Sunday, March 30, 2008

Taster's Lament

I'm sitting at a table with four glasses in front of me: a Barolo, a monster Shiraz, a Bourgueil, and a Barbera. I glare at each of them in turn, then dig into my chocolate cake and cannoli with frustration. I hear that someone just popped a Turley Zinfandel downstairs, and there's a 94-point Rioja on the table. It's 80 minutes into the Wine Library event at Basilico's restaurant, and I can no longer taste wine.

To be fair, it's not that I went completely aguesic - it's just that every wine I smelled or tasted seemed oxidized. The "bruised apple" smell overpowered all aromas, even in wines I'd tasted earlier and knew to be perfectly fine. I tried washing my glasses. I tried changing glasses. I sniffed other people's glasses. I downed lots of bread and water in an effort to cleanse my palate. Nothing worked.

Ironically, I only learned to identify oxidized wines earlier that day. Joe G pointed out the flaw in the 1965 and 1969 Louis Martini Cabernets at the WLTV taping. (The '65, incidentally, was also my first "corked" wine, and the unpleasant taste lingered on my tongue for hours afterwards) At first I didn't find the oxidization unpleasant - just like bad apple cider with stewed figs, and a little bitterness. In fact, a lot of people in the room were drinking it, and I can understand why - there was still a little sugar and acidity, so the wine wasn't completely unpalatable, though it didn't remotely resemble wine.

It wasn't long until my next encounter - a 2003 Sandro Fay Sassella that Joe opened after the taping. The color seemed fine, but the nose was totally oxidized. At Basilico's, it happened again. We were offered a '93 Beaucastel Rousanne from a nearby table. The copper color was an immediate warning flag, and the nose confirmed total oxidation. At this point I shouldn't have tasted it, but I wanted to really memorize the flaw, so I did. About five wines later, I started tasting nothing but acetaldehyde, effectively ending my tasting for the night.

However, it was still a fantastic event overall. I got to taste some great wines before my palate went haywire, including a beautifully vibrant 1982 Ch. Calon-Segur, from double-magnum. I brought my own glass for the Calon, so I was luckier than some. The WLTV taping in the mezzanine was surreal, the excitement as palpable as the riot of wafting wine aromas. My unfortunate lesson in the dangers of drinking flawed wine only contributed to the memorability of this singular day. Thank you Gary and everyone who made this event possible!

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Saturday, March 29, 2008

Fruit Bombs 101: How to Fake a Midpalate

, realize that for many drinkers, glycerine (glycerol) registers differently from residual pentoses and hexoses - it can be confused with fruit flavor, heightening the midpalate experience. Normally yeast produce glycerol in insignificant concentrations, but there are several known ways of inducing higher glycerol yields:

1. Increase the sugar. Yeast produce glycerol in response to hyper-osmotic environments, as a survival mechanism. However this is useless in winemaking, since the brix at harvest must be within a specific range.

2. Increase the pH to 7 or higher. However wine must be acidic (pH 3-4) to be palatable.

3. Increase the sugar and use special osmo-tolerant strains, that have an amplified glycerol response. Not feasible for the same reason as (1.). Also, using different strains of yeast alters the flavors of the wine.

4. Temporarily retard fermentation by fixing acetaldehyde with SO2. This causes a "jam" in the pathway, using Le Chatelier's principle to induce a glycerol "side-shunt" production pathway. The fermentation will resume naturally as the acetaldehyde is freed.

This last strategy struck me as especially innovative when applied to winemaking, and is used by at least one well-known vintner. To elaborate, I'm going to assume some knowledge of the glycolysis/fermentation pathway.

