Thursday, January 27, 2011

A new wine rating system...

With all the hubbub surrounding the different wine rating systems and discussion about the extent different factors play a part of them, I’ve decided to create a new system. This system incorporates every aspect of experiencing a wine. This system is a first draft and I urge everyone to please help me renovate and improve the 100-point system. Together, we can make a truly excellent system that will actually mean something! So without any other introduction, here it is:

                                                                                                                             Yes    No
Did you have any reservations about how much the wine cost?                                -1    +1
Did your significant other need convincing for you to buy the bottle?                        -2    +2
Did your purchase cause you to not be able to buy any other necessity?                  -3    +3
Was the wine free?                                                                                                +4    n/a

Is the bottle made of glass?                                                                                    +1    +1
Does the bottle have a punt?                                                                                  +2    n/a
Is the empty bottle heavier than a full bottle of something cheaper?                          +3    +3
Is the bottle open?                                                                                                 +4    n/a

Is the label easy to read?                                                                                        +1    -1
Is the label clean and free of any tears?                                                                   +2    -1   
Is the label eye-catching?                                                                                       +3    +2
Is the label counterfeit?                                                                                           -4    +4

Does the bottle have a capsule?                                                                             +1    n/a
Are there signs of seepage?                                                                                    -2    +2
Is the capsule made of tin?                                                                                     +3    +1
Does the capsule match the label?                                                                          +4    -4

Does the wine have a cork?                                                                                   +1    +1
Is the cork/closure easy to remove?                                                                       +2    -2
Does the cork/closure come out in one piece?                                                        +3    -1
Does the cork/closure match the label?                                                                  +4    -4

Does the liquid look like wine?                                                                              +1    -3
Is a red wine reddish, a rose pinkish and a white wine yellowish?                           +2    -2
Is the wine clear of foreign objects?                                                                      +3    -3
Does the appearance look off?                                                                             -4    +4

Are the aromas enticing?                                                                                      +1    -1
Does the wine smell clean?                                                                                  +2    -2
Do certain (positive) aroma characteristics come to mind?                                    +3    -3
Do the aromas make you think about what you smell?                                          +4    -2

Do you sense some mixture of alcohol, acidity, tannin and/or fruit?                        +1    -1
Do the flavors linger in your mouth for at least 15 seconds?                                  +2    -2
Do the flavors make you want to take another sip?                                              +3    -3
Is the wine balanced?                                                                                          +4    -4

Is the wine liquid?                                                                                                +1    -3
If the wine is sparkling, does it have bubbles?                                                       +2    -2
If the wine is still, is it free of bubbles?                                                                  +3    -3
Is the wine balanced?                                                                                           +4    -4

Overall impression:
Have you been drinking wine for more than 30 years?                                          +1    -1
Have you ever had a better wine previously?                                                        -2    +2
Would you drink this wine again?                                                                        +3    -3
Do you want to add 4 points just for the hell of it?                                                +4    n/a

Does the wine have attributes that numbers just can't describe?                              *     n/a

Add up your score and you’ve just scored a wine like a professional!        
I’m __ points on that!

For those of you arithmetically inclined, you will notice that the highest that a wine can score in this system is 98* points for a still wine and 97* points for a sparkling. This is of course due to the fact that wines are living entities that can achieve perfection no more than you or I...

Getting to Know Mr. Brett Bruxellensis

Yesterday over at 1WineDude.com, the Dude proclaimed his disdain for wines affected by the yeast Brettanomyces bruxellensis. Piggybacking on his post seems appropriate as I was at a faults seminar last week at VinCo 2011 in Grand Junction, CO conducted by Lisa Van de Water of Vinotec Napa. While I've read about Brett, I had never really had the opportunity to taste the specific effects of this oft-maligned yet sometimes praised yeast. While Brett in and of itself is not bad, the resulting aromas and flavors of the compounds that it produces are. Terms often used to describe the effects of Brett are band-aid, smoked meat, stinky feet and barnyard. Not exactly what you want to think of when you think of wine.

Brett is not associated with soil or grapes but likes to live in wine barrels. Low sulfur levels, high pH, warm temperatures and old barrels are all conducive to Brett growth. These conditions are all associated with winemaking and therefore it CANNOT be attributed to terroir as so many people have tried to suggest. Bordeaux and the Rhône valley are wine regions often associated with Brett. Despite what should be an obvious flaw, these two regions are often associated with high scores from Robert Parker. Part of the growing opposition to Robert Parker and his 100-point rating system is that he obviously appreciates the characteristics that many people find off-putting.

