What is it about Chardonnay?Flying back to California last Monday, I was lucky enough to score a guest pass to the ANA lounge in Tokyo airport. I was delighted to find that they had all you can drink, well, everything available, including Grace Family Vineyards koshu, which is a pretty damn good wine made from an indigenous Japanese grape that you never, ever see outside of Japan. After pouring myself a glass, I noticed a generically middle class American woman staring at my glass with a look of obvious disgust. “It’s koshu,” I said. “It’s delicious, they don’t export it, you almost never see it. Would you like to try some?” “No,” she said. “I was looking for the Chardonnay.”Later on in the week, I received an E-mail from a male reader concerning a review of a Pouilly-Fumé I’d posted earlier in the year. “You might want to change your notes on this wine. Sauvignon Blanc not CHARDONNAY…,” it read. In short, pretty much the opposite reaction: because the review contained the word “chardonnay,” it triggered disgust that I had somehow mistaken sauv blanc for chardonnay, which of course would be a most grievous offense. After all, if you’re a sauv blanc drinkin’ kind of guy, wouldn’t you be offended if someone mistook your drink for, you know, CHARDONNAY?As a result of all of this, I’m sitting here with a glass of Pouilly-Fuissé, partly because I want a glass, and partly because I want to somehow desperately prove that I do in fact know the difference between Fumé and Fuissé. So: about this wine…How do I know Chardonnay is a noble grape? Simple: I’ve had so many different tasting chardonnays in my life that the only other white grape that comes close is Riesling. With gewürztraminer or viognier, muscat or pinot gris, there aren’t too many surprises (I’m looking at you, Josko Gravner): you know what you’re in for. But with Chardonnay, well, you have to know more about where it came from and potentially something about who made it in order to know what you’re getting yourself into exactly. Me, I was never a great student, and although I’m pretty sure I once passed an exam where I had to explain why Chablis was different than other white Burgundy, I still can’t remember the details of all of the other appellations. Pouilly-Fuissé, Meursault, Montrachet, you name it: they’re not Chablis, so they’re probably manipulated more, but other than that? You got me. All I can do is describe this one wine.Strikingly bright, there’s something about this wine that doesn’t look quite right to me: it’s got that dead sheen of a filtered wine. The color’s darker than Chablis, too: if anything, it reminds me of a flat German pilsener, something like Kölsch that was left out overnight. The nose is instantly appealing, with a brief suggestion of green apple quickly subsumed by bright acidity, movie theater popcorn butter (just the tiniest amount, mind you), and the warm, sunny smell of rocks and freshly washed sheets drying in the sun after being sprayed with lavender water: it’s a friendly, moderately complex nose that smells like American perfume. In short, it smells of clean.On entry, the wine is immediately surprising, showing greater complexity than the nose would suggest. There’s an immediate suggestion of cashew butter and pear, quickly followed by apple cider, perhaps slightly oxidized notes (stupid cork!), quickly swelling to a tasteful crescendo of cream tending towards butter gently lifted by subtle oak. The texture is textbook: rich and creamy, but elegant, not overwrought. Simultaneously, there’s that sheen of incredible freshness, counterbalanced by sun-dried herbs and a curious note that frankly reminds me of those green not-quite-pickles you sometimes get in New York delis, of green youthful exuberance. The finish takes its own sweet time, oh does it ever, lazily circling through variations of spice, toast, butter, nuts, and beautifully acidic fruit.In short, it’s damn good. The only thing that gives me pause is that I honestly do wonder if the cork’s contributing something here that it shouldn’t: I occasionally get hints of creeping oxidation that I’m not sure are intentional – but they don’t particularly dent the experience, so I really can’t complain, especially at this price.
I’m on a Mountain X roll, having just written up the wonderful Jack Mattinson’s Deluxe Dry Red from 2009. Here I have now the 2008 Mountain X wine, which in this year was made from Canberra fruit as opposed to the usual Hunter Shiraz (with a dash of Yarra Pinot). The reason’s simple: 2008 was a crap vintage in the Hunter for red wines, but a great one in Canberra.
