Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Chateau St. Jean Belle Terre Vineyard Chardonnay, 2003

If you read this blog regularly, you know that I have a preference for white Burgundy, primarily because I find many New World Chardonnays over-oaked and over-manipulated. This Belle Terre Chardonnay from Chateau St. Jean was barrel fermented, aged on its lees for nine months in small French oak barriques and put through 100 percent malolactic fermentation. That's hardly my style, but so what? This is an absolutely incredible wine.

Even at five years of age, the color is still medium light--not too dcep but with good brilliance and clarity. From the first sniff, the aromas project a distinctive personality that just keeps coming at you--white peaches, nutmeg, hazelnuts and roasted almonds. It has a spiciness that may be framed by oak treatment but must come basically from the qualities of the Belle Terre Vineyard. In the mouth, the wine has a creamy texture but the fruit flavors are very concentrated and well defined--peaches, melon, pears and that persistent spiciness. It must be at or near its peak because it dances on your tongue as only a few wines are capable of doing. Wow!

I sometimes buy the regular Chateau St. Jean Chardonnay when it's available for about $10 a bottle, and it's a serviceable wine. And I had the more expensive Chateau St. Jean Robert Young Vineyard Chardonnay once or twice; it too was a spectacular wine, although with a decidedly different personality. Chateau St. Jean's Belle Terre Chardonnay regularly sells for $28 to $30 a bottle--well outside of my price range. I was shocked to find this 2003 on the close-out shelves at Harding's Market on Crosstown Parkway in Kalamazoo for $13.39! After trying a bottle, I went back to load up. Help yourself to what's left; you won't regret it.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Boulder Bank Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc, 2007

I got a better appreciation for this wine when I tasted it alongside the 2007 Monkey Bay Marlborough Sauvignon. Both wines have the classic New Zealand qualities of green pepper, gooseberries and passion fruit, but this wine is simply more elegant, the flavors more delineated. I like the passion fruit quality of Sauvignon Blanc, and this wine has more of it than its Monkey Bay cousin.

As the label points out, the Boulder Bank wine comes from specially selected vineyards, and that probably accounts for its superior quality. The Monkey Bay is on special for $9.99 at many stores right now; the Boulder Bank can be purchased for the same price at Cost Plus World Market.

Calatayud Old Vines Garnacha de Fuego, 2006

An $8.99 wine from Cost Plus World Market, this wine is a good match for black bean chili or carnitas with green sauce. There is something unique about Spanish Grenache. It's not as jammy as New World Grenache and it lacks the black pepper and garrigue qualities of Southern Rhone wines. As the name of this wine suggests, Spanish Garnacha has more of a fiery quality--not because of high alcohol but as part of the aroma/flavor profile. Tobacco, bulb flowers, underbrush and tart red berries with a spicy bite. It's a pleasant bite, similar to what you expect from the chili or the carnitas. A very enjoyable wine.

Louis Latour Domaine de Valmoissine Pinot Noir, 2005

Tasted next to the Keenan Cabernet (below), you might accuse this wine of being a simple little fruit bomb. But you'd be wrong. It's medium to light crimson with very forward, fine boned strawberry and pomegranate fruit. It's easy to take this wine for granted but, with a little attention, you'll find that it's a wine of subtle depth. The fresh berries keep coming at you and underneath there is the earthy Pinot structure. Long, velvety finish.

Cotes du Rhone Villages Valreas Cuvee Prestige, Les Vignerons d l'Enclave des Papes, 2005

This wine was disappointing when first opened but opened up nicely the second night. Even though a 2005 Cotes du Rhone Villages wine should theoretically be ready to drink, this one clearly requires a bit of patience. It's a good deep ruby/crimson color. When first opened, the nose is tight and floral, the flavors a bit austere and clipped. When the wine finally opens, there is a burst of blueberry fruit with Southern Rhone pepper and spice. The finish is very ripe, almost to a fault, but it's not a simple wine.

Valreas Cuvee Prestige is a cooperative wine sold at Trader Joe's for $5.99. I suspect 2006 is the vintage now on the shelf, and I plan to buy a few bottles the next time I'm in the store.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Chateau du Coulinat Saint Croix du Mont, 1975

The price tag on the bottle says $5.89, and, even in the early 1980s, that was an excellent price for a Sauternes neighbor. The wine at that time was rich in apricot, almond, coconut and marzipan smells and flavors--a dessert in a glass. I loved it and went through at least a case and a half. A few bottles have lingered in the cellar, to be tried once very few few years rather than once every few months. The bottle I opened tonight was pretty much as it has been for the last 10 to 15 years. It's lost some of that vibrant fruit that made it so appealing in the early 1980s, and the additional complexity that has replaced it is not quite worth the wait. Nevertheless, this wine has given me great pleasure over the years, and it's still an enjoyable after dinner drink.

The color is a fully mature old gold. There's more apricot, honey and marzipan on the nose and palate than anything else at this stage. It's sweet and rich, but the finish is a bit flat with a slightly bitter tinge. At 33 years of age, it's no longer glorious or extravagant, just a nice drink.

I still have a good number of half bottles of the 1983 Coulinat, and it is showing much better at this stage. Saint Croix du Mont is a good source of inexpensive Sauternes-like wines.

Marcel Juge Cornas, 1994

The Chateauneuf du Pape I reported on below is a perfect example of a mature Grenache-oriented wine; this Cornas from Marcel Juge is an equally good example of a mature Northern Rhone Syrah from the same vintage.

When the corks were pulled, nearly everyone preferred the Chateauneuf. The Cornas was simply sitting back, breathing in air, and by the time we had finished the Domaine du Haut des Terre Blanches, it was ready to show its best. This wine is not nearly as powerful nor as rustic as some Cornas wines I have had from the early 1980s, but that is intended as a compliment, not a criticism. The Syrah fruit is well defined and at a good state of maturity. After its initial reticence, the nose opens up beautifully with smells of black fruit, pepper, juniper berries and spice. Flavors are even more fully developed--cured meats, smoke, more pepper and juniper berries. Like the Chateauneuf below, this is not a wine that is going to knock your socks off; it's rather a wine that you'll enjoy more with every sip because of its depth and complexity.

Domaine du Haut des Terres Blanches Chateauneuf du Pape, 1994

The 1994 vintage in the Southern Rhone was not a great but a very good one, and I've sampled several very satisfying Chateauneufs from 1994 over the past year and a half. This Domaine du Haut des Terres Blanches ranks right up there with the best of them, similar in many ways to the Le Vieux Donjon I had last Christmas. It's probably at its peak but in no danger of starting the slide downhill.

The color is a medium deep crimson, very little bricking or signs of age. The maturity of the wine is evident in the beautifully forward aromas--red berries, spices and a very pleasant hint of sea salt. It's very smooth on the palate with no heat, no hard edges. Fresh and dried fruit flavors with just the right amount of spicy maturity.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Keenan Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, 1979

My introduction to the 1979 Keenan Cabernet was at a wine tasting in the early Fall of 1980. Of about 25 top California Cabs, tasted blind in three or four flights, this was my "wine of the night." I remember other tasters asking me if I ranked it high for "drinking now? or for drinking in 20 years?" My tastes were different at that time, and my answer was "either."

Even though I loved big tannic wines back in the early 1980s, I still had the good sense to cellar this wine, and the payoff was enormous. The color is remarkably deep and dark--looks like a young wine. The bouquet is gorgeous--blackcurrants and cassis. The oak that was dominant 29 years ago is now well integrated into the personality of the wine. Everything about this wine is powerful but oh so graceful. There are still plenty of tannins but they are ripe and provide support for the lovely, well defined fruit. Beautiful wine.

Chateau Saint Bonnet Medoc Cru Bourgeois, 1982

Twenty-five years ago, Robert M. Parker described this 1982 Saint Bonnet as "an example of a full-flavored, very well-made, rich Cru Bourgeois that should last at least 7-8 years." He gave it a score of 84/100, which, at that time, was a very good Parker score. On all counts, I would say, Parker's judgment was a notable understatement.

The color is a medium deep ruby with some bricking but still a lot of saturated color for a 26-year-old Cru Bourgeois. There is a well developed claret bouquet of blackcurrants, cherries, tea and cassis. Still going strong. Has a cool feel on the palate--tea, menthol and herbs. It's very ripe for a claret, with none of the green pepper elements that you often get from Merlot. Velvety mouthfeel and a very long finish. Incredible level of Cabernet/Merlot fruit for a 26-year-old wine that, in its day, sold for $5.75 a bottle. A tribute to the 1982 vintage and to Robert M. Parker.

Saint Bonnet is just one of several ageworthy, reasonably price Cru Bourgeois Medoc wines. Others include Latour de By [see my report of September 25, 2008], Latour Saint Bonnet and Fourcas Hosten. They are traditionally made and do not always show their best when they're young. Europeans know about these wines and cellar them for the long haul. 1982 Saint Bonnet is a much better wine than it was when RMP wrote his review, and it's a much better wine than it was at 7-8 years of age.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Edmunds St. John El Dorado County Pinot Gris, 2006

Donna loves Pinot Grigio; I'm a fan of Alsace Pinot Gris. It's the same grape, you'd think we could find a common ground. But, alas, I'm less than ecstatic with most Pinot Grigios; and she sometimes frowns when I bring out another Pinot Gris.

Steve Edmunds may know what I'm talking about. Until this vintage, he has produced a Pinot Grigio from the grapes grown by Bob Witters in El Dorado County in California. As Steve explains on his label, the wine from 2006 "had more color than I'd ever seen, and its aromatic character developed very early. To my great surprise, the wine reminds me of Alsace, with a perfumed, spicy personality that's a big change from its predecessors. It's speaking a different language!"

As I open the screw cap bottle of Edmunds St. John Pinot Gris, I am pleased. The color is a deep gold and it has a full range of wonderful smells--spicy, waxy, ripe. Put your nose in the glass, and it smells exactly like a very, very ripe canteloupe. Yet with all this ripeness, there's also a racy finish and a hint of the herbal green quality I find in northeastern Italian Pinot Grigio. I'm smiling. Is this the Pinot Gris that will bring us together? Well, maybe. It is Pinot Gris, after all, not Pinot Grigio, we agree. And the difference is probably in the ripeness of the grapes when they were picked. But there's an irresistible quality to the ripe canteloupe aromas that we both enjoy. It's a very nice wine, worth another try.

Les Trois Couronnes Cotes du Rhone, 2007

While fantasizing about how good the 2007 Grand Prieur might be (see below), I had to uncork one of the 2007 Southern Rhones I already own. My last bottle of Les Trois Couronnes was on September 21, and it has changed fairly dramatically in those three months. At that time, I was struck by a tart, almost unripe quality. Today, there's not even a hint of tartness, and I would say it's ripe, almost to a fault.

The color is deep and dark, though lighter than the Grand Prieur. Ripe red berries come forward quickly--strawberries and red raspberries. Very smooth and enjoyable with a soft finish but less structure than I remember from September. Pepper and spice emerge as the wine warms in the glass, and I would appreciate more of these elements in the months to come.

