Friday, October 22, 2010

The Friday Lineup: Robert Mondavi Merlot

Wine of the Week

2007 Robert Mondavi Napa Valley Merlot ($23). Like many writers, I have fond memories of Robert Mondavi the man and of visits to his winery in the late 1970s and early 1980s when its - and his - reputation was in its ascendancy. And, like many writers, I am used to eponymous wineries falling off the quality bandwagon when the "brand" is purchased by a larger corporation. I'll admit I have not had an up close view to what has been going on at Robert Mondavi winery in recent years, but I continue to be impressed by the bottles I keep opening and their prices. And this wine is an excellent example of continuing quality and value at RMW. The 2007 Merlot, a complex wine that will get moreso, has lots of juicy blackberries and loads of tannins. This, I think, shows what Napa Valley can do with a Merlot, yet the price is very reasonable. It has 16 percent alcohol, but it doesn't come across to me as either too hot nor unbalanced. I would decant it for a couple of hours if drinking it now. The wine is certainly in the quality category of Merlots selling in the $40-$60 range. And for someone interested in collecting wines for aging, not just buying expensive trophies, it would be smart to purchase a couple of cases. You'll be richly rewarded in the years to come.

Until next time...

Roger Morris

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Friday Report: Dynamite Silvaner

Wine of the Week

2009 Castell-Castell Franken Silvaner Trocken ($13). I can't remember the last time I raved about a Silvaner, because the chances are I have never before raved about a Silvaner. Typically Silvaner, aka Sylvaner, has all the distinctiveness of a Trebbiano... yeah, right. But this wine is simply delicious - spicy, tangy, crisp with flavors of grapefruit and green apple skins. We had pork ribs, sauerkraut and stuffing last night with it - with lots of fresh and dried herbs floating around - and the wine was superb. It was also great without the food. Did I say I liked this wine?

Sermonette of the Week

For years, we wine writers have been reporting that red wine producers have changed their styles to accommodate the fact that no one cellars wines for years anymore. Under this story that we've been telling - and if there is anyone who can document they've been telling a different story, please step across the dotted line right now - wines are being made kinder and gentler so they can be consumed immediately.

It's finally gotten it through my dense brain that this is all a fraud! While we have fewer under-ripe grapes, and while the tannins are perhaps a tad more friendly, red wines from the primary regions are just as big and aggressive as they ever were - plus they have more alcohol (not necessarily a sin in my book).

The only difference is that we all - from winemakers to wine writers - have been telling people that the wines are mellower. And they're not! I don't think anyone has been dishonest on purpose; we've just believed what seems to be intuitive.

Time to trot out credentials: I've been drinking serious reds seriously since the mid-1970s - that's 35 years of somewhat sober observation - from Napa's tannic monsters to Medoc's annual primeurs tastings of barrel monsters. Last week, I reported on recent tastings of Amarones, Argentine Malbecs and Barolos - and those wines were just as big as they were 30 years ago. Not as funky with buggy big barrel aromas as in the old days, but every bit as big as what I was tasting decades ago.

Now listen to the mantra the winemakers chant: "This wine is drinkable now, but it will last another 10 years." Voice from the crowd: "Maybe 15!" Hell, these wines will still need to be decanted 20 years down the road.

This isn't a complaint. I love the way that big reds are being made. I love to taste them right out of the barrel when they are like riding a wild horses. And I love tasting them 20 years later when they are smooth and sophisticated.

Wines may have actually gotten bigger over the past 30 years, but we've convinced ourselves that they are "much more accessible" than in the old days. They are not. They may be cleaner. They may be fruitier. They may be fresher. They may even have smoother tannins - although generally not. But they are just as concentrated, as extracted, as alcoholic as they ever were. Certainly that is the case in Medoc, where some older vintages - before good vineyard practices and global warming - were downright anemic.

My point is: I like the way big reds wines are being made. Let's just admit that they are as huge as they ever were. We're just eating them younger than we used to.

Until next time....

Roger Morris

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Plaisirs de Vivre: Why Drink?

If seems like an absurd question: Why Drink?

