Saturday, September 17, 2011

To Joe...

It was around 11:30am on a Tuesday, I think. The restaurant's dining room had been converted wine tasting style: tables organized around the exterior, with dark table cloths covering them, bottles lined up on the surface, ice buckets on the ready to chill the whites and sparkling wines. A few folks were still working on opening the last few bottles. Though it was not yet crowded, people started to slowly shuffle in. I was glad to have arrived a bit early, since this was not just another swirl, taste and spit affair.

This was a Dressner tasting. The average quality of the wine would be much higher. Nearly every wine - regardless of one's taste - would at the least be a wine with some character. And, the people here would be serious. Some socializing, schmoozing, shop talk and shit talking, to be sure, but also lots of impressions waiting to be formed on some wineries whose products have no shortage of followers.

Also, fresh off the plane from New York, cancer in remission (or, at least under much better control after weeks of treatment) was Joe Dressner, public face of the importing company of all these delicious French and Italian wines. I wanted to quickly introduce myself prior to slurping and spitting. As we talked, I noticed someone in close proximity to us pouring themselves a taste of one of Dressner's Beaujolais producers.

"Hey, what do you think you're doing? That's not a tasting pour."

A younger guy looked over at this somewhat large guy with a big bald head filling out a kangol hat.

"Yeah, that's right, that's more than 2 ounces. You're tasting the wine, not drinking it. Who wants to show this guy how to do this?"

Thoroughly embarrassed, the younger guy did not stick around much longer, not while he was jokingly, but firmly, being skewered by Joe.

Meanwhile, I took my leave and moved through the room, as there were simply too many people who wanted to catch up with the wine importer, all of whom Joe greeted quite warmly and with the kind of personal questions you might expect out of someone who is both socially adept as well as in good health, not from someone who perhaps was known to be a bit prickly and whose bout with brain cancer was ongoing.

A few takeaways from that first and only encounter with Joe Dressner:

Joe was opinionated.
He was feared.
He was loved.
He was occasionally a bit of a jerk.
Joe was a warm soul.

It was his show, and it still kinda' is.

I extend all my best wishes to Joe's family and friends, as well as to his many admirers and folks who, like me, know the man more through anecdotes and second hand tales than anything else. You don't have to be known to be sorely missed, and I think it's safe to say that many folks in the world will miss Joe.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Mount Veeder and the Mighty Mayacamas Vineyards

The more I casually taste current release California wine, the less I find worth drinking. The more I explore - in a targeted, more carefully researched way - California wine, the more I find that is not only worth drinking, but interesting, and occasionally compelling. Such was yet again proven to be the case after a recent visit to Mayacamas Vineyards.

Mayacamas Vineyards has a continuous history of producing grapes dating back to the late 1800s, a history which you can check out on their website. While I cannot comment as to how these wines tasted back in the 40's, or even in the 70's and 80's, I can say with confidence that almost any current release wine of theirs which I have drunk of late has been terrific: firm, balanced, with more than adequate acid, pretty aromas, and a very strong future to be sure. While there are other renowned cab producers in California (Ridge, Dunn, Heitz, Laurel Glen, Corison, et al) as well as producers of ageworthy Chardonnay (Mount Eden, Stony Hill, Montelena) I cannot think of one winery who makes both whites and reds as classic, appealling and age-worthy as Mayacamas. I'm not sure why this is, and why I'm so much in love with these wines right now, though I do think that the factors below have something to do with it:

- old vines planted in poor, rocky soil in a volcanic bowl
- picking most grape varieties at 23 brix
- indigenous yeast, naturally temperature controlled fermentations
- ageing in OLD oak (90 year old foudres are still in use here; also the reds do not go into any barrel younger than 10 years old)
- Late releases (typically 3 years in wood, followed by another 2 in bottle, for reds)

Some notes from wines tasted up here in the mountains:

2008 Mayacamas Vineyards Chardonnay Mt Veeder

Lemon curd aromas, coupled with some traces of coconut, remind of Lopez de Heredia. The flavors are mouth filling yellow fruits, with fresh, balanced acidity.

2003 Mayacamas Vineyards Chardonnay Mt Veeder

A pretty, deep golden color, this somewhat aged chard showed ripe yellow fruit aromas, with a very mellow, rich and rounded palate. Acidity softening a bit. This is a wine in a good spot right now - drink it up.

2007 Mayacamas Vineyards Pinot Noir Mt Veeder

I don't think they generally pour this during visits, so to satisfy my curiosity, I purchased a few bottles. And was I ever glad that I did! I have yet to have a California pinot noir as simultaneously DARK fruited and bright, mineral and tense, as this one. Like a young villages NSG from a top ranking grower, only more fruit, slightly more generous. WOW.

2006 Mayacamas Vineyards Merlot Mt Veeder

Next to the pinot noir, this is my favorite. Deep cherry/burnt earth scents. Black cherry with terrific intensity and acid for the grape variety (17% cab is blended in as well). A touch floral - violets. For a young wine, especially one you may want to drink over some years, "firm" is a desirable trait in my book. This merlot is firm, delicious and balanced.

