This was the first time we gave Riesling a go, and my expectations were high. I like Riesling. It was a hot summer day. I had a funky garden salad topped with wood-fire-grilled salmon topped with a puree of 4 varieties of chive an onion, topped with stir fried garlic scapes. Good company. But one can’t win them all.
Execution on the dish was reprehensible – undercooked scapes, and 1-2 of the chives/onions I used were far too strong for this application. Nodding onion, a wild onion in our province that I have grown for a few years and which I typically use for this application, works great. I thought I’d be smart and use a variety of allium. Oops. Kicking the shit out of your palate with raw onion/garlic flavors is NOT how to pair food with nice white wine. It’s not really good idea in general, really.
Then the wines. Opinions and palates varied, as usual, but I found a surprising disjoint between nose and palate scores. I’d dig the nose, dislike the texture/flavor – or vice versa. None seemed to line both up and hit it out of the park. I’d expected to fall in love with Riesling all over again, but instead found myself questioning our relationship – wondering if my crush had ended and perhaps I really did like Chardonnay or Pinot Gris better.
As saddened as I was by the disappointment, I equate it to a philosophy I developed in my waterskiing days. One has to ski the crappy water off and on to truly appreciate it when it’s good.
The following is a summary of our monthly wine tasting group evening. Wines are tasted blind [brown bagged], food is paired to the varietal, we score the wines, have some good fun talking about them, and unbag them at the end. More details in a Q&A here.
Sauvignon Blanc had been on the to-do list since last summer, so it was long overdue. For those red-wine-folks that don’t do whites, all I can say is that you’re missing out. [But don't start now. Low demand is good for ME - I can get dynamic, complex, interesting whites far more inexpensively than reds]. Sauv Blanc in particular is not for everybody. If you hate vegetal [esp green/chili pepper, grassy] vibes or a nice dose of acidity, you should tread carefully. If you like sweet whites, probably should look elsewhere. If you dig food wines, this may be for you.
This month was a bit odd, as I couldn’t buy a highly priced bottle of this varietal – simply wasn’t available. So I broke the usual rule and went with 7 wines ranging from $15-33. Average group score 82.6 – which is about normal from month to month. Top wine received an average score of 88.3. And for the first time, the overall favorite wine was the cheapest. 2009 Casa Marin Matisses Sauvignon Blanc [91-92] from Chile won the day. It’s heavy on the green chilis, round, with a touch of mineral on the nose. It’s nicely balanced on the palate and overall stood up over the rest. Tied for second were 2007 Domaine Vacheron Sancerre with wet rock, musk, floral perfume, wicked fruit and honey on the nose and a light, elusive, tart, apricoty palate [88-89] and 2008 Casa Marin Cartagena Sauvignon Blanc – very mineral on the nose with green veg, and a sexy & impressive palate. [92 - a buy for me at $19]
So Chile ran away with this one – especially from a QPR perspective. They easily took out competition from Bordeaux, the lesser known Loire appellation of Cheverny, New Zealand, and South Africa. I tend to have a pretty heavy bias to old world wines, so it’s nice to see more new world love entering my life.
I’ve long decided to tone back the ‘fine wine’ content on the blog as I personally believe it can only me moderately interesting content at best for most. I have decided, however, to continue to post abbreviated summaries of our monthly tasting group ’4 Wines & A Plate’, if for no other reason that to disclose ‘hey, this is something I do‘, and to possibly inspire others to do the same.
This month: Gewurztraminer. I’d told the guests it’d be dictated by weather, as, well, May here can deliver snow [in which case red would have been served], or +30C. Three Grand Cru Alsace Gewurz’s in the lineup against a Canadian [Okanagan - Quail's Gate 08 to be precise]. Alsace killed. No surprise there. One disappointment was Zinck’s Eichberg which tends to be sicklingly sweet, and received a few scores in the 70s due to the offputting sweetness. Domaine Weibach showed very well, as would be expected. The star of the night for me on a QPR basis was Steinert - an 04 Pfaffenheim. Blind, I wasn’t sure that it wasn’t the Weinbach, as it had a lot more levity and finesse to it, while offering depth at the same time: usually Weinbach characteristics. At less than half the price, Steinert gets a major nod this month.
