August 2008


I present today on BTYH the first wines I have tasted from the Philippines. These are the Haliya Mango Wine and Haliya Black Plum mango-wine.png Wine.

Fruit wines are made all over the world, wherever, I suppose, that fruit can be found. Fruit wines can be very good, that is to say, charming, agreeable, delicious. but they rarely attain the complexity of which vinifera grapes (“regular” wine grapes) are capable. Well, actually, most wines made from vinifera grapes don’t attain that complexity either. Fruit wines tend to be sweet because sugar in some form has to be added to produce a stable entity to support fermentation; vinifera grapes are unique in the structural and chemical balance required to make wine.

So, the Haliya fruit wines are made by VuQo Inc. in Manila, which also makes vodka distilled from coconut nectar, and I can hear the country’s mixologists perking up their ears at the idea of a new exotic ingredient for “signature” cocktails. The website (haliyawines.com) tells up that the mangoes and black plums for the wines are hand-picked and the fruit purees prepared for fermentation are made by hand; no machinery touches these mangoes and plums, certainly a satisfaction for our North American obsession with artisanal products.

The color of the Haliya Mango Wine is pure mild gold with a slight darker blush. The intriguing bouquet is a wreathing of peach, yellow plum, guava, camellia and exotic spice, along with a hint of the foxiness familiar to devotees of muscadine wine, or, as one blogger put it, “the smell of stale cigarette smoke.” That’s evocative and not far off the mark, though “stale” seems a bit harsh. There is definitely something slightly wild and earthy about the wine. Flavors are consistent with the bouquet, and while the wine is slightly sweet on the entry, by the time it slides silkily through the mouth it feels almost dry. I’ll take the fall-back position here and say that this could drink nicely with Southeast Asian, or, of course, Filipino cuisine. I find it a tad sweet for an aperitif. In any case, because of its entrancing bouquet and pleasing layered quality, I’ll rate it Very Good. plum-wine.png

The color of the Haliya Black Plum Wine is something else, the brilliant mild orange fading into Rainier cherry of a fire opal, like the hue of a melancholy rosé. This is much drier than the Haliya Mango Wine and in fact conveys something like the nutty intensity of a tawny port, or let’s call it the ghost of a tawny port, since this is paler in every aspect. Pale, too, its impression on the palate, and while I can envision this as an interesting, even delectable but not forceful after-dinner sipper, its other uses elude me. Still, I’m happy to have tried it, and I’ll rate it Good+.

These wines are novelties, as several bloggers have mentioned, but then when do we get to try mango and black plum wines, so, hell, yeah, they’re novelties. Both wines are finished with screw-caps, and both retail for about $15, though that point is somewhat moot unless you live in California. Vu Qo, which has an outpost in San Jose and imports these products, will no doubt launch a campaign to introduce consumers to the esoteric and sophisticated delights of mango and black plum wines. It’s a niche market, but then we’re a country of countless, infinite niches.

If you’re grilling beef or lamb this week (or smoking ribs), snatch a bottle of the Arboleda Merlot 2005, from Chile’s Casablanca Valley, arboleda_merlot.jpg from a shelf. This sleek beauty teems with black currents and black cherries, leather and violets, cedar and black olive, the latter an attractive note that we rarely encounter in merlots from California. This is a really well-made merlot; it’s vibrant and resonant with plenty of personality for the price. In the mouth, those black fruit flavors deepen with spice and minerals, with grainy tannins and polished oak, from 14 months in barrels, 51 percent French/49 percent American and about 70 percent new. The wine is full-bodied and firm without being unforgiving; in fact, the texture is so dense and chewy that it almost feels viscous. It makes you glad to be drinking it. Now through 2010 or ’11. Very good+ About $19.

Visit arboledawines.com.

Imported by Frederick Wildman & Sons, New York.

Sometimes the way it goes with food and wine pairing is that the food is great and the wine is great but they don’t add up to a marriage made in heaven. That’s OK. Every dish and every wine don’t have to come off together like Astaire and Rogers twirling so damn beautifully and effortlessly on the silver screen. Sometimes it’s fine just to say, “That’s nice.” and “Yep, that worked.” You theyard_labelphoto.jpg don’t have to be fanatics. Sometimes, you know, you just want a glass of wine.

And sometimes a dish and a wine match so perfectly that it makes you shiver, right down to your toes.

LL bought some shrimp and tiny spears of asparagus at the store. She cleaned the shrimp, and I grilled them over charcoal, and the dish was pappardelle with grilled shrimp, asparagus and lemon.