Les Trois Couronnes is a good value at $7.29 from D&W in Kalamazoo. Even with the superior vintage, it's no match for Grand Prieur. But few wines in this price range are.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Domaine du Grand Prieur Cotes du Rhone, 2006

I haven't been drinking this Cotes du Rhone nearly as quickly as I had planned, mainly because the 2005 Grand Prieur is drinking so beautifully. But the 2006 appears to have passed the 2005 on its maturity curve and has reached prime time drinking. It's still very deep and dark for a Cotes du Rhone but the purplish tints of youth are turning to crimson, though still bright and youthful looking. If you're looking for a signature wine for what Rhone lovers call "garrigue," look no further. Scents of lavender, thyme and other Provencal herbs and flowers waft up as the wine is being poured--forward, intense and beautiful. On the nose and in the mouth, there's abundant strawberry and blueberry fruit with a firm underpinning of black pepper on the tongue as it goes down. This is not a "simple" Cotes du Rhone. The black pepper/mineral/licorice tones remind me of Vacqueyras (not surprising, since the vines are located there). I can't get enough of this wine at this stage, and that means I should open it more frequently while it's still at its best. Then too the 2007 will be hitting the shelves in a few weeks, and Robert Parker calls 2007 the best vintage he has encountered in 30 years of tasting in the Southern Rhone.

The 2006 Domaine du Grand Prieur is still available at D&W FreshMarket in Kalamazoo for $10 to $11 a bottle--several dollars more than I paid a year ago but still a fantastic value.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Monkey Bay Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, 2007

I liked the Monkey Bay Chardonnay, but this wine is even better--an excellent example of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. The green pepper smell, a trademark of cool climate New Zealand SB, is immediately apparent. It's intense but not one-dimensional, carrying with it fresh scents of mint, melon and passion fruit. It's light and lively on the tongue, leaving a trail of lovely passion fruit flavors. It's brisk, almost tart, at the front but has a pleasant ripe fruit finish.

Harding's Markets in Kalamazoo is offering a reduced price of $9.99 plus a mail-in rebate worth $2 for a single bottle, $7 for three, $15 for six and $35 for a full case. That's an excellent price for a very good New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. A wine like this is enjoyable at any time but will be a special treat next Spring and Summer on the deck or in the back yard.

Hamilton's Ewell Vineyards Barossa Valley Railway Shiraz, 2000

The color of this wine is still very deep, dark and bluish, but it's beginning to show some signs of maturity with lightening shades around the rim. Smells very plummy and ripe. Blackberries, cassis, cinnamon, coffee. A thick body with rich, ripe flavors, front to back. Railway Shiraz is at a nice level of maturity right now, with fruit and spice showing nicely. If you're a fan of Australian Shiraz, you'll love this wine right now. My only complaint, as with most Barossa Shiraz, is that it's a bit too ripe, without the peppery edge that I look for in a good Rhone Syrah. The first glass is lovely; the second, not as interesting.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Fazi Battaglia Verdicchio Dei Castelli di Jesi Classico, 2004

It has a long name and a funny bottle that looks more like a flower vase than a wine bottle, but Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi has been a highly regarded wine for nearly two thousand years. When Alaric the Visigoth passed through what is now the Marches region of Italy in 410 A.D. on his way to besiege and sack Rome, he ordered that 40 mules be packed with barrels of Verdicchio to sustain the strength (and presumably increase the pleasure) of his troops. The wine at that time was consumed at rites honoring Cupra, goddess of wealth and opulence. Right now, you can buy a very fine example of Verdicchio Classico (from the oldest and most reputable area of the appellation) with neither wealth nor opulence. As part of a continuing program to unload surplus wines, Harding's Markets in Kalamazoo, MI is selling this wine right for only $3.99/bottle. (For wines previously closed out at deep discounts, check my notes on Agricole Vallone Salice Salentino and Hamilton Ewell Vineyards Railway Shiraz.)

This Fazi Battaglia Verdicchio is now four years old (probably the reason it is being unloaded), but the wine has plenty of freshness--a bright medium straw color and brisk scents of Granny Smith apples, nearly ripe pears and hazelnuts. Donna noted petroleum aromas reminiscent of German Riesling. And even though she's usually not a fan of those smells, she found them very positive in this wine. The freshness carries over to the palate--excellent acidity to match up with a pasta sauce featuring spinach, bacon, lemon and garlic. And, like the Gaetano d'Aquino Pinot Grigio, this wine has a pleasant touch of bitterness on a very powerful finish.

The funny-shaped bottle was created for Fazi Battaglia in 1953 by the architect Angonio Maiocchi. Presumably inspired by ancient Etruscan amphora, this emerald-green bottle has become the icon for Verdicchio. If you haven't tried this ancient wine before, you can do so at minimal cost in Kalamazoo...or you can buy the current vintage elsewhere for about $12/bottle.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Domaine de la Janasse Cotes du Rhone, 2005

My last bottle of this was June 8, and it has shown definite development since that time. The color has lightened just a bit and the aromas seem a little more reserved but no less beautiful: strawberries, cherries, Provencal herbs and flowers. If there's one wine that exemplifies the term "garrigue," this is it. Ripe berry flavors fill the mouth from front to back, and there's a nice layer of black pepper underneath to provide depth and structure. The finish goes on and on. This is a beautiful Grenache-oriented Cotes du Rhone that is drinking at or near its best right now.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Gaetano d'Aquino Pinot Grigio delle Venezie, 2007

When I see this wine on the shelf at Trader Joe's, with the $3.99 price tag and the pretentious, old fashioned label, I conjure up images of the ancient Italian wine-maker whose signature is engraved on the bottle. Actually, Gaetano d'Aquino is a year younger than me and lives near Los Angeles. He quotes Frank Sinatra on his website: "I feel sorry for people who don't drink wine. When they wake in the morning, that's as good as they're going to feel all day."

Born in Sicily in 1940 while World War II was raging, Gaetano was sent to live with his grandparents in Los Angeles. His parents joined him later. In 1978, he started the d'Aquino Italian Importing Company, selling 850,000 cases of wines a year to supermarkets and distributors in North America.

This wine, of course, comes from the area around Venice, and it has classic Pinot Grigio delle Venezie traits--brisk herbal, green mint smells and flavors, very fresh and lively. As the label states, it has "a pleasantly bitter after taste." It's not really a match for MezzaCorona, but it's made in the same style. And for $3.99, who is to complain?

Monkey Bay New Zealand Chardonnay, 2007

I'm the odd man when it comes to New Zealand wines. The country is best known for its Sauvignon Blanc, and rightly so. I disagree with those who say that New Zealand is the best spot in the world for Sauvignon Blanc, however, preferring the wines of Sancerre and Pouilly Fume from the Loire Valley of France. By comparison, NZ Sauvignons are a bit heavy on the green pepper elements and a bit lacking in finesse.

New Zealand Chardonnay is another matter. For my tastes, the cool climate brings out subtle fruit and floral elements in Chardonnay that I find unique and quite appealing. This Monkey Bay Chardonnay is a good example. It offers very attractive low-key scents of white peaches, pears, honey and spring flowers. Flavors are a bit crisper and tighter than you might expect from the nose. Peaches, pears and honey are there but also a grapefruit acidity that keeps it fresh and lively. Good Chardonnay fruit character with very little oak influence. It's not as good as the Oyster Bay Chardonnay, one of my favorites at the moment. But then it only costs about half as much: $8.99 right now at Harding's Markets with a mail-in rebate for $2 to $3 a bottle. The Monkey Bay Sauvignon ($9.99) is worth the extra dollar because it's from a defined and well regarded appellation, Marlborough. I'll try the Sauvignon soon.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

J.L. Chave St. Joseph Offerus, 1998

This wine is produced by the negotiant arm of the famous Hermitage producer, J. Chave. Chave also produces a more expensive St. Joseph from his estate vineyards. The St. Joseph Offerus sold for $16 to $18 when it hit my market with the 1997 and 1998 vintages, but it now costs $25 to $30 retail.

The 1998 is showing very well right now. It's deep and dark but with some burnished notes of maturity beginning to show. When first opened, the aromas and flavors were all fresh and bright red fruit and flowers--very pleasant but not particularly complex. With 30 minutes of airing, it developed considerable power and personality. The nose reminds me of a Cote Rotie--smoke, cured meats, grilled tomatoes and concentrated red raspberry--but the flavors are more supple and flowing, more in line with what I would expect from a St. Joseph. All the charm of a young Syrah on the tongue but with the complex bouquet of a mature wine--a perfect combination as far as I'm concerned. This wine will never reach the heights of a Hermitage or Cote Rotie, but it's very satisfying right now.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Monte Antico Riserva, 1980

Monte Antico is still a major bargain, selling for $8 to $10 in most parts of the country. It is a very good Tuscan red wine that has received high marks from Robert Parker and other influential critics but still sits on the store shelves despite its bargain price. When I bought a case of the 1982 Monte Antico (I paid about $40 for the case), I discovered that the wine is also very ageworthy. I tried to be patient, but even after finishing the case, I never felt that I had opened a bottle that was ready to drink. At the same time, I bought one bottle of the Monte Antico Riserva--a definite splurge at $5.95. Because of the reticence of the regular Monte Antico I let this wine sit longer than I otherwise would. Eventually, it got overlooked and gathered dust on the shelf alongside more prestigious and certifiably age-worthy Barolos and Barbarescos.

Somehow, tonight, for my daughter's 28th birthday, I had enough confidence to open this long-neglected bottle. 1980 was not a great vintage in most parts of the world, and the bottles of 1980 Jaboulet Cornas and Thalabert Crozes that I usually open have become a cliche for November 29. WOW! Monte Antico Riserva was worth the wait.

The color is light brick red but still incredibly clear and bright. The bouquet is similarly clean and clear--mature but finely focused smells of dried cherries and flowers with no off notes or oxidation. The flavors are also beautifully focused and persistent, a savory treat. Good grip and concentration with the essential sweetness of a mature red. This is not a great wine but a very good one that has aged the way all wines should age in an ideal world.

Will I buy another case of Monte Antico? Maybe I will.

Domaine du Vieux Chene Cuvee Haie aux Grives, 2004

This is my favorite cuvee of Vieux Chene, although I'll admit that I have not yet tried the estate's Plan de Dieu bottling which was initiated, I believe, with the 2005 vintage. The Cuvee Haie aux Grives ordinarily takes a bit longer to start showing its charm than the Cuvee Capucines, which has a higher proportion of Grenache in the blend. In the 2004 vintage, however, the Haie aux Grives showed beautifully right from the start.

It's still deep and dark, just beginning to turn. Grenache red raspberry fruit is also beginning to develop a fruit-cake-like concentration, similar to that of a 10 to 12 year old Chateauneuf du Pape. It's very full bodied and velvety on the palate with a good range of ripe fruit flavors that are just beginning to develop secondary characteristics. Very nice.

Epicuro Beneventano Aglianico, 2006

From Beneventano in Southwestern Italy, this wine says "southern Italy" and "warm climate" in the same way that the Langhe Anna (below) speaks of the cooler climes of northern Italy. It's a deep, dark color--similar to what you might expect from an Amador Zinfandel. In contrast to the reserved Anna, this wine just bursts with robust charm--blackberries, dark cherries and spices such as cinnamon. It's full bodied, almost velvety, in the mouth. After the Anna, you might calls this wine sweet, but I'm sure it doesn't have any residual sugar--simply ripe fruit and skins. The fruit tannins are ripe enough that the wine can be enjoyed now, but I think it will be even better with a few years in the bottle.

At $5.99 from Trader Joe's, this is a wine that you might consider buying in quantity. On the other hand, the Epicuro Salice Salentino sitting beside it on the shelf for the same price is even more appealing for my tastes.

Boroli Langhe Anna Rosso, 2005

From Langhe (in Piedmont), you would expect a Nebbiolo-based wine, and the 2005 Anna has 29% Nebbiolo plus 17% Barbera. But it's the Cabernet (31%) and Merlot (23%) that stand out in the aromas and flavors.

