April 30, 2008

50% Off: These, Not Those

I had an unusual, though nice, experience in a wine shop recently. I was browsing in a shop that I don't normally visit. It's not in my immediate area and it's actually one of those half wine, half gifty thing shops. That's typically more than enough evidence that the shop isn't worth a geek's time, but rules have their exceptions and this is one.

Nevermind the shop's odd shelf arrangement, with wines placed on what is to me a vague "ligher to heavier" and "earthy to fruity" axis (what does that mean?). Once you get over that, you find a well thought out selection of wines from around the world. Not a geek fest, but much more serious than the modest locale otherwise commands.

What struck me was the final shelf, with a 50% off sign on the top. That's quite a discount, and you might think that means the wines probably stink. But in this part of the world, there are some amazing things to find in wine bargain bins.

Yet the 50% off shelf had some of the exact same wines as on the regular shelves. Not different vintages or vineyard. No, the exact same wines.

At first I thought there must be a mistake. But no. I asked the proprietor and he said he just didn't have enough room for all the bottles, so a few extras go to the bargain bin. Such as a brand new 2006 Cotes du Rhone that's $12 here, but hey, $6 there.

What caught my eye was the 2003 J.M. Raffault Chinon "Clos du Capucins," which an importer refers to as the producer's grand cru. The shelf price was $23.99. But here were two bottles at half off, and I grabbed them both. Nevermind the over the top 2003 vintage. I'm excited.

But one wine in the same shop at two different prices? I've never seen such a thing. Have you?

Meanwhile, a beer note. I've heard about the Duchesse de Bourgogne, a Flemish beer, but until now I've never tried one. Well isn't this interesting. The label says it's blend of oak-aged ales from 8 to 18 months old. It's indeed reddish brown in color with a complex malty aroma laced with sherry notes. In the mouth it's lightly sweet with a full malty flavor with dried plum and other fruit notes. There's clearly a dry sherry quality on the finish, but it nicely balances the sweet elements and draws out the finish. The oak notes are muted, or perhaps integrated rather than sticking out obviously. In sum, this is delicious old world ale that drinks more like wine than "beer." Find some and try it for yourself.

April 22, 2008

2004 Nigl Gelber Muskateller Kremstal

At least a year ago, I bought one bottle of the 2004 Nigl Gelber Muskateller, a dry white wine from the muscat grapes made by one of Austria’s top producers. I love wines like this, oddities from great producers that don’t cost much but promise interesting drinking.

The only problem is that I end up with too many one-off bottles. More than a few, like this one, are also weird enough to leave me wondering when to open them. Sure, this should be nice with spicy food, but I have a bunch of wines that fit that bill. So bottles occasionally sit longer in the cellar than I intend.

Then tonight, we’re having Thai take-out from a great little place in the neighborhood – Chaba Thai for you locals. And our neighbors are coming over. They’re game for unusual wines, so out comes the Gelber Muskateller.

First, a quick thought about screw caps. This has one, and I’ve read reports of people suggesting that screw caps can be tough to open sometimes, especially if you have arthritis. I don’t, but sometimes screw caps are a bit of a struggle. The good advice I got is that you should hold the lower part of the screw cap capsule with one hand and the bottle in the other hand. Twist the bottle and the screw cap will crack open without much effort at all.

Once opened, this wine is crystal clear and pale with a fresh, faintly muscat aroma. Instead of heavily floral aromas, this wine shows more grapefruit and mineral notes. In the mouth, it’s dry with some fat fruit and then piercing acidity and a long, mouthwatering finish.

This wine isn’t terribly complex, but it’s really delicious and much more pleasingly subtle than other dry muscats I’ve had. Not many it’s true, but that’s because they tend to taste more like dessert wines than table wines. Maybe I ought to try more, if this one’s any indicator. But then again, when will I get around to drinking them? The wine queue is only getting longer.

