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Superiore complex

[grissini]The third set of notes: barbera d’Asti Superiore from 2007. See this post for important disclaimers.

Agostino 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Moliss (Piedmont) – Bark and dill, chewy dark fruit, fine particulate tannin, and graphite. Except for the weirdness on the nose, this could actually be a good – albeit dark – wine.

Boeri 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore “Pörlapà” (Piedmont) – Very fruity. It’s black, concentrated fruit, in fact, chunked up by seeds and stones, then slathered with tannin and vanilla. Finishes thoroughly brutalized by its élevage.

Boeri 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Martinette (Piedmont) – Dark, dark, dark…fruit, wood, acorns, leaves, bark, nuts. Is there some salt here, as well? Very odd. Tastes like Barossa shiraz, albeit lighter.

Cantina Sociale Barbera dei Sei Castelli 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Le Vignole (Piedmont) – Lavish, satiny fruit. Dark and gelatinized. Texturally mouth-coating, but finishes with more of that thick vanilla miasma that’s ruining so many of these wines.

Cantina Sociale di Mombercelli “Terre Astesane” 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore (Piedmont) – Milkshake. Pride-like (the winery, not a group of lions) in that, with blueberry and milky, malted chocolate well-evidenced throughout. So, so anonymous.

Sant’Agata 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore “Altea” (Piedmont) – Full-throated fruit crying out for succor in a dark and seedy alleyway. Concentrated. Actually not bad at all, for a fruit bomb. Boom!

Sant’Agata 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore “Cavalè” (Piedmont) – Absolutely identical to the same winery’s “Altea” but with the addition of a pleasant, minty complexity. Very good in this style.

Castlet 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore “Passum” (Piedmont) – Mint. All mint. Mint tea, mint leaves, dried mint. But nothing other than mint.

Pastura La Ghersa 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore “Muascae” (Piedmont) – Chunky black fruit, good acidity, lots of tannin, dark chocolate. I’m losing my ability to perceive wood or its absence in these wines, so I can’t tell if there’s any here, but the goopy chocolate (a bad thing) never goes away.

Pastura La Ghersa 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Vignassa (Piedmont) – Dark fruit and – making a reappearance after a long absence – dark soil as well. But it’s all in the service of a chocolate/cherry layer cake. There must be good material here, but it’s being partially obliterated.

Castello di Razzano 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Vigna del Beneficio (Piedmont) – Very dark fruit ranging into the cassis realm, with some intrusive brett and spicy wood notes, plus coconut. And chocolate. Again. And again. And again.

Cocito 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Violanda (Piedmont) – The fetid stank of horrid, diseased wood. Spoiled candy. One of the worst noses in a quality, non-experimental, or homebrew wine I’ve ever experienced. Pure candy on the palate. Pixy Stix are more authentic than this. They taste better, too.

Elio Perrone 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Mongovone (Piedmont) – Heat, brett, chocolate, rum. Lament for what’s been done to this wine. Dill, spinach, cocoa, espresso. Lament, lament, lament.

Trinchero 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore “Rico” (Piedmont) – Back to normal, everyday internationalizing…full fruit, mixed chocolates, Fruit RollUps. Spiky/spicy acidity on the finish.

[tasting sheet]Araldica “Il Cascinone” 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore “Rive” (Piedmont) – Armpit and crotch. Yes, I just wrote that. No good at all.

Ivaldi 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore “1613” (Piedmont) – Jam and Nutella on toast. Very short. You’d think that if one is going to do this sort of stuff to a poor, defenseless wine, one would at least supply a finish. Then again, maybe that’s a blessing here.

Marchesi Alfieri 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore “Alfiera” (Piedmont) – Good, solid fruit. Thick structure, dense with tannin and chocolately oak. Milkshake and wine coexist here, which isn’t entirely bad for those who like that sort of thing.

dei Fiori 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore “Rusticardi 1933” (Piedmont) – Chocolate, dark berry, mint, and some earth. Gravelly. A really sophisticated, polished wine with a pretty fair structure. It’s not my style, but still, I have to admit that I kinda like this one. It’s got class.

Il Falchetto 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Bricco Paradiso (Piedmont) – Mint & rose hip jams, tangy. There’s a chewing gum element here that I can’t quite decide if I like or not. Finishes high-toned and herbal. Some eucalyptus, as well.

Il Falchetto 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Lurëi (Piedmont) – Menthol grappa, kirschwasser, and detergent. A world of no. Edited to add: tasted at the winery a few hours later, this will be the best wine I’ll taste all day, so what I’ve written here absolutely must reflect a damaged bottle. Or a damaged taster. Maybe both.

La Fiammenga 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore “Paion” (Piedmont) – Flat-aspect fruit, low-ebbing and dull. Seems tired more than anything else, as if the fruit is simply fatigued after being subjected to overt effort.

La Meridiana 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore “Tra la Terra e il Cielo” (Piedmont) – Lavish dark fruit in whole-berry, jam, and jelly form, with tannin and a hard shut-down of wood on the finish. Starts showily, but ends unpleasantly and in complete disarray.

La Pergola 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore Cappelletta “Vigne Vecchie” (Piedmont) – Chunky. Lacquer and paint with a varnish of…no, sorry, I can’t bear to continue. It’s just not worth it.

da Vino 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore “La Luna e I Falò” (Piedmont) – When I was a kid, I used to mix the bobbing remnants of Count Chocula™ and Frankenberry™ in my breakfast bowl, so as not to waste the yummy sugary fakeness. I survived without becoming a diabetic, to end up here…drinking the exact same thing.

Vinchio-Vaglio Serra 2007 Barbera d’Asti Superiore “Vigne Vecchie” (Piedmont) – Tedium in the form of overworked dark fruit. Wood and tannin, tannin and wood.

Disclosure: all wine, food, lodging, and all transportation paid for by various interested parties. See for details on the people and entities involved. My tasting notes have not been influenced in any way, nor has my work on this blog and/or my own site, but the content of any work appearing only on the official Barbera Meeting 2010 blog may (or may not) have been edited for content.

Asti la vista, baby

[tasting shadows]More notes – number two of…oh, who knows at this point? – and here limited to barbera d’Asti from 2007. See this post for important disclaimers.

Bersano 2007 Barbera d’Asti Ca’ d’Galdin (Piedmont) – Some mean greenies, almost like the infamous crushed ladybug aroma in the Canadian and (rumored) Burgundian infestations, full of insect parts and pyrazines. This characteristic continues on the palate. Weird.

Bologna “Braida” 2007 Barbera d’Asti Montebruna (Piedmont) – A full-fruited, throaty expression with nice balance. Soil and berry together in harmony. A little peppery. Good acid.

Bologna “Braida” 2007 Barbera d’Asti Bricco della Bigotta (Piedmont) – The structure here comes with a sting of heat on the end, but before that matters are pleasant enough, with a concentrated core of berries. Nice except for that finishing burn.

Bricco dei Guazzi 2007 Barbera d’Asti (Piedmont) – Heat, salad greens, capsicum, and Band-Aided brett. The palate’s better, but by then it’s too late.

Ca’ dei Mandorli 2007 Barbera d’Asti La Bellalda (Piedmont) – Soil-driven, yet a little low on acid. Rough fruit with textural chew and stick. Perhaps this will be better in the future than it is right now, as the elements seem present but churned-up at the moment.

Alice Bel Colle 2007 Barbera d’Asti “Alix” (Piedmont) – Dark fruit, licorice, black raspberry, and strawberry with a round and columnar structure. Quite good in it’s dark, solid idiom.

Cantina Vignasone 2007 Barbera d’Asti (Piedmont) – Brooding, with equal parts scowl and mysterious smile. Some tar beneath and above, and then the wine gradually turns to cement. There’s some intense black fruit before that, but man does this harden quickly.

Cantina Vignasone 2007 Barbera d’Asti “Selezione” (Piedmont) – Bread and paper, Styrofoam and fake fruit. Coconut. More rum. Ugh.

Galarin 2007 Barbera d’Asti “Le Querce” (Piedmont) – Dense and concentrated, showing black fruit and dark chocolate. Very solid, but a slick, Milanese expression thereof…fashionable and showy, rather than allowing a speck of dirt under the fingernails.

La Ballerina 2007 Barbera d’Asti “GB” (Piedmont) – Vodka, Chartreuse (not in a good way), milk chocolate. A horror show.

Marcaurelio 2007 Barbera d’Asti Terranuda (Piedmont) – Lots of dark fruit that overcomes the paper and wood. Sorta. Not entirely.

Marchesi Alfieri 2007 Barbera d’Asti “La Tota” (Piedmont) – Milk and dark chocolates. Overly dense and just no fun.

Oddero 2007 Barbera d’Asti (Piedmont) – A massive spanking of black raspberry jam. A fruit neutron bomb. Yes, yes, OK, congratulations, but everyone can do this. Why does it have to be done here as well? Edited to add: and this is from Oddero? I’m shocked. Gobsmacked, in fact…and in more ways than one.

I Quaranta 2007 Barbera d’Asti “Asia” (Piedmont) – Dark chocolate with spiky acidity. Is that raspberry marshmallow? Sure, why not? Wood and acid aren’t a combo I much appreciate.

La Fiammenga 2007 Barbera d’Asti (Piedmont) – Dill, mint, graphite soil. This is what New World cabernet should taste like, albeit with less of a green tinge to the wood.

La Tenaglia 2007 Barbera d’Asti Bricco Crea (Piedmont) – Full-on jam. Rock & roll fruit. Good in its style, I have to say, but that style is not mine.

La Tenaglia 2007 Barbera d’Asti “Giorgio Tenaglia” (Piedmont) – Oh milky, syrupy travesty of chocolate…why are you in my glass?

Cisa Asinari dei Marchesi di Gresy 2007 Barbera d’Asti (Piedmont) – Sour cherry, dill, vanillin, and overworked fruit.

Disclosure: all wine, food, lodging, and all transportation paid for by various interested parties. See for details on the people and entities involved. My tasting notes have not been influenced in any way, nor has my work on this blog and/or my own site, but the content of any work appearing only on the official Barbera Meeting 2010 blog may (or may not) have been edited for content.

Beating an Asti retreat

[tasting room]Here begins the notational onslaught. Hundreds of barberas from ‘round the Piedmont, tasted blind and then matched, post-facto, to their names.

