Tastings


… but waited until this morning to quaff a glass of the Georges Duboeuf version for 2007. What’s it like? Whataya think? The beaujolaisn3_01.jpg color is a winsome cranberry-magenta. The bouquet offers notes of strawberry jam, macerated raspberries and currants and whiffs of cinnamon and clove; the typical banana scent is quite subdued. In the mouth, it’s dry but juicy, with flavors of spicy currants and raspberries. It should be served slightly chilled. How so many writers and reviewers recommend the insubstantial Beaujolais Nouveau for the complicated Thanksgiving feast is beyond me, but tastes differ (unfortunately).

The whole Beaujolais-Nouveau-Third-Thursday-of-November phenomenon is certainly a modern marketing triumph. first 72780.gif engineered by Georges Duboeuf in the 1970s. The frenzy, in which jet airliners transport the stuff to far-flung countries so bottles can be opened at the minute after midnight on the third Thursday of November, boggles the mind. I mean, originally Beaujolais Nouveau was a strictly local ritual, a nice way to celebrate the end of harvest in Beaujolais. That it became a worldwide occurrence is amazing; something like 30 percent of the harvest in Beaujolais now goes into Nouveau.

Signs are not good, however, for the continuation of the Beaujolais Nouveau “tradition.” According to The Tocqueville Connection (here), sales of Beaujolais Nouveau in Japan, the world’s largest market — the Japanese have a keen eye for Western fads — will be off by 20 percent in 2007. Sales of Beaujolais Nouveau in Japan peaked in 2004 at 12.5 million cases; in 2006, sales sagged to 11 million cases; this year, sales are expected to sink to 8.4 millions cases. The case amount is expected to fall in the United States, also (though not as much as in Japan), due to the nasty relationship of the wimpy dollar to the conquering euro.

None of this news dampened the spirits of the annual Trophee Lyon-Beaujolais Nouveau (“the only official competition devoted to Beaujolais Nouveau,” and we’ll let that pass without comment), which on Nov. 11, meeting at the Radisson Hotel in Lyon, passed beaujolaisn2_01.jpg out 10 Grand Gold Medals, 70 Gold Medals and 23 Silver Medals to this year’s producers of Beaujolais Nouveau. Gosh, did they leave anyone out? Honorary chairman of the tasting, appropriately, was Naoki Watanabe, technical director for Suntory.

Meanwhile, go to KoeppelOnWine.com for reviews of 10 Beaujolais wines from 2006 from the Georges Dubouef stable, one Beaujolais-Villages and nine cru wines from villages allowed to put their names on the labels. They’ll make you forget all about Beaujolais Nouveau. These wines are imported into the United States by W.J. Deutsch & Sons, Harrison N.Y.

Image credits: top, cityfood.com; bottom, lefigaro.fr.

Occasionally the tasting I do at home falls out this way, serendipitous, lively, instructive, fun. So here are three pairs of wines, some closely related, others a bit less so, but all fruitfully compared and contrasted.

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Kendall-Jackson is well-known and sometimes derided for its low-priced Vintner’s Reserve wines, which tend to cost from $12 to $16. A second Vintner’s Reserve line, with the designation “Jackson Estates Grown,” is priced at $18. The ubiquitous K-J Vintner’s Reserve kjmeritage.jpg Chardonnay and Merlot are probably the best-known of these wines, though the line includes sauvignon blanc, riesling, pinot noir, zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon and syrah. All of the wines carry the broadest California appellation.

New to the roster is the K-J Vintner’s Reserve Meritage; the 2003 and ’04 have been released. Each is a blend of cabernet sauvignon grapes, merlot and (traces of) cabernet franc. I’ll say that at the price, $12 for the ’03 and $14 for the ’04, they shouldn’t be missed. These are thoughtfully conceived and well-made wines and can go head-to-head with the best inexpensive wines we love from Spain, Italy, Argentina and (less so) California, especially paired with hearty red meat dishes. Winemaker is Randy Ullom.

