December 31, 2008

The Good Stuff

All the things you hear about Anselm Selosse's wine are true. Great purity and balance. Beautiful minerality. Hints of oak, especially on the nose. A remarkable ethereal quality, especially on the finish. This is great wine, only with bubbles.

Selosse apprenticed in Burgundy and has called the vineyard "his religion." I'll genuflect to that!

This wine strikes me as one that will improve over the course of a long relationship involving a lot of bottles. The more time you spend with it, the better you know it, the more interesting it becomes.

But it's not a cheap date.

December 30, 2008

Our 100th Report!

I can't believe we've made it this far. In spite of top-heavy bureaucracy, invasive government oversight, steep drops in our endowment, and a general aversion to hard work of any sort, we have hung in long enough to reach the milestone of the Lab's centenary report.

Where are the little people when you need them? If only so I could say, "Hey, thanks, little guy. I'm sure your efforts were helpful, in some indirect and hard to quantify way."

I was looking around for someone... anyone really, to celebrate with. Then I remembered, it's the holiday break at the Lab. There's nobody around but me.

Which means I am definitely digging deep into the "good stuff" section of the Lab cellar.

When I wrote the original, Arbitrary Milestones post, I bet you had no idea it was going to be such a regular feature here at Rational Denial.

Happy New Year!

(image: © Dimensionsdesign |

December 22, 2008

Happy Holidays!

We close the Lab this time of year, so that the Lab Staff may spend time with their families.

Or go to rehab.


December 19, 2008

Hyperlink Milestone!

Yesterday's BFC post set a new Lab record for hyperlinks in a Lab Report. I believe the official tally was "almost infinity".

To commemorate the arbitrariness of this remarkable accomplishment, we broke out a bottle of L. Aubry Fils, Le Nombre D'Or Campanae Veteres Vites, 1997.

It was... well, weird. But definitely Champagne. And therefore, a highly appropriate choice with which to celebrate the equation: almost = 7.

Age is shaping this one. It has a nose of truffle oil and silver tarnish with underlayers of lychee and lemon zest. On the palate, poached pear and damp earth on the attack. The mid-palate is reductive, almost antique. Then a crisp lemon acid sets up a long, mineral finish. Great balance and structure. Elegant. But weird. Like modern dance.

Also like modern dance in that you feel cultured for having been to the performance, but probably aren't buying the full season.

The Latin on the label means "old country vines" because this Champagne is made with three of the rare and random grape varieties allowed by the AOC. Twenty percent Arbanne, 50% Petit Meslier, 30% Fromenteau (Fromenteau? Surely, I wouldn't be the first to crack-wise about a grape from Middle Earth, if ever there was one.).

The current release is from the 2004 vintage. It also has the classic Champagne varieties, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier, mixed into the blend. It's a Terry Theise Selection for Michael Skurnik Wines.

It's definitely worth a twirl.

December 18, 2008

Faraway Labs

DATELINE: Perth, WA. Intrepid wine drinker, ace photographer and real and actual doctor, Dr Edward Winosapian, has embarked upon a titillating experiment at his Western Australian headquarters (link).

At the Lab today, we are marveling at his patience and wish him godspeed.

By the way, Doc... This is the image, we would have used:

( © Vladimir Vlasov | )

2008 In Review: BFC

The New Year is a time for reflection, remembrance and top 10 lists. Best of's. Worst of's. Year in reviews.

None of which I care about.

But I did want to take the opportunity to reset the Championship Ladder in the Bubbledome and this seemed a good way to do it.

As many of you know, the biggest news out of BFC this year was bad. The back-alley, midget wrestling scandal remains a black mark on the sport. And while the World Cage Match was a huge commercial success, it served mostly to confuse the Championship Ladder. I even asked around at the Lab. No one was really sure who currently holds the Champion's Belt.

After the Greek shocked the world by coming out of the cage victorious, it was throttled in its first match against a Frenchie from Alsace. Meanwhile, a brilliant Burgundy sparkler won the last official match in the Dome. So who's the Champ?

A New Year's bout has been scheduled to unify the Championship. Goisot le Bourgogne versus Becker the Alsatian.

And there's even bigger news ahead for BFC in the Bubbledome. The sport's sanctioning body has approved a new Heavyweight Division. This weight class will pit Grand Marque Champagnes (the big, famous estates) against Artisanal Champagnes from Grower-Producers. Head to head.

I personally lobbied long and hard against this. Stripped of their massive marketing budgets, wine from the Big Houses is practically defenseless. But bloodsport is good for ratings and my efforts were defeated.

2009 will be big in the Dome. I can't wait to review it next year. Make some cool lists.

December 16, 2008

Do Not Deliver

I just happened to notice this. It was on the box that was used to ship the wine for our first Bottle Shock Trial.

Note the proscription: "Do not deliver to an intoxicated person."

So how'd we get it?

PS. A group at the Lab has suggested we expand our Shipping Shock trials in the New Year. More bottles, more time intervals, red/white, etc. If I don't approve their request, it might affect the quality of my Christmas gift from the Staff.

So we're on it.

December 14, 2008

Bottle Shock: The Verdict

I know you're anxious for results. Lord knows I've strung this out long enough.

But first a few words about the producer of our test wine and the stupidity of others (in this case, French others).

Jean-Paul Brun's Domaine des Terres Dorées is in the Southern Beaujolais just north of Lyon. Brun believes in using indigenous (not industrial) yeasts, restricts the use of SO2 to the minimum levels needed to protect the wine and generally believes his wines should serve as an expression of their vineyard and vintage (hint: that's terroir). Unlike many, if not most, Beaujolais winemakers, Brun doesn't add sugar during winemaking to increase alcohol levels; a process known as chaptalizing. It's something we here at the Lab like to call "cheating."