I opened a bottle of The Yard Whispering Hill Vineyard Riesling 2007 from Mount Barker in Western Australia. Bingo. No, BINGO!

This elegant riesling is classic but individual. It’s dry and crisp and very minerally, composed of tissues of delicacies woven into a display of tensile strength. Scents of roasted lemon are highlighted by yellow plum, rubber eraser and oyster shell, and indeed there’s something bracing and invigorating about the wine. After a few minutes in the glass, touches of jasmine and spice cake drift up, filling out the citrus and orange rind flavors. It’s so pure and intense, so vibrant, that you feel as if you could be drinking crystals of riesling. The wine could age through 2012 or ’13. Excellent. About $25.

The wine is made by Larry Cherubino, who is also a consultant for Merryvale, in the Napa Valley.

Here are notes on two more wines from The Yard.

The Yard Pedestal Vineyard Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2007, Willyabrup, Western Australia, is frankly a brilliant example of thoughtful winemaking, which begins, of course, in the vineyard. One-third of this blend of 83 percent semillon and 17% sauvignon blanc ages four months in new French oak, the rest in stainless steel. Only natural yeast is used in fermentation. The color is pale straw; the bouquet offers scents of peach and pear, apricot and lemon, with touches of fig, dusty leaves and pine. The texture is supple, seductive, silky, though crackling acid and study limestone keep the wine lively and well-structured. It’s very dry, yet juicy with fresh and spicy lemon and pear flavors that yield an insinuating core of lanolin and bee’s-wax, dried herbs and flowers. Drink now through 2012 or ’13. Exceptional. About $25.

And this very evening I made fajitas from leftover grilled flank steak and opened a bottle of The Yard Acacia Vineyard Shiraz 2006, Frankland River, Western Australia. Wow, what pinpoint execution and balance, like a great gymnast on the parallel bars; the combination of power and elegance is what I’m talking about. Take a sniff of this deep purple wine and you feel as if you have snorted the awesome intensity of the syrah grape. A penetrating mineral quality arrows through dark and ripe black currant, blackberry and black plum scents and flavors, which are juicy and luscious in the mouth without being jammy or cloying. The wine is large-framed, generous, substantial but not massive, not overbearing; it’s actually rather light on its feet. Oak and tannin are indelible yet play their supporting roles with subtlety, until, that is, 30 or 40 minutes have passed and the finish begins to acquire notable foresty and brambly austerity. Drink now through 2013 or ’14. Excellent. About $40.

The importer is Tom Eddy Wines, Calistoga, Cal.

I was in Indianapolis last week, visiting my son, Christopher, and his wife, Sarah, and their two-month-old baby, Sebastian. Yes, the illustrious Koeppel name extends into the future. We don’t have Trader Joe’s in Memphis, nor does Tennessee allow grocery store wine sales, so the point is sort of moot down here, but one morning Sarah and Sebastian and I went to a Trader Joe’s in top_logo.gif Indy so I could check out the wine supply. Friends around the country told me that there are larger and more complete — i.e. more wine –Trader Joe’s in major cities (oops, sorry, Indy, other major cities), but whatever the case, the wine available at this Trader Joe’s was intriguing.

First, I’ll say that I am not a fan of the famous Two-Buck Chuck. The examples I have tried have been bland and anonymous and completely lacking in either personality or character. At the usual $3 a bottle, it’s not a bargain. Come on, people, you have to have some pride.

The wines I chose, however, performed in a manner ranging from decent to remarkably good.

Trader Joe’s acquires many of its wines through regional cooperatives, that is, wineries that many small growers in a vineyard area belong to and to which they sell their grapes. There’s not a thing wrong with that; cooperatives are far more reliable than they were a generation ago. Trader Joe’s also relies on what you might call wine-packing companies, as seems to be the case with the Archeo Nero d’Avola 2006, from Sicily, well, from Sicily, yes, but bottled, according to the back-label, by VI.PE. in Soave, which is, for the geographically-impaired, a long way from Sicily. The name of the winemaker, Ruggero di Tasso, is scrawled on the front of the bottle in gold script.

How’s the wine? Damned good. We drank this bottle with hamburgers, and its deep, rugged, spicy, tarry nature made a great match. The fruit leans toward cherry-berry with a touch of blueberry jam and an element of dried flowers that grows more intense through the robust, tannic finish. I rate the wine Very Good, and it’s certainly a bargain at about $5. D’Aquino Italian Importing Co., Duarte, Cal.

Another attractive Italian red wine, and a bit cheaper, is Il Valone Primitivo 2006, from Puglia, billed on the label as “Italian Zinfandel.” The label also carried the words “Marchese de Petri,” though no connection is made with this nobleperson of the rocks. The wine is bottled by C.-Campagna Gello, PI, Italy.

