Blogger Shout Out: The One, The Only, Arnie Millan

Some people have all the luck.

My coworker Arnie recently returned from a nice, long trip to Bordeaux. He apparently had a fabulous time. While I’m sure it must have been hard on him to tour all of those chateaux and try all of those barrel samples, he took it upon himself to do so for our edification. We all must bear our burdens, and this one is surely his.

Feel free to enjoy his ramblings on the trip (including pictures of pig-face delicacies) here. In truth, they’re quite enjoyable.


Today In Wine Porn

Yeah, I drank that. It was pretty fucking delicious. The 1985 Pichon-Lalande showed it up, though (didn’t get a picture, but whatever. Use your imagination). Classic Pauillac! Black currants and pencil lead for just absolute days (and some brett, but in a tolerable, kinda-delicious way). It’s experiences like these that make me remember why people talk about Bordeaux like it’s the tits. Of course, I’m not super-rich, so I won’t be shelling out the cash for these super-seconds any time soon, but I’ll gladly enjoy them when millionaires pull them out of their wine stash. Thank you, oligarchic overlords, for your overwhelming benevolence.

Washington Winery In Focus: Grand Reve

One of Washington’s newest up-and-comers, Grand Reve (French for ‘Great Dream’) skyrocketed to the top of everyone’s to-watch list last year, when their Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon was awarded 97 points from The Wine Spectator AND The Wine Advocate. I recently had an opportunity to sit down with Paul McBride from the winery (who’s the nicest guy in the world, by the way) and try a couple of their new releases.

Despite how I might talk about the wine press (from time to time) on this site, there are times that I agree with them. These wines are something to look out for; they’re a part of what I’m thinking of more and more as a holistic vision for Washington State: A place where wines of all shapes and styles can be made. These are wines of the press-friendly style, and by that I mean big. But I still like them, for I find a certain grace lingering within their muscularity. As I say: In Washington there is room for wines great and small.

Grand Reve’s methods are as ingenious as they are intuitive. They buy impeccable parcels of fruit from Ciel du Cheval, one of the greatest vineyards in Red Mountain, one of Washington’s most prestigious AVAs. They then turn around and give these parcels of fruit to some of the best winemakers in the state: Mark McNeilly from Mark Ryan Winery, Ben Smith from Cadence, Ross Mickel from Ross Andrew, Chris Gorman from Gorman Winery, and others. These winemakers are given carte blanche to do what they will with these great grapes. Like top-notch chefs being given excellent ingredients in a well-stocked kitchen, these master craftsmen create wines that are as unique as they are fascinating, each bringing their own personality to the project.

The most amazing thing about this idea is that the nature of the vineyard manages to shine through all of the enological tricks that these winemakers bring to the table. Silty, high-pH soils combine with an arid climate to grow stressed, low-yield vines. These grapes can produce wines of incredible, massive concentration, but a perfumed elegance tends to linger as well. In all, some might argue that Ciel du Cheval is Washington’s premier grape-growing site to date. Who am I to argue? The important part is that the wines from the site often have it all: The bold ripe fruit that New World wine drinkers love, along with the minerality and sense of place that makes great wine special.

Below are my notes.

Grand Reve 2007 Collaboration I ($53ish)
Here’s a bruiser for you. Grand Reve’s homage to Pauillac, the Collaboration I is created by Ben Smith of Seattle’s own Cadence Winery. And while you can see the notes that might make one think of Pauillac (cassis, black currant), this wine is truly Washington. Dark, bold, incredibly pure black plum fruit combines with a liberal and well-defined mocha-coffee oak element to create a textured, full-bodied experience that lingers on the palate for quite a while. Though decadent now, you might give this one another year in the cellar before drinking to allow the flavors to fully develop. 63% Cabernet, 13% Cabernet Franc, 13% Petit Verdot, 11% Merlot. A mere 200 cases produced.

For comparison, here are the winery’s notes: “The goal for the Collaboration Series I blend is to show off the elegance of Ciel du Cheval fruit in a powerful, opulent package. In the glass, the wine is a deep, vibrant garnet color and the nose offers up a sophisticated bouquet of pencil lead, blackcurrant, flowers and spices. On the palate it is seamless from front to back, impeccably balanced, and displays an impressive swath of black fruits and minerality. It will deliver prime drinking from 2012 to 2025. Try pairing this beauty with rib eye or beef short ribs.”

Not too far off! One man’s mocha-coffee-oak can easily be another man’s pencil lead and spices. As far as flowers go, well, maybe they (whoever wrote the winery’s notes, that is) saw something that I didn’t. I think their drinking window might be a little optimistic; 2025 is pretty damned far off. However, only time will tell; I’m not convinced that I always have my ageability estimation skills down (though I do think that certain reviewers are smoking crack when they come up with their drinking windows sometimes).

Grand Reve 2008 Collaboration II, ($48ish)
Grand Reve gives Ross Mickel from Woodinville’s Ross Andrew Winery free reign to flirt with Chateauneuf-du-Pape on this Southern Rhone blend. Extremely concentrated red fruit characters are the result: Strawberry and raspberry preserves, red currant, and ripe red plums balance beautifully with a remarkable acidity and the slightest perfumed edge to make one of the more elegant (but still full-bodied) wines from the Grand Reve portfolio. That being said, this is certainly a cellar selection; the fruit has yet to mature in the bottle. When it does, I expect this to be a wine that people were glad they held on to. 40% Grenache (something of a rarity off of Red Mountain), 38% Syrah, 20% Mourvedre, 1% Viognier, 1% Roussanne. Again, only 200 cases were produced.

