Monday, February 16, 2009

Tasting Notes (Feb. 12): Cabernet Sauvignon, Or, Hail to the King

As much I've been into syrahs lately, I have to admit that cabernet sauvignon is still the one grape that, when it soars to the heights it's capable of, can mesmerize like no other wine, with simultaneous strength, balance, concentration, elegance, and sheer flavor. As (potentially) an "iron fist in a velvet glove," cabernet, when done well, deserves its reputation as the king of grapes.

Now, the notes:

1. Clos du Marquis 2002 (Bordeaux, France; $49.99/bottle)
Still somewhat young at seven years old, this medium-full-bodied Bordeaux (the "second" bottling of Chateau Leoville la Cases) is nevertheless drinking beautifully, with a spicy, earthy nose and gorgeous flavors of black currant, tar, leather, dried leaves, and a hint of wet stone. Balanced and very smooth. Excellent. Rating: 93

2. Cignale 2001 (Tuscany, Italy; $72.99/bottle)
Full-bodied, sweetly ripe, and incredibly sensuous, with almost primordially earthy flavors and aromas of black plum, mushrooms, animal hide, chocolate, and spice. Beautiful. Rating: 94

3. Columbia Crest Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Washington; $34.99/bottle)
The first time I tried this wine (last week) I thought it was lackluster, but it was my first sample of the day, and I didn't go back. This time, with some warm-up samples under my belt, I saw this wine's charms: bright acidity and sweet, jammy plum and rhubarb fruit are laced with rich vanilla and lead to a lively, licorice-tinged finish. A bit one-note, but it's a good note. Rating: 91

4. Schweiger Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 (Napa; $49.99/bottle)
Full-bodied and very smooth, with black currant, black earth, spice, and tar notes. Ripe, well-integrated tannins and acidity from the cool Spring Mountain fruit lend a hard-to-resist elegance. Drinking beautifully now, but may not hit full stride for another 3-5 years. Rating: 93

5. Los Vascos Cabernet Sauvignon Colchagua Reserve 2004 (Colchagua, Chile; 16.99/bottle)
Very big, bold, and concentrated, this South American cabernet is not for the faint of heart. Full-bodied, with assertive flavors of blackberry, earthy leather, and (telltale Chilean) baked stuffed bell pepper. A bit rough around the edges, but overall not bad (and a decent value). Rating: 86

6. Vinum Africa 2006 (South Africa; $17.99/bottle)
With a nose of currant, plum, smoke, and pepper, this medium-full-bodied cabernet is super-smoky on the palate, with round but penetrating blackberry fruit and chewy, peppery tannins. Bold, classic South African wine. Think BBQ. Rating: 88

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Tasting Notes (Pick-a-Week Edition: Jan. 8)

I had promised to keep up with recent notes and fill in with backlogged ones as time permits. Well, time permits me to post last Thursday's Rhone notes, but I just realized I forgot to get pictures of the bottles, so I don't remember all the vitals--specific blends/bottlings, vintages, etc.

So as I track them down, here are some notes from the Jan. 8 Aussie tasting. I don't have numerical ratings for them, because I took the notes before I started assigning them. (And, by the way, this was an absolutely exceptional tasting. Not a bad wine in the bunch, and several outstanding ones.)

1. Evans and Tate Chardonnay 2005 ($18.99/bottle)
An interesting and appealing nose of fried apples, smoke, and flint gives way to a rich, creamy, mouthfilling body, with a flash of acidity and stony minerality to provide balance. The finish is long and vibrant. Very nice.

2. Rosemount Balmoral Syrah 1999 ($29.99/bottle)
Yes, it's an Aussie that calls itself syrah instead of shiraz, presumably an homage to shiraz's forerunners in the Rhone. This full-bodied red has a beautiful, complex nose of dark berries, coffee, pepper, leather, graphite, and tree bark, with an intense, peppery kick to the raspberry, leather, and tobacco notes on the palate. Firmly tannic and quite acidic, this wine needs at least 3-5 more years in the bottle. Let's hope the fruit holds out that long, because if it does, this will be breathtaking.

