Tasting Notes : Versatility in a glass

 

Michele Chiarlo, Barbera d’Asti Superiore Le Orme 2013

Region : Piemonte, Italy

Grape : Barbera

Price : $17

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I have done quite a few Nebbiolo tasting notes in the past and it is clearly the most prestigious varietal in the Piemonte region. However it is far from being the most planted. That honor belongs to the Barbera grape which makes versatile, affordable wines. There are 2 DOCG appellations for Barbera wines : Barbera del Monferrato Superiore and Barbera d’Asti, centered on the town of Asti.

Eye

  • Clear
  • Low to medium minus intensity
  • Ruby in color

Nose

  • Clean
  • Medium plus intensity
  • Developing
  • Aromas
    • Red fruit, red cherries
    • Red fruit, strawberries
    • Nut fruit, cola nut

Palate

  • Dry
  • Acidity medium plus
  • Tannins low to medium minus
  • Alcohol med minus
  • Body med minus
  • Flavor intensity med minus
  • Length medium
  • Flavors
    • Red fruit, redcurrant
    • Red fruit, tart cherries
    • Black fruit, blackberries
    • Hint of smoke, very faint

Conclusion

  • Quality : acceptable
  • Price category : mid-price
  • Ready to drink

A little underwhelming in terms of body and intensity, but as advertised a versatile wine that would go well with many Italian dishes.

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A long weekend in Napa

I moved to the US 5 years ago, and I have been annoying people about my love for wine for about as long. A question I always get is “Have you been to Napa?” And my answer was always “No”, quickly followed up by “Not yet.”, followed by “But I’ve been to Oregon”, followed by crushing waves of self-loathing as my inadequacy as a wine lover becomes obvious. My point is, when you think wine + US, Napa pops up, it’s the flagship region for the US industry, so I need to get my butt there. Also, my point is, I have crushing self-doubt.

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As of last week one of these issues has been fixed, I have visited Napa Valley, and Sonoma too for good measure. I still have crushing self doubt but that’s ok, there was wine in Napa and Sonoma.

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Right off the bat a few thoughts on the general experience, I’ll give details on some particular wineries in subsequent posts. I had a great time. A good friend of wine actually works at a Napa winery and she was able to take us on some visits that we definitely would have missed otherwise and it made me realize a few things :

  • Takeaway number one : It’s easy to miss some awesome spots if you don’t have an insider to help guide you along.

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  • Takeaway number 2 : it’s easy to end up at wineries that remind me of Disneyland rather than wine country.

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  • Takeaway number 3 : Even in the most Disneylandy wineries, everything is still beautiful. I mean, villas, sprawling grounds, lovely tasting rooms, everything is built to be pretty, which I guess weirded me out after more casual tasting experiences in Europe.

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  • Takeaway number 4 : People say Sonoma is more chill than Napa. Well, people are right, Sonoma feels more chill than Napa.

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  • Takeaway number 5 : Napa wines are expensive given their quality and I’m not a huge fan of the wine club approach. It seems exploitative at the very least.

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  • Takeaway number 6 : Generally speaking, I’m not that into Napa wines. The price points compared to quality are part of it, but a bigger component is stylistic approach. With some exceptions (Hello Fume Blanc), I’m not a huge fan of the Napa style

I know most of these takeaways sound negative, but I have to say that my overall impression was still positive. Napa is beautiful, it is the closest we have to a wine themed amusement park, and who doesn’t like a good amusement park ?

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Maybe it’s my formative years when a winery visit took place in damp cellars between agricultural equipment and industrial quantities of cobwebs that makes the “family-friendly” look hard to process. Maybe I’m just a French snob. I just know that I look forward to going back.

Dueling Rieslings

Last weekend, I tweaked my drinking homework a little bit. Instead of blind tasting a single bottle, I tasted 2 wines side by side. The idea was to train myself on differences and help calibrate my “sensors”. It’s easier to say that a wine has medium + acidity when you can compare it with a wine that has medium – acidity. I did that sort of thing before, in a much less structured way with a couple of red burgundies.

