Blackcurrants and tapas : Mas Martinet Menut Priorat

Mas Martinet, Menut Priorat 2010

Region: Priorat, Catalonia, Spain

Grape: Grenache, Merlot, Syrah

Price: $20

Menut Priorat

My Washington DC trip was capped with a dinner at a spectacular tapas restaurant. The food was great and the wine list was, well, extensive to say the least… There were so many references that they had to use a very small font. Anyway, to accommodate a assortment of tapas, I opted for a Priorat wine from Catalonia.

Priorat is one of these trendy up and coming appellations. It’s located in Northeastern Spain, near Barcelona. Priorat is a DOC, the highest level of appellation in Spain, with the only other DOC being Rioja. It should be noted that on Priorat bottles, it won’t read DOC but DOQ. The reason: Catalonia speaks Catalan, not Spanish (just go with it). Priorat vineyards are planted on terraced hills and the soil is a distinctive black slate and quartz composition (known as llicorella). Garnacha (Grenache) is the main variety used in Priorat wines with several other grapes being allowed,  Garnacha Peluda, Cariñena, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah for red varieties and Garnacha Blanca, Macabeo, Pedro Ximénez and Chenin for white varieties.

As I mentioned earlier, this is a trendy region and as a result, the Priorat vineyard is expanding with the total planted area almost doubling in size from 1990 to 2010.

Eye: Medium-plus ruby

Nose: Clean, medium-plus intensity. Blackcurrant and black pepper notes.

Palate: dry, medium-minus acidity, medium body, rounded tannins, long finish

The wine is dominated by the blackcurrant notes detected on the nose. I realize that blackcurrants are not a very American fruit but for a Frenchmen they tend to be reminiscent of childhood. Blackcurrant (cassis) then and some underlying black pepper to spice things up (from the Syrah?). The finish is long with oaky notes of coffee.

Food pairings: We had it with tapas which included: crab, shrimp, cheese, sweet corn, patatas bravas and duck. As I said, it was a spectacular meal and the wine went along with everything.

Overall opinion: Trendy region but reasonable price point. It’s not the most complex wine but it’s easy to enjoy which makes is a winner in my book.

Grade: 7/10

First night of summer, Orsolani Erbaluce

Orsolani, La Rustia, Erbaluce di Caluso 2012

Region: Piedmonte, Italy

Grape: Erbaluce

Price: $18

I have been living in the US for the better part of 3 years now and I still hadn’t visited the nation’s capital. That oversight has been corrected last weekend as I flew down to DC to visit a friend. We sat down on the terrace of an Arlington restaurant of a warm Friday night and ordered a bottle of Erbaluce to ease the catching up process.

Erbaluce grapes

Erbaluce grapes

Erbaluce is a white grape from Piedmonte in Northern Italy. It can be used to make sweet, dry or spumante (sparkling) white wines. The sweet passito from Erbaluce grapes is apparently well rated. There is a dedicated wine region appellation for those wines, Erbaluce di Caluso. DOCG is the higher tier of Italian appellations (one step up from DOC). The grape and the appellation have enjoyed somewhat of a renaissance since the 1990’s but as far as I know, the grape isn’t widely used outside of Piedmonte. The wines tend to be well received though, and they are becoming trendier. I definitely see more restaurants carrying them than before.

orsolani Erbaluce

Eye: Pale lemon with strong hints of green

Nose: Clean, medium minus intensity, lime, grass and peach notes

Palate: dry, slightly sparkling, medium plus acidity, medium body

The aromas were fairly straightforward at first with white peach and lime in the foreground. The wine is lively with good acidity and a very light sparkling quality, very refreshing on a warm June night. Later on more complex notes come to play, more on the herb/flower side (lavender). The body is on the lighter side which reinforces the refreshing aspect.

Food pairings: I think it’s fairly versatile; we had it with some cheese. It would work well with fish, seafood and chicken.

