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Christening the duck

The “offline” – a gathering of online wine buddies for the purpose of the overconsumption of wines that would probably have been better left to their own devices – has a distinctly regional component that goes beyond the character of its participants. It has, instead, to do with the nature of the venue. Privileged areas where BYO is encouraged – California, New Jersey, even otherwise wine-hostile Pennsylvania – have virtual free reign of the available cuisines and price ranges. But those who live where BYO is discouraged, or even illegal, must make do with either surreptitious “I know the owner” sneaking or the short list of dives and near-dives – usually Italian or Asian – that allow such bacchanals.

The benefit to the restaurants that allow, or even encourage, offlines are less than clear. Yes, such groups tend to tip very well. On the other hand, rowdy groups of drunks take up tables for hours, make a fearful mess, and often scare away potential drop-in customers. And the much-vaunted (by wine geeks) “word-of-mouth advertising” can’t amount to much; is there really a great clamor for BYO-friendly restaurants outside the oenophile community?

Thus, the venues that persist in their embrace of those who offline are often cherished by their habituates, sometimes all out of proportion to their objective quality. So it is with King Fung Garden, a dive to end all dives on one edge of Boston’s tiny Chinatown (the original venue, a former gas station and occasionally – if unkindly – known as “The Red Café” to certainly Old School MIT types, is a virtual paragon of wonderful dive-itude, with its shoebox size, red vinyl booths, and frequent lack of midwinter heating).

It’s not that the food is bad at King Fung. On the contrary: for dirt-cheap Chinese, it’s not bad at all, especially in the context of Boston (where Chinese food does not reach the levels of, say, San Francisco, or New York). A few Peking-style ducks, a few appetizers and sides (hold the spice, please) and most winos are perfectly satisfied. The focus, after all, is on the wine and the crowd itself. Dissenters exist, and even fans can get tired of the same food, over and over again. But for $17/head (the actual total of a recent bill; we left $30 each), how much quality and variety can one really expect?

So, when King Fung announced that they were opening a branch (cleverly named “King Fung Garden II”) in Brookline, eager offliners were all atwitter. (Or perhaps it was just MSG withdrawal.) One group of diehards was determined to be the first to break in the new digs, to blaze a new chow foon trail, to explore new horizons in lo mein.

That group: Joe “Rollbar” Perry, Charles “Hold Still & Cough” Weiss, Tim “Sure, Go Ahead, Blame Me” Tanigawa, Paul “Remains There Anyone On the Planet Who Has Not Heard My Lillie Von Schtupp Joke?” Winalski, David “Will Drive Anywhere For Riesling” Bueker, out-of-town guest Jake “Multi-faceted Geek” Parrott, Jake’s guest Martin (who wears a “what the hell am I doing here with these freaks?” expression for much of the evening), and me, your not-so-humble narrator.

The evening starts entertainingly enough, as we file into a bright white, hospital-like room notable for its near-absence of tables and chairs. In one corner, original King Fung stalwart Doris has set up a few tables of the folding variety (she adds a third when the wine payload of the first two renders them unstable and unusable), but otherwise we are just as much a sideshow for a steady procession of takeout customers as a hardy collection of wine dorks. One member of Boston’s finest even gives our table a long, amused look. We wonder if – shades of a well-known Tom Troiano Port-fest in days long-passed – he’ll be waiting for us when we emerge.

Along with Doris, our waitstaff for the evening appears to be the youngest member of the King Fung family. And I do mean youngest. Joe muses that the last time we saw him, he was in his mother’s arms and (he gestures) “about this big.”

“But Joe,” I retort, “at the time, so were you.”

Our young server takes our orders, then – despite being only five feet from the kitchen and despite the fact that there’s no one else in the restaurant at the moment – bellows a long rant in Cantonese, which eventually peters out to “never mind” in English. He then, rather sullenly, takes the order back to the kitchen himself. It’s adorable.

The wines start oddly and slowly, though we do break our usual King Fung tradition by having at least one white left to taste when the food starts to arrive. Must be the unfamiliar surroundings.

Baumard 1992 Savennières (Loire) – Drying and oxidized, with hints of stewed asparagus. Mostly dead.

“This isn’t dead,” complains Jake.

“I said ‘mostly dead.’”

Jake retastes. “OK, you’re right. Mostly dead.”

Gunderloch 2004 “Dry” Riesling 03 05 (Rheinhessen) – Under screwcap. Acidic and very tight, showing some slate and no little sulfur. I feel that this should be more interesting than it is.

Guido Cocci Grifoni “Podere Colle Vecchio” 2000 Marches Bianco (Marches) – Acidic butter. Something went wrong with this particular bottle, according to the person who brought it.

JJ Prüm 1999 Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Kabinett 15 00 (Mosel-Saar-Ruwer) – Overwhelmingly, undrinkably sulfurous. Holding my nose, I find a bit of minerality just beginning to emerge on the palate, but otherwise, this is like drinking a factory full of matchsticks.

Henschke 1995 Semillon “Louis” (Edna Valley) – That’s the Edna Valley in Australia, by the way. Fig jam, pear skin, and nice (if sweaty) minerality with a zingy top note. Very nice, and ultimately my favorite white wine of the evening…which is surprising, not just because it’s Australian, but because it’s Australian and I brought it. Well, there’s a first time for everything.

Nikolaihof 1997 Vom Stein Riesling Smaragd (Wachau) – Still difficult, showing chalky minerality, but otherwise tighter than a drum. Hmmm.

David muses that we’re an all-male group this evening. Joe responds, “well, Amy was supposed to come, but when she saw that we were all guys, she wimped out.”

This amuses both David (“she could have worn the bikini”) and me (“she could have been the center of attention…you know, like Theresa”).

“I told her that, but she said, ‘look, I know you guys, and there’s no way I’d be the center of attention. It’d be the wine, then obscure facts about the wine, then stories about people who aren’t even there, and only then would it be me.’”

We pause, agree that she’s probably right, and move on to a verbal subdivision of South Africa’s Stellenbosch region.

Talana Hill 2003 Chardonnay Paradyskloof (Stellenbosch) – Jake proves his outsider status by bringing a chardonnay. When he mentions having brought a cabernet as well, we’re about ready to boot him unceremoniously streetward, until he clarifies that he means cabernet franc. Oh, well, OK. All is forgiven. And for a chardonnay, by the way, this one isn’t bad at all: ripe red berries and Calimyrna fig. Pretty.

Edmunds St. John 2001 Los Robles Viejos (white) Rozet Vineyard (Paso Robles) – Thick, spicy peach and honeysuckle with minerality underneath. It’s in a pretty stage right now. However, I take the remnants home, and on the second day (despite sitting in the fridge) it has undergone a secondary fermentation in the bottle. So if you’ve got it, be wary…or at least, be quick about the drinking.Update: the winemaker informs me that this wine was sterile-filtered, which should have rendered a secondary fermentation an impossibility. I’m at a loss to explain this.

