Saturday, June 4, 2011

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Sunday, May 8, 2011

Yarden "Odem" Chardonnay, Israel, 2009 *Organic*

Yarden's Odem Chardonnay is part of their organic offerings, but what does "organic" mean with wine? There are several categories of organic viticulture: Certified/Practicing Organic, Natural and Biodynamic.

The Certified/Practicing Organic is the most common category, at least in terms of popular knowledge; the only difference between "certified" and "practicing" is that the people who are "practicing" have not gotten a seal from a government agency, wherever they happen to be located. In Europe, you will find many wines are practicing organic and not certified because the individual operations are too small to afford the certification price tag. What this tag means is that there are no chemical fertilizers or pesticides used in the growing of the grapes. However, that doesn't mean that they won't use other additives to help produce/protect their wines.

"Natural" viticulture takes this process one step further. Beyond the pesticides and fertilizers, "natural" take a non-interventionist approach to winemaking. They will only use naturally abundant yeasts on the grapes themselves as well as naturally-occurring sulfites, refusing to add any lab-grown yeasts or chemical sulphites (certified organic producers do not restrict themselves as such).

"Biodynamic" producers take this one step even further than the organic and natural vintners. They will take such things as phases of the moon into account in terms of when to do certain things to fertilize/harvest/etc. Furthermore they will only use natural pest control (i.e., in France, there's a species of wasp that is a natural enemy of several bugs that eat grape vines, so vintners will release swarms of these wasps into the vineyard to rid themselves of these pests as opposed to spraying pesticides.

In any case, each style of organic viticulture lays the claim to making a wine that is "better" for you and "better" for the earth. There is something to be said for having fewer chemicals and whatnot added to your body (my wife has a policy of "if I have trouble pronouncing it, it isn't going into my body.") However, data on the long-term effects of consuming/producing these types of wines are still pending.

Yarden's Odem Chardonnay falls into the "practicing" organic category. That means that, while there are no chemical fertilizers or pesticides used, there may be added sulfites, laboratory yeasts used for fermentation, etc. Also, they were not able to file the papers with the USDA in time for the 2009 vintage to be certified as organic, though they do practice organic viticulture.

On first taste, I was underwhelmed. My palate does not typically go for oaky, buttery chardonnay (though I know many people do enjoy it), and that was all I could taste initially. However, I tried it again a few hours later and it had changed dramatically for the better. While the oak and butter were still there, it was balanced with a nice apple and pear note as well as some minerality that was reminiscent of a good Chablis. The oak and butter had become accent notes to the total product (which is how I love my Chard!).

While the Odem Chardonnay is great on its own as a mid-afternoon/evening sipper, I could also see it paired with a turkey hash or a boulliabaisse. Most fish, even heavier and fattier fishes, are too delicately flavored (the one exception may be cedar plank salmon and related dishes), and on the other extreme, most red meats are too rich and will overpower the wine. The happy medium would be a poultry dish with some good spice. This wine retails for around $22 and is a fantastic addition for a catchall chardonnay.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Gamla Reserve Merlot, Galilee

So, despite Paul Giamatti's tirade on Sideways I decided to give Merlot a chance. While I generally agree with his character's stance on the grape (keep tuned!), there are always exceptions to the rule.

So why do wine geeks rag on Merlot so much? In general, there's a very simple reason: a lack of balance. California Merlot has been an insanely popular wine from the 60s and 70s through today. Its popularity stems from the soft and plummy nature of the grape. Its tannins are generally lower than its Cabernet cousins and is a very approachable wine. By being so fruity and low in tannin, acid, etc., and yet full-bodied, Merlot is the kind of wine that many newbies to the wine world can easily pick up and enjoy. But this quality is a double-edged sword.

This lack of variance and lack of acid/tanin, due to a general tendency in Cali (and other areas) to allow the grape to overripen, leads to a wine that, while easily approachable and drinkable, is also very uninteresting and lacking dimension. In other terms, Merlot, the way it's produced for mass market wines, is like listening to a person singing unaccompanied. While the singer's music is likely more easily heard and understood, the lack of background musical movement leads to an overall uninteresting performance. As another image, think of how the Olympic sport of ice skating would change if there were no music for the skater(s) to perform to.

Earlier I mentioned over-ripening the grape. The school of thought in California (and many New World-style producers) is to let the grape ripen as long as possible on the vine. The resulting wine is going to be fuller in body and lower in acid. Robert Parker is one of the more famous wine critics whose palate has done nothing but wonders for the full-bodied, over-ripened, uber-fruity, heavily oaked wines.

In an attempt to make up for the lack of tannic structure in the wine, California winemakers will often age their Merlots in oak barrels for extended periods; this oak aging will allow the wine to leach tannin from the oak and give some of that structure that it so desperately needs. However, the downside to oak aging of this type is that the flavors and aromas that the wine gets from the oak also tend to overpower whatever flavors and aromas are extant in the wine itself.

In short, the overripe, fruity, oaky Merlot, while a wine that even the most rudimentary drinker can enjoy, often leaves the sophisticat wanting.

