Thursday, December 31, 2009

End of Year Review

I was going to post a glowing review of some celebratory wine to christen the New Year appropriately and perhaps bring us all to a happier place than most of us saw this year. I both ran out of time and encountered one of the worst wines I have ever tasted (at least from a respectable producer) and decided since this was the year of the bailout that perhaps a well placed rant might be more appropriate.
Everywhere we look we are surrounded by corporate behemoths that spend countless millions on sponsorship of stadiums, advertisements and buying out their competition. This results in less choice for the consumer (when was the last time a credit card offer appeared in your mail that was not from Bank of America) and inevitable nickel and diming once they are nearly the only game in town. The same thing happens in the wine world.
Huge distributors have liquor and wine brands that retail and restaurants must buy and they use that leverage to influence buyers to use them exclusively or at leat extensively, resulting in less opportunity for some truly interesting wines - often at better prices. Lest you get the idea that I am some anti-corporate wacko, let me explain my position. There are some huge corporations that produce excellent products; Apple is my favorite example, although this blog is typed on a PC. Most large companies became large for a reason, they offered a good product at a reasonable price. Many large wineries have done the same. They offer quality and reliability although they eventually command a higher price for that service. No problem here, you pay for the best. However, wines can not be made on an assembly line; grapes are not the same each year and growth sometimes results in producing inferior grapes, which creates wines that are not as good.
Ferrari-Carano increased their production by nearly a third from 2001 to 2002 (http://articles.sfgate.com/2004-05-17/entertainment/17428102_1_california-wine-constellation-brands-ferrari/3) from 160,000 to 201,000 cases, and although that growth was focused on the Fume Blanc, it changes the way a winery operates (I could find no information about growth since then). I will disclose that I have never purchased a Ferrari-Carano wine, although I have tasted many over the years and sold some in a retail setting. They did a good job producing big, rich California wine and the consuming public ate it up.
Yesterday I happened to have a California Merlot out and a customer mentioned he had two others to taste, would I mind if we tasted them all together. I was excited as I had not tasted Ferrari-Carano Merlot in years and was curious to see how it was. It was awful. The gentleman who kindly offered the taste described the wine as "alien."

Ferrari-Carano Merlot, Sonoma County 2006 - It smelled of clove and shrimp (fresh, but clearly fishy salt) and the palate flavors lacked fruit, except that it tasted green, and offered tough tannin to boot. There may have been a whiff of red fruit on the nose, but there was much more smoke and oak. Even the back label, usually a fount of strange fruity prose, did not mention much fruit..."with luscious cherry aromas and accents of spice, chocolate and caramel that lingers on the silky finish." Chocolate and caramel I'll believe, although why you want caramel in a dry red wine is beyond me. Silky though? Really? Silky? Not even hours later. Perhaps today it approaches silky, after more than 24 hours open, but it is an old, moth-eaten silk, complete with holes and frayed edges.
With time it opened a bit, but began to show bell pepper on the nose and while the tannin subsided, the middle and finish never filled out. It screams of a wine style that has been overly manipulated in the cellars and ends up being a bit of a Frankenstein - lots of workable parts, but barely able to function as designed. It has all of the issues that Merlot drinkers claim they do not like, lack of fruit and plenty of tight tannin, yet it is on wine lists all over the city and country.
I can not recommend strongly enough to not purchase this wine, especially given its rather hefty price tag of $24. I bear the family no ill will, but find this an inexcusably bad wine and recommend to anyone who will listen to change the way you buy wine next year. Try some suggestions of retailers, waiters and even me. Expand your horizons, live a little, you may have more fun and save some money.
Happy New Year, here's to a better 2010.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Jambalaya and Wine Pairing Part Two

As promised, here are the last of the results from the Jambalaya tasting.
Almira Los Dos (Grenache/Syrah - 85%/15%) Old vines 2007 - for more on this wine, see
http://bigeasywines.blogspot.com/2009/06/miscellaneous-bargain-red-imports.html
I found the wine very able with the dish, it stayed round and drinkable, pretty and pure. In fact, it was excellent! The juicy fruit matched with the spice and flavor, the acidity cleared the palate and actual interplay occurred between the food and the wine. Top notch, a nearly perfect pair. There was no actual addition to either the food or the wine by pairing them, but it was a wonderful match.

Cycles Gladiator Syrah 2006, Central Coast - For more on this wine, see http://bigeasywines.blogspot.com/search?q=cycles+gladiator
There is a deep, smoky aroma with some plum - perhaps even currant - with other sweet, ripe fruit, but it is well balanced. The smokiness continues on the finish but does not overwhelm (I made a note here that I should taste the rest of their products as well). It was much too smoky for this version of jambalaya but it held up to the spice. It overwhelmed the dish with its smoke though. If we had used Jacob's Andouille (the best, smokiest, flavor version for cooking available) it might have paired better. If the meat had been grilled/smoked ahead of time perhaps it would have worked better also.

Kermit Lynch Cotes du Rhone 2006 - Kermit makes a few custom blends to bring into the country and sell under his own moniker. I find this to be reliable year in and year out. It is never a huge blockbuster, but features plenty of Grenache and shows the slight earth tones so prevalent in the air in the Southern Rhone. It also has plenty of pepper notes on the nose and enough body to grab your attention but not so much as to lose its sense of place. The wine was slightly cloudy (unfiltered) with some intense earth and hints of leather with pepper spice and that classic 'garriguey' note. Garrigue refers to the wild herbs, flowers, and earthy note from the rocky soils in that area. It is a primary reason I found myself hungry all the time when visiting the Southern Rhone. In this case, it borders on being too much for me (my tolerance for this wild, earthy style has changed over the years) but it was a surprisingly good match. The earth note and the sweetness of the shrimp actually played well together. But with the addition of hot sauce, it was one step short of a trainwreck. The earth became too much very quickly and it really fought the spice. This does not work with spice! Importer: Kermit Lynch $15-$18

Hill of Content Shiraz 2005, Western (57%)/South (43%) Australia - One of my favorite examples, and a reason to keep drinking Shiraz even when one has been exposed to all manner of seemingly cuddly critters on labels (some that are colored yellow and hop) that seem to have had all the acidity removed while having about a half pound of Domino's sugar added. Shiraz can be beautiful and this blend offers some of the deeper structure of the west while showing plenty of the deep juicy fruit of the south (it comes from Clare Valley which shows more freshness than Barossa in many cases). Good ruby/purple color with some sweet vanilla and cassis on the nose. More of the same on the palate but it cleans up nicely. Well done. It does need some time to open to balance the juice and dryness. The oak overwhelmed the food a bit, but the pairing worked. I did not find it ideal, again, perhaps some smokier meats might have helped. With spice though, the wine performed more than admirably. I found it delicious, in fact. The intensity of the wine still stepped on the flavors of the dish a bit, but the juiciness of the wine handled the spice beautifully. Importer: The Australian Premium Wine Collection $13-$16

Crios de Susana Balbo Malbec 2007, Mendoza - With 25+ years of winemaking experience, Susana Balbo knows all the ropes when it comes to putting good juice in a bottle. This comes, more specifically, from the Uco Valley, an exciting region within Mendoza. Crios means, 'young kids' and reflects that these wines are the 'offspring' of her signature wines. It is unfined and unfiltered. I found currants and plums and nearly cassis, but not with its inherent round sweetness. Instead, it was currants with a dusting of cocao. I found the wine itself a bit spicy from its tannin, fruit I think, rather than wood. I can sum up the pairing succinctly - it was not a disaster, but clearly not a winner; it fought with the food, especially the spiced version. Importer: Vine Connections $13-$16

Rosenblum Cellars Zinfandel Vintners Cuvee XXXI, California - The label claims it comes from, the "finest coastal, inland, mountain and valley fruit." That pretty much covers the entire state...no help there. I'm guessing there is a lot of Amador County juice here, but I offer no guarantees. They do not label this with a vintage, but at least give us a lot number to determine which version we might be purchasing. I think this is imperative with non-vintage cuvees, otherwise you have no way of telling what you might get in the bottle. There was more wild briar and bramble notes here than in the XXX. The fruit was warmer and more forward too. I guessed lots of Amador since I found so much roasted fruit in the glass. The pairing was excellent, the fruit actually mingles with the flavor of the food. It does not overwhelm, despite its intensity. The interplay continued, even when spice was introduced. This was damn good. Zinfandel does work well with spicy food. $10-$13

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Jambalaya and Wine Pairing

Phew, nothing done here for quite a while, huh? Amazing what being back to work full time in the wholesale business can do. Sorry. Time has flashed by, but I intend to find some time to keep up with this again. I have some concerns about either hyping or denigrating wines in my own portfolio. At the same time it makes little sense to spend much effort building up the competition. So, where does this go?
I plan to focus on wines that are outstanding in my portfolio as well as others that truly shine, even if it is the competition. There will also be a focus on pairing wine and food. Lots of people talk about it and mention it in reviews, but rarely are articles written focusing on that alone.

Making some classic New Orleans dishes and testing them out with a number of wines to see what works will be a regular feature here as well. I will discuss the dish, and the wines, and then how/if they worked. This was done a while ago, and shopped as a feature article to no success, so some of the wines are a bit out of date, but the matching is still applicable. I will present the results of the Jambalaya tasting here in two parts, enjoy.
The Jambalaya was a cross of brown and tomato based. Some dark roux was present, but tomatoes were as well. Chicken and sausage (green onion) were included. The dish was flavorful but not particularly spicy. I tasted the wines on their own, then with the jambalaya and then with jambalaya and Crystal hot sauce (simply the best around - heat, but not overwhelming and lots of flavor). I attempted to find solid, representational bottles in each category at reasonable prices. The goal was to find a style of wine that would work, rather than one 'magic' vintage and producer.

