Any reorganization in my library is reason enough for a few moments of contemplation. Here I was, making space in shelves for some recently-read tomes of not-very-good latter-day fiction, when I noticed the pile of notebooks. I had been putting them aside as I filled each one with wine notes and all manner of other jottings, with the intention of sitting down at the computer some day soon and transcribing whatever was worth transcribing so I could hang the stuff up on various for a all over the Wine Internet™.
Trouble is the quantity of the little black fuckers I’ve managed to fill. 19, to be precise. All replete with impressions on various bottles of wine. The earliest notebook covers a visit to Piedmont and Venice last November. The latest… Well, who knows what that one covers.
How does one tackle such a monumental amount of transcription? Do I even have the time? Are notes from November of 2005 even relevant today?
But I look through the books and get all sorts of memories, from lovely to awful. Maybe, with some careful selective editing, I could manage this…
At any rate, capricious bastard I am, I fancy starting with the last notebook in the series. Easy stuff. No effort to remember wines from the last four weeks. Later I’ll figure out some order (or lack thereof) in which to work on all the other drunken scribblings.
The last book begins in San Juan, Puerto Rico, of all places. I was there to visit Josie’s family and to provide moral support to my good friend Jesús Madrazo, winemaker at Viñedos del Contino in Rioja. Jesús was doing his first tastings ever in the Caribbean and thought it would be a good idea to have me at least in one of them, performing the role of enophilosophical foil.
Go figure, right?
So, on 29 June I was at the wien classroom of La Bodega de Méndez, the retail outlet of one of the main Puertorrican wine importer-distributors. We were to taste through a modest range of CVNE and Contino bottlings—Contino is a part of the CVNE conglomerate; Jesús, as a representative of the whole, was to explain to the crowd his own wines, as well as wines in the making of which he had no part.
As the lively lecture and Q & A bits progressed, I tasted through the folowing:
2000 CVNE, “Imperial” Reserva, Rioja, Spain: A pleasant, polite nose of cocoa, soy, violets, dired bay leaf, plum, blackberry and cherry, ever-so-slightly dusty. An afterthought of red licorice. Sweet and primary in the mouth. Velvety of texture, with abundant red fruit and chewy tannins. A very pleasant Imperial Reserva. Not at the level of the delicious ’98, but I wouldn’t shove it off my diner table.
2000 CVNE, “Real de Asúa” Reserva, Rioja, Spain Another vintage of CVNE’s original experiment in “Modern Riojistics” (the first wide commercial release of Real de Asúa was the 1995, so I think this is the fourth or fifth already). Strongly vanillaed and mentholated on the nose, loamy, pencil-shavingesque and all those other things that speak of aggressive wooding. Medium weight in the mouth, with decent cherry-berry fruit that at the moment is rather overwhelmed by oak elements. Though far from harmonious, it’s not altogether unpleasant. The only real problem I have is with some grainy, almost scratchy wood tannins which overtake the finish. Oak can be merciless…
1994 CVNE, “Viña Real” Reserva, Rioja, Spain: A faulty sample. Too muted, with vague suggestions of cured meat, baked figs, caramel and coffee grounds. I suggest to one of the representatives of Méndez & Co,, our hosts, that this may have been heat-damaged, but no substitute bottle is offered.
2001 CVNE, “Pagos de Viña Real”, Rioja, Spain: In the past I’ve mentioned that I can’t bring myself to see the point of this “Pagos de Viña Real” stuff. CVNE had a successful brand, “Viña Real”, with a fabulous track record. The wines were of great quality and longevity. And yet, they felt incined to mess with that brand by associating it to a flashy new winery in the Rioja Alavesa and turning out a new, extra-spoofulated, 100% new french oak horror that purports to be all-Tempranillo from “select vineyards” in the vicinity of the new winery. The result is the $80-or-so “Pagos de Viña Real”, a wine brutally murdered by wood. A tonsil-numbing .potation, this one. I can’t make up my mind what’s more offensive in it, if the barbaric amounts of new oak, or the pusilanimous, utterly personality-free Tempranillo buried under said oak. Bullshit. No, scratch that… It’s boring bullshit.