3. Tait Ballbuster 2006 ($17.99/bottle)
Rich, full-bodied, and easy-drinking, with raspberry, blueberry and cola notes, and lots of nice, spicy tar on the back end. This wine nods toward complexity, but it doesn't demand that you think about it--only that you enjoy it. Great value.

4. Kalleske Greenock Shiraz 2005 ($49.99/bottle)
Rich, ripe, and very smooth, with flavors and aromas of blackberry, raspberry, spice, and tar. Not overly complex, but seamlessly executed, with a very welcome touch of elegance you don't normally find in "big" Aussie shirazes.

5. Massena The 11th Hour Shiraz 2005 ($49.99/bottle)
The nose on this one is so complex--each time I went back, I got something new--it seems almost a shame to drink it. Until you taste it, that is. Thick, almost chewy, this is nevertheless not your standard fruit bomb, with nice balance and well-integrated flavors of black currant, tar, pepper, and leather and a very long, luxurious finish. Very, very good.

6. Glaetzer Amon-Ra 2005 (no price listed on sheet; high $70's, I think)
A big, big wine, with classic Aussie aromas and flavors of black and blue berries, spice, vanilla, and black olive. This shiraz could have been too rich for its own good, but for a brilliant streak of acidity that gives it a lovely, sprightly quality despite its overall heft. A stellar offering.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Tasting Notes (Jan 29): Italy

1. La Valentina Montepulciano d'Abruzzo 2005
Subtle, with a light-medium body and flavors and aromas of cherry, cola, and tar. Finishes with a nice, if faint, smokiness. Refreshing and crisply acidic--think pizza. Rating: 86

2. Ambra Carmignano 2004
Sweet plum, damp leaves, rose petals, and cocoa define the nose and palate on this medium-bodied, rich, earthy Tuscan red. Tart fruit, full acidity, and moderate tannins make this a food wine (a bit puckery on its own). Try with rich pastas and mushroom dishes. Rating: 88

3. Allegrini Valpollicella 2007
The nose on this red from Northwest Italy is very fruity and grapey, almost Beaujolais Nouveau-like. Thankfully, the palate shows more depth, with bright berry and currant notes and some balancing leather and earthy violet notes emerging on the back end. Rating: 87

4. Planeta Syrah 2005
Dark and spicy, with a fairly complex palate showing black plum, blackberry, graphite, and chocolate notes. More austere and structured than the 2004, with still-assertive tannins. Good personality and staying power. Cellar for 2-4 years and drink over the next six. Rating: 91

5. Casanova di Nori Brunello di Montalcino 2003
This rich, full-bodied Brunello has an almost irresistibly sensuous nose of mushroom, earth, and sweet sandalwood. Ripe black plum fruit and fine tannins provide a sturdy platform for complex and delicate earth, floral, spice, and leather secondary notes. The finish is very long and minty, bordering on eucalyptic. Cellar for 3-5 more years; drink over the next 15. Rating: 94

6. Ascheri Sorano Barolo 2001
Full-bodied with sharp acidity and bold tannins, with cherry, tobacco, and pencil lead notes barely peeking through a quite muted palate. This wine may be in a temporary "dumb phase," after which it will re-emerge as the beauty it (as a 2001 Barolo) is expected to be. No rating: try again in a year or two.

7. Gancia Mercato d'Asti (NV)
Super-fruity nose, bubble-gum like, with apple and gardenia flavors. Simple, sweet, and bubbly. Drink and forget (but enjoy nonetheless). 84

Monday, January 26, 2009

Playing Catch-Up with Pinots

As I work to make up ground on my embarrassing backlog of posts, I'll start in the near past and work my way back. That way, the newer posts will feature wines that, if you were at the tasting, will still be reasonably fresh in your mind.

