Sunday, August 6, 2017

DECANTING DILEMMAS, A PLEASANT SURPRISE




Have you ever been to a fancy restaurant and observed wine stewards ceremoniously decant every red wine ordered by every table? It can be quite a spectacle, akin to the changing of the guard in London, and in many occasions, equally as useless. 

When to decant and when not is one of those conundrums that befuddles the novice and connoisseur alike.


The ornamental aspects of the glassware aside, what does decanting actually achieve? A basic Wine Spectator article on the subject (top hit on a Goggle search) says that it has two goals: separate the wine from its sediment and tame the wine by exposing it to oxygen.



The first goal mentioned is not essential. There are less elaborate ways to keep sediment out of the glass.  The second, sometimes referred to as “letting the wine breathe” is the main goal. Limited exposure to oxygen thus achieved, controlled aging if you will, can soften a wine and bring out more nuance. In some cases, early off-putting smells or flavors can also disappear. 

With brawny young wines decanting is safe. These wines are resilient and can benefit from many hours in the decanter, oxygen exposure providing the equivalent of several years of aging in a cellar. With older wines on the other hand, decanting can be risky. Some die quite rapidly. The same Wine Spectator article advises, “A particularly fragile or old wine (especially one 15 or more years old) should only be decanted 30 minutes or so before drinking.”

 
Sensible advice. But wine being what it is, there are countless exceptions to this rule, especially with large format bottles.


On New Year’s Eve 2015, I brought a 3 lt bottle of 1996 Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon for a party at Wine Wizard’s. Larry Johansen, the owner, kept that in a decanter for nearly four hours before serving. The wine, nearly 20 years old, was outstanding, smooth as silk. We kept dipping into that decanter for several more hours and it lasted just fine.


A more recent example provided an interesting experiment, pitting a decanted version of the same wine against a non-decanted one. It was a 1981 Chateau d’Issan, a Left Bank Bordeaux from Margaux, in a magnum bottle (1.5 lt). I brought it to Wine Wizard’s for our regular Friday night blind tasting. 

I actually did not intend to decant it. I figured, “36 years old, decanting might be risky.” But then I had to do it for a totally different reason. When I attempted to open the bottle, its well-aged cork fell into the wine.  Believe it or not, this mishap is the most common cause of decanting in our Friday night wine group.  


The only decanter available was a 750 ml one, equivalent of a regular wine bottle. I poured half of my magnum into this. The other half went into an empty bottle which I filled to the neck and corked immediately. I now had half the 1981 d’Issan exposed to oxygen and the other half well sealed as if it were still in its original bottle. 

The result was surprising.

When I originally poured the wine I took a quick sample and discovered a number of off-putting features: vegetative, slightly corky nose, short, tight profile in the palate, harsh tannins, short finish. These did not portend well for the tasting to follow.


Later, when we began tasting our line-up, my wine came last. By then it had been exposed to air in the decanter for nearly two hours.  The wine had lost all its early defects. It was now smooth, silky, complex in the palate and had a long finish. The initial disagreeable smells had been replaced by a classic Bordeaux nose. Everyone in the wine group recognized it as a good Bordeaux; many guessed it as much younger than what it actually was. 

I then circulated the other half of the ’81 d’Issan, the one sequestered in a sealed bottle. It was as tight and vegetative as my first impression, thought it had shed those early nasties in the nose. 

Several fellow drinkers commented that all old wine should be decanted for some period. How long? Your guess is as good as mine. Experiment at your own risk, as I did. Sometimes it was be rewarding.

Friday, July 28, 2017

WINERY IN A HOSPITAL; ONLY IN FRANCE





In the historic French city of Strasbourg, a most unusual wine shop resides within a giant public hospital complex. Hospice Strasbourg, a 2000 bed hospital with an associated medical school, has been in continuous operation since 1395. It employs over twenty-three thousand people. Among them is a small staff that tends to the wine shop and cellar of the hospital, located in the basement of one of its buildings.