Along with a group of local winemakers, I was able to smell and taste the three most prevalent compounds produced by this mean little guy. Lisa set out a variety of doctored wines that showed Brett flaws along with various other flaws such as 2-4-6 trichloroanisole (TCA), volatile acidity (VA), acetaldehyde, excess sulfur and oxidation. I learned that 4-ethyl phenol produces the band-aid aromas and isovaleric acid produces the funky cheese and barnyard scents associated with Brett. Those two were definitely deal killers for me. However, 4-ethyl guaiacol produces the pleasant (at least for me) smoked meat and spicy aromas. I do not think that the benefits of 4-ethyl guaiacol outweigh the gut-wrenchingness of 4-ethyl phenol and isovaleric acid. There are other ways to achieve smokey aromas than with Brett. If you're wondering exactly what this smoked meat smells like, find a bottle of liquid smoke at the grocery store and take a whiff.

In the seminar, we also tasted two actual wines from a mystery winery that had to be pulled from shelves due to excess faults. The first wine had moderate amounts of 4-ethyl phenol and 4-ethyl guaiacol. The smokey aromas and bacon flavors  were much more prevalent to me and I could barely identify any band-aid characteristics. While I was not completely put off by this wine, it was not pleasurable wine to taste. Judging by my experience with this wine, I'd be willing to bet that brettheads, such as Parker, are actually more sensitive to 4-ethyl guaicol than the other two compounds. The second sample was loaded with VA and isovaleric acid. This wine was so fully of vinegar and vomit aromas that I could barely bring myself to smelling it after my first attempt. So, next time you you smell or taste these characteristics, you are most likely seeing the effects of Brett.

While I am not trying to tell people that they are wrong for enjoying the effects of Brett, the idea that it is somehow a characteristic of terroir and not flawed winemaking IS incorrect.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Urban Wine Country

In the past year, the Lompoc Wine Ghetto has received its fair bit of publicity in the press (here, here, here and here). This collection of wineries and tasting rooms is receiving this attention not only because of the critical mass of producers in one location but the unique and unlikely urban location.While not in the pastoral valleys of Napa or Sonoma, this collection of world-class wineries has become a wine-tasting destination. As impressive as the Ghetto may be, it is not unique.

Colorado has a similar urban destination in north Denver. Colorado Winery Row is a collaboration of four artisan wineries that have created Denver's "urban wine tasting destination" in the chic Highlands neighborhood. Bonacquisti Wine Company, Cottonwood Cellars/The Oltahe Winery, Garfield Estates Vineyard and Winery and Verso Cellars provide a location where wine consumers can visit with the winemakers and try a wide variety of Colorado wines. Please check out my article about Colorado Winery Row for Palate Press: the online wine magazine.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Getting to know your wine

A first impression shouldn't be only impression when it comes to tasting wine. Unfortunately, most professional evaluations of wine are based on rather brief first impressions. It is a rare treat when notable critics get to spend more than a few sips with a single wine, as Steve Heimoff described in a recent blog post. This is an unfortunate, yet unavoidable, circumstance in the world of wine evaluation due to too many wines to review in too little time.

Perhaps this phenomenon is part (just a part) of the rise of wine bloggers gaining credibility. Many wine bloggers are writing about wine as a passion and not a career. I know that if this website were my career that I would be the envy of my cats (and by that I mean living in a cardboard box full of tissue paper, outside!). I write about the wines that I buy to drink. Sure, there is the occasional sample, but I am not sampling multiple wines each day. When I, and most other wine bloggers, review a wine it encompasses not just the first impressions of the wine, but how the wine pairs with a meal and how it evolves in the glass over an evening or two (or morning, or afternoon, I'm not judging).

Just as Heimoff explained that spending an entire evening drinking just one wine changed his initial assessment of a high-scoring Pinot Noir, regular wine bloggers have similar wine experiences all the time. I use the term experience because that is what I think what wine is. I am not here to tell others that they must view wine in the same light, though I assume if you are reading this wine blog that you might be of a similar persuasion. Yet, to some wine is a social lubricant, an escape and even just a number.