2005 Mayacamas Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Mt Veeder

Smells like black currant, black cherry, and a hint of smoke. Intense and long on the palate. Once again, the acidity is more than sufficient for the grape variety, and just like the merlot this wine is firm, with great structure and minerality.

1997 Mayacamas Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Mt Veeder

Intense cherry, cedar, and subtle eucalyptus notes on the nose, leading to a palate of tasty cherry fruit that is just starting to soften. Though this was my least favorite, it is no slouch. Just a bit more cabby in the warm, Napa sense. Still, though, this wine has developed well and shows solid old school California cab character.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Der Wine Geek, pt. LXXXIX

Drank these recently at some local dive bar:

2007 Laurent Tribut Chablis 1er Cru Cote de Lechet

Great creamy minerality and citric fruit. Neither youth nor sulphur could detract from this wine's deliciousness.

2009 Houillon Poulsard Arbois

A darker fruited, nearly Dard & Ribot-esque pungency/spiciness presented itself on this typically lighter, occasionally funky, yet still ethereal, house specialty. I was very pleased to drink it and honored that the bar sold us a bottle. Texturally, the elegance was there. Flavors were just not as enjoyable at this point, to me, as they were in 08 or 07 when drunk shortly after release. If you're lucky enough to buy a bottle or more retail, I'd lay off for a few years.

Jacques Lassaigne Rosé de Montgueux

Tasty. At the point in the evening when it was ordered, however, I was too distracted/ far into the game to post commentary here. In baseball terms, I had thrown 120 pitches in 7 innings. Relief was needed.

A few others tasted were the Seleccion Guillermo roussette (ripe, juicy, generous w/o botrytis I think, tasty Savoie wine, far and away the best roussette I've had for what that's worth) as well as the 2008 Fourrier Gevrey Chambertin (tight tight tight).

Monday, August 15, 2011

Amontillado and lamp shadow sweet potato chips

Indulge me, if you will, in detailing a pairing involving a few of my current passions: amontillado and sichuan recipes from Fuchsia Dunlop's Land of Plenty. To that end, several weeks ago, I discovered a rare food and wine marriage that exceeds the sum of its outstanding parts: Hidalgo "Napoleon" Amontillado and lamp shadow sweet potato chips.

The Hidalgo "Napoleon" is an elegant, lighter styled amontillado - salty and fresh but still somewhat glycerine rich with candy orange and toffee filled flavors. Lamp shadow sweet potato chips are thinly sliced sweet potatoes deep fried in oil and mixed with a sesame and chili oil dressing. Together, these two were incredible, offering a synergy which makes me want to break out the mandolin and wok again very soon.

For the record, I'm a fan of pairing fino or manzanilla and a wide variety of foods (including Chinese), but have rarely enjoyed amontillado, palo cortado or oloroso with food (I know, food friendliness is supposed to be a virtue of sherry, but I find the higher alcohol and intensity of flavor of many sherries to overpower nearly everything). Generally, I drink brown sherry on its own - there is more than enough complexity and enjoyment in the sherry itself to put off mucking around with food pairings. I found this tasty, snacky pairing to be a happy exception, however.

Here's how you do the lamp shadow potato chips:

Peel at least a pound of sweet potatoes and slice on a mandolin as thinly as possible. Heat peanut or vegetable oil for frying (an inch high should work) in a wok and fry in batches, making sure to mix so that chips don't stick together. For the sauce, combine 3 tbs chili oil with 1 tbsp sesame oil, 3/4 tsp salt and 2 tsp sugar. Blot chips dry when finished and combine with the sauce. Serve with amontillado.

* Recipe adapted from Fuchshia Dunlop's Land of Plenty. If you like to cook and enjoy real Chinese cuisine, this book is a must have.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Convenience Store/Bar alive and well in Seattle

One of the most exciting stores I had the opportunity to check out recently in Seattle was not a record shop, not a new wine shop specializing in natural wine, not a store coolly displaying vintage and/or ironic used t-shirts. Nope, the coolest store and my happiest moment of retail shopping ocurred at a convenience store tucked away in a residential area of Seattle not too far from Ballard. In addition to the snack chips, commodity wine, oberto dried beef, and other sundry convenience items happened to be a very good selection of craft beers, both local, as well as from California and other places further afield. Even better, there was a tiny bar towards the back of the store where you could be served a quick pint or have the owner fill/re-fill your growler. At one point during the visit, Chuck (the owner) and I were trying to outdo each other's praises for sour beer in general and Cascade's spectacular Northwest style sour in particular.

I strongly encourage anyone who either lives in or travels to Seattle to pay a visit to Chuck's. The guy is clearly very passionate about beer. And if you do not think that a visit to a store that sells Doritos and serves great local beers on tap is worth a detour, then you probably don't deserve to experience the magic that is Chuck's.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Three Frappatos

Frappato is of course the light and bright, generous but not overly fruity red wine made from grapes of the same name in southwestern Sicily. Care needs to be taken when picking these wines as the not so good ones can taste formulaic, at times candied. Recently I caught up with some current releases of a few usually very good examples and one new one I was excited to try. These are terrific summer/fall reds and especially tasty with pizza. Here are some brief notes.

