July 2009


What more could you ask for at 5:30 in the evening when it’s not yet really twilight and rain is beginning to fall on the roof of the screened porch than a martini, a bowl of little Tuscan crackers and the July/August issue of Poetry magazine? The martini is composed of 1 and 1/2 jiggers of Hendricks gin and about 1/3 of a jigger of Noilly Prat vermouth and, as you can see, a real lemon twist, not one of those thick, clunky strips of lemon rind with the pith that they give you in bars when you ask for a cocktail with a twist.

The title of this post is the opening line of “Endymion,” a long mythological poem that John Keats wrote from April to December 1817, when he was 21 and 22 years old. It’s a nice sentiment: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” (He wrote “for ever.”) It’s not true, though, is it? The martini gets consumed and the crackers eaten. The writers whose poems and prose are featured in the current issue of Poetry will largely be forgotten, and the magazine will crumble to dust or be nibbled on by insects that enjoy the delicacy of dry paper. The blue Japanese bowl that holds the crackers? Who knows what will happen to it in the years and decades to come? Slipped from unsteady fingers to shatter on the travertine? Sold at an estate sale to adorn other lives and households?

No, Keats wised up quickly, and in April and May of 1819, the “Great Year” of his achievement, he wrote in “Ode on Melancholy” about “Beauty that must die;/And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips/Bidding adieu.” You see, “Veil’d Melancholy” is the twin of Beauty, because Beauty embodies the seeds of its own impermanence and decay; as Wallace Stevens expressed the concept more succinctly in the 20th Century: “Death is the mother of beauty.” Keats concludes the three-stanza poem with an interesting botanical metaphor; only the person “whose strenuous tongue/Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine” will perceive the true glory and necessity of Melancholy. That image, which encompasses the tension of the grape skin, the muscular push of the tongue against it and the quenching splash of the juice, has always appealed to me for its sense of striving and pleasure and refreshment.

Keats was fond of vinous metaphors. The whole second stanza of “Ode to a Nightingale,” written in May 1819, consists of an extended description of a glass of wine (sorry, my blog program would not reproduce the stanza indentations):

O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green.
Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South,
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim …

Every time I taught this poem in the second semester of English survey, I would think, “Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth … a beaker full of the warm South … beaded bubbles winking at the brim … Man, I want a glass of that stuff right now!”

Keats knew, though, that however much pleasure wine confers, its intoxicating character is not the road to transcendence. If he merges with the nightingale, a symbol of immortality, he will “Not [be] charioted by Bacchus and his pards.” (In classical myth, Bacchus, the god of wine, was led in a chariot drawn by a team of leopards.) Keats knew that wine has limitations, chief among them being that, like Pleasure and Beauty, it is ephemeral; wine fades, falters, goes bad. This can happen overnight, or it can take decades, but happen it must.

We read all the time the phrase: “Wine is a living thing.” Friends, wine is not a living thing. A bottle of wine is mostly water with some portion of alcohol, say, 12 to 14 percent, and infinitesimally minute quantities of about 400 trace elements that lend wine its actual character. The fact that a few wines are intended to and in fact do develop and mature as they “age in the deep-delved earth” doesn’t make these wines “living things.” We’re talking about natural chemical processes, the sometimes slow interactions of oxygen with elements in the wine’s chemical composition. If you leave your hedge clippers out in the yard and it rains (especially if you leave them out in the yard for, oh, three weeks), the blades will rust. There’s an example of a natural transformative chemical process, but no one goes around asserting that his hedge clippers are a living thing. If wine were “a living thing” — notice that no one says, “Wine is alive” — it would probably contain, um, things that we wouldn’t want to drink.

What I’m saying is that we don’t have to subscribe to the (fairly harmless but annoying) myth that wine is a living thing in order to understand how glorious wine can be; wine’s potential nobility and power do not depend on that. Still, part of the greatness of a great wine lies in our knowledge that its power, its character, its awesome pleasure-giving capabilities are peculiarly finite. To taste a great wine is to anticipate its demise; that acknowledgment contributes to our understanding and appreciation. It’s the factor that makes being charioted by Bacchus and his pards a matter of such mixed joy and melancholy.

The sketch of John Keats was done by his friend Charles Brown on the Isle of Wight in July 1819, in the midst of the nine months during which Keats wrote his finest poems. National Portrait Gallery, London. Titian’s “Bacchus and Ariadne,” 1620-23, hangs in the National Gallery, London.

