June 30, 2008

It's Our Anniversary!

The Lab at Rational Denial will pause its research efforts today to commemorate our first anniversary. We launched this enterprise way back on May 30. Feels like ages ago. If you want to relive the moment, click here.

Just look what we've accomplished in that span! Okay... sure, we haven't built a school, or adopted an African, or even saved any lives. But we have put away some decent wine in a thoughtful manner. And that counts as success here at the Lab.

To celebrate the big event, I've decided to open something a little special. Philipponnat's NV Champagne Cuvée 1522 (Hi-Time Wine Cellars, Costa Mesa, $68). Philipponnat is a Grand Marque Champagne, meaning they belong to a snooty, marketing organization founded in the later half of the 19th Century, the Syndicat de Grandes Marques. If you've been sued for calling your mustard, Spanish wine or pet dog "Champagne", it was them. But Philipponnat is known for progressive behavior and for producing the oldest single-vineyard, single-vintage wine in the region, the Clos de Goisses.

The 1522 is Extra Brut which means it includes very low levels of dosage. Dosage is the sugary elixir added to Champagne after it has been disgorged. The wine shop where I bought the bottle claims it is Brut nature, or zero dosage. Guess we will never know (unless we ask Peter Liem). The back label says the bottle was disgorged in September 2001, but nothing about the dosage. The Philipponnat website does point out the 1522 is, "A stunning match with seashells, caviar and sushi."

I don't know about seashells, but it is stunning Champagne. Yeasty bread dough, a honeyed sweetness, and a hint dried pineapple. Racy acid on the attack, ripe Granny Smith apple fruit and a soothing mineralité on the finish. Very dry, but not austere. The finish lingers so long, I'm probably still tasting it even as you're reading this. It would be great with sushi.

I'm thinking about canceling the party, sending everyone back to work. Keep this for myself.

(image: © Miflippo | Dreamstime.com)

June 27, 2008

Bubbledome #1: A Winner by Knockout!

One would expect the French to dominate these events. Champagne is, after all, the sparkling wine equivalent of the US Basketball Dream Team (Barcelona, not Athens). But our first champion in the Bubbledome hails from Italy. The non-vintage Ferrari Brut (no relation to the fancy cars) was the hands down winner against the 2005 Pétillant Naturel from Puzelat.

So it's a win for Italy out of the gate. But Giulio Ferrari was inspired by France. When he founded his winery in 1902, he actually planted cuttings originally from Champagne. He chose to put them in the nearly Alpen regions outside Trento (north of Verona) because the soil matched that of the famed French region.

Thierry Puzelat is a celebrated grower based in the Eastern stretches of the Loire Valley. He has a cult following amongst aficionados of "natural wines". (Lab note: there are subtle differences between "organic," a term for vegetables, "natural," which usually involves some form of organic farming and non-interventionist winemaking, and "biodynamic," which is kind of natural+plus. We will will try to illuminate the distinctions in a future report. And if anyone knows of a succinct explanation somewhere we'd love to know about it.). A writer who's tasting notes I always enjoy, Brooklynguy, recently wrote up several of Puzelat's wines with an enthusiasm that makes you want to drink them.

Puzelat's sparkler is made from Chenin Blanc in a méthode ancestrale, meaning the secondary fermentation (where the bubbles are produced) happens without liqueur de tirage (additional of sugar) or additional yeast. Fermentation, and therefore bubble production, simply stops when the yeast in the bottle is exhausted. Sparkling wines made in this manner are sometimes not so bubbly.

But this one had a fair amount of fizz. And an unexpected nose, faint hints of lanolin and Fuji apple and something strange and pleasant that I could only describe as caramelized rubber bands (and not at all like cork taint, promise). In the mouth, it falls fairly flat. Green apple (and you scoffed at our palate training exercise) with some faint mineral tones on the finish.

So the Puzelat wasn't bad, but it was out-classed by the Brut from Trento.

The Ferrari started out strong with a really interesting nose of doughy, buttery French toast and spiced apples. It continued to be impressive on the palate. Golden Delicious apple (again the palate training pays dividends!) with a lovely toffee undertone. Great acid balance and a sexy, if too brief, finish that was less chalk and maybe more like a white nougat. Hard to be precise because the delights of the finish are more about texture than flavor. Overall, this wine leaves a deep impression of Autumn with its buttery spices, crisp apples and falling leaves. I'm buying another bottle to drink in October.

This one could hold onto the champion's belt for a while.

June 26, 2008

Big News from the Bubbledome

One of the Lab staff recently pointed out that she felt we were missing an important commercial opportunity. I replied that we were a scientific research lab, unmotivated by petty, material concerns. Then I thought about it and asked her what she had in mind. Given the inevitable success of our Bubbledome competitions, the enormous (likely) fan base and the inestimable value of electronic real estate, she thought we should sell naming rights for the stadium. What a great idea! She also thought we should make tiny little boxing gloves to tape on the bottles. I guess it's true lightning doesn't strike twice.

