February 25, 2009

Amphora Wine: A Lab PSA

Never say we don't give back.

If you've been following along our recent work with pre-historic oenology and decided to home trial an amphora wine, you may have noticed they are A) somewhat hard to find; and B) not exactly cheap.

Sure you could drink the Mtsvane from Vinoterra. It's fairly inexpensive. And according to Jeremy Parzen, a pilgrimmage to Vinoterra was the source of inspiration for amphora evangelist, Josko Gravner. But I've told you the wife thinks it drinks like an exotic urine sample. There's definitely some risk there.

Fortunately, Vinoterra has another amphora wine made from another grape I've never heard of, Kisi, a white grape, indigenous to Georgia.

Vinoterra, Kisi, 2006, has an unusual nose of butterscotch and almond paste with receding hints of mint. In the mouth, there's flavors of burnt sugar (although the wine is dry), apple and mineral water. There an element of anise after the wine warms in the glass. And an overall impression of something like bourbon diluted by melting ice. It's actually hard to reduce this wine to a simple list of descriptors. Maybe because the flavors are unfamiliar and unusual?

Apparently, Whole Foods and USAID had something to do with bringing these Georgian wines into the US. I haven't seen them on the shelves there, but you can find it for twenty bucks at K&L Wines.

It is both interesting and good.

February 23, 2009

More Interesting than Good?

I was going to call this one, "What Would Otzi Drink?" Otzi was the Neolithic Hunter found preserved in Alpen ice along Italian-Austrian border in 1991.

Colleagues in archeology have recently dated the earliest wine-making to the early part of the Neolithic age. And by 'recently', I'm referring to geological time: The discovery was five years ago. When residue of fermented grape juice was found in what's now the Republic of Georgia from a vintage that's 8,000 years old. That's also recent if you're a geologist.

In a continuation of our amphora wine studies, we recently opened a bottle of Georgian wine: Vinoterra Mtsvane, 2005. Mtsvane is an indigenous, white Georgian grape, "well known" according to the back label. Like our Julius Caesar wines, this is fermented in ancient terra cotta pots (the Georgians call them, kvevri) then aged in oak barrels.

Wine made with neolithic technology on the site of the possible origins of wine-making itself... what's not to like about that?

The wine in the glass is orange, like liquid rust. The nose is super funky, oxidized and aromatic. Orange rind, nutty caramel, quince past and something like sherry/vin jaune. In the mouth, the fruit jumps, and the acid too. There's a faint sherry quality. And a coppery metallic element (reminds me of Joly's terroir signature in the Coulée de Serrant vineyard). The finish is hazelnut and river stones.

I thought this was really interesting. But was it good? I brought a bottle home from the Lab for the wife to put her super-palate on.

Her note was succinct:

Undrinkable camel piss.

Drink at your own risk, I guess.

February 18, 2009

Playing Through Pain

So our reunion, Piemontese dinner almost didn't happen. Neidorf blew a tendon in his thumb at a speed chess tournament on Saturday, and we were forced to consider rescheduling. But with an aluminum splint on his hand and a belly full of homemade Demerol, he sucked it up, and we soldiered on.

Over dinner, we worked our way through a full flight of (almost) all Piedmont wines, sparkling aperitif to dessert wine. Here's the line up:

Sandro Fay, Drei Es, Spumante Metodo Classico, NV. Actually, this is from Lombardy (the neighboring state). But it's a blanc de noirs made entirely from Nebbiolo. And it's awesome. And Nebbiolo (did I mention that it's 100% Nebbiolo?), so we figured we'd let it play. Metodo Classico means Fay makes this like like Champagne with a secondary fermentation in the bottle on the lees. It is rich and muscular, with ripe apple and red-fruit flavors and an intense, chalky minerality. The nose is brioche with subtle, earthy notes of cured meats and mushroom. This is an exceptional wine and my favorite of the evening (even if it's not actually from Piedmont).

Bruno Giacosa, Roero Arneis, 2007. Bruno Giacosa invented Piedmont. Okay, that's not exactly true. Maybe it was Garibaldi's idea originally (pictured). Or Mazzini's. But Giacosa is an iconic winemaker and his reputation and that of the region are densely intertwined. Made from the Arneis grape, grown in the Roero hills of Southeastern Piedmont, this wine is crisp, aromatic and evocative of those hills. Aromas of orchard fruit, wet stones and straw. Flavors of apple and nectarine with a lively acidity and a bracing, gravelly core.

Bruno Giacosa, Barolo, Falletto, 2000. Giacosa invented Barolo. Okay, again I'm exaggerating. But less so this time. Giacosa has been long regarded as Piemonte's chief traditionalist. He makes old-school Barolo, fermented in tanks and aged in big vats called botti. This one is still young, and took 3 hours in a decanter to show. The nose is plum, raspberry and green stems carrying along a subtle earthy element of dry soil. Poised and precise, this is dense in three directions with bright fruit and pepper spice. The tannins bite hard but can't mask a beautiful finish of rocks and mocha.

Produtori del Barbaresco, Barbaresco, 2004. The Produtori is a cooperative of growers that dates back to the late 1950s and to a communal tradition going back to the late 19th century. Independent, mostly family-owned, farms pool resources and share expenses. Unlike Giacosa's single-vineyard wine, the combined effort of the Produttori results in a representative expression of the entire vintage. Which in 2004 was exemplary. Like many "big" vintages, this is dominated by ripe fruit flavors, wild berries and plum. And painfully young; the tannic sting makes your eyes water.

