Tag Archives | classic wines

Vin de Constance

Historic dessert wine from Constantia in South Africa. Brilliant!

Wine Description

Muscat highlights in a nose balanced between floral and ripe white peach. Yellow green color with no browning whatsoever. Dense flavors with refreshing acid finish. Perfect for a lemon custard cake. Tasted in Fine Wines of the Southern Hemisphere class at Fort Mason in San Francisco. Southern Hemisphere class will next be offered as a Weekender in August 2011.

Wine Education

Even with the attention lavished on South Africa by the World Cup soccer matches, few people realize how accomplished the South African wine producers are. Founded at a time when New York City was still called New Amsterdam, the wine industry at the Cape of Good Hope flourished while Californios were still fermenting in cowhide bags. Sweet wines from Constantia were the toast of the Russian court during the late 1800’s, where they competed quite favorably with France’s Ch. d’Yquem and with the best Rieslings of Germany. Burgundy? At the time it was considered a backwater. Its wines couldn’t command one-twentieth the price of Vin de Constance, the luxurious dessert wine from South Africa’s premier winery, Groot Constantia, which had been founded on the estate of the Capes’ first Dutch governor, Simon Van der Stel.
     After Van der Stel’s death in the early 1800’s, Groot Constantia was split into three parcels and sold. Hendrik Cloete bought the homestead piece, and with his offspring raised the quality and recognition of Vin de Constance to worldwide acclaim. Cloete called his winery Klein Constantia. In Afrikaans groot means ‘great,’ while klein means ‘small.’ Phylloxera dealt a crushing blow to the South African wine industry, and by the end of the 1800’s Klein Constantia was in the hands of Abraham de Villiers and his American heiress wife Clara. They created an elegant party venue out of the estate, and even sent their nephew to U.C. Berkeley to study viticulture, but they did not resurrect the extraordinary reputation of Vin de Constance. That was left to the Jooste family, which purchased the property in 1980. Their U.C. Davis-experienced winemaker, Ross Gower, began the wine’s resurgence with his first release in 1986. Today son Lowell Jooste is in charge of the property, and Adam Mason has taken over as winemaker. Vin de Constance is reaching new heights every year.

Regional Description

As a wine producing district Constantia has three distinct characteristics, two of them related: (1) It is basically a suburb of Capetown, with correspondingly fine exposure to the marketplace (both domestic and international); (2) it is a very up-market piece of real estate, with sumptuous houses and beautiful landscaping; and (3) it is perhaps South Africa’s coolest (using the temperature sense of the word) growing region, no small factor when the tip of the continent is at 33º of latitude. Constantia is on the eastern side of a ridge running 20 miles south from Capetown along the peninsula which comprises the Cape of Good Hope. Constantia looks out to the east across False Bay (where the English landed to begin the Boer War). Technically I suppose Cape Agulhas (the southern tip of Africa) is the terminous of the Indian Ocean, but one could certainly argue (after swimming in it) that False Bay is the westernmost vestige of the warm Indian Ocean. The cold Bengula Current runs up the western side of the Good Hope peninsula, i.e. the Atlantic Ocean. The Atlantic side is not only colder, it carries much less moisture (cf: the Kalahari desert in Namibia further north). Constantia stands astride this divide, protected by its western ridge tops.

Food and Wine Pairing

Klein Constantia makes Vin de Constance from Muscat de Frontignan grapes (cf: Liqueur Muscat from Australia). They are picked very ripe, but not excessively dehydrated. Then they are matured over a four-year period in changing combinations of stainless steel and 120-gallon oak puncheons. The wine has more the 15% residual sugar, but also has very high acid for balance. In the 2005 vintage the pH is 3.45 with 8.75 g/l of total acid. Alcohol is less than Sauternes at a little over 12%, but considerably more than botrytized German Rieslings.
     On a one-dimensional scale of dessert wines, Vin de Constance falls somewhere between Canadian Icewine and Sauternes. It is not as honeyed, nor as volatile, as Sauternes. Which means milk chocolate and nut tarts are probably not going to be preferred matches. At the other extreme, fruit aromatics are a feature of Vin de Constance, but they are far from the only arrow in its quiver. Moreover the aromatics have a distinctly floral component. In the mouth the wine is an extraordinary balance of Vin Santo-like, dried fruit concentration, and refreshingly acidic length. A simple fruit dish, such as peaches with crème fraiche, would not do justice to this complexity.
     I believe the right answer is a custard cake. Decorate each plate with jasmine flowers. Buy or make a pound cake. Slice it horizontally into three levels. On top of level one put a layer of Meyer lemon custard. If you don’t want to make it yourself, you can buy a packaged product from the Jello Company, and tart it up with a real Meyer lemon or two. Include some zest from the lemon. On top of layer two put a layer of light caramel custard. Again, if you don’t want to make your own, use crème fraiche with some brown sugar stirred in. Layer three of the pound cake goes on top. I’d be delighted to eat the dessert this way, but purists will probably want to frost the cake. Once more, packaged frosting will suffice. Vanilla or butter crème would be my choice, but apply it sparingly. You don’t want any wine to have to fight its way through legions of butter and sugar. This dessert should be 75% cake, no less. And serve it in small portions. Things always work out better if the wine is slightly sweeter than the dessert.

