Monday, November 9, 2009

Bordeaux prices plummet

AFP is reporting that Bordeaux wines are set for an off-the-cliff plummet.

Even as Chateau Lafite leads a surge for Bordeaux vintners in Asia, US retail prices for the same wines have skidded below wholesale cost as a major importer dumps stocks worth tens of millions of dollars.

US importer Diageo Chateau & Estate Wines (DC&E), a subsidiary of the British drinks giant Diageo, has abandoned Bordeaux wine after 35 years, aggressively liquidating its warehouse stock on an already shaky market.

Speaking to AFP, a source within DC&E, who asked to remain anonymous, blamed "enormous stocks" of unsold Bordeaux for their exodus. "It's all about making money. The margins are getting thinner each year and Americans are trading down."

DC&E's turbulent withdrawal, which has heated up in recent weeks, is having a "huge impact on the market," Chris Adams, chief executive of Manhattan retailer Sherry Lehmann, told AFP.

For many years, DC&E was the largest US buyer of Bordeaux, and amassed a colossal cellar. Now famous labels such as Lafite, Haut Brion and Lynch Bages are being offered to American retailers at discounts of up to 50 percent.

"I have 5.5 million dollars' worth of First Growths in my warehouse that I cannot sell, because I'll be 50 percent more expensive than Chateau & Estate," said Guillaume Touton, owner of Monsieur Touton Selection, the New York importer with annual sales of over 100 million dollars.

Look for eye-popping pre-Christmas bargains!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

An interesting idea about tasting wines on specific days

I received this note from a reader and acquaintance, Daniel McKeever, a few days ago. I'm not sure I agree, but there may be something interesting here. Here's his note, unedited, so others can take a look.


I've been working on an experiment that you might find interesting.

I think that we in the wine world taste wines on certain days that we know that we like, and then when we don’t like them, we chalk them up as a bad bottle, or something to the sort rather than considering where the moon is and how it can affect the wine. There is an affect on all living things, consider that the crime rate rises when there is a full moon. As the moon moves, the ocean’s tides are pulled by gravitation. So to it works with us, and the living, breathing organism also known as the bottle of wine. Might it be that some wines are more alive than others? Could it be that some wines are just more in tune with how the earth breathes. I know that there are many professionals who think that root days are fine to taste on. You can still enjoy a bottle on these days, for sure. I believe that there are just days that are better than others for tasting wine. Also, when you are spending a bunch of money on a bottle of wine and looking for magic, some days you won’t find it.

I was interested in the subject because I buy and sell a lot of Burgundy. It is expensive and there’s nothing more heartbreaking than opening a bottle in a dumb phase, or having one that you know isn’t flawed, but just isn’t doing what you know it should. There are many producers who I represent who are practicing biodynamics, and I have seen first hand the results in the vineyard, and in the glass. One night I was having dinner with Bruno Lafon in Tan Hermitage and really started to dig into why it was that wine could be better on some days rather than others. He told me then, that wine tastes best on fruit days, and then on flower days. Leaf days can be okay, but always watch out for root days. Fruit days can help a wine that is reductive to open up. Flower days seem to have a focused nose, but can sometimes cause a wine that is reductive to reduce a bit more and take on almost a port like quality. Leaf days are ones that aren’t necessarily bad, but the wine will show less fruit and more earth tones. Root days cause the wine to close in and show earth notes and little fruit. Needless to say my mind was blown, and I’ve been conducting my own experiments for most of the year. This was one of the first times that I’ve done an experiment in a controlled environment. Partially because, it is a bit of a risk to go around and show the wines that I intend to sell when they are not showing at their best.

Biodynamic experiment

Wednesday October 14, 2009 was a fruit day and I made appointments with some wine buyers to show a set of wines. I also made the exact same appointments at the same times for the following day, which was a root day, to show the same set of wines with fresh bottles opened at 10 o’clock a.m. My objective was to evaluate the wines as they progressed through the days and to show that they would be radically different from fruit day to root day.