And yet... because his wines are distinctive, elegant, even, site-expressive wonders, it was recently decided that some of them must be declassified as Beaujolais AOC and sold as plain and simple Vin de Table. So if you see any, Jean-Paul Brun Table Wine on the shelves, buy it! And if you should happen to meet someone from the Beaujolais AOC committee, poke them in the eye! (if you want to read all the details you can go to the website for champion importer Louis/Dressner and search "Brun").

Now, back to our results...

We tasted the two bottles of Brun's Cote de Brouilly. Blind. And in truth, we didn't really expect to get a result.

There's no such thing as shipping shock, right?

The first bottle has nose of bright cherry fruit, stewed tomato and peppery spice. The palate has the same profile with a beautiful mineral core that lingered through the finish. This wine has structured elegance, poise and purity. It's really beautiful stuff.

The second bottle, meanwhile, has the same basic olfactory and flavor profile, but is slightly warm (meaning: some alcohol is showing) with a greenish bite on the finish.

It was the second bottle that just arrived at the Lab.

The results were obvious and convincing, if unexpected. A shipped bottle performs better after a little rest. In this case, 6 weeks. Well, as convincing as a single trial can be.

Was the second bottle bad? No. But the first bottle was better. Appreciably so. And there wasn't a single member of the tasting staff that didn't think so.

December 12, 2008


December 11, 2008

Bottle Shock Trial #1

The first of our Bottleshock Trials gives us an opportunity to highlight one of the Lab's favorite wine shops in New York City. We love the Astor Wine Center on Lafayette Street in Manhattan. They have a good collection of grower Champagne and extensive offerings from importers who have championed the natural wine movement like Louis/Dressner Selections and the outstanding wines of Jenny & Francois (sadly, almost impossible to find on the West Coast!).

Astor Wines is also really good at shipping.

On the Astor website, I found at bottle of Beaujolais iconoclast Jean-Paul Brun's Terres Dorees, Cote de Brouilly, 2007. I ordered one on October 19. It arrived via UPS Ground on the 27th. I put it straight into the cellar before going back to the Astor Wines website to order a second bottle. This bottle I scheduled for a December 1st ship date. Without so much as a follow up phone call, some guy, identified on the invoice only as "Al", filled my order, scheduled shipment for a month hence and delivered the goods intact and on time. Nice going, Al.

When the second bottle arrived, we put it into a wine fridge for a couple hours, just to bring it down to cellar temperature. Fair is fair.

We opened both and tasted blind side by side.

Results up next.

December 8, 2008

Everyone Has Baggage

Early in my oenological career, I had the good fortune to tour the Margaret River wine region in Western Australia. Taking advantage of a strong US dollar, I shipped home several cases of great discoveries. The amiable fellow who handled the shipping told me to make sure I let the bottles sit for at least a few weeks upon receipt. The constant vibration of an airplane in flight disturbs the wine, he told me. You need to let them settle down.

This was my first encounter with the horrors of bottle shock.

It's a standard practice to let new inventory received at the Lab "rest" for 6-8 weeks.

But is this really necessary? Do we really need to let our bottles sit there for all that time?

We thought it would be interesting to run some tests.

First test up next.

(suitcase: © Gino Crescoli | )

December 5, 2008

Arbitrary Milestone Indeed

I'm sitting at my desk on Friday afternoon planning the staff holiday party -- I never know how many cheese logs to get -- when a staff librarian runs in with big news:

The Rational Denial Lab has broken through the 500,000 mark of Alexa's global traffic rankings!

I have no idea what this means... But the Grant Writing department has decided to print, "the fastest growing wine blog on the planet" on the Lab letterhead. It all seems a bit far-feteched to me.

But it certainly feels like cause for celebration! I'm heading immediately for the "arbitrary milestone" section of the Lab's Champagne cellar.

As if Friday afternoon wasn't reason enough...

December 4, 2008

Moby Dirt

Dirt Searching can be expensive. It only stands to reason that the best places to look for terroir, in those wines made from single-vineyards where producers intentionally restrict fruit yields and pick by hand, are going to be costly.

But in our quest for this muddy White Whale, we recently stumbled upon an interesting experimental pair that won't set you back a small fortune.

Two wines from Castoro Cellars. Yes, the provider of vast gallons of wine for Trader Joe's also has a serious side. These wines are from the same all-organic Whale Rock vineyard in Paso Robles. One a Zinfandel, the other a Primitivo. At the Lab, we know from super wine scientist Carol Meredith's extensive DNA analysis that Zin and Primitivo are, in fact, the same grape. So we assume this bit of marketing implies some deep cellar tomfoolery aimed at making a more rustic red for the Primitvo bottling.

Either way, same grapes, same vineyard, perhaps a slightly different vinification/maturation... perfect territory for a dirt search. So we tasted the 2005 Primitivo Reserve ($22) and the 2005 Whale Rock Zinfandel ($30) side by side.

The Zinfandel has a nose of cherry and oak, and, perhaps, too much alcohol. But I'm surprised by the restraint of the fruit on the palate, this isn't nearly as obvious as the nose suggested. A complex mix of black cherry, fig and blue fruits, with a youthful, vegetal greenness and drying tannins (or is this an oak effect?). The finish has a slightly bitter, Robitussin quality.

The Primitivo is sweet cherry and plum backed by dusty clay. This is the more fruit-forward of the two with rich flavors of plum and cherry confiture. Spicier too, with black pepper and espresso.

Both of these wines stuck me as being more about the fruit and the winemaking than the dirt. And yet, there was a common hallmark. Although it's hard to say if it's the result of shared varietal characteristics or born of common ground... literally.

