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.