Tuesday winebits 78: South African wine aroma, wine score silliness, Cornish wine

? That burnt rubber smell: South African red wine, and especially pinotage, has a distinctive aroma, similar to burning rubber or road blacktop. This has been the subject of many jokes in the wine world, but it ?s actually a serious problem for the South Africans. Who wants to buy wine that smells like burnt rubber? What ?s worse, they aren ?t sure why that happens, reports Decanter.

? Wine scores don ?t work, one more time: This, from very important French wine critic Michel Bettane, when asked to score a a couple of South African sauvignon blancs at a wine competition (and as reported by Neil Pendock, who was on the panel): ?Michel, what do you score the first ?60 and 80 ? (points of out of 100). ?How does that work ?80 if you like this grassy style of sauvignon, 60 if you do not. ? Too bad the Wine Magazines don ?t try this approach.

? Cornish wine: As in Cornwall in southwestern England, because this is even a bit much for a regional wine devotee like the Wine Curmudgeon. A white wine from Camel Valley in Cornwall, where it seems to be always cold and rainy, won a gold medal at the very prestigious International Challenge in London. The wine is made with the bacchus grape, a hybird that makes riesling-style wines.

International Eastern Wine Competition

Wish me luck. The Wine Curmudgeon is judging this competition, one of the most prestigious in the U.S.,over the next three days.

Why do I need luck? The IEWC gets thousands and thousands of entries, which is a lot of spitting. Or, as one friend of mine said, ?After you ?ve judged this competition, you ?ll know you ?ve been judging a competition. ?

Which is not necessarily a bad thing. I ?ll get to taste regional wine, which I enjoy; get to taste wine made from grapes other than chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and merlot, which I also enjoy; and get a chance to spread the word about DrinkLocalWine.com and our August conference, which I will really enjoy.

Wine review: Simonsig Chenin Blanc 2008

A South African chenin blanc that offers value and quality. Though South Africa ?s wines continue to improve, there doesn ?t seem to be any discernible pattern. It ?s a two steps forward, one step back, one step sideways kind of thing — especially for cheap wines.

But there has been progress, and especially with chenin blanc. The South Africans used to call it steen, and it was often greenish and sour. But the Simonsig chenin blanc (about $10) is a fine example of the improvement. It ?s crisp, dry, clean and with apple fruit and a nice mineral finish. It ?s lighter than chardonnay (no oak), and has the makings of a classic New World chenin blanc. Serve this chilled: Either before dinner, with salads, Chinese takeout or whenever you want a pleasant glass of white wine.

Wine blogging, what makes it tick, and how we can do it better

That ?s what Tracy Rickman, a graduate student at Auburn University, wants to find out. Her doctoral project is wine blogging: How people choose which blogs they read, whether they trust the blogs, how many blogs they read, and how professional the blogs have to be.

Frankly, this is a wonderful idea, and just the kind of thing we need. As regular visitors here know, the Wine Curmudgeon doesn ?t think much of most wine writing. It ?s too snotty, too parochial, and too self-absorbed. Rickman ?s project may well be the first attempt to actually analyze what is going on in this part of the cyber-ether.

Because, if we know what ?s going on, then we can use that information to get better. For example, if her study shows that people who read wine blogs want clearer, more educational information and less winespeak, maybe we ?ll get the hint and write that way.

I ?m curious about two parts of her research: First, do wine blogs have any credibility with their readers, and which among us are the most credible? Second, do you have to be a professional, either a wine type or a writer, to do a wine blog, or can you be credible if you ?re just someone who likes wine? As I have always said, anyone can write an effective wine review.

Rickman expects to have some preliminary data in a couple of months, and I ?ll check back with her and see what she finds out. What can you do to help? Take her survey. Yes, it ?s a bit complicated and it will take 10 or 15 minutes. And there aren ?t any questions about what wine you like to drink. But this is for a PhD project, and so has to include some technical stuff to assure that the results are legitimate.

