Friday, February 26, 2016

Wine tasting: Complices de Loire "La petite timonerie" Chinon (100% Cabernet Franc), 2013.

(For all the wine tastings I've done in 2016, click the "wine2016" label at the end of this entry, or just "wine" for all the writing I've ever done on the subject.)

Greetings again, my libatious friends! For those who need catching up, I'm a writer in Chicago, fulfilling a New Year's resolution to finally get better educated about wine, who has started the process by doing thoughtful tastings once a week of the world's 20 most popular types of grapes, doing the run chromatically from the heaviest reds (which I started right after New Year's in the middle of winter) to the lightest whites (which I'll be getting to at the beginning of May, just in time for the warm weather). So far this year I've now gotten through Syrah/Shiraz, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chianti, Merlot, (Red) Zinfandel, Garnacha/Grenache, and Gamay; and that leaves only one red left in this series, the decidedly "Old World" (i.e. European) Cabernet Franc.

Much like last week's Gamay, this was not a type of wine I was very familiar with before going into this tasting series; but unlike Gamay, whose unfamiliarity is due to it instead mostly being known by the region most famous for it (Beaujolais), the reason Cabernet Franc is unfamiliar is that the vast majority of wineries grow it just as a stalwart grape to mix with others, not to bottle on its own and promote as its own varietal. (In fact, along with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, this is one of the three grapes used for the famous Bordeaux blend of French red wine.) In fact, about the only place that still does so is the ancient Loire Valley region of France, which has actually been making wine since literally the birth of Christ, and in the Medieval Period was much more highly thought of than the upstart Bordeaux region. Reflecting its actual genetic relationship, Cabernet Franc grapes are much like Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in taste (sour/savory, unsweet); but much less intense in aroma, flavor, or its lingering quality, greatly helped by these grapes becoming ripe much earlier than most other reds, cranking up their acidity and thus their tart, citrus-like aftertaste (but see my detailed tasting notes below for more on that).

The winery I tried tonight, Complices de Loire, is based out of the village of Chinon which is considered Ground Zero for fans of Cabernet Franc wine, and actually buys their grapes from eight different respected vineyards around the region, instead of growing their own. (Interestingly, much like you usually only see in trendy New World wines, CdL gives fun little brand names to each of their wines, and makes a concerted effort to produce cool little hipster-looking labels; the wine I tried is known in English either as "Little Pilot" or "Little Wheelhouse," depending on which online translation tool you trust.) This is now my fourth Old World/European wine of this 2016 project (two from France, one from Italy, one from Spain -- and among the New World wines, one from Australia, one from Argentina, one from South Africa, one from Washington State, one from Oregon, and one from California), and while I can definitely see the argument that Old World fans make about why they're fans -- that European wines are more complex, more subtle, more nuanced, because of being grown in temperate regions around a lot of other produce whose traits they pick up -- in general I have to admit that I've liked New World wines much better, grown in hot environments that really cook those grapes and lead to these extremely bold tastes that can't be mistaken for anything else. It'll be especially interesting, then, to start the next educational project I'm doing after this one, where I'm going to spend the whole summer doing thoughtful tastings of as many different kinds of French wine I can get my hands on, literally the oldest of the Old World wines still made in the world, and that really puts the "sub" in "subtle and nuanced flavor."

“La petite timonerie” Chinon 2013 (100% Cabernet Franc)
Chinon, Loire Valley, France
12.5% ABV
$15 (Andersonville Wine and Spirits)

Look: Extremely light in color and texture, the closest I've gotten this year to a legitimately pink wine.

Smell: The same kind of sour/savory aroma as Cabernet Sauvignon, no wonder since these grape types are genetically related, but profoundly in intensity and how far the aroma carries across the room.

Taste: Light on the tongue but an extremely sharp and tart taste, so much like citrus that it makes my mouth water after swallowing, a bit to the wine's detriment if I'm to be honest. A flat-out unsweet taste that will turn off many casual drinkers, I now wonder if this is a reflection of all Cabernet Francs or just this particular brand. Would CERTAINLY go well with cheese or salty snacks, but I wouldn't necessarily recommend drinking it by itself or with a heavy meal like steak. (UPDATE: After further research, I've learned that a historically popular pairing in the Loire Valley is Cabernet Franc and goat cheese, which made immediate sense the moment I read it.)

