Tag Archives | classic wines


No longer a bargain, but damn the best taste great. M. Haggard could drink Zin; still have cred. Serve w/ pork. No utensils; sleeve napkin.

Mama tried to raise me better, but her pleadings I denied…

Wine Background

     Zinfandel prices have risen dramatically since the early 1990’s when the first one costing double figures appeared. Higher prices mean more expense can be lavished on artistic production. That means better barrels, but it also affords the opportunity to harvest by hand with several passes through the vineyard.
     Zinfandel has large clusters, and it is notorious for ripening unevenly. Many people believe the grapes need to get well past 24ºBrix to exhibit the variety’s signature boysenberry aroma. But that much sugar pretty much guarantees alcohol in the mid 15’s, and acid that will require a supplementary adjustment. No problem for us cult-Zin cowboys, but what of those sissies who demand balanced table wines?
     One answer is to pick a quarter of the crop aiming for 22.5º-23ºB. That fraction of the finished wine will supply a crisp core, a solid backbone, for refreshing length and bottle-aging potential. Then make a second pass through the vineyard a week later aiming for half the total crop at 24º-24.5ºB. That fraction will be the foundation wine: good texture; good flavor; complex aromatics. Then get the final quarter of the crop a week to ten days later at 26º-27ºB. This final fraction will have wonderful berry-like intensity. By itself the final fraction would be alcoholic and flabby, whereby in the blend it will be structurally saved by the initial fraction, and still contribute a spectacular burst to the nose.
     No one could profitably sell such a wine for $8.95 a bottle. No matter. I’d happily pay $25 to $35 a bottle for it, and I think most critics would as well (possible exceptions being Messrs. Parker and Laube).

Wine Event Description

     The 19th Annual Z.A.P. festival was held last weekend in San Francisco. I went hoping to find a couple new, or little known, producers making bargain-priced gems. No such luck. Although I do have to plead palate fatigue. [Note proper spelling, all you wine copywriter aspirants. It’s not pallet, as in something moved by a forklift, nor is it palette as in the board on which painters hold their pigments.] I tasted about 60 wines, walked several miles, and eyeballed an unusually large number of tall women in short skirts with boots. That’s a worthwhile three hours, but it’s well below 10% of the wines on offer at ZAP.

Wine Recommendations

     Noteworthy in the value category were Sierra Foothills wineries Cedarville and Miraflores, along with St. Amant which is a Lodi winery closely bordering the Sierra Foothills’ 800-foot contour-line boundary. Cedarville is about 2,500 feet of elevation, and their Zin reflects this more restrained, more elegant pedigree. It has nice fruit, but more in the red than black spectrum, and more of the eating-out-of-hand persuasion than the stewed or jammy flavors often encountered elsewhere. At $17 you couldn’t beat the price of Cedarville Zin with a police baton. St. Amant makes their best Zin from very old vines grown on sandy Hanford Loam soil at Mohr-Fry Ranch. It is riper and more effusive than Cedarville, but doesn’t step over into the realm of short and bimbo-ish, as so many Lodi Zins are wont to do. St. Amant is also attractively priced at right around $20.
     Perhaps the biggest bargain at the ZAP festival was the 2006 Heritage Zin made by Jerry Seps from Storybook Mountain Vyds. This is the wine produced every year by a different ZAP winemaker from the collection of exceptional old vine cuttings taken from around the state, then grown as a research project in Oakville. Dr. Seps (he formerly taught History at Stanford) is a very talented winemaker whose own wines command $40 and $50 a bottle. The Heritage Zin though, sells for $25 a bottle, and was being offered for $18 on the day of the ZAP festival. That opportunity alone was worth the cost of admission ~ consider hem lengths a bonus.

