Sunday, March 16, 2014

THE BEST WAY TO LEARN ABOUT WINE? DRINK IT

We have them!

At least we have two of them: the wines selected by Eric Asimov the first installment of his monthly New York Times column, Wine School. I think this is a brilliant idea… sort of like Oprah’s book club, but with booze. You can read the details yourself, but it’s very simple: each month, Eric will recommend a few specific wines, as well as the general category to consider if you can’t find the specific bottles. Then you drink them. He drinks them. We all drink them. And we all chatter about them online

The key thing here, is that we’re to drink them… not just taste them. But actually sit down with the bottle over a night or two, over a meal or two, and experience them. I’m as excited about this as anyone – because while I get to taste a lot of wine, but I don’t get to drink it as much as I like. So this will be a chance for me to stop and smell the roses… or, um… drink the grapes?

Another key thing –this exercise is not necessarily about liking the wine. It’s about experiencing the wine. (Yes, that may be a bit hard to stomach when we’re talking about $30+ bottles of wine… but this experience is still much less expensive, much less time consuming, and really, much more enjoyable than any “real” wine class you could take.) The idea is to get a sense of how to think about wine, how to talk about it, and how to understand what you like and don’t like.

So if you’re up for a little adventure, grab a bottle and play along!

Chateau Cantemerle Haut-Medoc 2009 (Bordeaux, France): This chateau was one of the first Bordeaux I ever bought for the shop. While so many estates seem to be moving in a more modern, big fruit-soft tannin direction, Cantemerle seems to remain classically Bordeaux in character: elegant, structured, with fruit balanced by minerality and savory complexity. Price: $52.99 



Chateau Bernadotte Haut- Medoc 2009 (Bordeaux, France): No, it’s not a classified growth. But it’s very near several that are, including Pichon Lalande (formally known as Chateau Pichon Longuefille Comtesse de Lalande.) Bring on the value and give this one a try. Price: $30.99

Buy them here (while they last)


 
 

Friday, November 8, 2013

AUSSIE RULES ON WINE: The Real Unicorn

You may think I went to Australia to check out the wine scene. But you would be wrong. That was all just a ruse.

The real reason anyone to go to Australia is to see kangaroos.

Wendouree Malbec? Really old Hunter Valley Semillon? Early vintage Grange? The actual Hill of Grace? That crazy little parcel of super old vine Marsanne tucked away in Victoria?

Nah.

Look! A Kangaroo!
(They have their own paparazzi.)


Those unicorn wines and places mean nothing compared to the possibility of spotting a big bouncing marsupial. On tour in the Clare Valley, we even forced our bus driver to stop when we saw one hop by so we could chase it into a field in an attempt to get a photo.  (Apparently some of my travel mates weren’t allowed to come home unless they had a picture of a kangaroo, so this was very serious business.)

Are they as cute in real life as they are on TV? Sure… except they can kill you with one well-placed kick.

Cute factor aside, they’re really like deer in the Midwest. They like to stay to themselves and avoid people and you’ll really only see them if they’re forced to search further for food than they would like. In which case they wind up on in the vineyards or near the roadways. You’ll see roo-crossing signs there just as you would see deer crossing signs here. And your Aussie car will often have a “roo-bars” to keep the front from crumpling when you inevitably hit a roo. On my first trip to Australia, we did indeed hit one. And just like when my brother hit one in Ohio, the officer at the scene asked if we wanted to take it home. We didn’t. In either case. Because seriously, how would I fit it my suitcase?

The money shot below. (And if it's really a wallaby, keep it to yourself.)

I swear there's a kangaroo in this picture.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Aussie Rules on Wine: HEADING FOR THE HILLS

11.00 AM. In front of the hotel. Trying not to spill my coffee while having a $2-minute conversation about some minor elementary school trauma taking place back home yesterday, or two days ago – it’s hard to tell because time zones and dates stop making sense when you are halfway around the world. I’m keeping an eye out for L, my off-piste partner in crime (OK, it wasn’t a crime, but it felt like I was playing a minor bit of hooky because I had only spent an hour rather than a full day at the Savour grand tasting.)  I’m also keeping an eye out for Anton, who I am only half sure will actually arrive because we made these plans around midnight the night before during a random late night, jet-lagged-fogged bar session.

