The Fourth Monkey: Pineau Evil

do-no-evilIf my description of the following Pineau des Charentes is so passionate that you feel a Svengali-like drive to go buy some, better hurry.  The hand-numbered bottle I tried was listed 885/900.

Bottom of the barrel takes on a whole new meaning.

Meanwhile, Pineau des Charentes is a whole new twist on dessert wine.  By ‘new’, of course I mean ‘really old’, but like plenty of regional French wines, hardly anyone in the United States is familiar with it.  And those who are don’t necessarily like it.

Boy toy Nick Palazzi

Boy toy Nick Palazzi

From the Cognac region, it’s a fortified wine made by combining eau-de-vis (in this case, year-old Cognac) with freshly pressed juice from the Cognacian trio, Ugni blanc, Folle blanche and Colombard, which is then put down for an 18 month nap, with eight of those months required to be in oak.  Five years worth of aging earns the designation ‘vieux’ and ten years plus, ‘très vieux’, wines which Nicolas Palazzi—the Pope of Pineau—insists “Have developed a complexity that has nothing to do with the young stuff.”

Interestingly, even the pricier vieux versions still rely on neonatal Cognacs to arrest fermentation, because, according to Palazzi, there’s simply no market for Pineau des Charentes. “Small guys make more money taking Cognac that could go into Pineau and bottling and selling it as Cognac for €40 instead of using that same Cognac to make Pineau and trying to find somebody who’s going to buy the damn bottle for €4.”

Due to Pineau des Charentes’ respectable alcohol-by-volume, generally 17%, it is classified as ‘dessert wine’, and even says so on the bottle. But in style and tradition, it may work better as an apéritif—which, for the Franco-challenged, means ‘not dessert’.  A reason for that, and why, for the most part, vintners in this part of the world make liquor out of Ugni blanc—a.k.a. Trebbiano—instead of wine is that the varietal suffers a ferocious natural acidity and a congenital lack of character.

Semillon

Semillon

That’s good for creating a high-proof product destined to taste more like wood than grapes, but in wine offers little by way of complexity or depth and is, in the very best interpretations, pretty neutral.

Sémillon, on the other hand—grown a hundred miles to the south—is a component grape of the world’s finest (white) dessert wines; the Superstar of Sauternes and the Belle of Barsac makes a luscious, creamy, mouthfilling wine, but of course, there’s pourriture noble involved and a lot of late harvesting.

What Happens in Charentes, Stays in Charentes… 

ginsuPineau de Charentes is from a different menagerie entirely, and offers a sharp focus of intensity.  The high acidity slices through natural grape sugars like that Ginsu knife used to do with tomatoes; it‘s sweet, but not sappy and served (as it often is in its hometown) with a single cube of ice, it makes a better meal starter than a meal finisher, at least to the palates of its champions.

And, it must be said, 90% of all Pineaux made are consumed locally.

26477_hrI can assure you that bottle 885/1000, Paul-Marie et Fils Pineau des Charentes Vieux, was not consumed locally—not in their time zone, anyway.  It was consumed by some Detroit wine grinders on a snowy Saturday afternoon in February.

It showed a striking nose of orange pekoe tea, caramelized crème brûlée sugar, light apricot and slightly-oxidized aromas of hazelnuts, like Fino sherry—all of which were picked up on a keenly-balanced palate.  Flavors were crisp, not cloying—I can see that the traditional ice cube would have diluted and chilled the stuff without detracting from it.  Even with a hearty dose of tartaric acidity, Sauternes might feel heavy in the mouth; this Pineau does not.  It carries with it dulcet notes of honey and caramel, with peach and lime peel and a clean and graceful exit.

This is one of those fun wines of discovery; steroids for your proficiency.

Posted in FRANCE | Tagged , | Leave a comment

O Verdicchio, Verdicchio! Wherefore Art Thou?

The other day I wrote about a reputation-ravaged red (Lambrusco) and today I shift gears to confront an equally marginalized Italian white:

Verdicchio.

Verdicchio vines

Verdicchio vines

The innocuous little grape from innocuous little Marche was content to coast along on its laurels—as threadbare as those laurels may be—until a few serious winemakers realized that with different vinification techniques, including restricting yields and long layovers on the lees, the wine could show some remarkable sophistication.

