Wednesday, June 26, 2013

2009 Flor de Viseu Tradition

Producer: Flor de Viseu

Name: Tradition
Varietals: Alfrocheiro 50%; Tinta-Roriz 25%; Touriga-Nacional 25%
Region: Dão D.O.C., Portugal
Vintage: 2009
Tasted: June 18, 2013
ABV: 13%

It was all my fault. I could just chalk it up to a rookie mistake, sure, but it really was poor form, and I ought to own it. You may rest assured that I locked away all of my toys and sat myself in the corner to think about it. The lesson is learned, and the foolish negligence shall not be repeated. Now I know better.

And yet, at the same time, I cannot wholly regret what I did. In addition to learning a valuable lesson, I got to spend some rewarding time with a delightful young wine sporting a keen personality. The transgression, you see, was opening and tasting a wine first, then checking the vintage charts second. Vice versa would have been sensible, an attribute that I have never been accused of having.

By the time that I saw in the charts that the 2009 Dão reds are highly rated but not quite ready, it was a redundant discovery. Upon first sipping - indeed, even upon first gazing at - the Flor de Viseu Tradition, its quality was apparent, but its youth was even more so. The color is well on the purple side of things. The heart of the glass sports a smooth, even melding of ruby and garnet hues, though it takes a moment to discern that because the liquid is very, very deep, dark, opaque.

The nose, too, gives away the wine's youth. At first it is an indiscriminate medley of dark reds, but distinct notes of plums, prunes, and a little bit of cherry emerge. It is tannic. There is also a smack of rhubarb wrapped in spice. In fact, spice-wise, it is like strolling through a forest of cedar and sandalwood. The nose does, however, also betray plenty of latent sweetness.

The palate is of black plums, cherry, and other dark reds. It is rich, sweet, tannic, full-bodied, and undoubtedly fresh. The spice is still there, though understated somewhat. Peripherally, there is some pomegranite and more of that rhubarb. The finish is quite interesting, as the reds lighten up: cherry and strawberry.

But all of this, I fear, may serve to obscure the important qualities of the Tradition more than to illuminate them. The personality, you see, is a distinct pleasure. Here we have a wine like a strong young lad. He is not silent, and not unconfident, but we must be patient in seeking a conversation with him. We get wisps of youthful strength here and there, but they disappear as soon as they ever came about; the wine avoid excess, not out of any utilitarianism, but out of simple habit. Then, when he is ready, this he just starts showing his stuff - the same stuff we always knew he had, but in unexpected places and at unexpected moments. The randomness is almost goofy. And, it is a pleasure to be a part of it. Of course, with all of this give, there is not as much take - the conversation is a bit one-way - but that is not at all inappropriate for a boy. There is plenty of growth yet to come.

Which begs the question: Will all of that growth occur with a little while of breathing, or does the wine need more time in the bottle? Alas, after twenty minutes of aeration, we are met with the bane of every adult's existence: adolescence. The wine is just a tad off the wall now. The nose at first seems plausibly mellower, but then bam! We are back to the spice. The reds may have lightened up, but only a little. The tannins are out in force, and there is a bit of acidity. I note alpine strawberry, plum, dried cherry, and a whiff of watermelon. It really is quite spicy. And, the palate has evolved in quite the same manner. The fruit pulled back a little bit, leaving spice, tannins, and acidity. Not that the fruit disappeared, of course - rhubarb, pomegranite, and strawberry are still there. The finish, astoundingly, is incredibly mild: a tiny dab of spice, some vague fruitiness, and not much else.

So, the wine grew up, but only a little. These are the teenage years. He is still strong, still seeking to charm, and indeed he is well equipped to do so, with occasional success. However, he is less sure of himself, less sure of his identity, of what he wants to be, of how he ought to present himself. He can be recalcitrant at awkward times; at frustrating times. There is dynamism, of a type that is attractive on the surface, but that can be a bit much at intimate levels. But the wine has, at heart, a good personality, and some patience - admittedly, more than may be tasteful (no pun intended) - will yield great reward.

