Friday, July 29, 2005

Why no ratings?

My regular readers (Hi Mom!) may be wondering why my wine reviews have not been accompanied by numerical ratings of the kind used by Parker, Spectator, etc. I have decided to forego the use of such ratings for a variety of reasons related to my situation vis a vis the wine industry and my particlar wine philosophy.

Numerical wine ratings can be a tremendously useful method for wine critics to quickly and easily articulate their general opinions of a wine. They are especially useful in situations such as Mr. Parker's, where the ratings reflect the opinions of a single palate (ignoring his assistants) and are thus more consistent over time and across regions. Although I imagine that my palate is very different from Mr. Parker's, or Mr. Suckling's or Mr. Laube's, for that matter, their wine ratings are useful to me when I want to get the general sense of a wine's quality relative to its competitors. They are also useful to many wine buyers who simply want to know that they are getting a decent bottle, because they make for attractive Point-of-Sale references. My goal, however, is not to create easy to use P.o.S. or to rank an entire vintage of Bordeaux based on relative quality. I am not a professional member of the wine industry, and I don't need to write as if I am. Instead, I want to give readers some thoughtful comments about a wine's characteristics and quality when consumed in a specific context, i.e. as a part of a meal.

This brings me to the second point about why I have eschewed numerical ratings. Stephanie and I consume almost all of our wine as an accompaniment to the meals we cook. For us, as for many people, wine is most valuable not as an abstract flavor conveyancer but as a meal-specific accoutrement to general gustatory pleasure. It is in this meal-specific context that I buy wines, and it is in this context that I want to write about them. Most often, when I go to the wine shop, I have some idea of the meal or meals that I will be cooking, and I search for bottles that will pair best with them. Or, if I buy a variety of wines for the cellar, I do so anticipating their suitability for potential dishes. Accordingly, the most important aspect of a particular wine is not its abstractly measured quality in comparison with other wines, but rather its potential to match the foods that I am cooking. While a particular bottle of 1er cru burgundy might provide gobs of abstractly measured pleasure in Mr. Parker's tasting room, I am most interested in whether it will taste like what I think burgundy should taste like. It does me no good to bring home a 96 point burgundy to match with simply cooked veal if the wine actually tastes like Australian shiraz.

Given the above mentioned considerations, I have decided to produce reviews that I hope will be useful to people in the situation I most often find myself in - on the way to the wine shop or facing the cellar with a particular meal in mind. Thus, my reviews will generally consist of a short statement of a wine's general characteristics - its color, body, aroma, and taste - as well as a few more particular notes about certain aroma or flavor components that might be useful when considering whether the wine will match certain dishes. In addition, I will almost always include the meal that I served the wine with and my opinion of its suitability for that or other meals. Lastly, I will try to give an overall sense of whether the wine met my expectations. Accordingly, the best wines will often be described as "classic" or "typical" this or that, because if a wine tastes like a what it is supposed to taste like, I will be more successful with my wine and food pairings. After all, that's what all of this is really about.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Clot de l'Oum La Compagne des Papillons Roussillon 2002

As I begin to write, Stephanie is kindly rinsing the dishes that very recently contained a delicious meal. Today was our first cool day in weeks, so I took advantage and did some slow cooking. I prepared duck and chicken cassoulet with white beans, carrots, and smoked sausage. We were quite pleased with the results, particularly when accompanied by a loaf of peasant bread. Although I intended to serve two wines with the meal, the onset of a minor cold convinced me to only open one. The white cotes du rhone from Dom. de la Solitude will have to wait until another night.

This syrah from the Roussillon was a lovely match for the meal. The aroma bursts with cigar tobacco - seriously, not just hints of tobacco, but honest to goodness I just stepped into a humidor tobacco. Despite this powerful aroma, the wine's palate was really pleasant, with more tobacco, along with black pepper, olive, dried meat, and blueberry notes. The medium-full body and the substantial tannins would perhaps be better suited to a richer dish, but it proved to be a superb accompaniment to the cassoulet. I probably should have taken Charlie's advice and gone with a Cahors or a Madiran.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Warwick Three Cape Ladies South Africa 2002

Tonight's dinner began with delicious smoked salmon "sandwiches" - smoked salmon, microgreens, and sprouts sandwiched between thin crisps of baguette with lemon-caper creme fraiche. Our entree was grilled tri-tip sirloin, sliced, and served with glazed mini-yukon gold potatoes.

We had been waiting to try the Warwick for a couple of weeks. Stephanie purchased the '01 for our cellar - it was to be her very first vertical - and although she didn't know it, the wine received considerable praise. When we went to buy the new '02, we noticed that Wine Spectator had given it a rather bad score (82 points, if memory serves me correctly), so instead of purchasing our normal alotment, we grabbed a single bottle to evaluate. I was quite pleased with the wine and its pairing. The aroma began with decided bacon notes from a lavish amount of oak, but with the steak, the wine was in pleasant balance. The finish was a bit severe for my palate, although it might soften with a couple of years in the cellar. Stephanie's tasting experience was marred by a fly who wished to join us but who ended up in her glass and eventually her mouth. Trooper that she is, she recovered sufficiently to detect brown sugar and baked beans on the aroma and palate. As South African wines go, this one is not the cheapest (~$25), but I think it shows promise for short-term cellaring. Warwick's wines certainly tend more towards the Australian model than the French. This is not, however, a wine for cocktail parties or casual sipping - have a nice meal.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Paul Coulon Dom. de Beaurenard Cotes du Rhone Rose 2004

