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Vouvray 94One gets the feeling that bigger things are in store for Chenin Blanc, even if the noble varietal has fallen out of favor with my customers—treated like a pariah on the shelf, it’s poised to recapture their hearts and fill their baskets soon if but given the chance. I’m certain of this, and especially convinced after a group tasting last month saw the grape through its myriad and deliciously complex forms.

A Loire Valley native, Chenin Blanc has been flourishing in South Africa (known there as Steen) and beyond for centuries. It remains one of the best values in the market; hidden in plain sight, I was able to find Philippe Foreau’s 1997 Vouvray Moelleux for less than fifty dollars. A pittance paid for one of the benchmark producers of the Loire Valley—not just Vouvray—and preserved, in good faith, for sixteen years? The same wine in any other appellation, namely Burgundy, would fetch ten times that! This treasure was among many other affordably-priced and aged Chenin Blanc vacationing on the racks of my local wine merchant.

Our tasting highlighted its range as we opened with a Clos de Nouys Vouvray Brut—as in bubbles—and passed through to its sweetest guise, the Vouvray Moelleux. While the tasting incorporated foreign emissaries from prominent regions such as South Africa and California, it was Loire Valley that demonstrated its spectral mastery with ravishing examples.

Even our lowliest seven-fifty, hailing from the less prestigious Coteaux de Vendomois AOC, caused us some suspense, with its perfumed nose of mukhwas—Indian mouth fresheners—, peanuts and vetiver. The 2011 Domaine Brazilier was light-bodied, with laser-like focus and a lovely and deep finish.

Slightly overshadowed by its [AOC] cousin to the south, and my favorite bottle of the night, a 1994 Régis Cruchet Vouvray Sec that brought with it a long list of descriptors including apricot, marzipan, stock (white flowers, not soup!), grapefruit and wet stones. It took on a rather oily texture in the mouth, graced with an elegant frame contoured by mouth-watering acidity and leaving a pleasantly long finish.

We wrapped up the evening huddled over Foreau’s 1997 Vouvray Moelleux, still developing; with floral traces wafting from our stemware, each sip was sweet and wholesome like Persian pastry, honeyed and nutty (almond and pistachio) with orange marmalade and nuance on the finish.

The tasting quickly became an open love letter to Chenin Blanc; its coquetry was enough to have won fawning affection, yet it wasn’t any single seductive act that had moved us to be loyalists. Almost every wine that night over-delivered. We were privileged to see a window of vintages from 1989 up to 2011, offering a range of flavors and styles that painted a broad portrait of Chenin Blanc. I know I’m not alone when I tell you that I can see why Chenin Blanc stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Chardonnay or other international varietals, but I think that you get the idea too now.

Mise en placeFrequent wine tastings are vital to the role of wine buyer, important to stay fully immersed, committing flavors, vintage variation, producers and regions to memory in hopes of better serving customers. Valuable though my time spent tasting is, it frequently lacks enough of one crucial part, and that is food pairings. To even things out a bit more, I happily accepted an invitation to pair food and wine for a Food-Writers’ dinner last month.

Soup StTo be five courses deep, I selected three wines for the dinner that I felt would best complement the diversity of the menu—keeping in mind the season and the broad strokes of the meal—while trying hard not to over-think it.  Lemons were overly abundant, making starring appearances in nearly every course—save for the cheese plate—and I leaned heavily on white wines, until the main course (a salmon over bed of sorrel in cream), where I would transition to a light-bodied red as a break from the unwritten script (fish and white wine).

We opened with a refreshingly cool avocado soup, with hints of green pepper, chive and a touch of cream. Not only was the presentation stunning but also the soup was quite substantial. The 2011 Pieropan Soave Classico was called upon to assist with its citrus accent and crisp acidity to reset our taste buds after each palate-coating spoonful.

Salmon StkWe moved into a salad with lemon vinaigrette, croutons and light dusting of Parmesan. Partially motivated by the bitter greens, I decided that a 2009 Williams Selyem Unoaked Chardonnay would be a good way to go, propelling the fruit core of the Russian River Valley wine while harmonizing with the bready croutons and subtle cheesy flavors. They meshed perfectly.

Becker B SpatReserving a glass of Chardonnay each, for comparison purposes, we segued into the salmon and opened a seven-fifty of 2008 Friedrich Becker “B” Pinot Noir. The main course and wine collided with colossal force—complexity from both quarters was brought to an apex with noticeable tension. The developing scents on the Pinot Noir suggestive of red cherry, cardamom, pepper, mushroom and cedar chimed nicely with the savory character of the salmon. The chardonnay, though friendly to the creamier elements of the plate was no match for the Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir), but the latter ably supported the course without taking the glory even while displacing the Chardonnay.

