Monday, March 02, 2009

Value in more expensive wines

In the April-May Bloom Magazine, I will report on my trials of a few wines which are similar in grape variety and style but very different in price (e.g., Cotes du Rhone vs. Chateauneuf du Pape from the same producers). Of course cheap is always good but I think it’s also worthwhile to search for value in more expensive wines. Anyway, that’s the idea and I invite you to submit results of your own comparative tastings along this line. Comments are open.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Chocolate and Cheese

I gave a talk on January 31 at Sahara Mart. Here is an outline.


1) You really can’t go wrong pairing wine with cheeses.

2) Think white wine more often. Acid (freshness) not tannin, is the key.

3) If you want a perfect match, think a single cheese, with a condiment or nuts.

4) Some perfect matches:
Goat and sauvignon blanc
Pinot Noir and hard cheese, especially Ossau Iraty or Vermont Shepherd
Chablis and brie
Sauternes and blue

5) Outside the box: cider with pont l’eveque, stout or Belgian ale with stinky cheese.


1) You really can go wrong pairing chocolate with wine.

2) Great reference to conventional wisdom:

3) Steiman’s law (Wine Spectator, Jan. 31, 2009): The wine must taste sweeter than the chocolate.

Never Champagne
Bitter chocolate (80%) and Amarone (or really ripe zinfandel).
A little sweeter–(70%) or “death by chocolate” –Banyuls or port.
Typical chocolate dessert–Campbell’s Rutherglen muscat or tokay.
Mainly fruit with a bit of chocolate, e.g., dipped strawberries–Ice Wine (do try Oliver’s)

Outside the box: sweet sherry.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Lessons for less than ten dollars.

In 2001, Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate listed several hundred value wines, all priced for less than $16 and some for as little as $5. In those days I thought the only reason to spend $25 for a bottle was vanity, or maybe curiosity. The 2008 Advocate now defines a value wine as one under $25. This week’s Wine Spectator uses the $20 figure and lists a thousand value wines, of which exactly thirteen are under $10 (although another dozen or so are listed at exactly $10). But people in the business say that in the present mood of careful spending, many more people are asking for wines under $10. You’ll see big displays in local stores of wines in that category.

