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When in doubt, Go Rioja! A Few Rules for Basic Wine Shopping (and the Absurdity of Linear Thinking)

July 7, 2011 Leave a comment

There are so many intricacies to wine which can make just walking into a proper wine shop a daunting task for the uninitiated. But one doesn’t have to know all that much to be a good wine buyer. There is method to the madness and ways to make small pieces of information work for you. Like this: When in doubt, go Rioja. The Spanish region of Rioja makes some of the nicest wine in the world, per dollar spent (particularly red Tempranillo), and most wine shops will carry at least a couple of them. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if you’re in a wine shop that can’t sell you a decent Rioja for $15 or less, you should find another shop. Also, OR pinot noir is pretty amazing stuff these days and in 2008, they had one of their best vintages ever, so you can’t go too wrong with most any bottle from that region and year, and again, most decent shops will carry at least a couple, though the best ones can be costly. There are numerous recent examples of these little generalizations that can help: ’05 Bordeaux, ’09 Sonoma Chard, ’07 North Coast everything.

On a critical level, it’s relatively silly to generalize like that. Every single bottle of wine comes down to the grapes grown in a particular place and time and the choices made by the winemaker who begins the winemaking process with those grapes. But generalizing is like playing the percentages and certainly is no sillier than rating wine on 100 pt scale, implying that linear perfection can be achieved. One of the reasons I drink wine and- to this day- one of my favorite wines in the world is 1986 Dunn Vineyards Napa Cabernet. Some guy named Bob tells me it’s 92 points good. This isn’t far from walking into the Louvre, finding yourself before the Winged Victory of Samothrace, taking in its mass, its setting and the nuances of its construction (and destruction) and proclaiming, “I give it a 93.” Both of these things are artistic expressions in their given mediums and they are each effective on their own terms, to an open recipient. Empirically they are high quality examples of what they are. But assigning them numerical values and insinuating that they have a linear place in a measurable hierarchy from shit-on-Hellfire to absolute perfection is comical. But people like numbers, marketing is important, and anything that can be quickly described as an “A” should sell briskly.

Abbreviated Notes on a Past Private Tasting in Boston

April 14, 2011 Leave a comment

A few weeks back I was invited to a private tasting in Boston, held by a group of three friends (thanks Noah, Steve & Tad!) who take turns hosting themed wine nights for each other and their guests. The premise of the tasting I attended was Cultish Cabs and the line up looked like this:

The Cultish Cabs and their invited guests.

Since it’s not the clearest picture on this blog, here’s what we tasted (left to right): Whispering Dove Cabernet Oakville 2002, Whispering Dove Cabernet Stag’s Leap 2003, Agharta Syrah (Pax Mahle) 2004, Lail J Daniel Cuvee 1999, Dunn Cabernet Napa 1994, Staglin Family Estate Cabernet 1994, Staglin Family Estate Cabernet 2003, Scarecrow 2006, Chateau d’Yquem 1996, Sine Qua Non Mr K The Nobleman 2002. What follows is more of an experiential tale than a set of proper tasting notes as I spent more time enjoying than note taking while amongst these friends.

Classic Napa Cab at it's finest.

This particular evening, it was decided that there would be an initial blind tasting, for fun, and after all guests made there guesses, decanters were properly labeled, so everyone would have accurate palate reference. The ’06 Scarecrow and the ’94 Dunn were both the crowd favorites and were the two wines that nearly everyone guessed correctly during blind tasting. As far as I’m concerned, Dunn Cabernet is the classic long lived Napa Cab in the same way that Chateau Haut Brion is the classic Bordeaux. As of this year, Dunn’s ’86 and ’87 Napa Cabs are still drinking quite well, with little sign of their age. This particular ’94 Dunn Napa, while showing beautifully, still has a number of years to improve in bottle, and many left to live. The 2006 Scarecrow, being such a big wine from a recent good vintage (sandwiched in between 2 great vintages), was supple, round, and encompassing. After significant breathing time, it was damn near seamless. There was a waft on the nose and considerable weight on the finish that our host insisted tasted of “vanilla cake”. While I experienced no crumbs, the vanilla (rich rather than sweet) character was undeniable and quite stunning. And while I know the price of this wine is relatively high (bordering on absurd), it’s a truly beautiful product, inside and out.

Nice juice, not just a clever name.