In the fourth stage of glycolysis, Fructose-1,6-bisphosphate is split into G3P and dihydroxyacetone-phosphate, the latter of which is normally isomerized enzymatically into a second G3P. The next stage (phosphorylation of G3P) yields 2NADH as a by-product. At the end of glycolysis, pyruvate is decarboxylated into acetaldehyde, then fermented, using up NADH which would (if aerobic) go towards oxidative phosphorylation. If acetaldehyde is blocked by SO2, there is a buildup of NADH, which "reaches back" (Le Chatelier's principle) and makes the phosphorylation of G3P unfavorable. As a result, more dihydroxyacetone-phosphate goes down the alternate glycerol-synthesis pathway (which uses up NADH, restoring balance). There may be another glycerol pathway, but I would hazard an educated guess that it's simply the G3P isomerization in reverse.

Since both alcohol and glycerol are produced from a fixed starting glucose concentration, by producing more glycerol, you sacrifice alcohol content - a major part of the wine's "body." However a higher glycerol concentration allows the yeast greater osmotic tolerance, so if you harvest really, really high brix grapes, the SO2 will cause more glycerol production, but alcohol production will still be high. In this way you get full-bodied, up to 16% wines that also have enough glycerol to fill the midpalate.

The wines I've had that used this method were very sweet, fruity, and alcoholic. I hate them, personally, but I think this is a very innovative biochemical strategy that will please many people's palates.

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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

'96 Taluau - St-Nicolas-de-Bourgeil, Vieilles Vignes

In honor of Gary Vaynerchuk's request for WBW 44, I chose a cab franc from a region I have not tried before, at a higher price point than I'm used to, and with more age on it than any wine I've had before.

1996 Jöel Taluau St.-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil AOC, Vieilles Vignes, 12.5%, $35 at the Princeton Corkscrew.

This is an extraordinary wine.

When the longish cork was halfway out, I caught a whiff of vinegar and panicked. Fortunately there was no such smell after the cork was out. An unmistakeable green pyrazine tone wafted from the neck of the bottle, giving me pause. The green bell-pepper tone was not something I enjoyed in the two Cab Francs I've had before, and I was hoping that this wine would be pyrazine-free.

Anyhow, I went ahead with double-decanting, observing a nice ring of fine sediment around the bottom of the bottle. Some hints of Salvadorean tamales and stewed bell peppers emerged. Even with the greenness, it smelled delicious. Like a delicate stew broth. I was torn: On one hand, I didn't like the green tones. On the other - my mouth was watering!

First Tasting, 40 minutes after decanting:

The color is a lovely peachy-orange-purple, which shows textbook signs of age at the rim and in the body. Very much what I'd expect from Michael Broadbent's color charts.

(Aside: N1-N4 refer to four different ways of smelling ("nosing") the wine. N1 is gentle, extended sniff of the still wine surface. N2 is a deep inhalation above the still surface. N3 is a gentle sniff after a swirl. N4 is a deep inhalation after a swirl. )

N1 evokes mint, cut wood, bell-peppers, and hints of tobacco, all with an undertone of ripe fruit. N2 suggests olives and wood, with some fruit. N3 mostly reveals pyrazine, with some menthol tones. Although there are earthy tones in the nose, there is no "barnyard" - this is a clean wine.

This wine completely captivated my palate. Dry and medium-bodied with beautiful, refreshing acidity and a gripping tannin structure that suggests several more years of life. The midpalate has spicy suggestions of sweet jalapeno candy, which transitions into a somewhat bitter finish, all the while framed with flutterings of unmistakeably ripe fruit. A 91-point wine.

As I tasted again, the nose revealed cinnamon and herbal tones, with woody strawberries and raspberries.