After a Full Glass: After an entire glass paired with pasta in cream sauce, the more herbal/leafy tastes started coming out on the tongue, a good example of why Old World fans say that European wines have a more “subtle” and “complex” taste than currently trendy New World wines from hotter climates. Also, it was interesting to note after further research that Cabernet Franc is one of the few kinds of contemporary wine that will literally get noticeably better after storing it for ten or twenty years in a cellar; and that it's one of the few kinds of contemporary wine that legitimately gets noticeably better when pouring it into a decanter a full hour before serving. Talk about Old World!

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Wine tasting: Louis Jadot Beaujolais-Villages (Gamay), 2014.

(For all my 2016 wine tastings, click the "wine2016" tag at the end of this entry; or just the "wine" tag for all the writing I've ever done on the subject.)

Bon mercredi! For those coming by for the first time and need the backstory, I'm a wine neophyte who made a New Year's resolution in 2016 to finally get better educated about the subject; and the first thing I'm doing as part of that education is thoughtful tastings of the world's 20 most popular types of grapes, one a week for 20 weeks, moving chromatically from the darkest reds to the lightest whites (which I'll be getting to right when the weather starts turning warm again in Chicago, which I'm looking forward to). So far since New Year's I've tried Syrah/Shiraz, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chianti, Merlot, (Red) Zinfandel and Garnacha/Grenache; and this week I'm trying the Gamay grape for the first time, my second-to-last red wine before starting up on the whites for the first time in March.

Like last week's Grenache, Gamay is a type of wine I had never heard of before taking on this tasting project this year, and it turns out there's a very good reason for that; a staple of "Old World" (i.e. European) fine-wine* since literally the Romans and the pagans came together in France in 600 AD and started making fine-wine in the first place, like many Old World countries France actually labels their wine by the region it came from, not the type of grape used, meaning that every time someone drinks a bottle of the super-trendy Beaujolais style of wine, what they're actually drinking is a bottle full of Gamay juice. That's not the only type of French wine that's made from the grape, and not all Beaujolaises are made from 100 percent Gamay, and France isn't the only place on the planet that grows Gamay (it's become popular in recent years, for example, in the US's Oregon); but the association between Gamay and French Beaujolais wine is so closely linked that you can effectively substitute one word for the other in most cases.

(*And it bears repeating, that we actually have recorded evidence of winemaking going all the way back to the birth of agriculture, ten thousand years ago in the "Fertile Crescent" region of Mesopotamia [making up what we now call Iraq, Turkey, Croatia, and other modern nations], and with there being an entire wine culture in places like ancient Egypt; but the definition of making wine back then was essentially, "Stick the grapes in a jar, let them rot, then drink the juice," resulting in "wine" that you and I would undoubtedly call vinegar instead. It wasn't until the 7th century AD that the pagans and early Christians of Western Europe got interested in making wine in a much more rigorous and better way, assisted by the Roman Empire that was just starting to lose its global influence at that point, which signaled the birth of the kind of "fine wine" we still drink to this day.)

I have to say, Gamay has one of the most interesting histories that I've read so far this year; a favorite among Benedictine monks during the Medieval period, it was famously poo-pooed by a prominent member of the French aristocracy in the 1400s (for being a "poor man's Pinot Noir"), which started its downward slide in popularity that lasted all through the Renaissance (although with a surge again in the late 1800s, when the invention of railroads brought large quantities of Beaujolais to Paris for the first time.)

Ah, but we all know what Beaujolais became so famous for in the 20th century -- the so-called "Beaujolais Nouveau" wines, which after some research I'm realizing is part fact, part savvy marketing. See, unlike a lot of Old World wine back in the early Modern era (1400s to 1800s), which needed to sit in the bottle for five or ten years before it fully ripened into its most flavorful taste (which is where we get the tradition of wine cellars in the first place), Beaujolais wine is both unusually fruity, unusually light, and ripens unusually early, which meant that it was one of the few Old World wines in those years that was meant to be drank immediately after it was bottled. In fact, when the first bottles would start showing up each year in the famous restaurants of nearby Lyon, it became popular to joyfully yell, "Le Beaujolais Est Arrivé!," which was even more cemented with the idea of good times since it coincided with the harvest each year; and starting in the 1960s, some smart salespeople in this region decided to revive this tradition and to sell it as something special to the rest of the world, including the brand-new term "Beaujolais Nouveau," with the French government eventually passing a law that designated a specific day and time each year that bottles around the world could be opened (12:01 am on the third Thursday of November), leading to big parties in the US and Europe among wine novices to herald the famous "wine that must be drank right this moment."

