Browse Tag


TN: Sardinia & the bottom

[Kuentz-Bas]Kuentz-Bas 2004 Alsace (Alsace) – Spice and pear skin, with a slightly disjointed mix of thick, molten-mineral texture and crisp, watery thinness. Not as good as a previous bottle. (8/06)

This underperformance vs. a previous note could be due to bottle variation (which, truth be told, is usually cork variation), but it’s more likely to be due to food variation. The previous bottle was paired with uniform, compatible food, while this one was opened as an apéritif and then forced to accommodate some unusual and variable foods. Remember that every tasting note is a snapshot of a time, place and environment, not an objective and immutable measure of quality. Alcohol: 12.5%. Closure: cork. Importer: Lynch. Web:

JP Brun “Terres Dorées” 2004 Beaujolais Blanc (Beaujolais) – Chardonnay in deep, rich tones, full of earth and brooding twilight duskiness. Balanced and very, very enticing. (8/06)

There’s so much indifferent chardonnay in the Mâcon (another appellation that chardonnay grown in Beaujolais is entitled to, and the one it usually adopts) that it’s almost remarkable what’s achieved here. Careful vineyard work is the principal reason. Alcohol: 12%. Closure: extruded synthetic. Importer: Louis/Dressner/LDM.

[Cluver]Cluver 2005 Gewurztraminer (Elgin) – Some of the right varietal notes – peach, rose petal, some vague nods in the direction of spice – but half the orchestra’s missing, as this is thin and watery, with masking sugar and a completely void finish. (8/06)

Perhaps it’s gewurztraminer’s occasionally scary alcohol levels that wreak fear among winemakers, but the grape is one that requires a certain measure of courage. The wild, musky, powerful aromatics that are its signature must be given time to develop, and that requires hang time. And when the grape does not reach these benchmark characteristics, the temptation to mask faults with residual sugar must, at least in part, be resisted. Sweet bad wine is not inherently better than the dry version, no matter how much counter-evidence of popularity the U.S. beverage industry presents to the contrary. Alcohol: 12.5%. Closure: screwcap. Importer: Vinnovative. Web:

[Tablas Creek]Tablas Creek 2002 “Côtes de Tablas” Blanc (Paso Robles) – Grapes grown in the desert, with beautiful mixed nut oils, dry (and dried) stone fruit and an evocative brick-red desert palette of spices. Beautifully long and balanced. Delicious wine. (8/06)

36% Viognier, 30% marsanne, 26% grenache blanc, 8% roussanne. I’m not often one who is impressed by tales of long post-opening maintenance (e.g. “this bottle was even better four days later,”) because oxidation is not the same as aging, and it says nothing about the wine other than how resistant to oxidation it is. However, for those who find comfort in such assessments, this was just as good two days later, recorked and unrefrigerated. Alcohol: 14.2%. Closure: cork. Web:

Margan 2006 Shiraz Rosé “Saignée” (Hunter Valley) – Watermelon Jolly Ranchers. Sticky, synthetic and absolutely vile. (8/06)

“Saignée” means that the vats were “bled”…juice from red grapes was removed from its skins, leaving it not with the deep red it will acquire from long soaking with the pigmented skins, but rather with (in this case; grapes and wines differ) a lurid pink. Alcohol: 14%. Closure: screwcap. Importer: Southern Starz. Web:

[Sella & Mosca]Sella & Mosca 2002 Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva (Sardinia) – Pure island fun, showing walnuts, roasted pecans, bright strawberry bubblegum fruit (though not in a candied way), judicious oak spice, and a nice, crisp acidity supporting everything. (8/06)

This is grenache, showing a lot of the grape’s varietal characteristics (strawberry bubblegum), with some interesting Sardinian elements (the particular balance of the wine) and a little modernistic winemaking (oak, which is rarely my favorite companion to grenache, but which seems to do well here). Alcohol: 13.5%. Closure: cork. Importer: Palm Bay. Web:

[Cabasse]Domaine de Cabasse 1998 Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages Séguret “Cuvée Garnacho” (Rhône) – Not quite dead, but knocking on the door. That was a very fast decline for this wine, and I wonder if there might not have been some sort of cork failure. In any case, this is all tannin and oxidized fruit on the nose. It’s heavy and still thick, and the palate has some slightly more pleasant grenache characteristics, but overall there’s just no pleasure here. (8/06)

Most (though not all) Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages wines are grenache-dominated blends, but occasionally wineries do all-grenache blends, and label them so. It would be logical to assume that the “Cuvée Garnacho” (a local dialect word for the grape) is one such wine, but it’s not; it’s simply a differentiator between this wine and the less traditional grenache/syrah blend from the same appellation, “Casa Bassa.” Alcohol: 13.5%. Closure: cork. Importer: World Shippers. Web:

TN: Behind the green door

Trimbach 2001 Gewurztraminer (Alsace) – Light on the lychee, showing more peach and apricot with firm acidity. If a “deft” Alsatian gewurztraminer is even possible, this is a candidate. But one might wish for a little more intensity…which it has shown in the past. A bit closed, then. (8/06)

