Got the Wine Blahs? Try Another Grape

Romance WinesI admit it—I keep a box of Pinot Grigio in the fridge. I also have various Merlots, Cabernet Sauvignons, and Pinot Noirs on my wine rack. These are my House wines, the wines I sip (or gulp) after a day at the office while I corral my children to the dinner table.

Most of these wines I pick up at the grocery store on Saturday mornings, when I am loading up the cart with diapers, peanut butter, bananas, and the other staples of life. From  month to month, the wine brands I buy change, but the grapes frequently remain the same. This is not unusual—most wine consumers tend to settle on brands and grapes. “Give me the Chardonnay” is one of the most uttered sentences in modern America.

It’s cliche but true—variety is the spice of life, and these days there is no excuse for mindless repetition. Try a different grape. The market offers an incredible array of wine options at prices that hedge risk. Pasqua Sangiovese runs $10, and is a long way from the dreck that used to come in the straw basket clad bottles. It noses of blackberry, vanilla, and leather, and it paired well with bacon pizza. Continue reading “Got the Wine Blahs? Try Another Grape”

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What Makes a Terrible Wine?

Source: http://blog.graphe.it/
Source: http://cavemontblanc.com/?menu=vini-estremi

by B.D Fischer

In their excellent (no joke—it’s the best place to start if you are just learning and also a tremendous reference) Wine for Dummies, the married Mary Ewing-Mulligan (a Master of Wine—one of only 322 in the world, it’s like Ph.D. on top of a Ph.D.) and Ed McCarthy tell this story:

“Several years ago, we were enjoying one of our favorite red wines, an Italian Barbera, in the Alps.  It was a perfect summer day in the mountains—crisp, clear, and cool.  The wine was also perfect … with our salami, bread, and cheese.  A couple of days later, we had the very same wine at the seashore, on a cloudy, humid, heavy-pressure day.  The wine was heavy, flat, and lifeless.  What had happened to our wonderful mountain wine?”

This story was on my mind as I recently drank, and reviled, a 2013 Caves du Vin Blanc de Morgex de la Salle (CVBMS) “Vini Estremi” Dalle Valle d’Aosta ($20, Free Run Wines, LLC, importer).  The source, as usual, was Rimmerman.  Concerning the 2012, which Rimmerman claimed was “almost impossible to tell … apart,” Antonio Galloni (far more reliable than Rimmerman, which is why he was quoted) gave 90 points and said, “Slate, crushed rocks, lime, grapefruit and white flowers burst from the glass in an energetic, chiseled wine loaded with class and personality. Hints of white truffle and ash linger on the finish.”

That’s a flavor profile right in my wheelhouse, but no … and but why?

Minerality, yes, some grapefruit and white flowers (white flowers?), possibly.  But no bursting, let alone class, personality, or lingering.  If you have been here before, Gentle Reader, you know that I do not normally discuss wine in terms of body.  I am not sure why—perhaps because it is so purely value-neutral as opposed to “structure” or “balance”—both light-bodied and full-bodied wines can be excellent.  But I have rarely tasted wine purporting to be of any quality with less body than this Vini Estremi.  It was wine-related water.  The bubbles rose to the top of the glass in a white scum.

As a brief aside, this illuminates the critical Rimmermanian weakness as a purveyor.  He is so valorizing of clarity, purity, and terroir—Old World to a fault—that the drinking experience can be lost.  You have to know how to read him, and above all do not buy Bordeaux.  Esoteric American blends, bubbles, Australia, yes.

But the Vini Estremi:  Could the problem have been this wine’s unusual circumstances of creation?  Rimmerman again:  “[I]t’s the only version of pre-phylloxera … wine you will ever taste.”  This is worth stopping for:  At the end of the 1800s, nearly all of Europe’s Vitis vinifera (i.e., wine as we know it) vines were destroyed by the minute insect Daktulosphaira vitifoliae, commonly known as phylloxera (superfamily Phylloxeroidea, family Phylloxeridae).  Virtually the entire continent was only saved by grafting vines from Texas (put that in your pipe and smoke it, Europe) onto the survivors. If Rimmerman is to be believed, the wines of CVBMS are the rare exception, the only ones that I know of.  Could this be the cause?

Doubtful, for in that same offer (April 22, 2014), I also purchased CVBMS’s La Piagne ($22), bottles of which I consumed at a birthday party this winter over spicy Korean at the legendary Da Rae Jung in Lincoln Square, Chicago (the extra cool factor with the La Piagne is the cork, which is not a cork at all but a glass stopper) and it was near perfect.  But if not the pre-phylloxera vines then what?