It's a medium to light ruby, and the aromas introduce a reserved, austere personality. It smells dry, and it is. But the subtle smells and flavors just keep coming at you from different directions. Pleasantly astringent but still good fruit and herb traits, similar to a good Claret but with a distinctively Italian flair. This wine and Aglianico (above) are about as different as two wines can get. And I like them both.

Domaine Chaume-Arnaud Vinsobres, 2004

I firmly believe that Vinsobres is one of the most underrated areas of the Southern Rhone. And this domaine, owned and run by Valerie and Phillippe Chaume-Arnaud, is my favorite. Phillippe tends the vineyards; Valerie makes the wine. They are a young couple who believe in organic methods. And they also pay attention to the wine-making wisdom of their elders who have worked the land for years. Valerie's wine-making is traditional, eschewing both new oak and stainless steel in her effort to focus on the quality and purity of the fruit.

But even though I have confidence in the producers and the good 2004 vintage in the Southern Rhone, I still have a few doubts about this wine and its maturity. The color is a beautiful deep crimson, and the initial aromas are everything I could expect: freshly crushed blueberries, violets, herbs and black licorice. But there is also a bit of green toughness in the background--probably young Mourvedre. Flavors are the same--concentrated fruit and herb but with a tough, hard streak near the finish. It's still a good wine to stand up to grilled steak, and I really think this hard streak will mature into a beautiful Mourvedre spice-box component if I have the patience to give this wine some time.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Joseph Drouhin LaForet Bourgogne Chardonnay, 2006

Joseph Drouhin makes some very fine (and expensive) white Burgundies. I still have vivid and fond memories of a Drouhin Beaune Clos des Mouches I had at a wine dinner in the early 1990s. At the bottom of the Drouhin hierarchy, this LaForet Bourgogne Chardonnay is widely available and a reliable choice for a $10 to $12 white wine. In the 2006 vintage, it reminds me of a good Macon Villages with just a touch of the qualities of the more expensive wines from around the village of Beaune.

The wine is fermented under controlled temperatures in stainless steel. This preserves the fresh fruit flavors but ironically gives it a deeper gold color than a comparable wine fermented in wood. The aromas are much fresher than the medium gold color might suggest. Pear smells are dominant along with golden delicious apples, citrus and yeasty notes. After fermentation, the wine spent a few months in older oak barrels that imparted a touch of complexity to the natural flavors of Chardonnay. It's medium bodied and steps lightly across the palate. A classy wine with a crisp, citric finish that goes well with pork, scalloped potatoes and oven-roasted apples.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Piazzano Chianti, 2006

A wine-by-the-glass selection, this Chianti was a good accompaniment to the basil and olive-oil oriented dishes I had last night at Bravo Restaurant in Kalamazoo. It's a youthful bright crimson color, and the smells and flavors confirm that it was aged in concrete tanks rather than new wood. Tart cherries, pepper, spice--fresh and lively. A full bodied wine but by no means heavy with just the right amount of acidity for my tastes and the dishes of the restaurant. Bravo!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Domaine de l'Oratoire Saint-Martin Cairanne Reserve des Seigneurs, 1998

This wine, tonight, at this defining moment in time (as our new President-elect might say) is a major reason I continue to get excited about wine. It has reached that stage of maturity that wine lovers are always waiting for but all too rarely see.

The color is a deep crimson with the slight browning that is to expected. The nose is not unlike that of a mature Chateauneuf du Pape--fresh strawberries, dried cherries and the wonderful spice-box bouquet of Mourvedre that has turned the corner. It's deep and serious with all the complex smells and flavors blending together. Rich mid-palate and long finish with power and concentration. The wine may or may not remain in this stage for long (I would guess another six months to a year), but right now it's dancing. And so am I.

Monday, November 17, 2008

R Wines South Australia Strong Arm Shiraz, 2006

This wine is much improved from the last bottle I had a couple of months ago. Although it's a very enjoyable Shiraz that received 91 points from the Wine Advocate, in my opinion, it has neither the upfront charm nor the substance of the Vieux Chene Vin de Pays reviewed below.

The color is nearly opaque and bluish. Aromas show all the best qualities of Shiraz--blackberry, cassis and only a hint of herbs for complexity. Ripe and bold but not oaky. On the palate, it's full bodied but smooth, again with no hint of oak or rough tannins. Good fruit presence.

The label reveals that the Strong Arms image derives from an alcohol level of 15.5 percent. It seems to me that the relatively high alcohol lifts the aromas, frames the fruit and adds body, leaving the impression of a big wine but without tannic toughness. Many winemakers from warm climates such as Australia seem to be favoring this type of wine, and there's no question that it has an appeal. At this stage, I don't detect any alcoholic heat nor raisined qualities, and the wine is not made for aging.

Domaine du Vieux Chene Vin de Pays Vaucluse Cuvee Friande, 2007

I've been buying Vieux Chene wines since the 1980s. The wines have always been good but since the 2004 vintage they seem to have taken several steps forward in quality and now rank as one of my top three or four Cotes du Rhones.

I've written previously about the owners, Jean Claude and Beatrice Bouche. A visit to their web site,, will give you an idea of how much care the Bouches take in tending their vineyards and producing a wine that reflects the special qualities of their vineyards. I love both the CDR Capucine and the CDR Haie aux Grives Cotes du Rhones; they are special wines. Because of its lowly appellation and price, I expected little--but got a great deal more--from this Cuvee Friande.

In its youth, this wine is a deep plummy red. The aromas are fresh and forward--ripe red berries and an almost yeasty, vanilla quality that does not come from new oak. Flavors are very ripe but are supported by a peppery structure. Wild flowers and herbs are more apparent on the finish than on the nose at this stage of development. The blend is 80 percent Grenache, 20 percent Syrah, and the Grenache charm seems to be carrying it at this stage. Skin tannins become more apparent on the second night, covering some of the ripe red berry fruit but revealing that the wine has substance and staying power. I drank the 2004 Cuvee Friande over the first two or three years but it was still on the upswing when I had the last bottle about a year ago.

At $9.19 a bottle at D&W FreshMarket, Cuvee Friande is, in my opinion, probably the best wine for the price in my market right now. Drink it now but buy plenty so that you can chart its progress over the next couple of years.

Gilbert Picq Chablis Premier Cru Vosgros, 1997

This is a beautiful example of a Premier Cru Chablis at a good stage of maturity. It bears no resemblance to other bottles of this same wine that I bought at the same time and drank earlier this year. I've put the previous bottles in the class of "predox" or "prematurely oxidized" white Burgundy from the late 1990s. But this wine is certainly not prematurely oxidized or anything else. It is beautiful.

The color is medium deep (previous bottles were several shades darker). The nose is fresh and clean--strong flinty notes but not at all heavy. Also unwooded Chardonnay smells: apple, pear, lime. Very limey, in fact, but not from French oak. The wine has a light, fresh feel on the palate but with strong, persistent flavors. Flint and lime dominate the mid-palate sandwiched between butter and nuts at the front and back. Strikes a perfect balance between ripe fruit and flinty earth tones.

This wine is exactly what I expected it to become when I bought it a decade ago. I still have one or two more. Will they be like this one? Or like the oxidized disasters I've had before?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Agricole Vallone Salice Salentino Rosso Riserva Vereto, 2000

This is an old favorite, and I'm drinking my way through a case all too quickly. Serving an ancho/beef brisket/squash chile for guests, I thought immediately of the Alderbrook Zinfandel (below) and this Salice Salentino. I was looking for ripe fruit to counter the spices plus intensity and complexity to match those of ancho chile.

This wine is a deep, dark garnet, nearly opaque. It's friendlier than the Zinfandel with sweet fruit and licorice coating the palate from front to back. Dark cherries, blackberries--very concentrated and rich. The ripe fruit charm is deceptive because this wine has every bit as much power and intensity as the Alderbrook and less alcoholic heat. The finish is long and rich. Although it has been in bottle three years longer than the Alderbrook, this wine is much younger in its development.

Alderbrook Dry Creek Valley Old Vine Zinfandel, 2003

I am a fan of Dry Creek Zinfandel, but my favorites are either priced out of my reach (Ridge Geyserville) or no longer available in my area (Trentadue). This Alderbook Zin--$11.79 at D&W FreshMarket--fills the bill quite nicely. It has a lot of the intense old vine traits I love in the Ridge and Trentadue wines.

It's a medium deep color with some rusty tones--actually fairly light for a Zinfandel. But there's nothing light about the aromas and flavors. The Dry Creek intensity is apparent from the first sniff--blackberries, dried cherries, cloves and flowers. The label speaks of orange blossoms, and, yes, I smell orange blossoms too. The flavors are equally intense and powerful--this wine reminds me of a good Southern Italian red like the Salice Salentino of Agricole Vallone (see above). Black pepper, blackberries and black licorice dominate the finish. This is a very enjoyable wine, usually priced at $25 and a great value at $11.79.

Etienne Loew Alsace Tokay Pinot Gris Cormier, 2004

Nothing new to report since the last time I had this wine [October 12, 2008]--a rich, expressive Alsace Pinot Gris. It's sweeter than my wife would prefer (she's the Pinot Grigio lover in our family) but I think it carries its fruit quite well. The ripe pears in brown butter flavors get increasingly deep and complex on the long finish. I love it.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

E. Guigal Cotes du Rhone, 2003

In contrast to the 2003 Font-Sane Cotes du Ventoux reviewed below, this Cotes du Rhone represents the 2003 Southern Rhone vintage at its best. It's very deep and dark in color; must have a good bit of Syrah in the blend. It's also deep and serious on the nose: tobacco, herbs, black pepper, black fruits and garrigue. On the palate, it has good body, good strength and just the right amount of warmth. The alcoholic content is listed at 13 percent, and there are no raisins and no alcoholic heat at this stage (although I did detect a hint of raisins on the second night). The wine is very concentrated and powerful; in this respect, it reminds me of an old vine Dry Creek Zinfandel or a Salice Salentino from Italy. Sticking to the Southern Rhone, a comparison to Gigondas or Vacqueyras may be more appropriate.

Guigal Cotes du Rhone has a reputation for quality and staying power. I remember enjoying the excellent 1983 well into the decade of the 1990s. The wine is widely available, and I suspect there are still some 2003s on the shelves. Guigal 2004 and 2005, from reports I have read, are very different wines...but still very good.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Jean Descombes Morgon (Georges Duboeuf), 2004

I usually drink Jean Descombes Morgon either when it is young and bursting with macerated raspberry fruit or at about 10 years of age when it has taken on subtle nuances and depth of flavor. I have always suspected that this Morgon, like many wines, goes through a relatively dumb period in middle age. I picked the 2004 Jean Descombes at this time because I thought it would still be in its youthful stage; actually, it was drinking with all the glory of a mature wine.

The color is much lighter than it was a couple of years ago but it's still a medium deep ruby. It's reticent on the nose and a bit dry on the palate when I first try it, but both open up beautifully with 20 to 30 minutes of air. I smell ripe gamay fruit, very concentrated red berries, with floral highlights--very pretty and complex enough to qualify as a bouquet rather than aromas. The same qualities carry over to the palate. It's more savory than sweet with a lovely medium to light body that goes beautifully with grilled Atlantic salmon. The concentrated red berries are very persistent in the long finish. This tastes very much like a mature Jean Descombes Morgon, but my experience with the wine tells me it is likely to be even better in a few years. That's something to look forward to.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Domaine de Font-Sane Cotes du Ventoux, 2003

This is one of my favorite Ventoux wines but one of my least favorite vintages. I've had up and down experiences with it over the past year or so [January 13 and May 29, 2008], and this bottle ranks somewhere in the middle.

