Friday, January 30, 2009

Chateau Haut Bessac Bordeaux

Chateau Haut Bessac
Grand Vin de Bordeaux
Merlot, Cabernet
Bordeaux Superieur, France

$21.65 -- Vino 100, Lakeway, TX

Color: Rich ruby red
Nose: Licorice, plum, cornbread
Body: Medium
Front: Cassis, almost lemony tartness
Middle: Vanilla, caramel
Back: Cedar
Burns clean?: Yes
Cap: Cork

This is a delightful wine; not an overpoweringly rich or complex Bordeaux, but a good one. Still, it's tight--the 2005s are going to last a long time, I think, and this one is no exception. Be patient with it and let it unfold if you drink it now. In a couple of years it'll probably be softer at the initial part of the palate and even more complex flavorwise overall. It should make folks who like wine happy--neophytes will probably be a little startled by it.

Instead of talking too much about this wine, I want briefly to address an interesting phenomenon which may or may not be new. In the airport last week, I stopped for a glass at Vino Volo, a new airport wine-tasting chain with good food. They've got a tasting guide for each wine, done into a simple cartesian diagram:

Vino 100's chain stores also have a guide like this, represented on a line rather than a grid. Vino 100's lacks, interestingly, the emotional descriptors like "brooding" or "bright." After a few minutes of pondering whether I liked Vino Volo's Fruit/Complexity scale more than Vino 100's Fruit/Body one, I realized that what was hanging me up was perhaps the whole graphic representation. Rather than thinking about why they chose Fruit-Complexity-Body instead of, say, texture (tannins make a huge difference to some people, for example), I decided to pull back the lens a little farther on the question. (For you Marxists out there, they're not owned by the same company.)

These systems are retail-oriented, and that's cool as far as it goes. Wine, though, is at least four-dimensional. It unfolds in time, which has lots of implications, from the evolution of a single bottle as it's open over an hour or three, to the choice of vintages (which sometimes exhibit common features more dominant than certain varietal differences), to the state of hunger a drinker is in, to the bizarre, subtle, but noticeable difference between drinking wine at one time of day versus another. The pleasure it gives is also affected by the social moment in which it's consumed.

This isn't to say that the peak features of the wine don't matter--and certainly it's not to say that a ludicrously happy social moment at exactly 5:47 p.m. on a warm, early spring day on a friend's balcony in Charleston, after precisely one hour and eight minutes of decanting, will redeem a bottle of Thunderbird. But it is to say that Thunderbird has its moments, and it's the goal of most retail systems to sell you something from inventory, not to make you happy. So I'm a big fan of getting free taste samples from a joint until you find something you like, then ordering a glass.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Cellar No. 8 Cabernet

Asti Winery
Cellar No. 8
Cabernet Sauvignon
Napa, California

$8.09 -- Grape Vine Market, Austin, TX

Color: Dark purpledy red
Nose: Blueberry cafe au lait
Body: Medium
Front: Cassis, a little spinach perhaps
Middle: Mexican chocolate, tannins
Back: Coffee, bark, a little heat
Burns clean?: Yes
Cap: Cork

For those dropping in here for a quick read on this wine, I offer my specialty--a caveat: This wine seems to divide opinions in the wine-blogging world. Budget Vino is all about it (and the Merlot, too); but others addicted to both wine and writing will tell you it's average and possibly only barely worth nine bucks.

My advice is, wait six months, then drink it within six months of that. Sure, it's a little green, but it's interesting enough for dinner, and has some nice points. (If you drink it now, let it breathe a little, but not too much!) It's not particularly complex. But it's not uncomplex in a juicy-fruit, Jolly RancherTM, or strawberry smoothie way, either.

This opens onto a whole other issue, which is the question of the importance of "getting a good deal" to the taste of something (wine, dinner, whatever). Sommelier training, of course, involves at one level the elimination of such variables: the evaluation of a particular wine's ability to give pleasure to this or that human (with a particular set of tastes), in comparison to other available wines. At another, practically, it involves recognizing circumstantial variables in the assignation of a wine to a customer (food, temperature, mood, weather, economic climate, etc.).

Now, the prevalence of "Great Wine Value" blogs, to say nothing of my personal experience, suggests to me that there's a good-sized population of folks out there for whom value matters, particularly at the lower end of the price range. [Another caveat: there are more than three price ranges. I look at it socially--there's street wine (Thunderbird!); reception wine (Cellar No. 8); everyday wine (Marquis Phillips); superb wine (Faust); special occasion wine (Gaja, Nuit St. Georges); and collectors' wine (never had any, but generally things with "Chateau" on the label and decimal points in what seem like the wrong places on the pricetag).]

But even at the higher levels the idea of getting economic leverage, I think, shapes the taste experiences of many oenophiles. One of my friends almost cried when I told him I'd gotten the Andrew Will Ciel du Cheval for $34 a bottle; believe me, when he tastes it on his next visit he'll be in heaven.

So here we confront a complex issue in assessing wine. I'm going to go out on a limb and say: if you like a good deal, you're really going to like this wine.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Razor's Edge Shiraz

Razor's Edge Wines
McLaren Vale
Adelaide, Australia

$11.69 -- Whole Foods, Austin, TX

Color: Deep red, purple tinge
Nose: Spicy blueberries and fish sauce
Body: Medium to full
Front: Blueberries
Middle: Mocha
Back: Tobacco, a little wood
Burns clean?: Yes
Cap: Screwcap

Inspired by criticism from a reader of this blog, and by the excellent value represented by the Razor's Edge Shiraz-Grenache, I decided to try the company's straight-up Shiraz. "Straight Up Shiraz"--that's a pretty good label. I claim it! It's deliciously priapic.

