Thursday, February 22, 2007

Tasting: Two bad Riojas

Somewhat of a sensational title…but there are many Riojas I just don't get!

1. Traditional Riojas: Long oak aging in older barrels, higher acidity, lower alcohol.

I can appreciate the last two, but the first one just kills all the fruit in the wine. The type of wood notes it gives are both overwhelming and unpleasant. The best ones can be attractive in an elegant, mellow sort of way. Most are just thin and unpleasant.

Lately I tasted one of the most popular Riojas in the world: Marques de Caceres Crianza 2003.

It had been a while and it will be a long while again!

The nose was not unpleasant…very simple raspberry jam (after all this is the extremely hot 2003 vintage) and a few notes of older wood and oxidation.

The mouth was the big disappointment: thin and vegetal…very little of the fruit from the nose showed in the mouth. Bracing acidity was out of balance with the lack of fruit. Extremely short…died out in a bitter, fruitless way.

It's only about 7€, but there are far better wines it Spain at that price.

Quite unpleasant….I don't get the popularity of this wine…the Yellowtail phenomena I can understand…this I cannot!

I feel bad that so many people's experience with Rioja is based in this wine.

2. Gran Reservas: This is the most elite level of the traditional reservas. You rarely find any modern Riojas in this style. Why? Because the minimum oak aging period is 18 months…this was recently lowered from 24 months in an effort to improve the category. But in reality this is invariably a traditional style where you most often see from 28-35 months in oak! These wines can be elegant, but fruit they do not have!
All the new wave, elite Riojas are uber-reservas, never Gran Reservas. Reserva is the category that requires a minimum of 12 months in wood.

Many people sing the praises of this style as representing a finer time in Rioja, but I personally think that time has passed. I still have a lot of them to taste and I remain open to changing my mind….but there is work to be done!

There is a huge range in prices....from 20€ for the lower end versions to 159€ for Vega Sicilia (obviously a category apart). The cheaper versions have no fruit, but are mellow and smooth. The higher versions, around 70€ have more fruit…but still the oak dominates.

Recently I tasted one of the lower end Gran Reservas: Viña Alarde Gran Reserva 1997 by Bodegas Berberana. 36 months in American oak..and all for 12 euros!
The wine was not unpleasant: gentle vanilla nose with oxidized notes. Mouth seemed alcoholic, despite 12.5% alc! This is because there was no fruit, just strong vanilla and woody flavors. This is a light bodied wine, with a thin mouthfeel. The finish was pleasant, medium long. Not unpleasant, but not attractive either.

As I said I don't get it…

Maybe I have an overly modern palate, blasted to insensitivity by extraction and alcohol…a plate that can't appreciate the subtleties of these wines….but it seems a crime to pay a lot for a wine that has absolutely no fruit and is dominated by older wood aromas. If you want a cheaper wine that has no fruit, go for a lower end Gran Reservas or a traditional Rioja Reserva.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Wine Rating: Portugal Esporao Reserva 2002

We recently returned to La Cumbre, a great tavern in Pozuelo, that has all sorts of traditional food. My favourite thing there are the torreznos, which is freshly fried pork rinds. Calling them pork rinds is not doing them justice. They are juicy, thick bits of pork skin, with bits of sea salt…crunchy, moist, salty, and greasy all at once. Who knew something so disgusting in theory good be so sublime in your mouth!

They have a nice wine list in La Cumbre and we had a coupe of great bottles. A wonderful Ribera del Duero that we have often: Emilio Moro. Also the great wine that follows: Esporao Reserva.

We visited the winery a few years ago…it's not far off the freeway between Madrid and Lisbon…soon after you pass the border into Portugal. It's a hot region, both in weather and in terms of wines. Some of Portugal's most expensive red table wines are made here. The area took off 10 years ago, leading the way in Portugal's wine revolution. Since then, rivals have sprung up throughout Portugal, but Alentejo still makes some great wine. They can be pricy and hard to find in Spain, but this wine is inexpensive and very easy to find in Spain!

