Saturday, September 27, 2008

Roussannes From Novelty Hill, Andrew Rich

Over the past couple of years, I've been plugging -- from time to time -- white wines made from the roussanne grape, a Rhone variety, as an occasional alternative to whatever you might have been drinking on a regular basis.

Roussanne apparently grows very well in the state of Washington and the number of winemakers offering roussannes has gradually increased. But these wines still tend to be made in small volume and can be hard to find.

This post takes a look at a couple of Washington roussannes that we hadn't previously tried. They are a:

Novelty Hill 2006 "Stillwater Creek Vineyard" Roussanne ($20) and an

Andrew Rich 2006 "Columbia Valley" Roussanne ($21).

Mike Januik, one of the best-known figures in Washington's wine industry, is the winemaker at Novelty Hill, a relatively new winery located just outside Seattle in the town of Woodlinville. Although the wine is made in Washington's cool, wet maritime region, the grapes come from the Columbia River Valley, a hot, dry area east of the Cascade Mountains. There, the Stillwater Creek Vineyard is located in terrain said to strongly resemble that of the Rhone.

Novelty Hill's 2006 Roussanne, of which 485 cases were made, is one of the more floral roussannes that we have tried. In that respect, it leans a bit in the directi0n of a viognier, a white wine made from another Rhone grape. This is an complex, interesting wine, but one that some consumers might best enjoy as an aperitif where they can savor the flavors without possible food conflicts.

This wine is Worth Considering if you are looking for a soft, interesting white wine that is just a bit flowery. It is well balanced between fruit and acidity and the alcohol content is listed at a relatively attractive 13.5%.
Andrew Rich makes his wines in Carlton, Oregon, but once again, the grapes used in his roussanne come from Washington's Columbia River Valley, specifically the Ciel de Cheval, Alder Ridge and Lonesome Springs sub-regions.

Both the Novelty Hill and Andrew Rich offerings are fermented in neutral French oak, which leaves them devoid of the toasty, vanilla or coconut flavors often associated with new oak barrels.

During the course of comparing these two wines in a blind tasting, our latest panel concluded that the salient characteristic of the Andrew Rich roussanne was the flavor of apricots -- but very dry as opposed to sweet.
Less assertive than the Novelty Hill offering, the Andrew Rich roussanne  has a slightly lighter body and a notably clean, slightly acidic finish.  As such, it can accompany a wide range of foods. But it is higher in alcohol, at 14.1% (listed) than the Novelty Hill.

Although the Andrew Rich web site doesn't provide a volume total, this is also a small-production wine. 
Worth Considering.

Consumers interested in other options should click on the "roussanne" label below to bring up reviews of several other Washington State roussannes. All are well worth trying at least once.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Try This At Home?

Got a wine with good flavors, but one that is rather rough, or even downright harsh, on the palate?

How about pouring it into a blender and giving it a high-speed whirl for 10 seconds?

The wine develops a huge, frothy "head" in the process, but that disappears rapidly leaving the liquid looking exactly as it was before, but tasting a lot smoother as a result of being rather dramatically aerated.

I read about this trick in the Dec. 10, 2006, edition of the New York Times Magazine -- the annual "ideas" issue -- but only recently put it to the test.  I supposed I delayed for such a long time because it seemed, well, rather disrespectful.

The subject of my experiment was a Badia a Coltibuono 1993 Chianti Classico "Reserva," which I had purchased a couple of years back after attending a wine dinner at which it was served.

At about 15 years old, I expected this rather expensive wine to be smooth and mellow when we finally opened a bottle at home, but it wasn't. In fact, it was rather harsh to the point where both my wife and I found it a little unpleasant -- even though we liked the flavor. We persevered for awhile, but finally I took about half the bottle and gave it the blender treatment.

The result was dramatic -- the wine was very smooth now. Almost too smooth in fact. Maybe a little less time in the blender would have been appropriate. In any event, we both liked the post-blender version much better than the original, some of which we still had for comparison purposes.

The very brief New York Times Magazine article was mainly a report on the work of a Japanese inventor named Hiroshi Tanaka who has been working on a device that would instantly "age" wine through electrolysis. Tanaka reportedly believes that the characteristics associated with mature wine result from water molecules gradually rearranging themselves more closely with alcohol molecules. His machine would drastically speed that process up.

Tanaka put a prototype machine to the test at the 2006 "Taste3," an event for wine industry professionals held in California's Napa Valley.

The NYT magazine quoted Joshua Wesson, who was at that time the chairman of the "Best Cellars" chain of wine outlets, as saying that one of the red wines Tanaka treated "softened fairly dramatically," becoming "rounder, less tannic." But the article went on to say said that overall, Wesson's reaction to the treated wines was mixed.

