Monday, December 27, 2010

TN: Mayro-Murdick 2006 Carneros Pinot Noir

I didn't really have high expectations for the Mayro-Murdick 2006 Carneros Pinot Noir as it was a discount/closeout buy. But as usual there turns out to be little correlation between price, expectation and enjoyment. This is very high quality feminine-style Pinot. The producer's notes indicate the fruit is 80% 35 year old vine Pinot from Iund Vineyard (with suggested retail of $36). If this is typical of Carneros, then I need to try more Pinot from this area as I tend to try the regions with more current buzz like SRH, Anderson Valley and Sonoma Coast. Trends and fashion are nice, but this wine had a certain classic frame to it that transcends hype and hoopla.
  • 2006 Mayro-Murdick Pinot Noir - USA, California, Napa Valley, Carneros

    This was just firing on all cylinders. Pinot Perfume on the nose with a mix of floral, red fruit, herb and mushroom aromas. Still smelled great even in an empty glass! All about balance on the palate. Good body and texture with refreshing acidity. Mild earth and red fruit flavors with aromas carry through on the finish. Even has some tannic structure on the back end. Textbook cool climate Cali Pinot, and perfectly executed in a seamless fashion.

Friday, December 24, 2010

TN: Kent Rasmussen 2007 Mt. Veeder Cabernet Franc

Kent Rasmussen, a well-respected vintner of balanced Carneros Pinot Noir, and mountain Cab Franc from Napa are two wine "things" I've been looking to try. Well, the Kent Rasmussen 2007 Mt. Veeder Cabernet Franc kills two birds with one stone! I found a nice deal on this wine (thanks to Tony at Winery Insider/InVino going above and beyond to honor a price he didn't even know was listed) and picked up a few bottles along with Rasmussen's 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon from the same appellation.

Mt. Veeder juts up to Carneros, so it's reputedly a cooler mountain climate than others in Napa. Anyway, lots of very ripe cherries here, definitely more cherry fruit than a typical Napa Cab. Since Rasmussen's '07 Napa Cab also comes from Mt. Veeder, and I'll be curious to compare and contrast that wine with this one. Rasmussen's notes indicate originally this CF was going to be blended with the CS, but was complete enough to stand on its own. I'm with him on this, though it does make me a wee bit curious what the blended wine would have tasted like.
  • 2007 Kent Rasmussen Cabernet Franc Esoterica - USA, California, Napa Valley, Mt. Veeder

    Mix of earthier tones and new oak on the nose--candied ginger, tobacco, black cherry, violets and cinnamon oil. Fairly linear in flavor with refreshing acidity and moderate tannin. More sweet cherries followed by olive on the palate that finishes with good length. Fairly fruit driven in sum, but with layering of additional nuances. Best part is the aromas here. Certainly not a crime to drink now for youthful exuberance given approachability of structure. As good as this is, I do wonder a bit what it would be like with some Cab S for austere tannins and darker fruit to offset the cherry veering to the candied side and/or Merlot to broaden the mid-palate.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

What constitues fine wine?

I've been following some discussion on what wine drinkers believe defines wine as objectively good. Rather predictably, chaos and arguments soon follows as wine preference is largely based upon an individuals' taste. One man's stinky, austere wine is another's complex, restrained wine, for example. Nonetheless, I believe there can and should be a framework for discussing 'fine' wine. I believe 'fine' wine has all of the following:
  1. Layering of sensory impressions. Essentially a wine with distinct aromas, a beginning, a middle and an end on the palate.
  2. Capacity to develop with time in bottle. This could be several years or decades as long as there is substantial change due to age.
  3. Typicity of region, variety and/or house style, i.e. character. Probably this is broad enough to allow even the "International Style" into the discussion, but it's important that a wine has some context into which it fits.
I believe that the key here is to separate personal taste as much as possible from the guidelines. There is a certain school of thought that says, "I like it, ergo it is good." If you like it, buy it, but liking something does not make it high quality. I like Whoppers and Grilled Stuft Burritos for example, but these are simple, low quality foods based largely on greasy flavors. They are not examples of 'fine' dining though I do enjoy them on occasion.

I also believe that "great wine isn't cheap and cheap wine isn't great" applies here as well. Depending on style and region, 'fine' wine doesn't have to be incredibly expensive. But it will certainly cost more than standard mass-market wines (unless you get lucky). That's because more careful vineyard management and greater labor and time investment is almost always required for wines that meet the above guidelines.

By nature, this discussion is neither completely one of relativism nor one of absolutism. I view it as fundamentally a pluralistic subject. There are a variety of tastes and styles in wine, and many of these can pertain to 'fine wine' even if they are seemingly incompatible. Essentially it is a case of "different but equal." This is important because relativism allows consumers to settle for mediocrity simply because it has a flavor profile they like, while absolutism allows a few critics to impose their opinions upon all as fact. Adopting pluralism is the key to advancing discourse in the wine world, and setting broad guidelines for 'fine wine' is a start in this direction.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Tasting Tablas Creek at East Beach Wine

I've been a fan of Tablas Creek since visiting their tasting room almost two years ago. From both a business and stylistic perspective, I love their approach. They've had a long-term model when it comes to building the brand. I've heard their plan was to become profitable in 15 years. Meanwhile, their winery, portfolio and prices seem to have grown incrementally, but modestly over time. This is a refreshing approach when so many producers seem to expect instant gratification despite huge overheads. Tablas Creek has earned its price points over time, not just from a big score in one vintage or another.

The wines seem to display California sunshine and a relatively arid climate, but within a classically structured (i.e. French) style. They are not all fruit, and they are not all earth, either. For me their top wines represent the best of what California producers can do. They are rich, full bodied and flavorful, yet complex, structured and ageworthy. My only criticism is that the Cotes de Tablas wines seem very front-loaded for early consumption without much structure to frame the fruit. Perhaps this is more a demand of the domestic market, but at the $20-$25 price level the depth is not there. There is plenty of exuberance, though, so it may come down to taste.

The Esprit cuvées, both in Blanc and Rouge form, were revelatory. I believe I've tasted 3 or 4 Esprit Rouge bottlings and the remarkable quality is that each vintage shows so very differently. While one might think blending tends to blur difference, the differences in each variety seemingly are summed--think of the vintage difference = (a^2 + b^2 + c^2 + d^2)^(.5) summing in quadrature. Here the 2008 seemed quite feminine and approachable, which Sales Manager Tommy Oldre said was a result of Tablas Creek letting the vintage express itself instead of trying to re-create the rich, powerful 2007 version. The 2006 in contrast seemed a bit more burly and recalcitrant, though no less character-filled. The Esprit Blanc, meanwhile, was simply one of the best full-bodied whites I've tasted. It often seems to me that barrel toast overwhelms many rich, barrel-aged whites, but here aging in foudre (large wood containers) seems to have reduced the negative impact while achieving the positive effects of aging in wood. These are expensive wines, but wines I would not hesitate to buy when shopping in this price range.

  • 2009 Tablas Creek Côtes de Tablas Blanc - USA, California, Central Coast, Paso Robles

    45% Viognier, 28% Roussanne, 20% Marsanne, 7% Grenache Blanc. White stone fruit, toast. Viscous, fat and a hot finish. All up-front flavor and very full bodied, but flabby on the back end.

  • 2008 Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc - USA, California, Central Coast, Paso Robles

    65% Rousanne, 30% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc. Aged in foudre. Major step up from the Cotes de Tablas Blanc. Savory nose with apple cider and seaweed (yes, as odd as it sounds). Tight structure, refreshing acidity, cleaner flavors than Cotes de Tablas. Long finish. Creamy texture. Has mouthfeel of a red wine with grace of a white wine. Best white I've yet tasted in a full bodied style, though I don't drink many of these to be fair. Worth the price IMO.

  • 2008 Tablas Creek Côtes de Tablas - USA, California, Central Coast, Paso Robles

    42% Grenache, 21% Syrah, 20% Counoise, 17% Mourvedre. Good, noticeable acidity, mild tannins, herb, cherry, funk. Not much finish. Seems front loaded like the Blanc to be fruit-forward and early drinking.

  • 2008 Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel - USA, California, Central Coast, Paso Robles

    38% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 26% Syrah, 6% Counoise. Again, a massive step up from the Cotes de Tablas Rouge. Perfumed aromas with kirsch and mild gaminess. Big bodied, creamy, yet seemingly weightless. Sweet fruit, ripe tannin, medium acidity. Very pleasurable to drink now, almost seems a feminine style, though it is a large scaled, full flavored wine.

  • 2006 Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel - USA, California, Central Coast, Paso Robles

    45% Mourvedre, 28% Grenache, 22% Syrah, 5% Counoise. Seaweed, olive, eucalyptus, kirsch and dark fruit. Grippy tannin. Seems a bit rustic, in the best possible sense, compared to the 2008.

  • 2007 Tablas Creek Syrah - USA, California, Central Coast, Paso Robles

    With 10% Grenache. Gamy with cherry fruit. Big, full body, tons of ripe tannin. A very backward wine, though with lots of raw material and structure. I wouldn't touch this for some time.

