Vintage Port is the classic red dessert wine, and it is the vine product Portugal has always been best known for. The region was established as an appellation in 1756. Much like bubbly wine born anywhere but Champagne, there are many bottles called port, but all true vintage port originates in the Douro Valley of Northern Portugal, and only in declared vintages. Quinta do Noval first appeared in the land registry in 1715, and has obviously been making these venerable sweet wines for a very long time.
I’m listening/watching a series of La Blogotheque’s Take Away Shows, which find some unreasonably talented musicians doing what they do, in random moments and a-typical settings, for such performances. These films never cease to enthrall me with their raw, one take, low-fi (for high-def), live performances in public spaces, amongst whoever happens to be there, in those moments. They are often single-shot (or made to appear that way), largely acoustic, usually portable and often fully in-motion. Now maybe I’m just biased because some of my favorite current artists have chosen to take part in the series: Andrew Bird, Yo La Tengo, Moutain Goats, Megafaun, Wilco… There’s one with Femi Kuti on a Paris rooftop, several with Beirut, Iron & Wine in poorly lit wine cellar, Chocolate Genius with string accompaniment amongst the rubble of a demolished building. There’s even a goateed Tom Jones doing “We Got Love”, amongst others, backstage and in his hotel room. In the opposite direction, there’s an extraordinarily nerdy cover band project, Neutral Uke Hotel, a ukulele-based Neutral Milk Hotel tribute. La Blogotheque’s Take Away Shows catalog is relatively extensive, considering the quality. There’s an innocence and a sincerity in these creatively shot one-off performances, each existing for its own sakes. As a whole, the Take Away Shows may very well be the best live music experience one can achieve without leaving home or spending any money.
The 1982 Quinta do Noval Vintage Port is running unusually hot for a wine of its age and is still almost overbearingly alcohol prevalent after several hours of breathing. Eventually, a sweetness does begin to emerge on the palate reminiscent of rum marinated maraschino cherry, dusted with black pepper and a cool northern breeze of menthol. This wine has a long way to go still, just to settle into itself and after over 6 hours of breathing time, I left one glass out overnight and sealed the rest up, with my trusty Vacu Vin (still not sponsored!).
The glass that sat out overnight was far warmer and more welcoming, nearly 20 hours after being poured, and the rest of the contents of that bottle showed worlds better the next day, and in small glasses for the rest of the week. At this point, the ’82 Noval is showing medium ruby in the glass, brickish and yellowing at the rim. The nose is ashy, but still replete with alcohol, though the palate has become much rounder, displaying dry raspberry liqueur, violets, and caramelized plum, and wisps of the spice and menthol that was prevalent the previous day. While the fire on the nose never relented, the palate became much softer and more integrated with time. Though relatively rich and pleasurable there is significant alcohol on the finish that leaves more of a burn than an aftertaste. The wine is pretty, but largely unchallenging, making it reasonably versatile for a sticky, though it seems to go best with cigar course.
There is some damage here in Brooklyn, but the great Hurricane of 2011 (following the tiny earthquake) was fairly reminiscent of Y2K and the WTO protests: much ado about little (though I’ve read that Vermont got hit hard). Did a lot of reading. Patti Smith’s book is really that good. Buy it, read it, love her. Paired the end of the Foris Pinot Noir 2008 with a red velvet doughnut and finished that last of the 1970 Burmester Colheita with a cinnamon. Both bottles were safely preserved, vacuum sealed, with my trusty Vacu Vin, and both doughnuts were from Peter Pan on Manhattan Ave. Seeing as I’m alive, without reasonable transportation, and having no real storm damage to deal with, I’ve just pulled the cork on a Numanthia Toro 2000 for no good reason at all. This wine was made from 100% Tinta de Toro grapes from ungrafted vines of 70 to 100 years old, 2300’ above sea level.
I’m feeling kind of topical and am listening to the best of hurricane related songs. As in so many different kinds of playlists, Dylan takes the cake with “Hurricane”, though Golden Smog’s “Hurricane” is also pretty great in a completely different kind of way. For melodrama- and yet another tragedy verité- you’ve got to love Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald”. It’s not much of a stretch from hurricane to storm and I stream through, from Woody Guthrie’s “The Great Dust Storm” to the Minutemen’s “Storm in My House” and The Spaniels “Stormy Weather”, and then back to Dylan with “Shelter From the Storm” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”. Honorable mention: “Cold Rain and Snow.”
