February 2008

Normally — it only makes sense — the “Case of New Releases” page on KoeppelOnWine.com consists of 12 wines, there being, traditionally, 12 bottles in a case of wine. Except that some wineries nowadays have screwed up the system by selling or marketing their wines — and these are always expensive products — in six-bottle “cases.” Thanks a lot. Anyway, the way I got ahead of myself was by arranging the wines I was going to review by wineries, four of them, all in California, and I realized that there were three groups of three and one group of four, and a quick hands-free calculation in the old noggin told me that those groups added up to 13. What was I going to do, kick a wine out for being the odd one?

No, I couldn’t do that, because I liked these wines very much, especially a couple of chardonnays from Morgan and three pinot noirs from Belle Glos — the Belle Glos Clark & Telegraph Pinot Noir 2006 is exceptional but not cheap — and that quartet of wines, three reds and a white, a splendid roussanne, from the highly individual producer, Renaissance Vineyard & Winery, in North Yuba. How individual is Renaissance? How about this? No new oak for red wines; alcohol levels below 14 percent; holding the top wines for years before release; giving wines real structures based on acid, tannin and fruit rather than plush, Barbie-doll textures. Unfortunately, Renaissance makes wines in very small quantities, usually no more than about 3,400 cases annually of all the types and varieties. Take a look, in any case. Click on the link in the first paragraph.

So here I am, blathering on — because I really want you to look at KoeppelOnWine, where I do most of the actual reviewing — but what I really want to say is that I’m sorry about the dearth of images on BTYH, the reason being that the monitor on my “official” computer died and I haven’t gotten a replacement yet, so I’ve been doing all the blog and website work on my laptop, which is fine, except that the image function of WordPress, which DID work perfectly until weekend before last, now, for some reason known to a billion 15-year-olds but not me, won’t work. I can post a post — ta-dah! — but I cannot upload (I hate that word) and send images to the editor thingie. It’s damned frustrating because I HATE seeing the blog without art. So, this weekend I’ll fork over the dough and get a new monitor for the “official” computer and then see about getting WordPress to work properly on the laptop.

Did I mention that I hate computers?

So, a few nights ago we’re at a fine-dining restaurant, and the way we know it’s fine-dining is because the place is a sea of snowy-white linen, the tables are set with multiple glasses and pieces of silverware; there are flowers and shaded lamps on the tables, the lighting is subdued, the chairs are upholstered in red velvet and the waiters wear those traditional short white jackets with ties. And entrees are $27 to $39. It’s very old-fashioned for a new restaurant, which it is, and on this week-night only three tables are occupied.

The waiter brings the menus and hands me a wine list and asks if we would like something to drink before dinner. As I usually do, I reply that we’ll look at the menu first and then order wine. The wine list is pretty high-toned, and I decide on a bottle of the Hendry Pinot Noir 2005, Napa Valley, at $78, a marvelous wine, as it turns out. But that comes later.

The waiter returns and we order dinner and the wine, and off he goes. We nibble bread, sip water, chat and so on. A few minutes pass and I’m wondering where the wine is, and then the waiter shows up with the amusette, you know, the little “free” offering before the meal that’s designed to show you how generous the chef is in a restaurant where entrees go up to $39. O.K., fine, it’s an amusing and tasty little thing, salmon, I think, but still we have no wine, and when the waiter clears the plates I say, “Could we get the wine soon?”

“Of course, sir, the manager is looking for it.”

Looking for it? This does not bode well.

More minutes churn their way into oblivion, and when the waiter shows up this time to change some silverware, I say, “We’d really like to have the wine.”

“Yes sir, of course, but — ” and here he lowers his voice a trifle ” — the manager is very busy right now.”

Very busy right now! In a restaurant where only three tables are occupied? LL and I gaze at each other with wild surmise, and large thought balloons bearing the words “What The Fuck??!!” appear over our heads. This is completely a new one on me.

“But,” the waiter continues — and he really is a nice and polite young man and none of this is his fault — “I know he’ll get the wine in just a minute.”

What happens in just a minute is that the waiter returns with the appetizers, sets them in front of us and rather furtively hurries away, trying to maintain his dignity. We sit there with arms folded. At this point THERE’S NO WAY IN HELL that we’re going to take one bite of food without the wine. Then a man, the manager, practically runs into the room and leaps in front of our table. “Ah,” he says gaily, “you want the wine!”

“Yes,” I say, “we would like the wine very much!”

“Of course,” the manager says, “I will be right back.” And off he scurries, and indeed returns in a few seconds with the wine under his arm. As he opens it he explains that he had to search for the wine upstairs, that it was the last bottle and difficult to find and so on, none of which explains WHY IT TOOK HALF AN HOUR TO GET THE DAMNED BOTTLE OF WINE.

