Thursday, January 31, 2008

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

A 10-year-old Vin de Pays should by all rights be dead. This one is still kicking and resembling a baby Chateauneuf du Pape. The crimson color is becoming lighter and showing signs of maturity while the nose is more powerful than it ever was in its youth--with scents of grilled lamb chops, dried flowers and Provencal herbs. It's definitely a bit funky but deep and concentrated. The palate is similar but even more powerful with haunting flavors typical of old vine Grenache--dried cherries, fresh strawberries and sea salt. Concentrated and full with a silky texture.

With artisan wines, sometimes you take a little bad with the good. For Les Calades, which I've been buying regularly in bulk for about 15 to 20 years, a bit of rusticity often covers up a hidden treasure of old vine fruit. I paid $5.99 for this bottle; earlier vintages were priced as low as $3.39. Consumers who are used to drinking over-oaked and over-cropped California and Australian wines probably turned up their noses when they encountered this bargain on the shelves. At certain stages of their evolution, some vintages of Les Calades were indeed a bit stinky, perhaps because of old fashioned wine making or vineyard methods. When this happened (as it did with the 1994 and 2000 vintages), I put the wine aside for six months or longer and the ugly duckling always turned into a beautiful swan. This is the first time, I've aged Les Calades for as long as a decade, but I think the 2001 has the power to last at least 15 years.

The grapes for Les Calades come from old vineyards that are only a few kilometers away from land that qualifies as Chateauneuf du Pape. As the name suggests, the soil is very rocky, as it is in some of the best Chateauneuf vineyards. Clos Saint Jean also makes a Chateauneuf du Pape that is very good, and I have bought it regularly over the same period that I've been buying Les Calades--often for as little as $8 to $12 a bottle. Robert Parker of the Wine Advocate, when he reviewed the wines, gave them ratings in the low 80s, declaring that they were old fashioned and rustic. All the better for those of us wishing to buy quality wine at a low price.

All of this changed in 2003 when the Maurel brothers, Pascal and Vincent, (who took over the property when their father Guy died), hired oenologist Philippe Gambie to assist in making the wines. New oak was brought in to age the Syrah and Mourvedre (the Grenache continues to be unoaked) and two prestige cuvees were created. Marketing also became internationalized, and Robert Parker gave these wines high ratings, ranking them among the best of the vintage. Prices followed the ratings straight up. Some bad always goes with the good.

I won't be reporting on Clos Saint Jean wines from recent vintages, but I have plenty of good old fashioned wines in the cellar that will provide pleasure for years to come.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Chablis Premier Cru Vaucoupin Gilbert Picq et ses Fils, 1999

If you're looking for good value in white Burgundy, Chablis is a good place to start. Chablis is not actually in what is considered Burgundy proper but an area about halfway between Paris and Beaune. The climate is generally rather cool, producing wines with a brisk acidity, a quality that matches well with the traditional mineral flintiness that derives from the limestone soil. Generally, Chablis wines age very well (I have some from 1981 and 1982 that are still drinking beautifully), but unfortunately Picq's wines have been affected by the puzzling premature oxidation that plagued a good number of white Burgundies from 1995 to 2000. Some writers have theorized that it was caused by a solution used during this period to sterilize corks.

The Picq family have had small vineyards in Chablis for generations. Gilbert, who started his domaine in 1976, is now retired and has handed over operations to his sons, Didier (who runs the cellar) and Pascal (who tends the vineyards). Daughter, Marilyn, runs sales and marketing. At their best, Picq wines are very, very good with clean, clear lines, focused flavors and traditional power. No new oak is used. My favorite is the Vieilles Vignes, but I also like this Premier Cru Vaucoupin, which is loaded with the mineral flintiness that defines Chablis. Vaucoupin is located on the right side of the Serein River (where all the Grand Crus are located), an area known for bigger, more powerful wines.

