Top Wine Reviews

Wine Notes and reviews posted before this blog was born (November 2009) appear on this page, after links to more recent posts:

1999 Salvestrin Cabernet Sauvignon (Estate)

21 September ’09

Wonderful 10-yr-old Napa Cab, at a very reasonable price. Given the right setting, this is one you can feel in your loins.

Tasted in Fundamentals of Taste & Smell Weekender class in Nevada City, CA comparing Bordeaux blends to single varietal wines. Wine is from Napa Valley. About $80 in a retail store.

Salvestrin is one of those charming Napa estates which sidestep all the nouveau-riche baggage, with attendant dilettante implications, by virtue of having been owned in the same family since Prohibition. In 1932 Rich Salvestrin’s grandparents bought 26 acres of the historic property founded by George Crane just south of St. Helena on the west side of the valley in 1879. Their purchase included the Crane’s Victorian house, where you can stay today for $240 a night.

Rich’s dad sold the grapes. I mean no derision when I point out that makes the Salvestrins Napa Valley farmers. My point is to draw more clearly the distinction between the Salvestrins and other Napa Valley groups such as (say) retired computer entrepreneurs. On one side the land was acquired long ago for a few thousand dollars an acre. On the other side the land cost $80,000 to $500,000 an acre. Which side do you think offers the better value for a bottle of their wine?

Rich graduated from Fresno State in 1987 with a degree in Viticulture. He returned to the family farm and eventually launched an estate winery. The first vintage was 1994. The winery was constructed on-site in 2001. They still sell grapes. The winery currently produces about 3,000 cases per year. Note to hard-working, good-looking adolescent males with dynastic ambitions: Rich and his wife have three young daughters.

In class we tasted Salvestrin’s ten-year-old Cabernet side-by-side with a ten-year-old classified-growth red from the Medoc which had 35% Merlot in it. This is always an instructive comparison because the Bordeaux has “horizontal” development, i.e. less impact, but lots of little facets of bouquet. While the Napa Valley Cab, with no more than a homeopathic dose of Merlot, has “vertical” development, i.e. very powerful, if somewhat one-dimensional, bouquet. In this specific instance the Salvestrin showed itself several cuts above your typical 10-yr-old Napa Cab. The Salvestrin was certainly powerful — they grow the Cab on their better drained Cortino soils – and perhaps not as complex as the Medoc, but its most attention grabbing feature was a firmly articulated fruit density – I’m going to call it black currents — to go along with its chocolate and toasted wood notes. The wine had plenty of bouquet, but it was its aromatic youthfulness which hushed the crowd. This is a California wine, and I say that with considerable patriotic fervor.

Serve this wine with a daube made from beef short ribs. Daube is a stew commonly used in the Camargue (wetlands at the mouth of the Rhône on the Mediterranean) to prepare the inevitable product of bullfight rings for table. This imagery is part of the deal. Braise the beef ribs in reduced red wine with garlic, carrots, onions, herbs, celery, eggplant, some orange zest, a few dried porcini, and a handful of dried cranberries. Low heat. Cook for several hours at a time in at least three sessions over several days. Eat with crusty sourdough bread after an hour spent reading from Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises in front of the fireplace.

Wine Attributes: bottled-aged wines, mid-range value wines, Cab Sauv, California

2003 Morgan (Rosella’s Vyd) Pinot Noir

8 September ’09

CA Pinot Noir can bottle-age well if it comes from the right region. And there is no reason at all to describe top examples as ‘Burgundian.’

Tasted in Fundamentals of Taste & Smell Weekender class at Nevada City, CA. Wine education vacation. Comparison of regional characteristics and aging in Pinot Noir. Wine is from Santa Lucia Highlands in Salinas Valley. About $65 in a retail store.

I’m not an advocate of extended bottle aging Pinot Noir generally, and California examples would be among my least likely candidates for the treatment. To me the delight of Pinot Noir is an interplay of round, berry notes with complexing nuances which can range from leather to tomato vine. When the aromatic berry notes disappear entirely, the wine is diminished on my scorecard.

That being said, four to seven years does seem to smooth off the rough edges for some CA Pinot Noirs. As long as they have reasonably good acid with strong fruit concentration they can knit themselves together nicely. This mid-period intensity increase can be a wonderful bonus ~ sort of like everybody on one side of a tug-of-war suddenly pulling in unison.

Dan Lee (Morgan is his middle name) is an excellent winemaker. Equally important, this vineyard in the northern part of the appellation (i.e. the section closest to Monterey Bay) is a cool location with a very long growing season and minimal diurnal fluctuation. The result is a dense, juicy mid-palate and plenty of total acid. The pH may be somewhat higher than one might predict given the Total Acid figure, thus softening the wine in youth, but a track record for aging potential can be fairly well assumed. That pH anomaly has been recognized in Monterey for a long time.

This six-year-old bottle was great. There wasn’t an inch of give in it. This wine is still going to be scoring heavily on my card four years from now. It was obviously Californian. The blackberry fruit was pronounced, albeit well short of jammy. The texture was full, with burnished tannins, and the flavors were focused. Overtones of heather and wood smoke complete the picture. I’d serve this wine with squab. That means dark meat. Slow roast in the oven for about half-an-hour, then fry in hot oil to crisp the skin. Glaze with a pomegranate syrup. Spritz with balsalmic. Smack lips freely.

Wine Attributes: bottled-aged wines, mid-range value wines, Pinot Noir, California

Unknown Syrah

24 August ’09

Before they become cult wineries even the best small producers have to struggle for recognition. Here are a handful of Syrah makers you would do well to keep your eye on.