Overall opinion: Very refreshing with a lot of aromas, a good summer wine

Grade: 7/10

Italian- Spanish night

Last weekend’s wine tasting night took a turn for the epic. Freed from WSET studying, my friend Laurie let loose the dogs of wine and it made for a spectacular lineup! We ended up having an Italian-Spanish them to the evening, which was unexpected but much appreciated.

Falesco, Est! Est!! Est!!! de Montefiascone, 2011 from Latium, Italy (Trebbiano, Malvasia, Roscetto), around $15

Est Est Est

An Italian white to start the evening, crisp and dry with citrus, apple and pear aromas. Est! Est!! Est!! (complete with multiple exclamation points) is the actual official name of the appellation (and the most annoying thing to type ever). It’s nothing to write home about but the name of the DOC is just too good to pass up. Mean people on the Internet have said that the name of the appellation is way more exciting than the wine itself. Well, it’s a very exciting name.

Stefano Farina, Barolo, 2009 from Piedmont, Italy (Nebbiolo), around $40

Stefano Farina

That’s a big jump in category from the Falesco. Roses, red fruits and smoky (charcoal) aromas are present in this pretty typical Barolo. I was keeping it for an occasion, taking the WSET diploma qualified. Nebbiolo is a variety I fell in love with a few months ago, it’s a shame it’s so pricey… A very well made wine, just short of being spectacular. I’ll stay on the hunt for Nebbiolo based wines: Barolo, Barbaresco, Gattinara,..

Marina Cvetic, S.Martino Rosso, Montepulciano, 2009 from Abruzzo, Italy (Montepulciano d’Abbruzzo), around $25

Cvetic

Another big Italian red, bold and intense with blackberries, red plums, vanilla and chocolate notes. Interestingly enough after the Barolo, it also had a smoky character, but more in a firewood, earthy way than the Barolo which was more on the charcoal, mineral side. I think it was my first Montepulciano d’Abruzzo ever; I can start to see what all the fuss is about. I need more examples to form an opinion, add it to The List.

La Gitana, Manzanilla, NV from Andalucia, Spain (Palomino), around $15

La Gitana

Ah, a vacation reminder. Manzanilla is fortified wine from Southern Spain, it’s actually a kind of fino sherry that is made in the city of Sanlucar de Barrameda, on the coast. It’s a very dry wine with marine aromas (it’s made by the sea) and also distinctive almond, hazelnut and floral notes. As for the floral notes, manzanilla in Spanish means chamomile and the wine was named that way because, well, there are chamomile notes in the wine.

El Chaparal de Vega Sindoa, Old Vines Granacha, 2011 from Navarra, Spain (Grenache), around $15

El Chaparal

We finished with another Spanish wine, from Northern Spain this time. Fruity and spicy, a playful little wine. The color completely threw me off as I tend to expect a fairly light color from Grenache and this wine looked quite dark. I guess Navarra joins Rioja as the Spanish representatives on The List. Given the fact that their country is out of the World Cup already, they need all the help they can get.

So, as you can see, this made for a very enjoyable evening. A fringe benefit of moving to the US was the increased availability of non-French wines, including, ironically enough, European wines. It would be hard to find that many quality Italian or Spanish wines in Paris (not to say anything of New World wines). Now, when is that next wine dinner?

MWWC10 : Values, tradition and the value of change

It’s a new month, it’s a new Wine Writing Challenge! As always, the theme was chose by the last winner, The Sybarite, and his choice was “Values”. I’m looking forward to reading what people will come up with, in the meantime, here is my entry. I hope you will excuse the very academic title, just a shout out to high school French students now taking their philosophy baccalaureat exam.

MWWC

Values, tradition, and the value of change

“Values” is a tricky word, so many possible meanings… When in doubt, I like to start with a quote; it helps settle the issue at hand and give perspective. I think something important about values was formulated by an early 21st century philosopher, Seth McFarlane: “It seems today that all we see is violence in movies and sex on TV. But where are those good old-fashioned values on which we used to rely?” A good question if I ever heard one.

