Saturday, September 26, 2009

1989 Brisebarre Vouvray Moelleux "Grande Reserve"

The recent film Bottle Shock, starring Chris Pine and Alan Rickman, reminded us of the 1976 Paris Tasting, where Napa first reached international acclaim. A little over 30 years ago, no one in Europe knew or cared about Napa wines. But for the last millennium, the wines of the Loire Valley have been known throughout Europe.

Within the valley, the Vouvray appellation has championed the Chenin Blanc grape, producing champagne-style sparkling wine, crisp dry whites, and ageworthy wines of varying sweetness. Occasionally a crop is afflicted with Botrytis cinerea, also known as pourriture noble ("noble rot"), a fungus that perforates the skins, shriveling the grapes and concentrating flavors, acids, and sugars. The greatest dessert wines are made from botrytis-afflicted grapes - Trockenbeerenauslese wines from Germany, Sauternes in Bordeaux, Tokaji from Hungary. However in Vouvray, Botrytis is rare. Only four vintages in the last century saw a significant natural presence of noble rot: 1945, 1955, 1969, and the birth-year of this wine, 1989.

Older wines are always a gamble. I've had at least as many flawed bottles as intact ones. Even if the wine isn't technically flawed, it is often tired and worn-out. It is a rare wine with enough fruit and structure to last for 20 years, much less improve. They say that for older vintages, "there are no great wines, only great bottles." This was one.

1989 Brisebarre Vouvray Moelleux "Grande Reserve"

Brilliant gold in the glass with a touch of green, this wine had a captivating nose of pear, honey, grape, and apple. Secondary flavors included saffron, candle-wax, flowers, and wet leaves. In the mouth the flavors swirled and blended. Medium bodied, it carried its sweetness effortlessly, with a touch of grapefruit bitterness and crystalline acidity. New, surprising flavors appeared far into the finish. This wine has it all: sweetness, acidity, flavors, finish, intrigue, surprise, and mouthwatering aromatic complexity. Amazingly, all of this is packed into a 12.5% medium bodied moelleux! Superb.

Score: 93 (I've only scored three other wines this high, out of nearly 700 tasting notes).

Temperature: Serve slightly cool (~65F), but not cold.

How much?: ~$35.

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Saturday, September 19, 2009

Changing Hats

It was disorienting walking into the store and stepping behind the counter for the first time. I've perused the shelves many times before as a customer. Now it's my job. Well... part of it.

I recently joined CoolVines, a 2-year old specialty wine store with branches in Westfield, and Princeton, NJ. My official job description is business development and operations research, but in a small company you have to wear many hats. Besides data-crunching and strategy planning, I've manned the counter, stocked shelves, and helped with tasting/selection. In the process, I got up close and personal with some of the most intractable problems in wine retail.

Our store manager said it right: "Retail is DETAIL. It's simple, but not easy." It's a Jekyll-and-Hyde cycle: When a customer comes in, dig up and awaken your inner wine lover. Every time a customer leaves, turn into an OCD psychopath.

Another dichotomy is that of a wine lover/professional. Ever since Lord Parker rose to prominence on a Nader-esque crusade against conflict-of-interest, amateur wine lovers have been wary of professionals. And rightly so. No other industry profits from as much bullshit as the wine industry does. To borrow a term from Scott Adams, the wine business is a "confusopoly" - making money from people's confusion.

But hopefully this will change. With the proliferation of superb blogs like WLTV and Vinography, consumers are better informed. Parker and Wine Spectator, despite their vague aura of evilness, do their part to herald new wine regions and producers. In the meanwhile, it may come as some consolation that retailers are often just as confused as customers.

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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

More to come soon!

It's been a while, hasn't it. Rest assured, I have a couple more pieces in the cogs. The last couple months in my life have been consumed with 1) my thesis, on enhancing the sensitivity of sensors using nanostructured materials, 2) wrapping up my final courses at Princeton, including a fantastic class on the development of Western science by D. Graham Burnett. From now until graduation on June 3, life is good - chilling with friends, cooking to save money, nursing a finger injury from climbing, and job hunting.

Stay tuned, and to all fellow members of the class of 2009, congrats and good luck!
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Monday, March 9, 2009

I now appreciate Champagne

Less than two weeks after our unremarkable tasting, I was forced to eat my words. In the unbelievably refined atmosphere of Restaurant Daniel, I was treated to a Champagne that slowly but surely, over half a dozen courses, burrowed its way into my memory, to borrow a phrase from Veronelli.

