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.


Freemark Abbey Cabernet Sauvignon (2010)

Freemark Abbey Cabernet SauvignonDrink, Memory:  2010 Freemark Abbey Cabernet Sauvignon
by B.D

Wine is inextricably bound up with memory.  This is partially because wine itself is memory—terroir is nothing but the circumstances of creation, like your parents’ blind date a dozen years before your birth.  In this analogy the Clef du Vin is

My weekday watering hole is a superlative hotel bar across the street from my office.  In their denial of memory hotel bars are ideal places to drink—you will never meet these people again.  And they are even better than pre-9/11 airport bars in that, while the prices also tend toward the exploitative, the quality of the booze and mixology is higher.  Deb, my Stetson’s Sherpa, makes an Old Fashioned that will reduce you to tears.  And they have an excellent wine list.

On a recent Thursday I found myself on a stool soon after open, alone save a refugee from an orthodontic conference at McCormick Place.  He made a poor first impression, with an explicit joke about the stages of marital sex to the assembled throng of bartenders, hostesses, and managers, some of them young and female.  The rank smell of good old boy; he turned out to be from Dallas.  I’ve lived in Dallas, and this is a terrible sign.

But we were alone at the bar, and I was only pretending to edit a 600-page data dictionary.  What could I do?  I put my papers away and sidled next to him, Deb’s Old Fashioned in hand.  He was drinking Budweiser and preparing to order a steak, well done (shudder).  We began discussing Dallas strip clubs, which are legendary.

Then he ordered the sublime bottle of wine that is the subject of this review, and after it was delivered, opened, and poured he alternated swigs of Bud all the while.  This is a story of redemption, but I’ll never forget him going back and forth between this $92 bottle of wine (~$44 retail; Excellent) and the long tall pint of the crappiest beer on Earth.  The conversation shifted to my new marriage, then the poetry of country music, then his shocking admiration for hiphop, for Kanye West.

He called for Deb to pour me a glass from his bottle.  I told him about my novel.  He told me about the death of his teenage son.  I could fairly see the bouquet rise from the glass.  Life with his wife has become unbearable in the aftermath.  Cloves, coffee, cinnamon, Earth.  The love of a good woman.  The feeling in the mouth of endless ascension.  Tannins like silent fireworks.

I had forgotten how great a great California Cab can be.  Still two generations on the locus of wine’s central debate/complaint, and I think my position is well known.  But this past cannot blind us to the present.  We tottered off our stools and I embraced my new friend.  And he retired to his room, staggering only slightly, and holding the last glass in the bottle.


The Best Wine I Drank In 2013: Montague Red Wine 2009

Source: B.D. Fischer
Source: B.D. Fischer

by B.D

Wine isn’t like a book, or a movie, or an album. Actually it’s like all these things, but not in this sense: It’s nearly incoherent to proclaim a wine of the year. The reasons, I hope, are obvious—the vagaries of vintage release, the logistics of distribution, the need for cellaring. However, we are in the awards season, and so it seems appropriate (if a bit belated) to discuss the best wine I drank in 2013.

A word about what this means: I am not including any “special” wines in this calculation that were either especially expensive (~$64) or especially old (~2005). The point is to anoint a wine that became readily available in 2013, or not too much prior, and that might be finding its way into drinkers’ hands now.

That wine is Montague’s 2009 Red Wine, a Rhone blend from Red Mountain, one of Washington’s elite American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). The understated name is consonant with a label designed for soporificity as well as the wine itself—witness the choice of a Syrah blend when it was a Cabernet Sauvignon from Red Mountain that received Robert Parker’s only non-California American 100-point score. Not loud, it nevertheless speaks for itself in a clear and present tone.

Although it includes Counoise, a grape rarely found outside of France, this is a New World wine through and through. Fruit forward but not obnoxious, the nose also reveals the alcohol, high but not obnoxious at 14.5%. It is less earthy than most Rhones, but perhaps even more peppery. The tannins, also, are New World, light with crushed velvet. The balance is close enough to perfection. I am finishing the last of my six bottles now, having drunk it with Mad Men parties, steak au poivre, and lazy summer afternoons. It complimented and improved them all.

