Saturday, November 20, 2010

Snappy Ginger: Domaine de Canton

My wife loves all things ginger, especially nibbling on candied ginger. This week she was feeling a tad under the weather from a nasty cold she purports to have caught from me, so when I opened a bottle of the ginger-scented Domaine de Canton, I waved a glass of it under her reddened nose. She seized the potion, and while the Cognac-based liqueur didn't set her dancing, it did bring a smile to her face and bought temporary forgiveness to me.

Domaine de Canton is quite a nice brew, made in France's Cognac region by blending baby Vietnamese ginger, Provencal honey, Tunisian ginseng, and vanilla bean of undefined heritage with VSOP and XO Grande Champagne Cognacs. The resulting liqueur has a crisp ginger aroma, a delightful, honey-like, viscous body that is sharply accented by the somewhat hot spiciness of peeled ginger. It is delicious but certainly not delicate.

It is enjoyable on several levels - a good companion in a Cognac glass, served neat, to sip in luscious quarter-teaspoon portions whenever your mind gets stuck as you bang away on the laptop, great over the rocks as you try to tease is out drop by drop from between the ice cubes, or as a barman's dream mixed with all sorts of exotic spirits and fruits.

But my favorite is a few drops, not too many as it's potent, in a chilled glass of Prosecco - a Ginsecco Ale - to carry about a party or around a bar as you loosen up for an evening of conversation.
Domaine de Canton is about $30 for a 750 ml bottle and is 28% alcohol.

Until next time...

Roger Morris

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Chateau Palmer & Wines of the Week

For those of us who seldom wave a paddle for naughty pleasures or haughty treasures, attending Wednesday evening's preview tasting and master class for Chateau Palmer at Christie's in New York City was a little like attending a wedding rehearsal dinner - a lot more fun than the main event and no expensive commitments.

Chateau Palmer has always been a favorite of Bordeaux lovers, and many who can afford both prefer it to Chateau Margaux, at least in certain vintages, so the turnout was large and enthusiastic. And, surprisingly, a good mix of young and old. The attendees were at overflow capacity in the Haunch of Venison gallery when festivities got underway at 6:15 and enjoyed a backdrop serenade throughout the evening by the city's fleet of emergency vehicles below on Sixth Avenue and the responding Middle Eastern chorus of honking cab drivers.

Cutting to the chase, as we should in such a gamely named venue, the wines we tasted were Alter Ego - Palmer's not-second-label alternate wine - from the 2006 and 2003 vintages, and the chateau wines from 2005, 2001, 1996, 1991, 1989, 1983, 1978, and 1971. It is not just being polite to the hosts to say that all the wines were superb, although there was lively discussion about whether this or that wine was yet at its peak, in its dumb stage, or declining.

By own favorites were the 1971 - marvelously alive with fresh fruitness - and the 2005, Thomas Duroux's marvelous creation that was a game changer, I think, at Palmer to a more-modern style wine than we normally see at major Left Bank properities. My second favorites were the 1983 and the 1989, neither as perfect as the '71 and '05, but both flashing the charm that less-than-perfect wines and people often have.

Almost as interesting as the wines were the presenters at the master class, which ran concurrently with the tasting. Ferdinand Mahler-Besse, whose family is part owner of Palmer and whose negociant cellars provided most of the wines, helped provide context. Export manager and Palmer insider Bernard de Laage gave fascinating information about the wines and about Medoc winemaking in general, and Christie's wine expert, Charles Curtis, acted as M.C. and chief inquisitor.

For more about the evening and de Laage's insightful commentary, stay tuned for my article in the December issue of the online publication, Sommelier News.

Appropriately for the dawn of another holiday season, this week's top wines tasted (other than the Palmers) are a top sparkling wine and an affordable Port.

Wines of the Week

NV J Russian River Valley Brut Rose' ($35). I like what George Bursick is doing with the sparkling wines at J, and this one is a great example - copper-colored, light and creamy with delightful wild strawberry flavors, a huge mousse, and a minerally finish. Sip on!

