Saturday, January 25, 2014

More Thoughts on Quality.

First class seats on an airplane are better than the seats in coach. There is no question that this is true. They are more comfortable to sit in, they offer more space, they come with better food and drink, and also with the privilege of getting on and off of the plane before everyone else. They are the best seat on an airplane. They also cost a lot more than any other seat. Whether or not they are worth the expense is a decision that is our own, made according to our own individual calculus. That we have this decision and can opt not to buy first class seats does not imply, though, that there is some question about whether first class are best.

Wine is like this too - some are better than others. But it's much more complicated of a thing to appreciate this in wine and I think that there are three major reasons for this:

1) It's easy to for anyone, even a person who has never been on an airplane before, to understand why first class seats are better. Appreciating why one wine is better than another wine is not as straightforward.

2) We develop personal preferences, we find styles of wine that we like, prefer one kind of wine over another. It is easy and self-serving, even, especially as we gather more wine drinking experience, to assume that our personal preferences are in line with an objective truth about quality.

3) We get confused by price. We buy coach seats when we fly because, well, who can afford to fly first class? And no one wants to waste their lives wishing for what they cannot have. The $12 bottle of Château Peybonhomme les Tours Blaye Côtes de Bordeaux is delicious, terroir expressive, and entirely worthy of our attention. It might be among the best red wines at $12 in NYC today. But it is not better than first class, no matter how many bottles I can buy for the same price. It's more fun (or less unsettling, anyway) to think that we've struck gold in the high quality $12 bottle than it is to think about how much better Léoville-las-Cases is.
If it sounds like I'm saying this from somewhere on high, I don't mean it that way at all. It's the opposite, actually. I've been trying to learn as much as I can about wine (while also enjoying drinking it) for the past ten years, and the point is, I'm still scratching the surface when it comes to any real knowledge of what is great wine and what is not. I simply am not exposed to enough wine, I cannot build the necessary context. I have come far enough, though, to know how much there is that I don't know.

Occasionally I do get to have an experience where I learn something real about quality. Here are two such recent experiences.

Right before Thanksgiving a friend and I drank the 2004 Éric Texier Côtes du Rhône-Brézème Domaine de Pergault. I bought three bottles on release in 2007 and this was my last bottle. Three years ago I drank a bottle and was not thrilled, but SF Joe, a guy who knows the wines pretty well suggested in the comments that I should give it a bit more time, perhaps three years more, in the cellar. He was absolutely right.

The wine was so much better three years later. Here is my note on drinking this wine in late November:
Just lovely, glad I waited for this. I caught the previous bottle too soon, as someone else suggested. Now this is mellow and alluring, with a rusty hue to the color, peppery, bloody, and floral aromas that are soft and gentle. Balanced and lovely on the palate too. The wine shows its class, but it also shows the limitations of the terroir - this is gorgeous wine, but it doesn't achieve the complexity or grandeur of great Syrah from a more illustrious site.
You can probably see where I'm going with this. Although the wine showed better three years later, and although it was delicious and I loved drinking it, it was not great wine. I was reminded of this the other night when I had dinner with a few friends that I haven't seen in a while and we drank a great Syrah by the culty Rhône producer Noël Verset. It was a wine made in what I understand is the worst modern vintage for northern Rhöne wines - 2002. It was lighter and perhaps even more rustic than Verset wines are in more typical vintages. But it was undeniably great wine. Two months later it became clear to me, this idea that Verset Cornas is better than Texier Côtes du Rhône. Really, is that such big news? No. I wonder though, what it means, to know this. If I were a rich person, would I buy and drink only Verset Cornas and the few other Syrahs of similar quality? If money were no object, would I make room for Texier Côtes du Rhône also, even if I could afford first class any time I wanted it? 

Recently a very generous friend opened a few mature first and second growth Bordeaux wines for a group of friends at dinner. He decanted them and we actually drank them without knowing which was which. We all thought that the same two wines were the best of the group, and that one of the two was better than the other. They turned out to be 1979 Latour and 1979 Pichon-Lalande, and the Latour was the better of the two. It's "supposed" to be better - it's a first growth wine and Pichon-Lalande is a second growth. But these wine classifications are not always accurate. In this case, if these wines are representative, the classification is spot on. Both wines were wonderfully aromatic and complex, and both were delicious and classic in their Bordeaux character, even if they came from an off vintage. But the Latour just was a more complete wine on the palate, it maintained a better presence through the midpalate and showed more complexity and depth on the finish. 