Heger 2003 Pinot Noir “sonett” 20 05 (Baden) – Also under screwcap, which causes Jake to double-decant the wine (“I don’t trust the Germans not to screw up the sulfur with a screwcap”). Strawberry, raspberry and gamay-like sprightliness with a little granite underneath. Like many German pinots, this would be a perfectly lovely wine were it half its actual price.

Jake chooses this opportunity to wax aphorismic: “I’ve been to the mountain, and I’ve seen all the people who didn’t make it to the mountain.” A few moments of confusion later, we all agree that neither Buddha nor Sun-Tzu are in immediate danger of displacement, and proceed to the next wine.

C&P Breton 1989 Bourgueil Grandmont (Loire) – Late-released, with the schmancy modern packaging. Gorgeous aromatics of earth and dried cherries, with a silky texture. Still youthful. Marvelous, despite the cult-Bourgueil pricing.

Ravenswood 1997 Zinfandel Teldeschi (Dry Creek Valley) – Glue. There’s heavy VA, but mostly this smells and tastes like glue. Sheesh.

Redondèl di Paolo Zanini 2003 Teroldego Rotaliano (Trentino) – Huge purple grape fruit with ripe mint juice. Completely lurid.

The wine is starting to flow fast and furious, and the conversation is getting more sub-referential by the moment. Here’s an example (identities excised to protect the guilty):

“I went to the funeral of one of the Seven Mules.”


“The ones that protected the Four Horsemen.”

“Of Notre Dame, or of the Apocalypse?”


“So who’s the Harlot?”

(several people at once) “Heidi Peterson Barrett!”

Amy’s reasons for absence have never been so clear.

Bouchard P&F 1995 Le Corton (Burgundy) – Dark black earth-encrusted truffle and blackberry with hazelnut and spiky acidity. Long and ostensibly still developing, but a little strange overall. Almost good, perhaps a victim of the bad Bouchard era, or perhaps just in an awkward stage.

Hudelot-Noellat 1994 Romanée St-Vivant (Burgundy) – Rough, rustic cherries with a strange, indefinable imbalance. Fun, but very much a country cousin of an RSV…not in a bad way, necessarily, but also not entirely what one might expect.

Boiron “Bosquet des Papes” 1995 Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe “Cuvée Chantemerle” (Rhône) – Smoky meat liqueur expanding to something a little fruitier on the finish. Still, the wine is a bit difficult at the moment, and might just need some time – or better company – to arrange itself.

At this point, someone pipes up with the following: “I had a nightmare where Pierre-Antoine Rovani was there in his stupid tan cap going ‘eygh eygh eygh eygh.’” This outburst presents a problem for the narrator, because its author wants no part of it, yet no one else is willing to take credit for it either. We resort to a game of chance, and Tim (to his dismay) draws the short chow foon noodle. So send your angry letters Tim-ward.

Marcarini 1998 Barolo La Serra (Piedmont) – Stunning from the first moment, showing the classic tar and roses alongside tart blackberry leaves and beautifully-textured graphite-like tannin. Still not entirely integrated, but promising much.

Bodegas Riojanas “Monte Real” 1994 Rioja “Gran Reserva” (Center-North) – Gorgeous, sweet-textured red fruit (cherries and plum juice) and gritty tannin. Pretty…no, make that exquisite. Finally, after zillions of attempts, Joe produces a Rioja that I like. I feel like marking the date on the calendar.

Charles brings forth a dessert wine that has David scrunching up his nose, apparently doing a Mark Squires imitation. “It smells like a melon that’s been pissed on by a cat.” What’s this marvel of varietal expression, one might ask? Mark would probably be the first to guess.

Köster-Wolf 2002 Scheurebe Alzeyer Römerberg Eiswein (Rheinhessen) – This wine is obviously the product of some sort of accident between several trucks, trains and carts all carrying a variety of tropical fruit, leaving a sticky residue of lime leaves and banana skin. It’s fun, but admits to no further exploration.

And with that, King Fung Garden II is duly christened. Joe packs up a few gallons of unwanted duck soup and enough chow foon to stuff a horse, Charles departs (once more foiled in his monthly attempt to demonstrate the use of his elbow glove), and Doris is left to glumly survey the mess that surrounds our table.

But for lacquered duck, we’ll be back. Oh yes. We’ll be back.

Varietally challenged

Concannon 2003 Pinot Noir (Central Coast) – Hard and skin-dominated at first, eventually developing some rounder red fruit characteristics, and even a hint of softness. But overall, it’s a harsh wine; big, but harsh.

Drinking inexpensive pinot noir is a little like playing the slots. Yeah, once in a while you’ll hit the jackpot, but mostly you’re going to lose, and your odds (vs. the house) are worse than just about any other game you’d care to play. If you’re in the market at this price range – and really, who wouldn’t be? pinot noir is yummy – I’d strongly recommend the Maréchal Bourgogne “Cuvée Gravel” instead. Alcohol: 13.5%. Closure: cork. Web:

Cooper Mountain “Cooper Hill” 2004 Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley) – Reasonably friendly, soupberry fruit with elements of earth and leaf. Varietally-correct pinot, without complexity but also without trauma. A nice, simple-minded wine.

On the other hand, this might not be a bad option either. It’s fruitier and more obvious than the Maréchal, but some might prefer those qualities. Cooper Hill is apparently a lower-cost entry from this semi-pioneering (in Oregon) biodynamic producer, who does solid – if occasionally unexciting – work across their range.Alcohol: 12.5%. Biodynamic. Closure: cork. Web:

Mills Reef 2003 Sauvignon Blanc “Reserve” (Hawkes Bay) – Absolutely classic, if slightly restrained thanks to a brief stay in oak, with grass, crisp lime and grapefruit. Nicely acidic, clean-finishing and nicely done.

People know Hawkes Bay – if they know it at all – for some of New Zealand’s better attempts at heavier red grapes; syrah, merlot, the cabernets, etc. But if the latter three can be successful, there’s no reason not to try sauvignon blanc (re: the parallel raising of those grapes in Bordeaux, red and white). This wine is reliably classic in its conception despite the oak, and the seemingly-requisite residual sugar common to so many of its Marlborough brethren is in absence here, which will both win and lose it fans. Alcohol: 13%. Closure: screwcap. Importer: San Francisco Wine Exchange. Web:

Blackstone 2003 Merlot (California) – Boisterous dark fruit and stewed vegetables, which soon start to smell like – no kidding – garbage after enough air. Ugh.