Basically, this tasting confirmed my prior impressions. Tablas Creek is a benchmark producer for Paso Robles. And yet their prices are very fair for what they offer. Usually I'm left unimpressed by wines cracking the $40-$50 range because they seem to be chasing some fashionable style or are simple products of ego. Not so with Tablas. This producer is the real deal and even produces its top cuvées in moderate quantities such that they are not terribly hard to find.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Price of Miniscule Production

I was recently looking at a small production Napa Cabernet Sauvignon from a single vineyard and was struck by how tiny the production was on a year to year basis. Looking at recent vintages, production has varied consistently from 100 to 160 cases. This means this producer is making about 4 to 6 barrels of wine per vintage. The cost per 750 mL bottle: $75 for new releases.

The point here is not to pick on the producer, thus I'm not naming names. Rather, the idea is to treat this producer as a quick, crude case study. This Cabernet is the only wine this producer makes; it's really all or nothing with this cuvée. While bigger Napa producers sell Cabs in this price range that may have 5k or 10k case production, this producer needs to stay afloat on just a small fraction of that quantity.

Unfortunately, 100-160 cases is really the opposite of an economy of scale. Undoubtedly farming of a small vineyard costs more per acre than a large one since simply getting workers and equipment there at the right time is half the battle. Meanwhile, a producer like this usually needs to hire a winemaker and pay to utilize resources at a custom winemaking facility.

For a boutique producer, even several thousands cases is considered a small production, though this quantity is often spread over multiple wines. If the above Napa producer is selling through and making a sustainable profit by selling a top notch wine at the $75 asking price, there's really no critique to be made of this business model. But from a consumer perspective, I see winemakers who have built from the ground up to run a winery making and selling significantly more wine at one half or one third the price per bottle. I can't help but think micro-production wineries like the above example are saddling consumers with both their large production costs and a rather high per bottle margin simply because they aren't doing as much work as others.

Who knows, perhaps 4-6 barrels of $75 Napa Cab is simply a hobby. It certainly sounds like a quantity of wine a hobbyist could store in a garage. But I really wonder what the producer is doing to earn that price when other boutiques are doing 10 or 20 or 50 times as much work to hit a significantly lower price point. I don't believe this is the only producer pursuing this approach, and I think it will be increasingly hard for micro-production wineries to capture a share of this small market segment with consumers being more careful in their spending.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

TN: Havens 2006 Napa Valley Bourriquot (now with new context!)

Here's a testament to the importance of context in evaluating a wine. I really enjoyed the Havens 2006 Napa Valley Bourriquot the last time I tasted it. But when put up against a Thanksgiving dinner, it really did not fare well at all. The extraction and oak clashed with just about everything on my plate from mashed potatoes to turkey. I had thought perhaps Cab Franc from a cooler climate would be a flexible food pairing, but here style trumps variety and climate. Here's there's just too much in the wine, and it was like a battle between wine and food.

You live, you learn. Next time I'll go with a simpler Chinon or Bourgueil if I want Cab Franc with Thanksgiving.
  • 2006 Havens Wine Cellars Bourriquot - USA, California, Napa Valley

    Much less impressed on this go round. Clashed with the food at the table with the vanilla and oak being the major culprit. Better on its own. After being open for 4 hours, though, the bitterness of the heavy extraction became more evident. Nice earthy aromatics, though. Just seemed rather awkward and clunky.

Monday, December 13, 2010

TN: Thankgiving Weekend Aromatic Whites

I'm a sucker for aromatic whites, what can I say. If it's dry, yet smells vaguely like a dessert wine, I'm sold! Viognier can be a good choice, but often times it ends up being incredibly heavy and fat in order to achieve the jasmine and apricot aromas that make it exciting.

Lately I've been looking into different varietal wines made from aromatic whites that have a bit more acidic lift and lighter body. The compelling quality of these wines is that they smell really nice, but are quite versatile when it comes to using as a cocktail or a food wine. The aromas make them seem sweeter than they really are, while the acidity makes them naturals for the dinner table. In other words, they not only have broad applications, but a broad appeal to both obsessive wine drinkers and the occasional wine drinker who might prefer sweeter wines.

Here are three that fared well over Thanksgiving:
  • 2008 Yves Breussin Vouvray - France, Loire Valley, Touraine, Vouvray

    Just spot on Chenin Blanc. Lychees and floral aromas. Round, concentrated flavors up front followed by a dry, mouth-watering finish. Has a hint of RS, but acidity is very high so it is complementary. Simply delicious.
  • 2009 Vino V Wines Albariño Confundida - USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Ynez Valley

    Aromatic! Jasmine, honey and white stone fruit. Dry on the palate, though med-low acid. Fruit and floral esters give it a sensation of sweetness despite dryness. Medium body. Listed at 12.5% ABV. A superb aromatic white that gets explosive aromas without extreme ripeness.
  • 2009 Old Creek Ranch Winery Loureiro - USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Ynez Valley

    Very perfumey aromas, yet lemony, high acid flavors. Almost austere, very mineral driven. Aromatic food wine. No oak, light/medium body. Portuguese varietal.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

What's wrong with sweet wines?

What's wrong with sweet wines? Nothing, according to Master of Wine Tim Hanni. Hanni and Virginia Utermohlen recently published a report titled Beverage Preferences, Attitudes, & Behavior of ‘Sweet’ vs. 'Tolerant’ Wine Consumers (a PDF version of the report with their conclusions is available in this link) based upon the results of an online survey. In this report respondents are separated into four distinct taste preference groups: sweet, sensitive, hyper-sensitive, and tolerant. These classifications bear more than a passing resemblance to the concept of super-tasters and the separation of individuals into super-tasters, tasters, and non-tasters.

Most of the focus of the study is on the dichotomy between "sweet" and "tolerant" consumers. "Sweet" tasters prefer fruitier wines with residual sugar, and tend to be younger and female. "Tolerant" tasters prefer powerful if not bitter, astringent wines, and tend to be older and male. In fact, the description of the "tolerant" taster seems to match the stereotype of an older guy who's a wine snob and shops by point ratings. According to Hanni and Utermohlen's conclusions, "sweet" tasters are very sensitive to non-sweet flavors like bitterness thus need residual sugar to offset these flavors, while "tolerant" tasters have a high sensitivity threshold for bitterness, astringency and the burn of high alcohol.

I can certainly identify with the issues related to "tolerant" tasters dominating the world of fine wine criticism. Older male critics like Parker and Miller seemingly will tolerate any level of extraction and oak, and favor raw intensity and power over other more delicate expressions. It is clear the "tolerant" taster is understood to have learned some of his preferences given that it is stated the language for marketing wines to him is "point ratings, complex, bold, intense." Knowledge of point ratings implies the "tolerant" taster reads or follows some critics like Parker or magazines like Wine Spectator. Thus, this group clearly is not basing its interests solely upon intrinsic tastes, but upon learned preferences as well.

Yet the "sweet" taster is defined in such a manner that it appears he buys wine based solely upon his own taste with little regard to external influence. The "sweet" taster seems to have less education about wine, which undoubtedly influences taste preference. At the same time, though, cultural influence from the prevalence of highly sweetened processed foods and soft drinks in the US is not discussed in the report. My hypothesis is that much of the preference for very sweet foods and beverages results from conditioning. While individuals are less or more sensitive to bitterness according to the results in this report, it is also likely they may be less or more sensitive to sweetness. Hanni and Utermohlen argue "sweet" tasters are more sensitive to bitterness, acidity and astringency, but I suspect that it's just as prevalent that they are less sensitive to sweetness.

The report ultimately seems focused on how to sell wine to "sweet" tasters in the most expedient fashion. It even suggests that "sweet" tasters are under-served by the wine industry. I disagree with this conclusion. Walk into a grocery store and pick a random wine off the shelf. Typically you will find a fruity, slightly sweet, often vanillified wine with low acidity and very little tannin. This is precisely the type of wine that appeals to the "sweet" drinker based on Hanni and Utermohlen's definition of this classification. In fact, by volume most of the wine produced in the US seems to be targeted towards the "sweet" consumer.

Moreover, I disagree that "sweet" consumers cannot or should not expand their horizons as wine drinkers (not to mention food eaters). In some sense "tolerant" tasters are over-educated, while "sweet" tasters are under-educated. While individuals should ultimately buy what they like, it's important to understand that a Nebbiolo by nature tends to be tannic and Sangiovese by nature tends to be acidic, for example, and wine that isn't manufactured as a processed food varies from vintage to vintage. Wine appreciation is a synthesis of both personal preference and understanding of regional, varietal and vintage expression. I personally love sweet foods like fresh fruit, candy and chocolates, but also understand that these flavors don't necessarily belong in every wine.

Returning to the original question, I agree with Tim Hanni that there is nothing wrong with sweet wines or "sweet" tasters. In fact, many sweet wines like Sauternes, Port, demi-sec Vouvray and late harvest Riesling are considered among the most noble, long-lived and great wines in the world. The key here is to educate "sweet" wine consumers that these are unique wines because of their production methods, aging capacity and complexity. While there is a certain stigma attached to a preference for sweet wine, the generic White Zinfandels and sweet Muscats that sweet wine drinkers regularly purchase are treated quite justifiably as ordinary wines. They're the vinous analog to McDonald's: rich in certain pleasing flavors, be it sugar or fat, but otherwise simple manufactured consumables.