Theo Minges Riesling 2006, Pfalz (Liter bottle) - Importer: terry Theise, Michael Skurnik. retail $16-$18. Always a good bargain in German Riesling, the wine shows some of the exotic notes of Pfalz but the grounding of Mosel. There is pear and green apple with good viscosity. It feels sweet, but finishes clean with texture and acid that reminded me of kiwi. I chose this wine because it is a good example of German Riesling and many people gravitate to Riesling with spiced/spicy dishes. With the food I found the wine's presence persevered, finishing limey even with a bite of sausage. The pairing was solid enough, but there was no synergy, no boost to both the food and the wine by marrying them together. It handled the inherent spice of the dish well, but once hot sauce was added it was completely overwhelmed. It did not clash at all, just got lost. There was no reason to seek out this pairing again, but I would not avoid putting a decent Riesling in my glass at a party where jambalaya was served.

Dry Creek Fume Blanc 2007, Sonoma County- retail $12-$15. I have always found this style to bridge the gap between the extremes of France (in minerality and raciness) and New Zealand (in bodacious bouquet and flavor). It does not reflect the fatter, riper, sometimes oaked, California style too much. I find it reliable, and well priced. There is juicy stone fruit, almost the grapefruit of New Zealand, but with more unctuous palate feel. It is fun to drink. Kiwi and lemon/lime are subtle on the back end, almost a touch of clove there as well. The acidity is a bit tingly, but not aggressive. As it warmed up a bit, more fig notes (classic California) came through, especially on the nose. On its own it worked but the intense fruit actually overwhelmed the dish a bit and added nothing. It held its own with spice, but again, there was no reason to seek Sauvignon Blanc out to have with jambalaya. I could see it working better with chicken and shrimp, but so would other wines. Overall, safe, decent, nothing to make a hard and fast rule about one way or the other. I could NOT see a typical Fume Blanc (i.e. Ferrari-Carano) with big wood showing, working at all.

Domaine de Fontsainte Gris de Gris Rose 2007, Corbieres - Importer: Kermit Lynch. retail $12-$15. The classic, slight orange (copper, salmon) color of southern French Roses - I always know I will love them. The nose is very shy, perhaps the bottle started too cold? Floral notes began to appear with air and the palate shows good texture. There is a subtle berry note, especially strawberries on the finish, which shows good dryness while staying juicy and refreshing. The jambalaya overwhelmed the delicate fruit and the wine showed too much dryness to pair well before hot sauce was added. With hot sauce, surprisingly, it worked better. The pairing actually worked well. It was the first wine that made me really sit up and take notice of the wine and the food. Bravo, another win for Roses! (I confess to loving Rose wines and their ability to pair with so many dishes.)

Hahn Chardonnay 2006, Monterey - retail $10-$13. This is a classic California Chard with the oaky, toasty thing going on, but it also reflects the new style of keeping the acids lively for balance. It is reasonably priced and has some acidity to balance the richness. I found round, soft oak with a creamy texture and some toast on the back end, not quite to the extreme of butter; dare I say while it was not butter, it was close enough, perhaps margariney? Will you let me get away with that? The finish is long and toasty. I found the toast of tha oak dominated the food, perhaps if the meats had been smoked first? The addition of hot sauce only further muddied the waters. I see no reason to pour a glass of Chardonnay with jambalaya, I might even go get a beer, or soda (Barq's please) if faced with the choice.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

More Oregon 2007 Pinot Noir

I have to ask for more indulgence here. Or not. I'm guessing though that many are tired of hearing the drum beat for the overlooked 2007 vintage. Here are four more from the last few weeks. In alphabetic order...

Amity Pinot Noir 2007, Willamette Valley - Amity was founded in 1974 and is a well-established and respected producer, perhaps best know for their Gamay Noir. The grapes for this Pinot Noir come from the northern Willamette Valley. They use some estate vineyards from Yamhill County. Their estate vineyards are all certified LIVE (Low Input Viticulture and Enology) and their growers are either certified already or are working toward that goal. The color is typical 2007, red and bright with amazing clarity. Deep, red cherry fruit with some blacker bass notes on the nose along with perhaps a bit too much acidity. The palate is all silk and sensuality though leading to a finish that is light, but not weak by any stretch. The nose is opening up, and now shows better integrated fruit and acid notes with a hint of caramel, from oak. The wine is soft and pure from the instant it is poured. A slight note of earth comes with time. The wine is forward and perhaps a bit simple, but a complete pleasure to drink. $20-$25


Elk Cove Pinot Noir 2007, Willamette Valley - Also founded in 1974, this winery produces some of my favorite Pinot Noirs on the planet. I am a member of their Roosevelt Club and receive mailings throughout the year - I do this with no other winery. Their style tends toward a bigger, chewier Pinot Noir although this bottling is designed to be accessible early. Adam Goodlee Campbell allows the fruit to talk though and earthy notes are often present. I was very excited to see how the wines fared in 2007 due to their generally bigger approach. I find pretty, red cherry fruit and forest floor on the nose. Again, the purity of color is striking. Although the wine is certainly lighter than usual its bright acidity and incredible purity of flavor is striking. It is very 2007, very Pinot Noir and very Oregon. There is solid structure and breadth as one would assume with Elk Cove, but with a lighter footprint than usual. $22-$30

Rex Hill Pinot Noir 2007, Willamette Valley - A more recent arrival, founded in 1982, this winery enjoyed some wild success and then had some issues. Lynne Penner-Ash essentially put them on the map as they grew to be one of the best known wines from Oregon. She started in 1988 and left in 2001 to focus on her own label she had been producing for a few years. After her departure I felt the wines lost direction and quality suffered. In 2007, A to Z wines bought the winery and quality immediately improved. So, I looked forward to the first red release. Again, a pretty, bright color with a core of much darker fruit. The nose is deep, nearly a black cherry, that you can still 'smell' even when the wine is on your palate. Long, persistent, and focused but with some impressive depth, both for the vintage and for the wine's youth. This is really damned impressive actually, especially when taking into account some previous disappointing efforts. I like this a lot and look forward to more offerings like this one. $20-$28

Westrey Pinot Noir 2007, Willamette Valley - Amy Wesselman and David Autrey (Wes-trey) have some solid history around the area. Between them, stints at Rex Hill, Adelsheim, Cameron, and Eyrie give them good groundwork for their own label; add to that some time with Domaine Dujac in Burgundy and the pedigree is strong. Their first vintage was 1993 and they have a devout local following, especially when it comes to their own Oracle Vineyard in the Dundee Hills. There is a bit of skepticism still, due to some apparently spotty efforts in the past. My experience has been positive each time, if not glowing. The 2007 is full of dusty cherry with lovely expansion on the finish. It worked well with grilled chicken wings. The fresh, intense nose leads to impressive weight and attack. It drinks well now but has room to improve in the short term. I find this to be a regular style now, a bit tight young, not so much you wouldn't drink it, but enough to reward cellaring for about two years. $20-$25

Friday, July 24, 2009

Same Producer, Pinot Noir vs. Old VIne Pinot Noir

An admission to open this post: these wines do not appear to be widely distributed. I could find no importer information except the small distributor local to Oregon that sells wine retail through Square Deal. But that's not the point of today's excercise. This is more of an experiment or exploration than a review to drive specific buying decisions.
People stress old vines over young vines nearly every time, especially when discussing grapes such as Zinfandel and Grenache. I also hear stress on age in relation to Pinot Noir but to a lesser degree.
The concept of age being important to flavor, complexity, etc. is based on a few ways vines and grapes change as vines mature. For one thing, roots dig deeper and travel through more strata which leads to extraction of more variety of compounds and therefore more complexity in the grapes. As vines age they become less vigorous leading to production of less, and smaller, fruit. That means all the flavor is concentrated in less juice leading to a richer wine. The small grapes have more skin to juice ratio and therefore emerge, eventually, as darker wine.
Rarely is one able to try similarly handled versions of old vs. young from the same vineyard. This is one of those opportunities.
Xavier Guillaume runs, Pepinieres Guillaume, a highly acclaimed nursery with 27 million vines planted throughout east and south-east France. They produce a variety of stock, budwood, and clonal selections within varieties. To test and explore the styles they produce microcuvees of clones. In this case they produced Pinot Noir under the label Vignoble Guillaume. Although information about specific wines is spotty, my recollection from my discussion with an employee at Square Deal was that they were handled the same way, the only difference is the age of the vines (I can not recall now how big the difference was).
A quick note: There is no law governing the use of the term Old Vines anywhere on the planet. Most producers are scrupulous but if you have five year old vines planted in one spot and ten year old in another you could label the ten year old as old vines. I'm not even sure you need two different ages planted to label that way. However, people do ask questions and eventually a producer's hoax would be uncovered. Most wineries I have spoken with over the years will not label anything as old vines until they are at least 35 years old. Still others use 50 as their standard.
These wines hail from Franche-Comte near the eastern edge of France, close to the little known appellation of Jura and about an hour away from the Cote de Nuits. They carry a simple Vin de Pays designation but still commanded prices of $17 and $24.
Pinot Noir 2006 - Light color, with an almost orange edge. Nearly smells like a meaty rose - with more rose than meat. Tart cherry dominates with a perplexing, engaging ethereal silkiness. I think of silky as more textural, this was more of an impression as the wine was fairly delicate in the mouth. You can smell the minerality, cherry deepening with air and some very fresh mushroom emerging as well. I found it enough to simply smell this wine for quite some time. With more air the earth notes became stronger as did the subtle woodiness.
Pinot Noir Vieilles Vignes (Old Vines) 2006 - Similar color, but a bit deeper with crushed cherry and a bit of blackberry as well. Lovely, impressive wine that proved more intense with more mineral, nearly a wet stone smell. The minerality here is explosive, expanding in the mouth and giving the appearance of tasting the smell of stone in the summer after a strong rain. The fruit is sweeter with a touch of wood, but just a touch.
I found both wines to be on the lighter side, but with persistent finishes. They were also both fantastic with simple baked Sockeye Salmon.
Okay, the verdict? The old vine version simply took everything the first offered and made it bigger, more concentrated, turned it up to 11. Clearly, they were similar wines and I might have believed they were from the same producer but from different years, with the V.V. being a warmer vintage with, perhaps, a longer growing season. This is a potentially great lesson for buying Pinot Noir, Burgundy in particular. Assuming the sourcing is all estate you can test drive the winery's Bourgogne, or entry level Pinot, and get some idea of what's to come from wines made from older vines. This is a regular occurrence in Burgundy; less expensive wines made from younger vines while the older, prized vines make the best wines they have to offer. One word or caution however, often wineries handle juice from young and old vines differently, using more and newer wood with the bigger cuvees because they can handle it. To my palate that was clearly not the case with Vignoble Guillaume.
There are no absolute answers in the world of wine, only opportunities to hone your palate and become aware of more questions to ask in hopes of discovering the best wines for your palate.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