A nod too to the pairing of Gewurz with curry. I was skeptical. It really indeed is a pleasant synergy – perhaps moreso than many of the red pairings I’ve done. We also tried it with Munster from Alsace – also very lovely with the wines. Lots of wine-food dynamics. Sometimes the food-wine pairings are a little ho-hum, this one was not.
Next month: 4 more bottles of a white varietal, with more paired food, and more brown bags.
Shiraz night was a long time coming as one of our regular attendees collects the stuff. What I found in doing my usual homework is that from a critic-score perspective [for what that's worth], there is superb value here – and your money can buy mid-90s scores vastly more easily than with other varietals from elsewhere in the world. Our normal budget would not afford one single bottle of high end bordeaux, but we could buy 2 wines scored 94, and 2 wines scored 96. Those are some big scores. Perhaps nowhere else do you find that QPR.
The other enlightening bit worth sharing is that the wines were rock stars, but were relatively unexciting with food. Perhaps one of the least food-friendly varietals I’ve come across. And it wasn’t for lack of trying. We had smoked jerky. Pepper steak with saskatoon, balsamic, and horseradish on potato. We had charred asian greens with ginger black bean moose on rice. We then moved to Big Turk. Yes, the candy bar. It was perhaps the best pairing of the night with the wines. Unusual pairing award winner: jerky with toblerone and shiraz.
THE WINES A 2007 Glaetzer Bishop Shiraz $39 Group Very fruity, nice, but a little forgettable overall. Had some onion and cherry vibes, raisin on the palate, but was the least impressive of the night. 91
B 2004 Kilkanoon The Covenent Shiraz $40
Far and away the most kick-ass of the bunch for my palate. Has a real gunpowdery, herbaceous, moldy streak that is super funky an huge. It’s a monster on the palate, which normally turns me off, but I just dug this. Caraway, heaviness, and herbs. 96+
C 2005 Rolf Binder Heysen Shiraz $55
Lovely, then kinda flatish. Subtle, earthy, and most elegant style of the bunch. Supple with a pithy finish. Great wine, had tough competition. 93
D 2005 Mitolo Savitar Shiraz $63
THE most candified fruit-bomb I’ve ever encountered on the nose. Grape nerds. Intense fruit in the mouth, gorgeous wine, lovely, big, and dry. A stunner. If the fruit was not so candy-driven, I’d have scored it even higher: 95.
Lastly, this was the first night of the use of a tool that I love my friends and family too much to not employ: the breathalizer. Everyone blew prior to going home. I highly recommend it, and the one I bought is this one. It takes a few goes at it to get a feel for how to time and pace the blow, but other than that, it’s excellent.
Something connected here. Maybe it was the -32C weather that made us appreciate the wines, food and company a little more than usual. Maybe it was the variety and dynamics of some of the wines. Maybe the wines were really just that good. All 4 wines had major critic scores of 90+, so expectations were high, yet the wines still delivered in spades – resulting in the highest group scores for some wines we’ve ever had, and some stellar QPR showing. The kind that required a quick tally of who wanted how many bottles of ‘D’. I scored 3 of the 4 92 or better. PLUS. Plus. How could I forget: I finally, for the first time EVER in our blind tastings, pegged all of the bottles correctly blind.
