British Invasion: Jancis Robinson and Bartholomew Broadbent

Last Thursday the DC area was graced by two wine legends from across the pond.  Bartholomew Broadbent came to Chain Bridge Cellars for a tasting of Port and historic Madeira, and Jancis Robinson gave a talk at the Smithsonian in support of her new book on American wine.

At our in-store class on Port and Madeira with Bartholomew Broadbent, dessert-friendly nibbles like bleu cheese and chocolate-covered dried apricots (available in our gourmet food section, and very hard to stop eating!) were served, along with D’Artagnan’s mousse truffee and Cowgirl Creamery’s Wagon Wheel cheese.

The Port was delicious with the bleu cheese and chocolates, and everyone was surprised at how delicious the very reasonably priced Late Bottled Vintage Port was.  Bartholomew Broadbent, son of eminent wine writer and Master of Wine Michael Broadbent and head of Broadbent Selections, an import company that specializes in Port and Madeira, explained his theory that Port and Madeira started to fall out of favor when California wines became so intensely alcoholic.  No one wanted that last glass after dinner anymore!  Anyone who’s tasted a really ripe Napa Valley Cabernet or a Zin from Lodi should agree that there’s probably some truth to this.

As delicious as the Ports were, the Madeiras really shined with both the sweet and savory snacks.  Though a historic 1978 bottling was served, the wine of the night for most participants was the 1996 Colheita, with its savory, caramelly depth.  Aside from its food-friendliness, Madeira also basically never goes bad, even after the bottle is opened, so it’s the perfect thing to open for a small gathering or just yourself – no need for guilt over not finishing the bottle!

1996 colheita

Meanwhile, at the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum, our own Dave McIntyre, wine columnist for the Washington Post, sat down to interview wine writer and critic Jancis Robinson.  Ms. Robinson stopped at the Smithsonian as part of her tour supporting American Wine: the Ultimate Companion, her new book co-written with Linda Murphy on the exploding American wine industry.

What was most striking about the interview and question-and-answer session that followed, was how, well, genuinely nice she seemed. For someone of her stature and level of knowledge – this woman has written some serious tomes – she comes across as so open and relaxed about wine.  She’s inclusive and fun and not a snob.  As the first person outside the wine trade to become a Master of Wine at a time when the British wine establishment was, shall we say, traditional, this really speaks to her genuine nature and sense of humor.

Despite this background, she’s written a completely earnest, enthusiastic book celebrating American wine.  She thinks Norton, a native American grape variety, makes “really nice” wines, and thinks that Virginia Bordeaux-style blends should be included on a short list of classic American wine styles, something that many Virginia residents themselves would be hesitant to assert.   She is proof of the value of keeping an open mind when it comes to wine.  Riesling from Michigan?  Texan wine?  Bring it on, and keep it coming, was her message.  We’ll try, Jancis.

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What We’re Tasting: A Day of Surprises

Though we like to think of ourselves as seasoned, unbiased wine professionals, we do have a few prejudices.  Doug, for example, loves Carignan so irrationally that he can’t be trusted to taste it without a chaperone.  Diane and Randy love sparkling wine and Gamay so much that, left to their own devices, the store would consist of little else.

We’ve also got our dislikes, and can be a little dismissive of wines we’re sure we won’t like.  Today, two wines in our usual Tuesday onslaught of staff tastings stood out, not just because they were delicious wines, but because they were so surprising.  The first was a red Rhone-style blend from Grochau Cellars’ Washington State property that was an absolute dead ringer for something you’d find in the South of France.  We’ll be bringing it in soon, and it will surely find its way onto our tables at home as well.

The second really blew our minds, because we’ve all convinced ourselves that we just don’t like Pinotage.  This was not just Pinotage, but a Pinotage rose.  We were sure, looking at the price point and utilitarian label, that this was going to be a clunker.  We could not have been more wrong.  Keep an eye on your inboxes for news about this incredible South African rose.  It’s earned the use of that well-worn cliche: it’s a bargain at twice the price.

One Sip At A Time: Aging Wine

Aging wine is one of those fraught subjects for both novices and seasoned wine lovers alike.  Since most of us aren’t wealthy English lords circa 1822 whose fathers lovingly laid down a lifetime’s worth of claret for us to enjoy in our prime, we don’t get the chance to experience mature wine very often.  In this third installment of our One Sip At A Time series, we wanted to give you a chance to taste young and mature versions of the same (or similar) wines to find out what your palate really prefers, and dispense a little information about what makes a wine ageworthy along the way.