I know this wine is enormously popular. I have never been able to understand why. This (minus the garbage) is a good profile for a wine once it’s spent some time in the stewpot with the aromatic vegetables and herbs, but not so much in the bottle. Alcohol: 13.5%. Closure: cork. Web:

Sokol Blosser 9th Edition “Evolution” (American) – Sweet, perfumed muscat; the other eight grapes add little but acid and some vague, light but tart citrus. Beginner wine, but good in that idiom.

I remember when Sokol Blosser introduced this wine (then called “Evolution No. 9,” which undoubtedly ran afoul of the Beatles because it’s not called that anymore) to our market. I participated in the fun of trying to guess the grapes. I did OK; 7 out of 9 I think. But then, I sorta lost interest in the thing, and I think the reason is the muscat. I like muscat, and I like blends, but I rarely like blends with muscat in them…because the result is almost always a thin-tasting muscat rather than a pleasing mélange of flavors. Some grapes just do not play well with others, and this one features both muscat and the other classic offender in this regard: gewürztraminer. Alcohol: 12%. Closure: cork. Web:

Sierra Vista 1999 Zinfandel Reeves Vineyard (El Dorado) – Brooding yet fierce, with animalistic wild fruit and jagged, pointy tannin, acid and alcohol. I’m not sure this is aging harmoniously. It might still come around, and the fruit that’s there is rather good in its classic, angry Sierra Foothills fashion, but the alcohol is worrisome, and I suspect the problem is that it’s actually a bit late to be drinking this.

The ubiquitousness of zinfandel around California’s viticultural regions means that it’s a wonderful study in terroir, even if it’s not always that easy to detail the points of difference. I think that there is a sort of generalized but recognizable Sierra Foothills profile, though – there’s still time to work out the sub-regional and vineyard-specific differences – and this wine demonstrates what happens to it when it gets a little too surly, which happens quite a bit in the region’s zins. Possibly, it would have been more harmonious a few years earlier. Alcohol: 14.2%. Closure: cork. Web:

Sierra sludge

Renwood “Sierra Series” 2003 Syrah (Sierra Foothills) – Chunky, monolithic and dark Sierra fruit, clunky tannin, and a chewy texture. Certainly drinkable, but it lacks class.

The entire Sierra Foothills area has enormous potential, though much of it is destined to go unrealized given its lack of proximity to major California tourist centers (the region itself isn’t all that far from San Francisco, but getting anywhere once you’re there is a different story. And the major flow-by of tourists are heading either to the Tahoe-area ski fields or to Reno; not the sort of drop-in business on which one can rely. Wine regions need recognition, they need acclaim, but most of all they need funds…money to improve viticulture and cellar operations that will in turn lead to better wines, reinforcing the cycle.

Of course, there’s an upside to all this: the area is a lot of fun to visit, and largely devoid of pigeon-like hordes of tourists.

Renwood is as big a name as the area has (the other contender would be Domaine de la Terre Rouge/Easton), but not all fame is good fame. The winery has a long and checkered history, and the ownership is not the most popular in the region (or, for that matter, among in-the-know wine buffs). History and gossip aside, what’s more immediately relevant is that the quality of Renwood’s wines has slowly but inexorably declined. Part of it is related to the slow bleed of high-quality vineyard sources, as in the above-referenced article. Part of it is an inability to attain new high-quality sources of fruit…and that, too, is tied, for better or worse, to the reputation of the ownership. But mostly, it’s a clear and (one presumes) deliberate shift away from higher-end wines (though Renwood does still make a few of those) to mass-market bottlings at a lower price tier. The “Sierra Series” leads this movement, and while the wines are never exciting, they’re usually fairly solid and at least quaffable.

Ultimately, the whole Renwood saga is a little sad; a lot of might-have-beens quashed by the usual palette of human frailties. What could be a standard-bearer for an underappreciated region is, instead, an outsider in its own environment, and while the wines do present some vague notion of Sierra-ness, they are certainly not representative of the capabilities of the region.

(Other wines, other stuff: visit oenoLogic’s parent site.)

Whining about whining about high alcohol wines

[upended bottle]Alder Yarrow, the respected blogger behind Vinography, recently issued a broadside against…well, a lot of people. His argument? That there’s too much whining about elevated alcohol levels in wine.

Now, it’s true that there’s probably too much whining about pretty much everything in the world of wine. We can thank the explosion of wine fora and blogs (like Yarrow’s, or this one) for that. And it’s also true that a lot of the complaining is not founded in an understanding of the conditions under which winemakers work, or of the market, or of oenology. But there’s a lot wrong with Yarrow’s thesis, and a lot to disagree with as well.

Let’s start with what he’s written:

Along with so called “green” wines, this bandwagon of opinions is the topic du jour for wine journalists and wine personalities around the country

Is it? Observers have been complaining about rising alcohol levels since at least the seventies, when extreme, high-octane zins were all the rage. Maybe Yarrow is only recently aware of this body of opinion, or maybe he’s reached his own personal breaking point with the subject. But it’s hardly the topic of the day. More like the last few decades.

Alcohol is Not a Sensation

Oh, dear. When making an argument against what one perceives as the prevailing wisdom, it’s usually best that the very first thing you say not be nonsense.

Among wine’s tactile sensations, the most important and encompassing is body. And what’s the key component of a wine’s body? Alcohol. The spectrum of wine sensations from light through full is in direct proportion to a wine’s alcohol level, first and foremost, with other factors playing a supporting role. So for Yarrow to assert that alcohol is not a sensation is 100% wrong. In fact, it’s the primary sensation.

most people seem to be complaining about alcohol levels in wine as if the percent of alcohol by volume %ABV is directly correlated to a wine tasting good or not […] Of course many put subtler points on their arguments and mention words like “balance” and “heat” but at the end of the day, most people seem to be blaming alcohol levels in wine for characteristics of wine that are only correlated with alcohol levels, not caused by them.

This is sophistry. If a wine is imbalanced due to its alcohol, it’s imbalanced and alcohol is the culprit. What other conclusion is possible? Yes, dry extract can be elevated to compensate, but this doesn’t fix the problem of an alcohol-imbalanced wine, it simply sets up a source of competitive attention, like trying to drown out a neighbor’s yapping dog by turning up the volume on your radio. As for correlation, I think that while advocates of more balanced wines (if I can be allowed to use that word without being accused of “subtlety”) would indeed identify parallel problems of elevated alcohol and overripe, jammy, “dead” fruit as symptoms of the same general cause, it doesn’t follow that those same advocates cannot separate the problems on their palates or in their arguments.

Of course some people dislike wines with a “hot” finish, or that are unbalanced in favor of ripe fruit. But that is not the fault of alcohol levels.

A “hot finish,” which indicates the presence of excessive alcohol, is not to be blamed on alcohol? Really? That’s a fascinating assertion. And again, 100% wrong. Yarrow introduces his own confusion on the matter by talking about “ripe fruit,” but while the shifting definition of “ripe fruit” is indeed a matter of great controversy in the wine world, the issue here remains alcohol. That’s not about fruit ripeness, that’s about pre-fermentation sugar, which is a different facet of ripeness; the most physical, measurable one, with all others being at least partially matters of personal taste.