When I was first invited to this tasting, our fearless host expressed his desire to locate a bottle of Screaming Eagle for around $1200, which is next to impossible, making the cost of said Scarecrow seem quite reasonable. To most mortals, Screaming Eagle isn’t a real wine, but a legendary endpoint of what the highest end of the market will bear (or would bear before the Chinese started paying $1500 a pop for Lafite too young to drink, and then started drinking it). For pennies on those dollars, I brought the two bottles of Whispering Dove which I snapped up with great curiosity back when they were released for around $30/btl.

While every wine opened on this particular evening was well worthy of it’s company, the ’02 Whispering Dove Oakville not only had the most mysterious pedigree of the bunch, but was also 3rd on just about everyone’s blind tasting preference list, and was, by one less experienced taster, mistaken for Scarecrow. To the best of my knowledge, this wine was only produced in 3 vintages from ’01 to ’03, and was very likely different grapes (and likely winemakers) in each release. Rumors that Whispering Dove was in fact declassified Screaming Eagle juice were quickly dispelled, but that didn’t change the marketing boost it got from the false notion. Nor does it change the fact that the 2002 Whispering Dove was most certainly vinified by someone who knew how to handle reserve quality Oakville fruit. And I will likely give my remaining stash another 3 or 4 years before tasting again.

Though new labels don't wear his name, Pax Mahle still makes remarkable syrah-based wine.

And then there was the obviously out of place ’04 Agharta Syrah, which while cultish, contains no cabernet, and was not part of the blind tasting. Bolstering said cultishness, prior to it’s debut, it was given a 98 point rating by some guy named Bob and before that it was vinified, oaked, aged (58 months!), and bottled (unfined & unfiltered) by a winemaker named Pax. And while Pax himself has said that the just released ’05 is “twice the wine” as is this monsterous and complex ’04 Agharta, he’s almost out of running room on the 100 point scale. I’ve tasted it on 3 occasions and giving notes would require the transcription of a short novel I haven’t yet written. It’s deeply complex stuff that changes dramatically over many hours of breathing and is an experience in itself rather that something to drink with any nameable specific food stuff. Structurally the experience of this debut Agharta is similar to Sean Thackrey’s Orion in that the sheer number of flavors per breathing time makes these wines infinitely faceted (and fascinating) gems. Looking forward to following the evolution of these bottles over the next decade or two.

Like Agharta, the depth of SQN Mr K wines crush the feeble descriptives of the written word.

And I don’t mean to disparage Chateau d’Yquem. There’s a reason it has the reputation it does. Yquem has been producing some of the words finest sweet white for centuries. By the time Jacques Sauvage was granted feudal tenure over Yquem in 1593 special growing techniques and late harvesting were already in practice and the estates finest vintages live for over a century. Very few estates, winemaking or otherwise enjoy such a rich history, which certainly comes with a hefty per bottle tariff, here in the future. For my dollar, if I’m going to spend way too much money on a half-bottle of sweet white, it’s more often going to be a 6 puttonyos tokaji, essencia, or something on which the Austrian genius, Alois Kracher, once had his hands.

Speaking of which, our final wine of the evening was Sine Qua Non Mr K The Nobleman 2002. The Mr K series was a partnership of Sine Qua Non proprietor Manfred Krankl and the aforementioned Kracher, which ended abruptly upon Kracher’s untimely passing. Kracher’s family continues to produce the eponymous wines that made him famous. While the SQN Mr K The Nobleman 2002 (Chardonnay) is one of the lighter, thinner wines ever produced under this label, it is still a beautiful, balanced, nuanced, (almost) unreasonably honeyed joy to sip. The ’02 Nobleman is only “lesser” in the way that a mediocre Radiohead record is still worlds better than all of the crap on the radio. This golden wine is a treat on it’s own, but pairs well with a range of cheeses and non-chocoalte desserts, and with residual sugar at this level, the remaining wines may outlive many of us.

Few partnerships have ever created such beauty.

Three Young Wines Over (Midweek) Sunday Night Italian Dinner

March 24, 2011 Leave a comment

Having gone to this midweek Sunday Night Italian dinner directly from the Sherbrooke portfolio tasting, with a brief stop at home to pick up some bottles and La Piazetta in my neighborhood for cannolis, there are a few new wines that need mention. I don’t review many new wines and never bother with a point scale and while my tasting notes are sparse from yesterday’s trade event, several things must be said. First, Henri Boillot is currently making some of the finest white Burgundy I’ve ever tasted. The Puligny Montrachet Clos de la Mouchere 2009 is as round as it is deep with intoxicating aromatics and can only improve for at least another 5 years and sustain for at east another 5. The Boillot Corton Charlemagne is attractive though currently much bigger and more pungent than the Puligny. Another year or two in bottle will likely find it rounder, more complete, but it is certainly not lacking in character today. While tale of the quality of 2009 in many of the most significant regions in France has spread farther and wider than the actual wines (to date), it speaks volumes that the Boillot Pommard ’08 and Volnay Les Fremiets ’07 are also drinking quite nicely today and these wines clearly have many years to evolve.

