SYMINGTON’s VINTAGE PORT TASTING @ the Wine School at l’Alliance Française

Please join me – Spec’s fine wine buyer Bear Dalton – in welcoming Rupert Symington who will be conducting a Vintage Port tasting on Thursday, February 2 at 7pm at the Wine School at l’Alliance Française.

What? You don’t know who Symington’s are? You don’t know who Rupert Syminton is? Symington’s are the owners of the famous Port houses of Graham’s, Dow’s, Warre’s, Cockburn’s, Smith Woodhouse, Quinta de Vesuvio, and Gould Campbell. Rupert Symington is a fourth generation member of the Symington family, Port shippers in Portugal since 1882. Symington is joint CEO of the family businesses along with his cousins Paul and Johnny, and is specifically responsible for sales for the U.S. and Canada, as well as other smaller markets. Additionally, he is the acting Vice President of the Madeira Wine Company and oversees the family’s investments in Prats & Symington (Chryseia) which specializes in dry Douro red wines.

Rupert and Premium Ports (Symington’s US importer) rep John Linklater will join us at l’Alliance Francaise at 7:00pm on Thursday, February 2nd to talk about Vintage Port and Dry Douro red and taste through a range of two dry Douro reds and eight vintage Ports.

The line-up includes:
Vale do Bomfim Reserva, Douro, 2009
Prazo de Roriz, Douro, 2008
Malvedos Vintage Porto 2009
Dow Vintage Porto, 2003
Cockburn Vintage Porto, 2003
Smith Woodhouse Vintage Porto 2007
1997 Graham Vintage Porto 1997
1994 Dow Vintage Porto 1994
1985 Dow Vintage Porto 1985
1970 Graham Vintage Porto 1970

The Symington’s Vintage Port Tasting will cost $30.00 per person cash ($31.58 regular). To reserve your spot for this unique four-week class, please call 832-660-0250 or email This class will be held at l’Alliance Française, the French cultural center in Houston. Located at 427 Lovett Blvd., l’Alliance is on the southeast corner of Lovett and Whitney (one block south of Westheimer and two blocks east of Montrose).


OK – I’m a day late. I had some computer issues yesterday. And then there was dinner and some couch time with Connor and the Misses. To help make up for it, here is a lovely quote from Mme. Lily Bollinger.

Champagne? I drink it when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it – unless I’m thirsty.

That about sums it up – sort of the Champagne equivalent of the Clay Walker song “Only On Days That End In Y”. Champagne is indeed lovely stuff. Here is another worthy of your consideration:

CANARD DUCHENE Authentic Brut, Champagne, NV
Tech Note: 12% Alcohol. A blend of 45% Pinot Noir, 35% Pinot Meunier, and 20% Chardonnay from the Montagne de Reims crus of Ludes, Chingy, Verzy, Vertus, Tauxieres, and Cumieres.       Sensory Note: Dark-straw in color with a hint of green-gold. Fully sparkling; dry, medium full-bodied with very fresh acidity.    Toasty rich but balanced with plenty of citrus and some tree fruit. Lots of mineral and some earthiness. Has the acidity it needs to handle the 1% dosage. Improves in the glass. Delicious, alive.     Bear Note: This is one of those Champagnes I enjoy slowly sipping on as it warms and flattens a bit over the course of the evening. It is showing some development but is aggressively frothy when first poured. Give it some time in the glass and you’ll really enjoy it. BS: 91+.  ($34.00)

MURDER, HE TASTED or “Death in the Desert”

By Charles M. Bear Dalton

It’s Monday. 10:00am. A dame walks into my office. Short black dress, denim jacket, tricolor cow-girl boots. Intriguing. And she’s packing. A 750ml of “So Rare” Cabernet Sauvignon 2008. She tells me it won a Champion buckle at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo International Wine Competition. It clicks into place. The boots, the denim …

“100% Cabernet.” she says, interrupting my thoughts.
“20 months in a 100% new oak.” she says before I can answer.
“Rutherford.” she says.
“Actually Bella Oaks vineyard that Heitz isn’t getting anymore.” she says.
“Really?” I ask, finally getting a word in.
“Really.” she answers, defiantly.
“Serve it up.” I say.
“OK” she says.