1998 Taittinger 'Comtes de Champagne' Blanc de Blancs

Pale gold in the glass, with extremely fine mousse, this wine (it deserves the title) had a beautiful nose of apple, pear, peach, and fresh baguette. I don't know how to explain the extra dimension but by comparison - I tasted a Veuve-Clicquot yellow label later the same night, and the crassness and lack of integration in the nose was almost offensive by comparison. In the mouth it had a perfectly elegant balance. No single component - sugar, fruit, yeast, acidity, mousse, alcohol - stood out above the rest, and as a result the flavors came through the structure with memorable clarity. It was unremarkable at first sip, then grew in complexity and deliciousness with each course, at once complementing the food and refreshing the palate.

Price: around $200 per bottle. Score: 92-94 points.

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Friday, February 27, 2009

I still don't like Champagne

The world of wine is mind-bogglingly huge. Stupendously varied and enormous. Let me say it again: there are a shit-ton of different wines out there. It follows that you should not make blanket statements about categories of wine unless you have tasted as widely and deeply as his Lord Parker himself. Thus I prefer to say "I still don't understand region X" or "I'm still searching for an example of varietal X that hits my palate right." In this way I try to keep my mind open to surprises, like the 2000 Guigal La Mouline that changed my mind about Rhones, or the 1996 Taluau St. Nicholas de Bourgueil that first coerced me to love Cab Franc.

There are still lots of wines I haven't formed opinions about, usually because they are way out of my price range. These include Port, Sauternes, Condrieu, Napa Cabs, Burgundies, and formerly Champagne. Of course, when someone else is paying, I can make little forays into these styles, often to the enthusiastic agreement of the rest of the tasting club.

Most recently, we did Champagne. For our lineup, we tasted 6 grower champagnes from The Princeton Corkscrew and one negociant bottling from the other local store, CoolVines. Despite the healthy competitive attitude of the two stores, the people at CoolVines agreed that whatever the Corkscrew's flaws, their Champagnes are superb.

Overall, I thought the champagnes were unoffensive, and just short of pleasant. Most of the blancs skirted dangerously close to oxidative scents (acetaldehyde) with their pear and apple-skin aromas. The acidity levels were high, which on one hand balanced the fruit and residual sugar nicely, but on the other hand, was unpleasantly tart. Champagnes don't undergo malo, so I'm guessing most of the perceived acidity was due to malic acid, rather than the cleaner-tasting tartaric acid. I like strong, clean acidity, not the lingering, puckering, sourness of these Champagnes.

On the nose they were indistinct. Even at room temperature, the noses were subdued and murky. The Billecart-Salmon was the most interesting, with a vanishingly faint scent of cut grass (IBMP is not usually found in chard, pinot, and meunier). A $15 Torrontes or $25 Gewurztraminer would easily blow all of these bubblies to Timbuktu, aromatically speaking. Now consider that these Champagnes were in the $40+ range, and the Billecart-Salmon was $90!!!

I understand paying that sort of price tag for a wine with complexity, history, terroir - a wine that communicates information and has meaning. But these Champagnes are nonvintage blends, too indistinct to communicate even a couple flavors, much less a specific terroir. Delicious? Maybe. But I wouldn't pay that price tag for something that's merely delicious. I'd rather go for Orangina, Stewart's Ginger Beer, and several craft beers I can think of, even at roughly the same price.

Plus I kept choking on the bubbles.

Tasting Notes:

NV Jean Velut Brut Tradition
Pale gold in the glass, this had a tight nose with weak hints of pear, yeast, and grapefruit. In the mouth it was light bodied with a medium-fine mousse, more light yeast, pear, and tart malic acid. Overall lean and acidic. Hints of acetaldehyde on the dregs. (78 pts.)

NV Jean Velut Blanc de Blancs
Pale gold in the glass, the BdB had a slightly fruitier nose than the first wine, with light baguette, overripe apple, pear skins, and ripe pear. Medium-fine mousse. A little richer and rounder on the palate than the Brut Tradition. (79 pts.)

NV Dumont et Fils Brut Nature
Pale gold-amber in the glass, this wine had a nose of yeast, pear, and faint starfruit. In the mouth it sported a fine mousse, with strong malic acid and a lightly honeyed finish. (83-85 pts.)

NV José Michel & Fils Brut Pinot Meunier
Pale gold in the glass, this 100% Pinot Meunier had a nose of plum skins, raspberries, and light yeast. Medium-to-low sugar, rounder and deeper, with decent medium+ acid. (80-83 pts.)

NV Dumont et Fils Rosé
Pale pink-amber in the glass. Nose of light yeast, light apple, raspberries, and plum skins. Noticeable bitterness on the palate with a around medium-light sweetness. Very fine mousse. (82-84 pts.)

