Vol 3 No 3 an evening to remember

Imagine: you get an invitation to a wine tasting by email. Not just any tasting but a vertical tasting of the first twenty-five years the winery has been in existence. The last SIX of those vintages have not been released yet – just lying in the cellar slowly aging. You received the invitation because you visited the winery and only those who have are being sent invitations. You have a choice of going to New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles. What would you say? Oh, I forgot, the cost was $250 including dinner…hmm just $10 per vintage.

I spent at least ten minutes thinking about it and since that winery was the highlight of my trip last year to Spain and Portugal, which included a wine cruise along the Spanish coastline tasting local wines, I made up my mind to go. Done! I chose Chicago for the ease of getting there. (See Vol 2 No 16 for the area around Barcelona and Priorat)

The winery is Clos de l’Obac (Costera del Siurana) in the Priorat region of Spain about 75 miles south of Barcelona in the town of Grattalops. It is a very small area that is encircled by the up and coming Monsant region, a DO (Denominación de Origen) since 2001, while Priorat is the gem and received its DOQ (Denominació d’Origen Qualificada), later upgraded to DOQa, (actually the same but the first was Catalyan, and the other Spanish, and is only one of two such designations in Spain, the other being La Rioja.

For the first three vintages, 1989–1991, the group of five wineries pooled their grapes, shared a winery in Gratallops, and made one wine sold under five labels:  Clos de l’Obac, Clos Dofi (later renamed to Finca Dofi), Clos Erasmus, Clos Martinet and Clos Mogador. From 1992, these wines were made separately. There are several more wineries now but all are very independent of one another.

According to the owner, five people got together in 1979 – “crazy people” according to owner Carles Pastrana, and they bought and developed vineyards and a winery in Grattalops. The vineyards dated back over 100 years and were originally planted by the Romans and monks at the monastery of Scala Dei. Besides Clos de l’Obac, the wineries were Clos Erasmus, Clos Martinet, Clos Mogador, Clos Dofi. The first three vintages were made in then only winery in Grattalops, then they each made their own wine. Later Mas Doix, Scala Dei, and others appeared and some of the original five had name changes.

In 1995, Clos de l’Obac finished in the top four in a tasting in Stockholm. The four top were 1989 Clos de l’Obac, Chateau Le Pin, Cos d’Estournel, all tied and only surpassed by five points by Chateau Pétrus. Carlos then made the unusual decision to make the blend the same from that point on: 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% garnacha, and 10% each of merlot, syrah, and cariñena. His theory is that the grapes and wine have a personality, while the climate and weather provide the character. He has been criticized for this but to him, he is using the best formula he knows to make wine and the differences by year are only due to the weather. I tease him about being ‘the lazy winemaker’, but if that were the case his wines would not be so well received. More significantly, since they do not buy grapes or juice from other wineries, what happens if there is a light harvest of one of the 10% varietals? He cuts back production, which can hardly be called efficient, and sells the excess to other wineries. He also does the blending at the harvest, rather than after aging in separate barrels that are then ‘assembled’ to the desired proportions. The wine is fined using egg whites but never filtered. This is accomplished in his gravity flow winery by adding an additional tank by the bottling area. The wine goes into this and is left for a few weeks which creates a natural filtering when the wine is drawn off and bottled.

Here is how the tasting was organized. First, there were only 24 people participating including Carles, his wife Mariana, his importer Jon Cancilla and his wife. That meant a total of 600 glasses which were delivered in flights of five beginning with the 1990 (which only had four wines because he had saved the 1989, a magnum for last. Small plates (tapas), that would pair well with the wine were served with each flight. Only after we were done with the flight was there any discussion of what we thought. Here are my conclusions:

While there were distinct differences between the vintages (especially in the mid-2000’s due to steadily warmer temperatures which caused the alcohol level to go from a steady 13.5% to 14.5-16%, but even then the wines did not taste hot, nor were they the fruit bombs so popular with critics and employed by California wine makers. These were all excellent food wines), but there was no oxidation or browning of any of the wines. They were all fresh and vibrant. By the way all of the wines were opened three hours before serving but not decanted. When it came to the final 1989 vintage, it showed no sign of age and fruit. It was very soft and pleasant, with very little tannin. I believe the tasting confirmed Carles’ theory of personality and character and that the differences between vintages would have been far greater if the blend had been varied. I began, as and am even more so now, a fan of these excellently made wines.

As for the tasting and venue, it was perfectly orchestrated and the pairings were all unique and excellent. It was just over three hours and the time went by very quickly.

TB

Vol. 2 No. 23…why care about someone else’s rating?

(TB must be getting old…just realized he had used this same title just two posts ago!!! Aarrgghh!! Growing old is hell! Hope this one works better and is more descriptive!)