I brought two wines that were biodynamic, Masion Champy Pernand Vergelesse 1er Cru Les Fichot, and Gourt de Mautens Rasteau Jerome Bressy. Also, there was one wine that was organic (Paul Autard Cotes de Rhone,) one that was not fully biodynamic, but made in the cellar in a biodynamic fashion, Masion Champy Bourgogne Signature Chardonnay. I also brought two wines from Spain that were farmed normally for a control factor (Izadi Bianco, and Arzuaga La Planta.) I chose the two whites because they both see wood, and I’ve seen that oxidative whites will tend to close in on a root day, which sometimes can be a good thing especially in the way of older wine.

The first wine we tasted was the Izadi Bianco 2007, a white Rioja which is fermented in barrel and a blend of 80% Viura and 20% Malvasia. There was a presence of oak on the wine. Still, it was very pretty, clean, and pure. The tree fruit was showing on both the nose and palate. It was medium bodied with good acid and a fresh lively finish. On the second day, there was still oak present, yet there were more citrus notes and a green stemmy floral tone and more of an herbal thing on the nose, also a bit of heat. There was less of the apple and pear on the palate, and it was replaced by a grapefruit and meyer lemon thing. Although the body was the same, and the wine was sound, the wood and acid were more pronounced. The structure was evident and the fruit was a secondary expression.

Next up was Masion Champy Bourgogne Signature Chardonnay 2006. Day one the wine was firing on all cylinders. The color was gleaming straw with gold and green streaks. The nose was pronounced with golden apple, vanilla, pear, and chalky limestone. There was a saline note, which reminded me of Meursault. On the palate, the wine danced. It was medium to medium plus in body, super round and had a wonderful texture. The oak was a nice frame to the wine, the fruit was generous, minerality was preaching the place of origin. Day two found the wine pinched. There was nothing wrong with the wine, it just wasn’t as expressive on the nose. There was more oak that seemed present, and the lees were showing with a yeasty thing going on. There was less fruit, and minerals on the nose. I even got a bit of banana peal on the nose, which was not there the day before. The palate was fine, just not exceptional as it was the day before. It was all about the structure, and less about the mouthfeel and texture. The body was the same, but the finish wasn’t as long, or exciting. It wasn’t nearly as good as the day before.

Wine number three was Masion Champy Pernand Vergelesse 1er Cru Les Fichot 2006. The first day, the wine was bright red cherry, fresh red roses, and a faint note of rhubarb on the nose. The palate offered the same beautiful high tone cherry core with some pomegranate and great minerality, charm, and the earthy rhubarb tone that was subtle and lovely. It was medium body very round and elegant, with a long finish. It was lively and crunchy as if you’d just picked a berry off the vine and it exploded in the mouth. It was silky and fresh. The second day found the same color and body, but the nose was more barnyard, the rhubarb tone was more present along with a radish, and beet note with almost a sappiness to it. There was also a bunch of cedar. The bright red cherry thing had faded dramatically. There was a baking spice note that was pronounced. The palate was ok. The fruit was dim. It had more tannins from the wood, and was pretty hard and wound up. It was angular and tight and closed up.

Next up was Paul Autard Cotes de Rhone 2006. Day one, the wine was vivid on the nose. It had bright red fruit, dried herbs, lavander, along with a meat oil thing that reminded me of the casing from a dried salami. As one buyer put it, it was like a Cotes de Rhone from thirty years ago. On the palate it had some wood tannin up front, which turned into a beautiful garrigue flavor which resonated, fanned out and framed the red cherry, strawberry, and white pepper notes. It was medium plus body and was round and ethereal. Day two, the wine was there on the nose, but then after a swirl it would kind of disappear. It had similar tones on the nose, lavender and garrigue but the fruit was muted cherry and so forth. The palate was tight. The wood tannins were more present, it was angular and less round. Still, not a bad wine, but not even in the same ballpark as the day before.

