November 2005 Archives

Found a 1999 Mourvèdre in the cellar the other night, a bottle I had completely forgotten about. I must have picked it up during a swing through Paso Robles, because it was from a Ken Volk second label, one used for Rhône-style wines before he sold his Wild Horse Winery. When I see varietal Mourvèdre –meaning a bottle of wine with that grape on the label, meaning it’s at least 75% Mourvèdre – I buy it. Doesn’t matter who made it, or when, or where.

And you thought I was really selective, right?

Well, this habit of mine really is an example of high selectivity. Years ago, in the first wine class I ever took, the instructor poured a Mourvedre during a session on California Rhones. He didn’t know the wine himself, because he had picked it up in a shop on the way to class. I remember the look on his face as he took a quick sip himself while the wine was being poured for the students in the room. His eyebrows went up. When the pourers got to me, I asked for a little extra.

That wine was Ancient Vine Mourvèdre from Cline Cellars, and I went out and bought some the next day. Started buying Mourvedre whenever I saw it. Still do. The reason? That grape just happens to fit my palate perfectly.

You might say the grape selected me, because when I discovered that I liked it I had very little knowledge of French or Californian wine. In other words, I didn’t decide that I liked it for any particular reason, because I didn’t know what the reasons were for liking wine. I just… liked it.

Today I have more knowledge, but it doesn’t change what my palate wants. I know that Mourvèdre’s long ripening cycle means it’s can’t become a super-ripe fruit bomb, its acid structure means it’s always going to have some grip in the texture, and its berry size means it’s going to have pretty good color. Turns out I like these things in all red wine. Mourvèdre just happens to have them in spades.

In fact I still have that empty Equus bottle on my desk as a reminder. Because the holidays are approaching and I now see that I can give my family and friends a very short, bullet-proof wish list. Doesn’t matter who made it, or when, or where. Just give me a bottle of Mourvèdre.

- Thom Elkjer
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Rockin' Dessert

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I love dessert wines, and not because I was a Kool-Aid junkie as a kid. I love them because of how they subvert a lot of the conventions of wine in general.

I got a fresh hit of this the other night at a dinner a buddy of mine threw to celebrate buying a cellar from a guy in Germany who had a couple of strokes and had to stop drinking. This gentleman, Ludwig Balz, had spent 40 years collecting dessert Rieslings called “Trockenbeerenauslese” (which means, roughly speaking, “hand-selected, late-harvested berries dessicated to almost pure sugar by bunch rot”). Now the whole collection’s in San Francisco at Dee Vine Wines on Pier 19.

So let’s consider how these wines, known as “TBAs” for short, knock down stereotypes.

Riesling is pretty pale in color, right? Well, the TBAs we had at dinner the other night were not pale. They were not even close to white. They were gold-, caramel-, and Coca-cola-colored.

Wine is supposed to smell like fruit, right? These wines smelled of dried dill, fabric softener, marshmallows and motor oil. I mean they smelled divinely of these things, along with apricots, roasted chestnuts and caramelized walnuts.

You know how Riesling is generally pretty thin stuff? These flowed like maple syrup.

Dessert wines get drunk after a meal, right? We drank these TBAs as perfect complements to some cheese, a fois gras appetizer, and a main course of fancy chicken and potatoes. (Okay, we had some with dessert, too. But you get the point.)

Best of all, there is no way on earth to make wines like these to order, the way so many wineries in so many countries are making Syrah and Merlot and Chardonnay to a chemically calibrated standard, like beer, so they can ship it 10,000 miles and sell it at Safeway.

You make one of these babies, you are sending a ship out on the ocean that will make landfall in some other dimension of time and space as a completely different creature. No one can predict what it will be at that moment. I can only salute Herr Balz and my pal Dade for bringing a whole flotilla of these miracles into a harbor near me.

- Thom Elkjer
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Yesterday I visited a winery in South Africa I had been thinking about for seven years. Usually I don’t think about wineries between visits – much less seven years between visits – but this one was special.

Back in 1998, Vergelegen was just a few years old. Its owners had prepared me for a temperamental enfant terrible of a winemaker named André van Rensberg. But he didn’t seem crazy to me. He was just totally, completely determined that nothing would compromise the integrity of his winemaking. He did make the occasional crack about the “suits” running the wine business, but otherwise he was cool.

And his wine was killer. I had already tasted one, a Semillon dessert wine, the night before I met him. It was one of the best things I ever put in my mouth. The owners of the winery asked me what I thought they should sell it for. Maybe it was the wine talking, but I blurted out, “Don’t sell it at all. Keep it to pour for special guests, wine writers, celebrities. It will make you far money that way than if you sell it, even at a ridiculous price.

This answer surprised them, and the conversation soon wandered on.

Now, seven years later, I was going back to Vergelegen as an incognito visitor. A local brochure extolled Vergelegen’s reserve Sauvignon Blanc and its Semillon, made as both still wine and dessert wine. I smiled to myself. I was going to taste that heavenly elixir once again.

The first surprise was the gated entry where my companion, Viva, and I had to pay merely enter the premises, never mind taste wine or take a tour. Only when we had paid to get in were we told that all the tours were sold out for the day.

To get to the tasting room, we had to pass through a gift shop. Viva looked at me over her sunglasses. I shrugged back, and we pushed through the gift shop and its throng of camera-toting tourists to get to the tasting room.

Once there, we were given a menu of wines we could taste – and pay for, a la carte, for every single taste. A laminated “tasting guide” described the wines, but it had no vintages printed on it, meaning that either the descriptions were generic or the winery was making wine according to pat recipes.

I picked five wines off the list and a server brought them over: tiny pours in tiny glasses for the equivalent of ten bucks per person. They were all disappointing: thin, over-oaked, ordinary. I could not believe André van Rensberg had made them.

When the server came back I asked why I didn’t see a reserve Sauvignon Blanc on the list. “Oh,” she said, “that’s only available at the end of the month.” Why? She had no idea. What about the dry Semillon? “You can’t get that until January.” And then only on alternate Thursdays? I joked. But the server didn’t smile. “Something like that,” she said.

It appeared that the whole operation was designed to lure in tourists and shake them down with the crassest kind of commercialism.

Finally I asked about the Semillon dessert wine, the bottling Vergelegen was supposedly famous for. “You can’t taste that,” the server said. I asked if I could buy some, then. She shook her head. “It’s not for sale.”

I stared at her, stunned. So who got to drink it? “Special guests, wine writers, people like that,” she said, and took away the tray of tiny glasses.

I sat speechless. Viva slipped on her sunglasses. “I guess the suits won in the end,” she said.

Apparently. But apparently I helped them. Writing this on the plane home, I’m still shaking my head.

What happened, André?

- Thom Elkjer
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