Tasted at California State Fair Wine Judging this June in Sacramento.

As promised in my write-up a month ago, here are some extremely good quality wines from wineries unknown to me prior to the competition. All the tasting was done double-blind, meaning not only did we not know which wines were which, we didn’t even know what wines were in the competition. I didn’t record what the other judges on my panel thought about these wines, nor what medals the wines may have won. When the wine identities were sent to me a month after the judging, I merely looked through my own notes for a handful of top scoring examples. These are wines I personally really enjoyed.

Right at the top is a 2006 Syrah from the Sierra Foothills made by a couple doctors. The winery is named Synapse, and they call this wine K-Resonance. I gave it 19.6 on the UC Davis 20-pt scale. Anything over 18.5 is a vote for Gold Medal. The color was just a shade below dark with a purple bruise hue. It had a big, dense nose with blackberries and heather. The wine is well concentrated on the palate. It has some grippiness, but it’s not over-extracted and ponderous. It’s a wine to impress winemakers; not Texas bourbon drinkers. In short it’s very adroitly balanced. Attractive price too ($19 at the winery). I’m laying a few away.

Incidentally, against the possibility you think I’m a push-over as a judge, I voted 14 medals (4 Gold, 3 Silver) out of the 32 wines in the 2006 Syrah flight. A wine needs to score 15.5 on the UC Davis 20-pt scale for me to vote even a Bronze Medal. A thin, watery wine, albeit without faults, would get 14.0 to 15.0 from me. I’d call it “commercial jug wine,” and vote No Award. The Chairman of Judges keeps walking over and telling me, “Lighten up.”

Two other big winners on my card for the 2006 flight were Renner Winery from Calaveras County (owned by two Kiwis) and Mulas Winery from Carneros. Neither of these wines are priced under $20, but they are not tremendously expensive. The Renner is a touch lighter in color but heavier in body. It has dark cherry aromas and serious fruit weight in the mouth. The Mulas has great persistence of fruit, with a citrus tea note I’ve come to favor.

In the 2005 flight (overall a very good vintage), a wine I definitely found quite impressive was the Lawer Three Coins ($28.50). I’ve visited their website, and found the marketing a little too slick and dodgey for my stylistic preference, but those things happen. That’s why you need to taste the wines blind. If I’d known what it was, my bias would have coloured my opinion. In the glass, the wine still had purple tints (nearly four years on), with a mouthful of fresh sour cherry fruit. I got it as a triplicate hidden throughout a flight of 40 wines, and voted each one of the three glasses a Gold Medal, without recognizing they were all the same wine.

Wine Attributes: current-release wines, mid-range value wines, Syrah, California

1996 Ramonet 1st Cru Chassagne-Montrachet (Caillerets)

17 August 2009

Older bottles of prestige White Burgundy can be risky; this one was sublime – a memory like a night on the rug in front of the fireplace with a lover you’ll never see again.

Tasted in Euro I class at Ft. Mason in San Francisco comparing quality levels and aging in Burgundy. About $225 in a retail store.

Tasting older White Burgundies in class is always an adventure. They are very expensive, and most American consumers have never tasted an aged Chardonnay. So even if the wine is in impeccable condition, which is by no means guaranteed, chances are good a large portion of the audience is going to find it ‘strange.’ And then individual personality kicks in. Some percentage of the audience is going to naturally define ‘strange’ as negative. Big price. Negative initial reaction to the smell. Can chaos be far behind?

Personally I’ve always been a big fan of Chardonnays picked a little under-ripe and then bottle-aged for 7 to 10 years. That deep, toasty, slightly carmelized nose reminds me of a woman I was in love with for several years after college. She was smart, and very articulate, with a considerable (albeit well disguised) bad streak. And the luxuriousness of the wine’s nose contrasts so neatly with its stiff, acidic length on the palate. I want my students to enjoy these wines as much as I do, but I definitely want to avoid implying the wines should be revered simply because they are rare and expensive.

Moreover, any example is going to be an exercise in evaluating their degree of oxidation. Boiled down to its most basic terms, aging is oxidation. The question is: when has the progression of this oxidation gone past an optimum point of producing complex desirable smells, and started that inevitable downhill slide toward volatile acidity? Individual opinions will differ. And whole websites are devoted these days to rants about bottles of expensive 10-yr-old White Burgundy which smell like cheap Sherry and taste like a can of mixed nuts. For me, the toastiness should not dominate, but rather it should harmonize with other elements of smell and taste. That tenuous balance is the key to great satisfaction with these wines.

Ramonet is one of the great superstars of Chassagne, and this bottle of ’96 from the Caillerets vineyard did not disappoint. It was clean as a whistle with the elegant structure of a wine that must have seemed austere in its adolescence. But age has given it a richness, a warmth, which envelopes the entire experience and makes it seem profound. That browned-butter character lingers evocatively in the mouth even after the cleansing effect of the acid has passed. It’s a remarkable sensation. And rare enough to be worth three months of gym membership.

I wouldn’t tart this sensory experience up too much. Forego elaborate preparations such as Coquilles St. Jacques or lobster bisque. Instead opt for something simple, but high quality. Go to the Tadich Grill in San Francisco. Or, at home, get the freshest sand dabs you can find. Brown some shallots in butter in a skillet. Throw out the shallots. Then flash those fish in the butter briefly, squeeze of Meyer lemon, and serve immediately with the Ramonet chilled for about 15 minutes in the refrigerator. Don’t talk.

