Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Buty and the Beast: A Walla Walla Wine Epiphany

It's refreshing to know that after 30+ years of the wine game, I can still be jolted into adolescent levels of excitement by a winery visit.  Epiphanies might come less frequently than before, but they don't lessen at all in their intensity.  The first wine epiphany I had at the Wine Bloggers Conference in Walla Walla was with Buty Winery. (website here)

Buty caught my attention during a "speed tasting", when the owners gave me a brief peek-taste at an engaging white blend of Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc/Muscadelle, with snappy herbs, lean acids, and a bit of tobacco-y, figgy fatness from the Semillon.  Got my attention.

Imagine my delight, then, when the little yellow school bus we were on turned into the Buty Rockgarden Vineyard as the first stop the next morning on our WBC tour.  Caleb Foster and Nina Buty-Foster had arranged a tailgate tasting at the vineyard, and our first wine of the morning (We're all professionals here!) was a wine under their "Beast" designation, an alter-ego line reserved for interesting, perhaps experimental, diversions from the major focus of the Buty line.

So we were poured a glass of gorgeous coppery-pink rose', and we gazed over the vibrant green of the young vines, scuffed our feet in the cobblestone-studded soil, and looked at the line of the Blue Mountains in the distance.  A lovely way to start the day.
Buty and the Beast
Then I tasted the Beast Rose' of the Stones, LeFore Vineyard, Rose' of Cabernet Sauvignon, 2009.


A little background here:  one of my nicknames, proudly earned, is "M'sieur Rose'."  I am also certified as a Master Instructor on Rose' wines by the Wines of Provence agency and the French Wine Society.  I have pursued the elusive rose' all over the world.  I know just a little bit about rose'.

And this is the best American Rose' I have ever had. 

I would put it right up there with the very best of Provence (and that is the highest praise from me.)  Kudos to Caleb, Nina, and LeFore Vineyard.

                                                                      The Beast and the Buty (Foster)
Beast Rose' of the Stones---named after the distinctive cobblestone soil in the vineyard, reminiscent of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, except that the rocks here are basaltic in nature---is a delicate copper-pink wine with finely etched flavors of tantalizing tart berry fruits in a tight acid structure; it's vibrant, tingly and refreshing on the tongue; clean, crisp, lively and long on the finish; and each sip leaves you wanting more.

The secret here is that Caleb, the winemaker, made an intentional rose', not an afterthought or a byproduct of a red wine.  This is a vin de presse, also called a Champagne Press, where the singular intent was to create   pale, fresh-fruited, light and lively wine through allowing minimal fruit maceration then lightly pressing the wine to achieve just enough flavor and acidity.  This style is not easy with Cabernet Sauvignon, because it's difficult to maintain just the right balance of fruit and liveliness without getting too much tannic bite and bitterness from the skins, but leaving enough 'grip' to make in interesting.  But Caleb has done an excellent job of creating a fully balanced and harmonious wine.  It's a testament to both his superb skill and to the quality of the fruit he had to work with.

The bad news?  You'll have to take my word for it, because this wine is long gone.  First, it was available only through the Friends of the Beast Club/wine club that Buty maintains for its followers (and there are a lot of followers), or directly at the winery.  Second, once released, it was gone almost immediately.  (And the moral of this lesson is:  sign up for the Beast wine club (here) so you'll be one of the select few to enjoy this delight of a wine.)

The good news?  I just spoke with Buty winemaker Caleb Foster and he assured me there would be another Beast Rose' next vintage.  He wouldn't say what it was going to be, precisely, but he did say it would be from their Rockgarden Vineyard and it would be in the same style.  I've signed up already.

Based on this wine alone, I would be interested in following this talented young couple and their wines.  But there's more than just this one wine.  That, however, will have to wait until the next installment of this blog, when I wax rhapsodic about the Buty Rediviva of the Stones.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Wine Bloggers Conference 10: In Which I 'Speedblog'

Speed Tasting---and speed blogging on top of it.  Something new for least the blogging part; I've been speed tasting for years, because you have to be able to make quick judgements.  Still, those wines will be coming fast, fast, fast.  We'll see how this goes.

