So Jay Miller wanted to broaden his and his good-for-nothing friends' horizons. In order to do so, a jeebus along the theme of "Oddball Grapes" was declared, a list of forbidden favorite cultivars published (no chenin, no pinot noir, no nebbiolo, no gamay). The prime white focus was to be on a German grape that Jay had heard about on the internet from John Trombley, and the prime red focus was to be on cabernet sauvignon, a workhorse French variety that somehow has never broken into the first tier, forever overshadowed by its more expressive cousin, cabernet franc.
So it is that we arrive at Jay's midtown digs in the company of Arvind Rao and his charming lady friend, who, apart from an initial attempt to stick her nose in my crotch, was wonderfully well behaved all night long.
Not that it's the first time that kind of thing has happened to me at a jeebus, mind you. But those are stories for another day. A drunker day, when I feel like typing.
So I take a deep breath and approach the first wine, a Babich Riesling Marlborough 2002. Pale. Smells light and a little unusual, white floral hints laced with celery seed and white pepper. Tastes more conventionally rieslingesque, dry and delicate, a whispery-flowery little wine that is small and innocuous but also rather cheerful and distinct, just being itself and not trying to Bruce L. WOW me. Nice, quiet sipper.
Here's a Clydesdale of a different color, a Hirtzberger Riesling Wachau Singerriedel Smaragd 2001. Light straw-lemon color. Florid, Maldenesque nose, baked pineapple and pear, honey-lemon and hay. Rich and intense, quite dry but muscular rather than abrasive, a big, sinewy wine that blossoms with yellow flowers and yellow fruit in the midpalate, then turns spicy and stony on the finish. Phew. An exciting ride that leaves me feeling a little ruffled. Kane draws his entire evening's quota of blank stares in one fell swoop by declaring this wine to be "Just like that guy in Tango & Cash's jaw."
No, I don't understand either. If you need clarification on that one, please go directly to the source.
Willi Haag Riesling Brauneberger Juffer Kabinett 2001. Pale straw color. Smells very shy, light vinyl, pine needles, lemon and yellow apple. Tastes intense, crisp and tight with a sheen of light sweetness, a tangy monolith of a wine in sore need of time to loosen up. This is a kabinett?
Joachim Flick Riesling Wickerer Mönchsgewann Rheingau Spätlese 1999. Ripe, spicy aromatics, honey and baked yellow apple. Tastes big, sweet and glossy, with enough acidity, but just barely. A bit much, but undeniably silly and fun despite its simplicity. This is borderline desserty-sweet; these wacky Germans really have to straighten out this label stuff if they expect to emerge from obscurity.
Müller-Catoir Riesling Haardter Burgergarten Spätlese 1998. Pale lemon-straw color. Touch of kerosene hovers over stony lemon-apple fruit, lightly yellowfloral, smells promising but shy. A sip, and it's more assertive in the piehole, light sweetness filling out the increasingly rich yellow fruit and gaining momentum in the midpalate with a surge of assertive acidity. Comes down the home stretch and really blooms, swirling layers of white peach and lemon and hints of hay over a crystalline minerality. Finishes with a stonyfruity-peachy flourish, a real asskicker of a wine that retains a good sense of composure, a pleasure to drink.
Müller-Catoir Riesling Musbacher Eselhaut Spätlese Trocken 1993. Medium straw-lemon color. Quiet nose, hints of vinyl, lemon and honey. Tastes quite tangy, almost severely so, hard fruit without much cushion, finishing with a borderline bitter lemon-metallic tang. Not bad, but hard to like.
Seebrich Riesling Niersteiner Olberg Kabinett 2001. Pale straw color. Smells of lemon and spiced yellow apple. Tastes bright and crisp, nice weight and good supporting acidity, but turns watery in the middle and loses the initial focus. Still, friendly and young and decent.
This unheralded German grape has made a pretty strong showing for itself, impressing many of us who never thought of riesling as anything other than a workhorse blending grape, a café wine best served chilled and/or mixed with soda and lime into frothy wine coolers. Now it's time to see if the cabernet sauvignon can keep the good vibes going.
First up is a Louis Martini Cabernet Sauvignon Private Reserve 1973. Medium ruby color, browning out from the core. Very earthy aromatics, leaves and brown sugar and shoyu hints, the fruit at the heart has a crushed-brick patina, and there are light hints of dried orange rind. Pomander-smelling. Tastes wan, very little overt fruit left, moist leafiness and earth and supporting acidity. Tired and dried out. Sentence fragments. Not quite dead, still has interest, but not very much fun to drink. Lesson one: don't attempt to age this cabernet sauvignon stuff.
Slightly more lively is a Torres Penedes Gran Reserva Black Label 1981. Medium ruby color, with just the smallest hint of ambering at the rim. This also smells earthy, but there's more overt red fruit as well, muted cassis-blackberry base to support the sod smells. Tastes lean and nervy up front, loosens in the middle, layering out with marinara sauce and old leather notes. Not exactly thin, but on the lean side, with good focus and considerable charm. Just old enough, quite pleasant now but I'd drink up soon.
Château Sociando-Mallet Haut-Médoc 1985. I hauled this one out this to show Jay that 1985 Bordeaux was something he could get into, but naturally it's foully corked. May the gods send hungry vermin to blight the black heart of the cork oak tree.
Here's a Château Cos d'Estournel St. Estèphe 1989. This has a lean, hungry nose, not much going on, light oregano and blackcurrant notes. Tastes thin, stern and simple, without much fruit or anything else to recommend it, finishes angrily tannic. Really surprisingly poor, yielding no pleasure despite repeated attempts to coax it into kindness. Not having much experience with this wine, I ask Greg (who brought it) if it's an off bottle. He moans lowly, says "No, it's all like this. It just sucks." He then proceeds to rather plaintively ask everyone if they want to buy any, cheap. Poor guy, I guess he got stuck with a bunch. Some malcontent asks "C'mon, did anybody bring any gamay, or something good?" but gets no response, only an awkward silence.