Let me stress the key disclaimers before the madness begins. Yes, these were tasted blind, and other than minor grammatical tweaks I have left the notes intact as written during the time of tasting. Some flawed bottles were replaced, but considering the wide array of potential flaws on display, others were just chalked up to bad wine. There is an inherent unfairness in this, but in the process of being forced to power through a long lineup of wines on a schedule, one does not always have the time to be fair. Also, these notes suffer from all the usual flaws of group taste-and-spits, in which neither sufficient time nor attention can be devoted, nor can any wine fail to be affected by those around it.

Last but not least, the names are as provided to me. I’ve made an attempt to clean up the data, but may not always have succeeded. So if there’s a wine name that, in any reader’s experience, would appear to not exist as written, I welcome corrections and amendments.

Anyway, here’s the first bunch…2008 barbera d’Asti:

Alice Bel Colle 2008 Barbera d’Asti “al Casò” (Piedmont) – Faint brett funk, chewy walnuts with a haze of rancidity. Brett continues to palate, Band-Aid & soil, tannin, sourness & greenness. Not pleasant at all. Flawed.

Cantina Sociale Barbera dei Sei Castelli 2008 Barbera d’Asti (Piedmont) – Vibrant cherry, mostly red but with a brush of black, vivid and lavish. Ever so faint hint of banana. Palate absent, good balance but where’s fruit? Structured, but not interesting enough to drink.

Cantina Sociale di Mombercelli “Terre Astesane” 2008 Barbera d’Asti “LA” (Piedmont) – Slightly difficult, gritty soil notes with a bit of funk; dark-as-night fruit scowls with its fist in the air. Very faint but present heat on nose. A little brett. Continues with good acidity, red fruit makes its first appearance on palate, and there’s a hint of something more tropical. Finishes in the pineapple realm.

Dogliotti 2008 Barbera d’Asti (Piedmont) – Black-tending cherry, intense and thick, with a spike of heat. A mélange of berries provide fair presence, but it finishes shortish.

Galarin 2008 Barbera d’Asti “Le Querce” (Piedmont) – Dark fruit (black cherry & plum). Rich, dark-fruited, slightly syrupy, and very concentrated. Vanilla and licorice make their cases as well. Modern-styled, but supports its argument. Good.

Caudrina 2008 Barbera d’Asti “La Solista” (Piedmont) – Brett, with cherries churning underneath. Black fruit, thick with skins, on the palate, with a bark-like structure. This would seem to desire age. A fair interpretation of the chunkier style.

Crivelli 2008 Barbera d’Asti Collina La Mora (Piedmont) – Succulent dark cherries, darker berries. Intense dark fruited-core, linear but very approachable. Purplish. Good acidity. Best yet.

Damilano 2008 Barbera d’Asti (Piedmont) – Very dark blueberry, black pepper, and a bit overdriven. Continues with slashing, intense fruit, rich and vibrant, almost neon-toned. Very long. Modern, perhaps, but excellent.

Dezzani 2008 Barbera d’Asti “ronchetti” (Piedmont) – Anise, both candy and herbal, with intense licorice, dark fruit, jam, and concentrated berries. Acid and tannin are equally intense, and so there’s balance of a sort, but this is an awfully powerful, dark wine

Elio Perrone 2008 Barbera d’Asti “tasmorcan” (Piedmont) – Very obvious oak, with toasted coconut layering the mix. Dark, concentrated fruit, black cherries and blackberries, with no foundation in the region or grape that I can perceive. Overwooded, even though the quantity of quercus probably isn’t that large, overall.

[blinded bottles]Trinchero 2008 Barbera d’Asti “La Trincherina” (Piedmont) – A bit of alcohol, soil, bark, and chewy loam. Smoothed over from what would appear to wish to be something more untamed than what’s evident in the glass. Finishes with dill. Never a good sign.

La Casaccia 2008 Barbera d’Asti Vigna Sant’Anna (Piedmont) – Kinda insignificant. Seems weirdly imbalanced. Context? Yeah, probably. But I don’t like it.

l’Armangia 2008 Barbera d’Asti “Sopra Berruti” (Piedmont) – Sour dill, weeds, disgusting vegetal stew. Really vile. I can’t get this out of my mouth fast enough.

Montalbera 2008 Barbera d’Asti “La Ribelle” (Piedmont) – Tropical fruit…red, pink, orange, yellow, you name it…though really, drinking something that’s (questionably) labeled barbera with a festive umbrella in it isn’t so bad. As such wines go, well- confected constructed. Finishes with Malibu rum and a dash of fresh lemon peel. Of course. I have no idea what this is, but I’d like one delivered to my cabana.

Pescaja 2008 Barbera d’Asti “Soliter” (Piedmont) – Fully tropical, pure Malibu (or is it Captain Morgan Spiced?) rum. I have no idea what this is either, but even though it says barbera, it’s not barbera as anyone would want it.

Prunotto 2008 Barbera d’Asti “fiulot” (Piedmont) – Dark & dirty, unpleasant corned-grape hash. Good structure, and maybe this will turn into something one day. For now…no.

Scagliola 2008 Barbera d’Asti Vigna dei Mandorli (Piedmont) – Lush fruit, red, dark, and purple, extremely succulent. Acid’s a little tamped-down. Modernistic in approach, but a very pretty quaffing wine with short-term aging potential.

Disclosure: all wine, food, lodging, and all transportation paid for by various interested parties. See for details on the people and entities involved. My tasting notes have not been influenced in any way, nor has my work on this blog and/or my own site, but the content of any work appearing only on the official Barbera Meeting 2010 blog may (or may not) have been edited for content.

Adventures in the skin trade

bio-ld“Show me some skin!” That, at least, was the plea. Skin there was, and a lot of it. Flesh everywhere, on naked display in a steamy den of iniquity, itinerancy, and ice buckets.

Maybe I should explain.

All and sundry – or perhaps mostly just the sundry – gathered from far and wide at Convivio’s swanky Tudor City digs, under the glowering eyes of Ivan Lendl-look-alike (and, it must be admitted, ultra-talented restaurant wine dude) Levi Dalton, for food, frolic, and bitterness. The latter stemming from an intense, in-depth assessment of a wine so unusual that it required an entirely new color category – orange – to go along with the previously-sufficient red, white, and pink.

What is an orange wine? I’m not particularly glad you asked, because I have no better handle on the label than anyone else. In general, the idea is that it’s a white wine produced with the extended skin contact characteristic of reds, which (especially among the darker-skinned white varieties) does indeed produce deeper, more intense colors ranging from straw through strawberry, and also renders the wine noticeably tannic. The wines are usually (but not always) left in the un-clarified, overtly cloudy state that seems to result. And that, at the core, is that. There are other philosophical branches and fields of practice within the orange wine family, some of them quite populous…non-filtration, avoidance of sulfur, aging in custom-made amphorae, and so forth. The category as a whole also maintains a good deal of contact with the ever-growing “natural wine” movement, but in truth the orange wines would more correctly be accused of being throwbacks to a much, much older type of winemaking, and “natural”-ness is no requirement for the style.

For some, in fact, orange wines are anything but natural, no matter how historical a vinification they might represent. The transformation of a white wine into such a state, the argument goes, is as profound a manipulation as any. There’s merit to the argument, with only the caveat that the manipulation in question belongs to the class of grape-native cellar techniques that do not add or remove anything from the wine that doesn’t already exist in the grape, a distinction which, for some, makes a difference. The wines bear no relation to the truly transformational field known as molecular gastronomy, but they do share one thing in common with that realm: a direct and forceful challenge to one’s expectations of identity and typicity.

But no matter one’s philosophical view, the wines are different, and – naturally – divide opinions. Some cannot abide them. Others love them with a religious fervor. For both, the price – usually elevated in comparison to “normal” whites – is a limiting factor, but one surpassed by availability; there aren’t many of these wines to begin with, total production often ranges between limited and anecdotal, and thus they’re notoriously hard to find. Many enthusiastic wine drinkers will pass their entire drinking lifespan without encountering an orange wine. But for the seeker of vinous sensation, or at least of individuality, the opportunity to assemble and experience a (to my knowledge) unsurpassed collection of such wines in one place cannot reasonably be ignored.

It is often said, and widely believed, that the geographical heart of the orange wine movement is the Friulian/Slovenian border. There’s a certain truth to that, especially as its controversial father-figure – Josko Gravner – is located there, but the world of orange wines is a wider one these days. Italy still provides a majority of the names, but there’s also Slovenia and Croatia, and even France and California are now in the game.

But enough introduction. What about the wines?

One of the vexing issues with the orange wine cohort is finding amenable food pairings. The one ingredient on which everyone seems to agree is sea urchin – not exactly everyday fare for most – but the trick seems to be focusing on the structure and weight of the wines rather than a particular set of aromas. For example, the familiar tannin/fat counterpoint works as well here as it does with similarly-structured reds. Still, there’s a bit of a guessing game involved, and even the most inspired matches don’t necessarily meld with the wines, which are inherently cranky, iconoclastic, and less than enthusiastic about playing well with others.

For example, here’s what Convivio came up with. Despite the difficulties of the food/wine marriage, all of it was of uniform excellence. Did it enhance the wines? Sometimes, yes. Frequently, no. Yet I sincerely doubt any alternative choices would have improved matters. Such are the pitfalls of dining on the vinous edge.

olives, marinated mushrooms, several types of bruschetta, arancini

sliced yellowtail crudo, olivada, caper, pistachio

Mediterranean snapper, fava bean purée, cuttlefish, radish, mint, almond salad

Sardinian saffron gnocchetti, crab, sea urchin

grigliata mista
grilled pork belly, house-made sausage, lentil salad, ricotta salata


[ribolla gialla grapes]There was also a valiant attempt to impose a certain order on the tasting, which succeeded about as well as the food/wine pairings. Again, there is no fault to be laid at the feet (or the mind) of anyone responsible; the wines are just too unpredictable, and react to each other in surprising ways, confounding even the most careful organization. More successful were thematic micro-groupings…for example, a series of wines made by the Bea family, or a comparison of older Gravner and Radikon in matched vintages…from which certain continuities of style and differences in approach could be identified. The most unfortunate outcome of the organizational effort, however, was that it kept Levi Dalton on his feet, serving and explaining, for the vast majority of a tasting that one would have hoped he could sit back and enjoy. Alas. Perhaps there will have to be a sequel.