In fact, it’s quite possible to have those characteristics in wines that don’t exceed the “sanity” threshold that so many “anti-high-alc” advocates set somewhere (you’d think all these people who are so religious about this issue could agree) between 14% and 14.5% ABV.

Where to begin? First: yes, it is certainly possible to experience excess heat in a wines with relatively low alcohol levels. (And again, this is the fault of the alcohol, despite what Yarrow states.) Second: I suspect Yarrow has no actual evidence or survey data to peg his made-up threshold at any level, merely an occasional anecdote. Those complaining about alcohol are a contrary bunch and don’t agree on anything except that excess alcohol is too frequently a problem, and why should they? Taste in wine is a personal, subjective matter. Some may find their reliable threshold at 14%, others at 16%. And third: is it really necessary to bring religion into it? Cannot people simply dislike excessively hot or body-enhanced wines for justifiable reasons without being identified as a member of some sort of cult?

There are plenty of excellent, balanced wines being made by great winemakers that exceed the 14% alcohol levels that many deem too high for “good” wine. I’ve reviewed a lot of them favorably. So have a lot of other critics — even those who are now complaining so loudly about alcohol levels in wine.

Yes, there are most certainly wines with very high alcohol that are nevertheless excellent wines, and which exhibit their own form of balance. This is indisputable. Though I’d suggest that Yarrow, who based on his body of work does tend to be much more embracing of the fruit-forward, full-bodied…and yes, higher-alcohol…style than many other critics, and certainly the critics likely to mention obvious alcohol in a negative way, is more likely than some to deem such wines good. On the second point, Yarrow should name those critics and the wines on which they’ve changed their tunes, or he should withdraw the assertion as unsupported. Because, I suspect, he can’t support it, and instead that he’s making it up. Certainly it does not match my reading of any major critic; those that like high-alcohol wines tend to keep liking them, and those who have long-expressed concerns tend to hold to those concerns. But even then, a critic happy with alcohol X may justifiably begin to complain at X+1.

The idea that wines “clocking in” at 14.6% or even 15% alcohol are all “monstrosities” is patently absurd, and also insulting to hundreds of talented winemakers around the globe.

The only patent absurdity here is the straw man wielding a broad brush. Yarrow should identify the source of the “monstrosity” quote as applied to those specific alcohol levels, or he should withdraw the contention, lest he be suspected of simply making up arguments, putting them in the mouths of unidentified and unidentifiable others, and then contradicting them for his own sport. Also, it is only “insulting” to winemakers if it is not true. If a wine exhibits, to a given taster, offensive levels of alcohol, the taster should say so, just as a taster should note excessive acidity, or tannin, or insufficient fruit, or whatever aspect of the wine the taster wishes to highlight. And Yarrow, who has occasionally run afoul of the targets of his criticism (like any other writer), should also probably avoid telling others which words they should and should not use in the course of their observations.

Everyone also seems quick to slam high alcohol wines as not age worthy. Frankly, I haven’t seen anyone provide definitive data on this subject, and there are plenty of higher alcohol wines (Ports, Sherries, etc) that might prove otherwise.

Here we see one of the great fallacies so often trotted out by high alcohol advocates. Port and Sherry are fortified wines, and made in ways (both before and after their fortification) that is only marginally related to the construction of dry (or “dry”) table wines. One cannot extrapolate from these categories any more than one can conclude that because Yquem ages for a very long time, so must all dry sauvignon blancs. No one would find that argument sensible. Yet Yarrow parrots it here in another form (though let’s be fair: he’s hardly alone) and expects traction.

Furthermore, it simply isn’t true to say that Port and Sherry age. Some do. Some don’t. Some styles are quite fragile, despite their alcohol. In fact, many fortified wines (think of the myriad alcohol-enhanced muscats from France, Spain, Italy, and elsewhere) age very poorly indeed.

The truth is, alcohol is a preservative. But not a permanent one, nor does it do more. A wine ages, or doesn’t, based on its structure and its specific chemical composition. Alcohol helps preserve the wine through its aging curve, but it does not create that curve, and more alcohol does not mean more ageability. (As always, the distinction between aging and lasting is a crucial one to recall.) Alcohol provides duration only, and knowledgeable critics know this; when they criticize wines for their high alcohol and refer to aging, they mean that, 1) the high alcohol will still be present, and perhaps even more obtrusive, as the primary fruit fades in intensity and the structure erodes, and 2) the fruit conditions that often parallel elevated alcohol have a problematic aging history. There are exceptions – there are always exceptions – but they are, as yet, few.

A better analogy than Port/Sherry would be to the various dried-grape wines of Italy. Amarone, Valtellina sforzato, and the like – while still not sufficiently identical to high-alcohol table wines for a detailed comparison – at least have a familial resemblance. And while some of these wines age beautifully, others fall apart in rather spectacular fashion; this is high-risk winemaking. If there’s a lesson to be drawn from the greater world of wine about the possibilities of high-alcohol aging, this might be it.

Yarrow is correct that no one actually knows how these wines will age. Unfortunately, this area of debate is rife with the potential for improper extrapolation from anecdote. Not that Yarrow would do this…

Not to mention what some consider to be the single greatest wine in the world. The alcohol level of the “ageless” 1947 Cheval Blanc? 14.4% ABV.

OK, I guess he would.

Several points on the ’47 Cheval Blanc. First, the accuracy of alcohol measurements from this period was not up to modern standards, as many have acknowledged. Second, I think it’s very instructive to actually read tasting notes on this particular wine. I’ve looked at a lot, over the years, and I’ve even tasted the wine myself (sadly, in micro-quantity). One thing the majority of the notes have in common is an explicit comparison to, or implicit description of, dry Port. No, really…look for yourself. Is that really what we want from dry red Bordeaux? As a delicious and standout anomaly, a bit of magic barely to be repeated no more than a handful of times each century, why not? As an regular diet? No thanks. If I want Port, there are plenty of wines to fulfill that desire. Starting, of course, with…oh, you know, Port.

Third, 14.4% isn’t all that high anymore. The alcohol levels about which many people complain aren’t just those topping 14%, they’re the ones creeping past 15%, 16%, even 17% or more. De-alcoholization can and does help some of these wines, but with the new super-yeasts that can take alcohols beyond 20% (I’ve only heard of them employed for beer, but their use in wine is almost inevitable), there’s no reason to assume that the upward trend will abate. Will Yarrow will be assiduously defending these wines as well? If 20%, why not 21%? Think of the possibilities! The 2047 Cheval Blanc may surpass its centenarian ancestor, coming in at 21.5%, tasting of berry-infused bourbon, and impressing critics well into the 2400s.

