Every bottle has a story

I am not a wine expert, but with each bottle I try and share with friends, I learn more. Wine is an exceptional social drink; it is the marijuana of alcoholic beverages because it must be shared. I seek to share with you my thoughts and experiences as I drink the wine in my closet, as well as my enthusiasm for the finds that come my way and the excellent values that I find. I'd love to hear your thoughts and experiences too, so please share!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

One that was held too long

As I mentioned in my first post, storing wine for extended periods can be a risky affair if you don’t have a climate-controlled place to lay your bottles. After all, it is literally true that my wine cellar is a closet; has been all along. And one of the oldest bottles I had kept had turned out to be kept too long.

So let me tell you what I remember before I reveal what happened late last summer.

It was my first wine tasting. I was living in Mt. Pleasant, Mich., at the time and was just beginning to enjoy wine. Wine tastings are wonderful experiences because not only do you get to taste a wide variety of wine, but you also get to speak directly with the sellers who can fill you in on the wine’s background, who is the vintner, and other wonderful details. Although I can’t recall the name of the wine, I had my first New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc at this tasting, and it tasted like bell pepper! It was really quite extraordinary, because until then the only taste I had ever associated with Sauvignon Blanc was grapefruit.

But the wine that really grabbed my attention was the Penfolds 1998 St. Henri Shiraz. I’m thinking it must have been either 2001 or 2002 when I attended this tasting. I was totally enamored with this wine; there was subtle fruit but firm tannins that gave it heft, and there was a long, delightful and earthy finish. I think it was my first conscious moment of a wine’s terroir.

What’s nice about Penfolds St. Henri releases is that they are like a discount version of that producer’s famous Grange. I have never tasted a Penfolds Grange, but whenever I see a bottle in a wine shop, I dream. And it remains a dream because I just can’t bring myself to spend $300 for a bottle of wine. Not yet. Someday, I will enjoy the Grange.

But the St. Henri is Grange’s more affordable cousin. Although not as sought-after by collectors, it is a brilliant wine nonetheless. Instead of paying $200 to $400 for Grange, you can get St. Henri for between $45 to $60 and still be getting a 90-point or better wine. The 1998s I purchased (I admit, I bought three that night) were rated at 92 by Wine Spectator. Since 1990, only five vintages were rated at less than 90: 1992 at 88, 1994 at 87, 1997 at 88, 2001 at 86, and 2003 at 87. So even those vintages were accorded scores higher than 85, so we’re talking good stuff.

My last bottle of St. Henri had done a lot of traveling: from a closet in Mt. Pleasant, Mich., to a closet in Holland, Mich., and finally to a closet here in Chicago. And late last summer, I had an occasion to bring it out. Benny was soon to be leaving on a trip to South America that would eventually take him back to Hong Kong where he’s from. He and I went out with another friend Eric for a farewell dinner at a really fantastic tapas restaurant just a couple blocks from my apartment – Café Marabella. Unfortunately, this restaurant closed down, I think from lack of trade. The sluggish economy really hit hard the mid-level restaurants like this one. Oh, but the food there was so delicious and very reasonably priced.

When the owner began to open the St. Henri for me, I could see we were in trouble. The cork was very dry despite the bottle having been on its side for the better part of nine years. It fell apart before we could get all of it out. Enough of a butt was left that I could sniff. There was that nutty smell of brandy. I felt a pin stab my stomach. A taste was poured and the nose still had that nutty aroma of brandy, but I could still smell some faint fruit. I took a sip and all I could discern was a specter of what this glorious wine had been in earlier days. I thought that maybe with time and air the wine would gradually open up and develop its character, but it just continued to fade. At best, it was drinkable.

So alas, this St. Henri was a disappointment for me. Normally I think I would give this a 9 or better on a scale of 10, but for this particular evening, I shall be generous and give it a 4.5.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Oscar night 2010

According to my notes, I had two wines in my closet that were reaching the peak of their maturity. This is always a risky endeavor, because my closet is not an optimum storage location, but it is the best I can do. During the summer, it can still reach 75 degrees in there and it can fluctuate widely; I can only keep the air conditioner on in my bedroom for so long or I will be sending all my paycheck to ConEd. And during the winter, while the temperature becomes a more consistent 65 to 68 degrees, it can get terribly dry.

The bottle that was at highest risk was a 1999 Kopparossa Coonawarra Shiraz. It had a 90 rating from Wine Spectator and a drink window ending in 2010. This wine was an amazing find and represents a purchase made without any prior knowledge. I had originally purchased four bottles. I think it was 2004 or 2005 and I had picked them up in the wine section at the D&W in Holland. It was a marked-down wine, the original price being $35 but was on sale for $18. I initially bought one, drank it, and was so impressed that the next day I went back to the D&W to get another. When I saw there were only three left, I grabbed all three.

The other wine was a 2004 Cote Rotie from Bernard Burgaud. This had a 91 rating from Wine Spectator, and while the drink window extended into 2011, I considered this bottle at risk as well and I didn’t want to miss out on it. The experience I had with my last bottle of St. Henri taught me that keeping wine stored under the conditions I had beyond the ideal storage time was very risky. And I had never had a Cote Rotie before; I didn’t want to miss this opportunity.

Cote Rotie tends to be expensive. The cheapest I’ve seen still demand as much as $60 retail. Coming from the Northern Rhone area of France, I was fairly confident I would like it. I am very fond of Rhone wines, particularly the reds, with Chateauneuf du Pape being my favorite. In my closet (as of this writing) I have nine Chateauneuf du Papes. I also have some St. Joseph, Gigondas, and a Cote du Rhone Villages. When I saw this Cote Rotie for $40, I thought what the heck. But what was I going to serve it with? So it sat in my closet since October of 2008.

An opportunity presented itself with the annual Academy Awards, so I invited my assistant at work, Hilary Fosdal, and her husband Steve, to dinner. Besides, Hilary had recently given notice to take another job, so it was also my opportunity to do something nice and show my appreciation for her work.

The menu: pan seared and roasted bison top sirloin, about 1.5 inches thick, simply prepared with sautéed portabella mushrooms. As sides I roasted parsnips, boiled beets and prepared the beet greens with chopped red onion, garlic and cider vinegar. Hilary and Steve brought a spinach salad. All the food was quite good.

We opened the Shiraz first. The fruit was still quite strong, a wonderful sign as I feared I would catch the faint, nutty aroma of brandy, a sure indication that the wine had been cooked. Even on the first pour with minimal air, this Coonawarra Shiraz was smooth as silk, the tannins initially very soft. But as the bottle opened up, a hint of white pepper came through and the tannins firmed up giving a somewhat muscled punch to the finish. The fruit was always there, blackberry with a velvety texture. Despite the drink window ending in 2010, this wine could have stood another year I think, but I’m glad we drank it when we did. This was really delicious!

As the wine expert at Whole Foods told me, the Cote Rotie was an excellent match with the bison and the earthy, root vegetables. But it was a decidedly different wine from the Shiraz, obviously. However, it’s the same grape essentially. Cote Rotie is mostly Syrah, sometimes mixed with a small portion of Viognier. This wine was very firm with strong mineral quality, as expected. And it tasted quite young; not thin, mind you, but again, this wine could have withstood another few years in the closet. This was strange considering its recommendation had its window closing in 2011. I don’t see why this wine couldn’t cellar until 2015 or longer. But alas, I only had one bottle.

Personal ratings:

Kopparossa Coonawarra Shiraz, 1999, Australia: 9.5 out of 10.
Bernard Burgaud Cote Rotie, 2004, Northern Rhone, France: 7 out of 10.