Well, Readers, I frequently haul out the fact that I have been writing about wine for 25 years, which, of course, when the year ticks away, will change to 26 years, but it occurred to me that in this very month, that is the month of July, now almost over, that is, 25 years ago in July 1984, my first newspaper wine column appeared in The Commercial Appeal. I was teaching college English at the time and still learning a lot about wine through reading and tasting (and I’m still learning). The feature editor of the newspaper then, Mary Alice Quinn, agreed that the city needed a local wine column, and so the thing was launched on July 11, 1984. Two years later, she offered me a full-time job, and in August 1986, I made the leap from academia to journalism.

Anyway, I went down to the newspaper (where I no longer work; I have to get a visitor’s badge from security) today and searched for my first wine column on microfilm. You know, it’s not bad, a little naive and overenthusiastic, perhaps, but certainly a great fledgling effort. I won’t reproduce the whole column for you, but I will tell you what I wrote about.

First comes a group of Bordeaux red wines from 1981 that I had recently tried at a blind tasting. My recommendations for accessible examples at decent prices were — check these figures! — Chateau Lynch-Moussas ($10 to $13) and Chateau Branaire-Ducru (about $20).

Then I provided notes on a miscellaneous range of wines: Silverado Sauvignon Blanc 1982 (about $9), a terrific quaff; the fabulous Mount Veeder Late Harvest Zinfandel 1980 (about $10 for a half-bottle); the Coteaux du Tricastin Vin de Syrah 1981 from Domaine de la Tour d’Elyssas (great value at about $5); another wine from Coteaux du Tricastin, this one a 1979 bottled by the Union des Vignerons de l’Enclave des Pape, which I said was old, tired and worn out and hence to be avoided (about $3.50); the lovely Simi Cabernet Sauvignon 1979 (about $9.50); and two sparkling wines from Shadow Creek, the Brut Cuvee No. 1, which won my hearty approval (about $10) and the “disappointing” Brut Cuvee 1981.

The column ran once a month into the Fall and then went to every two weeks and within six months was running every week. In 1989, it was picked up by the Scripps Howard News Service and distributed to newspapers around the country. The rest, as they say, is history; well, actually, that column itself is history, as they say.

I’m not going to wax nostalgic or philosophical on this occasion. I’ll just say that I concluded that first column, 25 years ago, by saying, “Well, that was fun,” and damnit, it still is.

Insanely celebratory image from graphicshunt.com

Sometimes the difference between a good wine — I mean well-made and decent — and a great wine lies in the way the wines feel in your mouth. A great wine delivers the resonance, the vibrancy of character, an indefinable but still detectable quality that sets it apart from “regular” wines, however enjoyable they may be. And I wonder sometimes why we continue to see debut cabernets made from Napa Valley grapes; are there not enough of those in contention? The danger is in getting cookie-cutter cabernets that are difficult to tell apart. We review one of each today.

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First the “Hooray.”

The Brandlin Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley, is a classic mountain-grown cabernet in every sense. The Brandlin family established a ranch on Mount Veeder, overlooking the Napa Valley, in the 1870s. They planted vineyards in the 1920s, those rugged and gnarly 80-year-old vines still standing. Cuvaison Winery bought 170-acre property in 1998 and recently began to produce wines from those vineyards, under the supervision of winemaker Steve Rogstad.

My first note on this blend — 94 percent cabernet sauvignon, 4 percent malbec and 1 percent each of cabernet franc and petit verdot — is “just beautiful.” A model of the balance between power and elegance, the wine is capacious in depth and breadth and in the generosity of its spiced and macerated black fruit scents and flavors. Ruggedly structured, with deep bastions of dense, grainy tannins, the wine displays lovely heft and poise, making for a mouthful of cabernet that you don’t want to end. Brandlin ’05 smolders with lavender and licorice and potpourri and displays hints of sandalwood, wet leather, dried porcini and walnut shell. Black olive and mocha and more spice come up in the finish, along with increasingly vigorous minerality and dry, slightly foresty austerity. Wonderful character and a great (though admittedly expensive) match with chicken mole. The wine ages 22 months in French oak, 60 percent new barrels. Drink through 2016 to ’20, well-stored. Excellent. About $85.
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Perhaps “Boo” is too harsh a term, but to my palate the NapaAngel Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Napa Valley, tasted as if it had been designed and executed by committee. The wine, and its more expensive companion, NapaAngel Aurelio’s Selection 2006, are projects fostered by Chilean winemaker Aurelio Montes, whose Montes Alpha “M,” Montes Folly and Purple Angel labels are well-known in the United States. The NapaAngel wines, made at Artesa Winery in Carneros, are the debut efforts of Aurelio Montes in Napa.

