Sunday, January 26, 2020

Wine Region Once Removed

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Posted by Burke Morton On May - 15 - 2010

In the Loire Valley, the appellations are mostly dispersed along the banks of the Loire River, and some of its tributaries. There are a few curious regions that are generally included under the administrative umbrella of the Loire Valley that have about as much in common with the Loire as a cygnet does with ducklings. In fact, I have heard some Loire Valley producers refer to one of these regions in particular, Châteaumeillant, as the ugly duckling of the Loire.

Châteaumeillant is a young appellation, raised to AOC status in 2007. Only red and rosé wines are permitted under AOC rules, and the two grapes responsible for its wines are Gamay and Pinot Noir. The wines in Châteaumeillant are quite distinctive and have shown consistent and excellent quality in recent years, so some of them are now showing up on shelves in the United States. I recently bought a bottle each of two '07s from the same estate--Geoffrenet-Morval's Version Originale, and Extra-Version. Calling them fascinating is an understatement. I wonder how well they will sell? They are not geared toward what is often perceived as an "American" palate, but neither are they difficult to appreciate. Is this the kind of wine that retailers will balk at because they'll have to hand sell it? Well, we'll see.

The Wines--With & Without Food
The Version Originale is 100% Gamay, and was delicious and vibrant--heady blue fruit aroma and a light body with a lovely black currant tint to the flavor. Beautiful color--dark heliotrope, catches the light like crystal. Wow. A tricky wine for usage, because tannins are initially sleek but build steadily. It's great depth of flavor and slight salinity steered me toward tuna tartare, and that worked beautifully. Had a small plate of charcuterie to start, and the combination was dynamite with it (except for the chicken liver mousse, but that's no surprise). Spanks every other Loire Valley Gamay I've ever had (and that's actually saying something).

The Extra-Version, a name no doubt filled with double meaning [it both capitalizes on the French word for extroversion (extraversion) and because it is another version of Châteaumeillant, because it is atypical], is 80% Pinot Noir and 20% Gamay, an unusual blend, as Châteaumeillant is generally Gamay-based with no more than 40% Pinot Noir. Soaring, edgy aroma that is full of rhubarb, blackberry, and lavender. Lithe but not flexible, this might be controversial for someone expecting it to be more "Pinot Noir"--the vivacity is quite rotund, but it comes through a fairly light-body. I loved it with a napoleon of capicola, frisée, Cherokee Purple tomato, and classic southern mustard sauce between flats of jicama. I imagine it would also be quite delicious with trout.

Popularity: 12% [?]

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: 12% [?]

White Wines from Southern Oregon

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Posted by Burke Morton On March - 20 - 2010

The longer I've been in wine, the more captivated I am by white wine and the wide range of possible flavors that it can give you. This spectrum of flavor is far, far broader than it is in red wine, but somehow white wine has become less satisfying to us as a wine buying public. I don't think white wine has more of an intellectual appeal, besides such a descriptor is better reserved for specific wines that are somehow more mentally stimulating than emotionally nurturing. I can see many possible reasons why red wine has become so popular, though I suspect that it'll be quite a while before I decide I don't have better things to think about than this. For now, I'm willing to settle on the idea that white wine is becoming less fashionable.

If indeed white wine has become significantly less fashionable, then that means that too many people will miss out on the two very exciting wines that hit my glass the other day, both from Foris Vineyards in southern Oregon's Rogue Valley.

I have a long history with Foris, back to the days more than a decade ago when they had a bad label design, which I will admit I actually kind of liked for the fact that you simply couldn't stop looking at it--like a train wreck! Well, if it happened to get you to pick it up, as it did me, you'd find a mesmerizingly chewy Pinot Noir, and you'd go back and buy more. Now the labels have some sleek style, more reflective of all of the wines in their line-up, especially the whites. I love the Pinot Blanc from Foris, but the public doesn't clamor for Pinot Blanc the way I'd like, so common business sense meant that I spent more time getting under the skin of the excellent Riesling, Gewurztraminer, and Pinot Gris.

I tasted the Riesling and the Muscat Frissante recently, and they were evocative, fulfilling wines. The Riesling--which is a standby for me--is scrupulous, teasingly aromatic, and tensile, plus it is dry enough to make you rethink your definition of "dry". This is great winemaking, because the Riesling is utterly drinkable, and for $13 that's overachieving.

The Muscat is made in the Moscato d'Asti style, so it has plenty of sugar and plenty of acid to buttress that; low alcohol and light fizz so that you can consume it on your deck in the heat of the day; and such an expansive, perfumed aroma that you feel like you've walked into the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. $15 seems cheap for this wine! This one is probably a one-off, because there is usually only enough fruit every year for the dessert wine. Since 2009 yielded a bumper crop of Muscat, I'd take advantage of this and buy a case and drink it liberally, as few wines will bring as much joy this summer as this one will.

Popularity: 6% [?]