It's still a brilliant crimson color, medium deep with no signs of aging. The nose is very ripe, forward and typical of the warm '03 vintage. The alcohol level is only 13.5%, and there is no heat on the palate or finish. But if you sniff closely, you can smell the raisins, and the flavors are jammy like an Australian Grenache. The wine has a cherry/berry fruitiness with a charming ripe feel on the palate that many wine drinkers would love. But I miss the characteristic peppery/spicy backbone of Ventoux. I hope this is my last bottle of 2003 because I'm hungry for the beautiful flavors and smells of the 2005 Font-Sane [July 24, 2008].

Alois Lageder Riff Pinot Grigio, 2005

This Pinot Grigio is from the Dolomites in the northeast corner of Italy. It's a cool growing area that also produces the widely available MezzaCorona Pinot Grigio.

Even at three years of age, Riff Pinot Grigio is still a youthful looking medium deep yellow. The nose has fresh scents of ripe pears, mint and herbs, slightly spritzy but in a positive way. It has a full mouth feel more like an Alsace Pinot Gris while still retaining the freshness and lift to be expected from a northeastern Italian Pinot Grigio. Very nice. At special pricing, it's only slightly more expensive than MezzaCorona, and I like it better.

Chateau Gazin Graves, 1981

The best known Gazin is from Pomerol, and the current vintage sells for about $40/bottle. This Gazin is an obscure wine from Graves, and the price tag from 27 years ago reads $7.56. But considering the way it's drinking tonight, I would gladly put it up in a blind tasting against any $40 wine.

The color is a deep plummy red with good saturation and little if any amber. It has a vibrant bouquet of black currants, flowers, cherries and a hint of black tea. The flavors are beautifully focused with fine fruit definition. It's cool and collected with no rough edges and a ripe, exotic finish. On the second and third night, the black tea element becomes increasingly prominent, but the wine shows no deterioration.

Not all lesser Bordeaux wines age this well, but many do. While it may not have the finesse and class of a Gazin Pomerol, it is a very enjoyable wine.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Jean-Claude Thevenet Macon Pierreclos, 2005

This small domaine, located in the small village of Pierreclos near the center of Macon, has been run by the Thevenet family for three generations. Grapes are picked by hand and vinified at a controlled low temperature followed by malolactic fermentation. The wine is then left on the lees for a period before bottling, but there is no oak aging.

The result is a bright wine with remarkably well focused flavors--lemon cream, pear and apple. It's not at all showy but has a very elegant feel on the palate with richly developed flavors that you might expect from a much more expensive white Burgundy wine. It has a faceted beauty.

This wine ordinarily sells for about $14; I bought it on closeout from Sawall's Health Foods for $11.

Don Miguel Gascon Mendoza Malbec, 2007

With its traditional label, this wine makes a favorable impression on the shelf, and I was not disappointed when I popped the cork. It's a very deep, bluish purple color, and the first sniff verifies that it's a perfect match for a grilled strip steak. Blackberries, dark cherries and coffee--big and bold with interesting flavors and textures. The wine smells and tastes thick and concentrated. On the first night, the huge fruit presence overwhelms the tannins, but both wood and fruit tannins are more apparent on the second night. Malbec cherries dominate the personality. This seems to be a wine that would age well; but if you're not intending to cellar it, drink it now while the fruit is so powerful. The price is $10.99, and there is good availability at D&W FreshMarkets.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Tasting Old Mission Peninsula Wines

I've long considered Old Mission Peninsula to be one of the best sources of wine in Michigan. So on a recent trip to Traverse City, I took the opportunity to taste a few.

Old Mission is a sliver of land, about three miles wide and nineteen miles long, that juts into Grand Traverse Bay north of Traverse City. It was named an official appellation in 1987 but wine enthusiasts recognized the unique qualities of Old Mission wines long before that time. Vines are constantly exposed to cool breezes from the lake and get unobstructed southern sun exposure. The lake also provides a moderating influence and protection from spring frosts.

CHATEAU GRAND TRAVERSE: During the 1980s, Chateau Grand Traverse was the only Old Mission winery that I knew about, and I enjoyed the CGT dry Riesling frequently. The 2007 was one of my favorites on this visit as well. Well defined apple and pear flavors are nicely balanced against citric acidity. This is not a showy wine but a good choice to accompany seafood. (I enjoyed it last summer with whitefish at the Blue Bird in Leland.) My other top choice from Chateau Grand Traverse was the 2007 Late Harvest Riesling. Compared to the "Sweet Harvest Riesling," it's a much deeper, more serious wine. Flavors are concentrated and interesting enough to drink on its own after a meal or to accompany dessert. I also enjoyed the 2006 Ship of Fools, a blend of Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay. It's an aromatic wine with dramatic aromas and flavors. These probably come from leaving the wine on its spent yeast cells, creating a "leesy" rather than "oaky" trait which can be quite enjoyable at the front end of a meal.

CHATEAU CHANTAL: I simply can't go to Old Mission Peninsula these days without visiting Chateau Chantal, but I have to admit that I'm attracted as much by the view from the winery as by the wines. Perched at the top of a vine-covered hill, the winery offers a spectacular view of the Bay from either side. Standing outside the winery, I always feel as if I've been transported to Tuscany.

I've always enjoyed the Chateau Chantal Malbec. But, of course, this big, full-bodied red did not come from vineyards in Northern Michigan. The owners bought a vineyard in Argentina where Malbec is king. My favorite Chateau Chantal wine from this tasting was the 2005 Proprietors Reserve Pinot Noir. Even from the warm 2005 vintage, the color is only medium deep compared to most West Coast Pinot Noirs. But there's nothing shy about the aromas and flavors. The wine has had some barrel aging but it's fruit rather than oak that strikes me from the first sniff.

LEFT FOOT CHARLEY: There's no view at Left Foot Charley's. The winery and tasting room are in an old building at Grand Traverse Commons--a trendy development of shops and offices in what was once the site of a state mental hospital. Both the winery and tasting room are immaculate and high tech, and the staff there are anxious to talk about things that matter to a wine enthusiast: vineyards, grapes and growing seasons. These are serious wines, and I was impressed by the quality. Every wine I tasted was very good now but with the promise of more to come. In fact, I was told that the Pinot Blanc and Riesling would age well for 10 to 12 years.

Unfortunately, I didn't get to taste the Pinot Grigio; it was sold out. The 2007 Pinot Blanc from Island View Vineyard, however, was a good introduction. I don't think I can do any better than the winery's own description of this wine: "chin drenching, gritty, overripe, juicy yellow pears." At this stage, though, "overripe" may be misleading. There's a very pleasant tartness that keeps me coming back for more. For my tastes, I would try this wine again in three to five years; then, I think, the "overripe" pears will be singing even louder than they are today. The 2007 Old Mission Peninsula Dry Riesling is even more backward, but the apple/lime/citrus aromas and flavors are concentrated and well defined. Again, I would like to taste this wine with three to five years of aging.

At Left Foot Charley's, I also tasted the 2007 Leelanau Peninsula Chardonnay (limey French oak traits framing elegant Chardonnay fruit); the 2007 Leelanau Peninsula Gewurztraminer (all the Gewurz perfume and spice in a dry, somewhat-high-alcohol format) and the 2007 Red Drive, a blend of Dornfelder, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Regant from Old Mission Peninsula. Red Drive is not for those who like high-powered New World Cabernet Sauvignon or Shiraz. It's rather a medium bodied, light-colored red that has the drinkability of a Loire Valley Chinon or Cab Franc. It's not tannic, but I would guess that it has enough acid for graceful aging.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Gabbiano Chianti, 2006

At $4.50 a glass at TraVino Restaurant north of Traverse City, this has to rank as one of best values I have encountered. Most house wines are either innocuous or all dressed up with oak chips. This Gabbiano Chianti offers honest fruit aromas and flavors--dark cherry and mushrooms--in a traditional format. There is no evidence of new oak or oak chips, but there are plenty of fruit tannins to give substance and backbone. A delightful match for Gorgonzola-crusted strip steak.

Gabbiano wines are widely available and decent values for about $8 to $12 a bottle. All that may change soon as the Australian makers of Foster's Beer have purchased the property and plan to "modernize" the wines. No thanks, I say.

Chapoutier Cotes du Rhone Belleruche, 2006

Chapoutier has vineyards in Hermitage in the Northern Rhone but for this simple Cotes du Rhone, he buys grapes from growers near Sablet and Seguret in the Southern Rhone. He clearly made some good choices; this is an admirable example of a negotiant's Cotes du Rhone.

The color is deep and dark, and the wine is relatively big boned. It is more like the Trois Couronnes than the Pont du Rhone. Aromas and flavors include freshly ground black pepper, red berries, dark cherries and garrigue. Flavors are sharply defined and there are no sharp edges or alcoholic heat. The deep color and body can probably be attributed to a lengthy maceration on the skins. The wine was raised in stainless steel with no oak contact.

Chapoutier's wines are ordinarly not available in my marketing area. I chose a glass of Belleruche ($8) to accompany an excellent entree of lamb shanks with beets and parsnips at Amical Restaurant in Traverse City.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Pont du Rhone Prestige Cotes du Rhone, 2006

I enjoyed the 2007 of this wine earlier [August 31, 2008] and described it as a charming introduction to the 2007 Southern Rhone vintage with its yeasty, upfront red berry smells and tastes. This 2006 gives a good indication of where the 2007 is headed. And I approve.

The 2006 Pont du Rhone Prestige is fruity but considerably deeper at this stage than the 2007 with pepper, tobacco and black fruits adding backbone and substance. It's spicy in the Cotes du Rhone mode and has just the right amount of warmth and ripeness. The medium long finish is ripe but leaves a pleasantly spicy impression that goes well with a tomato-based pasta sauce. This is not a simple wine, although it is inexpensive ($5.99 at Trader Joe's).

Pont du Rhone is produced by duPeloux, a Southern Rhone negotiant. The Valreas available at Trader Joe's for the same price is also a duPeloux production.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Folie a Deux Menage a Trois California Red Wine, 2006

If you're a casual wine drinker, you're going to love this wine. If you're seriously interested in wine, you're also going to find a lot to like. And at $8 to $10 a bottle, it's a good choice for frequent drinking. I paid $10 a glass for Menage a Trois Red at a fancy restaurant beside a creek bank in Sedona, Arizona and did not feel at all cheated.

Menage a Trois refers to the sexy mix of three grapes--Zinfandel, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. The grapes were fermented separately and then blended just before bottling. Zinfandel dominates the nose--fresh blackberry cobbler, ripe and straightforward. Lurking in the background though are more subtle smells of black cherries and currants. On the palate the wine is smooth and full bodied. It's fresh and fruity but not at all trivial. Menage a Trois has the texture and feel that Cabernet lovers expect from a serious wine but with the soft, rounded finish of a young Merlot.

For me, this is the New World equivalent of La Vieille Ferme. It has everything you might want in a wine in a drink now format. I believe it's available right now at Cost Plus World Market for $8.99.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Domaine Sainte-Anne Cotes du Rhone Villages Cuvee Notre Dame des Cellettes, 1998

This wine is not going to knock your socks off, and that's why I like it so much. As the Winedoctor pointed out on his excellent web site four years ago, this is a "drinker's wine which has a lovely, elegant style."

It's medium deep, still looks young. The nose is a bit reticent, still young. After 15 to 20 minutes in the glass, it opens up a bit, revealing scents of fresh cherries and black raspberries, deeper and more complex even than Sainte-Anne's Cotes du Rhone or Cotes du Rhone Villages (both excellent wines). Grenache is 60% of the blend, but at this stage the wine smells more like Syrah--reminiscent of a good Hermitage or Cote Rotie from the Northern Rhone. There's Mourvedre in the blend too, but it's still a bit shy, with only hints of the characteristic spiciness. In the mouth, it's appropriately ripe and very classy with a silky texture. The wine has substance and concentration without thickness, tannins or alcoholic warmth. Beautiful.