Second Tasting, 80 minutes after decanting:

The aromas have bloomed into a bouquet of finely stewed bell peppers/candied jalapenos seamlessly interwoven with black raspberries (N1). Some volatile acidity is present, with hints of BBQ-sauce sweetness, and slight carmelization (N2). Such RIPENESS! Yet with none of the raisiny characteristics that bother me about over-ripened wines. It is ripened to such perfection that the pyrazines don't bother me. N3: I’m salivating. Lusciously gentle yet crystal clear, focused fruit blooms voluminously on the midpalate. Unique yet... strangely comforting. Reminds me of the first time I played an ivory-keyed piano - it seemed warmer to the touch, immediately set my fingertips at ease. The feel was so beautiful, novel yet instantly comfortable, like this wine. There are also hints of dusty earth, but still with cleanness and clarity! Grass, pomegranates, warm hillsides drenched in sunlight, clear tones of black raspberry, plum, warm rocks in the sun. I don't want to stop smelling this. N4: A little earth, some charred/tobacco tones.

Palate: SO MUCH FRUIT! Charming cassis acidity, rich green, brown wood tones, hints of malt on the midpalate (but still totally dry). The acidity has many shades to it – it’s not so much a razor (as Gary has described crisp whites in the past), as a multifaceted gem rolling around on the tongue! In context of the wine's flavor structure, the acidity is the bridge between initially warmer fruit tones (strawberries, black raspberries) and a brief but crytal-clear cassis tone in the midpalate. Suggestions of orange and spice, a little bitterness on the finish, but I LOVE it! It’s like bitter cinnamon tea, or bitter green tea – a rich bitterness. Perfectly elegant tannins. True finesse. Hard not to swallow this - like imbibing a deep-blue petaled flower of exquisite beauty and aroma. Mild tertiary scents of roasting chicken skins, basil, cloves. On the latter part of the midpalate - a soft but distinct spiciness.

This wine is focused and intense. After opening up for a bit, it has completely won me over. Extraordinary. 97-RA. Pairing: I feel it would be a crime to pair anything with this wine except some clean water and neutral bread. The wine is a complete experience in itself.

(Note: Props to Laurent Chapuis of the Corkscrew for getting this straight from the Chateau!)

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Monday, March 24, 2008

Wine is about Loss

I really have nothing to say today, except to thank Ms. Bowman for allowing me to link to her singular post:

You Can Never Drink It Again
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Sunday, March 23, 2008

A Plethora of Pairings

Food and Wine pairing is a scam. Just ask Alder Yarrow over at Vinography. And yet I could not resist diving in for the first time. Over three nights, I tasted the same 5 cheeses with three different wines. Here are my findings.

The Cheeses:

1. Petite Basque
One of my favorite cheeses. A very nice, delicately perfumed aroma of wood and earth, with hints of apples. Medium-firm, with a sublimely smooth texture.
2. Pyrenees Brebis
Similar to Ossau-Iraty, a beautiful, delicate, elusive flavor. The texture on this cheese wasn't that great - a little grainy.
3. Pecorino Ginepro Stelvio
Dry without being sharp, lovely sheepsmilk aromas reminiscent of oil-aged manchego, but without the oily sharpness, and with greater clarity. An excellent cheese.
4. Gruyere, Cave Aged
Lovely deep flavors of nuts, creamy honey, and crushed rocks. Notable burnt/charred flavors. Creamy and quite hard, with small crystals similar to XO Beemster.
5. Blue Cheese soaked in Sauternes
Soft, smooth, rich, and impressively flavorful, with explosive fruit overtones. A riot of intense color in the mouth, with a beautiful lingering finish. The sauternes really smooths out and sweetens this cheese.

The Wines:

1) 2006 Bodegas Ostatu Rioja - (White Rioja) $14

NOSE: Hints of apple and raw pear, with tones of fresh bread.

PALATE: Slightly off-dry. Good acidity, not razor-sharp. Slight nuttiness on the midpalate, with hints of champagne. Bitter finish, but not too bad - slightly piney, like good hops. 84-RA.

2) 2005 III Somms Amitie - (Napa) $19.5

NOSE: Somewhat dusty, with hints of menthol and a clear note of stinkiness - Brett? Definitely a little old-world funk in there, but not really "barnyard." Some black raspberries, hints of cassis.