I’d bet good money that most (say 95% of) wine consumers, even those who buy wines in the “super premium” $20 and above categories pay absolutely no attention to the alcohol levels in their wine when they buy it. And furthermore, they couldn’t possibly tell you, if tasting a bunch of wines, which ones had higher alcohol and which ones didn’t.

Here’s an interesting fact: 87.924% of all statistics are made up on the spot. Like that one, and Yarrow’s as well. I would say that my experience does not match Yarrow’s, and not just among wine geek crowds. When I teach wine classes, I receive regular and, sometimes, quite strident complaints about the highest-alcohol wines from complete novices. Even those that, to me, are hefty but in balance. Anecdotally, I think many people can absolutely tell the difference between higher and lower alcohols, even if they don’t know what artifact they’re identifying. And even if they can’t, teaching them to read the “legs” on the interior of the glass, by which trained tasters can often identify the actual alcohol level of a wine to a reasonable degree of accuracy, is trivially easy. Of course, this has nothing to do with whether they’ll like the wine or not, but I just don’t see Yarrow’s dismissal of the tasting abilities of the masses borne out by the evidence. Perhaps he has some that he’d like to share.

Now, is it true that many consumers don’t look past the cute animals on the label and the price tag? Certainly. Similarly, they may be blissfully unaware of the addition of Mega Purple, or the “accidental” inclusion of a few liters of kirsch liqueur, or wholesale appellation fraud. But, as I think most would recognize, this is not really an argument in favor of any of those practices.

Which is to say that 99% of the time, they wouldn’t even notice that a wine they happened to be drinking was 15.2% alcohol.

So which is it: 95%, or 99%? Why doesn’t Yarrow just admit that he’s making up statistics as he types, and that in fact he has no idea what the actual percentage is, any more than his made-up average taster knows the actual percentage alcohol in their wine?

As far as I can see it, a large part of this “issue” consists of a minority of wine lovers proselytizing their own preferences for low alcohol wines (which they have every right to) on the rest of the world who, frankly, have about as much idea what they are talking about as I do when the Jehovah’s Witnesses stop by my house on a Saturday morning.

Nice. And again, anyone who disagrees with Yarrow is now both ignorant and to be associated with a cult. Talk about offensive. Yarrow is doing what he’s decrying from others: “proselytizing” in favor of the high-alcohol, New World-style wines he apparently prefers. And that’s fine; let a hundred flowers bloom, etc. But those of us who do not share his preferences could easily do without the insults.

And note the transparent rhetorical trick: this “minority” of wine lovers nonetheless makes so much noise that Yarrow is moved to respond (why, if they’re such a minority?), yet, “99%” of people cannot identify elevated alcohol to begin with. (If so, then who is this tiny but incredibly vocal minority? The 1% of people who can? Is it really likely that they really have so much power?) He contradicts himself at every turn, and doesn’t seem to notice.

Have you ever noticed how many people drink martinis and mojitos and cosmopolitans with their food?

And here’s the next common fallacy. Sure, people enjoy hard alcohol with their food. Thus, as Yarrow would have it, people must be open to high alcohol wines with their food. Except that, more people drink beer with their food. Does this mean that, given a choice, people prefer lower-alcohol beverages?

Of course, neither assertion means anything of the sort. People drink what they prefer, which should be self-evident, or what is available, which should be equally self-evident. And sometimes they drink what they think they’re supposed to drink. Not that there’s anything wrong with that either, though it’s too bad if that’s the only reason for choosing a beverage. Conclusions from anecdote are…risky.

Plus, don’t get me started on all those who say high alcohol wines don’t pair with food, and then drink port and sherry with their dinners

No, please, get started. “All those” who? Name them. Name just one who drinks fortified wines with their meals on a regular basis but simultaneously complains that table wines are too alcoholic with food. Again, I fear Yarrow is constructing this straw man from materials found solely in his imagination.

Those who say they need wine to be less alcoholic so they can drink more wine need to simply stop buying higher alcohol wines. It’s as simple as that. I have to scratch my head when I hear people complaining that they’re drunk by the end of the bottle. If you don’t want to get drunk people, the best way is to drink less alcohol.

On this we agree…to a point. And Yarrow’s actually missing one of his most powerful potential arguments here, because the fact is that the elevation in alcohols among wines of a specific category is rarely enough to make much of a difference in intoxication. Mosel kabinett to Port, yes. Edmunds St. John syrah to Alban syrah, no.

But: bottles are sold, especially in restaurants, under an increasingly traditional assumption that one bottle will serve two people over the course of a meal. One can certainly argue whether or not this is sensible (and there are advocates on both sides; Radikon thinks the two-person bottle is too parsimonious and should be upped to one liter, lawmakers concerned with public safety have a different opinion), but one can’t sensibly argue that this is not the modern expectation. However, if a single bottle leaves one or both parties intoxicated or legally unable to drive, the entire industry (from bottle-maker to restaurant) will have to change. Again, one can reasonably advocate for or against this, but it does seem a high price to pay for ever-escalating alcohol levels.

Alarmists like to cite the globally rising alcohol levels in wine. Some studies from Australia apparently pinpoint the average alcohol levels in wine there to be around 12.8% in the 1970s and now around 14.5%. Anyone used to consuming older wines, even occasionally, will certainly have anecdotal evidence that this is true.

I love how Yarrow cites facts that support a contention and then calls them “alarmist.” No, sir, they’re facts. They can’t be “alarmist” without their recipients becoming, you know, alarmed. Were I interested in spinning alarmism of my own, I’d suggest that Yarrow has a problem with the facts because they rather strongly support a position opposite to his: that alcohol levels are rising and that a rather large number of commentators have identified it as an issue worth debating.

The idea that the 1970’s was the golden age of California (or any other New World region) winemaking is ridiculous, as anyone who actually tasted a lot of those wines will tell you.

Again, the unfounded generalization. I know of very few who would argue against the contention that, for example, if one considers every single available California wine, the average level of winemaking is much higher now than at any point in the past. On the other hand, I know a great number of tasters, with both broad and deep experience of both era’s wines in their youth and (from the eras where this is possible) in their maturity, that rather strongly disagree with Yarrow, and think that the best wines of the seventies were superior to those of today. I’d accuse him of parroting received wisdom here, but he may well be able to support this contention with his own extensive tastings of seventies-era wines from California. (I haven’t seen those tastings, but that doesn’t mean that he hasn’t done them.)

The same argument can be, and is, conducted over nearly every major wine region…and not just those in the New World. There are those for whom Bordeaux has never been better, and those for whom Bordeaux has never been worse. Ditto Alsace, where escalating alcohol has long been a problem, and a parallel rise in residual sugar has not only failed to stem the trend (by indicating a prematurely-stopped fermentation to preserve “normal” alcohol levels), but has actually made the wines even more controversial; some adore the rich, ultra-late-harvested style despite alcohols that frequently top 17% (though you won’t see this on the label), others are nostalgic for the balanced, reputation-creating wines of old. Ditto Barolo and Barbaresco. And the list could go on.