Which, thank Bacchus and all his pards, turned out to be absolutely lovely.

Here’s the second installment in a series that examines the real or perceived differences between a winery’s “regular” bottling of a particular wine or grape and its “reserve” bottling. Actually, today we look at three offerings of chardonnay from two far-flung wineries: Rodney Strong Vineyards in Sonoma County and Pierre Morey in Burgundy. This essay does not mean to compare Rodney Strong and Pierre Morey, anymore than you could compare the geography and culture of California and Burgundy.

We expect that a reserve wine merits that designation — which is completely unregulated on local, state or federal levels — because the grapes come from a particularly well-regarded vineyard or section of a vineyard; that the wine may represent the best of the barrels that composed the final blend; or that the wine received special care in the winery; perhaps a combination of all three potential criteria is the case. We assume, for these reasons, that a reserve wine will cost more than a regular bottling, though it often seems that the cost isn’t justified.

Rodney Strong Vineyards produces three chardonnays: 1. the “regular” and widely available Sonoma County version, one of the most reliable chardonnays made in California in its price range, about $15; 2. the Chalk Hill Chardonnay, made from the estate vineyard originally planted by the winery’s founder, Rodney Strong, in 1965, another dependable wine that sells for about $20; and the Reserve rendition, a limited production wine that gets more oak treatment than its cousins, about $35.

*The Rodney Strong Chardonnay 2006, Sonoma County, is partially barrel-fermented (40 percent) and partially stainless steel fermented (60 percent); the 40 percent continues in French and American oak to age for nine months and goes through considerable (84 percent) malolactic conversion, a completely natural process that transforms crisp malic (“apple-like”) acid to lush lactic “(“milk-like”) acid. Sorry to throw all these percentages at you, but I want readers to see how careful handling in the winery can lend character to a basic, inexpensive wine. The result here is a chardonnay that nicely balances clean crispness and vibrancy with moderate lushness and richness for liveliness and a pleasing texture. Scents and flavors of green apple, pineapple and grapefruit are bolstered by hints of dried baking spices and chiseled minerality. You feel the oak a bit in the finish, as a flush of spicy wood. Drink now through 2009. Very Good+, and a Great Bargain. This should be a no-brainer on every restaurant’s wine-by-the-glass program. About $15.

*The difference between the previous wine and Rodney Strong’s Chalk Hill Estate Chardonnay 2005, Sonoma County, lies in the firmness of the body and texture and in a tone of unabashed resonance and vividness. Ninety-seven percent of the wine was fermented in French oak barrels (27 percent new) and went through the malolactic process. Despite what could have been heavy-handed treatment, the wine does not display the flaws that commonly result from so much oak and malolactic — candy-like flavors and over-creamy lushness; instead, this wine reveals admirable balance and integration and lovely suppleness in texture. To classic pineapple and grapefruit flavors, it adds touches of pear and orange rind and limestone; the bouquet opens to offer hints of jasmine and damp rocks, while the wine as a whole delivers notable purity and intensity. Drink now through 2009. Excellent. About $20, a Great Price.

*Back in September, I wrote on BTYH, “Oak should be like shoes of invisibility, transporting one miraculously but nowhere in evidence.” Opposed to that point of view are many winemakers in California who see grapes as raw material upon which to exercise their wills. I’m not saying that Rick Sayre, longtime winemaker for Rodney Strong and now vice president and director of winemaking, believes that necessarily, but he’s certainly an advocate of putting a wine through its paces, oak-wise. Over the years, I have criticized many wines from Rodney Strong, especially reds, for bearing too heavily the stamp of the oaken vision.

That assertion is prelude to the Rodney Strong Reserve Chardonnay 2005, Sonoma County, a wine that is 100 percent fermented in French oak, goes through complete malolactic and ages for 20 months in barrels. This is still a wine of tremendous brightness and vivacity, of vibrant fruit and stirring acidity and minerality, but you smell the oak and you taste the oak from beginning to end and if oak influence had color and voice, you would see it and hear it as well. I know that there are many experienced wine drinkers and reviewers who relish the smell and taste of oak in wine, but I don’t; I think that overt oak character, that presence of toasty oak, is an aberration.

My conclusion, then, is that this wine is not for me, though it possesses sterling qualities, and it qualifies as a reserve wine because it obviously receives singular attention in the winery. Still, I rate it Very Good+. Drink now through 2010 or ’11. About $35.

For information about the winery, visit rodneystrong.com.