2009 Ochippinti Frappato

Arianna Occhipinti's wines are well known in critical drinking circles in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Portland, etc. Her wines can occasionally be a bit jumpy out the gate, but are very fresh, with lively acidity and wonderful expression. This one was good from the start. Perhaps a bit riper and richer than what I'm used to here, or maybe this is my imagination and the passage of time since the 08 I enjoyed some months ago.

2009 COS Frappato

Not to be confused with the venerable, dreadful, Cos d'Estournel (which is also referred to as 'Cos' for short), COS has been at it for nearly 25 years now, producing this wine as well as nero d'avola and Cerasuolo di Vittoria (a blend of nero d'avola and frappato). They have an amphora bottling of the Cerasuolo di Vittoria as well. While this initially came across a bit lactic and chunky, unfocused, it opened up to become more fresh, precise, and refreshing. Good.

2009 Tami Frappato

Arianna Occhipinti supervises this project, which is a collaboration between her, some friends, and her boyfriend (sorry fellas, and ladies). I enjoyed this wine quite a bit, and at less than $17 it's a good deal. Do not expect to find as much of a highly contrasted balance between acid and fruit as you would on her Occhipinti Frappato. If you keep that in mind, or if you simply are approaching this bottle not having tried Arianna's other stuff, then you'll likely enjoy the wine.

To my readers: it's summertime and it shows with the lack of entries. Thanks for continuing to check in. I'll do my best to increase the posting frequency in the days and weeks ahead.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A real time report of my tasting group's Riesling tasting

[A few days ago, my tasting group met up to taste some German Riesling. Each of the wines were covered with a brown bag. The line-up was, as you will see, quite focused. Thank you to my fellow tasters for putting up with my laptop and keyboard strokes during the proceedings. And a special thank you to Nadia for putting together a very solid line-up]

So here we go, flight one of our group's Riesling tasting. Group is discussing the vagaries of auto correct on smart phones. Wines A, B, C and D are now in the glass. Lots of swirling, sniffing, slurping, spitting. Time to catch up myself.

A - Cool toned, slight medicinal edged aromas, combined with SO2. Initially, not a lot of depth aromatically. Improves with air. Yellow fruits. Lemon-lime Elegant and understated, slightly herbal/bitter edge. Ruwer kabinett?

B - spicy, slightly sweet smelling apples. Red slate, here? Most expressive nose. Very good intensity and presence, and juicy acidity.

C - Talcum powder and appley nose. Creamy, slightly leesy wine here. Mellow acids. Young Kabinett?

D - Whoa. Clearly a more mature wine here. A sweeter pradikat, hitting some petrol notes now on the nose. More lemon-lime soda. An easy drinker for those who like RS, but it's simple.

We are deciding whether or not to rank the wines. Always a subject of debate with this group. Someone jokingly references the oft stated "it [blind tasting] is a parlor game." Arjun wants everyone to know that 'B' is his least favorite. We are unanimously united against 'D.' Lots of 'C' fans. 'A' and 'B' bring the sulphur.

OK, 'new shit is coming to light' as the Dude once said. 'A' and 'B,' and 'C' and 'D' are from the same vineyard.

Next flight:

'E' - Noticeably darker color than other two. A light gold color. Deep, orchard fresh fruit smells. Honeyed, a bit of botrytis? A bold, rich style. Nice length. Rheingau Spatlese (?)

'F' - Sulphur. Medicinal cherry aromas. Peach pit. Purity is increasing on nose, a bit. Same producer as 'A.' Back to the Ruwer.

'G' - Sulphurous, but less. Ripe pink grapefruits aromas - nice. Juicy citrus, especially pink grapefruit, and good acidity. Wehlener Sonnenuhr? Restrained kabinett.

Someone offers, "I think 'F' is the stinkiest of the two, by far." I agree. More minerality in this flight, Mark offers.

'H' - Too bad this is corked. There is good material here. Great balance, power and acidity. And length.

'I' - Deepest color yet, almost 18K gold. Creamy. Smells mature. Rich, mature spat (auslese?)

Back to that German butter. It came from the Pasta Shop's dairy section at Market Hall in Rockridge.

The wines are revealed:

A - 2009 Prum Graacher Himmelreich Kabinett

B - 2008 Prum Graacher Himmelreich Kabinett

C - 2008 Willi Schaefer Graacher Himmelreich Kabinett

D - 2003 Willi Schaefer Graacher Himmelreich Spatlese

E - 2009 Kerpen Wehlener Sonnenuhr Kabinett

F - 2009 Prum Wehelener Sonnenuhr Kabinett

G - 2008 Prum Wehlener Sonnenuhr Kabinett

H - 2002 Hauth Kerpen Wehlener Sonnenuhr Kabinett

I - 2001 Kerpen Wehlener Sonnenuhr Auslese

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Two bottles of white and a surprise showing

A week or so ago I had a bottle each of two wines that had been opened a couple of days earlier. One was a 2009 Domaine de la Louvetrie Fief du Breil Muscadet and the other a 2002 Chateau Coustaut Graves Blanc. The muscadet is Jo Landron's top bottling, and the Graves is a humble wine, just tank aged, I believe, which probably would retail these days for $12-$15. Guess which one showed better? Sauvignon blanc and/or Bordeaux hater or not, sometimes you just have to acknowledge the reality in the bottle and tip your hat to a tasty wine, regardless of its production methods, pedigree, snob/geek appeal and so on.