The only other misstep, minor and soon corrected, was the temperature of some of the wines. The room was warm (and got warmer as the well-lubricated badinage escalated), so in an attempt to keep wines from overheating to unpalatability, ice buckets were employed. This was a fine idea, except that it meant many of the early wines were served chilled. This is almost always a mistake with orange wines for the same reason it’s problematic with structured reds: tannin overwhelms the wine, and complexities are muted. As the evening went on, this was corrected (another way in which our generous host was overworked), and even for the affected wines a little hand-warming of glasses soon brought the liquid into form.

The notes that follow are not presented in the order in which the wines were tasted. And – an important caveat – they’re much shorter than I’d prefer. My typical orange wine note is a lengthy paragraph, which seems justified for wines that defy convention and easy categorization, but given the format and the speed of new arrivals, there was simply not much time to spend with each wine, teasing out each hidden notion and ribald suggestion.

Cà de Noci 2007 “nottediluna” (Emilia-Romagna) – Stale paper with a bouquet of flowers in slow emergence. Acrid. This needs…I don’t know. But it needs something. And less of some other things. (7/09)

Cà de Noci 2006 “nottediluna” (Emilia-Romagna) – Lush pear and apricot. Almost buttery. Somewhat flamboyant, but its an appealing showmanship…flirtatious, yet classy. (7/09)

Cà de Noci 2005 “riserva dei fratelli” (Emilia-Romagna) – Sparkling, though it’s more of a slushy froth than a proper pétillance. Apple and acid, with light bitterness and a fresh finish. However, the nose is odd, and mostly absent. Some are moved to a tentative declaration of cork taint (oddly, all such are female), but the importer (who is present) says not. Still, he agrees that the wine seems off in some fashion. (7/09)

Casa Coste Piane 2006 Prosecco di Valdobbiadene “Tranquillo” (Veneto) – Dry as a desert, and rather desert-like in its lack of visible life. I liked this wine a lot more last month. (7/09)

Castello di Lispida 2002 “Amphora” Bianco (Veneto) – Rich, dark, dusted with cocoa, and luxuriant with the texture of cocoa butter. A very full and blossomy wine, and one that would easily fool many into thinking it’s a red in a true blind tasting. (7/09)

Castello di Lispida 2002 “Terralba” (Veneto) – Soft and pretty apricot flowers with a little kiss of sweet nectar. But then, the wine just sort of disappears. Where did it go? (7/09)

Clai Bijele Zemlje 2007 Malvazija “Sveti Jakov” (Istra) – Solid, by which I mean uniformly dense rather than well-executed. Plays at being interesting, but it lacks the depth to follow through on its initial promise. (7/09)

Cornelissen 2007 “MunJebel 4” Bianco (Sicily) – Pine, melting cedar candle, orange rind, and coal. There’s a medium-toned brown hum to the wine, but a sharp declension on the finish; with a little more linger, this could be a star. As it is, it’s merely fascinating, but the fascination is brief. I somewhat preferred a 3 (from 2006) tasted earlier this year. (7/09)

Damijan 2003 “Kaplja” (Collio) – Fat tangerine. Short and blowsy. It seems that some orange wines can’t avoid being victimized by this vintage, though there are exceptions. This isn’t one of them. (7/09)

Damijan 2004 “Kaplja” (Collio) – A lovely nose of ripe fruit, flowers, and confiture, but the palate is separated and disappointing. (7/09)

de Conciliis 2004 “Antece” (Campania) – Bitter almond soap with the texture of a whiteout blizzard, and a little sherried throughout. Simple and direct. (7/09)

Massa Vecchia 2005 Maremma Toscana Bianco (Tuscany) – A bit of a brett bomb, though eventually the wine starts to show things other than fetid stench, including a silky palate that glides and skates as if on the smoothest ice. A little more attention to hygiene, and this would be a beauty. (7/09)

Gravner 1997 Ribolla Gialla (Venezia Giulia) – Heavy, but it’s a good weight. Lush with mandarin-scented Madeleine, plus cotton candy whipped with tart threads. There’s a slightly bitter, Campari-esque note which seems like it should be an “off” character, yet the wine benefits from the counterpoint. This is aging very nicely, and while it doesn’t seem to be showing signs of decline, it’s very likely that I have no idea what those signs might be for this particular wine. (7/09)

Gravner 2000 Ribolla Gialla (Venezia Giulia) – Sweet yellow cherry with some oddities I can’t quite identify. Whatever’s going on, it’s tasty enough but a little distracting. Long. (7/09)

Gravner 2001 Ribolla Gialla “Amphora” (Venezia Giulia) – Slightly bitter, and this time the bitterness takes the form of vanilla, especially on the backpalate. Leafy. A sharp left turn from the pre-amphora ribollas. (7/09)

Gravner 2001 “Breg Amphora” (Venezia Giulia) – Bitter almond and apple, with tight layers of complexity and minerality pressed together like an Austrian pastry. There’s a swaggering confidence to this wine that few others of its type can pull off. Yet this is not to say that it’s better, necessarily, just that it’s more overtly self-assured. (7/09)

Hautes Terres de Comberousse 2001 “Cuvée Roucaillat” (Languedoc) – Fat, overly lactic, and kind of nasty. (7/09)

Kante 2006 Sauvignon Blanc (Carso) – The most identifiably-varietal wine in the room, and by a wide margin, though much of that is the familiarity of sauvignon. Is this actually a skin-contact white? It shows few of the characteristics of one, with its vibrant, zingy gooseberry, sharp-edged minerality, and lavish acidity. A good wine, but it seems out of place in this crowd. (7/09)

Angiolino Maule “La Biancara” 1996 “Taibane” (Veneto) – Soft. Strawberry, peach, and blood orange. This needs a lot more structure, which is something I didn’t think I’d be able to say about an orange wine. (7/09)

La Stoppa 2004 “Ageno” (Emilia-Romagna) – Dark metallic orange with a heady rush of deep minerality. Sophisticated and striking. Absolutely delicious. (7/09)

Monastero Suore Cistercensi S.O. Trappiste 2007 “Coenobium” (Lazio) – Simple grapefruit rind, with a light spicing dominated by white pepper. And is that celery? It’s like a stealth grüner veltliner has entered the room and is masquerading as a “baby” orange wine. This is initially fairly disappointing, but gains a measure of weight and texture with extended aeration. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to explore this in more detail. (7/09)

Monastero Suore Cistercensi S.O. Trappiste 2006 “Coenobium” (Lazio) – Bigger and fuller-bodied than the 2007, showing a blend of red and Rainier cherries. Round, yet there’s a washed-out quality to the finish, as if the wine rather clumsily gives its all right at the start, and has nothing left for the duration of the race. (7/09)

Monastero Suore Cistercensi S.O. Trappiste 2007 “Coenobium Rusticum” (Lazio) – Extremely tannic. Metal and charred orange, maybe even a bit of ash. Acid-dominated on the finish, which is extremely long. Tight and no fun. My last bottle of this was a stunner. What happened? (7/09)

Bea 2004 “Arboreus” (Umbria) – Sweet spice. Round, pretty, and very complete. This is the wine version of Miles’ In a Silent Way, and that’s high praise from me. (7/09)

Movia 2007 Ribolla Gialla “Lunar” (Goriška Brda) – Delish. I know it probably wants to be serious, but really it’s more like a Greek island beach party…albeit from several hundred years ago. No tropical umbrellas here. Very appealing, and in an immediate way. (7/09)

[radikon bottles]Radikon 2001 Ribolla Gialla (Venezia Giulia) – Tight, metal-jacketed plum. A bit hot, which is something I’ve not previously experienced from this wine. Somewhat indifferent. Perhaps an off bottle (or an off taster). (7/09)

Radikon 2003 “Jakot” (Venezia Giulia) – Some alcohol here, plus pear and raw, exposed metal. Fat. The heat lingers into the finish. (7/09)

Radikon 1997 Ribolla Gialla “Riserva Ivana” (Venezia Giulia) – Soft fullness and salty white soil. Seems more mild-mannered than it actually is…there’s a fair bit of complexity and depth…but the wine’s gentle in every aspect. There’s a very slight edge of heat creeping into the margins, but otherwise all is seamless. This isn’t aging so much as cohering, and in a very appealing way. (7/09)

Scholium Project 2006 “San Floriano del Collio” Rocky Hill (Sonoma Mountain) – The reddest of all the wines; this could easily pass for a dark rosé, rather than an orange wine, and at 16.9% alcohol it’s pushing what few boundaries remain. Par for the Scholium course, I guess. Grassy and greasy, yet with sharp-edged pistachios, some fatness, and (big surprise) noticeable alcohol. Anise, as well, plus maraschino cherries and rather intense minerality. In its less admirable moments, it also smells more than a bit like a fetid poire william eau de vie, but I don’t mean to be overly discouraging; I like this more than I’ve ever liked a Scholium Project wine (granted, the competition for this title has not been fierce). (7/09)

Vodopivec 2003 Vitovska (Venezia Giulia) – Big blood orange, juiced and pumped full of oxygen (by which I don’t mean oxidation, nor microbullage, but a breath-inducing vivacity), with a core of steel and walnuts on the finish. Powerful. (7/09)

Vodopivec 2004 Vitovska (Venezia Giulia) – Clementine and aluminum. Fat. Short. And disappointing. (7/09)

Vodopivec 2004 Vitovska “solo | MM4” (Collio Goriziano) – Direct and forceful, but to what end? The power seems in service of vanishingly little. Maybe it’s just shy, but this is a rather intense void at the moment. Perhaps it’s a singularity of some sort. A black an orange hole? (7/09)

Wind Gap 2007 Pinot Gris (Russian River Valley) – Spicy pear with a slightly lactic note, but not enough to be unpleasant. Intense, big, long, and luscious. Way more interesting than anything the Scholium Project has produced. (7/09)

Zidarich 2005 Malvasia (Carso) – Full and spicy, but ends rather abruptly. Simple memories of walnut are all that linger. (7/09)

Zidarich 2005 Vitovska (Carso) – Mixed nuts. Very tannic, and edging towards desiccation. Simple, and in fact more than a little boring. (7/09)

After the orange lineup (during which I apparently skipped noting one wine, though I do remember end-of-evening confusion over an extra glass before me), there’s a bit of a reddish coda. Frankly, after the relentless surreality of this tasting, it’s like a return to “real wine”…not more natural or authentic, but at least recognizable ground. I can feel my palate sigh in relief, but what’s more striking is the way that the sensory realms of my brain sort of unclench, as if they’ve been operating in a state of high tension for the last few hours.