But Wesson then suggested that there was another way to smooth out rough wines -- the blender technique, which is what we tried.

I don't know about the Tanaka method, because I have never tasted a wine treated by one of his machines, but some other press reports have suggested the end result is a wine that is not just smoother, but also more complex.

My experience with the blender is obviously very limited, but we didn't detect any added complexity in the Badia Coltibuono Chianti  after it had been frapped. It was just a lot less harsh.

In any event, the blender is worth trying if you have a wine that, after first trying, you might be tempted to discard. But I certainly wouldn't recommend putting all wine through a blender prior to consumption. This, I think, is a method that should be used judiciously.

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Subsequently, a 2007 Root:1 cabernet sauvignon from Chile (about $12 a bottle) came my way and suspecting it might be a little rough, I put one third of the bottle in the blender -- again for about 10 seconds.

My wife and I then blind-tasted the blender wine against the original and while both had the same flavor, the wine that had been severely aerated was a lot more pleasant to drink. The wine that came straight from the bottle was, indeed, rather rough.

I then-resealed the partially consumed bottle, which contained wine that hadn't been put in the blender, and we re-opened it a couple of days later.  It was a bit better than on the first day, but still not as good as the severely aerated wine.

I rather liked this wine from a flavor point of view and if I were going to purchase it, I would put the entire amount in the blender before serving it.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Upmarket, Maintream California Chardonnays

Wine dinners can be a very good way to sample a range of wines that, perhaps because of their prices, one might not readily purchase un-tasted off a retail shelf.

Earlier this year, my I attended a dinner featuring red and white Burgundies made by Etienne de Montille and his sister Alix.

As well as making wines from his family's own holdings, Etienne de Montille was hired several years ago to restore the storied but somewhat troubled Chateau de Pouligny-Montrachet to its former glory. Results of his stewardship are now available and several Pouligny-Montrachet chardonnays of the 2004 and 2005 vintages were served with dinner, the best of which were characterized by a very crisp minerality that one rarely seems to find in U.S.-made chardonnays. The very best were really excellent, but very expensive.

I did purchase a couple, however, and we recently drank a 2005 Chateau de Puligny-Montrachet Puligny-Montrachet, which normally retails for about $70 a bottle. (One benefit of attending these dinners is that one can usually purchase wine at a discount so, in this case, I paid "only" $60.)

This is the sort of wine that makes one wish one's financial resources were unlimited and it left me wondering where one might be able to find something similar for a lot less money.

In a recent posting dealing with pinot noir, I speculated that  wines made from grapes grown in California's rather cold Sonoma Coast region may lean more in the direction of Burgundies than other U.S. offerings. Of course weather isn't everything. There are different styles of wine making -- when to pick the grapes; which yeasts to use; whether to use oak and if so, what kind and how much; etc., etc.

In any event, after that long introduction, this posting considers two "upscale mainstream" California chardonnays, one of which comes from the Sonoma Coast. They are a:

Ferrari-Carano 2006 "Alexander Valley" Chardonnay ($25) and a

Sonoma-Cutrer 2006 "Sonoma Coast" Chardonnay ($25).

First, what is an "upscale mainsteam" wine?

These are wines that are carefully made from very good grapes and as a result, cost well above what the average consumer typically pays for a bottle of wine. But at the same time, they are made in large volume so as to be widely distributed and readily available. In contrast, "boutique" wines -- even those with well-known names --  are often very difficult to find.

Ferrari-Carano's strongest suit is widespread retail availability. Sonoma-Cutrer, on the other hand, is probably more prominent as a restaurant wine. So it can be very useful -- when you are expected to bring a bottle of wine to dinner, or when you have to choose the wine at a restaurant -- to be familiar with these labels.

The "Alexander Valley" is Ferrari-Carano's best-know chardonnay and over the years, it has developed a strong following. Although historically oaky and buttery in the California mold, this wine has traditionally also featured an interesting mix of citric flavors that has left it more balanced and refreshing than many of its competitors.

I don't know whether what comes next is part of a trend,  but the 2006 "Alexander Valley" seemed less oaky, less buttery and more citric than has been the case in years past. There was a lot of acidity in this wine and the finish could be described as zesty.

In other words, this is not your mother's soft, toasty,buttery vanilla-flavored California chardonnay of yesteryear. This is a food wine. Recommended.

With respect to Sonoma-Cutrer, consumers may be more familiar with the company's "Russian River Ranches" chardonnay than with the "Sonoma Coast" offering under consideration here. Both are about the same price.