December 2, 2008

Tastes Like 1964

Dear and Gentle Reader, You recall when last we spoke, we were setting off to open a wine from the 1964 vintage. The year the Beatles first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. When Cassius Clay knocked down Sonny Liston to begin his reign as "the Greatest." MLK won the Nobel Peace Prize. Goldfinger was in movie theaters. And t-shirt icon, Che Guevara, addressed the UN.

It was a very long time ago.

We carried our little antique to a work table and gingerly cut away the capsule. We gently removed the crumbling cork and delicately poured the wine. It was an anxious moment, fraught with the many tensions of possibility.

The nose is lovely. Warm and welcoming. Sweet, ripe fig and cigar box, with light hints of peppery spice. The first impression in the mouth is sweet cherry. There is some bitter, acetic tang on the finish, but on balance it's still drinkable!

There were a few high fives and fist bumps shared by a small coterie of dedicated lab workers. I thought one of our viticulture specialists was actually crying, but he explained an errant high five had caught him in the eye.

Fifteen minutes passed before we returned to the glass. The fruit bouquet is fading. Now it just smells like a musty attic, old and waning. But the fruit is still bright on the palate, and a few secondary flavors are beginning to emerge, nutmeg spice and leather.

After thirty minutes, the secondary elements take over. The glass smells of warm bread pudding with Christmas spices.

When an hour had passed we went back again. Wow! All of the above are now twirling about in the glass together, and the palate has settled down and softened. There is no acidic bite, no acetic tang. There's even a sense of smooth, soft tannin on the finish.

Our excitement, no doubt, had more to do with not opening a bottle of vinegar than with the quality of the plonk. And it was certainly interesting to chronicle its evolution in the glass. But, in truth, it was only okay (even if it did welcome sexy and exotic descriptors).

But there is no question that drinking this was more fun than we would have had with a $20 bottle of something off the shelves at the Foodmart.

November 28, 2008

Just Old: A Home Experiment Kit

The global financial meltdown means that we've found some outstanding bargains at auction recently. Our favorite online auction site is Winebid begins a new auction every Sunday night, just after that prior auction closes. A few weeks ago, we decided to buy the most old and least expensive bottle on the site.

Just to see what OLD tastes like.

(This is an experiment you can try at home!)

We successfully bid on a 1964 Jouvet. It's a mere split (375 ml), but from grapes grown, picked and squeezed 44 years ago. We paid $20, plus hammer and shipping.

Through extensive, almost spastic, Googling, we were able to find out next to nothing about this wine. It's from Saint-Julien, a region at the center of the Haut Medoc known for it's aromatic wines and gravelly soil. It was bottled by a negociant named T. Jouvet for the importer Munson G. Shaw of New York. Shaw once imported, amongst other things, the wines of Baron Phillippe de Rothschild. Shaw's company was acquired in 1963 by National Distillers.

In sum, all we know is this was a basic red table wine on its best day. And that day was long ago.

But we're curious about the wino's age fetish, so we'll open it under Laboratory conditions.

Stick around.

November 25, 2008

November 21, 2008

Old Light

One of our production assistants brought to my attention a recent discussion on Tyler Colman's wine blog, Dr Vino, wherein much was made about the wine descriptor "light".

We have something to add to that a discussion by way of a preview to a forthcoming Lab Report.

This is the back label of a 1964 Claret (of limited distinction). Bottled and labeled for an American importer's clientele, the wine is described as "light, dry, red Bordeaux wine..."

If "light" as a wine descriptor is indeed a "kiss of death," perhaps that explains why no one bothered to drink this forty odd years ago.

November 20, 2008

Palate Training #3: Memory Games

Regular readers of our Lab Reports know that one of our favorite guinea pigs of late has been the 2006 Bodegas Olivares Altos de la Hoya. It's a Spanish Red made from ungrafted Mourvedre vines in the Jumilla.

During a recent job interview, a candidate for a spot in the Lab's chemistry department noticed the spare bottle of this wine that I was using as a paperweight. He asked me what it tasted like. I figured I'd let the wine answer the question and promptly pulled the cork. But then I had a different thought...

We've had a lot of experience with this wine recently. We used it to test overnight storage methods. We used it to test the effects of refrigeration. I should know what it tastes like. I should have a "palate memory baseline" for this wine.

I decided to turn the young chemist's question into a training exercise. Without checking my old notes, I tried to recall a sensory memory of the wines aromas and taste.

I remembered rich smells of dusty fruit. And flavors of plum confiture and ripe fig, and sharp tannins that smoothed out quickly with air and a lingering, nervy mineral element. With some concentration, I felt I could actually conjure the sensation of the wine on my palate.

When I tasted it, it was close to my sensory reconstruction. The job applicant was impressed at my demonstration of memory. But this wasn't about winning a parlor game. Conjuring the wine before tasting it deepens your appreciation of it, allows you to note changes over time, across vintages. Palate memory is an important tool. It's something to actively develop.

If a cookie can inspire two volumes of lost memories, just think of the potential for a quality Pinot Noir...

November 17, 2008

Wither Thou Pumpest?

No doubt you've been sitting on the edge of your seat waiting for the results on this one. The excitement at the Lab has been palpable. Folks around here haven't been this geared up since we got the Lab rats drunk on Eiswein at last year's Christmas party.

We pulled the two bottles of 2007 Root: 1, Sauvignon Blanc from the fridge where they'd been stored. We let them sit for a full 96 hours before re-tasting. You may remember (or you can read the set-up HERE) we pumped one with a Vacu Vin pump to the full vacuum capacity of the device. The second bottle we pumped only half that much.

