August 29, 2008

Handyman Needed

A brief follow up to yesterday's post:

If anyone wants to argue against the Bollinger, La Côte aux Enfants, as a novelty wine, they're gonna have to start by explaining the closure (see photo at right).

This is the only wine I've ever opened with a pair of needle-nose pliers and a screwdriver.

August 28, 2008

It Takes a Village

Our mad quest for mud resumes.

If you're a newcomer to our work at the Lab, you can brush up on our Dirt Search Mission Statment here.

Today, we'll be searching for that elusive terroir in the Champagne village of Aÿ. With a tiny population of just over 4000, Aÿ is located at the base of the southern slope of the Montagne de Reims just Northeast of Epernay.

Aÿ is renowned for Pinot Noir. Its red wines were said to be the favorite of the French King, Henri IV. So why then, you may soon be wondering, are we drinking a Chardonnay from Aÿ in the Lab today, a Blanc de Blanc from Gaston Chiquet?

Because Peter Liem, in his truly outstanding Champagne blog, recently wrote that he, "found that this Chardonnay helps me to understand Aÿ’s Pinots better, through a commonality of character and personality." He cites fabled importer Terry Thiese as noting, Chiquet's Blanc de Blanc, "isn’t so much a variant on Chardonnay as it is another dialect of Aÿ.”

So we thought it might be illuminating to drink Chiquet's Blanc de Blanc d'Aÿ, NV, alongside a Pinot Noir from the same village. Unfortunately, it's difficult to find still red wine from Champagne in the U.S. But not impossible. There is an odd (some might argue "novelty") wine from Bollinger, La Côte aux Enfants, Coteaux Champenois (1999), that occasionally appears on local shelves. La Côte aux Enfants is produced from a single vineyard in Aÿ, planted exclusively with Pinot. The wine is only produced in what some Frenchie deems an "exceptional year."

This Chiquet is one of my favorite non-vintage Champagnes. This bottle has a yeasty, slightly sourdough, nose mixed with almond butter and lemon verbena. Beautifully complex and linear. A nervy, citric acid highlights the attack, then cherry-apple fruit swirls around a serious mineral core. This finish is beautiful, crisp and chalky. (Disgorged 5/1/07).

As I'm actually one of those who would argue the Bollinger is a novelty wine, I was surprised by how good it was. A nose of plum and cherries and a beguiling earthy quality. On the palate, the fruit was forward, but not over-powering. Plum, black cherry and mineral water. With peppery tannins and a gentle, chalky mineralité. Although the overall impression was that of feminine delicacy, the various elements seemed bound together by an energetic, almost forceful, tension.

Did we find our Grail in these two wines from Aÿ?

Tough to say with any precision. It was hard to avoid discovering some commonality in the mineral aspects of the two wines. Both had an almost sensual, cherry chalkiness to them. Both seemed to possess that alchemical suggestion of a specific place and time.

But were those neighboring places really there?

Or mere projections...

August 26, 2008

Some Welcome Perspective

Yesterday, I took time out from our usual scientific reportage to write about a little personality tic of mine. My heartfelt thanks to everyone for the outpouring of sympathy and support. Your notes, cards and messages are greatly appreciated.

I'm happy to report that today, I'm feeling much better.

Mostly because my own issues seem almost trivial in the face of this guy's collection of 4180 little metal caps and army men made from Champagne closures.

I thought I was bad, but this guy is a freak. I do like his fancy website, though.

Schadenfreude is never pretty.

August 25, 2008

I Might Have OCD

A friend once taught me how to make these little chairs from the cage the holds the cork in a Champagne bottle. I discovered that making them provides the perfect interval for tasting Champagne. I open, pour and taste the wine. Then I make a little chair before going back to the glass. This allows the wine some time in the air. Time that it likely wouldn't otherwise get. Especially if it's any good. In which case, you have to be quick yourself if you expect to get any. Good Champagne doesn't last long at the Lab.

Apparently, obsessive-compulsive disorder is a chronic anxiety disorder sometimes characterized by obsessive rituals and tasks (like, say, making tiny chairs). OCD is often confused with OCPD, obsessive-compulsive personality disorder which is characterized by a general psychological inflexibility, rigid conformity to rules and procedures and/or excessive orderliness. One look at my desk and you know this is not my problem.

But I fear the tiny chair making is getting a little out of hand. I'm starting to get some weird looks in the halls.

August 21, 2008

BFC#5: A Lightning Bolt from Zeus!