In general, the Verdicchio that soured most American palates was a colorless, high-acid fluid that resembled mass-produced Soave from Veneto in that neither really resembled anything so much as a teaspoon of boric acid stirred into a glass of water with a lemon wedge.

Clipboard crossIn the 1980s, there was far more Verdicchio on the global market than Chardonnay, but these wines relied on a guarantee of quantity, not quality. Makers like Garofoli didn’t particularly worry about vintage variations: Their Verdicchios were consistently mediocre and fell into a category marketed as ‘light and easy-drinking’, which is about half-right. They were featherweights of character, for sure, but no more ‘easy’ to drink than abominable ‘easy-listening’ music from, say, Christopher Cross or Burt Bacharach is ‘easy’ to listen to—unless you have a thing for swinging in a rattan egg-shaped chair in a denim leisure suit—in which case, you’re probably drinking Garofoli and lovin’ it.

Verdicchio

Verdicchio

The revisioning of Verdicchio began around the time that ‘Ride Like the Wind’ was doing to the lobe of the brain that absorbs music what Everclear does the lobe of the liver that absorbs rotgut, primarily in the two appellations where Verdicchio is the principal varietal, Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi DOC and Verdicchio di Matelica (which is also a DOC and not, as the name might suggest, an AC/DOC).  Certain winemakers in these two region of Marche have returned to more traditional styles of Verdicchio, allowing the grapes longer hang times before harvest, concentrating flavors once they are fully ripe and tempering the grape’s natural acidity.  After harvest, cold maceration adds body and color and extended contact with the spent yeast cells that have precipitated to the bottom of the fermentation tank lends a nutty, savory creaminess to the wine.

And Now, the Good News…

These giant leaps for Verdicchio-kind have outstripped the general American public’s awareness of them, and thus, prices remain remarkable in comparison to say, white Burgundy.

I say ‘Burgundy’ not because I ultimately believe that Verdicchio in Marche has displayed the majesty of Chardonnay in Meursault, but because a lot of the classic aromatics of this fat, flamboyant style of wine are the result of process and viticulture, not varietal.

labelAn example is the mouthful (phonetically and gastronomically) that is Andrea Felici Il Cantico della Figura, Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Riserva, 2011. It sells for under thirty dollars a bottle and displays a strikingly Meursault-like nose; the wine spent twelve months in a concrete fermenter, basking in lees, resulting in a layered bouquet filled with bruised apple, beeswax, chamomile and green olives. There’s a unique brine character to the nose, which a Shakespearean might consider a result of the appellation’s proximity to the Adriatic, but is likely a byproduct of the limestone-rich soils and dry climate.

There’s a little rain on the parade, however—one that winds up being a bit of a head-shaker.  The wine is plush and luscious but somewhat devoid of the hallmark idiosyncrasy that has at times been, for Verdicchio, ‘…their father’s bail and bane…’ (2H6 V.i.120):

Acidity.

Juliet_-_Philip_H._CalderonIt’s almost like the winemaker, trapped in Verdicchio’s straitjacket of perception—thin wines without much soul, simply overcompensated in this vintage, perhaps like Napa vintners praying for rain and getting a Biblical deluge. The crunch of mineral, the sappiness of baked apple, the textbook almond notes replaced by toasted walnuts, are all diminished slightly by the lack of a definitive snarl.

But, this may in fact be an anomaly—the wine is highly regarded and in the previous vintage hauled down a 91 in Wine Enthusiast.

In any case, Verdicchio seems to be on an upward, reputation-reviving trajectory and, unlike that Capulet chick, unlikely to self-destruct any time soon.

.

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Lambrusco Revisited: Don’t Say The ‘R’ Word

riuniteI promised my favorite hootch hawker that I wouldn’t use the ‘R’ word in discussing his Lambrusco.  He insists—rightly—that the quintessential ‘70s Italian wine brand should remain, like their stupid slogan, on ice.