Does a rating matter? Is it smart or dumb to buy wine based on someone’s rating. Here is a brief history of rating scores and how they work:

Prior to 1978, when Robert Parker started his newsletter which a year or so later morphed into The Wine Advocate, the only tasting scores were in professional tastings or wine festivals, state and county fairs, and others. The predominant scoring system was the one developed by UC Davis in 1959 (http://finias.com/wine/ucd_scoring.htm).  It is a 20-point system, which made it easy to combine scores and then average them to determine the best wines. Judges and their knowledge of wines varied and even in professional tastings, going through the lineup then reversing the order created confusion and inconsistency.

Years ago, I accompanied a friend who entered in Chili cook-offs. His chili was outstanding! We made it to the state level and then he lost. Why? Thanks to a friend who was also a judge I later found out that the chili right before his was mouth-burning hot and that is what caused him to lose. The next year he won the national title. Same goes for wine…on any given day, under different conditions, and with the same or other wines, huge discrepancies in scores can occur.

Parker’s contribution was the 100-point system which he compared to school test scores but with one major difference. 50 points is the base, meaning any wine will score at least a 50. Then there are several categories such as color, aroma, taste, etc., but here’s the biggie: 25 points is subjective! So one person might score a wine 100 and another as low as 75, even when all other categories are equal. Of course this is an extreme, but between 85 and 95? Clearly possible depending on what the reviewer likes in a wine. In addition, the 25 qualitative points vary from system to system. Parker for instance loves big, bold wines capable of aging, but since the majority of wines are purchased for immediate or near immediate consumption, that should not mean a thing to you, in fact, you might hate it. Read in Parker’s own words how it works: https://www.erobertparker.com/info/legend.asp

Not to confuse you, but so you can see the problem, here are rating classifications of several scorers: http://www.wine.com/v6/aboutwine/wineratings.aspx?ArticleTypeId=2

Parker came on the scene with the 1982 vintage of Bordeaux. Robert Finnegan, the former guru for buyers of these wines, panned the vintage. Shortly after, Parker declared it the vintage of the century. Goodbye Finnegan. Frankly, I bought a mixed case of those as futures on his recommendation. I didn’t, nor did some of my friends, see them as exceptional, but never mind, I sold them years later for a very healthy profit. Thanks, Mr. Parker!!!

Now read this:

“Scores, however, do not reveal the important facts about a wine. The written commentary that accompanies the ratings is a better source of information regarding the wine’s style and personality, its relative quality vis-à-vis its peers, and its value and aging potential than any score could ever indicate.”  Robert M. Parker

Huh? See, Parker is to himself and many others alleged to have the best tasting nose in the world. You know, insured with Lloyd’s of London for $1 million, like Bob Hope’s nose, or a singer’s voice.

As for his love of big, bold wines: he was criticized for years by Bourgogne winemakers for his lower ratings on his wines, finally some years ago he stopped rating them, turning it over to an associate. He is also a one-third partner in an Oregon Pinot Noir winery, Beaux Fréres, which to his credit he doesn’t rate…after all having his name gives it the imprimatur required to attract buyers anyway. Nothing wrong with that but compare and contrast to French burgundies and lo and behold  Beaux Fréres is not the same style and many Oregon vintners are now copying that style. If you like it fine, but TB prefers a pinot that is balanced and has more subtle flavors: to each his own.

Today there are literally dozens of critics using 100-point systems…some (many?) working with a distributor or retailer. Thus we have scoring escalation just like grade escalation in schools. Is 95, the new 90? If memory serves, in the 1982 vintage there were only two 100-point wines. That has increased and as one wine merchant quipped, “I can’t sell a wine with an 89 point rating; I can sell all the wine with a 90 rating but I can’t get them.”

Ah, but it gets worse as that translates into price! Not to mention 2008 when the Bordelaise were concerned about losing money in the financial crisis. No problem, the Chinese stepped in, buying up Lafite Rothschild, and other premier cru Bordeaux’s and driving the price to the moon, Alice, the moon! Of course, Lafite is a status symbol to wealthy Chinese. Most of it is given as gifts, or was, until the government forbid giving government officials gifts, and even when drunk it is commonly mixed with…I kid you not…tea or coke (the real thing not the drug)!  As with so many other products it has even been counterfeited the key being that Lafite is spelled with TWO ‘t’s on that label. That is where most Bordeaux wine goes today, and they have also bought up some smaller chateaux, the prestige ones are owned by conglomerates or mega-billionaires (too bad The Donald didn’t buy one of those when he instead bombed out on his ‘Trump Wine’).  The U.S. and Great Britain, once the primary markets were abandoned more or less due to the high prices…and by the way the use of herbicides and pesticides has grown at a time when other regions are cutting back.