Now, you know, never mind that actually most modern wine is now meant to be drank the moment you buy it -- due to modern science and advances in academic vintner programs, only something like 10 percent of all the wine still made on the planet actually gets better with age -- this was a smart and delightful advertising ploy that eventually led to the region selling tens of millions of bottles each year by the time the 1990s rolled around (including a huge majority of it to Japan, where they do crazy things like fill hot tubs and then bathe in it). Only one problem; in their greed for all that tourist money, the hundreds of wineries in the general Beaujolais region (but more on this in a bit) started releasing really inferior wines to keep up with demand, then got caught in a series of scandals (like illegally adding sugar to their wines behind the backs of government inspectors) that virtually wiped out that area's reputation by the early 2000s. In 2001, in fact, right when all these casual Beaujolais drinkers were first discovering things like South American Malbec and Australian Shiraz, the wineries of this region were forced to destroy literally 1.1 million barrels of unsold Beaujolais Nouveau wine, a huge blow to the area that they still haven't recovered from 15 years later.

Still, though, like every other type of wine these days, there is a core group of dedicated and serious vintners in Beaujolais who are trying to restore their local reputation for quality, and you can largely judge their seriousness based on what kind of Beaujolais they're legally allowed to call themselves on their label: "Beaujolais AOC," for example, can be from any of the 96 small towns making up the Beaujolais region, and is the origin of most of the infamous '90s "vin de merde" (or "shit wine," the term that a local journalist came up with back then to describe his neighbors, and then famously got sued over), while a wine labeled "Beaujolais-Villages" comes from one of a core 30 towns that have been producing such wine for much longer (and have soil with more granite in it, which is thought to improve the wine's flavor), while a "Beaujolais Cru" is the cream of the crop, and can only come from one of ten villages that have proven themselves worthy of the name in the eyes of the law.

The wine I tried tonight is a Beaujolais-Village from Louis Jadot, one of the classic wineries of the area that's been around since the early 1800s. (Their website claims that they're the "number one French wine sold in America," so take that as you will.) The main reason a lot of people like Gamay is that it's basically a much more affordable version of Pinot Noir, and after tasting it I could see what these people mean -- it has a light, fruity touch, a subtle aroma that you have to really stick your nose into to get, and a taste intensity that virtually disappears when you pair it with food, making it much more appropriate for cheese and crackers than for steak and chicken. All in all, I have to admit that I've been underwhelmed by the two Old World wines I've so far tried in 2016; with my preference for things like craft-beer stouts and black coffee, I find myself just naturally drawn more towards the bolder and more "in your face" flavors of such New World wines as Shiraz and Malbec, as well as such darker traditional wines as Garnacha and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Beaujolais-Villages (100% Gamay), 2014
Southern Beaujolais, France
12.5% ABV

Look: A bright red that easily lets the light through, plus with a distinct magenta glint to the liquid's surface, much like Malbec.

Smell: Much like Chianti, the only other Old World wine I've so far tried this year, this has a uniquely sour and “musty” smell that reminds me of a basement or cellar. Also like Chianti, this wine must be swirled a bit before it will release its full aroma.

Taste: Not nearly as sweet as I thought it was going to be, this has a quite discernable tartness that makes the mouth pucker, reflecting high acidity and undoubtedly why some people call Gamay “the only white wine actually colored red.” A VERY grapey grape taste that leaves a sour, side-tongue feeling in the mouth after swallowing.

After a Full Glass: After an entire glass with some almonds, I realized that, much like the Pinot Noir I tried last month, the flavor of this Beaujolais virtually disappears when pairing it with food.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Wine tasting: Bodegas Borsao's "Monte Oton" Garnacha (Grenache), 2013.

(For all my 2016 wine tastings, click the "wine2016" label at the end of this post, or just the "wine" label for all the writing I've ever done on the subject.)

Feliz miércoles! For those who need catching up, I'm spending 2016 fulfilling a New Year's resolution to get better educated about wine; and the first thing I'm doing as part of that is detailed tasting reports of the 20 most popular types of grapes on the planet, moving chromatically from the darkest red to the lightest white, and choosing a region of the globe each time that happens to be particularly well-known for that particular type of grape. Since New Year's I've done tastings of Shiraz, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chianti, Merlot and (Red) Zinfandel; and tonight I tried one of the last reds on my list, known in its native Spain as Garnacha but by most of the rest of the world by its French name, Grenache, which I must admit is the first type of wine I've tried this year that I hadn't already heard of before 2016.