I'll start with last Thursday's pinot noir tasting, which was an absolute delight. If you know me, you know how I feel about the Sideways-inspired pinot craze. But there are lots of damn good ones out there--several of which were poured this night. A few were even priced reasonably. (Will wonders never cease?)

Also, I'm experimenting with a 100 pt. scale numerical rating system. I started doing it for myself as a way to help me better access my memories and experiences of the wines, and I thought I'd include those ratings here to see how they float. Just remember, though--one person's 85 may be another's 92. If you find yourself over time agreeing with my assessments, then you can rely all you want on my numbers. If you have a harder time identifying with my descriptions and ratings, then you should probably try the wines for yourself.

Now, the notes:

1. Chandon Brut NV ($24.99/bottle)
This is a basic, serviceable Champagne-style sparkler. Better than anything you'll get at most New Years' parties, though not as good as what you might expect for $25. For the money, I'd go with a Cava (Spain) or a Prosecco (Italy). Still, not bad. Rating: 83

2. Labaume Mercurey 1er Cru 2002 ($39.99/bottle)
Smooth and light-bodied, this Burgundy shows pure but lean, tart black cherry fruit with earthy, forest-floor secondary notes. Would be a beautiful wine, but ultimately the fruit is just too thin. Rating: 85

3. Tohu Marlborough 2004 ($24.99/bottle)
This is 2/3 of a beautiful wine: enchanting nose, gorgeous flavors, and no finish. Cherry, cola, cedar sawdust, and earth infuse this refined, medium-bodied, aromatic pinot. For food pairing, think cedar plank roasted salmon or duck stuffed with wild cherries. Rating: 91

4. Styring Signature 2005 ($26.99/bottle)
The beautiful, seductive, Old-World-style nose on this pinot suggests crushed violets, graphite, and musky earth. On the full side of medium-bodied and very smooth, with a solid core of acidity to keep the ripe fruit and deep, rich earthiness on their feet. Finishes with cherry and black licorice. Rating: 92

5. Au Bon Climat Santa Maria Valley 2004 ($39.99/bottle)
This wine's nose is rich and dark, with beautiful if subtle nuances of earth, grapefruit, and medicinal herbs. Super complex and almost mesmerizingly smooth, the palate is a riot of perfectly-poised oppositions: bitter but sweet, brooding but upbeat, darkly rich but light on its feet. It's like great literature in a glass. Rating: 94

6. Kosta Browne Sonoma Coast 2006 ($69.99/bottle)
Unbelievably smooth, this wine features fine, ripe tannins to go with the standard bolt of acidity. The result is an uncommonly-structured, age-worthy pinot (5-7 yrs.) with indulgent aromas and flavors of cherry, fresh strawberry, sweet vanilla, cinnamon, and something like tree bark. Less challenging to the senses than the Au Bon Climat, this pinot is expertly executed and (almost) too easy to love. Rating: 94

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Best of 2008

OK, I'm refreshed. After eight months, I suppose it's time to start posting again, and what better time to re-engage than now? I was extremely lucky to taste hundreds of good wines in 2008 (and a few stinkers), but the double bakers' dozen below represents my top 26 wines of the year. These are the wines that are the most memorable, and are all wines that I personally rated as 92+ scores. Without further ado (ahem, drum roll please...):

26. Sokol Blosser Pinot Noir Dundee Hills 2006 - I enjoyed this rich, fruit-forward Pinot at the winery in Oregon on a perfectly chilly and blustery day in late September. The spicy cherry cola flavors were intense. A fabulous wine for the price.

25. Alto Moncayo Garnacha 2005 - Full-bodied, with gobs of ripe fruit, good acidity and black pepper to keep it honest. Hedonistic to the extreme.

24. Vina Tondonia Gran Reserva White Rioja 1981 - A 27-year-old White Rioja makes the list you ask? Well, for the lucky few who tried this at one of the slowest tastings of the year, it was savory with soft fruit and even some acidity left. Bizarre, memorable, and downright surprisingly good.