April 20, 2008

Auction Wines

No, not high-end rieslings from the famous German wine auctions. You go do that. I’m simply talking about buying wines from online auctioneers like Winebid.com. I got into it a number of years ago when Winebid was new and I didn’t have a mortgage or kids. Being me, I never spent much money. But I was amazed then at what I could buy for relative peanuts. For $20 or less back then, I got things like:

1978 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Napa ValleyLot 2”
1976 Ch. Ducru Beaucaillou St. Julien
1990 DeLoach Zinfandel Russian River Valley Pelletti Ranch

And lots more…wines you couldn’t find on store shelves, wines that weren’t necessarily great, but wines that were very interesting if not outright delicious. Certainly more fun for this wine geek than the swath of mostly new release stuff I usually have access to on local shelves.

Then came kids and the house, and my Winebid days ended. That is until a few months ago, when the happy mix of Christmas money and free time led me back to the fold. I even remembered my old password, so in I logged and off I went.

Auctions used to be something like 10 days long, maybe starting on a Thursday and then ending the week from Sunday, with a few off days before the next auction opened. Now auctions start and end each Sunday, with just 15 minutes for things to reset before the next week’s auction begins. I like this new schedule.

It used to be that you could buy dribs and drabs of bottles over a number of auctions, then consolidate everything into one shipment to make sure shipping charges didn’t negate the good deals. Perhaps my Winebid days ended way back when after the policy apparently changed where they’d charge you for storing wines not shipped immediately. That was probably reasonable for them, but this customer didn’t like the change on bit. Especially since the change seemed a bit pourous. The policy wasn’t entirely clear, and the whole confusion just turned me off.

Now, with the weekly auctions, Winebid has a clear policy and shipping schedule such that you can amass wines from two consecutive auctions without storage charges. My goal – to fill out a case over two auctions, so that with ground shipping from California to Oregon I’m paying only about $2 a bottle for packaging and transit.

So far, it’s working too well. My wife isn’t reading this, right? Seriously, I’ve managed to get some fascinating things without spending too much money. My goal for the wine cellar is to find some newer relase, high quality things at discount prices and fill in older vintages that my cellar largely lacks. Thus far, I’ve managed some interesting things within my old budget, like:

1981 Beaulieu Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley “Rutherfold”
2004 Selbach Oster Rielsing Auslese* Zeltinger Schlossberg
1997 McKinlay Pinot Noir Willamette Valley “Special Selection”
2001 Bouchard Nuits St. Georges 1er Cru “Chaboeufs” Signature

And others…including the following two wines that I’ve tried so far.

First, the 2000 Bouchard Pommard Signature, a translucent red Burgundy from what’s known as a soft, early drinking vintage. This shows some oak in the aroma and there’s nice mature fruit and spice notes. The taste is a bit unbalanced, with tannin and drying fruit flavors, but it’s flavory as the Brits would say and a nice drink with dinner.

Then, the 1991 Stony Hill Riesling Napa Valley, which has a light gold color and smells nice with honey and petrol notes. The flavor though is a bit light and watery, not showing the intensity I expected from this notably cool vintage in California. Really though, it’s almost 17 years old, what should I expect even from a producer that’s known to produce long-lived wines. Sure enough, on the second day it seems more complete and well worth drinking, not something to hold on to but really interesting to drink now.

I’ve looked at other wine auction sites, but none seem to have the small, well priced lots I favor like Winebid. Anyone know of other sites that do?

April 19, 2008

Vins Sans Soufre

Maybe it's me, but it seems like there are more and more red wines out there with no sulfur added. Sure, the number of "sans soufre" bottlings out there is still minimal. Yet I see them on the store shelves, and not always clearly labeled as such.

For example, Marcel Lapierre's delicious Morgon is typcially sans soufre. Unfortunately, the importer's label or the government "health" warning label usually covers up the small back label that tells you in French that the wine has no sulfur added and needs to be keep in cool conditions to be in optimum condition.