4th of July American Syrah

Back from Maine (ten fantastic days) and mostly dug out now. Not much to discuss from the last two weeks overall; we drank pretty well, but there were no real themes except for one night. On the 4th of July I found myself thinking we should be drinking Zinfandel. We ended up drinking two tasting sets of Syrah, plus one extra bottle, all from California, certainly patriotic.
My father had purchased some four bottle tasting kits put together by the Chalone Wine Group a number of years ago. They featured wines from the Chalone family of wineries, Echelon, Chalone, Jade Mountain, and Edna Valley. All of the wines were 2001 vintage and we were lucky enough to have another addition from Santa Ynez, also from 2001. (We also tasted an Aussie Shiraz, but it was from 2005 so I am not including it here).
The wines below are presented in the order we tasted. Although you will not find any of these available on shelves currently, it should give a good idea of viability for aging.
Echelon Syrah 2001, Clarksburg - Echelon was created in the late 1990's as a relatively inexpensive option in the Chalone Wine Group. Most (all?) of the fruit was purchased and the 2001 did not carry the current designation of Esperanza Vineyard. While Echelon has gotten more single vineyard focused, they now call this wine Shiraz, a classic California marketing move to capitalize on the more sellable style coming from Australia. My experience has been that Shiraz from California still carries a bit of a stigma and confuses more customers than it entices. At any rate, the grapes come from Clarksburg, well east of Sonoma, nearly all the way to Lodi. The wine was a bit tired, the fruit mostly faded. There was an appealing middle though, offering earth and tar notes. The finish faded quickly as well, leaving just the mid-palate. I enjoyed that middle, and it worked well with slabs of grilled beef, but it was no longer a pleasure to drink.
Chalone Syrah 2001, Chalone - Yes, the AVA (American Viticultural Area) is named after the winery. As if wine wasn't confusing enough. The appellation is located ESE of Monterey, in close proximity to Santa Lucia Highlands and Arroyo Seco. The famed Chardonnay and Pinot Noir producer Calera is NNE of Chalone. No surprise then that the specialties of Chalone are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. They planted Syrah in the 1990's and according to the website, the 2002 vintage was the first release. I can testify that they either released small quantities of the 2001 or mislabeled some of the 2002 vintage. My bet is on a limited production of 2001. The 2002 vintage spent 18 months in French barrels, one third were new. They also blended in 3% Viognier. Perhaps a bit of explanation here. Viognier is very aromatic and traditionally in the northern Rhone was often co-fermented with Syrah. The result was, counter intuitively, a darker wine with more pronounced aromatics in its youth. Syrah, despite its intensity, is quiet on the nose when it is young. Viognier brings up some Syrah aromas, not Viognier aromas, when used in small quantities. Blending wine later does not alter the color, but still brightens the perfume. Unlike some northern Rhone Syrahs, California versions do not generally need more pigmentation.
The nose offered deep purple fruit and some moderate oak with red berries as well. I found this wine remarkably fresh on the front end with older, more mature fruit on the finish. There a more pronounced woody note appeared along with a hint of leather; the leather is new and almost sweet smelling, not weathered and slightly earthy. This would have paired well with mushroom based dishes and lighter grilled meats. Impressive, especially for a wine they did not release! I think it could have aged well for another two years, but I enjoyed it's mix of freshness and maturity.
Jade Mountain Syrah 2001, Napa Valley - Jade Mountain began in 1988 and produces only Rhone styled wines. Their style has always been a bit chewy in their youth and I always believed they would age, but had not had any of their wine more than a year or two past release. Some of the chewiness can no doubt be attributed to this approach, quoted from Diageo's website (Diageo owns Chalone Wine Group, who in turn owns Jade Mountain). "Jade Mountain practices high-risk winemaking by pushing the limits of grapegrowing and winemaking until the grapes have surrendered all the flavor and structure possible." This does not sound like a gentle handling to me and is therefore likely to extract more tannin.
The technical sheet states 100% Syrah, but then mentions co-fermentation with Viognier so who knows? Earth is a strong component, with minerality too, making this very reminiscent of the classic French style. I found it a bit rough on the palate, classic Jade style. It did work much better with food as one would suspect with a wine of this style. We had grilled fillet and I had mine with mushroom sauce. Mouthwatering acidity still thrived along with a subtly funky earth note. The 2nd bottle proved much softer and more drinkable on its own. The second was clearly a better example, even offering some intriguing notes of violets on the nose.
Edna Valley Syrah 2001, Edna Valley - In another stroke of brilliant marketing by the Chalone group, the AVA is named after the winery. Located just south of Paso Robles, but much closer to the coast (five miles or so) thus sharing more climate similarities with the AVAs of Santa Maria, Santa Ynez, and Santa Rita Hills. The Paragon Vineyard partnered with Chalone Winery to create the Edna Valley winery in 1980. Chardonnay led the charge, establishing their best known wine. Pinot Noir followed and then the winery made one of the first Syrahs from the area. According to the technical sheet for the 2003 vintage (no older vintage information was available), they produce 100% Syrah, but add "a small amount of Petite Sirah." They show it to be 100% San Luis Obispo County, which is not an AVA, but that allows them to add some fruit from the much warmer Paso Robles AVA. Confusingly, the wine still carries a designation of Paragon Vineyard, in the Edna Valley AVA. And people complain about French labels?
Anyway, the wine was a bit closed, but with lovely purple fruit - no better way to describe it. The color of this wine was the most intense, bright, and lively of the tasting (both bottles). A great silky palate with a touch of juicy earth. I know that makes little sense, but that was my impression. Clearly not dank, funky earth, but fresh loamy stuff, perhaps with berries growing in it. Sweet oak and some pepper, the only wine with that classic Syrah hallmark, made this the hit of the tasting for me. I found it classic and impressive. Well done. I look forward to trying a Syrah in current release to see how it compares. Despite the confusing labelling and somewhat misleading information on their tech sheet, I found this wine compelling.
Beckmen Estate Syrah 2001, Santa Ynez Valley - I have always enjoyed the wines from this winery, and I looked forward to tasting a wine with some age. (Note, we drank a wonderful 2002 Marsanne from Beckmen over the Maine visit as well. It went beautifully with cashews). They focus almost exclusively on Rhone varieties and have planted seven clones of Syrah over 18 vineyard blocks. Their tech sheets do not go back to 2001, but the 2003 is 100% Syrah, aged in French oak, 40% new. They were certified biodynamic in 2006, bravo!
I found an iodine/tar nose at first that faded a bit, but remained throughout both bottles. The palate, however, was gorgeous, silky, and full of ripe, pretty fruit. Although the wine was clearly not consistent in flavor throughout, I found it lovely and delicious. The nose was off-putting for many tasters, but everyone loved the rest of the wine. I found the nose interesting and mildly distracting, it was not a wine I wanted to simply smell. The palate so grabbed me though that I chose to overlook the nose and enjoy the rest of the ride. Perhaps drinking this a year or two earlier might have mitigated the intense aromas.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

J Ordonez Malaga Muscats

Alois Kracher made some of the best dessert wines I have ever been lucky enough to taste.  His passion led to fanatical devotion and an array of wines that sometimes made heads spin.  The yearly pre-sell offer on the wines often ran more than ten pages and I recall having outrageous numbers of dessert wines available from one vintage.  These were not all different grapes, they were sites within vineyards that developed differently, had varying levels of botrytis, etc.  Normal humans could not discern major contrasts between the various offerings (until tasting them), but Alois could and believed them all to be worthy of their own individual expression.  I often referred to him as a mad genius when trying to give customers a picture of the man behind the wine.  Unfortunately, he died in late 2007.  Fortunately for all of us, some of his wines are still available.  
Beyond his eponymous label from Austria, he collaborated on two projects, one in California and one in Malaga, off the coast of Spain.  While Mr. K Eiswein from Sine Qua Non in California can be impossible to find, and quite expensive (upwards of $150 for a 375ml bottle), his partnership with Jorge Ordonez created a trio of riveting wines that make for an unforgettable tour of Muscat de Alexandria.  They are also more reasonably priced.  
The wines are named after Jorge's father's company and come from the high in the mountains.  They are all 100% Moscatel (Muscat).  The soil is slate based and the vineyards are all farmed "using organic practices" but are not certified organic.  While it is certainly a treat to have these glorious nectars pass your lips, it can be enough just to inhale their scents...for a while.  I challenge anyone to smell and resist a taste.
Seleccion Especial #1 2006 - The vineyards are all at least 30 years old and are located at approximately 1,400 feet above sea level.  The grapes are harvested late, but do not develop botrytis and are stainless steel fermented.  The wine is clean and textural, with incredible juicy stone fruits leaping from the glass.  It smelled to me of ripe and candied fruits at the same time.  This one reminds me of non-fizzy, super concentrated Moscato d'Asti.  It would make a fantastic match with fruit deserts and whipped cream.  375ml - $20-$25
Victoria #2 2005 - These grapes come from vines in excess of 50 years of age, located at 2,250 feet.  Late harvest grapes are brought to the winery for drying, which concentrates the fruit, and are then stainless steel fermented.  More residual sugar remains in this than the first.  Creamier texture with wilder, more exotic fruits, especially peach, make this wine feel like some sort of reward for having lived a virtuous life.  Fortunately for most of us, no proof of that is required to buy a bottle.  Floral notes appear with more peach on the palate, the peach here is nearly animal wild and sauvage.  Man, what a treat.  Sleek and sexy, this wine gives me goosebumps.  There is intensity, but also delicacy and finesse.  If there is anything to complain about it might be that the finish seemed shorter than I wanted; however, part of that is simply being a rich wine, not a highly sugary one.  I am still searching for more descriptors, maybe fruit cream and maple sugar, but more delicate than that sounds.  This wine needs to come in bigger bottles!  375ml  $40-$45
Victoria #2 2006 - The nose returned to the clean freshness of the Especial, but with a touch of clove added and a hint of nuttiness.  Peach cream entices again.  This appeared to have botrytis to me on the aroma with a darker, nearly golden color.  Thick and unctuous, with a hint of sherry on the nose, the finish is all bright sunshine.  With all of the thickness implied by the entry, the finish is amazingly fresh with sweet lemon extract mingling with apricot and baking spices, nutmeg(?).  It is viscous but not cloying in the least.  375ml  $39-$44
Old Vines #3 2005 - 80-100 year old vines constitute the showpiece bottling.  They are located at 1,500 feet and the fruit is dried at the winery like the Victoria.  This is fermented in new French oak.  My notes here are less complete, perhaps due to my absolute infatuation with the Victoria #2's.  More Sauterne like, but with less nut notes and more fruit essence, this wine is more 'standard' dessert style.  Thick, rich and full in the mouth with more sugar and extract and general weight.  It is delightful and cries out for creme brulee.  The peach theme continues and this wine shows how old vines and oak can ratchet up the intensity level.  This wine makes me smile.  375ml  $65-$80
  