This label has only been around containing their current cuveés for a little over a decade, and while these wines are consistently bold and beautiful, we’re just beginning to get an idea of their true aging potential. This Numanthia Toro 2000 has settled down considerably since last tasting; the alcohol, the tannins, and the oak, once an overbearing cacophony of monolithic structure, no longer obscure the considerable fruit and cavernous depth of this beast. If a color can approach opaque and/or black and still qualify as some kind of brooding ruby, this would be it. The nose is initially somewhat muted, showing some black fruit, glycerin, and asphalt, but this wine’s gifts are largely of the deep palate of red currant, under blackberries, followed by the less prevalent cassis and vanilla extract. After considerable breathing time a deep mid-palate dryness evolves, stretching the experience through the long, undulating finish. Today, the Numanthia 2000 is serious juice, and while warm and welcoming, this wine still maintains significant weight and shows a touch hot, and will only improve with continued bottle aging.
Tonight I’m making fish. The details are still coming together, but I have a couple of very nice snapper fillets and a bottle of Foris Pinot Noir 2008. Red wine can absolutely go with fish and I am a firm believer that there is a pinot noir to go with anything/everything. Tonight, that theory is being tested further as I’m swapping some of this pinot for the dry white wine in a beurre blanc sauce (beurre rouge?) to go with the lovely snapper which will likely be lightly seasoned and pan seared, possibly finishing in the oven.
With some trepidation and a healthy skepticism, I’m listening to an advance copy of Wilco’s upcoming LP, The Whole Love. While their last couple of studio releases have been far less interesting- lyrically and sonically- than just about everything that came before, this new album comes with a high recommendation from a reliable pro. The first track, “Art of Almost” catches my attention before it begins to play, clocking in at over 7 minutes. The opening is a strange layered drone over a cool beat that dissipates into a synthetic textural cacophony with just enough space for Jeff Tweedy’s vocals to creep in, unannounced. Before the first vocalization, I’m not necessarily convinced, but I’m most decidedly listening. Thirty second into this song, it might be mistaken for Radiohead, halfway through minute 6, it could just as easily be a Nine Inch Nails tune as re-imagined by Aphex Twin. But such momentary surface analogy is trite and there’s a lot more going on, here on this record, than anything since A Ghost Is Born, if not Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. More than one considered listen is clearly required here. Wilco is back.
The Foris Pinot Noir 2008 is from the Rogue Valley which is something of a remote outpost for Oregon Pinot Noir. This medium-bodied pinot is medium ruby in the glass and underneath the initial waft of alcohol, red fruit and forest floor begin to stir. There’s a classy crisp, but long and tapering, acidity that I have come to associate with Foris’ low alcohol, low cost pinot noir. After an hour of breathing, wild savory herbs and hints of sunberry and camphor mingle with the red cherry and predominant raspberry. Foris’ ’08 pinot is pretty and unassuming, nicely balanced, but far from flimsy, though full mature integration of alcohol and fruit will likely require another 6-8 months in the bottle. And much like the lighter-styled low alcohol pinots from The Eyrie Vineyards, you’ll be surprised how well and how long this wine will age. While highly enjoyable and food friendly today, the rest of this case of Foris Pinot Noir 2008 will get some well deserved down time in the cellar. Have a nice nap, my friends.
I’ve gone back into the mixed case of half-bottles and pulled to taste, Foris Port 2002. Foris is a high quality, low cost wine producer in Cave Junction, OR (Rogue Valley) whose first estate vines were planted in 1974. While it’s their unreasonably inexpensive per quality Rogue Valley Pinot Noir that has kept me coming back, I’ve also tasted and enjoyed several of their whites and stickies, and beyond Syrah and Cabernet Ports, they currently bottle a good number of different varietals (Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, Riesling, various Cab, etc.).