Wine Attributes: bottled-aged wines, classic wines, Chardonnay, France

2007 Clay Station Viognier

10 August ’09

Beyond bargain status – here is a very good CA Viognier being sold for less than the cost of packaging most wine bottles. Chop chop. The deal is unrecognized, but it should be illegal because you’ll be stealing this wine.

About $3.99 at Trader Joe’s; a ridiculous bargain.

I’ve liked this wine over several vintages, and extolled its virtues to many people when it cost $10 a bottle. It is a brand owned by Delicato. The label is appellated Lodi, but Delicato also owns San Bernabe Vineyard south of King City in the Salinas Valley. San Bernabe is the biggest contiguous vineyard in the world, stretching for some fifteen miles along Jolon Road north of the Hunter-Liggett military reservation, where the U.S. Army trains tank commanders.

Whether the fruit for this wine comes from Lodi or from San Bernabe, it is very fragrant. Viognier in California can be any number of things [cf: my July 2009 post on Guigal ’05 Condrieu], but in warmer locations it usually emphasizes aromatics over minerality and over length in the finish. Critics assail this stylistic difference as simplicity, and delight in making comparisons to young, eye-candy humans with room temperature IQs. The word ‘bimbo’ is frequently deployed. Personally I don’t see that connotation as being particularly negative. I mean, if I want intellectual stimulation, I can always read a book. But this role for fragrance in CA Viognier is instructive. Chardonnay went through a similar coming of age in the 1970’s. By comparison with White Burgundy, California introduced the concept of ‘fruit’ to Chardonnay. Then there were many other iterations as Chardonnay style was re-examined in myriad locations around the New World. Perhaps Viognier will enjoy a comparable maturation in the marketplace. The trick will be to retain fragrance while gaining complexity and finish; not sacrificing one for the other.

Oh. Did I mention this fragrant, ‘bimbo-ish’ version of Viognier sells for less than the change hidden in your couch cushions? Condrieu starts at $50 a bottle, and goes up sharply from there. I used to be perfectly thrilled to pay $10 for a bottle of Clay Station Viognier. I would have thought $18 was a fair price (under $30 in a restaurant). But now the wine is being offed in TJ’s for nothing. I’ve got to assume that means a lot was produced, and very little was sold through normal channels. The problem could easily be the name of the grape. Americans just don’t want to try pronouncing Viognier in public [it’s VEE own yah].

This is very serviceable wine for matching with food. The nose has floral overtones which go well with many spices, and the flavor has root vegetable solidity. Try hunks of grilled catfish with a spicy mango salsa in a soft corn tortilla. Or do a spoonful of mashed yams on a slice of fresh pineapple as side dish for grilled chicken. My personal favorite is a soup I call Indian Pepper Pot. I start with the box of prepared soup from TJ’s they call Roast Red Pepper. I tart it up with some Sherry, some hot sauce, some frozen corn, and some turmeric (to fight incipient Alzheimer’s). At the last moment I throw in some fresh, chopped clams. It’s a hearty dish which should have a red wine if you were making a meal of a big bowl and crusty sourdough bread. But a small cup of the soup as a preliminary appetizer matches surprisingly well with a well-chilled bottle of this inexpensive CA Viognier.

Wine Attributes: current-release wines, cheap, bargain wines, Rhônish Whites, California

1998 Scavino Barolo (Cannubi)

3 August 2009

Hard and dirty Barolo, behold thy future on the international stage! Here is a clean alternative, made from ripe Nebbiolo grapes, that is utterly delightful at age ten.

Tasted in Euro II class at Ft. Mason in San Francisco comparing young Barolo to a bottle-aged example. About $150 in a retail store.

Barolo’s reputation for producing hearty red wines best enjoyed after extensive time in the cellar belies the fact that Nebbiolo grapes do not naturally give up pigments and tannins quickly nor easily. Piemonte’s position in the north of Italy makes a strong acid component the signature of that region. Barolo’s famed aging properties have everything to do with those elevated acid levels, and little to do with quantity of extract. Although the abrasive green tannins in most bottles of young Barolo often make one think differently.

This need for aging has proved a double-edged sword in Barolo. Older generation, more provincial winemakers often did not appreciate that micro-biological fauna residing in their long-used barrels confer tastes and smells on wines which have nothing to do with grapes. European purists might argue that, as with many cheeses, these smells are a part of district typicité. They might argue it, and they might have a minor point, but on balance they are wrong. It’s a hygiene problem, and it’s peculiar to each winery; not to the district.

Paolo Scavino takes a more international, more modern view. Their wines are much cleaner, without the dominating bacterial load found in so many of their local competitors. As a result Scavino wines command a premium price, and have gained a prestige reputation around the world. Importantly, their wines also still show considerable fruit when they begin to resolve their structural rigidity at age eight to ten. This grapey addition to the bouquet makes all the difference when evaluating ten-year-old Barolo.

The ’98 Scavino from the Cannubi vineyard has strains of pork fat sizzling on a griddle woven throughout its expression, but those smells are fleshed out by round, Santa Rosa plum backnotes [God bless Luther Burbank]. The structure is hardly overwhelming; I’d call it medium bodied. But it is finely balanced – like a handshake with a wink, rather than a clap on the shoulder. This wine doesn’t require some wild mushroom side dish, it would actually go better with crisp-skinned Peking duck eaten in those little crepes with a scallion and a slight shmear of plum sauce.