How’s the wine? Rich, robust and spicy, with rollicking tannins and heaps of dusty, earthy and minerally elements buoying roasted black currant, blackberry and plum flavors. A tide of walnut shell and underbrush come up from mid-palate back, dictating use with hearty dishes and grilled red meat. Another bargain at $4.29. Imported by Americal Beverage Company Inc., San Clemente, Cal.

With pizza last weekend, we drank the Barbera d’Alba “La Loggia” 2006 from Piedmont. This was less distinctive than the other Italian reds I bought at Trader Joe’s. It drank very nicely with the pizza — tomatoes, roasted red pepper, basil, onion and slivers of speck — but even its ripe, fairly juicy black fruit flavors and its spiciness seemed more generic than varietal or regional. So this gets a Good+. About $7. Imported by Santini Fine Wines, San Lorenzo, Cal.

The best of the Italian reds was the grandly (and somewhat implausibly) named Marchesi di Montecristo Nerello del Bastardo 2002, marchesi02.jpg Vino da Tavola Rosso, bottled by C.V.B.M. in Salgareda, a small town in the Treviso province of the Veneto; Salgareda is about 30 km northeast of Venice. This is an interesting point because the grapes in the Nerello del Bastardo 2002 come from — well, let me reproduce the text on the back label:

Nerello del Bastardo can only be described as a Super Piedmontese wine invented purely for fun. When winemakers in Miemonte wish to make Barolo or Barbaresco, the laws governing these wines only allow a certain quantity after aging (minimum 4 years) to be classified Barolo or Barbaresco D.O.C.G.
“I Superi” (the excess) can only be sold as table wine even though the products are practically the same. Master winemaker Marco Dal Bianco and Italian Wine Guru Simon De Giuli Botta came up with this blend of aged wines adding just a touch of something secret.
This creation is a breakthrough in winemaking. One might say this is the illegitimate child of Barolo and Barbaresco hence the name: Nerello del Bastardo meaning: The Bastard’s Nerello.

The implication is that this wine is declassified Barolo and Barbaresco, purchased by these wily negociants, shipped to Salgareda and bottled there. Surely the “Marchesi di Montecristo” thing is a joke, and if it’s not, I humbly offer a thousand apologies, Excellency. The year was not good; in 2002 Piedmont was hit hard by torrential rains and strong winds. So here, apparently, was the opportunity to buy up wines not suitable for the august levels of Barolo and Barbaresco, blend them (perhaps with a bit of syrah) and sell them to American consumers through Trader Joe’s.

The happy ending to this tale of wine globalization is that the Nerello del Bastardo 2002 is terrific. It’s truly dry and austere in its rough-hewn tannins and dusty oak, but just try to resist a bouquet of dried red and black currants laced with plums and raspberries permeated by exotic spice, orange rind and black pekoe tea. Those qualities are consistent in the mouth, where earthy black fruit flavors are layered with leather, brambles and underbrush. This needs venison or leg of lamb. Drink through 2001 or ’12. I rate the wine Very Good+ and a Great Bargain at about $7. That’s right, about $7. Imported by Santini Fine Wines, San Lorenzo, Cal.

I didn’t buy only Italian wines at Trader Joe’s; the next three are French.

Is the Pouilly-Fume 2007, from Les Caves des Perrieres, the best Pouilly-Fume you’ll ever try? No, but it’s tasty and authentically Loire Valley, a clean, fresh sauvignon blanc that offers spicy and moderately earthy citrus and lime peel scents and flavors enlivened with acid that’s almost crystalline and vibrant limestone and flint qualities. The limestone element expands through the finish and dominates it, giving the wine a one-note conclusion, but we can forgive that shortcoming in a sauvignon blanc that’s so enjoyable and fairly priced, about $12. I rate the wine Very Good. Imported by Plume Ridge Wine Negociants, Industry (I’m not kidding), Cal.

Blason de Bourgogne Cuvee Brut, a non-vintage Cremant de Bourgogne, is made by Les Caves de Bailly a well-run cooperative founded in 1971 in the tiny town of Saint-Bris-Le-Vineux, in the Yonne department. Chablis is nominally part of Burgundy, though it seems awfully far away in terms of geography, climate and presentation. This Cremant offers a delicate peachy-copper color and a bouquet of fresh and dried strawberries and raspberries. The bubbles are tiny and persistent, lending liveliness to a wine that’s already fresh and crisp. In the mouth, there’s a bit of bread dough, a hint of yeast, a touch of almond and almond blossom, all wrapped in a lovely silken texture. Winsome and irresistible. Very Good+. About $11, a Great Bargain. Plume Ridge Wine Merchants, Industry, Cal.

