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 | Dreamstime.com)

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 | Dreamstime.com )

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 | Dreamstime.com )

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 www.masilva.com 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 | Dreamstime.com)

October 2, 2008

Shootout at the Stone Corral

In 2001, Brian Talley converted a 27-acre plot of grazing land into a vineyard planted with Pinot Noir. Two other winemakers, from Kynsi and Stephen Ross, shared the development costs in exchange for long-term access to the grapes grown. The 5 blocks of the resulting Stone Corral vineyard were each divided into thirds, each to be shared by the three participants.

The innovative business arrangements that gave rise to these shared vines provide rich territory for our ongoing search for dirt. Three distinct wines all from the same mud.

I drove from the Lab in Los Angeles to the Talley Vineyards' Tasting Room to find their 2005 vintage of the Stone Corral Pinot Noir. Then I criss-crossed back and forth across the Central Coast until finally locating a bottle of the Kynsi Estate Stone Corral Vineyard Pinot Noir from the same vintage at a grower's cooperative in San Luis Obispo.

Upon my return, a certain former employee went down to the wine shop on the corner. Instead of coming back with the single item on his shopping list, he came back with an Edna Valley Pinot Noir from Stephen Ross. He said he was pretty sure the wine was made from the Stone Corral vineyard. I told him I was pretty sure he was going to spend the afternoon working on his resume.

But we pressed on with our two-thirds worth of experiment.

The Kynsi has a tight, slightly herbaceous, nose of black cherry fruit. This is an elegant wine with a complex mix of red and blue fruits, oak traces, and a subtle mineral element. And very young. Sharp tannins with more bite than heft.

The Talley wine has a beautiful, complex nose of turned earth, smoke, cherry and plum. The palate is dense cherry fruit, with subtle hints of cedar and green tannins. With air, the wine's tannins grew lush and velvety but some of the complexities also seemed to fade against the swell of ripe, jammy fruit.

These are both beautiful expressions of Pinot, and there is no doubt the experiment would well be worth revisiting after these have enjoyed a few years of bottle age. But what can we say about them now? And more importantly, about their shared terroir?

The Talley seems to me a more site specific wine. But perhaps I've been fooled into this belief by the earthy qualities of the wine? The two definitely share characteristics. Their black cherry was like fruit from the same tree (not at all that surprising, given the wines were, in fact, made from fruit grown in adjoining rows). But getting past common clones and divergent cooperage, to delve deeper into shared elements of dirt proved to be difficult.

Perhaps to really understand the commonalities -- to really identify the unique elements of their shared site -- it would help to compare them to something they're not...

Hey! Someone chase down that kid we just fired. Get him and that Stephen Ross Edna Valley Pinot back in the Lab.

While we wait, you might want to use the time to catch up on the previous chapters in our quest for that strange grail of terroir.