Wednesday, March 25, 2009

An Open Letter To Matt Kramer

First, a quick introduction to this post. Matt Kramer has written a number of wine books and is a columnist for The Wine Spectator and The Oregonian (Portland newspaper). He has over three decades of experience as a wine writer and wrote this article in early February.Snap up 2006 pinot noir soon; '07s will probably be thin
He commits what I believe to be among the most egregious sins/errors of wine writers by summarizing an entire vintage, across two continents, in less than 70 words. Simplification for most readers is a bonus, oversimplification for all readers, however, is a disservice.
Read on for my response which I attempted to get published in a local wine magazine. As they chose not to print it, I will publish it here. A link will be forwarded to Mr. Kramer.

I promise to have some reviews of 2007 Oregon Pinot Noir posted shortly and more will follow.

Dear Mr. Kramer,
This is in response to your article from The Oregonian on Sunday February 1st. Let me first say that I respect your knowledge, experience and palate. I have recommended your book ‘Making Sense of Wine’ to countless people interested in learning more about wine in an informative, but not intimidating, fashion and I will continue to do so. However, I must call you to task for the overly simplistic statements from the article.
A one paragraph summation is hardly sufficient to cover a vintage. It is these overly generalized announcements that incorrectly poison an entire vintage for many customers. While wearing your wine critic hat it is your job to strongly recommend a wine or two in your column in the Oregonian. As a leading journalist, and respected author, in the wine world it should also be your job to educate properly.
Instead of trying to tackle the world in my response, let’s focus on Oregon. I will quote you and then discuss the validity or usefulness of each line.
“The 2007 vintage was merely good in much of California and less than that in Oregon.” No mention here of red or white wine. I find the 2007 whites from Oregon to perhaps be a benchmark for future success. They are crisp, fresh, and intense, showing more of the minerality many hope to find. Granted, if tropical fruit and thick texture is your style, then you will likely be disappointed or, more accurately, underwhelmed. Preferring the snappier style of whites, I love the 2007s from Oregon, nearly across the board. By the way, they offer much easier matches on the table than the sometimes flabby 2006’s.
You continued, “You want to snap up the remaining 2006 pinot noirs from Oregon while they’re still around." I would be a bit more careful about that. I found many of the 2006 Pinot Noirs to be too reminiscent of the 2003 vintage, overly ripe, lacking acidity and often bearing more resemblance to Syrah than Pinot Noir. Many offer plush, juicy fruit and early access, but too often complexity and depth are lacking. If that’s the style you love, then 2007 Pinots may not be for you. However, ‘true’ Pinot fans will find plenty to like in the vintage.
The first one I tasted out of bottle, blew me away. Evesham Wood’s introductory level Pinot Noir was loaded with pretty red fruit, earth tones, and bright acidity. It proved to be a fantastic match with roast chicken and mushrooms and a true bargain at $17.99; it probably could have been mistaken for Bourgogne Rouge or perhaps even Savigny Les Beaune. I snapped up four bottles and wish I had gotten more. I do not believe there is any more of this wine available, but it was a great start for the vintage. Since then I have tasted a number of 2007 Pinot Noirs and while none are blockbusters, they are certainly worthy of consideration, consumption, and perhaps cellaring.
“Oregon’s 2007 pinot noirs are emerging as rather light, sometimes excessively thin wines that may prove to be overpriced for their quality. (Some producers are lowering their prices.)” Overpriced wines exist all over the world in every vintage. Oregon, despite huge improvements and advances in quality over the last decade or so, continues to produce a significant number of wines not worth their price. Good producers in 2007 did more aggressive sorting, therefore had higher expenses, and may not be in a position to lower prices. The wines will not be as generous or as big as either 2006 or 2003, but I find similarities to the exciting and engaging 2005 vintage which offered something for everyone.
You continue to be a hero to me for being an active proponent of finesse and elegance in wine, while lamenting the increasing ripeness and more generic style of Pinot Noir many producers appear to be pursuing. How disappointing that an elegant vintage like 2007 has been so thoroughly dismissed by you in this column.
Ironically, I recall you choosing Brick House ‘Ribbon Ridge’ 2007 as your sole Pinot Noir recommendation for Thanksgiving. For a less than "merely good" vintage in Oregon with bottlings perhaps "overpriced for their quality" how could you recommend this wine while so many 2006 Pinots were still around to "snap up." In fact, you nearly raved about Brick House's 2007, "this bottling is nothing less than delightful" (The Oregonian, November 23rd, 2008). You went on to call the wine, "[a]n exceptionally pure-tasting pinot noir...[t]he word 'exquisite' comes to mind." You even say, "[t]he price is lovely, too." Surely some mention of your excitement about this 2007 would have been appropriate at the same time you panned the 2007 vintage for Oregon Pinot Noir.
While writing of Brooks ‘Janus’ 2006 bottling in the February 1st column, you say, “you won’t get this depth or scale of pinot noir fruit in the 2007 vintage, you can be sure.” I’m willing to go along with that. I won’t get the depth or scale of BBQ ribs by roasting a chicken either but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t eat it.
Let’s sample a few quotes about the 2007 vintage from some esteemed producers. These quotes are taken from Oregon Wine Press articles (Stephany Boettner, Jan 2008; Hillary Berg, Dec 2007). From Harry Peterson-Nedry of Chehalem, “we have great physiological maturity at lower sugars, a condition that excites us.” Eric Hamacher of Hamacher Wines, “I am thrilled with the wines. It is a vintage about elegance…these may be my favorite wines in quite a few years.” While I admit that winemakers and owners, who need to sell the new vintage, may not always be the most objective people, there are enough ringing endorsements out there to get my attention.
As a journalist, you should not be a cheerleader for wines you find unappealing, but it is unfortunate that the 2007 vintage, with more delicate fruit, expression of terroir, and elegance would be panned by someone who advocates for exactly this style of wine. One last quote from the column, “As I said: you can’t be too careful.” I could not agree more; be careful about questionable producers (who surely will create uninspired wine in 2007), vintages that may not be your style, and especially ‘super-journalists’, claiming to be able to sum up entire vintages in a single paragraph.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Argentina - Part Nine - 'Upper End' Malbec