23. Domaine Serene Evenstad Reserve Pinot Noir 2005 - The second of three Oregon Pinot Noirs on the list, this is one beauty of a wine.

22. Chateau Haut-Bailly 2005 - There is a reason why the 2005 Bordeaux vintage has been hailed as the best of my lifetime, and this youngster offered a glimpse into a very bright future. Tight, tannic and likely 10+ years away from drinking well, this still offered an amazingly silky mouthfeel with just a skosh of fruit hiding in the background. Check back in 2018, and this might wind up being the very best wine on this list.

21. Owen Roe Cabernet Franc Rosa Mystica 2006 - This completely redefined what I thought Cab Franc could be. Beautiful soft fruit with floral notes and a wonderful mouthfeel. Wish I had more.

20. Chateau de Serame 2005 - The best value wine of the year, hands down. For less than $20, it offered a boatload of tar complexity with good, dark fruit. Outstanding stuff.

19. Luca Pinot Noir 2005 - Another game-changer. If someone had told me that one of the very best bottles of Pinot Noir that I'd try would come from the home of Malbec, I would have chuckled. Then, I would have laughed some more. Well, this is a serious Pinot from Argentina that sports purity of fruit and an elegant mouthfeel reminiscent of the likes of Sea Smoke.

18. Chateau d'Yquem 2001 - I must be doing something right, when a Wine Spectator 100-point classic dessert wine is only my 4th favorite sweet wine of the year.

17. Bergstrom Estate Dundee Hills Pinot Noir 2006 - After double-checking my notes, I think this was the best Oregon Pinot that I had the pleasure to try in 2008. Everything you'd expect with a super-silky mouthfeel.

16. Massena The Howling Dog 2005 - After drinking (and enjoying) dozens of great Australian wines in 2007, I severely cut back my Aussie intake in '08. Still, this Petite Sirah was a monster with oodles of dark fruit, spice and tar. Delicious.

15. Louis Guntrum Trockenbeerenauslese 1994 - This German dessert wine confirmed what I had expected: Higher-end TBA's are worth seeking out and rival the best dessert wines in the world. Sweet apple and citrus are brushed back by amazing acidity here. Truly a party in your mouth.

14. Chappellet Cabernet Sauvignon Pritchard Hill Estate 2005 - One of my personal tasting trends that seemed to take center stage this past year was a deep passion for tar. Yes, for some reason I have found that red wines with dark rich fruit and a splash of tarry goodness render me weak-kneed and vulnerable. This was one of those wines....

....and this takes us up to our top 13 wines of the year. The best bakers dozen that money can buy:

13. Royal Tokaji Aszu 5 Puttonyos 2000 - I had this all the way back on January 3rd, 2008 and it was an absolute revelation. Sure, it's sweet, but it's also laced with a myriad of flavors including a blast of tobacco. Unbelievably complex and thought-provoking.

12. El Nido Clio 2005 - I don't think I had a new-world red last year that did a better job of juggling intense, ripe fruit and sweet vanilla oak quite like this one did. Hedonistic, delicious and bordering on shameful.

11. Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle 1988 - Another great learning experience. I never knew that a 20-year-old Hermitage could taste so bright and fresh, and be so drinkable. Class dismissed.

10. Fattoria Della Vitae Brunello di Montalcino 1997 - This outstanding Brunello was overshadowed by my favorite wine of the year, which was consumed at the same tasting. After re-reading my tasting notes though, this was a solid top-10 wine itself. Waves of milk chocolate and tar keep coming at you, surfing on a beautiful mouthfeel. Awesome stuff.

9. D.R. Stephens Cabernet Sauvignon Moose Valley 2004 - Unbelievably complex, yet full-bodied and bursting with ripe fruit. A stellar wine, and the best modern California Cab I had in 2008.

