Saturday, November 29, 2008

Wine I SPY!

Those of you with kids know exactly where this is going:

I spy a unicorn, an orange slice,
two stars, two keys, a pyramid, and two knights

Four crosses, two angels, two saints, DIAM,
A butler's friend, wine barrels, and two heads of a ram.

Let me know if this is too easy. A special bonus for finding the fifth cross and wine crystals... (to be honoured on your next visit to my cellar)


Wednesday, November 26, 2008

What's Wrong with German Wine?

Source: Schmitt Sohne USA

Over the past year I have become a big fan of German wines. Not Barry's Spätburgunders - too rare outside of Germany - but those made from their signature grape, Riesling.

I picture my wine buddies right now - is Joe delusional? Who drinks this stuff? Certainly very few of the people I know with an interest in wine - beginners, well-to-do collectors, blog writers - ever talk about it. But sales are growing - German exports to the U.S. doubled every year from 2002 to 2006, and I can't believe all of this is ending up in Lyle's cellar! Somebody is buying, so where is the "buzz"? Certainly it is not for lack of critical acclaim:

"Fine dry German wine must represent some of the world’s best bargains." - Jancis Robinson

"I was struck by how high many (German wine) prices have gotten in U.S. retail dollars ... yet I was also repeatedly amazed at outstanding, sometimes even extraordinary Riesling that still seems under-valued." - David Schildknecht

"I can’t help but think that dry German rieslings are singular in their own way, combining grace, delicacy and power in a way that nobody else’s dry rieslings can do." - Eric Asimov

I could fill a page with critical acclaim for German wine, so my title is misleading - there really is nothing wrong with German wine at all! More than a millennium of wine history and a dedication to quality has ensured Germany's place amongst the world's great wine regions. 

So I guess my real question is, if it is so good, where is the "buzz" beyond the ivory towers of the wine intelligentsia? In my travels across North America, from the high-end restaurants to your neighbourhood bistros, there are few (if any) German wines on the lists, and I cannot recall the last time I heard a sommelier plugging a German wine. And a quick review of most wine shops in North America seems to confirm this - you have to work hard to find anything beyond a smattering of selections (or worse, they are well stocked with the cheap, sugary stuff). 

I guess I should have an answer to my question but, like most of life's important questions, there is no simple answer. Some have suggested the daunting German language labels are to blame, but Italian and French labels don't seem to scare anybody. Another hypothesis I have heard is that Germans make sweet wine, whereas North American palates seek dry white wines. But German wine production and consumption is overwhelmingly dry, so why are they sending us the sweet stuff?

Seems like a "chicken and the egg" problem - we don't buy it so they don't ship it, and the little bits they do ship are hiding behind bottles of cheap, sweet plonk so we leave the store with American, Canadian, Australian, Alsatian or Austrian Riesling instead. The wine world is subject to waves of fashion, and I predict that renewed interest in Riesling will soon lead to a wider "buzz" around German Riesling.

If I've piqued your interest, head over to Lyle or Barry's sites, Germanophiles with a deep knowledge of and love for these wines.


(PS - I have never tasted the cleverly marketed wines of Schmitt Sohne, but I love those "Take Home a Little German" ads)

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Ah-So! (Saved again)

There are hundreds of gadgets for the wine afficianado, but a cheap - and absolutely necessary gadget (in my opinion) - is the cork retriever. The gadget on the left in the picture, it may also be referred to as a cork extractor, a twin prong cork puller, the "butler's  friend", or the "Ah-So".

Normally used to rescue an ancient, decrepit cork from a very old bottle (usually quite successfully), tonight this gadget ably removed a modern, plastic cork from a cheap Spanish wine after the waiter's corkscrew (right) and the basic (centre) corkscrew both failed me.

Looking for Holiday gifts? Give your favourite wine fanatic a cheap, thoughtful gift that will save them once a year - Ah so!

PS - Using one of these take some practice. Try it out on a few cheap bottles before you try to rescue the cork from that 1945 Chateau Latour...

Friday, November 21, 2008

Single Vineyard Rieslings of Germany and Alsace, by S.A. Prum and Dopff et Irion

My visit to Montreal's Salon des Vins in March was a whirlwind of tasting activity, but two whites stood out at that event - tonight's Alsatian "Grand Cru" Riesling and a Mosel Riesling from the famed "Wehlener Sonnenuhr" vineyard. Now I love Alsace whites, and I love German Riesling, but I never thought to taste them head to head - tonight we paired these two gems with a spiral ham...