Wine: Esporaõ Reserva Tinto 2002
Winery: Herdade do Esporaõ
Appellation: DOC Alentejo Reguengos
Alc: 14%
Grape variety: 30% Trincadeira, 40% Aragones, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon
Oak regime: 1 year in American oak followed by 1 year bottle aging
Price: 13€

Tasting notes:
Visual: Fairly pale garnet color…showing quite a bit of evolution for a 2002
Nose: At first a little closed but then tons of sweet blueberry and vanilla. Fairly simple, but so appealing!
Mouth: So smooth with tons of sweet blueberry and vanilla…good acidity. Perhaps a little mono-dimensional, but very attractive. Soft tannins…finish is super long, with the blueberry dominating it.
Food: This wine goes great with all sorts of food. It stands up to many things, but is so smooth that it dominates none. We had eggs with asparagus and shrimp, peppers stuffed with fish and shrimp, grilled vegetables etc.

Conclusion: If I think about this wine too much, I realize that it is not a very serious wine. But this is not a wine to be thought about. It offers a purely hedonistic experience….sexy and smooth…so seductive. It is great on its own or with lots of foods. Even the label is appealing...the artwork changes every year! Not for aging…perfect now…though it will maintain for a while. A couple more recent vintages are already on the market.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Wine and Food Matching: Chocolate and Champagne

This is a matching I had to do for El Mundo newspaper here in Spain. They picked 5 champagnes and five chocolates and had me match them. Four of the pairs matched up naturally, the final one was a bit trickier, mainly due to trouble matching any of the chocolates with the Piper Heidsieck. Following is the rite up I did for them…with a few modifications!

Matching chocolate and champagne has often been considered a classic. In my experience, this is a generalization and, in fact, matching champagne and chocolate can be a real challenge! This tasting was a fascinating experience, opening my eyes to new matches I hadn't considered and confirmed some of the excellent matches I expected. Each champagne and each chocolate brought an exciting depth of flavors to the table.

Some basic conclusions: simple chocolates and simpler champagnes are easier to match, and they match well together. Rose champagnes, very fruity and vinous, are easier to match with most food, chocolate included. White chocolate is easier to match than others, especially dark, bitter chocolate. In general, matching is quite complicated…the easiest thing is to drink a champagne you love and eat a chocolate you love!

Pair #1

Champagne: Ruinart Brut Rosé
Chocolate: Serenity Milk Chocolate with bitter orange, lime blossom and rice crisps

Two very complex products that match each other perfectly! The champagne's strawberry and toast notes, and great acidity matches wonderfully with the complex, orange and herbal flavors in the chocolate. The vinous roundness and full bodied mouth of the champagne pairs wonderfully with the crunchy texture of the puffed rice crunch in the chocolate. Generally loved this chcocolate!

Pair #2

Champagne: Perrier Jouet Belle Epoque brut 1998
Chocolate: Crujiente blanco y coco

This is a match made in champagne and chocolate heaven! The toasty coconut and smooth, milky white chocolate flavors pair perfectly with this complex and subtle champagne, where toasty crianza notes dominate. The fresh citric fruit of the champagne also helps tame the very sweet nature and crunch of the white chocolate.

Pair #3

Champagne: Billecart Salmon Rosé
Chocolate: Cacao Sampaka Dark Chocolate 70%

Dark chocolate can be a challenge to match as it is so bitter and intense, but this complex rosé champagne is up to the task! The pleasantly bitter cocoa notes match wonderfully with the acidity and raspberry notes in the wine. Both the chocolate and champagne have subtle smoky notes that complement each other beautifully.

Pair #4

Champagne: Mumm Brut Cordon Rouge
Chocolate: White Chocolate Fondu

The most pure and simple flavors often match really well! The candied lemon fruit and great acidity of the champagne contrast yet compliment perfectly the very sweet, smooth and creamy flavour and texture of the white chocolate fondu. A strawberry or other fruit dipped in the chocolate fondu would enhance this match even more!

Pair #5

Champagne: Piper Heidsieck Brut
Chocolate: Lindt Milk Chocolate

This one match was my least favourite, though it wasn't bad...my least favorite chocolate too! The sweet, milky and caramel notes of the milk chocolate match with the baked and fresh apple notes in the champagne: like a candied apple! The chocolate is very sweet and the good acidity in the champagne contrasts nicely.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Tasting: Syrah around the world

I have a great new tasting group: all of them are studying for the WSET Diploma or Master of Wine exams. Technically I am not…I have finished the WSET, but I don't plan on trying for the Master of Wine for a couple more years. It's so great to find a group that knows so much and who wants to do some serious tasting!