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Best Grenache On The Planet!?

Grandiose pronouncements such as, 'vintage of the century' and 'best I've ever tasted', are often fueled by alcohol and a desire to silence other opinions. Lately it seems the next 'vintage of the century' rolls around a few years past the first. I admit, however, to being unable to think of much better Grenache (Garnacha) that's ever crossed my lips.
Chris Ringland who makes Three Rivers wine in Barossa, has a loyal cult-like following. He also consults on El Nido and Clio with Dan Phillips and Jorge Ordonez. Good luck finding any of those bottles. Bodegas Alto Moncayo also has the same three involved, plus my favorite little bargain Garnacha winery, Borsao. As you may have heard me mention before, Campo de Borja is the undisputed production area for bargain Garnacha. Now it also produces world class versions.

The earliest record of the wines I can locate in my Jorge material is 2002. The vineyards are scattered across three villages with mostly red clay soils, some are calcareous. The age of the vines ranges from 36-93 years old according to Jorge's fact sheets. I was under the impression that some of the vines were considerably over a century old.

As I mentioned in the post previous to this one, Garnacha (Grenache) possesses this intense, thick, fruity quality when harvested from old vines. It can seem ponderous on the palate, but just when you feel it may turn out to be sweet, and nearly liqueur-like, it brightens, focuses, and dries up enough to work with dinner. That litheness makes this a very interesting wine in that it offers so much pure hedonistic pleasure, yet appeals to fans of more elegant wines. I find Burgundy fanatics often roll their eyes when discussing Grenache, but when presented with these wines, they tip the glass back and quickly look for more. Cabernet drinkers do not often have the same reaction. Grenache seems too soft and silky for them. Exceptions abound, and I love to see people's faces when they try a true, old vine, full-throttled Grenache for the first time.

That being said, these wines can be difficult to locate and need some time in bottle to really shine. As far as food goes, grilled meats are best, with lamb, venison and ribs leading the charge for me. They work particularly well with fruit reduction sauces. Years ago, a venison dish with a blueberry sauce produced magic when paired with a Grenache I wish I could remember.

All of the wines are basket pressed to retain more of their inherently fruity nature.

Alto Moncayo Veraton 2006 - The baby of the bunch, this is generally lighter and more accessible early then the other two. However, it is still hedonistic and will grab your attention. Sorry to use the word again, but hedonism is the first word in my notes. Very solid effort, perhaps a bit clumsy, but it is endearing at the same time. The clumsiness reminded me of two teenagers in a backseat perhaps. not completely sure what they're doing but positive with every fiber of their being it is the right thing and it will be fantastic. Veraton is all earnestness, it is eager to please. The fruit is deep, lush, and very juicy with just a bit of the wild berry fruit mixed with some hint of earth that the French might call 'sauvage.' There is a whiff of cellar, not dank cellar, on the back end, now fading more into cedar closet (no mothballs). The cedar comes from the new oak - the wine was aged 17 months in new French and American wood. This is a great starter kit for this winery, if you hate it, don't bother spending any more money. If you're intrigued, take the next step, it will blow you away. Importer - Jorge Ordonez $25-$30

Alto Moncayo 2006 - Yes, classically Spanish, this wine is actually Alto Moncayo Alto Moncayo, but I'll address it as only one name. Generally older vines here, with the aging regime mimicking the Veraton. This, for me is where the action is; it offers more of everything than Veraton, but does not reach the expense of the Aquilon. I wrote 'Wow.' More polish here than with Veraton, it is silky smooth, soft yet with plenty of vim and vigor to keep it lively. Not quite a fully coiled spring, but there's plenty there to unfold with time. Quite extraordinary. My final note, "that's the one.' $40-$50

Aquilon 2005 - At a certain point, words become nearly pointless to describe luxury. The difference between a comfortable chair and an uncomfortable one is easy to describe. Even moving to a more comfortable version can be easily expressed, but when you reach two incredibly welcoming chairs, the difference is more of a feel and less subject to evaluation. This is the way I feel about this wine. It is monolithic, and shows more American oak on the nose and palate. I believe they are moving toward more French, but do not know the percentages. Clearly this is aged longer than the other two in wood, but, again, I have no information to confirm that. The wine is a bit tight, but the finish returns for wave after wave of flavor and aroma. Huge, but lifted, massive, but with some elegance, an elephant in ballet slippers perhaps? Or better, a dancing bear, tutu or not, your choice. It is an experience worth having, find a bottle, get 7 or 8 friends to chip in and enjoy. I have had this wine on two occasions now, and I simply enjoy the somewhat dumbfounded looks on faces after tasting. You have never tasted anything like this. As close as I can come would be some of the La Las from Cote Rotie by Guigal, La Landonne, La Turque, and La Mouline, but those go for more nearly three times the price of Aquilon. $135-$170

How can you not be intrigued by a wine produced from vines like this?!?!

Aquilon 2006 - This was a bit unfair perhaps. The wine is clearly young and showed more wood and even a primary caramel note on the palate from the oak. I actually thought the mid-palate and a hint of the finish showed more promise than the 2005, but it was hard to evaluate more accurately. Still, quite an experience. $135-$170

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Spanish Reds from Jorge Ordonez - Part One

I've been busy lately, sorry about nothing new to read.  I promise to get some posts up this weekend to make up for it.  My continued unemployed status (ending soon!) leads me to hunt for bargains; time and time again, I return to Jorge Ordonez Selections.  These are mostly wines made in a fairly international style, with plenty of fruit, some occasional flashy oak, and offer fantastic value and availability.  Now that's a winning combination!
Bodegas Atteca - The Juan Gil family and Jorge partnered to make this winery in Calatayud.  Two wines are produced and they are both 100% Garnacha (Grenache).  Jorge helps produce a number of the wines in his portfolio, perhaps helping to explain some core flavors found across wineries and appellations.  
Garnacha del Fuego 2007 - This wine debuted with the 2005 vintage, as I recall.  The distinctive fire (fuego) label makes for a great reminder of Garnacha's friendly ways with grilled meat.  Although I have never found this wine riveting, the juice has always been tasty and people dig it.  Perfect for a backyard BBQ with friends.  The 2007 has the regular smoky note, from toasted oak, and the pepper is still there, but only on the finish; it makes quite a bold statement there though.  In past vintages, the pepper began on the front of the palate and continued until the end.   The fruit seemed a bit lighter than the previous two vintages, but the wine is still eminently gulpable.  For the price, this is a serious bargain.  $7-$8
Atteca 2007 - The older, more mature, more nuanced sibling of the Fuego.  Also Garnacha, the fruit comes from 60-120 year old vines.  The block that yields the oldest fruit, 80-120 years old, produces grapes at a mere 0.4 tons/acre.  This is nearly unheard of, especially when you view the price.  The oak, while clearly present, always seems a bit better integrated at this level than the Fuego.  This is only the second vintage I have tasted.  Pardon the somewhat cryptic statement, but I found the nose both bigger and more elegant than the Fuego.  Let me explain.  There was more substance to the nose, implying a deeper and more complex wine, at the same time there was restraint.  The difference between someone in their mid-30's putting on cologne versus a 16 year-old nearly marinating in a more obvious style.  The finish is longer with more intensity and more pepper.  The phrase 'fruit bomb' springs to mind.  The succulence and power of the wine reminds me of Zinfandel, but without as much alcohol and wild fruit.  Old vine Garnacha sometimes creates incredibly rich, concentrated wines, but I do not find them crossing the line to near syrup as I do in too many Zinfandels.  Well made old vine Garnacha appeals to hedonists and lovers of elegant Pinot Noir at the same time - a rarity.  $14-$17.
Dominio de Eguren - Better known as Protocolo, the appellation is a bit confusing.  The grapes come from La Mancha in the geographic middle of Spain, specifically the northeast corner of La Mancha, sometimes referred to as Manchuela to differentiate the higher quality produced there compared to the rest of La Mancha.  However, the grapes are trucked to Sierra Cantabria, a fantastic winery located in Rioja, and vinified there.  That is a most impressive facility for wine with so small a price.  The appellation reads, Vino de la Tierra de la Manchuela.  Since it is not vinified in La Mancha, or Manchuela, it can not bear that name, nor can it be called Rioja since the grapes are not from there.  So it is essentially called wine from the earth from Manchuela. 
Protocolo Blanco 2007 - Fresher is always better with this wine.  The 2008 should be available soon if it is not already.  The wine is stainless steel fermented and aged.  Airen makes up the majority of the blend, a widely planted, fairly nondescript grape, with Viura, essentially Spain's answer to Sauvignon Blanc, being the remaining 10% or so.  Although the wine is hardly a must have, collector's item, it becomes a perfect summer wine, versatile with so many foods, and very drinkable.  When I tasted recently, all I could think of was having a clambake.  $6-$8
Be sure to look for the Rose as well, always a screamin' deal.  More on Roses as I see more 2008's.
Protocolo Tinto 2006 - I am wild about the 2006 Spanish reds.  This was my house wine for a long time, because nothing else came close to pairing with a variety of foods at such a ridiculous price.  This 100% Tempranillo wine spends a few months in 1-3 year old American barrels.  Red fruit is the hallmark here, with a soft, easy drinkability.  This vintage features some added spice, although I found it a bit leaner than some previous efforts.  Still, it remains a remarkable value, and a good red to match with roast chicken and grilled fish.  $6-$8
Codice Tinto 2005 - Also from Dominio de Eguren, this is their flagship wine.  The price is higher, but so is the quality.  I'm afraid this vintage may be close to gone, but 2006 should be exciting if perhaps a bit lighter than the 2005.  This is also 100% Tempranillo and spends six months in barrels of the same age and provenance as Protocolo Tinto.  I found the nose a bit shy, but the palate was full of raspberry and spicy, elegant tannin.  The oak showed through mostly on the finish with hints of cedar, but was not a major component of the wine.  I thought if you poured this blind with wines from Bordeaux from $15-$20 Codice could hold its own.  I love the Bordeaux style, but find too many disappointing in the under $20 category, try this for about half that and see what you think.  $8-$11