Noval Black ($22). A good basic Port is a little like a good basic fruitcake - lots of candied fruits, dark earthy flavors, a pronounced nuttiness, a nice shot of alochol (but not too hot), and a dollop of chocolate flavors. Noval has over-hyped the wine and the packaging - it is hardly revolutionary - but it is a very nice buy directed at young people not ready to deal with all the Port nomenclature and who want a delectable, ready-to-drink Port at a good price. It is all that, and it is a good basic Port for us older folks, as well.

Wines of Interest

2008 Chateau de La Chaize Brouilly ($17). Roger's First Rule of Diminishing Bottles is that some of the wines that taste fantastic on the first sip tend to grow off you and make you longing for a divorce by the time you're nearing the bottom of the bottle, a case of too much too soon. Chaize has always been a favorite Beaujolais (yes, I also liked the old bottle and packaging much better), and this one is the opposite of the prior cited rule. Even though it is "just a Beaujolais," it gets better as the bottom is plumbed, opening up from its lean, lightly gamy fruitness to a fuller taste. (Of course, there are wags who say that any wine tastes better the more you consume, citing the parallel but opposing Roger's Third Rule of Last Calls, which states that everything looks more appealing as time elapses and alcohol increases.)

2009 Wither Hill Wairau Valley Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc ($11). Good herbal notes, yet not as lean and grassy as most Marbs. It's also fuller and rounder, yet well-balanced for food. Well worth trying.

2007 Li Veli "Pezzo Morgana" Salice Salentino ($20). Complex and brooding, but drinking well now. Lively ruby fruit above and darker, preserved fruit below. Lots of acidity, and 100% Negromaro grapes.

Until next time...

Roger Morris

Saturday, November 6, 2010

A Week of Drinking Adventurously

Sunday, October 31
Through the years, I have been fortunate to be friends or close acquaintances with a number of winemakers in America and abroad. It always brings up the question of whether I can be totally objective in what I write about their wines, and the answer is, "Yes." As a college instructor at Arizona State during the wild 1960s, I often partied with students (no one gave it a second thought back then), some of whom I had to give a "D," while some non-partiers got an "A." If you can't separate your judgments from your emotions, you shouldn't be a writer, a critic, a teacher, or a judge of any sort. You end up lying to yourself and everyone else.

The good thing about being friends with a winemaker is that you can learn a lot. Even though they may disagree with some judgments and opinions I have, they gain a certain trust - and, hopefully, respect. They know what they can say off the record, they are open to giving opinions and theories, and occasionally they ask for honest feedback on one of their wines.

Michael Richmond at Bouchaine in Napa Valley is a complete joy to talk with. I've learned a lot over casual lunches with Francois Thienpot of the famous winemaking family on Bordeaux' Right Bank and from Bernard de Laage of the extended winemaking team at Chateau Palmer on the Left. Locally, I can discuss anything with Eric Miller of Chaddsford and expect a very frank appraisal, which we often then discuss with some heat.

Anthony Vietri at Va La Vineyards in Avondale and I probably have more time to talk about wine (and sports and politics) than most because, I think, we are both good observors and because he lives 15 minutes away. Sometimes, after we spend an afternoon over a bottle or two of wine and some good local cheese and his own figs and chesnuts at his winery, he will pull out something he has just released and ask, "Do you mind tasting this and tell me what you think?" Fortunately, Tony is a very good winemaker who makes very distinctive wines. "Give a little time to breathe," he cautioned on Thursday as I departed with a bottle of 2007 Mahogany, his Barbera-dominated wine that is probably his top cuvee.

It is now about 4:15 a.m. on Sunday morning, and I have just gotten up to feed the cats, brew some coffee, and toast some focaccia with a little salsa on top. While the coffee is brewing, I open the decanter with the Mahogany. I decanted it on Thursday night in a large vessel, but put a stopper in it so that the wine would get a lot of air but all recirculated off the surface of the wine. The first taste on Thursday still had a touch of post-partum sulphur which gave it a little gaminess, a taste I like but one which I knew would disappear. I have been writing Tony twice-a-day notes since.

