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.