Wine number five was Gourt de Mautens Rasteau Jerome Bressy 2004. I was most interested in this wine and how it would react to the experiment because the first time that the guys in my company went to visit Monsieur Bressy, it was on a root day and he wouldn’t even show them the cellar, much less let them taste the wines. That’s pretty dramatic when you consider that they had come all the way from Texas. The following year, I went to the vineyard on a favorable day and was blown away at the quality and craftsmanship of the wine. On day one, this was the showstopper. It was almost black in color, a deep garnet core, it was opaque, and stained the glass with a swirl. It was vivid and savory on the nose with a developed blackberry, currant, and floral note, along with a sexy animal thing. On the palate it was huge. There was black fruit, which was full of what the French call sucrosite, which is sugar without sugar. The wine was impeccable with an amazing finish, which hung on and on. Day two found the wine showing mostly dirt on the nose, and had almost an Amarone thing going on, a pruned dried fruit, and quite a bit of heat. On the palate, it was so tannic. The fruit was short, dark and sweet up front, but disappeared in the mid palate, and then fell off the map. I wish I could say it had some nuts toward the back of the palate, but it was almost like chewing on paper. It was heavy and hot. It was not even enjoyable, and in fact made me want to brush my teeth.

The last wine was Arzuaga La Planta 2007. Day one found the wine with a buttered carrot thing going on the nose. It had some caramel, red apple skin, and cherry as well, along with a little coconut from the wood. It was overshadowed by the Rasteau on the first day and unfortunately seemed out of context. The palate was medium plus in body, had some big tannins but was balanced. The fruit was fresh apple and cherry, there was some cinnamon and coconut. Day two, it was much better than the Rasteau. It had more of the caramel thing and a similar buttered carrot note, but there was some alcohol present on the nose as well. On the palate the fruit was muted a bit and the tannins were much more present on the front of the mouth. It was fine, but wound up and not as round.

All six wines were dramatically different. I think there was less variation in the wines which were farmed normally. Although they weren’t as expressive on the fruit day, they weren’t as drastically different on the root day.

One of the things that comes to mind is that many vineyards send off samples to the press in hopes that a good review might make their vintage. Unfortunately a poor review could break them as well. Might the day of the month in relation to the moon and the cosmos affect how the wine will be received? I’ve never really agreed with the 100 point scoring system to begin with. It is a bit like the show, “Who’s Line Is It, Anyway?”

“Welcome to the show where everything is made up, and the points don’t matter.”



Daniel McKeever

Classified Wine & Spirits

Central Texas Manager

Friday, April 24, 2009

Lynch-Bages comes to Austin

A group of French wine lovers welcomed Jean-Michel Cazes, owner of Lynch-Bages winery, for a celebratory dinner at Aquarelle on April 19. It was a homecoming as M. Cazes had been a graduate student at UT, earning a Masters degree in Petroleum Engineering. His visit was from a series of coincidences.

Earlier this year, at UT, another French graduate student in Petroleum Engineering was reading an old Wine Spectator. Anne Burgot relates the story: "I saw this article about Jean-Michel Cazes, like me, did an engineering degree like me in Paris, and then came to Austin to do the same Master degree as me in UT in Austin in 1959, just 50 years ago! So many coincidences! I found that it was too much to be random. Since I love organizing events, I wrote him a letter to ask him if he would like to come back to Austin 50 years later and that I would volunteer to organize a wine tasting dinner at a delicious French restaurant I know." She never expected to hear back from him, but "two weeks later he sent me an email letting me know that he would love to come back to Austin and could be here in April."

Indeed, Ms. Burgot spent four solid months working on the event, but at the end, she put together a benefit for the Wine and Food Foundation of Texas and filled all of Aquarelle's seats. Best for Austin, her newfound interest in wine and organzing have her hooked. Her next program will be to put together a quarterly tasting of wine for women.

