Greybeard’s Corner – May 2011

With the Rapture due to decimate the world on May 21st it hardly seemed worth researching this article, but luckily the end of the world has now been postponed until October 21st so we have a few more months to enjoy the fruits of the vine and the worldly pleasures associated with it. Sadly there were several news pieces that initially followed the themes of Disease, Death, Devastation and Destruction.

May got off of to a poor start with the Cancer Council of Australia damning drink with the doom-laden “alcohol is clearly one of the most carcinogenic products in common use”  and launching TV ads in Australia where a spilled glass of red wine symbolises the spread of cancer (the beer and spirits more usually associated with alcohol abuse obviously don’t have the same visual impact) – all of this prompting a written response by the Winemaker’s Federation of Australia. Wine Spectator reviewed the fallout a few days later.

Less than a month after the death of Jess Jackson another Californian great passed away when Mike Lee of Kenwood  succumbed to a heart attack while playing Golf, the Wine Enthusiast paying tribute to his life and times.

There was devastation from the elements in Germany and California as Spring frost hit both side of the globe: Decanter reported on -5oC (23oF)  temperatures at the beginning of May hitting Pfalz, Rheinhessen, Franken and Württemberg vineyards with their worst frost for 30 years while California’s Central Coast gets the same treatment less than a week later, with Paso Robles most severely affected and subsequently Wines & Vines reporting on up to 30% crop loss in affected areas. The California frost actually hit in April, but it wasn’t until May that the media started reporting the news.

Man-made destruction also made the headlines as German politicians pushed the controversial Mosel Bridge plan forward – Decanter summarised the saga so far while Jancis Robinson, a vocal opponent of the plan, re-posted Sarah Washington’s emotional blog piece to the greater wine world. Regardless of the wine world’s distaste it seems inevitable now that the bridge will be built, the vineyards affected will have to adapt and all that is left is to observe.

Luckily there were some less depressing stories to be found as well, starting with the shock news that Vintage 2010 in Bordeaux is very good! UK merchants Berry Bros place it at least the equal of 2005 and superior to the lauded 2009, as reported by Harpers Wine & Spirit.

In the monthly Decanter Magazine their 2011 Power List was published on the 50 top movers & shakers in the Wine World. In a sign of the times I applaud the 16th placed “Amateur Wine Blogger” and 38th placed Eric LeVine of CellarTracker as recognition and acceptance of Social Media and the internet in 21st Century Wine.

More controversial was the furore surrounding the supposed comments of Rhône wine guru Michel Chapoutier who has expanded his interests into Alsace with the setting up of the Shieferkopf label. Decanter sensationally headlined “Petrol smell in Riesling ‘a mistake’” in their short article which lit the fuse for a host of parry & riposte comments (36 to date on, something of a record for them) and in subsequent articles and social media. But how many delved deeper than the inflammatory title to find out that Chapoutier was apparently referring to his views on young Riesling? (which came to light in an interview on Drinks Media Wire – “If some, following my comment on this defect in young Riesling wines, understood that I was talking about old Riesling wines: it has never been the case”). Whether Decanter deliberately omitted the “young” in their article to raise debate, or Chapoutier himself forgot to clarify in the knowledge it would generate significant attention to him (and his wines) I can’t speculate – but someone was definitely playing a PR game.

However if more proof was needed on the joys of Life after Rapture then where else to look but the heart-warming news of the twin girls born to Gina Gallo and Jean-Charles Boisset (both of whom appear in the Decanter power list at positions 15 and 25 respectively) announced in Wine Spectator as the month drew to a close – I’ll raise a glass to the continuing health of both daughters and parents.

And so to my little corner of the world where one local retailer dominated proceedings – Richard Granger based in the Jesmond area of Newcastle. Manager Alastair Stewart prepared a thoroughly informative tasting for the May NEWTS meeting focussing on North East Italy, before hosting a Spanish tasting at the store the following week.

For the NEWTS there was a representative range from Trentino Alto Adige, Friuli Venezia Giulia and  Veneto with both indigenous & international varieties covering modern and classical styles, starting with a just-interesting-enough Prosecco Donna Trevigiana from Valdobbiadene as an aperitif. Out of the 8 red and white wines tasted there was an example in each colour of a great value drinking wine and a superb wine but at a price most would walk away from.