Most gewurztraminer is made in a huge, upfront style and never really shuts down or ages in any useful way. The really sweet stuff – represented by the vendange tardive and sélection des grains nobles designation in Alsace – often lasts more than it ages. But occasionally, one finds a gewurztraminer with the structure and balance to age…which it does by developing its bacon fat and spice characteristics. I’m not sure this is a long-term ager, but it should be better in a few years. Alcohol: 13%. Closure: cork. Importer: Diageo Web:

[Kanu]Kanu 2005 Sauvignon Blanc (Stellenbosch) – Fruity, semi-zippy and light, with an intensely green-fruited character feathered by grass. It’s fairly monotone, but it’s a nice enough quaff. (8/06)

95% sauvignon blanc, 5% chenin blanc. Sauvignon is a very insistent grape; it tastes what it tastes like, and only the most remarkable terroir or winemaking can wrench it from this varietal consistency. Since most sauvignon blancs are fairly identical, the question is: what is one willing to pay for that flavor profile? The Kanu is a fairly good value, but no better than certain mass-market New Zealand sauvignons. If it and other South African versions are going to compete on the marketplace, they’ll have to find something interesting to say. Alcohol: 12.5%. Closure: cork. Importer: Cape Classics. Web:

La Puerta 2005 Torrontes (Famatina Valley) – A mélange of fruit flowers and meadow-derived perfumes, with a sticky and somewhat heavy texture. Lightly off-dry. More fun to smell than to drink. (8/06)

A fairly new winery, producing in a dramatically beautiful valley. Torrontes is the Argentine analogue to muscat, in that its principal quality is its heady aromatic presence. But, like muscat, what it also needs is freshening acidity and an eye towards lightness, something this wine doesn’t quite achieve. Alcohol: 13.3%. Closure: extruded synthetic. Importer: Ecosur. Web:

[Felsina]Fèlsina “Berardenga” 2000 Chianti Classico Riserva (Tuscany) – Sweet wild cherries and wind-blown organic soil, lightening and then firming up again on the finish to show structure and balance. Not everything is in sync – the fruit is a little too forward, the tannin is a little too hard – but it’s a worthy and expressive wine. (8/06)

100% sangiovese, done as traditionally as one can expect these days, from old vines. It’s almost remarkable that a producer as solid as Fèlsina gets such wide distribution, and sells for such reasonable prices. Alcohol: 13.5%. Closure: cork. Importer: Domaine Select. Web:

TN: The recalcitrant llama (Oregon, pt. 6)

[Belle Pente]14 July 2006 – Willamette Valley, Oregon

Belle Pente – When first visiting a wine region, I normally like to taste as widely as possible. This necessarily precludes appointments, which demand more attention and longer stays (the downside, of course, is that casual tasting cannot replicate the in-depth knowledge acquisition achieved by conversations with winemakers). However, some wineries are only open by appointment, and so it can’t be helped. Such is the case at Belle Pente.

I first encountered this winery years and years ago, on one of the online wine fora; some guy named Brian O’Donnell would occasionally post, and in-the-know locals would in turn laud the wines – mostly pinot noir, but also selections from the Alsatian palette – he was making. They weren’t available where I lived at the time, and later encounters here and there had left me…not so much underwhelmed as confused. I couldn’t figure out what the wines were trying to be.

But then there was another bottle, and another, and pretty soon I was as intrigued by the winery as those aforementioned locals. So when it came time to visit the Willamette Valley, there was just one person I actually called for a visit.

Craig Camp from Anne Amie guides us down dusty country roads to an unassuming property with a hillside vineyard, and…hey, wait, is that a llama? Well, yes, it is. He’s supposed to be on guard duty over other livestock, but mostly he appears to be hiding in the shade, well away from his charges. Bad llama. Bad, bad llama.

O’Donnell has squeezed us in on a busy day and at the last minute, but generously runs us through a quick tasting that gets less quick as time goes on. Like most winemakers, he’s reticent at first, but warmer later, and the wine conversation grows more effusive and expansive as we proceed. He explains that their property dates to the 1840s, and that they’re only the fifth people on it; at the time of their 1992 purchase, it hadn’t been farmed in thirty years.

The initial plantings were pinot noir, chardonnay, pinot blanc and gamay, though this mix has changed and grown over the years. About 50% of the fruit is from estate vineyards (totaling about 16 acres, 12 of them pinot noir), and the winery’s long-term commitment to organic viticulture has grown into the full biodynamic regimen that will begin with the 2006 vintage. O’Donnell mentions that there’s quite a “study group” on biodynamics in the Willamette Valley, led by Mike Etzel of Beaux Frères, and that we’ll be seeing more and more such wines in the future.

Belle Pente 2005 Muscat (barrel sample) (Willamette Valley) – Dosed with sulfites just prior to our arrival, and thus showing a little oddly, but the quality is obvious. All the muscat signifiers are there – flowers, yellow plum, exotic perfume – with a striking mineral core and a long, dry finish (the wine carries just four grams of residual sugar). It might be just a bit too dry for the average muscat fan, but I think there’s obvious potential here, and would like to taste it when it’s free of the sulfites.