Thursday, June 11, 2009

K Vintners/Charles Smith Wines

Charles Smith began the production in 2001 and made a huge splash in the wine world almost immediately with his K Vintners selections, focusing on Syrah. These wines came at a relatively dear price from the start and there are so many to choose from in the Northwest it can be a bit overwhelming. Mr. Smith began his self-named line more recently and they arrive at much more reasonable prices. His distinct labels for both lines make lasting impressions, including a complaint from a retail customer who took offense at the following label when displayed three across.


I recently tasted three of his Charles Smith line and two from K Vintners at reasonable prices. His website is woefully short on details about the production of the wines, but I will provide what I can from the tasting.
Charles Smith Eve Chardonnay 2007 -
Produced from up to 30 year old vines, it is 100% Chardonnay but seemed like it might have had some lift from Viognier. Lots of pear on the nose and palate, the wine is clean, ripe, and round while remaining crisp and fresh. A very well done bottle of Chardonnay from the Columbia Valley. $12

K Vintners Viognier 2007 - From a single vineyard in the Columbia Valley, the wine is fermented in neutral oak. Peach, apricot and intense, juicy floral Viognier style without being too overwhelming as many can be. There is a lovely spice note as well, almost apple butter style, but not so thick as that implies. Well done. They have released the 2008, I have not tasted it yet. $20

Charles Smith The Velvet Devil Merlot 2007 -
"Bringing sexy back to Merlot", was the catchy line offered by the woman pouring wines that day. After tasting, I had to not only agree, but go one step further. They have also brought back drinkability to Merlot. I bought not one, but two bottles of this a few days after the tasting. It has been more than a decade since I bought a bottle of Merlot. Super sweet, juicy nose with oak, cherry, the cherry is black and offers a slight smoke nuance as well. This is good, and a good price too. Drinkable Merlot, I actually want more (see above). Love the name, the tag line and the label. $12
Chateau Smith Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 -
Columbia Valley fruit from two vineyards with 10% Malbec and 5% Cabernet Franc added to the base Cabernet. This appeared juicier than the Merlot, and actually lighter and less complex. I found it simple, but solid. The most generic label and the least interesting wine of the day. Perhaps if I had tasted it before the exotic Merlot? $20

K Vintners Milbrandt Syrah 2007 - This comes from the Wahluke Slope in the Columbia Valley. The vineyard faces south and consequently offers warm, round fruit. This vintage offered big, deep, dark fruit with some sweet, leather. The nose is enticing and inviting. On the palate the deepness continues and forward, hedonistic Syrah notes predominate. There are hints of pepper on the back, but the focus here is rich, round, fruit with enough weight to be serious, but not so much as to be considered a monster. $25

Overall, I was impressed by the restraint shown in these wines. I have found the K Vintner upper end Syrah production to be loaded with too much new oak for me, although I must admit I like them in spite of that and I have never tried an older vintage.



Monday, June 8, 2009

Miscellaneous Bargain Red Imports

I recently stumbled across my notes from four red wines I bought a few months ago while looking for some new deals. Some were quite good and all come from nationwide importers, so should you have a mind to do so, you can find them.
Bodegas Piqueras Castillo de Almansa 2006 - 100% Garnacha Tintorera. Huh? Okay, I'll explain. Garnacha Tintorera is the local name in the southeast of Spain for Alicante Bouschet. Huh? Okay, here's more...Alicante Bouschet is a crossing of Grenache and Petit Bouschet (itself a crossing of Aramon and Teinturier du Cher - I promise to let this stop here). The term Teinturier (French for 'dyer') is used to refer to grapes with lots of color that can add tint to sometimes over-cropped, thinner-skinned grapes. Alicante Bouschet, or Garnacha Tintorera, is the only grape I can call to mind immediately that actually has red juice if you squeeze it. Needless to say, it could add color to less intense juice. According to Appellation America, "Alicante Bouschet hit its height of popularity in the United States, during Prohibition. Alicante Bouschet's vibrant red color allowed bootleggers to stretch it with water and sugar." So, are you thirsty yet?
The Piqueras family founded the estate in 1915 and produces this label for the U.S. market. The vineyard is just short of 2,000 feet in elevation and the wine is fermented and aged (six months) in only stainless steel. Okay, okay, okay...what about the taste? Frankly, I just wasted a bit of your time. Sorry. I found the story fascinating, but not the wine. It was prickly on the tongue, even the second day. It worked all right with sausage, but was no fun to drink. The color was a spectacular ruby/purple and the texture of the wine, prickle aside, was quite nice and relatively big. Time faded the spritz, but left tannin and meat flavors, mutton in particular. It is possible this was an isolated bottle issue, but my experience tells me that when the nearly spritzy prickle sensation appears in a wine the entire batch is likely damaged. Importer - Winebow $8-$10
Almira Los Dos "Old Vines" 2007 - From the northern Spanish appellation Campo de Borja, this wine is a blend of 85% Garnacha (Grenache) and 15% Syrah. The vines are 35-50 years old and the wine is vinified and aged (one month) entirely in stainless steel. Campo de Borja is the undisputed leader in Garnacha production in Spain, both for value and quality. The color here, as expected, is brighter and more ruby than the Piqueras. I found pure, juicy fruit, some black pepper and a friendly gulpability. It is both simple and simply delicious. The alcohol seemed a bit high on the nose, but a slight chill mostly took care of that. This is the classic nearly Beaujolais style of Garnacha, lovely, easy, and very drinkable. The 2nd day brought more wild fruit, beginning to move toward earth notes, but remained easy and tasty. In comparison to one of my other current favorites, Borsao, this is juicier and less structured; ideal for summer grilling because it can stand a bit of a chill. Importer - Winebow $7-$9
Alfredo Roca Pinot Noir 2007 - From San Rafael in the southern end of Mendoza, Argentina. Although the vineyard is lower in altitude than the family vineyards in the northern portion of Mendoza (1,300-1,600 versus 2,600) there is a corridor that allows important cooling breezes to descend from the Andes. They are fourth generation winemakers and clearly they have learned a few things. The grapes are hand harvested and the wine ages in oak, I assume French, for 8 months. It is 100% Pinot Noir. The wood does show fairly strong on the nose with a subtle sweet note (i.e. not heavily toasted); in the glass it is a lovely shade of raspberry red. Vanilla from the oak and bright red cherries soar out of the glass. A bass note from the oak gives a bit of heft to this light bodied wine. I say that in a respectful Pinot Noir way, rather than a wimpy way. The palate is balanced, showing more wood, but the wine is impressively Pinot Noir for the price. Easy access Pinot Noir, not Pinot trying to be Syrah; Hallelujah! Just the right thing for the nights you decide to get a roasted chicken at the store on the way home and want something to slurp that won't overwhelm the food. I think a slight chill here on a warm day would be nice. Quite a deal. Importer - Hand Picked Selections $10-$12
Domaine Font-Mars Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 - Font-Mars (soil of dinosaurs) is so named because of the fossils found in the area. The de Clock family, originally Dutch, arrived in Bordeaux in 1679. A mere seven years later, King Louis XIV made Jean officially French due to the quality of his wines. From the south of France, in the heart of Languedoc, strangely near the white wine producing area of Picpoul, comes this Cabernet Sauvignon. I usually find Cabernet from this area to be mass produced for the export market and consequently vapid. Couple this with the presence of two T-Rexes holding a coat of arms on the label and I was decidedly skeptical. The color was a pretty red, with slight earth and slight leaf and green hints on the nose. This is not an unripe bell pepper note, but a classic Cabernet trait not seen often in wines from California. Some fresh pepper on the nose leads to a palate that was a bit tight due to acid not tannin, but I found it well done. Fortunately for me, this was not made in an international style. A slight tar note appears on the back end. Great, bright red acid on the nose offers an interesting balance with the tar, which I quite like. With a bit of time in the glass (10 minutes or so) the finish fleshed out nicely. Deeper fruit, not quite plum, also came with air. I like this wine, but it is not for people who want the intensity of Napa Cab. Think chicken, pork, red sauces, especially a Bolognese. I recall raving about this as a substitute for Chianti since that wine nearly always disappoints for the same price. Importer - Weygandt-Metzler $10-$14