I’m listening to the Jimi Hendrix Stages Box Set which, in all my years of collecting live shows, both official releases and bootlegs, remains one of the greatest documents of American music of whose existence I am aware. Each of the 4 discs is a single set from ’67 (Stockholm), ’68 (Paris), ’69 (San Diego), and ’70 (Atlanta). Just a brief listen to these shows reminds one of just how good Jimi actually was and the recording quality here is about as high as it gets, given the era and circumstances. There is so much listening gold on these discs, but it’s hard not to give the nod to the ’67 disc as tops. Not only is it clear that Jimi’s sounds was already fully developed, but he was in the process of writing his best songs. On the Stockholm ’67 disc, when he shyly admits, before a glorious “Burning of the Midnight Lamp“, that he and the band had never before played that tune in front of people, one gets a tiny glimpse of the man’s sincerity and the joy he took in doing what he did.
The 2002 Foris Port was made from 100% Cabernet Sauvignon and spent 19 months in barrel. It was bottled at 18% alcohol and 8.5% residual sugar. The resulting port-style wine is aging quite well and, by the time of these notes this one had the advantage of a couple of days sealed by the Vacu Vin, after having been opened. The wine is aging beautifully and what was once (pleasantly) grapey at last taste is now more raisin and chocolate, though fruit still persists in the form of wild blackberry jam. Foris Port 2002 drinks almost unreasonably nicely for the price point yet the residual sugar and current mouthfeel lead me to believe this wine will continue to age with grace for the better part of the decade. If you are unfamiliar, do yourself a favor and pick up just about anything bearing the Foris name and taste a secret slice or Oregon.
Checking in with Old Friends: O’Reilly’s Pinot Noir, Bourgogne Rouge, and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts
I recently exhumed from storage 2 cases of pinot noir for tasting purposes, one vertical of O’Reilly’s Pinot Noir (’05, ’06, ’07) and a mixed case of Burgundy blends from some of my favorite labels including Meo-Camuzet, R. Chevillon, Claude Dugat, and Domaine Forey. I’m planning a proper vertical tasting of the O’Reilly’s, for which I’ll likely dig up an ’08 and ’09, for the half-decade run. O’Reilly’s is a lower cost pinot noir blend made up of declassified grapes sourced from the numerous significant vineyards from which Owen Roe crafts their fabulous Oregon wines. Recently, an O’Reilly’s Pinot Noir 2006 showed very nicely, but could still benefit from a couple of years nap. Further tasting notes after the vertical.
I’m listening to the pulsating beats and awesome urgency of David Byrne & Brian Eno’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. No matter how many times I hear this record, I always have to check the liner notes: yup, recorded in ’79 and ’80, released in 1981. The thick African-based beats, deliberate repetition, and haunting “found voices,” foreshadow almost all electronic and sample based music that came after. This stuff, all these years
later, is still quite stirring, most notably “America is Waiting” and “Jezebel Spirit” which play off of secular and religious aspects of American yearning. My Life in the Bush of Ghosts remains one of the most engaging pieces of music that has been recorded in the this country, during my lifetime.
The Meo-Camuzet Frere & Soeurs Bourgogne 2002 is much bigger than I would have expected from a nearly decade old introductory level pinot noir, even from a serious Burgundy house like Meo-Camuzet. Much like the 1996 Cote de Nuits, I’ve found the 2002s to be very slow to mature. This wine is a tannic monster and much of the detail is lost to the sheer weight of this juice, so in goes the vacu vin. Many big wines and most especially big dessert wines often fair much better, after being opened and then vacuum sealed for a day or more. A day later and another hour of air and the Meo-Camuzet Bourgogne is approachable, but still weighty. Red fruits have begun to emerge, countered by petrol, fresh mint and white pepper. The wine is nice, but the three remaining bottles are going back into temperature controlled storage for at least another couple of years.
It’s the 4thand the hunter/gatherer in me feels the need to grill something. There are a couple of Albacore steaks in the fridge and the marinade now contains: olive oil, white wine, a fistful of fresh basil, mined garlic and ginger, crushed hot peppers, salt and pepper the fish, not the marinade… and I’m out of citrus, so a dash of Pellegrino Limonata, looks like just the thing. I’ll also confess that the white wine is Patz & Hall Chardonnay Dutton Ranch 2007 that was vacu vin’d in the fridge from yesterday. I am still not sponsored by Vacu Vin but, per dollar spent, I’m not sure anything else has added more to the enjoyment of my wine consumption. And I’m not above sponsorship cash and products.