Coppo, Brachetto d'Acqui, 2006. Brachetto d'Acqui is regarded as the perfect match for chocolate, a myth no doubt perpetuated by producers of the stuff. Nevertheless, I always find it beguiling. And it's low alcohol (this one was 5.5%), so you can pound it down at the end of the night without conjuring room spins. It's a sweet mix of alcoholic black cherry soda and pixie dust.

Everyone agreed the almost all Piedmont wine night was a hit. Except Neidorf. He passed out under the table after the pasta course.

Thanks Crime Dog for organizing the community forum.

This is still not a blog.

(chess pic: © Ff0000 | Dreamstime.com)

February 12, 2009

The Treachery of Blogs

Regular visitors know that this is not a blog.

The Rational Denial Lab is a scientific institute; these missives are but reports from the front lines of our experimental adventures.

We don't let ourselves get distracted from our mission.

We don't write about what we ate for dinner.

Or what we drank in a bar.

We don't blog.

So this leaves us with a quandary, as one of the Lab's original benefactors, David McDuff, is hosting something that those who do blog call Wine Blogging Wednesday. It's a sort of virtual tasting party with a different monthly theme.

We don't do virtual either.

But we do support our friends. A cadre of my old pals from science grad school -- mostly chemists but there is one guy from the Earth Sciences department -- get together once a month to reminisce about the glory days in our college lab and tell funny stories about proteins and aldehydic reactions.

Our next dinner is tomorrow night. We'll be pouring wine from Piedmont, Italy (McDuff's theme).

I think Magritte could live with this sort of compromise.

February 9, 2009

What Would Julius Caesar Drink?

Returning to our historic tasting series, we've set the Way-Back machine to take us back to Roman antiquity when wine was fermented and stored in clay pots called amphorae.

A small cadre of winemakers have returned to these ancient techniques, using massive terra cotta pots buried in the ground to ferment their juice. I've grown fascinated with the idea of them, and, when supported by good winemaking, the taste of them.

The main proponent of this odd trend is iconic Fruilian winemaker, Josko Gravner (here is a picture of him with his big pots). Gravner is a strict non-interventionist when it comes to wine-making. He uses only wild yeasts, no sulfur, no temperature control and, since 2000, a lot of very big clay pots. Amongst his disciples are ex-neurosurgeon Alessandro Sgaravetti of Castello di Lispida who works nearby, and Sam Tannahill, who in faraway Oregon makes his wonder of extended maceration "Jack White" (I'll admit it's an unsubstantiated rumor that Sam is burying big pots in the ground, but I did hear that he was).

A few recent amphora wines, we've tried at the Lab:

Gravner, Ribolla Gialla Amfora, 2002. Striking deep golden color. Fino sherry, wild fennel and something sweet (like a strawberry 'n cream life saver) on the nose. Spectral, mineral, linear. Flavors of baked apple, mineral water, toffee and toasted hazelnut on the finish. This was less intellectually interesting than I anticipated, but much more lovable than I expected.

Castello di Lispida, Amphora, 2004. 100% Tocai Fruiliano. Six months on the skins, then 8 more months in amphora after the cap is removed. Coppery hued. Spearmint and anise on the nose. In the mouth, this is an austere mix of bitter plum and anise. I wouldn't say undrinkable, but I wouldn't say good either.

Cos, Cerasuolo di Vittoira Pithos, 2005. Maceration for seven months with occasional manual pumping over, no temp control, minimal SO2, no filtration. A nose of wild strawberry, rose petals and traces of spearmint. Piercing and linear. Cherry fruit, then earthy minerality, then bright, orange-y acid. A mild tannic bite on the finish. Compelling beyond the novelty of the clay pot.

February 4, 2009

Bad Judgment

This is really an appendix to the Lab Quiz from yesterday.

For those of you who thought the correct answer was B, an LA Times report from a few days ago notes a study demonstrating that wine judges are not particularly good at judging wine.
"Only 10% (of judges) in a four-year study of California State Fair judging were able to consistently give the same rating, or something close, to the same wine sampled multiple times in a large blind tasting."
So that 98 pointer you had your eye on in the shop window? Just keep walking.

The rest of the article is here.

(Thanks Herby; gold medal : © Tom Schmucker | Dreamstime.com)

February 3, 2009

Lab Quiz

Which is the more useful tasting note?

A) Cigar box, wild cherry and plum confiture with Near East spice notes and crushed white flower

B) 92+

C) Farmed bio-dynamically with low-yields from ungrafted vines; whole cluster fermentation with wild yeasts; aged in French oak barrels (25% new)

It makes sense that a "tasting note" would be little more than a flavor profile. But a list of (subjective) descriptors is only so useful, more of a parlor trick than anything.

And a score is just shorthand, a number as (thin) metaphor.

Which leaves C. Anybody who works at the Lab will tell you that's the right answer.

Of course, you might argue that C tells us nothing at all about the taste of the wine. And yet I would be inclined to buy the wine described in C; whereas, A and B stimulate little interest at all. For tea leaves, I like having information about the approach to viticulture and oenology. I've learned over time that a winemaker who is growing without pesticides, restricting yields and using native yeasts is likely to produce a wine that I'm very likely to enjoy no matter what it tastes like.

I suppose this says something about my faith in good intentions.