The negotiations for the sale of the naming rights are likely to be protracted. How do you value "priceless?" So until we have the details worked out, we thought we'd offer the rights free-of-charge to some our favorite wine writers on the Web.

First up: McDuff's Food & Wine Trail penned by Philadelphian David McDuff, who was kind enough to offer the Lab it's first public encouragement (Thanks David!). McDuff is a highly knowledgeable wine connoisseur and a devoted foodie. His detailed accounts of treks to vintners and highly perceptive tasting notes are a valuable aid to the Lab's research.

So without additional ado, the Lab is excited to announce our inaugural match.


Thierry Puzelat Vin P
étillant Naturel, 2005, Touraine, France ($18 at Chambers Street Wines, Manhattan)


Ferrari Brut Spumante, NV, Trento, Italy ($20 at K&L Wines, Hollywood)

Fight results tomorrow...

(Image credit: © Ryan Gerdts | Dreamstime.com)

June 25, 2008

Welcome to the Bubbledome

To break up the often dreary monotony of our experimental efforts and to reward the discipline and dedication of the Lab staff, I've decided to let some of the boys work off their excess testosterone with a semi-regular competition. But don't be fooled by the fun, sexy, and super-hipness of this. These competitions, like all (some would argue less than that) our other work at the Lab, will have a serious purpose as well.

Because our goal is both simple and bold. We aim to find the best, reasonably priced sparkling wine in the entire world. Bottle versus bottle, in a no-holds barred, ladder-style competition. The current champion holds the belt until defeated.

The rules are straightforward, if somewhat arbitrary. I prefer blanc de blancs from Champagne, so they will have a clear advantage. But anything that has undergone a secondary fermentation in the bottle can compete. Fair is fair, so the competition will be handicapped, points being awarded for perceived value. And extra points awarded for anything under $15 that doesn't totally suck. Similarly, anything costing more than $59 will be immediately disqualified. Unless someone happens to brings the bottle to a dinner party and we don't get around to opening it on the night. Or if it comes in a gift basket from my agent.

Oh, there's one more rule. And this last one is important. If we feel a producer has devoted an excessive amount of operating expense to advertising, then their bottle cannot compete in the B-Dome. If you know a few things about Champagne, you may be thinking to yourself, "This will rule out many of the Grand Marques champagnes, like Moet & Chandon, Louis Roederer and Veuve Clicquot." And if we could read minds (and maybe we can), we'd smile and say aloud: "Exactly. Who wants to drink really expensive lifestyle-accessories?"

We certainly don't.

The Bubbledome will opens for competition in the next couple days. Be sure to tune in.

(The image is a chair I made from the cage -- the wire thing that's wrapped around a Champagne cork -- of a bottle of Terre de Vertus from Larmandier-Bernier, a genius, biodynamic producer in the village of Vertus in Champagne. Ever notice how often genius and biodynamic go together? Coincidence? The TdV would have kicked major butt in the Bubbledome.)

June 24, 2008

Palate Training #1: Apples

We drink quite a bit of Champagne at the Lab. Also Cava, Proseco, Bugey Cerdon, anything with bubbles really. But mostly we drink Champagne. The tasting notes for Champagnes, especially the blanc de blancs that we favor, often include: Apples. "Taste like apples...," "Ripe apple flavors...," "Braeburn apple and citrus..." And etc.

I've also noted that Chardonnay (not uncoincidentally since blanc de blancs means made entirely with Chardonnay grapes) is often described in various ways that can be reduced to "applely". Same is true for Riesling. We drink quite a bit of Chardonnay and Riesling. Apple is also sometimes used to describe Pinot Grigio. And old Tokay is supposed to taste like ripe apples. We don't drink as much of these. But the point remains. A lot of good wine is described as tasting like apple. And a big part of the fun in drinking wine is coming up with compelling and accurate metaphors to describe what you're tasting.

So we thought it might be a useful exercise to actually taste
apples. We also thought it might be good to give our livers a break. So we went to Whole Foods and bought one of each of the following: Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Braeburn, Fuji and Granny Smith.

Here's the notes:

Red Delicious: Classic apple. Crisp. Not overbearing sweetness. In a way, if this were a wine, I would have said the acid and the sugar weren't well integrated. Each stood out a little too distinctly.

Golden Delicious: Medium acid with more sweet that the Red. If you had a spectrum of apple and peach, this would be the last apple on the peach side.

Braeburn: Low acid and medium sweet, a slightly metallic tinge on the finish.

Fuji: This is the winner of the tasting for me. Perfect balance of sweet and acid, and with a hint of cherry or red cassis tang.

Granny Smith: Tart, almost citrusy. Bright acid and zingy sweet. This is exactly the "apple" of a dry Chenin Blanc I drank recently.

This may seem a silly exercise. No doubt, it is. But paying this much attention to the nuance and distinctions of five different apple varieties
will sharpen your palate. And it's a fun, healthy exercise to do at home.

Next palate training? We're thinking about meeting at the cheese counter to smell marzipan, brie rind and blue cheese...

