Friday, September 28, 2007

BNO White Burgundy-Chardonnay: The Sizzle of the Lambs!

An invitation to Gary’s and Dolores' house means a lamb feast. Never mind that our recent GBNO (girls’ and boys’ night out) theme is White Burgundy-Chardonnay. At Gary’s, lamb is always on the menu. And to no one’s surprise his grilled rack of lamb was simply divine with the Chardonnays.

cheese spread.JPG
No gathering should be without a good cheese plate. Yumm...

We got down to business well before the lamb was served. A pair of Littorai Chardonnays appeared. Ted Lemon started Littoria over ten years ago after years of study and training in Burgundy. He was the first American winemaker for a Burgundy estate, Domaine Roulot in Meursault, right in the heart of Chardonnay country. Upon his return to California he established Littorai, which focused on wines grown in the coastal vineyards of Sonoma and Mendocino. The 2004 Sonoma Coast “Charles Heintz Vineyard”, Littorai was luscious, opulent, and very ripe tasting. A mouthful of honeyed grapefruit sorbet. Its older cousin, the 1999 Sonoma Coast “Thieriot Vineyard”, Littorai was even fatter, richer, and probably just as ripe, yet more exotic, with flavors of poached pear and soft pineapples. A good time to be opening this before the wine starts to become mushy.


As the final glimmer of daylight faded in the sky, the vibe got more animated. Gary fired up the outdoor grill for the sacrificial lamb. In the kitchen, Kevin and Steve pulled out corks of some venerable white Burgundies. The 1978 Puligny-Montrachet Premier Cru Les Folatières, Joseph Drouhin, from a great vintage for white Burgundy, showed no signs of fatigue after nearly three decades—a convincing show of Chardonnay longevity. Smokey, toasty aromas and the exotic Folatières tropical fruit flavors emerged from the glass. This had a lovely, penetrating intensity. After several minutes it gained more substance without losing elegance. An incredibly powerful wine, this seems to draw from deep reserves. My white Burgundy of the night.


The 1989 Puligny-Montrachet Premier Cru Le Clavoillon, Domaine Leflaive was reticent at the outset. My favorite vintage for Leflaive is 1989. Over fifteen years ago, when there was lesser demand for white Burgundy I’d try to buy any 1989 Leflaive I find languishing on a shelf as prices were still within reach then. I could even afford a bottle or two of Chevalier and Batard when there’s a sale at Beltramo’s (one of the few stores in the Bay Area to stock an extensive selection of white Burgundies during that time). Now, of course, Leflaive is very big bucks. I was happy to be drinking an old friend. This one seemed rustic. But after about an hour it offered juicy apple flavors up front, with layers of dried fruit, earthy mushrooms, and mineral in the background. One can spend a night plumbing the depths of this wine.


We closed the Burgundy hat trick by drinking an unbelievably durable 1971 Meursault Premier Cru Poruzots, Remoissenet Pere & Fils. This tastes like a crunchy Asian pear, still fresh, fat, and juicy. Though lacking in firmness, its wonderful layer of spice gives it a nice grip, especially as it finished. I couldn’t ask for more for a Chardonnay approaching its fourth decade.


Up next was a pair of two great California Chardonnays. The 2001 Napa Chardonnay, Stony Hill Vineyard. Stony Hill has a proven track record for Chardonnays that age for decades, miraculous by California standards. This one is simply too young, but what great potential! Very tight, yet the nose gives away delicious scents of fresh fruit and minerals. Richly concentrated, crisp, and very elegant. It would be a treat to follow this Chardonnay’s evolution.


The Chardonnay of the night was undoubtedly the 1975 Sonoma Chardonnay, Hanzell Vineyards. Chardonnay vines at Hanzell originated with cuttings taken from Stony Hill vines; therefore it’s not surprising that these wines age for decades as well. This pre-1990 Chardonnay was so stunning, especially given the age, prompting Kevin (he-who-doesn’t-own-California-wines-post-1980s) to hail it: “best California Chardonnay I’ve ever had”. I feel the same way. The bouquet was powerful and complex with autumnal scents of earth, leaves, undergrowth, and smoke. Round, intense, and minerally in the mouth, the flavors were youthful and bright without a trace of oxidation. For such a powerful, long-lasting California wine the label showed 13.8% Alcohol. And this is not a low-acid wine; in fact the acid level is quite high that’s why it tasted so crisp and vibrant.