Interestingly (to me), my enthusiasm for this wine is not the consensus; its average score on Cellar Tracker is only 88.5. I can’t help but wonder if this is a reflexive response to price, for I have saved the best for last: $13. According to Jon Rimmerman, the source for my stash, the long game is a move into the $30-$35 range. And it will still be worth it.


Villa Bellangelo Pinot Noir 2012

Bellangelo Pinot Noir 2012Oh, Central New York.

I wanted to like this $18 wine more than I can say.  I spent six years in CNY, including many a fall afternoon on the shores of the Finger Lakes, throwing Frisbees in stinging needle rain that were blown behind me by offshore gales.  It is where I consumed my first ice beer and smoked my second joint.  Central New York is the kind of place where the haze of nostalgia descends while you’re still living there.

And so I had high hopes.  The only other New York wine I can remember specifically was a very fine Konzelmann (technically Canadian) Riesling, $10 for icy striations of glassy sweetness.  And if it could present a solution to the Pinot Problem, its tendency toward tantrum and disappointment even, perhaps especially, in Burgundy, well, I would swell with pride.  N.B. that I have been back to CNY exactly once since 1998.

The verdict came on the pour.  It was juice.  Lovely ruby juice that caught the light, but juice.  On the nose, straight-up cherries and rhubarb, perhaps a hint of strawberries, but in the mouth … nothing.  Some bright acid.  No tannins to speak of.  None of the joining of hands and deep chant of the Côte-Rôtie.

If, like me, one of the first great wines–the first bottle over $50–you ever consumed was an exquisite Pommard on the February shores of the Gulf of Mexico, the ongoing exploration of New World Pinot Noir is an endless disappointment.  I have never consumed a good value Pinot from California, not even my precious Paso Robles.  Oregon/Washington and New Zealand deliver at price points above $30, but even then they are just a faint echo of Burgundy, the Kingdom Come to France’s Led Zeppelin.

And so I think it is time for a new Pinot Paradigm.  Gone should be the defining expectations of the Mâconnais, the crystalline delicacy that made Paul Giamatti so insincerely insane.  We don’t need to confuse it with Gamay or Barbera but the fact is that the angels rarely sing.  In discussions of wine, the only categorical imperative is to face reality.

And so on the cultish scale, this is a very poor wine indeed.  Hell, they make Merlot, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and Muscat!  I can’t imagine who they’re trying to fool.  But under the new Pinot Paradigm, I enjoyed it very much with spicy goose sausage chili and a kale salad in a ginger-sesame dressing.  It is overpriced, but this bottle was a gift for a weekend watching a beautiful black labrador for a friend and so it is difficult to downgrade on ducats.  Consider this more of a rating for the concept of crappy New World Pinot.  But “crappy,” like all the categorical concepts, is relative, and an adjustment of the mind to open new vistas of wine is a small price to pay. (Rating: Good)


Summer Wines Survey: What to Drink?

Casal Garcia NV Vinho Verdeby B.D. Fischer

What to drink this summer?

Like most serious wine guys, I poo poo “red in winter, white summer” to the exact same extent that I poo poo “red with beef, white with fish.”  Like most things, it is a matter of context.  There is nothing intrinsic to our path around the sun or even the temperature that demands one wine over others.  Rather, there are contexts partially intrinsic to our equinoctial and solstitial relationships that inform and delimit our wine choices.  I present here for your drinking pleasure three of those common to summer, with concomitant recommendations:

At a Barbecue: Icardi Barbera d’Asti, 2011

Jay McInerney famously recommends Barbera for pizza, which while I can’t get behind it demonstrates a certain largeness of thinking. (I don’t see what’s wrong with Chianti, as college seniors have been proven over two straw-thatched generations.) His reasoning is that the acidity of the tomato sauce presents a singular problem in combination with the cheese and (god willing) sausage.  The first demands a hero acid to stand up in kind to the bully, a Riesling or a Sauvignon Blanc, both of which are inadequate to the fatty umami of the other components.  Thus the dilemma.