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We started with one of our favorite Southern Rhone producers, Philippe Plantevin, and his white blend in the 2010 and 2006 vintages, noting the contrast between the 2010’s brightness and the 2006’s richer, mellower aromas.  We then moved on to bigger guns, comparing Albert Grivault’s 2010 Mersault with a 1999 Santenay that Doug was kind enough to pull out of his own cellar to give us an example of white Burgundy with some age.  This particular bottle wasn’t the favorite of the class – perhaps because the Mersault was so delicious!  Tasting the whites gave us a chance to observe color differences in young and older wines side by side, and to talk a bit about qualities like concentration and acidity that make a wine ageworthy.

Then it was on to the reds.  We tasted two vintages of one of Chateauneuf-du-Pape’s most famous addresses, Vieux Telegraph.  2009 and 2004 were vintages that had similar qualities, so we thought comparing them would be interesting.  What was most interesting about this pair was that the 2009, a vintage known for its ripeness and showy flavors and aromas, was in the process of ‘shutting down,’ a hiccup in the aging process where a wine kind of folds in on itself and isn’t very generous aromatically for awhile, before blossoming again.    It’s the wine equivalent of being in a funk – fortunately it’s almost always temporary!

aging wines reds

We also did a comparative tasting of Damilano’s delicious 2010 Nebbiolo d’Alba three different ways: simply opened and poured, decanted in a traditional decanter, and aerated using a Vinturi wine aerator.  Despite the attention that aerating (and even hyper-aerating with a blender!)  gets as a technique to make tannic and/or young wines more approachable, the group was pretty evenly split as to which sample they preferred.  We feel safe in continuing to recommend tasting a bit of the wine you’re planning to drink both aerated and not before putting the whole bottle through an aerator.  You might not always prefer the aerated wine!

Finally, we tasted a 20 year old red Burgundy from Pascal Maillard, from a humble village appellation, chosen for its ‘little engine that could’ quality.  A wine of this humble origin and price point, like the Cotes du Rhone from earlier, shouldn’t be able to age this long and gracefully, but it does.  Some loved the earthy, mossy, feral notes that older red Burgundy takes on, and others weren’t so enthusiastic – again, that’s the point of an exercise like this.  It’s OK to like younger wine!  Many seasoned wine experts do.

aging wines doug + emmett

When Danny Haas of Vineyard Brands (who will be here to guide us through a thrilling lineup of Chablis very soon!) was here last year for a class on Alsace’s Dom Weinbach, he was asked about aging, since Riesling is a grape that Dom Weinbach does very, very well, and is known for its aging potential. His answer was somewhat surprising, as many expected him to wax poetic about 25 year old Schlossberg in his cellar.  To our surprise, he told us that what he loves most about the wines at this estate is their impeccable, fresh fruit and how balanced it is with the rest of the elements of the wine.  Since those beautiful, fresh notes are his favorite things about the wines, he prefers to drink them young, even though others prefer the wines more mature.  So, there you have it – official permission to drink wine at whatever age you like!

Older wines always provide an interesting experience, and a window into history, and for this reason should never be passed up if they’re put in front of you, but for your own cellar (or, you know, closet mostly taken up by linens and craft supplies), you should drink wines when you like them, regardless of what the critics say.

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Thanks to everyone who attended this installment of our One Sip At A Time series for their comments and questions – we learn just as much putting together and teaching these classes as you do taking them.  Click here for more information on this series.

What We’re Tasting – New Old-Fashioned Favorites

Last week Doug and I made the journey over state lines to attend a tasting at Potomac Selection’s warehouse in Maryland.  Rather than the hours-long dog and pony show these tastings usually entail, Eric and Ryne opened about 25 interesting bottles, set them on a table, and let us all go to town.  They made themselves available to answer questions and set some bread and cheese on a pile of boxes in the corner, and that was about it.

Other than the cold toes I always get in a warehouse that’s kept at the right temperature, this couldn’t have been a  more perfect way to revisit what’s currently on our shelves from the portfolio and taste new things.  Usually industry tastings are either in a stuffy banquet hall/convention center and you have to elbow people out of the way to get to a spit bucket, or they’re sit-down affairs that end up being about an hour longer than you wanted to spend, with no way to make a tactful escape.