No other way to describe it. We were stunned. All of us. None could believe that we'd all voted for a sparkling wine made from an antique grape we'd never heard of. Moschofilero? When the blindfolds came off -- we have a slightly unorthodox approach to blind tasting at the Lab, more like waterboarding really -- every jaw dropped. There before us, an international smörgåsbord of sparkling wines, and we had all picked the Greek as our favorite.

Tselepos Amalia Brut, NV. Nose was musty and graphitic with faint hint of apple. Elegant and balanced on the palate with nervy acid, delicate, honeyed orchard fruit and a clean, crisp stony finish.

So Amalia will be back to take on Goisot in the Bubbledome.

The rest of the competition, in order of finish:

Gruet Brut, NV. Strongly effervescent. The cork took out a chunk of ceiling plaster. Fruity nose of white flower and melon. In the mouth, a little flabby but not without some energetic acid.

Toso Brut, NV. Weird. And not in a good way. Tropical fruit and honeysuckle and a faint, almost Rieslingesque petrol quality. Less complex in the mouth, melon with some almond and a flat and dull finish. Very strange expression of pinot/chardonnay blend.

Taltarni Brut Taché, NV. Almost exactly that unique, rusty pink color of Dom Perignon Rosé. Beyond the color, this was disappointing. Closed, yeasty nose. Slightly overripe, apple fruit and tart, attention-demanding acid. This isn't bad as much as it's generic.

We all thought the Zipang Sparkling Sake was out of category, but really interesting. So we pulled it from the cage before it suffered any real damage. We'll bring it back for sushi night in the Dome. Coming soon.

(passport image © Icefields |

August 19, 2008

BFC #5: Olympic-style Cagematch

To commem-
orate the spirit of the Olympics, I suggested to the boys that we host an event in the Brooklynguy Bubbledome with an international flair, something aimed at fostering understanding across cultural divides and promoting the ideals of world peace.

They were having none of it. So instead we're holding an old fashioned CAGE MATCH in the Dome tomorrow.

Five will enter. Only one will exit. And the winner will earn a shot at the current BFC champion, Goisot Cremant in BFC #6.

You'll notice though, I did manage to sneak in my internationalist agenda via the fight card.

The competitors (btw, I've been practicing trying to make my digital photos look like old, cheap polaroids. I'm getting pretty good, I think):

From Tasmania, Australia: Taltarni Brut Taché, NV. I've seen this on a lot of restaurant wine lists lately, universally overpriced. So I bought one at the shop for $14. Traditional 3 grape, Champagne blend. Bottle fermented. Taché means "stained". So the wine is essentially "pinked" with red wine blended into the liqueur d'expédition.

From Mendoza, Argentina, Toso Brut, NV. Only $10! A Blanc de Blanc (though the label doesn't say so), from Pascual Toso, a winery established by the eponymous Italian in the 19th century. Secondary fermentation in tanks (method charmant).

From Peloponesus, Greece, Domaine Tselepos Amalia Brut, NV. $19. An original Olympian. Made from a traditional Grecian grape, the Moschophilero.

From New Mexico, USA, Gruet Brut, NV. $13. I see this all the time. And I walk past this all the time. Except today. Today I thought, let's see how New Mexico holds up against the world.

From Fushimi, Japan, Zipang Sparkling Sake, NV, $6 (250 ml). This should be interesting? Naturally carbonated rice wine. One of the kids from our neuro-chemistry group brought this back to the Lab when we sent him for sushi from the Japanese convenience store up the street. Figured why not toss it in the cage?

Rules are blind-tasting with scorecards and no eye-gouging. Results will be posted as soon as they're tabulated. It'll be soon, but the new kid in accounting who's adding up the scores isn't exactly the sharpest stick in the pile.

(If you're new to the exciting world of no-holds barred, sparkling wine fighting, you can read about the origins of the Bubbledome here. Or search keyword: Bubbledome for the whole exciting history.)

image credit © Claudio Bertoloni |

August 18, 2008

In Memoriam

J Randall Forbes, 1961-2008.

The Lab has lost a good friend. He will be dearly missed.

August 14, 2008

Tomb Raider, of Sorts

Do you have a nosy Aunt Gladys who rummages through the drawers and cabinets in the bathroom to see what sort of pharmaceuticals she can find?

I do the same thing. I think this might be why no one from the Lab ever invites me over for dinner. That, and the inequality of rank can be so awkward. But I'm not rummaging around in medicine chests looking for your oxycontin or anti-psychotic meds, I'm looking for research opportunities. Bottles of wine for our FINDING FAULT program. I've found wet bars to be ripe territory to mine.