Hogue Genesis Riesling Columbia Valley 2008
saturated forward fruit, but some hollowness in the middle; stone fruit, with a tangy, spicy touch that leaves a prickle of flavor on the tongue; from peach to tangerine.  Starts sweet but finishes with a drying palate (1.8% rs). New world tutti-frutti and sappiness.  Fruit, sweetness, and leavening dryness would make this a good choice for spicy Asian foods.  Winemaker says limited release, top 3% of production. $16 SRP.

Buty Semillon-Sauvignon-Muscadette Columbia Valley 2008  Going for a classic white blend from an inland dessert (Walla Walla).  Good acidity.  Muscadelle in there for the perfume.  Nutty, yellow tobacco note from the Semillon (and I've often been a sucker for Semillon from WA).  Anaerobic fermentation for freshness.  Middle weight.  I like it.

Dusted Valley Vintners Rambling Rose Columbia Valley 2009  Mourvedre, Counoise, Syrah, Viognier. Strawberries, with a chewy, fruity smack---like in dried fruit, fruit roll-up.  Slight candied note doesn't detract.  Bit o'tannin give it a little snap!  Slurper. I like it!  But they call me "M'sieur Rose'" too.

DeLille Cellars 2008 Chaleur Estate Blanc Columbia Valley  62% SB, 38% Semillon, from selected vineyards.  Part barrel fermentation, cryomaceration of fruit for intensity.  INTENSE nose, with extravagant gooseberry (cat pee).  Ripe fig, more gooseberry, and bold, forward declarative barrel influence.  Heavy handed wine.

Duck Pond Pinot Gris Willamette Valley OR 2008  98.5% stainless; 1.5% barrel fermented.  100% PG.  Better acid than most. Bit of vanilla shows. No rs showing (o.5%).  Grapefruit.  Has entry, middle and finish---some PGs are hollow in the middle and light in the finish.  This one is neither.  For a PG, a good effort:  PG with character.

Centine Toscano Bianco Banfi (Sauvignon Blanc Chardonnay Pinot Grigio) 2009  Winey nose, light fruitiness, tropical fruits, some wood spice from oak.  Finish fades quickly.  Bit confusing, actually, with different varieties and different treatments to achieve a consensus.  Pleasant table wine.

Kung Fu Girl Riesling 2009 Washington State  Honeysuckle, sweet, pungent, ripe fruit, some peachy notes.

Kung Fu Viognier Columbia Valley 2008  Fermented in neutral oak.  Light nose, more intense flavors.  Slightly hot (high alcohol?).

Jordan Chardonnay Russian River Valley 2008  Oak is the first thing out of the glass.  Then bergamot (like Earl Grey tea).  Fruit is reticent.  Oak masks fruit in taste as well---vanilla bludgeon.  Style overwhelms fruit and terroir.

Amaurice Cellars Viognier 2008 Walla Walla  Pretty, but light and slightly hot;  Barrel fermentation doesn't show through too much here; more delicate than one might expect from the regimen.  The essence of Viognier comes through, but a lower alcohol than 14.9% would be so much better.  Just too hot for the light frame.  Noble effort, but wine can't carry the weight.

Cadaretta SBS  (Sauvignon Blanc 79%, Semillon 21%)  Columbia Valley 2008  Stainless steel; no oak.  Shy nose; medium bodied, good acidity, SB comes through with lean and herbal/fruity flavors, toned down with Semillon.  Small production.

Le Chateau Chardonnay Columbia Valley 2008  Barrel fermented, French oak; half new/half one year.  Limited malo. Oak bomb.  Great fruit, but oak weights it down so heavily it totally unbalances the final result.  Just not my style.

The Crusher Rose' of Pinot Noir Grower's Selection Clarksburg 2009  (Don Sebastiani & Sons)  The other, "non traditional rose" for big red wine drinkers.  Crushed PN, saignee; viognier added and co-fermented for florals.  Malbec added after fermentation.  95% stainless, 5% oak (mouthfeel from oak, but not vanilla flavors).  Nice.  More body, more rounded than a regular PN.  Bit too hot---but it's Clarksburg.  Change of pace rose'.