June 20, 2008

Some Grist about Grapes

This is a slight departure from the "true mission" of the Lab. These reports are intended to enlighten and educate. We are not in the business of giving scores or choosing favorites (except in the yet-to-be-announced category of BUBBLEDOME, where we will, in fact, make a very subjective effort to find our favorite sparkling wine). We are certainly not here to tear anybody down.

But as a by-product of our recent experiment with the Parducci Sustainable Red 2005, we made a little game of guessing the varietal (which kinds of grapes were used to make the wine) as the bottle says only Red Wine. I guessed Petite Syrah, Merlot and Viognier. I couldn't really detect the Viogner, but I've noticed it's often used as a blending grape and I thought this made my guess sound more sophisticated. My wife guessed, "You are such a dork. Seriously."

To see who had won, I typed in the web address printed on the back of the bottle. It re-directed me to the main page of the Mendocino Wine Company. They have awarded themselves a ribbon for being the first carbon-neutral winery. On the surface of it, they seem to be doing good things: using solar power and recycled materials, employing sustainable farming practices, and swapping out old, incandescent bulbs. But they are also buying carbon credits. I don't understand this. I get that companies should focus on core competencies (apparently, like polluting) and that out-sourcing things like planting trees allows for improved economies of scale. But I still don't get carbon credits. Can I buy sobriety credits? Say I go out to a boozy dinner and get pulled over on the way home. If I've pre-arranged to buy sober-credits from my kids who are too young to drink, can I keep swerving my way down the road? You can well imagine, there are some guys at the Lab who think this would be a terrific idea.

Anyway... you're probably wondering who won our little "guess the grape challenge." So I'll tell you: No one!

There is exactly zero mention of Sustainable Red at the smugly green Mendocino Wine Company website. Not in the Our Wines section. Not in the Buy Our Wines section. Zip. Nada. If you were going to produce self-congratulatory wines to celebrate your carbon-neutrality (there is also a white version: Sustainable White) and you went so far as to register a product-specific domain for each (www.sustainablered.com & www.sustainablewhite.com) wouldn't you at least have some mention about the actual wines on the website?

My wife says this is proof she won.

June 19, 2008

Finding Fault 1.2: The History of Heat

You may remember that yesterday, the Lab tasted two bottles of inexpensive red table wine. One had been cooked inside a hot car until the cork had almost pushed itself out of the bottle. The other was stored in a wine fridge set at 55°.

I tasted these two again today. There was little difference. The cooked one was still better, although the other had benefited marginally from some time in the air.

Should we take from this that some exposure to heat might be good for young wine? Just enough to hasten the aging process without oxidizing the bottle into vinegar? Good questions.

I am, by training, a historian. I even
almost finished my Ph.D. Some of my fascinatingly esoteric work on the semiotics of liberty is actually available online. You are no doubt wondering, why am I delving into my curriculum vitae? Because when in doubt, I go to my roots.

And my roots are research (mostly on wikipedia), and they yielded some interesting results.

The first is related to the myth of the ideal temperature of 55° (which is 13° Celsius). This guy, who apparently managed to finish his Ph.D., surmises that, "the 13°C temperature makes historical sense since wine storage in France is typically in caves and the natural underground temperature is around 13°C." In other words, not science of the sort we run here at the Lab, but tradition and history are the primary drivers behind 55°.

The second tid-bit (a technical term for historians) is related to Madeira, a fortified wine that was a favorite of both pirates and early Americans. This strange elixir was crafted on Madeira, a Portuguese island off the North African coast. The English King exempted the eponymous brew from the Navigation Acts of 1651 which limited American imports to mostly British goods. Since you probably can't name a decent English wine, Madeira was available without real competition in Colonial America, and so became a wildly popular way to get drunk. As a still wine, Madeira wasn't very good by most accounts. But when a cask was dosed with brandy as a preservative and sailed through the Tropics, Madeira evolved into something special. In fact, Madeira was not considered fully matured until it had made a voyage, preferably two, around the world. Eventually, the Madierianese (made that up, don't know what folks from Madeira are really called) figured out that heat and oxygenation were the key factors involved, and cleverly devised a way to heat and stir their product in a sort of wine-making greenhouse called an estufa. And thereby saved a lot on travel expense.

So clearly, heat can be beneficial in the right circumstances. Without further research, the Lab feels it would be irresponsible to make formal recommendations based on this single, idiosyncratic study. But if you find yourself with an extra bottle of inexpensive, not-great, too green wine, maybe take it for a drive in the sun, give it a little heat. Couldn't hurt.

(image: © James Steidl | Dreamstime.com)

June 18, 2008

Finding Fault #1: Cooked?

It's generally agreed that wine should be stored between 55 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Perhaps not coincidentally, if you dug a deep hole in your backyard, this is the same temperature you would likely find at the bottom of it. It's why we put wine in cellars.

Deep in the cool ground is one thing. Excessive exposure to heat is another altogether. According to wikipedia, my new source for everything, "Wines that are stored at temperatures greatly higher than [55 degrees] will experience an increased aging rate." We call this "cooked." Cooked wines can oxidize, lose taste, color and aroma. We call this "flattening."