The home stretch. Imagine how I felt about Argentina after a massive day tasting all these and then a few days after of tasting through most of them again. As I write this, I am reminded how many good Argentine wines were left out of the tasting.

In the last post I concluded that the moderate price range, based on the wines tasted, mostly disappointed compared to lower end Malbec. Part of that is due to my general aversion to heavily oaked wines, but clearly some fault lies with the wineries' insistence to use as much oak as they did, even when the fruit can not possibly handle it. Medium weight fruit with heavy duty oak will lead to one dimensional wines since the oak will overwhelm not only the fruit but whatever complexity that fruit brought to bear.

This is the final countdown of Argentine Malbecs, and these are truly at the Reserva level. Some are labeled as such, and it is justifiable here since all of these wineries produce lower priced introductory level wines (that have been tasted and reviewed here). Unlike some others tasted earlier who slap the Reserva label on whatever wine they want. It is disingenuous at best and outright deceitful at worst.

While Reserva naming is justified here, do the wines measure up to the increased price?

Altos Las Hormigas Reserva 2006 - The grapes come from Valley de Uco and Lujan de Cuyo and the 100% Malbec grapes are fermented in stainless steel and then aged for 20 months in "only tight grain French oak." The wine has a wild color, almost pink on the edge, that remains bright and lively. It truly is an amazing color. The wine is a bit thinner on the back end than I remember (admittedly, from another vintage). 2nd day - The color has settled down a bit but it is still wildly intense and bright. High toned fruit and deep oak notes form a good balance. Not quite as lush on the palate, but solid. 3rd day - This has held up beautifully, bright still, but taking on a smoky note, and the juicy fruit continues. Just a bit tight on the back end, but this wine is well made, and I enjoy its hedonism. Give it time to breathe. Other tasters raved about the wine. Importer - Vin Divino and Michael Skurnik. $22-$26

Luigi Bosca Reserva Malbec 2005 - From Lujan de Cuyo and 100% Malbec. A light filteration is done and the wine spends 12 months in French oak. Some stewed fruit and sweet smelling fruit that retains tartness on the nose. Great fruit and oak mix on the finish, lively but still silky. Very good finish, I don't care for the nose though. 2nd day - A bit raw, but some bright, lifted, red fruit and cedar notes from the wood. The oak is rounder on the finish than the nose and good balance remains. This wine also was generally considered a hit despite its very different style. This is slightly more old world in that it wants food, doesn't have to have it, but leans toward pork, red sauces and mushrooms while the Altos wants big meat and stews. Importer - Gaucho Imports. $16-$20, although I did see it listed as low as $14.

Malma Reserva Malbec 2004 - I believe it to be all Malbec and the wine is aged in 80% French and 20% American oak. Most importantly, it comes from the NQN winery in Patagonia, a cooler growing area than Mendoza. There is no other way to describe the nose, but bloody. Like a good butcher shop smells of raw meat and blood (sorry vegetarians). The wine is soft, long, and juicy but not as concentrated as I expected from the nose. Perhaps the slightly lower concentration is due to the relative coolness of the region. I must confess I have not tried enough wines from Patagonia to speak with any level of authority. 2nd day - Again, raw meat, juicy red and black fruit on the palate and more lush today. The wine is even impressive today. 3rd day - It is fading, but for a 2004 opened for a few days the wine is amazingly persistent. Another taster referenced 'flesh and meat' in her description. I like it! Importer - Pinnacle International. $23-$28, price were odd on this wine on a google search.

Catena Malbec 2006 - Made from 100% Malbec and sourced from four vineyards ranging in altitude from 2,850 to 5,000 feet in Mendoza. The wine spends 12 months in 70% French oak, 20% of which is new, and 30% American oak. Unfined and unfiltered. Juicy, red fruit but a tad alcoholic on the nose. It seems perhaps acidified, making my tongue tingle. One word for this, "blah", especially for the price. No other taster cared about this, in fact, one expressed disappointment. 2nd day - Not as hot on the nose today, but not enough depth or complexity for the money. Much better today, not "blah", but still too expensive for what is in the bottle. This is a red fruit dominant Malbec and will not provide enough enjoyment for most people relative to price. A well known producer that sells wines based on previous reputation based on this tasting. Importer - Billington Distributors. $19-$24

