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2007 Oberemmeler Hutte Spatlese

December 7, 2011

von Hovel's Oberemmeler Hutte Vineyard

The only Oberemmeler Hutte you’ll find will be made by von Hovel estate because this vineyard is its monopole. As is the case with most first class German vineyards it is a south facing slope and as is typical of the region the soil is slate, making for a well drained and heat-retentive vineyard in which vines’ roots grow deep in search of water.

Intense yet subtle, one would be hard pressed to find a more delicate young Spatlese, the 2007 Oberemmeler Hutte Spatlese is the epitome of Saar wine. Mosel-Saar-Ruwer is not really as unified as the name might imply. The difference between a Spatlese from the Saar and one from the Mittel Mosel (think Bernkastel, Wehlen, Urzig et al) in any given vintage should be quite obvious. Both should have an exquisite balance of acid and sugar but the Saar would always be the more delicate; never spicy or creamy in my experience, though I do imagine that good BA and TBA wines would not be able to avoid that sort of richness. The 2007 vintage was well suited to Saar wines, providing the extra ripeness that such a cool wine region needs to make balanced and age-worthy wines.

The 2007 Oberemmeler Hutte Spatlese will age on its purity of fruit and balance of structural elements (acid and sugar) for 10, if not 20, years. At 4 years of age the wine has a light straw color and upon opening still has a small amount of gas. Aromas of peach, lemon and lime are intense next to suspicions of linseed oil and petrichor. The palate follows the nose closely and there is a palpable sense of minerality and extract. The tension between acidity (medium+) and sugar is marvelous. The sweetness seems low for a Spatlese but this is probably just the acidity speaking over it; the sugar must be fairly high because Spatlese juice fermented to 7.5% should leave behind a fair amount. The finish is long and subtle, ripe lemon flavors linger after a sense of sweet peaches subsides. This is a spry young wine, you could serve it with just about anything and it would simply work as a refreshing beverage but complementary pairings should not be too difficult to come by either. Lightly spiced vegetable dishes or fish in a lemon and thyme cream sauce are two that come to mind immediately but one could  get much more creative I’m sure.


2010 Bodega Chacra Barda is Pinot Noir

December 4, 2011

Pinot Noir is hot, has been hot. Personally it took a little time for me to come around to the grape but I knew there must be a reason why prices could get so high so I always kept my mind open. I also knew that there must be some good bottles of Pinot Noir that weren’t terribly overpriced so I wasn’t afraid of an interesting closeout. Eventually there were some pitbulls, wines that just wouldn’t let go, that left indelible marks, tattoos as it were.

For years I’ve been fully convinced through personal experience that Pinot is capable of making great wine but it can be tough finding the right bottles. One can definitely spend alot of money on a Burgundy that has no chance of aging well and doesn’t taste very good now.  It is also easy to find overblown styles from California that are pleasurable but more in the way an awesome Zin is pleasurable, thus making it more economical to seek out elegant Zins than big Pinots. It seems however that Pinot growers everywhere are learning lessons and the proliferation of information not only about wine in general  but also about almost every individual wine available in the world makes it tough for bad values.

Still I generally tell people that Pinot Noir, Champagne and Napa Cabs are as a rule overpriced, or at the very least are not categories from which one should expect good values. Pinot is tough to grow so maybe there’s a valid excuse in many cases. With a Blanc de Noirs you might thus always expect exorbitant prices but so much of any variety of Champagne is genuinely overpriced; the Grand Marques are truly a cartel. And Napa Cab, I’m not sure what the deal is, it seems like there may be some image issues going on there. There are doubtless other categories that provide little relative value, but those three really stick out and among them Pinot Noir is perhaps the worst offender.*

A rather peculiar statement made by an MW has always stuck with me. He asserted that Pinot Noir was mostly a wine to smell but that there were certainly exceptions that would make the previous assertion seem ludicrous. One might say the same of Nebbiolo, no? Both grapes seem to be able to produce gloriously perfumed wines on a regular basis but only sometimes come up with a finely balanced drink from start to finish. There are so many Burgundies and Baroli that smell outrageously good yet seem to lose control on the palate; one might make the excuse that they are meant for food or need to age but wouldn’t change the fact that on their own the wines seem to lack a certain cohesion and balance.