Under the auspices of Banfi Vintners, said ‘R’ brand was a cooperative of Emilia-Romagna producers whose ship came in across an ocean of sugary-sweet, fizzy amabile-style wine that (throughout those strange 1970s, whose only contribution to culture was disco music and a revival of the ‘50s) left such an emotional scar on the name ‘Lambrusco’ that forty years of therapy hasn’t cured it.

So now, in polite society, tippling a refreshing mug of Lombardy’s most likeable lap-dog, the bright, tail-wagging Lambrusco, we do not mention the ‘R’ word.  Rather, we skip the ‘70s altogether and concentrate on the other five thousand years of Lambruscoian history.

L.: Cato the Elder R.: Kato the Witness

L.: Cato the Elder
R.: Kato the Witness

Indeed, archaeology indicates that the Lambrusco grape—six unique varieties, all beginning with ‘Lambrusco’ and ending variously with Grasparossa, Maestri, Marani, Montericco, Salamino and Sorbara—has been cultivated by in Emilia for as long as anyone has been writing anything down.  By the time Hannibal dropped in for an unannounced visit, it was an old standby variety, described by Cato the Elder as so prolific that an acre could produce 400 amphorae, or around 4000 gallons.  For wine production geeks, that’s a unfathomable yield of 30 tons per acre.

It must be noted that Cato was a warrior, not a mathematician.

vineyard

Lambrusco vineyard

As a legal entity, Lambrusco originates from four zones in Emilia-Romagna and one in Lombardy; most can be found in the provinces of Modena, Parma, Reggio nell’Emilia and Mantua.  It’s not all sweet; in fact, some versions (secco) are dry, while others are even sweeter than the amabile that Americans are most familiar with.   Like Sherry (and unlike German Prädikatswein) sweetness is not a quality stamp but a style; Lambrusco Mantovano, the lone Lombardy Lambrusco, is generally dry, violet flavored and splendid. Lambrusco Salamino di Santa Croce is known for its deep color and marvelous bouquet, while Regianno—the largest of the five Lambrusco-based regions—is the home to the best dolce (sweet) wines and a perfect accompaniment to the rich local food.  Lambrusco di Sorbara produces the most wine most highly prized by Lambruscophiles, with an intense concentration of flavors due to the clone’s tendency to drop flowers and reduce yields, sometimes by as much as 30%.

Finally, Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro, the smallest region.  By law, the wine must be made from 85% Grasparossa grapes grown in any of the thirteen communes south of the town of Modena.

bottleThe game-changing Lambrusco for me was Fattoria Moretto ‘Monovitigno’ Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro Secco, around $28 and a stunning reversal of the prejudice that I—even moi, your humble narrator—harbored since high school and the barge-loads of ‘R’ word Lambrusco I consumed.

The wine is pleasure in a pint-glass, lyrical and lovely, pretty and profound, captivating on a sensual level and complicated on a neural one.  It’s Lambrusco, make no mistake—it contains all the trademarks: Boiling fuchsia foam and carbonic, Beaujolais Nouveau-like grape soda aromatics, but these are foreground notes. The wine’s bouquet contains numerous deeper levels, with a floral sweetness and black cherry scents.  Unlike Champagne, Lambrusco’s flamboyant froth does not seem integrated into the whole so much as a gaudy getup that sheathes the stuff; it’s icing on the cake that defies you to lie and deny enjoying it.  Slight residual sugar is a foil to the fizz and the acidity, and—unusual even in upper crust Lambruscos—to a grounding dose of tannin.  The grapiness in the nose is resurrected in the palate with fresh plum and just-picked cherry, offering a vibrant sense immediacy to the experience.

Riunite-cartelloneCall it picnic wine if you must, but explain if you mean that as a term of belittlement.  For me, there are black tie wines and there are flip flop wines, wines for the soul and wines for the psyche, and I require a certain elegance in each.  Fattoria Moretto ‘Monovitigno’ satisfies the first category with plummy aplomb:  After a glass, I had only a residual memory of the old ‘R’ word.

The new one is ‘refill’.

Posted in ITALY | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Non-Stupid-Sounding Tasting Notes: The Final Frontier

o-ASTEROID-facebookIn a world filled with terrorist temper tantrums, approaching asteroids and diseases that make your eyeballs bleed, I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about wine tasting notes.