Whew!  That was grueling.  Takeaway:  Sure, I can do it...but why should I do it.  Wine appreciation shouldn't be a contact sport and leave bruises.  Why impose artificial limitations; then it's more about the snappy blogicity than the wine.  And it ought to be about the wine.  Always. So, been there; done that; don't need to do it again.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Tasting Wine in a Cocktail Lounge?

Tasting wine in a cocktail lounge?

Well, actually, it makes sense---if the wine being tasted is fortified wine, and it comes from the revered Bodega Emilio Lustau; if the mixologists are just as interested in wine as in spirits; and if those same mixologists are busy whipping up some tasty and creative sherry-based cocktails.

The Oregon Bartenders Guild and Lemma Wine Company of Oregon sponsored a tasting of the fine sherries of Lustau at the Teardrop Lounge this week, and bartenders all over northern Oregon flocked to the event. It was standing room only, as Drake McCarthy (below, left), sherry authority and Lustau representative from Europvin Wines, gave the lowdown on Lustau, perhaps the finest producer of Sherry there is.

Drake also tasted the interested crowd on six of the sherries, from the delicate Manzanilla tangy with a fresh sea breeze, through Amontillado, Oloroso, East India, and a pure Pedro Ximenez.

Emilio Lustau Light Manzanilla Sherry, Solera Reserve "Papirusa"
...light, tart orchard fruits, and a wonderful aroma of salty sea breeze

Emilio Lustau Dry Amontillado Solera Reserva "Los Arcos"
...soft, nutty almond aromas, full bodied and dry with excellent acidity

Emilio Lustau Dry Oloroso Solera Reserve "Don Nuno"
...nutty, but with English Black Walnuts, pungent, smoky, rich and chocolatey

Emilio Lustau Deluxe Cream Reserva "Capotaz Andres"
...dark, concentrated, smoky, dried fruits and nuts; rich and complex

Emilio Lustau East India Sherry--Brown Sweet Oloroso Sherry
...remarkable! Super-concentrated, rich, smoky, complex, raisiny and loaded with dried citrus peel and spice. An outstanding example of sherry.

Emilio Lustau Pedro Ximenez Solera Reserva "San Emilio"
...fantastically rich, treacle-like, liquefied raisins and molasses syrup

When the formal tasting was concluded, the mixologists launched themselves into action, and in a flurry of peeling, stirring and shaking the crowd was presented with four delectable concoctions, all including a Lustau sherry.

Tommy Klus (Blue Hour), aka Tommy Tweed, used the Lustau Don Nuno Oloroso in a beautiful, and beautifully-presented, Sherry Cobbler (left). This would be a perfect summertime sipper. It's light, clean, citrusy tart and icy cold, and the sherry gives it just enough authority and emerging complexity of taste to make it compelling. There's a plus here too: on a sultry summer day this drink would be excellent, and the lower alcohol content of the sherry base means you can drink more of them! (And you'll want more than one.)

Jeff Morgenthaler (left) and Tommy Klus (right) work together to make their cocktails for the thirsty crowd.

Jeff Morgenthaler (Clyde Common) presented the crowd with a bigger, bolder entry, a Solera Club, mixing the Lustau Deluxe Cream with Cynar Artichoke liqueur, creme de peche, and absinthe. It was a beautiful harmony of fruit, herbs, and the nutty, smoky, raisiny richness of the Oloroso.

Also, do yourself a favor and check out Jeff Morgenthaler's fascinating blog, Not only is it a fun read of Jeff's exploits and ideas, it's a treaure trove of information about mixology.