“Good old-fashioned values”– that sounds like something I can work with. Let’s just go through other possibilities: San Francisco values (too political), Addams Family values (too black and white), Risk-adjusted business value (too from my day job). You know what, I’ll stick with the “good old fashioned values.”

And it’s not because that expression contains the name of a great cocktail; I actually have things to say about the idea of good old-fashioned values in wine. Added bonus: this angle allows me to channel and use what is pretty much my only advantage against the other writers in the competition, the fact that I’m French. It’s kind of a dumb thing to leverage, but we must all focus on our strengths, right?

Mad Men old fashioned

It’s old fashioned

There is something in the French psyche that can drive me insane when I think about it too much: it’s the rampant, pervasive and maddening conservatism. To foreigners, a common French trope is the constant striking and demonstrating in the streets. This trope holds true, but what people don’t realize is that strikers do not ask for more, they just protest change and reform. There is entitlement here, but I think there is also a fear and rejection of change and evolution. Let’s continue to do things this way because that is the way we always did them.

French winemakers and French wine can have a tendency to hold on tight to those good old-fashioned values. I am not saying it’s a bad thing; I just have a problem when people do things a certain way just because it’s tradition without even considering potentially better ways.

To be fair, this reliance on tradition is more prevalent in Burgundy and Bordeaux, the two classical wine growing regions.  Bordeaux wine still relies on a classification of Grand Crus dating back from 1855, with only one Chateau changing ranks (Mouton Rothschild moving from second to first in 1973). As for Burgundy, most of the terroirs were classified by monks in the Middle-Ages. As you can see, there is a premium on tradition here.

And to an extent, it makes sense, because tradition really is part of the brand. When you buy a bottle of Bordeaux, you pay not only for the wine but also for the name, the tradition, the aura of Bordeaux. That’s why things tend to move slowly there. And I’m not just talking about wine-making techniques; even marketing, sales channels and labels tend to emphasize tradition and old-fashionedness.

chateau-chasse-spleen-374997

It says Chateau and it shows a chateau

Bordeaux labels will depict the Chateau, and Burgundy labels will aim for an old-timey feel with cursive letters, family crest or even faux-parchment labels. Once again, those characteristics are part of what you pay for. They’re the cultural trappings of the wine. In a way, it’s akin to buying Apple products: you’re paying for more than just a phone or a computer, there’s a mystique you buy in, some turtleneck clad values you display to the world while making a purchase.

Old-timey much ?

Old-timey much ?

Maybe I’m overthinking this? You’re right, I’m totally overthinking this. Anyway, traditional winemaking values are being challenged in France, but you’ll have to explore less iconic regions to see it. It’s not very surprising: Bordeaux and Burgundy rely on their traditional, high value image, and they are shackled by restrictive and strict labelling laws. When you move down in the hierarchy of appellations, you have more freedom and you can have some fun.

Take the Loire Valley for example. It’s definitely an old region of France, and one with strong ties to French history, but its wine industry doesn’t overly play the old-fashioned card. In a way that wine region is less scrutinized than Bordeaux, and so producers can try things out, stretch boundaries and get away with it. Here’s one of my favorite wine labels.

SO2

Notice the difference?

Can you imagine a Burgundy producer going with something like that? That would shatter a painfully constructed image and go exactly against their commercial and advertising policy. The good old-fashioned values are part of wine culture, especially the French wine culture, and for the most part it’s a good thing. My problem is, sometimes those values can get in the way of fun.

And I like having fun. I mean, given the choice between having fun, being bored and feeling miserable, I will probably pick having fun 99% of the time. When I tell people I’m into wine, I sometimes feel that their minds race to words that start with an “s,” like snobby, stuffy or serious. Wine should be fun; you should be able to like a wine because the bottle looks cool, you don’t need to know the ancestry of a wine producer over the last twelve generations to enjoy his wine. The heritage, the values are part of what makes a wine, but if they are the only thing it has to offer, then, well, that does not sound appealing. I don’t like tradition for the sake of tradition but I don’t like change for the sake of change either.