And here’s why:

fermat_with_neg_numbersIn theory, there exists a wine note format that does not come across as trite, derivative, pompous or simply idiotic, but finding it has proven tougher than finding positive integers greater than two for an + bn = cn.

It took 384 years to work out Fermat’s Theorem and the solution wound up being a hundred pages long.

I have struggled mightily, and failed epically, to raise the quality level of my tasting notes to a standard I assume wouldn’t shame a drunk Shropshire Sheep with Asperger’s, and yet, I shudder every time I proofread one of my reviews:  It’s like listening to an endless recording of my voice crashing from a three-day crack jag:

‘Can I possibly sound so overwhelmingly, stunningly and mind-bogglingly lame?’

The short answer to that classic conjecture is, ‘Yes. Chris: You can and you do’.

The only saving grace I cling to is that every other wine writer on the planet sounds just as dipshitty and predicable as me, and some—don’t call me stuck-up, now—are even worse.  In my world, amid the wider wine emporium, there are merely two categories of note taker: Those I dislike and those I dislike more.

From that peculiar bell curve, a few of the least annoying rise like soup scum to the the top of the pot.

parkerFor example, I’ve always enjoyed reading Robert Parker’s notes.  Agreeing with them or not is not the issue—I rarely get the opportunity to sample the sort of swank swill that is his professional lifeblood. But the man has a poetic grasp of the language and a lyrical way of describing wines that I throroughly appreciate.

Likewise, I dig Jancis Robinson’s style. She packs more emotion into a handful of words than most bards do in a canto.  She’s able to break wine down into bite-sized chunks, then built it back up to the empyrean, all the while making the journey seem effortless.

Claudia is better than I am.

Claudia is better than I am.

Andrew Jefford is up there, and so is Claudia Tyagi, a dear friend who happens to be a Master Sommelier, which is a qualification that by no means guarantees you will be a Master Note Taker.  She is nonetheless.

And yet, some of the most knowledgable wine folks in the business come up with some pretty ratchid wine description paragraphs, but we’ll get to that.

For now, let’s look at a wine note tutorial offered by one of my blogging peers:

Wine Folly—which tries so goddamn hard to be a streetwise all-things-to-all-people wine blog that I avoid drinking beer when reading it lest I deviate my septum while snorting—offers an online primer course modestly titled ‘How to Write Excellent Wine Tasting Notes’.

WF, not so much

WF, maybe not…

I tripped over it the other day and, having already confessed that my notes suck, what did I have to lose by reading it other than the twenty minutes I lost by reading it?

Here’s a verbatim sample that lists the sort of things Folly figures I will have to learn to elevate my tasting notes above the pit of profound  inexellence in which they currently reside:

‘PRIMARY AROMAS, including notes such as Raspberry, Gooseberry, Black Pepper, Tobacco Leaf and Licorice.’

Clipboard gooseberryOkay, so here’s what I mean by tasting notes sounding grandiloquent and idiotic. The Wine Folly chick is from Los Angeles and I would be willing to bet crack money she’s never tasted a gooseberry, and if she has, not often enough to have it affixed in her memory as a ‘primary aroma’.  Gooseberries are European, and it isn’t even legal to grow a gooseberry throughout most of the United States because the bush is host to a deadly fungus that attacks pine trees.  I get it: Certain Sauvignon Blancs remind certain people who grew up with gooseberries of gooseberries—it’s a derivitive term Americans borrow (I’ll bet more crack money) from a Brit who knows whereof he or she speaketh.

Likewise, tobacco leaf.  Unless you live in rural Virginia or South Carolina—basically the only places that grow tobacco—you are not likely to have the slightest notion of what a tobacco leaf smells like.

‘SECONDARY BOUQUETS include Fresh Baked Bread, Lager, Sour Cream, Fresh Butter and Yogurt.’

Clipboard lagerAnd it just… gets… weirder. Lagering is a method of storing beer, not an aroma.  Does she mean malt?  Hops?  In 25 years of reviewing wine I have never even once heard anyone describe a wine bouquet as smelling like ‘lager’.  And ditto sour cream or yogurt.  I think Wine Folly has accidentally stumbled into Tzatziki tzasting notes.