On a more complimentary note for the typically terrific wines that Jo Landron produces, the 2010 Domaine de la Louvetrie Amphibolite is delicious. You should drink some.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Twitter's influence here

Heading to a German Riesling tasting. Wish me luck.

On a personal note

If you have not heard by now, I am recently engaged to an intelligent, talented and beautiful girl from California. Indeed, I am a lucky man.

Now if anyone out there has ideas for a tasteful outdoor venue for a wedding ceremony and reception in the Bay Area, I'm all ears. In exchange for a good, inexpensive venue, we will bring one of the best party DJ's I know, food, and lots of good wine.

There will be many Jews at the wedding, and as you may or may not know Jews don't drink that much (of course there are exceptions; I am one). So there will be plenty of wine. Think about it....

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

On Bartolo Mascarello Barolo and wanting to like stuff

Until quite recently, I had never tried a wine from Bartolo Mascarello. An egregious omission in anyone's drinking experience, it was recently corrected when I happened across a bottle of 2005 Bartolo Mascarello Barolo for a very decent price at work. Looking forward to finally having the opportunity to taste this Barolo, I also began to question my ability to objectively drink it. In other words, this has the potential of being one of those "I really should like this wine" type of wines.

These days I feel sufficiently independent and experienced to determine a wine's quality most of the time, and more to to the point to determine whether or not I like a wine. In this case, though, I think that I wanted to like the wine because of the elaboration itself: long skin maceration, ageing in very well used botti, nothing more than natural temperature control, a slow and patient, old-fashioned elevage. These are things that I have learned I often like in wines.

Away from method, and the reassuring feeling of validating one's taste, the most important lesson I took home here is that 2005 Bartolo Mascarello is a delicious wine. Generous, soft for a young Barolo, and really expressive with tiny berry fruits and minerals which shift place in prominence on day 2 (i.e., minerals followed by tiny berry fruits). I imagine the 05 Mascarello will be very tasty for another decade, during which time I want to drink a lot more of this and find out for myself.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

La Cigarrera, makers of manzanilla, amontillado, palo cortado in Sanlucar de Barrameda

[This will be the last profile of a sherry bodega that I write for a while. I'm not sherried out, not in the slightest. However, it has taken a good bit longer than I had anticipated to conclude this slowly unfolding series of visits, all of which took place a few months ago in March. I hope that you enjoy the post and continue to drink plenty of good sherry.]

If the town of Jerez is like a country club, full of self assured, relaxed, people, possessed of a confidence that is the product of success, money and blue blood, then Sanlucar de Barrameda is the local dive bar: full of character, characters, charm, and perhaps some scrawled graffiti every now and then. To offer another analogy, if Jerez is East Hampton, then Sanlucar is, umm...Jones Beach? OK, so I don't know either of these places other than by reputation. Let's try another one. Jerez is to Sanlucar as Rehoboth Beach, DE is to Ocean City, MD.

If you're not from or well familiar with the mid-Atlantic, then let's just say that coastal Sanlucar feels completely different from the slightly more inland Jerez. People do not take themselves as seriously. They dress less formally. You get the sense that folks are content to munch on french fries and a simple ración of chorizo, washed down with a cold Cruzcampo (this sort of lunch would NOT work for many Jerezanos).

All the above may be a sweeping generalization (one based on just a few days spent in the region, at that) but things just seemed that way. I think that the wines bodegas in either town specialize in is also pretty telling: Sanlucar's manzanilla is easy to drink, thirst quenching, and to be enjoyed in robust quantities. Jerez' amontillados, olorosos, even the more serious of their finos, are contemplative and intellectual, serious wines to be respected, perhaps even revered, and taken seriously.

I learned that La Cigarrera, as do the rest of Sanlucar's top bodegas, excels equally at thirst quenching manzanilla as well as more serious manzanilla pasada,amontillado and palo cortado. Located in Sanlucar's prime barrio bajo district, an especially humid part of town (humidity in the bodega varies between 80-90% most of the year), La Cigarrera has been an almacenista since 1758. Their manzanilla is arguably the most delicious around: salty, almondy and savory, but also showing a tangy yellow fruited quality, the purity and expression of which is not always a given in other manzanillas, even examples of other brands which are fresh and recently bottled. This must have something to do with the elaborate solera system, consisting of 8 criaderas. The bodega is clean (showing its age, but tidy), barrels are in very good shape, and one senses the pride and dutiful yet low-key stewardship of this place.

