Friday, February 18, 2011

Syrah is the New Pinot

Hey Everyone!

I've been on a serious Lamb kick lately, causing me to grab an excessive amount of Burgundy and Syrah to stand up to this heartier cut of meat and the more serious seasonings of the dishes I prepare. And it reminded me that sadly, Syrah is like the red-headed step-child of California Cabernet. These wines are often half to one quarter the price of their Rhone Valley counterparts, and have more balance than the big Aussie Shiraz, but still seem to slip by unnoticed by everyone but the most "in the know" of oenophiles.

How is this possible? Where did Syrah go wrong? Was it the confusion over Syrah versus Shiraz (yes it's the same darn grape for the hundreth time)? Is it the fact that in order to find a good one, you've got to start at $30 and typically spend about $45 that scared off the novices? Sad, but true on both accounts I'm afraid. So I'm here to DO something about it, darn it!

You owe it to yourself to try these wines if you're a Cabernet drinker looking for some excitement in your life and variety. For those that wish for something full bodied and powerful, Syrah is a mastermind in California. The beauty is that it grows well almost all over the place. In Napa, it ripens to big, spicy levels of alcohol. In Sonoma, you get more fruit-driven wines with silky tannins. Paso Robles brings power. And Santa Barbara brings nuance and elegance due to the cooler climate and breezier conditions.

So really, there's something in Syrah for everyone. The cool thing is that Syrah originated in France's Rhone Valley, where it produces the great wines of Hermitage and Cote Rotie. However, the best wines here will cost you upwards of $700 per bottle, whereas the best California counterparts, that too, have good ageing potential, will run you about $125. So you see, dollar for dollar, you're getting a good deal in CA Syrah.

Need a starting point for decent Syrah from CA without breaking the bank? Try Niner from Paso Robles for $20, Beckman from Santa Ynez for $25, Whetstone Phoenix Ranch from Napa for about $50, and Byron's IO from Santa Barbara for about $75. The nice thing about these wines, is that while they pair beautifully with your lamb, they will work with anything you'd do with Cabernet and THEN some, due to their complexity and structure. Syrah is catching on.....could it be the next Pinot Noir?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Italian Wine Masters Tasting 2/8/11

Tasting Extravaganza continues this week with another huge trade event- the Italian Masters tasting, featuring the top Brunello, Chianti Classico, Vino Nobile, and Valdobbiadene Prosecco producers with the upcoming spring releases. This was certainly palate overload, and all I can say, is THANK GOD for Prosecco. All those big red wines became pretty painful after the first fifty or so....

I worked the room alphabetically, so I'll present you with my notes as such. The room was filled with hundreds of gorgeous Italian men impeccably dressed in their best suits, and magnificant shoes, pouring the best Brunellos from a great vintage. I was in girl-heaven! Banfi was the start of the day, with an underwhelming Rosso di Montalcino 09 which didn't really have much acidity or freshness. Muddled would be the best way to describe it. The Brunello was "ok", balanced and correct, but definitely not worth buying. Poggio alle Mura '06 had more grip and bigger acidity, and the Very good Poggio all'Oro Riserva '04 had a fat middle with spicy wood.

Much more expressive were the wines from Barbi, which had one of the best 09 Rossos of the tasting- simply beautiful and loaded with fresh strawberry fruit. The ageworthy Brunello 06 had great complexity and chalky tannins with a load of fruit to back it up. Excellent, and a pleasant surprise for me. Their 05 Riserva however, didn't deliver the goods, as it was slightly subdued.

Camigliano was a raging disappointment with notes of seaweed and a maturity that did NOT at all work for the wine. The normally stellar Castelgiocondo from Frescobaldi was much more approachable than I would have expected at this point in its development. It made me wonder if this wine would become backwards at a later date perhaps. The '05 Riserva was sweet with black cherry and front-loaded tannins, and good but not stellar, as one would expect in '05.

