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Friday, August 15, 2014

Bonny Doon + Brewology

Menu/Wine Pairings
Usually, when I have some kind of extraordinary wine experience, it’s a fabulous bottle from France or Italy or Austria - at least, those generally are the kind of experiences that I can’t stop thinking about by the next day.

A few nights ago, I had the best California wine experience - we attended the Bonny Doon dinner at Brewology and got to meet Randall Grahm himself, and enjoy several Bonny Doon wines paired with Chef Lia Fallon’s creations.


We got there a little early so we took a seat at the bar, and after a round of Gruet, we looked over the evening’s menu, and upon seeing that Bonny Doon Clos de Gilroy was on the glass list but not on the evening’s featured menu, we ordered a glass, and it was a nice prelude to an evening of Bonny Doon wines.  2013 Clos de Gilroy is a blend of Grenache and Mourvedre, smooth and delicious with lots of plum, berry, and soft hints of spice.  For me, it’s a spring/summer/autumn red, and at cellar temperature, it could pair with just about anything, I remarked to Peter.

Vin Gris 2013
And then Randall Grahm arrived.  I was so enthusiastic to meet him as I’ve heard only awesome things, and honestly I was suspicious this was going to be a really fun night.  He’s so cool.  And he’s brilliant.  Over a glass of 2013 Querry Cider (Pear/Apple/Quince) and a glass of 2013 Vin Gris of I believe mostly Grenache but it was a traditional blend (which was probably the best dry rose I’ve had from a place other than Provence - just my style!), Peter and I got to talk with Randall at length.  We got to discuss everything from Tannat to bass guitar and all the while I was in my glory.

Here’s why.

As a very young child, sometimes I had a difficult time communicating certain thoughts and feelings.  My parents would put on Mister Rogers for me, and in his words and songs, it was as if he was speaking directly to me, like he knew what I was thinking and it was something I could connect with at last.

See how much fun we had?
I had a similar feeling, only the grown up version, that night.  Usually, when I hear about terroir and personalities of the wines and noninterventionist ways of making wine, it’s in a conversation with someone French, or Italian.  Here was someone saying what I think and feel about wine, in great detail, but with an American accent.  And what’s more...well, I keep a quote that I read by Randall Grahm some time ago, about Madiran, and terroir, and the quote is hanging on a mirror in my bedroom.  The other night, it was fascinating to hear a man committed to terroir and expressiveness in a wine, telling his audience about “wines of terroir” versus “wines of effort,” and that generally the former is in Europe, and the latter is in California, and about the desire to move in a direction of terroir rather than just effort from the winemaker instead of allowing the wine to do the speaking.  He even went so far as to personify some wines, by making a parallel - imagine being in a room with an individual with lots of personality - after a while you like them, but you tire of their presence a bit.  And then there’s a subtle person who is a pleasure, and everything in moderation, and that’s a person whose presence you can appreciate for a long time.  It’s what he wants in his wines now - they are not explosive.  To me, they are more suggestive and hint in different directions - and it’s how I felt when tasting the Vin Gris - so subtle and lovely and unobtrusive.  The more he spoke, the better connection I had with his wines and his style as a winemaker.  He even mentioned something about wines that have no makeup on - which is exactly how I described good Burgundies in a conversation with Philippe Pascal on the day we worked together last spring.  Good, I thought.  I get it.

Randall Grahm speaking on the personalities of the wines
Dinner opened with a delicious ceviche (which was actually my favorite dish of the evening) in an avocado boat, and 2013 Albarino.  I loved the weight of the Albarino, so fresh and yet so satisfying, a perfect summer white with seafood, a burst of flavor without excess, lots of fruit and an excellent match of textures.

Next was a pasta with truffle cheese, mushrooms, and spinach and veal meatballs - and the pairing was a side by side of 2011 Le Cigare Blanc and 2010 Le Cigare Volant (read up on the law in Chateauneuf du Pape from I believe 1954 regarding outlawing flying saucers from taking off or landing in the wine region).  Le Cigare Blanc (Roussanne/Grenache Blanc) is unique, textured, quite dry but still fairly round, showing plenty of fruit but lots of spice as well and mineral.  I liked the red better for the dish, the Cigare Volant (Grenache/Syrah/Mourvedre/Cinsault/Carignane) - this was a deep, mature, stylish wine yet unpretentious, lots of red and dark fruit and plenty of baking spices with a warm earthiness and for me, it was a near perfect pairing with that dish, although I do believe I could enjoy Le Cigare Volant anytime, anywhere.

[At this time, I realized I was already getting tipsy and promptly handed over the keys to my SUV to Peter, and a selfie ensued - we were having a blast!]