This morning, I taste it, make notes, grab the coffee and focaccia, and go to my office with my indoor/outdoor cat, Lyle Lovett, racing up the stairs ahead of me. I e-mail Tony, "The last taste was probably the best. I finished it this morning. It has all integrated for the first time into one taste - purple fruit, close to black raspberry, with cream and a tug of tannin at the end."

Lyle Lovett snuggles in behind me on my writing stool. Not a bad way to start a week of drinking.

Monday, November 1
It has been a busy day of writing, but I have again worked my way ahead of the assignments-due versus articles- completed curve, having knocked off the last of eight holiday pieces for Caviar Affair and a Porto travel piece for The Hunt.

Tonight, Ella and I are relaxing at a wine dinner at Domaine Hudson in Wilmington (see earlier post) that features Le Cadeau Pinot Noirs from Oregon. I am the designated driver, so I am watching the pours, especially since I had tasted the wines Saturday night at a party for the Mortimers, who own Le Cadeau. It's a chatty group at our end of the table, and my notes trail off to nothiness - I'm covered! - as courses come and wine flows. At the end are business entrepreneurs and executives Ajit and Sarah George, whom we chatted with at Saturday's grand tasting, and next to us are Al Mascitti and Valerie Helmbrecht, both writers who often do other things.

Al puts his nose in one wine and says, "I like this, but I would have never guessed it was a Pinot Noir," and we are off into a discussion of how modern winemaking techniques have lessened the relevance of "varietal characteristics," which we all talked about during the '70s and '80s, in favor of "taste profiles" (a winese term which I detest) emphasizing whether the fruit is red, purple, or black.

I ask Al if he misses being a restaurant critic after doing it for years. "Not at all," he says. "I can now order what I want, but generally I'd rather eat at home." "And when we do go to a restaurant," Valerie adds, "Al doesn't tell me what to order!"

Tomorrow being election day, the talk shifts to politics - Al and Valerie have both covered Delaware politics as a reporter, and Ajit has been a campaign volunteer - so I stop taking wine notes altogether and plunge in.

Tuesday, November 2

Election Day. I have voted, taken a long walk, and posted the Le Cadeau piece. I see my piece on Nouveau Brandywine has been posted by a regional site. It is now about 8 p.m., and I decide to fix myself a drink to sip as I monitor returns on the New York Times and Politico sites. Last week, also in the New York Times, Frank Bruni wrote about his quest to find out how to make a Frisco, a cocktail that still, apparently, haunts his memory. Eventually, he came up with a rye, Benedictine, and lemon juice combination that satisfied his memory and his tastes.

So yesterday I bought Benedictine, having only B&B in the cabinet, and now I'm blending, blending, blending the three ingredients, then add ice. I make a very big drink, for it will be a long evening. I take the first sip, and I am not sold - too much lemon juice, a little too bitter, although that may suit my mood as the returns come in. But as the evening goes on, the results, and the drink, mellow. So do I. Looking at the Senate map as it fills in, I see a lot of red fruit in the profile, but there are some welcome blue fruit notes here and there.

But Frank, I'll be looking for a sweeter cocktail two years from now.

Wednesday, November 3

The sample bottles arrive in the morning - 6 tiny wine bottles, enough for a taste or religious communion (a possible market?) - for this afternoon's 3 p.m. tasting. How's that for confidence in Fedex or last-minute planning ("Did I send the wine? I thought you sent the wine! OMG!")

Normally, I amtrak to New York City a few times a month, and occasionally to Washington, from my home in Chester County, PA, for a wine tasting and seminar conducted by a winemaker. (Occasionally, the PR agency tries to slip in another writer or sommelier - skip those.) But, increasingly, Webinars are saving everyone time and money. I watched Montes from the vineyards in Chile, Raymond talking from California. Today, it will be Cameron Hughes talking and tasting from Napa Valley, with his sidekick, Sam Spencer.

At 3 p.m., I have lined up six large glasses that tower over the six screwy Lilliputs. I turn on the radio - I mean, click on the website, pump up the volume, and Cameron and Sam start talking at me. One by one, we go through each Lot Number, and the wines, all lots purchased negociant-style by CH, are very good and very good values to boot. And no need to spit, as all six might add up to one good pour. I decide I could start a relationship with Lot 175, purchased from Havens. It's my favorite, and I lust after more than this brief kiss.