Yet when editor Celine Tremblay of the Montreal-based magazine, Plaisirs de Vivre, and I were travelling through Macedonina earlier this year visiting Greek wineries, she told me about her philosophical conversations in Paris with French wine writing elder statesman Henri Elwing and challenged me to give a practical, American reply to the question. Here are my thoughts on the matter as they appeared in the October issue of Plaisirs - minus the neat graphic interpretations:

Some people are born to wine. Others of us come to it.

The first time I drank wine was a blind tasting – in a manner. At the time, I was still a country teenager, out walking along a dirt road in the very narrow valley where I was born. An older neighbor’s truck bumped toward me and stopped. George leaned out the open window and extended a brown paper bag – a “poke” in our local vernacular – with the paper twisted around the neck of what must have been a bottle.

“Want a drink?” George asked.

“Sure,” I said.

Although ours was a dry household in the 1950s, a couple of times before I had tasted bourbon with a little hot water and rock candy as a special treat when my dad and another neighbor celebrated Christmas. This tasted different – not as fiery as whisky and certainly sweeter.

George told me it was red wine.

I would like to claim that I can still remember that first taste and have since divined its manufacturer and provenance. But I don’t, and I can’t. And it would be several more years before I became a regular wine drinker and still more years before I began to write about this special beverage.

I’ve thought a lot over the years about the attraction of alcoholic drinks and why I drink what I drink, while others drink something else or consume no alcohol at all. Here’s how I see it:

Beer is for refreshment.

Spirits are for relaxation.

Wine is all about pleasure.

I drink all three – a beer after mowing the lawn on a hot day, a Manhattan or a Bloody Mary when I sit at the bar before dinner or to chat with friends. But when I want a drink to savor and contemplate, or one to have with food, it has to be wine.

To me, wine has always had a romance to it. The first episode in this romance came when my brother David gave me a three-pack of Bolla wines – Soave, Bardolino and Valpolicella. I had heard of none of them – this was in the 1970s when most Americans thought of wine as something winos drank – but the names sounded exotic and magical.

So I bought a book on wine – one in the Time Life series, I believe – and I became enamored. The names Hermitage, Meursault and Haut-Brion bedazzled me, as did the photos of the châteaux, the chais and the vines. I pored over maps of the Cotes d’Or, reading the names of famous terroirs that I would walk through decades later, as enthralling in person as they were on paper.

Nothing is as romantic as sitting across the table chatting with an interesting woman – preferably my wife – while having a great meal and a great bottle of wine. But a close second is being at a similar table with a winemaker, sharing her or his thoughts and theories about terroirs, fermentation and the wine and food liaison.

Why drink? Is there any beverage so complex and changeable that it almost has human qualities? Can any other glass carry such a romantic retinue of shared thoughts

and experiences? Wine is the sole drink that brings us both rapt anticipation and the warmth of memories.

Why drink? Wine is the drink of Gods, and it makes us feel like one of them.

Until next time....

Roger Morris

Friday, October 8, 2010

Friday Lineup: Amarone, Mastrojanni, Montes

The 12 Families of Amarone

Amarone has long been a friend of mine. Names like Masi, Thomassi and Speri have been hanging out in my cellar for decades, getting mellow until I can wait no longer - and I pull the cork.

Amarone's little brother, simple Valpolicella, was one of the wines that got me interested in the wine business many years ago. At that time, I was given a three pack of Verona-region wines, so I wanted to find out more about these weird-sounding wines - the others being a Bardolino and a Soave. Amarone is grown in the same region and uses the same grapes as everyday Valpolicella, but there the similarities disappear. Amarone employs more of Corvina, the chief regional red grape, it is grown on better hillside plots, and its grapes are dried in bunches until the alcohol from the concentrating sugar produce wines hovers at 15% or more. Finally, it gathers and somewhat tames tannins while spending several years in the oak. The finished product, to my palate, is arguably the best high-alcohol red table wine, possessing some of the rich flavors of Port without the sweetness.

Recently, I was in New York at the Public Library to check out recent vintages (mainly 2000 to 2006) being poured by a new group of 12 families of Amarone producers formed less than two years ago and now on its first U.S. tour.

