So, I looked for a book that would provide a reasonable introduction to wine, but didn't find one; the Jancis Robinson book is the best one, but I've loaned it out at the moment. I did however find a CSIRO publication with pictures and brief notes on all of the wine grape varieties commercially planted in Austrlia, from auxerrois to zinfandel. I briefly talked about the big five red varieties - cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot noir, syrah, zinfandel - and then left it to Brian to decide what we'd try. Merlot and zinfandel seemed to appeal, so that's what we went down to the cellar to find.
[On a related note, Dan last week ordered a cellar cooling unit for my birthday present, which is fantastic. I believe we've now reached wine geek Nirvana: we have a properly cooled cellar, decent (Spiegelau Authentis) glasses, and five hundred bottles or so of wine ranging from good but cheap (85% of what's in there) to dot com mad money expensive (one bottle of the 1996 Grange and half a case of the 2000 Ridge Monte Bello). The cooling unit arrived DOA from K&L, but the manufacturer shipped out a replacement unit from Stockton, CA (my home town - who knew they manufactured cooling units there? I thought they only manufactured methamphetamine and Duraflame logs in Stockton) Thursday; Dan picked it up at the FedEx facility in Issaquah and installed it, all before I got home from work. But I digress.]
Oddly enough, with all that wine in the cellar, I wasn't sure if I had any merlot. I think there was a $7 bottle of Tarapacá reserva merlot in there somewhere, but I couldn't find it. I think I may have left it in the old cellar in San José as a welcome present for the new owners of House of Bear and Marmot v1.0. I vaguely remember there being a bottle of Gundlach Bundschu merlot down there, but no, not there. So, the only option was the bottle of 1998 Kemblefield merlot that we had brought back from New Zealand in 1999. We'd stopped in at Scenic Cellars in Taupo; some folks on the rec.food.wine newsgroup had recommended it as the best wine shop in New Zealand, which it definitely is. After getting the grand tour of their cellars with the owner (who was very proud of his collection, which was in fact stunning - that was the first and last time I'll ever have seen Ch Petrus in this lifetime, I'm sure), he offered to put together a case of New Zealand wine for us. I said sure. My only stipulation: easy on the whites, and please, no merlot. Thankfully, he ignored that last bit. We had another bottle of merlot (I don't remember what exactly it was) with dinner at the Fresh Egg Retreat a few days later, and it was damned good.
Again, I digress. Right. So: we had a bottle of merlot. For the Zin, I decided on one of the Gundlach Bundschu bottles that we still have. From something like 1999 to 2001, Dan was a WOMer, a member of the Gun Bun 'wine of the moment' club. However, I think we mutually agreed at some point that their wines generally kind of sucked. We'd learned a lot more about wine at that point and, well, you can do a lot better for less money. Still, I like their attitude, and the Bearitage 'California Claret' is still a very cool label. I'll always remember the bottle of that I shared with a friend in Denver nearly ten years ago, but that's another story. We still have about a case of Gun Bun left, mostly from the 98/99 vintage. I decided on their 1999 Rhinefarm zinfandel from Sonoma County.
Now armed with two decent bottles of wine, we retired to the family room. I whipped out my trusty $4 corkscrew with foil cutter [courtesy of eVineyard.com at the height of the dot com bubble; the ride I took them for is worthy of another post in the future, but...] and got them bottles open. I poured them into different glasses so that we could tell them apart: I used the cheap Riedel Overture glasses as well as the honkin' big Authentis aged Bordeaux glasses, the ones that could fit a whole can of soda if you wanted to. Zin in the Riedels, Merlot in the Spiegelau. All very good.
So. About the wines? The Merlot was excellent. It's been so long since I had a merlot... amusing when I think about it. Way back in the days when I didn't drink wine, it was a bottle of Caliterra Chilean merlot that helped get the ball rolling. I ordered that along with an elaborate rijsttafel at Indrapura restaurant in Amsterdam in January 1999 because I was tired of beer and because it was the cheapest wine on the menu. [It also helped that I'd just returned from Moldova, where my Dad offered us all kinds of great stuff from the Cricova shop down the street from their flat.] The Caliterra turned out to be good. Heck, I liked wine. I was surprised. For the longest time, my Dad would have really good wine with special family meals, offer me some, and true to form, I'd say something like 'Feh. I don't want any of your highfalutin' wine, old man. I'm going to have a beer, a really hoppy beer of some kind because I am different than you are.' Well, that changed a lot by the time I turned 30 - there was that bottle in Amsterdam, the Tarapacá cabernet we had in Valparaíso, and then the subsequent explosion of interest on my part starting in the spring of 2000.
I believe I've just digressed again. So much for any semblance of focus in this post. Where was I? Oh, that's right, the wine. The Merlot was lovely. Brian said he couldn't stop smelling olives on the nose, which I suppose is correct; me, I can never seem to describe what I'm smelling. To me, it just smelled really, really good. In the mouth, it felt full, rich, silky, smooth, luxurious. I love that kind of thing. It went down a treat and was just all around wonderful. [I'm also very happy to report that Dan bought a bottle of the Kemblefield zin when we were in New Zealand last year - can't wait to try that in a few years!] As for the zin, well, I thought it smelled pretty damned good. I was getting an awful lot of dark caramelized sugar kind of smells - I suppose that's what some folks refer to as prune or damson - but to me it was definitely more along the lines of praline and demerara. Not that that means much; I just like the way those words sound. However, when you actually got some of it in your mouth, it wasn't too impressive. It seemed a little bit on the disjointed, watery side - and after you swallowed some, you got a pretty nasty alcohol burn for a second or two, and then flavor was basically gone (unlike the merlot, which had a finish that went on for a couple of minutes.... mmmm....). Not so great.
At this point I decided that we might as well open a third bottle; I'd never opened simultaneous bottles before at home, and I was really amused by being able to go back and forth between two very different wines. Figuring that I should open something relatively cheap [the Kemblefield retails for about $10, the Gundlach Bundschu is $20], I thought I'd go for the 2000 Bonny Doon Syrah des Blagueurs. This is a French wine; 95% syrah, 5% viognier, and it's cheap ($7 a bottle, occasionally slightly cheaper) and available at Safeway (at a higher price than that). How was the syrah? Funky. Really, really funky. It smelled strongly of barnyard. Damp straw, horse shit, sweaty saddle leather. I set it aside for about an hour to see if it would de-funk any, but no. I have to admit that I liked it; once you actually got some in your mouth, it had an awful lot of character, which is surprising in anything that cheap. I suppose it'd be better with a nice rare steak or at least some sausages [ask mamoosh about Tender Button, our treasured saucisson sec from Paris], but all by itself it wasn't bad at all. I'm not sure Dan liked it much, but I think I'm going to go buy half a case of it today at Pete's, assuming I get in a mood to leave the house. I'm curious if the barnyard aspect will change the longer I keep it around; I had a bottle of it last year and don't really remember it being so... chthonic.
Anyhow, long story short: I had a blast. Note to self: must do more of this in the future. All I need to do is find some locals that would be willing to come over, have food, and then sit around in a forest of glassware, drinking a few different wines at once. It's fun.