The 2010 Bodega Chacra Barda is a delight to smell and with a certain amount of air (I had about a half a glass on the first night,  stuck it in a cool dark place and with the help of a few others polished it off 24 hours later) quite a fine drink. The nose is pure Pinot: red and orange fruits next to an intense aroma reminiscent of the smell one might find wafting about a coniferous forest on a warm, breezy day**. Tannin medium minus, acid medium plus, alcohol low. Sappy and minerally, with a supple texture that belies its light weight, lingering finish just skirts the borders of tart. It made me think of that MW’s opinion of Pinot because while the nose was endlessly fascinating it simply drank very well, the finish nothing to marvel at. Drink now but should age 5 maybe 10 depending on tastes and cellars.

This would go for about $30 retail. Is that a good deal? In the realm of Pinot Noir? Yes, yes and yes. There are certainly wines of similar complexity that might cost $15 (2005 Lame Deslisle Boucard Bourgeuil Cuvee Prestige, perhaps the greatest value in red wine I have ever encountered) but they are not Pinot.

Bodega Chacra is the fabulously interesting Patagonian project of  Piero Incisa della Rocchetta. If the entry level Pinot is this good I’m going to be looking around for the other wines (two more Pinots and a Merlot). Being the fanatic that I am I probably won’t mind the price too much at all because it seems that Chacra has apprehended Pinot itself and that is a rare catch.

*An obvious exception is in the world of collectible bottles where there are many Grand Cru red Burgundies, not made by DRC or Leroy, that look like bargains next to First Growths.

**What is that smell? Well, that of dried pine needles but also something like cinnamon, rosemary, subtle smoke and soil (one could certainly go on). It is a wonderfully complex smell yet somehow one of the most simple and pure whiffs I am ever able to recall. “Forest floor” is what it might amount to in so many tasting notes but not all forest’s floors smell alike, that perfect pine forest smell however is something I associate with Pinot Noir alone. Saying it smells like a “forest floor” is like saying “coffee smells like coffee” or my favorite “wine smells like grapes”, both statements are so very true but tend to be annoying (though every so often endearing) to a guy like me.


December 1, 2011

A wine is an island, a fractal. You can contain it in in an area, a volume, a 187, 375, 750, a Rehoboam, but does a wine have a perimeter? What are the limits of the wine itself, go mad in that infinity, or not, most won’t I’m sure, but any outline, scant or ample can only purport description. One may start but just where to finish? Whether it’s offensive, simply gouleyant or somehow eminently cathartic, well made alcohol has an uncanny ability to evoke the littoral. Obviously it is somewhere between the shore and unfortunate depths but where might one apprehend comprehension?  When you’re out for a dip it’s usually pretty obvious if the water is any good, the tippler knows the same immediacy in drink. So many just swim along, as they should, a routine affair, to swim as to swill. Some swim out and back, drawn by nothing but the full emptiness ahead, heeding the wisdom of safe distances, maybe just looking for a sandbar; a tottering spectacle not misunderstood in general. When the water is good who wants to get out?