All of the families sell their wines in the U.S., although some are much more familiar - and available - than others. Alphabetically, they are: Allegrini, Begali, Brigaldara, Masi, Musella, Nicolis, Speri, Tedeschi, Tenuta Sant'Antonio, Tommasi, Venturini and Zenato. Of course, all these people make very good wines, so, in tasting them, it comes down to personal preferences and small degrees of difference.

I did notice that the Musella wines seemed to be slightly richer than the rest, and that the Tedeschi bottles were the most tightly knit and concentrated for their ages. So my first wine of the week is:

2005 Musella Amarone Riserva (about $56). Brilliant blueberries in the nose and mouth as well as the traditional dark red/purple fruits, a long richness of fruit on the palate with integrated oak and loads of dusty tannins for aging a couple of more decades.

Illy Intros Newly-Purchased Mastrojanni

Riccardo Illy at Mastrojanni

Mastrojanni is a Tuscan brand I have drunk and followed for a couple of decades - I have some Rosso di Montalcino from the late '80s in my cellar - so I was especially intertested when I heard that Riccardo Illy would also be in New York this week. Illy is head of Gruppo Illy, a family-owned business that is famous for Illy brand coffee (you can't seriously travel to Europe without drinking lots of Illy espresso, and my wife Ella bought me an Illy machine for Christmas) and has broadening into producing tea, chocolate, various formed of preserved fruit, and now wine - all the basic food groups.

I have a couple of assignments to write articles about Illy and Mastrojanni, so I won't use all my material here. Let me just say that Riccardo Illy is charming and witty, a very astute businessman and politician (he was a member of the Italian parliament and mayor of his native Trieste, where Illy is located) and is fascinated by Mastrojanni, which the family purchased in 2008.

One of Riccardo Illy's business tenets is to retain management when you buy a company, so Andrea Machetti has stayed on as managing director of Mastrojanni. All of the wines I tasted were delicious - the 2005 Brunello, the lovely, dark, somewhat meaty 2004 "Vigna Schiena d'Asino" Brunello, and the 2007 IGT Super Tuscan "San Pio" (80% Cab, 20% Sangio) with it's lovely raspberry fruit and violet aromas. But, because it is the first vintage released since the Illy purchase and because it's a great value wine, my second wine of the week is:

2008 Mastrojanni Rosso di Montalcino ($25). Bright, lively fruit up front with a dark, rich fruit in the finish to add length and complexity. It has moderate tannins, so the wine is very drinkable now.

Montes: Let Them Drink Kaiken

Aurelio Montes has a phrase: "We had some more energy." He established, with partners, Montes as the first all-premium Chilean winery, then "we had some more energy," and Montes leaped across the Andes to make wine under the Kaiken label in Argentina. Further energized, he went north to Napa for NapaAngel. Then, propelled by his love for Syrah, he nosed around in Paso Robles for the right grapes and created StarAngel.

In some ways, Montes is a half-mystic like another brilliant winemaker, the Italian Alois Lageder in that both play music for the wines slumbering in the barrel. But Montes is the only winemaker I know who created a winery - the Montes facility at Apalta - according to Feng Shui principles. So it isn't surprising that Montes named the Paso wine StarAngel after former business partner Douglas Murray, who recently died and who loved the concept of angels and brought the motif to Montes.

So there was no way I'd miss Aurelio Montes' presentation yesterday afternoon of 12 of his red wines before and over lunch at Aureole in mid-town Manhattan. They are all big, bold but very drinkable wines from Bordeaux blends to Malbecs to Syrahs to Carmenere - all different but with a similar touch.

The wine I want to feature as my third wine of the week, however, is the one that Aurelio came to show us as the new Kaiken on the block, "Mai," the first Montes icon wine from Argentina:

2007 Kaiken "Mai" ($90). Mai is 100% Malbec, but a blend of three Mendoza regional vineyards. It has ripe berries and spices, with dark cherry being the dominant flavor, well-balanced with loads of tannins. It is long on the palate, but still very tight. Aurelio recommends it with wild boar and other game, but if I were going to have it this evening with pork sauvage, I would decant it around noon.

Recently Published Articles:

In the October Beverage Media, I explore how the classic producers of sweet wines are updating their profiles and portfolio - or not - in "Still Sweet - but Not Old-Fashioned."