Enter the logic of Barbera.  Unusual for a red, its structure is supplied by high acid and wispy tannins.  McInerney’s logic of pizza therefore applies equally to the barbecue, where like as not we are presented with meats drenched in tomato bases of varying sweetness and vinegar.  Barbera is to a summer barbecue to what Beaujolais is to Thanksgiving, and complements without complication.  The 2011 Icardi Barbera d’Asti I consumed recently was red almost to purple and yeasty on the nose with sharp berries.  It required no decant and displayed a generosity I find mostly absent from Italian reds, which tend toward the emotional flintiness of those who came of age in the 1930s.  Mouth-watering acid in the mid-palate with practically no tannins, the wine changed not at all in the glass save for a fruity broadening to encompass a more crowd-pleasing strawberry.  The barbecue was half over, but the whole bottle was gone. Imported by Vinifera Imports. Price:  $16. (Rating:  Very Good)

In the Pool or at the Beach: Grüner Veltliner

In the U.S. wine market the Austrians are cursed.  Aside from Riesling, which is more associated with Germany, their two great wines are Gewürztraminer and Grüner Veltliner. (The Teutons aren’t much for reds as we know them; try a German Pinot sometime and you’ll see what I mean.) Despite the Germanic origins of English, both present significant pronunciative difficulties for Americans.  With it strange spiciness Gewürztraminer is difficult on the palate, too, and tends to induce love-hate reactions.  Not so Grüner Veltliner, an elegant wine which is exported almost exclusively from Austria and deserves a wider audience.

Don’t make the mistake I did with a recent bottle of 2011 Lust & Laune, which was to chill it to 43 degrees. (If you don’t have a wine chiller–and it’s a wine toy worth having if there’s any wish to rise above dilettante–this is all day in a refrigerator.) It weakened the acid and brought out some unpleasant petroleum notes; 49 would have been more appropriate.  As the wine warmed in the glass, however, it took on the restrained qualities of a Hapsburg at court, neither overly acidic nor sweet, refined grass aromatics and mild spice in an admirably unitary package.  A paradigmatic Grüner is perhaps a bit weightier, but this was still an excellent everyday summer white, especially with the waves lapping in the background. Imported by:  Magellan Wine Imports. Price:  $13. (Rating:  Good)


6:37pm On a Tuesday, After Work on the Porch, Top Two Buttons Undone, and a Slight Sweat: NV Casal Garcia Vinho Verde

My shorthand recommendation for Vinho Verde is “wine soda,” and to drink it is to indulge the pleasureful id, frustrate language, and forestall analysis.  I have never known a person who tried Vinho Verde and was not delighted.  As the reputation of Prosecco rightfully ascends, do not forget the Portuguese entry in the carbonation sweepstakes.  It will never find an easy home at a fancy banquet, but thank the maker we spend little of our lives at fancy banquets.  And it is cheap.

Literally “green wine,” Vinho Verde is the name of the region in the far north of Portugal, not the grape, and “green” refers to its age rather than its color for the wine is meant to be drunk young.  In color, it is generally white or rose–the reds are hard to find (I have never had one).  The NV Casal Garcia I consumed recently was a rose, the finest example of the species I have encountered and widely available.  The nose is of light strawberry, the kind of soft smell that carries a long way on a slight breeze.  At first taste there is a slight pungency from the skins that produce the beautiful deep pink, but this gives way to the acid that is as Newt Gingrich claims that government should be, limited but strong. (A white Vinho Verde is likely to be more LBJ-ish in its acid.) The appeal of the wine in the mouth is not in its flavor but in the feeling it inspires, the very definition of cliches of crispness and refreshment.  At 10.5% ABV it is everything in moderation, but not the Brahmin moderation of a Grüner.  Rather, it is the uncomplicated lounging of the slacker, a loose restraint that is never tight and always a good time, at least in moderation. Imported by:  Maverick Wine Co. Price:  $8. (Rating:  Excellent)


A Survey of South African Shiraz

Mischa Shiraz
Mischa Shiraz
Six Hats Shiraz
Six Hats Shiraz
Indaba Shiraz
Indaba Shiraz
Mount Rozier Shiraz
Mount Rozier Shiraz

by B.D. Fischer

Admit it: When is the last time you had a satisfying, affordable Cabernet from, say, Chile? For me, it’s been just over three years; I happen to remember a particular bottle I purchased for $9 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in March 2010. Since then it’s been one long string of disappointments.