It is also the most widespread and common fault in wine (again according to wikipedia). So we at the Lab, decided to "cook" a bottle to see what happens.

We started with two bottles of identical wine. Something called Sustainable Red from Parducci (2005) that I bought at Whole Foods for $10/ea (which means you can probably find it for $6 somewhere else). The folks at the Mendocino Wine Co who own Parducci are pretty smug about their greenness, they claim to be the first carbon-neutral winery. As I drive a Prius hybrid, I'm happy to be working with them.

It was in the mid-80s in LA yesterday, hotter still inside my car which I intentionally parked in the sun, leaving one of the Sustainables inside. The other, I put in my 55 degree wine fridge. After 90 minutes, the cork on the bottle had actually burst through the seal. That's an undoctored photo of the unadulterated pushed-cork to the right. I think if I'd let it go another 30 minutes, I would've spent the afternoon looking for seat covers.

After the exposure, I put both bottles in the fridge. The real fridge, not the wine one. And let them both get cold. An hour before opening, I took them out of the fridge to warm back up to something closer to room temperature. I opened both bottles and let them breath in the bottle for 30 minutes. I marked one of the bottles with a black dot, and put a rubber band on the stem of a wine glass. I then asked my wife to pour a glass from each bottle, and make a note of which bottle went into which glass. As I had failed to tell her that I spent my day driving around with an inexpensive bottle of red wine riding shotgun, she had no idea what we were doing. This way, we both managed to taste "blind."

Up first, no rubber band: Jammy notes on the nose with some pleasant oakiness. Ripe plum and bright red fruits. A drying, tannin finish with an interesting, almost chalky texture on the tongue. My wife loved this. And I thought it was pretty good.

Rubber band was next: Herbaceous nose, green cedar and something astringent. In the mouth, pretty indifferent, uncomplex stuff. But the finish was exceptionally bitter. Actually made my wife gag a little.

My wife looked at me crossly, and held up the offensive glass. "What did you do to this?" I told her I cooked it. Showed her the pictures. She nodded at me in the motherly, patronizing way that I've seen her use with the kids when they do things like jam frozen peas up their nose.

"So which one had the black dot?" I asked. She turned over the card where she had written her key, and made a face.

We were both VERY shocked to discover the wine we both preferred had been my motoring partner. The bitter wine that made my wife choke was, it turns out, the one from the pristine conditions of the cellar.

Conclusions? First, I'd say the experiment isn't over. I'm putting both bottles back in the fridge and plan to taste them -- again blind -- tomorrow. Second, it may be that "an increased aging rate" is a good thing for an inexpensive, young-to-the-point-of-green, wine to endure. I'm not advocating that you leave cheap wine in the sun. Then again, if you only paid $4.99 for it. Why not?

June 17, 2008

Finding Fault

Cork taint, brett, cooked, lightstruck, there's a lot of things that can go wrong with wine. Ladybugs in the vines sometimes get pressed with the grapes, and this can make the wine taste like rancid peanut butter or cat pee. Too much time on the lees (the leaves, stems and skins which are often left in contact with the grape juice as a normal part of wine-making) can produce mercaptans. Mercaptans are what the gas company adds to natural gas so it stinks. Good for avoiding blowing yourself up; not good for wine. Wine is a living thing, breathing and evolving. That's part of the beauty of it. And, unfortunately, flaws are sometimes part of the process.

Some "flaws" are even desirable. Brettanomyces, for instance, often called "brett" by wine geeks, is a strain of yeast that can make wine taste like band-aids. But at lower-levels, it can impart an aged character to a young wine; some think it adds depth and complexity. I recently had a bottle of red that someone noted smelled of equine urine; very scientifically described, I thought. With equal biological precision, I said, "Yeah, cool, huh?" I now realize we were wankering around about a bottle of badly brett tainted wine. I've had another equally piss-y bottle from the same producer. Brett seems to be their thing. It's possible they're encouraging the flaw on purpose. More likely, they're too cheap to buy new barrels. Brett thrives in the oak used to age wine before bottling.

And then there's the all-inclusive category for flawed wine: "corked." Which I've always thought sounds appropriately like what you'd really like to say (hint: starts with an "f"). Sometimes "corked" actually means "corked," meaning contaminated with TCA, a mold that grows on cork treated with chlorine bleach. But more often "corked" means oxidized, or cooked, or f----ed up in other ways you're not quite sure about and would need an advanced degree in organic chemistry to understand.

For me, there's nothing worse than ordering a nice red at a restaurant, tasting it and then wondering, "Is this off?" And is it? If some wine-makers encourage flaws as part of their artistry, what counts as "off?" TCA is detectable at levels around 9 parts per trillion, which is, by definition, next to nothing. And we all have different thresholds for detection. I may sense it at 9, but you may need 11 parts to notice. So we sit there, eye-corking the sommelier, drinking wine that smells like wet newspaper.

