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Mark Squires' E-Zine on Wine
This year's Expo was marred in a bit in the opinion of many by the overcrowding in the Saturday session. They sold LOTS of tickets. By mid-afternoon you could barely find tables because of the crowds around some of them covering up the signs with the winery names. They offered a map with table numbers, but the names associated with the numbers were hard to find, too. Also, it was more difficult than ever this year to hold a conversation with the winemakers and wine owners who appeared. That's a key part of the charm of an event like this, and it was elusive at best this year. If the Expo continues in this direction, despite the great exhibitions it has, it is going to lose some appeal. There are simply too many exhibitors crowded into too small a place mobbed by too many people.
That said, there were still some of the things that bring me here: Jean Trimbach pouring his wines; Steve Edmunds pouring his; Doug Shafer conducting a vertical of Shafer Hillside Select, new discoveries and revelations.
Some highlights (representing a small percentage of what I tasted): The dessert wines stole the show, in my view. Gorgeous late harvests, eisweins, ports and more. Swanson, Shafer, Edmunds St. John and Iron Horse all came with great lineups and Bedford Thompson produced some revelations.
I resolved to take this in an organized fashion. But instead I stumbled early into representatives from the negociant Louis Latour who were pouring 1994 Corton-Charlemagne, and, well, the best laid plans... The wine is very hard to taste now. The acidity seems too high, there is too little flavor evident, and the wine is disjointed. It certainly received some oak treatment, given the tannic bite, but the oak doesn't seem to add any flavor, nor is there much evidence of lees flavoring. This wine is at an awkward stage. I'd like to taste it again in a year or so.
Joseph Phelps seems to make an awful lot of fine red wines that get lost amongst higher profile wines. I can't say why. The 1994 Cabernet was purple, youthful, pulpy, soft and sweet. Look for this to close up and tighten up a bit. It's not going to become a tannic monster, certainly, but it does have some structure. The 1993 Insignia is a different animal. More tannic, more structure, up front acidity, I suspect this has already closed up a bit. It lacks a little velvet and a good mouthfeel to me at the moment, but I suspect this will round into form with some cellaring for about three years. This doesn't strike me as a great Insignia, but a A-.
One of the things to which the French can point to as proof of their place in the wine universe is the number of people using the grapes they made famous and/or imitating their styles. Suddenly, we're getting sangiovese and nebbiolo in California, too. The 1994 Silverado Sangiovese ($20) was grapey, Beaujolais-esque, lacking noticeable structure but sweet and tasty. If this were $10 it would be a great buy. At $20, it seems too simple, and certainly it's hard to think of any Italian sangiovese that tastes this way. In my opinion, this was blown away by the 1994 Shafer Firebreak (a blend of 87% sangiovese and the rest cabernet). It, too, provided lots of sweet fruit, but it had more structure and delineation. The addition of cabernet, in the fashion of Super Tuscans, aided the sangiovese greatly in my opinion. This is a big winner. The third sangiovese I found was from Atlas Peak, a "reserve." It was tighter and more tannic than the Firebreak, and a lot less flavorful than the Silverado. It was, perhaps, closer to Italian style. It uses the Sangiovese Grosso grape (Brunello). All three of these are useful wines in their own right, but the one I'd want to cellar would be the Atlas Peak and the one I'd actually want to drink regularly would be the Shafer.
Speaking of Shafer, they poured no cabs! Those of us who chose the port seminar over the Shafer seminar can only hiss. (G) But Doug Shafer did pour his 1995 Chardonnay "Red Shoulder", and this is going to be a major player on the chardonnay front. Oaky, but also leesy, and fat and buttery, too, this concentrated, ripe mouthful of fruit was one of the stars of the event. Every year, here, I get a couple revelations. Last time I went it was the Edmunds St. John "Durrell" Syrah. This was one of the big ones this year.
The best table at the event in my opinion belonged to
They showed their 1994 Syrah, 1994 Merlot and new Aussie styled 1994 Alexis (55% cab, 40% Syrah, 5% merlot). The 1994 Syrah didn't seem anywhere near as massive as the 1992 Syrah, but it would blow most other wines away still. The tannins were more supple, the wine more approachable. The 1994 is another terrific Syrah from Swanson. The 1994 Merlot opened with a tannic burst and showed structure and backbone. Gasp. A California merlot with structure. Underneath the tannins was plenty of velvety fruit. This is top rank merlot that can stand a couple of years of cellaring. The Alexis was a success, too. Now we have the New World winemakers imitating each other instead of Europe. Why not? The sweet oak and velvety fruit made this seem a lot like an Aussie shiraz/cab blend, delicious, soft and hedonistic.