The situation is somewhat different with our three white Burgundy wines. First, as you will see, there are the prices. Second, the term “reserve” is seldom used in France, so what we are looking at here are a “village” wine, a village wine from a designated vineyard (lieu-dit, “named place”), and a Premier Cru wine, all three from Meursault. Unlike nearby (just to the south) Puligy-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet, with which it forms a triumvirate of ultimate chardonnay-dom, Meursault possesses no Grand Cru vineyards, though its Premier Cru vineyards are justly famous. Pierre Morey is winemaker for the distinguished domaine of Olivier Leflaive. The Morey wines are biodynamically grown.

*To be a “village” wine in Burgundy, the grapes may come from anywhere in the named village, in this case Meursault, where vineyards are allowed; that is, they can’t just be grown in someone’s backyard. It happens, in lesser years, that producers will meursaults_01.jpg downgrade their Premier Cru wines to village level because the quality is not commensurate with the reputation of the vineyard and producer, but 2005 was a superb year. The grapes for the winsome Meursault 2005 from Pierre Morey derive from rows of vines in three parcels in Meursault owned by Pierre Morey and planted in 1986. Though the wine aged 18 months in oak barrels, it is completely unfettered by perceivable or palpable oak influence, which is relegated to the foundation and framing of the wine rather than contributing overtly to its nature.

The wine smells slightly waxy, with touches of lanolin and sweet white flowers. Flavors of roasted lemon, pineapple and grapefruit are permeated by smoke, limestone and chalk, clove and ginger. Balanced by the ripeness of its fruit and the liveliness of its acid, the wine is very dry, but not austere. The finish is long, stony and spicy. Drink now through 2010 or ’12, well-stored. Lovely and irresistible as it is, however, it lacks true heft and balletic power, so I give it Very Good+. About — gack! — $75-$90. Yes friends the effect of the euro, the currency named for a whole continent — imagine if we called dollars “North Americans” — certainly makes itself known here. 300 cases imported.

*The Pierre Morey Meursault Les Tossons 2005 comes from a 2.2-acre village vineyard; the name means “the shards,” referring to the fragmented nature of the vineyard’s soil and rocks. The color is pale straw; the bouquet is an adorable weaving of roasted meursaults_02.jpg lemon, lemon balm and grapefruit, jasmine and limestone. In the mouth, the wine offers seductive depth and body, pulling you in with its buoyancy and lustrous powers, its flavors of spiced and macerated stone fruit; it’s boldly dense and chewy, almost powdery, an effect off-set by crackling acid and mineral elements. Drink now through 2011 or ’13, well-stored. Excellent. 200 cases imported.

*Morey-Blanc is the name of Pierre Morey’s negociant side that makes wine from purchased grapes; Blanc is Pierre Morey’s wife’s name. Don’t turn you nose up; most of the important domaine winemakers in Burgundy also produce full lines of negociant wines, principally from long-term contracts with growers they trust. The Pierre Morey Meursault and Meursault Tossons are domaine wines, that is, the vineyards are owned by the company; our third wine is the Morey-Blanc Meursault Boucheres Premier Cru 2005, a negociant wine and an absolutely splendid example of what Meursault Premier Cru from a great year should be.

My first notes were “Wow. Lovely, perfect.” I suppose I could stop there, but I’ll add (anyway) that the wine is crystalline in its ringing acid and pure minerality, that its resonant and vibrant intensity completely imbues flavors of candied ginger, lemon-lime meursaults_03.jpg and grapefruit, pear and baked apple. A talc-like scent, a powdery texture and a hint of jasmine remind me of my mother’s dressing table, with its silver compacts and drawers lined with satin, though the finish is like strata of damp limestone and shale. The wine is, in a word, Exceptional, and lovers of white Burgundy or chardonnay in general are urged to buy a case, if they can find one, since only 70 cases were imported. Drink from now through 2012 to ’15, well-stored. About $110. The importer for the Pierre Morey wines is Wilson Daniels, St. Helena, Cal.

Visit wilsondaniels.com or morey-meursault.fr.

The current issue of the “Wine Spectator” — Jan. 31-Feb. 29, 2008 — helpfully recapitulates last year’s reviewing program by listing all the wines reviewed in 2007 by name, price and rating. The descriptions of the wines are omitted, but those tend to be pretty damned telegraphic anyway.

What’s interesting about the issue, though, is a section in which the Spectator’s writers and reviewers go country by country and region by region and reveal the average price of the wines in the different scoring categories. This is particularly important in the top scoring — let’s call it “iconic” — segment of wines rated 90 to 100 points of the WS 100-point scale.