Next course was skirt steak with a rather summery medley of chopped vegetables and corn (to me, it was so seasonal Long Island, delicious) - paired with 2012 Syrah Le Pousseur.  For me, this wine was a perfect example of what Randall was discussing earlier in the evening, about subtlety and that difference between Europe and California.  When I think of Syrah, the first thing that comes to my mind generally is Saint-Joseph - raspberry and dark fruit with a wildness and lots of black pepper.  Here’s a Syrah, I thought while tasting Le Pousseur, with plenty of personality but nothing too wild, and not much black pepper, at least not what we tend to perceive in its Northern Rhone counterpart.  Lovely, I thought.  Wonderful fruit and Peter and I decided it was distinctly California, quite separate from Rhone Syrah, but still very much a Syrah, just extremely approachable and probably the easiest wine to enjoy that evening, at least for me it was, because it wasn’t overpowering anything, the way some young examples of Syrah might.  It was just being itself, and that’s more than good enough for me.  Another successful pairing.

Finally, we ended with a dessert dish of grilled peaches, meringue, almond brittle, and bleu cheese.  The wine was the 2013 Vinferno (Grenache Blanc/Roussanne), a decadent, delicious, rich wine with concentrated orchard and tropical fruit notes, bold spice, and huge aroma and flavor, and a particularly satisfying texture.  The wine refused to allow the bold ginger and funky cheese flavors from the dish to outdo it, ultimately leaving my nose and palate in a sort of wine ecstasy - just the way I like it, to end an evening of excellent wines and good pairings.

And we had so much fun.  I look forward to tasting more Bonny Doon wines and meeting Randall Grahm again.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Alto Adige GuildSomm Master Class

I attended the Guild of Sommeliers master class on Alto Adige at the end of June - I was so hoping to get into that class as it was small and limited in seating, and when I first tried to get in, it was closed, but when a space opened up, I was on that!  And I got in and was thrilled!  It was completely worth attending.  I love eye-opening wine experiences.  Sometimes our eyes are opened when we don’t expect it.  And sometimes we expect the unexpected and we’re still astounded.  This was an example of the latter; I was astounded by the wines and I can assure Madiran’s customers that several of the wines tasted at that master class will make the list.

It’s no secret that I’m into giving proper attention to wine regions that often go overlooked on account of...well, I’m not sure what it’s on account of, since oftentimes, the quality to price ratio in these growing regions is far better than that of many other more popular regions.  Perhaps it’s media coverage, Wine Spectator, etc., that fails to cover these spectacular regions and neglects to expose wine drinkers to them.  Those who frequent Madiran after opening will notice that the wine list gives special attention to places like South West France, Sicily, Alto Adige, Styria, Hungary, Croatia, and Washington State.  We’re used to hearing about regions other than those, but I assure you, you’ll find plenty of otherwise underrepresented regions present at Madiran.

I suppose I haven’t had time to blog about the Alto Adige class as it was only a week before I went public about Madiran and a lot has changed since then, but I’ve got a little time this morning and I can’t hold back any longer about the fabulous wines I had the opportunity to taste that day.

When we think of wines from Northern Italy, we probably think of places like Piemonte, Veneto, Friuli, and if you’re “certifiably insane” like I am, you might even have fallen in love with Vallee d’Aosta by now (I certainly have!), but Alto Adige needs to be in the mix as well.  I’m not just talking about Trentino - I mean Sud Tirol, home of a more Germanic/Austrian type of people with names and accents that show almost no trace of anything Italian.  Cool, I thought.  I knew this was the situation up there, vaguely though.  And MS Geoff Kruth did a fantastic job covering the lay of the land, the terroir, the people, the food, and of course the wine, as well as history, culture, identity, and...speck.

“I hope this isn’t just going to be a study in Pinot Grigio,” I told Peter the night prior to the tasting.  And it certainly wasn’t!  Not that there’s anything wrong with Pinot Grigio, it’s just that the mass production and lack of inspiration when crafting many examples of Pinot Grigio has led many of us wine geeks to cringe a little when thrown into a lineup of Pinot Grigio.  I usually go for the kind from Friuli, with the true grey color I like to see in a properly executed Pinot Grigio.  But...

We opened with the Muri-Gries 2013 Pinot Grigio.  Bingo.  Only one Pinot Grigio in the lineup and it was awesome - everything I’d look for as a wine buyer - good value, plenty of character and still quite light and easy drinking, and user-friendly for the everyday American wine drinker who asks for a Pinot Grigio and the person pouring cannot and will not serve Santa Margherita.  What a happy wine with notes of bitter almond, orchard and citrus fruit, and white mineral, and just a touch of the telltale grey color, I’d wear that “I just made a wine discovery” smile the rest of the class.