The wines were both from the same grape, Riesling. One came from Australia and the other one from Germany, both can be found in retail for between $15 and $20. Those are the common points, now we need to taste the difference

The wines :

  • Pewsey Vale, Eden Valley Dry Resling 2014
  • Nahe, Kreuznacher Knonenberg Auslese Riesling 2013

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Appearance

  • Pewsey Vale : clear, medium lemon with legs
  • Nahe : clear, medium lemon with thicker legs

Similar in color and intensity, the Nahe’s higher sugar shows more legs

Nose

  • Pewsey Vale : clean, medium intensity. Notes of citrus (lemon), vegetal, green fruit (pear), white flowers and mineral (rock, with faint petrol notes). The wine is young but developing.
  • Nahe : clean, medium + intensity. Notes of tropical fruit (mango), flowers (elderflower), stone fruit (yellow peach). The wine is developing

First big gap here, with the Nahe showing a very different set of aromas, much riper and exotic compared to the greener, citrusy Pewsey Vale

Palate

  • Pewsey Vale : dry, medium + acidity, medium – alcohol, medium body, medium flavor intensity, medium – finish.
  • Nahe : medium sweet, medium + acidity, medium – alcohol, medium + body, medium + flavor intensity, medium + finish.
  • Pewsey Vale : notes of citrus (lime), mineral (rock, oil), green fruit (apple)
  • Nahe : notes of tropical fruit (pineapple), stone fruit (yellow peach), flowers (elderflower)
Delicious homework

Delicious homework

Conclusion

  • Both wines are good. I would give a slight edge to the Nahe but not enough to move it to very good.
  • Both wines can be drunk now but they have potential for ageing

After doing some research, I think I did ok, one big mistake on the alcohol level however because the Nahe is only at 9% ! That’s definitely a low, not a medium -. The whole exercise was fun, I’ll definitely try it again.

 

Blind-tasting challenge #2

Here are my tasting notes for a second blind-tasted wine. This time a white, selected, opened, chilled and hidden by a trusty assistant (she had a couple glasses too).

Appearance :

Clarity : clear

Intensity : medium

Colour : lemon

Other Observations : with legs

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Nose :

Condition : clean

Intensity: medium +

Aroma Characteristics : citrus (lemon), white flowers, oak notes (smoke),

Development : Developing

Palate :

Sweetness : dry

Acidity : medium +

Alcohol : medium

Body : medium +

Flavour intensity : medium +

Flavour characteristic : citrus (lemon), oak (smoke, toast), green fruit (green apple)

Finish : medium –

Conclusions :

Quality level : good

Level of readiness : can drink now, potential for ageing

Identity : Chardonnay, oaked, from a moderate to warm climate. I ventured a guess of Australia. I thought about California but I was missing the usual peanut notes.

Price category : mid-priced

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The wine : Au Contraire, Chardonnay, Russian River Valley, Sonoma, 2013

Once again, I didn’t disgrace myself too badly. I did misfire on the region : Sonoma California instead of Australia, but I got the variety, the climate and the wine making technique. Encouraging. Also this is a good value wine for $20 or less, very well integrated oak, nice roundness. Have a trusty assistant get you a bottle.

Blind tasting challenge #1

As part of my WSET training, I force myself to blind taste wines and go through the description process that I have to apply. This could potentially be embarrassing, but it could be fun too. I grab a bottle off my wine rack (among a dozen options), then I put it in my trusty blind tasting sock, open it and then well, the magic happens. Well the magic is basically me going through my checklist of characteristics of the wine, it’s not very exciting as a spectator sport even though it’s like the Superbowl in my mouth. At the end I will venture a guess as of the nature of the wine and a judgement on its quality Simple in principle, complicated in practice.

The trusty wine sock

The trusty wine sock

Appearance :

Clarity : Clear

Intensity : pale

Colour : Ruby

Other Observations : with legs

I need better lighting for these pictures...