So it was at the condo my parents keep in San Diego. I found a small cache of wine in a cabinet under the sink. And, since no one was paying attention, I "borrowed" two bottles. One red. One white. Or, what appeared to have been white, once upon a time.

The white was a Sauvignon Blanc from famed film/wine-maker Francis Coppola. It was from the 2004 vintage and probably purchased on release. So it's been under the sink for the better part of 3 years.

I sent one of our research assistants down to the local supermarket to buy a bottle of the current release. He came back with an '07. We opened them side by side at the Lab.

The 2007 is pale yellow, almost clear. A nose of pear, grapefruit oil and lime. Less interesting in the mouth. Almost like grapefruit juice, including the bitter aftertaste.

The 2004 is golden yellow, more like an oaky Chardonnay. It is clearly off. It smells like honeydew melon rotting under a warm sun. And rubber bands. And a volatile element not unlike rubbing alcohol.

Because I am devoted, fully committed to the research program at the Lab, I stepped up to the altar of scientific sacrifice and drank some of the rotten juice. Just one of many sacrifices we make every day at Rational Denial.

It is surprisingly less offensive in the mouth. Flat and undifferentiated fruit and a bitter, slightly rancid, finish.

Side by side, it was obvious the wine stored in the often vacant, and so often uncooled and unheated, condo was well into the throes of madeirization. We knew this even before we'd opened the bottle. Sauvignon Blanc is not amber hued. Still, just to see, I put a glass of the cooked wine in the fridge. After a two hour interim, I tasted it again. The offensive nose had closed down significantly, not much to smell. The palate was still dull and flat. It wasn't good. But the flaws were no longer quite so glaring. It tasted more like wine at this point.

In fact, if I had no experience with this wine, and a burly, impatient waiter hovering over my shoulder, I might have hemmed a bit, unsure if it was truly off. I guess that's why they open the bottle at your table?

Next we'll try the same thing with the red. However, it's a mass-produced Merlot, so it may have to wait until we're really desperate at the Lab for something to do (my wine education clearly did not begin at home).

August 12, 2008

BFC #4: Bubbles Bourguinon!

Bottex was good, but the title reign was brief.

In the Brooklynguy Bubbledome, Anne and Arnaud Goisot's Cremant de Bourgogne NV was too much for the Sweet Pink from Bugey.

The Cremant comes from a tiny hamlet called St Bris les Vineux which lies between Auxerre and Chablis. The Goisots grow biodynamically, are fastidious vignerons and amazing wine-makers. Their dirt is less famous than their neighbors to the South, which means their wines are an incredible value. K&L Wines imports the sparkling wine themselves, so there's also no middleman. Retail price is an astonishing $15!

This sparkler is 100% Pinot Noir, a true Blanc de Noirs, made in the traditional method champenoise and disgorged by hand.

One of the reasons we're big fans at the Lab (besides that it tastes amazing) is this is really an education in a bottle. It has forced us to rethink most of our assumption about the role of Pinot Noir in the classic Champagne mix. Blind, we would have unanimously called this a Blanc de Blanc aged in stainless steel.

Here's the notes from the fight:

The nose is fairly closed. But on the palate, this is elegant and graceful. Dry, with crisp, pure fruit (reminiscent of a Chablis), a near perfect acid balance and a beautiful, briny chalkiness that builds quietly from the attack and then dominates the finish. It's not particularly complex, but it's seamless. If I'm scoring this against the other Cremants I've had, it's off the charts. It could compete easily against true Champagnes... if there was anything in its league at this price.

No contest. New champ.

August 11, 2008

Jefferson Loved Riesling [Roots 5]

Thomas Jefferson was a big Riesling fan. He stocked the cellars of the White House with it. Toured vineyards along the Rhine. Even recorded drinking a 60+ year old Hochhiem wine during a tour of Germany. He was known to be partial to wines from Schloss Johannisberg in the Rheingau. Alas, the long history of this illustrious producer includes an assault from Phylloxera and a replanting on Vitis labrusca rootstock.

But at Weingut Carl Schmitt-Wagner, the grapes are grown on own-rooted vines that are legitimate antiques, planted in 1896 in the blue Devonian slate on the steep slope of the Longuicher Maximiner Herrenberg vineyard above the Rhine.

The vineyards had long been in the possession of the Benedictine Convent of St. Maximin until Napoleon liberated them from their possession. The Schmitt-Wagner family took over the secularized estate in the early 1800s and have produced wines from the 9 acre parcel up to the present.