Blended with 10 percent syrah, NapaAngel Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 teems with lead pencil, slate, spice and toasty oak, with notes of cassis, bitter chocolate and bacon fat. All of which is fine, of course, but it also feels pretty much by-the-numbers. Flavors of ripe and spicy red and black currants are layered with brisk minerality and slightly shaggy, velvety tannins for good structure, but the toasty oak comes up in smothering swathes and buries everything else so that after a few minutes what you smell and what you taste are toasty oak. The regimen wasn’t overpowering — 18 months in French oak, 45 percent new barrels — but to my sensibility so much oak influence dampens the experience and enjoyment of the wine. If you like toasty oak, this is your cabernet. Drink through 2015 or ’16. Very Good+. About $55.
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The Taltarni Sauvignon Blanc 2008, Victoria, is one of those wines that inspires you to ask, “How can they make the wine, ship to our shores from Australia, and still sell it for a bargain price?”

Interestingly, the composition of the wine is 86 percent sauvignon blanc grapes from Victoria, specifically from the cool Pyrenees area, and 14 percent sauvignon blanc grapes from Tasmania. Both sources are named on the label. Is there another wine in the world that uses grapes from mainland vineyards with additional grapes from an off-shore island? I mean legally.

Anyway, the Taltarni Sauvignon Blanc 2008 bursts with notes of ginger, grapefruit and lime with touches of mango and hints of jasmine and honeysuckle. Try to resist that bouquet! In the mouth, brambly and leafy gooseberry and spiced pear come up, couched in a texture that’s almost talc-like in softness yet electrified by snappy acid and bolstered by heaps of chalky limestone. The wine is, in other words, very dry, very crisp, lively and vibrant, and its loads of personality put to shame many sauvignon blancs at twice the price. Drink through 2009 and into 2010. Very Good+ and Great Value at about $13.

As you can see from the bottle image above, Taltarni now has a pared-down, contemporary and, as far as I’m concerned, bland label that does not distinguish it from a hundred other labels from, mainly, Chile, Argentina and South Africa. Do these people all use the same design firm? Meanwhile, Taltarni’s original label image, reproduced here, languishes as a tiny logo on the back label. This reveals character and individuality. (That’s Saint Peter, by the way.) Too often, I think, producers attempt to “sleek up” their package at the expense of originality and authenticity, but this is a subject for a different post.

Imported by Clos du Val Wine Co., Napa, Cal. (Taltarni is a sister winery to Clos du Val.)

… and then there’s this, assembled by LL a few nights ago: seared ahi tuna, rose-and- purply-rare in the center; hard-boiled eggs; boiled fingerling potatoes; sliced red and yellow tomatoes; green beans just barely cooked; black olives; strips of red bell pepper; a tangle of greens including arugula, basil and baby kale so tender you could eat it raw; a few capers; all lightly doused with a mustard-thyme vinaigrette made by me. Except for the tuna, the olives and the capers, everything came from local farmer’s markets. While partaking of this meal, we kept remarking on how fresh everything tasted, how clean and summery, and those elements — as well as the excellent quality of the tuna, which came from Costco — kept recurring to us over the next couple of days. We considered the meal a triumph of local eating with ingredients simply prepared. (By the way, I have been recruited to sit on the selection board of the Memphis Farmers Market, which occurs every Saturday from May through October, occupying the covered bus lanes at the old train station downtown.)

To accompany our salade niçoise, I opened the MacMurray Ranch Pinot Gris 2008, Sonoma Coast, a charming, pert and lively pinot gris that was a delicious match with the dish. Made primarily in stainless steel, the wine retains appealing crispness and scintillating minerality while offering a texture that’s close to lush; roasted lemon, quince and crystallized ginger take on overtones of lilac and lavender, all wrapped around a backbone of spiced pear and lemon curd. A touch of dried herbs and more spice enliven the finish. MacMurray Ranch, long ago the home of actor Fred MacMurray — kids, Google My Three Sons — is owned by Gallo. Drink through 2010 grilled seafood, ceviche and sushi. Very Good+. About $20.

MacMurray Ranch label image from GoodWinesUnder20.