Oh iphone 3G, how dost thou camera suck?

As the price of the average Chateauneuf du Pape and much of the rest of the Rhone creeps skyward, some of the few deals left to be had in that region come from Gigondas and the Dauvergne Ranvier Gigondas Vin Rare 2007 was a standout amongst the hundreds of bottles represented, particularly at it’s price point. Also noteworthy were two (very) sweet whites at the dessert table, both new to my palate: Ca’ Rugate La Perlara recioto Di Soave 2008 and Chateau Perray Joannet Bonnezeaux Les Menus Clos 2009. Try either of these with a tarte tatin, or cheese plate with artisanal honey.

At dinner, an impressive array of meat products and red sauces were prepared (thanks Bill!) and as such, I brought some meaty syrah. But first, there was a selection of meats and cheeses with which with which I opened a nicely chilled bottle of Donelan Family Venus 2009 (90% Rousanne 10% Viognier). For all the sins that American wines are often accused as related to the nose, this one escapes, having almost no apparent alcohol with which to obscure the abundant fruit. The Venus had rigid acidity, lending to the notion that it intends to drink well for a good few years, and a lightly creamy mid-palate that stood up to a moderately diverse cheese plate in the creamier and saltier directions. The palate is briefly buttery, showing light minerality at the end, but it’s the crsip acidity that carries the apple-pair and hint of citrus through the finish. As with just about every new wine of any varietal, another 6 months in bottle should smooth over that tiny bite that lingers. After a long breath, the last of the Venus made a palate-smacking intermezzo en route to various meat and pasta dishes.

In the background: Starmaiden of Brooklyn rockers, Sloppy Heads.

Very recently I found some 2006 Milbrandt Syrah The Estates Wahluke Slope on one of the better discount sites that have been springing up and this selection became the first big red of the evening. I have tasted and thoroughly enjoyed several vintages of Syrah produced from these same grapes under Charles Smith‘s K Vintners label and was anxious to taste the wine made by the Milbrandt family themselves. Upon opening, the nose was almost non-existent* with small amounts of black and red fruit intermingling beneath glycerine and a little alcohol, but aromatic expansion would occur. Rather than a single block of a single vineyard as the label may seem to indicate, the ’06 Milbrandt Estates Wahluke Slope is 100% Syrah from three estate Wahluke Slope vineyards (67% Northridge, 22% Talcott, 11% Pheasant). The concentration is considerable as is the complexity, though slightly shy of what Charles Smith achieved is his ’06 Milbrandt bottling. While the nose opened up somewhat over time, the palate became thick (in a good way) and the distinct presence of boysenberry and soft earth rose to the top over bramble, with hints of spice and a trace amount of something almost menthol; followed by a deceptive, lingering finish. While less inherently forward than the K Syrah, the overall weight is quite similar and will make an interesting side by side tasting in the coming years (both new vintages and past). *This wine was tasted two days after shipping, which can affect it’s showing.

Boring picture of an unusual foster child wine.

The final wine that accompanied our savory feast was Pax Syrah Cuvee Christine 2007. But before the tasting notes, full disclosure. The wine was made and barreled by Pax Mahle, but due to a split between Mahle and the Donelans, it was blended by then new Donelan Family winemaker, Tyler Thomas. Further disclosure, I was on the mailing list when the label was Pax and and remain on the Donelan mailing list. I actively follow the winemaking of Pax Mahle and have a number of bottles of his various  wines going back to his 2000 Lauterbach Syrah and I am on the mailing list of both of his current projects: Wind Gap and the remarkable Agharta. What can I say, I like a nice syrah.

Pax Syrah Cuvee Christine 2007 is a lighter wine (Rhone) styled to be more approachable early in it’s life than previous vintages and as such, it doesn’t have the palate encompassing weight of the ’05 or ’06. Still it’s a full bodied wine by any standards and exhibits cassis amongst it’s distinct berry characteristics. It’s earthy and broad on the palate and finishes with a flourish of spice. It’s the kind of wine that begs to be consumed with the powerfully savory, not unlike the Italian feast with which this one was enjoyed, but it would have been just as contented to hang with barbecue, or a really good pepperoni pizza.