I was once there, too. Some years ago I liked something called Mattie's Perch Shiraz purely because it "went down smooth." I haven't tried it recently, but my guess is that it would be mild in acid and tannins, fruity and a bit sweet in the terms I'd use now. To look at this from a slightly different angle, I'd argue wine is about both hedonic and aesthetic appreciation. We all understand and seek hedonic enjoyment from birth, but aesthetic context must be developed. This is no different than learning about any craft, from film, to music, to sculpture, to architecture. In the social media saturated world once can click the "I like this" next to anything. Mattie's Perch was worthy of an "I like" back in the aughts. But that preference was quite separate from understanding context and this brand's place in the big picture.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A Day Trip to Amador County: Part II

The second stop on our visit to Amador County was Noceto, conveniently located just around the corner from Terre Rouge/Easton. Other than a rather pedestrian and semi-sweet Pinot Grigio, this was a great stop as well. These folks are Sangiovese specialists covering the full spectrum from modestly-priced table wine up to single vineyard bottlings. While I did go through the full lineup of single vineyards, the tasting was rather rapid fire and from small glasses. So it's probably not worth trying to differentiate from my notes, though they all had specific character and tended to be more rounded than the "normale" Sangiovese. I liked their 2008 Nutz! ($12), a Barbera-Sangiovese table wine, the 2008 Sangiovese ($18) and the 2007 Riserva Sangiovese ($20, normally $24) most given the price points. All had the acidity and leathery character I expect from Sangio, with darker and more rounded fruit moving up in price. Their 2007 OGP Zin, from the Original Grandpère Vineyard planted in 1869, was my favorite of the trip. Dark and big, yes, but also spicy and peppery with sufficient lift. The Vernaccia (dry, with melon, pineapple and minerality) and Mistura (a dark blend of Alicante, Syrah, Petite Sirah and port varieties) were also excellent. Really nice values here as well as the sub-$20 wines were spot on as pairings for pizza and pasta, not just the funky and/or flabby leftovers that didn't fit anywhere else. Probably more varietal character here than compared to Central Coast Sangios, and cheaper, too. Another producer that started in the 80s, still going strong.

Morse/Il Gioiello was up next. It's a drive out a good ways on narrow, patched up roads, but oddly enough it is gated, has a bocce court, and appears to be thoroughly modern including a Tuscan-styled tasting room. Maybe it was just the power of suggestion, but the wines here seemed to be more fruit-driven with more obvious oak, slicker and more modern in a New World mold. Definitely reminded me more of what I find towards Santa Barbera in terms of Italian and Rhone varieties. Instead of the attractive, precise rusticity and character of Terre Rouge and Noceto, these are highly polished wines. I was most pleased with the 2007 Mourvedre which still showed lots of its feral and tannic character. I suppose the Shenandoah Valley works quite well for this variety. The various other wines--Barbera, Sangiovese, Cabernet, Viognier, Zin, Montepulciano--were good, sound wines at fair prices ($20-$30), just more jammy than I like when it comes to expressing varietal and vineyard character.

The last stop was Karly, largely a Zin producer. I'm not a big Zin fan, and several of their wines epitomized the style I just can't understand. One was all raisins. Another was certifiably sweet and roasted, though it seems that was intentional. One was more spicy, though, so one out of three ain't too bad. Their 2008 Mourvedre, named "El Alacran" (The Scorpion), was good fun, however. Definitely unfined and unfiltered, it's a cloudy purple-red in color and a chewy mouthful of ripe Mourvedre character (albeit $35). Their Marsanne was oxidized and volatile, while the Sauvignon Blanc was candy-sweet, which I struggled to wrap my head around. My guess is they sell to less European-influenced palates, hence the cloying sweetness and uber-ripe fruit in certain wines. But it makes it very hit or miss even if you just want a (reasonably) dry New World styled wine.

All-in-all, a nice 4 hours in a different wine country. Much more down to earth than most wine regions without the insulting stratospheric pricing. Terre Rouge's Rhone varietals were among the very best I've tasted from California, yet were priced very reasonably given that most had a bit of age on them. Same story for Noceto, except younger wines based mostly on Sangiovese. I was not expecting as much old world influence in a region known for big, ripe Zins. I'd bet though more producers are like Karly, while Terre Rouge and Noceto are the outliers. Given the style and pricing, I'd be tempted to join Terre Rouge and Noceto's wine clubs if I lived in driving distance.

Monday, December 6, 2010

A Day Trip to Amador County: Part I

While visiting my girlfriend's family in Davis, California, we took a day trip to Amador County--or alternately the California Shenandoah Valley--to visit a few wineries. Davis is about equal distances from Napa City and Plymouth, but the price differential made the choice pretty easy. Tasting is apparently free everywhere in Amador, and it seemed each winery went through nearly a dozen wines. Napa seems to run $15-$30 just to taste several wines. I'm accustomed to the relatively high prices for tasting in Santa Barbara, usually around $8-$12 to sample a producer's portfolio. But going much higher is a bit too "price gougey" for my taste. Amador fit the bill for a budget-friendly afternoon.

The Shenandoah Valley is perhaps known best for its old vine Zinfandels, with some vineyards dating back to the pre-Prohibition era and beyond. The regions sits at the base of Sierra Nevada mountains, hence the broader designation of the region encompassing Amador, El Dorado and Calaveras as the Sierra Foothills. Although this is a warm region, likely a Region III on the Davis heat summation scale, producers tout the variety of soils and elevations at their disposal. This isn't a region for light acidic wines, but the diversity of vineyard sites appears to allow for an interesting mix of warm-climate grapes to be grown. Heat is an important part of the picture, but it's not the only the part.

I actually was not all that surprised to find a handful of noteworthy wines. Those poured at Terre Rouge/Easton were especially good. Terre Rouge is the brand used for the producer's Rhone-style wines, while Easton covers other bottlings like Cabs, Zins and Barberas. When I say Rhone-style, I definitely mean it. I'm used to the ultra-ripe, melted style of Rhone varietals from Santa Barbara and Paso Robles. Terre Rouge tastes like it came from the Old World. Their current GMS blend, the 2007 L'Autre, is a dead ringer for a cru-level Rhone if not a Chateauneuf du Pape. Red fruit, garrigue, meat, earth and heavy tannins all point to an Old World wine. Their 2004 Mourvedre--also the current release--is gamy with tar, herbs, pepper and firm tannins, like a clean Bandol. The only potential concern might be that most of the wines are very tannic, perhaps to the point that the tannins outlive the other components of the wine. But many of their wines are released with some age, so that helps bring the style into better focus. If you like earthy, structured wines that should be long-lived, this is the place for you. I also enjoyed their 2006 Barbera, which is less structured, but more polished. The Syrahs are quite good as well, though it seems we visited only a couple of the many versions they produce. Their Zins were the only disappointment since I found them tipped a bit to the raisiny side instead of the spicy, peppery side. Prices were very good values in the $15-$30 range. In terms of pricing and overall quality, this blows away the vast majority of Central Coast producers. There's a reason why a producer who began in the mid-80s is still going strong today.

Notes from the rest of the visit will post tomorrow.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

TN: Villa Medoro 2006 Montepulciano d'Abruzzo

The Villa Medoro 2006 Montepulciano d'Abruzzo is just a fastball right down the middle. Dark, ripe, chewy and acidic. Sort of like the Chinon in my last entry, this isn't the sort of wine you ruminate over. It exists to be consumed with any kind of hearty food. To use another sports analogy, where many wines try to be Terrell Owens and simply come off brash and shrill, this is the right tackle who quietly goes about pancaking ends and linebackers while everyone watches the tailback sail by untouched.

Unlike the Chinon in my last entry, this wine is a good deal chunkier and more rustic. It's hard to explain how or why, but it has character. At this $15-$20 price level, that surprisingly hard to find. My only complaint is the rubber cork--please, please just use a Stelvin closure to prevent oxidation!
  • 2006 Villa Medoro Montepulciano d'Abruzzo - Italy, Abruzzi, Montepulciano d'Abruzzo

    Synthetic cork. Chunky, chewy mouthful of wine. Rustic in the best way. Cherry jam, barnyard and basil aromas. Full bodied, yet dry with good acid. Earthy and leathery on the finish. Really good, not elegant, just honest. Pasta and pizza wine.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

WN: Domaine de Pallus 2006 Chinon Les Pensées de Pallus

Usually I'm a big fan of Chinons, but the Domaine de Pallus 2006 Chinon Les Pensées de Pallus fell victim to my high expectations. It's actually a pretty good wine all things considered--varietally correct and balanced. It isn't spoofy or overly slick, either. It's just missing some kind of lift. Supposedly this is a more "modern" producer. I guess I should stick with the old school ones.

While I often think the whole "natural wine" concept is overwrought and turned into a sort of quasi-religion, I do think the minimal intervention approach works really well in the Loire. The fruit just seems more conducive to letting nature take its course. My gut feeling is that the high acid, low sugar grapes from the Loire just tend to go more in an interesting, but not undrinkable direction than is the case with low acid, high sugar grapes from, say, California when allowed to ferment spontaneously. What the wines may not have in richness, they have in complexity as a result. I've definitely had a few Chinons that drink like a meal as they have fruit, veggies, acidity and savory flavors.

