Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Suave move

In the last post, I was lukewarm to the Marcato Soave. So I thought I would try again. Last night I had the Anselmi San Vincenzo 2003, for two dollars more than the Marcato. Anselmi no longer calls his wines “Soave” but that is essentially what this is. And it is a delightful bargain. The scent is mainly lemon, but with a soft quality (is this what they mean by “lemon custard?”) There are also light floral overtones, clover perhaps. The taste is dry but not biting, with definite mineral notes. The Italian word “soave” is often translated “suave,” which implies something a little too slick for this fresh and charming drink – “gentle” seems better. It went beautifully with some stir-fried scallops from the Butcher’s Block.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Three inexpensive Italians

At a casual dinner for students last night, I tried three moderately priced (low teens) Italian wines bought at Big Red earlier in the week. (1) I liked the Zardetto Brut Prosecco. I used to think of Prosecco, the high-production sparkling wine of the Veneto, as a kind of cheap champagne, worth about what it cost. But when you travel around the small towns of the Veneto, you see it as a different sort of thing, something more like the world’s most luxurious ginger ale. I think especially of a day in Montegnana. I had just visited a church to see some frescoes, I forget whose or why, but I remember leaving with some embarrassment when I saw that I was about to intrude on a funeral rather than an art museum. I walked gravely over to the nearby bar for a coffee. Next to me were a half-dozen elderly gentlemen, rather soberly dressed and quiet, gathered around poured but undrunk Prosecco, accompanied by a bowl of potato chips. As the bells tolled, they lifted their glasses of sparkling wine to the departed, a scene hard to imagine with Champagne. With all the earnest seriousness surrounding the Schiavo case this weekend, I think my own end-of-care directive calls for a good Prosecco for my friends. The Zardetto brut would be a fine choice, drier than most with a sharp apple taste and a lot of zest for life. (2) Back to last night in Bloomington, we then had a Marcato 2003 Soave. I thought it was a disjointed and somewhat ill-defined wine. The nose hinted at tropical fruit but the dry and flat taste seemed a real disappointment in context. I have a bottle left, which, for a gathering of law students, tells a very complete story. (3) But then we had a really lovely red, the Poliziano Rosso Di Montalcino 2002. The year was generally not a good one for Montalcino but this wine was a real exception. I have read that the grapes weren’t quite good enough for the pricier Vino Nobile that Poliziano specializes in, so they were declassified for the plain Rosso – but there was also a good bit of merlot added in to the sangiovese and clearly some time in oak as well. The result was some nice cherry fruit with a spicy finish, an appetizing wine at a good price. And, speaking not of wine but of a good finish, BLU ( provided a delicious Zuppa alle Fragole, a combination of cake, ricotta and strawberries with a precise and perfect balance.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

California bargain

I bought a 2003 Bogle petite sirah on sale for nine dollars at O'Malia's and drank it with a grilled steak tonight. This was a rustic but agreeable wine, dark in color with smoky peppery notes, lively acid and noteable tannins. The wine used to be on the list at Truffles, I don't know if it still is. Petite sirah is a mystery grape, according to DNA testing not always the same from one vineyard to another, but well adapted to hot climates like the California central valley and South America. Worth picking up the next time you have something simple and hearty.
Trying to describe the wine reminds me of a cool site I just found through Robin Garr. The author has reviewed fifty or so wines, all in haiku. For example, a few weeks ago, I tried to describe my lack of enthusiasm for a well-made Mondavi cabernet. From the blog, here's a review of a different California cabernet:
[Louis B. Martini Napa Valley Reserve Cabernet 2000, copyright Lane Steinberg]
Everything correct
Tannin & acidity
Bored me to pieces

In that spirit, here are my thoughts on the Bogle:
Good friend for nine bucks
Black fruit with a winey bite
Stop by on Thursday

This blog's title.

Several people (i.e., both my readers) have asked me about the title for this blog. It comes from a story told by Professor George Saintsbury. He was a prominent literary scholar in Victorian times. His "Notes on a Cellar Book," from the beginning of the last century, was the first example of a drinker writing expansively about his tipple. I see him as the first wine-blogger. In general, as befits a Victorian professor of literature in Scotland, he was a rather formal sort of fellow, sometimes close to pompous and often pedantic. Like many of his readers, therefore, I especially enjoy this bit he tells:
"So, though I could not even then drink quite as much beer as I could thirty years earlier a little higher up the Thames, it became necessary to procure a cask. It came—one of Bass’s minor mildnesses—affectionately labeled “Mr. George Saintsbury. Full to the bung.” I detached the card, and I believe I have it to this day as my choicest (because quite unsolicited) testimonial. "

