Friday, June 29, 2007

BNO: Grooving on Pinot Noir, Roast Chicken, and Jazz

The long wake of the box office hit Sideways not only laid waste to Merlot, it also saw the launch of a gazillion new Pinot Noirs in California aching to exploit the wine drinking public’s sudden thirst for the wine once referred to as “the heartbreak grape”. Oddly, Burgundy, the home of Pinot Noir and the original inspiration for Pinot Noir pioneers in California and Oregon remains largely untouched by the trend. And many Sideways babies are only familiar with the Carlo Rossi “Burgundy”—yes, the 4-liter kind! So when our BNO (boys’ night out) group decided to do a “Pinot Noirs of the world” theme recently we made sure that Burgundy was well represented.

As gratifying as it may be to hunt down the best wines in the world, the drinking part is the most rewarding, especially when orchestrated to appeal to all senses. Matt, our maestro for the evening, was in rare form. So what if Joann may have assisted in the food department—a minor quibble, I submit—the menu was quite ambitious and, I must add, executed to perfection. Zuni roast chicken with bread salad is sort of like the Everest of roast chicken recipes—rebuilding a Weber carburetor is probably less daunting.

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Zuni-style roast chicken chez Matt...

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and of course the all-important Bread Salad

Prior to dinner service, we tasted a mix of wines accompanied by hors d’oeuvres, including Matt’s delicious homemade tapenade. The 2002 Central Otago Pinot Noir “Block 3”, Felton Road, a favorite of major wine critics like Wine Spectator and Tanzer, was loaded with extract. Aromatic and brimming with big ripe cherry and raspberry flavors that was attractive initially but soon lacked excitement and got a bit flabby. “One-dimensional” said Steve. Group score was somewhere in the 2 to 2 ½ puffs range, if I remember correctly.

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The 2005 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, Patz & Hall was somewhat better. Lots of sweet cherries and some new oak on the nose, the flavors are big and ripe and dominated by spicy black cherries with lush, velvety tannins. “Rich and more going on here” (compared to the Felton Road), said Eric. “Great mouthfeel”, noticed Steve. Definitely, the richness of this Pinot Noir makes it very attractive, but the trade-off is the noticeable hotness on the finish that I expect to get harsher as the wine ages. This is best enjoyed young for its sinful opulence, and you really don’t have to bother drinking it with food. 3 puffs.

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Another attractive Pinot Noir was the 2000 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, Shea. Shea Vineyard is the most well-known vineyard in Oregon. Owner, Dick Shea, planted the 200-acre property in 1990 mainly with Pinot Noir and some Chardonnay well before Oregon Pinot Noir started to boom in the late 1990s. I toured the property several years ago with Dick Shea and we drove around the hilly estate in his SUV. I was stunned by the size of the property—to my estimation it was easily the largest planting of Pinot Noir in Oregon. Either he was a visionary or plain lucky—or both—but the timing was great for Dick because less than a decade later demand for Oregon Pinot Noir skyrocketed. A horde of eager winemakers, many from California, with no vineyard to their name flocked to Willamette Valley to capitalize on the trend. So guess where they had to go begging for fruit? Shea’s 2000 Pinot Noir (I believe the winegrower’s debut vintage?) clearly shows Shea’s style—big, ripe, full of extract, and well-structured. Compared to a typical California Pinot Noir with similar ripeness and concentration, this shows better balance, especially with a modest 12.5% Alcohol! The wine delivers a lot of fruit and energy but lacks complexity. Lenny sees the wine as “not getting better.” 3 puffs.

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The two remaining pre-dinner wines were both Burgundies. Switching to the 2005 Bourgogne Rouge, Domaine Heresztyn is akin to suddenly throttling down. From the big ripe cherry and cassis flavors of domestic Pinot Noirs to the earthy, light cherry and spice flavors of this elegant Burgundy. 2005, of course, is widely regarded as one of the greatest vintages in Burgundy, not for the ripeness but for the purity of the wines. The group never got to rating this, but, heck, if something like the Felton Road got 2 to 2 ½ puffs I would give this the same accolade though from a completely different perspective.

Well, the next Burgundy for me was the biggest surprise of the evening, and I would add appropriately so because when we were mulling over the theme for this get-together Steve suggested throwing some 1969 Burgundies into the mix—no doubt he was eager to uncork this 1969 Chambolle-Musigny, Louis Jadot.

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Okay, I’m crazy about Louis Jadot wines and I believe that this estate is one of the greatest in Burgundy. I’ve tasted at the estate four times and have met its legendary wine director, Jacques Lardières, and its brilliant president, Pierre-Henry Gagey. Just last March, I was at Jadot again to taste the highly anticipated 2005s. Pierre-Henry generously hosted a luncheon for me and my guests at Jadot’s château in Beaune where we were treated to much older bottles of their wines from the estate’s cellars. Jadot’s vast network of ancient underground cellars store over a million bottles of wines from numerous vintages of the last two centuries. My jaw is somewhere on the dank floor of the cellar every time I see that incredible collection. Jadot’s wines can age almost forever.