A: 1997 Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape
$99.99 Group Average Score: 88.3
The evolution of this wine was astonishing. Decanted for 1.5 hrs, and was stinky, pruny/raisiny at first, with lots of horsebarn, cherry, and leather notes. With time, the funk diminished, and the approachability increased. Tasty and complex, with a fine sticky tannin, long finish of pennies. Light and thin, but seriously interesting wine that at about the 3-4 hr mark showed very well. 92
2005 Château de Saint Cosme Valbelle Gigondas
$50 Group Average Score: 92.8
A crowd pleaser, with a serious fruit quality that was undeniable. It also was showing something new every time – starting with beef jerky/pepper, then herbaceous, then raisin box, chlorine, then celery seed, then floral shop, finally landing on a chassis of gorgeous fruit. The palate was straight ahead and rich. Not a hedonism play: a finessy, quality-of-fruit, and complex wine. 92
2007 Perrin Réserve Côtes du Rhône
$13 Group Average Score 82.4
Previous vintages have been tasted before in our tastings. This vintage was scored 90 by WS, and for the price, it was a must-explore to see if it was appropriately hyped. It was good. Not excellent, or memorable in my opinion. First off, it’s tight. It did open after 3 hrs or so, and showed raisin, iron/blood on the nose. The finish is bitter, and it’s pretty average on the palate for me. WS 90. KK 84.
2005 Château Pesquié Quintessence
$29 Group Average Score 92.8
Despite the 90-point-for-$12 wine above, this one won the QPR winner of the evening. Rather oak-forward, it was skunky/perfumy, with tar and dark toasted oak notes. Clove and peppercorns, spice, and sweaty mitt hit me on the nose. It was seductive, despite those odd tasting notes. The palate is lovely, sexy, tasty, and an oak bomb. It’s a very lovable wine that was fun to revisit through the tasting, was hedonistic, and got rave reviews [88\92\94\94\96\96]. For under the $30 price point, this is one rock star of a wine.
Despite the affinity for red meats, as usual, I was simply damn tired of red meat and red wine for our tastings. So I went southern Rhone on the menu. Some garlic, tomato, olives, capers, olive oil, herbes de provence, an extra dash of lavender, chicken, on pasta. It was really nice. Of interest is that ‘D’ was big enough that it didn’t really work with the pasta – but worked with the olives. So if you run out and buy it, pair it with something big. The others all did fine matched up with the dish.
Long a flogger of French varietals, I figured exploring some Italian varietals, of which there are many, was long overdue. Tuscany well deserves some attention, and I think is pretty misunderstood. The food was kept rustic: game stew. Imo, there were 2 lovely wines, and two boring wines.
THE WINES A: 2004 Talenti Pian di Conte Brunello di Montalcino, WA93, $65 Nice fruit, wood, clearly lovely, heavy on the strawberry jam. Anise and oak, dense and supple on the palate. 91-92.
2006 Tenuta del’Ornellaia Le Serre Nuove, WA94, $63 Metallic, blueberry, licorice, dill, cinnamon stick, green pepper on the nose. The palate showed cirtus, spice, pomegranate, with mouth coating tannins and a hefty acidity. Paired best with the food. 94+
2006 Monte Antico Toscana WS90, $17 Tight, a little stink, petrochemicaly, some dust. Tannic, acid on back end, with a blech finish. Way not a fan, very disappointed, and WAY don’t agree with the Wine Spectator score. 79 ‘I forgot the vintage, but it doesn’t matter’ TorrediPisa Wet fall slough, over and over, pennies, raisin. Generic and average on the palate, just squeaking into ‘good’ territory. This wine wins the ‘tackiest and most unnecessary packaging ever’ award. It’s lucky it was a blind tasting. 82
I generally just post a summary of our 4 Wines & A Plate nights for the folks involved, assuming it would be of little interest to others. But I got a great comment from Rhonda that made me reflect on how many things I learned the hard way, that might actually be useful to share if you wish to start your own wine tastings.
First, Rhonda’s comment:
“Hi! I really enjoy your 4 wines and a plate reviews. Have been thinking of doing this with some of our friends. Not sure if we’re really “wine educated” enough,though. Do you research first then go out to purchase or just randomly pick out four bottles that look appealing? Also for the food, do you spend alot of time thinking up a menu or trial and error it? Do you serve all the wines first without food then bring out your meal and serve the remainder of the wine? Thanks for any info.“
Not “wine educated” enough
Wine education is certainly not a requirement. Not only that, the only real way to learn is to get tasting a whole lot of wine. Being open minded doesn’t hurt either. We often have newbies at the table, and I enjoy it as they often bring a fresh or unique perspective to the discussion. I think if you can determine ‘like/don’t like’ and be open to free association – spitting out anything that comes to mind, you’ll do great.