This Cotes du Rhone Villages is drinking beautifully now, but I have no qualms about keeping a few bottles for another five or even ten years. I'm looking forward to more of the Mourvedre spiciness.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Clos Saint Jean Les Calades Vin de Pays de Vaucluse, 1998

Now this is my style--a mature wine offering gentle but persistent flavors of complex fruit, herbs and spice--Grenache at its best. Yes, I know that it's a Vin de Pays, and I paid only about $5 for it nearly a decade ago. But tonight I can sit back and savor it as if it were a priceless treasure.

It has a mature Grenache color; it has lightened considerably since its youth. The nose is also typical of mature Grenache--dried and fresh strawberries with hints of black pepper, spice and Provencal herbs. The flavors are savory, almost salty, but also very ripe and compact like a rich fruit cake. Everything about this wine is gentle and laid back. One sip leads to another.

Don't get me wrong; very few Vin de Pays wines are capable of aging this well. I experimented first with one bottle of the 1994 (consumed in 2004) and the 1995 (consumed in 2005). Then I laid away a case each of Les Calades from three very good vintages--1998, 2000 and 2001--for drinking over an eight to ten year period. So far, I have no regrets.

Edna Valley Vineyard Edna Valley Paragon Vineyard San Luis Obispo County Chardonnay, 2005

I've had my ups and downs with this wine; this bottle definitely shows the wine at its best. The bouquet offers up ripe pears and white peaches in a brown butter sauce. On the palate, it has plenty of buttery oak qualities (probably barrel fermented) but well integrated with focused Chardonnay fruit. It's ripe up-front and the sweet flavors follow all the way to the finish. Smells rich, tastes rich and has enough acidity to keep you coming back for more.

To be honest, it's not my style of Chardonnay, but I can respect and enjoy it. If you like this style of Chardonnay and have a few bottles in the cellar, now is the time--carpe diem!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Martin Ray Angeline Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, 2004

Compared to the Umpqua Valley Oregon Pinot below, this Sonoma Coast wine presents yet another profile of Pinot Noir. It's very light in color, and the aroma is delicate, although very finely focused with tones of vanilla, ginger, cherry and pomegranate. On the palate, the wine has an essentially sweet core but wrapped in some dry, smoky earthiness that is characteristic of some Pinot Noirs. The finish is shorter than I would expect, but the wine is a very enjoyable accompaniment for my leftover salmon and sweet potato tart from Every Day People Cafe.

I was very disappointed by an earlier bottle of Martin Ray's 2004 Angeline Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir [May 25, 2008]. It's now apparent to me that the earlier bottle was defective--probably because of heat exposure during transportation or storage before the wine reached me. Pinot Noir seems particularly susceptible to heat damage.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Rivers Edge Umpqua Valley Pinot Noir, 2006

This Oregon Pinot Noir has a distinctive personality that I associated with Oregon Pinots. It's darker in color and bigger in body than the Louis Latour Domaine Valmoissine. This may be in part because of the 30% new oak but also because of the distinctive terroir of Oregon. There's a beautiful earthy, ginger quality that serves as a backdrop for the ripe cherries and vanilla. A bit of smoke and more of that spicy earthiness dress up the finish.

I had this wine with an equally delightful entree of cedar planked salmon filet and sweet potato tart at Every Day People Cafe in Douglas, MI--my favorite West Michigan restaurant.

Etienne Loew Alsace Pinot Gris Cormier, 2004

I was a bit worried the last time I opened a bottle of this wine [September 4, 2008]. The color was much deeper than I had remembered from an earlier bottle [July 14, 2008]--deeper than I would expect from a 2004. This bottle, though, reverted back to the first bottle. It's a medium deep gold with healthy bright tones. It smells and tastes ripe, but pleasantly so like a good dry Vouvray. White peaches, ripe pears, Golden Delicious apples and almonds. The honey notes that seemed so dominant in bottle No. 2 are barely noticeable tonight. A very enjoyable Pinot Gris for drinking with Chinese food or on its own. Enough sweetness to please; enough acidity to keep you coming back for more.

Hamilton's Ewell Vineyards Barossa Valley Railway Shiraz, 2000

This wine is a pretty typical Barossa Shiraz. The color is dark and bluish. The nose offers scents of blackberries, shoe polish and very ripe cherries--qualities that carry over nicely to the palate. With rich, ripe fruit and 14.5% alcohol, the wine has a big mouthfeel, almost oozing with ripe cherries and oak and fruit tannins. The oak and fruit have become pretty well integrated, and the wine is drinking well, particularly with aeration.

At parties and holiday gatherings, Australian males frequently gather in a circle to taste and comment on what sometimes seems to be an endless array of wines--nearly all red and nearly all designed to impress. This wine meets both criteria. "Very big wine."

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Domaine du Grand Prieur Cotes du Rhone, 2005

An email from my local grocer, D&W Fresh Markets, confirmed what I had always suspected about Domaine du Grand Prieur: this wonderful little wine is not the product of a superstar winemaker with a bag of tricks but rather of very special vineyards owned by Bertin Gras. Actually, the wine is made by the Vacqueyras Growers' Cooperative, one of several very good coops in the Southern Rhone. Recognizing the quality of Gras' vineyards, the coop makes the "little guy's" grapes into a separate wine with its own label rather than blending it with grapes of other growers. As the email pointed out, Bertin Gras is the "Prieur" pictured on the label.

Like most of my favorite wines, Domaine du Grand Prieur is a discovery of Robert Mayberry, author of the excellent book, "Wines of the Rhone Valley: A Guide to Origins." Roz Mayberry, Robert's wife and an excellent judge of wines herself, is the wine director of D&W Fresh Markets.

A new shipment of the 2006 Grand Prieur arrived this week, and, while I regret the higher price ($11.29), I appreciate that the wine is still a bargain. Fortunately, I still have a good supply of the 2006 and decided tonight to dip into the 2005 while it is still drinking so beautifully.

It's medium deep with a crimson color indicative of the 75% Grenache in the blend. Although it takes a few minutes to open up, the aroma is still redolent of fresh blueberries, Provencal herbs and flowers. The initial impression on the palate is pepper and spice, then the fruit flavors start to take over and grow with each sip. The wine has all the charm of a young Cotes du Rhone plus the structure and depth that you might expect from a Vacqueyras. Pepper and spice upfront, melting into lovely ripe fruit flavors on the finish.

On the second night, the wine was even better--an elegant, complete Southern Rhone with the qualities of a very good Vacqueyras or Gigondas. The 2005 vintage is special and 2006 not far behind.

I have been drinking Domaine du Grand Prieur every vintage for about 20 years and have never had a disappointing bottle. Congratulations to Bertin Gras for producing the grapes; to the Vacqueyras Cooperative for recognizing the special qualities; and to Robert and Roz Mayberry for making the wine available to those of us in Southwest Michigan.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Domaine le Couroulu Vacqueyras, 1998

The initial impression I get from this wine is a stinky smell--gassy, tanky, somewhat like burnt rubber. This funkiness is the reason many have turned away from Rhone wines in the past, and it's unfortunate because the fruit comes from old, low-yielding vines. And once you get past the initial funky smell, what's in the glass is real wine, better than 99 percent of the manufactured crap on the market.

The 1998 Couroulu is a deep plummy color, showing no signs of advancing maturity. After the initial funky scents blow off, the wine reveals a Vacqueyras profile of red and black fruits, pepper and licorice--deep, concentrated berries and garrigue. It's ripe and full, and the flavors explode on the mid-palate.

The stinkiness undoubtedly comes from a flaw that could and should have been corrected early in the winemaking process. Traditional winemakers don't always have the expertise to do that, but I know from my experience with other vintages that the fruit from the Couroulu vineyards is capable of producing very fine Vacqueyras, among the best in the appellation. The funkiness is similar to that I've encountered in a few older vintages of Clos Saint Jean's Vin de Pays de Vaucluse (such as 1994 and 2000), and it tends to fade, not only in the glass as the wine is exposed to air but with a few years of aging. I've had two bottles of the 1998 Couroulou this year but will put the rest away for a couple of years.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Villa Borghetti Pinot Grigio delle Venezie, 2007

Of three Pinot Grigios I bought recently at Trader Joe's (all less than $4/bottle), this is my favorite. After less than a year in the bottle, the color is still very light. It has pleasing fresh scents of lime, barely ripe pears and a hint of hazelnuts to give it a sense of seriousness. On the palate, it has some of the rich mouth feel of an Alsace Pinot Gris but with a crisp finish of fresh fruits and herbs. At this stage, it's a step up from most of the inexpensive Pinot Grigios on the market and a terrific buy at $4/bottle.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Joseph Mellot Chinon les Morinieres, 2004

When I last had Chinon les Morinieres (January 7, 2008), it was gushing with flamboyant fruit. With a few months' aging, these red fruit aromas and flavors have mellowed out and developed secondary characteristics more typical of Loire Cabernet Franc--dusty earth, briar and herbs. But there's still plent of lush fruit--dark cherries and red raspberries. It has the freshness to go with seafood, pork or chicken plus the fruit depth and complexity to stand up to beef or lamb.

It's still fairly widely available and a good value for $12 to $14.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

LaTour de By Cru Bourgeois du Medoc, 1982

This half bottle of Cru Bourgeois Bordeaux was purchased for $3.99 nearly 25 years ago. And it's still drinking beautifully.

The color is similar to that of the Langi Cabernet--deep and dark with minimal browning. And the nose also has many of the same qualities--cherries and currants, deep and concentrated but showing a racy edge. There are dried as well as fresh fruits in the bouquet and flavors of this wine. The mid-palate is notably ripe and lovely, superior to that of the younger Langi Cab. The wine glides along the tongue, leaving ripe flavors and a silky impression all the way. If all Cabernet wines were this good and this inexpensive, I would drink them more frequently.

LaTour de By is one of a number of inexpensive Cru Bourgeous favorites of famous wine critics such as Michael Broadbent, and I can understand why. The vineyards are planted to 70 percent Cabernet, 25 percent Merlot and 5 percent Cabernet Franc. The lower price is made possible by a heavy dependence on old oak, with about 20 percent of barrels replaced each year. Reviews of recent vintages of LaTour de By on other wine blogs have not been as positive. That might be because the quality at this estate has declined...or because the wine needs more time to show its best. Contemporary wine drinkers have become accustomed to the sweet vanilla-tinged smells and flavors of new oak and less likely than traditionalists to put inexpensive wines in the cellar for extended aging.

Mount Langi Ghiran Victoria Langi Cabernet Sauvignon, 1991

Insiders have long known that Mount Langi Ghiran's vineyards, nestled between two dramatic mountain peaks in the Southern Grampians, produce some of Australia's very best examples of Shiraz. It's a unique cool climate with a long growing season favorable to producing Syrah wines with complete ripeness and beautifully subtle nuances similar to those of the best Hermitage and Cote Rotie wines of the Northern Rhone.

This was not the Langi Shiraz but rather Mount Langi Ghiran's Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. It too has a very good reputation, and I opened it for my wife's birthday. Donna is a lover of Australian Cabernet and a close friend since childhood of the winemaker Trevor Mast and his wife, Sandra. The wine was in fact one that Trevor had given us on a visit to the vineyard in the early 1990s.