The results were... hardly conclusive. The truth is the two wines were nearly indistinguishable one from the other. However, both were remarkable given they'd been open for 4 days. The fruit on the nose was bigger, but had perhaps lost a little complexity over the period. The palate was bright with citric acid, gala apple and a concentrated, mineral core that stretched out like Mr Fantastic on the lingering finish.
A recognizable grapefruit flavor had emerged in both.

If I were really pressed
I might argue that the acid/mineral mix of the fully-pumped bottle -- let's call it the grapefruit -- had turned a little bitter. But it was a marginal difference, far from conclusive.

I hate it when science is ambiguous.

November 14, 2008

Pump It Up

In past experiments, we've tried to reach some functional conclusions regarding wine preservation. After extensive, though hardly exhaustive, trials, we remain convinced that not preserving the wine (i.e. finishing the bottle) is the strategy par excellence.

That said, we remain curious about something we learned along the way. Namely, that pumping short of the full vacuum (or at least less than the manufacturers suggested level) will provide improved preservation results with next-day wine.

So we opened two bottles of 2007 Root: 1, Sauvignon Blanc, tasted both, and then poured off 250 ml of each bottle. The first we pumped with a Vacu Vin wine preserver until it "clicked" (10 pumps). The second we pumped half as many times (5). Then we returned both bottles to the fridge for storage.

Given we found the wine on sale for $7 (it usually sells for $11), it was remarkable on a quality/price ratio. A nose of passion fruit, lime zest and wet grass. The palate was zippy citric acid and gala apple. The wine had a long lingering mineral finish. If tasted blind, I think I would have picked this as a mid-range to high-end Sancerre.

In fact, Root: 1 is a joint-venture from Chilean producer Viña Ventisquero and Seattle-based importer/genius marketing company Click Wine Group.

Root: 1 is sub-titled [The Original Ungrafted]. Not sure what they mean by "original" but it is notable that in South American appelations it's possible to produce a blend of multiple vineyard blends from all ungrafted vines. This is terrific table wine.

We'll pull the samples from the fridge in a couple days. Don't go away.

November 12, 2008

Look What the Trojan Horse Dragged In

We've started a new quest at the Lab. We are on a obsessive mission to drink wine made from ungrafted vines. What started innocently as a historical thought-experiment about pre-phylloxera wines has swelled into a relentless search for the Ungrafted Grail. Careful readers will have noted the occasional hints in this direction. A full-fledged Ungrafted Manifesto is forthcoming.

Thus far, our search has yielded a number of triumphs, and we will describe those in a later report. But I couldn't resist a special mention of a recent discovery.

Gaia Wines, Thalassitis, Santorini, 2007. Thalassitis is made from the Assyrtiko grape native to the Greek isle of Santorini. Gaia (say: yeah-ha) grows theirs in a vineyard of ungrafted vines more than 70 years old. A Greek wine-making tradition goes back to 4000 years. The Cult of Dionysus, that Minoan import that flourished as a Grecian Mystery Cult, might represent the world's first assemblage of wine wankers. More recently, BFC aficionados will remember the brief reign of a Greek sparkler in the Bubbledome.

I wasn't sure what to expect from a grape I've never before tasted. Assyrti who? But I wasn't expecting the smell of brand new Firestone tires. In the mouth, it's bright, energetic citric acids (lime and tangerine), rubber (I swear you can taste it, but probably just the strong olfactory suggestion) and a core of creamy apple fruit. Burnt match on the finish. Weird descriptors, I acknowledge (the petrol-y smells might result from the black, rubber stopper Gaia uses). But I find this fascinating and delicious. The mouthfeel is amazing. Like I would imagine a dollop of liquid mercury might feel (before it killed you). Or like a weird, funky blend of Riesling, Sauvingnon Blanc and Silver Surfer Spit.

(trojan horse: A project by Scott Kildall & Victoria Scott. Rights are protected under a Creative Commons license. Do not reproduce without attribution. The artists have no affiliation with the Rational Denial Lab. For more info see

November 10, 2008

Palate Training #2: Pears

I've noticed a few of the scientists here at the Lab are starting to look a little soft. Time for a work out, boys and girls.

That's right. It's time for another round of PALATE TRAINING.

It's Autumn in Los Angeles. Not that anyone would notice a change of season here. Except in the produce section where pears are in abundant season. After apples, pears are perhaps the most oft referenced fruit used to describe white wines. Pear flavors turn up all over. In Champagne, the Rhone, of course the Loire (Anjou), Burgundy, the Mosel River valley, the Penedes region in Spain... I could go on like this for a very long time.

We tasted five different varieties: Bartlett, d'Anjou, Starkrimson, Forelle and Bosc.

Here's the notes:

Bartlett: Sweet fruit with a slightly bitter, licorice taste in the skins. Some underlying, and gentle, acidity.

d'Anjou: Not as expressive, especially the peel. Perhaps needs a few more days to fully ripen. More about texture than sugar.

Starkminson: Well integrated and balanced sugar and acid. Peel brought a woodsy flavor. Not as sweet as the Bartlett.

Forelle: This is the runt of the pears. A cute little guy with skin ripening from green to red. Gloriously sweet, almost like candy. No real acid and not much complexity but a very delicious fruit.

Bosc: like a Riesling spatlese from an over-ripe year. The sweet in this pear is luxurious and sophisticated.

On balance, I'd say the most notable conclusion of this exercise was the lack of obvious difference among these fruits. Unlike the apples, which had distinct and recognizable, individual flavors, what struck me about the pears was the subtlety of the differences between them.

It has been noted that in this Lab's first public experiment, when we tasted a single bottle of Nicolas Joly's Loire Chenin Blanc over 5 days, I managed to use a different pear to describe the changes on each day. In retrospect, that might have been a slightly fanciful exaggeration on my part...