Cappellano 2005 Nebbiolo d’Alba (Piedmont) – Dusty red fruit, soft yet strong, with a nearly flawless texture. Absolutely classic nebbiolo, masterfully presented. (7/09)

Leroy 1983 Volnay (Burgundy) – Pretty. Very, very pretty. Showily so. And strikingly youthful; the structure’s resolved, but the fruit is still fairly primary and direct. I don’t quite know what to make of this, but admittedly my palate is completely exhausted at this point. (7/09)

My favorites of the tasting? The Arboreus, certainly, and the Ageno. The 2006 Cà de Noci, the 2002 Lispida (but not the Terralba), the Vodopivec 2003, and most of the Gravner lineup. And, it must be said, the Wind Gap, which was the most pleasant surprise of the night…especially considering my much dimmer opinion of the winemaker’s former project.

Disappointments? A few, most notably a couple of the Radikons, for which I cannot account (I’m normally a great admirer of the wines), and which I will thus chalk up to some brief weirdness in a food/wine, wine/wine, or wine/taster interaction. The other Cà de Nocis, both Zidarich bottlings…and I could go on, but won’t. Truth be told, a lot of these wines showed seams, lacks, and occasionally outright faults. However, I think there might be a reason for that performance. Read on.

[press & amphora]Tasting a bunch of wines is always fun (unless they’re terrible, which these most definitely were not) but from the above-noted level of focus and direction, one does hope that there are lessons to be learned and conclusions to be drawn. And I think there are.

The claim has occasionally been made that the orange wine regimen, like oak or botrytis, so heavily marks the wines that it trumps varietal character, terroir, and even individuality. This set of wines shows that to be mostly nonsense; there’s plenty of diversity evident, and the wines are as different as one would expect them to be in any other context. Grapes do show, though perhaps not with the consistency exhibited in more typical wines. As for terroir, there is at least (in many cases) sub-regional continuity between these and more prosaic wines from their neighborhoods, though to say more than that would be to claim an illegitimate expertise. So why the caveat “mostly?” Because of the tannin, which in some (not all) of the wines enforces an identifiable structural similarity…a sort of pedal tone around which the other elements must work. When it plays a harmonious role, it’s the foundation on which the wine’s art and architecture are built. When it doesn’t, it’s the squawky drone of a wheezing, decrepit bagpipe.

Another much-asked question is whether or not orange wines age. There’s really not enough evidence here to say for sure. Certainly the few older wines present seem to have aged just fine, softening in the way one would expect tannic wines to soften. As the tannin melts, creamier textures emerge. That said, many of these wines very much rely on that tannin for counterpoint. Once it’s gone, the result is a lushness almost entirely opposite the face these wines present in their youth. As with any aging process, opinions will differ on the stage at which the wines are most intriguing. The only tentative conclusion I feel safe drawing is that the curious can probably age the better of these wines without fear of precipitous decline. On the other hand, one may reasonably fear biological instability in those wines that avoid filtration, sulfur, and other methods of stabilization; while their structure is itself preservationist in nature, not all of the wines are entirely clean, or have avoided oxidation. I would not age the more natural wines absent a properly-controlled cellar.

Some of the wines I’ve always felt I loved were, in this context, less impressive than expected. Others performed above their pay grade. Perhaps surprising, perhaps not, but this is why one holds tastings…to learn just this sort of thing. I must also presume that, as in any quick-take tasting of a fair number of wines, concentration and intensity are more favorably received than they might be in isolation, The corollary conclusion that delicacy is inevitably devalued or even lost must also be considered. As ever, such tastings do not replicate the experience of a slow encounter with a single bottle.

Perhaps the most surprising conclusion, for me, is that I didn’t enjoy tasting these wines in this particular fashion nearly as much as I had hoped. The dinner, the tasting, the camaraderie…all were enormous fun, and definitely worth the participatory effort (though I will admit to a savage headache the next morning). But while I adore a lot of these wines in isolation, in concert my affection for them dimmed, and I was surprised how indifferent I was to the qualities of all but a few bottles. It could be that the accumulated negativity is a result of the rather overpowering and aggressive nature of the wines, which were more of a chore to slog through than I’d expected. Also, there was an extremely draining mental aspect; teasing out the complexities and the wildly individualistic essences of orange wines is a difficult enough task to begin with, but doing it as bottles fly past, food arrives, and tablemates chatter away is a perhaps insurmountable challenge to even the most intense attempt at concentration. I was tired at the end of this tasting, but mentally far more than physically, and even writing about the experience several days after the fact brings forth a clear physical sensation of sensory fatigue.

It would be intriguing to explore this matter further. But as I write this, my overriding emotion is that I’d like – or perhaps I need – a short break from orange wines. My curiosity has been somewhat over-satisfied, and my palate is suffering burn-in. In the end, it turns out that the scolds and the finger-waggers were right: it’s possible to show too much skin.

Feel the heat

[vineyard]Storrs 2007 Sauvignon Blanc (San Lucas) – Light, yet with a certain intensity of grapey fruit, plus melon. Nice balance. Tasty. (9/08)

Storrs 2007 Chardonnay (Santa Cruz Mountains) – Fig, peach, and ripe, velvet-textured apple. Very structured, with a long finish. There’s a little zing of alcohol and bit of oak, but this is the most balanced chardonnay I’ve yet tasted from Storrs, who often seems to craft much thicker versions of this variety. (9/08)

Storrs 2006 Chardonnay Christie (Santa Cruz Mountains) – Honeyed peach candy and thick butterscotch, long and huge. A wine of vivid neon. Huge. Let me say that again: HUGE. There are some nods to balance, but this is a stew rather than a broth; those who prefer that sort of texture will love it, others will most definitely not. Stylistic issues aside, it’s a very impressive wine. Personally, I could drink about a thimbleful of it. (9/08)

Storrs 2006 Pinot Noir (Santa Cruz Mountains) – Strawberry, red cherry, and plenty of heat (it’s 15.2% alcohol, which may theoretically be supportable in a much better-endowed pinot, but just doesn’t work here; excess heat has been a problem with many of the Storrs pinot noirs). There’s some crispness that makes an attempt at lightening, but overall the wine’s just too hot to enjoy. (9/08)

Storrs 2005 Two Creek (Santa Clara County) – Grenache, syrah, and grand noir, 14.4%. Smoke liqueur and red licorice with apple rind and a significant haze of heat. Eh. (9/08)

Storrs 2005 Zinfandel Rusty Ridge (Santa Clara County) – 15.2%. Plum, heather, lavender, plus the twists and tangles of wild vines. Chewy, with good acidity. Balanced. The finish is supple. Quite good. (9/08)

Storrs 2001 “BXR” (San Francisco Bay) – Plum soup, dark chocolate, and green tannin. There’s good length and palate presence, but the wine’s too thick for its own good, and then there’s that irritating underripe shade to the structure. I have never cared for this wine, in any vintage. (9/08)

Storrs 2006 Gewürztraminer Viento (Monterey) – Lychee soap, crystalline pear, honeydew melon, and plenty of acidity with just an edge of skin bitterness. Turns more floral as it lingers. Really nice. Balanced, with both tension and length. A return to the gewürztraminers I used to like so much from this producer, after a few weaker efforts. (9/08)

Storrs is a winery I visit anytime I’m in the area, and there’s always something good. The problem is that it’s rarely the same wine as it was the last time. Stylistically, I think that they’ve let alcohol levels get a little bit away from them; it’s one thing in zinfandel, a very different thing in a pinot noir or chardonnay.

Coming up blanc

[poor fruit set at stony batter]A big tasting was put on by New Zealand Winegrowers, and the results are below. Part two is on pinot noir, part three covers riesling, and everything else is in part four. Notes are of the hit-and-run variety, due to the format, so read what follows with the necessary suspicion.

By way of disclosure, they loaded us up with Island Creek oysters, which would normally predispose me towards positivity. On the other hand, I only ate about two dozen, which isn’t even a running start for me.

Palliser Estate 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Martinborough) – Dense. Gooseberry with a significantly smoky component…or is it sulfur? Maybe a bit of both. Tropical fruit rinds and minerality (grey-toned), this wine is a little on the corpulent side. (3/09)

Monkey Bay 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Light green pepper, asparagus, sweet greenness continues on the finish. A diagonal wine. Ultimately insignificant. (3/09)

Matua Valley 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Gooseberry, a little papaya, and a Styrofoam finish (which is, blessedly, short). (3/09)

Nobilo “Regional Collection” 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Clean. Watery. Green and yellow citrus rinds, plus grapefruit. Underripe and dilute. (3/09)

Babich 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Sugared apple, pineapple. A goofy toy wine, not to be taken seriously. (3/09)

Allan Scott 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Papery. Qualitatively, somewhere between innocuous and awful. (3/09)

Oyster Bay 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Seashell, green apple. Intense. Short finish. Not bad. (3/09)

The Crossings 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Dry exposed rock. Grassy. Ungenerous. Very mineral-driven, with a long finish. An uncompromising style. (3/09)

Stoneleigh 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Vivid pineapple, ripe green apple, grass. Sour plum wine on the finish. Weird. (3/09)

Saint Clair “Vicar’s Choice” 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Clean, linear. Papaya, but not sweetly tropical. Light- to medium-bodied. Good, but only just. (3/09)

Goldwater 2008 Sauvignon Blanc Wairau Valley (Marlborough) – Intense gooseberry with lacings of asparagus. Crystalline. Rich but with sufficient acid, and thus balanced. Finishes greener than it starts. Good. (3/09)

Nautilus 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Simple. A little sweet, a little green. Banana candy finish. (3/09)

Villa Maria “Private Bin” 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Electric green fuzz, clean green apple skin. Tight. Classic, but stretched thin. Not bad. (3/09)

Drylands 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Ripe red fruit, papaya, mango, and something that almost approaches lychee in its lurid stickiness. Way too sweet. (3/09)