Belle Pente 2003 Gewurztraminer (Willamette Valley) – Light and shy on the nose, with full, fruity orange and peach dusted with a little spice. The finish is long and equally fruity. O’Donnell seems unsure about the wine, but I think it tastes like a cold site Bas-Rhin gewurztraminer, which isn’t a bad thing at all. What it’s not is lush and full-bodied, as many people presume gewurztraminer must be. Still, it’s outclassed (in a sense) by the next wine.

Belle Pente 2005 Gewurztraminer (barrel sample) (Willamette Valley) – From chardonnay vines grafted over to gewurztraminer (virtually the definition of a universal good), showing honeysuckle and a long, balanced and dry finish. There’s still not the overwhelming “whomp” of highly-ripe gewurztraminer in the Alsatian style, but what this wine has – and the 2003 lacks – is coherence and harmony. On the other hand, at the moment the 2003 is definitely more fun to drink.

Belle Pente 2004 Pinot Gris (Willamette Valley) – Anise, leaves and mild residual sugar with faint minerality. The finish is long and soft. One wishes for a little more of…well, something. The wine doesn’t necessarily need size, but in its absence more nerve and clarity would be welcome.

Belle Pente 2004 Riesling (Willamette Valley) – O’Donnell labels this wine “the upper end of halbtrocken,” and notes that some of the fruit is from the third vineyard planted in all of Oregon. It’s a beautiful, late spring wine, showing crushed slate (between which flowers are blossoming) and honey, with great acidity. The minerality expands and sharpens on the palate and throughout the finish, giving this wine the razor-edge necessary for riesling, but in a somewhat smiley-faced and more immediately appealing fashion than its Germanic ancestors. Among North American rieslings, this is near the top of its class; in the Fatherland and its oenological brethren (Unclelands?), it would be about middle of the pack. That, lest its unclear, is pretty high praise.

Belle Pente 2003 Chardonnay “Reserve” (Willamette Valley) – Two-thirds estate fruit, spending eighteen months in barrel on the gross lees (O’Donnell calls it an “extended élevage experiment”). There’s great, spicy orange rind and candied tangerine on the nose, though the wine’s initial attack is a bit hollow. Things fill out on the midpalate, and build towards more tangerines just loaded with barrel spice and yeasty tingles. There’s even a bit of gravel. It’s very good in its idiom, though it tastes a bit more “made” than the other wines in this portfolio.

Belle Pente 2004 Pinot Noir (Yamhill-Carlton District) – These are young vines, and the fruit spends twelve months in barrel. The wine shows elegance, with dried strawberry leaves in the key of autumn, and gray soil in a cold fall light. Is that a hint of funk on the finish? A very pretty wine with some brief notions of complexity, but some rebellious elements as well.

Belle Pente 2003 Pinot Noir Belle Pente Vineyard (Willamette Valley) – Eighteen months in barrel, and adjusted to 24 brix before fermentation. Ripe strawberry and red cherry with a hint of fraise liqueur, an intense floral overlay, and a sturdy, tannic structure. The finish is very long. A wine more for the future than for now, and it should definitely reward careful aging.

Belle Pente 2003 Pinot Noir “Estate Reserve” (Willamette Valley) – O’Donnell explains that this wine stems from a “red fruit/black fruit” decision, with the Estate Reserve designed to express the latter. The difference is immediately obvious, with a heady wave of cassis and blueberry supported by great structure constructed of perfect, ageworthy amounts of tannin and acid. The acidity and the sheer stuffing of this wine quite literally buzz on the palate, especially as the finish lingers. Gorgeous, and highly ageable. However, there’s a caveat: for some people, the greater heft of this wine is what will define its quality. I quibble with that characterization. The wine probably is “better” than its red-fruited brethren, but not because of the red/black fruit divergence or its size and impact, but because of its overall balance and harmony. Further, it is a forceful wine that expresses the potential of pinot noir in a completely different way than its predecessors…which means that the wine will have different uses on the palate, at the table, and in the cellar. Those who appreciate the wonderful malleability and diversity of pinot noir will embrace both styles for what they are.

TN: Acid plain (New Zealand, pt. 25)

(The original version, with more photos and a slightly cleaner look, is here)

[Olssens sculpture]Sculpture both classy and kitschy frames the driveway to Olssens, a winery situated on the flatter plain just below Felton Road, with vineyards covering that plain and the gentle slopes that abut it. Some of the figures are delightfully breezy, while others brood in dour darkness…

…though none are as dour as the woman behind the counter of a pretty but cluttered tasting room. She glowers sourly at us, barely registering a few grunts in response to our request to taste some wine. I quickly reassess my intention to ask some probing questions, and instead dive right into the tasting.

Olssens 2004 Riesling (Central Otago) – Clean and crisp, showing pure green apple fruit juice with growing acidity on the finish. Tart, limey and fresh on the palate, this is a perfectly nice wine, but may in fact be a bit too acidic to accommodate aging.