This wine seems like it's been made very cleanly just to emphasize fruit. That's fine, but for around $20 I kind of expect things to starting getting weird and wooly, especially from a wine billed as the producer's top cuvée.
  • 2006 Domaine de Pallus Chinon Les Pensées de Pallus - France, Loire Valley, Touraine, Chinon

    The tobacco screams Chinon Cab Franc. But this was a bit disappointing. Mostly black cherry (no pomegranite or cranberry). Iron and mint flavors as well. Medium body, medium acid. Very middle of the road without the edginess I'd expect--mild acidity, no funkiness. Clean, well made, but either better younger or will bloom in time. Right now kind of boring.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

TN: Wolff Vineyards 2008 Edna Valley Syrah

There's not too much to say for the Wolff Vineyards 2008 Edna Valley Syrah other than it's varietally correct, refreshing and tasty, all for around $20. For all the consternation over whether something correctly fulfills a certain aesthetic or will age for three decades, sometimes it's easy to forget that the wine is there to being a pleasing drink. A pleasing drink indeed!
  • 2008 Wolff Vineyards Syrah - USA, California, Central Coast, Edna Valley

    Really pleasing Syrah. Nice bacony, smokey aromas. Fresh red currant, bacon and blood flavors. A good seam of tannin on the finish. No heat, not heavily extracted. Just a highly drinkable and refreshing Syrah that's varietally correct. Excellent QPR.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

WN: William Harrison 2007 Rutherford Simpatico

I've been making an effort to try more wines from Napa, really I have. But Napa doesn't make it easy. The wines are mostly very expensive (even when justified), and many can be super-ripe and generally overdone. I've had positive experiences with wines from Carneros, but up valley Napa has been a tough nut to crack. My general rule is if there's nothing exciting at $15-$30, then I'm not gonna move up to a higher price bracket in hopes of finding more gravitas.

Well, the William Harrison 2007 Simpatico, a blend of 65% Cabernet Sauvignon and 35% Cabernet Franc from the Rutherford AVA, has opened up a new avenue of exploration by delivering solid value in a style that I personally like. While this isn't hugely structured for the long-term, it is well-constructed and layered in a classical style. It's sort of French in its balance, yet Californian in its clean fruit with subtle minty earthiness. At around $25, this is a complete wine, which is hardly a given, especially in California.

Based on a heat-summation map in the World Atlas of Wine, Rutherford is primarily a Region II climate, meaning it is moderately cool to temperate. Further north moving towards St. Helena and Calistoga the climate shifts to a warm Region III designation. While the various elevations and exposures muddle distinctions a bit, perhaps this sheds a bit of light on the situation. Carneros may indeed be a marginal cold climate, while Rutherford is in a sweet spot where neither massive fruit or herbaceous bell pepper character dominates. Given that many of the famed, historic vineyards are located in Rutherford and Oakville mid-valley, that certainly would be logical.
  • 2007 William Harrison Simpatico - USA, California, Napa Valley, Rutherford

    Nice value for a Napa/Rutherford wine. Cherries, black currant, a hint of mint/earth, and some licorice and tar. Refreshing mouth-watering acidity, medium bodied, supple texture. More to the cherry and red currant side of spectrum, not plummy. Has some smokey oak, but certainly complementary and balanced. Finishes dry with licorice and cedar, though there is a little persistent heat. Seems built for near term, say 3-5 years, and very pleasurable now. Has the layering of a fine wine at an attractive price point. 65% CS, 35% CF.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Tasting Notes from Ojai: Old Creek, Vino V, and The Ojai Vineyard

Following up on my last post on Vino V Wines and Old Creek Ranch, here are a few highlights of what we tasted. This is not a comprehensive list. Just a few favorites and noteworthy wines.

We also visited The Ojai Vineyard's tasting room in downtown Ojai on this trip. This is an historic producer whose winemaker and owner, Adam Tolmach, was among the first handful of winemakers to help realize the potential of Santa Barbara County. Generally speaking I liked the Santa Maria wines more, and the warm climate Roll Ranch wines didn't have the lift and complexity of the cooler climate wines. A few notes are included here as well.

Old Creek Ranch

2008 Grenache Blanc - Decent, but middle of the road. Winemaker Michael Meager commented he wasn't terribly excited about this one, either.

2009 Loureiro - Aromatic, peaches, honey, but very acidic and mineral driven flavors. From Estelle Vineyard.

2009 Albarino - Refreshing, good body, lemon and citrus aromas. From Paragon Vineyard in Edna Valley.

2008 Carignane - Earthy, tobacco, floral, medium body, medium acid. From Camp 4 Vineyard in Santa Ynez.

2007 Cabernet Sauvigon - Very fruity, kirsch, from Branham Obsidian vineyard between St. Helena & Calistoga. Warm climate, fruit-driven Cab.

2007 Santa Barbara County Syrah - Deep fruit & lavender, earth, tannic, long finish,

2007 White Hawk Vineyard Syrah - Meaty, floral, structured, supple, elegant, currants and cherries.

Vino V Wines

2009 Confundida - Floral aromas, nice texture and acidity, unique and brimming with character. 100% Albarino from Estelle Vineyard.

2004 Syrah - Great cool climate Syrah aromas, dense and tannic. From White Hawk Vineyard in Los Alamos.

2006 Syrah - Again, great cool climate Syrah aromas, but a bit more supple. Also White Hawk.

The Ojai Vineyard

2006 Clos Pepe Chardonnay - Santa Rita Hills AVA, intense, mouthwatering, apples, lemons, not super oaky or tropical, a more restrained style.

2006 Solomon Hills Pinot Noir - Feminine Pinot, spicy, red fruits, med body, some earth.

2006 Clos Pepe Pinot Noir - Heavier, earthier, raspberry, meaty/smokey, more tannic, mushroomy, but a distracting raisin aroma is present.

2007 Santa Barbara County Syrah - Pepper and floral aromas, good structure and tannin.

2005 Bien Nacido Syrah - Spicy aromas, dark fruit, tannic, concentrated, great Syrah, should age.

2005 Roll Ranch Syrah - More jammy, fruity, seemed less concentrated, a bit of heat and roasted fruit.

2008 Roll Ranch Viognier Ice Wine - Harvested at 22 Brix, frozen, then crushed. 9% ABV, sweet but still fresh, aromatic with honey, very nectar-like, cryo-extraction seems to capture freshness and intensity (i.e sugar, flavor and acidity).

Monday, November 22, 2010

A Visit to Vino V Wines & Old Creek Ranch

A weekend back I had the opportunity to talk with winemaker Michael Meager and taste through both his label Vino V Wines and the Old Creek Ranch label, for whom he also makes the wines, at the winery just south of Ojai. Michael started at famed producer Mount Eden in Santa Cruz after finishing school before moving on to work under the famed (but modest and shy) Adam Tolmach of The Ojai Vineyard. In 2004, he started producing wines for his label at Old Creek Ranch. Then in 2007 when the winemaker position opened up at Old Creek, he took that position over as well.

Ojai isn't the best known of wine regions. While I learned there are 58 vineyards in the Ojai area, most of which are not commercial, there are only a handful of producers in the region and most of the fruit is sourced from the north in Santa Barbara County. In fact, Pierce's Disease, a bacterial infection transmitted by leaf hoppers, killed off most of the vines in the Ojai area within the last decade or two. So what's a guy with Michael's pedigree doing here in Ojai? Making damned good wine. (Though it's worth noting between The Ojai Vineyard and ultra-cult Sine Qua Non he's in rather rarefied company.)

The winery is located off of Highway 33 at the end of a residential road that crosses a small creek. It's pretty unassuming, and in fact we discovered the winery by accident last spring when driving back from a day hike in the Ojai back country. I was half expecting wines with 'Central Coast' if not 'California' appellation designations. What we found, though, was a treasure trove of small-lot wines from excellent vineyard sources. (A lesson: never prejudge a wine or winery!) After tasting an aromatic yet refreshingly acidic Portuguese variety named Loureiro that wasn't yet available for sale, we resolved to return later. Michael Meager made it even better by offering to give us a tour and tasting of his wines.

Michael's over-arching philosophy is to produce wines with light-handed intervention and little new oak that are expressive of variety and place. In fact, the red wines are generally allowed to start malolactic fermentation spontaneously, without inoculation. Most wines are aged in neutral barrels, including some whites. The main difference between the two labels is sourcing of fruit, with Vino V being focused more on what Michael terms as "strawberry, chocolate, vanilla," i.e. Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah--not the flavor profile. Old Creek tends to source a diverse mix of varieties in addition to the 'meat and potato' wines like Syrah, Cab and Chard.

Tasting notes will follow in the next post, but it's worth highlighting a few wines with a bit of context. The Old Creek Ranch 2009 Loureiro is an aromatic powerhouse, brimming with floral aromas, yet tart and mineral, even a bit austere, in flavor. The Vino V 2009 Confundida, which is 100% Albariño, has a similarly floral impression which I've never encountered with this varietal. It was a bit richer in flavor than the Loureiro as well. Both wines were made from grapes sourced from Estelle Vineyard in the warmer eastern portion of Santa Ynez, though they were harvested at a fairly low sugar level by California standards. That was a bit of a surprise as I generally haven't liked wines from this area as they often seem a bit jammy and boozy. Yet these two wines stood out for their freshness and aromatic lift.