How do you go about picking which wines you are serving?
Lots and lots of homework – although there a few simple and broad items that always apply:
QPR – We do a buy-in format, now $30 a head, and I want to spend our money wisely. I’m always on the lookout for high Quality/Price Ratios [QPR] – trying to find some of the best wines in the price points I can.
Seasonality/the weather – I used to simply buy what interested me at the time, but found it to be a weak approach. For one, I found red wines were far less enjoyed in the summer. So the varietal choice is driven by season. Whites in the summer, leading into light reds in the fall, followed by bigger reds as the winter progresses, lighter reds and rosé in the spring.
The Ringer, The Heavy Hitter, and the Value Plays: I strongly believe in having a ringer in the flight. At first, the problem: If you have 4 $50 wines, someone will like one more than the other and think the one they like less is cheap and crap – they lack a point of reference for quality. I find that now the ringer is not only a good control, but an opportunity to find shockingly good QPR if you’re lucky.
I also strongly believe in having a heavy hitter. A big boy. A wine that will give you a point of reference for what is excellent in that particular varietal. Exceptional wines are often memorable ones – often showing funky, unusual characteristics that can be off-putting to some palates. But the effort and education pays off in spades in the end.
The middle two bottles are in the $20-40 price range. I feel that this is where some exceptional value can be found. With lots of homework, you can find superior wines at a fraction of the cost of similar, but perhaps more known/revered/collectible big hitters.
Also for the food, do you spend alot of time thinking up a menu or trial and error it?
I’ve done a fair bit of homework on food and wine pairings. I’m a huge fan of the book ‘What to eat with what you drink’ – I think anyone into wine and food should own it. Although I agree with Robert Parker that ‘good food, good wine, and good company’ is the basis of good pairing – I also believe there are some natural affinities that necessitate exploring. So I generally pick the classic pairings. I’ve gone so far as trying to pair a dish to a wine I knew [which is fun] – but wouldn’t do so for a party where the wines are unknown. All you can do is pair to varietal/style and learn what works and what doesn’t. That learning one of the best parts! Lately, I’ve been leaning towards more than one dish to taste, as it’s hard to say which dish [if any] will really knock it out of the park with the wines.
Do you serve all the wines first without food then bring out your meal and serve the remainder of the wine?
Yes. With most of the food prep being done, we pour the wines [we decant for 1-2 hrs or so prior for reds], then as a group go through the nose. Smell the heck out of them, one at a time, batting around ideas, taking notes, debating what we’re getting on the nose, etc. It’s fun. Once we’ve talked about the nose roughly twice through, we start tasting them, and having the same banter and discussion about the palate. Once we’ve been through that a couple times, then comes the food. More discussion about what’s working, what’s not. Certainly not rules, but we’ve found this routine is helpful in getting everyone talking about the same thing at the same time – which is simply more fun.
A few Unasked items:
Why 4 bottles? I started at 14. Too much booze, too many people, too much drinking and not enough wine geekness is what it boiled down to. I now limit the guest list to 6-8, and just over half as many wines. For our group, this works, keeping the buy-in affordable while maintaining the budget focus for the price points I feel are important to explore.
Spitting. I highly encourage spitting. I’ve nearly gone to the use of a breathalyzer, and may end up there yet. Spitting keeps you sober for safety of everyone, but also so that you can actually taste the wine after a few tastes. I think most wine snobs would agree that your ability to discern nuance is a whole lot better on a sober palate.
Blind. The wines are served blind, in brown bags, tied with kitchen string, lettered A through D. I have tasting sheets that I’d be happy to share if you are motivated enough to ask, that allow people to take notes and score the wines. Blindness is key. It teaches you loads about experiencing a wine without pre-conceived notions. Even knowing what the wines were since I purchased them, I’ve never guessed all the wines right blind. Parly frustrating and ego-bruising, but also humbling and tremendously important in developing trust in your palate.
Why have a tasting group? Education & comraderie. By far. Lagging behind is being able to try wines that you wouldn’t normally splurge to try – which half falls under the education banner.