During the course of a long, drawn out, delicious lunch, we drank a lot of sherry. We also had ample time to relax, become better acquainted and spend time in one of the most ideal settings I can imagine taking in a leisurely Sunday meal: inside a beautiful, weathered, centuries old sherry bodega.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Nady Foucault visits Oakland

Well, not exactly, but two months ago I was lucky to have participated in a vertical tasting of Clos Rougeard at a friend's house in Rockridge. It's safe to say that much has been written out there about Foucault and his wines. Here is a good overview. Try Neil's post for a different take. I will stick to tasting notes as opposed to focusing on the specifics of elevage or vineyard site. Anything in quotes that is not otherwise attributed is something I wrote that, in retrospect, I either find revealing, witty, ridiculous, or perhaps some combination thereof.

A huge thank you to Michael Sullivan of Beaune Imports (Clos Rougeard's CA importer)for putting this together.

The tasting was divided into four flights:

Flight 1

2003 Clos Rougeard Saumur-Champigny

Ripe red cherry aromas. Pretty. Savory underbrush scents as well. Pure and intoxicating. On the palate, the wine was delicious. Elegant, red fruited, with good acid and a silken texture. A revelation (not in my original notes, but that it certainly was)

2002 Clos Rougeard Saumur-Champigny

Savory red fruit aromas have a more apparent green/herbaceous aspect. Maybe a bit stemmy smelling? Initially reserved, but opened up and revealed increasingly more elegance aromatically. Flavors were elegant, mineral and less defined by fruit as the wine above.

2001 Clos Rougeard Saumur-Champigny

Macerated cherry aromas, a warmer vintage stamp to be sure. More fruit forward than the 03? I seemed to enjoy the flavors a bit more though. Darker cherry fruits, quite mineral and sturdy flavors. Plum skins.

2000 Clos Rougeard Saumur-Champigny

Elegant (underlined in my TN's). Burgundian. Stem smells are pleasant and not dominant. Pomegranate seeds. Similar flavors as the aforementioned aromas, with perhaps a bit more of a bitter snap to the fruit.

For this line-up, I learned afterwards that grapes used in the 2003, 2002 and 2001 were actually 100% de-stemmed.

Flight 2:

2004 Clos Rougeard Saumur-Champigny

Rich cherry aromatics. Red and dark. Great fruit. Pure, tasty and very lithe tannin structure.

2005 Clos Rougeard Saumur-Champigny

Smells of liqueur scented dark cherries. BIG. "A big, bad, delicious drink." Once again, I'm impressed by the fine tannins.

2006 Clos Rougeard Saumur-Champigny

Cooling, root beer-ish/menthol driven aromas. "Not quite the purity and freshness of others, but what do I know. A touch bitter."

2005 Clos Rougeard Les Poyeux Saumur-Champigny
Completely something other than the Clos wines. Big dark fruits, with a nicely ripe quality. "I could sniff this all day." Assertive dark cherry and plum flavors, with tannins that are definitely more prominent but still very balanced. MINERAL. Where is this headed?

Flight 3:

2004 Clos Rougeard Les Poyeux Saumur-Champigny

Deeply perfumed dark cherry. And pits. Rich, ripe round on the palate.

1996 Clos Rougeard Les Poyeux Saumur-Champigny

INTENSE aromas. A bit leafy dark fruit. Hint of dried tomato. On the palate, lots of presence. Mineral. Life. REALLY TASTY. Wine of night?

2003 Clos Rougeard Le Bourg Saumur-Champigny

A bit toasty smelling. Red fruit, espresso grounds, savory leafy aromas. Very big, very savory, very mineral. A tenuous balance of intense flavors. "Like the best Leoville Barton you could hope for in the modern era."

2000 Clos Rougeard Le Bourg Saumur-Champigny

Intense red fruit, pomegranate seeds, a hint of a stemmy and herbaceous quality similar to the 2000 Clos. Intense but mellowing red fruits on the palate. Elegant. Also similar to the 2000 Clos on the palate, with much more mineral and less bitterness. "In a transitional stage" - Michael Sullivan, importer

Flight 4:

2003 Clos Rougeard Breze Blanc Saumur

Smells like quince. Sparkling, pure tangerine scents. Ripe and pure. Yellow skinned fruit on the palate. Tasty, perhaps a bit short.

2002 Clos Rougeard Breze Blanc Saumur

A bit more honeyed smelling? Orange fruits, smells like a less sweet marmelade. Intense, with stronger presence and acidity on the palate. Quite tasty. This should drink well for a long time.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Sherry comes from grapes

Forgive me for stating the obvious, here but the wines of Jerez, El Puerto de Santa Maria, Chipiona, Sanlucar de Barrameda - they all come from grapes. Of course, we all know this; sherry comes from grapes. Given the elaborate production process, though, one tends to forget that sherry is in deed a wine made from grapes, grown in a specific type of soil (ideally consisting of 60% chalk) in a fairly strictly defined zone of Andalucia, Spain. From the initial fortification of a young sobretabla, to the biological ageing underneath a layer of flor, to an extended oxidative ageing in barrels or perhaps a combination of the two, there is much to learn about the production of sherry. Along the way, it is easy to forget that vineyards were farmed, palomino (or pedro ximenez or moscatel) grapes were harvested, fermented into wine, fortified, and sold to almacenistas and shippers. Vineyards matter.