2000 Contino, Reserva, Rioja, Spain: I’ve made no secret through the years that my favorite of Jesús Madrazo’s wines is still the “basic” Contino Reserva. This is because in it one can best see that, though Jesús is a thoroughly modern winemaker, he brings some definitely classical sensibilities to the job and can make truly delightful food wines. Aromas of bitter chocolate, dark tobacco, coffee, anise, China ink and an abundance of lovely, plummy-blackcurranty-raspberried fruit. Smooth and round in the mouth, this one manages a lively, plump sexiness as well as some real elegance. Very, very drinkable. Begs for some suckling pig.
1999 Contino, “Viña del Olivo”, Rioja, Spain: This one has a reputation for being a particularly oaky Olivo, so I was shocked to find it very nicely integrated and decidedly well-behaved at the Méndez tasting. The wood is still very protagonistic, but it manages to allow some lush red fruit to do its thing. All the components, though some are heavier than others, manage to appear to move at the same speed… Sweet in the mouth, creamy, berry-vanillaish, with fine-grain tannins. A oaky wine to which I don’t object. I’d like to revisit it in five years.
2001 Contino, Graciano, Rioja, Spain: Always an interesting—if not entirely pleasurable—wine, Contino’s Graciano. At a vertical tasting a couple of years ago, I established that, given the choice and to drink at the dinner table, I would always go for the ones Gracianos made at Contino by CVNE’s master wienmaker Basilio Izquierdo, aged in older barrels, rather than for the wines aged in new French oak by Jesús Madrazo. Granted, this ’01 is nowhere near being dominated by new oak… But I still prefer a subtler wood presence. Notes of dill, vanilla, ash, anise, stinging nettle, green tea, cherry, blackberry and cranberry. Tangy, with the variety’s powerful acidity in full effect. Long. Gripping tannins. A very chewy wine.
Satisfied that the event had gone well, Josei and I took Jesús and the export director of CVNE to a late Chino-Latino dinner at Dragonfly in Old San Juan. I hadn’t been to the restaurant (or to Puerto Rico, for that matter), in almost six years, but I can say it hasn’t changed a bit. Chef Roberto Treviño’s food is still tasty, if his sauces are a bit on the sweet side for me. The place is cramped, but in a fun way. Alas, we couldn’t order any wine with our meal. Nothing in the wine list held any appeal whatsoever. So, we washed the food down with some nice cold Tsing Tao.
Cut to a couple of weeks later, back in Manhattan. I got one of those wonderful “What Are You Guys Doing Tonight?” e-mails from our very own Iron Chef, SFJoe. He had a couple of fnon-winegeek friends coming over for dinnr and wanted to know if Josie and I can join in the festivities.
The thought of turning down an invitation to eat at Joe’s place has never crossed my mind. Ever. Just doesn’t happen. So there we were a couple of hours later, all thirst and appetite.
The food, as usual, was extraordinary. And the wines…
1992 Domaine du Closel, “Clos du Papillon”, Savennières: A touch of oxidation, then pollen, then beeswax, earth, ash, ginger, turmeric and baked apples on the nose. In relative terms, a fantastic showing for this Papillon, of which I have had a number of disappointing bottles in the past. It feels only slightly superannuated. Good weight, focus and length in the mouth. A sweet, slightly waxy finish. Quite nice.
2004 Rafael Palacios, “As Sortes” Godello, Val do Bibei, Valdeorras: My contirbution to the evening. I had severe doubts about this one: A $38 Spanish white from Spain that isn’t Tondonia Gran Reserva is something that rarely tempts me. This Godello is produced by multirregional megastar Alvaro Palacios. It came highly recommended from various quarters. Hell, one guy even did one of those “no-risk” offers: If I didn’t like it, I could bring it back and exchange it for something I deemed decent.
Turns out I ended up liking it. SF Joe, upon first sniffing the wine made a very interesting comment about it: “It smells like heavy batonnage:…” Which. I must say, was very true. This smelled big and leesy, like a mega-amped-up Muscadet with added florals and a good dollop of white peach. Bold, creamy and intensely citrusy in the mouth. Great acidity. A nicely focused, very textural and tangy finish. Shame about the price, because, to illustrate to the non wino guests what we were suddenly geeking out about, Joe opened one of the many bottles of 2005 Marc Ollivier, “Clos des Briords”, Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine Sur Lie. This was its usual, much-celebrated self. Broadly fruited, fleshy, with savory marine accents and a much subtler lees element. A beautiful wine that combines great depth with irresistible drinkability. And hey, it costs about a third of the price of the “As Sortes”.