So, getting off my soap box and moving's specimen is an oak aged Merlot from Israel by Gamla. While not my favorite wine that I've ever tasted, it certainly has some redeeming factors that make it a wine that isn't deserving of a carte blanche criticism of the Sideways persuasion.

Yes, it is oaky. You can tell this from the strong vanilla and smoky aromas that the wine gives off. (and yes, these qualities are echoed in the palate). but beyond that, you will find that there is some tobacco, woody spice and dark plum notes that lend the wine some interest. The last couple of days I've been drinking this wine with both roast chicken and chicken soup and it is probably not the best companion for those dishes, but at the same time not the worst, either.  I would like to try this wine with a dish centered around some merguez sausage or something else of that sort...maybe a Majadara or Tajine. Both of these dishes are round and relatively softly-flavored and allow for some interesting interaction on your palate with a wine such as this.

Yatir Viognier, Israel

Following on the heels of yesterday's Alexander Sandro post, here's another premier Israeli winery putting out fantastic wines. Today, we are looking at Yatir winery and their Viognier wine.

The Viognier grape is, while ancient, a relative newcomer to the popular wine market; until the last 5 or so years, it was relegated to the domain of wine geeks and those who enjoyed obscure wines. Viognier has its origins in France's Rhone Valley (as is Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, and a host of other grapes). In fact, in Northern Rhone's districts of Condrieu and Chateau-Grillet, Viognier is the only white grape allowed by law in order to get the AOC designation.

Part of the reason that Viognier is/was so obscure is that it's a very different wine than the three main whites in the popular wine world: Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Riesling). First, the nose tends to be EXTREMELY aromatic with tropical fruits like papaya and lychee are dominant. The Viogniers I've come across have been aged in stainless steel so I am not too experienced with the effect oak aging would have on the wine (hint: kosher winemakers that may be reading this blog: make an oak aged Viognier so we can see the effect! Preferrably not new oak.)

However, despite the obscurity, or perhaps because of it, I am a big fan of Viognier. All too often at the store, I will hear "I don't like white wine because..." and the reason is usually because the client doesn't like California Chardonnay, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc or German Riesling, and thinks that all of white wine is limited to these three varietals. (In fact, in Italy there are literally dozens, if not hundreds, of indigenous varietals both red and white, that we never see in America, kosher or otherwise).

Now back to Yatir's offering. The noce is rife with tropical fruit, with notes of guava, papaya and a touch of pineapple. This would leave one to expect a particularly sweet wine, but that's not the case. The palate, while fruity, is completely dry. The fruit component is balanced with a very racy acidity and has a voluptuous mouthfeel that definitely places this wine in the full-bodied category.

This could go well with richer Asian dishes, or even something as exotic as goat or venison (both of which are not that fatty. The wine is fat enough on its own!). If you wanted to do seafood I would put this with richer fish to stand up to the wine's body, so go for tuna or salmon, and not a light flaky fish.

I really cannot say enough good things about this wine or this winery, which has consistently put out some outstanding wines (and priced appropriately!). But, if you can put down the investment, you'll be richly rewarded. Cheers!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Alexander "Sandro" Cab-Merlot, Israel, 2007

This was my first experience with the Alexander winery (a new import to the US), and I can easily foresee this winery operating on the same level as Domaine du Castel and Yatir, if it isn't already. (This is one of two wines I've sampled from Alexander). The style of the wine, as is Castel and Yatir, is decidedly French, meaning that the fruity qualities of the wine are secondary and the more earthy and vegetal qualities of the wine are more dominant.

Be forewarned! If you're used to the style of wine from Baron Herzog, Teal Lake, Golan, Gamla, etc. this is a very different type of wine! Aside from the switch from fruity to earthy-dominant flavors, there's also the oak issue. While this wine is indeed oak aged, there's little, if any, new oak used to age the wine. If you use new oak, the oak influence is going to be stronger.

Some would say "if you're going to do it, you may as well really do it!" But let's put things in perspective. At the seder, you're supposed to have a "bitter herb," which many have interpreted to be a horseradish-based mixture (with some vinegar, etc.), but you can have too much at once and it'll blow out your palate for the rest of the seder (or at least the Hillel sandwich!). The same with the oak influence on wine. I appreciate the extra layers of complexity and tannin that oak can lend to a wine, but if you use too much oak (especially new oak) or let the wine age too long in the barrels, you end up masking the true flavors of the wine. So oak is good--in moderation.

Strong oak influences are popular among novice wine drinkers because the heavily-oaked wines tend to be easier to drink and more palate-friendly and straight-forward. By using older oak barrels and using just a small amount of aging, the grapes' natural characteristics come out and often these qualities are not as popular among those who are new to the wine world, or are used to the California/Australia style of wine. It's not a judgment of taste but rather the reality of the development of the wine drinker's palate.

To put it in another perspective, as we develop our tastes for food, from babies to children to young adults to mature adults, certain foods fall in and out of favor with our palates. Good luck trying to tell a 5 year old that artichokes are a delicious food, and you'll have just as much luck convincing someone in their 30's that Wacky Mac (TM) is the epitome of gastronomy!