November 6, 2008

Not The Same Old Brand New Day

The markets are still down. The London interbank offered rate is still 151 points north of the Fed target. And my 401K looks like Rick Moranis zapped it (now there's a scientist to admire!).

In spite of these many reasons for pessimism, we have the promise of a new, energetic American government, one embracing transparency, honesty and reform.

This means the Lab will need to completely rethink it's approach to government funding. Effective immediately, we are reducing our lobbying budget (although we are maintaining basic retainers with our favorite K Street firms, just in case all this new turns out to look a little like the old). We are halting construction on vacation homes for US Congressman (although even if disclosed, it doesn't seem to completely inhibit re-election). And we are drinking as much of the Lab's cellar stocks of Champagne as we can. This last doesn't have anything to do with our new budgetary and policy realities. Just feels like the right thing to do.

After all, the historic milestone reached Tuesday is far from arbitrary.

November 4, 2008

At Last!

cool art by Brad Kayal:
featured with permission

November 3, 2008

BFC 8: A New, Improved Definition of Small

This was never really a fair fight. A tiny, family-owned vineyard's base wine versus a slightly larger, but still small, family-owned vineyard's reserve cuvée.

Ployez-Jacquemart produces 6000 cases a year. Gaston Chiquet is comparably huge with 16,700. Compare this to Moët & Chandon's 2,000,000 or Veuve Clicquot's more than a million cases produced annually. This was a TRUE battle of Little Guys.

And both wines impressed. One a classic expression of Champagne. The other, an intriguing old-school, throw-back. The clear winner... was the crowd.

Ployez-Jacquemart Brut, NV. As they like to say in Champagnese, "This one is 50% Pinot Noir, 50% Chardonnay and the rest Pinot Meunier." They grow red grapes organically on a couple of small parcels near the village of Ludes, and source Chardonnay from grand cru villages elsewhere. Their wines never see malolactic fermentation and are always at the low end dosage-wise. This had a lightly yeasty nose of white wafer and honeyed lemon. It is elegant Champagne, linear, well-balanced and chalky. Fresh lemony apple fruit with layers of strawberry and red currant. And a zippy, stainless-steel and mineral finish.

Gaston Chiquet's Cuvée de Réserve. This is old-school Champagne. Intentionally crafted in an antique, oxidized style. This was disgorged April 2004 and is one-third each Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. It's half 1995, half 1996 (1996 was a biggie, and 1995 didn't suck). The Réserve spends 7 years on its lees. The nose was baked apple, ripe fig, saffron and toffee. This was a big, sensual wine, achey with lees and finished with a brilliant, saline minerality.

Jack Purcells versus satin toe shoes. How do you score a contest like that? Good thing it was only an exhibition.

October 31, 2008

BFC 8, After the Scandal

Things have been quiet in the Bubbledome since the embarrassment of the Little Bottle wrestling incident (I've been informed by staff that "little bottle" is the politically correct term). And while the local authorities continue their investigation into those unfortunate, back-alley events, all at the Lab feel it's time we pick up, try to move forward. We can only hope the stain will fade over time.

If you are new to BFC, you can catch up by reading THIS. And THIS. Or just cleverly figure it out from context.

In an effort to restore the Bubbledome to its illustrious, pre-scandal grandeur, the BFC Organizing Committee has decided on a bold course of action for BFC 8. The Bubbledome will play host to a Light Heavyweight Exhibition Match featuring two non-vintage Bruts from Champagne.

The real French deal in the Bubbledome.

Ployez-Jacquemart Brut versus Gaston Chiquet's Cuvée de Réserve .

I know you won't want to miss seeing these big boys get after it.

(blurry gloves: © Sailorman |

October 29, 2008

A Tale of Two Corks

A Postscript to the last Report.

We were impressed by Tarlant's ungrafted Vigne d'Antan we opened the other day, so much so that we decided to open another one last night at the Lab.

Sure, this is a wine to get involved with. It's complex. It's big. More like White Burgundy from Puligny-Montrachet. It has that ungrafted hallmark of pitch-perfect integration, intense core and site-specific precision. There are many reasons to open another bottle.

But we opened this one mostly because we thought there would be opportunity for some cool, time-lapse photography. The bottle we opened previously was disgorged in December, 2004. The second bottle was disgorged a year ago tomorrow.

At the Lab, we often source Champagne at auction. With non-vintage champagnes, it's often difficult, if not impossible, to know their age. One of the few clues is "cork behavior". Older corks do not expand. Young corks expand quickly. And wines that are in between young and old (disgorged more than a year ago, but less than say... three, four years ago) sometimes expand, but slowly.

We noticed the cork from the older bottle never expanded, retaining it's compressed mushroom shape. We thought the younger bottle might expand over 10-15 minutes and give us an opportunity to chronicle the transformation.

No such luck. The cork screamed out of the bottle as soon as the cage was removed, expanding to its current fatness (that is the technical term, by the way) almost immediately. We missed our photo-journalistic opportunity. But we drank the Champagne anyway.

The younger cousin is delicious, though far less mineral in character than the prior bottle. It has a lees-y nose with faint pear fruit, biscuit and some notes of oak. The attack is citric acid that emerges as distinctly lemon as the golden apple flavor evolves mid-palate. There's an almost tannic bite before a long, lingering chalky finish.

It has an adolescent, nervy energy that would likely benefit from some cellar maturity. Maybe in a year or so we can capture the cork swell on camera...

Ironically, we opened a bottle of Bollinger Special Cuvee last night as well. That cork did expand slowly over a 10 to 15 minutes period, but at that point we were half in the bag from other experiments and no one remembered to take the pictures.