We savored the last drops of the Pinot Noir while the cheese plate rolled out. Demanding and intricate, I opted for an Austrian sparkler—leftovers from the host—to help us navigate the range of flavors, especially that nettle cheese! It got along famously and by the time Sharon’s perfect lemon tart had been plated we were all ready for cups of coffee.

Thankful for the opportunity to contribute in the smallest degree, I was really happy to be part of the dinner. Every plate was carefully put together and delicious; insight behind the courses and the people who made them were wonderful bonuses. One of the best qualities of wine is its ability to bind; in this case not only were the food and drink components tied together but the people sharing the dinner were also united. That’s something I don’t get often from just tasting.

HermitAn annual dalliance with the Rhône Valley white wines seemed a weak tribute. Rather than a once-a-year fling, I wanted to taste those unctuous wines again and revel in their visceral texture that leaves way to a seductive honey-and-mineral mousse as they course through the palate. Maybe even show them off with a dinner? Luckily, my tasting group was of the same mind, and we turned our attention to the Northern Rhône.

The region is perhaps best known for Syrah (the only permitted red grape in Northern Rhône), but the terraced slopes and continental climate are extremely hospitable to the principal white grapes of the Northern Rhône—Viognier, Marsanne and Roussane.

Solitude BlancOur tasting featured some of the greatest producers of the North, leaving only the Viognier grape unrepresented. Jean-Louis Chave made three appearances, followed by Paul Jaboulet and François Villard. Tasting blind encourages us to keep unbiased rather than succumb to reputation. The fourth wine was profound, a deep gold painted the inside of the glass with a clean and pronounced intensity of caramel, lemon peel, minerals and essential oils (think extracts) on the nose.  In the mouth, it possessed a youthful vigor with more citrus fruits emerging, sweet spice (vanilla) and a handful of rocks that coalesced into a suave full body, shaped by decent acidity (medium). We saw the cress of Domaine Jean-Louis Chave unveiled, specifically a 2002 Hermitage in the wake of the discarded wine bag disguise; the bottle’s contents’ not phased by age but enhanced by it, matching the pedigree of the wine.

One other bottle happened to really excite me during the tasting, perhaps because it was so wildly different! Before the stately and serious fourth wine, our third bottle stood out as an extrovert, youthful aromas of lime zest, peach, white flowers (Jasmine) fireworked from the glass. On the tongue the wine had a definite swagger; a full body that kept the alcohol, though medium-plus, reined in, and strutted out with rich flavors of white peach, squeezed Lisbon lemons, beeswax and a fleck of vanilla bean for a sultry finish. Flashy! Unfortunately, when we unveiled it, one member of the group missed the memo and bought Southern Rhône, fetching a sexy bottle of 2010 Domaine de la Solitude Chateauneuf-du-Pape blanc.

These wines were probably the most difficult to judge blind, they had a lot of overlapping qualities sandwiched between their robust texture and stone-fruit-inflected flavor profiles. However with food, they were a delight. Every aspect seemed to mesh nicely with our seafood accompaniment and although nobody splurged on Chateau Grillet the tasting was another wonderful success. Might make it a quarterly engagement?

R Wiest TastingIt was an earth day. The Farmer’s Almanac had prescribed the flavors at the forefront of a day’s worth of tasting Riesling. Headed to a steakhouse for the annual Dry Wine Tour with limestone, schist and Gypsum slate thoughts pouring through my head.

I arrived at Lawry’s Prime Rib at 2 PM, expecting to taste a wide range of dry German wines informally, and, at my own leisure; instead, I happened upon a yearly seminar lead by Brent Wiest and a panel of distinguished winemakers, bending our ears with soil composition, weather, aspect (altitude), winemaking and the philosophy behind their estates and selected offerings. I guess I didn’t read the invitation carefully.

Inside the pantheon of prime rib, five glasses apiece splayed out on dense wooden tables dressed in white cloth and rimmed with a collection of shop owners, sommeliers and buyers from Southern California eager to learn more about the battery of wines on display.

DownthebarrelBeginning with Raumland Cuvée Katharina sparkling wine, the German fizz was a blend of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier that primed our taste buds for Riesling’s signature cut. Wagner-Stempel, another Rheinhessen producer’s flight was on deck.  In bracing for the lime and peach flavors, bracketed by mouthwatering acidity, I was blindsided by their Pinot Blanc from Siefersheimer with a fresh perfume of orchard fruits and white flowers. The curvaceous body showed a supple creaminess in the mid-palate that was lifted by a jolt of refreshing acidity and a lengthy fruit finish.

