Saturday, April 29, 2017

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% [?]

A Pinot Gris at 15

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Posted by Burke Morton On April - 16 - 2010

I decided I'd have an easier time adjusting to the missing finger if I was consuming wine while writing (after all, the old writer's adage is "write drunk, edit sober"), so on this beautiful, warm Spring day I pulled out a bottle of 15 year-old Pinot Gris from Alsace: the 1995 Clos Windsbuhl Pinot Gris from Zind-Humbrecht.

In the end I didn't drink enough to even get a buzz, because this is the kind of wine you want to stay sober for! Those of you who are surprised that a Pinot Gris lasted this long, I hope you'll revise your thinking, as this is not uncommon from the great sites in Alsace. Clos Windsbuhl is a single vineyard in Alsace that, for a variety of reasons (which I'll spare you unless someone asks about it) yields wines that generally age well, and are often very tense when young.

Since I was an insufferable newbie AND somehow also a know-it-all when I bought this wine back in 1997 (I was insecure and had a huge ego that was completely in the way of any sensory reception at the tasting I went to. To the extent that you care, we can thank maturity and my wife for feeding me the humble pie.), I have absolutely no recollection of what this wine tasted like back then. However, based on my unusually broad knowledge (umm...where's that humble pie?) of Alsace wine, I imagine that there was some residual sugar that was prominent. If so, this is no longer a principal feature, but has absorbed into the wine as a whole. This is not uncommon in wines this powerful as they age. Think of it this way: this wine was made for a long life, so it's sweetness and acids were not communing very well early on, whereas in some of the very, very popular Chardonnays from Napa Valley and Sonoma Coast--those that many people think are actually dry--are made to co-mingle this sugar and acidity more precociously.

A Pinot Gris like this would be a mind-bending alternative to fans of such wines. The Pinot Gris was fresh, didn't taste "old" at all, and had marvelously vivid stone fruit qualities to go with similar but significantly more suggestive aromas. It was hard to stop smelling this one.

Zind-Humbrecht wines are not inexpensive, but this estate makes some of the greatest wines you can buy. I paid $45 for this wine (at a time when this kind of price made my head swim). That $45 has paid huge dividends for me so far, and I don't doubt that it will continue to do so for the rest of the day (and tomorrow). Strangely, these wines are not as in-demand as they should be. I've known many people who buy those aforementioned Chardonnays--which shall go unnamed (to protect the innocent, since this article is not meant to deride them...maybe I'll write one of those later)--by the case and put them in their cellar, but then they don't drink them all within three years. Naturally they complain that the wines don't taste like they did or--my favorite descriptor--"should." I can only offer commiseration and a new buying strategy. The Clos Windsbuld Pinot Gris currently sells for about $65, equivalent to many of those California Chards, but this wine has no trouble lasting 15 years. Is it any wonder I still can't fathom the relative stagnance of Alsace wine sales at the upper end?

Oh well, I'll just go back to my glass and enjoy it. If I can't get other people to buy these wines, then that'll just leave more for me. But I like sharing, so I'm afraid you'll be in for a continued assault.

Popularity: 4% [?]

A Week in France

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Posted by Burke Morton On February - 7 - 2010

Train à Grande VitesseI'm headed for France today--I'll be there for the next week while my wife is on a business trip for her employer. You can get from Paris to Reims in 45 minutes--thanks to the TGV--so while my wife is working, I will do some wine work Champagne. I'll be visiting two of my favorite small grower-producers, Pierre Peters in the Côte de Blancs (south of Epernay) and Vilmart further north in the Marne Valley (just south of Reims). Also thanks to the TGV, I'll spend two days visiting and tasting in the under-appreciated region of Alsace. It is a mere three hour zip across the country to the eastern corner of France, where I'll see several producers, including Trimbach, Weinbach, and Zind-Humbrecht (alas, they do not have a website). I know, it seems crazy that it's February and I'm going to be drinking a ton of white wine. Sounds perfect to me. I'll post updates as time allows--the next one will be from France!

Popularity: 5% [?]

Another Reason to Love Anderson Valley

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Posted by Burke Morton On February - 7 - 2010

Anderson ValleyAnderson Valley Winegrowers Association is staging one of the greatest wine festivals in the country: the International Alsace Varietals Festival on February 20 & 21. This is another, yes another!, reason to love the Anderson Valley, jewel of Mendocino. I find the Pinot Noirs from Anderson Valley to be among the most compelling in the world, and here they are hosting wineries from all over the world, showcasing their wines and doing what more people need to do: promoting the consumption of white wine, which has fallen on hard times because of a "lack of seriousness" factor. Here's an excerpt from their press release:

Anderson Valley, because of its cool climate, provides ideal growing conditions for Alsace varietals. Brought to the valley in the late-1960s, Gewürztraminer from Husch Vineyards, Lazy Creek Vineyards, and Navarro Vineyards soon defined the region for early wine explorers. Today, more local producers craft Alsatian-style wines, including Claudia Springs Winery, Esterlina Vineyards, Greenwood Ridge Vineyards, Handley Cellars, Londer Vineyards and Raye's Hill Vineyards & Winery, among others.