Prickles of green and brown, red and black. The aroma wraps spice and flesh in the skin of a fruit that is equal parts familiar and fictitious, not-quite-plum in its tart angularity, almost-blackberry in its brambly heat. This wine throws the sort of abstract aroma profile I associate more with fine fragrance than wine, something that approaches real life through a lens of artifice and construction. Yet it’s so earthy too, redolent of dirt roads and rough bark and things you feel as much as see. And it’s beautiful to smell.
After suffering a severe man flu for most of the week, I figured I may as well drown my sorrows on this Friday evening. So I find myself with a glass of Mike Press’s most recent Merlot in front of me. It’s a bit tricky trying to balance tasting, coughing and blowing my nose, but the quality of this wine is proving motivational.
Mike Press Wines
My tasting notes are, at times, elaborate attempts to understand and perhaps even justify a gut reaction. Indeed, I started to write notes in the first place as a way to help work through the why of my likes and dislikes (and to compensate for my shockingly bad memory). I can probably articulate a particular response better now than I could a few years ago, but what I continue to value above all else is the realisation, be it instant or gradual, that you really love a wine.
If you’re going to drink cheap Sauvignon Blanc, it had better, at the very least, be a fresh release. It had also better be characterful, a bit of a coquette perhaps, not sweet so much as fruitful, bursting with the sort of guileless enthusiasm that’s embarrassing in company but awesome when it’s just you. Except that, when you realise that you’re kind of digging it, you begin to want to share it with friends, because something this fun seems a shame to keep to yourself. And while you’re contemplating that contradiction, the smell of it yanks you back into the land of simple enjoyment, and makes you forget thoughts of wine as a mark of sophistication, or even as something that should attract your attention for more than a brief moment. And you just sniff it for fun. But then you notice some subtle cut grass on the nose, and a refreshingly bitter phenolic twist through the after palate. And you start to think this wine’s kind of punching above its weight, that there might be something more to it than you first thought. Come on, though, it’s a $17 Sauvignon Blanc, and it’s not even from New Zealand! Surely it can’t hope to present a coherent alternative to the instantly recognisable Marlborough style without resorting to residual sugar, hideously vulgar fruit character, or both. But you keep sniffing, and tasting, and it all goes down terribly well, especially with some mid-week fish and chips. You begin to realise this is, in some ways, the perfect quaffing wine, the success of which isn’t about avoiding angularity so much as having just enough sharpness to challenge your palate and prime your senses for enjoyment of the fruit-driven flavour profile. If you’re a complete wine tragic, you might even blog about the experience of drinking it. Then, fish and chips eaten, wine consumed, the memory of it disappears in a puff of smoke, and your overriding impression is simply of an evening enjoyed, relaxation, pleasure. Angullong
On Thursday evening, I tasted a range of French wines imported by Black Pearl Epicure. Most haven’t been seen in Australia before. Interestingly, the tasting was arranged for Brisbane’s wine bloggers and tweeters. So, as you might imagine, there was some furious mobile phone action as we tasted.
Last Friday, I invited some friends over to the house so that we could open two wines, drink them together, and talk for a while about the differences between the two.
I’ll start with some background: both of these wines were Verdelho. Being a Californian (and not an Australian), Verdelho basically means absolutely nothing to me. If I hadn’t had spent so much time in Australia, I likely wouldn’t have been familiar with the grape at all: it has no role in my nation’s cultural history (whereas it absolutely does in Australia’s). The first Verdelho I ever drank was most likely something I encountered whilst on vacation in Western Australia in early 2002; they seemed to be legion, with most wineries having at least one on offer. (Capel Vale, perhaps? Dang it, I should have taken better notes.)
After nine months’ travels throughout Australia, I eventually came to know Verdelho as a generically rockin’ good time: you could count on it to taste good in a simple, pleasing manner without giving you all too much to think about, and that was just fine by me. After returning home to California, I’d occasionally see Australian Verdelho gathering dust in the “miscellaneous white wine” bin in a shop; I usually picked up a bottle, took it home, and drank it mindlessly. Thanks to a strong US dollar and the utter unfashionability of the wines, prices never hit double digits and I never grew tired of them.