I don’t mean to single out Chile for aspersion, but include rather the entire universe of New World noble reds. Note that I said “affordable,” which means to me closer to ten dollars than twenty; of course there are tremendous wines to be had from Marlborough to Mendocino to Mendoza if you’re willing to pony up. Even these, though, suffer under a general comparative flatness, a two-dimensionality, a position I recognize as both snobbish and possibly psychosomatic.

(The whites are a different story. New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, for example, is a better value and often a better wine than Pouilly-Fumé. When it comes to the reds, though, the New World does better on the varietal periphery, with Argentina’s domination of Malbec the best example.)

But I’m on firmer ground downmarket, and it was in this context that I met this month’s Club W shipment of a 2004 Mischa Shiraz from South Africa. My distinct lack of enthusiasm was tempered by Club W’s capacity to surprise, most recently with a superb California blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Viognier that deserves a better name than “Love This Life.” But the Mischa had at least three things working against it: the vintage nearly a decade past, which sounds like a positive but isn’t without a verified provenance; South Africa, although I love Pinotage (the South African wine industry has had notorious difficulty with bureaucratic organization and quality control); and the grape itself, not the grape but its name, for the grape is Syrah and “Shiraz” just a marketing ploy symbolic of the lack of style and sophistication in New World noble reds I’ve been decrying.

As you may have guessed because I’m writing, Club W came through again. The Mischa (I’m now on my second bottle) is a gorgeous grainy purple with cherry and alcohol on the nose. At 14% ABV it’s big, but not a monster, and the muscular burn of the tannins is forthright but never offensive. The dark stone fruit gives way to cassis and dusty grass on the tremendously balanced palette. An ideal everyday wine that would be right at home with an herb-encrusted frenched rack of lamb in a red pepper aioli. I ordered three more bottles. (Rating: Excellent) Imported By: Southern Starz. Price: $13.

All of which seemed reason enough to delve deeper into the world of South African Shiraz. It may be a rare chance for me to admit that I’m wrong.

2009 Six Hats Shiraz (Western Cape)

Not a promising start. This smells like rotting mushrooms. Not as purple as the Mischa, closer to red. Also 14% ABV. The smell dissipates a bit in the glass, thank god. Much smoother than the Shiraz, nowhere near the strength of tannins. The fruit is indeterminate, almost sweet. The label says it’s spicy but it isn’t, really, just a bit of mild cedar. This falls far more in the “barely quaffable” than “distinctly memorable” category, but it isn’t a complete embarrassment. (Rating: Not Good) Imported By: Vinnovative Imports. Price: $10.

2010 Indaba Shiraz (Western Cape)

You may remember Indaba from such soccer mom grocery carts as Whole Foods’ and Central Market’s, where “Indaba” is “the traditional Zulu forum for exchanging ideas.” This is an even worse start than the rotting mushrooms. Indaba is one of the big boys, so you should be able to find a bottle with a relative ease. I don’t think that’s a good idea, though. Slightly more purple than the Six Hats but with the same troublesome legs and off-putting nose. Less sweet, but the tannins are perhaps even weaker and it doesn’t feel like much of anything in the mouth. Some vanilla spice, which would only be nice in a richer context. (Rating Horrible) Imported By: Cape Classics. Price: $8

2010 Mount Rozier Tobacco Street Shiraz (Stellenbosch)

Oooh, inky dark, almost black-seeming. I haven’t smelled it yet, but the legs seem less lingering and therefore more promising in this context. (Legs signal residual sugar, i.e., sweetness, i.e., not what you want in a Syrah. I know they say that legs are all and only about alcohol content, but these wines all have the same 14% ABV but distinct patterns of tears and I don’t believe it, at least not always.) It smells a bit of barbecued beef, if you can believe it. Fig on the palate, less herbaceous than the others, less mineral. Firmer tannins, although they don’t match the Mischa. No sweetness. Nice body and balance. Not the home run of the Mischa, not even a double off the wall, but a nice long single with a big turn. (Rating: Good) Imported By: Vineyard Varieties. Price: $14

An interesting exercise, and one of the most interesting things is how quality tracks price even at this level. (I didn’t look at the prices until after I’d written up my notes, and if you think I remember what I paid yesterday afternoon we’ve obviously never met.) Thankfully it doesn’t appear as though I have to admit that I’m wrong, although I’m sure there will be a first time for everything.