Dr. Uwe Matheus walked us through the next flight of bocksbeutelsthe distinctly stout and rounded bottles of Fraconia—filled with Silvaner from Weingut Wirsching. The region is famous for spicy Silvaners and Wirsching’s wines were the epitome, showing nuanced spice and herbal characteristics, but again, the outlier, a lone bottle of Kabinett Scheurebe from Iphöfer Kronsberg made an indelible impression early on the tour. The tropical notes flooded in waves, breaking with mineral precision and sculpted by bright acidity (medium-plus), a rich medium-body, on a long, complex finish that weaved wet stones, ripe peach and mango with hints of exotic spice delicately.

R WiestRed wines eventually made their way prominently into the lineup as we carved a path into Pfalz and Baden in Southern Germany. The two winemaking regions are suitable areas for the production of red wine like Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir), Lemberger (Blaufränkisch) and other rare crosses found in German cellars due to increasingly warmer climate. Though there were some interesting red wines like the Cuvée D, which blended Cabernet Cubin and Cabernet Dorio among other international varietals, I was drawn to Pinot Noir. A particularly rousing example came courtesy of Markus Mleinek from Dr. Heger in Baden. Dr. Heger’s Pinot Noir GG (Grosses Gewächs) from Winklerberg delivered a smoky scent infused with gravel and tight clusters of red berries. The pronounced intensity of the nose was matched by the youthful exuberance of fruit and mineral content that had not meshed fully, buttressed by medium-fine tannins and living up to its vineyard site’s pedigree. An infant, Mr. Mleinek explained that this wine would benefit from years of cellaring despite how seductive it was in its youth.

Two hours had passed in a blink and only the sides of my tongue had noticed. Dry Rieslings are always a treat but this seminar lent a fisheye lens on the exciting spectrum of wines—including the notable Scheurebe and Pinot Noir samplings—coming from Germany. The earth had never tasted better.

CaminsAfter Rioja there was only one place left to discover in Spain: Sharing its esteemed status (DOCa) with Rioja, Priorat is known for crafting sinewy Garnacha-heavy blends from the North East of the Iberian Peninsula. It was time for my tasting group to validate the region’s reputation.

Aspect is everything in Priorat. Already growing in higher altitude, the grapes—Garnacha, Cariñena and some international varietals—are raised on steep terraced hillsides comprised of red/blue slate and quartz that account for the notable muscle and mineral undercurrent found in the best examples. We would be discerning terroir, pure and simple.

From the onset of the tasting, the experience was monolithic. The alleged aging potential of the wines was making itself known; in the rotation we were bombarded by a galère of hot-blooded (high alcohol) wines with youthful tannins and unencumbered dark fruit hearts that would take some time to integrate fully. Still, there were a few beauties in the Priory.

Interestingly enough, we had one bottle appear twice in our lineup (positions 1 and 5). Both bottles identical, sharing the 2004 birth year, but oddly, they were completely different in terms of evolution. Storage was now in question. The first time we tasted the 2004 Primitiu de Bellmunt, a blend of 55% Garanacha and 45% Cariñena, it exhibited cherries, licorice, tea, smoke and pepper all painted black. By the time we tasted the twin’s offering, it had been sapped of all its elegance and intrigue, falling short on the finish—two completely different tales.

The anomaly wasn’t the highlight however, just an interesting observation. Instead, tasting honors came courtesy of our last wine of the night, which took us to “funky town.” A mature bottle of 2004 Embruix de Vall Llach showed its age with a garnet hue that was bricking toward the rim. Our noses were buried deep inside our bulbs, inhaling that entire developing aroma of cooked plums, asphalt, black tea and soy sauce enjoyably. On the palate the robust red possessed a graceful structure with curvy body (medium-plus), mouth-filling tannins that conveyed a throat-warming landscape of roasted black plums, spice and dank cellar.

That last bottle was captivating. While all the wines retained their high alcohol character to some degree, with no wines registering under 14.5% ABV, only a few producers were able to use it as an advantage. In no case was that more true than the Embruix, which boasted the highest alcohol content of the evening (15.1%), and translated it into a boost of body that helped convey the developing complexity eloquently.

Otanon

Every other Tuesday I look forward to a wild array of wines—many I’ve rarely encountered before—culled from LA’s finest bazaars by my tasting group peers, to paint an important region or varietal accurately; the tastings are meant to flesh out a theme. The fabled Rioja region of Spain would be the latest to lend its shadings.

