is why I loathe the 100-point scale for assessing wine. Scoring wines in this way is…you know, I can’t actually say what I’m thinking, because I want this to remain a family-friendly site.... Okay, how's this: giving wine a numeric score is the crowning achievement of the boundless limits of superficiality. Before someone raises the alarm and I have to start stuttering and backpedaling, I should say that those who engage in this practice are not themselves superficial (to my knowledge). My issue is that, even if you read the tasting note (which is supposed to illuminate the score), grading a wine so specifically is a perfunctory way of taking stock. Sounds like a paradox, I know, considering that spending the time and mental energy to award a score ought to allow you to get lots out of the wine, but it fails to take contextual usage into account. Does anyone--other than a wine critic--drink wine with a mind to a hierarchical score? Even wine critics (well, most of them, anyway) don't do this for pleasure. I can tell you what we (since I suppose I’m one, too) do is compartmentalize: we taste through a whole lineup of wines as a part of the job, little sips and sniffs at a time, no food, except for the occasional piece of bread or a cracker. For good old fashioned joy, however, we just pop the cork and go. Wine is (and has always been) meant for that much nobler pursuit.

Wine is part of a larger "something" than simply tasting through a group of wines. Certainly we drink wines without food, but in those situations we are--ideally--having a larger experience not fully dependent upon the wine. Wine is an obvious partner for food, but it is even better when shared communally, food or no. Scoring creates a hierarchy, placing some wines over others and pushing people to buy the “best”--which in the case of wine, is not only an extremely subjective notion, but is, more importantly, dependent upon the circumstances surrounding its consumption. Here you find a limitation on the relevance of such a detailed assessment of a wine’s quality based on its own merits (especially in relation to its peers). Speaking of peers, here's another problem that often arises with wine judging: how do you grade a sweet Riesling against a dry one? Why would you do that? The sweet wine's peers are other sweet wines, yet they are often the highest scoring wines out of a lineup of Rieslings that range from dry to sweet.

Score Your Wine with Thought for Your Food
You're not going to use a dessert wine with your chicken Tetrazzini, but you might be delighted by an off-dry German Gewürztraminer, especially a Spätlese. Is that twenty-year-old dry Riesling great with your steak? Believe it or not, of course it is! But the Riesling Kabinett from Germany is...well, not the right wine for a hunk of beef. What do you do with that Pinot Noir that is a little too acidic to drink on its own? Do you not buy it because it got an 84? No! Make the purchase and serve a crab salad powered by celery root and radishes! It'll be an absolutely sublime pairing, but the 92-point Pinot Noir that you may want to buy (for no other real reason than that it got a 92) is probably going to clash with the same salad. Judged by its own charms, “free” of outside influences the 84-point wine suffers, but if you serve it with food, it might taste like a wine which, at that moment, is so great that you can't imagine anything better. If that's the case, shouldn't it get 100 points? Oh, but you'd have to specify that it was only that way for the crab salad. Which is what should be said every time someone publishes a score for a wine, because it's only a 92-pointer (and then it’s actually only a 92-pointer for the critic writing about it) when you drink it without unusual external influences--the air quality in the room should be normal, there are no ancillary odors like mildew or a piece or Parmesan on the counter, and of course there can be no food.

Putting Points in Practice
That 92 is not real (oh, but is it ever seductive…). For argument’s sake, let's try to warm up to the 100-point system by applying it in (an imagined) real-time. Think of it as a pop quiz for your wine. Let's say that 92-point wine is not a Pinot Noir but a Côte Rôtie (Syrah-Viognier blend) from the Rhône Valley--Yves Cuilleron’s Terres Sombres, a very fine example from that appellation. However, you’ve chosen to have it at your favorite restaurant with sable in a white truffle nage, which is not a good pairing, so tragically, it'll only get an 81; move on to the leg of lamb with lavender jus and it jumps up to an 88; but with the venison steak and blackberry beurre rouge--it's a 96! But then you catch the eye of Jensen, the chump from your spouse’s office (every office has one) who just walked in the door right as you put a glistening morsel of venison in your mouth, and he decides to come join you, uninvited. You coolly take a sip to still your inner assassin and--oooh…I’m afraid that taste of wine is only going to get a 73…even a great wine can’t wash away the bitter taste of jackass.

Now who is constantly scoring their wines like this, really? I'm sure someone does. It's probably Jensen.