The 2006 "Sonoma Coast" exhibited very little in the way of oak and butter flavors, moving it even further away from traditional California chardonnays than the Ferrari-Carano.  But rather than being citric, the aspect of this wine that really jumped out was its minerality. That, combined with a relatively light body, resulted in a pleasingly dry finish. This wine is also Recommended, particularly for consumers looking for an American chardonnay that leans in the direction of far more expensive French offerings.

But if you like oaky and buttery, the Sonoma Cutrer 2006 "Sonoma Coast" is not for you.

For the record, the Sonoma-Cutrer offering is listed as having 14.2% alcohol  by volume whereas the Ferarri-Carano checks in at a slightly higher 14.4%.  In contrast, the Puligny-Montrachet mentioned higher up in this posting is listed as being 13% alcohol by volume. If those numbers are reasonably correct, that's a significant difference.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Are Winemakers As Bad As Politicians?

"Most winemakers tend to rival politicians in their effort to stay on message and spin catastrophe into triumph."

That quote, with which I agree wholeheartedly, comes from wine critic Eric Asimov in today's New York Times.

In a column  entitled "A Thinking Man's Wines," Asimov profiles a maverick winemaker named Abe Schoener who,  Asimov says, freely and cheerfully discusses his failures.

That, of course, is in dramatic contrast to winemakers generally. Not only do they never admit to any winemaking mistakes they may have made, they also never admit that bad weather results in a disappointing vintage -- except perhaps well after the fact. Every year, according to notes on the backs of bottles and on winery websites, the wines are exceptionally good.

Schoener, in what he calls his Scholium Project, only makes about 1,500 cases of wine a year and, according to Asimov, much if not all of it has achieved cult status. So he doesn't run much risk of being left with an enormous inventory of unsold wine if unfavorable tidings reach the marketplace.

Half of the wines Schoener makes in any given year are "exquisite," the NY Times writer says,  and the other half are "shocking and sometimes undrinkable."

"But all of them are fascinating, which is exactly the way Mr. Schoener wants it," Asimov reports.

"Fascinating, but undrinkable."  I'd love to see that in large letters on the back label of a bottle of wine costing, say, well over $30 a bottle.

Don't get me wrong. I really don't think there is much wine on sale in the U.S. that is so bad that it is undrinkable. Quite the opposite. The really awful wines that I remember buying two or three decades ago seem to have pretty much disappeared as Americans began consuming more wine and, in the process, discovering what tastes good and what doesn't.

At present, it is downright difficult to buy a really bad bottle of wine from a reputable retailer and I include supermarkets in that category.

So what am I complaining about?

Basically, I'm complaining about wines that don't live up to their exalted billing and don't deliver value for the price at which they are offered. In the realm of pinot noir, these are usually wines costing in excess of $25 a bottle and there are more disappointments out there than than you might think.

It would be great if pinot producers, in particular, were more willing to declassify grapes in bad years, resulting in lower volume (but the same quality) for their high-priced offerings, or simply admit that the vintage wasn't top quality and cut prices accordingly. A few winemakers do the former, but hardly anyone does the latter.

The prevailing approach, by far, is along the lines of the quote that begins this posting: "stay on message and spin catastrophe into triumph" (and hope the wine-drinking public is mesmerized into believing those expensive bottles of wine must be great because they cost so much.)

Hey, if you can't taste 17 different flavors, it must be your fault, right?

I don't think so.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Two Pinots from California's Sonoma Coast

Earlier this summer, my wife and I attended the International Pinot Noir Celebration in McMinnville, Oregon. There, as  I reported in an earlier posting, we found the French Burgundies on offer to be rather austere and very tannic. In contrast, many of the much larger selection of Oregon pinot noir were characterized by concentrated fruit -- sometimes to the point of being rather fleshy and a little too sweet.

These are very broad generalizations -- we definitely found some wines we liked a lot -- but the overall experience left me wondering where one might find middle ground.

How about California's cold, foggy, rather challenging Sonoma Coast, a relatively recent appellation that appears to be attracting an increasing amount of attention in the world of pinot noir?

This posting considers two offerings from that region: a

Halleck Vineyard 2006 "Clone 828" Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($55) and a

Merry Edwards 2006 "Sonoma Coast" Pinot Noir ($36).

Here's the bottom line: these are both very interesting wines, but as one might expect from the price differential, the Halleck is bigger and more complex.

While both are certainly enjoyable at present, I'm sorry I opened them so soon. Both of these wines -- and especially the Halleck --will almost certainly improve with more time in the cellar.  While the  Merry Edwards offering probably needs a year or two, I would lay the Halleck down for  four to five years.