A Brief Post-Hurricane Wine Essay

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Posted by Burke Morton On December - 15 - 2009

Arms of Hurricane Ike (photo: NASA)Thank you to the many of you who asked me to post this piece: it is an essay that I wrote for the print edition of The Pulse of the City the week after the long arms of Hurricane Ike--not yet satisfied by the destruction of Galveston, Texas--laid waste to a large portion of the power grid covering the Mississippi and Ohio River Valleys in September 2008.

--Power (Loss) Provides New Perspective--

The power is off in my house as I write this. It’s been off for a while and no doubt will be off for a few more days yet. I’m actually writing longhand, which is not my typical way of writing these days. The house is quiet, my family is asleep, and it would be hard to not enjoy the poetry of a moment like this. The scratching of my pen is the only sound this side of my breathing, and the candles in the center of the table gird me and my surroundings in an appetizing red-yellow glow. I’m drinking red wine. It is beautiful, but it is really not what I wanted to open. I’d rather drink something white, but since refrigeration becomes a problem when the power is out, I have chosen to curl my fingers around the stem of a New Zealand Pinot Noir--it is as fragile and tensile as any good Riesling, but it grows beefier with every sip, until I have some water, and then it seems edgy again.

I’m not trying to indulge some pretentious nonsense. This is just an illustration of how I am interacting with wine at the moment. It reminds me of the slightly thrilling sensation of driving alone at night: self-aware, open to knowing the impact we have on our surroundings and the way our surroundings affect us. We are not usually in this state (or at least I am not), so we are not usually decoding the messages our senses are receiving.

We are so assaulted by information that it has become a cliché to mention it. We barely have time to process what we get paid to do, much less concern ourselves with such avocational topics as wine. We’ve been primed to turn off some receptors, which allows us to sit through an exciting action film or watch a friend embarrass himself. Turning our senses back “on” is not easy, but doing so allows us to be immersed in the world and the world to be immersed in us. This requires a lot of energy, but I’ve found it to be worth it.

So what the heck does this have to do with wine? Well, only everything! Wine is one of the few things that engages all five senses at once, while at the same time stimulating the intellect (provided the wine is of genuine interest for one reason or another). It is perfectly easy to slurp down wine just for fun, but it is more rewarding to let the wine both tell its story, and help shape the story of drinking it.

I realize that this runs the risk of sounding like snobby new-age esoterica, but think about how you interact with food and drink. Does it interest you only for sustenance; do you like it for all of its facets, warts and all; something in between? Either way, it will affect the way you remember the food or drink, as well as the way you relate the experience of it.

Back to the story here--that New Zealand Pinot Noir which is getting more muscular with each sip is really a delight to drink. It is the Olssons Jackson Barry Pinot Noir, and I would recommend it for its multi-layered complexity as well as its ability to overcome a big hurdle. As I said, I didn’t really want to drink this wine. When I realized the refrigerator wasn’t going to get my wine cold, it was either rally and find something else to drink, or go without wine altogether. I obviously chose the former, and in doing so, though it was not intentional, I have gotten to relate the experience of it.

After all that, if Hurricane Ike hadn’t treated our fair city like Tina so that I had to make a choice, I would be drinking Champagne right now. And with those bubbles tickling my nose and a working overhead light, this would have been an entirely different article.

Popularity: 3% [?]

Wines for Thanksgiving

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Posted by Burke Morton On November - 19 - 2009

Wild Turkey (photo: Alan_Vernon.)There is only a week remaining until one of the most important events on the food/wine pairing calendar! I have always looked forward to this time of year, and when I was a wine retailer it was especially invigorating, because sales were excellent and it was fun to get excited (and get customers excited) about wines for the holidays. Time to spread the joy once more!

Dealing with Thanksgiving Food
The flavors of the foods on the Thanksgiving table are so disjointed that one would almost be better off having a companion drink for each dish rather than a single libation. Or just have water (which is asinine unless alcoholism is a factor, so we'll set THAT idea aside). Back to the food and what's often on the table...turkey (relatively bland); stuffing (rich taste made all the more intense if sausage or oysters are added); green vegetables (green beans are the norm at my house, typically hard on wine); sweet potatoes (rich flavor and welcoming of many wines); cranberry sauce (exuberant flavor, not all that wine friendly); and these are just the basics! Obviously there are too many dishes to even consider multiple wine pairings, so let's look at this a bit more nonchalantly: if you want to taste your drink with your feast, you'll need something with bold flavor. If you want to taste your feast with your drink, you'll need something with some grace. My favorite wines with Thanksgiving are not-necessarily full-bodied, but are somewhat warming, even if normally served cold.