As for the dinner, food and wine were both loved by all. Aquarelle's five course menu was scrumptious, as were the wines, but the dinner was dominated by Almond Crusted Beef Tenderloin with Foie Gras and a Cabernet Reduction married with both a 1996 and 1988 Lynch-Bages. The wine of the night, for my purposes, was the 2005 Chateau Villa Bel Air, a dense and rich Graves loaded with violets and lavender.

Thanks again to Ms. Burgot for her efforts and for these photos of herself with M. Cazes and of the Aquarelle kitchen team with M. Cazes.

Washington Wine, the Dewhurst Proposal and a Michael Vilim's Expansion Plans

Gary Hogue, owner of Hogue Cellars in Washington, did an industry only dinner at Mirabelle on April 24, offering many of us the opportunity to try a few inexpensive (under $15) wines as well as a $24 Cab Reserve. Pick of the night among the wines were the Hogue Cellars Genesis Chardonnay ($14), a wine with plenty of acidity to pair up with the big fruit and moderate oakiness. The Hogue Cellars Genesis Merlot ($14) was exactly what an inexpensive Merlot should be: dark plum fruity with a hint of green pepper.

We had a short but lively discussion about Texas Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst's proposal to open up all restaurants to allowing diners to bring in their own wines. One restaurant manager said, "Perhaps they should be able to bring their own steaks to my steak house?" Another said that it would create havoc and end up closing a few. Gary Hogue said that in his home state of Washington, they have the same law and it hasn't hurt restaurants or wineries. We shall see.

Finally, Michael Vilim mentioned that we should be listening for news about him moving into a couple of new restaurant ventures. At least one will have to do with creating international types of street food. He seems very passionate about the idea, enough so that he has been working on recipes and picking locations.

The pictures at the top are of Gary Hogue, regaling us with stories.

Northern Italy Wine Trails

This is an article I originally wrote for the Austin Chronicle. I place it here for your information and as a teaser for when this blog gets going full time, which will be shortly after the edits and art for my next book, What's a Wine Lover To Do? (Artisan), are finally finished.

We rented a car and headed over the Alps to the town of Neive in Piemonte, the northwestern corner of Italy, to La Contea, one of our favorite restaurants in the world. I don't say this lightly. We've been around, and we've been back to La Contea often enough to know that not only is it dazzling, it is consistent. There, Tonino Verro has a small empire as a winemaker, shop owner, restaurateur, and innkeeper. His wife, Claudia, oversees the kitchen, while a crew of young, eager family and friends watches over the front of the house. It is cozy, with fewer than 20 tables, never snobby, and the food is simply glorious. We were there at the beginning of white-truffle season, and Tonino was going table to table, gently imploring the people to try Claudia's Tagliatelle With Tartufo Bianco. It was amazing. Later, Tonino walked through the dining room carrying a box with what looked like a cat in it. When he got to our table, it turned out to be a huge rabbit, freshly shot by a local hunter and ready for Claudia's roasting. We bought an Arnais and a Barbera from Tonino's winery and relaxed into a wonderful meal. The night couldn't have been any better.

Since we were in Italy, we thought it would be a good idea to visit some of the wineries that Austinite Steve Lawrence represents. Romana Carlo is just a few kilometers from La Contea and operated by the nicest family. They set up a lunch Momma cooked (including semolina dolce, a wonderful, sweet, fried polenta), and we tasted through all their wines, tops being the 2004 Terra Verus Barbera Riserva, a dense, delicious wine with a hint of oak. One benefit for all of us, since Steve is local, is that Austin gets these wines first.