Anton does arrive, in his very purple Land Rover. With a big leg of ham in the back seat. We hop in and head off. But before the city fades away, we need to stop for some supplies. Anton heads into a shop for lunch fixings while L. and I pop into a pharmacy in search of a case for her contacts. And a little semi-panicked Q and A:

“Where are we going? And who is this man? And why am I sitting next to a ham in the back seat?”
Oh. Right…

I realized I had failed to completely fill L. in on the trip’s details. From her perspective, she had been shoved next to a ham in the back seat of a strange purple vehicle driven by crazy-haired man, all on the basis of a midnight text sent by a New York retailer she had only met in person a couple days before. This is exactly the sort of situation your mother warns you about.

I give her the scoop: this is the Anton who had been mentioned in one of Ronnie’s emails. The Anton who worked with James at Jauma as part of the Natural Selection Theory. The Anton who was one of the leading lights in Australian natural winemaking who was going to show us around his home and winery. And despite appearances, everything was OK, perfectly safe, and totally going as planned. Except for the ham. That was one of those things you just need to accept.

(Somewhat) reassured, we rejoined Anton in the purple-mobile and headed into the Hills. And these are Hills, with a capital H. I’d been to Victoria a few years back, where the hills are the definition of rolling. But these Adelaide Hills were a bit shocking. They were… steep. Maybe not Mosel steep, but steep enough to induce a few minor gasps as we rounded a switchback and found ourselves peering into a deep valley. And the vineyards weren’t the usual neat, well-manicured rows. They were patchy, clinging to the hills, and interspersed with fluffy sheep. 


Anton’s place was a sort of fairy-tale homestead – an Aussie version of the Shire of Middle Earth. Not that Anton looks like a hobbit – he’s much taller… and kept his shoes on the entire time. He’s added onto the house here and there, stripped things down, built things back up. Outside, there’s a cat and a rooster and a chicken that thinks it’s a cat and belongs on our side of the screen door. Inside, the namesake teenage Lucy/Lucci of the Domaine is fascinated by Japanese aime and there are cartoons and Hello Kittys and bits of her hand-drawn labels scattered throughout the place. An actual record player (surrounded by stacks of actual vinyl) share space with commercial quality kitchen things (an espresso maker, a meat slicer, other fancy shiny things that are beyond my expertise.)

Anton brings in the ham and plunks it on the coffee table. (A new trend perhaps? Farm to….coffee table?) And then we get down to business and taste some wines. These are the sort of wines that drive the more conservative members of the
Australian wine industry a little crazy. (They drive some of the less conservative members crazy as well.) They are made without acid additives (or other additions), unfiltered, minimal SO, skin contact here and there, use of stems. They are light in color, some are a bit cloudy, all are lively, mineral, and showing very nicely.

We started with a slightly pink petnat. It’s still cloudy at this point, but Anton’s plan is to riddle off the sediment, saying “Fineness is a benefit. Not everything needs to be wild.” (This might be the most shocking comment imaginable from a man considered to be pretty wild among the more tame Aussie winemaking circles.) There are several chardonnays, each almost shocking in it’s racy minerality. Two pinot noirs that are fresh, light, and vibrant. And a series of roses and peachy/pink skin contact wines.
 
Anton makes homemade pasta as L and I taste, take notes, and talk through the wines. The “spit bucket” is a shallow bowl which makes for a mean backsplash, so we soon give up and tasting starts to slide slightly onto the side of drinking. My notes mention something about 300% stem inclusion, which at the time, made such perfect sense that I didn’t set down the definition. Tom Shobbrook shows up and the chicken-that-thinks-it’s-a-cat almost managed to sneak inside. Some other friends arrive to discuss plans for the upcoming Adelaide Festival, which is more lunch than meeting. Small goods are produced. (I could… and will… write a full post on the deliciousness of Australian small goods.) Small goods are consumed. Barbara Streisand gets a (very short) spin on the record player. The spit bucket is formally discarded.

And eventually we head out to the winery portion of the visit, where I will let the pictures do their work.
 