In my wine column for the February-March Bloom Magazine, I try out an idea that reflects my personal view in the so-called “wine wars.” I find the under $10 bottles from the wine conglomerates boring: they are free of flaws, technically competent and chemically correct drinks. But they don’t have any snap or surprise or charm. If you’re going to go this way, you might as well visit Trader Joe for Three Buck Chuck. I wondered, however, what would happen if I went to Sahara Mart and Big Red, asking for interesting wines from small producers for less than $10. I came home with more than two cases, so the 10% mixed case price actually made these $9 wines. The column contains my general comments but I didn’t have room for complete tasting notes, which follow, in the order I drank the wines (with much help from friends). Wines marked with an “*” were ones I thought to be very good at any price. I wasn’t bored or unhappy with any of them.
Vinum Africa, Chenin Blanc 2007 (Big Red). Rich and creamy wine from South Africa, with an appetizing bitterness. No hint of the special quince-like flavor of chenin blanc. A good match for slightly sweet vegetables like corn or winter squash.
Oxford Landing Grenache-Syrah-Mourvedre (Sahara Mart). Bright red Australian, tart with clean fresh fruit flavors, not smooth. Soak some oak chips in it and it would taste like what you get in cheap steakhouse chains, but it’s much nicer with the freshness.
Cuvee de Pena 2005 (SM.). A beautiful dark glowing color, good bite and a slight oxidative note, giving it a rustic feel, straight from the heart of darkest France. I liked it but not everyone will enjoy the rough edges as I did. You can also buy this in a three-liter box for $30, which is both a good buy and kind to the environment. (I didn’t try the box and I would be a little concerned about accelerated oxidation. If you try the box, please share your opinion.)
Restoration 2007 (SM). A Portuguese wine with a reddish-black color, good body, lots of acid, and a long finish of plums and cherries. Different and for sure worth trying.
Caposaldo Pinot Grigio 2007 (BR). Tastes like Pinot Grigio but it’s short on aromatics. Inoffensive but I wouldn’t buy it again.
*Hugues Beaulieu, Picpoul de Pinet 2007 (BR). Wow. Made of an obscure grape from Languedoc, this is a soft and seductive white wine with a sense of melons and a meadow. June in a glass.
Skouras White 2007 (BR). A Greek white wine, smooth with a nose of lemon drops. Not bad but a little heavy for my taste. This is a big firm and I do like some of their pricier whites.
Black Wing Chardonnay Padthaway 2006 (BR). Made by a small Australian winery from purchased grapes. Gold color, bright pineapple flavor, pleasant but nothing special.
Jurschitsch Mozart Gruner Veltliner 2007 (BR). This is a “fun” wine made by one of the classical producers of classy G.V. in Austria. It’s spicy, a little yeasty, and fresh. It lacks the finesse and elegance of its big sisters but it would brighten any meal. Try it with fried catfish for a nice kick.
*El Ganador Malbec 2006 (BR). Absolutely everything you could ask of an Argentinian malbec. Big and purple, filling the mouth with black fruit and the nose with sweet flowers. Lingering aftertaste. If you eat red meat, you should have this wine.
Maipo Malbec 2007 (BR). Another good malbec from Argentina, refined, aromatic and full of blackberries.
Vinedos El Seque 2006 (BR). A Spanish wine from Alicante, made of Monastrell (Mourvedre) grapes. Big, fresh, purple color with lively red fruit flavors. A first-rate wine if you like some acid.
La Mano Bierzo 2006 (BR). Made from Mencia grapes, pretty much unknown elsewhere, Bierzo wines are trendy and a favorite of hip sommeliers. This version, although not outstanding, shows you exactly why, with its bright red color and subtle blueberry-like flavor.
Cellers Unio, Roureda Rubi 2007 (BR). This Spanish rose, imported by Bloomington-based Manolo’s Wines, is meatier and more substantial than most roses, based on half grenache and half merlot grapes. It is soft and floral and would be close to perfect if it had a little more acidity.
Figaro Calatayud Tinto 2005 (BR). I’m snowed in as I write this and this would be a good wine to be snowed in with. Deep red with black cherry notes and hints of spice and almonds, the long finish of this all garnacha wine leaves a warm glow, helped along by 14.5% alcohol.
*De Bortoli dB Petite Syrah 2006 (SM). Petite syrah is a mysterious grape and, so far at least, DNA testing only adds to the mystery of what is called petite syrah around the world. But this is definitely a mystery to engage and here is a sensational example. Deep plums, a long finish hinting at prunes but all moderated by real freshness. Unique and appealing.
Colombelle Rouge Cotes de Gascogne 2007 (SM). Fruity with good acid, very deep color, and a definite taste of bubble gum. Why would someone take tannat grapes and try to make Beaujolais? There is a limit to chemistry and marketing and this, for me, is that limit. I suppose it is not, objectively, a bad wine but it pissed me off.
Skouras Red 2006 (BR). An undistinguished Greek wine made mostly from cabernet grapes. Not offensive but needs more freshness and some aromatics.
Marques de Moral Valdepenas Crianza 2004 (BR). This tempranillo was fresh and pretty at first but there was a medicinal aftertaste that, well, left a bad taste in my mouth.
Raimat Tempranillo Costers del Segre 2003 (SM). A pleasant wine with no special distinction. I found it a little hard on the finish and wonder if there is too much oak.
Agricola de Borja Borsao 2007 (SM). Traditionally one of the great values in wine (I paid $7), this was a respectable wine, lively if not complex. I’d be happy to have it but I think the next wine knocks the socks off this one.
*Don Ramon Campo de Borja 2006 (SM). A blend of 75% garnacha and 25% tempranillo, this fruity eight-dollar wine is ripe, spicy and complex. Put it in a lineup with some $40 Chateauneuf du Pape and it will more than hold its own.
Crucillon Campo de Borja 2005 (SM) Balanced, almost elegant, easy to enjoy but not especially exciting.
D’Aragon Garnacha 2007 (SM). A dark and perfumed wine, international in style, smooth drinking. Everyone will like this, no one will remember it.
*Red Diamond Cabernet 2006 (SM). This Washington wine is about the best bargain there is in cabernet (given the competition, maybe I should say the only bargain). It hits all the notes – black currants, tobacco, chocolate – while remaining light and fresh. It is definitely not from Napa, not rich or velvety, and is meant to go to dinner not to a tasting.
Fattoria della Vitae, Chianti Colli Senesi 2006 (BR). Just Chianti, tart, red, fruity, appetizing and a good friend to Italian food.
Santa Martina Toscana Rosso 2005 (BR). A more ambitious Italian – smooth, international, ambitious, “don’t call me Chianti, I’m a super Tuscan.” Not bad if you go for the type.
Col des Vents Corbieres 2005 (BR). This is a lush, comforting southern French wine, with bright berry flavors mingled with herbal notes. Just delicious, not showy, for Sunday dinner with the family, if you’re lucky.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Sahara Champagne