Gouguenheim Flores del Valle Malbec Azul 2003 - From estate vineyards in Tupungato (Valle de Uco) this is the top bottling from the winery. It changes from year to year, sometimes a blend, sometimes a single variety. In this vintage the wine is 100% Malbec. I find a bizarrely sweet nose, almost medicinal, the flavor is better, but not interesting enough to forgive the nose. One other taster enjoyed it, but even she noted it was, "a different creature." 2nd day - A bit of a muddy color, the nose is more intriguing and showing some age. Almost licorice note today, fascinating nose today, but not so lively anymore and a bit muddled. I am intrigued enough to want to try another vintage. Importer - Pinnacle is no longer representing them, the rest of the states should be accurate. $23-$26

Carinae Prestige 2005 - Only 2,930 bottles of this wine were produced. The wine is 70% Malbec, 20% Syrah, and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and spent 15 months in new French oak. The blend changes a bit from year to year and production has doubled since this vintage. Michel Rolland consults for this winery. Wow, even though this is clearly international and Rolland-influenced, this is good! Sorry for the lack of notes, last wine of the day, and I liked it. 2nd day - Bright, focused red and black fruit with oak mingling nicely. The key is the brightness of the wine, this is full, big, lush, and well oaked, but the lively acid in the wine keeps everything in good balance. There is no sense of terroir here, but it's Rolland. 3rd day - Fading, more clay, brick, aged fruit nose with more noticeable tannin and less fruit, but still okay. Overall, very impressive, this will please fans of flashy wines and jaded geeks as well. Importer - Pinnacle International. $30-$35

Friday, March 13, 2009

Argentina - Part Eight - Malbec, The Next Price Point

We found some good deals in the lower price scale, can we find increased quality to justify an increase in price? Chile has finally managed to justify spending luxury dollars on wine after only offering low end bargains in the past. However, they do not offer much in the mid-range in my opinion. Argentina, so far, has offered that middle step since early on but does not have the heavy bottles and wild ratings of cult wines on the very upper end of the pricing scale. How will these wines fare?

Ricardo Santos Malbec 2006 - From a single vineyard at 2,800 feet in Mendoza, the wine is aged in French and American oak for six months. Ricardo Santos is a pioneer in Argentina, exporting the first Malbec to the U.S. when he owned Norton. This wine recently got a glowing review, and after learning about Mr. Santos, I had to include this. However, my notes for the first day, 'raw oak and more raw oak.' It was dark and deep as well, but if you don't like new oak, don't buy this wine. 2nd day - Not as much oak, still lacking, but better fruit shows today. Red and bright, but still too tannic for the fruit and it seems like wood tannin to me, which is rougher and chewier than fruit tannin. 3rd day - Deep, sweet fruit and oak on the nose, odd almost pickly, but more smoky note throughout. Gritty tannin on the back. Importer - Global Vineyard Wine Imports. $15-$17, although I saw it as high as $20

Tamari Reserva Malbec 2006 - The facts here reference the 2007 vintage, 2006 information is no longer posted. Some Cabernet Sauvignon and Bonarda are blended with the Malbec and most of the wine spends nine months in French and American first and third use barrels. Some is left unoaked to preserve the fruit. Oak, but sweet fruit too, the wine is okay, but slightly tannic and not showing much. 2nd day - Better nose, but that's about it; the wine is disjointed with some dirty tannin and bits of juicy cherry fruit with some earth. Overall, fair, a decent bottle, let it breathe. Importer - Terlato Wines. $12-$14

El Tordo Malbec 2004 - The owner of the importer made the blend with fruit from El Cipres, and it is aimed at the American palate. For the record, blends aimed specifically at American consumers rarely excite me personally. 15% Syrah is added to the Malbec. Sweet cherry notes, almost Luden's style, lead to a very drinkable wine. It's juicy, it's easy and it's fine. Exactly right for the American palate, but with more character than I expected. 2nd day - Syrah shows more today, with the cherry moving a bit more to the background and some nougat note emerging. A bit tannic for the weight of the fruit today. 3rd day - tired and not showing much. A solid wine, I would look forward to a more recent example perhaps. Importer - Pinnacle International. $15-$18

Trapiche Broquel Malbec 2006 - 100% Malbec and all estate fruit from vineyards scattered around Mendoza. Nice fruit and oak balance here, sweet cherry on the palate but very dry acid on the finish. Is the actual wine a bit out of balance? 2nd day - Darkest of the batch today, lush, some dark fruit but mostly red shows. I think there's still too much acid, and gritty acid, not lively, snappy acid, for the fruit. Importer - Frederick Wildman. $12-$14, although I saw one as high as $18.

Norton Reserva Malbec 2005 - 100% Malbec from Lujan de Cuyo in Mendoza. A bit stewy on the nose, with plenty of round oak. Not bad, just some much better. If nothing else around, okay, but so many other wines have more character for the price. 2nd day - Some nice high-toned fruit, a bit simple, the wine is good, there's just no depth. FYI - the 2006 has just received some rave reviews, perhaps I should revisit. Importer - TGIC Importers. $12-$15

Gascon Malbec 2007 - 100% Malbec from Lujan de Cuyo and Valle de Uco with seven months in American and French oak. Gallo recently took over importing for this winery and I surmise that means a ramp up in production, as it has for other international wineries they work with. Good weight and balance on the nose, with some oak and some dark fruit. The palate is juicy and straightforward with just a touch of slightly stewy fruit on the end. Another taster, "Nooooooo." 2nd day - Red and black fruit with with some oak again, decent entry, but fades quickly, with a weak finish. This wine sells like crazy in Portland and will make most people content, but there is no reason to seek it. Importer - Gallo Imports. $11-$13