Another important observation came by way of tasting a few barrel samples. We tried two samples of the 2010 Albariño, one from neutral oak barrel and the other from a stainless steel vessel. Both were milky in color due to the suspended lees and a bit tart like lemonade as they have not gone through malolactic fermentation--nor are they intended to. But the barrel aged version was incredibly aromatic with a bright lemonade-like flavor, while the stainless steel was much more closed, albeit seemingly deeper in flavor with more grapefruit pith. Indeed, it seems that neutral oak is an important part of aromatic wine's development. Michael noted via email,
I think the neutral oak does accentuate the expressive aromatics, while the [stainless steel] tends to accentuate more of the flavor/acid/core profile in the mouth. The combination ends up being pretty neat.
Tasting of a 2010 and a 2009 Barbera proved instructive as well. The 2010 has yet to undergo malolactic fermentation and was a bit edgy and sharp in acidity as a result. The 2009, while still showing Barbera's characteristic freshness, was considerably more rounded as the tangy malic acid had been converted to softer lactic acid. But you know what, barrel samples almost universally taste really good. The freshness of the fruit and chunky, unfiltered texture is always enjoyable.

I'd be remiss if I didn't end by mentioning the various Syrahs we tasted. There were the Vino V 2004 White Hawk Vineyard Syrah, the Vino V 2006 White Hawk Vineyard Syrah, the Old Creek Ranch 2007 White Hawk Vineyard Syrah, and the Old Creek Ranch 2007 Santa Barbara County Syrah all available to taste and purchase. White Hawk Vineyard is nestled in the cool Los Alamos region of Santa Barbara County, and all of these wines showed the spicy, peppery and floral nuances of cool-climate Syrah, though vintage and age of the wine differentiated the wines. These are not light wines at all, but they have a clarity of flavor on top of the structure. At around $30 give or take a few dollars, these are first-class wines, which qualifies as a value in my book.

Friday, November 19, 2010

TN: Domaine La Roquète 2006 Chateauneuf du Pape

This one was just too good a deal to pass up. A Chateauneuf du Pape (CdP for short) from the Bruniers, who also own Kermit Lynch's favorite Chateauneuf du Pape Vieux Telegraph, for $20? Sold! I came across the Domaine La Roquète 2006 Chateauneuf du Pape at Cost Plus World Market, which I typically associate with middling mass market wines. While this is likely made in fairly large quantities, Chateauneuf du Pape is considered one of the premiere appellation in the Rhone Valley. This is not your typical Critter Label or branded "kitchen sink" blend.

While Chateauneuf du Pape Rouge is permitted to include about a dozen varieties, this is a blend of the three dominant Southern Rhone varieties Grenache Noir (70%), Syrah (20%) and Mourvèdre (10%). Probably the defining characteristic of this wine is "garrigue"--a sort of herbs de Provence aroma and flavor. Sure, this wine has fruit, body, oak and structure. But it's the dusty, mellow herbaceousness that gives the wine lift.

I've tasted from various Southern Rhone appellations, but this is my first Chateauneuf du Pape. I'm sure I'll be trying more, though finding a quality Chateauneuf du Pape at this price point is rare. Gigondas or Vayqueras often are closer to my favored $20 price point. At any rate, this was a nice find in a New World/Old World fusion mode. Chunky, large framed and clean, but with earthy complexity. Yum.
  • 2006 Frédéric & Daniel Brunier Châteauneuf-du-Pape Domaine La Roquète - France, Rhône, Southern Rhône, Châteauneuf-du-Pape

    Strawberry, blackcurrant, tar and garrigue aromas carry through onto palate. Big bodied rich wine with some oak. Med-low acidity. Does have some heat on finish, but eucalyptus is more dominant. Structured, should be aged. Love the French take on big wines as there's plenty of earthy depth to the rich fruit and oak.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

WN: Longoria 2007 Blues Cuvée vs. Campo di Sasso 2007 Insoglio

This is a comparative tasting I've been hoping to do for some time. Both the Longoria 2007 Blues Cuvée and the Campo di Sasso 2007 Insoglio have similar blends roughly evenly split between Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. But the former is a "Super Barbara" sourced from a variety of terroirs in Santa Barbara County while the latter is a "Super Tuscan" indicating it consists of international varieties like Cab, Merlot and Syrah grown in Toscana. By most accounts 2007 was a strong vintage in both regions.

As of now, the Insoglio gets the edge. While it doesn't have much structure for the long run, the mix of varieties shows through and there's genuine earthy complexity. The Blues Cuvée in contrast is big, structured, fruity and oaky in a well-made New World style. It has better potential long-term, though it's hard to say whether the fruit and oak will eventually recede to reveal the intrinsic character. The smoke of the Syrah and tobacco of the Cab Franc and Merlot are deeply buried if they are there at all.

Both are around $20 to $25 depending on where you look and really illustrate why style and structure are so important. Both have plenty of fruit, but beyond that picking just one would come down to personal taste and intent. Do you want a fruit-driven wine to age? Blues it is! Do you want some earthy, funky complexity right now? Then there's the Insoglio. The Insoglio would be a re-buy for me personally, but it's not a question of it being better. The flavor profile just works for me.

  • 35% Syrah, 30% CF, 30% Merlot, 5% PV. Aromas of tobacco, smoked meat/bacon, toast and cherries. Medium bodied, medium-low acid, light tannins. Light on oak, too. Nice cherry fruit upfront, then finishes heavy on olive tapenade. Mellow, earthy wine with a core of red fruit and a great herbaceous edge. Structured for near-term consumption.
  • 2007 Longoria Blues Cuvée - USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Barbara County

    31% CF (Alisos), 27% Merlot (Alisos), 24% Syrah (Clover Creek), 18% CS (Estelle). Aromas of plum, cedar, tar and vanilla. Definite new world Bdx blend aromas. Full bodied, creamy, but also fresh with med-high acidity. Tannic with a dose of new oak. Finishes dry. Big, ripe, balanced, dark fruited. Needs a few years to let tannins mellow in my opinion. A little one dimensional now, though the delicious factor is there big time.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Vinography: Where Self Awareness Goes to Die

Alder Yarrow is a talented guy, no question about it. But self awareness is not his strong suit. He's published another blog entry on Vinography decrying the tragedy of wine being treated purely as a investment or trophy. In principle, the post says all the right things. He tells these cynical wine speculators and hoarders essentially to take a shit or get off the pot. Drink the wine, because that's what it's there for.

But the same sentiment can be directed to Vinography: take a shit or get off the pot. A blog that breathlessly glorifies ultra-expensive cult (or at least aspiring cult) producers like Kapcsándy, Blackbird, Sea Smoke, Bond, and Giacomo Conterno is not exactly the spokesblog for the common man. In fact, it's perpetuating the same class divide that Yarrow criticizes. Yarrow simply doesn't get that one can't lionize $100+ Napa cult Cabs one day, then criticize luxury wine collectors the next for hoarding them.

Yarrow wants to end what he calls "the travesty of wine and social class." You know what else is a travesty? Hypocrisy. Yarrow does an excellent job covering a variety of wines, and has a special ability for illustrating what makes high end wineries tick. But if you're covering a luxury good--and that's what wine is, even down to the $15 or $20 Mondavi Napa Merlot at Von's--there's no getting around it. Vinography is about luxury goods, pure and simple. There's just no sense in criticizing the same market that Vinography covers.

I'm not begrudging anyone for enjoying or writing about expensive wine. Heck, I've done the same thing myself! But let's drop the pretense. Writing up all the minutiae related to a bottle of fermented grapes is not dispelling the notion of wine is a luxury. Instead it feeds into the same mythology that it is complicated, expensive and snobby. We can't have it both ways.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

TN: Quinta do Vallado 2007 Douro

The Quinta do Vallado 2007 Douro was one of those Costco finds where the thinking goes, "this is $15, looks interesting, let's give it a try." Usually these sorts of buys work out pretty well since Costco doesn't typically sell plonk, and even the less standard choices are fairly reliable as a result. Plus, Jeff gave it a good write-up on Viva la Wino.

This is a blend of the port varieties Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Amarela, Tinta Barroca and Sousao. I'm not a big port drinker at all, though a recent encounter with varietal Touriga Nacional has me intrigued by the floral, spicy character of the grape. After tasting this, I can definitely recommend it for its Touriga character. It's also in the plushly textured, delicious, easy drinking mode. The only drawback was a pesky reductive, rubbery aroma that hid some of the wine's character. While I don't think this is an ager, it's definitely worth the price. The only concern here is the variation evident in the notes in CellarTracker. Were there multiple lots blended? Is the wine not stable? Did some get treated badly in the distribution process? Given the bottle variation, best to try a bottle from your local source before buying multiples.
  • 2007 Quinta do Vallado Douro - Portugal, Douro

    Rubber tire reduction at first. But cinnamon and musky floral aromas (Touriga at work here!) are there as well. Blackberry and herbs also. Seems structured for near term. Fruit forward with good savory depth. Silky tannin. Nice freshness. Crowd pleasing, easy drinking, and delicious! Little heat, would be a notch better without the rubber tire funk.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