I know I might sound like a hypocrite because I do write a blog dedicated to learning as much as I can about wine, about the winemaking, the varieties, the producers…. And I love doing so; it’s a significant and happy part of my life. I just don’t want it to come at the expense of enjoying wine for what it is, a fun way to get a few friends together. Here are my wine values, I don’t know if they are “old-fashioned,” I’m not sure if they are “good,” they are probably not “good old-fashioned,” but they’re mine. Now I just need to find a way to get a few more of that skull and bones bottle !

In the Game of Thrones you drink or you die

As I mentioned before, I’m a big Game of Thrones fan (both books and show). To give a little bit of context, the story deals with a few great families vying for power in what is basically a late middle-ages setting. Fortunes rise and fall, politics, treason, violence, war… I don’t want to get into any details from the story; it’s not the point of this blog.

Game-of-Thrones-Season-4-Logo

Of course each great family comes with heraldry, words (a fancy word for motto) and is associated to a region, a type of character. That gave me an idea, since I like matching wines to songs, or character traits, why don’t I try to match a wine to some of these families. It might have been done already but here’s my attempt.

Starks : The Starks are the ruling family of the North, the largest, coldest, bleakest region of the world. They are Cold, unforgiving, and have a tendency to go on about climate change (Winter is coming). The North remembers and memories will be grim. That’s the easiest association for me, when I hear the word “stark” I think of Chablis, it’s clean, bone-dry and unforgiving character. Chablis is a stark wine.

Tyrells: The Tyrells come from the Reach, a bountiful region filled with orchards, vineyards, gardens and castle. In a way, they represent the archetypes of classical chivalry. Their knights are renowned for their prowess and gallantry. To me, this description fits the Loire Valley quite well. It also helps that the Tyrells are not as grim as most of the other houses! A nice, easygoing Cabernet Franc for our friends from the Reach it is.

Lannisters: rich and proud, very (maybe too much) into family, a perfect fit for Bordeaux with its dignified Chateaux, proud traditions and storied history. Their patriarch’s obsession with legacy and passing on the family name is a good reminder of the Bordeaux emphasis on “brand” through the chateau image.

Game-of-Thrones-drink

Baratheons: 3 very different brothers, one boastful and loud, one stoic to a fault and one easygoing and fabulous. This family can take several forms; we need a versatile grape, probably Chenin Blanc. I can see Robert as a sweet, rich Montlouis, Stannis as a dry Savennieres and Renly as a bubbly Vouvray.

Martells: The Martell family is from the southernmost part of the world, Dorne. And like Dorne, the Martells run hot. They are a passionate, fiery and sensual people. Hot is probably the word that is used to describe everything Dornish: weather, tempers or food (Dornish peppers are mentioned repeatedly). We need a wine that brings the heat. I will go with the Rhone valley here; warmth and spice seem like a good fit.

Greyjoys: Nobody cares about them; I don’t see why I should.

Targaryens: As a nod to the real life Habsburgs, this family has a history of insanity brought on by the practice of inbreeding. I don’t really know how to go with that… Well, it is said that for every Targaryen born, a coin is flipped; will it be madness or greatness? Basically the Targs (that’s right, there’s a nickname) are hit or miss. In a way that reminds me of Burgundy where every wine comes from the same stock (Pinot Noir or Chardonnay) but results may vary from one parcel to the next, or from vintage to vintage.

Tyrion

Get me to the Greek, Xinomavro from Naoussa

As my friend Laurie continues to work towards her WSET diploma, we, her friends, get treated to wine tasting dinners with some good quality stuff, anything to help a friend study, self-sacrifice and all… Case in point, last week, our tasting line-up included:

–          Sogrape, Quinta de Azevedo Vinho Verde 2013. 

A vinho verde from Portugal with a majority of Loureiro grapes. Slightly sparkling with complex, layered aromas (citrus, white flowers, tropical fruit).