Friday, June 5, 2009

Basel Cellars


Do the words "Wine Country Resort" make you salivate to visit yet cringe at the thought of either buying luxury wines that offer standard quality or, worse, clearly substandard wines that sell only because of the location. Banish that thought. This is a winery, first and foremost, and a producer of relatively value-oriented but high quality wine. The somewhat lackluster mention of value comes with the reminder that we are discussing the Northwest in general, and Walla Walla in particular. Forget about screaming deals like $8 Grenache, but I find that Basel Cellars offers excellent bang for the buck compared to many of their neighbors.
Their estate vineyards were planted in 1997 and production began with the harvest of 2002. Although I have not visited, the grounds look fantastic and guestrooms are available. One of my biggest regrets from my all too brief stay in Portland was that I never made it to Walla Walla. Although I find too much extraction, expense, and oak, for my palate, all too often from that part of the world, there are some gems available.
All things point to this winery being a vanity project. A huge estate with guest rooms designed to host large events coupled with the face of the winery sharing the name of the estate and having no other history in the wine business, yet crafting the wines. Justin Basel grew up around the vines on the estate, appears to have no other experience, other than "education" on his bio, but clearly has a good hand in the cellar.
Notes are from a tasting in early March in Portland, Oregon.
Forget-Me-Not 2007 - Made from 75% Sauvignon Blanc with the balance being Semillon; the wine spends one month in new French oak before returning to stainless steel. Partial Malolactic fermentation follows; the difference between this and their Sauvignon Blanc (same blend) may be sourcing, but the Sauvignon Blanc sees no new oak. I found decent weight, with lots of Sauvignon Blanc character on the back end. The wine is very dry on the finish and proved to be tasty but not riveting. I prefer their Sauvignon Blanc, but would be happy to drink this if you bring a bottle. Even the short time in new oak makes a difference in pairing; this would be delightful with shrimp, or some baked Dover Sole stuffed with crabmeat, or paneed pork chop with lemon and capers. $18
Claret 2006 - It is a rare occurrence indeed when a winery's flagship wine offers consistent quality, enough production that you can find it (and get what you want), and a very reasonable price for the quality. I loved the 2004 vintage, thought the 2005 was perhaps a bit light for the tannin level, but had confidence that it would come around with patience. The 2006, however, blew me away. The wine is round and juicy with a remarkable feel, and taste, reminiscent of Pauillac for twice the price. There is spicy tannin and deep structured fruit but the wine is not overdone. It is made, mostly, from press juice, not free run, with Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Syrah and spent 18 months in American and French oak. I found it fantastic and want more, I'm down to my last bottle. If you can get hold of this buy at least one bottle immediately. Okay to drink now, but it will last for three more years. The perfect match may be lamb, but I see this with some sopressata and manchego before dinner or with hamburgers topped with swiss and bacon (grilled Portobellos for you non-meat types). $20
Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 - This is 100% Cabernet from the estate Pheasant Run Vineyard. Aging is in 100% new oak, 68% of which is French the rest is American. The new oak gives this a deep, lush aroma and feel but does not dominate the fruit. In fact, I would never have guessed it to be 100% new oak. I assume this to be all free run juice which would help explain the balance. Deep plum notes, nearly currant level of intensity, with tannin on the tongue. To me, tannin on the tongue is fruit tannin which will integrate wonderfully with some time in bottle, while the more intense tannin on the sides of the mouth, especially near the molars, is wood tannin which is harder to integrate and rougher. Though the tannin in this Cabernet is noticeable, it is not rough anywhere in the mouth and, while I like the Claret more right now, this will be a gem in another year or two and should last for four to six years. I envision this as a great match to red meat with port and mushroom sauce. $36
Syrah 2005 - Some quick stats, 100% French oak, 18% new, 100% Syrah from Pheasant Run (74%) and Lewis Vineyard (24%). Deep, dark fruit on the nose with a hint of smokiness leads to a mid-palate that seemed a bit flat, but the finish intensified dramatically with spicy tannin. There was no real pepper to note, just a hint of black on the finish mingling with other spice. This is not a sipping wine, but it will perform wonderfully with all manner of grilled meats. I can see this being a great match with strip steak, sausages (not spicy though, could be too much on the finish), and ribs, ribs, ribs! $28
Basel Cellars is growing and may be coming soon to a city near you. Yay!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Chateau Montelena - Estate Cabernet, Mini-Vertical

Montelena Estate Cabernet is perhaps the best produced in California. I think the wine could hold its own with Bordeaux that sells for much more money. I find generous fruit and lush mouthfeel as one would expect from Napa Valley, but I also find terroir, something unique to the estate. Part of that uniqueness comes from Brettanomyces (or Brett) an organism that can ruin wine or add complexity. Brett can add tobacco and earth to the fruit aromas but can also make a wine stink of old, tired, rotten fruit or manure. It will not make you sick, but you are unlikely to enjoy the wine if Brett has taken over. Wineries all over the world have Brett present in their cellars, and therefore their wine, but most of the time it remains under control. Bo Barret is aware of the presence and monitors it carefully at the Chateau. A debate raged years ago over some Montelena wines where Brett supposedly dominated the fruit. I hesitated to bring this up at all, and I have never had a spoiled (or even corked) Chateau Montelena wine. As I found myself tasting earth, leather, and cellar in one of the wines though, it seemed appropriate to mention.

The wines are presented in the order they appeared that night. The Cabernets were decanted and open about an hour before we sat down. Montelena blends Merlot and/or Cabernet Franc into their Estate Cabernet in various proportions. I recall them publishing the exact breakdowns at some point, but could only find two blends in my records. The 2005 has a mere 2% Cabernet Franc with 98% Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2000, strikingly, contains 21% Merlot and no Cabernet Franc.

Estate Cabernet 1999 - Brian Baker made the case that each of the older wines represented a strong microcosm of their respective vintages - as one would hope and expect from a winery that does not make formulaic wines. 1999, he pointed out, was a cool year for the most part with a heat spike in September. I found no edge on the wine despite being nearly ten years old, and the core is still completely opaque. I smell leather, cellar and a hint of bricky fruit but the strongest component is clearly the bright, juicy fruit still present. The leather and cellar notes were clear, pure and pretty with no funky edge that sometimes comes with those descriptors. Clay, reminiscent of right bank Bordeaux, also peeked out from time to time. The tannin became more evident but even as it emerged the wine remained lovely. From my notes, "Damn, that bright fruit is still there." I found this wine riveting, and my favorite of the night. If I had some in my cellar, I would drink it in the next year or two. Although it will clearly last for another seven to ten years, I find the tertiary flavors and aromas of earth, etc. too perfect right now while the fruit still shines. This wants a big slab of meat, I'm thinking flank steak. $175

Estate Cabernet 2000 - Brian Baker reminded us about 2000 being an El Nino vintage. There were frost issues on the early side, a long, cool growing season, some heat spikes, and a two month harvest at the estate. Many people avoided the vintage from California due to lack of critical excitement. The classic complaint focused on their ageability. Here we are, nine years later and while the wine showed slightly lighter than the 1999, it proved delicious. More pure fruit showed in the 2000 than the 1999, juicier and lusher on the nose; round, juicy and nearly lip-smacking on the palate, perhaps due to the round middle Merlot provides. Each sip brought a slightly goofy smile to my lips, a welcome result. I do not often focus on very specific fruit, but red plum jumped at me, perhaps a berry note as well. Wow, this is so lush and approachable. Clearly some tannin there, but very fine and very mild. This is a really tasty bottle of wine. Simpler, somewhat lighter food would work beautifully here, roasted pork loin with some herbs de Provence anyone? Perhaps prime rib? $140

Estate Cabernet 2001 - A tough start to the vintage with rain, frost and then excessive heat during flowering led to a small crop. The rest of the vintage progressed well, with a long harvest again. I found this wine more high toned than either the bass notes of the 1999 or the luscious middle sweet spot of the 2000. Although the wine showed some roundness, it also proved lighter and tighter than the two previous wines. The middle and most of the finish showed some silkiness and elegance. Much more complexity here than in the 2000, with the trade being the loss of the sheer gulpability. Lovely, bright, red fruit on the finish stops short of blooming or bursting forth as it likely will with a few more years of age. I found the 2001 just a bit tight, but clearly with the right ingredients to emerge and shine in the future. I would wait on this, but if you want to drink it, try it with a nicely fatty piece of red meat to help balance the tannin. Rib-eye comes to mind. $150

Estate Cabernet 2005 - "A perfect growing season", according to Brian Baker. Again I found plum in the glass, but darker than the 2000. The wine is rich, lush, complex, intense, and a bit raw. Not unbalanced, just unpolished due to its youth. This is the current release. The integration of all the parts is nearly complete enough to be tempting to open a bottle now, but I know time will serve it well. Directly from my notes, "Wow, damn! Fireworks, fantastic." The wine is a bit enigmatic in that I clearly could not access all of its subtlety and nuance yet, but so much leapt out and happily assaulted the senses it gave the illusion of being ready to go. $135

The older vintages here will be available through the winery and fine retail soon as a six-pack, two bottles each. Would I buy one? Not at the moment, but I'm unemployed. I would think seriously about it because the wines are magical and essentially ready to drink after being aged in perfection at the winery.
Final word, were they worth it? Did I buy any? Yes I did; I purchased two bottles of the 2005. Unemployed or not, that wine is fantastic, one of the best I have ever tasted from Chateau Montelena. By the way, they were on sale that night for a lot less than the list price and I also had a discount coupon from the tasting.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Chateau Montelena - A Rare Treat