Wine Critique

     Some stars at ZAP shine more brightly than others. And some don’t shine at all. I always find it entertaining to compare the standard-bearing warhorses of the past to new challengers. The comparison is not blind, of course, and I readily admit a fondness for the brands such as Ridge, Rosenblum, and Seghesio who have been around through the tough times. They are not cheap, as they were in the 1980’s when I drank so much of them. But today they make such reliably great wine, that I always look forward to tasting their new releases.
     Many new entrants seem to operate in an imaginary world separate from the sweaty rabble of the marketplace. How else to explain nouveau riche winery owners today asking $40 a bottle for their very first release, which smells like damp hay and feels like sandpaper in your mouth.
     Zinfandel is a grape that rewards experience, particularly with any specific vineyard. It takes more than a couple vintages to learn a Zin vineyard’s tricks. A good example from ZAP were the three 2007 wines offered from Hartford Court in western Sonoma County. In the past these wines from very old vines have seemed pinched, minerality taken to a raspy extreme. Not so the 2007 wines. While different from each other, all three had a family resemblance of deep, well-integrated marionberry roundness. The slight alkaline edge, which says old vines to me, merely served to pull them back from unseemly generosity. All three were wines which simultaneously expressed the enthusiasm of California’s warm summers, and the gravitas of a multi-generational vineyard lineage.

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06 Vougeraie Savigny-les-Beaune (Marconnets)

Bio-d since 01. Wild yeast. Attractive feral nose w/ blk cherry robe. Minced squab + plum sauce.

Green Wines

     At speaking engagements, British wine writer Clive Coates likes to joke about Burgundian vintners, “You know, they’re all peasants.” Clive is not being disparaging. He is colorfully illustrating the manner in which Burgundians are yoked to the land. Wealthy, well-educated, well-traveled vintners from Burgundy still spend months of every year in their vineyards pruning, pulling leaves, replanting, and harvesting. This close relationship to the soil may help explain why Burgundy has so many organic and bio-dynamic vineyards. Heaven knows, organic grape growing is not easy when rain is likely to fall at any time during the Summer.

Wine Education

     Domaine de la Vougeraie was organized by Jean-Charles Boisset and his sister Nathalie in the 1990’s to consolidate several prestigious properties they had acquired with their father Jean-Claude under a single, more easily marketed label. In all, the vineyards for the Vougeraie project totaled 37 hectares (94 acres) spread out over 29 Burgundian appellations. The goal was definitely to create a luxury brand: there are parcels in five red and one white Grand Cru vineyards. About a quarter of the property is in Vougeot. Yields are low ~ barely over two tons per acre. These holdings ~ plus ownership of prestige domaines such as Bouchard, Jaffelin, Ropiteau, and Mommesin ~ make the Boisset family the wealthiest wine estate in all of Burgundy. As if that weren’t enough, in September of this year 40-year-old Jean-Charles married Gina Gallo

Find the remainder of this post on the Stanford Wine Blog titled Straight from the Vine. Continue Reading →

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06 d’Angerville Volnay (Cailleret)

Modest color, but tightly refined nose w/ floral highlights. Beautiful oolong-like finish. Value.

Both Volnay and Montelie can represent pretty good bargains in a Burgundy market which seems to be continuously hyperventilating. This off-vintage wine, nevertheless comes from a very highly-regarded 1st Cru vineyard, and perhaps Volnay’s most illustrious producer. Like a tall, slim woman on a Parisian boulevard, this wine is both elegantly understated and eye-catching at the very same time. It makes you feel grown up, at a young adult price.

Wine Education Vacation

2006 Marquis d’Angerville 1st cru Volnay (les Cailleret Vyd) from the Côte de Beaune. Tasted at the monthly Friday night Varietal Series class in Nevada City [href=”http://wineeducationvacation.com”]. Retail store wine cost is around $85. Wine was part of a comparison to illustrate district characteristics amongst red Burgundies. Others included two Frederic Magnien premier crus from the Côte de Nuits: a Chambolle-Musigny (Feusselottes); and a Vosne-Romanée (Suchot). Unfortunately the Suchot was corked.