2008 Robert Groffier Bourgogne Rouge and the Awkwardness of Judging a Wine

June 9, 2011

Eric Asimov wrote a pretty weird column a little while ago. It was about how maybe you could sum up any wine using one of two words: sweet or savory. If anyone took him too seriously maybe they thought he was crazy but at the very least it easily made for a gratifying diversion through the mind. No matter how encompassing any two words might be they will never be able to describe the best wines out there, wines that go beyond boundaries that words cannot reach. Maybe we wax and wane in our notes because there can can be no end to the description of wines that are worth writing about or maybe we overcompensate for our impotent vernacular, maybe both. Some shun elaborate description in lieu of a few words meant to give a general impression of the whole experience, after all many wines are simply so pure as to defy the multiplicity a tasting note might imply. Scant, unpretentious words may prove to be more than adequate to provoke exploration;  one of my friends once described Karmeliet Tripel as “like a rotten peach but in a good way”  and I couldn’t help but think how great that was before someone else in the room said “wait can I get a sip of that?”

Blueberry, blood orange, arugula, duck. Would that inspire a try in most? Quite possibly but I’m not really sure.

Ever think about colors when you taste a wine? Red, magenta, black. Magenta’s cousin’s friend, orangey blood, and her boyfriend carmelized moss. Wisps of lilac and streaks of slate dancing on sheer sky.  When you get done with the colors, dimensions and composition tumble together as if gravity depended on each sip and not the other way around. How easy to paint a wine in the mind, a picture unto the gullet, no others’ swallows can relate.

Or I could say: medium/light bright ruby red color.  Gorgeous aromas of flowers, pine needles and red berries. Faint hints of oak meld with the Pinot varietal character to make a smell like sauteed mushroom. There is also some spice in the background that seems to amplify the floral aromas. In the mouth the acid is high minus and tannin is medium minus, the fruit is very apparent but quite tart along a patchy spectrum of ruby red grapefruit to wee huckleberry and I wonder how it will integrate and fade over time. The floral and savory elements from the nose are present but not intense enough to compete with the fruit/acid complex that dominates the refreshing, straightforward finish.  Give it a few to 5 years, tops, because the nose hints at faint tertiary notes already; but who knows maybe the fruit will still compete with the acidity in 2018 to make a more smooth and complex wine.

I would definitely describe the wine mentioned in the title as a good ordinary wine, nothing you couldn’t hope to compete with in many other Pinot Noir regions. If in the realm of ordinary wines you could have balanced wines or complex wines (because a wine with parts equally balanced and complex wine would no doubt be extraordinary) this wine would be complex. The nose is great (as in so many other 08 Burgundies) but things get a little out of whack on the palate. Overall though the flavors can’t keep it together to balance out the  acidity that makes me brace for a finish that is suddenly ok after all; it’s a little messy but keeps me guessing and it goes down easy even on glass number 3. A sessionable wine? I doubt it.

If you wanted to use another two words, besides balanced and complex, like sweet or savory, I’d have to say savory. That’s what is so wonderful about most ordinary wines is that you can peg them so easily, you want sweet? this ain’t for you. But it isn’t as simple as that all the time. Really good wines tend to have sweet and savory elements, even dessert wines. Most wine drinkers also don’t seem to know what they want half of the time and on different occasions want different things. I have this wonderful friend who has been drinking wine for a very long time but has little expertise. She likes all sorts of wine from sweet, oaky Chards to funky, tart reds. Every once in awhile she’d say to  “gimme something bloody, you know what I mean”. I couldn’t really say either way whether I did. I could probably count the number of wines that I can remember having smelled or tasted like blood on one hand, so really I was never able to give her something that I thought was truly bloody, but I caught her drift more often than not. Her relatively imprecise but quite developed taste for wine has always made me wonder about what makes anything taste good when it does.

Judging a drink is so fraught. Why do it but to prove something that proves there’s so little to prove. Maybe one relates on some level but the only real way to judge a drink is to relate it to appropriate channels, so glouglou my friends.

Oh yeah and buy Groffier’s wines, that is if you can find any and are in the mood to afford them.