Montana “Brancott” 2008 Sauvignon Blanc “Reserve” (Marlborough) – Cedar, ripe yellow plum. Soft, with a pinched midpalate, then expands. Very long, turning more expressive as it lingers, with a bitter edge emergent. This is a very polished style, perhaps too obviously so. (3/09)

Croney “Three Ton” 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Mango sorbet. Juicy. Finishes weirdly bitter. (3/09)

Kennedy Point 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Green dust and paper. Flat. Dull. (3/09)

Saint Clair 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Intense pea and green bean aromas. Vivid. Fattens on the finish. (3/09)

Spy Valley 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Neon green aromas, ripe grapefruit, plum. A bit sweet. Nice enough, but meaningless. (3/09)

Vavasour 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Very solid with some quartz at the interior. Ripe, structured, and intense. Good. (3/09)

Kim Crawford 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Sweet mandarin orange, mango, plum. Extremely tropical. I don’t care for this style any more than the capsicum-infused alternative. (3/09)

Nobilo “Icon” 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Sophisticated and suave. Crystallized minerality, leafy. Not green. Good weight. Finishes a little flat, though. Just OK. (3/09)

Matua Valley 2008 Sauvignon Blanc “Paretai” (Marlborough) – Green pea and black pepper do battle with ripe tropical fruit. There’s greenness, as well. The finish is weirdly sour, but until that point the wine’s good enough. (3/09)

Saint Clair 2008 Sauvignon Blanc Pioneer Block 1 “Foundation” (Marlborough) – Vibrant, pure, and intense. Green mango, grapefruit, light orange. A slight bit of stick on the finish, but otherwise classic and very good. The class of the 2008s, for sure. (3/09)

Whitehaven 2008 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Pea soup with artificial sweetener; here are all the old flaws, presented in a modernistic, sludgy package. And in what universe does this deserve a $23 suggested retail price? (3/09)

Woollaston 2007 Sauvignon Blanc (Nelson) – Red fruit, black-hearted minerals. Incredible intensity. Very lightly sweet-seeming. Long. Huge. Impressive. One might even say tumescent. (3/09)

Dashwood 2007 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Thin, papery, and innocuous. (3/09)

Wither Hills 2007 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Greener than it has been in other vintages. Grass, leaves, and coal dust on the finish. Eh. (3/09)

Isabel 2007 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Slate, cedar, and a fine particulate texture with laser-like intensity. Extremely impressive. (3/09)

Staete Landt 2007 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Very mineral-dominated. grassy, with green apple skins. Long. Good. (3/09)

Villa Maria “Cellar Selection” 2007 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Intense, long, and ripe, with purity and balance. Hints of black fruit. The wine glows. (3/09)

New Zealand’s enthusiastic bid for market dominance with sauvignon blanc is often remarked upon, but I think this has it backwards; it is sauvignon blanc that dominates New Zealand, and not in an entirely good way, either. Plantings have grown from just over 2000 hectares in the year 2000 to just under 12,000 in 2008, and exports have grown along similar lines: from 20 million liters in 2004 to almost 70 million liters in 2008.

It might be more useful to view those numbers in context. Over the 2004-2008 period, sauvignon blanc plantings roughly doubled (6 to 12 thousand hectares), while total plantings of all grapes only increased 66%. That’s a country losing its identity to a grape. Yes, there’s pinot noir to consider, but most of that discussion takes place in another price category, and thus I will save it for a later chapter.

But if New Zealand as a whole has to worry about this, Marlborough in particular has already lost its battle. A staggering 91% of all New Zealand sauvignon blanc comes from this one region. I think that, for many consumers, New Zealand = Marlborough = sauvignon blanc…which has a certain marketing appeal for producers who fit all three categories, but some ominous inertia for anyone looking to sell something else, especially from Marlborough.

This is not to say that Marlborough hasn’t shown an ability to produce appealing wines from this grape, though I think the picture is less clear than it was a decade ago. There are, in general, three styles that flow from the region. The first is the classic, green-dominated, somewhat abrasive style that made the region’s name, which at its best has an exciting tactility, and at its worst (underripe fruit overwhelmed with pyrazines) tastes exclusively of bell peppers and tinned vegetables. The second is the overcompensation for the first style: ripe, tropical fruit with residual sugar and an unwelcome loss of acidity. Of these two dominant styles, the first is better at getting attention, but the second is better at keeping it.

The third style is still a definite minority, and not where the big money is to be made, but where a slim hope for defining Marlborough sauvignon as something other than a commodity lies. Some producers are playing with techniques – native yeast ferments, oak regimes, lees stirring, sémillon blends – with very interesting results. Others are exploring sub-regional bottlings, though only a few are drilling down to the single-vineyard level as yet. Some are chasing minerality, which (on the evidence) is at least achievable from some sites. But in all cases, the goal is to make a sauvignon blanc of individual quality and character, in contrast to the practitioners of the two dominant styles, who are pursuing a predefined market in predetermined ways.

While the unfortunate dalliance with making sub-$10 sauvignon blanc seems to be over by international economic default (only one wine – the Dashwood – comes in below that price, and it’s one of the two worst wines of the tasting; I just don’t think it’s possible to make worthwhile Marlborough sauvignon blanc at that price point, and if it was, Villa Maria and Brancott would already be doing it), the problem is now at the other end.

The majority of these wines are over $15, though few of them perform at that level. Several are at or over $20, and while there are some successes, they aren’t as universal as they should be. Qualitatively, there’s a lot of middle-of-the-road wine here. I think an important caveat to that is that this lineup is decidedly shifted towards the mass-market, lower-end versions of Marlborough sauvignon blanc, and a more comprehensive survey would include many wines that exhibit the very character and class that I’m labeling the “third style” a few paragraphs upstream. Most of the wines are more-or-less drinkable, no more, and no less. They’re commodities. There’s nothing wrong with that – commodity wines are the bulk of the wine industry – but it’s a low foundation on which to build an identity as a wine-producing region. If Marlborough is to grow, it will need to expand that identity beyond large-production sauvignon blanc.

Part of this, too, may be the limitations of sauvignon blanc as a grape. I wouldn’t argue, as some would, that it’s not capable of greatness, but rather that the evidence suggests that such greatness is limited to very few sites and even fewer producers. Sauvignon blanc has a lot more inherent character than chardonnay, which makes it a better choice for commodity wines, but as a result requires a greater effort to elevate it above its station.

But let’s get back to quality. Looking at this list, a number of abject failures stand out, and more than a few of them are among the cheapest wines in the tasting: Matua Valley, Monkey Bay, Nobilo “Regional Collection”, Babich, Allan Scott, Nautilus, Drylands, Kennedy Point, Spy Valley, Dashwood, and Whitehaven. That last one earns special mention for carrying a $23 suggested price and still being awful. But what strikes me most about this list is the popularity of the wines on it; these are the labels one sees in every store and on every wine list. That’s unfortunate.

The successes? I’d put those in two categories. First, the mass-market and under$20 successes: Oyster Bay, Saint Clair “Vicar’s Choice”, Goldwater, Villa Maria “Private Bin”, Vavasour, Staete Landt, and Brancott “Reserve” (the latter is a surprise, since it has underperformed for quite a few vintages previous to this one).

Then there are the “stars” of the tasting. From the top down: Villa Maria “Cellar Selection”, Isabel, Saint Clair Pioneer Block 1, and Woollaston. But, one may wonder, why is “stars” in scare quotes? Because while I’d happily buy and drink any of these wines, none is paradigm-defining or truly world-class. The days of excited whispers about Marlborough sauvignon blanc – “hey, have you tasted Cloudy Bay? – are long gone. What’s going to replace them? We’re still in the process of finding out.

Dark times for pinot?

[vines at felton road]Here’s part two of a New Zealand Winegrowers trade tasting; the first part covered sauvignon blanc, this will deal with pinot noir, the third installment will run down a few rieslings, and everything else will appear in the fourth installment. Notes are of the hit-and-run variety due to the format, so please read them in that context.

Matua Valley 2008 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Green leaves (perhaps beet greens) with a powdery underbelly. Hardly undrinkable, but tastes more like an experiment than a pinot noir. (3/09)

Saint Clair “Vicar’s Choice” 2008 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Dry red fruit. Underripe. (3/09)

Saint Clair 2008 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Clean red berries and Juicy Fruit™ gum. Candy’s rarely a positive descriptor for pinot noir. (3/09)

Palliser Estate “Pencarrow” 2007 Pinot Noir (Martinborough) – Tart. Rhubarb and cranberry. Smoke and a little minerality, with hints of depth on the finish. Very crisp. Not entirely balanced. (3/09)

Palliser Estate 2007 Pinot Noir (Martinborough) – Beet, plum, and weedy tannin. This wine throbs at a baritone pitch, never really adding anything other tones of interest. Disappointing. (3/09)

Dashwood 2007 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Black cherry, sour dill, and severe char. Vile. (3/09)

Stoneleigh 2007 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Light black fruit with clarifying acidity. Juicy and pleasant. (3/09)

Babich 2007 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Sweetish candy notes. Black plum, orange rind, golden beet, and a hint of anise. This doesn’t entirely escape a certain synthetic character, either. Iffy. (3/09)

Oyster Bay 2007 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Flat. Seashell and dirty asphalt. Yuck. (3/09)

Nobilo “Icon” 2007 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Pretty fruit; a blend of black, red, and purple. Soft and clean. There’s nothing here but fruit, and while it’s good in that style, it’s a little more like juice than wine. (3/09)

Nautilus “Opawa” 2007 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Golden beet and concentrated weed…both the invasive plant and the kind you smoke…with a short, bitter finish. Thoroughly underripe. (3/09)

Matua Valley 2007 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Prune, black cherry, and burnt coffee. Short, and that’s probably for the best. (3/09)

Vavasour 2007 Pinot Noir Awatere Valley (Marlborough) – Sharp and short, but what’s here is tasty, fun, and crisp. Red berries, mostly. (3/09)

Allan Scott 2007 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Green grass and high tides forever. Actually, maybe just the green grass. And dill. Dull. Dull dill. (3/09)

Babich “Winemakers’ Reserve” 2007 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Pure red fruit, apple, clementine. Crisp, with a sandy texture. Good basic pinot. (3/09)

Nautilus 2007 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Sugary red and black plums, finishes like some bizarre sort of candy. (3/09)