So, I’ll Move On…

sucklingThe driving factor behind this column was a strange review by a very well known, well-respected and well-paid wine critic who actually makes you fork over valuable drug money to read his reviews.  James Suckling is one of those stuffy old-school guys who has scrawled so many redundant, iterative wine paragraphs over the years that he’s mentally past even mailing it in.  These days, words just sort of seep out of him like flatulance during a noontime nap.

e.g.:

This is a powerful wine with mineral and dried flowers. Full-bodied, with firm tannins yet they are very polished and beautiful. It goes on for minutes. It is so layered and deep. It needs at least 10 years before opening. It is a dense and deep wine. 98 Points

As a self-avowed failure at tasting notes, I will now try my hand at a vivisection of someone else’s tasting notes and leave it in the hands of you, humble reader, to evaluate my output:

chateau-pavie_2The wine in question was Chateau Pavie 2009—not a wine that you, me or the Wine Folly chick are likely to be sent review bottles of; it retails for $400 and received a perfect 100 point score from Robert Parker.

So, with all the available fancy-schmancy, hoity-toidy wine descriptors—gooseberries to road tar to nicotine-laden carcinogens—the best Suckling can come up with is ‘mineral and dried flowers’? Some rich sap looking to invest thousands of dollars on Suckling’s advice  going to buy a wine that tastes like rocks wrapped in Grandma’s potpourri?

rocksAnd, not to put too fine a point on it, Jim, unless you’re talking about brimstone, minerals don’t smell. And dried flowers don’t smell like much.  Even Suckling’s inamorada Robert Parker added ‘mocha, cocoa, plums and ripe blackberries’ to his description of this wine.

But we do learn that the wine is ‘deep’ because he mentions it twice in fifty words.  What a cop-out descriptor, huh? Like ‘dense’. A bucket of bilge sewage is deep and the sludge at the bottom of a NASCAR Port-O-Potty is dense. Can’t you pin it down a little better than ‘dense and deep’, considering you are charging dense people with deep pockets $143 annually to read your ‘tasting reports and tasting notes’?

Portaloo toilet  backstage at the Glastonbury Festival 2009Leading us to the crackerjack disclaimer, ‘It needs at least 10 years before opening.’ Hang on; didn’t you just describe the wine as ‘polished and beautiful; layered and deep’? What’s wrong with that?  And what’s so wrong with it that you figure we need to wait ten years before drinking it?  Wait for what, Jimbo? Are we to assume that it will get beautifuller and layeredier?  Rockier and dried flowerier?  There seems to be such an aesthtic disconnect between word one and word fifty that were I a Tevya-quality wealthy man I’d cut my losses and figure I’d just spend $143 on a roll of Port-O-Potty paper.

And finally, the score, 98 points. But is that 98 points for now, or 98 poins for what the wine may become in some Iain Banks utopian future where the terrorists are gone, ebola is cured and the asteroid has missed earth by a country mile?  Dude, I’m not sure we have ten years, so for $143 worth of advice on a $400 bottle of wine, I think a fair question is: ‘WTF are you talking about?’

astroid hits earthWhew!  But see, that was really more satisfying that writing my own tasting notes.  I had a reader tell me that when she reads my decription of wines they don’t make her thirsty, they make her hungry.

Which is a little like listening to a symphony and telling the composer, ‘Gee, listening to your music makes me wish I was at an art museum.’

Onward and upward, droogies; and don’t get cold-cocked by one of those incoming asteroids on the way.

Posted in GENERAL | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Carmen Carmenère: Sixteen Bucks Of Brilliance

Clipboard normaI won’t tarry o’erlong on what the Chileans have done for Carmenère—roughly on par with what Blue Book Modeling Agency did for Norma Jeane Mortenson and Robert Johnson did for a beat-up six string.

Enough to say that people who appreciate wine—appreciate it for its savor and flavor rather than its fable and label—understand the nonpareil value that vinous Chile brings to the table.