I need better lighting for these pictures…

Nose :

Condition : Clean

Intensity: medium +

Aroma Characteristics : red fruits : red cherries, raspberries, strawberries, fruit jam, stewed fruit, plum

Development : Developing

Palate :

Sweetness : dry

Acidity : high

Tannin : medium –

Alcohol : medium

Body : medium –

Flavour intensity : medium +

Flavour characteristic : red cherry, plum, prune, stewed fruit, redcurrant

Finish : medium –

Conclusions :

Quality level : acceptable

Level of readiness : can drink now, potential for ageing (but not much, maybe a couple years)

Identity : New World Pinot Noir, warm climate

Price category : mid-priced

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The wine : Mohua Pinot Noir 2012 from Central Otago, New Zealand

I got the New World and the variety and Central Otago is considered a warm region so, I didn’t do too bad. The winery’s tasting notes mention liquorice and cranberry, which I didn’t get at all… This did not end up too badly. I’m sure the next one will see me comically fail. Trust the process they say.

 

Weird Science

I started on the reading material for my class last evening. The first chapters are the “technical” ones, first biology : the vine, its parts, how it lives, what it needs, photosynthesis and all that. Then, it’s chemistry : fermentation, alcohol, sugar, blue meth,… It’s all well and good if you ignore the fact that I hate science. Chemistry and physics were the two classes I always dreaded in school and to this day I feel nothing but apathy at best and loathing at worst for science.

But, wine science serves a greater good, so studied on I did. I was reminded of a quote by Rabelais, 16th century French philosopher ( a class I didn’t dread in school) about “Science sans conscience n’est que ruine de l’ame.” Science without conscience is just ruin of the soul. If you switch “conscience” with “purpose” in the quote, then you get something. Science for wine isn’t too bad, it serves a purpose, the purpose tastes good. I’m willing to see science as a necessary evil if it leads to grapes being fermented. Also, topically, Rabelais is often associated with good food and wine, especially Chinon wines from the Loire Valley, coincidence ? I think not.

Credits : Wikipedia

Credits : Wikipedia

Having reconciled myself with science, I kept studying. A big challenge is going to be the vocabulary, since I’m learning english words whose French translation I don’t know. It’s a process, nothing a little googling can’t solve. I am now familiar with buds, nodes, canes, spurs, shoots, tendrils and of course, permanent wood (not to be confused with transient wood which just phases in and out of reality). Okay, vines are plants, roots go down, sun comes in, photosynthesis happens, the plants grows. Everybody wins.

It gets more interesting when the lesson moves on to grafting. Basically, every vine producing grapes for wine is the result of grafting. Grafting is the process of joining 2 species of vines together to get qualities from both. Example : vitis vitifera is a vine that can produce wine grapes, which is good, but it is really fragile against the phylloxera parasite, which is bad. In fact, it those little bastards almost destroyed european vines in the 19th century. Enters vitis berlandieri, its grapes are unfit to produce wine, which is sad, but its roots can stifle phylloxera parasites by filling their greedy little mouths with sticky sap, which is good (and also really funny). Grafting the top of vitis vinifera on some vitis berlandieri roots, you get a vine that produces good grapes and can resist phylloxera. Jesse, you take this one.

fbd

Thanks Jesse. Now I’m starting to look at the scary part for me : chemistry. Compounds and reactions, fermentation, stuff turning into other stuff because stuff happens. I’m not kidding, “stuff” is an accurate snapshot of my knowledge level here. I’ll have to take copious amount of notes. I can’t wait to get to the part of the class where there are maps. I like maps, I understand maps. In the meantime, onward, for science !

Back to school

It’s definitely weird, after 10 years or so of actual work, to go back being a student. The perspective of classes, homework, and reading materials seems deliciously youthful. This week, I started the WSET Level 3 course (I took and passed the Level 2 back in 2014) so the studious feeling is very fresh in my mind.