1985 Jasmin, Côte-Rôtie: Bacony heaven. Silky, smooth, deeply blackfruited, earthy, spicy and truly a joy to drink in quantity with our porcinely-influenced main course,
2002 Thomas-Labaille, “Les Monts Damnés”, Chavignol, Sancerre: Another one of Joe’s usual gambits: With the cheeses we switch from red to white. A panoply of citrus—lemon, lime, white grapefruit, guava, passionfruit, lemongrass… Light-feeling for the amount of flesh it packs, tight as hell, chalky and very, very focused.
And now, some notes about things had at home…
2005 Bisson, Cilegiolo Rosé, Golfo del Tigullio, Italy: As always, a meidum ruby color, rather a pale red than a rosé. The nose is curiously unforthcoming. It takes some swirling to coax hints of cherry, plum, hay, cola nuts and figs. A little nose, I guess. Mild spritz in the mouth. Flavors of grape, plum and fig with a pleasant savory undercurrent, but this one comes across as rather blocky and awkward. Medium-length finish with appleskinny tannins.
2004 Domaine de Montpertuis, Vignoble de la Ramière “Cuvée Counoise”, Vin de Pays du Gard Deep ruby-purple, but one can still see the table through the glass, which is always a good thing. Aromas of raspberry, boysenberry, anise, bay leaf, hot rocks, vaseline and camphor. A compelling, “grandma’s house” sort of nose. Clean, hearty and chewy in the mouth, with pert blackberry, raspberry and cherry flavors. Very well-structured and long, with nice earthy and herbal notes on the finish.
2005 Domaine Bart, Rosé, Marsannay: A rather odd (to me, at least) almost-fuchsia pink color. Strawberry jelly infused with violets and lanolin. Boldly jammy and a bit clunky in the mouth. More strawberry jelly with a pleasant bitter edge at the end. But this should be much lighter on its feet than it is. Decent acidity and good length. But the body’s all wrong, really.
2001 Dorado, Alvarinho, Vinho Verde, Portugal: The Galician who went to the other side of the Minho scores again… Wanting to check out how Dorado’s wines evolve, I decided to open this ’01. Aromas of sweet golden apples, lemon curd, orange blossom, white tea and a strong mineral streak. Very pure. With lovely, subtly rendered flavors of mandarin orange, kumquat, grapefruit and lime, plus that minerality, which ties everything together into a tight bundle. Great presence, though the overall effect is of lightness. A beautiful drink. More time in bottle could do good things.
2003 Stéphane Tissot, “Les Bruyères” Chardonnay, Arbois: Faint oxidative lilt on the nose, then aromas of ginger ale, white plum, apricot and kumquat, all with a certain roasted feel to them. Swirling brings forth aspects of beeswax and chalk dust. Though the “roasted” bit is a little distracting, this manages to be very unlike an ’03 and shows quite fresh. Tangy in mouth, with flavors of orange, peach, grapefruit and a small something that reminds me of kiwi. Nice, long and mouthwatering. Perhaps it lacks a certain amount of tautness, but still, it’s nice.
2005 Wieninger, Rosé de Pinot, Vienna, Austria: The first whiff brings back memories of the Maja face powder my first girlfriend used to wear. Then there emerge plums, strawberries and rocks galore. Very slurpilicious in the mouth: Strawberries, grapefruit and grapes, with vibrant acidity and some very captivating mineral notes. A very crunchy little rosé, ively and demanding a fatty fish filet. On the second night, the wine becomes dramatically more mineral—it’s rocks srikled with orange zest and drizzled with black tea and some strawberry juice. One of my favorite rosés so far this summer.
2005 Clos du Tue-Boeuf, Cheverny Rouge: “Wow! That smells lush”, says Josie as I open the bottle in the kitchen. It’s a burst of purest strawberries, freshest plums and figs, rose petals and incense. A light, graceful, endlessly quaffable, but at the same tiem quite thought-provoking red. A slight jamminess to the finish, but this is sweetness that wouldn’t even dream of flirting with vulgarity. 750 ml. is a modest one-person portion.