 
Australia… land of high tech winemaking?
 
 
Anton and his eggs.
 





 

 Straight from the barrel.
 





 

 Honey, honey.
 





 

 Future wax capsules.
 
 Yes, that’s a chain saw.
 





 

 Bottles.
 





 

 Tall bottles.
 





 

 
That meeting about plans for the Adelaide Festival? It finally happens outside, as we sip something from one of those eggs. And it actually seemed productive!


Monday, October 21, 2013

Aussie Rules On Wine: A WINE BUYER WALKS INTO A BAR

So I had decided to set aside some of Wednesday for an off-piste visit to some of the region’s tinier wineries. My plan was to have James Eskine of Jauma pick me up at the hotel, drive me out to his winery in the Adelaide Hills, and deliver me back to the city that evening.

The only flaw in the plan was that I hadn’t yet met James …and he wasn’t aware of my plan.

James, along with Anton van Klopper (of Lucy Margaux/Domaine Lucci) and Tom Shobbrook (of Shobbrook Wines), is part of a group called the Natural Selection Theory. All three are committed to making wine as minimally as possible – a revolutionary idea in Australia (and a topic for another post). James’s USA importer, Ronnie at Vine Street, was trying to get us in touch, but by 10 PM on Tuesday evening, we hadn’t managed to make contact, so I was about to give up.

But there was magic in the Adelaide air that night and I happened to wander into the right bar at the right time.

OK, I didn’t actually “wander” into the bar. I was meeting a US wine writer who was meeting an Australian wine writer who was involved in judging the Adelaide Review Hot 100 South Australian Wines. This particular panel involved the region’s younger, cooler, smaller-scale winemakers - and while I’m sure the actual judging sessions were very serious, at this point in the evening, it had turned into a big party.

A few introductions in, I met the very James I had been looking for. He was the coordinator for the show, which was wrapping up on Wednesday….which meant no winery visit for me.

This is Anton van Klopper.
Not to be confused with Anton von Klapper
(who may exist on the internet,
but not in real life.)



Until…

A few more introductions in, I meet Anton …

....who was not officially involved in the next day’s session…

....and happened to be driving back to his home and winery in the Adelaide Hills that next morning…

....and would be happy to pick me up…

...and bring me back later that day.

As Hannibal (Smith, not Lecter.... and yes, I'm dating myself here) would say …. I love it when a plan comes together!

Monday, October 14, 2013

Aussie Rules On Wine: HEADING OFF-PISTE

A word about official wine trips: they are not vacations.

When you see the endless twitter stream of vineyards and bottles and meals, you may not believe this. And I certainly won’t try to convince you that they are less fun than a day of PowerPoint presentation in a badly-lit conference room.

But they are not vacations.

They are highly orchestrated and intensely scheduled, down to coffee breaks and even restroom stops. Days often run late and that much-desired late afternoon hour of scheduled rest and wifi usually evaporates into less than 15 minutes. Work back home? It either doesn’t get done, or gets squished into the twilight hours when jet lag has you by the throat and just won’t let you sleep. And sleep… actual, real, restful sleep? Well… maybe on the plane.

And no matter how well-considered the official schedule, there are almost always people or places you want to see that aren’t on it. And given the above, there’s clearly not much time to do it. Some may tinker with the official program, but my “good girl” gene always kicks in and keeps me from playing schedule-hooky. I supposed I’m afraid of being put in wine detention. So the alternative is forgoing even more sleep and shoving any off-piste activity into the early morning, late night, or what would otherwise be pre-scheduled nap time.

Which is what this next bit will be about – an off-piste trek on what would have been an otherwise restful day. But when Mr. Anton van Klopper, the wildman winemaker of the Adelaide Hills, offers to pick you up in this:



And take you to visit this:


So you can drink this:


...and this:


...and eat this:



Well then, as the saying goes, you can sleep when you're dead.

Because this is not a vacation....but it sure is fun.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Aussie Rules On Wine: ANOTHER MAP

Yes, I will get to the wine. And the food. And the kangaroos.

But first, another map...