I’m reminded of a culinary arts college near my house that runs an on-campus restaurant where you can get remarkable meals prepared by budding superstars for around the same price as a bottle of Carmen Gran Reserva Carmenère 2011, $16.  The unspoken message behind your American Harvest tab and your Carmen bill is the same:

‘One of these days, just as soon as everyone figures out how good this stuff really is you’ll be paying a lot more it.’

rain forestNot that some Chilean winemakers haven’t already begun to jack up prices, and bully for them: We’re material sots living in a material world.  To some extent, wines like the titular Carmen Carmenère are like Amazon rain forest travel packages themed ‘This may be your last chance to experience one of the world’s great wonders before we…’

For the wine, merely replace ‘…destroy it’ with ‘…raise the price.’

Carmen is the quintessential Chilean winery, 160 years old and stronger than ever.  It’s not only the oldest commercial winery in Chile, it’s also the one credited with ‘discovering’ Carmenère’s potential in this narrow, fertile strip of South America, and nobody has done it better since.  That’s arguable opinion, of course, like (if you can stomach another analogy) you could argue that no one who does a Van Morrison cover can possibly do it better than the original.

It all depends on what you’re after.

Carmen vineyard

Carmen vineyard

For me, the full Monty is placed on bawdy display with Carmen’s 2011 Gran Reserva, which originates in the dry-farmed east face of the Colchagua coastal mountains, and in particular from the sub-appellations of Lolol and Marchigue.

A key vinification technique that seems vital to Carmenère’s success in Chile is a long, cold soak, after crushing but before before fermentation.  This is achieved by storing the grapes in stainless tanks at around 40ºF for a week, allowing the full extraction of color and flavor in an aqueous environment without sucking out too much tannin. Carmenère’s tannins are late ripeners and are often ‘green’ tasting if the grapes are picked too early; macerating the wine after it has fermented tends to bring out unpleasant vegetable notes.

Tannins in general must be kept to a certain judicious minimum in  Carmenère, and unlike a lot of oak-heavy New World wines, this one was only 60% barrel-aged and for less than a year.

Carmen Carmenere bottle 001The resulting sample greets you with a beautiful puff of fruit and spice; there’s blackberry jelly up front, pomegranate and chocolate just behind, with maybe a touch of paprika throughout; the cold soak leaves its imprint in a huge, juicy nose.  The wine settles into deep, mouth-coating floods of berries and plums with overtones of sweet mocha and a round, almost viscous mouthfeel. As promised, the tannins are beautifully balanced; the pucker quotient is perfectly integrated, showing up as dryness on the upper lip but not intruding into the freshness of the fruit.  And it is these bright, sharp, precise flavors are what linger on the palate for a long, luxurious time.

I don’t think you’ll find another Carmenère from the appellation that can match this package in terms of price and sumptuousness, and if you disagree, bring it on:  I’m all nose ‘n’ palate.

 

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Last Chance To Secure Seats At The ‘Writers Write; Everyone Else Attends Symposiums’ Symposium

Seeking out small pockets of serious humor in a serious world preoccupied with ebola, ISIS and Tom Brady’s balls is a daunting task, but at the close of another nihilistic day, nothing is funnier than people who take themselves too seriously.

And I’m serious.

logoSo, when I received an invitation to attend The Symposium for Professional Wine Writers in Napa on February 17-20, I recognized a rare opportunity. Not to attend, which would cost me $695 of non-refundable alco-dollars (not to mention another $700 in airline fees) and allow me four full days (as promised) to ‘explore themes prevalent in contemporary wine writing and network with peers in an unmatched career enrichment opportunity’. 

But rather, to make merry over the sheer ego-sodden ludicrosity of anyone who takes this shit… seriously.

There, I’ve Said It…

In terms of my bucket-list priorities, this symposium ranks slightly above the Finding a Mormon Identity through Activism Conference in Provo this June and just below a four-day stint inside maximum security at Thailand’s Bang Kwang Prison.

Underneath that blouse, Talia Baiocchi is like totally topless.

Underneath that blouse, Talia Baiocchi is like, totally topless.

On the plus side, unlike in Bang Kwang, the wine symposium will not chain you to the wall with napinya shackles; on the other hand, I can’t think of anything else that would serve as impetus to sit through an entire Story Pitching, Speed-Dating Style lecture, even if host Talia Baiocchi volunteered to do it topless.