Last week found me at Martin Wine Cellar for an impressive lineup of wines from the famous Chateau Montelena. The room was full, as it should have been. Beyond the fact that they have produced riveting Cabernet in Calistoga for nearly 40 years, they were the subject of the recent movie 'Bottle Shock.' This somewhat sensationalized version of Montelena's story as it relates to the Paris tasting in 1976 exposed the winery to new eyes. My history with the winery dates back nearly two decades and includes some impressive vertical tastings of the estate Cabernet.
There are precious few high end California wines I believe are worth the price. Overmanipulation, lack of depth, and an absence of a sense of place are just some of the issues I find all too regularly in luxury wines from the land of "The Governator." Montelena, however, always offered a fair amount of value, all things considered, but it has been a while since I tasted the Estate Cabernet.
Brian Baker, VP of Sales and Marketing for Montelena, was our energetic, informative, and thoroughly engaging master of ceremonies. He offered some tidbits of history, which I will pass along as accurately as possible.
Alfred Tubbs had the chateau built in 1882 after returning from a visit to Bordeaux. Mr. Tubbs sold supplies to gold rushers, making money more than most of his customers. His family ran the estate until prohibition and then resumed growing grapes, when the law allowed, until they sold it the the Franks in 1958. Yort Frank created his wealth by being the first television repairman in the San Francisco area. The modern incarnation of Chateau Montelena began when Jim Barrett purchased the estate in 1972. His 1973 Chardonnay changed the wine world forever by beating many French wines in a blind tasting. For more on that event, see the movie, or better yet, read George Taber's book, "Judgement of Paris."
Potter Valley Riesling 2007 - From high altitude in Mendocino the wine offers bright pear and melon (honeydew?) fruit with a juicy, succulent, but not too sweet palate. Persistent length and a nice mingling of fruit and dryness make this a potentially very good food wine. I found myself wanting a bit more depth and/or complexity, but the wine was thoroughly enjoyable. $19-$22
Napa Valley Chardonnay 2007 - The fruit for this wine comes from just north of the town of Napa, well south of the estate. Montelena opts out of malolactic fermentation for their Chardonnay retaining crisp acid to balance the full, rich, California fruit. I smell oak with a mild toast accent and just a hint of nuttiness on the nose. The fruit here is clearly sweet, not sugary but on the opposite end of the spectrum from citrus. On the palate, I found red and green apples with a creamy texture; oak returns on the finish but the wine remains fresh and inviting. $47-$50
Estate Zinfandel 2005 - Zinfandel is a challenging wine. Despite being a near polar opposite in texture and feel from Pinot Noir, both wines require some knowledge of the winery's style or you may be unpleasantly surprised once the cork is removed. Is it Turley style: huge, thick, high alcohol, nearly sweet? Or is it more claret (British term for Bordeaux) style: red fruit dominant, drier, more food friendly? Montelena follows the more traditional route of drier, claret-like, Zinfandel. I must admit that while I generally prefer this style of Zin, I have never been a big fan of Montelena's version. Juicy fruit and cedar on the nose leads to oodles of red fruit; the wine is clearly reminiscent of Cabernet but is not overly structured. Cherry, leather and some dusty cocoa on the finish eventually opened up a bit more to show hints of blueberry. Overall, I enjoyed the wine, but had the same reaction as I have for years. I find Montelena's Zin lacking some intensity. I would be perfectly happy with this wine and some lamb or rabbit, but I can not recall ever buying a bottle. $28-$30
Estate Cabernet notes in the next post.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Four Red Burgundies from 2005

I promise to move on from Pinot Noir for a while after this. There are still a few 2005 Burgundies floating around the New Orleans area and I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time to taste three from Louis Jadot and one from Domaine Newman.
I find the whites from Jadot, especially the upper end selections, unexciting and a bit rough around the edges. Reds offer much more pleasure even though they sometimes exhibit more tannin and structure than the fruit can support, at least in their youth.
Chris Newman, an American, lives in Beaune and returns home to New Orleans regularly for an extended stay around Mardi Gras. For years, his wines suffered from inconsistency, but lately they are much more enjoyable and reliable. He produces some of the best value Grand Cru Burgundy on the planet. Those of us who know him, smiled more naturally when tasting over the last five or six years and cheer him on for future success.
2005 received lots of hype as yet another 'vintage of the century.' Portland, Oregon worships local first and the Burgundy presence there dims in comparison to Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. Tasting a few 2005's with a bit of time in bottle was a nice treat. I found the 2003 vintage a bit overdone, huge amounts of fruit, and tannin too - perhaps too much. The balance of the 2002 reds appealed to me, and I think the 2005's offer more of the same, although they are generally bigger and may not age as well.
Jadot Savigny-Les-Beaune Guettes 2005 - Savigny, from the southern half of Burgundy, shows plush fruit in general, medium-body, and early accessibility. It is one of my favorite villages in the Cote d'Or for those factors and good value, although value and Burgundy rarely go hand in hand anymore. The 2005 from Jadot featured pretty, juicy, red fruit as one should expect from Savigny. Hints of deeper complexity exist, but the showpiece here is clearly the bright fruit. Guettes is a Premier Cru vineyard site and I find those wines slightly darker than other Savignys with more weight, muscle, and earth tones; the Jadot fit these to a tee. Not riveting, but well done. Importer - Kobrand $35-$40
Jadot Nuits-St-George 2005 - This village in the northern half of Burgundy often is considered to be one of the biggest, chewiest styles around. This version is full of attention getting grip and tannin, but good fruit balances it nicely. The palate is lively and I find this to be a textbook example of Nuits profile; again, well done but not riveting. However, if you ever wondered what Nuits gives you that other villages don't, try this and the Savigny, you will understand well. $36-$42
Jadot Gevrey Chambertin 2005 - The wines from Gevrey can be big and intense or more silky and supple. Unfortunately you must know the producer, true with Pinot Noir in general and Burgundy especially, to have a good idea of style before opening. This bottling toed the line between the extremes. Earth showed up on the nose, with a hint of tar. The fruit makes enough of a statement that balance became a word I repeated again and again. Clearly the most compelling Jadot of the day. Bravo. $37-$44
Domaine Newman Beaune Clos des Avaux 2005 - More often than not the wines emanating from the village of Beaune have very minerally palates and I find them challenging. The fruit tends toward the lighter, red berry end of the spectrum but the intense mineral structure sometimes makes them taste metallic to me. That being said, when they are good, they are lots of fun. This is the best Avaux from Newman yet. The fruit dances on the tongue and the minerality appears as a spice accent rather than a tongue drying grip. The sheer naturalness of the wine appealed to me more than anything else and I found myself wishing for a bottle, a roast chicken, some friends, and a quiet spot in a park. Delicious. Importer - Various, Wines Unlimited in Louisiana. $45-$55

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Another 1998 St. Innocent Pinot Noir

I purchased a bottle of this from a friendly retailer in Oregon and brought it back to New Orleans to offer to friends at a regular weekly gathering of wine geeks at one of my favorite restaurants in town.  Clancy's is located way uptown, off the streetcar route, but plenty of tourists still vie with locals for treasured reservations.  The kitchen works magic with seafood, especially crab, both lump meat and soft-shell, and I can not resist their sweetbreads.  Veal is another specialty and the pork chops could change your life.  
A recent lunch seemed like the perfect excuse to bring an aged bottle from a good vintage to the group, which includes the owner, since everyone loves Pinot Noir.  Older Oregon Pinot Noir is still not all that well understood by many, myself included.  
I had the opportunity to taste a number of 1998 Oregon Pinots last year, in particular some St. Innocents (see October 11 and 12, 2008 posts).  The two St. Innocents from last year left very different impressions on me; one amazed and entertained, the other underwhelmed.  The Brick House Vineyard that I brought to Clancy's fell somewhere in the middle.  It had more lively fruit than the Freedom Hill but not as much pretty intrigue as the Shea.  Here are my notes for the St. Innocent Brick House Vineyard Pinot Noir 1998.
Earthy nose, maybe even iodiny (that faded with 15-20 minutes open) but good old fruit too.  The fruit emerged more and more in the first 45 minutes open, but never fully blossomed.  The palate was all earth, spice and that bricky, dried fruit found in many wines with age.  The wine was lovely, although not so pretty as it was meaty.  With more time, the earth eventually overwhelmed the fruit but the wine remained lively on the palate.  Overall, a solid wine, well worth the wait, but I would drink it soon if you happen to have any.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Yet More 2007 Oregon Pinot Noir