PALATE: Medium bodied with soft tannins on back end. A pretty wine. Good finish. Nice Bordeaux style on the midpalate. A little more black raspberries and cassis as the wine opens up. Good overall. Not as much fruit or tannins as I'd like, but the Brett is interesting. Pretty neat old-world wine from CA. A little hot on the alcohol (14.5%). 86-RA.

3) 2007 Corte Gardoni Bardolino Chiaretto - (Rose) $14

NOSE: A little apple, nice light strawberry notes. A little dry hay.

PALATE: Slightly off-dry. Good acidity, though not razor-sharp. Light-body. A little nuttiness on the midpalate. Faint suggestions of honey. Finish is a litte bitter, but the acidity takes over after a bit and cleans the palate. 79-RA.

Pairing Scale:

The scale ranges from -2 to +2, with -2 being an inedible pairing, and +2 being a sublime one. For excellent pairings I'm looking for new flavors to emerge, for existing flavors to intensify, and for the individual flavors of the wine and cheese to complement each other. Indifferent pairings are scored 0.

Summary of the Pairings:

Chris at the Corkscrew knows his stuff. He suggested the Ostatu to pair with the Blue Sauternes, and sure enough, they formed an outstanding pairing (+1). The cheese carried the wine and extended the finish on and on for perhaps 2 minutes. The wine didn't magnify the flavors, but clarified and extended them. His second suggestion, the III Somms, paired phenomenally with the Pecorino, as he had predicted (+1). It's hard to articulate all the nuances of what happened, but put simply, the earthiness of the wine greatly complemented and enhanced the earthiness of the cheese. The Ostatu also went beautifully with the Pecorino, enhancing the earthy sheepsmilk flavors, and evoking a completely new tone of blackcurrant! (+1). Chris's third suggestion was a Rose, which he thought would go nicely with all the cheeses. He was right - all the pairings were good, though none was stellar (+.5 all round).

The worst pairing was the Blue Sauternes with the III Somms (-1). Because of the low acidity, the sweetness of the cheese was enhanced by the wine, and both cheese and wine seemed to become cloying. The wine devolved to resemble a cheap, flabby cabernet. Other unfortunate pairings included Gruyere with III Somms (-.5, the charred aromas of the former were incongruous next to the earthiness of the latter), and the Petite Basque with the Ostatu (-.5, the wine enhanced the bitterness of the cheese).

Complete Pairing Notes:

'06 Bod. Ostatu White Rioja:

Petite Basque: -.5 increased bitterness
Pyrenees Brebis: 0 meh
Pecorino: +1 fleshes out the sheep aromas. Faint cassis emerges!
Gruyere: +.5 enhances smoked/charred flavor a bit more than the others
Blue Sauternes: +1 Excellent pairing. The cheese carries the wine and extends the finish on and on and on. Perhaps 2-3 minutes. Doesn't magnify the flavors, but slightly clarifies and extends the sweet finish.

'05 III Somms Amitie:

Petite Basque: +.5 Enhances flavors all round.
Pyrenees Brebis: +.5 Enhances sweet and salty flavors.
Pecorino: +1 Earthiness of the wine complements earthiness of the sheepsmilk flavors.
Gruyere: -.5 The sweet, creamy, bitter, burnt/charred flavors of the gruyere are incongruous with the wine's earthiness.
Blue Sauternes: -1 Not enough acidity. The wine ends up tasting flabby - like a cheap, over-sugared cabernet. Funny that the sweet, flavorful cheese enhances the sweetness of the wine.

'07 Corte Gardoni Bardolino Chiaretto Rose (tasted at cellar temperature):

Petite Basque: +.5 Enhances flavors all round.
Pyrenees Brebis: +.5 Enhances flavors all round.
Pecorino: +.5 Just a nice contrast: fruit+acid vs. earthy dryness.
Gruyere: +.5 Enhances smoky/charred flavors a little.
Blue Sauternes: +.5 Enhances fruit component of the cheese flavor.