QPR in white was represented by the Monte del Fra Custoza 2009, a mixing bowl of Garganega, Trebbiano Toscano, Tocai Fruilano and Cortese (with a soupçon of Chardonnay, Riesling Italico and Sauvignon for good measure). This wine was the well balanced sum of its many parts; herbal and floral aromatics, medium-full bodied with good structure, a little oily, a little sweet, a little dry and a little bitter, leaving a textured finish on the palate. It was exactly my style of interesting and unusual for only £9.42.

The Pieropan La Rocca 2008 Soave Classico, on the other hand, was an example of a great Italian white at an equally “great” price, £23.82. This single vineyard gives late harvested Garganega is fermented and aged in large oak casks, giving a long-finishing, citrus themed, multi-dimensional wine with layered complexity and texture over flavour. Comparisons to Condrieu were made, which seemed appropriate for the price as well!

QPR in red went to the Tenuta Lena di Mezzo 2007 Valpolicella Classico Superiore Ripasso (also from the Monte del Fra stable). This had a mature nose suggesting acidity and a rich, slightly sweet taste with a hint of raisins. Mocha tannins quickly become evident and on the mid-palate a bitterness joins in through to the finish, but in good balance with all the other components. At £13.86 it may seem pricey for a good value wine, but for me this was into 4 star territory and therefore a bargain!

Also in that 4 star zone was the final wine of the night, the Ripasso’s big brother – the Tenuta Lena di Mezzo 2005 Scarnocchia, Amarone della Valpolicella Classico. I adore Amarone so this was always going to be popular with me, but the quality shone through as soon as I took a sniff of the beautiful enamel, smoke and baked chocolate aroma. In the mouth it was luscious; perfectly balanced with well integrated bitter tannins offset by a dense richness. This was a powerful, taught wine although still young – I’d give it at least 3 more years before trying the inky black juice again – however, as you’d expect from a single vineyard Amarone aged for over two years in oak, then another year in bottle before release, this was never going to be cheap and the £44.58 price tag meant that everyone in the room would have taken 3 bottles of the Ripasso instead with change to spare.

I met Alastair again in his compact but cosy store just over a week later for one of the regular Richard Granger tasting evenings, this time trying 9 dry wines from Spain accompanied by Spanish themed nibbles to reinforce the sound principle that most wine is made for enjoyment with food.

2 delicious Albariño from Bodegas Martín Códax (who was a 13th century Galician minstrel) showed the quality of this grape and region; both wines giving a creamy mouthfeel with a clean citrus taste but with the 2008 Organistrum (named for a curious 2 person musical instrument) raising the flavours to a higher level and showing a deeper honeyed nose with richer, longer finish. The Organistrum has a 3 month malo-lactic fermentation in oak which makes it my first ever wooded Albariño, although the use of oak was well handled and not overtly evident in the taste. Unfortunately both wines suffer from the effect of Albariño’s popularity and rarity: a price that often doesn’t match the relative quality. Here £11.52 and £19.80 were just about defendable as good examples of the style, but there are many other whites I’d put my money towards first.

Onto the reds and all 5 we tried were well structured wines with generous fruit, each backing up my own feeling that Spanish reds are a relatively safe bet in the £7-£25 range. My favourites were;

  • Museum Real 2005 Reserva from Cigales (£16.02); the archetypal Spanish nose of dark red fruit and sweet oak which was a surprising foil for spicy Chorizo,
  • Marqués de Murrieta 2004 Reserva from Rioja Alta (£18.60); a restrained nose that developed in the glass and an elegant taste with plenty of smooth tannins,
  • Mas la Moia 2006 Priorat (£26.40), more smooth elegance with chocolate tannins and a dash of sour funk” which I appreciated.

The final wine was the Hacienda Monasterio 2005 Reserva from Ribero del Duero, a gentle wine that caressed the palate with subtle textures, but had a fundamental lack of fruit which couldn’t live with its £47 price.

Now on a normal month that would be the end of my local tales, but May continued to give! It was my partner Sarah’s birthday mid-month so a long awaited trip to the award winning Feathers Inn was called for, given that it is less than 10 miles from where I live the fact I haven’t visited before is somewhat criminal. Along with delicious afternoon lunches the pub has a solid and reasonably priced wine list which saw the Chamuyo 2009 Argentinian Malbec match my lamb’s liver main, while Sarah proved patriotic with a glass of Three Choirs “The English House” white with her lasagne – the food and the wine were significantly superior to a meal at the Italian-American Frankie & Benny’s Diner a couple of weeks earlier (where the wine was practically undrinkable).