A full gold color, the 1999 Vaucoupin comes at you with strong flinty, citrus scents--powerful almost to the point of bitterness. This is not for someone accustomed to oaky New World Chardonnay. In the mouth, it's thick and viscous, again with some mineral bitterness but also lots of concentrated fruit. On the one hand, the wine needs more time to soften; on the other hand, the premature oxidation is getting to it so it needs to be drunk. The power on the mid-palate and finish are remarkable.

Generally with Picq wines, the premature oxidation comes on rather quickly about age nine and progresses quickly. I need to hurry through my 1999s because I have already been disappointed by so many 1996s and 1997s. It's a shame because otherwise these wines have the acidity and stuffing to grow for decades. And since there's considerable bottle variation in regard to the oxidation, I've had an opportunity to experience how these wines are supposed to taste. Whether this problem occurred in Picq wines since 2000, I can't say.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Bourgogne Leroy, 1990

This note is from last August, but I thought it was an appropriate followup to the 1995 Jean Descombes Morgon. This is the lowest level wine in the portfolio of the famed Maison Leroy, often labeled "best of the best" in Burgundy by wine critics. I paid only about $12 for this wine on futures in the early 1990s, but the current vintage of Bourgogne Leroy sells for $40 to $50. It is, of course, Pinot Noir from the Cotes de Nuit while Jean Descombes is Gamay from Morgon in Beaujolais.

The 1990 Bourgogne is a medium deep garnet with prominent amber tones. The bouquet is beautiful with ripe luxuriant fruit--dark cherries and pomegranates--and also some volatility. The palate shows the same with more noticeable volatility around the edges. It is a very enjoyable wine beginning to show its age a bit more than the 1995 Morgon but comparable in most other respects--classy with strength, subtlty, charm...and no need to show off.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Jean Descombes Morgon, Georges DuBoeuf, 1995

Jean Descombes, with 32 acres of Gamay vineyards in Morgon, was the artisan. Georges DuBoeuf is the businessman who bottles and distributes the wine worldwide. The two agreed with a handshake about 1980, and the wine has been one of the world's great wine values ever since--widely available for $8 to $12 a bottle and consistently good year after year. Jean Descombes died in 1993, and his daughter Nicole Savoye-Descombes is now making the wine.

I started buying Jean Descombes Morgon on a regular basis in 1991 and saw no change in the quality or style of the wine since Nicole took over. When the wine is young it oozes with raspberry-puree fruit, then it becomes gradually more austere but increasingly complex and beautiful. It's hard for me to decide which face of Jean Descombes I like best.

I last had the 1995 a year ago, just after tasting the 2005, and decided then that I liked the '05 better, even for current drinking. After last night's bottle of the 1995, I'm thinking the opposite. The color was deep with some amber. It had the classy appearance and bouquet of a fine red Burgundy--calm and reserved with ripe cherry fruit scents and maybe a hint of volatility betraying its age. On the palate, it was also very Burgundian with gentle strength and charm and a reserved tart cherry fruit presence. I'm ready to try the '05 again, but right now, this mature Cru Beaujolais is hard to beat.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Hewitson "Miss Harry" Barossa Valley GSM, 2005

GSM stands for Grenache/Syrah/Mourvedre so this is really an Australian version of Chateauneuf du Pape. In this case, it's 55% Grenache, 33% Shiraz and 12% Mourvedre which is not all that different from Chateau Beaucastel (30/20/30) or Clos des Papes (65/10/20). The Hewitson Miss Harry GSM also comes from 80+ year old vineyards and, like most Chateauneuf du Papes, is matured in old, rather than new oak barrels. Yet there is still a world of difference.

The color is several shades darker than a typical Chateauneuf of the same age, and big, bold tannins are much more apparent both in the aroma and the palate feel. The ripe cherry smells and flavors you expect from Grenache are here to lighten things up, but they are mostly covered by a thick layer of tannin. I like this wine, but I definitely want to put it in the cellar for at least a few years to soften the tannins.