We drank the Estremi with pan-seared salmon and miso soup—an inspired food pair.  However, I did not get home until 30 minutes before we retired to the porch with our plates—not enough time for a normal chill so I put it in the freezer.  Maybe that had something to do with the wine’s failure, except that it’s a common technique and thus doubtful.  I’m grasping at straws here.

But.  It has been a strange, bad summer on the shores of Lake Michigan, cold and in the 2015 American way, wet.  No kind of payoff for the supra-miserable winter, and enough to make one think about recalling a mayor.  The humidity as we poured our glasses approached 90% in the aftermath of and prelude to rain.  More rain.  So we think of Ewing-Mulligan and McCarthy.

And we must remember that, like all of us, a bottle of wine is a living thing, and as subject to the seasons and tides, mood disorders, and the unreasonable voices of critics who will not be silenced. (Rating: Not good)

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Horton Vineyards Norton 2012

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Go ahead, expand you palate. Try this bargain ($13) Norton from Virginia. It will changes your mind about the possibilities if red wine. Fruit bombs are increasingly the norm. The Norton grape, which Todd Kliman waxed eloquent about in The Wild Vine, is a different animal. This Norton is simple and worth a try. (Rating: Good) Read more at http://hortonwine.com/.

When you want to try a more intense, complex, and pricey Norton, give Chrysalis Vineyard’s version a try.

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Jean Jacques Litaud Domaine des Vielles Pierres, 2012

WINE GLASSES Jean Jacques Litaud Domaine des Vielles Pierres, 2012 “vieilles vignes,” or “old vines” (Pouilly-Fuissé)
by B.D. Fischer

In John Guare’s great play Six Degrees of Separation Stockard Channing says that “everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. … I find that A) tremendously comforting that we’re so close and B) like Chinese water torture that we’re so close. Because you have to find the right six people to make that connection.” She may as well have been talking about wine. It is a truism that the global quality of wine has never been higher than it is today but there is still so much. Even for knowledgeable drinker it can be almost impossible to know what to buy even when you know what you want.

Channing’s dictum is true even in the world’s most prestigious wine regions (to say nothing of grapes—there is no such thing as a good or bad varietal). Neither Bordeaux nor Sancerre nor Napa (especially Napa) nor Otago are enough to ensure that what you’re buying isn’t terrible. (OK, you are unlikely to be disappointed by any Châteauneuf-du-Pape or Barolo, but you’ll pay dearly for the privilege.) This is a particular problem when you’re looking at wines that do not exist at everyday price points.

Today’s wine, from Pouilly-Fuissé, falls into this category. Pouilly-Fuissé (pronounced “pwee feess”) is an appellation within the Mâconnais sub-region of Burgundy and produces only Chardonnay—no such thing as red Pouilly-Fuissé. Although it often plays second banana to the Côte de Beaune a bit farther north, this is mostly the result of a historical snafu: the growers of Pouilly-Fuissé never applied for Premier Cru designation because they were far enough south to be free of Nazi occupation and thus lacked bureaucratic urgency—only Premier Cru wines in occupied France were exempted from fiat seizure by the Germans. This may change in the next few years as the French authorities consider granting Premier Cru status to several producers in Pouilly-Fuissé and elsewhere in the Mâconnais, but even without them these wines remain among the world’s greatest expressions of Chardonnay.

The lesson, then, is that you need a good middleman. For most of us this is just our local wine shop (for me it’s Fine Wine Brokers, second only in my experience to Austin’s legendary but now defunct Vinosity). However, and I cannot emphasize this enough, going to buy wine is like going to the doctor—you must put aside your shame and drop your pants for it to do its work. You cannot be afraid to express what you want in the best language you have, or to expose how inadequate that language or the knowledge behind it are. If you don’t have a good local wine shop, most lifestyle grocery stores do tolerably well these days; Whole Foods is fine, Central Market is better.

There’s also the source for this 2012 Jean Jacques Litaud ($29), Jon Rimmerman, about whom there will surely be more to say at a later date. (Briefly, he is a bona fide genius, but you have to learn how to finesse his outrageous prose.) I drank the Litaud at 46 degrees and it showed honey in the glass, surprising for a wine that usually tends toward straw. Forty-six degrees is a little cold but the wine drank warmer—tremendous body for a wine so light in acid, and emotionally open. I attribute both of these to a near-tropical flavor profile—papaya cut with urgent grapefruit—snaked around a spine of stone and slate. No oak. At once powerful and delicate, this is as good as Chardonnay gets. (Rating: Excellent)

Jean Jacques Litaud is imported into the U.S.A. by Free Run, LLC.

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