The 2004 Dopff et Irion Grand Cru Schoenenbourg Riesling (Alsace) was quite earthy on the nose, with lemons, peaches and sweet honeysuckle over a hard, flinty core, noticeably greener than the Prum below. A juicy, flavourful palate, delicately held together by steely acid and sturdy minerality. Drier, sharper and crisper, this very polished white would have paired better with whitefish than tonight's sweet ham.
cork. 13% alcohol
Score: 17.5/20
Price: ~C$30

The 2005 S.A. Prum Wehlener Sonnenhur Riesling Kabinett (Mosel) showed honeyed petrol notes and was a bit spicier, earthy and flinty as well. Effervescent and slightly less dry than the Schoenenbourg with a lingering minerality, it was indescribably fuller and lighter at the same time. A touch simpler in my notes, yet this was the wine that everyone kept reaching for - and a much better pairing for this meal.
cork. 9.0% alcohol
Score: 17/20
Price: ~C$24 (SAQ)

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Big Fun - Magnums of Sassoalloro & Vieux Lazaret

What is the purpose of an oversized wine bottle? Your first thought might be that if you buy an over-sized bottle you would get a discount, but that is not the case for fine wines. So it's an ego thing, right? Possibly - opening a gigantic bottle of wine for a big event is impressive, and they look so darn good in the cellar. But there is a practical side to this largesse - larger wine bottles are more "age-worthy". So I've collected a few of these for future special occasions (i.e. one for each of my kids' "vintages"), but sometimes I just cannot wait...

Lloyd suggested I pick up a bottle of this 2004 Jacopo Biondi Santi Sassoalloro, a modestly priced "super-Tuscan" in a party friendly magnum. Deep, dark cherry red with big leathery and tobacco notes - rose petals, black currants, rosemary, ink, and cooked meat on the nose as well. Crisp, juicy fruit and big, earthy tannins with a long, luxurious, velvety finish. The only tragedy was opening this too early. A fantastic price for an age-worthy magnum - other super-Tuscan makers should be nervous.
cork. 13.5% alcohol
Score: 17.5/20
Price: C$57.60 (SAQ)

This wine won a CDP tasting in 2005 so I picked up a pair when the SAQ released it in a magnum format. The 2000 Domaine du Vieux Lazaret Cuvée Exceptionnelle (Châteauneuf-du-Pape) sported a wonderful nose of "beef au jus" and cooked fruit, berries and white flowers, nuts, leather, white pepper, and damp forest undergrowth. On the palate were meaty tannins and slatey blackberries all held together by crisp acidity. Polished, with a silky smooth texture, it started simple but gained complexity over the evening - very smooth, very well done. May go a few more years, but nice today after a good decant.
cork. 13.5% alcohol
Score: 18/20
Price: C$81 (SAQ)

Sunday, November 16, 2008

2005 Elderton "Friends" Shiraz

As the price for Elderton's "Estate" Shiraz has moved up in price, Elderton's "Friends" bottling (using grapes from independent Barossa growers) has filled in as their entry-level wine. Yes, I'm a big fan of Elderton's wines, and this was another winner. The 2005 Elderton Friends Shiraz was a classic Barossa Shiraz: an expressive nose of violets, black earth and ripe berries at first, later adding musk, leather, pepper and flinty notes. A rich palate of ripe, dark fruit, while firm tannins and wet stones add structure and a lingering finish. Well done! 
screw top. 14.5% alcohol
Score: 16.5/20
Price: C$19.95 (SAQ)

Friday, November 14, 2008

1999 Elderton CSM

It is a great feeling when you grab something from the cellar that has been sitting for a few years - the perfect day has arrived! Purchased in 2004, this lonely bottle of 1999 Elderton CSM (Cabernet, Shiraz, Merlot) was opened to celebrate...well, nothing actually, I just wanted to impress my in-laws. Big, black pepper and blueberry aromas, tarry flinty notes, a late greenness, cedar and a hint of violet. Crisp acid danced on the tongue and silky, woodsy tannins coat the palate and remain for minutes. Flavourful, reserved, and a judicious use of oak for a Barossa - a tragedy I didn't buy more of this.
cork. 14% alcohol
Score: 17.5/20
Price: C$39.95 (LCBO)

PS - Elderton has changed the name of this offering to "Ode to Lorraine" in 2002.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

2006 A et P de Villaine "Les Montots"

Aubert de Villaine's wines appear here frequently (1,2,3,4), I just wish it was more of the DRC...alas, I possess the bank account of a mere mortal! Fortunately the SAQ always seems to get the more reasonably priced wines from his own Domaine, but they sell out quickly so I have to keep an eye out for them.