Consider attending this great event, if you can--you'll get to taste Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Muscat, and Auxerrois from all over the world, and the local wineries will be having open houses. If you can't go, try out some of the wines from the estates listed above. I am particularly fond of Handley and Esterlina, but that's only because I have had a long history with those producers. When you do try them, I don't think you'll be disappointed (unless you want an oaky chardonnay instead....).

Popularity: 4% [?]

Gewürztraminer

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Posted by Burke Morton On November - 2 - 2009

GewurztraminerGewürztraminer is the grape variety that makes one of the wine world's most effulgent and warming wines. When it is well made, it is a serious wine indeed, with an obvious voluptuousness and brazenness. To make this seem less high-brow, I'll call it the Mae West of wine. As you might expect with such a wine, drinkers tend to have polarized reactions to it, though the reaction to the wine doesn't tend to break down along gender lines.

Gewürztraminer (guh-VURTZ-TRA-mee-ner, pronounced this way because it...) is a pink-berried mutation of the Traminer (TRA-mee-ner) grape variety. It earned the gewürz (which literally means "spiced" in German) modifier thanks to its heady perfume, which is so exuberant that it alone provides enough information to identify the wine blind.

The Qualities of the Wine
The basic character of Gewürztraminer is generally broken into two styles: one defined by spiced aromas and opulence, and the other by a floral fragrance and a slightly reserved essence. In both cases, one may detect aromas akin to litchi nuts, rose petals, and/or grapefruit and honey, and when it is bone-dry it can smell strongly of bacon fat. It often tastes of litchi nuts as well, but in the depths of its golden hue many flavors lurk, and since varietal stereotyping makes me uncomfortable anyway, I'll just say that whatever flavors it presents, they are so bold that one can easily grow weary of the flavor profile of a run-of-the-mill Gewurz. However, a Gewürztraminer from a Grand Cru in Alsace can be fabulously complex, continuously evolving, and capable of mid-term aging (20 years or so, but, with a couple of exceptions, I fail to see why one would wait so long). Over the course of a decade in the bottle, the spice quality of a great Gewürztraminer intensifies to such a degree that simply opening a bottle has made my kitchen smell as though I just pulled some gingerbread out of the oven.

If you are a lover of wines of finesse, then perhaps Gewürztraminer is not for you. However, many a finesse-driven Gewurz exists, largely from vintages that are not "hyped" by the growers or wine press--i.e., cooler vintages that didn't necessarily ripen the other varieties grown in the region. These wines are lovely and seductive but more demure and more versatile (with food or without) than bigger, bolder Gewürztraminers.

Speaking of food...

Food and Wine Harmony

Gewurztraminer is generally quite food friendly, so long as the food your are serving with it is also strongly-flavored. This makes it a good companion during the holidays, when many disparate flavors come together at a Thanksgiving or Christmas feast. It is also the classic (and best) pairing for French Muenster (not the sandwich cheese from Wisconsin). In fact, if you don't like Gewurz, you may find that the wine makes more sense with Muenster.

It is commonly recommended with Indian and Thai food (especially curries), though I am not generally a proponent of this, as the flavors too often clash. This is not to say that I don't find Gewurz to be felicitous with spicy food, because I do generally like it with Cajun cuisine and a broad range of Chinese foods, including Sichuan and Hunan. It is best to experiment here, as it is unfair to Sichuan and Hunan cuisines to suggest that the wonderfully wide variety of flavors found in the foods of these regions go well--as a class--with Gewürztraminer, which is obviously not the case. It is also a great companion for dishes with a pronounced smokiness, or strong flavors of cinnamon, cloves, ginger, or soy.

Cheese: Époisse, Muenster (the French kind), Roquefort
Meats: Cornish Game Hen, Duck, Pâté (esp. if the Gewurz is off-dry), Pork (especially roast loin and ham), Prosciutto (esp. with melon), Turkey,
Fruits: Coconut, Litchi Nuts, Mango, Papaya
Vegetables: Acorn Squash, Butternut Squash, Sweet Potatoes, Sauerkraut, Grilled Vegetables

Dessert form of Gewürztraminer: this goes well with the same cheeses, but is also sensational with coconut desserts (huzzah for coconut creme pie!), as well as fruit desserts based on tropical fruits like mango and papaya.

You may safely stop here without missing anything. Should you want to learn a bit more, read on...

Hurdles to Making Great Gewürztraminer
It takes very little sunny and warm weather for Gewürztraminer to reach maturity on vine. It is therefore not the easiest variety for growing to make great wine, because it presents the inverse of the challenge associated with more famous wine grapes: it has a high level of natural sugar while its natural acids are rather low. The high grape sugar means that its alcoholic content is commonly over 13-14%, which limits its use with food to heartier cuisines. The low acid means that it can be quite flabby and unappealing unless a grower carefully employs vineyard practices that encourage acid:sugar balance. Good growers are capable of wrenching great wine from this quirky grape even in such blisteringly hot vintages as 2003. The Great Growers of Gewurztraminer (GGG, I guess...) often find enough acidity AND sugar in their grapes that they need to leave an appropriate level of residual sugar in the final wine, though I rarely find such wines taste overtly "sweet."