Happily, our picture shows that Pierre and Catherine Breton's 2000 Bourgeuil "Nuits d'ivresse" is clearly labeled. Provided you read French, of course. For the monoglots, the label says that the wine was not sulfured or filtered, that the grapes used were certified organic by Ecocert, and that the wine should be kept below 14C, or around 56F.

Of course, I found this bottle and a few of its siblings recently while browsing a local Fred Meyer that's never very warm inside but certainly no less than 68F at any given time. The 2000 vintage was released four or five years ago, and these bottles were simply on the regular shelves, slightly dust covered and suggesting they'd been waiting for a suitor for quite a while.

Everything about the bottles looked fine. Fill levels were perfect. Labels were clean, capsules and corks apparently pristine. What I might expect from fragile wine stored in imperfect conditions would be corks bulging out of the bottle tops, pulling at the capsules, perhaps with dried drips of wine down the sides of the bottles. Any poorly stored wine might look that way, as heat causes wine to expand and push out the cork, allowing spoilage and leaving evidence of the disaster within. But no-sulfur-added wines would seem to be even more likely to show damage, because sulfur is used to inactivate yeast and otherwise harmless bacteria in the wine. No sulfur means there's nothing from keeping chemical reactions from occuring, producing CO2 gas that pushes out the cork a bit an allows the wine to spoil. Cold temperatures slow down or essentially negate the risk, hence the warning to keep non-sulfured wine cold. But no sulfur and room temperature conditions for even just days or weeks is surely doom for wine.

At least, that's the conventional wisdom. Yet here are these bottles that appear in perfect condition depsite obviously imperfect storage. So I buy a bottle and try it out. And wouldn't you know, it's pretty delicious stuff. I don't have a "perfectly" stored bottle to compare it to, so who's to say that one wouldn't show aromas and flavors much more young and primary than our poorly treated bottle. The color was a bit mature, lacking the vibrancy that Loire cabernet franc shows in its youth, but the wine is almost eight years old. The aroma was clean and still pretty fresh, with a nice mix of gravelly cassis and herb aromas and flavors, and a softening tannic structure. There isn't great intensity here, and this bottling (the "drunken nights") doesn't seem to be intended for long aging. But this is still perfectly good wine and either an epiphany for the resiliance of no-sulfur wine or at least evidence that no sulfur, no filtering, and no real concern for storage conditions isn't certain doom for otherwise fragile wine.

I'm left wondering what producers are thinking in bottling wines for export without sulfur. Do they think the wines are less fragile than we typically assume? Are they aware that even the best wine shops might not heed with label warnings? Because it's not just the supermarkets that pay no attention to the warnings on storage conditions. I saw the 2004 version of this same wine on the room temperature shelves of one of the top wine shops in Portland. If any place would pay attention to such details, this shop is the one. Yet, again, no bulging corks, no drip stains on the labels, no evidence that anything's wrong with the wine. Judging by this 2000, I'd bet the 2004 is fine. And considering I'm preparing to sulfur my 2007 wines, maybe I don't need to hit them as hard as I think. Sulfur is a magical thing for winemakers, but perhaps the risks to our wines aren't quite as great as we think.

April 06, 2008

Homebrew, and a Belgian

This past vintage was a tough one for this homebrewer, though things may be turning out better than I feared.

Last October was pretty rainy here in the northern Willamette Valley. I picked chardonnay in the middle of the month that was nicely ripe and pretty clean despite the conditions, and I was hopeful I'd make my best white wine yet. The next day I got pinot noir from another vineyard that simply wasn't that ripe. Things didn't look good for my 2007 red wine.

My goal for the chardonnay was simple - make a clean, early drinking white wine aged in glass that would be ready for the coming summer. I picked the most industrial of industrial yeasts, EC-1118, for its reliability with little impact on the final wine. Of course, things don't always turn out so well, and months after harvest I had a couple carboys of juice that wouldn't finish fermenting. What happened? Who knows, but I brought the carboys into my kitchen to try to encourage the yeast to finish off the remaining sugar.