When Demystifying Terroir Turns into Bad Science

Wine Peeps, a Washington-centric wine blog, posted, at first glance, a compelling article documenting formal chemical analysis of a Syrah from the producer Cayuse. This is essentially a "cult wine" producer who critics have consistently lauded. The gist of the article is that the wine showed some seriously funky characteristics consistent with high levels of mercaptans or volatile sulfides. So the authors paid to have a sample of the wine tested by ETS in Napa to determine if the compounds were present in abnormally high concentrations. The results were compelling:
Within two days, we had the results, posted online and emailed to us. Then we had a follow-up call with a representative at ETS to discuss the results. The evidence was clear. The Cayuse was a flawed wine. It had volatile acidity slightly above the normal sensory threshold but at a level a massive Syrah can support, but the worst result from the chemistry panel was that it had a high pH level, which made it more susceptible to bacterial attack. The most damning result, however, came from the sulfides panel. Published literature and ETS studies say that low levels of dimethyl sulfide can contribute roundness, fruitiness, or complexity; however, at levels greater than 50 ug/L, it may contribute vegetative, cooked cabbage, or sulfide smells to wines. According to the ETS representative, this wine had the highest dimethyl sulfide level he had ever seen (312 ug/L), more than 10 times the normal sensory threshold (17-25 ug/L), which accounts for the canned corn, rotten vegetables, and decomposed greens flavors. And, those dimethyl sulfide levels and resulting unpleasant sensory characteristics will only increase with wine age, according to ETS.
What was apparently attributed to terroir is apparently an extremely high level of dimethyl sulfide. (Just as a cross-reference, Jamie Goode confirms that various sulfides can bring some serious funk.) Perhaps the terroir does indirectly contribute to this character by producing fruit that naturally ferments in a manner that generates high quantities of volatile sulfides. Or perhaps it's mostly the "house style" that shows, especially if fermentation technique is reductive. Maybe a high pH allowed some in-bottle microbial development. In any case, though, it's clear those attributing the sulfide-heavy character directly to terroir are not on firm footing. Many factors can contribute to production of sulfides.

The Wine Peeps, however, go awry arguing that this is some sort of objective, absolute and unequivocal flaw, especially in the comments that follow. I love science more than most people, and data indicating the presence of stinky compounds is priceless in my book. But when it comes to personal taste, objectivity simply doesn't exist. The most one can do is indicate that sulfides have a large sensory impact.

I recently wrote about a Merlot that had an intense briny, seaweed characteristic, which may well be related to volatile sulfides. In any case, it is quite likely some less than commercially acceptable sulfur-based compound was present in a high concentration. Yet I really liked this "flawed" wine. The seaweed aroma made it unique and interesting. For a mass market wine this would not be desirable because it may well displease a large segment of consumers. But for smaller production wines the real art is in differentiation if not a tension between easy to like flavors and more challenging ones.

Ultimately it comes down to taste. One man's flaw is another man's intriguing characteristic. Some folks like fruity, oaky wines. Others like stinky, dirty wines. Who's right? Is excessive fruit a flaw? What about high alcohol? No, it's about taste. Many technically "flawless" grocery store wines I try have a vanilla if not tapioca or yogurt flavor most likely due to spoofy oak treatment. This is way above my sensory threshold. But is it a flaw? No. I just don't like this flavor. Others do, and that's fine.

Friday, November 5, 2010

TN: Longoria 2002 Blues Cuvée

One of the nice benefits to being in a local wine club is access to library wines at fair prices, often after having tasted the wine. Such was the case with the Longoria 2002 Blues Cuvée. This bottling was originally started by Rick Longoria as a means to foist Cabernet Franc upon unsuspecting consumers. Over the years he has shifted its purpose to blending, though Cab Franc has remained a large portion of the blend.

The 2002 vintage has an interesting near 50-50 split along two dimensions. First, it's 54% Cabernet Franc and 46% Merlot. But 30% of the Cab Franc and 26% of the Merlot Came from Westerly (now McGinley) Vineyard in the warmer eastern portion of Santa Ynez, while 24% of the Cab Franc and 20% of the Merlot came from the cooler Alisos Vineyard in Los Alamos. In other words, there are really four evenly divided blending components. The result is a fruit-driven, New World styled wine, but one with structure and complexity.

While this isn't Longoria's most expensive wine, it is the one I've enjoyed most with age on it. In fact, it seems it needs a few years to integrate. For around $25 as a new release, this is a really decent value in wine that hits its stride 5 to 10 years from vintage. I paid a bit more as this bottle came pre-aged, though.
  • 2002 Longoria Blues Cuvée - USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Barbara County
    Drinking really nicely. Has the texture of velvet being rubbed against the grain. Creamy, with softness of aged tannins, but still pretty darn tannic and drying. Seems to have both fruit and structure to support further aging. Chocolate, blackberry, cedar, tobacco, anise and coffee on the nose. Fruit showing some advancement, but nothing to worry about. Full bodied, creamy, with nice freshness. A lot of spicy anise flavor on the finish. No rough edges here. Finishes very well. Balanced New World wine with bones for aging I'd reckon.

Friday, October 29, 2010

TN: Shaky Bridge 2006 Central Otago Pinot Noir

Well, this one was a real surprise. For one, how is it that a $15 Pinot Noir has genuine varietal character with proper balance and structure? But the bigger surprise--which probably explains the initial one--is that I was sold the wrong wine. Fortunately, the error worked in my favor. I got the Shaky Bridge 2006 Central Otago Pinot Noir, the winery's flagship wine, instead of their entry level wine. I was expecting a simple, correct, fruit-forward wine. What I got was the real deal.

At any rate, the note below tells the whole story. The wine's a little quirky, but it also has guts, and it has plenty character, too. I emailed the retailer, Winery Insider, and the head honcho Tony Westfall explained they were sent the wrong wine by the importer, and they hadn't realized the error either until shipping it out! However, they were happy to sell me more of what they had left.

See the end of the post for a note on this web-retailer.
  • 2006 Shaky Bridge Pinot Noir - New Zealand, South Island, Otago, Central Otago
    Fairly dark for a Pinot, but the nose immediately confirms this is a very good new world Pinot. Mushrooms, twigs, roses, raspberries and strawberries on the nose. Very interesting flavors on the palate. Good body with solid upfront fruit, both of the tart red and plummy sorts. Then displays a pleasant stemmy quality with pronounced metallic minerality. Concentrated without being fat. Some well-balanced oak vanillin present as well. Good acidity, dry, with chalky tannin--rare for a Pinot in my experience. This seems to have the structure to develop further in my opinion.

    I believe I was supposed to receive the lower tier Pioneer Series ($19 US), but was sent this one ($28 US) by accident. Didn't realize I had the wrong one until I saw the pictures in CT after drinking 3/4 of the bottle and wondering why it was so good! Definitely looks like a mistake in my error as this drinks like a $30+ Pinot. Best $15 I spent on Pinot . . . .
Disclaimer: I receive a credit if you make an initial purchase from Winery Insider via my referral link above. That said, I've found their customer service very good and highly responsive, not to mention they are very careful with shipping in warm weather. As for the wines they discount, they can be hit or miss. I haven't had any bad wines, but some I've felt were discounted to about what they should have cost in the first place. A few have been great values, however.

If you do use their service, their 'retail' price estimates tend to be on the high side so the calculated discount can be a bit misleading. Google Shopping and Wine-Searcher are your best friends to help verify how good a deal is from a raw dollar standpoint. I do think they deliver the best price on any given wine, and especially above the $20 price point you have a good chance of landing a great value.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

TN: Tasty Chardonnay and Merlot (!!!)

Chardonnay and Merlot may be the current whipping boys of the wine world, but I think that's mainly because they can be great when done right. It just frustrates folks that wines shooting for either the mass market or critical acclaim often end up so out of whack. Well, here are a couple of wines that deliver the goods.

The Kynsi 2008 Clone 76 Chardonnay really has everything I like in a white wine along with the added body a well-made Chardonnay can carry. I'm not sure why the winery highlighted the clonal selection on this bottling, though a quick Google search will turn up links stating it's a Dijon Clone. I suppose Dijon Clones are all the rage in Pinot Noir (115, 667, 777, etc.), so why not Chardonnay too? Hard to say whether it's the producer or the clone, but there's an extra depth here that I don't usually get in domestic Chardonnay. For $18, this ain't a cheap white, but it really delivers. Just a hair under 14% ABV at 13.9%, pretty reasonable for a CA Chard, and definitely not hot.

The L'Ecole No. 41 2006 Seven Hills Vineyard Merlot has everything I look for in a red wine. This is a little young yet and has its share of new oak. But what I really appreciate here is the delicate balance of ripeness, neither too herbal or too jammy. There's a ton of structure, too. Think Cabernet-like structure, but a little friendlier and less imposing. I've been enjoying Merlot and Cab Franc based blends from Carneros, and this seems to offer the same spirit of density and complexity as Carneros reds. I picked this up for $20, though it's intended to retail for around $35. It'll suffice to say I wouldn't feel cheated at all at $35. Great wine, great Merlot, and it's a shame--albeit lucky for me--that this wine fell through the cracks to the discount pile. It deserves better.
  • 2008 Kynsi Chardonnay Clone 76 - USA, California, Central Coast, Edna Valley
    Stunning Chardonnay. Nice lemon zest and slightly tropical aromas. Full bodied, a little buttery even, yet fresh. Layered flavors. Gets a bit earthy on the finish, while the acidity adds a mouth-watering component. Flat out delicious with loads of concentration. Doesn't have the nasty burnt popcorn quality that ruins so many Chards, yet gets the texture and body that ML and sur lees aging can bring. Well done!

