March 2, 2006

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The taste of sibling rivalry
Breeding tells but so does birth order
By Tim Protzman  tprotzman@hotmail.com 

One reason wine is so appealing is its humanistic character. Any trait a person has can be found in wine.

And like the family where one kid’s in jail and one’s in Harvard, no two vintages — even from the same vineyard — are alike. I’ve been revisiting some younger wines lately, some born just a year later than their siblings, and the difference is amazing.

The Laetitia Winery Estate Pinot Noir is a perfect example of the difference a year makes. The winery’s located in California’s Central Coast, the San Luis Obispo Region in the Arroyo Grande Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area). Here, the rolling green-and-brown hills catch the sea winds at night and sharpen the fruit. The winery used to be part of Maison Champagne Deutz but is now locally owned, along with Avila and Barnwood Wineries, by Selim Zilhka, a billionaire Los Angles businessman.

The Laetitia vintage that caught my eye was the much heralded 2002. The harvest began in late August and the grapes were fantastic because the nightly temperatures were cool. The 2002 Laetitia Estate Pinot Noir was fruity with a touch of sweetness and had a big finish of complex flavors and layers of fruit and spice.

The 2003 vintage was as different as different can be. It was Burgundian, with layers of flavor and subdued fruit, and it was not rowdy like its older brother. This was a cautious wine, with hints of greatness to come. It was a reserved wine compared to its Johnny Good Fellow brother. And it had a bit of a tannic edge, just like you’d expect a younger sibling to have compared to his outgoing, popular older brother. Parker doesn’t rate the Central Coast’s Pinot Noirs specifically, but Wine Enthusiast Magazine gives the 2002 95 points and the 2003 88 points. So you can see where the sibling rivalry starts.

I like both vintages because they’re so different. I’m betting the 2002 will be like your old high-school quarterback at your 15th class reunion — bald, flabby and working for his father-in-law. But the 2003 will stride in, swathed in Armani, running a multi-national corporation, with an air of diffidence. All heads will turn. People will say things like “Didn’t he used to be a geek?” “I was his best friend!” and “Dammit Horace, to think I passed him up for YOU!” He will be the toast of the town. People will fawn all over him.

Or maybe not. See, that’s the mystery of wine. How a wine tastes now is only a mirage of what it will evolve to. One can never be sure. Once at a private club where I worked the Club Manager stored a Jeroboam (a large bottle that holds the equivalent of six normal wine bottles, or an early Israeli king) of Beaulieu Vineyards 1976 Cabernet Sauvignon on a shelf in his office. He was afraid the staff would drink it if he kept it in the wine cellar.

And of course we would have, but that’s another story. He opened it when he retired and it was delicious! For about an hour. Everyone had a glass, before the wine turned ugly and mean. The sediment, which is tartaric acid crystals and tiny pieces of grape skins, filled every glass. The tannins became offensive. People thought it a bad omen for a long-put-off retirement. We pronounced the last half of the bottle undrinkable. The air had affected it. It was too old. He stored it wrong. It was the height of disappointment.

The next day, Gil, the club’s beverage manager, got in early and found the one-third-full mega-bottle sitting next to the dishwasher. He put on a Bunn-o-Matic pot of coffee and suddenly had an inspiration. Seizing a coffee filter, he carefully filtered the nasty crystals out, and saved the remaining wine in a decanter. We had it at lunch. It was a shadow of its original self, probably because the wine was past its prime when we opened it but the tannins had moderated, and like my Great Aunt Pearl, who at 92 was pretty much round the bend but occasionally became coherent enough to tell some great stories about Pittsburgh during Prohibition, it retained a hint of what it was.

The moral of the story:
1) Don’t save great wine for that special occasion that may never come.
2) Every vintage is different, even from the same vineyard.
3) And rare old wine, even when corked or oxidized, is worth trying.
I’ve tilted many an empty bottle the next day to get that last drop that escaped the night before, although I draw the line at licking it off surfaces and the ground like the rabble in A Tale of Two Cities.

Here’s what we’ve been tasting lately:

2002 Masseria Li Veli “Morgana Alta” Salice Salentino DOC Riserva. The best red me and the wine rookies, whose palates are getting better all the time, have tasted in a while. $31.99.
It’s from the Salice Salentino region of Apulia on the heel of Italy’s boot. It’s made from a grape I’ve never heard of, negroamaro. It’s a reserve wine, which means a smaller amount is made and it’s aged longer. The DOC stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata, which certifies it comes from Salice Salentino region. The higher quality designation is DOCG, which means Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita, which guarantees the wine’s origin. But don’t overlook Italian wines with IGT or Indicazione Geografica Tipica on the label, which means wines “typical of that geographic location.”
The Li Veli had such smooth tannins it could have been sanded. It was subdued, elegant and with a flat, ribbon-like edge of fruit. Try the Taurino Salice Salentino, $13.99, same grape, non-reserve, cheaper price, almost as good.

2003 Artesa Carneros Estate Pinot Noir, $18.99 — man, 2003 was tough year. Good flavor, but still a little shrill. It’ll age well and it pairs with cheese, pizza, chicken, anything but sushi and vinegar-based condiments and food.

Chalone vs. Chalone
No, it’s not a divorce case, just a cabernet vs. pinot noir taste-off. Chalone Vineyards is in the Monterey region in Steinbeck’s East of Eden country. It was part of the Chalone Wine Group that was purchased by Diageo. They own Edna Valley, Echelon, Beaulieu and Sterling too. Pretty much everything they purvey is quality. They also own Guinness, Tanqueray, Smirnoff and Johnnie Walker. It’s a huge company and if I ever get engaged I’m registering there!

And the winner is 2004 Chalone Monterey County Cabernet Sauvignon, $12.99. Dried cranberry with a hit of Marlboro smoke and a lead pencil finish that makes this wine fine on its own or with casual food.
Tell Tim your wine stories. You can reach him at tprotzman@sbcglobal.net.

Comments? Thoughts? Discuss this article and more at hippoflea.com



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