2005 Kozlovič. Malvazia, Istria, Croatia: Lyle Fass was very adamant that I sample some of the new Croatian wines he was receiving at Crush. He said they were “cheap”, so I accepted that he fill out an order with a couple of bottles, provided that they were indeed around $15 each. “They’re from Croatia; how bad can it be?”, I said to myself. So, one sample was this. White grapefruit, tangerine, pollen and sand on a polite, shyish nose. Pretty much the same in the mouth, though the flavors are livelier. Zippy, clean and fresh, with a little something of sweet corn on the finish. Decnet, but easily forgettable. If this were a $8 bottle, it would be an excellent value everyday white for summer. Lamentably, it retails (as I later found out, much to my chagrin), for something like $18. I have to revise my case-filling policy.
2004 Franz Hirtzberger, Riesling Federspiel “Steinterrassen”, Spitz, Donau-Wachau, Austria: Lifted citrus nose with a bit of tropical swagger and strong sandy-mineral notes. Also, freshly-cut flowers and a little something of lemon basil. Fleshy, pert and citrusy in the mouth, with bracing acidity. In fact, at moments the acidity seemed a little shrill, though it calmed down considerably under the influence of a grilled pork chop with mustard sauce.
2003 Jean Gros, Tourette, Vallée d’Aoste, Italy: I liked the 2004 model of this stuff enough to buy a good number of bottles for casual consumption. Out of curiosity, since perhaps the cool climate of the Val d’Aosta might have been forgiven the cruel burn, I decided to give a try to the 2003.
The difference between the two vintages is dramatic. Where the ’04 was all freshness, lightness and purity with just a bit of layered complexity, the ’03 is a monolithic affair of baked plum with hints of dried palm leaf, thyme and Elmer’s Glue™. In the mouth, it’s a sweaty little plodder. Same baked plum. Same dried-leaf aspects. Some acidity. A moderate finish. But it’s so damn dull…
2004 Valdesil, Godello “Sobre Lías”, Valdeorras, Spain: Hoping that I can find a $15 analogue of the Palacios “As Sortes”, I buy this new import. I am curous because it bears the title “”Sobre Lías” (“Sur Lie”) on the label, which means I could pursue SFJoe’s Muscadet comparison. But I’m in for a bit of a letdown… This Valdesil bears a leesy imprint, yes, as was to be expected. But the aromas and flavors, while present, are kind of vague and indecisive about their roles in the program. Floral notes over golden apples, lemon curd and fresh fennel, all with a weird water-jug plastic cast over them. In the mouth, the wine is simple and inoffensive, with falvors of lemon and golden apple over modest minerality. Once again, I’ll go to the old refrain: If this had been five bucks, it would have been okay. At fifteen it has too much competition that leaves change in my pocket and a better memory in my head (much of it from Muscadet). The global market’s a bitch.
2000 Bodegas Riojanas, “Monte Ral” Reserva, Rioja, Spain: I shuddered with disgust when I received a copy of the press note put out by Bodegas Riojanas earlier this year, in reference to their next release of the ever-consistently-delicious Monte Real Reserva. I translate a part of it here, for your benefit. Omagine Wine Therapy’s lovely Virginia Guadalupe reading this to you in her best imitation of a Northern-Spanish accent (I know she’s from Mexico, but ifCHarlton Heston can play a Mexican, there’s no reason why Virginia should not play a Spaniard):
“[Apart from the redestyled label] The new 2000 Monte Real Reserva also brings with it some enological novelties with respect to preceding vintages, among which it is worth pointing out the exclusive provenance from Cenicero of all the fruit utilized in the wine’s production, as well as the application of new techologies to control fermentation temperature and long macerations, as well as the increase to 24 months of the time the wine spends in bottle before being released into the market.
“With al this, we believe that we have not only updated the presentation of this historical brand from our bodega, but also given an upward thrust to its well-known quality, giving [the wine] greater structure and elegance. This renovation is the fruit of a restlessness that has driven us to always be attentive to the evolution of tastes and trends in the marketplace, of which restlessness are also examples our most cutting-edge brand, Gran Albina, and the bodega’s latest creation, Monte Real Crianza.”