Daniel Shoemaker (Teardrop Lounge) seemed to be everywhere, both mixing his own cocktails and helping out his peers, keeping his bar running smoothly without ever actually appearing to be in a hurry. He contributed two fascinating cocktails to the mix,

Daniel's first cocktail was Muscat Love, a copita glass filled with a combination of Plymouth Gin, Lustau Moscatel de Chipiona (a Muscat-based sherry), bitter Bonal Gentiane liqueur, a dash of Bitter Truth Orange Bitters, and curly orange zest on top for garnish. The description "bittersweet" is apt here, for the cocktail lavishes with sweetness at one moment and lashes with stinging bitterness the next. The lush, soft, pungent sherry is in antipathy with the botanicals of gin and gentiane and bitters, but the tangy orange fruit zest brings them all into an armistice of rich flavor in the mouth. It's a brilliant display of putting the right flavors together in the right proportions for the right effect---which is as good a description of the art of mixology as I can think of.

Shoemaker's second and final cocktail creation was his Illuminations, where he used the impressive and richly flavored Lustau East India sherry to marvellous effect in a Sour format---with El Tesoro Reposado tequila, lemon juice, maple syrup and egg white. Illuminations will instantly dispell all those bad memories of ugly whiskey sours you may have had in your callow youth and replace it with this perfectly balanced version with the sour tang of lemon, the silky, nutty, spicy sweetness of sherry and maple, and the frothy touch of egg white.

Illuminations was illuminating.

There are two obvious takeaways here. First, the house of Emilio Lustau is making fine sherries that admirably serve in their traditional roles as aperitif and digestif wines. Second, that these same excellent sherries can be used as ingredients to make creative, tasty, engaging cocktails.

So don't let your Lustau linger in isolation in your cabinet---pull it out and get creative!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Cahors: Malbec and Foie Gras (you knew there'd be foie gras, didn't you???)

So we're in Cahors, in the middle of the Lot, slurping down Malbec (with an occasional addition of Tannat and Merlot; but hey, it's the Malbec that's the center of this party). You have to figure there'll be foie gras.

And there was, there was.

From the very beginning, in the Malbec Lounge at Espace Valentre, until the final meal, there was foie gras. And a plenitude of duck in various forms, but we'll focus on foie gras here.

At the Espace there was foie gras on toast points, foie gras on pancakes, foie gras on waffles, foie gras in cute little ice-cream cones, even foie gras in macarons. I'm not altogether sure the world is ready for foie gras in macarons. Two great things, mind you; but maybe not so good together? Likewise the saffron macarons. Colorful, but a little disconcerting finding those flavors joined with macarons.

Oh, wait...foie gras! Right, then.

So, after a few days of bright sunshine and black wine---it was eerily normal to see my compatriots standing in the sunshine grinning happily away at the scenery, the food, the wine, whatever, displaying black-stained mouths---we gathered for a final festive meal at a chateau-museum overlooking the green swathe of the valley of the Lot below us on a lovely Sunday afternoon.

The light poured in on the medieval stonework and the great hall of the chateau was thronged with happy attendees, many of whom were still babbling with excitement and wonder from their morning montgolfier, a hot air balloon trip over the valley and vineyards below.

There was a chatter of activity as people exchanged business cards and e-mails and website addresses and took the final photos for remembrance, so that people were taking photos of people taking photos of people taking photos.

Amidst all this hustle and hubbub, the owners and winemakers circulated around and deposited bottles of their wines at our tables, then joined the revelries themselves. It was pleasant to sit and sip and reflect, then to discuss the wines with the makers, a genial but devoted lot (get it? lot? in the Lot? oh, never mind) with the pride of ownership mixed with the desire to have more people enjoy what they spend so much time and effort creating.

Malbec, and most especially the Malbec of Cahors, is a food wine. That term is bandied about with great frequency these days, but with Malbec it is essential, for few people would consume Cahors as a recreational wine, and even fewer are the connoisseurs of wine alone who sit in their tiny conclaves and sniff and sip and parse and mutter over infinitely smaller details of arcane wine lore while invoking magical words that few others know or care about.

No, this Malbec of Cahors is truly a food wine. Often a sullen brute by itself, it can be tamed with food, coaxed out of its acidic isolation and convinced to reveal its inner self.