Vineyards matter, and yet, barring a few exceptions, most bodegas do not own any vineyards. This brings to mind a simple question: how much better could sherries be if more bodegas owned (and carefully farmed) their own vineyards?

That having been said, I was able to check out a vineyard owned by Curo Balbas. Curo sells fruit to Bodegas Grant, as well as some other folks as he has 50 hectares of palomino vines in some prime real estate: the pagas bibainas sub-zone of Jerez. While I do not remember exact yields, I do remember that they seemed on the high side (even for the higher production numbers I expected in this region). Vines here vary in age from 15-25 years. As it had rained recently, a walk in the vineyards was amply rewarded with a full clay cover on the sole of my shoes; imagine the top of a large muffin draping over the waxed paper liner underneath. At the winery was a simple set up for fermenting grapes. There were also some policia nacional hanging out, playing cards maybe, enjoying what was surely an out of the ordinary event here, a visit from a group of wine professionals.

A few other non-vineyard related anecdotes are worth mentioning. Curo Balbas' hands and fingers are some of the most serious vineyard worker mitts I have yet to see. This guy has done some serious pruning in his life. Also, Curo does a wonderful "curo" (sorry I couldn't resist) of olives. A terrific blend of tiny, firm olives and larger, softer ones, full of garlic and bay leaf driven flavors, were by far the best I ate all trip. Spanish gourmands agree that iberico ham is best enjoyed in Andalucia, though if you do not eat ham you can at least take comfort in the fact that other Andalucian specialties are also first rate. One of these is the olives, which in neighborhood bars are almost always free.

One more reportaje in this sherry focused run, and then we'll move on. For now, a pictorial re-cap of the visit to Curo's vines.

Friday, April 22, 2011

El Puerto de Santa Maria, featuring Gutierrez Colosia and Bodegas Grant

If Jerez is home turf of the the landed gentry, or "señoríos," and Sanlucar de Barrameda is where the drug runners live (this is occasionally the explanation you'll get from residents of either town), then El Puerto is where well heeled families from all over this part of Andalucía spend part of their summers. Walking the town, there are attributes that speak to El Puerto's status as a popular resort town: fancily built out restaurants along the water, sweaters draped along the necks of "pijos" in said restaurants, and sparkling clean streets all around.

As it relates to Sherry El Puerto de Santa María is by far the smallest town in production terms in all of the sherry triangle. Most bodegas here are almacenistas, selling their stocks to larger houses. A few recent exceptions to this rule would be Gutierrez Colosia, which has been an independent shipper since the late 1990's and Bodegas Grant, an almacenista which more recently has begun to sell their own production.

Gutierrez Colosia enjoys a prime location, proximate to the Atlantic, and as a result makes one of the freshest tasting, most saline and delicious finos around. You do not need to enjoy it at the winery, or even in Spain, to fully appreciate its immediacy and pristine flavors. Not only does the flor survive here year 'round, but there may be even more of a maritime influence here than in Sanlucar. Typically bodegas maintain humidity by employing dirt floors and occasionally watering them; here the 18th century bodega boasts beautiful stone floors.

We had the opportunity to taste many interesting wines here, including a fino fortified to 16% (1 degree above the normal) which showed a very soft and elegant character. Cool stuff. Also tasted was the fino solera in various stages as well as the solera for the famous "Sangre y trabajadero" Oloroso - as dry, classic and elegant a young oloroso as you are likely to encounter. One thing that was interesting about the fino criadera tastings was their volatility: lots of VA and weird kombucha-y stuff going on right up until we tasted the finished, final blend product, which was completely fine and perfectly representative. Flor consumes volatile acidity in a process that still seems to offer little in the way of clear cut explanations. Lots of research continues to go on about flor and its role in winemaking, as well as other applications and implications yet to be discovered.

Across town at Bodegas Grant, the scale is much smaller and the wines very interesting indeed. From the very start, I noticed that the fino has a real vinous (and some might even say 'unfinished') quality for this style of wine. The entry level amontillado, La Garrocha (named for the famed choreographed dance performed by pure-bred Andalusian horses, performed with a little human direction), is also softer, a bit fruiter and more generous than others, not as tense either. We tasted a delicious, spicier, richer and older amontillado, as well as a very pungent oloroso full of rancio quality, and a rare, tasty palo cortado (as large as our crew was, and as good as everyone was feeling, we joked and later felt bad about drinking our would be "allocation" of this wine).

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Welcome to Jerez! Now let's go to Chipiona!!

Sometimes, to get a little bit closer to the truth, you need to step away from the intensive research and just drink a shit ton of sherry in situ during a small town carnaval. And then soak up the alcohol with fried seafood, especially some baby shark fried with cumin and vinegar.

While this may not be established knowledge, it certainly served me well last month while in Jerez. I'm going to backtrack a bit. A group of wholesale, retail and restaurant clients of De Maison Imports (myself included) had recently arrived in Jerez for a three day sherry "boot camp." Seeing as it was carnaval season in Andalucía, the time during which young and old folks alike party all night, into the morning, and deal with the consequences the next day, I think that it was certainly the right call to visit Cesar Florido, a producer based west of the sherry triangle in Chipiona. Incidentally, Cesar did everything in his power to dissuade us from coming to his little town during the craziest time of the year.