  • 2006 L'Ecole No. 41 Merlot Seven Hills Vineyard - USA, Washington, Columbia Valley, Walla Walla Valley
    This is a stunning Merlot. Complex, nuanced aromas and layered flavors. Leather, floral, spice and cherry aromas on the nose--a true bouquet that is elevated above individual components. Hits on the palate with fresh red fruit, then elegantly transitions to a long, coffee-filled finish. No rough edges. A lot of structure here even if the tannin and acid isn't obtrusive. A fair amount of oak, though very complimentary. Just the right mix of restrained fruit, hints of herbaceous flavors and secondary aromas. For those who prefer nuanced new world wines. Seems age-worthy based on structure and tightly wound palate.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

TN: Montes Alpha 2007 Carménère

Sometimes I wonder why I don't pick up more Chilean wines, especially those made from the quasi-indigenous Carménère (car-men-air) grape variety. But then a wine like the Montes Alpha 2007 Carménère comes along and reminds me that Chile can spoof up wines with the best of them. You just never really know if you'll be getting a tasty Internationally styled wine or one so overdone that it's borderline undrinkable.

This isn't a truly bad wine, but it completely paves over the fruit with a highway of oak and extraction. This is some anonymous dark extracted tannic red wine aged in some new oak barrels--I'd be unsurprised if staves and oak chips were involved as well--nothing more. There's zero character, which utterly defeats the purpose of having a unique varietal.

For $16, this is a D- effort. I don't have terribly high expectations at this price point, but balance is one of them. Incidentally, this got 91 points from both the Wine Advocate (well, my nemesis Jay Miller to be precise) and Wine Enthusiast. I can see why this could appeal in a brief tasting since it's flashy upfront. But the critics completely missed as far as I'm concerned because this is a shallow, cynical imitation of better wines.
  • 2007 Montes Carménère Alpha Marchigüe - Chile, Central Valley, Rapel Valley, Colchagua Valley
    I've never licked the inside of a barrel, but I suspect this wine is a decent approximation. Vanilla slathered cedar aromas with some black currant underneath it. Not bad on the attack with dark fruit. But hollows out rapidly in the mid-palate until there's nothing left but oak and over-roasted Starbucks coffee and a sticky caramel flavor on the finish. Very cynical and spoofulated, though not technically flawed. No varietal character (where's the veggies?) whatsoever, no sense of place. It's been a while since I've had a wine as anonymous as this. Not enough acidity, either.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Tasting Justin Wines

Justin Winery held a tasting at East Beach Wine a couple weeks ago, and since they make a well-received Cab Franc blend called Justification, it was a tasting that was of particular interest. When Jeff at Viva la Wino raves over a premium California wine, well, you know it has something special. Beyond that aspect, though, I was curious to see what Justin had to offer over its full spectrum of wines. From their glossy website, it's evident these folks are bringing a Napa-style tasting resort and Napa-level capital to their Paso Robles winery. Usually Napa-level prices follow, and the question is then whether the wines deliver what the price demands.

Here are my notes:

2009 Sauvignon Blanc - $16. Crisp, very acidic, lemon, tangerine, creamy (sur lees aged), angular, a little bitter, weak finish, food wine

2009 Chardonnay - $18. Toasty, flowers, acidic, crisp (no ML), buttery with barrel flavors, toasty finish, angular, oak barrel flavors/aromas

2008 Cabernet Sauvignon - $27. Currant & cherry, a bit medicinal, vanilla & toast, mild tannin and acidity

2007 Justification - $43. Cherry & currant, spice, cinnamon, a little savory, layered, long finish, great balance, great acidity, mouth-watering, 65% Cab Franc, 35% Merlot

2007 Isosceles - $65. Dark fruit, very ripe but not pruney, good acid, structured, red fruit freshness, sweet oak, chocolate, 88% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Cab Franc, 4% Merlot

2008 Obtuse - $25. Fortified port-style wine made from Cabernet Sauvignon, very sweet, raisin and bell pepper aromas

Although this sounds a bit paradoxical, the better values in the lineup are the more expensive wines. The first three wines were not especially interesting to be blunt. While they weren't flawed, they didn't offer anything special to differentiate themselves from the rank and file at their price points. The whites in particular had sharp acidity--both are listed around 8 g/L TA on their tech sheets--which is not something I usually rag on. It's possible 2009 whites are still bottled shocked, though, so perhaps these will come around. The Cab, meanwhile, tasted simple and generic. At $25-$30, there should be excitement, and there are Cabs at half that price that offer what one gets here. This is the wine for people who want to say "I'm druhinking the Juh-stin Cah-bur-ney" in their stuffiest New England accent while wearing one of those sport coats with patches on the elbows and khakis.

The tasting turned around with the Justification, however. It's a rather elegant, layered wine with plenty of fresh, ripe fruit. I'm with Jeff on this. It's really good and justifies (ha!) its price quite well. The Isosceles is not necessary better, though it's different. It's a manly, dark wine. And I can understand the $65 price, though it's not going to win any awards for value and I personally wouldn't spend that much. The port-style Cabernet was not especially interesting--it tasted like an overripe Cab had alcohol dumped into it. That's what it is, of course, but it's not greater than the sum of its parts as one might hope.

So, that's about what I expected. High prices, but with commensurate quality about half the time. Knock about $5 or $10 off the price of each bottle and the value would be much more attractive. I think to some extent you are paying for the name here. However, one could do worse when it comes to boutique California producers, though Justin's production really is above true boutique levels at about 45,000 cases per year. This is definitely a producer where you need to cherry pick exactly what you like given what you'd be paying.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Franc Fest 2010

A Saturday in late September marks the highlight of the Santa Barbara County Cabernet Franc calendar. That day is Franc Fest, a tasting at Buttonwood Farm Winery featuring Cabernet Franc from a dozen or more local vintners. I attended the 2008 edition, but missed the 2009 tasting. Fortunately, I was able to attend the 2010 Franc Fest, and having a better sense of the producers I like, selectively tasted producers of interest.

I'll be honest. I took notes, but I wasn't dumping or spitting. So take everything with a large grain of salt. Looking in chronological order, the notes go from detailed, to sparse, to non-existent. Take what you will from that little nugget of info. Additionally, it was about 100 degrees out, and not every winery did a good job keeping the wines chilled. Only Longoria had ice buckets and others seemed to be swapping bottles in and out of coolers.

Going from memory, the following producers were present: Sforzando, Longoria, Foxen, Buttonwood, Happy Canyon, Silver, Sunstone, McKeon-Phillips, Lucas & Lewellen, Brander, Daniel Gehrs and Alexander & Wayne. I suppose we did pretty well in retrospect, though Sunstone and Alexander & Wayne we missed completely, while Lucas & Lewellen we caught only in passing. On top of that, we also tasted a couple of old wines made by Antonio Gardella under the Companeros label from Buttonwood fruit in the mid-1990s. Comments and notes by producer--when available--are below. A key distinction to keep in mind is the location of vineyard sources. In principle Santa Barbara County is quite diverse and complexity can be achieved by blending different vineyard sources. Here's a quick run down of the climates for different zones.

Los Alamos-cooler, but not really cool climate like Santa Rita Hills

Santa Maria Valley-also cooler, but not truly cold, though this does vary a fair amount depending on micro-climate

Santa Ynez-warmer, though again it varies from west to east, south to north from cooler to hotter due to the faster burn-off of the marine layer as you move inland

Happy Canyon-this is the hottest zone and makes riper, bigger, jammier wines

Foxen Vineyards

Foxen had two Cabernet Francs, one from the historic, dry-farmer Tinaquaic Vineyard of the Santa Maria AVA, the other from Rock Hollow Vineyard in Santa Ynez. Tasting these side by side, there was little doubt which was the old vine, terroir driven wine and which came from sourced grapes. Foxen is apparently increasing production, and while the Rock Hollow Cab Franc is a nice varietal wine, hopefully it's priced significantly less than the justifiable $40 tag of the Tinaquaic. The Tinaquaic Cab Franc really has that essence of the grape and the earth, like a serious Chinon. It's earthy and somewhat vegetative on the nose, yet concentrated with intense dark fruit on the palate. It has that California cool-climate complexity as well as the body and fruit. But it's not nearly as acidic (think pomegranite or cranberry) as a Chinon. One of the best wines there without a doubt, and I'm glad I have a 2006 in my cellar that I purchased on faith.

2008 Rock Hollow Cabernet Franc: Santa Ynez Valley, earthy, tobacco, vanilla, medium acid, medium body

2008 Tinaquaic Cabernet Franc: Santa Maria Valley, earthy, raspberry, more tobacco and herbs, tannic, concentrated with a core of fruit

Longoria Wines

OK, this is a personal favorite, so it's hard to be objective. They poured an older Cab Franc as well as their current releases of two Cab Franc-based blends. For my palate, the 2002 Cab Franc, a blend of fruit from Vogelzang, Gainey and Alisos Vineyards, was the real winner. These vineyards span the county from the hot Happy Canyon, to the warm Santa Ynez, to the cooler Los Alamos, respectively. Add in some bottle age, and that's a recipe for complexity. Interestingly the higher-end bottling, Evidence, was least interesting. It just seemed riper, oakier and more tannic without the complexing earthiness I like. I suspect the larger dose of Happy Canyon Cabernet Sauvignon might be to blame here.