There were many highlights of this tasting – I finally got to taste a Freisa after having been cruelly denied in the Piedmont (none of the producers brought one out – it’s almost as if they know it’s a weird grape no one cares about…) and we were reminded just how much we love Domaine Labbe’s Savoie.

Two discoveries made it onto our shelves immediately after we tasted them.  One was Moutard’s 6 Cepages 2005, a blend of all six allowed Champagne varietals: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Arlane, and Pinot Meslier.  Just to further up the geek factor, it undergoes its secondary fermentation under a traditional cork reinforced by metal brackets rather than the crown cap that’s used in most Champagne production.  Thought provoking and deeply savory, but not lacking in fun, its $54.99 price tag is positively cheap when compared to other vintage Champagnes of this caliber.

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We also got acquainted with Dom Jean Royer’s Chateauneuf-du-Papes.  These are not made in the big, glossy style that makes the cover of Wine Spectator.  These are traditional, food-friendly, and not so tannic and extracted they need years in bottle to unwind.  Doug enjoyed a bottle of the Tradition at home this past Friday and was so enthusiastic his description used language too colorful to post here.  If that’s not a ringing endorsement, I don’t know what is!

-Diane

Surviving Wine Deserts

We’ve all been there.  An airport lounge, an unfortunate happy hour, a wedding with an open bar and…limited choices.  When confronted with these situations, you could just have some sparkling water and sit it out, but at a party or social event, it’s nice to have a glass of something.  It can’t be Grand Cru Champagne and First Growth Bordeaux every night – and if it is at your house, well, we’ll be right over!  So here’s what to avoid and what to try when presented with less than ideal choices.

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Whites.  Typical offerings include Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, and sometimes an aromatic varietal like Riesling or Viognier.  Our advice is to avoid Chardonnay of nebulous origins whenever possible.  Some of the greatest wines in the world, and some of our favorites, are Chardonnays, even Chardonnays that see significant oak.  However, at a happy hour at an anonymous chain restaurant, the Chardonnay on offer is generally an inexpensive New World style, which means it’s fruit-forward and sees a lot of ‘oak.’  Why the quotation marks? Because often the ‘oak’ is in the form of oak chips, oak dust that comes in tea bags (yes, this is a real thing!) or oak staves that are planted in stainless steel tanks to give Chardonnay oak flavors and aromas.  When this oak fakery is done badly, it’s really unpleasant.

On the other hand, an inexpensive Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio you’ve never heard of probably won’t change your life, but it’s more likely to be crisp and pleasantly quaffable rather than cloying.  A New World (from New Zealand, California or Chile rather than from France) Sauvignon Blanc will almost always be unoaked and fermented cool to preserve its citrusy, grassy aromatics.  Drunk cold on a warm day, it’s pretty easy to like!  Pinot Grigio from Italy, similarly, may be overcropped or uninteresting, but even the worst versions are merely bland rather than offensive.

Aromatic varietals like Riesling, Gewurztraminer, or Viognier should also be avoided in these situations. Viognier and Gewurz become overripe and therefore unpleasantly boozy very quickly, and while sweet and off-dry Rieslings can be life-changing, cheap, sweet-ish Riesling is often awful and headache-inducing.

Reds.  Of the well-known, international varietals, Pinot Noir is the most difficult to make inexpensively. If it’s underripe, what little fruit is there will be overpowered by oak, and if it’s overripe, it won’t even taste like Pinot Noir.

High in food-friendly acidity, Sangiovese-based wines like Rosso di Montalcino or Toscana Rosso are a good bet. If you’re in the mood for something fuller-bodied, Bordeaux is, surprisingly, a good call on a restaurant glass list if it’s available. The word Bordeaux calls to mind expensive, because we associate it with the famous estates of this region. The truth is that Bordeaux is one of the larger wine-producing regions in France and churns out a lot of wine that doesn’t need to be snapped up at auction and aged for decades in your cellar.

In a pinch, California Merlot can also be a good choice, as it’s usually softer and fruitier than Cabernet and less likely to be oaked into a complete stupor. Just stay away from any wine that’s named for a baked good or dessert – trust us.

Whether you’re looking for red or white, it’s always a good idea to favor wines from the most recent vintages, as storage is likely to be suspect, and most inexpensive wines taste best right when they’re released.

And if all else fails, there’s always beer!