Trevor noted on the label that, beginning with this vintage, the wine was held in French oak barriques for two years rather one year as in previous vintages to allow "full integration of the oak and wine tannins to soften the wine." Australians, like Americans, tend to drink their wines young, and, with softer tannins, this wine was undoubtedly a hit on restaurant wine lists 15 years ago. Unlike many New World Cabernets that have had similar handling, this wine has nevertheless aged very nicely.

It's a medium deep ruby with some amber creeping in at the edges and a decent amount of sediment. The bouquet is well developed with cherry, currant, cassis, dark fruit and a pleasant raciness. (There is also a slight musty quality that comes and goes but does not detract from the wine's charms. The wine is definitely not corked.) The palate impression is smooth with no hard edges. Flavors are well focused and developed. There's more acid than you'd expect from an Australian red, but that is Trevor's wine making style. It's an Australian Cabernet for those with European tastes, and it's very good.

That said, I'm looking forward to opening the next bottle of Langi Shiraz--probably during the next holiday season.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Les Trois Couronnes Cotes du Rhone, 2007

I already have more favorite Cotes du Rhone wines than I can keep up with, but this one attracted my attention by a price tag that harkened back to the days when the dollar was strong against the Euro--$7.99. And it was good enough to send me back to D&W FreshMarkets for a few more bottles.

Les Trois Couronnes comes from vineyards near Tulette, about 15 kilometers from Valreas and about the same distance from Vaison la Romaine in the Southern Rhone. The color is deep, dark and bluish--enough to make you think it might be oak-influenced. The smells and flavors tell me otherwise, however. It has a robust, peppery Grenache nose with all the qualities you'd expect from a Cotes du Rhone Villages, such as Cairanne. Red and black fruit, spice and more pepper--this time the type of pepper you expect from Syrah. The wine is 80% Grenache and 20% Syrah, but at this stage, the Syrah is more than holding its own.

The same qualities carry over to the palate, and there's good fruit concentration. I find a bit more tartness and tannic firmness than I would expect from a Cotes du Rhone, but it's not at all unpleasant and the flavors seem to grow as the wine airs and warms in the glass. As a Cotes du Rhone lover, I approve. And Donna, who prefers Australian Shiraz, is equally enthusiastic.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Chateau d'Epire Savennieres, 1982

This wine doesn't owe me anything. I paid $52.50/case for it 25 years ago and have enjoyed it numerous times at every stage of its development. It was a full-bodied, fruit-oriented Chardonnay alternative when it was young and has maintained its fruit orientation while adding honeyed nuances over the past two decades. A 26-year-old white table wine is always an oddity, but dry Chenin Blanc from the Savennieres appellation of the Loire Valley has a reputation for producing ageworthy wines. I had a 1982 Domaine Baumard Clos du Papillon Savennieres last December that was fantastic.

My last bottle of Chateau d'Epire several years ago gave every indication of immortality, but alas this bottle is disappointing. The color is a deep gold, and it deepens further with aeration. The nose still has honey/melon notes but they are muted compared to previous bottles. The honey carries over to the palate with a rich mouthfeel, but there is also a bitter streak, almost salty on the sides of the tongue. The wine is not dead nor oxidized, and it still offers some pleasure. It may be merely a bad bottle, but I suspect that I have pushed my luck with this 26-year-old Chenin Blanc.

Famega Vinho Verde, 2006

This was a leftover from the Summer of 2007. It was fresh and lively a year ago, with just a bit of fizz to refresh the palate, but it's not a winter wine, and I just hadn't gotten around to it yet this summer. Wow, what a pleasant surprise! The fizziness that the wine had a year ago had become a definite sparkle, forming a slight mousse with each pour. Fresh apples with lime juice and tonic water--perfect for a warm evening or a vegetable-oriented meal.

Famega is only $7.49 a bottle, and I've never met anyone who doesn't like its unabashed charm. It's 9% alcohol so you don't have to worry about coming back for glass after glass.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Red Square Hawkes Bay Pinot Noir, 2004

This wine bills itself as "for the people," and I approve. The people deserve to drink good Pinot Noir and eat cake as well as baguettes.

This is real Pinot: medium to light garnet, with a wonderfully pungent nose, aromatic almost to the point of volatility. Very intense red and dark cherry fruit with unmistakeable Pinot Noir savor. Powerful but in a very delicate way--iron fist in a velvet glove. This reminds me of one of my favorite Pinots--the Louis Latour Pinot Noir Domaine de Valmoissine (February 3, 2008). It's hard to resist, and we didn't.

I bought my bottle of Red Square at Cost Plus World Market for $13.99. Valmoissine is regularly priced at $15.99 but is often on sale for $12.99.

Salmon Creek California Cabernet Sauvignon, 2005

This wine reminds me a bit of the affordable California Cabernets that were available in the early 1980s--wines from Pedroncelli, Inglenook, Fetzer, Sebastiani and Almaden. Inexpensive wines today don't taste much like Cabernet, and the expensive ones are outside my budget.

The 2005 Salmon Creek Cabernet is a good dark ruby color, and it smells like Cabernet--currants and berries, just the right blend of black fruits with a pleasant hint of green. Both the color and the nose are noticeably free of the showy, overly oaky attributes that most inexpensive wines get through oak chips and manipulative winemaking. The palate gives what the nose promises--good varietal character, slightly sweet but with some tart acidity to give it balance. The finish is enjoyable and several notches above what you'd expect from a $5 wine.

I paid $5 for a glass of Salmon Creek Cabernet with lunch at Win Schuler's in Marshall, MI and was surprised to find it at my D&W market for only $5.25 a bottle. I've learned since that Bronco Wine Co. (makers of inexpensive wines including Charles Shaw or Two Buck Chuck) markets Salmon Creek almost solely through restaurants. I was pleased to find a $5 glass of Cabernet on a restaurant wine list and even more pleased by the quality that was in the glass. Some consumers, however, would be upset to discover that they could buy a whole bottle of the wine retail for the same price. So the Salmon Creek label is not marketed very aggressively retail, and I had to snoop around in back corners to find it at D&W. I was told that it was brought in on the recommendation of customers, so if your grocery store does not sell Salmon Creek, you might want to tell the staff about it.

The $5 to $8 Cabernets I bought in the early 1980s were usually from Napa, Sonoma or Mendocino County fruit, and most of them aged quite well. Salmon Creek carries only the "California" appellation, meaning the fruit probably comes mostly from high-production vineyards on the Central Coast. This Cab doesn't taste "juggy," although it's not a wine I'd want to cellar. It tastes "classy" in part because it avoids the high-oak, high-alcohol excesses of most of its low-end competitors.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Agricole Vallone Salice Salentino Vereto Rosso Riserva, 2000

After pouring the DOA Spanish Garnacha down the drain, I had the courage to reach for a wine four years older and even more deeply discounted--this Salice Salentino from Agricole Vallone. Originally priced at $11.99, the wine was marked down to $4.79 at Harding's Markets, presumably because someone figured that an inexpensive eight-year-old Italian wine belongs in the throw-away bin. Not true.

The color is deep and dark, and the wine is bursting with vibrant aromas of black and red cherries and a hint of roses--spicy and intense. It's a full-bodied wine, ripe at entry with flavors of dark cherries, earth and licorice on the mid-palate. The finish is more than decent, and the ripe, bold fruit serves as a good foil for a lasagna made with hot, spicy sausage. I stocked up on this wine and plan to enjoy it frequently. If a bottle or two is still around five years from now, I feel certain it will still be offering a lot of enjoyment.

(See previous notes on this wine from April 22 and May 21).

Villaroya de la Sierra Calatayud Garnacha, 2004

This wine, a mere four years of age, is dead. It may have been heat damaged; it may have been simply poorly made, but the muddy color and the vinegary, sherrified nose leave no doubt. A few tastes and down the drain it goes. The wine cost only $8--marked down from $10 at World Market--but I think a consumer has every right to expect a 2004 red wine to be alive and well. This wine was DOA.

I doubt that I missed much. Aside from the vinegar, I found the wine to be overly ripe and raisined with a thick body from 14 percent alcohol.

Louis Latour Pernand-Vergelesses Blanc, 1998

Pernand Vergelesses is one of my favorite good value white Burgundy appellations--a dramatic wine with substantial complexity and flavor interest.

I thoroughly enjoyed Louis Latour's 1995 and 1996 P-Vs a few years ago, and feel sure they're still drinking beautifully. Wish I still had some. This 1998 unfortunately has a bitter note, like the inside of a peach seed, that comes forward in the aroma and detracts from my enjoyment. And that same bitter note shows up on the finish as well. Otherwise, it has decent Chardonnay and oak qualities--apple, citrus, peach in a robust frame. And, unlike cheap white wines, it smells and tastes better warm than it does cold. I'll wait a year or so before trying the next bottle, although I don't have high hopes of a turn-around. I suspect it's simply an off year for Pernand-Vergelesses from Louis Latour.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Domaine l'Oratoire Saint Martin Cairanne Reserve des Seigneurs

At 10 years of age, this Cotes du Rhone Villages is near or at its peak. The color is deep and dark with only slight browning around the edges. Unlike this domaine's Cairanne Prestige, the Reserve des Seigneurs contains some Syrah, and it seems more dominant in the nose at this stage. Ripe blue and black berries, spice, garrigue, and a hint of shoe polish--very aromatic, almost to the point of volatility. On the palate, ripe blueberry fruit is dominant at the front; then warm Grenache charm takes over on the mid-palate and continues through the long finish. Complexity, power and sweet berry charm. Good right now and should carry on for a year or so.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Contadino Pinot Grigio delle Venezie, 2006

Like most Pinot Grigios delle Venezie (from the area around Venice), this wine has brisk smells and flavors featuring freshly cut herbs al la Mezza Coronoa. It also has some broader elements--apples, peaches and wax--similar to those of an Alsace Pinot Gris. This wine is not as enjoyable as Mezza Corona but considering the $3.99 price tag at Trader Joe's, it's well worth buying.

Also available for the same price at some Trader Joe's stores is a slightly sparkling version--Contadino Pinot Grigio Frizzante. I haven't tried it but have read positive reports from other wine blogs.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Vacqueyras Les Calades Domaine la Monardiere, 2003

"This wine will make you think of a basket of ripe red fruit ripened in the sun," wrote SDG Selections, the group that makes Domaine la Monardiere and other fine French wines available to U.S. importers. I couldn't say it better myself. Les Calades is the least expensive of three Vacqueyras wines produced by Christian and Martine Vache. Price is the main reason I buy it, but I'm never disappointed in what I get for that price. I know that if I ever tried the other, more expensive, bottlings, I would be hopelessly hooked.

It's a dark, dusty maroon color, a la Vacqueyras. The sun-ripened quality comes right at you from the first sniff. Ripe, almost raisined, red berries and cherries supported by lusty black licorice, Kirsch and Vacqueyras minerals. Actually, the palate is even stronger than the nose in these forward fruit qualities. It cries out for a rich tomato/mushroom sauce. Typical of 2003 Rhones, this Vacqueyras is ripe to a fault but this manifests itself as a lush, raisined quality rather than alcoholic heat. Chateau Rayas fans would love it! With its funky black licorice tones, it's 100 percent Vacqueyras and lovely in spite of the 2003 vintage. No hard edges and a long finish. I haven't been so happy since my last bottle of Les Calades.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Nick Goldschmidt Boulder Bank Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, 2007

Nick Goldschmidt is a New Zealand winemaker who has also worked in California, Australia and Chile. He was chief winemaker at Simi during most of the 1990s and is now involved as a consultant for a number of wineries in California, Australia, New Zealand, Chile and Argentina. He apparently takes some extra pride in a pair of site specific wines from New Zealand, this Boulder Bank Sauvignon Blanc and a companion Boulder Bank Pinot Noir. The Sauvignon comes from a single low-yielding vineyard near the Opawa River, an area subject to afternoon breezes and cool night-time temperatures. The results in the glass are impressive.