Saint Clair 2007 Pinot Noir Pioneer Block 4 “Sawcut” (Marlborough) – Cran-grape juice. Light, sour, and underripe. (3/09)

Staete Landt 2007 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Reserved, dry, and difficult, with chalky minerality. Very long, though. A little bizarre, perhaps, but it might be worth holding for a while, to see what happens. (3/09)

Spy Valley 2007 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Plummy. Short, simple fruit. Clean. (3/09)

Wild Earth “Blind Trail” 2007 Pinot Noir (Central Otago) – Beet, blood orange, and luminescent red fruit with hints of herb. Fun, with good quality for its price. (3/09)

Amisfield 2007 Pinot Noir (Central Otago) – Smoked dill, heavily-filtered dark fruit, and some heat. Long, but to little purpose. An absent wine, and just no good. (3/09)

Woollaston 2006 Pinot Noir (Nelson) – Black fruit with a candied edge, coal at the core, and hints of additional minerality. Coarse and short, but intense while it lasts. Not all that much fun to drink. (3/09)

Montana “Brancott” 2006 Pinot Noir “Reserve” (Marlborough) – Butter soup. Awful. (3/09)

Whitehaven 2006 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Stale nuts. Flat. Horrid. (3/09)

Hans 2006 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Beet, asparagus, and bitterness. Yuck. (3/09)

Wild Earth 2006 Pinot Noir (Central Otago) – Mixed berries and dark soil studded with morels. Deep, with the first stirrings of complexity. Medium-length finish. Very good. (3/09)

Isabel 2005 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Green berries. Tart and weedy, with watermelon Jolly Rancher on the finish. Short. A disappointment. (3/09)

Wither Hills 2005 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Black fruit tarted up like candy lozenges. (3/09)

Palliser Estate 2007 Pinot Noir (Martinborough) – Green beets (rather than beet greens) and pinkish fruit, with a powdered cotton candy texture. (3/09)

Gladstone 2007 Pinot Noir (Wairarapa) – Biting, skin-bitter, and high-toned. Lavender aromas. Weirdly interesting, though I think it would be difficult to identify as pinot noir. (3/09)

Waimea “Spinyback” 2007 Pinot Noir (Nelson) – Dirty (in a good way), but the palate is soapy and the finish pure Styrofoam. (3/09)

Te Mania 2007 Pinot Noir “Reserve” (Nelson) – Quite volatile and high-toned, with pinkish-purple fruit, plus a great deal of bite and chew. Spicy. Perhaps a touch woody, but it should integrate if so. (3/09)

Montana “Brancott” 2007 “T” Pinot Noir “Terraces” (Marlborough) – Red cherry, strawberry, raspberry. Simple fruit, but there’s not much else. Very light, with good balance. (3/09)

Huia 2007 Pinot Noir (Marlborough) – Sour dill and other herbs with a chalky finish. Awkward. (3/09)

Muddy Water 2007 Pinot Noir (Waipara) – Black cherry and black truffle with a heart of darkness. Elegant and pure. Lovely. (3/09)

WJ Coles Successors “The Crater Rim” 2007 Pinot Noir Blacks Lot 7 (Waipara) – Promising at first, but then…? Plummy fruit without a finish of any kind. Where’s the rest of the wine? (3/09)

Valli 2007 Pinot Noir Waitaki (Central Otago) – Intense blueberry. Very juicy. Pulses at the core. Piercing at first, but it’s all upfront; the wine’s finish goes nowhere, leaving only a lingering hint of tannin. (3/09)

Mud House “Swan” 2007 Pinot Noir Bendigo (Central Otago) – Smoky/musty raspberry, beet, and sugarplum. OK, but there’s a candied element that detracts. (3/09)

Carrick 2007 Pinot Noir (Central Otago) – Toast and char. Extremely ungenerous. Hard throughout. Whatever killed this wine – and it’s most certainly, if prematurely, dead – must include the barrels. (3/09)

Pinot noir is New Zealand’s second most planted variety. That’s sort of staggering to think about; more than any of the Bordeaux grapes, more than syrah, more than pinot gris, and even more than chardonnay. If sauvignon blanc is the grape on which New Zealand’s commercial fortunes rest, pinot noir is the grape in which its qualitative reputation is almost solely invested. (At least for now, that is; syrah has shown great promise, though finding a market for it will be a different issue.)

But while a good deal of international hype has been whipped up over the quality and potential quality of the country’s pinots, there are four factors that hold it back: ripeness, price, quantity, and identity.

New Zealand’s top pinot noir producers have concluded that pushed-ripeness (“overripe,” if one prefers a value judgment) pinot noir is, at best, a controversial product. For many, the quest is not for more, but rather for less, and some even bottle their reserve bottlings only in what might, by the rules of Burgundy and other regions, be considered the “lesser” (that is, cooler and less ripe) years. Of course, good wines are produced at many different conceptions of ripeness. Yet most winemakers acknowledge that it is all too easy for them to make monster pinot noir, and many feel that it is not in their interest to do so. (On this point I agree with them, but that’s obviously based on my personal preferences.)

Price is a persistent issue with pinot noir from anywhere; the tariff for entry into the realm of quality pinot noir is usually fairly high, and attempts to find cheaper alternatives are rarely met with success. This is no less true in New Zealand, and the above notes bear this out; a little less than half the wines are under $20, and the vast majority of those range from nearly-undrinkable to, at best, drinkable simplicity. Among the country’s best pinot noirs (not, in general, represented in these notes), prices ranging from around $40 to the higher double-digit realms are the norm; the triple-digit super-cuvées with which a few overreaching New Zealand producers have experimented haven’t found traction here, as yet.

Of course, wherever there’s good pinot noir, there’s not much of it. The very best wines are, like the best pinots from pretty much everywhere else, small-production entities. (Site-specific bottlings aren’t yet a major factor; New Zealanders’ caution in this area is warranted and admirable, since many vineyards are far too young to have clearly separable terroir signatures, and clonal identities are, in many wines, far more dominant at the moment.) The most cultish bottlings are snapped up by locals via long-closed mailing lists, and the rest must service not only the homeland, but also many other markets in which New Zealand has had a longer presence than it has had in the States. So to speak of high-quality, limited production pinot noir is one thing, but to actually acquire a selection is another. The promotion challenges are considerable; if there are only a dozen cases available for the entire United States, and some of that must be opened for otherwise-unfamiliar retailers, sommeliers, and press, there’s not going to be much wine to sell. And thus, there’s not much chance of marketing traction for the wine, the brand, or the grape. Larger-production wines do better at this, but as the above notes indicate, many of those wines aren’t very good, which is a brand-building danger of its own.

All of these factors contribute to the difficult question of New Zealand pinot noir’s identity in the worldwide marketplace. The wines that are available everywhere are “cheap for pinot”, but in reality aren’t all that cheap…and, mostly, aren’t all that good either. Many better wines are only anecdotally available, and most certainly aren’t cheap. The existence of the former damages the case for the latter, but the general unavailability of the latter makes it impossible to counter this effect.

And that’s not even the biggest problem. Putting aside “commoditized” pinot noir for a moment, quality-oriented wines from this grape must compete in a world marketplace that is rather laden with options from elsewhere, priced pretty much the same. Lovers of a riper, more full-throttled “Californian” style will find wines from New Zealand that fit their palate, but in tiny quantities and equivalent prices, so what – other than pure curiosity – is their impetus to explore the category? Lovers of a more restrained, “Burgundian” style will find wines made with that philosophy in mind, whether or not the wines actually taste Burgundian (mostly, they don’t; if there’s any region with which the wines have a vague kinship, it’s the Willamette Valley), but this is an audience that’s very, very resistant to New World pinot noir…and again, the prices for wines of equivalent quality are not particularly divergent. So again, what’s the motivation to shift funds from one to the other?

Given that most (though certainly not all) New Zealand producers’ best pinot noirs are deliberate attempts to scale back New World-style ripeness, it’s crucial that these wines be placed in front of critics, traders, and consumers who dislike the more powerful style. Only then will any market presence be enhanced. The wines will always be a difficult sell, but here is where their low quantities become a virtue; the audience doesn’t have to be huge to sell through the wines.

And further progress must be made on the “bargain pinot” front. There is evidence that pinot noir of quality, if not necessarily much complexity, can be made in New Zealand. Many of the best producers bottle a forward, fresh, “drink now” bottling specifically targeting this market; these wine, rather than wretched mass-market cheapies, must come to represent New Zealand pinot noir in the popular mindset, or consumers will always be wary of “trading up” to the pricier wines. Nothing from this tasting better exemplifies the necessary qualities than the Wild Earth “Blind Trail” from the Central Otago, which often retails for under $20. No, it won’t make anyone forget Chambolle-Musigny, or for that matter Domaine Drouhin Oregon, but then again it’s not supposed to.

Unfortunately, the rather high percentage of wines in this tasting that come from Marlborough does not represent the best path towards this goal. There aren’t many regions in the world where pinot noir and sauvignon blanc grow to high quality side-by-side, and based on the evidence thus far Marlborough isn’t about to add itself to that list. To be sure, there are quality pinots made in the region (and a tiny number of real stars), but there are very few versus the total number produced. Overall, 45% of New Zealand’s pinot noir comes from its most industrial region, followed by 28% from the hype-heavy Central Otago (rife with young vines and untested potential, despite the hype), just 11% from its (so far) best region – the Wairarapa, including Martinborough – and a relative trickle from Nelson, the Waipara, and elsewhere. This is not a recipe for progress.

Within the confines of this tasting, it would be a rather lengthy process to list the failures, for they are numerous. Of special note, however, have to be those wines that grossly under-perform at their price points; those include Spy Valley, Amisfield (a perennial underachiever), Whitehaven, Palliser Estate, Huia, Isabel, and – most shockingly for me, since I’ve liked the wine in the past – Carrick. There are some surprising names on that list.

The successes? At the lower end – which is relative for this grape – Palliser Estate “Pencarrow”, Stoneleigh, Nobilo “Icon”, Vavasour, and the Babich “Winemakers’ Reserve” perform well, though all are surpassed by the quality/price ratio of the Wild Earth “Blind Trail”. At the higher end, Wild Earth and Muddy Water are the only real standouts.

Riesling star

[riesling at kahurangi estate]Here’s part three of a New Zealand Winegrowers trade tasting; the first part covered sauvignon blanc, the second with pinot noir, and everything else will appear in the fourth installment. Notes are of the hit-and-run variety due to the format, so please read them in that context.