Gewürztraminer Around the World
There is no question that Alsace is the spiritual home of Gewürztraminer, as the preponderance of Gewurz is planted and made there. It is not a lucrative grape to grow, it is occasionally found from estates and growers who have an affection for it. It is grown to a limited extent in Germany, and does rear its head across eastern Europe, though it is fairly insignificant. It has become a relatively popular variety to grow in New Zealand and in some of the cooler pockets of California. It is in Oregon and Washington that it has made its New World home, with many dedicated growers, especially in Washington, crafting some exciting examples.

Popularity: 6% [?]

Riesling

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Posted by Burke Morton On September - 16 - 2009

RieslingThe jewel in the crown of any growing region where it may thrive (and like Pinot Noir, that is a narrow range of places), Riesling is the world's finest white wine grape. Okay, in the interest of equanimity, it is arguably the world's finest white wine grape. Certainly it is responsible for the finest white wines in the cool-climate regions of three of the world's great wine-growing countries--Austria, Germany, and France.

Riesling has suffered at the hands of bad wines made in its name, and suffers still from a bottle shape that also reminds consumers ineluctably of that too-sweet wine that they thought they had left behind. Over the years of rehabilitation, Riesling has proven that--while great--it is certainly not for everyone, and it is still fabulously unfashionable in the minds of drinkers who haven't yet been willing to let go of what they "know" and approach Riesling without prejudice.

Misunderstood though it may be, this statement cannot be gainsaid: based on the kaleidoscopic flavors it can present, along with the incredible sense of fathomlessness (if you want this to be a more dispassionate statement, you may substitute "along with numerous indescribable qualities") it can achieve, whether bone dry or super-sweet, a well-made Riesling has no peer. I'll give Chenin Blanc a close second, a grape is possibly even less fashionable than Riesling lately (given the rate with which Chenin is being pulled up in South Africa).

Riesling has a soaring aroma and intense flavors, and usually a lower alcoholic content, especially in Germany, where after fermentation, unfermented grape juice (usually called süssreserve) is added to the wine in order to balance out the high acids that are routine in the cool-climates of the Mosel River and its tributaries, the Ruwer and Saar Rivers. Alcohol levels of 8% are the norm, but in Austria and Alsace, the wines are much more potent at 12%. They are also generally made in a dry style.

I have poured many a BONE DRY Riesling to customers who will insist that it is sweet after they've tasted it. This happens less often if I can pour it in a blind-tasting. That it continues to happen even in a neutral setting is attributable to the simultaneous purity and depth of fruit inherent to Riesling that Chardonnay, for example, doesn't have. Tasters expecting the relatively fruit-poor expressions of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and to a certain extent Pinot Grigio, will no doubt perceive sweetness in a dry Riesling. The irony is that a dry Riesling almost surely possesses less sugar than any of these others.

Food and Wine Harmony

Riesling is among the most useful of wines at the table. Residual sugar is, up to certain limits--a non-issue. Savory food tends to like sugar mixed-in, making Riesling an obvious choice for a mellifluous pairing. It would almost be better to say what it DOES NOT go well with, as that is a much shorter list. Some obvious choices, though, are:
Dry: Asian cuisine, beef (can be a revelation!), cheese, chicken, Choucroute, ham, duck, goose, onion tart, rabbit, salmon, trout
Off Dry: apples, Asian cuisine, chicken, crab, mild curry, roast duck, fish, fruit and fruit sauces, pork, smoked salmon, scallops, roast turkey, Vietnamese food
Sweet: dessert (except chocolate, depending on the wine), foie gras

Unless you want to go deep with Riesling, you may safely stop here without missing a thing.

The natural disposition of Riesling is so fine--provided it is planted in the proper regions--that it can continue to ripen for many weeks after initial ripeness is attained. The natural relationship between the grape's sugars and acids can be maintained while the grape has an opportunity to develop more flavors. This is seen most clearly in Germany, with designations for different ripeness levels that are dictated in several cases by the number of days between harvest (i.e., Kabinett wines may be picked no earlier than two weeks after the first picking of the basic "Qualitätswein")

Riesling from Alsace is not particularly similar to German Riesling, though occasional similarities can be seen with the Trocken (dry) Rieslings from the Pfalz in Germany. German Riesling, especially those from the Mosel area are low in alcohol and can seem to be born out of the ether.

Riesling is a particularly hardy vine, and this is especially helpful in cooler wine regions where other grape varieties might succumb to frost damage. Riesling's springtime bud-break is later than most, and ripening comes earlier than other famous varieties, but achieving full-ripeness in cooler regions can stretch well into Autumn--late October or even late November.

Popularity: 8% [?]

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

Popularity: 64% [?]

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