On the surface, it doesn’t sound all that bad, right? Temperature control? Longer macerations? More tiem in bottle? It all could lead, at least in theory, to “improvement” (not that a brand that has consistently provided us with some truly amazing Riojas over the past seventy years or so needed much improving, really; but of course, that is just my opinion…)
The scary part is the mention of Gran Albina and Monte Real Crianza—two spoof-fest bottlings that I’ve always found quite unpalatable, even ridiculous—as wines made “in the same spirit” as this “new” Monte Real Reserva. Oh, and then there’s that bit about “the tastes and trends in the marketplace”. A famous line comes to mind: “In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations, and epochs it is the rule.” That was Nietzsche, no?
At any rate, “the tastes of the marketplace”, what a ludicrous notion…
You may say I was predisposed toward this “new” Monte Real Reserva. A large part of me assumed a move to the dark side. Of course, a smaller part of me wanted to retain some measure of faith, to fork out $17 for a bottle and give the thing a fair chance.
I did. And it’s the last time I listen to that damned “smaller part”, which seems to be a complete dumbass.
Here’s what I got: A more stylized version fo the same old label is feebly encouraging. They’re stil doing the same yellow background and the infamous gaudy lettering. But it’s been streamlined” And they seem to have gotten rid of the neck label. Also, the bottle seems a little heavier, broader-hipped… In my glass the wine is very unlike the Monte Real to which I am accustomed—darker, much denser and quite purple. At first there’s a generic whiff of old barrel on the nose, but with air the aroma begins to get differentiated—bitter cocoa, coffee, cured ham, a touch of vanilla bean… I suspect that the new-barrel ante has been upped on this one. On the palate there’s red and black fruit that seems rather too smoothed-out, uninteresting. Flavorwise, this is a two-note bit of business: Fruit, then wood. In the end, only raspberry-cranberry and some gritty, drying tannins that, fortunately, don’t hang out for long.
The “new” Monte Real Reserva is by no means so objctionable a wine as all that, mind you. The implementers of “enological innovation” at Riojanas have seen fit to leave on it enough marks so that it’s recognizable as a cousin of traditional Rioja. There’s decent acidity, for instance. And the oak is, at worst, mildly noisome, not a bunker-buster explosion. But the wine seems too “cleaned up”. As it is, it reminds me much more of one of those soulless latter-day El Coto de Rioja bottlings than of anything I once associated with Monte Real.
I’m lucky I stocked up on the ’95, ‘96, ’97, ’98 and ’99, is all I can say.
After this depressing interlude, I must say a little something about yet another call to SF Joe’s I received. This one was last week, I think. Everyone seemed to be out of town except for Joe, Jayson Cohen and yours faithfully. We decided that an evening of drinking altogether to much at Châteauneuf de Joe was in order, and so, we gathered. The original idea was to order food in (it was raining over Manhattan that night) or go to Joe’s neighborhood Korean with our bottles.
Of course, with Joe the urge to cook, and cook extraordinarily, is strong. We ended up sauntering over to a neighborhood gourmet-foods spot and picking out some lovely duck breasts, which were then grilled to perfection.
Oh, yeah… We had some wine. There was a 2004 Thierry Puzelat, “Thésée”, Sauvignon, Touraine, a delicious little thing full of anise, tarragon, apricot jelly and pear. Sweetly-fruited, minerally-deep and extremely enjoyable. There was also a contribution of mine, another one of Lyle Fass’ Croatian case-fillers, the 2004 Katinar Estate, “Zlatina Katinar” Dry White Wine, Vineyards of the Island of Kirk, Croatia. This moved along with a canidied sort of step, some volatility and some oxidation, some baked apples, some lemon, some manzano bananas and decent minerality. The consensus of our trio was that it would bewonderful if it were a $8.99 bottle, but that it was probably twice that, which would be way too much money for what it is. There was also a corked bottle of 2004 Marc Ollivier, “Cuvée Eden”, Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine Sur Lie, and then a NV Krug, Brut “Grande Cuvée”, Champagne brought along by Jayson. A recent release, apparently, with a streamlined new label I didn’t recognize. Initially, this Krug was all burnt toast and sulfur. It took its sweet time in letting out its true beauty and breed, but it eventually did, much ot our delight. All sorts of toasty pastry notes wrapped around very perfumed fruit, in turn wraped around a core of chalky minerality. Excellent weight and persistence.
