In conversations with both friends and new acquaintances, I've discovered that readers let their imaginations run freely when it comes to what wine writers actually drink. I emphasize that word because there's a big gap—a chasm, really—between tasting and drinking. I taste dozens of wines a week. My wife and I drink maybe two wines a night, perhaps half a bottle of a white and a red over the course of a dinner.
While tasting is both essential and educational, it's drinking that matters. And when I say "drinking" I'm not referring to a quantity of wine, but a quantity of time. You see, time is the most important ingredient in wine—once past the necessary business of grapes and yeasts. Time tells us more than whether a wine has aged successfully. Rather, time tells us whether a wine is worthwhile.
This is why, however good a taster you may be, you simply cannot know the worthwhileness of a wine in the minute or two you might grant it in a normal tasting setup. You simply cannot know, without drinking a wine with a meal, what it really has to say.
Ever been in a job interview? (Or conducted one, for that matter?) Did you think that you were really understood? That your character was truly able to be assessed? Think tasting vs. drinking and you've got it. Both tasting and job interviews are essential. They're sorting-out processes. But neither offers the definitive proof of substance. If they did, none of us would ever buy a wine that later disappoints us. Or have to work with someone who clearly has no business being there.
This brings me to the subject of this column: what I've been drinking. And—fair's fair—what you have been drinking. Too many “tasting” reports are just that—assessments from a quick hoist at the local wineshop or wine bar or from the front lines of a big tasting.
Me, I prefer “drinking” reports. (I like this site’s What We're Drinking Now feature for just that reason.) What have you had with a meal, over time, with friends, where the wine perhaps came alive? Or disappointed? (So much about wine involves expectations, doesn't it?)
E. & M. Berger Zweigelt Niederösterreich 2009
I love this Austrian red wine. First, it comes in a 1-liter bottle (rather than the standard 750ml size). And it's sealed with a crown cap, like a Coke bottle. (They use crown caps in the Champagne region to seal bottles during the aging period between the secondary fermentation and the disgorgement of the dead yeasts. So why not for finished wines, too?)
Zweigelt is a hybrid red variety developed in 1922 by an Austrian researcher named Fritz Zweigelt. He crossed a favorite (and very good) Austrian red grape called Blaufränkisch—which is successfully grown in Washington under the name Lemberger, by the way—and an almost unknown, aromatic member of the Pinot Noir family called St. Laurent.
Anyway, this is a marvelously light red wine that pairs beautifully with many dishes. We served it slightly cool with a simple roast chicken and it was a joy. It's so hard these days to find savory red wines that are light on their feet. Too many red wines today swagger around trying to be "important." And did I mention that it sells for 12 bucks?
Domaine Leroy Chambolle-Musigny Les Fremières 2002
Now here was a cellar jewel that is, well, "important." I don't own much Domaine Leroy (can't afford it), but when I originally tasted this wine, at Domaine Leroy, I knew I had to buy some. (Sell the house! Sell the dog!) I think it was about $175 a bottle when released. That's major money as far as I'm concerned, although it's chump change by Domaine Leroy's nosebleed standards.
We served this to a guest we wanted to flatter—and boy, did it ever! I make no secret of being a fan of Lalou Bize-Leroy and her wines. And this baby backed it up. Fabulously dense and rich, it still paired beautifully with the simple risotto we served (the more meaningful the wine, the simpler the food). Suffused with a minerality, it delivered that rarest and most precious element that distinguishes great wines from the merely good: endless layers of flavors that never fatigue or exhaust your senses. It's like diving into a bottomless pool yet never feeling like you need to come up for air. All that from a village-level wine, no less.
Cowhorn Spiral 36 White Table Wine Applegate Valley 2009
This is a new discovery for me, and it's a stunner. The Applegate Valley is in southern Oregon, about 40 miles from the California border. It's an old gold-mining area that later became farm country. The area has a history of winegrowing, but what emerged was only episodically good, as growers groped to find what worked best in this sunny, dry, cold-in the-winter, hot-in-the-summer zone. (The cool, moist Willamette Valley is 200 miles to the north, effectively a world away.)
Cowhorn Vineyard and Garden (its full and proper name) is a new entry, dating to 2005. It’s the creation of Bill and Barbara Steele; both graduates of UC, Berkeley, and both MBAs, they left Wall Street, where Bill worked as a research analyst, to settle in Jacksonville, Ore., and create this 117-acre biodynamically certified farm and vineyard (which explains the Cowhorn name).
Cowhorn's Rhône-inspired blend of Viognier (34 percent), Marsanne (33) and Roussanne (33) took me by storm—and by surprise, too. A pale lemon yellow with just a hint of green—an appetizing Chablis-like color that always seems to signal something special—it delivers scents and tastes of mineral, citrus, peach, mango, melon and a subtle spiciness.
It's a rare white wine blend that's quite so seamless, especially considering that Viognier, with its sometimes intense spiciness, can be bullying. Not so in this wine. It paired beautifully with sautéed scallops.
Apart from the sheer pleasure that this wine afforded, it reminded me of how many good, even extraordinary, wines are now created in America that most of us never see. Cowhorn Spiral 36 White Table Wine 2009, for example, is just 400 cases. So how many of us will ever come across it? The same could be said of hundreds of wines across the United States, never mind Canada. Here on the West Coast, I don't see a single wine from, say, Long Island.
This situation suggests that in a strange way, we are slowly becoming like Europe, where in many cases locals are the near-exclusive audience for local wines, and the rest of the nation is largely oblivious to what's happening just down the road. We're not quite so extreme yet, but we're getting there. The question is, is that good or bad?
Rockford Riesling Eden Valley Hand Picked 2002
One of winedom's best-kept secrets is the goodness of Australian dry Rieslings from the Clare and Eden valleys north of Adelaide. When we lived in Australia, I must have had these dry Rieslings several times a week, at least.
One of my favorites comes from Rockford, and when we returned home I went to some lengths to buy the wine here, as not much is exported. This 2002 Rockford Riesling had been aging in my cellar, and it was time well spent. It's now a fully mature dry Riesling, delivering flavors of lime, stones and a certain fullness that makes it different from, say, the exquisiteness of a Riesling from Germany's Mosel region. (Think violin compared to cello.) It was terrific with a selection of cheeses, by the way.
Louis Jadot Pernand-Vergelesses Clos de la Croix de Pierre 1996
I stumbled across this wine by accident while looking for something else in the cellar. (Does that happen to you too?) One of my near-annual "go to" red Burgundies, I buy it by the case.
Pernand-Vergelesses Clos de la Croix de Pierre is one of Jadot's overlooked treasures. Part of a larger premier cru called En Caradeux, Jadot's parcel is a choice 8.2-acre subset surrounded by an ancient stone wall, hence the designation clos, or enclosure. (This always references a former monastic holding, as only the church was allowed the privilege of walling vineyards.)
I usually don't cellar Pernand-Vergelesses, a medium-weight red wine, quite so long, although 14 years for a Jadot red is no big deal. Jadot's rather firm, austere style allows its wines to age better, and longer, than many other red Burgundies.
This '96 held up beautifully, I must say, delivering a wafting, delicate fragrance of dusty rocks, raspberry and dark cherry. Most importantly, it accompanied roast pheasant about as perfectly as could be imagined.
By the way, I had the 2002 vintage of this wine recently and it's delicious—more intense and luscious than the '96. And nowhere near needing to be drunk yet, either.
So that's the cellaring and drinking news chez Kramer. What's going on with you and your cellar? What have you been drinking these days? I look forward to hearing about it.