Qui e La

I’m just back from a week in Venice. I have to resist the temptation to write here about the wine I drank there, since the theme of this blog is drinking wine in Bloomington – no going on about the house Refosco at the Pizzeria Accademia. Maybe I can drop a word about whisky, though. My favorite malt is Lagavullin, which is basically now unavailable here or most places in the US. Last year I got a bottle in the duty-free shop at Charles de Gaulle airport but that too has dried up. So imagine my surprise when my wife spotted a bottle in the tiny alimentaria where we bought our breakfast bread in Venice. And then my further surprise, last night, to run across this passage in the newly published Elizabeth George, “With No One as Witness:”
“When [Linley] joined his old friend, St. James was at the drinks cart beneath the window, a decanter in his hand.
‘Sherry?’ he said. ‘Whisky?’
‘Have you gone through all the Lagavullin yet?’
‘Too hard to come by. I’m pacing myself.’
‘I’ll assist you.’”
I guess I’m not the only one.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Serious Sancerre

Chablis used to be the wine to wash down seafood in Paris. This certainty led to the dubious honor that every cheap, sharp wine in the world was called "Chablis." My father got an M.D. from the University of Paris in the 1920's. On his final oral exam in public health, one question was how to eat raw oysters safely, and the answer was "with Chablis." In recent years, however, Sancerre wines from the Loire have taken over. Chablis is too expensive and its name too debased by global identity theft (despite the fact that 2002 is a wonderful and inexpensive year for real Chablis.) Fifty years ago, there were 50,000 cases of Sancerre yearly, now there are more than a million. Until recently, I was underimpressed, even during a week spent cycling in the Loire valley two years ago. Sancerre struck me as no more than a pleasant and tangy white wine, nice for a casual meal of fish and a perfect match for young goat cheese. Part of its popularity in the US, so it seemed to me, was simply that it, unlike Chablis, wasn't chardonnay and so much of our chardonnay is gag-me-with-a-spoon thick and sticky. Sancerre is not the only wine made from sauvignon blanc ascendant in our market -- delicious New Zealand and California versions are also easy to find here. Pick up the Villa Maria SB at O'Malia's if you don't believe me. But over the last week, I've had some Sancerre that has awakened me to a great wine. I had Francois Cotat's Sancerre Les MOnts Damnees 2003, bought at Big Red for $37. Here are my tasting notes: "Pale yellow-gold, no hint of green. Expected scent of gooseberry, yes, but also pears and limes. Creamy texture, flavor of grapefruit and pear, with a refreshingly bitter finish. Open 30 minutes, also a touch of minerals, apple and clover honey. It is a privilege to drink this wine." I was so impressed that I went on to drink Cotat's top vineyard, La Grande Cote. This wine, surprisingly, was less exciting. Although good, it was a little dense and heavy for my taste. Maybe a year in the cellar would do something good or maybe the heat wave of 2003 did too much ripening for an already rich wine? All-in-all, delicious stuff and lovely variety but nothing will stop me from stocking up on '02 Chablis.

Monday, March 07, 2005

A la recherche du cabernet perdu

When I came to Bloomington in 1968, I quickly discovered that California cabernet was my wine. The available French wines were mostly generic blends from the big shippers, B&G Vosne Romanee and the like. These wines were shipped long before Kermit Lynch and other importers transformed the global scene by insisting on refrigerated shipping containers. It's not so much that these wines were cooked, although they often were: it was more that they were made commercially to withstand the expected abuses of being shipped without refrigeration through the Panama canal. Filtered, denatured, industrial wines with good names on the label. California, on the other hand, sent us wines with character. For $2.40 (odd I can remember the exact price, but it was a significant amount for an assistant professor in those days), a Christian Brothers cabernet could excite with its clear and lively personality and, for not much more, BV and real Inglenook were the kind of wines you could think about and remember. I drifted away from these cabernets as French wines got way better in the eighties and as importing became more sensitive to heat damage. And then the prices of California cabernet became absurd. I have to drink a wine fairly often, to make its acquaintance over different moods and foods, before it becomes a friend to be invited to my home. The odd Dominus or the like that comes my way has not been enough to form that bond. When I got my newest Wine Advocate and Tanzer newsletters, I was struck that they both seemd to think Robert Mondavi was back on track in 2001 and 2002 -- both critics really liked both years in the simple Napa cabernet, a twenty-dollar wine. I couldn't find a 2002 in Bloomington but bought a 2001 at Sam's Club. Tonight, with anticipation and a flank steak, I tried it. Nah. It didn't do it for me. All the elements were there: black fruits, coffee, a touch of tar, soft tannins, a rich texture. It just didn't come together as a delicious drink so much as a gynasium for the taste buds. I don't think this is something anti-California on my part -- I had a basic Au Bon Climat pinot noir on Saturday at Big Red's weekly tasting and promptly bought a bottle for the same $20 as the Mondavi. So I think I am going to leave Cali Cabs in the realm of nostalgia. At least I'm not so disappointed now to learn that Mondavi just sold everything to a conglomerate for a billion bucks with who knows what in the future. Maybe the new owners will filter all the wines and ship them to France through the Panama canal to get even.