In Medieval times wine was not just an alcoholic beverage. It was considered medicinal. It was also an indispensable part of Christian church liturgy. The monks that ran the early hospital planted vineyards nearby and made their own wine. While such practices were widespread in ancient Europe, over the centuries wine and patient care gradually separated from each other, except in Strasbourg. 


Located in Alsace, a region of France that borders Germany, Strasbourg is a city of 275,000 people, the largest in the area. Having repeatedly changed hands between France and Germany, the entire region contains a mix of both cultures, this also extending to its wines. Of the seven principle varietals grown in the area, the two most common, Riesling and Gewürztraminer, are German varietals. The cool northern climate of Alsace is mostly conducive to white wine. The others include Pinot Gris, Sylvaner,  Muller-Thurgeau, Pinot Blanc and Muscat. 

The only red varietal of the region is Pinot Noir, a French grape. The quality of Alsatian Pinot Noir used to be poor compared to Burgundy, its French home, or the upstart Pinots of the New World. The cool climate of the area resulted in thin, indistinct wines. Nowadays, thanks to global warming Pinot Noirs are getting better. 



We discovered all these Alsatian varietals sold at the wine shop beneath the hospital, under the hospital’s own label, along with selections from Bordeaux, Burgundy and Rhone. Prices were reasonable, most Alsatian  wines around 10-20 Euros. 


A  cave complex behind the shop contained forty ancient wine barrels, large and ornate, in which the wine sold here is aged. A friendly attendant explained that the hospital contracts with various winemakers who bring a select portion of their yearly product and age them in these barrels for six to eight months. After bottling, the proceeds are shared between the shop and the winemakers. The annual output of the operation is around 23,000 cases. The profits are returned to the hospital which is owned by the city. 


As we toured the wine casks, each labelled with their content, we were amazed to discover the oldest white wine in the world, from the 1472 vintage (can anyone remember that one?). It was sampled three times, each tasting a historic occasion onto itself: 1576, for a Swiss delegation, 1716, on the occasion of the renovation of the hospital, and 1944 by General Lelerc, liberator of Strasbourg from the Germans during World War II. The wine was finally abandoned in 2015 due to irreparable leaks in its barrels. 


Nowadays a small sample resides in a tall back lit bottle, locked within a Medieval cage.  


We tasted two Pinot Noirs with the Hospices Strasbourg label, from the 2014 and 2015 vintages. They came in the same tall, thin bottles as their white counterparts and were Burgundian in style. The 2015 was fruity, easy drinking, well balanced and food friendly.
The 2014 was more serious, with an earthy nose, high extraction, supple tannins and a long finish. Alsace, we realized, has indeed come a long way with this difficult varietal.

We regretted not having more time to explore this remarkable cellar, especially since we were unaware that it took a two week advance reservation to get a proper tour and tasting. 

Strasbourg has countless tourist attractions, many common to all European destinations, an imposing cathedral, countless churches, charming architecture, tour boats cruising scenic canals that encircle the old city, ubiquitous restaurants. Yet this remarkable hospital winery is not listed on any A-list of things to do there. 



The Cave Historique Hospices Strasbourg is a mere footnote in most guide books. For those interested in wine however, it should be a must see. 

Monday, June 19, 2017

ROSÉ RESURGENCE; NO LONGER BELLY-BUTTON FLUFF



 “I have red and I have white,” she said. “What do I need pink for?”

My wife was responding to my insistent call for her to try a terrific new rosé from Acquiesce.  When did she become a rosé snubber? I thought. I remembered a time when we put away a lot rosé together at the poolside. 


Her proclamation reminded me of a British wine snob who once said, “Rosé is wine’s answer to belly-button fluff, baffling in origin, purposeless in deployment.” Elegant, yet brutal. 

Why indeed do we need rosé in our lives? I posed the question to regulars at Wine Wizard’s.


Because it is good,” said one.  Because you need variety in your life,” quipped another. “Life is not complete without it.” Larry Johansen, the Wiz himself, considered rosé an indispensable element of the overall wine experience.

Rosé hatred used to be a popular sport, but it is now passé. We are in the midst of a major rosé resurgence.