Olssens 2001 “Barrel Fermented” Chardonnay (Central Otago) – “100% malolactic fermentation, 70% new oak.” I’m so startled by the words I almost drop my glass; it’s our pourer, still unyieldingly sullen but at least proving herself capable of speech. I nod, taste: dates and sweet orange with a strong caramel component and a short, somewhat harsh finish. This is maturing quickly.

Olssens 2003 Gewürztraminer (Central Otago) – She speaks again: “3 grams per liter residual sugar.” Simple, declarative sentences. Efficient. As for the wine, it shows lightly nutmeg-infused rosewater and cashew on the nose, but the palate is thin and watery. Some roses re-emerge on the finish, but by then it’s too late to save the wine.

Against my better judgment, I make a few comments on what we’ve tasted thus far. Our host seems to brighten a bit at our interest – it’s reflected more in the addition of adjectives and adverbs to her sentences, rather than by any change in visage – and while she’s not precisely rude, she’s also not particularly welcoming, and the resultant mood is more than a bit depressing. I’m momentarily inclined to dispense with the rest of the tasting and depart for happier locales, but stick it out in the interests of education.

Olssens 2001 Pinot Noir (Central Otago) – Lightly burnt cherry, earth and baked plum. This is elegant and balanced except for a drying component that grows on the finish; don’t hold it much longer, if you’ve got any.

Olssens 2001 Pinot Noir “Jackson Barry” (Central Otago) – Lovely, if sour, plum and citrus characteristics do battle with strange acidity (not its presence, but its aspect, which is just…I don’t know, somehow inexplicably off) and some stemminess to the finish. Just OK, and a bit of a letdown vs. a slightly superior bottle tasted at The Bunker.

Olssens 2001 Pinot Noir “Slapjack Creek” (Central Otago) – Bigger fruit here, with red cherry and cranberry added to fuller-bodied plum aromas. Tart but intense, with good overall structure despite the (yet again) spiky acidity and a longer finish.

Olssens 2002 “Robert the Bruce” (Central Otago) – There’s every indication (mostly climatological) that this wine – a blend of pinotage, cabernet sauvignon and shiraz – should be an utter disaster, yet it defies expectations. Its initial impression is ripe…write that with an exclamation point…though it later devolves to mixed seed peppers, with a light varnish character and a Juicy Fruit™ finish. Fruity but ultimately a bit soupy, it has complexity and interest, but what it lacks is sufficient quality. Still, points for effort.

From the decorations that adorn the tasting room and the deliberate presence of less-than current vintages (though they are current releases), it’s clear that Olssens has a close eye on its history. That’s fair enough, but the wines lack excitement and forward-looking energy, and despite wide name recognition are uncompetitive with the region’s better producers. That will need to change if the winery is to thrive in the future, lest all that remain is the statuary…both external and internal.

TN: Birthday bacchanalia

Voyager Estate 2002 Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon (Margaret River) – Fruity and fresh, with fine, citrusy acidity brightening up some grapefruit, lime, lemon and gooseberry flavors. Very simple, but pure summer fun. (6/06)

A reliable summer sipper, though it was better at release. Some of these blends can age, but this doesn’t seem like one that did. It doesn’t matter, because newer vintages are really tasty young. Closure: screwcap. Importer: Serge Doré. Web:

Ridge 1992 Monte Bello (Santa Cruz Mountains) – Very tight, tannic and dusty when first opened…and this doesn’t change much with extended aeration. The “Draper perfume” (from the wood regime, the terroir and the aromatic high-altitude fruit) is still present, but plays only a loud supporting role to the other structural elements and to the emergent characteristics of the blend: hard dark cherries with lashings of cassis, some rosemary, black pepper, and a deep base note of the blackest earth. So while the primary, oak-driven sheen has receded, there’s still much more that needs to emerge from this dense, tannic shell; I’d say the wine is probably about halfway to maturity. And if this note sounds a little cold, it’s not an accident. I think the wine is potentially extraordinary, but it’s so unyielding at the present that it’s hard to form any sort of emotional bond with the elixir…something that I think is essential to the enjoyment of the very best wines. (6/06)

80% cabernet sauvignon, 11% merlot, 9% petit verdot. The critical accord on this wine is remarkable, with virtually everyone in agreement with Paul Draper that this is a potentially monumental Monte Bello with a long life in front of it (the one exception: James Laube of Wine Spectator, who thought it should be ready to go about six years ago). Critics’ tastes can, do, and should differ, so when one finds such unanimity of praise, the conclusion is obvious. Alcohol: 13.4%. Closure: cork. Web:

Trimbach 1989 Gewurztraminer “Vendanges Tardives” (Alsace) – From a 375 ml bottle, and very nearly as good as late-harvest gewurztraminer gets. There’s sweet lychee syrup, luxuriant cashew oil, and ripe peach, but what stand out here are the waves of spice…first Indian, then of the sweet baking variety, then moving into something more exotically (but indefinably) Asian…that finally settle on some sort of fantastical meat rub with an accompanying and highly-spiced chutney. There’s plenty of sweetness here, but it’s offset by mild acidity and a more structurally important tannic scrape, and the effect is to render the palate impression somewhat dryer than the initial impression would indicate. On the finish, the aforementioned waves of spice roll and recede for what seems like forever. Beautiful, silence-inducing wine. Is it “ready”? Yes, though it’s also in no danger of slipping for the next decade, and possibly more. (6/06)

I’ve had this wine quite a few times, often paired with the same vintage’s “Sélection des Grains Nobles” bottling, and have reached the inescapable conclusion that this is a better wine. Why? Fairly simply, it tastes a lot more like gewurztraminer. The SGN is dominated by its botrytis, and suffers from even less acidity, which the VT absolutely sings with both its late-harvest qualities and its essential varietal and terroir-influenced characteristics. Though to be fair to the SGN, more time may simply be required. In any case, if you own both, the VT is definitely the one to drink now.