With a few days until our next visit, we headed down to Tuscany to see the Banfi operation. This is one of the world's largest wine companies, yet everything we saw was handled like a small winery. We were there as they were bringing in the Sangiovese for their Brunello and watched as the workers literally separated grape by grape to assure the quality. We had three nights at Banfi, staying in a room they reserve for traveling employees. They also have a hotel with a two-star Michelin restaurant, but it starts at $500 a night! Staying in the worker's area allowed us to infiltrate the local scene. We had a chance to be away from tourists. Sitting outside in a breezy piazza, sipping a cup of espresso ... I didn't want to leave.

My favorite Banfi wine of all was Principessa Perlante Gavi, a $15 white wine with tiny bubbles and a beguiling, yummy flavor. I love finding great cheap wines. I also had an opportunity to try a double-blind tasting of 13 2001 Brunellos (see picture above). Now these are some of Italy's most expensive, sought-after wines. The good news was that the most expensive – Pian Delle Vigne by Antinori ($100), Pieve Santa Restituta by Gaja ($125), Biondi-Santi Tenuta Greppo ($120) – were not my favorites. I picked Castello Banfi Poggio Alle Mura as the best (and were the folks at Banfi pleased) and Castelgiocondo second. Both are still pricey, at about $75, but as Brunellos go, they were more than reasonable.

The other ultrapremium wine of Italy is Amarone, and Steve had been able to wangle me an invite to the Yoda of Amarone, Giuseppe Quintarelli. His wines are very rare in the U.S. and are snapped up by collectors. I had a tour of the winery and saw the incredible expense of carefully drying the grapes in lofts, down to the point that there is only a drop or two of decadently rich juice before the press. The outcome is one of the richest red wines on earth. And while Quintarelli's wines go for astronomical prices, the wines of his protégé, Luca Fedrigo of L'Arco, are much more reasonable.

Those are the wines Steve Lawrence brings to Austin, and after having tasted both Quintarelli and L'Arco wine next to each other, I can vouch for Luca's efforts. Luca takes every wine he makes to Quintarelli for his blessing, and you can taste the training Luca has received from the old master.

Our last stop before heading home was to meet with the owners of one of Italy's top white-wine brands, Venica & Venica. We met Giampaolo Venica over lunch at the Ristorante Al Cacciatore in Cormons. As an open fire slowly cooked a batch of polenta in the background, we talked about how his father and uncle had inherited the winery from their father. From the beginning, in 1930, these wines have been in demand all over Italy, but it was only recently that the wines have started building a reputation in the U.S. We tasted through everything they made, at least what wasn't already sold out, and the family style rang through. Sauvignon Blanc, Tocai, and Pinot Bianco are all well-extracted wines, but with plenty of snappy acidity to make them perfect food pairings.

Jetting Home

The trip home from Trieste took 28 grueling hours, most spent at the lovely Newark airport. But it gave us time to talk about what we'd learned, most important being that the French and Italians consider wine to be a living thing. They don't think of it as a means to get drunk or a fun something to put in your hand while you're at a party. They see wine as part of the daily meals, lunch, and dinner. Children drink wine, albeit watered down, but they wouldn't anymore think of depriving a child of wine than asparagus. To them, they are the same. Like a vegetable, a fruit, a piece of meat, or a loaf of bread, wine is food. We should learn from them.

Burgundy: The Grape Beyond Part 2

This is an article I originally wrote for the Austin Chronicle. I place it here for your information and as a teaser for when this blog gets going full time, which will be shortly after the edits and art for my next book, What's a Wine Lover To Do? (Artisan), are finally finished.

Chablis was our starting point, an area planted almost totally in Chardonnay. These wines, like all Burgundies, are food wines. There's plenty of acid to cleanse your palate when you have it with a meal but probably too much acid to sit around sipping it on a hot Texas afternoon. The people of Chablis set four classifications of their own. Petit Chablis is the least of the wines, followed by Chablis, Chablis 1er Cru, and Grand Cru at the top. Of all the Burgundians, they are probably the biggest proponents of terroir. Decades ago, some wine-born pathogen settled in their oak barrels, and the winemakers burned every barrel in the area and installed stainless-steel tanks. Today, almost all Chablis is made without oak, so when you taste a glass of Chablis, you are tasting nothing but grape, terroir, and the winemaker's art.