There are about 25 of us online now, and we type in questions that are relayed to Cameron and Sam. I ask if all of their high-end partners are in distress, or if some are using CH to declassify as they might normally do in bulking off. Cameron leaps on the first part of my question, looks straight at me through the ether-world, and explains to me that many of his partners are in good financial straits. He didn't hear the second part, but that's OK.

Cameron, you've found a good business model for now, a good way to send just-in-time wine samples, and a good way to tell me all I need to know about your wines, taking less than 30 minutes of my time.

Thursday, November 4

It is a miserable, rainy, cold day - the kind us Anglophiles just love. I have spent the morning at the University of Delaware lecturing, as I do once a semester, to one of Robert Nelson's hospitality classes on worldwide wine trends. They are a good undergraduate audience, even though most of them are not yet of an age to legally drink up any part of my talk.

I don't cook enough any more, so today I make a bean and Italian sausage soup. Whenever I'm not traveling, Ella and I share a bottle of wine with dinner, generally trying to remove one from the kitchen pantry cabinet where I keep the samples that come to my doorstep like abandoned foundlings. Since most arrive in 750ml (note to Cameron) diapers, our pantry is generally overflowing. I don't choose anything dramatic tonight, but it turns out to be a very satisfying meal of homemade soup and 2008 Le Veli Salento "Primonero."

Today, comfort food, comfort wine.

Friday, November 5

I see my article on the Douro Makeover has been posted on Sommelier News, as the November issue is beamed out to its audience.

Tonight, Ella goes with me to a walk-around tasting, generally not my favorite type of wine venue. Too often they are shoulder-to-shoulder crowded, and it's almost impossible to concentrate on the wine you're tasting or talk with the people pouring the wines. Tonight, it's different on all counts. It's the annual calling-all-vendors bash by the Wine and Spirit Company of Greenville, a retail store, and it's being held at Brantwyn, one of the many decommissioned mansions and great houses of the scions of the founder of DuPont, the company, scattered all over the Brandywine Valley.

Once inside, over there is Michael Richmond, winemaker at Bouchaine (wasn't I just talking about him?), a winery owned by the Copelands, who also own the wine shop. And beside that table is David Duckhorn, the genial wine importer, with his cache of California and New Zealand wines. And so we work our way from table to table, room to room - a sip of wine and a brief chat at each. And about 40 minutes later we are back out into the night air.

At home, Ella and I again raid the sample pantry, this time for a bottle of 2007 Blason d'Issan. We were in the Medoc that harvest, so it gives us something else to chat about as we sit at the kitchen counter and raid the refrigerator for some of Tom Schaer's underground sheep cheese from just across the creek and some artisan salumi handmade by Phil Pyle, a chef owner at Fair Hill Inn, a handful of miles away in Maryland. It's a wonderful after-the-theater snack.

But it's only 8:30, so I delve a little further into my novel and Ella into her Kindle as we read ourselves to sleep.

Saturday, November 5

One more night out. It's now late in the afternoon, and I have to finish this posting so we won't be late for tonight's dinner at Susan Teiser's Centreville Cafe, co-hosted by Linda Collier of Collier's of Centreville wine shop. I have to be there - no excuses - because "Roger Morris Selections" will be poured tonight to accompany the great food of Susan and her staff.

It's a coming-out dinner of sorts, as I recently expanded my involvement from writing about the wine trade to being part of it as a broker in Delaware for three California wineries - Bell Cellars, Mauritson, and Hidden Ridge. I hesitated for a long time before making this commitment. One, I still fully plan to be a wine writer first, so I've made the vow not to write about my wines in any sort of advocacy way. When I mentioned this to Clay Mauritson, I liked his reply: "Hell, I don't care if you don't write about my wines. I want you to sell my wines." Point taken, so you'll see none of them as my Wines of the Week.

The second reservation is that I'm not a entrepreneur, although I love entrepreneurism. Translated, I love working with new ideas, launches, and new ventures, but I hate putting up money that I might lose. John Lowman, my partner in RMS' parent company, North Fork Wine & Spirits, put that fear in proper perspective. "The worse that can happen," John said, "is that we'll have to drink a few pallets of wine."