I’m listening to Yo La Tengo’s Summer Sun. They’ve been so good for so long that it’s inspiring and intimidating in the same moment. Summer Sun achieves and maintains a complete aesthetic throughout, without ever reaching monotone, in a way that few records ever have. The climax, literarily speaking, is the 10 ½ minute gorgeously ethereal and meandering “Let’s Be Still,” which sounds like the finest of all summer afternoon naps, no sunburn, no mosquito bites. At sundown, one wakes to the falling action of Georgia’s breathy rendition of Alex Chilton’s nostalgically sweet “Take Care”. And that’s how you end a great record.
Very little of the Patz & Hall Chardonnay Dutton Ranch 2007 went into the tuna marinade. Some is currently in the glass in my hand in which it appears to be 18 karat gold with just a hint of gripping viscosity to the swirl. There’s an apparent yeastiness to the nose, under which peach, wildflowers, and strawberry are rapidly emerging. There’s a butteriness to the texture and a firm but fair acidity that carries through a long finish, where pineapple persists. It’s nice juice that has another handful of good years in it, properly stored.
The wine I was most excited to open with that glorious cheese selection from Bedford Cheese Shop was a Rutherford Hill Vintage Port 1986. I’m a big fan of high quality US dessert wines and this is one of the most port-like “Ports” I’ve ever encountered. There are an enormous amount of fabulous stickies bottled not only up and down the west coast, but sweet white is one of the few things they’ve been getting right in parts of New York for a long time. Often batches of California dessert wine are pet projects of wineries known for other things and production is often so small that if you don’t specifically ask, you’d never know they existed. I often come across such small batch wines in collection and consignment offers, which was how I originally discovered the dessert wines of Williams Selyem and Shafer. Over the years Phelps has produced a number of beautiful stickies such that I can recommend you purchase and taste just about any one you can find.
Warren Zevon‘s posthumous Preludes: Rare and Unreleased shuffles up on the itunes and I remember how much one can miss a guy he never met. Preludes is made up of selections from the tapes that Zevon’s son, Jordan, found in an old suicase, shortly after Zevon’s death. Warren Zevon was one of the great American storytellers and these earliest recordings show just how good he already was early on in his career, though on the charmingly raw version of “Carmelita,” it’s clear that guitar was his (distant) second instrument, to the piano, at which he was masterful. The previously unreleased “Rosartita Beach Café” sounds like something he might have written after a minor bender with Hunter Thompson, but I’m fairly certain they hadn’t yet met and become friends. “Rosartita Beach Café” was torn from the same moment as “Desperados Under the Eaves,” the version of which resides on Preludes is crushing. For my music listening dollar, it doesn’t really get any better. And the next glass is raised to Warren Zevon.
After hours of breathing, there’s still a solid alcoholic bite to the Rutherford Hill Port 1986, but the palate is broader and brambly, unquestionably lush, and surprisingly grapey for it’s age. It’s a big wine and age hasn’t taken that away. It’s thick with chocolate and black pepper, wild herbs, wintergreen, and a hint of caramelized sugar. This is a wine that would have worked as well with a rich flourless chocolate cake as it does with the various cheeses. It would be a crime on one level, but this ’86 Rutherford Hill Port would make a stunning reduction for a world-class marbled cut of beef. And damned if sipping it doesn’t make me want one of my 10-12 annual cigars; Montecristo #5 please, if anybody’s running to the shop… in Havana, or Montreal, or Mexico City, or Paris, or Amsterdam, or Moscow, or Zagreb…
Epilogue: Beautiful as it was that evening, thanks to my trusty vacu vin, the ’86 Rutherford Hill Port was drinking even better the next day and the rest of the week, once the alcohol integrated had properly integrated.
I have a lot of vices, but wine is my very favorite. I know we aren’t supposed to look at the fact that wine, for all of its other fine qualities, contains alcohol, which is poison, but it does. So, it’s a vice; a beautiful, enriching, encompassing, fulfilling vice. And when one drinks from an older bottle whose contents have made it successfully here to the future, I believe one gains from the wisdom of its years.