Syrah is such a great grape: native to France, a very important grape in Australia, and a growing in popularity in numerous other countries. Twenty years ago it was very unfashionable, but now it is all the rage. Generally Syrah makes very dark, peppery, spicy, and tannic red wines. They are also known for smoky and floral qualities. Depending on provenance and quality, there are huge exceptions to this rule. It needs warm sites, but too warm and it loses some of its aromatic qualities. France makes a wide range: from mono-varietal wines in the marginal northern Rhone to very warm sites in Languedoc, where Syrah is multiplying rapidly as a top quality blending grape. Australia, second in acreage after France, makes an even wider range, including some very nice port-style wines and some great red sparkling wines!

We tried 11 different Syrahs blind from around the world...a huge challenge in Madrid where the selection of foreign wines is tiny. I also tried to get a wide range of styles and quality levels.

Overall, I was very disappointed with the top end French wines, blown away by our one Australian top-end wine and very pleasantly surprised by the Argentinean and Spanish Syrahs. The one Californian wine was nice, but forgettable and the South African was distinctly South African, with bretty, animal notes that I often see in Pinotages. The cheapest wines, whether from Australia or France, were pretty simple, but drinkable. We saw a lot of the typical qualities of Syrah in these wines, but the tasting also confirmed that provenance and style can greatly alter the grape variety.

Below the best and the major disappointments:

France

Jean Luc Colombo - Saint Joseph Les Lauves - 2001 - 25€ (Spain)
Comments: Really disappointing…apple, pepper, smoke, but really thin and extremely evolved in appearance and flavors. Most of the tasters thought it was much older.

Domaine Clusel Roche - Cote Rotie - 2000 - 100% Syrah - 32€ (Spain)
Comments: Much more complex than the St Joseph, with tobacco, smoke, carnations, but still disappointing, quite vegetal and light bodied, very evolved already.

Auguste Clape - Renaissance - 2003 - 33€ (Spain)
Comments: Better here, but very atypical in mouth, especially for a Cornas. Nice nose of cranberry, raspberry, and molasses. Huge, fruit bomb mouth, big tannins, fruit, good acid…very new world mouth. Confused tasting group.

Australia

Mount Langi Ghiran (in the Grampians area of Victoria) - Langi Shiraz - 2000 - 34€ (Spain)
Comments: This was the winner by a mile! Stunning wine…I was blown away…it's been so long since I had top level Aussie Shiraz! Eucalyptus, smoke, anis, spice, and cherry nose. Great mouth: tobacco, fresh acids, super long finish, nice tannins. Very youthful. I tasted is many hours later and it kept getting better!

Argentina

Bodegas Salentein - Syrah - 2003 - 16€ (Spain)
Comments: Really nice fruit…liqueur plum and anise, with spice, high alcohol. Fairly simple mouth, but very pleasant, smooth…very drinkable.

Spain

Viñas del Vero (Somontano) - Las Coronas Syrah - 2004 - 12,50€ (Spain)
Comments: Very nice….I am not always a fan of Spanish Syrah! Very new world, with gobs of fruit, vanilla, spice, oak. In the mouth, the oak perhaps dominated a little, but nice, very long.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Wine dinner: Ribera and Aragon

We just joined a new wine tasting group and Monday, we went to our first dinner. This group has a fun format: once a month dinner with a chosen wine theme. Each person brings a bottle and they are served blind to the group. We vote at the end on the best wines and then they are unveiled. The owner of the winning bottle doesn't have to pay for his dinner! Great motivation!

This iteration, the theme was Ribera del Duero and Aragon. I knew everyone was likely to bring Ribera, so one of our bottles was from DO Campo de Borja in Aragon.

We didn't win with the Aragon wine, but it came in a respectable fourth among seven bottles. It also did better than our Ribera wine, Cepa 21, which has a great reputation, but fell very flat on this night.

The food was merely a backdrop, but was quite nice: several starters, then fish (Bacalao and Merluza), some nice steak and a great cheese plate.

The format is a lot of fun and I look forward to next months version: Toro and Bierzo.

On to the wines…in order of victory. These wines are all between 18 and 30 euros.