I know about terroir but was still surprised when I tasted 10 different Chablis, all from one maker, La Chablisienne. All had the wonderful wet slate aroma common to Chablis, but all were completely different. The wines ranged from overly acidic and thin at the Petit Chablis end to magnificent, well-structured richness at the Grand Cru level. Another winemaker, Clotilde Davenne, was my pick of the best winemaker in Chablis. Even her simplest wines, Bourgogne Blanc, had depth and opulence. She also has one of the few vineyards in Chablis that is allowed to grow Sauvignon Blanc, called Les Temps Perdue Saint-Bris. It's elegant and restrained with the aromas hitting you as an afterthought. We were smitten.

The Mâconnais area is around the town of Mâcon. This is where most of the least-expensive Bourgogne wines come from, but it's also where most of the affordable action is these days. It has long been the bastard stepchild of the better areas, but things are changing. The Bret brothers (pictured above with friend and fello wwine writer Leslie Sbrocco), owners of Domaine de la Soufrandière, had a bumper crop, qualitywise, in 2006. Their hand-tended, organic vineyards are producing fruit as good as any in Burgundy, and the brothers are young enough to make a difference in the Mâconnais for many years to come.

Knowledgeable French wine lovers have been scarfing up the wines of the Côte Chalonnaise district for years, because the prices are low compared to the Côte d'Or. The Château de Chamirey showed some incredible 2005 wines that haven't yet hit the U.S. market. The U.S. will only get 25 cases of their Mercurey 1er Cru "Les Ruelles," but it's worth trying to finagle a bottle any way possible. This is quintessential Pinot Noir. A bit easier to find, if more expensive, is the Château de Perdrix Nuit Saint George Premier Cru "Aux Perdrix."

Once we move to the Côte d'Or, the négociants take control of the marketplace. While there are dozens of good négociants, two I trust are Louis Jadot and Joseph Drouhin.

We spent most of an evening with Jadot's winemaker Jacques Lardière as he took us through their barrel room, blithely tasting wine that will retail at anywhere from $9 to $900. I tasted 11 different wines that I would give my highest possible score, and luckily, two will be less than $25 when they hit stores over the next year. The 2006 Pernand Vergelesses Blanc will give you a good idea of what their $200 white Burgundies taste like, and it's under $20. And the 2006 Fixin similarly gives a strong hint of what the $400 Pinot Noirs taste like, and Lardière says it should come in around $25. At the end of the evening, Lardière wanted to show us how long his wines last, so he poured us a 1971 Pommard Rugiens and a 1961 Bonnes Mares. Both were still youthful, brightly colored wines with amazing complexity. These wines really do live a long time.

Drouhin wants to get young people interested in their brand by offering affordable wines. That way, as their taste and wallets mature, they'll be Drouhin fans and go for the higher priced wines. Their starter wine – the $20 2006 Veró Pinot Noir – is a perfect example of a simple Bourgogne level wine, but they have flexed their winemaking muscles to make something dazzling for the price. I'd pick it over a lot of $100-plus Burgundies.

Not all Côte d'Or wine is made by négociants. Winemaker Laurent Pon­sot operates the winery named for his family. He is a tall, thin man with a long gray ponytail (see above), an ex-mountain climber who took a big fall so now gets his fun flying acrobatic planes. And making wine. He is another of the terroir-as-religion folks. "The wine must be a vector between the earth and your glass," he says, as we sip some of his 2006 Morey-St.-Denis Premier Cru Clos des Monts Luisants Vieilles Vignes Blanc, a rare wine made from the Aligote grape. "I am not a winemaker. I am a conductor." The French have a way of tossing these grand statements like we might say our address. My favorite Ponsot quote: "A bottle is too big for one, and a magnum is too small for two."