Last one on this subject for a little while as I find locating these wines in New Orleans to be challenging.  It will not be the end as more of the serious versions are yet to be released.  
I find myself excited about the wines as I continue my exploration, but fear that they will come off too light for many palates.  That should not be viewed as a flaw of the vintage so much as a flaw in people's perceptions of Pinot Noir.  I imagine many consumers tasting and wondering where the stuffing is, because I have witnessed it time and again.  I admit to similar reactions to wines from time to time, including Pinot Noir.  
We are mostly trained to expect more brawn, more beef and more general oomph as we spend more money on wine.  The $25 bottle should be bigger and more intense in the mouth than the $15 bottle.  That is an unfortunate result of some cult wines and, in my opinion, flawed winemaking.  Squeezing every massive, opaquely colored drop out of the grapes can result in a terrifically concentrated wine, but it can also result in horribly out of balance wine.  This can, and does, happen with nearly every red grape on the planet from time to time.  Pinot noir is a regular victim because due to the price charged for most versions of the grape, people expect a certain amount of power in the bottle.  
We're trained in restaurants the same way.  What's the least expensive item on the menu (more often than not)?  Chicken.  Lighter, less complex, less interesting on some level.  The most expensive item?  Beef.  Bigger, brawnier, meatier and more intense, regardless of the sauce.  Chicken can become big and rich, but often only in sacrificing its 'chickenness.'  Pinot Noir is the same way, when manipulated with excessive extraction, lots of new, toasty oak and sometimes even some other (darker) grapes it loses its inherent delicacy, finesse and nuance.  
I am no apologist for Pinot Noir in the same way I wouldn't dream of apologizing for an acoustic band playing ragtime.  If you don't like that music, move on to something else, don't keep going to listen to them live and complaining they don't sound like Led Zeppelin.  
Okay, enough of that...bring on the wine.
Broadley Vineyards Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2007 - A veteran producer in the valley for over 20 years.  I have found their wines to be well balanced, with a moderate  oak influence, and the few older versions I have tried have at least been intriguing.  The 2007 Willamette Valley has a subtle nose, pretty, vibrant color and a lovely palate.  There is good, fine tannin on the finish.  Pure Oregon Pinot Noir, cherry, subtle earth notes (found consistently in their wines), and bright acidity.  The 2007 fairly dances on the tongue with just the right balance of fruit and earth.  Delicious.  Wait another six months or so and the nose should open up nicely.  $20 - a relative steal!  More from this producer later.
Kings Ridge Pinot Noir 2007 - Ryan Harms has worked at Rex Hill, Bergstrom and Torii Mor while his vineyard manager, George Hillberry is a second generation member of a vineyard owning family.  The fruit is mostly Willamette Valley with about a third from Umpqua Valley and there is less than 20% new French oak used for aging.  This is their third release of Pinot Noir; however, I must admit to ignorance until now.  Smoky deep cherry fruit on the nose, very ripe, and nearly sweet.  The palate is round, soft and juicy with more smoke notes.  Although the wine is a tad simple it has good body and proper acid with no noticeable tannin and for a mere $16 a bottle it is a ridiculous bargain; no, that's not strong enough, I felt like I stole the bottle for $16 less 10% for buying a mixed case along with it.  Tasty and well done.  This is easy access Pinot and may even satisfy those who want the deeper, bigger style, although, I also found myself quite pleased with it and I prefer the lighter style generally.  You will neither confuse this with Syrah, nor water.  They made 13,000 cases, so you should be able to locate some.  By the way, kudos to the winery on the website, they actually have real information about making their wine and names and phone numbers of distributors around the country.  Thank you!
Adelsheim Vineyard Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2007 - While in Oregon I had the distinct pleasure of being able to spend considerable time with David Adelsheim.  He is not only a thoroughly engaging, passionate wine man but his attention to detail with everyday things shows his level of care for wines bearing his name.  I have always enjoyed his reds, but found the whites more intriguing, unique, and (sorry David) better values.  He produces one of the best Pinot Noir Roses I have ever had the pleasure to taste...well, truth be told, we actually were drinking it, quite a few bottles as I vaguely recall.  However, he and Dave Paige, the winemaker since 2001, hit a home run with the 2007 vintage.  I think it may be the best Adelsheim Willamette Valley Pinot Noir I've ever had.  75% of the grapes come from the estate vineyards in the Chehalem Mountains, the remaining 25% come from various Willamette Valley locations, hence the designation.  The color is vibrant, strawberry at the edge, it is nearly a Gamay color - consistent through the glass.  Deep cherry resonates on the nose with just a hint of earth tones.  The earth note is that enticing, come hither, loamy kind of earth, not funky or mushroomy.  The wine is on the light side. although I often find this bottling to be that way, but with great focus.  The nose is a bit raw, but the wine was just opened, and not quite together.  The fruit is beautiful, juicy, correct and very Pinot noir.  Juicy, even succulent, Bing cherry appears on the mid-palate.  More strawberry notes on the back end, quite lovely.  It is a tad short now, but clearly all there, give it some time - at least 6 months and up to 5 or 6 years.  The next day things came together nicely which led me to claim this as the best Adelsheim Willamette Valley Pinot I have tasted.  $30-$34.  

Monday, May 4, 2009

Jazz Fest and Wine

For my money, the food at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is nearly as important as the music.  If all they served was the usual hot dogs, hamburgers, nachos with melted plastic 'cheez' on them, etc. I would spend less time at the Fairgrounds.  I guess I would spend less money as well, but I'm not willing to trade.  However, the alcoholic beverage options do not even approach the level of quality offered by the food purveyors.  
The beer choices have always been suspect, although they did add Pilsner Urquell on draft a handful of years ago.  When Foster's is the highlight beer available all over the festival, for $5 a can, it clearly tells you, like a bad chain restaurant, that much less attention is paid to the liquid than the food.  I missed the last two Jazz Fests (talk about withdrawal) while living in Oregon, but happily returned this year for all seven days.  
During my absence, a few beverage choices were added - daiquiris and yes, even wine.  I saw a sign, "Wine and Champagne", and could hardly believe my eyes.  I knew better than to get too excited, but was curious to see the options.  Ugh.  Sutter Home Pinot Grigio and Merlot in plastic 187ml bottles.  For $6.  The 'Champagne'?  Coppola Sophia in the  187ml can.  I find that too sweet for me, but hey, that could be fun outside on a warm day.  Except for the fact that they were charging $9 a can.  Apparently it helped get Mr. Coppola out to the Fest though.  I saw him headed into the Gospel Tent over the first weekend.  
I don't expect a 50 glass wine bar, nor would I drink red wine for the most part (as it is almost always over 80 degrees outside in New Orleans this time of year), and glass at the Festival is dangerous, but I continue to be amazed how weak the beverage choices remain while the food is the best festival food anywhere.  
Still tired, a bit overwhelmed, but happy and sated and waiting for next year already.  
More Pinot Noir 2007 from Oregon coming next. 

Saturday, April 25, 2009

More 2007 Oregon Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir gets in the blood.  If you drink a good bottle of Pinot when it shows all it has to offer and the wine evolves and intrigues all the way through the bottle, it is nearly impossible not to get hooked.  However, trying to find Pinots in this state drives many away since it is the most mercurial wine around.  While it could be said that every bottle of 'real wine' (not that formulaic, over-manipulated plonk which has more in common with soda than a product of the vine) is like a snowflake (no two are alike) I defy most people to tell the difference.  A slight variation in fill level, tasting two bottles a week or two apart, having bottles from different storage conditions, and perhaps even the difference from the top of the barrel to the bottom, lead to potentially perceptible differences...good luck finding them.  Pinot Noir seems to change at the drop of the hat.  Deciding when to drink prized bottles of Pinot dominates conversation in certain circles, more so than discussions of when to drink any other style of wine. 
While Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah, etc. change, evolve, and go through phases, I do not find that their true character ever becomes as muted and hard to find in the glass as Pinot's can.  There is no better grape to describe as lightning in the bottle.  Perhaps because it is a more delicate grape to begin with its 'dumb' periods are so much more noticeable.  Whatever the reason, more than a few people have finally thrown their hands up and quit buying Pinot Noir.  If a band you really like plays a bad show do you throw away their CD's?  Do you move their songs to trash in your iPod?  Of course not.  The finicky, flighty, fascinating grape's rewards are worth the risk of occasional disappointing lows.
I find that most Pinot Noirs drink well upon release and for the first six months or so after. That can change based on how long the wine rested in the winery.  After that, more serious versions tend to go into a quiet stage.  That can last for a year or more before the moping ends and the wine is ready to be social and engaging once more.  Go to tastings, talk to others about what drinks well now.  Don't be afraid to decant young Pinot Noir; let it breathe and have a back up bottle handy if the wine of choice is closed up like a sullen teen.  Don't throw it away, try it a day or two later...you may be pleasantly surprised.
Some more 2007's...
Evesham Wood Eola-Amity Hills 2007 - One of my favorite producers.  They make subtle Pinot, medium-bodied but full-flavored.  Earth, forest floor and good fruit mingle in their wines with a delicacy I do not often associate with this appellation.  I tasted this and fell in love immediately.  With all apologies to Oregon, this wine took me to the magic place of Burgundy, specifically villages level Savigny-Les-Beaune.  I bought four bottles and wish I had more.  that being said, the last taste I had was a bit odd, nearly fishy on the nose and closed.  The palate-feel was good, but the wine showed little and appeared a bit gritty on the finish.  I think it was a phase, and I will taste another bottle tonight...perhaps with a grilled ham and swiss after a long day at Jazz Fest.  The bottle from last night was improved, but still a bit mute on the nose.  At least the oddness was not in evidence.  Dusty, red cherries, like a country road on a warm spring day, dominate the palate and the finish lingers nicely.  the lively snap of acidity I found initially (in the fall) has softened and is broader and more welcoming because of it.  Still wish I had more...  $18-$20
Illahe Willamette Valley 2007 - According to their website, "Illahe is a Chinook Jargon word meaning 'earth', 'land', or 'soil'."  I have little experience with the winery and was pleased to see it included in a recent 2007 Pinot tasting I attended.  The winery is in Dallas, OR, due east of Salem; the Eola-Amity AVA is the closest.  Although the winery was not established until 2000, the vines were planted in 1983, relatively ancient by Oregon standards.  Aromas of oak were more obvious here than with any other wine that night.  I found a hint of 'marks-a-lot' pen too...but just a hint, and in a good way if that even sounds remotely possible.  Of course, I used to sniff mimeograph sheets in grade school.  Deep, dark fruit, impressively so for 2007, but it does not appear manipulated.  The wine is huge, in fact, by 2007 standards.  I don't love it, but it is a tasty bottle of wine for slurping, on the porch or at the table, at a reasonable price.  $20
Quercus Winery Harmonia Willamette Valley 2007 - Michael Beckley moved to Oregon from California and worked in the cellar at Domain Drouhin and then at Erath before striking out on his own.  He consults for other wineries but there is a rumor he is getting out of the business.  That's a shame.  I enjoyed the two previous vintages quite a bit, but this 2007 appears to be his masterpiece.  Quercus is the genus of oak used to make barrels, but you won't find any heavy wood usage here.  Pretty red color, with some smoke and some cherry, I found the aroma not quite closed, but seeming to have even more than it showed, which was substantial.  There was a clove note on the finish (not my favorite, but it worked here) with good acid and some fresh earth that arrived with time open.  For fans of lighter style Pinot Noir, this wine is delicious!  As I sipped my way through  a second glass, I found impressively round, juicy fruit, nearly creamy.  Wish I'd bought more...  $20-$23