The K-J Vintner’s Reserve Meritage 2004 is a blend of 65% cabernet sauvignon, 34 percent merlot and one percent cabernet franc. My first note is: “Amazing depth & dimension for the price.” The bouquet teems with classic Bordeaux-like notes of cedar. tobacco and black olive, with black currant and black cherry fruit that segues seamlessly into the mouth. Support is provided in the form of dusty, chewy tannins and polished oak from nine months aging in French (56 percent) and American barrels. I rate this wine Very Good. Drink through 2009 or ’10. About $14

The Meritage 2003, one year older, is a deep purple color and offers a real mouthful of wine that balances a pretty tough structure with a lovely plush texture. The blend here is 49 percent cabernet sauvignon, 47 percent merlot and four percent cabernet franc. Is it the whisper of cabernet franc that provides the touches of walnut shell and underbrush, of blueberry and bitter chocolate? The lively spice and whiplash acid? Actually I would say that the blend works in canny harmony here, with black currant and black cherry flavors permeated by cedar and dried thyme and earthy tannins coming from every element. Very good+. Now through 2009 or ’10. About $12, great for buying by the case.

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What’s the idiom for “poles apart” in Spanish? These two wines from the well-known Rioja region, where the red tempranillo grape reigns, could not be more different, in intent and in result.

The Castillo de Fuenmajor Gran Familia Rioja 2004, 90 percent tempranillo and 10 percent graciano, is just a sweetheart of a wine. granrioja5.jpgIt’s rich and ripe, soft and warm, elegant and harmonious; it flows across the palate like satin woven with slightly macerated and roasted black currant, plum and blueberry flavors infused with dried spice, cedar and tobacco and a hint of orange pekoe tea. Gosh, how lovely and untroubled by ambition, toasty oak or high alcohol. Imported by Well Oiled Wine Co., Leesburg, Va. Very Good+. Now through 2008 or ’09. About $15.

On the other side of the spectrum is the hugely ambitious and just plain huge Bodegas Bilbainas Vicuana 2003, a blend of 75 tempranillo and 25 percent graciano. Touted as the “new expression of Rioja” by parent company Group Codorniu, Vicuana ’03 ages 15 months in oak barrels, the result, combined with dense chewy tannins, being a structure of impregnable firmness. It’s true that vicuana-2003.jpgthe wine delivers a tremendous burst of succulent black fruit and a powerful, pungent bouquet steeped in smoke and potpourri, but with its elements of briers, brambles and underbrush and dusty minerality, Vicuana goes from robust to rustic. The finish, unsurprisingly, is long, dry and austere. Imported by Vinum International, Napa Ca. Very good+. Best from 2008 or ’09 through 2012 to ’15. Prices vary from a deeply discounted $18 to about $26.

I don’t know about you, but my sympathy here runs to the old-fashioned, ripe, approachable and tasty Gran Familia Rioja ’04. If I were tackling a lamb shank tonight, that would be the wine for me.
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Mer Soleil, which produces a chardonnay from California’s Central Coast, is closely associated with the venerable Caymus Vineyards, being operated by Charlie Wagner II, grandson of Caymus founder Chuck Wagner. Mer Soleil (“sea/sun”) makes only one chardonnay, fashioned in a full-throttle, oak-tinged fashion that actually calmed down a bit starting in 2004; the winery was launched in 1992. Though grapes mersoleil.jpg for the Mer Soleil Chardonnay 2005 came from a vineyard in Monterey’s Santa Lucia Highlands, the wine’s designation is still the boarder Central Coast.

Mer Soleil 2005 is bright, bold and brassy but pretty well-balanced. It’s a chardonnay that takes risks with super-ripeness and spicy oak, mingling pineapple, grapefruit and mango flavors with cinnamon toast and spice cake. Touches of lemon curd and Key lime pie come up, contrasted with chiming acid and a burgeoning mineral element. Frankly, I thought that I wouldn’t care at all for this wine, but its carefully managed sense of nuance, combined with Californian exuberance, won me over, slightly grudgingly, I’ll admit. Excellent. Now through 2009 or ’10. About $42.