Consumption of this easy-drinker is increasing dramatically. Bev Mo used to offer around fifteen brands of rosé; now it’s offering over fifty. Locally, Wine Wizard’s always sold classic Tavel and Bandol rosé from Provence, and hidden secrets like cheap Grignolino rosé from Heitz in Napa - better known for its pricy Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet. Larry is now also offering a larger variety, French stalwarts, Italian rosatos, Spanish rosados and domestics, including Acquiesce, the Lodi rosé I mentioned to my wife, from a winery well on its way to local cult status. 

In the meanwhile rosé has also conquered upper echelons of society. In the sheik Hamptons of Long Island, New York, sales of Wölffler Estate rosé, a local concoction, has enjoyed an explosion from eighty-some cases in the 1990s, to twenty-thousand plus currently. It is nowadays known as “Hampton’s Gatoraid.” 

Why the difference?


To begin with, rosé has finally emerged from the dark shadow of White Zinfandel that cast a cloud on it. White Zin was as serendipitous a discovery as Penicillin, though not as useful. In the early 1970s, a Napa winemaker, Bob Trinchero, set aside a failed batch of grape juice with prematurely arrested fermentation. The yeast had died before the sugar was consumed. When he later tasted it he discovered a sweet, fruity flavor that he thought was marketable. Sutter Home White Zinfandel was thus born.

It went on to make a fortune for Trinchero, and touched off a White Zin craze in the 1980s and 90s that smeared rosé wines in its swirl. White Zin was not real rosé, but rather a “blush” wine. For drinkers it made no difference. They were both pink. So what?


While White Zin was extracting a toll, rosé had another, more intransigent opponent: macho males. They wouldn’t be caught dead drinking anything pink, wine or otherwise. Now White Zin is old history and machismo has acquired a softer side. We are in the midst of a more touchy-feely Bro-sé phenomenon. According to Chris Schonberger, editor-in-chief of firstwefeast.com, as of 2014, “it finally became cool for men to drink pink (up 39% by volume),” rosé making a transition from “baby showers to backyard barbeques, poker nights and tailgate parties,” with New York leading the way. “A search for the #brosé hashtag on Instagram reveals a treasure trove of shirtless homoeroticism,adds Schonberger.


Contrary to common misperception, rosé is not made by mixing white and red wine, nor is it a product of incomplete fermentation – as in Sutter Home White Zin. It is created by keeping the skins of red-wine grapes in shorter contact with the juice, during a process called maceration. Thus rosé can be made of any red varietal grape and therefore carries  diversity in styles, Old World versions dryer, New World sweeter.

It is thought that ancient winemaking techniques favored rosé. In those days longer maceration periods resulted in harsh red wines that were too hard to drink. Shortened maceration times meant easier drinkers – and pale colors. The English who bought boatloads – literally – of claret from Bordeaux at one time, preferred pinkish clarets for this very same reason. 

Modern techniques subsequently refined wines, red and white alike, to an extent that made pink inferior.  


The current rosé resurgence is in part fueled by endorsements from celebrities such as Beyoncé and the now defunct Brangelina (Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie), the latter touting their own rosé label: Miraval, from Provence. Famed movie director Francis Coppola, a Sonoma winemaker, has a best-seller rosé: Sophia, named after his daughter. Print media has joined the fray, touting the virtues of rosé  wine, while unlikely social media stars such as The Fat Jew (Josh Ostrowsky) are spreading rosé-love on Instagram.


To be sure, rosé is easy to love. It is friendly both on the palate and wallet. “You do not need to pay more than $15 for a bottle,” says Rachel Sanders of BuzzFeed. It is also agreeable with and array of foods: barbecued meats (fish, chicken, red meat), veggies, potato chips or even cookies. It is versatile, drinkable at a barbecue, the beach or at the TV couch, with or without food, and can be mixed into cocktails. Just don’t age them. Rosé is a buy-and-drink wine. Within a year most rosé is undrinkable.

Rosé resurgence was long overdue. Contrary to the British bloke who compared rosé with belly-button fluff, its origins have always been well known and its deployment is no longer uncertain. 

Now if I can only convince my wife to join in. I think I’ll buy a bottle or two and sneak some into Julie’s poolside glass this summer.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

CABERNET FRANC; IS THERE ANY HOPE IN AMERICA?