She pulls the cork. It pops like a .38 snub-nose fired through a feather pillow. She pours the wine into my glass. A splatter falls to my desktop blotter – a stray droplet of scarlet blood. As it is absorbed, I think of DNA evidence. Is this really Bella Oaks fruit? Is it really all Cabernet Sauvignon? Is the oak really all French? And then she pours into her own glass. I swirl my glass and look at it against bright white back drop of my desk blotter. Surprisingly, the wine is more red than purple. There is a hint of black in the red and there is a little haziness. Nothing unusual there but not exactly what I expected. I swirl it some more and then sniff. Red fruit. Now I’m surprised. I think about the judging panel. How did a red fruit-dominant Cabernet make it past the judging panel in an over $50 per bottle Cabernet class in Houston? Seems unlikely at best. I taste. I swish the wine around my mouth. Yes, red fruit – some tobacco, some black pepper, a bit of dust. The fruit is muted, the wine lacks complexity. A mystery. This is a $70.00 bottle of Cabernet? Not in my Cabernet section. I tell her. She sighs. And in her sigh, I know that she knows the wine isn’t there.

I notice she has another bottle.
I ask: “Do you want to open the other bottle?”
“Sure” she replies – a dame with nothing to lose.
She gets fresh glasses and cuts the wax capsule. This time the cork really pops out of the bottle. Not muffled but clear like the bark of .22 on a cold January morning. She pours. The wine is purple. A drop hits my blotter and the contrast is evident. More evidence. But of what?

I tilt the glass and the color is richer and more saturated but at the same time darker and brighter. The wine glistens with a dark richness in the glass. I swirl some more and sniff. Dark purple-black fruit with hints of red fruit. More alive. Accents of tobacco and cedar, and dark spice. Grows richer in the mouth. Dark red and black fruit perfume. Vivid, vibrant. I could see how a Houston panel would give this wine a Champion buckle. I could see how a Texan would pay $70.00 to drink a bottle of this winner. It was worthy.

Could these two bottles be the same wine? I noticed the labels are numbered. They are only fifteen apart. I question her.

She says “I don’t understand. They are the same wine. Maybe its bottle variation…”
I say “Bottle variation?! Not likely. Something else is wrong here. Show me the cork.”
She hands me the cork from the second bottle. It looked perfect. A dark stain on the bottom where it had touched the wine and pristine on the sides. As it should be.
“No.” I say. “The cork from the first bottle.”
She reaches under the desk. I wait for it. She brings her hand up to reveal the first cork. The other cork. The cork with the wine stains running up the side of it. The piece of evidence that makes all the rest of the evidence irrelevant. As I looked, she looked too … and she knew what I knew. The first wine had been killed. Murder. Somewhere in the desert between California and our slice heaven on earth – Texas as we call it – the bottle had gotten hot. Cooked. Baked. Fried.

In the moment, she starts to say something. She stops. She begins and stops again. Her memory defeats her as she yields to the obvious. She confesses. The first bottle had been shipped to her via FedEx or UPS ground. She can’t recall which; she had used both. She blamed it on the winery but she knew. She was complicit. She had let it happen. It didn’t matter. Both are notorious for taking the life away from innocent wines in their prime. That bottle had been cooked and its fruit – its very life – had slowly ebbed until just the husk of red fruit was left. The second bottle had come via refrigerated truck to the wholesaler in Texas. It was intact, enticing, perfect.
Why had she done it? Why had she scorned the first bottle? She had played Russian roulette and the wine was lost.

I asked her “Why did you do it?”
She answered, “I needed the sample.”
I replied “But you had to know …”
She pleaded: “But it was in December. It’s OK to ship in December. Everyone ships in December. It’s not too hot in December …”
She whimpered. All platitudes, but now she knew. She was wrong. She had trusted them. But they were all wrong. The dice had rolled and she had crapped out. The risk had always been there and now a bottle was dead. It could have been a case. Or several.

It would never come to trial. Did it happen in Nevada? Was it in Arizona? New Mexico? West Texas? Could it have happened in a broiling tin-roofed, non-climate-controlled Houston warehouse under an unforgiving sun? We’d never know for sure. But I knew. And she knew. Her lack of regard for that villain Heat. In a metal trailer crossing the desert, Heat had killed that bottle. Murder in the desert. A sad and sordid tale. And so unnecessary. If only she had shipped the wine the right way using temperature control. If only …