One of my favorite activities is to explore wine shops for older vintages of ageable wines that have not increased in price since release. I've found a few hidden gems, but I am still keeping my eyes out for that 1982 First Growth Bordeaux that has been sitting tucked away in a corner for the past 20 years for only $20! In the same shop that I found the Dragon's Hollow unoaked Chardonnay, I found a bottle of 2000 Cesari Mara Vino di Ripasso. I've had my fair share of trade samples of young Amarone and Valpollicella Ripasso from my time in retail, but I've often been put off by the high alcohol and musty raisin flavors of these young wines. Perhaps not as significant as finding a case of Champagne at the bottom of the sea, I was intrigued by this "baby Amarone's" potential to age and mature in the bottle. When I decided to open the bottle the other night, I poured a small glass to "evaluate" before I made dinner. Now, if I were a professional critic on par with Hemioff, Robert Parker or James Suckling (oh, I know these big names drive web traffic...) this first impression is all my readers would see.

But, lucky you, I am not a famous or well-respected wine expert! I was able to drink a couple of glasses over a few hours and experience, not just taste, the wine. I am able to share with you (hi, mom!) how the wine changed over time. While I understand, and hope that you do too, that the standard 2-3 sentence tasting note and score provide an important snapshot of a wine, more interesting discussions about how wines are experienced will better help educate consumers about wines that they may enjoy.

2000 Cesari Mara, Valpolicella Superiore, Italy

I opened the bottle and poured a small glass to take quick notes on. This blend of Corvina Veronese, Rondinella and Molinara was a dark garnet that faded to a brick red at the rim. Aromas of tobacco, sour cherry, cedar and a cinnamon were noticeable. It did not smell much different than most other, younger Valpolicellas that I've tried. I initially tasted leather, dried cherries, walnuts and a slight musty earthiness and raisininess that I am not especially fond of in similar red wines from the Veneto. I drank a couple glasses of the Mara while I ate my cheese and herb-stuffed manicotti that morphed into a cheese lasagna because I over cooked the noodles. The pairing wasn't the best, but after I inhaled my meal I was surprised with how much the wine was evolving in the glass. Gone were bitter walnut and the mustiness that I don't enjoy. Complex and more nuanced secondary earth and chocolate flavors came forward. It became much mellower and approachable. I only had a couple of glasses over the course of a few hours so that I could have some more the next night. The second night was more of the same. Smooth and earthy flavors reminded me of a more full-bodied Burgundy. To me, this says that this wine really needs to be decanted to be enjoyed to its fullest extent and gives me hope about spending my money on Amarones and other Ripassos in the future. 13.5% abv Purchased $14. Good/Very Good (tasted 1/4/11)

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Chinese Wine?

In 2010, China dominated the headlines in most popular wine publications. The rise of the Chinese wine consumer has caused the top Bordeaux chateaus to increase in price more than gold or crude oil. Two of the top chateaus have paid homage to the new role of the Chinese consumer on their labels. Château Lafite Rothschild decided to emboss the Chinese symbol for "8" (八) on bottles of their 2008 vintage that are exported to China. The number eight is very auspicious in China; which is why the Beijing Olympics opened on 08/08/08. Shortly after the Lafite decision, Château Mouton Rothschild announced that Chinese artist Xu Lei would would design the 2008 label. In both cases, these simple announcements caused the prices to jump overnight.

With the newfound interest in expensive imported wine, some unscrupulous Chinese have taken advantage of the boom by counterfeiting wine. Reuters reported that Chinese officials have cracked down on those that produce counterfeit wines. So far, 30 wineries have been closed for producing counterfeit products. Expect to keep seeing China in the wine headlines.

One thing that is not mentioned about China is the real wines that it produces. China even has two pages of its own in The World Atlas of Wine, but hardly a word about what the vineyards produce exists in the popular wine publications or wine blogs. Chinese wine is hard to come buy in the U.S., so when I saw a bottle of Dragon's Hollow Unoaked Chardonnay sitting on the shelf of a local wine shop, I didn't hesitate to take it home. If China is going to become a real part of the wine industry, it is going to have become a producer in addition to a consumer.

2005 Dragon's Hollow Unoaked Chardonnay, Eastern Foot of the He Lan Mountain Appellation, China

When I decided to make a Chinese stir fry (or something resembling that), I figured that there could be no better pairing than an actual Chinese wine. I popped the cork, poured a small glass to make sure that the wine wasn't bad and then added a splash to the veggies in the wok. This slightly aged unoaked Chardonnay is a clear golden-yellow. The aroma is reminiscent of something between a Sauvignon Blanc and a Vouvray. Lemons, apples, and flowers are noticeable on the nose. Granny Smith apples, melon and a touch of lemon zest fill out the taste profile from first sip to the last glass three hours later. Not bad but not great; it works but I don't see myself buying another. China has the foundation, but still a long way to go to meet the quality of what is in demand. 12.5% abv Purchased $11. Average(tasted 1/6/11)