The most interesting single thing at the event? Dessert wines in my view. Even apart from the special port presentation, there were plenty of sweet things on the floor, and some of them were gorgeous, rare and amazing. There's never been so much variety in stickies. Look at these:
I was a little irked by the ZAP belief that we should all be willing to contribute $5 to have zinfandel declared, more or less, part of our national heritage. Gosh. I should pay THEM for a button I should wear advertising their product and helping their marketing. Hmm. What's wrong with this picture?
Anywayyyyyyy, there were quite a few nice zins and zin people there, but mostly along traditional lines. That is, I got what I expected.
Rhones and Rhone clones were well represented. I've already mentioned Swanson's great Syrah. Also noteworthy:
Most of the German wines I tasted in the inexpensive, and well done, German wine seminar hosted by a representative from Friedrich-Wilhelm-Gymnasium. As you might expect, the great late harvest wines featured stole the event. How could they not? They were beautiful and often other wordly. Let's take it from the top (not how we tasted, though....):
I ran through a LOT of wines and the ones mentioned above were only the tip of the iceberg. The Iron Horse sparklers were one of the great tables of the event, but I've posted notes on them too recently to repeat. A nice showing by Cline (Ancient vines cuvée and the Live Oak). The Mondavi table was disappointing for its quality of wines, and even the best of them, the 1994 Carneros Pinot seemed flat and boring. Hey guys, if you're going to come, how about upping the quality level a little? I might add the same about Penfold's, which brought as its best wine the 407 Cabernet. Some wineries clearly tried to bring their good stuff; others brought their run of the mill stuff. You didn't have to bet the farm to up the ante a little. Did you notice that Jean Trimbach himself poured wines like the 1992 Riesling "Frederic Emile" and the 1990 Gewurztraminer "Seigneurs du Ribeauvillé?" A little sophistication, please. And thanks, Monsieur Trimbach. It was, by the way, a bad event for pinot and I had almost nothing worth getting excited about. On the other hand, I can cheerfully trash the Mondavi, above, the 1995 Wyndham (Australia), and the 1993 Vosne-Romanée Aux Reas from A.F. Gros (so flat, so boring, so nothing...why bother to crush the grapes?). The best pinot there was a lowly Aloxe-Corton from Tollot-Beaut (The 1994 "les Vercots").
The Austrians, as previously noted, showed me something, and I found some new things to love, but the Swiss presented a bunch of tart, overpriced white wines that I can't imagine anyone would want to buy. For $27, you can buy a 1995 Dezaley l'Arbelère (Gilliard) that lacks flavor and concentration but makes up for it in acidity, lightness and blandness. But hey, you could, if you want a restrained chard, try the fine 1995 Foxen Santa Maria Chardonnay. It will do everything for you that you had in mind for the Swiss wine, but for $5 less and it's way better. There were quite a few South African wines there but the one I confess that caught my attention was the 1995 Lost Horizons Chardonnay in the pretty, unusual blue bottle. The wine was thin, watery. Perhaps it's not a coincidence that the bottle looked like European mineral water.
A bunch of others had many points of recommendation (1994 Pride Merlot, 1993 Meyney), but let me grind an ax: the 1994 Caymus pre-release cab seemed to be all oak and no fruit, and I want my Caymus back, please!
The Italians were out in force with Barolos, et al, but I liked the imagery of the Antinori table full of chiantis---with an empty double mag of Tignanello as a centerpiece. I actually liked some the California sangioveses rather better than the chiantis on display, but that's me. Generally, I didn't have time in the madhouse to do the Italians in depth, but a nod to the 1992 Barolo "Monfalletto" (Cordero di Montezemolo), around $25, and a new style Barolo. Meaning, soft, grapey, fruity, tasty, sweet, not overly tannic, and a wine purists won't like.
Notwithstanding the often hostile and silly security people, the poor organization at times, the overcrowding (especially on Saturday), this event did what it normally does, that is, provide a way to experience many fine wines. I confess, though, if it remains this crowded and crazed, I won't be able to bring myself to make it an annual event any more.
Ritz-Carlton, Philadelphia, February 11, 1997
For a 300th anniversary dinner in honor of the monk Dom Perignon, Moët et Chandon staged an invitation-only gala in Philadelphia, February 12, 1997. This was serious partying. They not only hosted the gala, with musicians playing 17th century music and waiters in 17th century costume, but they flew over winemaker Richard Geoffroy, who brought five vintages of Dom (1990, 1978, 1983, 1964 and the 1986 brut rosé), and staged, with distributor Jeff Pogash, a five course gourmet banquet at the Ritz-Carlton. Even our populist Mayor cooperated, providing a mayoral proclamation naming February 12, 1997 as "Dom Perignon day." (I can just see that becoming a campaign issue. :)
Monsieur Geoffroy, charming and eloquent as a spokesman for Moët , presented the dinner, in effect, as a quest to experiment with unusual food matchups for champagne. Candidly, and cheerfully, he admitted that champagne was not necessarily his primary recommendation for some of these food matchups, but he was making a virtue out of necessity in order to showcase his Dom under various unusual circumstances. This effort was taken seriously enough so that TWO rehearsal dinners were held. In other words, a serious food/wine matchup game. Let the games begin, then. Do not pass the foie gras without a bit of champagne...