Wine Attributes: bottle-aged wines, classic wines, Nebbiolo, Italy

Inexpensive Syrah

27 June ’09

You don’t have to spend a lot of money to drink good wine. But you do have to hide the label if you expect your friends to truly enjoy drinking a well-selected, cheap wine.

Tasted at California State Fair Wine Competition in Sacramento. These excellent wines are virtually being given away in today’s CA retail marketplace. Of top 10% wines on my card (scored blind) about a quarter (4) are priced under $10.

I’ve been a judge at the CA State Fair for over twenty years. The competition is done blind, in panels of four or five judges. This year my panel’s main emphasis was Syrah. The ‘key’ to identify wines – during the judging we only know them by a four-digit number – arrived electronically last week. There are always disagreements amongst members of any panel, and it is not my purpose here to scoop the Show’s announcement of the winners, nor even to report on my panel’s results. Rather I intend to plumb my own tasting notes to identify a handful of cheap wines which I personally thought tasted pretty damn good.

I don’t know the prices on these wines, nor where they may be available for purchase, but I recognize most of the brand names as being those of negociant houses who buy bulk wine and blend it for their marketing labels. Hence I expect the retail store prices to be under $10, and in some cases much lower.

There was one older wine: the 2004 Forest Glen. It had great fruit and depth. In the younger vintages the 2006 Grand Cru stood out for its tart cherry character and crisp balance. A value brand I’ve consistently enjoyed over the years showed well: the 2007 McManis. Albeit a little short on the palate the McManis had great color and concentration. And the sure price winner would be 2007 Charles Shaw, available at Trader Joe’s and known colloquially as “Two-buck Chuck.” It’s a very nice medium-bodied wine, with excellent fruit and balance, and even a little funk for those of you with a more European bent.

No equivocating. These are good wines. Your guests will enjoy them more if you serve them from a decanter, but the fact remains these wines hold their own against competitors costing five to ten times more money. And there are tens of thousands of cases of these wines for sale. So they can make a lot of people happy. Wine is a complicated marketplace. A couple weeks from now I’ll identify a handful of unknown Syrahs which I also found to be very impressive at the State Fair Wine Judging.

Wine Attributes: current-release wines, cheap, bargain wines, Syrah, California

Guigal 2005 Condrieu

13 July ’09

Wonderful example of a wine style that is not well understood: the Rhônish White. Fragrant, yet manly. Purists would demand cassoulet. I choose the path less traveled: green Thai curry. And that has made all the difference.

Tasted in Fundamentals of Taste & Smell class at San Francisco State University’s downtown campus at Fifth and Market Streets. The dinner menu transition from aromatic whites to flavorful whites which require food was being demonstrated. About $65 in a retail store. Condrieu is a place in the northern Rhône Valley of France where they make wine from Viognier grapes.

It’s not easy to find Condrieu in a San Francisco retail store, and nearly impossible in a restaurant. That’s too bad. California would really like to see Viognier grapes gain some traction in the marketplace. Well-made Condrieu is a lesson all California Viognier producers need to take on-board. There are ten times as many acres of Viognier grown in CA as there are in Condrieu. But Condrieu has been making Viognier into wine for many hundreds of years. While California has only been in the game for a couple decades. It is entirely fair to portray California’s Viognier consciousness as still being in its adolescence.
[See August 2009 write-up of Clay Station ’07 Viognier for bargain example of CA Viognier.]

The key to most Rhônish Whites is balance. In an effort to acquire fragrance, winemakers often give these wines a cloying, phenolic texture. One wants a little weight, but not so much that the wine seems cosmetic. Similarly, the grapes need to get ripe enough to provide an aura of fruity aroma, yet a refreshing acidity is very useful as counterweight against the tactile sensation of the extract. In short, Jason Taylor on Dancing With The Stars is several times more impressive than Jason Taylor ripping quarterbacks’ heads off for the Miami Dolphins precisely because it is so unusual to see a 260-pounder look light on his feet. Again, balance.

This Condrieu from Guigal has all the aforementioned assets. It is structured like a Chardonnay aged in old puncheons. But it departs from that genré with a lifted citrus and floral note that is both distinct and persistent. This aromatic feature is very unusual, and delightful, in a wine which feels so solid and substantial on the palate. Think of a ballpeen hammer singing tenor… about orange blossoms. The wine’s acid bespeaks good longevity. No one is giving it away, but the price is fairly reasonable for a wine produced in relatively small quantity.

The classic dish to pair with this wine would be cassoulet (slow cooked white beans with duck and sausage). But, although it can be very impressive, at its heart cassoulet is ‘comfort’ food. To me Condrieu is exotic. I’d like to see this wine with a green Thai curry, perhaps employing chicken. Two of the strong spices in green curry are coriander and ginger, which together have an earthy, nutty, semi-metallic tang. I find that character very much akin to the background note of Condrieu. But we’re getting a bit off the reservation. Not many Thai restaurants offer expensive Rhônish Whites. You’ll have to take your own. Better take glassware too.

Wine Attributes: classic wines, Rhônish Whites, France

2006 Borsao ‘Tres Picos’ Garnacha

6 July ’09

Great fruit-forward, refreshing wine with every day appeal. Attractive price. This wine definitely tastes better than your current, modestly priced favorite.

Spanish. About $14 in a retail store. Tasted in Fundamentals of Taste & Smell class at Ft. Mason in San Francisco as part of discussion on techniques for finding good value, everyday drinking wines.