Next up was the Colterenzio Weisshaus 2012 Pinot Bianco.  Now, I’m not usually a lover of Pinot Blanc.  But this one was different, lovely, and quite delicious.  Pale and subtle with suggestions of citrus, orchard fruit, white blossoms, and mineral, the wine has an air of mystery about it, and femininity, if that makes any sense.

I actually preferred the following Pinot Bianco, which was even lovelier and more graceful than the first, with notes of pear, melon, a hint of spice and some texture, and a soft yet bright character.  This was the Cantina Terlano Vorberg Riserva 2011 Pinot Bianco.

Next was the Erste + Neue Salt 2012 Chardonnay, which I found a bit “odd” and strange as I noted on my tasting sheets.  Its name, Salt, was no joke - laced into the lemon curd and green apple notes was a salty characteristic, and oddly enough, I found the wine a little bit hot, although I could have been mistaking some other trait for what I perceived as a balance issue.

The next wine I also didn’t connect well with, as it seemed too strange, even for a geek like me.  It was the Manicor Reserve Della Contessa 2012 Terlaner, a blend of Pinot Bianco, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc.  (I’m not a huge fan of white blends actually, especially when the blend appears to muddle the identity of the wine, at least on my nose and palate and therefore in my perception of the wine.  There are many exceptions for me, however this was not one of them.)  The wine showed notes of what appeared to me as green apple, sour peach, lemon, grapefruit, funky herbs, and...drumroll please...a less than sanitary urinal.  Obviously this wasn’t on my favorites list.  To put it mildly, I hated it.  But that’s going to happen sometimes - if there are things we like, surely there will be things we don’t like.  It was one of two wines at the tasting that flat out offended my nose and palate.

I went straight into recovery mode with the gem that came next, and I’m still thinking about this wine a couple of months later.  The Peter Zemmer Rohracker 2013 Riesling was gorgeous and I wrote the happiest thoughts in the margin next to the wine’s name and tasting notes.  Clearly less expensive than many of its counterparts around the world, it’s very much a Riesling with lovely aromas and flavors including green and white grapes, orchard and tropical fruits, bold white blossoms, and white stony mineral with a waxiness and plenty of acidity and a perfectly clean feel.  I was back on track in no time and completely in love with this wine.

Another gem (which I’ve tasted previously but never tire of it) was the Abbazia di Novacella Val Isarco 2012 Kerner (MS Kruth tells us that Kerner is the product of Riesling crossed with Schiava) - Kerner is something worth experiencing, because there’s nothing quite like it, in those funky tall skinny bottles.  It’s got a pale yellow gold color, it’s clean and wonderful with lively acidity, a fun, happy, aromatic wine with more citrus peel and spice and fennel than Riesling but otherwise fairly similar with orchard fruit and floral perfume.

The other wine that didn’t sit well with me was a disappointment as I love Gewurztraminer, but this was just too much.  The Cantina Bolzano Kleinstein 2012 Gewurztraminer has the tropical and lychee and spicy notes we expect from Gewurztraminer and that weight we like to see with a wine like this, but the alcohol was intense and for me, it overtook what could have (should have?) been an otherwise good wine.  And then MS Kruth read the alcohol content to us - 15.5% ABV - for me, that’s just too much.  The balance seems quite off and the wine left me with a hot, sweet, strange sensation - and for the first time in recent or long term memory, I did not go back for any more Gewurztraminer.

Then the reds came out.  There were three of them.  And they were just an expression of love and passion that we find in many Italian wines, and precision and exactness that often we experience with German/Austrian wines.

First was the Kellerei Kaltern Caldaro Pfarrhof Lago di Caldaro Classico Superiore Schiava 2013 (it took much longer to type it than to enjoy it).  It was served chilled, as a wine of such lightness and mirth should be.  Pale, a pinkish red with clear reflectiveness, berry, herb, stone - it’s a perfect summer red with cheeses, meats, antipasti - just perfect.

Next up was an excellent example of good quality to price ratio - as I believe it’s somewhat challenging to find good Pinot Noir at an affordable price.  The Castelfeder Glener 2011 Pinot Nero is delicious, bright red, smokey, fruity, elegant, clean, and has a fun hint in it.  It’s an easy drinking wine and easy to pair with food, and I really enjoyed this one.

The final wine was one of the true winners in the lineup - the Tiefenbrunner Linticlarus Riserva 2011 Lagrein.  Wow, just wow.  Americans, on average, seem to like bigger styled reds.  It’s very dark in color, almost purple and inky with a black core.  It shows dark fruit, plum, blackberry, blueberry, some oak, and purple blossoms/lilac, with bright acidity and very present tannins.  For the red drinker who’s looking to change it up from Cabernet and Merlot and wants an excellent quality-to-price wine, here’s your wine.