If one word could describe the 2006 A et P de Villaine "Les Montots" it would be "subtle"... subtle earthy and leathery tobacco notes at first, then floral, raspberry and cocoa powder creep up on you - flinty and truffley as well. A crisp, sharp acidity greets the palate but the spicy, slatey, raspberry fruit sliced through a roast chicken. A touch rough around the edges, but like a ghost it sneaks up and envelops you with its complexity. A modest finish, not sure how this will fare in the cellar (I have two more for a future experiment). I rated the 2001 slightly better, perhaps a reflection of the more challenging conditions for red Burgundy in '06.
Cork. 12.5% alcohol
Score: 17/20
Price: C$37.25 (SAQ)

Sunday, November 09, 2008

2006 Leon Beyer Riesling Reserve

I would guess that when I first "got into" wine that 80% of my whites came from Alsace. Well, times have changed - it has been a year since I last posted on an Alsace wine as German whites have taken up the slack.

The 2006 Léon Beyer Riesling Réserve had a pretty nose of cherry blossom, pear, lemon meringue and dried apricots, very minerally with a hint of petrol. Steely and crisp on the palate with a light, refreshing greenness. A simple but a very effective riesling at this price.
cork. 12% alcohol
Score: 16/20
Price: C$17.80 (SAQ)

...once again I am cursed with a surplus of wine notes and a deficit of time...

Friday, November 07, 2008

2002 D'Arenberg Dead Arm

I couldn't help thinking about my comments on palate drift as I wrote up my notes on this d'Arenberg Shiraz. After all, d'Arenberg's wines were amongst my first loves and have been consistently recommended here - but with a sizable collection of d'Arenbergs in my cellar have I "drifted" from first love?

The 2002 d'Arenberg "The Dead Arm" Shiraz shows a terrific, complex nose of violets, vanilla and truffles, black cherries and currants, oak, flint, and some smoked sausage. Still quite tannic, with peppery, juicy fruit on the palate - incredibly balanced, not overboard on the fruit. I have not drifted too far from this wine, the five other bottles simply need to rest in the cellar for a few more years...
cork. 14.5% alcohol
Score: 17.5/20
Price: C$50 (LCBO)

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

2006 Moillard Macon-Aze

I've had some success with the inexpensive whites from Burgundy's "Mâcon" appellations - Mâcon-Loché, Mâcon-Lugny, Mâcon-Villages - so it was a no-brainer for me to try a bottle of this wine from Mâcon-Azé. The 2006 Moillard Mâcon-Azé delivered: notes of lemony cream and yeasty ripe apples, some oak, bananas and chalk. Rather stern on the palate, but with a soft underbelly - riper than a Chablis yet better structured than those recent Mâcon whites. I highly recommend this for my Ontario friends.
cork. 13% alcohol
Score: 16.5/20
Price: C$16.95 (LCBO)

Sunday, November 02, 2008

2005 Bella Vineyards Zinfandels from Dry Creek and Alexander Valley

Zin lovers have little reason to visit this site - with notes on over a thousand wines I can only point to a half dozen Zinfandels reviewed here. Not sure if it is the grape, or the style that winemakers use to express the grape these days, but I generally find them fruity, flabby and alcoholic. Despite that intro, a successful tasting of Zins at Bella Vineyards last year led to a few bottles of Zin coming home with me, and since I couldn't go to Sonoma this year I have to settle for revisiting the treasures in my cellar... 

The 2005 Bella Vineyards Big River Ranch (Alexander Valley) was the superior wine, in my opinion. A stunning, complex nose of flinty blackberries, rose petals, black earth, spices (pepper, nutmeg and cloves) and much more. Uncharacteristic depth and a lengthy finish for this varietal, with spicy blackberries and velvety tannins to please the tastebuds, the heavy alcohol barely noticeable. This certainly has potential...I have one more bottle for a future date.
cork. 14.9% alcohol
Score: 17.5/20
Price: ~US$35 (winery)

The 2005 Bella Vineyards Lily Hill Estate (Dry Creek Valley) is more of what you expect from a Zin - hot, meaty, blueberry jam on the nose, vanilla and violets as well, with a soft (it started crisp but quickly went soft) generous palate and gripping finish. A "fruity, over-the-top" Zin, but much better than other "fruity, over-the-top" Zins. Luscious and flavourful, simpler than the "Big River" above - ready to drink now.
cork. 15.5% alcohol
Score: 16.5/20
Price: ~US$35 (winery)

Look, the winery is scenic, the wines are great, and you can't get them anywhere else - a must see for anyone planning a Sonoma visit. Cheers!