Carinae Reserva Malbec 2004 - 55% comes from Lujan de Cuyo and 45% from Maipu in Mendoza from 80 year old vines. The wine is aged for 12 months in French oak. Red, forward fruit, with a hint of sweetness, a tad too light perhaps for the texture and oak treatment. 2nd day - More of that red forward fruit, with some dark undertones, the wine has fleshed out today but there is still a grittiness on the finish. A solid wine, not for sipping, but would be great with food. There is actual evidence of terroir here. Importer - Pinnacle International. $13-$16

Malma Malbec 2006 - From NQN winery in Nequen, Patagonia. I found little nougat and rubber on the nose. There were some plum notes. but it is clearly not for me. Another taster, "a nose like dirt stew with skunk and raspberry." 2nd day - Nose even more pronounced today, with some soft wood on the back, better fruit than the day before but still burnt rubber notes. Blah! Importer - Pinnacle International. $12-$15

Luigi Bosca Malbec 2005 - 100% Malbec, farmed at 3,200 feet in a single vineyard in Lujan de Cuyo, Mendoza. The wine spends 12 months in French oak and undergoes a light filtration. More raw oak on the nose. There is some red fruit there somewhere, but mostly it is just oak today. 2nd day - Pure oak today, not the raw, aggressive style of the day before. The wine is better integrated, with solid fruit and decent brightness. I like this more today, but it's still not great by any means. Importer - Gaucho Imports. $16-$20

Overall these wines underwhelmed, especially for the price. I think the issue may be that the producers believe that an increase in price means an increase in oak, especially new wood. It seems the fruit associated with the moderate increases seen here could not keep up with the more significant use of oak. There is only one wine I would buy and drink, Carinae. Perhaps we'll have better luck at the next price point...last post for Argentina for a while coming next.

I have been very taken aback by the amount of red fruit notes found in the entire tasting. We all think of Malbec as deep and dark with black cherry, currant, and generally dark fruit. However, we have found much more red fruits, even raspberry and cherry notes, than expected. Perhaps we need to adjust our expectations a bit for Argentine Malbec.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Argentina - Part Seven - Malbec continues