If Mercedes Benz made Champagne, I’d want to drink the BMW. Mercedes used to make exciting cars. Once they were established as the world’s best, they then turned to hanging onto that reputation by making cars that reassure the owner of his worth rather than exciting him. The Big Brand Champagne houses must have a similar marketing plan. Having spent fortunes on advertising and good solid wine-making over the years, their labels reassure the purchaser that he must indeed be a person with good taste and spare change. The reassurance is nice, of course. If your girlfriend picks you up in a Mercedes with a bottle of Moet et Chandon Champagne, you have a lot to look forward to. To achieve this stable luxury, the big brands buy Champagne from hundreds of farmers and blend the wines of different years over time. The wine tastes the same, you can relax. A little sweet, no surprises, nothing exaggerated.

But in recent years, some individual farmers in Champagne have begun to bypass the highly advertised conglomerate owned brands – all the brands you see advertised in the New Yorker – in favor of selling their own wines, unblended and made with a minimum of manipulation. These are wines that taste different from one batch to the next, wines designed to thrill you with racy flavors and vibrant textures, wines that do not speak with the polite hush of a gentleman’s club. But, also, wines you might not like and that will not simply invoke expensive comforts. Less than three percent of the total crop is sold in this way as artisanal Champagne, often called “farmer fizz” or, with slightly more formality, “grower Champagne.” Basic big brand Champagne sells for thirty to forty dollars and the grower wines are usually ten to twenty dollars more. This step up to farmer fizz is the biggest bang you can get in the wine market for ten or twenty bucks. All the famous brands also make very expensive bottles as well, typically selling for one or two hundred dollars. These pricey bottles can be first-rate and individualistic too, of course. For myself, though, the price is simply too much, given the thrills available from good grower Champagnes. [Except maybe Krug, the one important Champagne house that makes only the best and most expensive – if Mumm is a Mercedes, Krug is the Bentley.]

The importer Terry Theise has made it his life’s work to bring farmer fizz to the US and Sahara Mart has newly found a spot in his distribution chain. In February, Sahara Mart and Farm Restaurant held a tasting for nine different examples of these wines and the wines are, in general, available at the Mart. I had three favorites. These three were also the least expensive (never happened that way to me before):
1) Margaine, Cuvee Traditionelle, Brut Nonvintage. $48. Champagne can be made from a mixture of grapes, pinot noir and chardonnay typically predominating. This one is 90% chardonnay, with a bouquet of delicate flowers, maybe honeysuckle, and fruity flavors somewhat like peach. The result is very pleasant with food – something fresh and bright, like melon with prosciutto.
2) Hebrart, Selection, Brut Nonvintage $52. This is a little tangier than the Margaine. There are flowers in the bouquet but also a more serious note, spices perhaps. The taste definitely evokes lemons and the whole would be a lively aperitif or good company for some smoked salmon.
3) Aubry, Brut Nonvintage, $47. This is a big boy, unusual in that a full 50% is neither pinot noir nor chardonnay, but a red grape called pinot meunier. The result is richer than the first two, with flavors less of fruit and more of something like bread and butter. This actually tastes wonderful with popcorn but don’t tell the luxury police, who will bust you for not using caviar. I’m sure caviar would be swell.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Big Red Merlot