Sorachi Ace

March 27, 2011

I bought a bunch of these because hot damn it’s a hell of a beer. Tons of bubbles give a luxurious effervescence akin to champagne and I mean good champagne. When it was young it had a distinct lemon note, almost like a fresh lemon, amongst other smells I’ve heard described variously from feet to flowers. I opened one the other day after about 9 months or so of aging and was a little apprehensive; needlessly because it was smokin. The bubbles were very persistent and the fruit was more than intact. The savory element had integrated too and there were no longer any heavy fermentation aromas to compete with. The flavor is so on point. The finish is amazing and I think the texture may have improved. I hope they release this one again in bottle someday, magnums actually.

2008 Castello La Leccia Chianti Classico

February 20, 2011

Does this have Syrah in it? I blaspheme, but this wine is dark for a Chianti Sangiovese and the 2008 vintage in Chianti was not noted for producing particularly concentrated grapes. Upon investigating their website I found that Castello la Leccia does grow a little Merlot and Canaiolo which are “separately harvested, fermented and refined, to be used as light accents in the delicate phase of blending the final vintage.” If there is Merlot in this wine, the back label indicates Sangiovese alone, it may be imparting quite the bold accent in the way of color and fruitiness. Whatever it is that has been done is fine with me because this is certainly within a range of styles to be expected from Chianti Classico and it is the best 2008 Chianti I’ve tasted so far.

Of particular note is a technique used at Castello La Leccia that as far as I know is unique to their winemaking. At the bottom of their stainless steel tanks are propellers (this is a common feature) which have been retrofitted with teflon blades (this is the unique part) to sweep the seeds out of a slot at the bottom of the tank. How exactly this occurs without losing a bunch of wine I don’t know but on their website they say “Depending on the need we can remove as much as 50 percent of the seeds during those first few days.” It makes perfect sense that they developed this technique in 2002, a cool and rainy vintage where one might have wanted to avoid extracting material from green seeds that did not lignify (turn hard and brown). This technique might likely account for the easy drinking nature of this Chianti.

The wine has a fairly dark ruby red color. The nose is full of strawberry and dark cherry with hints of cream, clove and warm black earth.  With air some vanillary oak becomes obvious and an interesting green note emerges but overall this has a wonderfully pure and intense nose that is all about the fruit. Medium plus tannin and medium plus acidity are well supported by the juiciness. The finish isn’t terribly long but it is fine and purely fruited.

Altos Las Hormigas and Their New 2006 Vistaflores

February 18, 2011

A few weeks ago I attended a lunch featuring the wines and winemaker Aberto Antonini of Altos las Hormigas. The food was fine but one of the wines really surprised me. I have tasted both Altos las Hormigas’ regular Malbec and their Malbec Reserva before and have developed mixed feelings about them over the years. Both are good enough to demand their respective askings, probably more than good enough actually, but I remembered both as being typical Mendoza Malbec: quite ripe  with dark fruit flavors and a veneer of oak, nothing very special or distinctive. We tasted four wines on this occasion: one Bonarda and three Malbecs.  Two of the Malbecs are new to their revamped portfolio and of those two one was very special and distinctive indeed.

Upon invitation I was informed that the lunch was intended to highlight the release of a couple new wines from Altos las Hormigas’  terroir project. “Ok”, I thought, “that should be a larf, too much oak, overripe flavors and not enough tannin or acidity to hold it together, how will that highlight terroir?” What a jerk I can be sometimes.

Altos las Hormigas calls themselves ‘The Malbec Specialist’ and also claims to be the first all Malbec  project in Argentina. This is a bit dubious in my opinion seeing as there were Malbec vineyards in Argentina long before they arrived and somebody must have dedicated themselves only to Malbec wines before them, who knows though. They are however specialists of Malbec and in the 90’s, when experimenting with a wide variety of international grape varieties was quite popular in Mendoza, they arrived on the scene and chose to work with Malbec alone. ALH recognized that Malbec had adapted to the terroir of Mendoza over the past 150 years, including developing an even thicker skin to deal with the effects of increased UV light in Mendoza, and felt that this had to be the grape that would produce the best wines of Mendoza. ALH has planted French Malbec next to the indigenous Mendoza Malbec and according to Alberto Antonini the wines are quite different, the Malbec of Mendoza exhibiting darker flavors and more tannin.