Look for example at this breakdown for France:

Red Bordeaux: Average price of wines scoring 90 to 100: $95.
Red Burgundy: Average price of wines scoring 90 to 100: $116
White Burgundy: Average price of wines scoring 90 to 100: $86.
Rhone Valley: Average price of wines scoring 90 to 100: $72.
Loire Valley: Average price of wines scoring 90 to 100: $32.
Alsace: Average price of wines scoring 90 to 100: $73.
Champagne: Average price of wines scoring 90 to 100: $92
Languedoc & Roussillon: Average price of wines scoring 90 to 100: $35.
Other France: Average price of wines scoring 90 to 100: $41.

Do I have to spell it out for you? B-U-Y L-O-I-R-E.

It’s also interesting that for California, the guide does not go through all the counties and regions and valleys in similar manner; that would take a book. Instead, the matter is arranged by grape. Here’s the sequence:

Cabernet sauvignon: Average price of wines scoring 90 to 100: $103.
Chardonnay: Average price of wines scoring 90 to 100: $48.
Pinot noir: Average price of wines scoring 90 to 100: $52.
Syrah: Average price of wines scoring 90 to 100: $47.
Zinfandel: Average price of wines scoring 90 to 100: $32.
Merlot: Average price of wines scoring 90 to 100: $52.
Sauvignon blanc: Average price of wines scoring 90 to 100: $24.
Other grapes: Average price of wines scoring 90 to 100: $45.

Do I have to spell it out for you? B-U-Y S-A-U-V-I-G-N-O-N B-L-A-N-C A-N-D Z-I-N-F-A-N-D-E-L.

Now these figures do not take into account the rarity of certain wines, the prestige of properties and vineyards and other factors, but this much is clear: Of all the regions and countries mentioned in this exercise, only New Zealand comes in at a lower average price — $30 — of wines scoring 90 to 100 points than the Loire Valley. And much as the wines of New Zealand have improved in the past 10 or 15 years, they don’t represent nearly the diversity of grapes and styles that the Loire Valley does, from Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume in the east to Muscadet in the west, with Chinon and Anjou and Savennieres and Vouvray and Saumur and many other smaller appellations in between.

Perhaps 2008 should be the Year of the Loire, and we should spend the next 10 months exploring its varied treasures.

Alternatively, it seems like a good time to fill the spaces in your wine rack or the boxes in your closet with sauvignon blanc and zinfandel wines from California, experimenting with different regions, vineyards and labels. There would be worst ways to spend the rest of the year.

Trade organizations exist to protect and promote the products of their members. In the world of wine, that means groups are dedicated to the purity of specific grapes or types of wines or to regional wines and traditions. In California, it would be difficult to find a county, a region or sub-region or valley that doesn’t have a trade organization out there trying to call attention to the unique attributes of its climate, soil and heritage. And while big-time grapes like chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and merlot certainly don’t require promotion, lesser-known grapes like petite sirah and zinfandel have their official adherents in P.S. I Love You and Z.A.P. Does anyone remember the Charbono Society?

A new trade organization recently surfaced, one whose very inception embodies controversy, or at least some confusion. This is the brave little Sweet and Fortified Wine Association (website here), whose membership so far consists of Prager Winery and Port Works, Quady Winery, J. Pedroncelli Winery, Pessagno Winery and Belo Wine Co, all in California, and Glunz Family Winery and Cellar in Illinois. Hey, come on, all you wineries that make port-like and dessert-style wines, let’s show some support!

The problem, or, as I said above, the controversy or confusion, lies is legal terminology, because, according to agreements between the government of the United States of America and the European Community, the word “port” may not be used on the labels of fortified wines made outside of the designated port region of Portugal. “Port” is a protected term, in the way that lb.jpg “Sherry,” “Champagne” and “Chianti” are. These are wines that are firmly tied to the geography whence they originate, and it is right that they be protected. Just as producers of sangiovese wines in California may not label their wines as Chianti, so bottles of Le Montrachet may not assert that they’re “A Napa Valley-Style Chardonnay.” The principle works both ways.

Still, these practices make matters rather difficult for producers of fortified wines in the United States. The SFWA is aware of the dilemma and mentions on its website an inquiry sent to the TTB (ttb.gov), the federal agency that oversees the granting of COLAs (Certificates of Label Approval). In response, the TTB representative said: “It is my understanding that we would not allow (COLAs) for the use of the term ‘Port-Style,’ ‘Port-Type,’ etc. since those references would be in conflict with our commitment to the Agreement in Trade in Wine between the US and EC.”