Many wine drinkers prefer to let wine age in the bottle at least a moderate amount before opening and enjoying. Such people should have this wine in about two years, at which point it ought to be absolutely outstanding. In fact, I bought another bottle of this same wine, and taped a note to it saying, "Drink In 2015". But if you cannot wait so long, or are not the type to bother about how mature a bottle of wine is, then there is plenty of joy to be had now. Pair the wine with red meat, heavily herbed fowl, or the cheese of your choice, and enjoy this keen young lad's company.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Starbucks Reserve Cameroon Mt. Oku

Name: Starbucks Reserve Cameroon Mt. Oku
Origin: Mt. Oku, Cameroon
Roaster: (unknown)
Roast: (unknown)
Varietals: Bourbon; Java
Preparation: Freshly ground, French-pressed, sipped black

Well, that time has come. It is hardly inevitable, and yet it has a way of seeming inevitable. To the American coffee reviewer, nothing else could seem like such a trite capitulation to the baser forces of our culture, and like such a keen opportunity to air some strong opinions about an important facet of that same culture, both at the same time. I refer, of course, to a review of Starbucks coffee.

Let me say, I do not dislike Starbucks coffee generally. It is certainly palatable, and indeed I frequent a Starbucks near my day job. It affords a welcome cup of warm caffeination as well as a pleasant atmosphere in which to pass my lunch hour with a book or some homework or what have you.

But see, there is the thing. As much as anything else, what Starbucks has to offer is a coffee atmosphere. It is an ingenious hybrid of Beatnik coziness and corporate professionalism, bringing all types together with what is perhaps the world's most complete menu of coffee preparations, along with treats to eat, a slew of serving options and conveniences, and a consistency both ubiquitous and universal. And the coffee is alright.

But it is not gourmet. It is not craft. Nor could it be. There cannot be corporate efficiency and artisanal roasting in the same ethos. Such huge quantity demanded cannot be satisfied with small-batch crops. The masses cannot be all appealed to with rare, exotic flavors. Certainly, all of that cannot be brought to fruition at Starbucks level profits. Somewhere, sooner or later, something has got to give. Where will the compromise be?

I should have gotten my first clue before even taking the bag off of the shelf. There did not seem to be much point in reviewing one of Starbucks's standard blends, but I noticed lately that they have a line of "Starbucks Reserve", presumably their attempt at craft coffee. I picked up a bag of the Cameroon Mt. Oku. Most bags of gourmet coffee list the date on which the contents were roasted; this coffee had a "use by" date, and let's just say that it was many months in the future. Strike one. The bag also failed to list any varietals other than to assure that it is arabica (the website has the varietals listed), and it does not state any roast profile. Strike two.

Here, I might have thought, "Eh, forget it." If I were just out to get myself something to sip at home, then I certainly would have. But I was determined to see it through with the Starbucks experiment, and this was as good a chance as I was going to get to find a decent bean from them. Best to let it happen. So I brought it home and brewed it. Strike three.

What came out was the most charred coffee I have ever had. One would think that with all of the ado about their "Reserve" coffees, Starbucks (or whoever is roasting it for them) would have at least attempted to find a roast profile that flatters the beans. At least a try. But that did not happen here, at least not with the Cameroon. I can only infer that somebody decided, somewhere along the line, that it would be alright to fall back to the tried-and-trite darker roasting for which Starbucks is known, and then somebody accidently set the roasting machine to "rocket booster" and pressed "take off". It was like brewing and sipping what is left on the underside of a grill's grate soon after a barbecue.

This is a shame, too, because I swear I detected some potential, though it is not easy to say for sure. Sneaking out from behind the rich, mealy charcoal, which utterly dominates 99% of the coffee and all but obliterates any trace of terroir, are: a whiff of florals and nuttiness on the nose; a dab of spice on the tongue; and a hint of fruitiness that, by the finish, is just full enough to identify as white grape. It would not be unlike an Ethiopian if it were roasted properly, and frankly it might well be a very good coffee at that, for all we know.

But it was not roasted properly; it is like a super dark roast except without the usual tannins, smokiness, nuttiness - any flavor at all, really. It is barely identifiable as coffee, even less so as arabica. I would rather have Starbucks's Pike Place, or trendy Verona, or whatever, any day of the week.

But then, unless I am looking for any old convenient coffee while I pass an hour's lunch break, I would rather not go to Starbucks in the first place. The place is not so much for coffee people as for coffeehouse people, because it does not do coffee as well as it does coffeehouses. It does coffee creatively, it does it efficiently, and it certainly does it profitably, but it does not make the actual coffee much better than average. This attempt at putting a pretty label with a fancy tagline on a poor, poor product, and calling it craft coffee, is a shockingly blunt reminder of the fact.