I was here... inside the red circle.
... and some more specifics on the trip:
  • I flew from Sydney to Adelaide by way of Los Angles. I spent three days in Adelaide for the Savour Conference, with a day trip to the Adelaide Hills.  
  • Then about 50 of us from around the world were bused out to the Barossa Valley for two days of vineyards, wineries and semi-fancy dress dinners at Jacobs Creek and Treasury Wine Estates. 
  • Next we were all bused back to Adelaide for a short sleep before breaking into smaller groups and heading off on regional tours. I went to the Claire Valley and then back to the Barossa (with a lovely drive through the Eden Valley) for about four days total
  • Then back again to Adelaide for about three hours rest before starting the long journey home.

What I didn’t see: 
  • A other few regions in  South Australia (including Coonawarra and McLaren Vale)
  • Kola bears
  • Victoria (though I have been to the Yarra Valley twice)
  • Tasmania
  • New South Wales (which includes the magical home to Hunter Valley Semillon)
  • A platypus
  • Western Australia (been there twice, but only to Margaret River)

How I got there:
Disclosure statements are de rigueur on blogs these days, so here’s mine: My trip was paid for by Wine Australia. I won a blind tasting challenge at their annual tasting, which earned me a VIP spot to the Savour Conference. Because yes, I’m pretty damn good at tasting wine and not to toot my own horn too loudly, but I do, as they say in technical circles, ‘know my shit.’

Now you may be thinking, “how can she possibly be impartial when she’s on an all-expense-paid boondoggle?” Well, you’ll just have to trust me when I say I’ve been on enough of these things (even planned a few) that they have lost any charm they may have once held. I stopped going to free lunches long ago if their only charm was that the lunch was free.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Aussie Rules on Wine: SIZE MATTERS


This is the world.

A free world map... complete with watermark... b/c I'm too cheap to pay $9.99 for the download sans watermark.

And there’s Australia, tucked away down there in the corner. 
It’s just kind of there, looking small and very far away.

And it is far away. But small? 
Not so much.

It’s big.
Very big.

How big, you ask?

This big:


Or really, this big…. (because it’s all upside down down there, right?)


No, your eyes do not deceive you. That little land mass tucked down there in the bottom of the map is pretty much as big as the United States, with a touch of Canada (or Mexico, depending on your point of view) thrown in.

It’s three-time-zones big, including South Australia’s wacky ½-hour-ahead-or-maybe-it’s-behind-the-east-coast time zone, which is where I spent most of my trip. (Yes, it has an official name, Central Standard Time, but the name doesn’t really matter when you’re desperately trying to calculate a 14.5+ hour time difference from your work and family back home. At least I think it was 14.5+, I never really figured it out.)

It’s five-hours-to-fly-from-Sydney-to-Perth big. So no, you can’t just “drive across it.” Well, you can, but it would be like driving across the USA. Except that the vast majority of your drive time would be the Outback, the most remote bits of which are also known as the Never Never. Which doesn’t make it sound like a particularly great area to drive through.

So it’s big. Not a lot-of-people big (now sheep, those are another story) but big in land mass. And with that bigness comes a lot of diversity. The beaches, we all know about. But there are valley and hills: rolling hills, steep hills, craggy hills and really, really big hills that they call the Australian Alps. (Now the Swiss might laugh at the name, but these hills are high enough that there is snow and skiing.) And there are many, many different soil types – including some of the oldest soils in the world.

I always loved showing those maps during distributor presentations in my corporate days. It was always a shock to the audience, how big Australia is. And once they had the maps in their heads, it was easy to get into a conversation about how diverse the country’s wine growing regions were. That it wasn’t all kangaroo juice and Parker points. (Now, it didn’t mean they would actually sell the wine. Because for the most part, I was presenting to really big distributors who, yes, I will go there, really didn’t care that much about selling wine. Moving boxes, yes. Making money, sure. But really selling wine? Not. So. Much.)

Anyhow, that’s a rant for another post. This post is just to give the geographically challenged among us a sense of how much grape-growing ground there is to cover in that wee-looking island tucked away in the corner of the map.

And really, it’s just an excuse to pull out my maps. Because I really, really love my maps.

(I promise I will actually right about wine… soon, very soon.)