The times and the tastes they are a-changing in Germany. Look at this statistic from the German Wine Institute: In 1980, the ratio of white wine produced in the country to red wine was 88.6 percent white and 11.4 percent red. In 2007, the production figures are 63.2 percent white and 36.8 percent red. Yes, the German wine consumer is turning away from white wine in favor of red wine, and red in Germany generally means pinot noir (spätburgunder). Plantings of pinot noir in Germany’s wine regions have grown from 3.8 percent of total acreage in 1980 to 11.6 percent in 2007 or about 30,377 acres.

(Though plantings of white grapes are down, plantings of riesling itself increased by about 1,235 acres in 2007. Germany’s total vineyard acreage in 2007, about 102,000 hectares — 262,140 acres — lands it in seventh place in Europe behind Spain, France, Italy, Portugal, Romania, Moldavia and Greece, but ahead of Bulgaria, Hungary, Austria and Switzerland. Spain’s vineyard acreage — 1,169,000 hectares or 3,004,330 acres, by far the largest in the world — beggars the imagination. What happens to all that Spanish wine?)

The pinot noir grape has a long history in Germany, but the problem is that it’s not easy to get pinot noir grapes to ripen around the 50th parallel, which runs through the upper Pfalz and Rheinhessen. As a result, German pinot noirs tended to be thin and acidic. Climate change in the past decade, however — and if you don’t believe in global-warming, talk to German winemakers — has brought the blessing of milder winters and slightly warmer summers (“slightly,” except for the brutally hot summer of 2003), resulting in the potential for riper grapes all around.

The additional problem, though, is what to do with these fully (or more fully) ripe pinot noir grapes. With a couple of exceptions, the red wines I tasted in Germany two weeks ago seemed unsatisfactory from myriad aspects. Many producers in Germany, like their counterparts in the New World, seem to believe that making serious wine means deploying serious oak, even if the grapes involved inherently don’t take kindly to the heavy-handed treatment with wood. For example, Rainer Eymann, at Weingut Eymann in Gönnheim, Pfalz, gave his Gönnheimer Sonnenberg Pinot Noir 2005 two years in oak, effectually killing any flavor, or as my notes say, “Jesus! Where’s the fruit?” On the other hand, he aged his Gönnheimer Mandelgarten Merlot 2007 one year in barrique, the somewhat standard 59-gallon French barrel, and produced one of the best, most interesting and complex red wines we tasted on our trip.

The so-called “noble” grapes varieties in Germany are highly susceptible to the potentially devastating fungal diseases downy mildew and powdery mildew, and great efforts have been made in the past 20 years to concoct grape varieties that are more resistant. Some of these crossings include, for white wine, Johanniter, Phoenix, Solaris and Monarch, and, for red wine, Regent (the most widely planted, but only about 5,600 acres), Cabernet Cortis, Cabernet Carbon and Prior. We tasted a few red wines made from blends of these or other hybrid grapes and found them mainly sappy, weedy and foxy, as if they were a combination of gamay, pinotage and black muscadine, though they were presented with pride and hope. Better to work with pinot noir and try to get that right than to trifle with these minor, goofy grapes.

On the other hand, we tried some pinot noirs that were not just encouraging but outright fine achievements, though, as one would expect, they were individual expressions of the grape; all pinot noir wines don’t have to imitate the Holy Grail of Burgundy, but they need to be recognizably varietal. One of these was the Spätburgunder 2005 from Heiner Sauer, an organic producer since 1987 in the village of Böchingen, in Pfalz. (Sauer also owns Bodegas Palmera, a winery in the Utiel Requena region of Spain.) Sauer’s Spätburgunder ’05 sported a radiant medium ruby-magenta color; a deeply spicy, smoky bouquet of mulberry and black cherry; and a chewy, almost muscular texture that cushioned elements of leather and moss, black pepper and cloves, fruit cake and plums. The wine aged 10 months in barriques, of which 50 percent were new barrels. This excellent pinot noir, both authentic and individual, would sell in Germany for 17.5 euros, or about $24.70.

Another well-made pinot noir was the Rotwein (“Red Wine”) Barrique 2007 from Weingut Peter Jakob Kühn, a rigorously biodynamic estate in the Rheingau village of Oestrich (and I’ll write more about this estate and its methods in a few days). As seems to be the case with pinot noir wines from Rheingau, Rheinhessen and Pfalz, this one emphasizes the grape’s spicy aspects; is this stylistic choice or climatic necessity? The color was a lovely medium ruby with a slight brick-red cast; the bouquet delivered beguiling aromas of cloves and allspice with spiced red and black currants and plums. The wine was quite dry, earthy and loamy, reminding me of some location-focused pinots from Oregon’s Willamette Valley, and while there was a sufficient (though not abundant) quantity of delicious black fruit flavors, the wood really showed itself from mid-palate back. Personally, I could have used a grilled veal chop with this wine, but we were in the tasting room at Weingut Peter Jakob Kühn, and no such thing was in sight. If you lived in Germany, you would pay 22.70 euros for this wine, about $32.