Apply a little foie gras with its velvety richness, its earthy elegance, and the Malbec responds. The excessive austerity relaxes a bit and the flavors emerge. Corny, I know, but it is much like a flower opening as the day begins to warm and the sun makes friendly overtures.

This is lunch, with some old and some new-found friends on a sunny day in Quercy, so I'm not in note taking mode or mood, but the magic of the iPhone lets me record the wines that pass through my glass.

The Chateau Haute-Borie. although young, was quite amenable to the charms of the foie gras and lentils, a classic but not classically bound Cahors, in that it was already showing its nature, which would only soften and lengthen in future, I think.

The Chateau les Rigalets was a delight with the food; built on a lighter frame, but from that remarkably good 2005 vintage that seems to be aging so well right now, it was more elegant, more violet-infused, and silkier in tone, and seemed to come alive with the foie gras.

The Chateau du Plat Faisant was much in the same mold: stubborn by itself, but yielding graciously to the food.

And this is the resounding, repetitive note of the entire sojourn in the Lot: that the great majority of Cahors wine, and the nature of Malbec itself as the primary grape, simply requires the patience of age and maturation; that the slow, unhurried unlocking of tannin-bound fruit cannot be hurried too much.

Unfortunately, patience seems a thing lacking today, so intervention is often required for those who are impatient---and mind you, "intervention" can be as much the philosophy of 'vin natur' as the technological wizardry or ampelographic intervention of agronomists and oenologists, for intervention is intervention.

One hopes, though, that some of the lonely majesty of the impenetrable Malbec, made accessable only by time, remains to us---and I believe it will, from what I have seen of the people of the Lot.

If that is so, I will remain both happy and hopeful for this region and these wines, for there is certainly room for the 'vin natur' and the delightful anphorae wines (yes!; decidedly yes!!) and the fresher, fruitier, more immediate wines as well, for each has its appeals and uses to a world of wine drinkers.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Malbec Days in Cahors, with Michel Bettane

It's interesting to watch Michel Bettane at work.

He's hugely knowledgeable about French wines, expresses himself well, conducts a guided tasting with admirable rigor and a good solid flow of information and background, and then...he begins to issue diktats and pronunciamentos and, perhaps without even realizing what he's doing, begins to offer editorial comments that counter the very wines he has selected for consideration.

Perhaps it is that a man who invests himself so clearly in offering opinions forgets that his opinions are merely that...opinions?

Bettane's task this day was to lead us briskly through a tasting of the diversity of wines of Cahors at the Journees Internationales "Malbec Days" in the Espace Valentre.

If the intent of the organizers was to showcase the entire range of the AOC with their premier grape variety, then they succeeded. Sometimes with warts showing.

La Capelle Cabanac 2007 organically certified grower; argile rouge du causse soil; dense, black, pruney in the nose; dry, scratchy tannins; linear, like a severe Graves in structure; tight and unforgiving at this point.

Chateau Ponzac Cuvee Eternellement 2007 chewy oak/vanilla, slightly hot; expansive in the mouth but not at all harmonized in all its disparate components.

Chateau Croisille, Cuvee Divin 2005 refined, elegant; aromatic of blackberry and violets, with enrobed oak; nice balance of fruit, vinosity and oak; oak is clearly there but doesn't dominate the massive fruit.

Clos d'un Jour, Cuvee Un Jour 2006 aged in terracotta anphorae; fresh, high acidity, brisk flavors, pure berry; consistent, refreshing (my second vintage in a short time of this wine, and I'm again impressed; a wine worth seeking out, as it gives superb fruit and structure and development without any encumbering oak overlay).

Chateau de Gaudou, Cuvee Reserve Caillau 2007 60 to 100 year old vines; "The Beverly Hills of Cahors," says Bettane, "A modern interpretation of old vines." Disconcerting to me: overly ripe, jammy fruit with evident vanilla oak upfront, followed by cedar, menthol, pinene; tannic snap at finish. Someone else opines this "would probably be popular in the U.S." Probably right, and it would probably garner "points" and praise, but not with me, as this much prune jam and oak is not my style at all.