But the era of prices going ballistic on a high, 90+ rating is coming to a close. A friend who owns a winery the 25-50% increases have withered, instead take a look online at any of the e-retailers. They show the list price, say $90, then offer them for $60…or even  $30. You never see a wine with a rating less than 90 there and the average is probably 92!

Then of course there is ‘Parkerizaton’. This is not his fault but winemakers are blending wine to get those high Parker ratings. So? So do you want to buy wine from anywhere in the world and have it taste the same…no character or terroir? TB doesn’t. Instead, he prefers wine made well in a style the winemaker chooses. He is risking his reputation and money to do that, just as he does when competing to the mega-producers who blend for consistency. As winemaker Carles Pastrana of Clos de l’Obac told Robert Mondavi when he visited his winery in Priorat, Spain: he used exactly the same blend of grapes each year. Mondavi said: that’s crazy, in different years you get varying amounts of fruit. Carles replied, “then I must be crazy. But tell me this, if you always make your wine taste the same why bother putting the year on the bottle” Mondavi was not pleased with this. Frankly, any large or ‘bulk’ producer must do this because those buyers expect the wine to taste the same every time. But Carles is not crazy…he is smart and passionate about his wine!

Lest I leave you thinking ill of Mr. Parker, remember an early statement of TB: globally good wine is chasing out bad. Several articles lately have criticized or outright condemned the 100-point systems. Frankly, many of those 90+ ratings, especially by sellers, are probably 87-90 point wines. What to do? Trust your local wine purveyor…support him/her over the supermarkets and big box wine stores that have appeared on the scene. In closing here is a joke that indicates whether  someone is a wine snob:

Customer tasting wine in a wine shop: “This wine is horrible, worst I have ever tasted.”

Clerk: “Really? Parker gave it a 90.

Customer: “I’ll take two cases!”

There you go…pay more and get less…less of what YOU like and as stated earlier, you are the only critic that counts…

Hope you enjoyed reading this as much as TB enjoyed writing it!

TB

©2016, Traderbillonwine.com

Vol. 2 No. 18…getting ‘closure’

One of the blogs I subscribe to is The Wine Economist by Mike Veseth. In his latest, he did a great piece on cork this week. It got me to thinking on several counts.

While the situation is improving cork taint continues to affect wine. What if one out 12 bottles is infected with it (probably less than that but who knows)? That bottle may come back to the retailer and then up the chain to the producer, and it might have been perfectly good.  Like the way diners send back their dinners as not tasting right to get a free meal, usually after they have eaten a substantial amount of it.

On my recent trip to Spain and Portugal (yes, Portugal, cork capital of the world), more than one winemaker told me they would like to see corks go away. Why?

Let’s consider this: do you know the difference between a Vintage Port and a Late Bottled Vintage Port? If you said the Vintage Port is aged longer you would be wrong. It is only in barrel for 1-2 years. Where a good Tawny or Late Bottled Vintage, or Colheita (single vintage), will be aged for 10,20, 40, 50 years (I tasted a Graham’s 1972 Single Harvest Port at the winery and it was truly special), the Vintage Port is naturally aged in the bottle. Also, it more or less has to be drunk within 48 hours, whereas a Tawny or LBV could last up to two weeks.

What is the point? The point is other than the affectation, it could just as well have a screw cap known as a Stelvin closure. The Aussie’s and Kiwi’s used it first, but it took Randall Graham at Bonny Doon to dare to use them in the United States. It is now becoming acceptable to use the Stelvin for white wine but if its a red and you aren’t going to lay it down for five or ten years you want cork. But seriously, is there a difference?

Consider that capsule that encases the cork. Just how much air transfer to you think is going on? My guess is ZERO. However, over time the cork can shrink, get dry, and let air in. Why take the risk IF you know that the wine is released late.

Two examples: Chateau Belle-Vue, a Bordeaux style red from Lebanon. It is a beautiful wine. Guess what the current release is? 2007! In Portugal I bought a bottle of Douro table wine at Quinto do Infantado. Vintage, 2010! Then, in Priorat, Spain, three bottles of Clos de l’Obac, different varietals 2005 -2007. In Ibiza I bought a bottle of a local wine I liked with a 2002 vintage.

Get the picture? These wines don’t need aging, they can be drunk for any special occasion. So who needs a cork? Only someone who needs to show off their somme skills with a waiter’s corkscrew. One last point: how many of you have actually had an old vintage wine? You only have a few minutes to enjoy it and then it might taste like tea. Ah but the romance. You know the answer of what to do when the somme hands you the cork to sniff after he has, right? Throw it across the room!