The Dark Art of Blending (Part 2): Burmester Colheita 1970, Unholy Potions, and the Father of Bluegrass
One of the very first auction cases I ever purchased (for a song) was a mixed case of 1970 Burmester Colheita and 1970 Krohn’s Vintage Port, procured from a Sotheby’s auction, many moons ago. Down to my last bottle of each, I cracked the Burmester recently, expecting it to likely be well past its drinking window. Colheita is a tawny port from a single vintage, aged for at least 7, but up to 20+, years in wood barrels before bottling. This is, of course, contrary to vintage port which spends a much shorter period in wood and does most of its aging in dark heavy bottles. This 1970 Burmester Colheita was bottled in 1988.
All that pickin’ I was absorbing during the last post has left me in that kind of a mood and Bill Monroe has been spending a fair amount of time on my desktop. No other single human being is as associated with the inception of a widely recognized genre of American music as is Bill Monroe with Bluegrass. With the 1946 addition of (then not yet legend) banjo player, Earl Scruggs, to his previous string ensemble, the instrumentation and style of Bluegrass was formed. Along with the rest of Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys (Lester Flatt: guitar; Chubby Wise: fiddle; Howard Watts: bass), between ’46 and ’47, recorded 28 songs that soon would be canonized as the original Bluegrass standards. These tunes included “Blue Grass Breakdown,” “Molly and Tenbrooks,” and Monroe’s best known, “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” The last of which made an indelible impression on early Rock & Roll when it was recorded by a young Elvis Presley in 1954.
The 1970 Burmester is still beautiful but growing lithe. Visually, it’s a deeply ruby-hued brilliant, but light gold, far more resembling an ancient cognac than any form of wine. While the nose is also similar to a long aged cognac of high pedigree, it doesn’t show the level of alcohol that such a cognac would. At this stage of its life, the palate is almost barren of fruit, but a deep and nuanced caramel persists, mingling with cocoa powder, and hints of sweeter milk chocolate, as well as dry cigar tobacco. Once again, tempted by the available options, a little simple alchemy occurs and a small glass of the remaining ’70 Burmester is dosed with a small shot (about 10% of total volume) of the previously blended dry reds: (2/3rd Kay Brothers Amery Hillside Shiraz ’02, 1/3rd St. Supery Elu Red ’02). The dry blend returns fruit and mid-palate body to the aging caramelized cocoa sweetness of the 40 year old Colheita. While It would be a sin to foul the original intent of a full bottle of anything so rare, this evenings small amount of experimentation only enhanced the tasting experience.
The Dark Art of Blending (Part 1): Kay Bros. Amery Hillside Shiraz 2002, St. Supery Elu 2002, and Psychograss!
Over some quality company and unspectacular takeout, the topic of Chateau Palmer arose via thoughts on American Cabernet Sauvignon, then Bordeaux style blends. I mentioned that I own a case of Chateau Palmer’s exceeding rare Historical XIX Century Wine from 2004, the first vintage in which they bottled the controversial blend containing 25% Syrah from an unnamed source in Northern Rhone (Hermitage?). The evening began with a light OR pinot (Cloudline ’08) then on to Kay Brothers Shiraz Amery Hillside 2002, followed by St. Supery Elu Red 2002.
I’m listening to the kinetic string alchemy of Psychograss Live in Vermont, fittingly also a 2002 vintage, recorded May 4, 2002. With traditional Bluegrass instrumentation, Psychograss is a super group, each of whose members is an undeniable master of the venerable acoustic genre: Darol Anger (fiddle), Mike Marshall (mandolin), Todd Phillips (bass), David Grier (guitar), Tony Trischka (banjo). Individually, their credits are too numerous to list, together their sound is simultaneously expansive and exploratory yet tight and universally connected. Darol Anger (who once explained the inception of bluegrass as a supersaturated solution) told me that he sees Psychograss not as a band made up of Bluegrass musicians, but as a non-verbal high speed conversation about Bluegrass [amongst masters], employing that classic Bill Monroe instrumentation.
A small remaining glass of the Kay Bros. Shiraz found itself with about a 1/3rd blend of St. Supery Elu swirling about it. As it was happening, my host’s face was making similar perplexed contortions to those yours might be making right now. His face quickly grew blissful as his palate absorbed the unholy potion. So many beautiful wines are blends of different varietals, usually fermented separately, so why is blending wines that were bottled separately (9,000 mile apart) so shocking? On it’s own the ‘02 St Supery Elu (from half bottle) is still settling into itself, and while the red and black fruit forward 85% Cab blend is quite attractive, the tannin still requires some bottle aging to fully integrate. Conversely, the ’02 Kay Brothers Shiraz Amery Hillside is round and supple, not a hard edge to be found, but much of the wine’s original weight has been integrated away. It’s still fleshy and hasn’t gone soft, but it’s current profile gives a glimpse of the back edge of the plateau, that begins that inevitable decline. The blend of 2/3 Kay Bros. Shiraz and 1/3 St. Supery, as my host’s elated grin attests, is quite marvelous, bordering on revelation. That slightly under ripe Bordeaux-style blend bolsters the weight and spice of the seamless beauty of the the shiraz, resulting in a drinking experience flirting with the sublime.
T-Vine Zinfandel Napa 1999 was the next in the ever darkening wine lineup. This one is fairly big and is ideally suited for the rich [Bedford] cheese [Shop] plate, also standing its ground against the accompanying cured and thinly sliced meats. First, a vintage note: 1999 is an underrated vintage for much of CA (as well as for Bordeaux). So many different varieties of wines originating from Santa Barbara to Bolinas are fairing far better than their ’98 and ’00 counterparts and represent a significant value over the much hyped (and excellent) ’97 and ‘01/’02 vintages flanking them. As for Bordeaux, 1999 represents the last solid vintage to still occasionally be available at a significant price break from every vintage that has come since (minus the much maligned 2002), and they are aging beautifully.
Up on the itunes, the shuffle finds our ears flooded with the twangy strings and lush harmonies of Jeff Austin (Yonder Mountain String Band) & Chris Castino‘s (The Big Wu) Songs From the Tin Shed (2004), from the pre-master recording. The music ranges from Sad Cowboy to Hillbilly, the tone from wistful to joyous, and includes a small handful of well placed covers amongst the majority original tunes by Austin and Castino. While Songs From the Tin Shed is far less known than the records (and live shows) of Yonder Mountain String Band or The Big Wu, the quality of its execution and heights of its sincerity will continue find its way to and delight ears- with a propensity toward twang- for generations.
Back to our regularly scheduled program:
T-Vine Napa Zinfandel 1999 is toward the shallow end of full bodied in color with a broad mouthfeel and long lingering acidity. There’s a piney sweetness and something ruggedly floral, like the unlikely offspring of a honeysuckle and some mutant wild thistle. This wine both grows in depth and softens in mouthfeel as another hour of air expands its horizons. T-Vine continues to quietly make very serious small batch wine in a number of varietals, both blends and single vineyards, including the recent addition of a Grenache from the incomparable Paras Vineyard. If you have not already, T-Vines is highly worth looking (and tasting!) into.