And it turns out that there's a very good reason for this; for although this grape has been grown by "fine wine" vintners since at least the 1100s, it's what's traditionally known as an "unstable" grape, with a lot of sugar but thin skin, which only ripens very late in the growing season and only in areas that see very hot days, and with a distinct lack of acid, tannin or even bright colors during most of its general harvesting. It's for this reason that Garnacha is mostly used as a "blending" grape with other types of more famous "noble" grapes; so in other words, when a wine is legally labeled "Cabernet Sauvignon" but is actually only 95 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, that last five percent is usually Garnacha grapes, since a vintner never knows from one year to the next whether that year's Garnacha harvest is going to be particularly great or particularly terrible. And since Garnacha harvests can so often come out as only mediocre, this is also one of the main grapes that are used in such "fortified" wines like sherry and port; for those who don't know, that's wine that's been mixed with hard liquor like brandy, a tradition that started with the British during the Napoleonic Wars so that the wine they were bringing back from allied countries like Spain and Portugal in the 1700s would last for the long sail back to the UK without going rotten.

Oh, but don't say any of this to a Spaniard; for Garnacha wine is a long and proud tradition there in the northeastern "Aragón" section of that country, which in fact goes all the way back to the Borgia family there ("Borja" in Spanish), an old Medieval kingdom that once extended all the way to Sardinia, Sicily, and Italy itself, from which Henry VIII's wife Catherine of Aragon hailed. (In fact, locals in the Aragón region literally refer to themselves as the "Empire of Garnacha.") Like so many of these "minor" grapes around the world, Garnacha for centuries was mostly valued for the cheap "jug" wine drank by blue-collar locals, the same fate of this grape when it was introduced to both Australia and California in the early 20th century; but also much like such maligned grapes in other parts of the world, there are a small but dedicated and passionate group of "craft vintners" in Spain these days that are determined to make Garnacha into the standalone non-blended popular varietal it deserves to be, and in fact I must confess that out of all the wines I've now tried in 2016, Spanish Garnacha has had more articles written about it in hipster wine blogs than any other, the closest I've come so far this year to stumbling across the "next big thing" among wine enthusiasts.

Bodegas Borsao, the winery that made tonight's wine, has an interesting story; although people have been growing grapes on their land since the 12th century (originally monks under the employ of the Borgias), the company itself has only existed since the 1950s, and even more interestingly it is a cooperative corporation, not a family-run business but one literally co-owned by over 600 different shareholders. Unlike a lot of other European wineries, Bodegas Borsao exports a whopping 80 percent of all their bottles to other countries, mostly in America; and that's why their wine has a trendy "brand name" (Monte Oton) instead of going by the grape type, and why their labels have this fun little graphic design, specifically to appeal to the American hipster crowd. And finally, it's worth noting that, at eight bucks a bottle but with a Robert B. Parker score of 89 (out of 100), this is very easily the best bargain I've come across this year for high-regarded "fine wine;" in fact, this is the main reason to even drink wines from this small but dedicated group of "craft wine" aficionados in northeastern Spain, in that they are producing bottles that are getting the same kinds of scores from professionals as more well-known brands of Cabernet Sauvignons and Merlots, but for literally one-third the price.

"Monte Oton" Garnacha, 2013
Borja City, Zaracoza, Spain (Moncayo region, Aragón)
14.5% ABV
Robert B. Parker score: 89

Look: A deep and highly opaque red that barely lets light shine through, with a distinct brown glint to the liquid's surface, a traditional trait of Grenache.

Smell: An intense and sour/savory aroma much like Malbec or Shiraz, but not as intense and that doesn't carry as far in the air.

Taste: An interesting taste on the tongue -- not quite as sour and dark as Shiraz, Malbec or Cabernet Sauvignon, but not quite as sweet as Zinfandel or Pinot Noir -- with a lighter finish than comparable reds of the same color intensity, although still stronger than Pinot Noir. Interestingly, this also has a more distinct aftertaste than any other wine I've tried this year, a lasting sweetness almost like candy (think of the taste of a Jolly Roger each time you take a swallow while having one in your mouth). Not a bad wine at all; but lacking any of the distinct traits of the other wines I've tried this year (for better or for worse), I suppose this is what tasting veterans would call an "unremarkable" wine, which makes it easy to see why this is primarily used as a blender for other more famous grapes, and is not often marketed as its own varietal.

After a Full Glass: After having a full glass with a dinner of couscous and vegetables, I realized that the taste of this Garnacha actually disappears into the food just as thoroughly as Merlot or Pinot Noir, which is unusual for a wine with this much alcohol. This makes me realize that, at eight bucks, this is an EXCELLENT wine to serve with food, as compared to the former varietals which can easily cost two to three times as much for a bottle that scores as high with the professionals as this.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Wine tasting: "Cigar Zin" old vine Zinfandel, 2012.