Rickman, by the way, told me she loves cheap wine. Enough said.

Expensive bottle of wine, May edition: Bressan Cru Pignol 1998


The Wine Curmudgeon does not often quote back label wine descriptions, but this is one of those times that it is warranted. Bressan, a producer in northeast Italy — where most of the wines that anyone has ever heard of are white — has this to say about its red Pignol: ?The flavour is almost hidden, as though it is fearful of being discovered. ?

I can ?t do better than that.

The Pignol (about $80) is one of the most interesting and unique wines I have ever tasted. How, at this age, it can still be almost too young to drink is amazing. I decanted the wine for an hour, and it wasn ?t enough. It kept changing over the next 90 minutes as we drank it, getting darker and more Italian over time. It was a completely different wine when we finished — less fruity, more acidic and more earthy. Pignol, incidentally, is the grape, one of those dozens of Italian varieties that are little known even in Italy.

Was it worth $80? Not if you're looking for something that you feel comfortable with, because it doesn't in any way resemble a Super Tuscan (or a Bordeaux or a Napa, for that matter). But if you want to try something that doesn't taste like what you ?d expect, something that is an example of old-fashioned regional Italian winemaking and Parker be damned, then take the chance. And it does need food — top-quality cooked sausages and the best hard cheese you can find, plus real European-style bread.

Wine of the week: Bota Box Cabernet Sauvignon 2007


Regular visitors here know that the Wine Curmudgeon does not much care for boxed wine for boxed wine ?s sake. Poorly made wine in a box is still poorly made wine, despite being cheaper and more environmentally friendly. In fact, one could argue that poorly made boxed wine is even more of an environmental waste, since there is no reason for it to exist at all.

So when I find a boxed wine that is well made, I get giggly. Or at least as giggly as the Wine Curmudgeon can get. The Bota Box (about $22 for three liters, the equivalent of four bottles) is a simple, fruity (think cherry) California wine that is so much better than similar wines at this price that it ?s difficult to believe. It doesn ?t have any of the raw tannins these wines often have, it ?s varietally correct, and it isn ?t green ? that is, it doesn ?t have an unripe fruit flavor also typical of very cheap wines. (Which, sadly, some of its Bota compatriots do.)

It ?s not quite as well done as the Avalon cabernet, but it ?s also less than half the price. Which means it ?s highly recommended and a candidate for the 2010 $10 Hall of Fame.Serve this with spaghetti and meatballs and burgers on the grill, or to people who only drink red wine.

Tuesday winebits 77: Wine importers, vineyard prices, fast food wine

? The best wine importers: Mike Steinberger at Slate has written one of the best guides ever to understanding wine importers ? the people who bring non-U.S. wines into the country. It gets a bit wine geeky at times and it ?s too long, but, overall, well worth the effort. ?The importance of importers ?the quality of their selections, the care with which they treat their wines ?remains paramount, ? he writes, and includes a cheat sheet you can print, clip and carry with you to consult at a retailer or restaurant. I ?ve touched on this subject briefly; now I don ?t have to do anymore.

? California vineyard price update: It looks like prices for vineyard land in Napa and Sonoma are finally leveling off, especially for the highest-priced land. They still aren ?t falling, reports my old pal Paul Franson, but the go-go days of the middle of this decade seem to be over. However, a prime acre of Napa land still costs $300,000 ($125,000 an acre in Sonoma), so it ?s all relative. Interestingly, writes Franson, few properties seem to be for sale, something that may be helping to hold up prices. What happens at the end of the year, if wineries and growers are forced to sell land, is anyone ?s guess.

? Do you want wine with that? A Pacific Northwest burger chain has started serving wine and beer, which seems like a quite welcome development. The Burgerville chain, with 39 locations in Oregon and Washington, is testing beer and wine at a store in Vancouver. If successful, the chain expects to add the program elsewhere within the next four to six months. It is serving mostly local beer and wine, but prices aren ?t fast-food — $6.50 to $9 for a glass of wine.