An Opening Consideration
Let's go ahead and eliminate big, fat, oaky wines (this means Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon in their typical guises). Heavy oak treatment generally inhibits a wine's utility with food. There are obviously some Chardonnays and Cabernets Sauvignon that would work fine with Thanksgiving fare, but these will be out of the ordinary. Wines with other stylistic extremes like those with high alcohol levels are fine (as long as they are not too much about themselves (i.e., like the overripe swamp juice out of Australia)), as are those with low alcohol (so long as they still have vivid character). Wines intended for the Thanksgiving table should also have enough zip to pull through the fats in the food, but not so much that your mouth puckers (nor should they be so devoid of "zip" that they seem flabby).

If any of the following suggestions make you think, "What is that wine?", "How can I find that?", or "Now I'm even more confused!", then you should talk to your local retailer. They can help you find the best option for you.

Here are some of my favorite wines for Thanksgiving:

How can you go wrong with rosé? The answer is, YOU CAN'T!!!! If you have any left over from summer, now is the time to drink it, and you'll be glad you did. I particularly like rosés made of Pinot Noir, Grenache, Syrah, or Cabernet Sauvignon (here's a good place for Cab Sauv!). Rosés from the Sancerre region of France's Loire Valley are exceptionally good, as are the famous rosés of the Rhone Valley's Tavel region. I just tried a rosé from Oregon--the Big Fire Rosé from R. Stuart that would be perfect.

The white wines I am particularly drawn to for Thanksgiving include Gewurztraminer, Riesling, and Grüner Veltliner, but there are many others that I find just as scintillating. Gewürztraminer is a mighty, intensely aromatic wine and it can be like a warm blanket for your palate. In my retail days, I sold more Gewurz at Thanksgiving than at any other time of the year because it is so wonderful with the feast. As for Riesling, if you choose off-dry, I prefer Spätlese or Auslese in ripeness, but there are many Kabinett-level wines that can have just as much depth (this is where you'd ask your retailer). If you want a dry Riesling, a big serious wine from a great growing site works best, and usually these wines get better and better with aeration, so if you don't finish it, drink the rest the next day (there's hardly a more soul-stirring experience than this). Grüner Veltliner is glorious here, and you'll be happy you tried it, because it has the staying power to work with the food (surprisingly seamlessly across the table), and is qualitatively superior to it's peers at a similar price point.

I'll also be drinking some Zinfandel. Skip the White Zinfandel, and go for Red. Some like to point out that this is "America's Grape" and what could be more appropriate than that for Thanksgiving? I like to point out that it is genetically identical to European grapes with names like Plavac Mali and Primitivo, so let's drink it for it's merit, shall we? And it has plenty of merit: this year I'll be drinking the Seghesio Home Ranch Zinfandel, and I drank the 2002 Ravenswood Dickerson Zinfandel last year and loved it. A well-made Red Zin has good balance of acidity and fruit and pulls so much of the food on your plate together that it is in the same league as the whites listed above for harmonious food:wine rapport. Another option--a sensational one at that--is Grenache. I like it in the form that is found in the Rhone Valley regions of Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas. These velvety wines are so gratifying and emotive that they'll make you think of home, and what could be more appropriate than that for Thanksgiving?

For some other suggestions, go to the Wine Pairing Search and look under "Turkey"

Popularity: 11% [?]

Tasting the Wines of R. Stuart

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Posted by Burke Morton On November - 6 - 2009

R. Stuart & Co (photo: bigfirewine)I tasted several Oregon wines yesterday, most of which were new to me, and all were great. I'll review a couple of other wines from the tasting later, but I'll start with the wines from R. Stuart, which were easily the class of the tasting, because not one was disappointing, and they easily had the best price:quality rapport.

Big Fire Rosé--a beautiful, bright rosé, one of among many from Oregon, but this one is a standout. Vivacious, long flavors of rhubarb and black raspberry--I'd drink this at Thanksgiving. It's a steal at $17.

Big Fire Pinot Gris--A ragingly flavorful Pinot Gris, full of character and purity of fruit--this seems to be a hallmark of the Big Fire wines: nothing interfering with fruit expressions in any of the wines (see the Pinot Noir for more). This one has an undercurrent of cream that keeps the fruit broad, expanding the stone-fruit flavors. Another great value at $17.

Big Fire Pinot Noir--these days, this level of Pinot Noir from Oregon is generally one dimensional and doesn't have enough succulent fruit to be satisfying (for me, at least), but this wine blooms and soars with fresh cherry-toned fruit and an underlying moodiness that is hard to pin down...but why would you want to? It is enough to enjoy its mystery, and for $20, that's something special.

R. Stuart Pinot Noir Autograph Willamette Valley--This is the most 'complete' wine of the bunch. Broader and much deeper than the Big Fire (which is not shallow to start with) this wine contains fruit from all over the central Willamette Valley. It is not as immediately enjoyable as the Big Fire PN, as you'll have to wait a few minutes after pouring a glass to really get the best of it. One can easily detect the elegant detailing of breadth and richness right off the bat, but it gets better with every sip. The sensuous and persistent fruit expression makes it an excellent holiday feast wine. Given its quality, it is not much of a commitment at $35.

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: 83% [?]


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