The wines of Weingut Heimer Sauer and Weingut Peter Jakob Kühn are imported to the United States by Domaine Select Wine Estates.

Truly, though, the pinot noir that I enjoyed the most in Germany came on our first night in Oppenheim, at the restaurant L’herbe de Provence in Hotel Zwo, a sleek place that, like the other small-town establishments where we ate, consisted of a restaurant that occupied the entire first floor with two floors of rooms above. The main course at this introductory meal was a “back” of a country-style “Donnersberger” suckling pig served with asparagus and polenta; with it we drank a Guntersblumer Eiserne Hand Spätburgunder trocken 2007 from the Gehimrat Schnell winery. This was a lovely little pinot that boasted a ravishing bouquet of plums, mulberries, dried spices and dried flowers and winsome flavors of macerated and spiced red and black currants with overtones of lilacs and brambles. Not a great pinot noir by any means, but immensely appealing and drinkable. It would set you back the lordly sum of 8 euros, about $11.30.

It’s too bad that sherry is such a misunderstood and abused wine, because its pleasures are manifold and even endowed with nobility. Unfortunately, describing how sherry is produced in a couple of paragraphs is like trying to summarize the Matrix Trilogy in an hour — “O.K., so, then Neo goes into this dark place that’s sorta like Purgatory and sorta like an android mosh pit, see, and then …” — but I’ll give it the ol’ college try.

Sherry — the name is jealously guarded by international trade agreements — is made only in the arid region around the seacoast city of Cadiz in way far southern Spain, around on the Atlantic side, west of Gibraltar. The combination of grapes varieties, the chalky soil, proximity to the ocean, the close to drought-like climate — annual rainfall is 19 inches — and the unique solera process result in a wine that at its best rivals the great wines of Europe’s other famous winemaking regions. The corollary is that lots of anonymous, generic, mediocre sherry is also produced.

Sherry is a fortified wine made principally from the palomino fino grape (95 percent) with some estates still cultivating minuscule amounts of Muscat of Alexandria and Pedro Ximenez, the latter for dessert wines that can attain legendary qualities. After fermentation, the wines are fortified with grape spirit to 15 or 15.5 percent (for elegant fino sherry) up to 18 or 19 percent for richer oloroso style sherry. The lower alcohol content in fino sherry does not inhibit the growth of the flor, the natural yeast the grows across the surface of the wine in the barrel and contributes to fino sherry its typical and unforgettable light mossy-nutty character. The sherry houses are situated in three towns, Jerez de la Frontera — “sherry” is an English corruption of “jerez” — Sanlucar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa Maria; though geographically not too distant from each other, the three locations impart different qualities to the fino sherries that originate in them.

The solera system is essentially a method of blending in which some of the oldest wine is withdraw from its barrel and topped up with the next oldest and on down the line to the youngest wines that entered the solera after fermentation and fortifying. The constant process of topping off in this manner keeps refreshing the older wines and ensures a steady house style year by year. Some houses run complicated systems of as many as 20 different solera to satisfy the demands of the different types of sherry that they produce. Unfortunately, modern times have seen the adulteration of the method through shortcuts and the addition of sweetening agents, mainly used for cheap versions and for so-called “Cream Sherry.”

The types of sherry can be confusing, certainly as confusing as the many types of Port. Basically, the system goes like this: Fino is the most delicate and elegant of sherries and the best to be served with tapas and other light appetizers. A fino from Sanlucar is a Manzanilla. If a fino, either through natural process or induced, loses its flor, the increased exposure to air will result in a darker, more flavorful sherry; this is the famous Amontillado. The sherries called Oloroso, fortified after fermentation to around 18 percent alcohol, never develop flor, and so their character is far different, being darker in color and more intense and concentrated. All of these are dry wines. The rarest and best sweet sherries are made from sun-dried Pedro Ximenez grapes, though vast quantities of sweet sherries are turned out using other, cheaper processes.