When it comes to their terroir project they are actually doing some very interesting things. They have hired Pedro Parra, South America’s only soil and terroir specialist, to work with them in mapping the soil types of their vineyards. I remember reading about Pedro Parra in Decanter and thinking “what a cool job, dig some holes, used to do that when I was a kid, can’t be too hard”. There is certainly a science to soil, as well as vast fields of study within it (geology, biology, chemistry), and I have but a superficial knowledge of said science so I’m actually confident that I’m hardly qualified to consult on the potential of any given plot of land to produce great wine. ALH’s website has an interesting overview of the different soil types of Mendoza and this is a decent introduction to some of the basic ideas behind the concept of soil affecting wine-grape terroir.

The soils of Mendoza are 100% alluvial, the result over  countless years of melt water pushing sediment down from the slopes of the Andes. Soil variation is huge in Mendoza and within a matter of meters can change enough to result in marked differences between wines. ALH along with Pedro have been mapping their vineyards’ soils and identifying macrozones and microzones of desirable soil types. There are various techniques used to analyze soils, among them are measuring pH, digging trenches and electroconductivity tests (see here for an explanation). ALH has used these techniques in conjunction with each other to map and rank their vineyards as precisely as possible.

For their Malbec Classico and Malbec Valle de Uco Terroir ALH has identified the soil types of all their vineyards using ‘macrozoning’, identifying large swaths of vineyard land appropriate for these wines. In the case of their Valle de Uco Reserva they have used ‘microzoning’, digging holes wherever necessary to analyze the soil of individual blocks within a vineyard, to identify areas with soil created by ancient riverbeds. The older the soil generally the more consistent and complex the layers of sediment will be and the resulting wines theoretically more structured and complex.

In the case of their Vistaflores Single Vineyard ALH found a vineyard that produced uniquely concentrated grapes and has identified individual rows in this vineyards that follow an ancient riverbed. The soil in this specific area has “very consistent layers”  and “high pebble stone content, 3 feet in depth, with a 5% presence of a clay component in the stone layer, which is very uncommon in Mendoza” and the resulting wine has a minerality allied to abundant but fine grained tannins. The elevation of the vineyard is also quite high at 1250m (4100ft) and the resulting cool temperatures and increased light also helps to concentrate the grapes.

The elevage of Vistaflores is also on the extreme side. I was getting kind of scared when they said this wine was aged in new french oak for 36 months but this was one of those amazing wines that apparently needs that sort of treatment. “Lees are friends” says Alberto, the wine is only racked twice over the course of its three years in oak and besides the presence of lees must have helped to ameliorate the effects of new oak. From ALH’s website: “The wine has gone through two different sets of new, tight grain, French oak barrels”. Does  this indicate the infamous 200% new oak treatment or have they separated two lots of the wine using different types of barrels? I dunno. In any case the wine saw a lot of oak and I can’t say I would have treated it any other way. The wine has also been aged in bottle for two years before release.

In my opinion the Vistaflores is a profound wine and the other Malbecs I tasted that afternoon also commendable but like a conspicuous  pachyderm the question lingers so plain: how does terroir affect the way these wines taste? The question resonates most strongly in the case of the Vistaflores, a tremendous wine made from grapes grown in a painstakingly selected area.