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Sunday, March 16, 2008

A Tragic Varietal

I was in love with the bouquet as soon as it touched my memory. Lychees, rose petals, saffron - some of my childhood memories of the flavors and scents of India. However when I first tasted the wine, I nearly cried. Cloying sweetness rode on top of an ugly bitterness that I could not stomach. I've tasted several Gewurztraminers since, including one from Canada, but always with similar misfortune. As it turns out, not everyone can taste the bitterness in Gewurz- the ability is most likely genetic. If you know of another wine that smells like India, please let me know.
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Four Critics - One Wine

Here are reviews and scores by four respected critics on the same wine - 2003 Leoville-Poyferre.

Robert M. Parker, Jr. – 98 points
I have had this wine three times out of bottle, rating it 97 once and 98 twice. It is a colossal success and a potential legend in the making. Its saturated, dense inky/blue/purple color offers up notes of crushed rocks, acacia flowers, blueberries, black raspberries, and crème de cassis. A synthesis of power and elegance, this multi-layered wine has spectacular concentration, sweet but high tannin, and low acidity A stunning effort that showcases this legendary terroir, it is a brilliant, brilliant success. The quintessential Leoville Poyferré? Anticipated maturity: 2009-2030.

James Suckling – 95
Pure cassis on the nose. Impressive. Full-bodied, thick and powerful, with loads of fruit and big, velvety tannins. Goes on for minutes on the palate. Huge wine. Very, very impressive. This is one of the big surprises of the vintage. Best after 2012.

Stephen Tanzer – 92
Medium ruby-red. Extravagant aromas of currant, loam, leather and graphite; like the 1990 in its roasted character. Then sweet and dense but with surprising aromatic lift in the mouth, not to mention considerable power. Liqueur-like black fruit, licorice and mineral flavors really stain the palate. Cuvelier maintained that this vintage was not acidified. The cabernet acidity, he said, was healthy and the grape skins gave up their acidity slowly during the vinification. A very impressive showing, and built to last.

Gary Vaynerchuk – 97+
Dark color. Classic bell pepper on the nose. V8 juice, black cassis, black currant, musty (like an attic). On the palate, incredibly silky from the attack through the finish. This is a polished Old World wine with beautiful extracted New World fruit (2003 was a hot vintage), perfect balance & harmony, extremely good, black currant & cassis, red cherries, beautiful raspberries, secondary layers of smoked tobacco, really ripe candied flavors on the finish, smooth as a wine gets, this is Ultimate Bordeaux


Here are some groups of similar flavors:

  • crushed rocks (RP) mineral, graphite (ST) musty (GV)
  • crème de cassis (RP) pure cassis (JS) currant, liqueur-like black fruit (ST) cassis, black currant (GV)
  • roasted character (ST) smoked tobacco (GV)
All of the critics felt the wine was “big”:

dense (color), power, multi-layered (RP)
full-bodied, thick, powerful, huge wine (JS)
dense, considerable power, stains the palate (ST)

Three of the four critics noted the wine’s sweetness:

sweet (RP)
sweet and dense (ST)
ripe candied flavors (GV)

However when it comes to acidity and color, the critics don’t quite agree:

strong acidity (inferred from comment about cuvelier) (ST)
low acidity (RP)

saturated, dense, inky/blue/purple (RP)
medium ruby-red (ST)
dark color (GV) – the most recent review.

It is hard to draw any strong conclusions from the reviews about this wine – after all, it’s just one wine, and one that is incontrovertibly an excellent effort (contrast with the infamous Chateau Pavie!). However it is clear that while the critics largely agree, it is very difficult for any single critic to claim objective truth. For example, the Wine Spectator maintains that their numeric scores are extra-accurate because during each tasting they “calibrate” their palates with a previously-rated wine. Is this implied accuracy truly warranted? My gut feeling, from reading these reviews, is no. More on this soon.
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