Spain has a huge amount of acreage under vines, but traditionally has gotten very low production from those acres because modern management practices, such as pruning and irrigation, were infrequently applied. Nevertheless, there are a lot of old vines. And they can produce magnificent wine when adroitly handled by savvy vintners. Prices these days are apparently determined using the dart-board gambit.
This wine has “ham sandwich” written all over it. First off you couldn’t beat the price-to-quality ratio with a baseball bat. The wine is clean as a Summer breeze ~ unusual by Spanish standards ~ and built around a core of pure, varietally-typical fruit. Many writers describe Grenache as raspberry scented. I think it is more a combination of blackberry with citrus overtones. Here the fruit is presented in a beam, with crisp acid to keep it in your memory for minutes afterward. And the color even has density. Finding a wine like this one for under $15 is a good day at the marketplace indeed.

It is tempting to recommend leveraging the fruit character and price point of this wine for use in great quantity as Summertime sangria. But you can be perfectly happy with Australian bag-in-a-box Shiraz for that purpose. The Tres Picos would also do very well matched to something spicy and tomato-based. Maria’s Three-Alarm Gazpacho comes to mind. Or a bean soup from southern India. Eventually though, I keep returning to the staple: ham sandwich. It is the default quick-n-easy meal in so many places. In fact whenever I’m in South America, and I try ordering in Spanish, no matter what I wanted, they always bring me a ham sandwich. Must be the accent. Tres Picos is exactly the wine I’d like to be drinking in those circumstances. I’d like to drink it on a regular basis.

Wine Attributes: current-release wines, cheap, bargain wines, Grenache, Spain

1999 Paradigm Cabernet Sauvignon

29 June ’09

Cabs grown on the bench in Napa have a healthy, robust character. It’s signature California, and [unlike bottle-blonde beach bunnies] it’s frequently worth paying for. Read it here, “Any Cab, not over-ripened, is better at age ten than at age four.” This one shows why.

About $125 in a retail store. Tasted in Art & Science of Fine Wine class at Ft. Mason in San Francisco comparing Cabs grown on a west-to-east cross-section cut through Napa Valley at Oakville. This wine represented the Oakville bench versus an example from the western hillside and one from the valley floor.

At ten years of age these wines are no longer distinguished by aromatic ‘grapey’ characteristics. They have all developed rich bouquet, and there is a resemblance between all three wines due to a shared hickory smoke intensity. They are far from identical in the nose however. The valley floor wine had more green tobacco leaf, and the hillside wine had more earthy charcoal. The Paradigm was the most intense. And by a considerable degree. The bouquet of the Paradigm was round and full. It had cedar notes, but in this instance it’s cedar drenched in roast sesame oil.

The biggest differences between the wines though, were textural. The Paradigm was the most full-bodied, but not at all fat. The tannins had become supple, yet retained the length and structural integrity to carry flavor for minutes in the aftertaste. While reasonable people may disagree as to preferred style, there can be little argument whether the ’99 Paradigm is a superb California wine from a really good vintage. It will hold up just fine in bottle over the next ten years. But why bother? Deferred gratification is so bourgeois! The wine is fantastic today. If you enjoy power, up close and personal, drink it now. Waiting another ten years would be like watching the Kentucky Derby on TV. Drinking the wine now is more like brushing the sweat out of the Kentucky Derby winner’s coat in the paddock after the race.

Beef on the outdoor grill is almost a cliché for bench Cabernets from Napa Valley. There’s a reason. It’s a great match. Here I’d like to marinate a piece of skirt steak in a mixture of plain yogurt, soy sauce, minced garlic and dried rosemary. The fat and tenderness of skirt steak reflects the round, supple texture of the wine, and the heathery lift of the rosemary reaches out for the bouquet developed by the wine due to its origins on the Oakville bench.

Wine Attributes: bottle-aged wines, mid-range value wines, Cab Sauv, California

2002 Frederic Magnien 1st Cru Chambolle-Musigny (Charmes)

8 June ’09

Truly great red Burgundy is delightful, in no small part because it is so hard to find.

Tasted in Essentials of Great Wine class at Ft. Mason in San Francisco comparing communes in Burgundy. About $95 in a retail store.

I always find buying red Burgundies to be something of a dice roll. Especially when my goal is to demonstrate flavor differences from one commune to another. Winemaker style can so easily smother any glimmer of a district’s typicité. There is no argument that the wines can be brilliant on occasion, but they are also very expensive, and a big price point is no guarantee of quality. Thus I am routinely thrilled when I find a Burgundy which is not only a pleasure to drink, but also a clear example of the characteristics commonly claimed for a particular commune.

Frederic Magnien is rapidly becoming a favorite producer of mine. This wine comes from one of the two best premier cru vineyards in the commune (out of 24 total). It has a chalky substrate over a rocky base, so yields are typically very small ~ a little over one ton per acre, which is about one-third of what is allowed under appellation of origin regulations. This tiny production serves to accentuate the commune’s famously perfumed aromatic signature. The wine is powerfully fragrant, but not fruity like a California Pinot Noir. It is floral, even feminine, but not lightweight. It has heft, concentration if you will, on the palate. It isn’t woody, or leathery, or funky. The texture is silky smooth, with plenty of acid to keep you coming back time and again. I loved this wine, and don’t consider the price point at all excessive. I’d serve the wine with a salmon steak cooked on an outside grill with some dried lavender branches placed on top of the coals. Then a squeeze of Meyer lemon.

Wine Attributes: bottle-aged wines, classic wines, Pinot Noir, France

1999 Groth ‘Reserve’ Cabernet Sauvignon

1 June ’09

When you’re tired of gangsta’ Cabs, where to look for one that will fit like a suit from Savile Row.