One month later, nothing. Two months later, nothing, except my growing fear that the sugar fermenation wouldn't ever finish, the malolactic fermentation would begin and then end ruinously as the lactic bacteria eat the remaining sugar instead of malic acidity, producing nasty volatile acidity.

Then three months later, today, I find the carboys are finally dry and actually taste pretty fresh, one moreso than the other but that's ok. This is an experiment, and I'll end up bottling them separately to see how they do. I have another small amount of chardonnay that finished fermentation in the fall and has been happily resting all winter. All together, they should provide some interesting lessons before the coming harvest. Considering that I expected this chardonnay to be total failure, I'm now very hopeful for something at least decent.

With the red grapes, I knew I'd have trouble with dilute, unripe flavors due to the rain, so I took off a few gallons of juice after one night of soaking on the skins to make rose. That also allowed the remaining juice to gain a bit more density as the color and flavor from the skins still had largely not been extracted. And I had nicely pink juice to make rose, something I messed up a little the year before by leaving my rose on the skins too long and ending up with a color closer to light red than the pale salmon I really like in most rose.

The rose juice fermented quickly, also with EC-1118, and has been resting all winter like the small amount of chardonnay. Today I tasted it for the first time in months and it's really nice, crisp if not a bit tart with nice purity though simple flavors. I'm interested to see if this doesn't end up being more nervy than most local rose, more like European versions that emphasize minerality and austerity rather than sweet, gummy fruit. We'll see, but I'm excited.

And the red, now in barrel for nearly six months, is smelling better than ever. I've been fighting H2S as the wine goes through its malolactic fermentation, so I've gently stirred the barrel with a copper tube periodically to encourage the stinky smells to bind with the copper and stop smelling. It's working I think, as the wine shows more generous fruit and spice on the aroma than I've ever noticed. Rich, plush wine this isn't. But gone (mostly) is the aroma of farts and other stinky things. In the mouth, this wine still lacks fruit though I'm hoping things continue to change as the malolactic fermentation concludes. It may never appeal too much, but if the flavors come around like the aroma, I'll be very pleased. At this point, I have much more hope than I did a few months ago.

The lesson with all these wines? Patience truly is a virtue. The old sayings tell us that the farmer must not miss anything in the vineyard, lest the grapes suffer from rot or mildew. Yet the winemaker must be willing to neglect wines in the cellar, that is to resist the temptation to muck with the wines before they've had a chance to do their thing, for lack of a better phrase. I'm learning that. Often, the best thing to do in the cellar is wait. Though that's sure easier when you have many barrels of a wine and you can afford a few clunkers. The homebrewer has just one, and it's tough to sit there and wait for things to get better on their own.

My reward? A cool bottle of Duvel Golden Ale from Belgium. Poured into a wine glass to allow the aroma to develop, it's urine yellow in color with a frothy, white head and a malty, yeasty aroma that simply captivates. In the mouth, there's a pleasant tang from the yeast and a long, lightly sweet flavor that's, rightly, golden. I could drink a lot of this, except it's 8.5% alcohol. So one is plenty. And plenty good.

April 05, 2008

Recommending Jacob's Creek

I didn't really foresee the day I'd recommend not one, but two Jacob's Creek wines. Yet here we are.

I don't mean to seem snobbish. It's just that there's plenty written about mass market wine brands. And, usually, I find you can get better wines for less that $10 from smaller producers than the giants. Think of it this way. With $5 for lunch, would you choose McDonald's or one of a selection of lunch carts? I go with the best lunch cart I can find. You can simply do better with individuals making their own food, perhaps with some love and attention, versus the consistent mediocrity of the industrial giant.

