Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Great Maderized Wine Tasting

Hello, ancient beauties.
DOWN IN MY PARENTS' BASEMENT IN WESTERN KENTUCKY are a few wine racks.  The temperature is perfect for wine storage.  For some time, there have been all sorts of interesting things down there, including a lot of white wine bottles so covered with dust that it's hard to see what they are--or were.  The oldest of them date from the Reagan Era (that's President Ronald Reagan, kids), the youngest from the middle 1990s; they span the globe in origins.

A couple of years ago my father suggested that we haul a sample of them up and taste them someday; this week, a cold winter day in Kentucky called out for a couple of good friends, a light seafood lunch, and a case of aged wine.  Today's blog entry may not have much practical use for my readers, but both of them may find it amusing.

Like white people, some white wines age well, and others don't.  But to complicate this, many white wines that are made to age are also deliberately made to taste quite unusual after a decade or so.  An open mind makes wine taste better, no matter the tendencies of the palate.  Going into the tasting, we knew that there were several possibilities: all the wines might taste the same (and awful); a few of them might have survived and be quite good; and we might be surprised by which ones were which.

Still, we did take some precautions. Many of these wines were not built to age, by any means, and none of them originally retailed for more than about $15. So we decided to order them by "guessed likelihood of not sucking" rather than from lightness to heaviness of body as is customary.  What follows are my notes on what happened, accompanied by a couple of photos to show both some of the colors of the wine and the unusual cork phenotypes that we found, ranging from white mold-covered to dirt-covered.  I was exhausted just trying to get the bottles clean enough to put on a table.
All spruced up...mostly. White mold, left; brown "dirt," right.

Monteagle Wine Cellars, Tennessee Seyval Blanc, 1990, 12.5%, Monteagle, Tennessee, USA: A mellow, deep, golden brown color, this one had a nose of burned hazelnut, apricot, and varnish.  The palate delivered old lemon peel, leather polish, and toasted acorns.  It was praised by one of the five members of the crowd, and detested by most of the others.  But in retrospect, most drinkers considered it to be in the top three of the tasting.  In this respect, a complete shock.  Also the first Tennessee wine I've ever had, and only the second Seyval.

Slaughter Leftwich Vineyards, Sauvignon Blanc, 1990, 12.5%, Austin, Texas, USA: First Texas wine I've ever tasted, too.  What a day!  A deep, clear straw color, and a nose that brought poetry from one of the assembled company: "Smells like the hill a dust storm."  Do they make mango varnish?  That's what it smelled like to me; the front palate was a blast of apricot gasoline, then an eerie emptiness in the middle, and a finish of butter and oak.  If you came in on the last 5 seconds of the taste, and then left again immediately, you'd swear it was a California Chardonnay.

Sebastiani Vineyards, Eye of the Swan, Pinot Noir Blanc, 1984, 13.2%, Sonoma, California, USA: This was a piece of my parents' past, and brought smiles of recollection all around.  Yet no stories were forthcoming.  A cloudy golden brown color, this Pinor Noir blanc (meaning it spent just a little time on the skins before being bottled) was the crowd favorite for the day.  With more tannins, and also in a magnum format, it had a better chance in the basement.  Still, 25 years is a long time for what was a bottom-shelf wine at the time!  My pronouncement that it had a nose of wet dog ass mixed with Pine SolTM was mocked, but I stand by it.  Flavors of peach and oak were rapidly followed by something like kirsch-flavored paint thinner.

Cantina di Montefiascone, Est! Est!! Est!!!, Trebbiano, Malvasia, 1984, 11.5%, Montefiascone, Italy: The color of bourbon, mixed with cloudy river water.  The nose?  Sherry, all the way.  If you were a pirate, you could say from experience that this wine tastes like a bad oyster served in a moldy rag.

Federico Paternina, Blanco Seco, Viura (probably), 1988, 11%, Ollauri, Spain: Though white wines have to have a splendid balance of acidity and other things to age well, this one testifies that color doesn't work by the same principles; it had a beautiful, rich golden hue.  The nose, however, smelled like nothing more than spoiled milk (really, it's extraordinary to think such an odor could have been produced by fruit, but some kinds of education are not edifying).  The palate was of pears preserved in acetone. "Here's to temperance," my father pronounced, upon tasting it.

Rutherford Hill Winery, Napa Valley Chardonnay, 1989, 13%, Rutherford, California, USA: I love Rutherford Hill wines, as I've testified elsewhere on this blog.  This one was the best of the bunch, to my taste, but universally hated by my companions.  Its color was a dark greenish-gold, and it had oak and butter, with an aftertaste of snow tire chains--a little radial, a little metal, a little soggy ash.  I drank half a glass.

Viña San Pedro, Gato Blanco, Sauvignon Blanc, 1991, 12%, Lontue, Chile: A hideous brownish-yellow, the nose of the Gato Blanco sported oak, nail polish remover, and roses.  Yes, roses, which didn't bode well.  The palate delivered tart, tart strawberry mineral spirits, with a bit of a novacaine effect.  Admittedly, the latter might have been a cumulative effect, by this point.

Hugh Ryman Wines, Richemont, Chardonnay Reserve, 1996, 12%, Pays D'Oc, France: A sickly bourbony color, the Richemont featured lemon peel, oyster shell, and oak on the palate, in rapid succession, until collapsing into a varnishy haze.  This one was universally despised, though we did have some hopes for it at first because of its youth (and because there are 5 more bottles of it in the basement).  The fascinatingly hideous Richemont cork is pictured here.

Louis Gisselbrecht, Gewurztraminer, Cuvee Reserve, 1988, 12.5%, Dambach-la-Ville, Alsace, France: Another lesson: whatever complex chemical stuff has to happen to keep a white wine going in the cellar in the absence of nice balancing tannins does not apply to the nose, necessarily, either.  This one had a light gold color, perhaps a little dark for a Gewurz but well within reason, and a delightful grapefruity nose.  But sadly, to quote one drinker, "It smells like Gewurz but it tastes like shit!"  Ok, it didn't actually taste like poo, but a strong front of grapefruit rapidly yielded to Testor's model glue and pine needles. One drinker pointed out that glue is not universally despised, but I think glue huffers will be disappointed that the nose on this isn't more in line with its flavor.

Bodegas Olarra, Cerro Añon, Viura, 1984, 11.5%, Logroño, Rioja, Spain: We had high hopes for this one, too, but despite an interesting medium orange gold color and a roasted pear nose, the nail polish, oak, burned hazelnut, radish, and cedar that it delivered ("Agent Orange blossoms," was my phrase at the time) got it dumped out quickly by our assembly.

What have we learned, one dump bucket-full of wine and ten empty bottles and broken corks later?  First, that the variety of bad-tasting things is nearly boundless.  Second, that wine's individuality is hard even for long-term, unbalanced chemical processes to suppress.  Third, that when you do a maderized wine tasting, you should have on hand at least two bottles of really good stuff, and something pickled, to clear palates!