This originally appeared in Spec’s Update at

CHAMPAGNE FRIDAY – J.P. MARNIQUET Brut Tradition, Champagne, NV

IT HAS BEEN a busy week. I had 25 Bordeaux winery reps (owners, directors, winemakers, etc.) in town for a 2009 cru classé tasting (more on which later) and all the attendant busy-ness that goes with that as well as a lot of other STUFF. So this is the very first chance I have had to post since last Champagne Friday. I was due, even over-due, for some Champagne but, as last week, had no late Friday appointment so I have had to soldier on alone. Now, you know I love Champagne but you may not know of my particular fondness for that toasty-biscuity note that come from Pinot Meunier. I don’t want it all the time but when I want it, nothing else will do. It is the Champagne equivalent of comfort food. So many people think of Pinot Meunier as an inferior grape but I think of it as a sort of guilty pleasure. And of course it is essential for lower-priced Champagnes intended to be drunk young. But I digress. This Friday’s Champagne is J.P. MARNIQUET Brut Tradition. Located in the Vallee de la Marne, J.P. Marniquet is a grower and estate bottler of Champagne I have been working with over the last four years. Spec’s carries three of the cuvées but the basic (and least expensive) cuvée – Brut Tradition – is a personal favorite for that particular Pinot Meunier-biscuit note. It was just what I needed.

J.P. MARNIQUET Brut Tradition, Champagne, NV
Tech Note: 12% Alcohol. A blend of a shocking 50% Pinot Meunier, 35% Chardonnay, and 15% Pinot Noir from an RM (recoltant manipulant) producer.      Sensory Note:  Straw in color,  fully sparkling. Dry, medium-bodied with fresh acidity.  Toasty-yeasty-biscuity with lively lemony citrus and some red fruit with limestone mineral and a hint of spice. Really very long finish.      Bear Note: Delicious,  focused, fresh, alive-in-the-mouth. Really hit the spot. Yum. BS: 92.
(In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that this is not one of Miss Carol’s favorites (but she will drink it in a pinch).

To paraphrase from “I love Paris”:
   I love Champagne in the summer.
   I love Champagne in the fall.
   I love Champagne in the spring and winter.
   But I love Champagne Friday best of all!

CHAMPAGNE FRIDAY (Well, Almost) – JANSZ Brut, Tasmania, NV

So this is almost Champagne Friday. Almost because it was Friday when I tasted the wine but it is now the wee hours of Saturday as I finish this post. And almost because the wine is sparkling wine from Tasmania rather than Champagne (but it might take a really good Master of Wine to figure that out in a blind tasting). Here’s the deal: I didn’t have a late Friday appointment in my office this week (the normal source for Champagne Friday), and I was quite late at the office. So to make it up to the lovely Miss Carol, we took a bottle of JANSZ Brut NV and a bottle of Girard Artistry 2008 (which I will most likely get to in another post) and went to La Vista (one of our favorite BYOBs) . Jansz is one of my very favorite non-Champagne bubblies. The winery is owned by the Hill Smith family who also own Yalamba. The winemaker, Natalie Fryar (that’s her in the picture), has been there since 2001 and before that she had five years of sparkling winemaking experience at Seppelt’s Great Western. As Tasmania – surrounded as it is by cold water – has one of the coolest climates of any new world wine region, it is ideal for growing sparkling wine grapes.  I should probably mention that my friends David Maib of Negoçiants USA and Jane Ferrari who is the “traveling winemaker” for Yalumba are the ones who, some years back, introduced me to Jansz. Back to the present: While waiting for a table, we popped the Jansz. Not long after we said “Cheers.”, Miss Carol said “Yum!” That should do it but I will nevertheless offer my more detailed note below. Perhaps I should also mention that we drank the Jansz out of Riedel “Grand Cru Riesling” glasses which are rapidly becoming a favorite for richer sparkling wines.

JANSZ Brut, Tasmania, NV
Tech Note: 12% Alc. A methode champenoise blend of 58% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot Noir, and 2% Pinot Meunier aged two years en tirage (on the yeasts) before disgorgement and finishing.     Sensory Note: Pale green straw in color and fully sparkling with a nice bead even in the larger Riedel glasses. Plenty of fizz. The yeast-and-fruit nose was evident even as I was pouring the wine. In the glass, I found yeast and toast notes along with citrus and floral as well as a bit of red fruit. There is even a Champagne-like mineral component along with enough richness to make this work well with food. (I continued to sip it after we were seated with some of La Vista’s excellent mussels.) It is crisp and fresh with a fine balance and very long finish.     Bear Note: Delicious. I think Carol has a slight preference for the Jansz Rosé but I find them both to be excellent. And I think this was better with the mussels than the Rosé would have been. BS: 92+. ($20.00)