Historically the best terroirs have been valued for their ability to produce wines with complexity, balance and the ability to last. One may be able to get good ripeness in a wide variety of sites but theoretically only the best will make a wine with the structural integrity to outlast the rest.  A balanced wine of great extract can only be made when the raw materials are perfect and only certain sites have the potential to produce such grapes. Certainly the quality of tannins in the grapes is a huge factor and the unique qualities of soil in the Vistaflores vineyard are likely responsible for much of the wine’s tannic clout. “In Pedro’s experience this clay presence enhances the firmness of the tannins, and the mineral personality of the wine.” I wouldn’t discount the firmness of the tannins in the Vistaflores but what was notable about the tannin for me was its abundance and fine grained quality. Extracting a lot of tannin from imperfect grapes would yield an imbalanced wine; rare indeed is the wine that has high tannins and retains a smooth texture. Acidity, an integral element in a wine destined to age, must also be appropriately judged and is determined by a host of factors including one, picking time, that is not inherent in a vineyard’s terroir. The cool climate of the Valle de Uco coupled with the high altitude of the Vistaflores vineyard should help keep acidity high while the clay in the soil, usually associated with a cooling effect on the roots of vines, would also help to preserve acidity. Attaining high sugars and intense fruit flavors is likely the least of worries in Mendoza so that exposition and slope are probably not important factors in the terroir of Vistaflores.

Here an argument for the flavor of terroir has devolved into technical terms. Sure the soil and climate help to give certain qualities and quantities of tannin, acidity and sugar to grapes and a perfect confluence of these elements will only occur in certain sites in certain years. If however we speak of the terroir of Vistaflores there ought to be some unique flavor that distinguishes it, a particular gout de terroir – the opulent spice of Vosne compared to the delicate poise of Volnay or the masculinity of Barolo versus the femininity of Barbaresco. What is the uniquely tasty flavor of Vistaflores? I cannot say exactly. There were aspects of the wine that I’d say were typical of a Mendoza Malbec but there were others that were not. This was also the most powerful wine I’d ever tasted from the area so I have  little reference.  The cooler climate of the Valle de Uco combined with the high altitude and particularly excellent soil composition of Vistaflores allows ALH to extract from perfect grapes a profusion of the elements that would result in a wine both balanced and powerful but what the hallmark flavor of Vistaflores might be I cannot really say.  One thing I’m certain of though is that the terroir must be great when the wine is so good.

The wines, in the order they were served:

2009 Colonia Las Liebres Bonarda: A separate venture so as not to sully the pure Malbecness of ALH. Apparently Argentinian Bonarda is not the same thing as Italian Bonarda and has been determined to be genetically identical to California’s Charbono. The wine was full of strawberry and dark cherry flavor, lightly spicy and with a hint of leafiness. The finish juicy and fresh and was typical of Bonarda with a light bitterness, like someone threw an aspirin into the tank or something.

2009 Valle de Uco Terroir Malbec: Red fruit, licorice, white flowers, vanilla and spice, oak is not blatant but certainly apparent. Medium acidity and medium minus tannin. A little warmth on the finish. Overall surprisingly good and fairly unique in its red fruitedness, I usually associate Mendoza Malbec with dark fruits. This red fruit is, Alberto said, the result of the Valle de Uco’s cool climate.

2006 Vistaflores: Bad lighting so I couldn’t really judge the color, but it was clearly opaque.  The nose is complex but reserved, aromas need to be coaxed out of the glass. One of the most intense smells is that of burning embers and hot rocks but a wealth of black and red fruit emerges along with graphite, white flowers, camphor and suspicions of pineapple and dark chocolate. Massive in the mouth with an ‘all the berries in the forest’ effect in full swing, earthy and floral flavors are in the background but still present. Medium plus acidity and high tannin, very fine grained, deceptively smooth and full bodied, alcohol untraceable but I’m guessing it is high. Finish is fine and long echoing so many of the aforementioned flavors. This should last and last. I totally underestimated these guys, this is the best Malbec I’ve ever tasted.

2008 Valle de Uco Reserva: Sappy red and black fruits, oak is apparent but not overwhelming. Much more open than the previous wine, medium tannin and acidity, soft and inviting. Why did they serve this after the Vistaflores? Almost makes the wine feel flabby after that model of poise.