NV Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé
Very pale pink-orange (salmon-colored?) in the glass. Nose of light yeast, pinot funk, and cut grass. Incredibly bubbly mousse, with ripe pear flavors and medium sweetness. Nice and tasty. (86-88 pts.)

NV Delavenne Pere et Fils Brut Rosé
Medium-to-light pink in the glass, this rose had the strongest yeast on the nose of any of the wines. Sweet, round, creamy, and delicious in the mouth, with distinct brioche flavors. (84-86 pts.)

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Monday, January 26, 2009

Sean Thackrey 'Pleiades' XV

"These are extraordinarily pure, natural expressions of winemaking... primitive in the best sense of the word."
-Robert M. Parker, Jr.*

"Why would you want to drink a wine that, if it were a person, you would be bored of talking to?"
-Sean Thackrey

In the wine world, tasting is believing. It seems like every winemaker has a captivating fairy tale to tell, something that sets them apart, makes them special. While a good story can differentiate your product and boost sales, it unfortunately can't make good wine. That test lies in the bottle. Yet despite the many vintners who talk big but don't deliver, there are still names whose wines captivate and enthrall those in the know. Boncompagni Ludovisi, Abe Schoener, and of course, Sean Thackrey. If Petrus, Screaming Eagle, and DRC represent the pinnacle of their respective styles, Ludovisi, Schoener, and Thackrey represent styles unto themselves, art rather than craft, fascination over typicity, creativity over elegance.

If I gush excessively, I am not alone.

In Robert Parker, Eric Asimov, and Alder Yarrow, these wines have an audience of the highest caliber. To judge by the prices they don't appear the most sought after wines in the world, but money is not the only barrier that counts. Ludovisi's wines are available at just one store in the US; you must buy them as a mixed case, and you must be "judged worthy" by the distributor. Schoener's wines are made in minuscule quantities, and most are snapped up by the mailing list. Thackrey's high-end wines (between $100 and $200) are also small-production (in the hundreds of cases) and are so difficult to find that he created a database on his site devoted to tracking down bottles. However Thackrey does produce a relatively inexpensive wine called Pleiades, an "everything-but-the-kitchen-sink" melange of different vintages, numbered by release rather than year. I came across a lone bottle of the XV at the Corkscrew, and promptly snapped it up - I have never seen another Thackrey bottle, in any store, since.

Who is Sean Thackrey? Art-dealer-turned master vigneron. Medieval tinkerer. Craftsman from Shakespeare's time. Curator and transcriber of ancient viticultural texts. In writing this I tried to sum up the man, and realized that as much as we wine drinkers like to categorize and package, it's really all a crutch for dealing with complexity.

Sean Thackrey is a man worth knowing, whose wine is worth drinking.

His online library of wine-related texts (from which he gleans unconventional inspiration), spans 7 languages and reaches back to the 14th century. He includes the following introduction:

There are many purposes in reading. One is, to get to the point. Such readers should flee this site as fast as their mice will carry them.
Such words might be equally well applied to his wine. He aims for interest, pleasure, personality. "I don't drink Napa Cabs anymore-" explained Thackrey in an interview, " They're too damn polite for me." The wine I drank was certainly not polite. Nor was it dull or elegant. It held my interest and brought pleasure and evolving complexity until its last drop, which is as much as I've ever had from a bottle of wine.

Tasting note:

Sean Thackrey Pleiades XV

Medium garnet in the glass, the wine immediately blooms into a trio of eucalyptol, Brettanomyces, and dark fruits. Underneath these primary tones lie an ever-shifting accompaniment that suggests tiramisu, charcoal, tar, manure, damp wood, blackcurrant, orange spice, herbs, roasted lamb, and grilled carrots. The bouquet seems to change constantly - hence my verbose attempt to describe my many impressions. In the mouth it is weighty, medium-bodied, with fresh acidity and the slightest touch of silky tannins. There is a touch of sugar on the mid-palate which is my only structural complaint. The gorgeous finish lasts 80 seconds.

Certain aromatic elements remind me of the 2000 Guigal Cote-Rotie La Mouline though this doesn't have the La Mou's elegance or balance. The syrupy flavors and oak influence remind me a little of Gerard Perse's 2005 Clos L'Eglise (Cotes de Castillon). This wine keeps evolving in the glass - as the Brett blows off, other flavors rise to prominence in turn. 95 points. $35.


Addendum: recently uploaded an interview with Sean Thackrey.