No need for any preliminaries here, let's just get to it.
El Cipres Malbec 2005 - 100% Malbec, from Maipu, Mendoza. Gunpowder and black tea on the nose, almost iodine - but more pleasant than that sounds. Very focused on the palate with good layered fruit and no noticeable oak influence. Good! 2nd day - Penetrating aroma still and bright acid remains. Gunpowder still there, but less obvious today. Very tasty, I like this a lot, but is it only for geeks? 3rd day - Wow, still wild and intense with plenty of bright, fresh fruit. Quite intense and lovely. Importer - Pinnacle International. $9-$11
Bodegas Septima Malbec 2006 - 100% Malbec from the Upper Mendoza River and the Valle de Uco. The grapes from the two regions are vinified separately in stainless steel and then aged for six months in American oak. After that time in wood, the final blend is completed. My tasting notes are short and not so sweet. Awful - hollow and stewed. Another taster shared the following, "ewwwww." Avoid! Imported by Grupo Codorniu - A.V. Brands, Inc. $9-$12
Urban Uco Malbec 2006 - A joint project between the Fournier family in Ribera del Duero, Spain and Jorge Ordonez, a leading importer of Spanish wines. 100% Malbec from La Consulta, Mendoza at 3,600 feet. Fermentation in stainless steel and 3 months in oak. Pretty cherry note on the nose, the wine is simple, but well made. Red fruit is dominant and the wine is perhaps lighter than some might expect, but not wimpy. 2nd day - Still juicy, very pretty with some minor spice. Well done. I like this wine! 3rd day - Wild berry fruit on the nose, the palate is a bit tired now. Not bad on day four, but no longer great either. Importer - Jorge Ordonez. $9-$11
Alamos Malbec 2007 - Again, 100% Malbec from various vineyards in Mendoza, with "moderate oak aging in French and American oak." Part of the Catena Zapata winery. I found the wine sulfury on the nose (like burnt matches) with gritty red fruit. The palate is fine, but I don't think it's worth drinking. Another taster, however, wrote, "solid, round, dark, smooth." 2nd day - Still sulfury, and now also a bit stewy, the palate is better today, but it almost had to be. Importer - Billington Distributors. $9-$12
Alamos Seleccion Malbec 2006 - The only perceivable difference between the regular Malbec and this special version is that this one comes exclusively from La Consulta in Mendoza. The previous wine had three other sources. However, this wine fared much better in my tasting notes. Smoke, meat, and cherry dominate the nose with some tart fruit tucked in there as well. Simple, but mostly correct. Not bad, not good. 2nd day - Super sweet cherry with some dark fruit tones in the aroma and I like the palate more today. 3rd day - Dark fruit emerging more, the wine appears a bit tired. Okay still, but clearly fading. A good Malbec that offers decent complexity and a palate pleasing style. Might get a solid recommendation if it were a bit less expensive. Importer - Billington Distributors. $13-$16
Dona Paula Malbec 2006 - 100% Malbec from Lujan de Cuyo, Mendoza from a vineyard planted in 1971. About 20% of the grapes are left whole for fermentation, which should result in a slightly juicier style. Stainless steel fermentation is followed by 12 months in oak - both French and American. The wine is bottled unfined and unfiltered. (Now there's a complete tech sheet for the wine, thank you Vineyard Brands). Some dark fruit appears on the edges of the aromas, but more red shows. The wine is well made, easy but firm, crowd pleasing but real and not manipulated. Bravo! 2nd day - More sweet fruit, a tad stewy on the nose, still drinkable, but barely. I like it both with food and as a glass. Very versatile style, just finish the bottle up in one night - or preserve it somehow. Importer - Vineyard Brands. $10-$12
Kaiken Reserva Malbec 2006 - The Argentine arm of Montes from Chile. First vintage was 2002, but the vines for this wine are fifteen years old. They produce Reserva and Ultra, so the Reserva is the entry level (man it makes me crazy when wineries do that). There is 7% Cabernet Sauvignon blended with the Malbec from Mendoza. A little over half of the wine is aged in American oak for nine months. Most of it must be new, because this is a full on oak bomb. It will sell well because it's BIG and full in the mouth but I get nothing but wood on the nose, palate and finish. However, another taster had this to say, "good flesh, good balance, dark, lengthy finish. 2nd day - Dark, smoky wood with a totally dull palate that is at least soft and accessible. 3rd day - There is a brightness to the nose today, with a soft, supple palate. The oak is still there, but I like it more today. I was amazed at how lively it was on the third day with all of the oak. Maybe this wine just needs more time to grow into the wood - at least it is not full of tough oak tannins. I would love to see it in another year or so. Importer - TGIC Imports. $10-$12
Nieto Senetiner Reserva Malbec 2006 - 100% malbec and from all estate fruit in Mendoza. The winery has been around since the late 1800's and I came across the wine due to a recommendation from Matt Kramer.
Mr. Kramer writes for the Wine Spectator and the local Portland paper, the Oregonian. His opinion carries significant weight in town and this wine was sold out based on his review. I finally got to taste the wine a few weeks ago and I have to say I was disappointed. Dark, nearly opaque, purple color with some sweet oak and vanilla on the nose. The palate is soft, lush and moderately tight yet not tannic. A short time later I found the wine to be even more closed with hints of gritty tannin (not a level that would normally put me off except it seems to be less organic and more induced, and therefore harder to match with food). Some cocoa, some fruit, but overall I found if flat, safe, and uninteresting. Nothing really wrong with it, but completely missable. Importer - Winebow (remember what I said earlier about importers with focus starting to expand?). $9-$12
Had enough Malbec for one day? I'm going to push on. Three more to go and then onto a new price point.
Carinae Malbec 2005 - From Maipu in Mendoza, the vines are 80 years old and the wine is completely unoaked. Cherry fruit dominates, the wine is a bit tight on the front, but the finish has good length. The wine is exactly what they describe on the importers website, focused, bright, acid, rather than tannin, driven and "everyday drinking wine...purely fruit driven." 2nd day - Smells a bit medicinal today but the finish is still okay. There is more sweet cherry there too though. 3rd day - clearly faded and getting weird, it's not really fair to even describe the smells on this day. This is wine to finish the first night opened, you won't have any problems with that once you try it. Importer - Pinnacle International. $10-$12
La Linda Malbec 2006 - From Lujan de Cuyo in Mendoza, the vineyards are at 3,200 feet and the wine is 100% Malbec. The wine spends three to four months in twice used barrels. I find a shy nose, a bit acidic, with a decent palate, but a bit short. 2nd day - Dry nose with a light touch of cedar from the oak. Decent red fruit in the mouth, but very dry with a clipped, short finish. You could do better. Importer - Gaucho Imports. $10-$12
Trapiche Malbec 2006 - 100% Malbec from "selected the east region of Mendoza." Red fruit, and an almost Bordeaux note of clay, leads to an unexciting and fairly acidic palate. Another taster, "good solid juice." 2nd day - Red fruit and the clay note again, with a bricky, slightly older fruit note. The tannin (moderate) and acid outweigh the fruit for me. Another example of a wine that could be served at functions without making anyone truly unhappy, but there's no real reason to choose to drink this. Importer - Frederick Wildman. $7-$9

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Argentina - Part Six - Malbec Begins