Cesar Florido is a specialist in moscatel, someone who has owned moscatel Alejandria (muscat of Alexandria) vineyards in the sandy soils outside of Chipiona (he has since sold most of them off) and who vinifies moscatel to produce under his own label. These are sweet wines which quickly ferment and reach 2% abv before being fortified to about 15%. 180 g/l sugar and fairly low acidity makes them quite sweet, but they are also floral and, depending on your taste for sweet stuff, well balanced. These wines are what Florido is commercially best known for.

Cesar Florido is also an independent bodega owner. He has various soleras: fino, fino amontillado, oloroso, manzanilla (provided by a cousin of his), very old palo cortado (at least 50 years). On one particular barrel of one criadera, you can see someone's cell phone number (maybe a soccer teammate who wants to buy a bota?) In addition to his moscatel winemaking facility and his old bodega, Florido is also putting the finishing touches on a new tasting room. This is where we wrap up our visit, eating cheese, chorizo and jamon, drinking his sherries, and settling into the wine culture of what is Spain's most original and important contribution to the world of wine.

After the visit, Sr. Florido suggested a spot that serves some of the best pescadito frito in town: Bar Franchi. He was right. This was by far the tastiest fried fish I would eat while in Sherry country. Teenagers and twenty somethings dressed in costume were all around us, as were locals snacking on tapas, older folks strolling through the street, and plenty of outsiders there to enjoy carnaval (here, outsider might mean from Cadiz, El Puerto, Carmona, Sevilla - all places in Andalucía outside of Chipiona).

Enough prose. For this night, pictures are best.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Old School Indie at El Maestro Sierra

In as prim, proper and establishment a place as Jerez, a place where family name is as important as showing up to lunch with a crisp pair of khaki's, a pressed pink button down shirt and tweed coat or blazer, you've got to appreciate the independent bodega who, from their very inception, faced long odds and had to work harder than most, with minimal resources, in order to establish their little niche in the sherry business. Such was the case with El Maestro Sierra, an almacenista begun by a master cooper during a time when setting up shop in Jerez was primarily a sport for the nobility. Even today, the winery maintains its outsider cred as it is run by Doña Pilar Pla Pechovierto, a widow whose deceased husband was a direct descendent of the winery's founder, and the export manager is not only a woman, but a real outsider, from Ribera del Duero in Castilla y Leon. I can only imagine the type of shit talking which may have been dished out about El Maestro over the past 181 years!

That having been said, nowadays, El Maestro is appreciated in Jerez as a bastion of tradition and legacy, having recently been recognized as such by the D.O. The bodega looks and feels every bit as old as its history. while visiting there recently there was some fairly persistent rain that morning and a noticeable leak in the reception area. While I cannot speak to this section of the building, I was told that the roof over the barrels in the bodega is the original 1830's roof . The winery produces a wine called 1830 Amontillado, a VORS which consists of a two bota solera; both botas were built in 1830 and have never needed any repair work whatsoever.

As far as the bodega's wines, I could best describe them as richer than most, and, for the wines aged under flor, occasionally a bit on the funky side of flor. Five criaderas are often used here, more than the 3-4 which are commonly employed elsewhere. Racking is done by hand every 4-6 months.

This was a cool visit in that, given that Andre "Guiding Light" Tamers organized things, we had the opportunity to taste wines at various stages of completion, to taste some very, very old stuff, and to be in the presence of some very knowledgeable Jerezanos - both from within El Maestro Sierra as well as from outside the winery.

Sobretabla (one year old, fortified base wine)

Very vinous and mineral. Ana Cabastrero compared it to still cava.

3a Criadera (Fino)

Deeper color and more complete flavors, getting closer to a finish product.

Solera con flor (Fino)

Soon enough this will be bottled and will become a current batch of El Maestro Sierra Fino. The color has now become a lighter, more typically light straw fino hue. Rich and full of distinctive flor produced acetaldehyde flavors.

1830 Amontillado

No notes. I was too focused on the age of the 2,000 liter botas. I remember liking this, but not as much as the olorosos which followed it.

1/14 Oloroso

Awesome. Big cocoa and dried fruit flavors in this 50 year old wine.

1/7 Oloroso

Another mention of "vino de pañuelo" from one of the old-timers. Heavy rancio aromas. My notes are short on specifics and long on abstraction. They read, "Deep. Shit is deep. Walnut husk. Cocoa. Peanut shell."

Next up, es la hora de fiesta: Carnaval and a visit with Cesar Florido in Chipiona.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Gonzalez Byass

Stepping off the plane in Jerez (and given that this is a regional airport, you do literally step off the plane before heading inside), you will be greeted by a large Tio Pepe sculpture, a huge monument of the familiar guitar holding campesino logo which you will then likely see all over Jerez and anywhere that sherry is sold throughout the world. Once you get situated in Jerez, you will notice the beautiful gothic cathedral, and adjacent to it, the grounds of Gonzalez Byass, adorned all over with, you guessed it, our good friend the Tío Pepe logo. Inside, 25,000 barrels are devoted to this one wine. A wine train circles the property, carrying tourists there to see Jerez' most famous export. It is hard not to associate Gonzalez Byass with Jerez and the other way around.