Background wine education

     Volnay is a small town just south of Pommard in the southern half of the Côte d’Or, France’s legendary Burgundy region. This southern section is best known for white wine, and some of Volnay’s vineyards do cross over into neighboring Meursault. There are no Grand Cru vineyards in Volnay. Indeed there is only one Grand Cru red vineyard in the whole of the Côte de Beaune (Corton Bressandes), i.e. in this southern half of the Côte d’Or. Nevertheless, Volnay does have several Premier Cru vineyards of which they are justifiably proud. Les Cailleret is just south of town along the main road.
     The proximity of Volnay to Pommard is confusing because the wines bear virtually no resemblance to each other. Pommard is jammy, the most californicated of all the red Burgundies. Volnay is more frequently delicate, perhaps in the style of New Zealand Pinot Noirs from Central Otago in the middle of the south island, except Volnay has a floral perfuminess reminiscent of Chambolle’s best wines. Bad Volnay is thin and watery. Great Volnay has a lifted berry character backed up by the complexity of black tea. Rarely would anyone describe Volnay as robust in the mouth. Restrained is more often the phrase that springs to mind. Careful never to over accessorize. Understated. Old money.

Taste the Wine

      The 2006 d’Angerville was a wonderful example of what the French would call Volnay typicité. Far from lightweight, on an internet dating site it would still have called itself “slender,” and I would have gone along. The wine was much more substantial in terms of flavor concentration than in terms of alcohol and extract. That is an impressive structural expression, no less because it is so unusual when one’s daily fare is California wine, especially today. The nose was overlain by blackberry essence, but lifted by the scent of yellow roses and heather. Round and full, but not big nor obvious. In the mouth the wine was smooth, not at all grippy, with long acid to make you salivate. Like a good comedian, this wine left you wanting to hear more next week.


     This wine would be perfect with duck leg confit served in a salad of spring greens with pomegranate seeds. Just a hint of raspberry vinaigrette and some hazelnut oil to dress the salad. It could be the first course, but would be better as the third or fourth in a five- or seven-course meal. The idea is you want fragrance without weight. Don’t turn the confit into high-end sloppy Joes with a sauce. Merely use the duck leg by itself, maybe crisped just a bit under the broiler before being separated from the bone and sprinkled in meaty chunks about the salad.

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Inniskillin 05 Vidal Icewine

Niagara Peninsula. Class taste. Very intense mango-citrus nose. Sweet but focused. Refreshing. Superb.

Made from grapes frozen on the vine, Canadians have carved a very successful niche for themselves with Icewine because they know they are going to get the appropriate climatic conditions if they just wait patiently. Several of these Canadian Icewines have ruthlessly bitch-slapped top Sauternes in head-to-head competition.

Canadian Icewine

2005 Inniskillin Vidal from the Niagara Peninsula. Tasted at Fundamentals of Taste & Smell class in Palo Alto. Retail store wine cost is around US$20 for 187 ml (a quarter-bottle). This size bottle works well for such a focused dessert wine, because you don’t need much, and it is expensive. Even the little bottles are heavy. They look and feel like a round of artillery ammunition. Very popular for gift giving in Japan.

Background wine education

     Canadians use a voluntary marketing incentive to severely regulate the production of Icewine. In Italy such a mechanism is called a consorzio. In order to get a little neck indicia, producers agree to comply with certain standards. In Canada this group is called VQA (Vintners Quality Alliance). The regulations state grapes can’t be picked if the air temperature is above 17ºF. That means the grapes have frozen and thawed many times before they’re finally picked. Pressed immediately, a large amount of water remains behind in the press trapped as ice. The resultant wine not only has 10-12% residual sugar, but it has elevated acid to balance that sugar.
     Theoretically the mechanics of this process can be duplicated in the winery – chill the juice; filter out the ice. This cryogenic technique is used in the US, much to the Canadians’ chagrin, and the result is often labeled ‘Icewine.’ Randall Grahm at Bonny Doon has the decency to label his example “vin de glacier” (wine of the refrigerator). Tasted separately on successive nights, a VQA Icewine and a cryogenic example can both be quite pleasant. Tasted side-by-side, the VQA wine is clearly superior, albeit four or five times more expensive.