Luce was the most tannic and backward wine of the tasting, with a nose of candied toffee and a very linear palate with massive, hard tannins. This will need time, and if the nose is any indication, it should be stellar. The '08 Rosso from Col D'Orcia was a very complete wine, showing even BETTER than the '06 Castelgiocondo Brunello at the tasting. Go figure, right? Money doesn't always buy happiness.... The Brunello '06 was incredibly tannic, and difficult to judge. Patience will be required here.

The beautifully perfumed, raspberry tinged Fuligni was one of the wines of the day for me. Elegant, yet structured, with layers of complexity and a firm spine. Excellent and worth a look. Il Poggione was an estate of ups and downs. Their 09 Rosso was a disappointment, with muddled seaweedy flavors, and a ton of tannin to boot. However, the FABULOUS '06 Brunello more than made up for the shortcomings of the Rosso. It had a beautiful balance of wood, tannin, and fruit with a rich, chewy texture. The Vigna Paganelli Riserva '05 from the estate was VERY classy with linear tannins, and an almost Bordeaux-esque fineness to the wine. Gorgeous.

One of my perennial favorites, Pertimali had the opposite issue of Il Poggione. The Rosso was stellar- elegant and rich, and perfectly ready to drink, while the Brunello had notes of resin, and a nutty, sweet, round character that was "good" but not exciting in any way. The same sadly went for their 04 Riserva- it failed to impress.

A wine I have historically loved has always been Pian delle Vigne from Antinori. They do such at amazing job with the legendary Renzo Cotarella at the healm. It had balanced acid and tannin with vanilla, with an almost Burgundian elegance with a silky, long palate. Excellent again and worth buying. My favorite estate of the day for its unusual nose was Pinnino. So many herbs and spices, it was like stepping into a Moroccan market. I was salivating! Equally complex was the delicious palate, with elegance and finessed tannins. Worth a look if you can find it.

Collosorbo was a definite candidate for top Rosso of the day. Its '09 was fabulous- rich, chewy, loads of both black and red fruits, drinking mature, but with enough tannins for a medium term cellaring as well. A must buy. Their Brunello? A definite pass with a medicinal menthol quality to it that made it very unappealing. Col di Sole may have had the Riserva of the day, which may have had the best balance of any red at the tasting. Get your hands on some.

Silvio Nardi has never blown me away with their Rosso, and '09 is no exception- it is very tight, with chalky tannins and dried cranberry fruit. Not at all a generous wine. Their Brunello '06 and the Manachiara both had WAY too much toast to their barrels, and all one could smell or taste was liquid smoke, making them somewhat unattractive (unless you're having BBQ, then have at it!) Last, but not least was the Ucceliera, which was as tight as a drum, though hinting at some lovely fruit hidden beneath the wall of tannins in both Rosso and Brunello. Worth re-visiting in a year to see what's what.....

For Chianti Classico, the results were scattered, and very hard to come down after all those big young Brunellos. The top wines were- Castello di Ama's '06, Fontodi's Riserva Vigna del Sorbo 2007, with structured, earthy, rich, chewy vanillin cherry fruit. And the highlight of the tasting for me? The Castello di Monastero 2007 Chianti Classico. Not because it is some blockbuster with the stuffing to age forever. But because it's the kind of wine I could open a bottle of every night after work and just sit down and DRINK IT. Simply delicious. Silky, rich, long, easy and smooth, with just enough palate-cleansing fresness to keep you thirsting for more. Gotta love the Italians!

Ciao Baby!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Bordeaux 2008 Vintage Tasting NYC

HI Everyone!