The motivation behind this brief disquisition is the tasting I did recently at home of three spectacularly good aged sherries from the house of Williams Humbert. These qualify for the recently permitted designations of V.O.S. (“Very Old Sherry”) if the wine has aged at least 20 years and V.O.R.S. (“Very Old Rare Sherry”) if the aging has been at least 30 years. These are sherries to be savored slowly, thoughtfully and appreciatively at the end of a meal, not to be partaken of as an aperitif or with tapas. For that function, there are many choices, but one of my favorites is the Emilio Lustau Solera Reserve Jarana Fino, as light, as dry, as delicately nutty, as elegant as you could desire (Excellent, about $19).

By the way, fino sherry should be served chilled, the others at room temperature.

The Williams Humbert sherries are imported by Kindred Spirits of North America in Miami, Florida.

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The William Humbert Dos Cortados Rare Old Dry Palo Cortado Solera Especial falls between an Amontillado and an Oloroso style sherry; it spends at least 20 years in the solera. The color is medium-amber suffused with old gold. The bouquet is an intoxicating wreathing of roasted hazelnuts, toffee, baked apple, orange rind and toasted coconut. After such a heady display of aromas, it’s startling how dry, I mean bone-dry, this sherry is, both sensuous and austere; it tastes like smoldering peat, iodine, sea-salt and woody spices bound in a sumptuous yet not overwhelming texture that flows liberally across the tongue. There’s an after-burn of alcohol, spicy wood and vanilla. Quite a performance. Excellent. About $50.
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Well might one cry, “For the love of god, Montressor!” The Williams Humbert Jalifa Rare Old Dry Amontillado Solera Especial spends at least 30 years in solera. The color is medium-amber with a hint of green-gold. It smells like scotch, warm, enrobing, inviting, richly spiced; one understands why wars were fought over cinnamon and cloves. Again, a briskly dry sherry (but so mellow, so smooth!) that embodies elements of pomander, wheatmeal, orange marmalade, the blondness of sawdust, the characteristic dusty woody (and woodsy) earthiness and mossiness, all given bass tones by a strain of deep, dark bitter chocolate. Oh yes. Exceptional. About $70.
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Made from sun-dried grapes and aged at least 20 years in solera, the Williams Humbert Don Guido Rare Old Sweet Pedro Ximenez Solera Especial offers the color, but not quite the viscosity, of molasses. This, friends, reaches the Platonic extents of sweetness along an astonishing depth and range of effects: smoky brown sugar, roasted raisins, rum raisin ice cream with bananas Foster, almond brittle, orange zest and orange blossom honey. This is almost shamelessly enjoyable, but it does not offer quite the dimension or complexity of the Dos Cortados or Jalifa Amontillado, though its vibrancy, resonance and sheer appeal-power are admirable. Excellent. About $50.
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Simonsig’s Chenin Blanc, from the Stellenbosch region of South Africa, always represents great value and is always worth looking for. In 2008, drenching rain in February encouraged the development of botrytis (“noble rot”) in the vineyards, resulting in additional complexity in the wine, which is still completely dry. So, the Simonsig Chenin Blanc 2008 offers a radiant pale yellow-gold color and beguiling aromas of lemon balm, pear and melon with an engaging amalgam of earthy minerality and balletic hints of ripe stone fruit and little waxy white flowers. In the mouth, the wine is vibrant and resonant, its citrus, melon and pear flavors couched in a dense, chewy texture that’s close to luxurious, though tempered by rousing acidity and bastions of limestone. The finish, not surprisingly, is stony and austere. This is almost too good, too structured to waste as an aperitif — yes, many fine wines serve admirably in that function — but the Simonsig Chenin Blanc 2008 really requires assertive seafood dishes like grilled bacon-wrapped shrimp, tilapia tacos, cod and chorizo stew and such. Very Good+ and a True Bargain at about $12.

Imported by Quintessential, Napa, Cal.

Once we left St. Antony and Heyl zu Herrnsheim, Thursday (July 9) in Rheinhessen turned into a day of contrasts, not that contrast is a bad thing; often one learns the most through the process of give-and-take. The bus took us south from Nierstein, through back roads, to Ludwigshöher, a village about the size of a baseball diamond, where we were scheduled to have lunch and taste the wines of Weingut Brüder Dr. Becker — this is the estate and winery of Lotte Pfeffer-Müller and Hans Müller — and also wines made by their friend Christine Bernhard, of Weingut Janson Bernhard in Zellertal-Harxheim, in the Pfalz region, a sort of preview for our next day’s exploration. Lotte Pfeffer-Müller is chairwoman of the board of ECOVIN. She and Bernhard prepared a spectacular lunch for us, which we’ll get to in a few minutes.