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Louis Jadot's ancient cellars underneath Beaune

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Speaking about old cellars, this 1969 Chambolle-Musigny has an interesting provenance as it came from a forgotten family wine collection that was stored in a wine cabinet whose cooling unit stopped working sometime in the last twenty or thirty years—when exactly it stopped working no one knows! I poured myself a glass—it was deeply colored with just a slight bricking on the rim. The bouquet was earthy and had a bit of sous bois. To Matt it smelled like “Manchester coal fire” and someone else said “burnt peat”. Amazingly, the wine tasted youthful, with fresh flavors of bright, ripe cherries and good underlying minerality. Considering its age, it had marvelous concentration and was certainly assertive with its well-integrated tannins and good acidity. On this fateful evening, this particular bottle rescued after nearly 40 years in a forgotten cellar had achieved that most precious quality in a fine wine: character. We somehow forgot to give this wine a rating, but I picked this one of my three favorite wines of the evening.

The next two Burgundies to follow were also from the successful 1969 vintage. Maison Louis Latour rules Corton as it owns more acreage on the famous hill than any other producer. The 1969 Corton Clos de la Vigne au Saint, Louis Latour comes from the estate’s monopole parcel. A lovely drinking ’69 that’s still powerful, fleshy, and expansive on the mouth—"tunnels through your palate” said Matt. At 38-years-old, some of the freshness is gone but it still drinks impressively. 3 ½ puffs.

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The third 1969 Burgundy of the evening was the 1969 Echezeaux, Maison Leroy. This is everything you could hope for from a wine produced by Madame Leroy. Well-evolved, deeply perfumed, intense on the palate, multi-layered, and very long, this is prime Echezeaux. So often one wonders why Echezeaux was ever a grand cru, but this Leroy clearly makes the case for the pedigree. 4 puffs.

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What a spectacular hat trick of 1969 red Burgundies! I really didn’t want to leave that vintage, yet there were a few more Burgundies left.

The 1983 Nuits-Saint-Georges, Maison Leroy was sweet and full of elegance. What it offers is not power, after all this is not Chambertin, but charm and finesse. This is drinking very well—juicy and intense on the palate with bright cherry, herbal, and mineral flavors. There is a firmness and hard edge that give the wine good grip especially in the finish. 3 ½ puffs.

Not surprisingly, we all love the 1985 Chambertin, Domaine Louis Trapet Pere et Fils (there is also a Vieilles Vignes version). 1985 is another successful vintage in the 1980s, a riper and less variable vintage than 1983. Who can’t be drawn to the generous, lush, seductive fruit of this wine? This was clearly the group’s wine of the night. Matt described the nose as a “wet horse”. While it didn’t seem to me that I was standing next to Secretariat, I think I knew what he meant, as the wine had that evolved sous bois aroma, like a forest floor, much loved by Burgundy fans. This is classic Chambertin, vigorous and galloping from the get-go. “Not shy at all” said Lenny. The flavors have very good concentration of ripe red-cassis fruits with a touch of the exotic, as well as meaty, beefy, round, and generous, with very good depth and a solid finish. Though I wish it had a bit more finesse to go with its power, there is a lot of wine here. 4 puffs.

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We opened a bunch of other wines that didn’t quite measure up to the ones we just finished. The 1995 Corton Le Rognet, Bertrand Ambroise was still tight and unyielding. But the 1990 Santa Barbara Pinot Noir “Sanford & Benedict Vineyard, Sanford, the forerunner of today’s Santa Rita Hills AVA Pinot Noirs, was at best still fruity but clearly fading. Unfortunately, the 1990 Potter Valley Pinot Noir, Scuzao was flawed by TCA taint. And then we had two heavyweights from Russian River, the 1997 Russian River Pinot Noir “Little Hill”, Rochioli and the 1995 Russian River Pinot Noir “Rochioli Vineyard”, Williams Selyem. The Williams Selyem didn’t show too well as it was dominated by a smell described by some as “shoe polish”, “rubbery”, and “herbal”. On the other hand, the Rochioli while fruity was somewhat flat and lacked freshness.

This BNO theme highlighted something long-time Pinot Noir fans already know. Pinot Noir just doesn’t like to be pigeon-holed, but on the other hand many drinkers don’t want to be surprised, either, and prefer something more formulaic and predictable. This is the great disconnect with Pinot Noir. To get around this problem, producers in the U.S. and New Zealand make Pinot Noir that emphasize the grape’s fruitiness so you know pretty much what you’re getting every time you open a bottle. Drinkers, especially those turned on to Pinot Noir by Sideways, are very happy with Pinot Noir today—they buy a bottle, they drink it, and it’s pretty much what they expect… until they try to age it for eight years or more then all bets are off.

Many red Burgundies are also being made like their California, Oregon, and New Zealand counterparts. But the finer red Burgundies, in contrast, need to be aged to tame their harder edges, and even then the flavors are not what many might expect or really enjoy—you can get Secretariat coming out of the bottle, a whole forest floor, coal fires, etc., etc., and, of course, fruit is not the raison d’etre of Burgundy but elegance, balance, and finesse.

What I like about our BNO group is that we can enjoy all these contrasting styles and viewpoints in wine. We’re definitely all hard critics and for us, it’s all about discovering something new and truly enjoyable. There’s never a dull moment in these get-togethers.

Finally, we settled down in the outdoor patio in front of a fire, Port in one hand and a cigar on the other. A good breeze was swirling the woodsmoke everywhere, seemingly following Kevin wherever he decided to sit. But it’s alright. Matt adjusted the volume on his outdoor speakers so we can listen better to Herb Alpert blowing his soothing trumpet.

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