About $175 in a retail store. Tasted in Essentials of Great Wine class at Ft. Mason in San Francisco as part of a comparison of ten-year-old Cabs from a cross-section of Napa Valley. This wine represented the center of the valley floor where there is a lot of topsoil, and it is less well-drained than on the foothill benches. Which is not to run Groth down ~ they did get Robt. Parker’s first 100-pt score for the 1985 version of this wine.

Two features distinguish this wine from competitors grown on the alluvial fans or on the hillsides: a green olive flavor character, and the suppleness of the tannins. The green thread is precisely what has been eliminated from Napa Cabs left on the vine to become ultra-ripe by faddishly herd-minded contemporary winemakers. Sure, it is a hint of herbaceousness (pyrazines) due to slightly physiological immature fruit. Many professionals attribute that character to shaded canopies. But is it a bad thing? Maybe Americans don’t prefer the flavor in young cabs, but it contributes the most attractive unlit tobacco smell to the bouquet of older Cabs. It is the precursor of that cigar-box smell. And it works for me in spades when the Cabs get to be ten-years-old.

The supple tannins work for me as well. This wine was medium-bodied, really quite elegant, with a smooth entry and a drawn out finish. It might be easy to overlook in a blind comparison surrounded by blockbusters, but it is a wine which invites a second glass. It’s the reason they invented Béarnaise sauce. It’s like adding good conversation to your dinner table experience.

Wine Attributes: bottle-aged wines, mid-range value wines, Cab Sauv, California

2005 Ostertag ‘Dry’ Muscat

25 May ’09

Class taste. Strongly fragrant; bone dry without becoming cosmetic. Top contender for the Indian food title!

From Alsace. Tasted in Essentials of Great Wine class at Ft. Mason in San Francisco. About $22.

Ostertag is somewhat unusual in that he barrel ages his whites for a time, but the impression this wine leaves is entirely another matter. The wine is instantly recognizable as Muscat from the intensely perfumed nose. One is naturally conditioned to expect a least a modest amount of residual sugar. And there is none. It’s a mildly unnerving experience. The almost cosmetic lift of Muscat seems like it would leave a chemical aftertaste if no sugar were present for disguise. And this is Alsace. So the wine does have a mineral finish. But amazingly the wine is neither bitter nor phenolic. I would have expected something somewhere between fragrant medicine and those French candies called Pastilles. But that is not the case. This wine is refreshing in a spicy sort of way. And intense. It would be a suitable match to sausages with a brown German mustard. Or to vegetable pekoras with tumeric and ginger flavoring the stuffing.

Wine Attributes: mid-range value wines, aromatic whites, France

1999 Pietre Rosse Sangiovese

18 May ’09

Rare old Sangiovese shows why there is still great hope for the variety in Calif. Brilliant bouquet, tarry outline, with toasted cheese highlights. Firm.

From Dalla Valle winery in Napa Valley. Tasted in Essentials of Great Wine class at Ft. Mason in San Francisco. Rare, but unknown, maybe $50 at auction. This wine is no longer made.

Sangiovese is a bit of a mystery in California. Many districts have a Mediterranean-like climate similar to Tuscany ~ Napa, notably so ~ and one might expect Sangiovese to be a big success in the Golden State. Perhaps due to the enormity of these expectations, Sangiovese has been perceived for twenty years in California largely as an under-performer. Some wines have been well-regarded, but too many have seemed light and simple, like cherry soda. The blame is various placed on young vines, inadequate clones, mediocre locations, and inexperienced winemakers. There may be some measure of truth in all these accusations.

But the game is not lost. Hope springs eternal because every now and then a great California example of Sangiovese turns up. And this bottle is one of them. Now nearly ten-years-old, it has matured wonderfully. It still has the tarry backnotes that everyone likes to reference when they talk about clones reputedly taken from the Brunello vineyard of Biondi-Sante. It is medium-bodied and only has a modest depth of color, now shading to the browner side of garnet. But the bouquet! The nose has an opulence that goes with a good cheddar cheese placed directly on a hot, stove top grill. This wine makes me think of young goat roasting on a spit while being flagellated by branches of rosemary (and why shouldn’t they be wielded by underdressed co-eds for good measure). This wine’s bouquet has many facets, and they endure for a long time. The structure of the wine is not as acidic as most Italian models, but it is lean enough to still show a few grippy tannins when consumed alone. Any dissatisfaction over that part of the experience would disappear as soon as the goat was ready to be eaten.

Wine Attributes: bottle-aged wines, mid-range value wines, Sangiovese, California

2002 Akarua (The Gullies) Pinot Noir

04 May ’09

South island of New Zealand jerks one out-a-the-park with Pinot Noir. Ducks everywhere grow nervous.
Cranberry, heather, smooth tannins, lingering richness.

From Central Otago in New Zealand. Tasted in Essentials of Great Wine class at Ft. Mason in San Francisco. About $50.

Central Otago is the mountainous region near Queenston in the middle of New Zealand’s south island. As such it has a strong claim to be the southernmost fine wine producing region in the world. Queenston is an international destination for skiers. In such a cold climate vintage is important. 2002 was a considerably warmer year than many in Central Otago. In my opinion this wine is the best one produced in Central Otago in 2002.