In the October Sommelier News, I visit the vineyard Mer Soileil, "The White Jewel of Monterey."

And for four years I've been choosing a representative 12 bottles of wine from Southeastern Pennsylvania producers. Read about the "2010 Case of the Brandywine" in the Oct/Nov issue of Signature Brandywine.

Until next time...

Roger Morris

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

A Week of Drinking Locally - Sort Of

A week of drinking locally - above from the top down: (1) The Horse Knows the Way, as proprietor Stefaan Massart does a tour de vines of his Chateau Vilatte estate near Puynormand; (2) The End of Bordeaux lies just beyond the building at the bottom of the slope, as the vines Chateau Parencherre near Ligueux look eastward toward Dordogne; (3) in the Colli Fiorentini, A Cellar with a View looks skyward from the ancient castle keep of Fattoria Torre a Cona.

For the last week, I've been a strict locaboire, drinking only local wines to pair with local foods.
The week began quite pleasantly with a Monday lunch at the Planet Bordeaux wine tourism center, feasting on duck confit and Bordeaux Superieure rouge at the intriguing facility just off the main route between Bordeaux City and Libourne that is all about Bordeaux' mainstay brands - Bordeaux AC and Bordeaux Superior wines.

After drinking and eating my way across Entre-Deux-Mer and adjacent regions, I landed Thursday evening in Florence in time for a long dinner at Trattorio da Tito, sampling a dozen or so bottles of delightful Chianti Colli Fiorentini reds and riservas before nearly collapsing from sensory overload into my steak Florentine.

Following a major tasting of wines of the CCF Riserva appellation at the city's Limonaia on Friday morning and visiting on Saturday four estates in the hills surrounding Italy's favorite city, I found myself on the flight back from Paris to Pennsylvania. There, my wife Ella's classic pasta with red sauce awaited me, savored at a Sunday evening dinner in front of the season's first fire and matched with two locally made Chester County wines - a homemade 2007 Pinot Noir from David Othmer's Haywagon Vineyard and a well-aged 2003 Va La Vineyards Nebbilo made by its proprietor, Anthony Vietri.

Eat local, drink local - wherever local happens to be at the moment.
The purpose of this week on the road was to get a closer view of two under-appreciated wine regions where great quality and value exist. Bordeaux AC and Bordeaux Superieur, whose wineries are concentrated in, but not limited to, the Entre-Deux-Mers region between Boredeaux' Medoc and Graves regions and Ste-Emilion and Pomerol, makes delicious red, white, sweet and even sparkling wines at affordable prices. Chianti Colli Fiorentini is lesser known than Chianti Classico, but it also makes great value wines in the hills, or colli, around Florence.
Some highlights of the week:
1. Shopping the weekly market at Creon and seeing the source of Bordeaux' fabuluos duck cuisine,
2. Touring Renaissance man Stefaan Massart's Chateau Vilatte vineyards by horse-drawn carriage then sitting down to dinner with bread made by Massart at the brick oven he reconstructed,
3. Hearing and watching in the gathering darkness as the mascaret, or incoming mini-tidal wave, swept up the Dordogne River from the Atlantic, at riverside Chateau de Bel,
4. Walking through the caverns beneath Chateau Lamothe d'Haux, carved out long ago to get limestone building blocks for chateaux and city buildings, then having lunch on the terrace above,
5. Examining the century-old vines newly identified as being from the rare Bouchales variety at Chateau de la Vieille Chapelle,
6. Watching - quel frommage! - cheeses being made at Domaine de l'Hirondelle,
7. Savoring a family dinner with the Demononchaux at Chateau Pierrail,
8. Interviewing the fascinating Antoine Touton on camera at Chateau Sainte-Barbe.
9. At Florence's Boboli Gardens, tasting through the 2008 vintage of Chiani Colli Fiorentini in the caveronous Limonaia, then
10. Visiting four estates in the maze of hills around the city.
And, of course, the pleasures of being back home again with local food, local wine, and a local bed!
Until next time,
Roger Morris
In the September issue of the UK's The Drinks Business, read my business case study, "John Larchet's Aussie Wine Journal."