Clearly, this is a category that calls for rigorous investigation. Or would be if (again!) I had bothered to get that advanced degree in chemistry. But there are a few experiments worth conducting that fall within the competencies of the Lab.

I happen to have one underway now. Results later in the week.

(image credit: © Andre Nantel | Dreamstime.com)

June 16, 2008

Why the Loire?

Anyone reading these meandering musings might wonder: Why so many wines from the Loire Valley?

I like the principal grapes of the Loire Valley's 63 different appellations: Sauvignon Blanc, Melon de Bourgogne, Cabernet Franc, Gamay. In particular, I like Chenin Blanc. It ages gracefully, often has a beautiful, chalky mineralness, and makes beautiful stickies (dessert wines).

The Loire has some of the best terroir in France, named vineyards like the Clos Baudoin and the Clos de la Coulée de Serrant, which have been famous for centuries. And brilliant vignerons and winemakers: Jo Pithon, Nicolas Joly, Marc Angeli, Guy Bossard, Francois Chidaine, Didier Dagueneau, Pierre and Catherine Breton, Edmond Vatan and Gérard Boulay to name a scant few, many of whom converted to biodynamic viticulture a long time ago. And there's also great houses with storied histories, like Huët, Foreau and Baumard.

But the main reason? Wines from the Loire are cheap. If these wines were produced in Bordeaux or Burgundy, I couldn't afford them. These are world-class wines of incredible value. The Loire Valley probably needs to fire it's PR and marketing people. But until they do, it remains one of my favorite places to drink.

June 13, 2008

Dirt Search #1: The Battle in Nouy

This is rare opportunity. Two wines. Two winemakers. Same dirt. And celebrated dirt at that. The Clos Baudoin (clos, by the way, means the vineyard is surrounded by a wall) is an ancient vineyard in the Nouy Valley in Vouvray, and widely regarded as one of the best terroirs in the Loire. Until recently, the vineyard was owned by the descendants of Polish royalty. But in 2002, François Chidaine, a young and brilliant winemaker from across the valley in Montlouis, took over maintenance of the vineyards and production of the wines from Prince Poniatowski. In 2007, Chidaine took over the Clos Baudoin completely.

What a contest! In one corner, Chidaine, who makes brilliant wines. I've never had a bad one. And some -- like the off-dry 2005 Montlouis Les Tuffeaux -- verge on sublime. And by the 2006 vintage, Chidaine had fully converted the Clos Baudoin to biodynamic viticulture and resurrected the vineyard from a state of disrepair. Unfortunately, in the other corner, the Prince's 2001, was a product of that disrepair. Chidaine found himself in a position to take over the Clos Baudoin in some measure because the Prince was 80 years old, but also because his last vineyard manager had been unimpressive and the vines were diminished. The wines from the late 90s up to the final vintage, the 2001, are generally regarded as sub-par. So it isn't really a fair fight. But that doesn't matter, because we are looking past the wine-making, past the vine-pruning and seeking out the deeper mysteries of Clos Baudoin terroir that surely lurk in these two bottles.

First in the ring: The Prince.
Straw colored. On the nose, quince, dry grass and an oddly pleasant petro-chemical smell that seemed to rise and fade and return over time. In the mouth, this drinks like a wine with interesting parts that never really come together. Crisp, if indifferent, pear, an odd spice note (cumin?) and then the acid seems to throw in the towel and flee before a watery, mineral finish. Like gravel juice if there were such a thing.

Then Chidaine. Same straw color. Much bigger, brighter nose. Honey, clover, pear skins and marzipan. Fresh on the attack, with pear and white pepper, followed by a sweet, limestone finish. A little more residual sugar in this, but still dry. Beautifully integrated for a young Chenin. Be nice to have a cellar full of this one.

Very different wines, but quite clearly cousins. There is an unmistakable common character to them, but I would have trouble articulating the relationship with any specificity. Both do seem to have that same dilutive, gravel juice pause before the finish. Though in the Chidaine it is much shallower. And there does seem to be something of the Prince's petro-chemical aroma (as a child, I loved the smell of gasoline, which explains much) in the mineral finish of Chidaine's wine. Gravel juice and gasoline? Are these the characters that make this patch of dirt so famous? I doubt it. I know from reviews that the chemical smell was cited as indication of the Prince's decline, and so, also, of Chidaine's rise in Vouvray.

So where is the terroir? Surely it's there in that shared, cousinly character. But it isn't something obvious. Nor is it something precise and specific. Like Einstein's childhood fascination with a compass, always turning to the polar North, "Something deeply hidden has to be behind things."

Chidaine's 2006 Clos Baudoin was $26. The Prince's 2001 Clos Baudoin was $19
. I got them both at K&L Wines in Hollywood.

June 11, 2008

A Search for Dirt

A definition (from the website www.terroir-france.com):

A " terroir " is a group of vineyards (or even vines) from the same region, belonging to a specific appellation, and sharing the same type of soil, weather conditions, grapes and wine making savoir-faire, which contribute to give its specific personality to the wine.