Friday, March 04, 2005

My Rasteau is half empty

It seems disgustingly prudent for me to drink no more than half a bottle with dinner nightly. I usually accomplish this in either of two ways. One is to freeze the remainder. Freezing changes the wine in two related ways, so far as I can tell: it very slightly reduces the acidity of the wine (which can even be an improvement with, say, acidified Australian whites) and causes tartrate crystals to precipitate, which is no more than a minor nuisance. I prefer, instead of freezing, to pour off half the bottle into a 375ml tight-sealing decanter when I open it, drink the bottle that night and the decanter the next. Sometimes the wine is better the second night (young Bordeaux), sometimes a little worse (Chianti) and mostly unchanged. Neither of these techniques will save a pinot noir: carpe diem or, at least, always find somebody to share your Burgundies with. Part of the fun is figuring out which wines will gain from being split, one way or another, over two nights. Until now, I had always chosen for the decanting young, hearty red wines, which I associated also with high alcohol. Yesterday, however, I read of some experiments in Bordeaux which suggested that alcohol speeded oxidation. Though these experiments seem loaded with bias because the easy conclusion would be that Bordeaux wines therefore outlast California or Australian wines, the chemistry seemed possible. So, last night I opened the highest alcohol European wine in my cellar. This was a Rasteau Domaine La Soumade Cotes du Rhone Fleur de Confiance 2000, at 15.5% alcohol. And a wonderful wine was the first days portion: rich, with a nose of red fruit and prunes and spices, with smooth tannins and a slightly oily texture. Today, the second half from the decanter, had the definite beginning of volatile acidity -- not a bad drink by any means but definitely on the way down. I'm guessing alcohol isn't the key to overnight keeping. I'll try this again, concentrating on a wine made from a grape known for anti-oxidant properties, maybe something largely mourvedre/monastrell.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Extreme Beaujolais

Wine drinkers in the US seem bored these days with Beaujolais. Personally, I think this a snobbish oversight. George DuBoeuf's everyday Beaujolais and a smoked chicken from Bloomington's Butcher Block are an easy way to have a great meal. But setting that issue aside, there is a lot of excitement from a few producers who resist the easy charms of simple Beaujolais for something special. These wines are obviously a favorite at Tallent -- currently there is a Foilard Morgon which is a lovely wine. It reminds me of a story told by Pierre Rovani, who reviews Burgundies for Robert Parker's newsletter, The Wine Advocate. He invited a friend for lunch, ordered roast chicken and a Morgon from LaPierre, whereupon the friend reached for the winelist to pick something better. My first thought was what kind of idiot would try to override Rovani's choices? Pierre can order my wine anytime he wants. But then I suppose there are people who turn down investment advice from Warren Buffett and I remember all the first-year law students who come up after class to explain to me what really goes on in the Supreme Court. (The same Lapierre Morgon, by the way, was on Tallent's wine list before the current Foilard.) These wines, anyway, are food friendly, interesting and usually a great quality to price ratio. Right now, Big Red has three wines which go a step beyond. These wines are made in Brouilly, by Jean-Claude Lapalu, who apparently lacked the heart to tell his vines they were only good Beaujolais. So he raised them like Burgundy from the Cote d'Or, stressing the vines, with low yields, long maceration and new oak. Wow! My daughter and I had the Brouilly tonight (Cuvee des Fous, 2003, $33). This is a wine with the deep purple and blue rim of young vintage port, with a rich nose of black cherries, plums and almonds. In the mouth the wine has a rich creamy texture. The finish is maybe a little short but I suspect a year in the cellar might take care of that. The tannins are smooth and elegant. Serve it to friends, don't tell them what it is, and drive them crazy.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Riesling and Chinese

Here I am in O'Malia's, having just bought some shrimp with thoughts of celery, hot pepper sauce and peanuts. Happily, here is a Villa Maria riesling from New Zealand, the 2003, priced in the low teens. This is a bright and juicy wine, with flavors something like green apple and a citrus (maybe lime) touch to it, with a lot of bracing acid and a touch of sweetness. With spicy Chinese food, the sweetness soothes and the tangy fruit flavors refresh. I've not had much luck matching a weighty riesling (say Zind Humbrecht) with Chinese food. At Mark Pi's I am happy with the cheap Dr. Loosen, low in alcohol and maybe a touch too sweet but still a nice match for hot spices. But the Villa Maria adds a more interesting quality. I also can't escape the probably silly prejudice that a Pacific Rim wine suits Asian food better. I first tried the Villa Maria riesling because I also find their widely available sauvignon blanc a good wine at a good price but that will be a post for another day.