But what about the question I started with: do they split the difference between Burgundy and Oregon?

Yes, but not down the middle. These are still American style pinots, but, in the sense that they are lighter in body and noticeably drier in finish than their Oregon cousins, they lean in the direction of the French approach.

The Merry Edwards "Sonoma Coast" offering  is the least expensive of this winery's line of 2006 pinots. While relatively light in body, this wine has a very nice bouquet and a surprising amount of flavor relative to its weight. The finish is rather spicy and may be a bit too acidic for the taste of some consumers.

We tried both Sonoma Coast pinots with meals on two successive evenings, re-corking and refrigerating the partially consumed bottles in the interim.

While the Merry Edwards was little changed from one day to the next, the Halleck "Clone 828" didn't show its true colors until the second evening.

While the Halleck was pleasant the first night, it was also quite "tight" as we subsequently discovered. It clearly needed a lot of oxygen and was a considerably different wine when the partially consumed bottle was re-opened.

On the second evening, this wine had a much bigger bouquet. It also had gained weight, intensity and complexity. In addition, the finish was much longer and far more memorable.

Consumers should demand a lot of a wine that costs $55 a bottle. But I think the Halleck "Clone 828" will deliver the goods if you are willing to be patient and not try to drink it too soon. If you insist on consuming this wine in the near term, be sure to pour it into a large decanter, swirl it around vigorously and then let it stand for an hour or two before serving it. If you open this wine just before a meal and pour it straight from the bottle, I'm afraid you may be wasting your money.

Both of these wines are Recommended for Cellaring and, for the record, both are listed as containing 14.2% alcohol by volume.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Firesteed Scores For Ordinary Consumers

This posting reports on one of my favorite events: a blind tasting involving ordinary consumers.

What are ordinary consumers?

These are people who enjoy wine and consume it regularly, but know little about it and, frankly, don't want to spend a lot of time learning the fine points. But they do want to drink something that tastes good and, like all of us, they wonder from time to time whether it makes sense  to pay more.

In this instance, four of us sat down to dinner with two ordinary looking wine glasses in front of us, both filled about one third with a  liquid that appeared to be red wine. At the base of each stem was one of those paper collars and written on the bottom, out of sight, were, respectively "A" & "B."

The glasses where shuffled so that no one, including me, knew who might be consuming "A" (or "B") at any given time.

The wine was served with dinner and the panelists were told that at the end of the meal, they should have the one they liked best on their left. They were not required to say why they liked that one or to otherwise comment on either wine.

The two wines in question were a:

Carabella 2005 "Chehalem Mountains" Pinot Noir ($42) and a

Firesteed 2005 "Oregon" Pinot Noir ($15).

In other words, one of these two Oregon offerings cost almost three times as much as the other.

When the moment of truth arrived, the result was: three of the panelists (including me) put the Firesteed (otherwise identified as "B") first.

Everyone was then informed that the Firesteed cost $15 a bottle and the fourth panelist was asked, given that knowledge, how much would she be willing to pay for the one she liked better.

"Fifteen dollars," she replied. In other words, she didn't think there was much difference between the two candidates and, for that matter, neither did the rest of us.

Both bottles, by the way, had spent at least a year in my cellar and both were opened about an hour before being served.

Our ordinary-consumer guests weren't around an evening later when the remaining portions of the two bottles were reopened after having been resealed and refrigerated in the interim.

The story was only slightly different, in my view, the second time around.  The Carabella had opened up a bit after being exposed to more oxygen and gained a bit of weight. It was now clearly the "bigger" of these two wines -- and the Firesteed had faded a bit -- but the flavors of these two offerings remained very similar. The Carabella had a slightly livelier finish and it lingered somewhat longer, but those benefits certainly didn't justify an extra $27 dollars a bottle. Far from it!

Think about it: most people are not even going to bother cellaring a wine for a year nor are they going to open a bottle an hour before consuming it. They are going to go to a store, buy a bottle, open it just before dinner and drink it. They aren't going to save some to see what might happen with additional oxygenation.

Score one for Firesteed. This one is Recommended. As for the Carabella -- Not Recommended.  This wine is seriously over-priced and I don't think it is going to get a whole lot better if you cellar it for additional years.

Here's another reason for serving the Firesteed to your guests. It is listed as only 12.5% alcohol while the Carabella is listed as 14.2%. Assuming those numbers are correct, that translates into about 14% more alcohol per glass (for basically the same taste) if you are drinking the Carabella and perhaps driving home.