April 30, 2009

A Surprise Along the Way

April Again.

Never sure what might lie around each bend, we made our way deeper into the lush country. And after a long day along the river, Chinskirin convinced me to stop, I suspect, hoping I would come to my senses and turn back.

Instead -- oh, happy accident -- we found ourselves at the foot of the vineyards at Goaty Hill. So I pulled a reluctant Chinskirin along to see what was on offer. And -- oh, happy accident redux -- they had just opened a bottle of the 2006 Goaty Hill Riesling.

It had a brilliant goût de pétrole on the nose, with bright lime and grapefruit acidity, a dense and honeyed glycerin quality and sweet granitic finish. Perhaps my senses had been weakened by the miles, but I thought it was outstanding.

We also tasted the current release, the 2008. It was less Spätlesen in character, and more in line with the bright, fresh Rieslings I associate with the region. And also very good.

I asked how long they'd been making such charming Rieslings this far from the Mosel, and the fellow told me I was drinking their introductory effort. I noted it was an impressive first try, and he proudly admitted they'd had some help. An up and coming talent, Fran Austin, who makes wines (but not the Arras Sparkling) at Bay of Fires, had been contracted to do the wine-making.

The grapes were grown in sandy soils, "rubbish" the fellow called them, implying the low quality of the dirt might be responsible for the high quality of the fruit. When I asked about vineyard pests, he offered us stories of an ongoing combat with thieving possums they were battling with with owl boxes and .22 caliber rifles. I had actually meant phylloxera, but I suppose possums are a more romantic foe.

It was when we thanked our host and made to continue on our way that I heard again the name I'd heard rumored of in Melbourne; it was nothing more than a whisper that chased us further up river.

April 28, 2009

Southern Exposure


We have at last landed safely on Tasmanian soil. Touched down upon it, as it were, at the Launceston Airport.

We waste little time in heading straight for the Tamar Valley. The Tamar River connects Launceston to the Bass Strait, across which lies the mainland of Australia. The valley is home to Tasmania's original (modern) vineyards, planted in the mid-1950s by a lost Frenchman.

It is, as Chinskirin reminds us, "a cracker of a day." At the outset of the antipodean fall, the winding valley is beautiful, a base of rich green forests against which a patchwork of autumnal hues have been laid. The vineyard crops are near to their harvest, and nets have been scattered across the vines to discourage the birds.

Our quest for sparkling wine will begin just east of the Valley, at the Bay of Fires winery. At Bay of Fires -- or rather not at Bay of Fires, as they ship the pressed juice from Tasmanian grapes to South Australia for the wine-making -- they produce Tasmania's most celebrated sparkler: Arras Sparkling Chardonnay Pinot Noir. We tasted the 2002 vintage.

The Arras wine is methodically produced in true champenois style, and spends at least three years on lees. We were told this was disgorged in the summer of 2008 (which I later realized could have meant four months ago in December, or more than a year ago in January; damn the antipodes!).

The nose is citrus oil, pastry dough and a cardamom spice note that I would later come to recognize as the vineyard signature. The lemon/apple fruit is elegant in a tall-ships-at-sea, briny sort of way. The finish is very nearly Cramant chalk.

The Arras is good, but not cheap, and not the traffic-stopping, cold climate sparkler that we sought. If the shorthand is meaningful to anyone, it was more like Veuve Cliquot than Agrapart Terroirs in taste and sensibility.

Chinskirin had a faint look of worry when I told him we would need to continue further up river to sight our goal.

April 27, 2009

In From the Cold

I left my notebook with Chinskirin Boktani and the bastard is mailing it back one page at a time. He thinks it's funny. Said he'd use Western Union if it weren't so expensive.

So while we wait for the next installment of the Tasmanian Chronicles, a little science in the interim.

Very little.

Before my trip, I was speaking with Cara Bertone of Veritas Imports. I was telling her about some of our wine preservation work at the Lab, and she mentioned she had a friend who advocates freezing wine. Given this research, seems like a flawed strategy. But what do I know?

So before I left for Tazzie, I opened this bottle (see photo), had a glass and then whacked it into the freezer.

We opened it when we got back and let it thaw on the counter.

It was terrific. Better than I remember.

This is hardly science. No control. No protocols. But it appeared to have worked.

Makes me less afraid of the cold.

April 23, 2009

Chinskirin Boktani

More April.

As we sat contemplating the prevailing winds, there was a quick knock at the door, a mere instant before it was thrown open rather violently and without additional ceremony. Our guide, Chinskirin Boktani, was thus arrived. In native shoes and animal skins, Boktani cut a jolly figure, and one made all the more appealing by the unusual Pinot Noir he clutched tightly in his fist.

Without preamble, he told us he had booked passage on the next morning's flight to Launceston and then twisted the Stelvin closure off his odd elixir with a wry smirk.

