Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Krall's Thrall

One of the great guilty pleasure sites on the Intertubes is The Smoking Gun. The Wizard of Covington ("The Width of a Circle") passed along the recent TSG feature on Diana Krall.

Tour riders are great. The demands that touring bands have for their venues can be from the ridiculous to the sublime. Krall provides a list of some seventy-some odd wines deemed "acceptable" for her dressing room spread. Pretentious wine snob?

Heck no! She's practically a Vine reader. (Who knows...maybe she is...) A quick glance down the page reveals about half of the wines listed fall squarely in our acceptable range. Sure, there are some $40+ critters on there, but heck -- I've reviewed a bunch of them.

And I'm happy to work my way down the list and provide her with copious tasting notes if she can hook me up for drinks with her hubby, Declan McManus.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Headfirst into the Wine Lake

French wine can be confusing.

As I've noted, French wines are usually tagged with the name of the region from which the wine hails. From there we can often get the specific city, the estate, the quality of the vines, and even the specific vineyard from which the grapes were harvested. From "Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée" to "Vin Délimités de Qualité Supérieure," French wine labels are a cascade of vocabulary. There's usually one thing missing:

The frickin' grape the wine's made from.

Unless you've done your homework, you likely wouldn't know that the 2005 Domaine/Maison Jean-Marc Brocard St. Bris is a nine-dollar bottle of Sauvignon Blanc.

The French cling strongly to their winemaking tradition. Historically, they take as much pride in viniculture as in philosophy, art, or Fabian Barthez. Time changes all things.

French per capita wine drinking has dropped steadily for the last 40 years. In the 1990's alone, consumption dropped by almost 20 percent. During the same period, other countries markedly improved their own winemaking techniques, reducing demand for French wine worldwide. The "Freedom Fries" nonsense in the U.S. in the early 2000s exacerbated the situation. The result? A huge glut of wine -- known as the "Wine Lake."

The French government attempted to drain the lake by sponsoring vine pulls (as in Australia) and by converting some of the wine to industrial alcohol. Neither made much of a dent.

The French stood fast for a long time to their tradition, but they saw the effectiveness of Australia's marketing plan: the sale of inexpensive, easy to understand wine to the U.S., China, and others.

France followed suit. Some French winemakers began marketing table wines labeled by varietal instead of location. They've also changed their bottling schemes. Gone are the pictures of chateaux and avalanches of hard to read script. In its place, very "normal" looking bottles. More often than not, the results have been pretty decent. For example:

Les Jamelles 2005 Sauvignon Blanc -- Before the first shoots of The Vine caught sunlight, Les Jamelles was one of the first inexpensive French wines I discovered. It's been a solid, consistent choice ever since. This very drinkable Sauvignon Blanc has floral notes and peaches on the nose. The flavor is very light without too much initial acidity. The flavor is nice, round and peachy with some more citrusy flavor on the end. The crisp finish makes it perfect for the pool or any light meat or fish dish. $9-10.

Red Bicyclette 2005 Pinot Noir -- This pinot surprised me. We opened a bottle of this (among others) one night for the heck of it on our back patio with some friends of ours, and the bottle might have lasted fifteen minutes. Of course, that might have had to do with the company as much as the wine, but I digress. In any case, for the price, I certainly didn't expect a pinot this good. The nose is soft with cherries, and the flavor is very silky. Lots of berries and cherries. The finish was "relaxed." I thought it was a great kick-back wine, especially if coupled with some crackers and mild cheese – and, of course, the friends and conversation. Again, $9-10.

Georges Duboeuf 2005 Merlot Reserve -- Good old Duboeuf. Since they've basically cornered the market on inexpensive Beaujolais, it was only expected that they might expand a bit to other grapes. I've started seeing a number of other Duboeuf offerings of varietal wines on the shelves lately, and I'll likely look into them more closely soon. This merlot has a fruity nose of blackberries. It's medium-bodied and a little bit dry. The finish is "quicker" than and not as fruity as many merlots. I'd place it squarely in the "inoffensive" category -- not bad if you're not thinking about it, but probably not the best to pair up with food. The draw of this wine is the brightly multicolored bottle. As a "party" red, this would be a good choice at around $8-9.

By all accounts, the wine lake is still somewhat deep. While the high end French wines remain high end, the inexpensive versions should remain relatively good buys for the immediate future. Give them a swirl and see what you get -- and if you find one worth sharing, please do!


Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Thunder Down Under

My initial experience with Australian libations came during my first semester in college. I was a semi-clueless freshman, hanging out with some of my soon-to-be fraternity brothers. One of them handed me something that looked like a can of 10w/30.

"Foster's. Australian for beer." (Any self-respecting Ozzie will clip you for repeating that phrase. Victoria Bitter is Australian for beer.)

I didn't bump into any other Australian beverages until eight or nine years later, when I learned the then-well-kept secret: Australia makes some pretty good wine.

Set the Wayback Machine for the late 18th Century. Not long after England claimed Australia in 1770 and began using it as a penal colony, Australians started producing wine. The first large scale production came about around the turn of the century, and the first bottles were available for export in the 1820s. Wine production in Australia roughly mirrored that of the United States. Of course, there was one major difference:


While America made fortunes for the mob, bootleggers, and makers of bathtub gin, the Australians continued to refine their winemaking skills. By the time American winemaking got back on its feet in the 1970s, the Australians were pumping out large quantities for sale all over Europe. Australian wine was so popular and planted so widely that, in the late 1980's, the Australian government ordered thousands of acres of vines pulled to combat a glut of grapes. Then someone had a bright idea -- sell wine in America.

The strategy paid off handsomely. In 1990, Australia exported about 600,000 cases of wine to the U.S. Last year, the US imported over 25 million. China recently started importing Australian wine and quickly became the world's fastest growing market. Australia is best known for Shiraz (remember – it’s Syrah) and Chardonnay, although any number of other grapes flourished in recent years.

Australia remains a major force in the inexpensive wine world. I heard someone once refer to inexpensive label Australian wines referred to as "pop tart wines" -- since, in his opinion, they tasted identical, much that only a connoisseur can tell strawberry Pop Tarts from blueberry. While largely true, I find many of those wines are quite decent as "sluggables." (I also have a weakness for Pop Tarts.)

Here's some Down Under tipple for you:

Penfolds 2004 Thomas Hyland Shiraz -- Penfolds, arguably the most famous Australian label, has the distinction of making the Shiraz which started both the Sweet Partner in Crime and I down the Aussie wine road. My initiation was in graduate school while half-cocked at a party thrown by an Ozzie whose name escapes me. The SPinC -- also in graduate school, supplementing her meagre stipend by working at Outback. Penfolds is a solid, dependable Shiraz. The Thomas Hyland has a nice upfront nose of dark berries. The flavor is very pleasant and plummy. The finish is fruity, has a good amount of peppery taste, and lasts a long time. We had this with some kabobs with sundried tomato sausage, peppers, tomatoes, mushrooms, and pineapple. Deeelishous. $13-15.

Little Penguin 2006 Chardonnay -- The Little Penguin (like Rosemount, Yellow Tail, Four Emus, etc.) is one of the aforementioned "pop tart wines." I find most inexpensive chards pretty bland or, if Californian, oaky as a burnt tree. Little Penguin actually distinguishes itself from the pack. I bought a bottle on a whim. I needed a sluggable white to go with angel hair pasta and shrimp. I was pleasantly surprised. The nose is nothing too out of the ordinary -- typical chardonnay scents of pears and such. However, the first taste was spicy, almost like cloves, dissolving to a nice fruity middle. The finish was surprisingly crisp. It's nothing too complicated -- but for $4-5 a bottle, this wine's a great value. Pastas, seafood, chicken -- any of your typical chardonnay pairings would work.

Villa Maria 2005 Private Bin Hawkes Bay Unoaked Chardonnay -- I'll stray just east of Australia because I need to shoot praise towards New Zealand. New Zealand's wine production is growing rapidly and is positioned in a slightly more expensive price range than their neighbor. New Zealand does exceptionally interesting, tasty Sauvignon Blanc. Other varietals, like this Chardonnay, are becoming more popular. One characteristic of New Zealand wines is a pungent, complex nose. No exception with the Villa Maria. There's a strong scent of ripe bananas and flowers. It's a little acidic, but not minerally like the Chablis after which it's styled. Instead, there’s more of a creamy banana flavor. (The SPinC didn't get bananas at all when we tried it -- she got vanilla.) The finish is a little sharp and dry. You'll find this at around $10. The Villa Maria website suggests "A crisp salad of celery and green beans with potatoes, lemon and olives." Sounds like a winner to me.

Enjoy the fruits of the Southern Hemisphere Remember, in the words of Charles Schultz: “Don't worry about the world coming to an end today. It is already tomorrow in Australia.”