About the reds we drank with the duck my notes are very sketchy. I know there was a 1982 Cordero, Monfalletto, Barolo which Jayson accused of being “rather generic” (or words to that effect) and “not all that interesting”. I liked it well enough, especially with the fod. A dusty, leathery middle-aged Barolo that was pleasant enough, if not especially memorable. We also had a 1971 Château Latour-à-Pomerol, Pomerol, which once again proved how stellar many Right Bank wines were in this vintage. An iron-rich, neck-deep in fruit and great dirt nose. Smooth but lively on the palate, very long and delicious.
We may have had some more wine. In fact, I’m pretty sure we did, since I recall a bottle of the yummy 2005 Bellivière Girofflée” surfacing at the very end.
Such are the hangovers I shall never regret…
Last in this notebook is a stapled-in sheet. The other day I was sweating home along the very jungle-like 57th Street and decided to stop at Crush to see how my firend Lyle Fass was doing and take in some air conditioning. I was pleasantly surprised when Lyle invited me to sit through a tasting of some “wines of interest” he intended to purchase for the store. I didn’t know people took my opinions that seriously… And so, I found myself tasting some samples from Artisan Wines, Inc., urged by Fass to wax as Liquidatorially as posisble for the benefit of Gary, Artisan’s rep.
2004 Castello di Spessa, Ribolla Gialla, Collio, Italy: A tough, lean, acidic little mutha at first, this takes a good half hour to start opening up and showing some pleasant floral, aple and gooseberry aromas. It also has a strong stinging nettle component that fades in and out of the nose. Ultra-dry. My experience with Ribolla Gialla being in the wines of Gravner, Radikon and the like, I’m a little taken aback by the clean-as-a-whistle, almost international feel of this example. But it’s nice and refreshing, especially on a hot day.
2005 Fratelli Alessandria, Verduno Pelaverga, Piedmont, Italy: Pelaverga being my favorite semiobscure red grape in Piedmont, this is one I am delighted to try. I don’t miss the chance to mention that “pelaverga” translates roughly as “dick peeler”—a good bit for Gary to insert into his saltier sales pitches in the future, I think. Anyway, this one is very lean and pure, with a bright violet-cranberry color. Smells like straw, violets, leather and redcurrants. Zippy and juicy in the mouth, but also hugely tannic. I have a feeling a steak wold make it sing.
2004 Tamar Ridge, Pinot Noir “Devil’s Corner”, Tasmania, Australia: It should be no secret that the phrase “Australian Pinot Noir” scares the shit out of me. It conjures up several extremely unpleasant wines I’ve had in the past and tends to make me want to leave the room immediately. It takes great effort not to do just that when this Tamar Ridge thingie pops up. But the wine seems light and clean as it’s poured in the glass. It has transparency. In something from Down Under. Whodathunkit? An interesting, clean and crisp nose of strawberries, cherries and earth. There’s a distant, delicate jamminess to it that makes it extra-user friendly. Same in the mouth—juicy, with chewy tannins. Nothing complex. It’s just a nice quaffer. But when was the last time I said this of an Australian wine?
2004 K Vintners, “Red House Wine”, Walla Walla, Washington: As Jay Miller would say: “Purple stuff”. Granted, it’s lighter and not especially wooded purple stuff, but there’s purple everywhere here. Apparently, it’s Syrah-based, though by its aroma it could verywell be Merlot. It’s a simple, lush little thing, fruity, nicely balanced and with toth-coating tannins, but unfortunately, it’s nowhere near distinctive enough. This anonimity is its curse. When I ask how much this would retail for, I’m told something like twelve bucks. At which point I move on. If I want scrumptiousness and value along with distinctiveness, I’d go to Iché’s “Les Hérétiques” a milliuon times over this and end up savin about five bucks per bottle. Like I said, this global market’s a bitch.
2001 Claar Cellars, Cabernet-Merlot, Pasco, Washington: Smells and tastes of blackberry jam, smoke and leather. The candied element here straddles the borderline, but never crosses into gobby vulgarity. Decent structure and length. Not bad.
With this, the number of little black notebooks awaiting transcription is reduced to 17.2. The gods only know which one I’ll try to tackle next.