Wine Assessment that Makes Sense
I don’t find anything wrong at all with tasting wine critically. I enjoy it very much, and do it as often as I can. It is stimulating and engaging, and can even offer marvelous emotional rewards. My view is simple: I don’t think that giving wine a numeric grade is a good idea. Perhaps there is a need to use some kind of system to readily communicate the quality of a wine. There are plenty of ways to do it, but I’m not sold on most of them. There is the commonly found 20-point scale, which I find only slightly preferable to the 100-point approach. I’m amused by the people who try to convert the score someone gives in the 20-point system into the 100-point system, as if that would actually tell them anything. A wine that gets a 16.5 would work out to about an 83. Usually the 16.5 is a pretty good wine, but an 83…well, I wouldn’t have wanted to get that score on a test (although, I got plenty of them)! I’m a bigger fan of the zero to three stars approach, because there is much more room for interpretation in this scheme. Of course, some will suggest that this is nothing more than a four-point scale, but that’s only true if you need to see wine assessments in point form.

In the end, I’d just as soon recommend a wine straight up, no ratings. I share how I experienced the wine and try to guide a customer based on their personal tastes, if I happen to know them. Wine is so useful, and even soulful…it seems shameful to me to place it in the straightjacket of a point score.

Popularity: 10% [?]

Mystique

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Posted by Burke Morton On April - 29 - 2010

When I was in college, I saw a student at a frat party sitting all alone in a corner drinking wine directly from the bottle. Now it is not particularly surprising to see someone drinking straight from the bottle at a fraternity party, nor would it be thought unusual, at least at the University of Chicago where I went to school, to see a student drinking alone in a corner. It is kind of unusual to see these two things happening at once. Drinking from the bottle at a party is an attention-getting action, with a cocky little ha-ha quality that seems to fit the setting. Perhaps the guy wanted to make sure that we saw him there all alone, but I didn’t want to believe in that kind of false despondency, so I made up a story for him.

I am sure that I told the story with the kind of derision that makes people laugh when they’ve been drinking, and I recall it getting rather intricate. I don’t remember the entire arc, but here’s the gist of it: another economist from the Chicago Law School had just been awarded the Nobel Prize, so with this on everyone’s lips, I theorized that this guy was a frustrated would-be Nobel laureate who just couldn’t get it together because his work failed to present any seminal ideas or solutions. He began to blame every Nobel laureate at Chicago (which at the time was, I believe, eight), and he plotted their demise straight from a bottle of Mouton-Cadet. At the time, I didn’t know that Mouton-Cadet was available everywhere Budweiser was sold, so I gave him some credit for at least drinking fine wine.

Whether Mouton-Cadet is fine wine or not (it’s fruity and potable, which is better than some) is immaterial. The story illustrates one of the great double-edged swords any product can have: mystique. Mystique doesn’t often translate into sales, but it piques curiosity, has great sex appeal, and it once offered me a chance to make up a belittling, melodramatic story. This air of mystery surrounding wine is also the big hurdle for most people who might otherwise delve deeper into it.

It is apparent to anyone, without much investigation, that the wine world is vast and complicated, and getting into it takes both time and money. Just pick up a bottle of Barolo and try to decipher what all the nomenclature denotes without speaking Italian or knowing anything about the region in advance: it’s not easy, but with a little guidance, it becomes accessible.

In Europe and western Asia, wine is a normal part of everyone’s diet, and is seen as special only in specific circumstances with exceptional wines. Maybe one day we will reach this point in the United States, because wine exists for everyone to consume. Of course, not every wine is for everyone, but the category of wine as a whole should not be so elusive. Beer is seen as the alcoholic drink for everyone, but with the glut of microbrews available, even beer is becoming more fractured and complicated.

Wine is not as inscrutable as it seems, and I suppose that is one of my general themes. Wine cannot--without substantial damage to its fun factor (and therefore should not)--be demystified, and it, really, it does such a good job of spreading joy when people actually drink it.

And speaking of joy--excuse me while I go open a bottle of Rosé...I'm thirsty!

Popularity: 4% [?]

Warm Welcome in Alsace

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Posted by Burke Morton On March - 3 - 2010

I visited Alsace on the day following my trip to Champagne. If you take the obscenely early train out of Paris, the TGV goes directly to Colmar, where I rented a Fiat Panda (complete with an engine that would have been better off in a sewing machine) to navigate Alsace's snowy roads. Perhaps it was because visitors to the region are rare in February, but everywhere I turned I was greeted warmly, starting with the person who helped me find free parking in Eguisheim, a beautiful little village south of Colmar where there is a racket on parking. My appointment in Eguisheim was at Bruno Sorg, where I tasted with oenologist François Sorg, whose wines were glorious. They are mostly unavailable in the U.S. (a tragedy!), unless you're in Chicago. I made a brief stop at Trimbach in Ribeauvillé, and finished the day at Weinbach in Kaysersberg. Because this is Alsace, all of these estates are relatively close together--the longest drive was 15 minutes, and road signage is so comprehensive that I didn't even need the map I bought in Colmar.