Texture was the hot topic of conversation – where on the mouth it stripped you of saliva, stuffed your face full of cotton balls, or made your teeth feel like they were dissolving. Loads of fruit, loads of odd-ball descriptors, and overall high average scores. The ringer was a pleaser, offering tremendous QPR. Buy it. Preferences were all over the map, so my scores and preferences didn’t highly correlate with the group rankings and scores. And last but not least: a Canadian wine took the top group rank score award!!!!
A: 2004 Torres Mas La Plana Cabernet Sauvignon
$50 Penedes, Spain
Group Score: 83.3 Rank tied for 2/3
Jammy, nutty, delicious, fruit, and lavender on the nose. Also had a really cool Indian spice character. A tannic mouth stripper with a lemon rind finish that was offputting at first – but with food was a complete non-issue. Good concentration, big bold style that’s yummy. 91+
B: 2005 Mitolo Serpico Cabernet Sauvignon
$63 McLaren Vale, Australia
Group Score: 81.8, Rank 4 [Robert Parker: 94]
Corky, leathery, blue and red fruits, sweet & sour Chinese food, toner, horsebarn-esque odd, and awkward on the nose. Palate showed more odd items like fish and ink. Tart long finish of apple core. Points in my books for cool descriptors, points against for not really enjoying them. 88+
C: 2007 Fairview Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon
$40 South Okanagan, Canada
Group Score: 88.6, Rank 1
Floral, perfumy, ivory soap, wood, Hawaiian tropics sunblock. I’m a sucker for floral, perfumy wines. Others detest them. This wine was by far the most supple and finesse-y, and also was the lightest wine. 92
D: 2007 The Show
$15 California, USA
Group Score: 89.1, Rank tied for 2/3
It smelled like cleaning a gun – gunmetal and solvent. Also a very present raisin component with a deep bumbleberry fruit bomby-ness. Good concentration, ended up going the direction of a berry juicebox. A superb value. 87
It had long been decided that Cabernet Sauvignon would be paired with fatty beef. 5-6 hr beef shoulder from Ben’s Meats, garden mash potatoes, charred kale, beef gravy, and a touch of soy and horseradish. All of the wines, with the possible exception of the top ranking C, was clearly improved when taken with food. All the texture issues that were keeping scores down faded and some erasing and re-visiting of scoring on the mouthfeel/texture side was going on. A classic and clearly wonderful pairing.
Stangely, film created a significant pinot noir fad and a merlot sag in the wine market a few years back. In hindsight, it doesn’t seem to make much sense – although I suppose neither holywood nor fads do. My take on pinot noir is that most people aren’t big fans when it boils right down to it. It is a minority when asked ‘favorite varietal?’ that chime in with ‘pinot noir’. It’s not a heavy fruit-bomb, it often brings some funk, and cheap pinot noir tends to be far-less-good than say, cheap shiraz. It often takes some digging, as it is more subtle overall, and I’m pretty sure the masses aren’t into digging for nuance. A good showing of wines with a high average group score, more new world than old, with some surprising results:
A: 2007 Cono Sur Pinot Noir
$11.99Rapel Valley, Chile
Group Score: 81
Fermenting yeastynes, stinky, vegetal compost-esque, flat, and the winner: freshly ironed 35% flax pants bought on ebay. The palate was a little plain, and quite boozy, with okay fruit, and a little apple. 75
B: 2005 Steele Carneros Pinot Noir
$29.99California – Lake County, United States
Group Score: 94
Yeah, you read that right: 94 group score. Crazy. Obviously there’s some broad appeal in this bottle. It also wins for best-wine/ugliest label award. Raspberry dessert, smoke, black forest cake, and leather on the nose. The palate is shockingly supple with a lovely mouthfeel, and a long finish. 93
C: 2006 RipponLake Wanaka Pinot Noir
$54.99Central Otago, New Zealand
Group Score: 89
Strawberry jam-fest on the nose. I loved this one instantly. Light in style, it’s a breakfast wine of strawberry jam on buttered toast. Lovely, simple, tart finish, but a tad watery in texture. My style of wine. 92 The Wine Advocate scored it 95.