As always, however, I digress. I’m here to talk about these two wines in particular: the 2009 Mollydooker The Violinist Verdelho and the 2009 Scholium Project Lost Slough Vineyards Naucratis. These are both straight varietal Verdelho from the same vintage year, albeit from opposite ends of the globe. Climactically, both wines are produced from similar geographic origins; McLaren Vale, in South Australia, is relatively warm with daily summer temperatures around 90 degrees, Clarksburg, in California, is warmer still with daily summer temperatures in the high 90s. (For you Australians, that would be 32 and 36 degrees C, respectively.) In short, nothing too dramatically different.
Soils, too, are probably not wildly different; the California wine is presumably grown on poor soil, and I imagine the Aussie wine isn’t that different either. In short, probably not hugely different either.
The major difference, then, at least superficially, would be between the two wineries. One is a spinoff (or, rather, the logical next step arising from) a once phenomenally successful Australian-American wine import business that made its name during the Bush administration importing, well, hedonistic fruit bombs; Dan Philips (and Marquis-Philips, his joint venture with the Marquis family, who became Mollydooker) had the brilliant idea of critter wines on steroids: double or triple the price of cheap and cheerful Aussie imports, but with vastly superior label design, bi-national critters (google Roogle if you’d like), and delicious, high octane, pleasurable wines that seemed just the perfect thing to serve at a megachurch BBQ celebrating to invasion of Iraq.
I will pause here for a moment and apologize for the intrusion of the political in to a nominally aesthetically oriented wine blog: one of these wines was a press sample, and God knows the generosity of the winemakers should not be abused. However, if one of the objectives of shipping samples is to potentially result in interesting ways of thinking about the wine, then I suppose they’re getting their money’s worth, even if obliquely. These sorts of wines – high alcohol, usually Shiraz, occasionally lavishly yet softly oaked – seemed to have sprung up shortly after that Mission Accomplished banner did, and it seems no mere coincidence that The Grateful Palate, Dan Philips’ importing business, ceased to exist shortly after President Obama took office and not too much longer before the cessation of combat operations in Iraq. In short, I am unfairly and hopefully amusingly positing that there is an odd synchronicity at work here between the go-go Bush years, filled with foreign policy adventuring beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, and the heyday of massive, plush, jammy, hedonistic wines (at this point, I am imagining someone with a distinctly non-West Coast accent spitting them into a football helmet on YouTube, for some reason), an odd crosstalk where one informs the other, a mad rush of consumption and decadence leading… well, I’m still not sure, exactly, except for the wines, which always, always led to massive ibuprofen consumption the morning after.
Of course, again, I digress.
The other wine, the Californian one, was produced by a small winery founded by a one-time professor from a notoriously obscurantist liberal arts college where they (shudder) still teach Aristotle… in the original Greek, no less. Again curiously coincident with the disastrous economic meltdown of 2008, his wines slowly but surely came to prominence not through glowing Wine Advocate reviews, but rather through one-off New York Times articles and general Terroir (the wine bar) fandom; most reviews I’d read were faintly reminiscent of early Dooniana , filled with remarks along the lines of “I can’t drink this, but I’m excited that it exists.” Much in the mode of recent newcomers such as Field Recordings, Abe the winemaker traveled California, hunting down vineyards that might produce interesting wines; in this case, a wine from a grape no one’s ever heard of (here, at least) from an area that’s generally as well regarded as Redfern (amusingly, the small hamlet of Woodbridge, which gave its name to an ocean of crappy wine that helped bring the Mondavi family to its doom, isn’t too far away to the south).
But again: I digress. On to the tasting notes; these are courtesy of a group of six friends. Both wines were placed in the refrigerator Thursday night and removed about forty-five minutes before tasting; we were hoping for a happy medium between “cold and doesn’t taste like anything” and “warm and tastes gross.” Wines were served in two identical glasses (Spiegelau Authentis red wine); we drank slowly, talking about these for a good half hour, before finishing up for the evening.