*Parker's Wine Buyer's Guide No. 7

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A Year in Wine Numbers

I owe my parents a lot. And I don't just mean four years of college and 18 years of room and board (plus an extra 9 months' rent, according to my mom). From my dad I inherited an engineering bent, entrepreneurial spirit, and a high sensitivity to acetaldehyde and methoxy-pyrazines. From my mom I inherited musical sense and a love of numbers, metrics, data, whatever you want to call it - I'm a statistics junkie.

When it comes to wine statistics, CellarTracker is a gold mine. There's a huge amount of data (69,000 users as of 2008), and behind CT's butt-ugly interface hides an excellent tasting note organization system which I have personally taken advantage of ... 430 times to date. After about 15 months of wine tasting, I decided to satisfy my statistical curiosity.

Before I get into the numbers, I should acknowledge that CT scores suffer from several sources of noise, including but not limited to:

  • Palate variance: experience levels, genetic perception thresholds
  • Bottle variance: change over time, bottle flaws (not always recognized by tasters), other bottle variation
  • Conditions: temperature, glassware, accompanying food, ambient aromas
  • Scoring systems: A 90 point score means different things to different people
My personal scoring system can be described as follows:
  1. Wines are scored without regard to price. In other words, if I perceive a $4 wine to be of equal quality as a $100 wine, I will give them identical scores.
  2. I do not score wines that are flawed, or that I believe have low levels of acetaldehyde (from oxidation).
  3. I score wines on a 50-100 point scale based on intellectual and emotional reactions:
    • 50-60 points: "I cannot drink this without gagging. I want to kill the winemaker."
    • 60-70 points: "You'd have to pay me to drink it, but I probably wouldn't vomit."
    • 70-80 points: "Not horrible, but has several pretty glaring flaws."
    • 80-85 points: "I'd drink it, but it's not exciting."
    • 85-90 points: "Pretty good, interesting."
    • 90-95 points: "Holy crap, that is really friggen good and fascinating to drink!"
    • 95-100 points: "The ground is shaking, the clouds are singing!"
Here's a graph of my score distribution compared to CT's. I'm happy to note that my scores follow an approximate Gaussian distribution that is more centered than the CT distribution. The sparseness of the bars in the low end is probably an artifact of how I score - there's just less resolution between terrible and not-so-terrible wines than there is between excellent, complex wines. Plus who wants to agonize over 63 points vs. 64 points? I tend to just round to the nearest 5 or 10. NOTE: The bars at 49 points represent non-scored wines, including flawed bottles.

Next I looked at the geographical spread of my tasting notes. Because of wine's intimate connection with terroir and culture, I love to imagine that each bottle takes me on a brief trip to its birthplace. Walking through a wine store is like browsing a global travel catalogue. When it comes to countries, France and the US dominate. The only reason Italy follows is because I tasted over 60 Italian wines in just a few hours at a trade tasting last September.

Looking closer at the region level, it appears that California dominates. However this is largely a side effect of my job last summer working in various vineyards. Most of my tasting has centered around various French regions, resulting in a rather crowded "Other" category.

Finally I decided to look at the different varietals I've tried. California was the first region to exalt the varietal, labeling even blended wines by grape (15% other varietals are allowed). When it comes to blends, varietal character is difficult to discern, though not impossible. There are thousands of varietals out there, though only a handful produce great wines. There's even a 100 Varietal Club, for people who have tasted 100 different varietals and want a silly plaque on their wall. As of my last count, I've tasted 93 varietals, just short of the 100. Given some of the terrible non-vinifera strains and obscure French cultivars I've tried, I'm not too keen on tasting more obscure varietals, even for a pretty plaque.

Finally I looked up my top 5 wines so far. They represent three different countries and all come from different appellations. Each one was a surprise and a revelation - a profound learning experience:

1. Sean Thackrey "Pleiades" XV old vines (Bolinas, CA) - A wonderfully complex, delicious blend from a visionary winemaker (95 points)

2. '96 Taluau Vieilles Vignes (St.-Nicholas de Bourgueil) - A stunning wine from left field - aged cabernet france, in all its stewed bell pepper and cassis glory (95 points)

3. '00 Guigal Cote-Rotie "La Mouline" - Aged over 30 months in new oak, yet its delicate body doesn't show it. Tiramisu, blackberry, and bacon (94 points)

4. '05 Melis (Priorat, Spain) - Pure fruit wrapped in astounding layers of oak treatment, producing caramel, roasted nuts, and coffee (93 points)

5. '98 Chateau Kirwan (Margaux) - My first aged Bordeaux - not something I'll likely forget anytime soon (93 points)
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