So that wonderfully ephemeral and elusive component of wine, that particular expression of a precise time (vintage) and place (vineyard) that wine-geeks seek, that magic combination of grape, sun, soil and rain, that thing called terroir, could be boiled down to this simple observation: "My mud tastes better than your mud."

Or so it seems to me. And I'm no cynic. I believe in terroir. I've seen it with my own eyes.
I can't say I can always find it, even when it's there. But I believe. Terroir is a vague and mysterious thing and I possess only a vague and mysterious idea of what it is exactly. But I believe.

My very dear friend Mike Weersing (shown here in his own particular mud with his own particular pig in a photo I have unabashedly stolen from his winery's website), first explained the magic of terroir to me while we sat before 5 or 6 unlabeled wines in a gite near Beaune in Burgundy. I had no idea at the time that the education imparted to me on that evening would be so valuable. I also had no idea at the time that I wouldn't get to taste that many great Pinots at one time ever again. But we drank them, and Mike told me about the vineyards where they came from and what I should be looking for in the glass. And in this way, I was initiated into this strange culte à mystère.

I have in mind more than a few experiments designed to suss out this magic mud. And the first will be Friday's feature, an old-fashioned mud-wrestle: The Prince versus The Genius.

June 10, 2008

Control: Addendum

Last night, I noticed the Huët was still in the fridge. So I pulled the cork and drained the remainder of the bottle into a glass. Tasted better than I remember on any prior occasion and showed no recognizable deterioration from the long exposure to air. So I handed the glass to my wife. She tried it (it should be noted she has a very good palate), and said she thought it was terrific. I believe the exact quote was: "I'd gladly drink more of this!" I then told her I opened the bottle 9 days ago. "You must be joking?"

As you know, I wasn't.

Anecdotal Evidence

Last Friday, we had dinner at a friend's house and I brought over a Muscadet from a biodynamic producer from the Loire Valley. Guy Bossard's Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine Expression d'Orthogneiss from 2005.

Muscadet is made from Melon de Bourgogne, historically used to produce eau de vie, a distilled spirit popular in 19th century Holland, and, therefore, treated with some disdain by very serious drinkers of only very serious wines. But I'm not very serious, and I love it. Originally grown in Burgundy (hence the name), the Melon de Bourgogne became dominant in the western Loire Valley after a hard freeze in 1709 killed most of the region's other vines. In 1937, the official Muscadet appellation was established. Long considered a "minor" grape, recent DNA research has established that the Melon de Bourgogne is actually a close cousin of Chardonnay. Both descend from cross-breeding between an ancient Pinot Noir varietal and the Gouais Blanc, an antique white grape long ago deemed too mediocre for use in serious wine (see The New York Times, but doing so may require subscription).

In spite of this heritage, when we drank Bossard's Muscadet on Friday, I found it disappointing. It wasn't bad. Clean and balanced, with good acidity and a nice mineral finish. There was nothing not to like. But, for me, it lacked depth and complexity. It didn't seem to express any individual character; in spite of the fact that Bossard makes three different Muscadets, one for each sub-soil (orthogneiss, gneiss and granite) extant on his vineyard property. I thought the wine was just okay. So I had a glass, put the uncorked bottle in the fridge and switched to beer.

My friend sent me a text on Sunday night. "Found that bottle of white you left in the fridge. Drank it with dinner. It was delicious!"

Scientifically, we cannot draw conclusions from the subjective appraisals of two different tasters. But it did make me wonder... Was it better? Had Bossard's Muscadet improved with two days in the air? Previously (see post), I had speculated that the chemical composition of Chenin Blanc might have something to do with the ability of certain Loire Valley white wines to improve with decanting and significant time exposed to air. But perhaps I've focused on the wrong variable? Perhaps this trait has
less to do with grape varietal, and more to do with biodyamic farming, or the micro-climates and soils of the Loire Valley?

Several good experiments come to mind to test this evolving hypothesis. I do have a few more bottles of Bossard's Muscadet to test with decanting and air. I need to find a good biodynamically produced white from somewhere outside the Loire Valley to use as a negative control. As luck would have it... I have one or two of those too.

But next up... Something ELSE from the Loire. Probably...

June 8, 2008


At the same time that I opened Joly's Les Clos Sacrés (see prior 5 posts), I opened another biodynamic Loire Valley wine, a 2006 Vouvray (Le Haut Lieu/sec) from Domaine Huët. In all candor, I did this more out of need for wine than for any regard to the Scientific Method. Let's face it, spreading out a single bottle over five days is less than ideal. Nevertheless, the Vouvray does provide a useful negative control (ed. note: this links to a wikipedia article on "Scientific Control" which has this disclaimer, "All or part of this article may be confusing or unclear." It should be noted that this is also true of this entry). I didn't decant the Huët, recorked the bottle after each pour and only tasted on odd days. I'm also not entirely sure what variables I was testing the Joly for, so this is an imprecise application of control. Probably a good idea to get used to that sort of thing with me.