The class is split roughly between two thirds of people from the wine industry (buyers, sales, restaurant) and one third of people like me who would just like to learn more and maybe, one day, God willing, weather allowing, stars aligning and pigs flying, transition to the wine industry. My girlfriend’s reaction when I told her that my classmates worked for certain restaurants in Boston: “Be sure to network, so we get invited to their events.” She is the best.

Most of the class was devoted to introductions and to the tasting approach that will be emphasized. A very structured, systematic approach, that is similar to the one I learned for level 2, but much more detailed. The cheat sheet for the methodology is roughly twice the size than the level 2 one. So is the textbook.

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That seems to be the point overall, Level 3 is supposed to be challenging, it is the first “real” class of the program, and the exam at the end will be significantly tougher. The next part of the class was discussing the exam format. On top of the multiple choice and short answer questions, the exam will include blind tasting of two wines, one red, and one white. Basically we will have to give a structure description of looks, nose, taste of the wines and conclude by guessing the nature of the wine, judging its quality, ageing potential, and estimating its price range.

I’m not going to lie to you, it seems daunting at first. Especially after we did a couple wines as a class, so that the educator could take us through the methodology. I felt that it was going fast, that I didn’t get most of the things other students did. It was scary. Test subjects were a very enjoyable Auslese Riesling from the Mosel, and a meh Chinon from the Loire Valley.

And it immediately got scarier as we concluded the class with a mock exam: 2 wines, 2 tasting sheets and 20 minutes! I was panicking a little bit as I started taking notes, sniffing, checking the color against a white background,… Time seemed to fly as I was debating between passion fruit and pineapple notes, between pale lemon or medium lemon-green color. When the clock ran out I was dejected.

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The teacher then took us through the results. As it turned out, I would have passed. I got a 40 out of 50, 26 being the passing grade. I did well on the quality/price range/ origin conclusion but flunked both color appreciations. I also misjudged some of the acidity/body/intensity/alcohol levels. To me this will always be the tough part “how do you distinguish between medium + and high acidity, or between medium – and medium body? Apart from those “calibrating” issues, I was a bit relieved. It helped that both wines had fairly distinctive profiles, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and Rioja Reserva.

Overall, I’m excited to start on this new learning journey, for a couple hours every week I get to be a student again, on a subject that I happen to love. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some homework to do.

Barnyard Burgundy under $20

Vincent Dureuil-Janthial, Bourgogne Passetoutgrain, 2012

Region: Côte Chalonnaise, Bourgogne, France

Grape: 90% Pinot Noir, 10% Gamay

Price: $18

Last Friday was date night. I mean actual date night, at a non-divey restaurant, with hovering waiters, several menus, a large wine list and fancy lighting. It had been a while since an actual date night but it was nice to seat back and enjoy a great meal with a nice bottle of wine. It makes you feel like a grown-up, you know what I mean?

Well, I felt like a grown-up who was lost and bewildered when I looked at the wine list. It was big, with a lot of unknowns, hard to make a choice. Luckily, my eye fell on the name of a producer I knew and liked, Vincent Dureuil-Janthial. I tried a few of his whites a year or so ago and I was impressed. His wines come from the village of Rully, in the Côte Chalonnaise, south of the Côte de Beaune and north of the Mâconnais. Passetoutgrain is a weird appellation in the sense that it is not geography-based, like almost all Burgundy appellations, but rather variety based. Passetoutgrain wines mix Gamay (up to two thirds) and Pinot Noir (at least one third). Passetoutgrain is supposed to be a cheaper, less refined alternative to Pinot Noir burgundies but I trusted the producer and I was curious.

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Eye: light ruby

Nose: Clean, low to medium intensity. Red fruits (cherry) and flowers

Palate: Dry, medium to high acidity, medium body, all about the red fruits (raspberry and tart cherry). Underlying faint smoky notes, giving the wine a sort of huskiness. Medium finish.