And again, the winery notes: “Selected from some of the most sought-after vines at Ciel du Cheval, the 2007 Collaboration II is a stunning Washington rendition with the soul of the Southern Rhone. Dense, dark purple in color, this wine’s aromas leap out of the glass: black cherry and cranberries, espresso, cooked meats, and smoky spices all contribute to the distinctive nose. In the mouth intense black and ripe red fruits, spice, and minerals coat the palate while the classic Red Mountain structure adds volume and persistence to the finish. Delicious now decanted but should deliver prime drinking in 3-5 years. Recommend pairing with lamb or smoked duck confit.”

Again, how do they compare? I wouldn’t say that I disagree with what they have to say about this wine. Funnily enough, I thought that the Collaboration II was the more ageworthy wine, whereas they didn’t mention a drinking window at all. They did say that it needed time in the bottle, which my notes concurred with.

All tasting note sophistry aside, I think these wines are good. There’s a certain amount of ‘Oh, there seems to be so much money behind these wines, and how could they ever be anything but hype’ questionability about the project, but I think that’s misleading. Certainly it is a high-end project, but they do deliver a high-end product as well, and for a price that (for what you’re getting as far as fruit sourcing, vinification talent, and proof-is-in-the-pudding deliciousness) is relatively reasonable. It feels like it’s going against my nature to speak well of a Red Mountain money project, but I can’t deny quality in the bottle.

I wasn’t sold on Grand Reve when I tried them for the first time more than a year ago – the wines were awkward and oak-driven at that time (these were the previous releases). However, they came together in the bottle, and when I tried them a few months later they had fleshed out, the fruit had come back to the forefront, and they were showing very well. The winery’s notes show significant bottle aging before release; maybe they learned something.

To sum things up: These are Washington wine drinker’s wines. All comparisons to the old world aside, you should buy them if you like rich, full-bodied, fruit-driven wine. They are that, done in a style that is refined and focused. While big, they’re not fruit-bombs or oak-bombs. These are serious wines made in a bold style.


Posting Resumes – Court of Master Sommeliers

Sorry for the hiatus – I moved, and that took a while, and I haven’t gotten internet in my new place yet. I have taken it upon myself to schlepp (a word that spellcheck recognizes) myself all the way to the coffee shop that is blocks- blocks!- away in an overwhelmingly committed effort to reconnect with you, the reader.

I’m in the process of taking the Level 1 Court of Master Sommeliers exam right now – there are two days of classes, followed by a written examination. Today was day one of the classes, and I have to say that it’s a really fun experience. Listening to people who are passionate about wine and in there element talking about it is an engaging and thought-provoking experience. Some of the material covered was a bit rudimentary (it is level 1) for my knowledge base, but it was peppered with enough kernels of new knowledge to make it an invigorating experience.

It also reminded me of the joys of blind tasting. When you’re presented with fairly typical examples of a variety/region, it is fascinating to deduce what it may or may not be. My previous deductive tastings have all been themed, and I think that’s the wrong way to do it. Comparative tasting can be very good for knocking solid tasting notes into your mental library (which you can hopefully pull out later), but developing your ability to utilize deductive reasoning when determining the typicity/quality of a wine seems far more rudimentary, and I think must be a necessary foundation upon which to build comparative knowledge (which is then utilized in deductive tastings, so it’s all related). Briefly, deductive tasting goes like this (shortened because I’m into the whole brevity thing and paraphrased because I don’t have the exact terms right in front of me):

All wines are blind. Hopefully, the bottle is not at all seen (even bagged) and there are no indications as to what the wine might be (such as, for example, knowing that it is on a list that is particularly heavy in one category – that will skew your deductions toward that category).

Step one: Visual.
Clarity: Is it murky, cloudy, hazy, clear?
Brilliance: Is it dull, bright, star-bright, incredibly-freaking-brilliant?
Color: For whites, is it watery, straw, yellow, gold, etc? For reds, is it purple, ruby, garnet, orange, brown?
Intensity: Is the color low, medium, high in intensity? Somewhere in between one of those?
Viscosity: Low, medium, high, what? Are the legs tinged with the color of the wine?
Some other stuff that I’m probably forgetting.

Step two: Aromas.
One: Is the wine sound, or faulted?
Two: Name three fruits.
Three: Does the wine have any earth qualities? If so, what?
Four: Does the wine display the presence of oak? If so, new, neutral? Any idea on what kind? Other notes?
Five: Other notes?
Six, Seven, More: Notes on dryness, body, fruits (name 3!), oak, tannin, alcohol, acid, other.

Step Three: Initial Conclusion.
Start with Old World or New? From there, go to country. From there, region within country. From there, grape variety(ies). Vintage. At this step, multiple options can be explored.

Step Four: Final Conclusion.
After considering the multiple options brought up in Step Three, this is your final determination of what the wine is, right or wrong (and you will very, very often be wrong). State your opinion with confidence! What is the grape variety(ies), country of origin, region within that country, level of quality (village cru, 1er cru, grand cru, et cetera?)? Finally, vintage.

Then… The big reveal!

Sorry, you were wrong. Try again later.

So that’s pretty much what I’ve been doing today. It was fun!

Disclaimer: I probably cocked up the description of deductive tasting completely there. I in no way claim to be a master anything, and should not be thought of as a definitive source of knowledge. Go here instead.