Thursday, December 31, 2009
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
Almira Los Dos (Grenache/Syrah - 85%/15%) Old vines 2007 - for more on this wine, see
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
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
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
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
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
Saturday, June 27, 2009
Thursday, June 25, 2009
Thursday, June 11, 2009
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
Monday, June 8, 2009
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
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
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
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.