I have a really, really tough job. Really- I do! I swear! Somedays it happens to be more grueling than others, as was the case of the 2008 Unions des Grands Crus Bordeaux Vintage Tasting in NYC at the Metropolitan Pavillion. Spitting snow and freezing drizzle made the travel with my guide dog near-impossible. The exits from the subway were barely cleared, and wearing business attire black was almost a joke with a shedding yellow Labrador. After trying in vain to walk a block with a Starbucks in my hand, and realizing that the curbs weren't plowed, and there was no safe place for Elvis and I to cross or even wait for the lights to change, I desperately searched for a cab, and was immediately sprayed in the face by one passing us by (empty mind you), as I disgustedly spit out bits of sand and salt from my mouth. This was not starting out on the right foot.....
Moments later my chariot arrived, whisking me quickly to my destination, where, upon exiting sed cab, I promptly stepped out into a rather large puddle, soaking my dress boots and slacks to mid calf. Oh God- I hope the wines are going to be good! The registration was poorly orchestrated, as they lost my information, and I had to suffer through a stick-on name tag that didn't stick to wool. Go figure. Onto the wine!
I started with the white Graves (Pessac Leognan) to get my palate going. Overall, they were under-whelming with searingly high acid, almost New Zealand-ish in their style with loads of grapefruit. This tells me that a lot of growers probably picked too soon. The best were more balanced, like Carbonnieux with a fresh citrus and mineral nose, and Chateau Olivier, with nice length despite its high acid. Two disappointments that are typically my favorite wines, were Domaine de Chevalier, with had a richer, waxy component from some additional Semillon, but not a lot of fruit to support it, and the Smith Haut Lafitte, which was literally "ok" in my notes, in which I also wrote- "a total miss". Shame....BUT, the good news is there were two bright stars amongst some lackluster wines- Chateau Pape Clement was extraordinary, "Gorgeous- perfect balance, with a slightly elevated alcohol that actually worked FOR the wine- WOW, Long!" and Latour Martillac, which I absolutely LOVED for its great acidity, body and length all wrapped into one fabulous wine.
At this point in the tasting, I sadly discovered the incredible design error of the event planners. The knuckleheads had placed all the wine tables around the sides of the room, and all the spit buckets in the CENTER, about 15 feet away from the table, so EACH AND EVERY bloody time you had to spit, you had to walk 30 feet, and throw elbows against a mass of people with your service dog nosing his way through the throng of 600+ people to get near the bucket while trying to say "Excuse me" with a mouthful of wine. Piss poor planning, which caused it to take nearly 3 times as long to taste the wines as it should have. Enough bitching....
Onto the reds...Unfortunately (little did I know at the time) I started at the top, and it was all (for the most part) downhill from there. It had me at the nose. Angelus, the legendary St. Emilion was the highlight of the vintage for me. My notes read, "OMG! Beautiful-plum, cocoa, silky tannins, elegant- does this wine EVER quit on the finish? I should just stay here all day." Hard to come back to earth from that, but press onward I did....
Beau-Sejour Becot was young with red fruit and moderately hard tannins and vanilla oak. Canon La Gaffeliere was like 'licking a barrel'- too much wood. Figeac was balanced, big, rich and chewy with blue-black fruit and rose petals. Clos Fourtet had some punishing hard tannins with a pretty red nose and a bit of leather. Pavie Macquin had many good parts- nice acid, complexity of palate and nose, with moderate tannins, however the wine appeared disjointed and in a million different places at once, not yet in full communication with each of its components. Troplong Mondot smelled like a forest fire, leading me to wonder how on earth my palate would recover for the Pomerols. Lucky for me, it did.
Oh Beauregard, sweet Beauregard- if only I could drink you every night! SO young, but full of sweet black fruits, and a great eucalyptus nose with such invigorating freshness it was like a breath of clean air in a city filled with smoke and smog. Then came the blessed Clinet. Simply SILK in a bottle. A delicate, bashful nose, enticing me to go deeper into my senses and coax this wine out of its cocoon and show me its true colors. Glorious, and though not one for the ages by any means, it is one to drink over the next decade while you're waiting for those 2000s to start showing their stride. La Conseillante showed sweet blue fruits with mineral and graphite- super tight, but very good.