This is as good a time as any to tell one of my favorite stories: a few years ago, Seagram C&E (now absorbed by Diageo) hosted a bacchanalian event in New York, at which most of their Bordeaux estates and the other stars of their portfolio poured a rather stunning collection of wines. One of the results of this assemblage was that both fabled Château d’Yquem and Trimbach were in the same room; Yquem pouring their epic ’88 and ’90 Sauternes, Trimbach with a larger portfolio including the above-described bottling. Later in the evening, as the tasting wound to a close and producers started to drift from their stations, I found Yquem’s Comte Alexandre de Lur Saluces behind the Trimbachs’ table, chatting with marketers Hubert and Jean and sharing glasses of each others’ extraordinary wines. The count swirled, sniffed, and swallowed the ’89…paused for a moment, and then leaned towards Hubert. He seemed almost embarrassed, and yet there was a kind of subdued ecstasy on his face. In a heavily-accented whisper, but one audible to a few nearby eavesdroppers (including me), he rather shockingly declared: “this is better than mine.” I’ll never forget that. Alcohol: 14%. Closure: cork. Importer: Seagram Chateau & Estate. Web:

The highs & lows of salad greens (New Zealand, pt. 20)

[Chard Farm]The Farm on the hill

It’s not often one has to teeter on the edge of a disintegrating cliff just to taste a few mediocre wines. But that’s the inevitable amuse bouche at Chard Farm, and while the entrance is heart-stopping in its precariousness (and, it is to be admitted, beauty), the driveway and its vistas are by far the best thing about a visit.

The Kawarau River, in its gorge far below, fairly glows in opaque yet brilliant turquoise. And from the steep slopes of the vineyards surrounding the winery, it is indeed a beautiful sight. It’s not so beautiful, however, on the twisty little goat path protected from the cliff above by…well, nothing…and the river below by a precarious few inches of dirt. Beyond all reason, this was – at one thankfully long-passed time – the major eastern road to Queenstown. Somehow, I don’t think it would be quite the tourist center it is were that still the case. Either that, or a shocking number of visitors would fail to arrive.

The winery’s tasting room is, as last time, dark and a little gloomy, and not quite set up to handle more than four visitors at a time without elbow-bumping chaos…though it fairly steadily hosts more than that during our visit. Still, it’s got undeniable character, and the behind-the-counter staff knows their stuff. Too bad there’s not that much to say. Chard Farm produces a decent range of wines centered around a mix of site-specific and blended pinots, though the full range of the latter are never on general offer, and while the results are interesting from the perspective of terroir, as wines they’re just not that exciting.

(Continued here, with tasting notes included…)

Birdies (New Zealand, pt. 16)

[kaka eating]The care & feeding of kaka

A steady rain drums against the window. It encourages us to roll over and go back to sleep – one of the lesser-known benefits of vacation rain – refreshing our tired and weta-troubled minds. Eventually, Ernie comes downstairs to do some laundry, and we emerge from hiding just in time to greet some new visitors.

On the patio, perched first on a chair and later on the end of a nearby picnic table, are a quartet of inquisitive kaka; big, brown and a little bit shiny, with colorful streaks visible each time they spread their wings.. They’re clearly no strangers to our lodge, and Ernie encourages us to offer them some food. Their fierce-looking, sharply curved beaks give pause, but as I hold out a morsel of bread, I realize there’s little cause to worry; the boldest of the four sidles towards me and gently plucks the food from my fingers with the most painstaking delicacy. He then grabs the bread with one claw, nibbling in approval.

We retreat to the kitchen and return with more options. An apple proves unpopular, and a bit of garlic- and rosemary-infused ciabatta leads to one bird taking an exploratory nibble, dropping the rest on the ground, and noisily squawking about the insufficiency of our cuisine. Eventually, however, the food leads to inter-avian squabbling, and we retreat inside while the now-angry birds chase each other around the surrounding trees.

Bivalves and beer

We waste a bit more time, waiting for the rain to let up (which it eventually does), then stroll back into town for lunch at one of the two Stewart Island establishments that could legitimately be called restaurants. The South Sea Hotel, however, is not just a restaurant and lodging, but also a (or rather, the) pub, an all-encompassing booking agency for many of the island’s activities, and an oft-identified meeting place for those activities. In our three days, we’ll see most of the island’s inhabitants here again and again, enjoying a brew and bantering in a vaguely Scottish-influenced patois that’s virtually indecipherable to outsiders.