Now that I've finished my aside, let's get back to the wine itself. It's a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot (the two classic dominant grapes of Bordeaux). When I sampled this wine, it had been opened the night before, so approximately 18 hours had transpired between opening the bottle and my tasting of the wine.  So you could open this wine the first night of Passover and serve it for the 2nd seder and be in good shape!

On the nose, truffle mushrooms and green pepper were immediately apparent. On further inspection I also found aromas of old tanned leather and dried tobacco. There were some dried cherry notes but they were very much secondary; I had to work hard to find the fruit on the nose.

The fruity flavors were more easily found on the palate but still not the primary characteristics. The truffle followed through on the taste as the dominant flavor with some vanilla and butterscotch (classic signs of oak aging!). The tannin was certainly there but it was well-integrated, showing a wine that has aged well and is in its prime for consumption. The acid was there but very subtly weaved throughout.

This wine BEGS for food. From a classic grilled steak to a beef with mushroom sauce, pair this wine with red meat, please. You don't do this wine justice just drinking on its own. If there ever were a wine that would go well with a cigar, this is the one. If you had to drink this wine on its own, I would approach it the same way I would a good single malt: have small sips over an extended period of time. This is the wine to ruminate over. But so worth it.

So how much does this wine cost, you ask? $31 at your local wine shop. In case you hadn't noticed it already, I kinda like this wine a little. And by a little, I mean a lot. Get this wine. There isn't much of it out there.

The other wine I tried from Alexander is one that is not even available on the American market, and definitely worthy of its own post, if for no other reason than to understand the way this wine is produced (it's a truly mind boggling process!).


Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Teperberg "White" Chardonnay/Sauvignon Blanc, Israel

This offering comes from one of my favorite Israeli wineries producing good quality, moderately-priced wines, both mevushal and non-mevushal. Now, while we are on this topic, let's digress a bit to talk about mevushal issues.

First, let's address the purpose of having mevushal wine. Historically, going back to the days when all of Israel's neighbors were making sacrifices and libations to the goat god and whatnot, the pagans would refuse to use boiled wine for their libations because the wine was "inferior" by their definition. So, to ensure that any Israelite wine that could potentially be used for libations at the Temple, they would boil the wine to ensure that no pagan "defilement" would occur.

Fast forward to today, what mevushal means for us is the following: regarding when someone who is not Jewish (some would go as far as to say a Jew who is not shomer Shabbos) handling an open bottle of wine. If the wine is mevushal, then the wine is still kosher even after the person in question has handled the bottle. If the wine is not mevushal then the wine is no longer kosher when the non-Jew/non-Shomer Shabbos Jew handles it.

Now, I hate to say it, but the pagans did get something right. For most of its history, mevushal wine has been an inferior product because it would always have a distinct "cooked" quality, both in the nose and on the palate. However, modern technology has allowed us to make wines that are halachically mevushal, but not "cooked."

In fact many of the world's top wineries use the same process to flash pasteurize their wines, including Chateau Latour in Bordeaux and Beaucastel in the Rhone valley of France (on a "bad" year, both of these estates' wines will sell in the HUNDREDS of dollars. For example a 1997 Latour, horrible year in Bordeaux, sold for around $300 wholesale. Just to give you some perspective). So basically, the quality of wine and mevushal are non-issues, assuming the process is done right.

So today's example IS a mevushal wine, and a blend of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. It retails for around $18 and is delightful. Very aromatic on the nose with some vanilla aromas from the oak aging and floral qualities (surprising, given that neither grape is known for strong floral notes). On the palate, it is smooth and creamy, with some more of the oak coming through and well-balanced acidity to play off the tropical fruit flavors.

This is a wine that I intend to keep around the house on a regular basis. It's great to have on its own or could do well with a creamy alfredo-style pasta. I was very surprised by this wine, in a pleasant way, and everyone I've recommended this wine to has come back to say it was so good. Give it a shot, you won't be disappointed.

Gamla Moscato, Israel, 2009

Ok, so Moscato has a bad reputation of being nothing more than sweet fizzy wine. While there is plenty of that out there, sweet and fiz  and not much else, Moscato has the potential to be just as interesting and enjoyable as any other "serious" wine out there. Today's specimen is one of them.

Moscato has a reputation of being one of the more aromatic grapes on the market, with notes of peach blossom, orange peel and herbs, and the Gamla Moscato doesn't disappoint.

The palate continues the floral and herbaceous qualities with sage becoming the dominant herb flavor. It is not as sweet as some other Moscatos out there such as the ubiquitous Bartenura offering, but I think that is a good thing: it allows some of the wine's other characteristics come out.

While drinking this on its own is always a good idea (Kiddush anyone?), the Gamla Moscato also has the acidity and sugar content to stand up to some fairlly rich dishes. Try a bottle the next time you have liver (trust me on this one) or a rich cheese like Brie or Camembert. Blue cheeses can be a bit strong for the delicate flavors of Moscato but if you come across a mild blue cheese then it could work. On the other hand, it could also work with a fruit salad composed of berries with a touch of sugar for maceration and some lemon zest.

The Gamla Moscato retails for $13 in many wine stores. L'chayim