Food pairings: Chicken, veal, pork, white meat in general

Overall opinion: Must love tartness. I think it’s closer to a traditional Bourgogne Red than to a Passetoutgrain. There is fruitiness yes, but it remains restrained, the Gamay playfulness is not really on display here. It is a well-made wine by a good producer at a very affordable price for a Burgundy. I liked the underlying, faint smokiness which gives it a barnyard style that I found enjoyable.

Grade: 7/10

And we’re back

All right, I know, I’ve been slacking on this blog lately. I have some good excuses; I also have some bad ones. On the good excuses side, well, I got a new job that is significantly more challenging and time consuming than the last one. I also moved into a new place, which meant well, moving, home improvement, getting situated in a new (and awesome) neighborhood. And I have been travelling quite a bit, hitting Paris, Chicago, New-York, Wisconsin and Chicago again. My life has been busier lately, which is a good thing. As for the bad excuses, well, it’s just the one actually, I’m a generally very lazy person, so there.

But, I’m now starting to get back on my feet work-wise, apartment-wise, time-wise and wine-wise. Steps have been taken. Namely, I have registered for the WSET Level 3 courses, I’m starting next February. That means I have to step up my tasting game. Also, there are holiday parties, with wines to select, match and drink. Tis the season to get rosy cheeks.

Back in the saddle then, with a classic 2 wines evening. Let me see if I still know how to write a blog post,…

And Co, The Supernatural 2010, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand – ($20)

100% Sauvignon Blanc, the funky grape variety that is New Zealand’s main white grape

20141213_203111A very nice medium gold color. Low to medium intensity on the nose with bunches of tropical fruits, mostly passion fruit. A little bit of grassy notes too. The wine has a medium body with low to medium acidity. Tropical fruits galore (the label promises passion fruit, and it’s not lying). I also got some apricot and some pretty strong gooseberry aromas (the latter being completely absent from the nose).

Overall a good crisp Sauvignon Blanc, not necessarily on the funky side but more fruity and playful. Also the bottle looks cool and opens with a beer opener, that’s novelty.

Domaine de Baron’Arques, 2010, Limoux, France – ($35)

Blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Grenache, Malbec and Merlot

domaine-de-baron-arques-limouxWell, this wine too is a novelty. Limoux in Southern France, is an appellation primarily known for sparkling wine, the Blanquette de Limoux. It turns out that there is also a small Limoux Rouge appellation that produces red wine. This particular bottle is produced by the Rothschild family, of Bordeaux fame, and it’s interesting as a case study because it blends the Bordeaux grapes (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot) with the Rhone grapes (Grenache, Syrah) and the southwest grape (Malbec).

It’s a deep ruby wine, red fruits and black pepper on the nose and palate. To me it was mostly reminiscent of a Bordeaux wine with a hint of Rhone spice. I felt like Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah dominated the blend.

As I said, it’s a novelty wine, more interesting for the idea of it than for the quality. It’s not bad by any standards but I don’t think it’s worth the price.

It’s good to get back on the saddle. Hopefully I will  manage to have a more consistent posting schedule, we shall see !

Judgment Day in Paris

What does being a wine nerd mean? Actually, what does being a nerd mean? If we define nerdery, then we can define wine nerdery as being simply the fact of presenting nerdlike attitudes to the subject of wine. The key word in the last sentence is “subject”, a nerd needs a subject to obsess about. Nerdery, at least the way I understand it, is different than passion. Passion is a strong desire, an overwhelming attraction for something whereas nerdery is a consuming desire to learn and know everything about a subject. I goes beyond liking something, there needs to be a thirst (see what I did here) for knowledge and lore, no matter obscure.

And there is a wine lore, undeniably. Actually, there are several wine lores; one could approach the subject matter through geography (the producing regions), science (the fermentation process), botany (grape varieties), law (bottling and labelling regulations)… There is a lot to know, there is a lot to learn, there is a lot to bore your friends with.