Okay, it's almost time to go drink - sorry Clay, sell - some wine. And tonight I can leave my notebook at home.

Until next time....

Roger Morris

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Friday Lineup: Livelli 'Primonero'

Wines of the Week

2008 Li Veli Salento "Primonero" IGT ($10). Made from a 50/50 mixture of Primotivo and Negromaro, the wine is tight with high acidity in the finish, but it has a core fruit flavor of black raspberry that opens up beautifully in the glass - a fruity wine that goes well with red meats and red sauce. Very good value.

2007 Macari "Bergen Road" North Fork of Long Island Red Wine ($46). I like Macari because they approach winemaking as winemaking, not as Eastern winemaking. Know what I mean? Anyway, "Bergen Road" is always an interesting blend, whatever the vintage, and this one has loads of dark red fruit flavors with rich oak notes, a hint of mint, and lots of smooth tannins. It will age well, and it will taste even better with decanting, whether you drink it now or in 10 years. With 42% Merlot, 30% Cab Sauv, 21% Cab Franc, and 7% Petite Verdot.

Until next time...

Roger Morris

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Tom & Deb Mortimer's Gift

One of the great things about wine is that it all tastes differently. A second great thing is that no two wineries have the same philosophy or business model.

Having said that, Le Cadeau is a little different than most. There's no doubt that Le Cadeau's vineyard, located on a rocky hillside near Newburg in the Willamette Valley, has the right terroir and the right owners to make great Pinot Noir. It's the diversity of the Le Cadeau Pinots and the way they're made that is fascinating.

On Saturday night, I had the opportunity to taste practically every Pinot that has any relationship to Le Cadeau (the gift) and it's owners, Tom and Deb Mortimer, at the home of Tom and Meg Hudson in Wilmington. Meg kept her day job as a business executive, while Tom, an accountant, abandoned all his business principles five years ago to launch Domaine Hudson eatery and wine bar. That evening, by my count, I tried around 26 wines that bore either one of Le Cadeau's labels, or that of its Aubichon joint venture, dating back to its first commercial production in 2002.

In recent vintages, Le Cadeau has had four releases - "Cote Est," "Rocheaux" and "Equinoxe," all named after their vineyard plots, and "Diversite," which blends seven different clones from "a row here, and a row there" and is co-fermented, some in stainless and some in wood. In 2009, a fifth label, "Merci," made from one acre of heritage clones (Swan, Calera, Mount Eden), was added.

The odd thing is that Mortimer - who oversees the vineyard - has a different winemaker for each Le Cadeau label. "In 2008, we had five different winemakers," Mortimer says, "but normally we have four." These winemakers have day jobs elsewhere or own their own wineries. As illustration that no logistic is too difficult too overcome, Mortimer shipped the grapes for two of his cuvees this year to California, where their winemakers happened to have these day jobs. While Mortimer does oversee the grape growing, he picks according to the prefernces of the individual winemaker.

This approach does add a slight complication for the inquisitive drinker, as we have to guess whether the differences between the different wines is due to its vineyard plots and clones or the styles of their winemakers. During the Saturday tasting, and again last evening when we tasted the four 2008 cuvees again with the delicious food of Patrick McMahon at Domaine Hudson's fifth aniversary celebration, I kept coming back to Equinoxe as my favorite, although I would be happy to have any of the Le Cadeau wines in the desert island scenario.

The 2006 Equinoxe, its first vintage, was smooth and elegant, but also large-bodied with a pronounced ripe-fruitiness and finishing flavors of black raspberries. The 2007 was also rich and showed some tannins, as did the 2008. Winemaker Jim Sanders likes his grapes picked late, says Mortimer, and the two together launched the Aubichon joint venture.

The Mortimers make only a few hundred cases on their 28-acre property, and it always sells out. But it's doubtful they'll make money on it anytime soon, so in a way Le Cadeau is their gift to us. Which brings us to the third great thing about wine, in addition to its diversity and the diverse ways in which its made - some of the friendliest and most interesting people make it.

Until next time...
Roger Morris