Comments { 0 }

Pisoni Vyd

Expensive viticulture, ribald personality. Can wines truly reflect both? Does PN need to improve over 8 years in btl?

Wine Education Background

     Gary Pisoni is a wonderful incarnation of a colorful, eccentric lineage of wine personalities in California. They go back a long way, and they’re legendary. Agoston Harazthy, who claimed to be a Hungarian Count, and reputedly died in Nicaragua while trying to cross a crocodile-infested stream on a small tree limb. Paul Masson, who delighted in hosting sparkling wine baths for actresses at his Saratoga mountain winery during the waning years of the Victorian age. His successor, Martin Ray, who sold shares in his winery (Mount Eden) to investors, then denied them access to the property, while pricing his wines at three times more than any other examples on the market. Dr. David Bruce, Randall Grahm, Jim Clendenen. Mike Grgich, always ready with a double-entendre, and a staunch claimant to never having owned a pH meter. Or my favorite, Marilyn Otterman (Sarah’s Vyd), who always responded in interviews as two separate people: as herself and as Sarah. Marilyn was such a delight. She always described her wines in the female gender. As in, “My Ventana Chardonnay is always the center of attention at parties. You know, all boobs and hips. Whereas my Estate Chardonnay is more reserved, tall with a Greek nose. She hangs back, and waits for maturity on your part.”
     It’s an extensive thread ~ completely wacked out, and further distinguished by the fact they ALL made (or make) excellent wine. Gary Pisoni fits right in. He reminds me of Mario Batali: tuxedo shirt and madras shorts; catnip for the high-end collector and socialite crowds …

Read this entire post, including information on the World of Pinot Noir festival, descriptions of 6 current-release Pinot Noirs from Pisoni Vyd grapes, and 6 older examples, on the Stanford wine blog.

Comments { 0 }

1998 Wynn’s Riddoch Cab

Shaded canopy = v strong herbaceous nose. Bottle-age gives great complexity against evergreen backnote.

Tasted in Art & Science of Fine Wine class in Menlo Park (see Class Descriptions). Wine sells for around US$100, but would be hard to find in an American retail store. I use this wine to illustrate a lecture point on pruning and trellising decisions. The wine is very unusual, and not everybody likes it, but personally I always find it enormously impressive.

Background Wine Education

     1998 Wynn’s ‘John Riddoch’ Cabernet Sauvignon is from Coonawarra in the state of South Australia. Many people consider Coonawarra to be Australia’s finest Cabernet district. It is about a day’s drive south of Adelaide, and perhaps two day’s drive west of Melbourne. In short, it is way-the-hell-and-gone away from civilization. The first time I visited, in 1980, the only pub in town was still divided into separate men’s and women’s sections ~ smoke in either. Of course that was nearly two generations ago. The point is Australia has a very meager viticultural labor force under any circumstance, and Coonawarra’s isolation exacerbates the situation there.
     Things have changed somewhat in more recent vintages, but in 1998 anything a machine could do to replace manual labor was something the vintners of Coonawarra employed machines to do. That would be the polar opposite of (say) Chile, where men do so much of the work machines do in Australia. Up through at least the 1998 vintage, in Coonawarra the vines were frequently hedged rather than pruned. ‘Hedged’ implies something akin to a military haircut. Continue Reading →

Comments { 0 }

BV PR Cab

Class compared 1994 + 1995 vintages. Clear advantage 95. Better acid, much more distinct bouquet. Steak house wine.

Wine Classes

     Tasted in Art & Science of Fine Wine class held in Menlo Park (see Class Schedule). Beaulieu 1994 and 1995 Private Reserve Cabs are priced around $150 per bottle (if available) in most fine wine stores. Reference year-to-year California growing conditions on this website under Useful Wine Info – California Vintage Reports.

Wine Education Background

     Beaulieu ‘Georges de Latour’ Cabernet Sauvignon is a classic of the American landscape, and has been for a very long time. Originally crafted by the legendary Andre Tchelischeff, from grapes grown on Napa Valley’s Rutherford Bench, the wine was famously aged in 100% American oak. That gave the wine a considerable relationship with Bourbon Continue Reading →

Comments { 0 }

Madroña 1996 Riesling

Hi elev. Grt nat acid. Super at age 12. Very long. Honey + Babcock peach. Sushi roll w/ tempura flakes.