Service in the hotel’s casual dining room, separated from the occasionally noisy bar by a series of open and swinging doorways, is rushed and casual, but the food is as good as it is simple; no pretense, no adornment, just (mostly) local ingredients and a few basic techniques. A bowl of seafood chowder is rich with mussels and fragrant lemongrass, while a plate of terrific fries accompany some Stewart Island oysters…a bit out of season, but worth the experience nonetheless: light, creamy, and more texturally akin to oyster-flavored marshmallows than to any other oyster within my experience. The wine list is OK, but the only by-the-glass options are from the lower end of the Montana stable, and so I ask our harried waitress to choose a beer for me. She returns with a pint of Tui, a North Island brew that is unquestionably the darkest IPA I’ve ever seen (they do know what “pale” means, right?), with an apple-y, almost sweet taste. It’s good, despite a slightly thin finish, but there’s an illicit cider pregnancy somewhere in its ancestry.

Mail-only golf

If the South Sea Hotel is a multi-service establishment, the Stewart Island Post Office is practically a self-contained town. It’s got mail, a check-in desk for the island’s remote airport (a shuttle runs between the two) that recycles a scale they’d otherwise use for packages, a storage area for backpackers, a miniature book store, a few shelves of local food products, and the facility in which we’re interested: greens fee collection and club/ball rental for the local golf course. We stuff a few choices from a rather motley and battered selection of clubs into some rather tattered and moldy bags, and begin our hike.

(Continued here…)

Nuns and raisins

Notes from a dinner, with friends and Boston Wine Expo attendees.

[Muré]Muré Crémant d’Alsace Brut (Alsace) – Balanced and medium ripe, showing apples and light cream. This is one of the better of the basic crémants from Alsace, and previous vintages have proven that the upper-level bottlings from Muré (not, to my knowledge, available in the States) are even better.

Muré’s fame, at least in the States, rests on the Clos St. Landelin and its occasionally heavy, but usually majestic wines. But they do a reliably fine job across their lineup, including their négociant range, and here’s one that will probably fly under the radar for most people. From equal amounts of pinot blanc, riesling, and auxerrois. Disgorged: 12 March 2004. Alcohol: 12%. Closure: cork. Importer: Kacher. Web:

Viñedos de Nieva “Pasil” 2004 Rueda “Pie Franco” (Castilla & León) – Lightly spiced chalk and soda water, showing clean and pure. Quite refreshing.

100% verdejo, from older vineyard material available to this (relatively new) winery. Alcohol: 12.5%. Closure: cork. Importer: Kysela. Web:

Bossard “Domaine de l’Ecu” 2004 Muscadet Sèvre & Maine “Sur Lie” “Expression de Granite” (Loire) – Like licking a stone tablet (not necessarily while it’s being held by Moses), sharp and tight yet building gracefully on the finish. A second bottle, tasted the next day after extended aeration, is more generous and introduces youthful, malic fruit characters, but is no less mineral-driven.

It’s curious that the French word “granit” is translated to English for this label, yet “de” remains from the French original. Ah, the mysteries of labeling. Bossard remains one of the area’s best producers, and with the trio of soil-specific bottlings whence this comes, one of the best at showing how incredibly revelatory melon de bourgogne is of terroir. Alcohol: 12%. Biodynamic. Closure: cork. Importer: Kysela.

Trimbach 1995 Riesling “Cuvée Frédéric Émile” (Alsace) – Creamy, salt-cured dried leaves and crushed oysters. Highly-advanced vs. other examples from this vintage, and while obvious signs of pure heat damage aren’t necessarily in evidence, something has brought this wine to an early retirement. Better-stored bottles are still not even close to ready.

From the Osterberg and Geisberg vineyards that form the backdrop to Ribeauvillé and to Trimbach itself, and while the same house’s Clos Ste-Hune deserves its reputation as the finest riesling in Alsace, it is more on this wine that the widespread appreciation for Trimbach’s rieslings rests. The fact that it’s less than 25% of the cost of CSH is certainly the primary cause, but the Clos Ste-Hune can be so impenetrable and strange in its youth that it can turn people away from its glories; the CFE is no less restrained at first glance, but the liquefied steel character is at least varietally recognizable. What also helps is that these wines, like most upper-end wines at Trimbach, are late-released and regularly re-released after further maturation, which undoubtedly helps sell the ageability of these all-too-frequently majestic bottles. Alcohol: 12.5%. Closure: cork. Importer: Seagram. Web:

Deiss 1997 Gewurztraminer St-Hippolyte (Alsace) – Smoky and sulfurous, with bacon fat and raw rosette de Lyon characteristics, and ultra-ripe lychee jam slathered over everything. The finish is sweaty, and nothing is entirely dry. This is a valid expression of gewurztraminer, and will find some fans, but for me it is far too graceless…an odd thing to say about gewurztraminer, perhaps, but such things are relative.

St-Hippolyte is a village – a pretty one, but then in Alsace most of them are pretty (pity poor, poor Epfig) – not far from Deiss’ home town of Bergheim, and right at the northern end of the arbitrary political border between the Haut-Rhin and the Bas-Rhin. It does, however, suffer a bit from an even more arbitrary notion…this one in the minds of fans of Alsatian wine…that the “important” vignoble of Alsace ends somewhere between Ribeauvillé and Bergheim, and everything north is chilly roulette. This is, of course, nonsense.