What does Icewine taste like?

Intense, concentrated, tropical fruit. The intensity is the most startling initial impression. One picks it up while the glass is still ten inches away. The second impression is sugar::acid balance. The wine is very sweet, but it also has a long, clean, refreshing aftertaste. That’s rare, and no one misses it.
     Many VQA Icewines are made from Riesling grapes. This one was made with Vidal grapes. Vidal is a French-American hybrid with good winter hardiness and a strong citral aroma. The nose of this wine takes on a soft sweetness which might be illustrated by that which distinguishes a Meyer lemon from a Genoa or Lisbon lemon. Now imagine a slice of Meyer lemon placed on a hot skillet.


Canadian Icewine is a fine illustration, particularly when compared to Sauternes, of how important it is to pair wines to desserts carefully. Crème brulee is the place where VQA Icewine and Sauternes intersect. Sauternes is not very good with fresh fruit; Icewine is. Sauternes is okay with milk chocolate; Icewine is not. So, for this Icewine I might try a crème brulee with a slice of perfectly ripe peach on top. But the best indication of how powerfully this Vidal Icewine comes across would be to serve it with a lemon tart. Believe me, it will pass the test.

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St Hallet ’98 (OB) Shiraz

Barossa. Class taste. Superb. Round core of black stonefruits + leather, roast coffee bouquet. Elk on the Barbie!

Bottle-aged Syrah

can be quite special. Old vines from the Barossa Valley make good candidates (Shiraz), and the right food pairing always seals the deal.

Class Tasting

1998 St. Hallett (Old Block) Shiraz from the Barossa Valley in Australia. Tasted in the monthly Friday night Varietal Series class in Nevada City (California’s Sierra Foothills) – an excellent way to begin a weekend getaway in the mountains. See www.brucecasswinelab.com for the Fall – Winter – Spring schedule.
This wine probably costs a little over $100 in a retail store, but it would be very hard to find. It is from a warm, and highly regarded vintage in Australia. St. Hallett produces three Shiraz wines each year. The one called Faith, and the one called Blackwell, are pleasant enough when young, and should probably be drunk for maximum pleasure then. Old Block is the one built for aging. It comes from 60- to 100-year-old vines. It has an excellent track record, and definitely deserves a spot in the Aussie Top Five for consistently rewarding ten years of bottle age. St. Hallett has existed since 1944, but only upgraded their production facility for fine wines in 1988. Since then the Old Block Shiraz has been the winery’s flagship. It is aged 20 months in French oak barrels. All the St. Hallett grapes are sourced in the Barossa appellation, which is something even Penfolds’ Grange can’t say.
In class we compared the Old Block side-by-side with a 1995 Jaboulet (Les Jumelles) Côte-Rôtie. Both were wonderful, but they could not have been more different. The Jaboulet was all bouquet – roasting pork fat and frying onions. Which works great on my scorecard. The St. Hallett was bigger, darker, rounder. It had plenty of bouquet development – more in the roasting coffee beans and sun-scorched leather department, but most notably the St. Hallett had this gigantic core of mulberry and pomegranate fruit. Not fresh fruit; stone fruit… hammer fruit. The Jaboulet had more acid, but it didn’t have more length. The Jaboulet was friendlier; the Old Block more memorable.

Wine & Food Pairing

I’m tempted to recommend the St. Hallett with wild game, say elk. In fact elk steaks are commonly sold in the supermarket near where this class tasting was held. But I realize access to elk steaks may not be that common. Of course neither is access to a ten-year-old bottle of St. Hallett’s Old Block. So there you have it. Marinate the meat for several hours in soy, plain yogurt, rosemary, garlic, and papaya pulp. Doesn’t hurt to smack the steaks a few times with a 2-ft-long stick before marinating. Sear the steaks quickly over intense heat. Then move them to a low heat section of the grill for slow, indirect, smoky cooking. Serve to a small group. I’d say four people per bottle max.

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