Quinta VV

–          Babich, Malborough Pinot Noir 2010.

A Pinot Noir from New Zealand, very jammy, lots of cooked or jammy fruit notes (prunes, plums, cherries). I’m not a fan of this overripe style of Pinot. It must be my (cold and calculating) Burgundian side and ancestry protesting this use of OUR grape.

–          Robert Talbott, Logan Sleepy Hollow Pinot Noir 2011.

Another Pinot Noir, this time for California. Surprisingly more subdued than the NZ example above. The fruit notes were still ripe but not cooked. A well-made wine.

Talbot

–          Boutari, Naoussa Grande Reserve 2007

Now this last wine deserves a proper write up. Even though the label is in French “Grande Reserve” this is actually Greek wine.

Naoussa Boutari

Now, I get that Greece is not necessarily considered a major wine producing nation, when people thing of European wine countries it usually goes: France, Italy, Germany, Spain.  Greece has both a past and a future in wine-making though. The past part is obvious, most of European culture emerged from Greek civilization and its later appropriation by the Romans, which includes wine-making. Now for the future part, Greek wines have started to be recognized by critics lately and they are now considered quality products.

Boutari is one of the main, if not the main Greek wine producer. The Naoussa appellation is located in Northern Greece, in the region of Macedonia. Not the country Macedonia, but the Macedonia region of Greece, because, of course let’s try not to confuse people. The appellation includes 9 villages, including Naoussa which gives its name to the whole appellation.

Naoussa is a single variety appellation with only xinomavro vines being planted. Xinomavro or Ξινόμαυρο (I couldn’t resist putting it in Greek, I’m a language nerd), it’s a native Greek variety that is often compared to Pinot Noir (light color, tendency to become brownish with age, high acidity) or Nebbiolo (strong tannins, angular structure, ageing potential). You’ll have to admit, there are worse comparisons.

The thing is, those comparisons are what they are and surely they can point you in the right directions if you’ve never had xinomavro before, but, in my opinion, xinomavro is very much its own thing. I had two different wines from Naoussa and both were among the most unique wines I ever tasted. They have all they need in terms of body, structure and tannins, but they tend to be on the funkier side in terms of aromas: caramel, liquorice, herbs and olives…

If you can get your hands on some, and I think Boutari wines are fairly well distributed in the US, I definitely recommend going for it. They are well made wines with ageing potential and they will broaden your horizons. At the very least, you’ll remember tasting them, there is nothing quite like it.

The Ramblings : MWWC10, Negroni Week and awesome bottles

Ramblings time.  A few thoughts and links that don’t really warrant a full post but that might however be of interest.

MWWC 10

The 10th edition of the Monthly Wine Writing Challenge has started. The theme, picked by the latest winner, The Sybarite, is “Values”. It’s a great theme with many potential ideas to explore. I already started writing down some ideas. The deadline for submission is June 30th so you’ll see my entry before then.

Negroni Week

It’s an actual thing. Negroni, one of my favorite cocktails, as I mentioned here, is being celebrated this week. Granted it’s a new tradition, celebrated for the first time in 2013, but it’s too good to pass up. Imbibe magazine teamed up with Campari to celebrate a classic cocktail while participating to charities. In Boston a dozen bars and restaurants are participating and offer Negronis (1 part Campari, 1 part sweet vermouth, 1 part gin) and variation on Negronis with a portion of the price going to various charities. I suddenly feel very charitable. Click here for the official page with the list of bars and charities www.negroniweek.com

Milestones

I recently published my 100th post on Wine Ramblings and I’m rounding up on 3000 views. I started this blog at the end of last October and I am still amazed that people keep reading what I write. Thanks to everyone who read, liked or commented. I will try to keep you entertained.

Weird wines

I was given the most awesome and original looking bottom of wine ever. A picture is worth a thousand words so here it is. It’s from Georgia, not Scarlett O’Hara’s Georgia but Josef Stalin’s Georgia, and it’s all kinds of awesome.

Georgia