It seems impossible to talk about the red wine made from merlot grapes without quoting Miles’ line from the film Sideways. “If anyone orders merlot, I’m leaving. I’m not drinking any fucking merlot.” Since the film was released in 2004, the consumption of merlot has declined some and the price has definitely plummeted. One irony of the price drop is that we may all be drinking more merlot than ever but without knowing it. An American wine labeled simply by grape, say cabernet, can actually contain up to 25% of a different variety. The production of merlot grapes has not declined as much as the consumption of merlot wine, a pattern which, when combined with the lower price for merlot, suggests that it may have become a filler for other varietals. It would be a splendid irony if Miles’ beloved pinot noirs are now made of 25% merlot – and given the increased flow of undistinguished pinot since the movie, there could well be a lot of things lurking in these bottles. Anyway, while I was boring Big Red’s wine manager, Bobby Wallace with such thoughts, he decided to organize a tasting of merlots. So he pulled out six different bottles of fairly recent merlot from Australia, California, Washington and France. To these I added two older Europeans from my cellar, we bothered Dave Tallent for a few delicious appetizers and sat down with wine manager Bobby DerOhanian to see what we thought.

I found three wines to like. We all liked a wine from Washington, the 2003 Northstar for $28. This was a fresh, spicy wine with a bold blackberry flavor and hints of mocha. It seems to be common in recent tastings around the country for Washington merlots to outclass those from California. Merlot ripens easily and things (grapes, plots, politics) that ripen easily anywhere else can quickly become overripe in California. The Northstar kept its freshness well. I also liked the Chateau Bon Pasteur 2000, from my cellar. This large, complex Bordeaux wine from Pomerol has a thick texture and rich fruit – but it would clearly have been better if it had stayed in the cellar for another few years. My third pick, and a real bargain at $20, was the Chateau Suau 2005 – a nicely balanced lighter Bordeaux, suggesting plums and cherries.

I was put off by the one Australian example, the 2006 Mollydooker “Scooter” for $20. It smelled like candied fruit, felt a little like syrup and tasted too much like vodka for me. A true Mollydooker – strong feelings, positive or negative, pretty much guaranteed. The two Californians, Shafer 2005 for $55 and 2004 Jarvis for $75, were well-made, suave and polished wines – but I found them a bit dull. They lacked the depth of the Pomerol on the one hand while also falling to bring the uplifting freshness of the Northstar or the Suau to the table. My Italian contribution, the 1998 Montiano, was weedy and uninteresting. This wine has a considerable following but I’d never had it before. It may just have been a bad bottle. Another French wine, Chateau L’Ecuyer for $43, was a little funky in the nose and somewhat brambly in the mouth. Perhaps it will settle down in a few years and repay cellaring but with a tasty Chateau Suau for less than half the price, I won’t be the one to find out.

What do I think about Miles’ dictum now? Merlot is easy to make, and usually turns out OK. It happened to be just coming into visibility in California in 1991, the year the CBS documentary on the “French Paradox” was pushing the idea that red wine will save your heart. A lot of folks in America decided to replace their ubiquitous cheap bar glasses of chardonnay with something red – merlot was easy to grow, easy to drink, easy to pronounce, and good for you besides. Too much was planted, too much drunk, too much of it dull and sweet, as befits a cheap bar drink. It was already losing its appeal when Miles dispatched it. But good merlot remains a fine wine indeed, and I will be looking for mine in the State of Washington and from Pomerol, on the right bank of the river by Bordeaux.