8. Domaine Morey-Coffinet Chassagne Montrachet La Romanee Premier Cru 2004 - One of the most vexing wines of the year. When I first tasted this White Burgundy with Sara at a July trade show in Columbus, we both were floored by the bacon fat nose and explosion of smoky fruit on the palate *from a Chardonnay *. At that moment, and it was early enough in the tasting that I knew my palate was still fresh, I proclaimed it the best dry white wine I'd ever tried. Fast forward a month when we poured it at the market, and it didn't show anything, was even a tad boring, and you can understand my conundrum. Well, I know what I tasted at the show, and Sara has my back on this. It was crazy good.

7. Le Vieux Donjon Chateauneuf-du-Pape 2001 - I read somewhere that a sweet spot for CdP can be somewhere around 7 years. Well, I had this wine twice in 2008, and while slightly better the first time in September, it was fantastic both times. Just a perfect balance of red berries, meat, olives and crushed rocks. One of the best Chateauneufs I've ever had, if not THE best.

6. Ridge Montebello 1992 - This is the one California wine that I've tried through the years that I believe stands up to the aging potential of many top Bordeaux wines from France. Black currant and lead pencil show the way for a terrific wine that still has several years of life left.

5. Domaine Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage Blanc 2005 - Another revelation. This was my first White Hermitage, and I luckily started at the top. Oily and peppery and so complex, if I had closed my eyes I never would have thought this was a white wine. Powerful.

4. Rosenblum Kick Ranch Reserve Syrah 2005 - Like an ultra-rich Cote-Rotie. Rich and almost gooey, yet not cloying. This is a bowl of fresh dark berries with a couple slices of smoked bacon floating on a bed of heavy cream. My most hedonistic wine of the year.

3. Cayuse En Chamberlin Syrah 2004 - I believe that Washington has one of the brightest futures of any wine region in the world. I also believe that Cayuse is one of the 10 finest wineries on the planet, and this Syrah was the most complex red wine that I tried all year. A medley of smoked meats dominates the nose, and the palate reveals over a dozen flavors to process. Not everyone who tried this wine last February liked it, as the smoky, meaty character might have been off-putting, but it was a near-perfect experience for me.

2. Baumard Quarts de Chaume 2002 - This list was basically set, until I had the opportunity to try this with Lance and Mike a couple days before the new year, and the rest is history. The best dessert wine I've ever had? Check. Sweet melon and honeysuckle flavors replaced by an incredibly fresh, zesty lemon flavor on the finish? Check. A finish that lasts forever? Check. Lush, silky mouthfeel? Check. This was simply an amazing experience.

1. Chateau Pichon Lalande 1989 - Despite having a boatload of outstanding wines the past few years, I think I was still waiting for that moment to happen. The moment when I tried a wine and suddenly felt justified spending $1,000 or more on a bottle. That moment when I knew what the experts were talking about when mentioning truly classic, life-changing wines. That moment when I'd sip a wine and remember it for the rest of my life. Well, that moment came last Spring as I sipped my first taste of the '89 Lalande, and as quickly as it hit my tongue the wine melted away. To say this wine had a great mouthfeel is the understatement of the year. Lance described it as "hot fat", and I'll always remember the incredulous look on his face when he first sipped it, not to mention the little dance May performed when she had a taste. It was a classic, life-changing wine.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Tasting Notes: Merlots and Merlot-Based Blends

I don't have the exact date for this tasting, but I think it was Nov. 6. I've skipped over the blind tasting, because my notes are designed to help me identify the wines, not describe them. They're less detailed and more idiosyncratic than my normal notes, and they wouldn't make for good reading--assuming any of my notes ever do.

(Yes, I've posted my blind tasting notes in the past, but this time I really focused on identifying the wines and not on taking descriptive notes. Maybe that's why I landed Stimmels' first ever perfect score! Does this mean you can trust my palate? No, probably not--at least, not beyond my ability to tell a gossamer pinot noir from an oozing shiraz, and maybe a level or two in between. If anything, it just means I'm a decent test taker.)