It’s easy to perceive the sensibility of a winery after a few minutes walking around and talking with the owner or winemaker. Brüder Dr. Becker has roots in the late 19th Century, and the facility has accreted gradually over the decades. Even the newer buildings, apparently from the 1960s, seem well-used, practical and rustic. Vines grow abundantly over arbors and trellises, moss furs the paving stones, and close by a rooster protests the presence of strangers in his precincts. Müller took us around the back, into an open shed where old machinery is stored, or simply waits for mechanical eternity, to talk about crop cover in the vineyards. What he showed us was a long table on which stood wide shallow bowls filled with the seeds of the plants — yellow, white and red clover, buckwheat, caraway, wild carrot, black lentils and some kind of pea plant — each type of seed remarkably different from the others, some fine enough that they almost felt like fine meal in the hand, others rough and pitted.

He took us into the winery, down two flights of stairs to the cellars where large oval barrels slumbered in the dim light. I promise, My Readers, that once you have seen a thousand steel tanks and 10,000 barriques, you never want to see another, but oddly shaped, venerable casks — some of these were from the 1930s and ’40s — silently hunkered down in a cellar carved from stone, highlighted by the unforgettable aroma of young wine and old wood, make for an experience of which I never tire.

Back upstairs, we walked into a room set for lunch in a manner that would have made the editors and stylists at Food & Wine and Gourmet magazines weep with envy. Out came the cameras to record this sight: a long, long table, overflowing with bright, colorful flowers and set with platters and bowls of the most gorgeous food imaginable, everything artistic yet artless, beautiful and carefree. There were slices of quiche with nettles; baby carrots wrapped in mint and thin slices of ham; lamb meatballs with feta cheese; pancake-like wraps of tomato pesto and feta cheese; bales of herb salads; home-made herb butters and dipping sauces, all made from organic ingredients and as locally-grown as possible. As delightful as this feast was, it didn’t make the best setting for tasting wine; there was too much going on, too much to eat and talk about, but, being the professionals that we were alleged to be, we forged professionally ahead.

While we ate and tasted, Lotte Pfeffer-Müller and Christine Bernhard provided commentary, each weighing in with a zinger. “If you don’t produce ecological wines,” said Pfeffer-Müller, in her motherly yet uncompromising way, “then you don’t make real wines. If you don’t grow ecologically, then you cannot talk about terroir. It’s a kind of lifestyle.” And when we were trying Bernhard’s irresistible Zeller Klosterstuck Riesling Spätlese 2007, she said, “Riesling is unforgiving, but he’s adorable, too.” She always referred to the riesling grape in masculine terms. Both women asserted that since changing to organic methods in the vineyards, the grapes are “healthier” and the wines “better,” but, again, we had no standards of comparison. The wines we tasted, as these briefs notes should convey, ranged from appealing and delightful to profound. (Sorry, I only recorded prices for a few of these wines.)

>Janson Bernhard Zellertaler Silvaner trocken 2008. Clean, fresh and spicy; vigorous acidity and minerality; lemon and yellow plums; thirst-quenching, delightful. 9 euros. ($12.70)

>Brüder Dr. Becker Ludwigshöher Silvaner trocker 2008. More substance to this sylvaner, a little fatter, spicier. 5.80 euros. ($8.20)

>Janson Bernhard Zellertaler Schwarzer Herrgott Riesling & Traminer trocken 2008. Another delightful wine, a blend of 50 percent riesling and 50 percent gewurztraminer; lively and spicy, very floral.

>Brüder Dr. Becker Dienheimer Riesling trocken 2008. Fresh, clean, bright, floral; very dry, tremendous minerality. 6.90 euros. ($9.75)

>Brüder Dr. Becker Tafelstein Riesling 2007, Grosses Gewächs (Grand Cru). Gunflint and lilac, very pure and intense, very dry; profound minerality (limestone & shale), scintillating acid; awesome.

>Janson Bernhard Zeller Klosterstuck Riesling Spätlese 2007. this is beautiful; pure and intense and concentrated; great balance among ripeness and acid and minerality; peaches and apricots, touch of apple and pear; rigorous acidity, yet lovely, delicate; very dry finish. A lesson in the balance of delicacy with power.

>Brüder Dr. Becker Ludwigshöher Scheurebe Spätlese 2008. Deep, earthy and spicy; lime and grapefruit, very floral; poised between spareness and opulence; towering minerality, a sense of balance that’s actually exciting, electrifying. Wow.