Chief among these, I believe, is simply the fact that most people (i.e. the market) actually are buying higher alcohol wines more, because…. wait for it… they like the way they taste

And winemakers are making them because they like the way they taste. Sure, of course. Add global warming and modern farming technology, plus inoculated yeast with a higher tolerance, and you’ve got your reasons all in one convenient location. But what does this have to do with Yarrow’s original point? Winemakers may choose to make, and customers buy, wines with yak saliva in them at some future point, and if unidentified people start “whining” about that trend, will Yarrow deliver a similar denunciation of their opinion? More relevantly, alcohol levels may plummet as major wine-producing regions make it impossible to enjoy anything other than a low-alcohol bottle of wine with dinner and drive afterwards – as France has been doing for a while now – and then what? Will people be drinking them because they like them, or because they have no other choice? Or, to get to the actual point, why does it matter?

As Smith correctly points out in his article, Parker rates low alcohol wines very highly as well

But that isn’t the question, and rather spectacularly misses the issue. Which is: do higher ratings for wines within a given peer group correspond with escalating alcohol levels? I don’t believe anyone has this data, and thus, again, Yarrow is drawing conclusions despite a lack of evidence.

Which is why winemakers whose wines are “big” (and often higher in alcohol) tend to sell better.

I trust Yarrow has data for this assertion. But I rather suspect he does not.

Many of the best-selling wines in the world are de-alcoholized, because the grapes that go into them are grown in terrifically hot, fertile places like the Central Valley. Would they sell better in their original form? The companies who make them must not think so, else they wouldn’t be de-alcoholizing by the tanker-full. They must know something about the consumer base that Yarrow does not.

And if winemakers want to feed their families and be able to afford health care in retirement, they need to make wines that sell.

Oh, dear God. Now this is a plea for the well-being of winemakers? “If you don’t buy this 16.8% chardonnay, a winemaker dies in Napa, and somewhere an adorable little bunny is tortured. Please, for the love of humanity and Heidi Peterson Barrett’s continued employment, won’t you help?”

Ah, the joys of capitalism. Wine lovers complaining about all those high alcohol wines in the world are sort of like smokers who like to bitch about the fact that they can’t smoke on planes anymore. When the market demand gets high enough, things shift.

First, those who dislike escalating alcohols were whining. Then, they were in some freakish religious cult. Then, just plain ignorant. Now, they’re bitching, and probably some sort of commie besides. Man, it must suck to be one of those people, eh? Despite the fact that among them are numbered a rather large collection of the world’s most accomplished writers, tasters, and winemakers, whose lives don’t appear to be quite as miserable as Yarrow makes them out to be.

Also, Yarrow really needs to take a remedial course on analogies. For example, an apt analogy would work like this: discontented wine lovers are like soda consumers complaining that the 12-ounce sodas of a decade ago are now 20 ounces, or more, and that they have twice the high-fructose corn syrup and even more caffeine than in the past, forcing a consumer who wishes for less of any of those things to forgo soda entirely, take in quantities that they don’t want, or waste both product and money when they reach their point of satiety.

But that doesn’t mean that just because there is preponderance of demand in the marketplace for bigger, boozier wines, low alcohol wines with finesse are somehow under threat.

First, Yarrow doesn’t know that there’s a “preponderance of demand,” he’s making that up. But to the point, how does Yarrow figure? If, in year X, there are 500 wines and 50 of them have alcohol levels over 14%, and in year X+2 there are 550 wines and 300 of them have alcohol levels over 14%, where does Yarrow think those higher-alcohol wines are coming from? The Twilight Zone? They’re wines that used to carry lower alcohol levels, and now carry higher ones. Thus, the number of lower-alcohol wines is decreasing. And this is not a “threat” how, exactly? No, lower-alcohol wines are not an endangered species (at least not everywhere, though they’re approaching that status in certain specific regions). That doesn’t mean that they’re not disappearing, and quickly. But hey, let’s not hear any “whining” about that, OK? Everyone suck it up and drink what you’re given!

To suggest as much would require you to also believe that just because the most popular wine in America is White Zinfandel that all those Cabernet producers in Napa are in danger of being pressured to make pink wines.

Really, for the love of The Flying Spaghetti Monster and all his noodles: analogy class. Please, Alder, consider it for the good of your readers and your own well-being. Talk to zinfandel growers who survived the height of the white zin craze. What did its popularity do to the production, reputation, and sales of red zinfandel? That’s right: it sent all three into precipitous decline.

Also: white zin is not the most popular wine in America.

Also: does anyone – say, Yarrow – know what caused the initial downturn in zinfandel sales, the one that left old-vine plots unwanted and untended until blush versions came along and “saved” the grape from oblivion? Hey, guess what? It was…wait for it…excessive alcohol levels. The irony is too delicious to go unmentioned.

No, people just need to stop whining and go out and buy the wines they love. And expect everyone else to do the same. Trying to “educate” consumers by telling them they’re wrong to like big wines is as stupid as trying to tell winemakers they’re wrong for making wines that they (and consumers) love.

What Yarrow clearly does not need is a remedial class in irony. After lecturing his readers at length about how they should embrace the New World Order and just shut the hell up if they feel otherwise, he’s now of a mind to criticize this very practice. How…Alanis of him.

Later, when I’ve recovered from this breathless rant, an actual defense of moderate alcohol in wine.

TN: And for dessert: Peru (Oregon, pt. 2)

[lavender & vineyard](The original version, with many more photos, is here.)

13 July 2006 – Portland, Oregon

Andina – A busy nuevo-Peruvian restaurant that’s surprisingly dressy at lunchtime; I feel a little out of place in my shorts. There’s no hint of this displacement in the service, however, which is almost top-notch (they bring me the wrong wine at one point), and quite knowledgeable about the food.

The space is airy and bright, though anything other than the window-adjacent tables is definitely second tier. I order a special ceviche (or “cebiche” by their spelling) of ono, which is overly tart (a little too much residual juice) but delicious, and surprisingly filling. That’s followed by a pair of decidedly mixed tapas: fine octopus on endive that’s rendered bizarre by the addition of a fruity, lavender-colored sauce (allegedly “Botija olive,” though that can’t be all that’s in there), and cheese-stuffed yucca, lightly fried and served with a cheese sauce that tastes uncannily like one of those cheese-in-a-jar products you’d find at a supermarket.

At least the wine list is good, with quite a few nice offerings by the glass.