There has been so much written about Malbec lately that I will keep this short. Suffice it to say, Malbec flourishes in Argentina like nowhere else on the planet. Its previous heyday was in pre-phylloxera (mid-1800's) France. Cahors was the best known expression before Argentina and Mendoza appeared on the world's radar.
Malbec from Argentina is usually big, dark, and sometimes a bit on the burly side. The wines are often much plusher and easier to drink than their French cousins, hence the excitement about them.
Juan Benegas Malbec 2006 - 100% Malbec from Mendoza, Michel Rolland consults. The wine is silky and supple with some spicy tannin. The fruit is bright and juicy and focused. There is more red than dark fruit but plenty of texture. 2nd day - A tad simple today, but the fruit is still good, hints of leather and earth are there now - but just hints. A bright finish with good acidity and very fine tannin, well done. 3rd day - The wine remains big, bright and intense with good spice. Moderate tannin appears on the finish, still solid. Importer - Pinnacle International. $12-$17 - although you should find it mostly on the lower end of that scale.
Gouguenheim Malbec 2006 - From Tupungato, Mendoza at 3,600 feet, the wine is aged with French oak inner staves for three months in, I assume, stainless steel. I found it a tad nougaty on the nose (for me that means a fair amount of oak, think breaking open a 3 Musketeers bar, a touch of spice and cocoa with an impression of sweetness). The wine is lovely, there is some spice on the back end, overall this is very drinkable and a ridiculous bargain. It is not the biggest Malbec around, but it may be one of the best deals. 2nd day - Lovely red fruit with hints of spice, this is juicy even with acid and structure on the finish. Brilliant, despite the nougat and oak returning strongly on the finish. 3rd day - Still bright and lovely, well balanced, more oak showing now, darker fruit. Incredible balance even today - great focus! This wine caused one taster to write, "Wheeee." Buy this wine. Importer - up for debate, go to their website - - Pinnacle is no longer their importer, other states should be correct. $9-$12
Altos Las Hormigas Malbec 2007 - This was one of my early benchmarks for Malbec. The wine traditionally had a great mix of red and black fruit, moderate oak and a lush mid-palate with good, but not rough, structure on the back end. I haven't tasted the wine in a year or two, so I was very interested to see how it stacked up with all the others. 100% Malbec from Mendoza with 60% from Valle de Uco and 40% Lujan de Cuyo. Free run juice only is used for this wine and they speak of a warmer vintage than usual which could account for the juicier style I found. French and American oak inner staves in stainless steel tanks for three months, oak is new and 1 year old. Soft and juicy with flashy fruit and more apparent oak than I remember (one taster mentioned oak chips). 2nd day - High toned and shy on the nose with some pepper. I stand by my assessment of this wine being lighter than I remember. Still good. Overall, solid just not as impressive as it has been in the past. Certainly still reliable though. (I checked som old notes and they have increased the portion of Valle de Uco fruit and the wine no longer spends time in actual oak - which could account for the more obvious, less integrated notes of wood I found). Importer - Vin Divino and Michael Skurnik. $9-$12
Trapiche Oak Cask Malbec 2006 - Mendoza fruit. I found this wine a bit green and slightly unripe, a rare occurrence in Argentina. Oak shows throughout, the fruit on the palate is soft and juicy, perhaps a bit simple, and the cedary oak really shows through on the finish. Missable. 2nd day - I can see people drinking this at parties and not complaining, but why would you knowingly do it? Perhaps a bit soapy today, i.e. lacking acidity and showing some winery manipulation perhaps. One taster wrote, "it's a shame about the oak." Importer - Frederick Wildman. $8-$10
Terra Rosa Malbec 2004 - Produced by the California winery Laurel Glen. They ship the juice from Mendoza in large containers to age in the United States. I had some concern about the vintage, but it appears to be, more or less, current. The wine is smoky and dark on the nose. It remains strong in the mouth, big and bold, yet with a touch of high toned fruit to balance. It seems, however, very manipulated and not very interesting. One taster wrote, "no, no, no." 2nd day - Fading fruit, still lots of oak though, some sweet leather on the finish. This wine did nothing for me, but fans of lush, plush wine with plenty of wood will find more pleasure. Importer - Laurel Glen. $11-$13
Punto Final Malbec 2007 - From Mendoza, specifically two mountain vineyards, the wine ages partly in French oak and partly in stainless steel. Lots of red fruit on the nose, although it seems a bit stewed - perhaps due to the warmer vintage? Sweet wood and tannin appear on the finish, overall I find this lacking. 2nd day - Same aromas and flavors as before, not bad, not good either. Higher acid and tannin more pronounced on the finish. Sweet cherry note on the nose now. I find this disappointing, especially when you realize the fruit comes from 50 plus year old vines. Importer - Winebow. $11-$14 A note here: Winebow began as an importer focusing exclusively on Italian wines. Starting about eight years ago they began branching out to other regions. It seems almost like they decided to expand and then sent people out looking for wines to satisfy that spot on the ledger. Wines sourced in this fashion are often correct and fit the bill, but rarely intrigue consumers or offer good value. Some importers stumble across wines from outside of their focus area and then decide to expand their portfolio; those wines can be impressive. Unfortunately, they do not label the wines accordingly. This wine is clearly the former.
Terrazas Malbec 2007 - This Mendoza wine, from vineyards at 3,500 feet in Lujan de Cuyo, is a project of the huge Moet Hennessey brand. They began exploring the region in the 1950's and have produced sparkling wine from the area for quite some time. The still wine project began in 1999. Approximately two thirds of the wine is aged for four to six months in oak. There is some oaky, sweet note, but the palate is solid with bright, focused, red fruit. Pretty well done. 2nd day - The wine has lost some focus, and the sweet oak is showing much more. Red fruit on the palate is still lively, but the wine seems to fray a bit on the finish. Overall, solid, red fruit style with perhaps a bit too much wood for me, but not for many others. Importer - Moet Hennesy Wine Estates. $10-$12
Another batch tomorrow!

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Argentina - Part Five - Random Reds

How can you resist trying Tempranillo, Syrah, and Sangiovese in this scenario. Tempranillo fascinated me because the altitude and arid growing area of Mendoza are at least reminiscent of Spain. Syrah grows all over the world quite well, so that could be tasty. Sangiovese is tougher. I have only found a few grown outside of Italy that taste 'correct.' Too many are over extracted, perhaps interesting, red wines that bear no resemblance to the grape. However, many Italians moved to Argentina, perhaps some Sangiovese magic followed them.