>Brüder Dr. Becker Ludwigshöher Traminer Beerenauslese 2005. Close to angelic yet years to go, as in 2015 to ’18.

We also tasted a red wine from each estate, which I’ll save for a post on red wine in Germany.

After leaving Brüder Dr. Becker — late, of course — we wended our way through fields and lanes and minuscule towns to the southern fringe of the Rheinhessen and a broad windswept hill in Hohen- Sülzen, home to Weingut BattenfeldSpanier and Weingut Kühling-Gillot and the forward-thinking and purposeful couple Carolin Spanier-Gillot and Oliver Spanier, whose marriage in 2006 united two old wine families. If Lotte Pfeffer-Müller and Hans Müller look like farmers, a sort of “Pleasant Peasant” version of American Gothic, Gillot and Spanier look like young gods, poised, elegant, modern. Their tasting room resembles one of Philip Johnson’s Glass Houses; their website could be a series of still photos from a film by Wong Kar-Wai, all poetry and shadows and evocation — and not very helpful.

Oliver Spanier, we discovered, takes self-confidence to steroidal levels, and as he poured wines for us, he delivered his opinions in rapid-fire and authoritative fashion, and in impeccable English.

On winemaking: “I don’t cool wines, I don’t heat wines. I do nothing. It’s all about fantastic sites and fantastic grapes.”

On biodynamic practices: “I don’t like to talk about bio-dy. I need minimum 20 years to see the results. Many young winemakers are doing biody and maybe it makes a great job to show the wines, but bio-dy is only part of the picture. I don’t believe in the moon and the constellations. The oceans go up and down whether there’s a full moon or not. When I do something, I must show it in science. I hate teas, teas do nothing. [Spanier is referring to some of Rudolph Steiner's root, plant and herbal teas that are sprayed at intervals on the vines.] We do spray the horn manure. This definitely works. You can see it in the grapes.”

On Rudolph Steiner (inventor of the biodynamic method of agriculture): “Steiner was a sick man. That says it all for me.”

On fruit in wine: “I hate all this discussion about fruit. All this makes me crazy. These writers are writing that a wine tastes like strawberries picked when the dew is still on them! [And I'm thinking, 'Hmmm, where can I use that?'] I like wines that are spicy and interesting. With this kind of wine, you can’t talk about flavors and boring things.”

On Bordeaux red wines: “I hate Bordeaux! Latour tastes like Coca-Cola!”

The wines, though, I thought were pretty damned wonderful, but they were controversial in our group. One of my colleagues acknowledged that they were well-made but “soulless.” That was not my impression. Brief notes:
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Last night was one of those occasions when LL says, “Let’s not go to the grocery store. We’ll find what we need at home.” She’s good at this.

So: little sausage meatballs made by squeezing thumb-sized portions of sausage from the skin, well-browned in a skillet. Garlic and very ripe cherry tomatoes, fresh thyme and rosemary simmered in about half a cup of tomato broth left over from last Saturday, when I marinated tomatoes, green onions and basil in olive oil for the pizza (I always save the “tomato broth” from after the tomatoes drain), all this slowly stewed, as the tomatoes almost disintegrate and gain intensity. Then — simplicity itself — the warm pasta in the bowls, the meatballs, the sauce, some leaves of basil and Parmesan shavings. The result: One of the best pasta dishes I have ever tasted, bountifully flavorful and concentrated, bursting with freshness but also with the savoriness of a sauce long-cooked. Wow!

For wine, I opened the Campo San Vito Valpolicella 2004, Classico Superiore Ripasso, a wine that also conveyed a sense of intensity and concentration. Ripasso is a method in which certain Valpolicella wines are “refermented,” in the March after harvest, on the lees of Amarone wines; the process lends these wines added richness and depth. The color here is almost motor-oil black, with a glowing blue/purple rim; the bouquet is minty and meaty, bursting with cassis, Damson plums, smoke, licorice and lavender and a whole boxful of dried spices. Yes, this is so exotic that it’s close to pornographic, but the wine is not too easy, on the one hand, or overbearing, on the other, because it possesses the acid and tannic structure, as well as two years in oak, to express its purposeful nature and rigorous underpinnings. Flavors of black currant and plum, with a touch of mulberry, are permeated by spice, potpourri and granite, as if all ground together in a mortar; the finish, increasingly austere, gathers more dust and minerals. Quite an experience and really good with our dinner. Limited availability in the Northeast. Excellent. About $25.

Imported by Domenico Selections, New York.

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