The color is very light yellow and the scents are as fresh as an afternoon breeze near the sea. Finely focused aromas and flavors of passion fruit, green pepper, mint and melon. Cool and fresh on the palate, just what I want from a Sauvignon Blanc. The passion fruit/green pepper combination is unique in my experience and blends beautifully with the basil and tomato in a Margarita pizza.

I liked the Joel Gott California Sauvignon Blanc below, but this one is even better--more mineral complexity and more fruit definition. I found this bottle for less than $10 at Cost Plus World Market.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Reynolds Vineyards South Australia Chardonnay, 2006

The pleasing qualities of this wine come more from the oak treatment than the fruit. It's fresh and lively on the nose and the palate with some Chardonnay apple and lemon zest. More dominant, however, are the French oak traits of grapefruit and toast. It's pretty typical of one style of Aussie Chardonnay, and at $8.99 it's a very good value.

The former Reynolds' Chardonnay vineyards in the high-altitude Orange district of New South Wales apparently are now bottled under the Climbing label. If you can find them, they are undoubtedly worth a few extra dollars for the special qualities of Orange Chardonnay.

Sweet or Tart with Hot, Spicy Foods?

At Sprout Artisan Bistro in downtown Kalamazoo only a few wines (and a larger number of beers) are offered to accompany the spicy Asian-oriented food. I chose a 2006 St. Christopher Rheinhessen Riesling for my South Indian vegetarian curry; Donna, a 2007 Joel Gott California Sauvignon Blanc for the "family" curry, featuring sweet peppers, Asian greens, lentils and beef. And we were pleased with our choices.

The off-dry Rheinhessen Riesling, in my view, was perfect as a foil to the Asian spices, and it blended well with the flavors of the carrots, sweet potatoes and red skins. It was reasonably plump on the palate but with a zesty fruit presence that kept me coming back for more.

The Joel Gott Sauvignon Blanc was a bit tart when tasted against the carrots and potatoes of my dish but worked well with the broader flavors of the lentils and beef. Sourced from vineyards in Monterey County, the Russian River Valley, Lake County and warmer regions of Napa, it touched all the bases for Sauvignon--green peppers, peaches, melons and citrus. It's more like a New Zealand Sauvignon than one from France's Loire Valley, but at around $10 to $12 retail, it's a wine I will look for in the shops.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Alsace Tokay Pinot Gris Cormier Etienne Loew, 2004

This bottle of Alsace Pinot Gris was quite a bit deeper in color than I remember the last bottle (July 14, 2008). It's definitely reached full maturity and with a lot of classic Pinot Gris qualities--honey, white peaches, almonds, more honey. It also seems sweeter than the last bottle, but I think that's because of the honeyed quality (botrytis?) rather than any residual sugar. The wine is rich and full on the palate but well balanced.

The deeper color, which seems to have come on overnight, concerns me a bit in a four-year-old Alsace wine. (I have Alsace wines from 1983 that look less mature.) But I like the wine and may have to enjoy it a bit more frequently than I had planned.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Pont du Rhone Cotes du Rhone, 2007

This is a simple Cotes du Rhone from the negotiant duPeloux, but I see it as a good introduction to the 2007 vintage in the Southern Rhone. It's medium to deep crimson with the bluish/purple blush of youth. Side by side with the McWilliams Shiraz, the Grenache friendliness of this wine stands out. Red raspberries and cream, violets, spices and a hint of black pepper. Also fresh, yeasty scents--like a raspberry tart fresh out of the oven. Lots of flavor interest. This straightforward negotiant wine ($5.99 at Trader Joe's) gives me a better view of the 2007 vintage than the oak-influenced Domaine Lafond Roc Epine I had a few weeks ago at Journeyman Bistro in Fennville.

Pont du Rhone is not a wine I plan to buy in quantity; there are many better Cotes du Rhone for drinking over the next three to five years--Sainte Anne, Grand Prieur, L'Espigouette, Veux Chene, Janasse, Segries. At the price though, it's a good wine to drink while it's still brimfull of the zesty, yeasty qualities of young Grenache.

Friday, August 29, 2008

McWilliams Hanwood Estate South Eastern Australian Shiraz, 2005

This has become my favorite under-$10 Australian Shiraz for daily drinking, more consistently enjoyable, in my view, than the Jacobs Creek Shiraz which has won gold medals from Tasters' Guild over the past two years. If you have an under-$10 selection to recommend, I would be happy to hear about it.

This wine has a good measure of new oak but it's backed by sturdy Shiraz fruit. It's deep and bluish with ripe smells and flavors of dark cherries and mulberries. Compared to the Barbera Piemonte, it's considerably thicker and more tannic. Quite a contrast in style, and I can predict that if you like one of these two wines, you probably won't care for the other. But they're both charming and food-friendly. This wine is probably at its best right now, at three years of age. The fruit is still strong and beginning to take charge from the wood tannins.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Ottone I Barbera Piemonte, 2005

Piedmont is the source of some of the greatest red wines in the world: Barolos and Barbarescos. But as Italian wine expert Burton Anderson points out, of all the wines of Piedmont, "nearly half the red is Barbera, much of which is for everyday, some of which is remarkable."

The label notes that the wine is named after Otto I, the first Holy Roman Emperor. And the Barbera wine grapes in this area of northern Italy were probably there long before Otto.

The Ottone I Barbera Piemonte is a medium light ruby red, several shades lighter than the Guigal Cotes du Rhone. There's a slightly spritzy note to the aromas, but the fruit flavors are fresh and inviting: red cherries, licorice and flowers, straightforward and intense. There's a bit of spritz on the palate as well, but the overall impression is positive. It's a useful wine--a good companion for black bean soup but would be equally good with whitefish, pork or chicken.

After tasting the excellent Villa Giada Barbera d'Asti (May 10, 2008), I wanted to learn more about Barbera. This wine lacks the complex spicy notes of the La Loggia Barbera d'Alba I reported on earlier (August 14, 2008). Both are good values for every day drinking, and I'm ready to make another go at the Villa Giada.

Monday, August 25, 2008

E. Guigal Cotes du Rhone, 2003

In a message board discussion a few months ago, those of us who know and love Cotes du Rhone wines came to a general consensus that, in most vintages, the best CDRs for aging are probably those of Etienne Guigal. Guigal's vineyards are in Cote Rotie, the northern Rhone, so for Cotes du Rhone (as for Gigondas and Chateauneuf du Pape), he is a negotiant, buying grapes from someone who has a surplus. That's generally not a good approach; most growers are going to keep their best grapes for themselves.

Guigal's record with Cotes du Rhone speaks for itself, however, and goes back many years. The 1981, 1983 and 1985 Guigal Cotes du Rhone stand out in my memory. When I had a chance to pick up the 1983 for about $30/case in 1990 (when by all rights it should have been dead), I had no hesitation. And it was drinking so beautifully that I went back for case No. 2 and enjoyed every drop.

The 2003 vintage is a controversial one; the warmer than usual weather created many wines that were over-ripe. While they showed beautifully young, they may or may not have the acidity needed for aging. Guigal's wine is one of the few I have had confidence keeping, mainly because of his track record and reports I have heard from those I trust.

It's a medium deep crimson, very dark for a Cotes du Rhone. The nose is powerful with more Syrah than Grenache traits. This smells and tastes more like a Crozes Hermitage than a Cotes du Rhone--black fruits, shoe polish and only a hint of garrigue. It's ripe but not raisined, and it has a nice black cherry finish. It's also very different from the bottle I had a few months ago and, for me, not as enjoyable.

I was away the second night and what was left in the bottle on the third night was a bit disjointed and hot on the finish. The alcohol level is only 13.5%, but I suspect that the balance is a bit fragile. It's probably going through an awkward stage, but I'm going to drink up the few bottles I have left.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Edna Valley Vineyards Edna Valley San Luis Obispo Paragon Vineyards Chardonnay, 2005

I reviewed this wine twice previously (March 17 and May 27) and pegged it at the peak of its maturity. With this bottle, I'm inclined to think that it's beginning its slide down the other side. If you have some in your cellar, it's time to drink up.

The color is a very deep gold. The nose is dominated by lime, white peaches and French oak. There are some pineapple/tropical fruit flavors on the palate along with lime and a very tight acidity. It's an enjoyable wine, but there's a hard edge creeping into the finish that tells me it's not for keeping.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Lirac Chateau de Segries, 1998

This is another example of a 1998 Cotes du Rhone Villages wine strutting its stuff after 10 years in the bottle. Chateau de Segries' Lirac has been very drinkable from the very beginning, but the tannic edge has now faded to reveal deeper pleasures.

The color is a deep ruby/crimson, and I detect no amber tones. The traditional old vine Grenache/Syrah bouquet is apparent from the first sniff. Black raspberries and dark-toned minerals, savory and satisfying. On the palate, the wine is savory and laid back with lots of subtle complexities. It doesn't dance on the tongue but rather steps gracefully across it, leaving a long, silky finish. This wine is not currently on my yearly buy list, but it soon will be.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Rully Mollepierre Mathieu de Brully, 2004

This wine provides a perfect example of why I prefer French to New World Chardonnays. Rully is a lesser appellation in Burgundy, only slightly above Macon and nowhere near the prestige level of a Puligny Montrachet or Mersault. Yet for me, wines from Rully and Montagny offer the depth and complexity that I expect and want from a Chardonnay.

The Rully Mollepierre 2004 was a bit of a disappointment just a few months ago. I thought it was prematurely advanced and a little tired. Last night the ugly duckling had developed into a beautiful swan. The color is a medium gold, as before, but the nose shows significantly more depth and development--citrus and green apple, yes, but also nuts and grains, plump and lovely. All of those qualities are confirmed on the palate--nothing showy but an elegant, graceful presence that blends nicely with the flavors of broiled rainbow trout with lemon, capers and olive oil. Unlike most white wines, this one becomes better as it warms, with all of the subtle flavor elements becoming more defined.

No offense intended against New World Chardonnays nor those who love them, but this, for me, is what Chardonnay is all about.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Cline Contra Costa County Ancient Vines Mourvedre, 2006

I usually feel a bit uneasy when I read "ancient vines" on the label. As someone once said: "In California, they just can't plant those ancient vines quickly enough." That kind of cynicism is a bit harsh for this wine. While these "ancient vines" probably would not be considered even middle aged in France or Italy, they clearly are capable of producing some good juice.

About 25% of this wine is aged in new American oak, but the winemaker has done his job well because it's barely noticeable and certainly takes a back seat to the distinctive deep fruit/mineral smells and flavors. Dark plums, blueberries, violets and Mourvedre spice. Has a luxurious mouth feel and a lovely range of flavors and textures. Slightly tough, as young Mourvedre wines tend to be, and with hints of the pleasures to come with 8 to 10 years of aging.

This wine reminds me of the many inexpensive Spanish Mourvedre wines (Yecla Carro, Yecla Castano, Jumilla Casa Castillo, Luzon Verde) now on the market. Even at a price ($15 to $18) two to three times higher than these wines, it is still well worth buying.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

La Loggia Barbera d'Alba, 2006

For $5.99 at Trader Joe's, this wine is a decent value. The nose alone is worth the price--elegant spicy notes of violets, cherries, wild berries and leather. It smells like a mature wine, and the medium ruby/garnet color is also suggestive of an older wine. On the palate, the dominant impression is dryness--an almost dusty dryness that seems to squeeze out the fruit. The leather and spice are there but less of the cherries and berries. I suspect this wine has been pre-aged to bring it forward for early drinking. I found it quite enjoyable with linguine marinara and may buy more...but not for cellaring.