We got things started with a familiar friend; a white wine from R. Lopez de Heredia, but it wasn’t the oxidized wine—chiming with notes of Marcona almonds, preserved lemons, button mushrooms and white eraser—that had our heads turning… rather quickly in the tasting rotation there was a bottle of questionable provenance in our midst that caused a stir—a genuine FREAK!

The wine following in the tasting appeared youthful in all aspects, from its medium ruby tones inside the glass to its cherry and plum flavors that sprang forward. I was in no way prepared for the reveal.

When we had finished our blind assessment of all six wines we removed their disguises. My wine world turned upside down in an instant after having confidently penned 2005 as my guess for vintage on the first red, staring in disbelief at a bottle of 1995 Bodegas Otañón Reserva Rioja. Only ten years off! Two of us in the tasting refused to believe the vintage—our notes could not support the age—there was nothing about it that was remotely close to eighteen years of age. We immediately filled our glassware with a second pour, which showed no signs of bricking (often found on aged wines) in color and the fruit and earth woven textile that came across in the perfumed esters were just developing; never mind the tannin structure (medium-plus and finely grained) and pert acidity of the Rioja.

Across the spectrum of Reserva level Riojas that found their way to the table, there was nothing quite like the Otañón, even the 1998 Faustino showed Jimmy Stewart like aging—graceful but apparent—with secondary and tertiary flavors superseding the sour cherry fruit.

The wine of the night was thus mired in controversy. I remained obstinate in my stance, refusing to give into the rebuttals, but in the end I simply pulled back and enjoyed the Spanish red for what it was, regardless of age, admiring the freshness especially… if it actually was from 1995.

Arneis BarSix bottles under wraps, amidst charcuterie and cheese plates on a busy table carrying a pitcher of water, spit cups and stemware, the only certainty being that all wines hailed from Piedmont—another chapter from the chronicles of my tasting group.

Right out of the gate we had two white wines split between two heavyweight producers—Favaro’s Erbaluce di Caluso and Vietti’s Roero Arneis. It was that latter that brought the group to their knees.

A golden glimmer in the bulb with a faint petillance (tiny bubbles accruing at the bottom of the glass), the developing nose was dripping of complexity, showing lemon, celery root, candle wax and almonds. The transition to the palate was spectacular, not letting up from those deep aromatics, the Arneis with waxy texture, fanned out across the taste buds, bursting with apricots, lemon oil, toasted almonds and fennel seeds that finished long (medium-plus to pronounced).

After segueing to the red wines we were treated to some bottles that shattered our price ceiling, and in particular the fourth wine of the night (and not the most expensive) blew the others away gracefully. After the reveal we saw a seven-fifty of 2007 Ca’ del Baio Barbaresco Pora, still retaining a lot of youthful character with red cherries and rose petals on top, but as I dug deeper, licorice, leather and Cremini mushrooms were beginning to emanate. A robust mouth feel, with fine-grained tannins (high), high acidity, medium-plus body and alcohol—the winning attributes of a wine that will age effortlessly in the cellar.

After dinner we finished the night with a sweet splash of La Spinetta Bricco Quaglia Moscato d’Asti, reflecting on the varied tasting; half the wines shown were native varietals, sharing the stage with their well-known counterparts from Barolo and Alba. By the end of it my gums were still feeling the tannic grip of Freisa and Nebbiolo but I was ecstatic with the results that almost all the wines in our lineup were very good examples. Until next time.

Syrah Reflection Admitting that Syrah is not my favorite grape, I have no issues with the varietal other than how much I pay to find quality examples. When it was pitched to my tasting group that it would be our next grape of focus, I was reserved but optimistic about the possibilities.

Our group had implemented new rules on buying wine for the tasting, to avoid the same region making multiple appearances—like, say, having Australia’s Barossa Valley light up the scoreboard. The real challenge was certain to be price; we defined our spending limits between the 20-35 dollar sweet spot, fingers crossed for great values.

Topanga RedOur six brown bags were passed around the table, yielding two different wines that were far apart in the flavor spectrum but equally enjoyable. The first wine of the night was actually one of the best, hailing from Edna Valley (in San Luis Obispo County). The 2007 Topanga Red Red Wine Syrah showed a deep and brooding ruby inside the bulb. The wine was voluptuous and darkly skewed, giving black fruits, creosote, black pepper and dried lavender. The finish was a bit warm (the alcohol and body were both in the medium-plus camp) but pleasant, and the red showed a big side of Syrah with balance.

