November 23, 2009

Dreading Zeus

Good name for a band.

But in this instance, I've merely given a peculiar title to a phenomenon I know all serious wine wankers have experienced.

You put a bottle in the fridge, not because you want to drink it, but because you don't want to cellar it. And now it's there. Taking up space.

Maybe you tasted the wine and it was just okay. But you bought two. Maybe you know it's a challenging wine. No matter the reason, you aren't excited about drinking it. So it just sits there. Taunting you from the back of the fridge.

There has been such a bottle in the fridge in the Lab break-room for some time now.

It's a very strange wine. Colere de Zeus from Julian Courtois, 2001, a mix of Menu Pineau and Sauvignon Blanc. I don't know exactly when it became my personal albatross. But it's been in there a while. I decided last night, it would taunt me no longer.

So after everyone left for the day, I pulled it from the fridge and opened it.

I watched a pale yellow wine turn deep amber. I mean, I am literally watching as this oxygen-inspired transformation takes place in the glass. It takes about 2 minutes for the wine to travel from the color of pale straw to a coppery hue. It smells of tuberose, honey and gum tree. It tastes like you smashed apricots into juice with big, granite rocks.

I don't know why I waited so long to drink this.

November 15, 2009

A Second Date

When I first tasted Phifer-Pavitt's Date Night Cabernet Sauvignon, I was impressed. That was a year ago. With the second release of this wine, the 2006 vintage, I think I might be falling in love.

Me and a California Cab? It's Montague and Capulet. I'm a Jet; this beauty's a Shark. This can't be.

But Date Night is made from a single, organically farmed vineyard in Napa's Pope Valley. The grapes are hand-picked before undergoing a wild yeast ferment. The wine isn't over manipulated. The goal of the wine-making is to express the site.

What's star-crossed about that?

The wine itself is beautiful. It has a bright, complex and perfumed nose of cherry confiture, pomegranate juice, stewed plums, allspice and cafe au lait. It shows elegant balance and pure fruit on the palate. Like the inaugural vintage, it is remarkably linear. And the dark chocolate and crushed rocks finish lingers long enough to make the 3rd date.

This could be the start of something serious.

November 12, 2009

A Big Waste of Time

As regular readers know, we recently dug three wines out of their variegated resting places. One from the Lab's cellar. One from my closet. And one that ended up wedged behind a stack of Cup-O-Noodles in the Lab breakroom.

The wine we're testing is a Cabernet Franc from Philippe Delesvaux. As we've written previously, Delesvaux started out as a kind of Loire Valley garagiste producing his first vintage (1983) in a shed. He now has 35 hectares of biodynamically managed vineyards and makes his wines in a natural, non-interventionist mode. He is most famous for his usually overpriced Sélection de Grains Nobles Coteaux du Layon, a botrytised Chenin Blanc. He should be famous (but isn't) for his lavishly underpriced 100% Cabernet Sauvignon Anjou La Montee de L’Epine.

We tasted the three bottles blind. The results were surprising indeed.

Bottles #1 and #2 were nearly identical. The nose was harsh, almost astringent, with a noxious perfumy mix of dark fruit and menthol. Bottle #3, however, smelled of smoky blueberries and espresso with hints of white pepper. The first two tasted like they smelled, sharp and bitter. The alcohol imbalance dried the tongue. Bottle #3 was less sharp, less bitter. The minerality was more pronounced and their was a distinctive mocha flavor (barrel effect) on the finish.

In truth, the results verged on irrelevant. Because I didn't like any of these. Even the "better" bottle was too bitter and too austere to drink, even with food. And if this 3rd bottle was, in fact, the carefully cellared bottle, the improvement wouldn't justify the refrigeration expense.

Before we revealed the three bottles my hypothesis was that bottle #3 was either the cellared bottle or the bottle from the kitchen. My thinking was that either the whole cult of 57 degrees (roughly the average temperature of a basement in France) was actually beneficial. Or that the warm, but relatively constant, temperature of the kitchen might have accelerated aging and improved the wine.

Wrong on both counts. The winner was bottle #2, the one that spent the past 15 months with my shoes.

Sometimes science is mystifying.

November 11, 2009

What A Difference A Year Makes?

More than a year ago, the Lab set out on a bold experiment in patience. We stored three bottles of the same wine in very different circumstances. We stored one in pristine, 57 degree, cellar conditions. We stored one in the bottom of my closet. And we left the third in the Lab break room with a "Do Not Drink" note taped to the label.

We planned to leave them in storage for a year and then taste the wines blind to see how each fared under these circumstances.

But we forgot about them, and now it's been more than 15 months. Time to realize the results of our experimental efforts.

One of the interns pointed out that wine years are sort of the opposite of dog years. After pointing out that unpaid volunteers aren't supposed to speak during our weekly meetings, I asked what he meant by that. I'm still not sure, and I have ordered a review our Cost Cutting & Productivity initiatives. The interns are really nice, but collectively... not a lot of lights burning brightly. We might need to rehire some actual scientists.

In any case, I think what he was trying to get at was the idea that storing a wine for a year is but a blip in wine-time. Oenophiles aren't quite geologists when it comes to measuring the march of the calendar. But if collectors will still pay top dollar for a fifty-year-old Bordeaux (48-years-old anyway), what difference does a year make?

It's a fair point.

But we're tasting the wine tomorrow anyway.

November 3, 2009

Old School, Oak Style

Today, an old school experiment. A straightforward investigation into wood; oak, in particular.

Stephen Ross Dooley is a Central Coast négociant who specializes in (mostly) single-vineyard Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. He produces wines under the Stephen Ross Wine label. Among these is a Chardonnay made from "four rows from Block J at Bien Nacido Vineyard" in the Santa Maria Valley.

In 2006, the Bien Nacido Chardonnay was bottled in two formats. One was barrel fermented (33% new French oak, the rest once-used barrels). The other -- designated methode moderne -- was fermented in stainless steel and saw no oak at all.

We drank the two wines side by side.

The differences were stark and started as soon as the wine hit the glass. The oaked wine was a deeper, richer yellow. The moderne wine was pale, with shimmering hints of green. The differences continued on the nose. The oaked wine had a faint vanilla tinge. The moderne offered brighter floral and citrus aromatics. Both showed a similar, pastry dough, evidence of malolactic fermentation.

On the palate, the moderne was racy. The acidity was nervy and biting. There was a strong mineral element throughout, though strongest on the attack and then again on the long finish. The fresh apple and nectarine flavors were like biting into crisp, just under-ripe fruit. The oaked wine, meanwhile, was more subdued, but also more structured. It had greater depth, felt denser on the palate. The mineral element was significantly absent and the acidity was more controlled. It was the richer, more balanced of the two.

It's hard to pick a favorite here. I think it's more of a Rorschach thing, where the choice says more about the drinker than the drink. The wine fermented in stainless steel was untamed and wild, offering what felt like direct access to those 4 rows of Block J. But the wine from the barrel presented clear refinement and sophistication, with none of the caustic, roughness around the edges of the unruly sister.

The obvious concluding metaphor I might employ is sexist and adolescent. So I'll resist conjuring it. But here's a hint.