Medoc is where everything went to hell in a hand-basket. In almost EVERY tasting note I wrote, I consistently tasted- "very dry tannins" and "lighter body" and lots of leather. The ONLY wine worth mentioning was Citran, which clearly had a healthy dollop of Cabernet Franc, showing lots of bright cherry, with a fresh, delicious nose of vanilla and red fruit. To further show you how disappointing the Medoc was, I even have the words, "Sweaty armpit" written clearly on the page of MORE than one wine- and NO I was not being followed by a poorly groomed Frenchman!
Margaux was all over the map with more chalkiness detected in the wines. My usual favorites really disappointed, and my often overlooked estates were the stars- go figure! Brane Cantenac was a delicious easy-drinking Margaux with sweet blue fruit and a long finish. Lovely to drink over the next 5-7 years. Du Tertre was a "little broody" but pretty nonetheless in a classic Margaux style. Kirwan and Lascombes had added elements of rose petal that gave them additional complexity, making me fall in love again with this appellation. Labegorce was a nice surprise with a closed nose, but firm structure and red currant fruit and a dry, chalky tannic finish. Malescot St Exupery was definitely the most elegant of the group, showing a long, silky, blue-fruit and vanillin palate. The losers? Sadly my two favorites! Prieure Lichine and Rauzan Segla both were shockingly GREEN with bell pepper on both the nose and even more so on the palate (if you COULD get PAST the nose). I asked the owners, and they said they used more Cabernet Franc this year (apparently very under-ripe Cabernet Franc at that!!!) Bummer indeed!
The third Superstar of the tasting (next to Angelus and Clinet)was Beychevelle. "Beautiful, creamy cassis, vanilla, and a non-quit finish. Like a scrumptious dessert!" Enough said, right? Gruaud Larose had a nice mouthfeel, but a hint of greenness. Lagrange showed Rich long, chalky tannins- tight as heck, but worth the wait. One of the few age-worthy St Juliens of the group. I was in the minority on preferring the Langoa Barton to the Leoville for its super-concentrated nose, and its full, lush palate. It had silky fruit and was incredibly inviting to drink even now. Not one for long-term cellaring (2-8years), but if you were to lay something down, the Leoville Barton won't disappoint with its intense spices and supreme concentration. Talbot was BACK with a pleasant balance, and an easy-to like style. Leoville Poyferre was simply forgettable- "blah" was my tasting note!
Clerc Milon and D'armailhac were green and hard- not pleasant. Grand Puy Ducasse was lean and austere, however I enjoyed the fruity nose. Lynch Bages will probably be the most ageworthy of the wines I've tasted here, showing excellent tannic structure and a great balance of cassis and coconut from the wood, with refreshing acidity. Pichon Baron was beautiful- a very "complete" wine with that same coconut and a chewy but elegant palate and a long finish. Sadly, Comtesse didn't make it through customs in time for tasting. Bummer number two...
Lastly, my usual FAVORITE part of the tasting proved not at all exciting- Sauternes. The Climens was NOT good- minty? Yuck. The Coutet was WAY out of balance with high alcohol, Doisy Daene was NOT exciting in any way, Guiraud had an over-abundance of wood, while Lafaurie Peyraguey was semi-promising with a candied palate and bright nose. My usual favorite, Suduiraut was full of fresh melon and honey, but lacking in decent acidity. The one glimmer of hope? The fantastic La Tour Blanche 1er Cru with fresh pineapple and vanilla. That was awesome.
After getting bounced around at spit buckets and elbowed at tables, I had succeeded in tasting about 100 wines and running into a few dozen colleagues. Fortunately the day ended up with a fabulous dinner with the winemakers from Larcisse duCase and Pavie Macquin, enjoying some much needed Italian wine to give us a break from our day. Overall, I would say the 2008 vintage was one where the right bank was by far the star, and the left very inconsistent, without enough structure to age long term, with some obvious exceptions. The Medoc was a disappointment for the most part, as are Sauternes, and I'd save my pennies for the 2009s