October 27, 2008

Jefferson's Bubbles [ROOTS 7]

Continuing our pre-phylloxera thought-experiment, our journey back to the wines of founding wanker, Thomas Jefferson, we turn now to Champagne.

Jefferson was certainly a fan of Champagne. During a 4 month span as President, he once went through 207 bottles. To be fair, the same ledgers documenting the alcohol consumption also indicate he served these to more than 600 dinner guests. So it wasn't like he was holed up in the Oval Office pounding Veuve like the Duke.

As far as I know (which means checking Keith Levenberg's invaluable list and searching diligently through Peter Liem's really terrific blog), there are only two Champagnes produced from grapes grown on ungrafted vines. Bollinger's, very expensive, Vielles Vignes Françaises and Tarlant's, hardly cheap, La Vigne d'Antan.

The Tarlant wine comes from a tiny parcel (less than an acre) of 50 year-old Chardonnay vines in the village of Oeuilly. The sandy soil there safeguards Tarlant's own-rooted vines from our nasty yellow pest.

Benoit Tarlant, the current heir to a line of Tarlant winemakers that goes back to the 17th century, seems a fellow-traveler in our thought-experiment. From the company's website: "the Vigne d'Antan reveals the true nature of the chardonnay grape, with aromas unknown elsewhere since the 19th century (when phylloxera devastated the vineyards of France)."

Our bottle is a little older than the current release (based on the 2000 vintage). According to the label, it was disgorged Dec 17, 2004; according to fellow ungrafted aficionado Keith Levenberg, it is a blend of 80% 1999 and 20% 1998 vintages (thanks Keith!).

It has a rich nose of creamy, vanilla brioche with a hint of sweet honey, and a secondary note of crushed, damp rocks. Perhaps the most mineral-forward champagne I've ever tasted. River stones on the attack, then a luxurious golden apple fruit mid-palate. The two elements twist and twirl through a long elegant finish. This is a big, complex, beautifully structured and integrated wine; it just happens to have bubbles. Brilliant bubbles.

No wonder Jefferson went through this stuff at pace.

You can catch up on the rest of the Lab's ROOTS series here (hint: read bottom to top).

October 24, 2008

Flying Colors

I feel there's a fair amount on the line here. Having been mocked for selecting an "unserious" wine for our Evolution Project, I'm hoping for some redemption. Moreover, I bought a full case of this wine, so if it sucks we're already committed to drinking eleven more.

So I'll admit to feeling a few butterflies while the Lab tasting room attendant opened the bottle of 2001 Confuron-Cotetidot Vosne-Romanée and poured glasses for the Evolution Project Tasting Committee (hereafter: EPTC).

I'm not sure why I was nervous. The Confuron are an ancient Burgundian family who have been making wine for more than three centuries. Their vineyards are strictly organic and their vines are established and old. They farm for low-yields and never fine or filter their wines. According to their English importer, "The wines more approachable in the medium to long term. In fact, one of the key strengths is their ability to age and develop."

All eyes were on me as I swirled a taste in my glass.

The wine has a brown-hued ruby color that gives it a sense of being older than the vintage suggests...

I immediately worried about oxidation. But it turned out to be just the color of the wine.

On the nose it offers up rich plum and blackberry aromas with underlying hints of cedar, forest floor and pumpkin pie spices. It's not as dense or complex on the palate but this might be because the red fruit flavors are so dominated by the massive minerality of the finish. The tannins were slightly bitter at the outset, and maybe a little green, but they improved with air. Becoming velvety after an hour in the glass. This wine had great balance and compelling structural depth.

I wouldn't argue this was epic. But it was very good, easily worth the $22 I paid for it. I'm already looking forward to the next one.

Take that, Jack!

October 23, 2008

Evolution 1.5: RED

Some of you will remember that this summer we began a bold and innovative long-term study at the Lab. We acquired a case of each of Red Burgundy and New Zealand Riesling. We set out to taste them on a precise schedule, one bottle every six months, to chart their progression over time.

And like Galileo, the Wright Brothers and Rodney Dangerfield before us, we were mocked for the audacity of our vision. A reader informed us:
I can't say I'm agreeing that a $22 NZ Riesling, nor a $22 bottle of red Burg are "serious" and something to seriously age.

I don't know of anyone intentionally ageing (sic) NZ riesling in their cellars (German and Austrian are by far the two choices), and those $22 red Burgs are to be drunk young...they'd sell for more it they were meant for (or could improve with) ageing (sic).
---- Jack, July 15, 2008
We didn't defend ourselves then, nor will now. Because, my friends, I know how to do this...

Wait a second. "I know how to do this?" You didn't think I seriously thought that would work ? Of course, it doesn't. So here's the rationale for our selections.

The white, a 2005 Pyramid Valley Vineyards Lebecca Vineyard Riesling, may be from New Zealand, but it has been heralded as exceptional by legendary Australian wine writer James Halliday (amongst others), who noted (ironically in this context) that the wine has, "the texture of Mosel auslese." It was designed by the winemaker to reflect a pure expression of the Riesling grape and the local terroir. It is certainly built to age, even if it's drinking beautifully now.

The Red is a 2001 J. Confuron-Cotetidot Vosne-Romaneé. My assistant found the current release, the 2005 vintage, on Wine-Searcher for $55. So not only does it qualify as "serious" according to Jack's (somewhat ridiculous) definition. But it also counts as finding a great bargain on a good wine from a minor vintage from a solid producer.

Today we plan open our first bottle of the Red in the Lab. So we will also be testing my value-oriented procurement strategy. But I've always been successful buying producers I respect regardless of the generally perceived quality of the vintage. So it's a test I'm pretty sure I'll pass. Plus, I'll be grading the exam myself.