Good food continued at the end of the month with the NEWTS Spring dinner at the Newcastle College Chef’s Academy, where the three courses were washed down with the member’s own selection of BYO bottles. Although my own offering, the 2005 Château Pesquie Quintessence Blanc, was horribly oxidised there were more than enough bottles to share around and we finished off with a delicious Quinta do Noval 20 year old port bottled in 1973. Even though 20 year old tawny port is ready for drinking when bottled this one had aged gracefully and its hot, rich raisin, caramel and toffee flavours were savoured by all at our table (and a couple of passersby!).

On the home front and I managed to buy in 13 new bottles for the collection, as much as in March and April combined. I’m particularly looking forward to seeing if there’s any life left in a Borgo San Michelle 2000 Taurasi, how the 2008 Au Bon Climat Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir and the 2007 Van Volxem Alte Reben Saar Riesling compare to their earlier(and delicious) vintages, and whether the 2009 Château Musar Jeune shows any of the character of its more venerable siblings. However, it was mainly  a month of sweeties with a 2001 5-Puttonyos Tokaji Aszu, a 2004 Passito di Pantelleria, the Lustau PX San Emilio and Torres Floralis Moscatel Oro all promising sweet and unctuous enjoyment over the coming year or two.

As for home consumption, 11 bottles contributed to the local glass recycling scheme, sadly two of them spoiled (along with the oxidised Pesquie a decidedly corked South African red from Noble Hill). Luckily two bottles stood head and shoulders above the rest, both from California.

First was the Destino 2007 Late Harvest Viognier from Lodi, a divine dessert wine with a nutty, baked fruit aroma, a strong butterscotch flavour with a little honey, candied stone fruit and a thick textured which coated the mouth leading to a very long finish. Four stars all the way this was in 92-93pts territory and easily the best sweet wine I’ve had, sadly relegating a Tokaji Aszu into second place!

Our second notable Californian came from Mr Eclectic himself, Randall Grahm, in the guise of the Bonny Doon 2003 Cigare Volante, but is also a lesson in the mysteries of wine development. On first opening this had a funky, slightly sweaty nose with a little stewed fruit (it also had a thick plug of sediment in the neck which required scooping out with a spoon handle!) and a lean, almost green taste with alcohol heat on the finish. My first reaction was that it was over the hill by a year or two, and it didn’t really change much over a couple of hours. Fast forward 24 hours later (a large part of that with the bottle in the refrigerator) and suddenly the whole thing had opened up; the nose was an enticing light tobacco and spice while sweet fruit and much calmed tannins caressed the palate (yes, I know I’ve already used that once already, but it is as apt here as well). I could scarcely believe it was the same wine, now heading towards 4 stars – what a difference a day makes!

Cellar trivia alert! Drinking the Destino and Cigare Volante have reduced my Californian wines to 6 bottles (including the Au Bon Climat just bought), three of which were purchased at the cellar door during my trip to the Golden State last year. This makes up barely 4% of my collection and suggests I need to do something about this, even though decent US wines are relatively expensive in the UK.

Time to polish my crystal ball and peer into the temporal ether. I predict that early readers of this article will have time to consider visiting San Francisco for Pinot Days between June 13th – 18th featuring wines from more than 200 Pinot Noir producers. Nearby and the 31st annual San Francisco International Wine Competition will be going on over June 17-19th, although you probably won’t recognise any of the judges in the street. June 14th – 16th also sees Southern California host the 8th annual California Wine Festival in Santa Barbara (remember your sun-block).

Over in Europe and the big trade event  is in Bordeaux, where Vinexpo 2011 runs between 19th and 23rd June. This year Italian wine seems to be getting the lion’s share of exposure in the programme.

Moving into July and back to California when the 16th sees Passport Day for the Wineries of the Santa Cruz Mountains, with more than 50 wineries in the passport program from Half Moon Bay to Gilroy.

If you’re planning on attending any of these events I wish you a safe journey.



Originally published June 7th, 2011 on Reign of Terroir

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