Nearly everything about Stony Hill and Hanzell Chardonnays seem to fly against the trend in California Chardonnays for the past few decades. Moderate alcohol. Dry. Natural acid balance. Modest ripeness. Elegant. Sadly, these qualities are found in a minority of top California Chardonnays. Have California winemaking and consumers’ wine palates progressed much after California wine’s boom and hype of the 1990s? One thing’s for sure though, prices have outpaced everything else.

Al fresco dining on a clear summer night, what could be better?

Well, bless the souls of Matt, Gary, and Eric for allowing a few red interlopers to crash the party. The 1985 Barbaresco, Produttori del Barbaresco was soft, elegant, and kissed with earth and cherries. I saved a few bites of my lamb for that beauty. This was soon followed by the 1995 Nuits-Saint-Georges Premier Cru “Les Vaucrains, Bertrand Ambroise. Ambroise makes beefy red Burgundies, and this one was still very tight though Gary’s lamb, which by now was nowhere to be found on the food table, made it seem luscious.



Once you start opening up these reds one thing leads to another. Excited about our next BNO theme, three high-profile California Cabernet Sauvignons were dispatched. The 1998 Napa “Maya”, Dalla Valle was classy, showing a nice harmony of sweet cassis, herbal, and earthy flavors. Rounded, fleshy, and well-structured, with very good acid balance and sweet tannins, I would expect this to age well over the next ten years. If you like elegant, understated Napa reds this Maya is beautiful.


What a contrast to the 1999 Napa Cabernet Sauvignon “Hillside Select”, Shafer Vineyards, which was opulent, concentrated, and tannic. A big wine with powerful, upfront fruit that is very showy.


After a decade the 1997 Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, Etude Vineyards was tender, juicy, with a good core fruit, but is now too soft and lacks grip . Drink up.

Finally, the Sauternes was uncorked. Medium-bodied, soft, and filled with flavors of poached pear, caramel, and minerals, the 1983 Sauternes Premier Cru Classé, Château Sigalas-Rabaud was alluring, yet losing freshness after some time in the glass.


We survived another memorable bacchanalian night. What a perfect evening to enjoy these great wines! I went home with a few lessons learned. California wine producers can make Chardonnays as long-lived as White Burgundies if they would strive for quality, instead of being led by consumers and wine critics. After all, the great producers of White Burgundies have been making their wines well before there was a wine critic or a mass market for their wines. Imagine how deprived the world would be had Van Gogh only painted pretty pictures that the public wanted during his time.

That Chardonnay or White Burgundy pairs brilliantly with lamb provided Gary prepared the lamb. That the thought of drinking all white wines in a gathering sends fear to some people—red wines need to be opened if only to cure the shakes.

Eric's cigar.JPG
Only try this with an El Rey del Mundo, Habanos of course

A toast to another memorable get-together

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Drink More White Wines!

If anyone should ask me what my two favorite types of wines are, my quick answer would be Riesling and white Burgundy. These are my desert island wines, and they would drink heavenly with the scrumptious seafood nearby.

Jancis Robinson, the foremost wine writer of today, wrote a brilliant piece for the San Francisco Chronicle on the virtues of white wines. She convincingly argues that white wines should be staple: “Most of us are eating lighter foods, much more fish, more vegetables and salads, and more spicy dishes, none of which is a natural partner for the full-bodied, tannic red wines that command so much attention from wine writers and wine lovers. Meanwhile, more and more authorities are recommending white and not red wine with cheese.”

Insecurity, rather than taste, is why people can’t let go of red wine even for a moment. One of the guys in our recent BNO (boys’ night out) tasting of Chardonnays-White Burgundy remarked all those white wines looked “scary” and asked someone to bring a red. Why the insecurity? I think it's simply habit and ignorance.

Drink more white wines! They’re exciting, interesting, and tasty, not to mention, good for the health, especially with the food we love to eat these days.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Striking Back at the Emperor of Wine

A spontaneous open rebellion by incensed readers against wine critic Robert Parker erupted this week at Parker’s own cyber château, the Mark Squires’ Wine Bulletin Board. What sparked the uproar was an apparent mocking review by Parker of the wines of Berkeley-based winery Edmunds St. John and the restrained winemaking style of its winemaker, Steve Edmunds.

The rebellious thread quickly gained momentum, growing into a chorus of boos over Parker’s seemingly oppressive review, with some posters going so far as to suggest a hidden agenda against Steve Edmunds. On the 100th post, the board's head honcho, Mark Squires, finally stepped in to padlock the thread and quell the mounting insurrection.