Gouguenheim Tempranillo 2005 - From Tupungato, farmed at 3,600 feet, this is also aged with French oak inner staves, while the wine rests in stainless steel. Elegant red fruit, this is a lovely drink. Well made, good balance and full of pretty fruit. 2nd day - Lovely, red fruit nose, showing older fruit on the palate today. I like this. I find it juicier than many Spanish versions with less obvious tannin. Well done. 3rd day - Great red fruit nose still, the palate is becoming a bit tired, but the wine is still solid. Importer - ? check the website, I know Pinnacle no longer represents them, but the other states should be accurate. $10-$12

Casa Marguery Tinto 2006 - From La Consulta in Mendoza, the wine is a blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Malbec and is aged for 12 months in oak. Oak on the nose is a bit raw, but with enough fruit to match up. There are good base notes of fruit and it is very reimiscent of Bordeaux, with lovely minerality. 2nd day - Again, very Bordeaux, but with prettier fruit. A tad stewy on the back end but this is good. 3rd day - Cinammon, red fruit, lifted, still very solid. Showing some fatigue on the back, but the final finish is still good. A solid wine if you can find it. Reactions were split from other tasters. I think this is 'real' wine and someone expecting a flashier style might be disappointed. Importer - Southern (only in Oregon?), another in Texas and none on the east coast apparently. see website - $14-16
The next two wines are overseen by Michel Rolland. The globetrotting consultant makes wildly extracted wines, opaque in the glass, and bursting with new oak. Generally I find his wines to be roughly the equivalent of junk food. Delicious, a bit more expensive than something more natural, full of flavor and perhaps some guilty pleasure, but not something you want every day. I also find that his wines rarely survive overnight, the fruit fades, the wine gets tired and lacks the intensity it once had. I believe that comes from his more labor intense manipulation of the fruit in the winery. The grapes did all they could to reach the explosive level Michel produces, they have nothing left in reserve. Others feel very differently about his style and the wines routinely get fantastic reviews.
For more on Michel Rolland, the loss of a sense of place in wine (terroir), and a thoroughly engaging film, see Mondo Vino Admittedly, there is a slant to this film, it clearly has an agenda - and it is not in favor of Monsieur Rolland. So beware of a not so even hand. I fall in the camp of wanting more sense of place and natural wine, rather than the slicker, sleeker, international style for which Michel Rolland has become the poster/whipping boy. I still enjoy wines like that, but only as a decadent change of pace, not as a regular occurrence.

Benegas Syrah 2005 - From 30 year old vines, all estate, in Maipu, Mendoza. The wine spends 12 months in French oak, and I believe it to be all new. It is classic Rolland styled wine, with deep, sweet, dark fruit and plenty of oak on the nose, the fruit is sufficient to stand up to the oak. There is more of the same on the palate with some leather note. This is hedonistic Syrah! 2nd day - Coffee is very pronounced today on the nose, the wine is soft, juicy, flashy, and a bit alcoholic today. The fruit has faded, but not as much as I feared. 3rd day - Leather is now dominant on the nose, the fruit is gone - nothing but coffee and tannin on the finish. Another taster's note, "A mess." I find this to be a very drinkable style of flashy, international wine, just be sure to polish off the entire bottle the night you open it. Serve with grilled meats, or hearty red sauces. Importer - Pinnacle International. $22-$25

Benegas Sangiovese 2005 - Again, 100% from Maipu in Mendoza, with twelve months in French oak (I assume mostly new). The wine is made from vines with an average age of 55 years. You will not confuse this with Tuscan style Sangiovese, but red fruit does dominate. There is some lovely spicy oak on the finish and cherry notes do show through, they are just juicier than I expected. Not a bad thing at all. 2nd day - Nose mostly mute today, but the Sangiovese shows through on the finish. Big wine, with lovely dried cherry mingling with some leather on the finish. Solid. 3rd day - Smoky cherry, a tad too oaky now for the fruit, but leather coming on nicely, wild. Overall, damn impressive and a mostly correct example of Sangiovese that allows it's true character to shine through all of the oak and flash. Would be a fantastic match with Bolognese sauce, meatballs and grilled sausages. Importer - Pinnacle International. $19-$22

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Argentina - Part Four - Cabernet Sauvignon

I touched on a couple of Cabernets in the last post, this one will cover the rest from the tasting. Why do we hear almost nothing about Argentine Cabernets? Is it due to the simple fact that the success of Malbec overshadows all other wine from the country. There is Cabernet available from all over the world, but top notch Malbec at a great price only comes from Argentina. So, are the Cabernets truly good enough to compete with the Malbecs? Are they being missed by people who have blinders for all things not Malbec, or are they missable? No one can blame Argentine vineyard owners for cultivating Cabernet Sauvignon. Some of the most impressive wines on the planet are made from the variety. Our tasting focused mostly on reasonably priced versions of Cabernet and I will admit to a general bias at that price point against that variety. I find Cabernet Sauvignon generally dull and lacking intrigue, perhaps even being rough around the edges or having too much softness to be a good example in the under $15 category. Bear that in mind for the following notes.

NQN Picada 15 2007 - This is a blend, 40% Cabernet, 30% Merlot, 20% Malbec, and 10% Pinot Noir. Although there is no oak used for this wine, I could have sworn there was some slight presence on the palate. Sweet, bright fruit, very juicy style. It is light and pretty but comes off a bit thin perhaps for the blend. 2nd day - interesting sweet note on the nose, with a deep fruited hint as well. It is tasty and enjoyable, but a bit simple. 3rd day - still intense fruit here, and earth is coming on. This is still quite nice. Overall, an interesting diversion, friendly with poultry and pork and mushrooms, but will not reward people looking for bigger is better Cabernet style. Importer - Pinnacle International. $11-$13.