Olga Raffault 2005 Chinon Rosé (Loire) – What I actually order is the JM Raffault Chinon Blanc (I even point to the wine list), but this will do in a pinch. It’s a light memory of strawberry, preserved in wax and dusted with chalk.

Ameztoi 2005 Txakolina (Northwest Spain) – Ordering this wine leads to an amusing exchange with the waiter, who informs me that I’m “the first person to ever pronounce ‘txakolina’ correctly.” I find that a little hard to believe, but accept it with a smile…which increases when I notice that he’s left this glass off my bill. I guess all that practice at Piperade finally pays off. As for the wine, it’s terrific, showing intense minted lime and a vivid, vivacious, crystalline texture full of zesty yet invisible bubbles. It’s not sparkling, exactly, it’s just alive.

After lunch, I stroll around town for a while, then collect both our rental car and my wife and head south, in the endless traffic jam that is the road to the coast, and also to and through the Willamette Valley. It’s the latter that’s our destination….if, that is, we ever actually arrive.

13 July 2006 – Dundee, Oregon

Black Walnut Inn – In a spectacular setting far above the valley, with Erath’s vineyards several steep downslopes and dense, mossy forest in the glade behind, sits this very new (our room is only two weeks old) and luxurious B&B-style accommodation. It’s removed enough to be strikingly quiet, with the only noises coming from the chickens in a nearby coop (they supply many of the eggs for breakfast) and the occasional resident cat scratching at one’s door. Mt. Hood and Mt. Jefferson are visible on any semi-clear day, while a five-minute hike across the property gets you Mount St. Helens and Mt. Rainier as well. It’s not cheap, but it’s about a third of what it would be in Napa…which somehow makes it feel like a bargain. Anyway, lodging options in the Willamette Valley are limited, and on short notice it’s either this or the Travelodge…

Red Hills Provincial Dining (276 Highway 99W) – As we’ll soon find, dining in the Willamette frequently means dining in a converted house. This, however, looks like it could be somewhere in the wooded hills of New Hampshire; it’s ultra-cozy, charming, a little kitschy, and perhaps just a wee bit on the dark side. Plus, there’s not exactly unlimited parking. Nonetheless, our server brightens the room with her cheery smile…and it’s soon dark outside, anyway.

The restaurant serves homey, French-inspired country fare, cooked very well, but lovers of plated complexity or refined restraint will probably shrug at the offerings. What they won’t shrug at is the (horribly-formatted) wine list, which is extraordinarily long and deep, and – amusingly – at its weakest when it comes to Oregon pinot noir. For example, an ’89 Trimbach CFE for $100 has got to be one of the great wine bargains of all time…assuming that it’s actually in stock. (More on that in a moment.)

I begin with an excellent pâté, correctly served with sharp mustard and cornichons, while Theresa rhapsodizes over her succulent crab cakes (the secret ingredient: Ritz crackers), and we both opt for braised rabbit in a very intense black olive and pinot noir sauce…one in which a few large sundried tomatoes are a completely unnecessary and distracting addition. The rabbit’s so good, however, it’s easy to ignore everything else.

Eyrie 1999 Pinot Noir “Reserve” (Willamette Valley) – Fully mature, showing dried cranberry and tart cherry steaming on the forest floor. Little hints of pine needle and very mild brett dance around the forest. A bit archaic vs. modern styles, but in a good and thoroughly enjoyable way.

We’re both too full for dessert, but a half-bottle of well-aged Maculan Torcolato at a ridiculous price beckons. Unfortunately, they don’t have it. Nor do they have a similarly-underpriced 18-year Macallan by the glass. The waitress makes up for having to disappoint me twice by offering a generous pour of 12-year Macallan on the house, but it’s not quite the same.

Macallan 12-year Scotch Whisky (Highland) – Grapey, oaky and a bit strident, with crisp caramel and some radish on the finish. I’ve always found this to have a significant burn on the palate, which is why I rarely order it.

TN: I’d like to bi a valve, Pat (California, pt. 5)

23 April 2006 –Berkeley, California

Vintage Berkeley – A highly “designed” store that could easily fail from an excess of form over function. Thankfully, this isn’t the case. I’ve been sent here by Steve Edmunds for a bottle of Tayerle Vermentino that he finds particularly tasty (Steve has just started growing vermentino himself, and is in a full fit of enthusiasm), but spend some enjoyable browsing time scanning what seems to be a fairly unusual selection of wines…definitely out of the ordinary. One visit won’t reveal whether or not “unusual” equals “good” in this particular case, but if I lived in the area I’d certain take the time to find out.

Peaberry’s Coffee & Tea – I’ve asked a friend to bring me to some coffee “not from a chain,” and he beelines (as much as one can on these hilly streets) here. It seems more Berkeley than Oakland, at least to me, but the coffee’s very good and precisely made…plus it’s nice to not be supporting the merchants of charred beans and sticky, dessert-like “coffee” beverages. More seats would be nice, but this is merely wishful thinking as there’s no room for them. A good locale for those in search of caffeination.

Paul Marcus Wines – Located in the same streetside “mall” as Peaberry’s, and pretty much the opposite of Vintage Berkeley in its crowded clutter of wines. But the selection is excellent, the prices are reasonable, and the staff seems to know their stuff. His eponymousness is in the house, but we don’t speak.

Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant – A good selection somewhat mitigated by about a 50% focus on “name” wines and slightly high prices…which is not at all unexpected given the location. I’m here for the wine bar, which usually has a nice selection of different styles (plus, as I find out on this visit, the ability to open and pour any wine in the store for $6 additional corkage). However, today the selection of by-the-glass wines is heavily tilted towards overfruited, overoaked, and goopy styles in which I’m profoundly uninterested…leaving me with just one semi-palatable choice.

Texier 2003 Côtes-du-Rhône Brézème (Rhône) – Texier’s unusually ageable Brézème often has controversial levels of acidity, so I wonder if the otherwise highly-avoidable 2003 vintage might actually bring this particular element into a less controversial balance. In reality, ’03 does what it does to almost everything else from this region and this vintage: render the wine sludgy and ponderous. It’s big alright, with slightly syrupy blackberries, black truffle oil and a massive palate presence. There’s a bit of earth underneath, but mostly this is heavy, extremely ripe, a bit hot, and low in acidity. In other worlds, it could easily pass for New World syrah…the kind that I don’t much care for. I commend Texier for trying, but…

The Slanted Door – It’s possible that this restaurant has become too successful for its own good. Or maybe that’s just a selfish response, since it takes far too much lead time to get a table these days. One nice alternative is the bar, with a short menu and the full (and always excellent) wine list available via a very accommodating staff.

Of course, the wine lists brings its own problems. Or, more specifically, one overarching one: too many interesting options, such that it can be hard to narrow things down.

Coudert “Clos de la Roilette” 2004 Fleurie (Beaujolais) – Rough, earthy and aromatically difficult, with improved red cherry-based complexities on the palate. It would appear to have a future, but this notion is largely based on the wine’s track record, because it’s exceedingly cranky now.