I don't have a lot of experience with Barbera, but I know that Barbera d'Alba wines can be excellent...and expensive. I reported on an excellent Barbera d'Asti from Villa Giada earlier this year [May 10, 2008], and this La Loggia offers nowhere near the same level of intensity. It's also less striking than the Epicuro wines (Salice Salentino and Aglianico) beside it on the shelves at Trader Joe's for the same price.

Monday, August 11, 2008

R Wines Strong Arms South Australia Shiraz, 2006

If you're looking for a simple wine that's pleasurable to gulp (as some have described the Los Dos Spanish wine below), then I think this wine is a better choice. Strong Arms Shiraz was awared 91 points by the Wine Advocate, but for my taste, it's a bit ripe, alcoholic and one dimensional. I love fruit-oriented wines, but this one comes short on definition and flavor interest--probably because the grapes were picked too late. With pizza, I found it okay but, at $10, not the "remarkable value" cited by the Wine Advocate review.

Almira Los Dos Campo de Borja, 2006

I've seen some user notes on this wine labeling it "good but simple." I say the only thing "simple" about this wine is its price. The wine sells for about $8 a bottle; I paid $8 for a glass in a restaurant and thought it was a bargain.

Flavors and aromas are what you would expect from a Spanish Grenach/Syrah blend (80%/20%)--cherries, berries, spice and pepper. In addition, it has haunting old vines character and surprising depth and concentration for a wine of this price level. It is clearly traditionally made with none of the bells and whistles of modern, international winemaking. Traditional fermentation without carbonic maceration and aging in stainless steel. I say this is a wine to take seriously.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Chateauneuf du Pape Les Clefs d'Or, 1989

From a half bottle, this Chateauneuf is fully mature and lovely. The color is deep and dark, but there are garnet amber tones of maturity. The bouquet and flavors are classic mature Chateauneuf: dried red berries with hints of black pepper and spices, concentrated as in fruit cake. Very rich but not heavy and no hard edges. It's not as good as the 1989 Lucien Barrot but made in the same mode. 13.5% alcohol is probably understating it, but there are no disagreeable high-alcohol traits as in most 2003 Southern Rhones. Mature but not fading.

Christian Moueix Merlot, 2005

If anyone knows Merlot, that person should be Christian Moueix. He is the owner of the renowned (and costly) Chateau Petrus, a 100 percent Merlot wine from Pomerol. This wine doesn't qualify as a second label for Petrus or even for Moueix's other estate, Trotanoy. It is a generic AC Bordeaux Merlot that sells for about $10 a bottle.

While I'm not a fan of Merlot, this wine gives me plenty of pleasure. There is none of the green pepper element that I find in many inexpensive New World Merlots. No candied cherries either. Just plain old Merlot fruit--earthy smells and flavors with overtones of dark cherries and a dry, tea-like finish. This is not a Merlot for cocktail sippers; it is a wine that goes well with a carefully prepared meal featuring beef, veal, pork or lamb.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Edna Valley Vineyard Edna Valley San Luis Obisop Paragon Chardonnay, 2003

Chardonnay is capable of aging well for 10, 15, 20 years or more. I've had 15-year-old white Burgundies even from lesser appellations such as Saint Aubin and Montagny that were beautiful. In 2005, I had a 1987 Tyrrell's Vat 47 Hunter Valley Chardonnay that was very well preserved. I have had Edna Valley Vineyards Chardonnays in the past that have aged well for six to eight years. Not this one; it has all the qualities of a nine-year-old "premox" Chablis: overly deep color; stale, oxidized aromas; and a somewhat bitter taste. Some of the Edna Valley mineral qualities can still be detected if you search for them. But there's not much pleasure left in this wine.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Cotes du Rhone Domaine Lafond Roc Epine, 2007

I had this at Journeyman Cafe in Fennville, MI, and the waiter told me it was a 2007, which I found hard to believe. Are red 2007 Cotes du Rhone wines ready for bottling?

The wine is certainly fresh enough, and it was very pleasant with an entree of Creswell Farms pork (belly and loin), eggplant puree, kale and snow peas with maple syrup/Bourbon glaze. The wine is a dark color with bluish tints. The nose is very ripe and pleasant with hints of black fruits but little of the varietal character (pepper, spice, garrigue) I expect from a Southern Rhone. It's also ripe and supple on the palate--a good restaurant wine with no sharp edges...but again very little varietal character of either Grenache or Syrah. Maybe this is because of the wine's youth or maybe it's because the estate has moved to an international style.

The vineyards, located halfway between Lirac and Tavel in the cooler Gard region of the Southern Rhone, were planted in 1880, and the estate says they are the oldest vineyards in the world. Yet there's not much old viney character to this wine. Is that because it's still young? Or because the style has been modernized?'s an enjoyable wine for $6.50 a glass at a small-town restaurant that is quickly gaining recognition throughout the Midwest.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Vinsobres Domaine Chaume-Arnaud, 2004

On a trip to France a couple of years ago, I tasted many fine wines but one of my most memorable was a carafe of generic Vinsobres at a sidewalk cafe in Vaison la Romaine. Full of peppery, spicy fruit, it brought back memories of another Vinsobres, the 1999 Chaume-Arnaud Vinsobres, I had on the banks of the St. Joseph River at Bistro Rio in Mendon, Michigan.

I've had my eye out for Vinsobres ever since, and this 2004 Chaume-Arnaud met my expectations and then some. It's a deep ruby/crimson with bluish tints from the Mourvedre in the blend. Aromas of herbs, cherries, purple flowers and tree bark. Again, the Mourvedre and the Syrah are dominant at this stage. On the palate, it's still a bit tight, but the Grenache (60%) is lurking, poised to gush out with red berries, pepper and spice. With some aeration, you can smell and taste it all--a beautiful wine to drink now and a real charmer in a couple of years.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Sancerre La Moussiere Alphonse Mellot, 2000

I ordinarily don't keep Sauvignon Blanc wines this long, but this Sancerre is clearly no worse for a few extra years in the cellar. It's a medium light gold with impressive brilliance. Enchanting nose of mint, melon and other cool Sauvignon qualities. Honey takes over as the wine airs. Very high class. On the palate, this wine is special--silky smooth all the way back; slender and billowing with flavor. Dances lightly on the tongue and then lingers for several seconds.

The Mellot family have been producing wines in Sancerre since 1513, and La Moussiere is one of their favored vineyards. Some of the wine apparently is aged in new oak, but it's not to be detected--adding seasoning, no doubt, but without dominating the finished product.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Cotes du Ventoux La Ferme Julien, 2006

Is Julien's Farm the same as the Old Farm? Or is it the place next door? Either way, this is a very good wine.

I've seen La Ferme Julien several times at Trader Joe's and assumed it was merely another name for an old favorite, La Vieille Ferme. The label is almost identical except for the names and a drawing of a goat rather than a chicken on the front label. The blend is the same: 50% Grenache, 20% Syrah, 15% Carignan and 15% Cinsault.

Deep, dark color. Deep scents of berries, spice and pepper. Smells like LVF. And it tastes like LVF. Full bodied, big for a fruit-oriented wine, more like Font-Sane than Grand Prieur. Lots of bright fruit, spice and garrigue. An exciting wine right now but I'm looking forward to the mellow pleasures it will give in about six months.

It looks like LVF, smells like LVF and tastes like LVF. La Vieille Ferme--red, white and rose--is selling for $6.99 at Sawall's Health Food store in Kalamazoo. If you live close to a Trader's Joe's, you can buy La Ferme Julien for $5.99. Whatever the label, whatever the price, it's a wine to buy and enjoy.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Cotes du Rhone Domaine du Grand Prieur, 2006

This wine is not as big nor as fruity as the Font-Sane Cotes du Ventoux, but it is no less impressive. The color is very deep with some blue tints in the crimson. The aromas are immediately engaging, even if a bit more restrained than the Font-Sane. Red and black berries, garrigue and flowers. It's been a few months [May 15, 2008] since I last tried this 2006, and it's improved considerably during that period. Has it caught up to the 2005? Probably not.

On the palate, I get black pepper, raspberry puree, licorice and dark-toned minerals. The fruit is ripe and accessible but structured to match up with serious meals, such as lamb stew. This Grand Prieur reminds me of a very good Vacqueyras, and that makes sense since the vines are all in Vacqueyras. (Bertin Gras chooses the lower appellation status in order to get slightly higher yields.) Long, peppery finish.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Chablis Premier Cru Vosgros Gilbert Picq et ses Fils, 1996

This is, according to wine geek terminology, a "premox" wine. It has been prematurely oxidized. It was with a bit of agony that I brought it up from the cellar to use for cooking lamb stew. Agony because it was a special wine I had purchased to enjoy with a decade or more of aging (not at all unreasonable for Premier Cru Chablis). But a few years ago, I discovered that it belonged with a large group of white Burgundy wines from 1995 to 2000 that, for some unknown reason, lapsed into "premox" state. This was not a wine I intended for lamb stew, and I took a few sips after first opening the bottle...just to be sure. Yes, it was "premox," confirmed by the deep gold color and the stale, oxidized odors. But I continued to sip even after I poured a cup or more into the stew. And later, after enjoying the stew with a red wine, I came back to the Vosgros as an after dinner treat.

Even in "premox" state, this wine is lovely. The deep mineral-laden, flinty qualities are there, not at all showy or pretty but impressive in their power. It's a wine to sip and savor rather than gulp. It's very concentrated, clinging to the tongue and leaving an after taste that goes halfway down the esophagus. The grapes come from old vines well situated in a high vineyard. Stainless steel aging to preserve the character of the fruit. There are some qualities that are hard to destroy, even by premature oxidation.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Domaine de Font-Sane Cotes du Ventoux, 2005

For me, this is the ultimate in Cotes du Ventoux--deeper and more serious than La Vieille Ferme but similar in its fruit intensity. This is the perfect wine to drink this summer on your deck or in your backyard because it smells like a herb garden surrounded by flowers in bloom. As I poured the wine last night, a hummingbird seemed to spot it from the other side of the yard and immediately approached the table, spinning like a helicopter just a few feet away from the wine. He knew what was good, but fortunately he didn't dive bomb the glass.

The color, as the hummingbird undoubtedly noted, is a beautiful deep crimson. The nose just bursts with excitement--flowers, spices, garden herbs and dark cherry/berry fruit. There's no oak but plenty of fruit tannins and the smell of macerated peels. Now there's licorice, black pepper, cayenne pepper and paprika. It's a big wine but everything is in proportion to the beautiful ripe fruit. It has the power and beauty of a Gigondas (Font-Sane is located in Gigondas) but with some of the dark tones of a good Vacqueyras.

I like this wine so much I'm tempted to keep it all for myself. But I'll tell you: it's available at Village Corner in Ann Arbor for $10.99.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Domaine de Marotte Cotes du Ventoux Cuvee Eline, 2001

My last bottle of Cuvee Eline [March 13, 2008] showed much better than this one. The majority of Ventoux wines are made for very early drinking. When this wine was young, it showed the potential to be a keeper, but seven years' aging is pushing it, even for Cuvee Eline.

The color still looks good, and the bouquet is lovely with deep scents of red and black berries. On the palate, though, the alcohol is beginning to dominate the fruit, creating somewhat disjointed flavors and a slightly harsh finish.

After spending the night in the refrigerator, this wine showed much better on the second day. A little bit of cooling put the alcohol back in its place while accenting the fruit tannins. On the third night, the wine was still okay so it's not dying, just fading away.