Most Pinot Noirs from Central Otago are going to be lighter in body, and laced with hints of dill, or tomato-vine. This is not a criticism; Burgundy’s Domaine Dujac is famous for its nuance of tomato-vine, and it sells for five times this amount of money. But clearly getting ripe is a bit of a struggle most years in Central Otago. This 2002 Akarua is ripe enough to show loads of cranberry fruit in the nose with just a hint of cola in the background. On the palate the wine is silky with now-buffed tannins, and a medium weight, quite distinct from its regional brethren. The most noteworthy aspect of this wine, however, is its persistent complexity of flavor. The wine has streaks of micro-biological richness interwoven with strands of tart plums and cherries, and even a little bit of smokiness. In short, this 2002 wine is a triumph that has impressed unsuspecting tasters reliably over a four-year period, and which shows no signs of losing that ability in the next several years.

Duck is always an interesting match with Pinot Noir, but this wine deserves a special twist. Tea-roasted duck would be my call. In reality, that means duck breast and skin cooked in the aromatic smoke of smoldering tea leaves. The fattiness of the duck is cut somewhat by the mildly bitter, but enormously fragrant, character of the tea. The carmelized sweetness of the duck skin harmonizes the entire effect with the fruitier aspects of the wine. It is an experience to be savored.

Wine Attributes: bottle-aged wines, mid-range value wines, Pinot Noir, Australia – NZ

2005 Zind-Humbrecht Pinot Gris (Clos St Urbain)

27 April ’09

Alsatians know their way around Pinot Gris. Big mouth-feel; long and clean; pops fruit in finish

Tasted in Essentials of Great Wine class at Ft. Mason in San Francisco comparing Pinot Gris from Alto Adige in Italy, from Alsace, and from Oregon. About $75.

This is extraordinary wine from one of Zind-Humbrecht’s finest vineyards in Rangen de Thann. It is consistently great quality from vintage to vintage, and has a wonderful track record for aging beautifully over a ten-year period. The grapes are also grown biodynamically.

This comparison of three Pinot Gris (or Grigio) wines is very instructive, with the Italian example (from Trentino, at some altitude in the Alps) showing crisp, and light, and very clean, as befits a Germanically influenced wine from this district in the Sud Tyrol. The Zind-Humbrecht from Alsace may be the same grape, but it is definitely the other side of the coin from a structural standpoint. The Zind-Humbrecht is darker in color, higher in alcohol, and infused with a glycerin mouth-feel. Both wines had faint peachy aromas, but the Italian finished with refreshing acidity, while this Alsatian ended with a fruity tang and a mineral, stonefruit flavor. If you want obvious aromatics in the nose, the Oregon wine would have been the choice for you.

Zind-Humbrecht isn’t giving this wine away. Nevertheless, when you consider what one pays for great White Burgundy, this Pinot Gris seems a good bargain. It is very impressive wine: long on the palate, complex, concentrated, weighty without being cloying, and a great aging candidate. It is also a spectacular match to the Asian-influenced cuisine so frequently found up and down America’s Left Coast. A hearty Vietnamese curry soup featuring plenty of lemongrass would be ideal.

Wine Attributes: classic wines, Pinot Gris, France

1995 Tyrrells ‘HVD’ Semillon

23 March ’09

14-yr-old Aussie classic wine will show your retired Mexican cockfighting champion who’s boss. Strong hazelnut and winter grain flavor. Rigid acid backnote adds surprise refreshment.

Grapes from ancient vines at the Hunter Valley Distillery. Tasted in Southern Hemisphere Wine Class at Fort Mason in San Francisco. About $50.

Part of a unique Australian lineage which in the 1980s completely put ageworthy dry white Bordeaux in the shade. Bordeaux has rebounded, and aged Hunter Valley Semillon has largely stayed the secret of connoisseurs in Sydney, but the fact remains: these wines are special. Unlike the Bordeaux whites, which are blends with Sauvignon Blanc and are aged in oak, these Hunter Valley Semillons never see a lick of wood. They are picked early from very old vines. They go into bottle as soon as possible, and for several years show little more than a slight olive oil smell. But after 7 or 8 years in the bottle, they start to develop the most beguiling hazelnut nose. Try one with a pile of deep-fried Barramundi next time you are at the Wooloomooloo Hotel opposite the Naval Base on Sydney Harbor (also a stone’s throw from the Botanical Gardens and the National Gallery).

This particular wine was made by the charmingly eccentric Murray Tyrrell. The wine is actually more forward than many examples of the genre. It should probably be consumed in the next couple years. Often these wines have a very lithe acid core which contradicts the opulent richness of the bouquet. Not so in Tyrrell’s version. This wine is powerful in the nose, and equally blunt on the palate. It has flavor to burn. It would be a wonderful wine to test in the capsicum kitchen of Latino cuisine ~ a wine frontier if ever there was one. I see a corn tortilla with slow-grilled chicken falling off the bone, avocado or thick Greek yogurt, lemon, and some incendiary chiles concoction. Get the wine good and cold.

Wine Attributes: bottle-aged wines, rare wines, Semillon, Australia – NZ

1997 Penfolds ‘Yattarna’ Chardonnay

16 March ’09

12-yr-old top-flight Australian Chardonnay. Lookin’ good. Excited human smell ~ toasty, warm. Generous mouth-feel. Lingers. Worth wait. Drink now w/ langoustine.

Blended from several regions in southeast Australia. Tasted in Southern Hemisphere Wine Class at Fort Mason in San Francisco. About $65.