Huët is one of the most prolific producers in the Loire and this wine is from the original vineyard established by Victor Huët in the 1920s. It was Nicolas Joly himself who convinced Victor's son, Gaston Huët, to convert the winery to biodynamic practices in the late 1980s.

This bottle is also from the Wine House. It was $29.

These are my tasting notes over the same five days.

DAY 1:
This is a sprightly Chenin Blanc. Lemon zest, lychee and candlewax on the nose. Lively, honeyed citrus, bright acid and well integrated minerality. Easy and approachable, if nothing fancy.

DAY 3: A more perfumed nose of waxy, white flowers and clover honey. This is still a plain vanilla Chenin, but drinks with somewhat more structure now. A discernible linear progression of citrus on the attack, an unfocused orchard fruit mid-palate and a sweet mineral finish. It's given up some of its racy acid, but is more interesting than when first opened.

DAY 5: Almost smells like Jolly Rancher apple candy with some waxy honeysuckle. Still bright in the mouth, pear and lemon with a sweet limestone kick on the finish.

I wasn't that impressed at first, but on day 5... I'd buy this again. Ironic?

June 6, 2008

I Feel Fine : Joly, Day 5

Day 5: 4:34PM. Wet concrete and toffee. And still some volatile alcohol smells. On the palate, sweeter than before, with dried apricot and diluted pear. Less disjointed. And again that long, mineral, slightly metallic finish. Still fresh, building in power even. Bigger, rounder mouthfeel today.

Conclusions: I don't think there's any question that this wine changed expression over the course of 5 days. And it certainly held up against oxygenation. I would also make the subjective argument that Les Clos Sacrés improved over the period. And while it requires a level of discipline that I generally lack, I'm convinced enough by the results that I will make every effort to vigorously decant and give ample air time to my small, vertical collection of Clos de la Coulee de Serrant (pictured above) when I open them.

But there remains one, perhaps singular, problem to consider. Sure, this Les Clos
Sacrés improved. But it wasn't very good to begin with. It was interesting. But not great. And, I suspect, flawed. To people who don't like them, Joly is often defended as making "Old World" wines. But I love Old World wines. And when they're good, I Iove Joly's wines; they can be sublime. But far too often Joly's wines are flawed. Not massively (though I have had a few that were undrinkable, perhaps even "imbuvable") and not always irredeemably, but flawed enough that the character of the fruit is compromised. And therefore, it seems to me, the expression of terroir that Joly and his fans prize (myself among them) is also compromised.

I had a look at the tasting notes for Les Clos
Sacrés on CellarTracker. There were seven notes, commencing in September of 2005 and the most recent coming from April of this year. If you read with a predisposition to find flaws, you could imagine that 3 of the 7 bottles were off. They are variously described as, "tainted by the strong smell of petroleum," "coppery/slight chemical elements" and less ambiguously, "a losing number in the Joly lottery."

As a thought experiment, I think we could try to imagine that Rudolf Steiner might possibly accept the use of a small amount of sulfur dioxide to keep wine free of bacterial taint. It might keep me from looking elsewhere for sublime expression of Loire Valley Chenin Blanc.

June 5, 2008

All The World Is Joly, Day 4

Okay, so I've noticed with several bottles in the past that Chenin Blancs really hold up over time. And this one is proving no exception. I'm not sure they all improve this way with all this air and time, but it does make you wonder whether there might not be something in the chemical composition of Chenin that allows it to weather sustained oxygen exposure.

Note to self: An advanced degree in chemistry could be helpful.

Day 4: 6:12PM. Nose has gone backward. Less sherry, but still oxidative; can't help but wonder if this volatility is a flaw (from any of a number of species of acetic acid bacteria that survived the sulfur dioxide-free winemaking)? In the mouth, there is real sweetness now, with an interesting metallic undercurrent... canned pears with hints of caramel. In spite of the sensation of sweetness, this remains very dry throughout, particularly on the mineral finish. You could certainly argue this is a strange expression of Chenin Blanc, but you cannot say it's fading. It remains brightly weird.

Day 5 and the end of the experiment coming up...

June 4, 2008

Still Joly, Day 3

Day 3: 5:58 PM. The sherry notes are fading, giving way to fig, lanolin and toffee. There's still a marked sherry quality on the palate, but it's commingled with caramelized Anjou pear and sharp limestone. This is still fresh and lively. Still weird. The wine really does seem to be changing expression and building force as time passes.

You can see in the photo the color is much deeper, more coppery, than what you'd typically expect from Chenin Blanc. Probably should have used this photo yesterday when I first mentioned the color of the wine...

Okay, spent some more time surfing the web between drinks. And today discovered that Jamie Goode, a noted British wine journalist, has already done a version of this experiment. I suppose I'm now reduced to an exercise in scientific peer review. But with half a decanter of freaky Chenin Blanc still to drink, I will definitely kick on to see if we can replicate Jamie Goode's results.