The last of this group was my least favorite. Made by the cooperative Les Vignerons de l’Enclave des Papes, the Valreas “Cuvee Prestige” 2006, Cotes-du-Rhone Villages, would get a better rating from me if it weren’t so enveloped in dusty, gritty, walloping tannins that bury the plum and black currant flavors. A bouquet freighted with potpourri, leather, lavender and sandalwood is seductive enough, so perhaps this little wine needs a year or two to soften. On the other hand, you don’t go to Trader Joe’s and pay $6 for a wine you have to wait two years tSo, I give the wine a Good+ and we’ll hope for the best. Plume Ridge Wine Negociants.

There can scarcely be a wine consumer in Christendom who has not tipped back gallons of the Ferrari-Carano Fumé Blanc, whether at home or in restaurants. The wine is very popular on wine lists and by-the-glass programs, and it’s easy to see why; it’s one of bottle-fume-blanc.png the most reliable, deftly made wines in existence.

For 2007, 57 percent of the grapes — the wine is 100 percent sauvignon blanc — were fermented in stainless steel and 43 percent in used French oak, then the wine was aged four months in the same combination. The result is a sauvignon blanc that remains clean, crisp and fresh while allowing a gentle influence of oak to shape a supple texture and infuse a tide of spice through the citrus and roasted lemon flavors. The herbal and grassy elements play a supporting role, allowing fruit and zinging acid to play their proper parts. The finish is taut, minerally and earthy. A delightful and highly drinkable sauvignon blanc. Very good+. Suggested price is $17, though prices around the country can be as low as $12.50.

We drank this with yellow peppers stuffed with quinoa, corn, spinach and feta cheese from one of our favorite cookbooks, Vegetarian Suppers from Deborah Madison’s Kitchen (Broadway Books, $27.50). Madison was the original chef at Greens in San Francisco.

Visit ferrari-carano.com.

In his new book, How Fiction Works (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $24), James Wood dwells on a tendency in some novelists — John Updike, Vladimir Nabokov, David Foster Wallace — to load their narratives with descriptions and metaphors that would not necessarily find natural home in the thoughts or speech of their characters. These devices call attention to themselves, they turn prose “literary,” and they evince the hand of the author where it might be more useful for the author to be invisible behind his words and sentences. Such self-conscious writing, says Wood, such aestheticism, “is at bottom the strenuous display of style.”

We could develop this idea, the strenuous display of style, in the realm of classical music performance, especially on the piano. In lang-lang-adidas-originals-gazelle-1.jpg fact, it has become a cliche of popular culture that classical pianists indulge in a repertoire of dramatic gestures — head and hair tossing, flinging of hands and arms around in the air, rearing back and plunging forward onto the hapless keys, the gamut of facial expressions, from the dreamy closed eyes of ecstasy to the fierce frowns of dramatic concentration. Young (or youngish) pianists like Lang Lang and Olga Kern are almost unwatchable in concert — thank god for recordings! — because their exaggerated mannerisms focus the audience’s eyes on the performer and detract from the music, which is, of course, supposed to be the point.

A third area greatly affected by the strenuous display of style — and I’m certain that you know where I’m going with this theme — is winemaking.

In 24 years of writing about wine, I have tasted and reviewed thousands of examples, principally from California and Australia though other regions are not immune, that displayed, above all aspects, the dominating, the controlling, the manipulative hand of the winemaker. When wines are so stiff with oak that they can almost stand up by themselves, when heavily charred new barrels turn wines into toast and charcoal, when the malolactic process renders chardonnays and sauvignon blancs into bizarre dessert-like elements — roasted marshmallow! pineapple upsidedown cake! coconut cream pie! — these display the hand of the winemaker interfering with the natural qualities and character of the grapes, imposing an agenda that begins and ends as a style.

Every time I read on a back label or on a press release that a red wine spent “28 months in new French oak” or that a white wine “went through barrel fermentation, sur lie aging for 15 months in new French oak and complete malolactic” my heart sinks, and I think, “Here’s a handful of grapes that did not stand a chance.” (Not to mention the mechanical feats, like micro-oxygenation, reverse osmosis and so on, that we don’t read about.) I’m likewise discouraged when I read that a winemaker considers grapes “a blank canvas on which to work” or that the winery provides “a great arsenal of effects to create a wine,” because I know such comments come from winemakers who regard their own egos and technical prowess as more important than the grapes from which they “style” their wines.