This wine is notable for several reasons, not least the price. It is a product of the system at Penfolds (owned by the Fosters Group, certainly the biggest wine operation in Australia, and competitive to be the biggest in the world). That system is the absolute antithesis of the European notion of terroir ~ that a wine should express a specific location in which it is grown. Fosters assigns a very talented winemaker to manage the Yattarna project. Then allows him or her to choose from all the grapes Fosters buys around Australia in order to assemble the parts for Yattarna. It is the same process by which Penfolds Grange Hermitage (Australia’s most expensive and prestigious red wine) is assembled. Indeed Yattarna was conceived as being the white sister to Grange in the marketplace.

The other important thing to understand about Yattarna is that (for marketing reasons) it needs to be ageworthy. The project started in 1995. So this wine is only the third vintage. More recently Penfolds has been sourcing a greater percentage of the grapes for Yattarna in the cool mountains northeast of Melbourne in order to give the wine a more acidic backbone for aging purposes.

Nevertheless this 1997 is magnificent. It may be a touch flabby, and I definitely remember thinking that when I first tasted it eight years ago. But it has held on wonderfully to produce a rich, roasting nuts nose with plenty of mineral skeleton. The nose is akin to slightly overdone toast with a late-season heather honey and just a touch of citrus marmalade. In the mouth the aldehydes (read nuttiness) rise up to make the wine seem very expansive. It is undeniably a big-bodied Chardonnay, but it also has length without seeming to coat one’s palate. Something fried, with a little earthiness to it, would be a good match. That sounds like yabbies (crayfish) in brown butter and garlic to me.

Wine Attributes: bottle-aged wines, rare wines, Chardonnay, Australia – NZ

2006 Naggiar ‘Le Grand-Père’

2 Mar ’09

Sold at winery. 5-lb bottle. Big fruit, strong structure.

Southern Rhônish blend, Sierra Foothills. Located at 1,300 to 1,500 feet of elevation north of Hwy 49 near Auburn.

Mike, who is of Lebanese descent, and his wife emigrated from Montreal, and had a career in sales for Hewlett-Packard, before decamping to a large piece of former grazing land in foothills east of Sacramento. For the district they are a fairly large player, with 60 bearing acres. This wine is a blend of 55% Syrah, 20% Grenache, 20% Mourvedre, and 5% Viognier. It is noteworthy in the foothills because it sells for $40 a bottle, about twice the perceived price ceiling amongst local wine aficionados, and almost all the Naggiar wine is sold direct to members of the winery’s club. They are building a very gracious hospitality center. This wine needs time in the bottle to resolve itself. It has good black cherry fruit, and medium-weight mouth-feel. The tannins are grippy, but not overly so for a two-year-old red wine. The problem is an underlying bitterness that flourishes in the finish. One might call that character ‘minerality,’ but it has more in common with creosote than with talcum powder. My recommendation would be to give this wine another 4-5 years in the bottle, perhaps sacrificing some of the bright fruitiness, in order to gain bouquet, and hope that background note recedes to become the skeleton of the wine’s flavor profile.

Wine Attributes: current-release wines, red blends, California

2005 Schroeder ‘Saurus’ Pinot Noir

23 Feb ’09

Great cola and cranberry nose. Fine natural acid. Thin middle, finish a bit green. Superb potential for future vintages.

From Neuguen, Argentina. Well-financed estate in Patagonia near the Rio Negro. US$28. Tasted in Bruce Cass Wine Lab Southern Hemisphere class at Ft. Mason.

Although not a world-beater at present, this wine is exciting. It shows tremendous potential for the region, which is only beginning to dabble in Pinot Noir despite being considerably further south than any other wine district in Argentina. Schroeder has modern equipment. They just need more experience with these grapes. The fruit has intense cranberry notes. It also shows a cola aroma, which I take to be a clonal characteristic. If the winery can figure out how to build more concentration into the flavor profile, they will have a wine noteworthy on the world stage.

Wine Attributes: rare wines, Pinot Noir, South America

1995 Uiterwyk Pinotage

16 Feb ’09

Complex grilled sausage, stinky cheese nose. Got da’ micro-bio goin’ on. Needs wild game pairing.

From Constantia, South Africa. Prestigious estate in the wealthy enclave south of Capetown on the narrow peninsula which ends in the Cape of Good Hope. US$45 from an auction. Tasted in Bruce Cass Wine Lab Southern Hemisphere class at Ft. Mason.

Nose somewhere between roasting pork fat and Gruyere cheese. Espresso latté flavors with impressive middle. Made in the Boere-style, from bush-vine grown grapes, with dense, juniper-toned fruit and plenty of micro-biological complexity. Heh, what to one man may be a hygienic problem, to another may be an olfactory turn-on. Matured to a level of this complexity not found in more international-styled Pinotage. Would really be great with wild game, such as hung pheasant.

Wine Attributes: bottle-aged wines, rare wines, unusual reds, South Africa

2005 Cullen ‘Mangan’

11 Feb ’09

Blend Malbec, ML, PV. From Margaret River, Western Australia. Approx. equal blend of Malbec, Merlot, Petit Verdot. US$60 from an auction. Tasted in Bruce Cass Wine Lab Southern Hemisphere class at Ft. Mason.

Quality-oriented estate on the Indian Ocean where temperatures are remarkably consistent, and moderate, from day to night. Result is noteworthy depth of flavor and juiciness in the mid-palate. Very dark, blue-black color. Effusive nose, with some blueberry, but enormous amount of heather-like, licorice intensity. Whether you enjoy it or not, and I did, there is no argument over this wine’s powerful expression. Perhaps a bit broad in the mouth, but not so as to be a distraction ~ more a relief because the nose implied there could be a serious beat-down hiding in the glass. Serve with something blackened from Louisiana.

Wine Attributes: rare wines, red blends, Australia – NZ