Already, it is interesting to note that my day 2 (yesterday) looks remarkably like Goode's day 3. It should be noted that he is drinking better wine than I am, the Coulee de Serrant (the top of the line Joly wine), from the remarkable 2002 vintage. I also find it worth noting that both wines went through a "fino sherry" chapter in their decanted evolution.

By the way, "imbuvable" means poisonous (from yesterday). I looked it up.

Day 4 still to come (can you feel the suspense?)...

June 3, 2008

Joly, Day 2

Day 2: 5:49 PM. Oxidative nose with distinct sherry overtones. And weird. There's a faint caramelized fruit smell, maybe quince? In the mouth, fino sherry and waxy, unripe pear with an arresting mineral finish, silvery and long. By the way, it's worth noting the color of this wine. It has a rich coppery hue, looks like a reduction of Sauternes.

To pass the long stretches between drinks, I was poking around on Nicolas Joly's website, looking for some metaphysical proof of the existence of Les Clos Sacre (pictured here in reality). While there, I found this bit of rough instruction from the man himself:
To be sure that this color is not oxidation drink glass per day during several days without giving the bottle to the refrigerator, just by stopping it and you will see the wine improving the first days, sometimes even more than one week. If it were oxidized it would be imbuvable.
I'm not sure what "imbuvable" means, but there's no way I'm going to leave this sitting on my kitchen counter for the next three days. Any number of calamities might arrive. The housekeeper could pour it down the sink. My wife might put flowers in it. It would be one thing if I had an underground cellar and could leave the decanter on a table in a cool, climate controlled environment. But I live in Los Angeles, and it's June. It's going to be 80 degrees today. So I'm going to "give the bottle to the refrigerator." And hope it gives it back.

Day 3 tomorrow!

June 2, 2008

5 Days In Joly

Out of the gate, I thought we'd test Nicolas Joly's claim that his wines require vigorous decanting (it says so on the back label) and are better after several days. Joly makes funky, complex, and sometimes extraordinary Chenin Blanc's in the Savennières region of the Loire Valley. He's a noted proponent of biodynamic farming, a New Agey, organic approach to viticulture advocated at the turn of the 19th century by occult philosopher and all-around weirdo, Rudolf Steiner (pictured). You can say what you want about Steiner, but biodynamic wines are better. Period. Perhaps this is something we'll try to prove in later trials. But for now, I think it's enough to know that wine made from grapes that weren't sprayed with chemical herbicides and dosed with petroleum-based fertilizers are preferable to the industrial wines that are (here's a very helpful list of biodynamic wineries from Fork & Bottle). Some would argue that Joly has taken biodynamics too far, as he apparently stopped using sulfer dioxide in 2003 (sulfer dioxide is an important anti-microbial agent and kills a lot of little funky things that want to mangle your wine; I've had a couple post '03 Joly's that were off. But I digress...).

Joly's most famous wine is the monopole appellation, La Coul
ée de Serrant, a vineyard that has its own AOC and is one of the best patches of terroir in France. His website claims he makes this and two other wines. And neither of the other two are the bottle we're using for this test? Bit of a mystery...

But I have photographic proof that the bottle exists (see my next post). It's called Les Clos Sacr
és, and we're drinking the 2004 vintage. I bought it at the Wine House in L.A. for $29.99.

Day 1: bottle opened, 3:34 PM. Decanted into a Riedel Decanter (from
Target! If you don't already know, Riedel makes a specialty line for Target which is the same science at half the price!). Tasted immediately after decanting to establish a baseline. Beautiful nose, with aromas suggesting off-dry. Honey, apricot and lanolin. In the mouth, not so beautiful. Thick with overbearing limestone minerality, almost bitter, nearly non-existant fruit...

First taste: 7:30 PM. After 4 hours in the decanter in the fridge, I poured a glass and let it come back towards the recommended 55 degrees (again, the back label). The nose has receded noticeably, but there are still hints of honeyed marzipan. In the mouth, utterly different than 4 hours prior. The fruit is showing and the minerality is better integrated. But it all feels a bit closed.

Stay tuned...

June 1, 2008

Inaugeral Days at the Rational Denial Lab

I like to think about the wine I drink. Knowing what's in the glass somehow makes it taste better. The cerebral potential inherent in enjoying wine is an important, self-reflexive safeguard against abuse. Or maybe this is just something I tell myself in a failing attempt to delay my inevitable stay at a rehab clinic in the Utah desert. I guess time will tell.

In the meanwhile, I have founded a cutting-edge, scientific laboratory. The lab is devoted to wine science almost as much as I am devoted to wine drinking. It's a place to conduct the wankery experiments I always seem to be running. These experiments -- and I use the term loosely -- range from the practical to the esoteric. They can be conservationist ("Is preserving an open bottle with inert gas worth the hassle?"). They can be educational ("What can we learn from a side-by-side tasting of neighboring vineyards?"). They can be absurd justifications for drinking on a Sunday morning ("What wine pairs with eggs?"). Wherever our oenological curiosity leads us, the Rational Denial Lab will serve as the venue for these experimental efforts...

(image: © Icefields | Dreamstime.com)