Saint Clair “Vicar’s Choice” 2008 Riesling (Marlborough) – Varietally true, but that’s about all to be said about it. Light, with an equally light sense of sweetness. Drinkable but dull. (3/09)

Babich 2007 “Dry” Riesling (Marlborough) – Loaded with mercaptans. Sharp as a razor, but fruitless. Flat. Boring. (3/09)

Spy Valley 2007 Riesling (Marlborough) – Slight sweetness, apple, gritty steel, and a few drips of petrol. Long. Not bad, albeit simple. (3/09)

Palliser Estate 2007 Riesling (Martinborough) – Intense lime, lemon, and limestone, but the wine is balanced rather than enormous or top-heavy. In fact, the balance is rather impressive. A wine of substance. The quibble is the a lack of complexity, though it’s young and there’s plenty of time. (3/09)

Dry River 2007 Riesling Craighall “Amaranth” (Martinborough) – Vivid. Crushed glass and rocks, both liquefied. Excellent acid/sugar balance. Incredibly pure. Very, very, very long. Incredible, and clearly the best wine of the entire tasting. (3/09)

Waimea “Spinyback” 2007 Riesling (Nelson) – Wet and fun. Slate. Fruit-forward, with slight tropicality. A bit simple, but good, with some potential upside as the wine ages. (3/09)

Neudorf 2007 Riesling Brightwater (Nelson) – Slightly reduced but still accessible. Mineral-dominated (gravel and sand). Dried Granny Smith apple. High-quality. (3/09)

Allan Scott 2007 Riesling (Marlborough) – Grassy. Light green plum. Synthetic finish. Very simple. (3/09)

Villa Maria “Cellar Selection” 2007 Riesling (Marlborough) – Ultra-clean and “perfect,” but it lacks the additional intensity and/or complexity it would need to achieve greatness. Long, dry, and mineral-overwhelmed (mostly because there’s not much else), with little future indicated. Still, a good enough wine for early drinking. (3/09)

Mud House 2007 Riesling (Waipara) – A hollow balloon of dusty minerality, lime rind, and grapefruit. Short. (3/09)

Mount Grey 2007 Riesling (Waipara) – Rich, silky, and tropical. Not enough acidity. Some plastic weirdness, as well. (3/09)

Amisfield 2007 “Dry” Riesling (Central Otago) – A smoked crystal core with a hint of cherry. Dark, brooding, and earthy. Quite enticing. (3/09)

Felton Road 2007 Riesling (Central Otago) – Lots of sugar, front-loaded and obvious, but with the requisite acidity to match it. An explosion of apples follows. Big and long. Wow. (3/09)

Forget sauvignon blanc. The future of New Zealand white winedom might be riesling.

Of course, it will take a long while before we’ll know whether or not this is true. For one thing, the vines tend to be very, very young (the oldest in New Zealand are in the hands of an unfortunately commercial winery). For another, they’re not always planted on the best sites (that is to say, few know where the actual “best sites” are, as yet). Additionally, the market for riesling is a fickle and frequently absent one, even in the best of cases. But New Zealand riesling plantings and exports continue to rise on a slow-but-steady incline, according to the data. So while there’s not explosive demand or supply, there’s a growing interest. Slow, steady growth suits this slow, steady grape.

Stylistically, most New Zealand riesling of note is off-dry. Dry versions of quality are rare. Fully sweet and/or botrytized versions tend to be better, but are ubiquitous enough that there’s a lot of tedium and indifference, much of it overpriced, some of it well-priced to no good effect. Outright sweet riesling is harder than people think.

Regionally, there’s no one source of excitement. Martinborough, Marlborough, Nelson, Waipara/Canterbury, Central Otago…all have promising (and less so) wines to show to the world. Potential diversity is thus suggested, but it will take years to work out the shape of that diversity.

In this tasting, it’s clear that the median point for riesling is higher than it is for any other grape on offer (and based on my historical tastings, this is generally true). I don’t believe this indicates something fundamental about inherent varietal quality, but rather a disinterest in mucking about with this particular grape as a function of its lack of popularity. Were these sauvignon blancs, they’d be focus-grouped to death, with the concomitant cellar machinations following. But riesling? Many wineries will ask: what’s the point? The result is, overall, better wine, with fewer lows. And the highs? Slightly higher as a percentage of the total, I’d say, though that’s an unscientific assessment.

Obviously, the Dry River and the Felton Road are the stars of this tasting, though the Amisfield, Neudorf, and Palliser Estate are all high-quality wines. The Dry River needs to be good at its price, which is nearly twice that of any other wine. Is it worth it? Yeah, probably.

Finally, a note: in 2002, Villa Maria told me that they were exerting a special focus on what they referred to as “Alsatian varieties.” Villa Maria is a huge, sometimes industrial, producer, but as they’re family owned, they don’t have to engage in the ridiculous market-whoring contortions that many publicly-traded wineries suffer. As such, I think their “Alsatian” focus represents an honest belief that there’s real potential for that particular palette of grapes in New Zealand. Villa Maria knows their market and their country’s overall potential as well as anyone, so theirs is an opinion I take seriously.

Kiwi cornucopia

[mid-veraison grapes]Here’s the final installment of a New Zealand Winegrowers trade tasting; the first part dealt with sauvignon blanc, the second with pinot noir, and the third with riesling. Everything else is here. Notes are of the hit-and-run variety due to the format, so please read them in that context.

Kim Crawford 2008 “Unoaked” Chardonnay (Gisborne/Hawke’s Bay) – Sweet tropical candy. Dried fruit. Rainier cherry? Eh. (3/09)

Babich 2008 “Unoaked” Chardonnay (Marlborough) – Bitter but clean. Rinds and gravel. Seems off-dry. OK. (3/09)

Villa Maria “Private Bin” 2008 Chardonnay (Marlborough) – Ripe orange and fig with a hint of butter. Big, clean, and nice. This is what cheap chardonnay should taste like. (3/09)

Oyster Bay 2008 Chardonnay (Marlborough) – Spice and milk. Is there fruit? It’s hard to say. Worked to death, and no fun. (3/09)

Chardonnay is being abandoned as a commodity grape in New Zealand. That’s not a reflection of plantings – it’s quite widely-grown, though it pales in comparison to sauvignon blanc, and isn’t even quite as popular as pinot noir – but a reflection of its marketing, which is mostly nonexistent in the States. (In New Zealand itself, things are a little different.) And – I can’t believe I’m about to say this – it’s a shame.

The unoaked style has fresh potential on the ground in its country of origin, but as an export wine isn’t of much use; it’s probably not worth the tariff to get these friendly, simple wines to other shores. However, the fruit intensity of the better New Zealand chardonnays (most of which are oaked to some degree) is so vivid and pure that it would be a shame to abandon the grape. None of which are represented here, in my opinion, and it’s true that the world hardly needs more chardonnay, but I think there’s real potential that, while not going untapped, is perhaps going unrealized by worldwide consumers.

One caveat on the preceding notes: these chardonnays were tasted immediately after the sauvignon blancs, and (in my opinion) suffered in contrast with the acidity and green intensity of that grape.

Hans 2007 Viognier (Marlborough) – Lanolin and pretty flowers. Oil, peanut, some spice. Oak? I’m not sure. Fantastic flavors, though they’re sticky and thick. Lurid, as many viogniers are. Not bad? Particular, for sure. (3/09)

I keep tasting interesting viogniers from New Zealand, and then returning to find they’ve fallen on harder times. It’s a cranky grape, for sure, with as many detractors as fans. But if there’s potential, and someone can figure out how to retain some acid in the wine, there’s probably a market.

Nobilo “Regional Collection” 2008 Pinot Grigio (East Coast) – Big yellow/white/green fruit with a flat finish. Simple and boring. (3/09)

Nautilus 2008 Pinot Gris (Marlborough) – Very sweet and spicy. Wobbly Wine as Pop Rocks. (3/09)

Te Mara 2008 Pinot Gris (Central Otago) – Sticky pear, spice, and minerality. Good intensity. Vivid. Neon-electric. I’d call this a CGI pinot gris, and in a good way, but it’s not for everyone. (3/09)

Spy Valley 2007 Pinot Gris (Marlborough) – Grass, pear skin. Balanced but insignificant. (3/09)

Hans 2007 Pinot Gris (Marlborough) – Lotion, dried pear. A lingering impression of something being fried, though it’s not clear what. Weird and not very good. (3/09)

There has been an explosion of pinot gris in New Zealand. Why? Ask winemakers. When they’re being honest, they’ll tell you that it’s a mystery to them, as well. But they’ll be in the process of making one while they tell you that. Whether there’s an insatiable demand for the grape, or just a demand “created” by the fact that there’s rather a lot to sell, the fact is that New Zealand is awash in the stuff.

Fruit-forward, a little sweet, and flaw-free. That’s the recipe for a successful commercial white wine, and so much pinot gris from New Zealand is made this way that its cash-cow role is rather clear to see. But there’s a problem. It’s not that so few rise to any real significance, it’s that even among the bottlings that don’t try, few of them are of much interest at all. In fact, some winemakers will – with an embarrassed tone – tell you exactly that, if you ask. And yet, they’re producing the wine in ever-increasing quantities. By the numbers, less than 200 hectares in 2000 have become over 1300 hectares in 2008, and exports have skyrocketed from 200,000 liters in 2004 to almost 1,300,000 liters in 2008. Who’s buying this stuff? No one I know. Yet there must be a market somewhere. Asia? The UK? Australia?

Pinot gris can be interesting in two ways: rich, mineralistic, and spicy in the mode of Alsace (and the only successful wine of this tasting, the Te Mara, is in that style), or mineral-driven but clean and clear, in the mode of regions Germanic and northeastern Italy. Otherwise, it’s a boring grape that makes offensively inoffensive wine.

Much more is going to have to be done with the grape to convince me that it’s worthwhile for so much of it to be produced in New Zealand. For now, it’s their California chardonnay. And I don’t mean that as a compliment.