Personally, I like history, and there is a history lore of wine. Of course, mostly it consists of trends, underlying tendencies and slow processes rather than seminal events. There are however such events that helped shape the wine world. Once such event, known as the Judgment of Paris seems a good topic to bore you with today.

Judgment of Paris by Rubens

Judgment of Paris by Rubens

First of all, let’s mention the pun aspect. The judgment of Paris is the seminal event that caused the Trojan War, with the Trojan prince Paris finding in favor of Aphrodite against her fellow goddesses. In the wine world, it refers to a blind tasting event, held in Paris, on May 24th 1976, that pitted French wines around their US counterparts.

Eleven judges, nine from France, one from the UK and one American, blind tasted ten red wines and 10 white wines. The reds were all Cabernet-Sauvignon dominated blends, pitting top Bordeaux against top Napa Valley wines. The whites were all Chardonnays, this time pitting Burgundy against the Napa Valley. Remember, the year was 1976, so if you think French people are snobbish about non-French wines now, imagine how it must have been back then. Also, the grades given by the non-French judges were not counted, so the rankings are purely French-based.

tasting

Why did that tasting become a seminal, world changing event then? Well, because the US wines won. Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars dominated the red competition and Chateau Montelena won the white wine contest. Just to be thorough and drool a bit here were the line ups for each contest (ranked by result with their final score).

Red wines

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973, Napa Valley (127.5)

Château Mouton-Rothschild 1970 (126)

Château Haut-Brion 1970 (125.5)

Château Montrose 1970 (122)

Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon ’Mountain Range’ (Montebello) 1971, Santa Cruz Mts. (105.5)

Château Leoville-Las-Cases 1971 (97)

Mayacamas 1971, Napa Valley/Mayacamas Mts. (89.5)

Clos Du Val 1972, Napa Valley (87.5)

Heitz Cellars ’Martha’s Vineyard’ 1970, Napa Valley/St. Helena (84.5)

Freemark Abbey 1969, Napa Valley/Rutherford (78)

White wines

Chateau Montelena 1973, Napa Valley/Calistoga (132)

Meursault-Charmes 1973, Roulot (126.5)

Chalone Vineyards 1974, Monterey County/Soledad (121)

Spring Mountain 1973, Napa Valley/Spring Mountain (104)

Beaune Clos des Mouches 1973, Joseph Drouhin (101)

Freemark Abbey 1972, Napa Valley/Rutherford (100)

Batard-Montrachet 1973, Ramonet-Prudhon (94)

Puligny-Montrachet 1972, Les Pucelles, Domaine Leflaive (89)

Veedercrest 1972, Napa Valley/Mt. Veeder (88)

David Bruce 1973, Santa Cruz Mts. (42)

Of course this constituted a big surprise, there were controversy, protests, endless discussions about what it really meant. In the end, it did not matter, the result was that American wines were put on the map and I believe it’s a good thing. There is a movie about the event, it’s called Bottleshock and I plan to watch it soon. The question is rather, why did I decide to write about this now?

montelena

Well, it just so happens that last week, I was lucky enough to share a bottle of the Chateau Montelena Chardonnay with some friends. It wasn’t the 1973 vintage of course, it was a 2011, which in a way is good because, like the vintage used in the competition, it was 3 years old when drank. It is a fantastic wine, crisp, with aromas ranging from tropical fruits to citrus while still sampling some peach along the way, great balance and acidity. One of the best wines I had all year. The price also doesn’t hurt, you can find it for around $50 which for a “star” wine is a bargain. For instance another wine from the contest, the Puligny Montrachet Les Pucelles from Leflaive, will cost you around $200 for a bottle of 2011. I’d rather have the Montelena, thank you! It’s not often you can sample a wine that actually made history, or even just a wine that is famous. Price tends to be prohibitive for these bottles, and it is okay, it makes them even more special. An affordable, historic, great wine is something to celebrate though. This nerd will continue looking for wine knowledge, especially if it’s that tasty.