There’s a game I like to play with my favorite vice I call: Is This Bottle Still Good? As one might gather from the name, it simply involves opening bottles of wine that are old enough that the odds of true enjoyable drinkability is right around 50%. Usually at home, or occasionally at a BYO or no corkage fee situation, I’ll pull out a handful of such bottles and keep opening them until there is enough living wine to satiate the palates at hand. Last night was the most successful round in recent memory and while it hasn’t yet occurred that I’ve written a post here based on the performance of a single wine, that’s what’s happening right now. The remarkable wine in question was a Chapoutier Chateauneuf du Pape La Bernardine 1983 (not to be confused with Le Bernardin), but we’ll get to the tasting notes soon enough.
Older bottles that I have with which to play Is This Bottle Still Good? are generally ones that were inexpensive enough as to suggest that they are likely past their prime, if drinkable at all. This night’s game began with an old Burgundy that I had acquired for almost nothing which has since been sitting out on the kitchen counter awaiting it’s day. The 1985 Maniere-Noirot Nuits St Georges Les Damodes initially gave the impression that it had little left to offer and would disintegrate within minutes. While unquestionably light, it seemed to develop subtle secondary flavors and a pleasurable back-palate dryness lasting the duration of it’s consumption. Only the last sip that lingered in the glass a bit too long began to show decline. The experience was nice, not thrilling, but nice.
The second bottle, Dominique Laurent Nuits St Georges #1 1995, was the only true casualty of the evening. The neck level was lower than it should have been and the cork was soft. Upon pouring, the color looked good, but that telltale waft of powdered cork spoke the truth that the wine in this bottle was doomed the moment it was sealed. We left it out, as on occasion, the cork can blow off and leave a drinkable palate behind, but this one was adversely affected and there was no bringing it back. Corked.
And then there was the inspiration for this post. The bottle of ’83 Chapoutier Chateauneuf du Pape La Bernardine is beautiful on it’s own as a physical artifact. The label, though well intact, shows it’s age with slight yellowing, and this long since altered label design has a look that is much older than it is, though my 25 year old brother Alex pointed out that the wine was older than he is. The Bassin’s price tag, shows the $8.99 that was paid for this bottle in 1984 or ’85 (not by me) and has become one with the green glass more so even than the labels. While amused by this on many levels, I would be remiss in my duties as the most honest wine writer on the CyberWeb if I didn’t take a moment to discuss Bassin’s (aka MacArthur Beverages) which has been a major player in wine retail in DC since 1957, as the website proudly proclaims.
Bassin’s is the original home of the bait and switch. I have had so many problems with them over the years that a full list would require a separate post. But should you be enticed by their selection and prices, which are both significant, know that you may very well have to personally keep after them to not only complete your order, but to deliver exactly what you’ve paid for. The most egregious infraction came a few years back when two dear friends of mine were married and they had registered with Bassin’s. Rather than select from their registry list I scoured the web site, made my selections and ordered a mixed case of some of our favorite things. Many months later, when visiting that couple at their home in DC, they thanked me for the gift case and suggested we start the evening with one of the remaining bottles. To my horror, less than half of that case were wines that I had chosen and of the ones that were, most were the wrong vintage (but not more recent). There is a huge difference in Napa Cab between 2000 and 2001, the later being significantly better across the board, but the ’01 Miner Family Cab I had ordered showed up ’00. The same couple upon hearing this, said that they too had similar problems with Bassin’s in the past. I do occasionally still order from Bassin’s when they have the best price on the wine I am seeking (most recently some ’95 La Tour Haut Brion), but I always double check price and availability and follow-up. I suggest you do the same, if you must buy from them at all.