With that in mind, we consider Jacob's Creek, a brand from the Australian wine giant Orlando. First, if you need a good, cheap sparking wine that mimics something in the neighborhood of Champagne, the current crop of NV Jacob's Creek Brut Chardonnay/Pinot Noir is pretty swell. I heard about it from Matt Kramer in the Oregonian newspaper, and he's correct that it's more than decent stuff. Two caveats: batches change without notice, and freshness in a wine like this counts. Don't buy dusty old bottles of most sparkling wine.

But the real interest here is the 2002 Jacob's Creek Riesling Steingarten Barossa Valley. I came upon it the other day in the Hollywood Fred Meyer store here in Portland for just $6.99. The display suggested it was a huge markdown, and despite the Jacob's Creek name I grabbed one. Then I looked it up on the internet, as I like to do with wines that I find.

The first thing I found was that this is a limited release wine usually marketed under the Orlando name for $20 or more. It's been around for decades and it seems to be a highly regarded bottling in its home country. The 2002 vintage is apparently infamous for being the year Orlando thought they'd change things up and brand it with the Jacob's Creek name, much to the chagrin of longtime fans who thought it cheapened the wine. Perhaps that led to the local close out.

The most useful notes I found on the wine are at the Auswine forum, which I've read for years without participating much (not at all in the past five or so years). Read here, here, here, here, here, here, and here for more, including some very positive comments and even some evidence of clamor for the wine before release, at a notably higher price. It's always interesting how something so hot in one country or city can languish on the shelves in another. Another proof that prices does not equate to quality.

So how is it? Terrific, actually. This is really one of the most interesting non-European rieslings I've ever tried, no matter the price. For $7, it's a ridiculous bargain. It's indeed lightly honeyed smelling as others have reported, with light petrol aromas and grapefruit, sometimes mint and other interesting things that come and go with time in the glass. In the mouth, the wine is auslese rich with bright acidity but little if any residual sugar, meaning that it's rich and full tasting but also dry and lively with a long finish. The flavors are fruity, mineral, and earthy, really integrated and complex tasting with great intensity and terrific balance. I know, vague winespeak, but this wine is really good and simply the kind of wine you try and immediately know it's serious stuff that will last and probably only get better. As Robert Parker might say, run, don't walk.

April 03, 2008

Closeout Wine Product

Ah, spring is here and it's time to drink some Beaujolais Nouveau.

What's that you say? Nouveau is too old in spring? It's just for Thanksgiving, if ever? Bollocks. Not when there's "Close-Out [sic] Wine Product" in our midst.

Yes, the finest vieilles vignes Beaujolais Noveau is on clearance in at least a few stores in this town. Me being a cheapskate, I buy when prices are low.

And what do you know? This 2007 J. P. Brun Terres Dores Beaujolais Noveau Vieilles Vignes is as good as I'd heard. I suppose you could fault it for being atypcial, enough so that one wonders if it might ever be refused its appellation for being, well, too good. The French do this on occasion, and it might be warranted here. Most nouveau tastes like bubble gum. This wine most certainly does not.

I'm not sure I've ever seen a Beaujolais Nouveau made from "old vines" like this Brun example. And the usual $18 regular price is certainly the most expensive Nouveau I've seen.

If you can believe it, this wine is worth that price and might even be worth cellaring for a little while. It has a lovely perfume and shows all the bright raspberry fruit, rocky earth and pleasant leafy qualities of the regular Brun Beaujolais I've loved for years, with just the slightest grapey edge that suggests Nouveau (made and bottled within weeks of harvest and usually meant to be drunk very young).

In fact, I wonder how Brun does it. The wine tastes like regular Beaujolais, good regular Beaujolais that is another example of wine that allegedly doesn't last in the cellar but in fact can.

I suppose there's no reason to cellar such a wine. Its charm will inevitably fade with time, and there's always a new vintage around the corner. But how can you resist? It's delicious, it's substantial, and it's sad when the bottle's empty.

So go and seek out some closeout wine product. You may be surprised. Nouveau may not be fashionable anymore, but it can be darn good wine.