It should be pointed out, in the interests of revealing bias, that I am rarely particularly appreciative of the wines at Deiss. (It should also be pointed out that many do not share this view.) The proprietor, Jean-Michel, does possess a certain brilliance (just ask him), but I mostly find it misdirected. Much is made of the current mania for multi-variety single-site blends chez Deiss, but this only serves to amplify the previous problem at this domaine: an obsession with impact over transparency. Transparent wines certainly do not have to be light, nor to they have to be underripe (as Jean-Michel so arrogantly implies in a June 2005 letter), but they can’t obscure varietal and site character in a thudding whoomp of body and thick, sludgy anonymity either. Working from lesser material, Deiss might be able to assert that he alone is expressing his sites correctly…but this doesn’t work in his corner of Alsace. There are too many good winemakers around to make such a ridiculous claim. Personally, I would consider it a victory if he was able to actually express some facet of a site more than once or twice per vintage, because one suspects that his success rate is as much accident as design. Alcohol: 13%. Closure: cork. Importer: Kacher. Web:

Faiveley 1990 Chambolle-Musigny 1er Cru (Burgundy) – (French bottling.) Not dead, but not particularly alive either, with lots of acid, hard tannin, and only the faintest suggestion of berries on the finish. Well past it.

This is part of a large stock of Faiveley wines owned by a French relative, who regularly serves them at full maturity (usually with wild boar) and equally regularly sends some home with me. Unfortunately, the take-home bottles have almost routinely been disappointments vs. their in-France counterparts, and I wonder if the rigors of travel aren’t to blame. In any case, my success rate with the wines – as gratefully received as they are – is poor. Alcohol: 12.5%. Closure: cork. Importer: French bottling, sourced from the domaine. Web:

CVNE “Viña Real” 1981 Rioja “Gran Reserva” (Center-North) – Dill and espresso dusted with chocolate powder, beautifully rich vanilla, and baked earth, finishing with a dessert-y dulce de leche character. I am nearly alone at our table in not loving this, but there’s just nothing but wood (and dill-flavored wood at that).

Tempranillo and graciano. I accept that antipathy towards old Rioja is one of my failings, especially since I usually don’t prefer wines with more obvious fruit. Perhaps it’s the American oak, perhaps it’s my Norwegian aversion to an abundance of dill (familiarity breeds contempt, as too often dill plays the role of “the vegetable” in Norwegian cooking…and before I get letters: yes, that’s a joke (then again, maybe it’s not)), or perhaps it’s just an issue of personal taste. What makes it more painful is that I have a very good friend who adores these wines, and opens them all the time in apparently vain attempts to convert me to their glories. Every once in a while, he succeeds, but then a wine like this comes along…which, as said in the actual note, everyone else appears to like…and my suspicion re-rears its ugly head. Alcohol: 13%. Closure: cork. Importer: Vieux Vins. Web:

Jaboulet Aîné 1990 Hermitage “La Chapelle” (Rhône) – Meatfruit and firm, tight, unyielding structure. There’s a phrase about tightness and nuns here that I won’t repeat, but that applies in spades to this wine. The question is: given the precipitous fall in Jaboulet’s quality over the nineties and beyond, is waiting for this one a foolish choice, or will it eventually reward the patience? This wine doesn’t provide a clear answer either way, though my guess is that there’s sufficient stuffing but there’s at least a one-in-three chance that it won’t outlast the structure in any useful way.

Côte-Rôtie provides the Burgundian ambiance (albeit particularly pork-like), Cornas is the rustic and loud country bumpkin with surprising hidden sophistication, Crozes-Hermitage is a minefield, and St-Joseph introduces some fruit to the equation…but it is Hermitage that shows syrah in its sternest, most masculine glory. The problem there is that if one doesn’t get fruit of a high enough quality, or mishandles it in the cellar, one is left with a big slurp of liquid structure with nothing to support. That’s just one of the things that’s befallen Jaboulet in recent years (ownership has changed, and improvements could finally be on the horizon), though this wine is reputed to be one of the holdouts from past glories. I guess we’ll see. Alcohol: 13.9%. Closure: cork. Importer: Frederick Wildman. Web:

Delorme “Domaine de la Mordorée” 1999 Châteauneuf-du-Pâape “Cuvée de la Reine des Bois” (Rhône) – Pretty, verging on beautiful, but still highly primary, showing spiced clove, oak (and oak tannin), and a rich, full-bodied mélange of spices and sun-baked fruit. It needs a lot of time.