At any rate, way better than "Razor's Edge," especially for something as peaceful as wine. I could launch into all kinds of poststructuralist qualifications--it's a straight razor on the label, so it's about shaving, ostensibly, potentially revealing, as in elegantly conveyed terroir, the "true face" of the soil--or historicist ones, claiming the back label's rationale for the name. Except that the back label's explanation is kind of trite and lame. So I say: change the name!

Still, what really matters is in the bottle, and about that I have few complaints. I think I prefer the blend to this, but it's up there with Luchador and the various Marquis Phillips wines in terms of good stuff at this price. I'm enjoying listening to Denitia Odigie's "Pioneer" as I drink it.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Razor's Edge Shiraz-Grenache

Razor's Edge Wines
Shiraz, Grenache
McLaren Vale
Adelaide, Australia

$11.88 -- Whole Foods, Austin, TX

Color: Deep red
Nose: Violets, pepper
Body: Medium
Front: Plums
Middle: Eucalyptus, brown sugar
Back: Violets, pepper, a little heat
Burns clean?: Yes
Cap: Screwcap

With a little air, this wine opens into a lovely, floral, caramelly bottle of tastiness. Despite the step towards a Rhone blend implied in the blend, it's still very much an Australian experience: big fruit, richly tasty, straightforward in structure. So, so much better than the $12 I paid for it, and in these hard times (even though it's an import!) that counts for plenty.

I had it with Wilco and some baked chicken with chorizo, onion, tomato, and garlic, with a side of steamed squashes. It was good with the food, but better with the saltier stuff--the cheese was an aged goat cheese, for example, so quite salty, and killer with the wine.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Cenay Rodgers Vineyard Pinot Noir

Rowland Cellars USA
Rodgers Vineyard
Pinot Noir
Napa Valley
American Canyon, California

$29.00 -- Whole Foods, Austin, TX

Color: Light to medium red
Nose: Strawberry, cherry, peppermint
Body: Light
Front: Cassis
Middle: Vanilla, spice
Back: Cedar, a little heat
Burns clean?:
Cap: Cork

I think I'm just too picky about Pinot. After having the Amour Fou, perhaps, I can't go back. This isn't bad, by any means, but I'm not sure it's worth the price. Two things: it was better after being open for an hour or more, and it was better with chicken curry and cream of broccoli soup. The aniseed, in particular, brought out nice things in the wine. If you like a bright style in this grape, with plenty of fruit and not overwhelming complexity, you'll dig it.

Looking back at the last few weeks, I can't help but notice a certain negative tone to things around this blog. Is it the economy, making me demand more for my crappy dollar? Is it that I'm getting older, and so my tastes are getting more complex? Is it that the holidays make me overly experimental? Or is it that Pinot Noir is hard to make?

Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Big Red Monster

Bennett Family Vineyards
The Big Red Monster
Syrah, Zinfandel?
Napa Valley
Rutherford, California

$12.00 -- Vino 100, Lakeway, TX

Color: Deep red with purple tinge
Nose: Plums, a little heat
Body: Full
Front: Cassis
Middle: Vanilla Cherry Cola
Back: Coffee, forest floor
Burns clean?: Yes
Cap: Fake cork

Who doesn't like a melodramatic wine? Or at least, a melodramatic label? This wine's a peck more austere than it makes itself out to be--but then, it turns out that melodrama is more complex than we used to think, too. This wine's damn fine for the money. Just back from a long trip, with pizza on the table, it was the perfect move.

This is a negociant wine, made with surplus or outcast grapes from different places. I can't quite tell what's in it other than Syrah (spicy as all get out, but intense) and Zinfandel (cherry-raspberry stuff but nothing tannic). The effect is nice; it's a bit like a second-rank Paraduxx. That's praise, 'cause Paraduxx is usually fantastique!

Friday, January 2, 2009

BV Napa Cabernet

Beaulieu Vineyard
Cabernet Sauvignon
Napa Valley
Rutherford, California

$18.99 -- Safeway, Tucson, AZ

Color: Deep purple
Nose: Plums, licorice, a little heat
Body: Full
Front: Raspberry
Middle: Creamy chocolate, licorice
Back: Plum rinds, dusty tannins
Burns clean?: Yes
Cap: Cork

A month or so ago, in an unblogged wine-drinking incident, I shared a bottle of BV's Rutherford Cabernet with some music business friends. It was a big hit, and went perfectly with the steakhouse fare we were putting away in downtown Austin. This, this Napa one, is not as good, I fear.

Admittedly, I just came back from a brief trip to San Francisco, so the bar has been left kind of high. But there are lots of little things about this one that make me prefer, say, a Hahn Cabernet or the delightful (and also undocumented) Babcock that I had last night. The nose isn't terribly engaging. The color is undelightful for a cab. I'm a fan of chocolate and licorice individually, but they're not super piled on top of each other.

But enough, Mr. Grinch! Many people will like this wine, which is firm and stout like Santa Claus, even if it does come in a bit of a purple suit at the moment.