I read in Alexis Lichine's Guide to the Wines and Vineyards of France that Latour's vineyards literally abut those of Pichon-Lalande in Pauillac, and that Pichon-Lalande's vines spill over into St. Julien. The map in the book makes it look as though Latour's vines are closer to the river. As in many other places in France, and throughout the wine world, the distance of a stone's throw separates vineyards that are truly different in their potential. It's one thing to "know" this because others tell me so, or because the producers are classified as one thing or another. But to drink these wines side by side, with friends and over dinner - differences in quality become immutable, even to a relatively untrained eye like my own.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Back in the Saddle

I haven't written anything in a long time. It's hard to get started again. I've wanted to, but the longer it gets, the more inertia sets in. Perhaps the best way is simply to write something  - anything. Even just a list of recent wines I've loved. If it's fun, I'll write again another time.

The best red wine I've had in some time? A bottle of Beaujolais, but a special bottle - the 2011 Yvon Métras Moulin-à-Vent. This is not so easy to find here in the US, but whoa, it's worth looking for. Here's my note on the bottle: "Honestly, the finest red wine I've tasted in a while. A perfect bottle. Fragrant with fruit, flowers, stones, leaves. Beautifully expressive on the palate with complex fruit and mineral flavors, a structural firmness under the fruit that smacks of Moulin-à-Vent, texturally perfect, long on the finish - I'm trying to mention everything that's great about this wine which starts to feel silly. It really was just a wonderful bottle with a depth and expression of aroma and flavor that is fantastic." Métras is a cultish producer and that might turn some folks off. It turned me off, to be honest. But this bottle converted me. 

Then there's also this bottle, the 2008 Giuseppe Rinaldi Barbera d'Alba. Another one that is not easy to find here in the US. This bottle kind of blew me away. Pure and fresh, absolutely transparent in feel and the earthy minerality is pungent. The wine is so complex too - the finish is a melange of the herbal, the acidic, and the ripe but not overripe fruit (which itself is a melange of bright red raspberry and deep dark cherry). If you drink it now, save half for ay 2 - way better on day 2. I've not had too many Barberas, and I've had none that I loved except for a bottle a few years back by G. Conterno. This one, I loved, LOVED. Is this is what Barbera grown on great soils by a great wine maker is like?

The 2012 vintage of Tissot Poulsard is here and it's really good. For me, this is the Poulsard to buy and drink with impunity these days, as Overnoy is a unicorn and Ganevat costs $50. This wine needs a good decant to deal with the reduction, but it is absolutely delicious. It comes from very old vines and it has no added sulfur (which should raise alarms more than act as a selling point, in my book, but this one does it beautifully). It will greatly please Poulsard lovers but also I think would be a nice way to introduce a friend to the charms of light and weird red wine - it's accessible like that. Cranberries, blood oranges, hard spices, flowers, harmonious and beautifully textured, this wine packs a lot of interest into a very light frame. It costs about $25.

I'm still not entirely sure where I am with this wine. 2010 Weingut Günther Steinmetz Mülheimer Sonnenlay Pinot Noir Unfiltriert, as it is deftly named, might be an intense wine that offers way more complexity, terroir expression, and overall quality than its $23 price tag suggests is possible. Or it might just be an incredibly delicious and balanced Pinot from Germany. I can't tell yet. But I will tell you that I am vigorously enjoying the act of drinking the wine and further exploring this important question.

I still drink white wine. Way more than red, actually. Here are some recent whites that also wowed me:

2007 Fritz Haag Brauneberger Juffer-Sonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese. You know, I look back at my notes from drinking this wine and it's not as though I loved it on paper. But the thing is, I loved it. I've thought about it a lot since drinking it. Maybe it sounds obvious to you if you drink these wines, but the purity, the delicacy, the impeccable really got to me and I must have more.

2012 Bernard Ott Grüner Veltliner Am Berg. I think this is a great vintage for this wine. It's subtle and quiet, but absolutely delicious and entirely expressive of place and of Grüner. I like to decant this wine, and then there are clean and cooling aromas of sour cream, lemongrass, and green herbs. Quiet, but arresting. And versatile at the table. And about $18.

I dipped into my small stash of the very fine La Bota de Fino Nº 35, and whoa, is it drinking beautifully. This is a Fino selected from barrels in the Valdespino Inocente solera system. The overtly powerful personality of the wine has been tempered a bit and it now thrives on this amazing harmony of aroma and flavor. Complex, savory,  and shockingly delicious.

Just to see what's what, I opened a bottle of 2008 Gilbert Picq Chablis 1er Cru Vogros. It reminded me that it's possible to drink real Chablis, truly satisfying Chablis, elegant and bantam weight Chablis that really smacks of seashells, iodine, and white flowers, for under $30. I like this wine in every vintage I've tasted. This one drinks very well right now, but takes 90 minutes to get there and seems like it will improve with another few years in the cellar. But whoa, when it got there it was rewarding.

That was kind of fun, writing this. For me, anyway.