Roussel & Barrouillet “Clos Roche Blanche” 2004 “Pif” (Loire) – Raw tannin and chunky red fruit gathered in festive little knots…a wine not yet coalescing into a full-blown party. Acidic in its rustic fashion, but pure and utterly delicious. I wish more people made wine like this.

While we’re drinking, we enter into some casual banter with the restaurant’s long-time star wine dude Mark Ellenbogen, who regales us with pre-dinner rush stories of the sublime and the outrageous. My favorite example, from critic Steve Tanzer and directed at winemaker Steve Edmunds: “Don’t you think these syrahs would be better with new wood?” Uh, no.

[Zuni Café]

Zuni rather than later

Zuni Café – The intention is to inhale a few dozen oysters at the Ferry Plaza’s Hog Island Oyster Co., but it’s closed. A brief consultation on where we might find an alternative source for excellent oysters (and a bonus wine list of some repute) leads to an obvious conclusion: Zuni, with its no-reservations bar area. We’re prepared to stand at the bar, but there are open seats in the corner, and so we watch the often bizarre pedestrian activity on its slightly dodgy stretch of Market Street while inhaling a rather shocking number of bivalves and a large dogpile of salty goodness in the form of fried shoestring potatoes with aïoli. Somehow, this coupled with the location and the fine, friendly but casual service feels so classically Californian.

Huet 2004 Vouvray Clos du Bourg Sec (Loire) – It’s still so young, yet it’s strong from first opening and grows throughout the evening as it warms and slowly oxidizes. The wine is a chalky river breeze stirring up already-turbulent soil, revealing mushrooms and dried wax residue in its wake. There’s amazing complexity and stunning length on the finish. An incredible wine barely out of the cradle, but already promising much.

My friend provides a bit of amusement as we’re deciding whether or not to order a digestif. “Is it still light out,” he asks.

I gesture. “Well, we’re surrounded on three sides by floor to ceiling windows, so…”

It appears someone should abstain. Unfortunately, I should join him; my California-produced pear brandy (I don’t get the name, but it’s an eau de vie-style clear beverage) can provide no better than watery, thin, overly sweet insinuations of stale pear.

Disclosure: the glass of Texier at the Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant was provided free of charge.

Boston Wine Expo notes pt. 3 — Portugal

Tasting notes from the Boston Wine Expo. Because of the rather large number of notes, the usual supplemental material has been eliminated; contact me if you have specific questions about a wine. Also, please keep in mind that this was a large, crowded tasting at which a certain efficiency was a necessity; these are notes based on short takes (except where noted), and not necessarily the ideal conditions in which to render definitive judgments.

Part 3 – Portugal


Quintas de Melgaço “Terra Antica” 2004 Vinho Verde (Portugal) – Crisp lime and green apple. Very pure.

Castelo Branco “Quinta da Murta” 2004 Bucelas (Portugal) – Gorgeous, full-fruited green apple.

Quinta do Serrado “Solar” 2004 Vinho Verde Alvarinho (Portugal) – Creamy lemon and apple; smooth to the point of being sticky.

Herdade Grande 2004 Alentejano (Portugal) – Mercaptans and fizzy, ripe apple. Crisp and long, this eventually gets better despite the skunk.


Quinta do Alorna 2003 Ribatejano (Portugal) – Chewy peanut butter overwhelmed by dense, wood-like tannins (though I don’t know that this wine has actually seen any wood).

Quinta da Cortezia “Vinha Concha” 2003 Estremadura (Portugal) – Sour cherry and plum. The acid is low, but otherwise this at least makes a nod in the direction of balance.

CA do Sanguinhal “Peninsula” 2003 Estremadura (Portugal) – Sulfur on the nose; thick, purple and fruity with mildly green tannin on the palate.

CA do Sanguinhal “Quinta de S. Francisco” 2001 Óbidos (Portugal) – Hard blueberry skin and strawberry seed; tough but good in its angry way.

SA do Casal de Tonda “Quinta dos Grilos” 2004 Dão (Portugal) – Black leather and blackberry with ripe tannin and nice balance.

Herdade Grande 2002 Alentejano (Portugal) – Gorgeous plum and black cherry over black earth-flecked morels. Lovely and structured with a long finish. Terrific.

Bastos Estremox “Dona Maria” 2003 Alentejano (Portugal) – Spicy and almost pétillant. Fades and thins quickly to plastic on the finish.

Vinhos Douro Superior “Castello d’Alba” 2003 Douro “Reserva” (Portugal) – Solid, purple and grapey with oddly stewed tannins and slight greenness (manifesting as thyme). The acid’s a bit high and not entirely integrated, either.

Erdade de Malhada “Casa de Santa Vitoria” 2003 Alentejano (Portugal) – I’m not confident that I’ve correctly transcribed the name of this winery. Fruity blueberry and some cotton candy smoothed by a vanilla sheen. Good, if a bit tannic.

Quinta Nova da Nosa Senhora do Carmo “Casa Burmester” 2002 Douro “Reserva” (Portugal) – Earthy porcini, black cherry and chocolate with excellent balance and structure. A more modernistic style than many of the previous wines, but quite good.

Caves do Salgueiral 2003 Douro Andreza (Portugal) – Coconut and soupy, overripe fruit with hard tannin.


Gould-Campbell 2000 Porto (Douro) – Dark cherry and sweet walnut spice. Beautiful. Perhaps too beautiful.

d’Oliveiras Madeira Doce (Portugal) – Mildly oxidized celery and other assorted yet weird vegetative aromas. There’s good palate balance, but I don’t much care for what’s being balanced.

d’Oliveiras Madeira 10 Anos (Portugal) – A touch spritzy, with spice and loads of baked carmel apples. Complex and long, with the usual great acidity.

d’Oliveiras Madeira 15 Anos (Portugal) – Dusty spiced cedar with more body but also more wood than the 10-year, showing roasted walnuts, roasted pecans and fresh cashews with a zippy, long finish.

Burmester “Jockey Club” Porto “Reserva” (Douro) – Faded and gummy sweetness with fake-tasting Juicy Fruit™ flavors. No good.

Burmester 20 Year Tawny Porto (Douro) – Very spicy banana. Long, sweet and simple, but tasty.

Burmeister 1985 Colheita Porto (Douro) – The usual mélange of baking spices with slightly papery oxidativeness; balanced and fine but not superior.

Burmester “Sotto Voce” Porto “Reserva” (Douro) – Sticky blueberry and plum with cherry residue. Overly syrupy.

Burmester 2000 Vintage Porto (Douro) – Very fruity, showing blackberry and black cherry. There’s excellent sweetness and fruit presence, but it lacks structure. The finish is long and quite sweet.