Monday, September 10, 2007

2006 Beaujolais

I finally had a chance to taste some Beaujolais from the 2006 vintage. Beaujolais is often dismissed because the marketing hype surrounding Nouveau Beaujolais leaves the impression that the whole area is devoted to froth. In fact, the “crus” can be very fine and elegant drinks. Even these top examples are sometimes overlooked because they are subtle rather than overpowering. They’re meant for a roast chicken or a grilled sausage, not for a haunch of marinated boar or a banker’s ransom of Kobe porterhouse. The importer Kermit Lynch has long worked at bringing in the best examples of these charmers and Cédric Picard, wine guru at Big Red, persuaded Lynch to send in some advance samples. (I guess I should respect his ethnicity and refer to Cédric as a savant rather than guru.) Anyway, last night we got to drink some of these, 2005’s as well as 06’s and here are my notes.
First the 05’s. Thévenet, Morgon Vielles Vignes. The nose had a deep background scent, which everybody liked, and another element which people characterized with descriptors ranging from funky to barnyard to worse. I liked it and also liked the thick flavors of cherry, almond and vanilla. Not for the faint of heart, anyway. On the other hand, the Guy Breton Morgon was a beautiful violet wine, with a wonderful bouquet of flowers (finally justifying the word) and a light but pleasant taste of red berries – a good choice for those put off by the earthiness of the Thévenet. Then the 06’s. First a Dupeuple Beaujolais, a simple wine with a slight note of bubble gum. It reminded me of cherry cough drops, but good cherry cough drops. Then a more serious wine, a Thivin Cotes de Brouilly, with a silky texture, maybe red currant more than cherry, and a lingering spicy note. I was disappointed in the Diochon Moulin-à-Vent, usually a more impressive wine but tonight shallow and short. Finally a real winner, the Domaine Chignard’s Fleurie “Les Moriers.” The powerful fruits climbed right out of the glass, no need to bury the geeky nose in the glass for this one. The liquid coats the mouth and perfumes it for a good while afterwards. I thought at first that this was an impostor, that a pinot noir from Beaune had been slipped in to test us. I think the bottom line is that 06 will both require and reward careful buying.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

What I've been doing instead of blogging.