- Both wines smell towards the sweet/syrupy end of the spectrum
- This wine… well, it doesn’t quite smell like canned peaches because it doesn’t have that tinned smell to it that California viognier does. It’s kind of like viognier, but smoother, I guess.
- This almost has kind of a sugar cane factory, cut cane, simple syrup, pineapple effect here with not much spice, just a happy go lucky sugar factory really.
- It’s a little bit floral to me, but hard to say exactly what I’m smelling here. There might be a slight amount of spiciness to it, almost a hint of black pepper… celery salt or perhaps something slightly green there? Really hard to say.
- Candied/salted spinach perhaps?
- Seems hot to me.
- Seems a much richer wine, more concentrated, perhaps even a bit of residual sugar here? Definitely very mouth filling, unctuous rich.. almost flabby. I think this might be going too far.
- This wine seems… whiter? More like white peach than yellow peach. Some minerality here, really a striking difference. Generally more “serious” and more northern Rhône than the other one; better acidity, tighter, just a tiny bit of astringency to it.
- Almost bitter, definite complexity on the finish, which lasts for quite a bit of time.
- This almost has a sort of quinine note, reminiscent of bitters, which it desperately needs to give it complexity and style.
- Strange to think these are the same grape from roughly similar climates; the simpler one has a deeper, richer yellow color, but the more complex one seems lighter, less imposing in the glass
There was, alas, one thing we all agreed on by the end of the evening: the one wine would have been just fine on its own, but it suffered by comparison with the other wine. It’s funny how things go sometimes: often, in the midst of unbridled enjoyment, it’s hard to imagine how an experience could possibly be better. I’ve personally bought both of these wines in the past – it was happy coincidence that I was given a bottle as a press sample – but having now had them simultaneously, I’m not sure I’d buy any more, especially considering that the pricing is roughly the same for the both of them.What it boiled down for me was this: I know it’s cliché to point this out, but every profoundly beautiful thing has to have a flaw – or at least something there that serves as a counterpoint, a foil, a dissonance to draw the beauty of the object in sharper, finer focus. The real reason I came away from this evening finding one wine profoundly beautiful and deeply satisfying was this: it showed restraint. Similarly high in alcohol, it seemed to have better acidity, more minerality, less residual sugar, but most of all that subtle, quinonic, bitter, savory edge that suddenly shifted it all into vibrant, ecstatic focus. You’d be hard pressed to expect more from a wine like this, especially at $20.My advice to the other winemaker? Simple: The boom years are behind us. It’s time to go beyond simple fruit ripeness, high alcohols, and straight-up appeal; it’s time to find the subtle beauty that’s probably always been there, time to experiment with phenolic aspects, time to consider the joys of Italianate bitter notes. I now know that there is Verdelho beyond the simple, fruity joys I’ve known from Australia from years; it’s there if you want it. Go for it: if you do, I’ll be there to buy it. And I’ll even go out on a limb here and groundlessly speculate: the Americans that were buying your wines in the past were probably buying them using home equity loans on houses that have already been foreclosed. The days of reckless consumption of shiny pretty wines with high point scores seem to have gone missing over the last two years; instead, we’re looking for subtlety, complexity, something with pain, something to match the anxiety and frustration we’re all feeling in these, the empty, anguished dog years after the binge of the Oughts. Give us something we can relate to; your wines remind me too much of those years where we weren’t thinking.
Mollydooker + Scholium Project
Price: $20-$26; average retail price $20
Shiraz is undoubtedly Great Western’s raison d’être. Bin 1 is the baby brother to the mighty Bin 0 and Thomson Family wines (of which the superb 2006 was previously reviewed) but in its more modest way still offers a nice view into this classic regional Shiraz style. In some ways, this makes it the most important wine in the portfolio, in that it’s an affordable entry point into something quite distinctive. A gateway drug, if you will, into the region’s wines.
I’ve tasted this wine twice now and both times have come away impressed with its drinkability. It’s not an especially sophisticated wine; in fact, there’s a rusticity to the flavour profile that suggests generosity and ease rather than intellect. But that’s not a bad thing in my book.