CHAMPAGNE FRIDAY – GODME Pere et Fils Brut Reserve 1er Cru, Champagne, NV

This Friday finds me sipping GODME Brut Reserve 1er Cru with David “Big Bottle Dave” Gundelach of Favorite Brands. Godme Pere et Fils is a small Recoltant Manipulant (estate bottler of Champagne) or “RM” located in the cru of Verzenay in Champagne’s Montagne de Reims. RM producer’s grow their own grapes and complete the whole winemaking and champenizationincluding bottling and disgorgement on their own premises. Godme owns vineyards in the grand cru villages of Verzenay, Verzy, and Beaumont sur Vesle and in the premier cru villages of Villers-Marmery and Villedommange.

GODME Pere et Fils Brut Reserve 1er Cru, Champagne, NV
Tech Note: 12% Alcohol. A blend of 55% Chardonnay, 10% Pinot Noir, and 35% Pinot Meunier blended with 50% reserve wines already aged at least three years to make the cuvée. The cuvée is kept en tirage (on the lees) for 3 years.     Sensory Note: Yellow in color, bright, clear,  and fully sparkling; dry, medium-bodied with fresh acidity.    Very toasty and rich with lots of yeast character. Dark fruit and citrus in a fine balance with earth and mineral notes.     Bear Note: Refreshing but has enough weight and richness to satisfy and to go well with richer foods (Salmon, caviar, oysters,etc.) Quite delicious. If only there were some salmon, caviar, or oysters about. BS: 93.     ($38.00)

WINE of the WEEK – Domaine CABIRAU La Bonte des Amis Grenache, VdP Cotes Catalanes, 2007

From the personal 13.5 acre Roussilon domaine owned by Hand Picked Selections founder and president Dan Kravitz. Located in the village of Maury, it is planted entirely to Grenache and is comprised of 12 almost-contiguous parcels on a high stony hill just below the old Cathar fortress of Queribus. 10 acres are planted with 20-25 year-old vines, with the remaining vines averaging more than 60 years old. This cuvee is named “LA BONTÉ DES AMIS” (“the kindness of friends”) after Kravitz’ friends Pascal Dieunidou and Jacques Castany (of Domaine de l’Edre), who vinified this old-vines Grenache.

Domaine CABIRAU “La Bonte des Amis” Grenache, VdP Cotes Catalanes, 2007
Tech Note: 14.5% Alcohol. 100% old-vine (over 60 years) Grenache farmed at 1.07 tons per acre and fermented for 35 days on skins with 2 punchdowns daily. It was aged in Concrete tanks and saw no oak. (If this wine included 20% Syrah and 10% other non-Grenache traditional varieties – Carignan, Cinsault, Mourvedre, etc. – it could be labeled Cotes de Roussillon but, as it does not, must be labeled Vin de Pays des Cotes Catalanes.)    Sensory Note: Medium purple in color with well formed legs; dry, medium-full-bodied with balanced acidity and moderately chewy phenolics. Supple, lively fresh juicy ripe Grenache with lots of black and some red fruit. Offers some garrigue, black pepper, and earth with just enough rusticity.    Bear Note: This is perfect with such wintery foods as praised lamb shanks or beef short ribs and rich stews from beef (such as Bouef Bourguignon), lamb, game, or fowl. It also pairs well with a rich, developed Bolognaise sauce. For summer use, serve it cooler with a mixed grill. BS: 94. ($26.00)

Alternative Chardonnay and Pinot Noir

WE DRINK a lot of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. By “we”, I mean all of us wine drinkers in Texas. Using Spec’s sales data, wine labeled Chardonnay is the number one selling wine category and Pinot Noir is the number three selling red wine category (number five overall). Even so, a lot of the best Chardonnay and Pinot Noir Spec’s sells is not included in those numbers as it is not labeled Chardonnay or Pinot Noir. Rather, these wines are from Burgundy – which is both the spiritual and oenological home of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir – and are named after their places of origin rather than the name of their grape variety. Except for tiny amounts of Aligoté, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Blanc, and Pinot Gris (all white) and Gamay (red), all the wines of Burgundy are either Chardonnay or Pinot Noir.

Even though Burgundy is the home of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, I feel the need …

For more, got to Alternative Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from SPEC’s UPDATE.