Sad to say, most of the matchups left me cold, even though they often went better than I would've thought. Usually, it wasn't so much that the dishes clashed with the wine, as they just did not blend. Both were off in their own worlds doing their own things. There was none of the synergy that makes great food/wine matchups so hedonistic. And sometimes, well, they did clash.
Dom has never been my favorite producer, and indeed, let's be honest: it's almost fashionable in some circles to make fun of Dom as a tourist-trap type of wine. This is not entirely Dom's fault; after all, Moet can't be blamed if wealthy people who know nothing of wine insist on using it as a status symbol. Moet, however, in fact makes good wine and Dom is a genuine tête de cuvée. Whether you think it is a good value at its price level, and whether you will be converted over from the other usual suspects--things like Bollinger, Krug, Cristal, Pol Roger, Egly-Ouriet, La Grande Dame---is up to you. Dom may not my favorite at this level, but these were mostly superior champagnes, if not an especially good values, and occasionally lacking in the pizazz you want in this price range. Still, I'd be delighted to own most of these, although not necessarily delighted to pay the price tags.
N.B.: The wines were in pristine condition; I believe they came directly from France. The 1978, 1983 and 1964 are being re-released as a group package deal for around $500 list price by Moet et Chandon in the USA. If you're interested, grab 'em fast before they sit on the shelves a long time.
The first course matched a trio of foods at just above room temperature--I correctly guessed this was deliberate-- tiede, the French would say, with the 1990 Dom and the 1986 Dom rosé. This was a pretty decent match for the oysters and the scallops, but not the sauteed foie gras. They tried as hard as they could to mute the sauteed foie gras---tiede, not very buttery--but why mute foie gras? This is one of life's great hedonistic pleasures. It is not a food that should be shy. It loses its raison d'etre.
This is a fine champagne in its style, balance and elegance with enough fruit for a good finish. 92-94 points, depending on evolution.
They next tried to match these wines with salmon, more or less raw tuna and sea urchin. It went very well with the sea urchin, but the oily salmon conflicted with the wine, in my view, and the fishy, nearly raw tuna blew it away. Bad choices, but, as Geoffroy noted, it was an interesting game.
The filet of veal, the venison and the roasted quail were next up, married to, so they hoped,
This food course presented a trio of meats and fowl that would have been better served by red wines. The quail almost made it. Not a bad choice, although probably no one's first choice if you had things other than champagne to choose. With the other dishes, the food matchup game became just a bit silly. The champagne did not go well with the veal in champagne demi- glace sauce, although it wasn't horrid; and it was a serious mismatch with the venison in blueberry sauce. My tastebuds cried for red wine, and I was seriously thinking about some of those great Bordeaux I had the previous night, but they poured more Dom. Oh, well. Good food, fine wine. Life could be worse, right?
I have very mixed opinions on the 1964, but one thing it did was go perfectly with the black truffle ice cream. I don't think I've ever had a champagne flavored quite like the 64. The nose and palate were earthy, scented and flavored with mushrooms and truffles. On this older wine, I noted little obvious sign of decay, little if any oxidation or maderization (keep in mind these bottles are in pristine condition, too), yet how do I explain these flavors that I don't normally associate with champagne (old or otherwise)? (The only noticeable old age aspect was that the wine was losing its bubbles.)
Whatever the cause, it was as if this wine was vinified with the idea that one day in Philadelphia at a special anniversary dinner some culinary genius would make a black truffle ice cream to serve it with. Both seemed to have an identical truffle flavor.
As for the champagne itself....this is going to be very much a style preference. I could make an argument that this is a great champagne, distinctive, weighty, a connoisseur's wine. Clearly, though, its funky qualities won't appeal to everyone and will alienate some. I give it 93 points, and I rate it more or less even with many of the wines here while noting that you have to make the call on whether the style and the character is a plus or a minus for you.
At last, we were allowed to leave. Not that it wasn't great fun for everyone (except perhaps the whiny woman who insisted on harassing everyone at the table about eating various courses she decided were immoral; tip: stay home!). But this Tuesday night event was preceded for me by Saturday and Sunday at the Boston Wine Expo, Saturday Night wine dinner after the day session at the Expo, and a Monday night Bordeaux banquet in Philadelphia. By Tuesday, I believe both my waistline and my alcohol levels were at new highs. I soldiered on. It's a dirty job but someone has to do it.
Copyright Mark Squires, © 1997, all rights reserved.