Spy Valley 2005 Gewürztraminer (Marlborough) – Mercaptans. Old cashews and tin. Useless. (3/09)

While I’ve often said that gewürztraminer is a grape with which New Zealand could make a big international splash, had they only the will, the fact is that there’s no worldwide clamor for alternative gewürztraminer sources. (In fact, New Zealand’s exports of gewürztraminer fell last year.) Certainly this wine will do nothing to convince anyone. Look to Gisborne and Martinborough for much, much, much better examples, the best of which hold their heads high in the company of Alsace, the unquestioned best region for the grape.

Monkey Bay 2007 Rosé (East Coast) – Disgusting synthetic aromas and flavors. Blech. (3/09)

No comment.

Oyster Bay 2007 Merlot (Hawke’s Bay) – Watermelon Jolly Rancher. In a merlot? No thanks. (3/09)

Kennedy Point 2005 Merlot (Waikehe Island) – Blueberry soup with biting tannin. Ick. (3/09)

Villa Maria “Private Bin” 2007 Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon (Hawke’s Bay) – Herbed blueberry and blackberry. Simple, clean, and good according to the nose. But the palate? Baked. And the finish is horrid. (3/09)

Trinity Hill 2006 Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon Gimblett Gravels “The Gimblett” (Hawke’s Bay) – Chunky peanut butter, which melds with a gravelly texture. Incredibly rough. Uninteresting despite the terroir signature. (3/09)

Hans 2001 Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon “Spirit of Marlborough” (Marlborough) – Ripe fruit (mostly black), fresh tobacco, smoke, and black dirt. A bit short and unsubstantial, but OK. (3/09)

There are quality wines made from the Bordeaux varieties in New Zealand. Obviously, none are represented above (and the prices being asked for these wines are ludicrous in relation to their quality), but they absolutely do exist. And not just from Hawke’s Bay, though that’s where current attention is focused. Waiheke Island has its stars, certainly, but the rest of the (largely unknown in the U.S.) Auckland-surrounding and Northland appellations have potential. Elsewhere, it’s very much a producer-by-producer thing.

Kennedy Point 2007 Syrah (Waiheke Island) – Cassis, blueberry, and cranberry with a long, sugary finish. No good. (3/09)

Trinity Hill 2007 Syrah Gimblett Gravels (Hawke’s Bay) – Blueberry, bark, smoke, and dirt. Drinkable. (3/09)

The Australia-New Zealand rivalry in so many things rarely intrudes on matters vinous. In fact, for a long while the industries complemented each other’s markets: New Zealand imported a lot of hefty Australian reds, while Australia provided a ready market for New Zealand’s crisp, clean whites. Each seemed to be able to fill a perceived hole in the other’s stylistic range. Often, the only time Australia would come up in discussions with New Zealand winemakers would be as contrast to a fairly widespread belief that, given New Zealand’s climates, looking to Australia for viticultural advice would be a mistake. Yes, New Zealand is very clearly a New World producer, and this is reflected in their wines, but in terms of philosophy it was decided that Europe would be the model.

In making this choice, New Zealand chose a difficult path for itself, because the slow advance of vine age, the painstaking revelation of terroir, and the endless search for complexity, balance, and soul necessary to model an industry after Europe (for whether or not one agrees with these characterizations, those are the beliefs being pursued) are not aligned with the most commercially successful New World winemaking practices. New Zealand’s successes have, in fact, come largely along those latter lines: fruit-forward, varietally-designated wines that make an immediate impression. Yet it’s clear, especially from the relentless focus on pinot noir – that most difficult of grapes – that the aspiration to do otherwise remains. And each year, a few more New Zealand wines enter into a conversation in which they can hold their own with their inspirations. Not equality, yet, but quality.

In that process, a minor revelation has snuck up on New Zealand’s winemakers: they can produce high-quality syrah. And that while, at its best, it doesn’t taste like European syrah, it tastes a lot less like Australian shiraz. Power, intensity, concentration…these are not its calling cards. But earth? Underbrush? Sensitivity to terroir? They’re coming along.

New Zealanders can barely contain their glee. No, they’re never going to “beat” the commercial dominance of Aussie shiraz – they could never produce that sort of quantity, even if they uprooted all the sheep and replaced them with syrah vines – but they could, perhaps, drive a deep wedge into a notion that the source for quality New World syrah is their much larger neighbor to the northwest. And they can do it by directly appealing to those who find many Australian shirazes (and some of their Californian and South African counterparts) too brawny. As anyone familiar with the Aussie/Kiwi rivalry can imagine, there’s not much resistance to this idea.

Supposition? Speculation? Not really. Consider: the grape is, almost universally, called syrah – not shiraz – on New Zealand bottles. That’s no accident.

As for the wines in this tasting? They obviously won’t convince anyone of anything.

Children of Doon

[cigare blanc bottle]Here are some notes from a brief visit to Bonny Doon’s soon-to-be-former tasting room in a beautifully forested back corner of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

I’ve requested an appointment (identified as press), rather than just dropping in, and the only benefit seems to be that I taste a few more wines than casual visitors, though no more than their wine club members (one of whom stops in for a tasting while I’m there). It’s a shame, because I’d have liked to learn a little bit more about what they’re doing. But many of my questions are not answerable by the tasting room staff (who are otherwise quite engaging), and others go unasked because I’m not the only customer.

The only facts I really discover are the details of the winery’s recent and rather extreme downshift over the last few years – 500,000 cases in 2006, 30-35,000 cases in 2008 – and that biodynamic certification was received for one of their vineyards (Ca’ del Solo) in 2007, with more on the horizon.

Bonny Doon 2006 “Le Cigare Blanc” (California) – 75% grenache blanc, 35% roussanne, from vineyards in Arroyo Seco. Stone fruit, sand, and spice…then intense apricot and blood orange with slightly less spice…then slight vegetation as the wine winds down. This sort of phase-shifting isn’t, I find, unusual with Rhônish whites that aren’t pushed to (or past) the limits of ripeness. All that said, the most appealing element of the wine is actually its gravelly texture. There’s enough acidity for balance, and great persistence, but I think this wine is not everything it could strive to be. (9/08)

Bonny Doon “Ca’ del Solo” 2007 Orange Muscat (Monterey County) – Less than 1% residual sugar despite all organoleptic evidence to the contrary, which actually isn’t all that unusual for muscat. Orange peel perfume and medium-sweet fruit make this overwhelmingly approachable, but the wine’s fatness is only broken by acidity late into its finish. Some crystals – which they just love at Bonny Doon – are perhaps present as a sort of foundation. This could be better. (9/08)

Bonny Doon 2006 “Vin Gris de Cigare” (California) – A pinkish blend of grenache, cinsault, syrah, grenache blanc, and roussanne. Dried grapefruit and other citrus rinds, with some of them in candied form. Lavender, as well. Good weight and balance. Long. The wine turns more rind-dominated on the finish, but this is only to its benefit. Elegant and quite tasty. (9/08)

Bonny Doon “Ca’ del Solo” 2005 Sangiovese (San Benito County) – There are dollops of nero d’avola, cinsault, and colorino here. What do they add? I’m not sure. An intense nose of mixed jellies – plum, blueberry, blackberry – fades to simpler multi-hued cherries by the finish, there’s a tannic bite that grates with underripeness as the wine lingers, and a fairly significant amount of acidity adds to what eventually becomes a general and growing sensation of off-putting weediness. Eh. (9/08)

Bonny Doon 2005 Syrah Bien Nacido (Santa Maria Valley) – Soulful. A beautiful nose (a sequel to the tedious Russell Crowe flick) of blackberry and leather, plus mint, promises much. The texture is plush, but without sacrificing a pleasantly herbal earthiness not usually found amidst this level of luxuriance. Balanced and very structured, with the clear intention of and potential for ageability. If there’s a flaw, it’s a touch of stretch and green to the tannin, which is worth keeping an eye on as the wine matures. (9/08)

Bonny Doon 2004 “Le Cigare Volant” (California) – 38% grenache, 35% syrah, 12% mourvèdre, 8% carignan, 7% cinsault. Surprisingly Rhônish. Meat, underbrush, herbs, and sap. Juicy and approachable, but very well-knit. I like this a lot, less because the elements are superior than because the wine carries itself with palpable confidence. (9/08)

Beauregard 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon (High Valley) – A little cross-promotion from the winery up the driveway from Bonny Doon’s tasting room. I can’t say I’m a fan. Coconut, dill, and stale chocolate are not aromas I crave. A juicy texture, sour acidity, and overly-rounded tannins aren’t the droids structure I’m looking for, either. And the finish is weird. Don’t just avoid, run away. (9/08)

Bonny Doon 2005 Viognier Doux (Paso Robles) – 12.2% alcohol, 12.8 grams residual sugar, 500 ml bottle. All the aromatics here are in the honey genre. While big, the wine’s got an extremely appealing silken texture with a little edge of bitterness on the finish. There’s little more to it, but it hardly seems to matter. Pure fun. (9/08)

Bonny Doon 2004 Recioto of Barbera (Monterey County) – 14.5% alcohol, 7.2% grams residual sugar, 500 ml bottle. The nose here is lovely – full of crushed raisins – despite the bottle being open for twenty-four hours. This probably explains the bit of fade to the palate and a perimeter that’s more enticing than the center, but the wine retains a certain crispness and edge, with apple-toned acidity. More remarkably, this lacks the persistent (and to me, a sensitive, often deal-breaking) flaw of recioto-styled wines: volatile acidity. If there’s any here, it’s below my threshold of detection…and that threshold is legendarily low. Nicely done. (9/08)

The current “buzz” on Bonny Doon is that shedding its mass-market brands (primarily the Big House lineup) and a lot of the experimental tomfoolery has made them more focused and, overall, better. But I always liked the mass-market wines as very tasty examples of the genre, and I don’t know if I see clear evidence of re-dedication to top quality; Bonny Doon has usually made “good” wines, and these continue in that vein. Every wine – except perhaps the rosé – lacks something that would push it into a higher qualitative echelon. That said, there’s time enough to see what happens; the new paint here is still very wet.

After my tasting, I buy a bottle, unpack some lunch, and enjoy a mostly restful meal at a picnic table adjacent to the tasting room. “Mostly restful” because I’m interrupted by a full twenty minutes of battle with an inquisitive (or hungry) bee. Anyway, a revisit:

Bonny Doon 2006 “Le Cigare Blanc” (California) – Honeydew melon, pear, spice, and tan earth rumbled with gravel. Warmth does not help the wine, though air seems to, so I’d suggest decanting and then the fridge. (9/08)