D: 2005 Paul Garaudet Monthelie Premier Cru Le Meix Bataille
$44.99Burgundy – Côte de Beaune, France
Group Score: 78
I come leaping to this wine’s defence. Partly because I like the terroir and producer, and mostly because I had forgotten what the winemaker had told me. My brother and I had tasted there, and as he poured some 2005 vintage – a blockbuster in Burgundy – he warned us: ‘c’est comme les femmes – il faut de la patience’. It’s like women – requires patience. This wine was young, and the tannins and structure that put people off will be very different in 5-10 years. Old man, dusty clothes, leather on the nose – and was by far the most tannic, dry, and boldly structured. I scored it 87+ but figure in a few years this will be more in the 90 range, give or take a couple points.
Salmon. We’d paired pinot noir with duck in the past, so it was time for salmon. Belly sashimi with fleur de sel + a few pieces with soy. Pork and beans: or more specifically, sautéed lardons from a fresh batch of bacon with green bush and pole beans. Lastly – charcoal grilled slab of salmon topped with mashed baby leeks. The soy didn’t work with the wine, no matter how ethereal it is. Neither did the sashimi in general. Too light. The bacon was a solid pairing, and the grilled salmon was very nice with the wines. Any jump-out-synergies from the food-wine-pairing perspective? Not really. Maybe: bacon. But bacon’s good with everything – even pinot noir.
The last white tasting of the year arrived. This year we did more whites than ever before, and this round was an adventure in Chardonnay. Conclusions: Chardonnay is far better with food than I expected. The oak vs. no-oak was not an issue – none of the wines were close to unpleasantly oaky. Guessing the new world vs old world blind seemed easier than normal. Lastly, it hit me that with whites, the big hitters tend to be funky and wacky and offputting to many. Posh reds don’t seem to do the same. Tasted blind, my preferences nearly lined up the price points – although my clean record of never guessing all the wines correctly blind, despite my insider knowledge, stands.
2004 Domaine William Fevre Chablis Bougros Cote Bouguerots Grand Cru, France, $85 I loved this wine immediately. Super obvious moldy cheese smell – like stinky, moldy goat cheese. Truffle, mint, garbage, and plastic. The palate was zingy with a clean acidity, clean profile overall, and really elegant. 96. Group score: 84
2004 Domaine Bernard Morey Saint-Aubin Les Charmois 1er Cru, France, $50 Meat, butter, old lady cologne, stinky, all bran pee, all wrapped in a punch-you-in-the-head intensity that turned some people off. Smooth, tart, clean, and complex, with the odd hit of a mouthful of grass clippings. 93. Group score: 83 2006 Cornin Macon-Chanes Serreudieres, France, $25 Yeasty, plain, candyish, fuzzy peachish. Fruity, a little boring, but still really decent. A tad boring with the food. 87. Group score: 83 2008 Hardy’s Nottage Hill Chardonnay, Australia, $11 White grape fruit juice, smoky, furnace dust, cooked weiner. soft. Thick and winey on the palate, lots of booze, long finish of booze. Surprisingly good with food. 87. Group score: 85 [ps, buy this wine if you want to try a cheap chard that's solid with food - it showed well against some tough competition]
2006 Peninsula Ridge Estates Inox Chardonnay, Canada, $17 Wet basement, honey, alcohol, and flat on the nose. Watery, awkward, flat pop-esque, and apple juicy on the palate. 80. Group score: 80 The food. I did two courses, which is unusual. The first was a salad that was designed around the tasting notes of the wines – so it was bizarre, but so worked that it was a proud moment of pairing for me. It elevated all the wines. Standard greens + sorrel, mint, purslane, kale, rocket – with a charred baby leek vinaigrette that only had a tweak of lime juice for acidity. Man did it work out.
The second dish was Jacques Pepin’s poulet a la creme. Always a favorite, it seemed to lead everyone in varying directions on which wines worked or didn’t. The salad helped them all. Strange stuff.