Other scheduled harangues include Eric Asimov explaining why Recognition of One’s Preferences are Vital for Wine Writers, which essentially means you’ll learn that before writing about wine you should decide if you like writing about wine, and Richard Bradley (Worth magazine) outlining What Luxury/Lifestyle Editors Don’t Want, for which you could save yourself an hour and spend ten minutes reading anything about wine I’ve ever written, giving you a pretty good idea.

These are called ‘breakout sessions’, bringing the prison metaphor around full circle.

Chin Up, Chumps; There’s an Alternate Universe

flagellantsNow, if I have offended any symposium-giddy peers, advertently or otherwise, mea maxima culpa³ and allow me a moment of self-mortification with a hundred lashes from a cat o’ nine tails.

Ouch. Ouch. Done.

Okay, so let’s suppose you really, really, really want to attend the symposium, but don’t quite fall into the exclusive category required of you to do so; that is, the status of being a ‘professional’.  Not to worry!  According to my peer Alder Yarrow, this is elitist-ese for ‘someone has paid you to write about wine at some point.’

So, this leaves you with two options:

Meadowood

Meadowood

1) Send me an email with the words ‘wine be good’ in the message box and I’ll put a dollar in your PayPal account.  You’re now a pro and together we’ll descend upon the Meadowood Napa Valley spa/conference center as a flash mob and disrupt the workshops and loot the wine cellar and I’ll ask Yarrow to send me a finder’s fee for recommending you.

Where we'll be staying

Where we’ll be staying

2) Attend my symposium, the Writers Write; Everyone Else Attends Symposiums Symposium to be held that same weekend in an abandoned tire-shredding warehouse in the Cass Corridor in downtown Detroit.  Granted, the milieu is not as resorty or spa-ish as Meadowood, but I offer an all-day pass to the Coney truck on 2nd and Selden and our breakout sessions include a trip to a crack house for the lecture How Not to Write About Wine Like a Pussy.

One-on-one coaching session

One-on-one coaching session

One-on-one coaching will include How to Steal Ideas From Other Wine Writers and will involve a Google search for my April 9, 2012 column, ‘In Defense of Wine Snobs’ followed by another Google search for Blake Gray’s June 21, 2012 column entitled ‘In Defense of Wine Snobs’ and Lettie Teague’s July 6, 2012 column entitled ‘In Defense of Wine Snobs’.

We will also have panel discussions on such topical themes as You Will Never Make a Nickel as a Wine Writer and Do Yourself a Favor and Go Back To Law School and Surefire Ways to Beat a Breathalyzer After an Extensive Tasting.

We also provide urinals custom-designed to make it easier for you to network with peers.

In the interests of full disclosure, I operate my wine writing symposiums on the principal that people don’t need wine writing symposiums to write wine columns, and that ‘writer’s block’ is a somatic disorder manifested by people who have nothing to say but are trying to figure out how to say it anyway.

Scrapping Afterglow from last year's symposium.

Scrapping Afterglow from last year’s symposium.

If that hasn’t dissuaded you, symposium pre-registration fee is $6.95, which may sound like a lot, but note that after the closing ceremony we will go on an all-night scrapping expedition through the neighborhood where there is enough remaining copper pipe, insulated wire, stainless steel cabinets, etc. to cover out-of-pocket expenses.

And it will secure you a reserved spot on our upcoming field trip to Kwang Dong prison where we’ll engage in a hands-on seminar guaranteed to be a more fun, more exciting career enrichment opportunity than the four-day Symposium for Professional Wine Writers:

Four days in the electric chair.

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Rafael Alonso: Digging The Indigenous In Tierra de Léon

mapAmerica drinks more, Italy makes more and France sells more, but nobody grows more wine grapes than Spain. In fact, based on 2012 stats, about 15% of all the world’s acres planted to wine vines can be found in that bulbous stub of land that dangles at the bottom of Europe like a saddlebag and pokes into the Atlantic like the bow of a supertanker.