I don’t want to drink wines that reveal “the strenuous display of style,” in the way that an author obscures his narrative with flights of fancy or a pianist overlays a composition with emotional athleticism.

I want to drink wines of character, and from where does that character emerge? From the land, the climate, the vineyard, the grapes. Producers and winemakers who don’t respect those four qualities throughout the year and from harvest to harvest and who don’t respect them in the winery cannot make great wine. No, wine does not “make itself”; let’s dispense with that hoary saw. Wine does, however, require nurturing, gentle shaping, a bit of prodding to help it reach its potential, to expand its natural character. What it does not need are magicians, technological shamans, egoists and vandals.

Great wines display great character, yet they are, paradoxically, self-less.

Image of Lang Lang from bigfenomeno.fogo.cl.

As you can see I don’t know a blessed thing about poker except that two pair beat something. Maybe. Or maybe not.

My (much attenuated) point is that here are two pair of terrific wines that are actually unbeatable, at least in their price ranges. One pair comes from the Cotes de Bourg, a so-called minor appellation in Bordeaux’s Right Bank area. The other pair hails from Corsica, an island that is part of France but has always seemed more Italian, despite being the birthplace of Napoleon.

*The blend on these two wines, made by fifth-generation winemaker Christopher Bonnet, is 80 percent merlot, 20 percent castaing05c.jpg cabernet sauvignon.

XIV de Haut-Guiraud “Tradition” 2005, Cotes de Bourg, is made entirely in stainless steel, thereby emphasizing the inherent fruity, structural qualities of the grapes. The wine is robust, rich, deep, dense and intense; it features an entrancing, penetrating bouquet of cassis and black cherry, lavender, rose petal and lilac, cedar and lead pencil, a classic and more. The black fruit flavors are ripe, rather meaty and fleshy, and permeated by a trio of tannic effects: underbrush, wheatmeal, walnut shell, all leading to a fairly austere, earthy, minerally finish. Very good+, and a delicious wine that offers remarkable character for the price, about $18 to $20. Drink now, with grilled red meat, through 2012 or ’14.

Chateau Castaing 2005, Cotes de Bourg, spends 12 months in oak, and you can smell the oak and taste it, making me wish that the wood were better integrated, though of course bottle age could provide that softening and smoothing effect. Spicy and slightly roasted cassis and black cherry flavors are attractive, rounding out with a touch of wild berry, reams of smoke and layers of sleek minerals and finely-grained tannins. Best from 2009 through 2014 or ’15. Very good+. About $18 to $20.

Selected by N. Palazzi Wine & Spirits and imported by Metropolis Wine Merchants, New York.

*Clos Poggiali is owned by the Skalli family that owns a variety of properties in Corsica, the Rhone Valley and Languedoc as well as St. Supery in Napa Valley. The products available in the U.S., in addition, of course, to the wines of St. Supery, are Fortant, from Languedoc; Maison Bouachon, from Chateauneuf-du-Pape; and Terra Vecchia and Clos Poggiale, from Corsica. The Clos Poggiale poggiale.jpg wines are well-worth seeking out.

The Clos Poggiale White Wine 2005, Vin de Corse, is recognizably neither chardonnay nor sauvignon blanc. Made completely from vermentino grapes and in stainless steel, the wine opens with scents of lemon curd and lanolin, dried thyme and some little white summery flower. Bracing acidity buoys juicy and zesty citrus flavors that culminate is a blast of grapefruit; the finish picks up more spice and hints of dried herbs. The wine is dry and slightly astringent (yet, paradoxically, almost honeyed), and it seems to embody the smell of fresh, salty sea air. Absolutely delightful, but with a hint of seriousness. Drink now through 2009. Excellent. About $24.

The red wine, the Clos Poggiale 2004, Vin de Corse, blended from 55 percent sangiovese (called nielluccio in Corsica) and 45 percent syrah, flings spicy, smoky black currant and plum scents directly at you. The word “spicy” recurs thrice in my notes, lending some idea of the lively, vibrant nature of the wine. It’s dry, dusty, dense and chewy, substantial without being heavy, and bursting with ripe, delicious black fruit flavors. Oak treatment is minimal; the syrah rests eight months in French barrels, one-third new wood, while the sangiovese ages in vats; the result is a wine that feels burnished, rather than dominated, by oak. We happily drank this wine with grilled chicken, though it would be terrific with leg of lamb. Drink now through 2010 or ’11. Very good+. About $28.

These wines are imported by SFW Americas, Rutherford, Ca. Visit www.skalli.com.

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