The wine was a 2006, Punch, Close Planted Lance's Vineyard Pinot Noir. I'd never heard of the producer and leaned in expectantly.

Tell me about this, I said.

Speaks for itself, was his reply, as he poured me an ample glass.

The wine was immediately and obviously special, bright, pure and fragrant, a complex mix of cherry, red currant, and wild strawberry. The fruit
laced with linear subtleties that twirled hypnotically across the palate. A lattice of alkaline minerality buttressed the wine in more than one direction. The finish was endless.

I demanded to know the source and insisted we must immediately procure further bottles. Boktani told me the vineyards had not entirely escaped the horrifying fires of the recent summer. He couldn't say if there would be more.

We fell quiet then. Not in disappointment. It was the memory of those terrible blazes that left us all silent.

April 22, 2009


Dear Traveler,

Our home is 'Eagles Landing'.

'Eagles Nest' was the name of Hitler's residence in the Alps.

Best regards

Your Amiable Host

April 21, 2009

From Our Aerie

Still April.

We remain at Eagle's Landing (ed. corr.), awaiting the arrival of our guide. We've been told he left Melbourne days ago, and so we are anxious, hoping he might appear at any moment. Hopefully, he's not lost; this would bode ill for our journey.

In the meantime, the notes, as promised:

2006 Ata Rangi Pinot Noir, Martinborough. This wine has a big, full and expressive nose of dark, sugared plum and cherry fruits with some beguiling barrel effects (something like caramelized vanilla). This is young, and the tannins are quite sharp, but it is beautifully structured with bright fruit and an intense granitic minerality.

2004 Pegasus Bay Pinot Noir. This has a sensual, (middle?) earthy nose accompanied by plums and blueberries. Very approachable after the tannins get some air. This is rich and full of extracted fruit, but not at the expense of a voluptuous precision.

April 20, 2009

The Heart of Sparkling

April 2009

After our long Pacific crossing, we arrived in the antipodes only slightly bruised. We began at once making our final preparations for our search for sparkling wines in the wilds of Tasmania.

Already we'd heard whispers of a great wine to be found on the banks of the Coal River and were anxious to make our way South.

But we quickly discovered there was little to do but wait for the arrival of our guide
and the turn of the tide.

In the meanwhile, safely ensconced at Eagle's Landing, our amiable and generous hosts there provided welcome sustenance in the form of two distinctive Pinots from nearby New Zealand. A 2006 Ata Rangi and a Pegasus Bay from 2004.

Notes after I've finished stitching my mosquito netting.

April 9, 2009

Lab Road Trip

I've perhaps gone overboard in taking my own advice about getting out of the Lab more often.

But I've booked a drinking tour of Tasmania. Off the Southeast coast of the Australian mainland, Tasmania affords the perfect combination for making sparkling wines: A cool climate and a bunch of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay planted in the ground. I begin my assault tomorrow, map in hand (my Aussie readers will tell you that's a pretty good line).

I'll be gone until after tax day.

At least.

April 6, 2009


This is another in the old/new series of vertical tastings we run occasionally at the Lab during lunch time. Today we poured two red wines from the Languedoc, Clos Marie, Pic Saint Loup, L'Olivette, 2004 and 1998.

Before we get to the notes, I thought it might be instructive to know a little about our procurement process.

In truth, I actually can't remember why I bought this. Probably I read something about the winery on photographer Bertrand Celce's terrific wine blog, Wine Terroirs. The Clos Marie is biodynamic and about 15 miles north of Montpellier, where I lived for a year in the mid 1990s. That combination of approach to viticulture and proximity to my old home was likely enough to spur an interest.

Next I used Wine-Searcher to locate a bottle. And I happily found the 2004 at one of my favorite wine shops, the Woodland Hills Wine Company. I know this because I still have the receipt. Then I went to Winebid.com, searched for the producer, got lucky and found the 1998 at auction for $15. I know this because Winebid.com puts a sticker on the bottle, and it's still there.

The Olivette is a blend of Syrah, Grenache, Cinsault and Mourvedre. The 2004 was imported by Beaune Imports in Berkeley. I'm often impressed when buying their wines. The 1998 was brought in by Eric Solomon, another top flight importer.


Nose of black cherry jam and peppery spices with a little volatile alcohol. Very interesting organoleptic quality; the sweet fruit seems to swell on the palate. Flavors are straightforward, cherry and plum. But this is delicate and nimble given the big grapes in the blend. The finish is unusual, there's bitterish green bite and then an overpowering hazelnut flavor.


This really has a beautiful nose. Like dried cherry syrup over warm bread pudding. It has the same, mouth-coating feel. But the fruit is more muscular and sweeter than the younger wine. Some tannic dryness on the finish. This is really delicious.

If you'd asked when I was buying them, I would have said the 2004 is probably ready to drink now, and the 1998 is likely over the hill. I'm wrong on both counts. The older wine is in a prime window. The 2004 might benefit from further age.