And they’ve been doing it for quite a while now, too.  Wine’s origin in Spain is gauged not by historians but by archaeologists—by all accounts, Spanish vines were planted before the first pyramid went up in Giza; before Noah was so much as a gleam in his old man’s eye.

Ötzi the Ice Man

Ötzi the Ice Man

That places it between 4000 and 3000 BCE, around the same time that numbers were invented and Ötzi the Ice Man was crossing the Alps.

It stands to reason that such a history of grape cultivation resulted in countless varieties being introduced, countless varieties being developed, and—perhaps most interesting—varieties that were there all along.

Of all outposts within the vinosphere, Spain is (arguably) home to the widest array of seductive and savory indigenous grapes. Every time I try to do a deep dive into what’s new in Spanish wine, I keep winding up on a pathway of what’s old, unique and hitherto (to me) unknown.

Prieto Picudo

Prieto Picudo

Take Prieto Picudo, a haunting, black-skinned grape native to Léon, a province in western Spain, just above Portugal. The variety has been a standard here for centuries, but it wasn’t until 2007 that Tierra de Léon was given its own DO status.  Denominación de Origen, of course, is a regulatory classification system similar to French AOCs and American AVAs.

“The Sun is Our Enemy”

So, from this spanking new appellation, callow as a barrel sample, I tried an ancient varietal nurtured to splendor by a newish winemaker from an oldish estate.

Clear as unfiltered Port?  Hijos de Rafael Alonso is an asentamiento near Valdevimbre—a wine community with a population of around a thousand.  The winery has been around since 1949, a mere drop in the wine bucket of history, but the third generation of Rafael Alonso is now nudging the estate into the 21st century; as he says on his site, “Spanish wine is changing at a rapid pace and it’s required that we put a maximum emphasis on quality.  I replanted the vineyards and moved to modern farming techniques while maintaining an immovable banner in celebration of Prieto Picudo.”

Picudo weevil

Picudo weevil

Except that the web site, translated directly from Spanish, doesn’t say ‘Prieto Picudo’.  It says ‘Tight Weevil.’  I took a time-out to do a little etymological (as well as entomological) research, and it turns out that prieto can indeed be translated as ‘tight’ and a picudo is, in fact, a type of weevil.

Tierra de Léon is very hot and very dry, with less rainfall in an average year than Napa gets in a drought year, and at a relatively high elevation between two and three thousand feet, vines may suffer from too much exposure (up to 2,700 hours of sunshine annually), leading Alonso to quip, “The sun is our enemy.”

Still, I’m thinking that Google Translate might be a foe even more formidable to his fortunes.

gamonal labelThat said, Pardevalles (Hijos de Rafael Alonso) Prieto Picudo ‘Gamonal’ 2012, is a wine of such startling singularity that a noseful actually painted a mind’s eye image of a cool forest heavy with wild brambleberries; blackberries, boysenberries, etc.  Snuggling beneath those fruit scents is a whiff of smoke and pepper and a palate which leads with sweet fruit, settles into a many-layered, silken-textured integration of truffle, anise, succulent black raspberry and toasty oak.

albarin bottleA sister to ‘Gamonal’—named for a local flower with absolutely no connection to the wine—is Pardevalles Albarín Blanco 2013, a white wine that is every bit as complex and luscious, although on another flavor chart altogether.  Albarín, you may be surprised to note (I was) has nothing to do with the Albariño of nearby Galicia; the similarity in the name is likely due only to the color of the grapes, both with a root in the Latin word for ‘white’, albus. This is a varietal also native to Tierra de Léon, and the Alonsos grow nearly 2/3 of it.  The wine opens with a strata of distinct, separate fruit aromas, beginning with sweet lime and becoming tropical with mango before an explosive peach profile takes over.  This carries through in the mouth with a cornucopia of stone fruits with a touch of mint, everything shored by bracing tartness and a long, leesy finish.  The wine sees no oak, and shows a beautiful purity; pristine, lean and very ripe and offers a refreshing, extremely light and all-natural sparkle, what the French call pétillant wines, the Germans spritzig and the Italian frizzante.

I’m sure the Spanish have a word for it too, but after ‘tight weevil’, I think I’ll opt out of learning what it is.

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