Someone suggested a Cabernet Franc tasting, domestic versus French. Not again!

Over the years I’ve been through a few of these. They have all left me with the same impression: the French maintain the essence of the grape while Americans make a mess of it. Would this one be any different?

Cabernet Franc is mostly a blending grape, ubiquitous in Bordeaux where it plays second fiddle to its more illustrious counterparts, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. These mixes are imitated in other parts of the world. 


The only region where Cab Franc is a mainstay solitary varietal is the Loire Valley of France. There the grape rules the roost, Chinon being the top appellation, Bourgeuil a close second, and Saumur-Champigny an upstart that is catching up. 



In North America, single varietal Cab Franc is a novelty item made only by a few. In a recent search at the cavernous K&L wine store in San Francisco, known for the depth and variety of its offerings, it took an experienced clerk quite a while to find me a single domestic Cab Franc on display. 


Loire Cab Francs have cool weather characteristics: light fruit with green pepper or small berry flavors and hints of smoke. Many, especially Bourgeuil, have characteristic burned pepper noses and flavors. It may sound off-putting, but it’s delicious, once the taste is acquired. The wines are well balanced and pack a wallop of acidity in their finish, making them friendly with a variety of foods, especially pork and poultry, some pastas and steaks. 

When tasted by themselves however, they don’t compare well with more fruit forward, higher alcohol, somewhat sweeter wines from North America. Nor do they do well against their more lofty French brethren from Bordeaux or the Rhone Valley. This may be why most Loire reds are stuck at relatively bargain prices when all others keep rising. 


Meanwhile, American winemakers who have an uncanny ability to take any grape and make it taste like a popular, well selling varietal, create Cab Francs with highly extracted fruit on the sweet side, with high alcohol and prominent oak. They are hard to identify as Cabernet Franc and resemble Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. Prices tend to be high, certainly higher than Loire Cab Francs.   




By coincidence, our tasting, a BYOB, combined four French and four domestics. The French were predictable and, with one exception, pleased those tasters that like the Loire style. Included were a 2007 Chinon from famed producer Joguet, and a 2015 Bourgeuil Domaine de la Butte. Baudry, another respected producer appeared with a 2007 Chinon that was over-the-hill. A disappointment. The best of the bunch was a 2007 Bourgeuil from Catherine & Pierre Breton. All these were lighter style, well balanced, food friendly wines. They retail in the $ 30-45 range.


The Americans were a hodge-podge. We began with a 2014 Andrew Will from Columbia Valley in Washington State.  
It was a big and fruity wine, sweet and with striking spice and aggressive tannins that dominated the finish. It tasted nothing like Cabernet Franc and was not worth $ 40 it sells for.
A 2013 Chimney Rock could have easily been mistaken for a well made Merlot. It was elegant, well balanced, a bit ripe and sweet, and oaky in the finish, not overly so. I described it as a wine that appeals to popular tastes. Located in the Stags Leap district of Napa’s Silverado Trail, this winery is better known for its expensive Cabernet Sauvignons. So was this Cab Franc, $82. 

Would anyone pay that price for a bottle of Cab Franc? I liked the wine, but not I.



The worst of the domestics was a 2009 Windwalker from El Dorado Hills in Amador County that retails for $22. It exemplified all the sinful excesses that domestic wine makers commit. The wine was huge, sweet, oaky from beginning to end, high alcohol and, in many ways Port-like. Stunned, the only comment I could offer was, “I didn’t know Cabernet Franc could make a dessert wine.” 


Just when I thought all hope was lost and this tasting would go the way of all the others, a surprise appearance from Paso Robles turned out to be most notable: this 2016 Franc Field Recordings. It had a floral nose, light Chinon-like fruit and a smoky mid palate. Those of us who like the Loire style mistook it for a Chinon. In retrospect hints of sweetness in the upfront fruit and less pronounced acidity gave it away as domestic.  

Finally we had come across a Loire style Cab Franc from California. Hallelujah! 

At $19 it was the cheapest wine in the tasting. Hallelujah again.