Seeing the need for a chardonnay not influenced so heavily by oak, or let’s say in which the grape is allowed to express itself more freely, Wagner brought out the aptly named Silver Unoaked Chardonnay, with a Santa Lucia Highlands designation, in the 2005 silver1_011.jpgvintage. The new release, Silver Unoaked Chardonnay 2006, is sleek and clean as a whistle, very Chablis-like in its dryness and heady minerality. The wine sees no oak contact and does not go through malolactic fermentation, so it’s notable clean and crisp and very spicy, bursting with fresh apple, lemon drop and lemon curd flavors with a touch of pineapple. The texture is lovely in its satiny flow, dense and chewy, and the finish is bright, resonant and vibrant. The wine displays so much character that you don’t miss the oak a bit. A complete success. Excellent. About $42.

On the other hand, why should the unoaked chardonnay cost the same as the oaked chardonnay? I mean, one of the major costs of making fine wine is French oak barrels, which can run from $800 to $1,000 each, not to mention the time that the wine rests there in the barrels, tying up capital and doing nothing to pay for its upkeep. Silver is on the market in about six months, and no oak was involved. How about knocking a few bucks off the price for that?

Maybe not final final because I’m still going to be writing about many of the wines I tasted in New York on March 19, but general thoughts about the event and its implications.

First, the organizers of the event, which offered 167 wines from, I guess, every wine-making region of Italy, need to be better organized. The wines are presented in no order. From table to table, you might have a wine from Tuscany, next to a wine from Abruzzi, next to a wine from Sicily, followed by a wine from Umbria, next to a wine from Piedmont. Since that’s the case, you will find grapes of far different qualities and potential succeeding each other.

And the so-called “Tasting Notebook” doesn’t help, because it lists the wines to be tasted in order of presentation, by table number, and doesn’t mention the region. There’s no way you can scan the list and make sense of regions, grapes or types of wine. And when you have about three hours to try as many wines as possible, you need all the help you can get to be systematic. If you wanted to limit yourself, for example, to wines from Piedmont — Barolo, Barbaresco, Barbera d’Asti and d’Alba, Dolcetto and so on — there’s no way you could sample all the wines except by running back and forth from room to room and table to table like a madman.

More important, though, is what this tasting of award-winning wines says about the Italian wine industry, its history and its expectations.

For instance, I tried the Galatrona 2004, a 100 percent merlot wine from Fattoria di Petrolo in Tuscany. It was solid, a little stolid, well-made but certainly emphasizing structure, even pretty damned tannic and oak-ridden; indeed, it ages 18 ganatrona.JPG months in new French oak barrels. Since merlot grapes are not indigenous or traditional to Tuscany, the wine receives a designation of Toscana I.G.T. — indicazione geografica tipica — stating exactly that fact. I asked the representative at the table what the suggested retail price of the wine was, and he blithely answered, “$85 or $90.”

I mean, really, but the principle question here is, “Why?” And then, “Who cares?” James Suckling, European correspondent for The Wine Spectator called Galatrona the “Le Pin of Tuscany,” referring to the tiny estate in Pomerol, on the Bordeaux Right Bank, that produces a highly finite amount of sumptuous and very expensive wine from merlot grapes. If some errant numbskull began producing sangiovese in Pomerol, would Suckling call it the “Il Poggione of Bordeaux”? What I mean is, great merlot (and by extension cabernet sauvignon) can be found in many of the world’s wine regions; why must Tuscan producers feel that they must compete with (especially) Bordeaux and by implication California by using Bordeaux grapes and aging techniques, that is, in small French oak barrels?

Basically, I found too much cabernet sauvignon and merlot and too much French oak at the Gambero Rosso event. Wine after wine was stiff, tannic and wooden, or velvety, voluptuous and toasty, I mean, California or the new style in Bordeaux. Read Italy’s Noble Red Wines by Sheldon and Pauline Wasserman (Macmillan, 1991, second edition) for the story about how Italian producers have gradually, since the 1970s, switched from using traditional large casks of Slavonian oak (even chestnut) to using 59-gallon French barriques. Yes, many red wines in Tuscany and Piedmont used to be aged too long, so that tannin masked the fruit in youth and wood masked the fruit in maturity, but if you think the transition to small, new French oak barrels hasn’t changed the character of many of these wines, you might believe that Anna Nicole died of whooping cough.