2002 Cabernet Franc: Santa Barbara County, evolved slightly sweet roaster fruit aromas w/ dried herbs, mellowed fruit with firm tannins on the palate, very nice

2007 Blues Cuvee: Santa Barbara County, 31% Cab Franc (Alisos in Los Alamos), 27% Merlot (Alisos), 24% Syrah (Clover Creek in Santa Ynez), 18% Cab Sauv (Estelle in Happy Canyon), herbs and dark fruit, tannic, sweeter fruit but with fresh acids

2007 Evidence: Santa Barbara County, 40% Cab Franc (Alisos in Los Alamos), 35% Cab Sauv (Estelle in Happy Canyon), 19% Merlot (Alisos), 6% Malbec (Rancho Sisquoc in Santa Maria), richer, oakier, less herbs, more tannins


This producer operates out of an industrial park in Santa Maria, sourcing their Franc primarily from Los Alamos, though they also mentioned they have a source in Santa Ynez. Whatever the difference, be it vintage or vineyard, their 2006 and 2007 Cab Francs were wildly different. The 2006 is a simple fruit and oak bomb. Good, but simple. The 2007, however, takes those ingredients, dials them back a bit, and adds a layer of depth and complexity. This was one of my favorites of the day.

2006 Cabernet Franc: Santa Barbara County, vanilla, dark fruit, fat, oaky, simple, a bomber

2007 Cabernet Franc: Santa Barbara County, more complex, earthy, spicy, vanilla, full bodied, dark fruit, mild tannin, very good

Silver Wines

Benjamin Silver tells it like it is. In fact, he's a "straight shooter with upper management written all over him." Except he already runs his own wine label, so I guess he is upper management. While tasting his 1998, 2000, 2001 and 2008 Cab Francs, Silver lamented the impossibility of Cab Franc fetching Cab Sauv prices, even when just as good. Silver also discussed his preference for larger framed Cab Franc, which is why he blended Cab Sauv into his older bottlings, which incidentally were holding up quite well. Other topics covered included aged Loire Cab Franc--he says they age really well--and creating a great Santa Barbara Cab Franc--he says the way to go is blending from a variety of vineyards.

2000 Cabernet Franc: concentrated, still tannic, mildly earthy, has aged well

2001 Cabernet Franc: under 'Ojo Rojo' label, VA, w/ bell pepper, similar to Bedford's 2001 CF, also from Thompson vineyard

2008 Cabernet Franc: Tierra Alta Vineyard in Ballard Canyon (Santa Ynez), light, fresh, mouthwatering, pepper and floral aromas, like a Pinot Noir with Cab Franc flavor profile

Other Wines and Wineries

The rest of the producers I didn't follow up on as closely, but there are still a few comments and tasting notes to be added.

Buttonwood 2007 Cabernet Franc: A complete Cab Franc with plenty of structure, fruit and earth. I tasted this a few months ago and didn't get much from it, but this is a very good wine that seems much cleaner than older Buttonwood releases.

Happy Canyon 2007 (?) Piocho: I'm not 100% certain on the vintage, though 2007 is their current release. This was one I didn't get. Seemed rather flabby with both earthy and jammy aromas. Just not a fan of the Happy Canyon area, it seems.

Daniel Gehrs 2005 Cabernet Franc: Plum jam, low acid, not much earth, light tannin, a fruit bomb.

Sforzando 2005 Cabernet Franc: Plummy, band aid/horse sweat, medicinal, full bodied, spicy pepper finish. They also had 2009 barrel samples from a neutral and a new oak barrel. The new oak sample seemed attenuated, but more structured, while the neutral oak sample seemed more direct in its peppery, fruity expression. I liked mixing the two together to get a nice blend.

In sum, I tended to prefer the cooler climate versions, though the blended Cab Francs utilizing multiple climates also fared very well. Then again, it was hot as hell there, and the serving temperature didn't exactly flatter many of the wines. So that's a huge grain of salt to take with these comments.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Southern France vs. Santa Barbara Rhones at EBW

Local wine shop East Beach Wine hosted a tasting of Rhone blends from Southern France and Santa Barbara County recently with wines in the $15 to $30 range. So nothing super cheap, but nothing really high end, either. I won't mince words: France dominated the tasting. There weren't any bad wines, but the French wines had that elusive structure and complexity to complement the fruit. And, amusingly, the only really Bretty wine was a California one.

Here's the lineup with my guesses and the reveal:

Wine #1: Kirsch, cherry jam, wet dirt smoked meat, fairly fresh
Guess: Inexpensive French wine, mostly Grenache
Actual: Guigal 2006 Cotes du Rhone, $16, 50% Syrah, 40% Grenache, 10% Mourvedre

Wine #2: Dark fruit, meaty, vanilla, spice, sweeter, some heat
Guess: California, Syrah and Grenache, probably Beckmen Cuvee le Bec
Actual: Beckmen 2008 Santa Barbara County Cuvee le Bec, $18, 51% Grenache, 27% Syrah, 16% Mourvèdre, 6% Counoise

Wine #3: Eucalyptus, smokey, more tannic, earth driven, minerality
Guess: French, Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre (in that order)
Actual: Chateau La Rouque 2008 Pic St. Loup Rouge, $18, 65% Grenache, 25% Syrah and 15%, Mourvèdre

Wine #4: Reductive/funky, toe jam, fruit up front, herbs on finish
Guess: California, Grenache
Actual: Qupe 2008 Santa Ynez Valley Los Olives Cuvee, $21, 53% Syrah, 25% Grenache and 22% Mourvedre

Wine #5: Funky, animal sweat, medicinal, sweet, hot, less structure
Guess: California, Syrah with Grenache and Mourvedre
Actual: Kunin 2005 Pape Star, $24, 50% Grenache, 25% Mourvedre and 25% Syrah

Wine #6: Garrigue, lavender, eucalyptus, tannic, sweet fruit then tannins clamp down, bitter chocolate
Guess: French, Syrah then Grenache
Actual: Perrin & Fils 2007 Vinsobres Cotes du Rhone Villages Les Cornuds, $29, 50% Syrah and 50% Grenache

I guess I did well in some respects, not so well in others. Guessing the county of origin, good. Even got one wine completely right as I'd tasted it before. But figuring out the blend was only sporadically on target.

As for the wines, Santa Barbara County did poorly. Wines #6 and #3, the Perrin Les Cornuds and the Chateau La Roque Rouge, were clear favorites, with #4, the Qupe Los Olivos Cuvee coming in a distant 3rd. The Qupe probably was a bit young given that it seemed reductive, so that didn't help it out much. But the other two California wines just lacked structure and the Kunin Pape Star was borderline flawed depending on how much Brett you can tolerate. Chateau La Roque has been a favorite on this blog, and the 2008 base-level blend was as good as the several different wines I tried from the 2007 vintage. Great value producer.

Monday, October 4, 2010

TN: Rhone Style Reds

I've been on a bit of a Rhone kick, and here are three Rhone blends from different regions. The most expensive at $20 of the trio, the Domaine Joncier 2007 Lirac Cuvée Classique, was also my favorite. At its core was intense perhaps slightly roasted fruit, but it had genuine structure and depth including the "garrigue" aromas of herbs like sage and lavender. This definitely has the structure to stay in the cellar for a few years which is rare at this price point. According to several sources, this is mostly Grenache with Syrah, Mourvedre, Cinsault and Carignan rounding it out in that order. Imported by Kermit Lynch.

The next two were less successful, however. The Alere 2006 Santa Barbara County Mourvedre was $12 on closeout. There was nothing wrong with it, but it just had very little character or intensity of flavor to it despite being grown in the hotter inland mountains of Santa Barbara County. This one had 10% Grenache and 5% Syrah added to the Mourvedre, though in the end it was rather generic. For the price, a fair value. Finally, there's the Château de Sérame 2005 Minervois Réserve du Château, which comes from the Languedoc region in Southern France. Minervois is a sub-appellation, or cru, in Languedoc that is sufficiently unique to warrant its own designation. This one was priced at $18, after some discounting. Unfortunately, it did not deliver. It was hot and bitter on the finish, though the 50% Mouvedre, 40% Grenache and 10% Carignan blend was initially quite promising.

What did I learn? Well, all these are wines from locales off the beaten path. There are some real gems like the Joncier Lirac from appellations that don't get a lot of attention. But you need some guidance. Skip the closeouts and just buy what Kermit Lynch stocks, even at full price. It's worth the few extra bucks.
  • 2007 Domaine du Joncier Lirac Le Classique - France, Rhône, Southern Rhône, Lirac
    Garrigue! Plus red and black fruits. A complete wine really. Sufficient acidity, red and black fruit attack, tannins and roasted herbs take over finish. A bit of dark chocolate, too. Really good wine at a very fair price! I suspect this is worth following over some time, 3-5 years if not a decade. Quite a classic French wine with the velvet glove/iron fist play going on.
  • 2006 Alere Vineyards Mourvedre - USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Barbara County
    Pretty much middle of the road. Medium body, med/high acid, and a bit light on flavor. A solid table wine. Some Mourvedre funk on the nose, but otherwise not much. A bit medicinal and vanilla on the finish. Not much style or varietal character, though it's perfectly acceptable as a table wine.

  • 2005 Château de Sérame Minervois Réserve du Château - France, Languedoc Roussillon, Languedoc, Minervois
    Problematic heat, though I like the blend of 50% Mourvedre, 40% Grenache, 10% Carignan. Gamey nose with oak spice, herbs and blackberry. Dark fruit flavor, a bit hollow in the middle, then an oaky, bitter and hot finish. Just way too much alcohol showing (listed at 14.5%). The finish is just aggressive and bad despite the interesting upfront characteristics.