Wine Tasting over World Class Pizza at Motorino Brooklyn

March 11, 2011 Leave a comment

For those of you who live in the greater NYC area and have not yet been to Motorino, there really is no excuse, and you are simply missing out. I know that hyperbole is the source of all web content but there are far too many varieties of pizza available in Brooklyn, let alone NYC, and it would be futile to claim any one as the best.

Pretty bottle, prettier wine.

That being said, Motorino Brooklyn makes world class pizza. The quality and consistency of the crust, the brick oven firing, and every ingredient used is as high as can possibly be expected, per dollar spent. Food-wise you cannot go wrong on their menu, and besides the legendary Brussels Sprouts and Pugliese pizzas, the meatballs w/ pizza bread app is fairly profound in it’s comfort-foody simplicity. However, for a pizza place (even a really good one) without a significant wine program, $25 corkage fee per bottle of outside wine is a little high for Brooklyn. But on to the wine tasting.

Gotta dig the nerdy font and label design.

 

Our first wine of the evening was the Lucia Chardonnay Sta Lucia Highlands ’07. I simply can’t say enough about the quality of fruit grown in this relatively recently designated AVA. The Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Chardonnay produced in this region are as much a player on the world stage amongst their finest international counterparts as is the pizza at Motorino. The ’07 Lucia Chardonnay is bolstered by those particular ripe, round characteristics that so many CA wines of the ’07 vintage are displaying in their youth.

It’s pale/white gold in the glass with a soft, somewhat muted, but undeniably burgundian nose. The acidity strikes first (with a memory foam pillow rather than a 2×4), embracing the palate and unifying the flavors. The palate is rich and buttery through the ample, bordering on vast, mid-palate, tapering into a lightly sweet strawberry finish. As beautifully and firmly as an ’02 of the same wine showed not long ago at my table, I’ll likely put the rest of these ’07s down for a few seasons nap. While tonight’s “I only drink white” reveler stuck with the Chard, the rest of the table moved on to Pinot Noir.

Barnyard capsule art.

The Orogeny Pinot Noir Sonoma Green County 2002 was by far the most unusual of the lineup. With a somewhat murky nose of coffee and black fruit over the slow burn of the alcohol, this wine currently comes off more like an unfiltered field blend twice the age than a Sonoma Pinot Noir. Somewhere into the second hour after opening, the initially sharp mouthfeel softened and broadened to reveal a complex palate dominated by black and red fruit and culminating with pepper and ash. Given the weight, the ’02 Oregeny really should’ve been batting clean-up, rather than playing opening act (not to mix mediaphors). It’s unique enough in it’s moment that I can’t honestly be sure if this wine is nearing the back end of it’s drinking plateau or just settling into itself. Perhaps we’ll talk again in a year or so.

Our last wine of the evening was EIEIO Pinot Noir Broadley Vineyard 2005. I’ve been buying and drinking EIEIO for some time now, and am particularly fond of their Swine Wine and Cuvee E and Cuvee I Pinot Noir. Some of their single vineyard offerings get a little pricey, but they are all hand-crafted wines made from some of the region’s finest vineyards. As indicated by the label, pictured below, I excitedly snatched this one up at a recent end of bin sale. I’ve always enjoyed the artifact that is a bottle of wine almost as much as the glorious juice it protects and I admire both the whimsy and visual design of EIEIO’s capsules.

Attractive capsule beheaded, cork removed, and the initial pour reveals a purposeful pinot that perhaps wasn’t ready to awaken from it’s nap. The nose is muted and the palate unwinding, but blackberry over cool earth is apparent, and there’s just a hint of spice peaking out from under the weight of alcohol. Across the board with OR Pinot Noir, the ’05 vintage has further to go than the average ’06, ’07, or ’08, and this ’05 seems to corroborate.

After it’s had a breath, the EIEIO Pinot Noir Broadley Vineyard ’05 is an attractive pinot of reasonable depth and complexity (and sonorous color). After an hour and then closer to two, the palate broadened considerably and the red fruit and trace minerals became more prevalent. Still it seems not yet fully mature, and significant personality should emerge from further integration from bottle age. If I had another, I’d give it a taste in about 2 years. So, if the fine folks at EIEIO would like to send me a bottle around this time 2013, that would be very much appreciated. Talk to you then!

End of bin labels don't affect the wine inside the bottle.

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