So there it is, the Alto Adige GuildSomm master class and my observations and notes - look for some of these wines next year at Madiran!

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Pinot Noir: Revisited

“These California wines are all so good...”
“What did you expect?  Thunderbird?”

I still chuckle at this quote every time I watch Bottle Shock, which is very often - probably much more often than I’d care to admit.

Old World Pinot Noir
I haven’t had very much time for blogging with all that’s been going on lately, and what I really wanted to tell you about was the outrageously good GuildSomm Alto Adige master class I attended recently, because I really have lots to say about it - but today I need to focus on something else, because it seems I just learned a bit of a hard lesson over the past couple of days.

It has to do with Pinot Noir.

You’re probably wondering, then, why I led off with a quote from Bottle Shock which revolves around Chardonnay, whereas Sideways is the movie that revolves around Pinot Noir.

About the Pinot Noir...I like telling people that I believe that due to the thin skin of the Pinot grapes, the grape has both the duty and the privilege to express terroir, the climate, soil, etc., of where the particular Pinot Noir grapes grow.  I think Burgundy has been a prime example of that concept, as we can detect subtle differences (and sometimes not so subtle) among examples of Pinot Noir from vineyard to vineyard in Burgundy, the home of the Pinot.

New World Pinot Noir
I’ve been working among French people in the wine industry for some time.  I’ve come to embrace the concept of terroir the way I embrace my beliefs about just about anything else.  In a way, it’s made me feel like Pinot Noir is only Pinot Noir if it comes from Burgundy.  I know that probably sounds strange, but the Pinots I’ve been accustomed to for some time have had the telltale color of Burgundy, with the characteristics we’d generally expect of them.  And I felt like, anything other than that from a Pinot made it into something other than a real Pinot.

A couple of days ago, I attended a portfolio tasting in preparation of Madiran’s opening.  One of the areas where I wanted to focus was West Coast wines, as I’ve got rather a large hole in my proposed wine list where West Coast wines ought to be - in fact, I’ve got so few - just a few from Washington State, and a very good quality Zinfandel from California, and that’s it.  So at least I knew there was a bit of a problem there that needed to be addressed, even if I’ve still got plenty of time before opening.

Peter suggested that we taste through whites first, then Pinot Noirs, then other reds, and then dessert wines.  That proved to be a very good idea.

I got to taste through a bunch of Pinot, mostly from California.  Several of them I really liked.  Aside from liking them as much as I did, what I was realizing is that some of the winemakers were showing several Pinots on a table, all from the same winery and same winemaker, but different vineyards.  Cool, I thought.

After wrapping up the tasting, hitting a wine bar, eating plenty of oysters, and having lots of fun in the city with the rest of the night, coming back to Long Island, and waking up yesterday morning still thinking about Pinot Noir from California, it dawned on me.

Pinot Noir is still doing its job the same way it does in Burgundy, only in California.  Plenty of my former coworkers would have anyone believing that Pinot Noir is not free to express itself if it’s growing in a warmer climate, with what many perceive to be overzealous American winemakers.  Well, if the wines on the West Coast are just about the work of the winemaker and not the location, then why were wines from the same grape made by the same person showing such variation?  Because they’re from slightly different sites.

Sure, the Pinots from California have not much in common with their Burgundian counterparts - but isn’t that the point?  Shouldn’t Pinot tell us it’s from California or from Burgundy, and not that it’s an impostor if it’s West Coast?  Then I thought some more - I’ve had plenty of other Pinots from France outside of Burgundy, and I reflected on examples I’ve tasted from Sancerre and Menetou Salon.  And they’re quite different from Burgundy Pinot.  So why, then, shouldn’t a California Pinot speak to us in, for lack of a better term, a different accent than a Burgundian Pinot?  Pinot is the best example for that, in that it takes on its terroir and expresses itself to the wine drinker and tells us where it’s from.  Whether it’s Burgundy, Languedoc, Loire, Champagne, Northern Italy, Germany, New Zealand, Tasmania, Oregon, California, etc., it’s still Pinot.

This may come as a dumb and obvious observation to many, but for me, as open minded as I’ve been about wine, I’ve been very aloof when it comes to West Coast Pinot Noir.  Now I just want to find the best possible examples of California Pinots to bring to Madiran’s customers.  I want them to feel the terroir of different parts of California.  Sure, perhaps the intense sun of the West Coast makes it more challenging for Pinot to tell us exactly where in California it’s from, as opposed to Burgundy Pinot that plainly states it’s from Marsannay or Santenay or Mercurey, but at least it’s not trying to be French Pinot.  It seems rather proud to be California Pinot.  At least that’s how I perceived them at this week’s tasting.