October 20, 2008

Don't go into the light, Carol Anne

If you're up to date in your Lab Reports, you'll know that we have been bombarding a bottle of Pacific Rim Dry Riesling with Ultraviolet radiation in hopes of recreating the "lightstrike" wine fault under laboratory conditions (the original FINDING FAULT Lab post is here).

We subjected the bottle to 10-12 hours of UV-light each day over a six day period.

Now there's an argument to be made that we'd have been better off irradiating our wine in a tanning bed. As it may be that radiation in the UVA/B spectrum is more effective in this regard.

But we're a scientific lab, not a tanning salon. So we went with what we had, namely, a SterilGARD III ADVANCE class II Biological Safety Cabinet.

Lightstrike occurs through a reductive process which creates a number of sulfuric compounds, among them something called thiols. Thiols are the same chemical component used to give natural gas it's rank smell. They make old beer taste skunky. They actually make actual skunks smell skunky. Trying to get them into your wine is clearly ill-advised.

So we held our noses (figuratively; wouldn't be much of a test if we'd actually held our noses) and blindly tasted our thiol-thick wine against one not similarly abused.

It wasn't easy to tell the good from the bad. The wine from the sterilization tank had a strong odor of rubber bands, and a burnt rubber taste apparent on the palate as well.

When not abused the Pacific Rim Riesling is a competent, if somewhat boring, expression of the grape. (I believe we already mentioned it's a "great value"). A nose of mandarin orange and citrus zest with hints of honey and straw. A straightforward palate of pear (sweet) and lime (acid).

Someone did note the irony that the goût de lumière was slightly phenolic. And so could almost pass as goût de pétrole in a Riesling. We've asked the Baker company to alert us if they have an upswing of sales of SterilGARD cabinets in the Mosel river valley.

October 16, 2008

Goût de lumière

The "taste of light." Sounds sexy doesn't it? Like a gift from the fairies. Or a something you eat on the way to Nirvana. But goût de lumière -- lightstrike in English -- is actually a fault that makes tainted wine taste like rancid rubber bands or damp sheep.

Amongst the flaws in our FINDING FAULT series, we voted LIGHTSTRIKE as the flaw with the best name (see THIS NOTE on voting at the Lab).

According to wikipedia:
Lightstruck wines are those that have had excessive exposure to ultraviolet light... Very delicate wines, such as Champagnes, are generally worst affected, with the fault causing a wet cardboard or wet wool type flavor and aroma... The fault explains why wines are generally bottled in colored glass, which blocks the ultraviolet light, and why wine should be stored in dark environments.
Good to know why wine bottles are green. But what does lightstrike really taste like?

At the Lab, we are determined to find out. So we jammed a bottle of Pacific Rim, NV, Dry Riesling into a SterilGARD III ADVANCE class II Biological Safety Cabinet (manufactured by the Baker Company) that we use to sterilize instruments. We plan to bombard the bottle with a massive dose of ultraviolet radiation (254nm/UVC), and then taste it blind against a bottle stored carefully in our cellar.

No doubt, several questions come quickly to mind. First of which must surely be: Who makes non-vintage Riesling?

Randall Grahm is who. Grahm is the eccentric genius of Bonny Doon Vineyard. He has scaled back his business significantly to focus on the production of single-vineyard wines driven by our old friend the magic mud. Which means this non-vintage Riesling is a vineyard by-product. Whether or not this is left-over juice is pure speculation on my part, but I do know that this wine is made from grapes grown in Washington state and then blended with additional wine sourced from the Mosel region in Germany. You can buy it at Trader Joe's for $9.

What? It's not like we were going to irradiate something expensive.

You won't want to miss the results. Stay tuned...

(girl with wings: © George Mayer | )

October 14, 2008

Our 68th Post!

This is actually our 69th post. But to arbitrarily celebrate the joyous occasion of our 68th post, we broke out a bottle of Champagne yesterday. A single-vineyard blanc de blanc. Leclerc Briant's La Croisette, NV.

The nose is amazingly like cantaloupe, with some brioche and sea spray layered in. It is bright and energetic on the attack, with steely apple fruit and lemony acid. The wine seems to swell mid-palate where a creamy texture and briny flavor build in behind the fruit before the acid chases back with a piercing minerality on a finish that evokes almonds as it fades. It was delicious wine with unique complexity and site-specific character.

Single-vineyard wines from Champagne are a budding trend, and so still fairly rare. Most are absurdly expensive. The Clos d'Ambonnay from Krug retails for $3500! And the oldest of the single-vineyard offerings, Philipponnat's Clos des Goisses starts at $165.

But the one we drank in the Lab is $33 at K&L Wines. It's a gateway Champagne.

If you're interested in single-vineyard, terroir-driven Champagnes, Peter Liem, a senior correspondent for Wine & Spirits magazine, wrote a highly informative overview for the San Francisco Chronicle back in June.

October 13, 2008

Arbitrary Milestones

One of the young scientists at the Lab got married last weekend. At the wedding, they poured a very nice non-vintage blanc de blanc for the toast. I was impressed. But it got me thinking. Champagne has achieved one of the greatest victories in marketing history. Right up there with de Beer's telling you a marriage isn't official without a diamond. Can you imagine a wedding without Champagne? Or New Year's Eve? The Champagne producers have us by the goblets. And it's primarily the industrial/generic, Grand Marque Champagnes who have our goblets clenched in their fat, velvet gloved fists.

Rational Denial, we think it's time to fight back. Our plan is risky. Counter-intuitive, even. Our chance of success is small. But we are an intrepid group (didn't we just drink rancid Merlot to improve our wine knowledge?) so we are charging forward fearlessly.

