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.