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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.

Jordan and the Tiny Production Sticky

March 9, 2011 1 comment

Three beauties on the chopping block at BP Wine.

Since 1972, Jordan Estate has been making high quality hand-crafted wines. Known primarily as a purveyors of fine Cabernet and Chardonnay, Jordan, like so many other American wineries, have occasioned over the years to produce tiny amounts of fabulous and unusual dessert wines, almost entirely in secret. In my years of tasting, some of the most impressive surprises in quality, uniqueness, and value, have come from rare bottles like Shafer Port and Joseph Phelps Delice du Semillon. So, last fall, when I received an e-mail offer of Jordan Cabernet from 1976-1991 and a small parcel of their Riveiere Russe from the early 80s, I quickly snatched up a pair of ’86 Cabs and a small handful of these rare and unusual (formerly) golden dessert wine from ’82, ’83, and ’85.

Properly stored wine is a beautiful thing.

During an informal tasting over New Year’s, the 1982 Jordan Riviere Russe showed impressively favorably against a much higher priced tokaji and a *gulp* ’95 d’Yquem. While several tasters preferred the Jordan outright, all agreed it to be worthy of it’s company that evening.

By the time I opened a bottle of ’83 Jordan Riviere Russe last night, my palate was too spent from the succession of flavors (Drouhin Cote de Beaune’05, Fiddlehead Estate Pinot Noir Seven Twenty Eight ’02, K Vintners Milbrandt Syrah Wahluke Slope ’06, d’Arenberg Riesling The Noble ’96, and the reasonably profound Joseph Phelps Johannisberg Riesling ’76) to properly note. Thanks to my trusty Vacu Vin, the wine in question is airtight and in the fridge awaiting tonight’s tasting and notes.

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In the glass, the 1983 Jordan Riviere Russe is darker in color and more viscous than the ’82. The ’82, ’83, and ’85 seem to be in reverse order, by color v. age in that the oldest here is clearly the lightest and closest to it’s original golden color. In almost every way, this ’83 mimics a fine 5 Puttonyos Tokaji a few years younger in age. A lighter amber in the glass than it appears pictured in the bottle, the ’83 Riviere Russe is viscous and sweet, but shy of syrupy, and too nimble to be heavy.

The ’83 Riviere Russe is a late harvest style blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon and much like the ’82, would find itself quite comfortable in a tasting against Sauternes and tokaji several times the price. The nose remains somewhat muted after some time in the glass, but the apricot that is more apparent on the palate is present. Soft caramel, apricot, citrus, and honey maintain through the unexpectedly long finish. The wine is surprisingly fresh with acidity to spare and it may have another handful of good years still to age. It will be interesting to see how the even darker ’85 has weathered it’s slightly fewer years.

But that’s a story for another night.