And what's our plan? We're going to drink Champagne to celebrate arbitrary milestones. Simple isn't it? You kinda wish you thought of it, don't you.

What's an arbitrary milestone? Well, say you weren't killed in traffic today; we'll drink to that. Your kid just attended his 12th birthday party this year; pop a cork! (by the way, we hit that arbitrary milestone at my house sometime mid-February; my next cause may be an open assault on the little kid birthday mafia). Your shoelace is untied but you didn't trip; bottom's up! The more arbitrary the better.

We're hoping this will serve to de-emphasize the constrictor's grip that Big Brand Champagne has on our idea of celebration. So we're going to drink grower and artisan Champagne for barely any reason at all and hope this serves to invert our celebratory imagination.

This happens to be our 68th Lab Report. So we're going to celebrate that barely significant fact in style. I'll let you know tomorrow what we grabbed from the Lab cellar.

Cheers to just about anything!

© Mikhail Kokhanchikov | )

October 9, 2008

Tomb Raider, Bad Merlot Edition

It was painful just thinking about doing this one. Given our prior experiment, we knew what was in store for us. And we knew it wasn't good.

It was bad, bad Merlot.

What's to get excited about in that? Nothing. That's what. But we at the Lab are dedicated in our mission. So, as with our previous trial, we went down to the local Safeway to find a current release of the 2000 Sterling Vineyards Napa Valley Merlot that we discovered while spelunking in an underutilized wet bar.

But we came up empty. Or almost so. Best match we could find was a 2004 Sterling Vintner's Collection Central Coast Merlot. Given how long, we've procrastinated this, we figured close enough would suffice. Besides, Sterling Vineyards was once owned by Coca-Cola, and is now owned by Diageo PLC who also owned Burger King. So we didn't really expect there'd be too much site-specific difference between the wines anyway.

And our expectations were met. They were both generic wines of over-extracted fruit and too much alcohol. Nearly interchangeable. Like two Diet Cokes. The older wine did have a faint aroma of dried, wet cardboard, but they were otherwise indistinguishable.

We hadn't mentioned that we had also found a third bottle under the cupboard. Another Merlot, a 2000 DeLoach Estate Bottled Russian River Valley Merlot. We were hoping to just throw it away without anyone noticing. But given the Sterling Merlot had somehow survived the destruction suffered by the Coppola Sauvingnon Blac in the prior experiment (you really should have a look; this is the third time I've mentioned it), we thought we'd open it, see if it had also dodged the cooked bullet.

No such luck. It was way off, smelled like rancid fruit, rubbing alcohol and... you guessed it, wet cardboard that had dried in the sun.

What began as an experiment in discovering wine flaws, quickly turned into an opportunity for palate training. Set against the backdrop of the obviously cooked DeLoach Merlot, the dry/wet cardboard smell of the Sterling Merlot became really easy to identify. I think everyone here at the Lab will be a little more savvy the next time the sommelier at Burger King tries to pass off a slightly cooked Merlot.

October 8, 2008

Yard Sale!

Like everyone, we've been hit by the global financial crisis. We need to raise cash to service a short-term debt facility. So we're selling assets.

FOR SALE: 9,700 Premium Natural Cork Wine Stoppers #8 (22mmx45mm)

The corks are produced by a M.A. Silva, a top Portuguese producer and the first cork company to receive the ISO 22000 designation for advanced international standards of excellence. Visit their website at for more information

Cork Specifications
Grade: Premium Uncoated
Size: 22mm x 45mm (#8)
Wash: MSN45A
Quantity: 9,700

The corks are ready for printing (at additional cost) or can be delivered blank directly from the manufacturers
state-of-the-art facility in Santa Rosa, California. Additional services (printing, shipping, etc) will be provided directly from M.A. Silva Corks USA.

The original purchase price was $3,045.80 ($0.314 per cork), but we will consider any serious offer that helps to restore our liquidity.

Contact the Lab for further details.

October 6, 2008

You Need a Tangerine

This is Part 2. Part 1 is here. But to review briefly, the Lab compared two wines from the same vintage and the same vineyard to see if we might discover something about their shared terroir.

But what we discovered is this: If you want to compare oranges to oranges, you need a point of reference. You need a tangerine.

We also, perhaps a little hastily, dismissed an employee. An employee who left the Lab with our tangerine in his bag. Today, he's back at work, and we're tasting the tangerine. But it's not really a tangerine (that's just a metaphor). It's a bottle of 2005 Stephen Ross Edna Valley Pinot Noir. The Stone Corral Vineyard that produced the two wines we tasted in Part 1 is also in the Edna Valley. And Steve Dooley, the winemaker of Stephen Ross, is the third participant in the Stone Corral vineyard. So the grapes that went into this wine (the tangerine) are certainly close cousins (of our oranges).

The Stephen Ross has a straightforward cherry fruit nose with some talc and hints of cedar. Very fruit-forward, mostly cherry with some jammy plum. Ripe, but not overly so. Dry tannins. Pencil lead on the finish.

This is ready to drink. It's very good, though not likely to get much better with age. It has some distinct elements, but isn't particularly distinctive.

But where it really succeeds is as a tangerine.

With this frame of reference, all of a sudden the Stone Corral terroir becomes obvious. What connects the Talley and Kynsi Pinots to that single Central Coast vineyard is palpable against the more generic fruit of the Stephen Ross wine.

I really wish that kid had found the Stephen Ross Stone Corral Pinot. Would have made for a more complete experiment. Something to look forward to with the 2006 vintage, I guess.

And I'd consider doing this one at home with the '06s. It's highly instructive.

(tangerine: © Milosluz |