The second winner appeared third in our lineup. An aromatic experience, this Syrah had an elegant perfume that demanded our attention from the first sniff, showing fragrant violets and more red flowers, white pepper, smoke and a blend of berries and plums. On the palate it displayed a softer hand with fine medium tannin, a svelte medium body, keeping the alcohol in check (medium) and flaunting a clean finish that resounded brightly of youthful fruits, herbs and spices. When unveiled it was no surprise that this was a cool climate Syrah from France’s Rhône Valley, specifically Yves Cuilleron’s 2010 Les Pierres Sèches from Saint-Joseph.

Apart from our setting, in a private room of Villetta in Brentwood, and the great spread of food, our tasting was otherwise lackluster: I was disappointed with the overall showing; four out of the six wines were out-of-balance. For these tasting group blogs the verdicts are always personal, sometimes harsh, and strive for concision, but many of the other wines that I omit to review are actually very good. This tasting showed the widest disparity between winners and losers, and unfortunately validated my sticker-price theory for Syrah. Anyone having any suggestions for better Syrah under $30, please feel free to comment! 

Morgon Michaud

One of the most exciting varietals was between the crosshairs of our tasting group. We had selected Gamay, or by its full name, Gamay Noir à Jus Blanc; the varietal that makes its appearance in those wildly costumed bottles of Beaujolais Nouveau found in Super Markets around Thanksgiving but can easily produce wines of spectacular value when dressed up for the occasion.

The six of us had brought seven-fifties of Gamay, sacked in brown bags, so that we wouldn’t guess that every bottle under the roof was from one of the ten Cru villages in Beaujolais rather than California, or Switzerland (where they have a penchant for blending Gamay with Pinot Noir).

We paired the wines with a spread of charcuterie and opened our taste buds with a Bugey-Cerdon—a sparkling Gamay—that was light, fruity and quaffable.

We tasted each wine—all six—making notes and scribbling interesting observations as the bottles clocked around the table. The wines were unveiled and it was no surprise that they all hailed from Beaujolais. My favorite wine of the night hailed from Morgon, a bottle of 2010 Domaine Alain Michaud. Its aroma was alluring, pitching violets, succulent red cherries and minerals. It was delicious; on the palate it had soft and round tannins (medium), and a pleasing core of youthful fruit that finished long and clean.

While not the biggest of the night, that honor would go to a bottle of 2006 Morgon from the Côte de Py under the direction of Jean-Marc Burgaud (big green tannins and larger than life mouth feel). The Michaud red was vibrant and juicy with an underlying complexity that made it satisfying now, yet having enough primary fruit character to make a convincing argument for aging it another 3-5 years.

We had a lot of overlap, tasting two wines from Régnié, Morgon and Fleurie that was enough to make us change up our wine buying strategy for more diversity in lineups to come. Even though we neglected to taste other wines from Juliénas, Saint-Amour or even outside of Beaujolais, we were left with a superbly painted portrait of Gamay, but particularly of Cru Beaujolais. In the hands of great producers these wines are complex, pure, exciting and best of all, relatively inexpensive. I’m not a fashion advisor but ditching the getup of those extroverted Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau bottles would serve Gamay far better.

Grenache Strawberry Jam, not only the name of one of the most complete and visceral albums from Animal Collective but a tasting note found in one of the finest Californian Grenaches I had the pleasure of evaluating with my Tuesday tasting group.

The subject was Garnacha—oddly enough, after the reveal, no Spanish wines were found—and the 2010 Amor Fati Grenache emerged as a clear-cut winner.

Among Gigondas and Cannanau di Sardegna, my favorite wine of the night was born a few hours north, in Santa Maria Valley. The noticeable difference in color–medium ruby—had me intrigued from the start. The bouquet had a medium-plus intensity showing strawberry jam and lightly crushed raspberries—lavender, black pepper, leather and dried flowers. An effeminate perfume translated to a clean and exciting wine with medium body, medium-plus alcohol (pleasantly warm), medium-plus acidity and medium tannins (fine grained on the gums) that exploded with a medium-plus flavor intensity of a red fruit core balanced by dried herbs, flowers and cracked pepper.

Relative to the other Grenache of the night, once it was revealed we were stunned to find that this was a domestic expression. It was tense yet balanced, showing a lot of restraint from the winemaker’s hand while wringing out the most of an incredibly attractive red wine that was suitable for aging. A bit outside of our stated price range but well worth it—I would strongly recommend finding this bottle of Amor Fati Grenache.

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