Every time I have a good CdP, I wonder why I don’t drink more of it. I guess the price has something to do with it (nothing drinkable is priced at everyday levels, unless you’re loaded), but CdP is a fascinatingly flexible wine, in that it (with certain high-structure exceptions) shows well at most stages of what can be a pretty long life. This one’s grenache in the starring role, with mourvèdre supporting and cinsault, counoise, syrah and vaccarese as bit players, from old vines (though in the context of old vine-heavy CdP, perhaps not all that old…60 years or so). Alcohol: 14.5%. Closure: cork. Importer: Kysela. Web:

Conti Sertoli Salis 1999 Valtellina “Canua Sforzato” (Lombardy) – Lightly sweet prunes and rose hips with graphite-like structure. It’s an odd combination of aromas and sweetness, but it works somehow.

Sforzato (sometimes sfursat in dialect) means that this nebbiolo-dominated wine is, in contrast to regular Valtellina, made from dried grapes that raise both the potential alcohol and the probability of residual post-fermentation sugar. An actual raisin wine, if you will, vs. all the New World wines essentially made from nearly raisined grapes in a misguided pursuit of “ripeness.” Except for the rose hips, there’s little that says “nebbiolo” about this young wine, though careful examination of the overall structure and balance might lead one to envision an aged version of this wine that will, indeed, be highly varietally-revelatory. Alcohol: 14% (though I think it has to be 14.5% by law). Closure: cork. Importer: CHL International Trading. Web:

Touchais 1976 Côteaux du Layon (Loire) – Honey and sweet syrup with brioche butter. Seemingly past it.

Sweet and botrytized chenin blanc, from a domaine that regularly does late releases of their wines…which explains their ubiquity on the marketplace. Rarely are they as good as they probably could be, to my tastes, with several producers in Layon doing much better work at ageable chenin. What I’ve never had, however, is a youthful Touchais, so I have no idea what they’re like at bottling. Alcohol: 13.5%. Closure: cork. Importer: Vieux Vins.

Fire and water (New Zealand, pt. 4)

The gift of morning

Mornings just don’t get much more beautiful than this one. Sun, blue sky, warm – but not too warm – air, and the freedom to do anything, everything, or nothing. Such freedom and its world of possibilities are truly a gift. Inspired, we express our gratitude for the gift of complete freedom by wolfing down several bowls of muesli and fresh fruit.

After all, what good is freedom if you’re not regular?

As we pack the car for relaxing, first-day-of-vacation beach slothfulness, Cliff (our host) emerges from his house toting a folding beach chair. “Here, you’ll want this,” he offers. Just then the phone rings; it’s Auckland wine writer (and friend) Sue Courtney, checking to see if we’ve arrived intact. And once more the refrain: New Zealanders are unbelievably nice, and though we should no longer be surprised by it, we are. Perhaps it’s the gift of the land they inhabit; a treasure in itself, and fertile ground for the cultivation of luxuries both prosaic and extravagant. Perhaps it’s remoteness from the more guarded, selfish centers of “modern” culture. Or perhaps it’s just the people, who approach life with an unstudied innocence that chips away at one’s cynicism and world-weariness. Either way, it’s exceedingly hard to be unhappy when it seems that an entire country is looking out for your well-being.

One with Onetangi

Onetangi Beach is a long, straight stretch of white gold gently lapped by a greenish-blue sea. Today, it’s completely empty, save for a few lonely seagulls. We park our car on the crumbling strip of sand-infused dirt between a narrow frontage street and the beach, park ourselves right in the middle of the sand, and begin the flesh-roasting process (though to be honest, we’re covered in enough high-octane sunscreen that a deep, dark tan seems unlikely). There’s no traffic, very little wind, only the soft murmur of waves, and even the gulls are mostly silent. It’s a little eerie, but it’s also profoundly relaxing, and every last bit of real-world tension drifts softly away, collected and carried to sea by the gentle motion of the tides and the winds.

We exchange brief naps and quickly restorative dips in the ocean, and oscillate between soft, sun-slowed conversation and the sweet silence of isolation. When hunger finally starts to gnaw, we climb back up to a street-side picnic table and unfurl a spread of garlicky green-lipped mussels and Ferndale “Brie” (absurdly simple, definably “cheese” but with no additional character beyond the bare fact of it) with a wine perfectly suited to the day and the location.

Onetangi Road 2004 Rosé (Waiheke Island) – Juicy raspberry goodness that’s big and slightly hot, but despite the slightly overweight character it’s a really fun, full-fruited summer quaffer. It will get you tipsy, though. I suggest a post-lunch layabout on an isolated beach.

There are no shops or hotels here, just a clean and functional public changing room/bathroom combination, but there is a manageable breadth to the waterfront, and so we decide to stroll from one end to another. Low-hanging trees shadow water-etched rocks on one end, boulders which conceal a collection of tidal pools and, behind, tiny little beach alcoves to which a few sun-bronzed locals have retired…perhaps fleeing the masses (which, today, are…I presume…us). At the beach’s opposite end, tangled vegetation supports a teetering cliff onto which a quiet, leaf-dimmed bungalow has been perched. And still, the great length of the beach remains empty. OK, it’s a work day, but come on…where is everybody?

(Continued here…)

Kritt-ical thinking

Kreydenweiss 2001 Gewurztraminer Kritt “Les Charmes” (Alsace) – Succulent ripe pear and lychee dust with vivid crystalline minerality and lovely acidity. Poised, flavorful and balanced. Built for the long haul.