Chateau Lamartine Expression 2006 from the vaunted '3d Terrasse" of the Cahors; an impenetrable wine of super tight structure and exceptionally high tannin. "Wine for the long term," says Bettane, and he's right about that. There's plenty of fruit encased in all this stridency of tannin, but it's not about to emerge now. A keeper, but for the long run. Buy it, cellar it, and forget about it for many, many years.

Chatea La Reyne, Cuvee Vent'Anges 2007 (wind of angels) another from the 3d terrasse and calcareous soils; meaty, dark, roasted plum; smoke; fresh sawn wood; complex and fine and still encased in tight, severe tannins that will be slow to yield; "Wears little makeup," quips Bettane. "Has complete integrity and straight expression."

Domaine Cosse de Maisonneuve, Les Laguets 2005 menthol/eucalyptus; fennel, bretty horse sweat and leather...but when someone suggests this is a 'vin natur' Bettane suddenly becomes irritated, and scoffs, "The stupid dream of natural wine... Wine is not natural! Natural wine is vinegar!!!"

But Bettane is on a roll now and he continues to fulminate, "Wine that is free of sulfur...doesn't exist. The natural sulfur smells bad, when added sulfur usually does not."

It's an interesting situation, where Bettane is saying things that I basically adhere to myself, but is spitting them out so stridently, with such uncharitable force, that I'm uncomfortable with the points he is making. He's certainly not hesitant to make bold, sweeping statements in his total assurance of rectitude. But he has distracted anyone from actually considering the wine in question.

Eventually the hubbub settles down and we proceed to the next wine.

Chateau La Caminade, Cuvee la Commanderie 2006 another brash, tart, linear style of wine, with more raspberry than black fruit; there's a whiff of VA here; and there are cedary aromatics (from an abundance of new oak?)

Clos Triguedina, Cuvee Probus 2005 "The Beverly Hills of Chateau Row," chortles Bettane again. It's not clear whether he's extolling this or demeaning it. This wine exudes sweet oak, totally up front and permeating the wine; profound tannins in the finish; all the fruit is subdued by the sweet reek of oak. With the reputation of this property, one would think the fruit would eventually emerge with age---but it's very hard to imagine balance at this stage.

Chateau du Cedre, Cuvee Le Cedre 2007 just a light whiff of brett at first; then oak, then soft, chewy texture in the middle of the palate with moderate (well, for Malbec) tannins. If the brett doesn't get more funky, this could become a rather nice bottle.

Chateau Lagrezette, Cuvee le Pigeonnier 2005 (Michel Rolland consulting) Syrupy nose; cassis, raw oak; fat, glossy fruit; charcoal on finish; obviously extremely mature grapes. "Some people will like this sort of wine; some won't," says Bettane, obviously hedging his bets here. "This is less the expression of soil than the grapes themselves." Yes, that's one delicate way of putting it.

In the closing comments to the tasting, Bettane utters a summative statement which resonates: "La tipicite d'un appellation et la somme de tipicites individuelles." (I'm sure I butchered the French, but the gist is there at least.)

As a followup, and a contrast, Ricardo Giadorou of Bodegas Dolium in the Lujan de Cuyo region of Argentina has us taste the 2007 Reserve Malbec. At 14.9% alcohol, it's sweet, ripe, silky, jammy, redolent of ripe plums and blackberries and vanilla oak. Giadorou comments that the Argentine Malbecs benefit from their "approachability targeted toward the U.S. market." And it's easy to understand the allure that such wine has to the casual drinker, for this Argentinean is seductive in its easy opulence, especially as contrasted to the severity of most of the Cahors Malbecs we have tasted. But there is an impressive, deep, undercurrent to the wines of Cahors that simply does not exist in the Argentinean wine. Where the Argentinean is pleasant but ephemeral, a pleasant moment quickly gone, the Cahors wines, stern though they can be, demanding as they are, promise pleasures yet to come. and worth the wait.