Stephanie and I purchased new bistro style plates tonight and prepared a matching meal. We started with an orzo pasta salad with lobster, tomatoes, parsley, and a lemon-garlic sauce. Then we enjoyed grill-roasted chicken with sugarsnap peas. The Coulon rose was a fantastic match. The wine opened with hints of oak and strawberry. As it warmed, Stephanie detected cotton candy, rose, and crab apple. As roses go, this one was lush, with great fruit, a long finish, and a beautiful glycerin-y body. Just the thing for grilled chicken. I would recommend it with most summertime dishes - king salmon, pastas, chicken, and pork.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Powell on the perils of organicism

Julie Powell has published an interesting article in today's New York Times on the perils of the organic food movement. According to Powell, while proponents of organic produce, hormone-free dairy, and cage-free poultry have succeeded in highlighting many of America's problems with poor diet and obesity, they run the risk of conflating gastronomic choices with moral worth. To radical organicists, the mother who buys her children hormone-treated milk because it's half the price of the stuff at Whole Foods is bordering on child abuse. This extremist attitude "gets [Powell's] hackels up."

Powell is no doubt correct about the obnoxiously condescending attitude of some organicists, but she too easily brushes over a huge problem in America today. People do eat too many things that are bad for them, and changing people's diets should be a major concern for folks who think and write about food. While we can certainly get carried away by our own gastronomic superiority, we should be encouraging quality foods as one method for altering dietary practices. As demand for quality, organic food increases, supply will expand, and eventually prices will start falling. We have already begun to see this. Our Dominick's stocks a considerable selection of organic produce, most of which is cheaper than that available at Whole Foods, and a few of the local produce markets have large organic sections. Often, the price difference between organic produce and "standard" produce is negligible. Thus, choosing quality products loses its economic disadvantages.

The wine world provides an intriguing example of this phenomenon. Many of the people who buy expensive organic foods are the same ones who have driven the expansion of worldwide production of high-quality wines. As we all know, more wineries are producing both more and better wines than ever. And although wealthy buyers have bid up the prices of certain pedigreed and cult wines beyond the reach of most Americans, this general interest in wine has dramatically increased the quality of standard table wines. We are importing great wines from previously unexplored regions, and enormous wine conglomerates like Gallo and Kendall-Jackson are responding by increasing the quality of their basic bottlings.

The lesson for the organic food market would suggest that although wealthy, snobby types will always seek out the rarest items and bid their prices up to unreachable levels, a general public interest in quality foods will eventually create a better and cheaper supply of these goods to more people. It's certainly not unimaginable that soon, large food purveyors and distributors will begin producing good food at reasonable prices. The message of quality food is certainly one worth spreading.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Terlano Pinot Bianco Vorberg Riserva Alto Adige 2002

Stephanie chose this wine, and I'm not sure what logic she used in doing so (nor is she, for that matter), but it showed very well. We had take-out sushi, and the wine's open character complimented the entire array of fish and appetizers. Although it's label noted that it had spent a year in oak, the wood on aroma didn't overpower the wine and added a layer of depth missing from many pinot blancs. I noticed a hint of stone fruits on the palate, and Stephanie detected a note of dandelion.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Pinot Tasting

Tonight, Stephanie, my loving fiance, and I created a minor pinot noir tasting from three half-bottles, and I'd be happy to share my notes. As this is my first wine-related post, it will give you a chance to appreciate my particular palate. Feel free to disagree. All wines were served at the same temperature in identical glasses, and accompanied a delightful dinner of grilled pork chops, roasted yukon gold potatoes with rosemary and shallots, and grilled yellow and green zucchini.

Cherry Hill Winery Estate Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2003 - The bottle opens with a warm aroma in the glass and a distinct alcoholic tinge. At first the wine struck me as a classic example of the plushly textured Oregon pinots that I love, but as it opened it took a decidedly Californian turn - opulent, but flabby fruit, etc. This is not the kind of wine I enjoy, with food or on its own. The fruit was overdone, overwhelming an immodest degree of oak.

Willamette Valley Vineyards Vintage Select Pinot Noir 2002 - For the first 20 minutes, this wine showed almost no meaningful aroma, except a slight hint of alcohol and ester. On the palate, however, it proved to a be a delightful beverage - classic Oregon cherries and red berries. A medium-full body was buoyed up by, to my taste, an immoderate amount of oak, creating a rather spicy finish, with notes of bacon fat and licorice. A fine wine, but for the oak.

Dom. Amiot Guy Chassagne-Montrachet Vieilles Vignes 1999 - You wouldn't know you were drinking a 6 year old wine from the color - just as dense as the much younger Oregonians. The wine opened with a pleasant aroma, showing off both its lingering youth and its oncoming maturity. The fruit was still present, but it was mingling nicely with the first hints of truffle and damp earth. Surprisingly bold for a burgundy, this wine held up nicely after the meal, as well. The palate was in perfect balance - what oak there was only served to highlight the depth and purity of the fruit. This is the kind of wine I really enjoy.

Each of these wines cost between $12 and $18 per half-bottle. My favorite is clear. The 99 burgundies are really starting to show well these days, particularly those from the lesser-regarded Cotes de Beaune regions like Santenay, Volnay, etc. Stephanie and I have been drinking a number of these recently, and they are performing beautifully - lingering fruit balanced by approaching maturity. For village and 1er cru level wines in the 20 to 30 dollar range, these are excellent buys - if you can still find them.

Welcome to Cask79

Welcome to my new weblog devoted to the machinations of everyone's favorite microorganism - yeast! On this site you will find my regular postings on the wines, beers, whiskies, and other fermentables and distilates that I enjoy and dislike (although I hope there will be far more of the former). Although you surely don't need another "expert" telling you what to drink, I will offer my opinions for those who may appreciate them - friends, guests, etc. Please send me your comments on my opinions or on any other related matters.