Their Kabinett level Riesling is certainly one of the best values from the Levenberg List of own-rooted vineyards. It's usually priced around $20. Even for a 2002 vintage, I recently found at K&L Wines.

A vibrant, honeyed nose with classic burnt rubber, goût petrol. White flowers and tangerine zest finish the bouquet. This wine has beautiful balance and integration. Limestone-laced Fuji apple with a nervy acid (Clementines) carries into a honeyed, chalky finish.

As with the own-rooted Cabernet Franc we tasted recently, I'm struck by the purity and (unbelievable) integration of this wine. The mineral and fruit elements are beautifully intertwined, creating a holistic experience of the terroir. It's tougher to break these wines down into individual parts. Their beauty seems to rest in their sum.

August 7, 2008

[Delayed] Marketing Genius

This is the image we probably should have used for yesterday's post about the famed Sweaty T-shirt Experiment. But doing so might have demonstrated questionable taste, as well as undermining the "pure science" ideals of the Lab.

Or not.

(image: © Les3photo8 | )

August 6, 2008

Science/Wine is Sexy

In 1995, Swiss scientist, Dr Claus Wedekind, conducted a study that's a favorite here at the Lab. Known colloquially as the "Sweaty T-shirt Experiment", Wedekind had men abstain from soap and deodorant and wear the same t-shirt to bed for 2 nights. The shirts were then boxed and put before a group of women. Each was asked to rate the shirts' odor for "sexiness," "pleasantness," and "intensity of smell." Wedekind found that women expressed clear olfactory preference for men with divergent major histocompatibility complexes (MHC). In other words, women found a man sexy if his immune systems was unlike her own. Apparrently, this is DNA's none too subtle way of providing for offspring with expanded capacity for survival.

Interestingly, woman on "the Pill", a form of contraception that fools the body into thinking it's already pregnant, expressed a preference for MHC that was most like to their own. The speculative theory being that if you are already pregnant, you retreat to the safety of your own tribe. But if half of all marriages fail, perhaps the ubiquity of this form of birth control is an underlying cause? Do your own flow charts.

For what it's worth, this preference for divergent MHC has also been observed in mice and fish.

Clearly, this is an easy, try-at-home experiment. And to help with that, we'd recommend a newcomer. Phifer-Pavitt's Date Night Cabernet Sauvignon 2005. The launch vintage.

Our first hypothesis was that Date Night would be low-grade plonk with a gimmicky marketing plan. Boy oh boy, were we wrong. Of course, when we were formulating our notion, we didn't know the wine is only available via mailing list and costs $75!

Date Night is a delicious, subtle and focused California Cab destined for cult celebrity. The nose is ganache and cherry with a swirling, nutty earthiness; with a little air, a rich, floral perfume drifted in. There's some oak (65% new French), but it steps elegantly. The wine has a beautiful, unexpectedly linear palate. Red fruits, with black cherry dominating, highlight the attack. An earthy, sensual mid-palate builds into chewy tannins with a slightly herbal expression of anise and black tea. And a chalky chocolate finish arrives and lingers long enough to revive long dormant memories of your first birthday cake.

Grapes were sourced from a single block, organically farmed and hand-picked. Vinification is low-intervention using only wild yeasts. No fining, lightly filtered.

If your date is good enough to stand up to this Red, it probably should end at a little chapel in Reno.

(t-credit: © Stocksnapper |

August 4, 2008

An Ode to Brooklynguy

DATELINE: Bubbledome. All good things must come to an end. So today is both a sad and happy one at the Lab. Today we pass a torch at the Bubbledome. A crew has been working well into the night to take down the massive McDuff Food and Wine Trail sign, to replace it with an equally massive Brooklynguy sign.

Le roi est mort! Vive le roi!

Welcome to the Brooklynguy Bubbledome.

Okay, other than living up to the Lab's socialistic ideals of wealth-sharing (we are impractical scientists, after all) and the obvious benefits of alliteration, we wanted to honor another of our favorite wine writers with a term on the marquee.

For me, Brooklynguy is the anti-Jay McInerney. Which is to say he writes with straightforward humility and approachable clarity. He doesn't drop the names of famous winemakers he's had dinner with. And if he did, he wouldn't tell you what celebrity they most resemble. His stories, recipes and tasting notes are penned with an infectious enthusiasm that make you want to eat what he's eating and drink what he's drinking. He also offers up a regular Friday review of sparkling wines that make his association with the Bubbledome seem very appropriate.

At least that's our hope, since we didn't bother to ask permission about this.

(stadium: © Predrag Novakovic | )