(For all my 2016 wine tastings, click the "wine2016" label at the end of this entry, or just "wine" for all the writing I've ever done on the subject.)

Welcome, new readers! To get you quickly caught up: One of my New Year's resolutions for 2016 was to finally get better educated about wine, which dovetails nicely with two of my other resolutions (to start throwing more dinner parties at my apartment, and to do more intellectual and creative things simply for the sake of being intellectual and creative). I'm starting the process by trying wines from around the world made out of a total of 20 different types of popular grapes, moving my way chromatically from the darkest red to eventually the lightest white; so far this year I've been through Shiraz, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinoir Noir, Chianti and Merlot, which means this week I'm finally ready to try the uber-popular Zinfandel for the first time!

And make no mistake, despite its "bubba" reputation among wine aficionados, Zinfandel is still far and away one of the most popular types of wine in America in the 2010s (especially among consumers of low-end "jug" wine), and constitutes an entire ten percent of all the wine made in the entire state of California. In fact, Zinfandel is known as the grape that "made" the California wine industry, albeit through an interesting turn of events in the 1980s; see, this high-sugar, thin-skinned grape does only so-so in the hot California climate (some years see great harvests, some see terrible ones), which led the owner of Sutter Home Winery in one of these bad years to ferment the grape juice with the skins for just a tiny amount of time before removing them, resulting in a light, highly sweet pink wine that he called "White Zinfandel" (ironically because the Food and Drug Administration forced him to, lest he be accused of false advertising*).

[*And even more ironically, although this grape was touted as a "California native" breed when that industry was being bolstered in the '80s, it turns out that this is merely a child of Italy's Primitivo breed of grapes; which even more ironically turns out to not be from Italy at all, but rather from the Croatian region of the "Fertile Crescent" area of Mesopotamia where the act of making wine was first invented seven thousand years ago.]

It's this White Zinfandel that's much more popular than the dark red Zinfandel I tried tonight, with mine in particular being a batch from the treasured "old vines" that miraculously survived Prohibition; but make no mistake, plain ol' Zinfandel (or Red Zinfandel as some people call it) is not the sickly sweet pink concoction we normally think of when we hear this term, but rather a bold and fruity dark red much more akin to Cabarnet Sauvignon. In fact, the wine I tried tonight was specifically branded "Cigar Zin" as a marketing ploy, in order to invoke other such masculine treats as cigars and steaks, although unfortunately the Cigar Zin website is out of date and doesn't contain much information about the company, a real shame since half the pleasure of these tastings is learning about fascinating wineries scattered across the globe. By the way, the White Zinfandel is coming -- it's fourth on the list from now, after Grenache, Cabernet Franc and Garnay -- and given how many notoriously mediocre brands of it are out there now, I'd love your advice on an actual excellent White Zinfandel to try for my tasting. Send it my way to, with my thanks!

“Old Vine” Zinfandel, 2012
Sonoma, California
14.9% ABV

Look: The brightest red I've so far tried this year, catching the light magnificently.

Smell: I suspect that what we feel about the aroma of a wine is the aspect most influenced by what other people tell us; for example, after I read that the makers of Cigar Zin named it that as a marketing ploy to match it in people's heads with other “masculine” treats as steaks and cigars, sure enough this wine started seeming to have traces of cigar and steak as part of its aroma. Apart from that, though, this smelled basically like the other deep reds I've tried this year, with a strong aroma of “not-sweet sweet” fruits like blackberries.

Taste: Although this looks and smells like the deep reds I've tried this year like Shiraz and Malbec, it tastes a lot different – a much sweeter and lighter taste than its aroma and look would make you think. It also goes down the throat delightfully smoothly, with almost no hint of tannins whatsoever, and kind of tastes like licking out the semi-solidified remains of an old jar of homemade jam. A big surprise, which I'm assuming at this point is a reflection of Zinfandel grapes having such a higher sugar content than other comparable deep red grapes.

After a Full Glass: After having an entire glass with a plate of pasta, I realized that this wine leaves a tingling sensation in the back of the mouth/top of the throat with each drink, which I believe is the result of it being the most alcoholic wine I've so far tried in 2016 (and at 15 percent, likely the highest I'll ever try this year). Unlike the Merlot I tried in my last tasting, this held its uniqueness quite well against the spicy Cajun pasta I had paired with it.