It’s disturbing that Slow Food, originating in Italy but now an international voice for locality, integrity and authenticity in food products and wine, is a sponsor or collaborator in Gambero Rosso’s awards and in this event. There’s not much that’s truly authentic and local about a Tuscan wine made from French grapes and aged in French oak.

For much of the wine press — and I don’t mean the machine that presses the grapes but people who write about wine — trade tastings are a way of life. Only a few writers at the top of the profession, if I may use that dignified term, don’t need to attend these mass events at which there can be the opportunity to sample, in the meager sips poured for you, tasting2_01.jpg anywhere from, as in my recent experiences in New York, 35 to 165 wines. Think about the last figure. One-hundred and sixty-five wines is a lot of wine, hence the necessity of sipping judiciously and spitting out the, as it were, used-up wine in your mouth.

When you really want to taste a lot of wines, as was the case a few years ago when VinExpo was in New York and the grand event featured a tasting of Bordeaux red wines from the legendary 2000 vintage, careful planning and a level head are required. I mean, I have seen wine writers of otherwise delicate sensibility and slight constitution throw a block that would make a line-backer quail in order to get to a table where a desirable wine was being poured.

And spitting! The typical procedure is to place buckets at either end of the table, so tasters will have ready access to them. The reality is that so many people crowd particular tables — again, where the best wines are being offered — that it’s impossible to reach the spit bucket on that table, so tasters lean over and spit in the bucket of the next table. Sometimes organizers try to solve the spitting problem by placing the buckets on small tables in the middle of the aisles between the tasting tables, but that procedure usually ends in disaster, because tasters simply step back a bit, twist around and spit from a distance. In a few minutes those tables look like Aztec altars of sacrifice. Not to mention the people who happened to be strolling between a spitter and the distant bucket. And think of what happens when the staff at the tasting, usually a ballroom or event venue, can’t keep up with emptying the spit buckets.

And you thought writing about wine was a noble endeavor!

Another problem at trade tastings lies with the people who don’t come to taste wines but to schmooze, to see and be seen, to drop names all over the place, to bestow air-kisses (mainly women) and punches on the arm (mainly men, though sometimes men give air-kisses, too, depending on the nationality). These are the people who take up a position tasting_01.jpg right in the center in front of a table and stand there forever, jawing away with a winemaker or property owner or public relations manager, gabbing about the last time they were in Rome or London or Santiago, while the rest of us are trying to elbow in, slinking and swerving, holding our glasses up beseechingly, hoping for half-an-ounce of whatever happens to be there.

Frankly, the number of people who take notes at trade tastings is alarmingly small. I mean, what’s the point, though I suppose that the real business of buying and selling doesn’t occur at the tastings but later, in a corridor, on the sidewalk, at dinner. The whole enterprise is pretty hazardous anyway. Imagine juggling a glass, now stained red, your pad and pencil, trying to extract a business card from a pocket that also holds a camera, taking a sip of water occasionally or a bite of bread and making sure that if you shake hands with someone, your fingers aren’t wet with spilled wine.

And then of course, that moment happens, when you’re being hounded and jostled, when the uproar is deafening and your pen is running out of ink and you feel a headache beginning to swell from the back of your neck and your feet and ankles are sore, and you absolutely need to find a restroom, that moment happens when you take in a sip of some wine you’ve never heard of and it hits you, the real thing, a wine with true character and tone and quality, with depth and dimension and deliciousness, and you say, probably louder than you should, though who’s going to hear, “Holy shit,” and you look at the people who poured the wine for you, and they’re grinning from ear to ear.

The image at the top is from the Gambero Rosso tasting of top Italian wines on Monday, March 19, at the Puck Building in New York.

The second image is from the Cercle Rive Droite tasting of 2006 barrel samples from the Right Bank of Bordeaux at Chanterelle in New York on Thursday, March 15.