La Linda Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 - 100% Cabernet from Lujan de Cuyo and located at 3,150 feet. Three months in French and American oak complete the aging process. Elegant wine, but with some gritty tannin. The nose and palate offer hints of sweet cherry fruit. It is solid and will pair well with food. 2nd day - There is more fruity dryness on the nose, still pronounced tannin, albeit very fine. Not much fruit left on the palate today. A taster pronounced it "good for the 82nd Avenue nightlife." Note - 82nd Ave in Portland is home to much prostitution and 'lingerie modeling' businesses. There are also some nicer parts, but it seemed her intention with the comment was that it might drink well out of a bag while smoking a cigarette and waiting for some action. I think it's better than that sounds, and I think it needs food. Importer - Gaucho Imports. $10-$12

Alamos Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 -From Mendoza and 100% Cabernet, with "moderate oak aging in French and American oak." I pick up an earthy note, not a pleasant one; is it brett? It tastes better than it smells, but not by a lot. The wine is fine, but there is no need to search it out in my opinion. 2nd day - It seems a bit stewy today, but not bretty, the cork did 'pop' when I reopened it. Perhaps this bottle has some issues. One tasting note read, "yawn" which I think says it all about the wine. Importer - Billington Distributors. $10-$11

Luna Benegas Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 - I believe this is the second vintage of this for the winery. The fruit is all Mendoza. Juicy, lifted nose, lots of tannin on the palate but good fruit balances it. The fruit and oak mostly wash over the tannin. This is a good Cabernet. From another taster, "It is one dimensional, but it's a solid dimension...berries, plums and currants rolled in dirt - in a good way." 2nd day - Some pepper here too. I like the wine better today, it is still firm but shows even better balance. 3rd day - Nearly the lead pencil notes of good left bank Bordeaux, good acid, although there is not much fruit left on the nose anymore. The penetrating nose masquerading as Bordeaux adds more than enough intrigue to offset the loss of some fruit. This is well done and will work beautifully on the table with all manner of meat and harder cheeses. A pleasant surprise, a Michel Rolland wine improving after a few days open. Importer - Pinnacle International. $11-$15

El Cipres Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 - Mendoza fruit here again, from relatively young vines. Some black pepper (one taster found black tea), this wine is big and juicy on the front end and is clearly good quality. The finish is long and intense. 2nd day - Black pepper still dominates the nose, the finish is more compact, but still full of flavor. The nose is wild and absolutely riveting. 3rd day - That wild black tea aroma seems to be getting more intense with time open. The mid-palate is great even as the finish seems to fade, but then reappears to be intense and long once again. Wow! It would make an excellent match for cream sauces and pizza. The nose alone is worth the price of admission. Importer - Pinnacle International. $10-$13.

Gouguenheim Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 - From Tupungato in Mendoza this ages for three months with French oak inner staves in, I assume, stainless steel. I find greenish acidity on the nose but plenty of ripe fruit as well. Fine, nothing much going on here at all. The feeling was the same for just about everyone. 2nd day - Firmer tannin showing now, very reminiscent of Chilean Cabernet for me, but with riper fruit. 3rd day - Still some nice red fruit showing, palate still offers hints of juiciness and it seems oakier on the back and middle. Surprisingly good this far along. By the 4th day, the mid-palate virtually explodes with fruit, wow. I don't know what to make of this. The wine showed best on day 4, but I can't imagine that it is a wine for aging. Perhaps decanting and pouring back into the bottle will bring that magic along faster. Importer - Go to their website - Pinnacle International is no longer their importer, other states should be accurate. $10-$13

Trapiche Broquel Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 - Some estate fruit here, but mostly sourced from around Mendoza, it is 100% Cabernet. Very new world style, deep, sweet oak with lots of juicy fruit. There is some out of balance tannin to my palate. 2nd day - similar notes. I find it too simple, but I bet it sells well. The wine is easy and safe, if unrewarding. One taster called it his favorite, another said it would make a good glass pour. Importer - Frederick Wildman and Sons. $13-$17

Catena Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 - 100% Cabernet from Mendoza, specifically a mix of vineyards from 3,100-5,000 feet. Their website is woefully out of date, but the 2004 vintage spent twelve months in oak with 80% French oak, 30% of which was new, and 20% new American oak. This is a winery that gets a lot of hype and reverence and we were frankly amazed at what appeared in bottle. Deep fruit and lots of oak imply a rich mouthfeel, but the wine tasted almost watered down. It was thin, with absolutely no expanse on the finish, it just kind of fades away limply. 2nd day - Better front end, red fruit dominant, but overall, I have the same reaction - where's the beef? Another taster summed it up nicely, "This is a crime against Cabernet." Importer - Billington Distributors. $18-$21 - a few less expensive and a few more, but I wouldn't buy it at $10. Very disappointing.

Overall I find nothing here to rivet me and take the place of Malbec although there are certainly some good wines here. In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit again to my general disappointment in Cabernet under $15. As far as I could determine, all of the Cabernets were 100%, perhaps some judicious blending would improve my reactions.

Next up, a few odds and ends, then it's Malbec, Malbec and more Malbec!