Anyway, on to the Merlot notes:

1. Chateau Haut Surget Lalande de Pomerol 2003
Simple, decent, medium-bodied red, with aromas and flavors of plum, cranberry, and leathery earth. Moderate tannins.

2. Chateau Fleur Cardinale 2003
A touch tart, a touch tannic, this red would work well with a fatty dish like prime rib or even a richly-sauced salmon filet. Dark and earthy, with blackberry, spice, and tobacco flavors, and a nice crescendo of vanilla on the finish.

3. Dunham Cellars Trutina 2005
Definitely a new-world merlot, this red from Washington state is full-bodied and sweetly ripe--at first. An enticing nose of blackberry, black earth, spicy tar, and violets gives way to similar flavors, laced with orange-spiced dark chocolate and a finish suggestive of citrus essence. There is some undesirable tartness on the mid-palate, though. Like it. Don't love it.

4. Kathryn Kennedy Lateral 2003
There's a flavor in wines that I have trouble putting into words, so I just call it "Napa," since it's present in so many Napa wines. The closest I can come to describing it is to call it a cross between herbaceousness and earthiness--with maybe some aromatic spice thrown in. Anyway, this exceptionally smooth, medium-full-bodied merlot has "Napa" in spades, not to mention some deliciously rich cassis, spice, and eucalyptus notes. Very good.

5. Flora Springs Napa Valley Merlot 2002
This merlot, at six years old, seems to have begun its descent. The fruit is beginning to taste just a touch raisiny, but there are still some very nice pepper and spice notes. Don't wait to drink this one--maybe with a nice lamb tagine, for which the raisin-y note could in fact be an asset.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Tasting Notes (Oct. 16): Wicked, Good Wines

Tonight's theme of "good vs. evil" gives new meaning to the term "wicked good." Here are the notes:

1. Chateau les Religieuses 2003
This is a very solid, though not mind-blowing, right-bank Bordeaux. It boasts a medium-full body, with flavors and aromas of blackberry, spice, damp leaves, and toast. The fruit is slightly tart, but the finish is long and tinged with an intriguing iron note.

2. Redemption Zin 2005
This is a big, juicy, full-bodied wine, with peppery, wild berry aromas and flavors of sweet cherry, rhubarb, and tobacco--all sheathed in rich vanilla. Think sweet barbecue.

3. Grant Burge "Holy Trinity" 2002
This smooth, full-bodied, ultra-sensuous wine comes at you with unmistakable aromas of dark berries, musk, and soy sauce. Sweetly ripe, it boasts big raspberry fruit, lots of pepper, and--as the nose forecasts--distinct notes of musk and soy. I have to admit that this almost over-ripe style of Aussie wine is not my favorite, but it's well done within that style. Try it for yourself.

4. Two Hands Angels Share Shiraz 2004
Most wine websites put an apostrophe before the "s" in "Angels," but there's not one on the label. Personally, I like the ambiguity of the apostrophe-less version. I also like this wine. It's classic shiraz: Full-bodied, with blackberry, pepper, spice, olive, and vanilla notes. Predictable? Perhaps. Beautifully executed? Absolutely.

5. "Evil" Cabernet Sauvignon 2007
This inexpensive cabernet ($10-12, if memory serves) boasts simple, juicy flavors and aromas of sweet cranberry with a touch of leather. Moderate tannins provide some grip and hold up the fruit nicely. Better than the 2006 vintage. A good value.

6. Trio Infernal Cuvee No. 1/3 2004
This Spanish blend of Garnacha (Grenache) and Carignan is full-bodied and smooth, with rich, enticing aromas and flavors of black cherry, licorice, tar, and toasty oak. Assertive tannins are still young; this wine drinks very well now but will be even better in 2-3 years.

7. Four Vines "The Heretic" Petit Syrah
This wine is rich, plump, and juicy, with easy-to-love flavors of dark berries, chocolate, spice, and cedar. Very nice.