On we soldier, with a Château Prieuré-Lichine Margaux 1989 up next. Okay, this is soothing after the angry Cos. Smells warm and simple, blackfruit and a light toastiness, touch of graphite. Interesting combination of fairly low acidity and a fruit-driven tartness that stands in for structure. Calm in the middle, quiet and whispery on the finish, a small, supple wine that doesn't strive for much but goes down smoothly and gives us hope that this grape can do some good after all.
Something from California, where I'm told much wine is made, an Arns Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 1993. Medium-dark ruby color. Smells of warm blackcurrants and cedar, laced with a tarry smokiness. Tastes redfruity and dark, a sense of restraint to the ripeness, firm acidity and a juicy-earthy mouthfeel. It's not terribly complex, just medium sized and broadly calm, a blunt package of straightforward cabernet that has come together nicely since I last had it about three years ago. Still, I wouldn't hold on to any for very much longer; this seems to me to be about as good as it's going to get. Drink now, or perhaps sometime before October 17th.
Château de Fieuzal Pessac-Léognan 1989. Medium ruby color. A good whiff of barnyard hangs over the dark blackberry-earthy nose. Tastes supple and soothing, warm and dark, with a deep undercurrent of minerality. Rather monolithic at its heart, but seems to be softening at the edges, the hard core feathering out into a lightly velvety skin. A small wine but an interesting one, with a lot of potential well down the road. Hold, baby, hold.
Suddenly Greg races up to me with a glass of wine in his hand, sticks it under my nose and demands: "Quick! Don't think! What does this smell like?!"
I take a whiff... toast, coffee, a clear high note of cinnamon candy... ah, I see what he's getting at. "Red Hots™," I declare firmly.
"Yes!" he is thrilled, "That's exactly right!" He races off to try it on someone else. I ask "Have I won something?" but only get his retreating back. The wine is apparently a Château l'Arrosée St. Emilion 1990. Apart from the pronounced cinnamon streak it has dark espresso-and-redfruit aromatics. Tastes young and rough, stony undertones emerge with air. Rich and firm and fully-packed, it's pretty darn good wine. I'm just about to give cabernet sauvignon the benefit of the doubt when I check the program and read that this is actually mostly merlot. Oh well, it's still good, albeit a few years away from where it's going.
Château Monbrison Margaux 1989. Medium ruby color. Quiet earthy black- and redfruit nose, hints of tar and graphite. Tastes quiet, blackberry and cassis laced with minerals and smoke and dusted with cedar and sod. Seems reticent at first, but blooms quietly in the middle, spreading softly over my tongue, then really opening up on the finish, spreading out languidly into fine flavorful layers. What we have here is a medium-sized wine with a sense of refinement and character. At first taste it seems that it needs more time, but the supple complexity of the finish wins me over; it's very nice right now, a winning combination of purity and complexity. Once again I'm thinking that maybe cabernet sauvignon has a chance to make good, but once again I read in the program notes that this is just barely half. Still, for my money it's the best of the bunch.
Castello di Ama Rosso di Toscana l'Apparita 1994. Seems friendly right up front, with a wash of leathery blackberry-raspberry fruit, turns earthy and a bit rough and raspy in the middle, finishes tarry and tannic. A bit of a tease, but the firm acidity and bad-boy charm win me over; it's taut and wiry and it'll never be a goblovers' wine, but it has a good sense of itself as a small-bore tough guy.
Château Rieussec Sauternes 1989. Really, it's great great wine, but tonight it's shut down and is just not singing the way it ought. Still, even a muted bottle of this is something special. Hold 'em, kids, let 'em sleep.
Domaine du Mas Blanc Banyuls 1985. Dark raspberry, tree bark and cocoa powder. Sweet, rich and layered. Needs time, but the beginnings of complexity are there amidst the rich dark grenache.
Bonny Doon Ca del Solo Freisa Frizzante NV. Smells like strawberry candy. Tastes like fizzy strawberry candy. A bit too sweet and soda-poppy, kind of a kiddie version of Alain Renardat-Fâche's perennial masterpiece. Fun, but a bit cloying after a few sips.
The pale shadow starts a grassroots clamor for the real thing, leading Jay to pop open an Alain Renardat-Fâche Cerdon de Bugey NV. Strawberries and earth, bright and crisp and subtle, with just a hint of sweetness, a fizzy strawberry wine for adults. Yes, the Most Popular Wine in the World(tm) once again doesn't fail to thrill the crowd and leave it humming a jaunty tune. The fact that it's made from two normal grapes (gamay, poulsard) is conveniently overlooked by the thirsty crowd, as it's just so tasty. Theme, shmeme.
The final verdict on these unusual grapes? It looks to most of us as if riesling has a fine future ahead of it, given some half-decent marketing and the clear need to get some understandable labels with readable fonts and fewer polysyllabic place names. It's versatile and food-friendly, as well as being adaptable to many styles, from the big and bone-dry Hirtzberger to the sweet and supple Müller-Catoir.
Cabernet sauvignon, on the other hand, seems to have earned its reputation for making broad, clumsy wine, and showed best where it was merely a component in a blend (i.e., the Monbrison, the l'Arrosée). Still, there's a place in the world of wine for an inexpensive grape that can make big, fruity, if not terribly compelling wines. After all, you can't drink Chinon and Fleurie every day.
Or maybe you can, but you might want to try other stuff too, just to say you did. You know, so people don't accuse you of being a cabernet franc or gamay snob.
Even if you are.
Speaking hypothetically, of course.