1. The winner was a wine I had never had: Astrales 2003. It's from a cooler zone of Ribera del Duero and the benefits of that showed in the hot and difficult 2003 vintage. It has 17 months in oak and the wine showed very well done, but very present oak notes. It also had great acidity that felt really refreshing…the fruit was a little closed at first, but with air started to open up.
This wine is from one of the hottest wine families here in Spain: Mariano Garcia. This family is responsible for some of Spain's top wines: Mauro, San Roman, Leda, and Aalto. This is an impressive, by far the most complex of the evening and the only one that tasted better at the end of the night, after lots of exposure to oxygen. 100% Tinto Fino (Tmepranillo)

2. Second place went to the Rento 2000 from Bodegas Renacimiento de Olivares in Ribera del Duero. This wine was delightful, totally smooth tannins and nice liqueur cherry fruit….perfect right now. The downside is that it was showing a lot of age for a 2000, and I doubt is will last much longer. So it did well in the moment, but it's not one for the long haul. By the end of the night it was already fading…fading gracefully! 100% Tinto Fino

3. Third place to the famous Alion 2002, Ribera de Duero. Quite a good wine in a difficult year, though it didn't make my top 3…I put it 4th. I found it a little woody…impressively so, but lacking enough fruit to balance it. The fruit it did have was a little lean and almost metallic to me. Sounds pretty bad, but it was actually quite nice. 100% Tinto Fino

4. I am very proud that our Aragon wine came in fourth. This is a 100% Garnacha with lots of American oak and it's pretty hard for it to stand up to so much Tempranillo and French oak. It was a completely different wine form the others and I picked it out right away blind amongst all the Riberas. The wine is Fagus de Coto de Hayas 2004, from Bodegas Aragonesas in Campo de Borja. This is one of the top wineries in this very obscure region and this is one of their top wines. I've always liked it…it certainly stood out as original amongst the Ribera monsters! Lots of vanilla and soft, liqueur cherry fruit, strawberry. In mouth, really smooth, tannins present but barely. Very quaffable…good acid, but perhaps a little soft on structure for some tastes. For me it represents the region and the grape very well….so many of the Riberas are entirely international in style.

I won't go into the other wines too much:
Ribera del Duero: Victor Balbas 1998
Ribera el Duero: Comenge 2003
Ribera del Duero: Cepa 21 2003
Generally quite disappointing. Lots of oak…lacking acidity…flat fruit. Too simple for the price range.

Monday, February 5, 2007

Wine Rating: Tinto Villeza 2004

Lots of tastings this week…so hopefully I'll get a few interesting posts up!
This was a very interesting and original wine I tried last week. Prieto Picudo is a little known indigenous variety from Leon that is becoming fashionable among winemakers. It is not allowed in Denominacion de Origen (DO) Wines, but is sometimes blended with the more well-known Mencía in lower category wines. I've only tried it twice so far, but both wines had a lot of similarities in aromas and flavors. The grape certainly has a very strong and unique aromatic profile. Some winemakers consider it the next, great grape of Spain…the two I've tried, though extremely interesting, have not completely convinced me of that.

As to the category of wine: Vino de Calidad de Tierras de Leon…it is neither a Denominacion de Origen nor a Vino de la Tierra! It is a fairly new category VCIG (Vino de Calidad con Indicacion Geografica), that is in between the two. Vino de la Tierra is not actually quality wine or VCPRD as defined by the EU, but rather a table wine. The VCIG is seen as a stepping stone to become a DO, and a region must wait five years as a VCIG to request DO status. Castilla Leon has been one of the most proactive regions in creating these new areas.
Part of me thinks it is a good idea to make areas wait to get DO, but another part of me thinks this is just another way to confuse the consumer!!!! Though these lesser levels often offer good wines at very inexpensive prices, the number of categories of wine in Spain is now overwhelming!

Wine: Tinto Villeza Doce Meses 2004
Winery: Bodegas Villeza
Appellation: Vino de Calidad Tierras de Leon
Alc: 13.5%
Grape variety: Prieto Picudo and Mencía
Oak regime: Six months in French and American oak with six months bottle aging
Price: Inexpensive

Tasting notes:
Visual: Quite dark color
Nose: Very complex, quite unique nose! Medium intensity…with violets, blueberry and ripe banana. There as also banana in the other Prieto Picudo I tasted! Very nice nose
Mouth: A bit disappointed…quite different from nose. Lots of structure and tannic…too tannic, intense vegetal notes, very little fruit. Interesting, but quite rustic.
Food: no food

Retaste: No retaste

Conclusion: Very interesting and unique wine. Really great nose, but too rustic in mouth and is not a wine I would recommend to easy drinking friends. Though any wine geek would appreciate it a lot! This grape has a lot of potential but I have yet to be blown away!