Finding a Home for the Night
Schools in Alsace were on a week-long hiatus, so I had a difficult time finding a place to stay, as apparently most of the families that run the small hotels were away on holiday. As I swung the Singer by Fiat into the drive at Domaine Weinbach, I called my intended overnight destination in Kaysersberg, but the hotel was closed! Perhaps I should have investigated this earlier.... I didn't have time to call other hotels immediately as I was right on time for my appointment, so I stepped from the car into a world far different from the one I'd left (Ribeauvillé, which was somehow less intimate): a blanket of quiet, with butterflies of snow swirling about, cars passing silently in the distance beneath the white terraces of the Schlossberg Grand Cru, which, through the thick snow, looked as though it was sailing on by. This was perfect preparation for the tasting ahead--Weinbach's 2008s: elegant, lithe, pensive wines, though the Gewurztraminers were quite full-figured. I have been a long-time admirer of these wines, and tasting 25 of them in one sitting was a wonderful experience. I've never gotten such a strong impression of wines being crafted expressly for practical use (i.e., with an extraordinarily wide variety of foods). Clearly these are my people!

I eventually remembered I needed lodging for the night, so I asked winemaker Laurence Faller if she knew of a hotel that might be open. She mentioned a couple of options but suggested that I consult further with her mother when we were finished. So Madame Colette Faller (who has been the force and spirit of the estate since her husband Théo died in 1979) gave me more assistance than I deserved! In the end, Madame Faller spent 45 MINUTES helping me find a place that was open, and gave me very detailed directions to a marvelous place--the Hôtel du Faudé--in the village of Lapoutroie.

A Mountain Retreat
Nestled in the Vosges Mountains above the Kaysersberg Valley, Lapoutroie is only 10 km from Kaysersberg and 12 km from an excellent ski area, which would explain why the Hôtel du Faudé was mostly full when I arrived. They have three restaurants, but I chose the one specializing in regional cuisine, because it was serving one of my favorite Alsatian dishes, Baeckeoffe (pronounced "beck-eh-off-uh" more or less), a hearty pot roast-ish concoction with a heady aroma and sensuous texture. From the extraordinary wine list, I settled on a '07 Pinot Gris from Domaine Weinbach to honor Madame Faller who had sent me there, and at the end of my meal, the hotel proprietor sat talking with me for an hour, telling me about the area and colloquializing my French. With kindness from every quarter, no one could have done anything else to make me feel more welcome.

The wine was great with the Baeckeoffe, as Pinot Gris usually is. And as I said, the women at Domaine Weinbach are crafting wines meant to give the Spinal Tap treatment to your dining experience (as opposed to your drinking experience, where an Aussie Shiraz might go to eleven all on its own), and it worked.

Popularity: 5% [?]

A New Year’s Resolution

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Posted by Burke Morton On January - 5 - 2010

A Toast (photo: Geir_Halvorsen)This is the time of year that wine writers like to share their New Year's Resolutions of Wine--seems an appropriate and clever thing to do. However, my brain is clearly not primed to capitalize on this kind of moment, because I didn't think about it until now. Perhaps this is because of my attention issues, but I rarely make resolutions anyway because I never get very far with them. Resolutions also tend to be self-centered, and my follow-through is better when other people are involved.

Resolving a Change that You Would Be Willing to Read About...
I could come up with a long list of things I would resolve to change because they are asinine or unfortunate [among other things, I would: crusade against the new fad for "all-in-one" wine glass shapes (this is a wine's equivalent of being stuck in middle-management--the wine could be even better, but the glass is keeping it down); expose more wine drinkers to cork-taint so that they will know that the wine was not bad, but that it was the cork that made it so (and tell them to take it back for a fresh bottle); and convince people who believe "if I don't like a wine, it must not and never will be good" that they are wrong (plenty of otherwise insightful people draw this conclusion).], but these are negative things and I really don't want to start out the year with THAT vibe, no matter how entertaining it is both to write and to read invective. Besides, these grievances may one day make perfectly good blog post topics of their own!

So, yes, I made a resolution this year (and to increase the chances for success, I stopped at one): I need to drink more wine with my friends, whom I do not see often enough. I don't think I need to elaborate much here, because it seems obvious that this would be a wonderfully easy resolution to keep. The nature of my work this past year has been and continues to be somewhat solitary and I can get buried in writing, but I admit I also succumb easily to inertia (after all, it's simpler: some folks want the ease of using one shape of fancy wine glass, while others will use three or four different shapes, so long as we don't have to go anywhere to use them). So I have resolved to pull my head up. I'd guess most people do this without having to think about it in advance, but if you don't already regularly share a bottle or two with your friends, then you might make a similar resolution, too, because take it from me--you are missing out.

Popularity: 4% [?]

Video Today


You don't need to speak French to know that the iPad can double as a Champagne Sabre.... Happy New Year!

Popularity: 65% [?]

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