A Beautiful Evening with Beaux Freres

It’s easy to dismiss wines that are hyped, expensive, and/or have a cult following, and Oregon Pinot Noir producer Beaux Freres definitely falls into several of those categories.  A partnership between winemaker Mike Etzel and his brother in law, superstar critic Robert Parker, Beaux Freres (which means brother in law in French) has always gotten a lot of attention for their premium Pinot Noir from Oregon’s Willamette Valley.  This past Thursday director of sales for the winery Kurt Johnson treated us to a vertical that spanned every vintage from 2006 to 2011, and it was pretty clear that no one in the room had trouble understanding what all the fuss was about.

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We started with the 2011 Willamette Valley, made from a blend of vineyard sites that reads like a who’s who of famous Oregon Pinot Noir vineyards.  The only wine Beaux Freres makes that isn’t made from all estate fruit, it is ready to drink right out of the gate, and shows the transparency and prettiness too often missing in New World Pinot.

Then we moved on to the 2010 vintage, and got to compare the Upper Terrace vineyard with the Beaux Freres vineyard.  Both were delicious, and Kurt took the opportunity to explain why decanting is recommended for young vintages of Beaux Freres Pinot.  Rather than use a lot of sulfur, Beaux Freres handles the wine as little as possible and lets CO2, a natural byproduct of the winemaking process, protect it instead.  This means that there can be a little foaming action in the wine, which goes away after the wine is exposed to air.  So while these bubbles look a little alarming, rest assured that it’s not secondary fermentation – it’s protecting the wine!

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Once we got to the 2006, 2007 and 2008 vintages of Beaux Freres vineyard, the spirited debate was flowing.  The 2008 was all elegance and sophistication, while the 2006 was full of fruit and vibrancy.  The 2007, a maligned vintage on release, also showed beautifully, and had a few passionate fans.

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We tasted the wines in flights of two, and after every one asked for a show of hands to find out which was the favorite.  Doing this is one of the best parts of having these classes and tastings for us, because it reminds us that almost every wine we show at a tasting will be someone’s favorite, and it gives us feedback from our most important source: you!

Special thanks to Kurt Johnson of Beaux Freres winery, and Kirk Evans of Roanoke Valley Wine Company for all their support in making this such a wonderful evening.

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Spanish Cassoulet at 2941

It’s become a tradition to do two editions of our annual cassoulet dinner, and this past Monday we were treated to the Spanish version of this annual warming treat.  Chef Bertrand of 2941 Restaurant knocked this dinner out of the park, creating the perfect combination of traditional and innovative flavors to showcase the portfolio of importer Jonas Gustafsson, who focused on wines of the Catalan regions of Spain to pair with this Spanish-inflected spin on cassoulet, called Escudella.

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As an aperitif we were treated to Mas Estela’s Vinya Selva del Mar Blanca, whose blend of Garnacha Blanca and Muscat were the perfect combination of minerality (from the Garnacha) and lush aromatics (from the Muscat).  Its fans were in good company, as it was the house white of the now-closed El Bulli.

Next came three small appetizers, which included both grilled sardines and cured anchovies.  The briny fish was delicious with the Joseph Puig Terra Alta white, another Garnacha Blanca-based white.

With the main event, we enjoyed dueling reds, a red Montsant blend from Joseph Puig, and the Mas Estela Espiritu, a fuller-bodied red with a bit more bottle age.  There was some spirited debate at the table as to which was the better wine, and which was a better match with the food.  Some preferred the Joseph Puig’s freshness and purity, while others loved the Espiritu’s minerality and depth.  Both were delicious with the cassoulet’s different elements, such as lamb belly, chorizo, and, possibly most notably, the house-made blood sausage.  A certain owner of the store may or may not have finished a few guests’ blood sausage for them.  It was that good!

spanish cassoulet 2 redsBoth the French and the Spanish cassoulet dinners were wonderful, but according to those who attended both, the Spanish version really impressed for its inventiveness and bold flavors.  Bravo to Chef Bertrand Chemel, sommelier Jonathan Schuyler, and the staff at 2941 for their attentive service and fabulous food.

spanish cassoulet beans + breadIn case you missed this incredible feast, here are some of the wines that were featured:

Joseph Puig Garnatxa Blanca 2011

Joseph Puig Montsant Tinto 2011

Mas Estela Espiritu Negre 2008