California can do world-class Riesling. Not many, and not every year. Still, a handful of producers have proved the potential over decades. The hardship is their best examples are better with six or seven years of bottle age. And consumers just don’t get that concept. The result is a population of soda-like, eminently forgettable, Rieslings from the rest of the CA pack aimed at the mass market. Riesling should not be a mass market wine. Let the masses drink Pepsi. Or Arbor Mist.

Wine Tasting

     The 1996 Madroña Riesling was tasted in a Varietal Series class, which are held the second Friday evening of each month in Nevada City, CA (see Wine Education Vacation). It’s a great way to start off a romantic getaway in the mountains. Nevada City is the cultural centerpiece of the Sierra Foothills ~ live music, good food, palpable history, original art, quaint shopping, wonderful scenery. And several good wineries to discover. Call it The Liquid Gold Country.
     One portion of the class compared this bottle-aged Madroña with two older Rheingaus: a 1992 Robt. Weil Spätlesen and a 1988 Domdechant Hochheimer Hölle Spätlese Halbtrocken. The Weil had the lightest color and the most acid. Its aromatics were all green apple, even at 17-years-old. It continued to develop throughout the weekend, and was even more fragrant on Sunday. The Hochheimer smelled more of caramel, but also had some Pippin apple in the flavor, and it was the least sweet of the group. Neither German wine walked on the Madroña. Both German wines had less than 10% alcohol, while the Madroña had 12%. That’s not a recommendation. But the Madroña also had a lifted fruitiness and a very refreshing acidity. Most importantly the Madroña had completely shed the blocky rough edges of its youth. Once it got a little air, the wine had a burnished luminosity that was just delicious.

Background Wine Education

     As a general proposition California is never going to be a great a producer of Riesling. Washington makes more of them, and quality is usually better in Canada or upstate New York. In the 1960’s there were hundreds of (pretty mediocre) Rieslings made in California. Remember, that era predated White Zinfandel. The number of CA Rieslings dropped to just a dozen or two by the turn of the century. Most of California is just too hot. Riesling here tends toward nicely fruity, but flabby sweet, or else awkwardly alcoholic.
     Nevertheless, California is a really big place. There are lots of extreme climatic and topographical opportunities within CA’s borders. Both the highest point (Mt. Whitney) and the lowest point (Death Valley) in the contiguous U.S. are located in California, and they are not even two hundred miles apart. Two ways to gain more delicate structure, better natural acid, and more pronounced aromatics in CA Riesling are: (1) grow the grapes close to the Pacific Ocean; or (2) grow the grapes at higher elevation. The two best practitioners of these techniques are, respectively: (1) Greenwood Ridge Vyds; and (2) Madroña Vyds.

Winery Descriptions

     Greenwood Ridge is technically in the Anderson Valley AVA of Mendocino County, but the vineyard is actually up on a promontory south of the valley overlooking the coastal village of Elk. Greenwood Ridge gets a lot of rain and fog. It ripens slowly, and retains a lot of acid. Usually finished with around 2% residual sugar, the Greenwood Ridge Riesling always improves over 6-7 years in the bottle. It becomes more aromatic. Madroña can argue its case for highest vineyard in CA at about 3,500 feet of elevation. It is up the hill above Placerville in El Dorado County. They get snow in the vineyard every year, and share the characteristic of high rainfall with Greenwood Ridge. What they don’t share is diurnal fluctuation (difference between low temperature at night and high temperature during the day). Greenwood is cool all the time; Madroña is cold at night and hot in the middle of the day during July and August. Even with a percent or so of residual sugar, Madrona Riesling is a hard wine when it’s young, brusque and unforgiving. It softens with bottle-age, and shows its aromatic features more easily.

Food – Wine Match

     To be impressive in age, Riesling must have strong acid. Some tension between that acid and a bit of residual sugar is nice to give the wine focus. Sushi is a very broad category, but all of it shares an affinity for the cleansing effects of a clean acid bite. I have a local sushi place, in a not-too-distant strip mall, run by a couple young, pierced and goateed Americans, by all appearances under-employed musicians. They’re clearly well traveled. They do a roll with spicy tuna and shrimp tempura inside, wrapped with fresh salmon and avocado. They top it with a sweet mustard, with hot sauce, and with tempura ‘crunchies.’ Traditional? Perhaps not. But a spectacular match with an old Madroña Riesling. As the wine ages, its peachy fruit aromatics take on a noticeable honeyed tone. That character is matched by the tempura. The wine’s slight sweetness modulates the hot sauce, and the acid cuts through the oiliness of the salmon, the tuna, and the avocado. Wonderful match. Rolls are half-price between 2:00 pm and 4:00 on weekdays. For my birthday I plan to eat three of them, with a bottle of wine and a nap.

Comments { 0 }