Memory and the Twenty-First Amendment
Patrick Baude*

The Twenty-First Amendment (1) repeals Prohibition and (2) allows states to prohibit the transportation or importation of intoxicating liquors. Justice Stevens, dissenting from a recent Supreme Court opinion somewhat limiting state bans on importation, observed that the Court’s decision would “seem strange indeed to the millions of Americans who condemned the use of ‘demon rum.”’ This is a sensible thing to say about Prohibition but quite an odd thing to say about an amendment repealing Prohibition. His comment was especially powerful, however odd, in light of the implication that he had personal memory of this particular bit of legislative history. In fact, one can remember that history as a condemnation of strong drink or as a condemnation of the corruption created by the ban itself. Which memory one privileges is not purely a historical issue.
Two contemporary questions turn in part on the question whether the amendment’s penumbra is “wet” or “dry.” First, the language of section 2 of the amendment prohibits the importation into any state “of intoxicating liquors, in violation of the laws thereof....” This section contains a serious ambiguity. It might, on one hand, be read simply to empower any state to pass a law banning importation. This reading would vindicate complex state regulatory regimes whose main effect is to award monopoly profits to politically favored businesses, especially wholesalers. But it might also be read only as allowing the state to ban the importation of alcohol that was otherwise outlawed – i.e., to go dry in whole or county by county. If Justice Stevens is right that the combined force of the 18th and 21st amendments demonizes rum, exiling it from the constitution, then the first reading seems logical enough and the varying lawsuits challenging the current regimes are doomed. The second contemporary question concerns the general regulation of alcohol in society. A typical narrow question is whether alcohol can be banned from places of sexual entertainment. A broader version of that question is to ask why we, as a society, have followed the supposedly discredited model of the 18th amendment in our marijuana laws, relying on a sweeping prohibition, even in the growing number of states which have themselves recognized medical uses of the drug.
The first version of this history is the story of the “Noble Experiment” – a story popular with viewers of "The Untouchables." Liquor had corrupted the workingman, leading him to spend his wages on drink rather than family support, to spend his time in saloons away from his family, and into a descending spiral of alcoholism and self-indulgence. The commercial alcohol interests fueled this process in the pursuit of profits, developing a system of saloons that particularly seduced immigrants away from efforts to join the American Way. In an age of reform, progressives seeking the same sort of benefit as those sought by wage and labor laws, protected the health and welfare of workers, and the economic and social needs of their families, by protecting them from the attacks by the liquor industry. Unfortunately, organized crime and corrupt politicians conspired to profiteer on the weakness of the flesh. In the end, the wickedness of these criminals could not overcome the good of sobriety and repeal was a necessary evil.
The other version of the history is a story of puritanical subversion of egalitarian democracy. The just-published work, Dry Manhattan, by Michael Lerner, is a gripping portrayal of this point of view. The Anti-Saloon League showed a mastery of single-issue pressure politics, driven substantially by nativism and hostility to Catholic and Jewish immigrants particularly. In the political system of the time, before one person one vote, over-represented rural voters imposed their religious and cultural strictures on the nation as a whole. Dissent, especially from immigrant communities, was silenced by jingoistic attacks on their patriotism. It took years for the actual will of the people to reassert itself through the convoluted amendment process. The difficulties of repeal were so extensive that Texas’s Senator Morris Sheppard observed: “There is as much chance of repealing the Eighteenth Amendment as there is for a hummingbird to fly to the planet Mars with the Washington Monument tied to its tail.”
Both of these mythic versions are partially accurate descriptions of a flawed political process employed to some extent in a search for the public interest. I believe, however, that they both miss a deeper point crucial to the meaning of the constitutional experience. As the historian David Kysig observed in 1985: “[T]he national prohibition was arguably the most radical and significant constitutional reform ever adopted.” Among other things, prohibition for the first time introduced federal agents into the direct regulation of private life, essentially suspended the system of federalism, and thereby altered both the public and private life of the nation.
My point here, however, is to point in a more limited way to radical nature of the 18th amendment, in ways reinforced by both versions of the myth. The point, related to the theme of our panel about food and the law, is that food (and drink) are the essence of identity itself. Without ( I hope) parodying Lévi-Strauss’ Le Cru et le Cuit, it remains that personal identity is connected with food in ways far more intimate than any other form of consumption. Children begin to separate from their parents as they assert autonomy at the feeding table. Many nationalities are identified in slang, at least, by distinctive dietary items – “frogs,” “krauts,” “limeys” and other derogatory epithets. The place that food and wine play in Communion is only the most dramatic illustration of the centrality of this oral consumption to autonomy – indeed, one of the fascinating skirmishes of the prohibition era was the different approach to Jewish and Catholic sacramental wine.
I suggest, in short, that a central fact of Prohibition was that it therefore regulated identity, not behavior. As such, it was an act of cultural violence to the minority rather than an ordinary law regulating behavior. A comparable contemporary act would be an English-only law which made it a crime to speak any other language – a step no nativist organization, so far as I know, has yet even proposed. The prohibition of medical marijuana, by contrast, does not regulate an incident of identity.
If I am right about the centrality of the identity-food-drink connection, the 21st amendment should then be understood as preserving to the states their right to define their own political identity rather than a general enhancement of their police powers because of the potentially harmful effects of alcohol. This would uphold partial or complete prohibition of beverage alcohol but not its economic exploitation or discriminatory regulation.

(This an extended abstract of a presentation for the 2007 Annual Meeting of the Association for the Study of Law, Culture, and the Humanities)

*Ralph F. Fuchs Professor of Law and Public Service, Indiana University, Bloomington.