So, no port or porto, no port-style or port-type or port-like, no portish or portiness or portly or purportedly (though that would be pretty clever), no “we-can’t-call-it-port-but-you-know-what-we-mean.” All right, fine. We’re all law-abiding citizens here. ink-grade-port-label.jpg Obviously, the label for the Heitz Cellars Ink Grade Vineyard Port, released in 2003, would no longer be allowed.

However, the response goes on: “Also, the term ‘fortified’ or similar terms are not allowed on wine labels.” WTF, readers! The term “fortified” doesn’t even appear on labels of real Porto from Portugal! When was the last time you saw a Taylor-Fladgate or Fonseca label that said “Port: A Fortified Wine!” And port isn’t the only fortified wine in the world. There are sherry, madeira, vermouth, malaga, marsala and a few others. I find that ruling almost deliberately dense and prohibitive. One imagines a couple of pasty-faced bureaucrats in a windowless office in an anonymous suburb chuckling to each other: “Tee-hee, let’s see how they squirm out of this one!”

TTB helpfully offers “possible label options.” These include such colorful terms as “Dessert Wine,” “Grape Wine,” “Red/White Wine,” “Sweet Dessert Wine,” “Sweet Grape Wine, “Sweet Red/White Wine, etc … ” I particularly like “Grape Wine.” I mean, I like to know exactly what I’m getting in the bottle.

The New Day referred to in the title of this post calls attention to the fact that BTYH is now affiliated with Triggit!, a new program that will allow me to make a little moolah from this blog beyond the pittance that Google ads bring. This will still be a pittance, but if you add a pittance to a pittance, you get a slightly larger pittance, enough, perhaps, to pay for a bottle of wine every once in a while.

You will notice, from now on, that every wine I mention on BTYH is highlighted in red. Click on the name of the wine and you will be taken to wine-searcher.com, which will show you where the wine can be bought or ordered and the price it fetches around the country. Every click brings me, as they say in the South, “a thin dime.” Actually, I think it’s 11 cents, making that thin dime a tad thicker. So, visitors to BTYH, you know what your job is. By the way, as an alternative, I can direct the links to winezap.com instead of wine-searcher; I would be interested to know what readers think is more useful.

So, while I already went back and created a few links in previous posts, we’ll launch the Triggit! function officially with two Spanish wines that LL and I drank with meatloaf.

You know how it is with meatloaf. In the same way that migratory birds wake up one morning and think, “O.K., time to go,” human beings rise from slumber thinking, “Yes, it’s a day for meatloaf.” For years I’ve made the meatloaf from Julia Childs’ The Way to Cook (Alfred A. Knopf, 1989), and it’s so perfect a rendition of the concept — meat made into a loaf with a few ingredients to hold it together and make it taste even better — that I see no reason to change. For starch, we made the potatoes gratin from Alice Waters’ book from last year, The Art of Simple Food (Clarkson N. Potter, $35). This dish involved layering three strata of very thinly sliced potatoes, immersing them in milk, butter and (a suggestion) Parmesan cheese and sage, and baking the concoction for an hour. Holy moly!

The first night of the meatloaf, we drank the Casa de la Ermita Crianza 2004, from the Spanish wine region of Jumilla. The wine ermita.jpg is a blend of 40% monastrell (mourvedre), 25% tempranillo, 20% cabernet sauvignon and 15% petit verdot. The bouquet is frankly gorgeous, a heady amalgam of smoke, lavender, crushed violets and minerals and ripe fleshy black fruit. The wine aged nine months in a combination of French and American oak barrels, a factor contributing to its spiciness and its firm structure. Casa de la Ermite Crianza ’04 delivers great balance and integration, as well as a dense, chewy texture, currant, plum and black cherry flavors touched with cedar, tobacco and potpourri and, unexpectedly, a wild, high note of camellia. It was great with the meatloaf. Drink now through 2010 or ’11. Excellent. About $19.

That was last Sunday. Midweek we sat down to dinner with the leftovers and a bottle of Mas Igneus Barranc dels Closos 2004 barranc.jpg from the Spanish region of Priorat. This blend of grenache (70%), carignane (25%) and merlot (5%), which matures only three months in French oak, uses soft, grainy tannins to support luscious currant, plum and blueberry flavors threaded with lead pencil and minerals, wild berry, black tea, potpourri and a hint of tar. A few minutes in the glass bring up touches of mulberries and roses, briers and brambles. It’s a clean, vibrant, spicy wine, super-attractive and drinkable, but with an element of seriousness about the structure. It too was terrific with the meatloaf. Drink now through 2010 or ’11. Very good+. About $20.

Both wines are brought into the United States by Opici Import Co., Glen Rock, N.J.