As an inquisitive wine lover and champion of all that is handmade and lovingly produced in small quantities, it may be tempting to discount Gonzalez Byass as a huge sherry factory churning out mediocre stuff. This would be tempting, it would be easy to do, but the truth is that Gonzalez Byass still makes great wine. Tío Pepe, when fresh (which is increasingly the case in the US, at least here in California), is a tasty, representative fino. And the entire range of sherries, from Tío Pepe on up through the VORS wines, is very good and shows lots of diversity in styles.

As does Valdespino, Gonzalez Byass has their own winemaking facilities. They own 800 hectares (!) in Jerez, which provides for a good chunk of their needs. To supplement their own grapes, they have long-term contracts with other growers. If I understand correctly, they do not buy finished wine for their sobretablas.

Conducted by their master blender Antonio Flores, we tasted through a good portion of the Gonzalez Byass range:

Gonzalez Byass Tío Pepe Fino

Sea salt, almonds and loquat aromas lead to a very fresh, dry, brisk palate. Average age of this wine is four years. As are many other fino sherries, it is clarified and cold stabilized. Bottled in early February 2011, this bottle showed nice and fresh.

Gonzalez Byass Viña AB Amontillado

This is Tío Pepe that is lightly fortified, to 16.5%, and aged oxidatively so that the total average age is around nine years. Definitely in the fino amontillado style, the wine shows a very light amber color. Aromas are of salt, loquats and very subtle, understated wood. The palate shows much of the freshness of Tío Pepe, with a bit more richness and a dried orange quality.

Gonzalez Byass Oloroso Seco Alfonso

At 18%, this is a comparably light oloroso, one that has great acidity and a very low amount of residual sugar, just 3g/l. Wood, vanilla and dried orange aromatics lead to a dry palate with a bit of a rancio quality and just the barest suggestion of sweetness.

Gonzalez Byass Palo Cortado Leonor

This is where the tasting became even more interesting, in so far as my understanding of a particular style being challenged. According to Antonio Flores, this palo cortado never is aged under flor, and it is selected almost from the beginning of the production process for its combination of finesse and richness. At 20% abv and twelve years average age, it is assertive with dried fruit flavors, hints of cocoa, and more bass tones than the oloroso. Isn't palo cortado initially aged under flor, until the flor dies, and the winemaker puts a slash mark (/) through the palo (|)to create a palo cortado? Apparently, not so at Gonzalez Byass. In Jerez, it is important to remember that sometimes (ok, often times) there are no clear cut rules and boundaries regarding styles of sherry.

Gonzalez Byass Palo Cortado Apostoles VORS

This is a hint sweet since, at about 10 years of age, 10% PX is blended with the palomino to sweeten the wine in this very old solera, first created in 18_. Aromatics show a combination of palomino dried citric fruits and PX figs and dates, and the palate is just beautifully balanced, the touch of sweetness making this appropriate for both an aperitif as well as an after dinner drink (I'd probably go with after dinner, personally). Flores pointed out that this style can be referred to as "abocado" or even "amoroso" - hey now!

Gonzalez Byass Del Duque Amontillado VORS

Intense in all respects: acidity, alcohol (21.5%), wood flavor extraction. Deep yet subtle vanilla and dried fruit aromatics lead to a nearly perfect balance of acid and wood extracted flavors on the palate. Excellent richness and a real hazlenut like quality on the finish. A "vino de pañuelo," translated as handkerchief wine, something you dab on the handkerchief to carry with you for the day. Tasting this while listening to him wax poetic, I got the sense that Sr. Flores is an amontillado guy.

Gonzalez Byass Matusalem Oloros VORS

With 25% PX added, this is a sweet oloroso. However, the acidity is every bit as defining an attribute here as the residual sugar; these two are so impeccably balanced. As I commented on the acidity, Flores reminded me here that acidity intensifies with time in the barrel, so that acidity in VORS wines (even the dry ones) can be quite high (in fact, north of 6g/l is not at all uncommon). Aromas of old barrels combine with a rancio dried fruit and nut quality, and for lack of a better way of putting it, the flavors taste both old, very old, as well as fresh and bright. This solera began in 1847.

Gonzalez Byass Pedro Ximenez Nectar

An average of 8 year old wine, the aromas are all figs and raisins, with lots of these rich fruits on the palate as well. 380g/l residual sugar and 15% abv.

Gonzalez Byass Pedro Ximenez Noe VORS

More intense on the nose and the palate, this old wine has even more of a dried fruit quality, with dates in particular on the palate, as well as a surprising jolt of acidity for PX. Mocha notes as well, which is commmon for PX to acquire if it is from an older solera. 420 g/l residual sugar!

Next up...we go from very large to very small at boutique producer El Maestro Sierra.