But back to Maison Chapoutier and their important work. It should be noted here that the current proprietor and winemaker Michel Chapoutier took over in 1990 and immediately began making some of the region’s finest wine, putting them high in the running for finest worldwide. Before that time, Chapoutier wines showed flashes of brilliance, but were more rustic and much less consistent vintage to vintage. The last time this Old Bottles game had been so successful was upon opening a pair of Chapoutier from ’79 (Hermitage La Sizerannae and Cote Rotie). Those wines were quite beautiful though at the time of consumption were wearing the weight and color of medium bodied Burgundies, ten years younger. This ’83 La Bernardine upon opening showed a dark red, nearly opaque, color that had no intention of relenting and a deep nose of bloody raw steak. From the first waft, it was 10 times the wine that was a still pretty, but lithe and fleeting ’83 Hermitage La Sizeranne from the same parcel, opened last week. The ’83 La Bernardine was simply huge for it’s age and showed significantly weightier than two recently opened vintages of the same wine from the 90s. As it continued to breath, more and more flavors and scents became apparent and at no point did the wine show any signs of drying out. As the slaughterhouse smells integrated, sweetness began to emerge in the form of vanilla and light red fruit, and eventually something floral that evolved too rapidly to pin down. Punctuated by fine spice, lead by white pepper, the subtleties could not even be weighed down by the massive evolving palate of tobacco, bramble, dry earth, and chocolate. Savoring as much as possible with a substance so brilliant, it was still gone before it met the back end of it’s plateau. And we were left to “drift on forever seeking, a little wistfully, for the dramatic turbulence of some irrecoverable football game.” With apologies to Fitzgerald for brutally misappropriating his words, a wine so stunningly impactful leaves one in a literary melancholy that conjures such notions, this one anyway.
Having just finished one of the finest substances to pass my lips in recent memory and while waxing lyrical about the greatness of the clan Chapoutier, I noticed the last glass inhabiting a bottle of ’95 Chapoutier Banyuls, which had been opened and vacuum sealed weeks before, resting on the counter amongst the liquor. A small number of winemakers quietly produce tiny amounts of fortified sweet wine called Banyuls in four communes of the Cote Vermeille. What remained in said bottle was well worthy of palate consideration and seemed to be showing better than when it was first opened. The nose was all smoky bacon and leather and the chocolatey palate was held together by a deep soft caramel sweetness that was an unqualified delight to sip while reminiscing and somewhat lamenting the last of ’83 La Bernardine.
Since 1972, Jordan Estate has been making high quality hand-crafted wines. Known primarily as a purveyors of fine Cabernet and Chardonnay, Jordan, like so many other American wineries, have occasioned over the years to produce tiny amounts of fabulous and unusual dessert wines, almost entirely in secret. In my years of tasting, some of the most impressive surprises in quality, uniqueness, and value, have come from rare bottles like Shafer Port and Joseph Phelps Delice du Semillon. So, last fall, when I received an e-mail offer of Jordan Cabernet from 1976-1991 and a small parcel of their Riveiere Russe from the early 80s, I quickly snatched up a pair of ’86 Cabs and a small handful of these rare and unusual (formerly) golden dessert wine from ’82, ’83, and ’85.
During an informal tasting over New Year’s, the 1982 Jordan Riviere Russe showed impressively favorably against a much higher priced tokaji and a *gulp* ’95 d’Yquem. While several tasters preferred the Jordan outright, all agreed it to be worthy of it’s company that evening.
By the time I opened a bottle of ’83 Jordan Riviere Russe last night, my palate was too spent from the succession of flavors (Drouhin Cote de Beaune’05, Fiddlehead Estate Pinot Noir Seven Twenty Eight ’02, K Vintners Milbrandt Syrah Wahluke Slope ’06, d’Arenberg Riesling The Noble ’96, and the reasonably profound Joseph Phelps Johannisberg Riesling ’76) to properly note. Thanks to my trusty Vacu Vin, the wine in question is airtight and in the fridge awaiting tonight’s tasting and notes.
In the glass, the 1983 Jordan Riviere Russe is darker in color and more viscous than the ’82. The ’82, ’83, and ’85 seem to be in reverse order, by color v. age in that the oldest here is clearly the lightest and closest to it’s original golden color. In almost every way, this ’83 mimics a fine 5 Puttonyos Tokaji a few years younger in age. A lighter amber in the glass than it appears pictured in the bottle, the ’83 Riviere Russe is viscous and sweet, but shy of syrupy, and too nimble to be heavy.
The ’83 Riviere Russe is a late harvest style blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon and much like the ’82, would find itself quite comfortable in a tasting against Sauternes and tokaji several times the price. The nose remains somewhat muted after some time in the glass, but the apricot that is more apparent on the palate is present. Soft caramel, apricot, citrus, and honey maintain through the unexpectedly long finish. The wine is surprisingly fresh with acidity to spare and it may have another handful of good years still to age. It will be interesting to see how the even darker ’85 has weathered it’s slightly fewer years.
But that’s a story for another night.