At about $18 a bottle, it's a decent value compared to most Chateauneuf du Pape or Gigondas wines. But I still prefer my Southern Rhone favorites.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Aramis "the Governor" McLaren Vale/South Australia Syrah, 2003

I had this last night at a Taster's Guild wine dinner. It impressed me as another McLaren Vale Syrah with a strong mid-palate presence. (See my earlier report on Nine Stones McLaren Vale Shiraz).

It's very dark in color and appears huge and tannic with black fruits, coffee, leather and dark chocolate smells and flavors. The intense spiciness and the coffee/toffee overtones undoubtedly come from the oak barrels (50 percent French, 50 percent American oak, of which 30 percent are new). Tannins are substantial, but the very long and pleasing mid-palate presence is impressive and bodes well for the future. Joshua Raynolds, in his review in Steve Tanzer's International Wine Cellar, writes "...the oak is plenty suave, but I'd love to see it ratcheted down a notch." I agree with that.

At least in part because of the lavish use of new oak barrels, this wine retails for more than $30/bottle. While I haven't tasted them side by side, at this point I would prefer to drink the Nine Stones McLaren Vale Shiraz...and not just because of its $13.99 price tag.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Buy a case or a bottle?

I remember reading some years ago a wine column based on the theme: "If you can't afford to buy a case, you can't afford the wine." I took offense at first, but the more I thought about it, the more sense that approach makes. The idea is that you come to understand a wine not by drinking one bottle but by becoming familiar with the way it develops over time. And it's possible to do that only if you buy in quantity--whether it's six, nine, twelve or more bottles.

The downside of buying by the case is that you sometimes buy wines you don't like. That has happened to me a few times. The bottle you love in September, prompting you to buy a case, may taste very different by January, and you may be tempted to pour the remaining bottles down the sink. Novice wine drinkers sometimes assume the wine has gone over the hill, but even very bad wines generally don't die that quickly. With the exception of manufactured wines (many of which are pasteurized), wine is a living, growing thing and it will go through many changes before it reaches maturity. Some of these changes you may like; others may turn you away. But the fact that the wine has made one bad turn (for your tastes) does not mean that the next turn will be as bad or even worse. Be patient, and you may end up with a wine you're ready to commit yourself to...for at least another case.

Most Cotes du Rhone wines (which are mainly Grenache/Syrah blends) are flush with fruit when they're first released. Then they go through a stage where peppery, spicy flavors and aromas dominate. And finally, if you're lucky, they develop deeper complexities and subtleties. Some wines, of course, simply go nowhere, and those are the ones you learn to avoid. A Mourvedre-based wine, on the other hand, may go into a funky, tree-bark stage after the first year or two and linger there for several years before it blossoms like a spring flower. Cabernet, of course, is arguably the best grape in the world for aging but, in the case of great Bordeaux wines, may take several decades to reach its peak.

Every wine has its own evolution. For some that's three to five years; for others, it's three to five decades. Generally speaking, the longer and slower the evolution, the more beauty and pleasure there is in the finished product. Wine lovers learned a long time ago what those wines are and what they're worth--a lot. But even an inexpensive Cotes du Rhone or Spanish Monastrell has its own evolution, which you can follow with interest if you buy a case rather than a bottle.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Cotes du Rhone Domaine du Vieux Chene Cuvee des Capucines, 2005

The Plan de Dieu--or Plain of God--in the Southern Rhone consists of vineyards planted in the Middle Ages to serve religious communities and chapels in the area. The vines have always had a reputation for producing good wine and average yields are a relatively low 39 hl/hectare. But only in 2005 was the area recognized as a special appellation; so prices have remained low considering the quality of the wines.

Domaine du Vieux Chene wines are produced by Beatrice and Jean Claude Bouche, who are deeply committed to organic farming and traditional winemaking. Although their cellar holds up-to-date temperature control and bottling equipment, they have resisted the urge to go "modern" and "international" with new oak barrels. Whole grape fermentation (at a natural fermentation temperature with pumping up of the fermenting juice) is used to preserve fruit tannins. Wine is aged in stainless steel tanks. Vieux Chene produces several cuvees--each with a unique personality.

Cuvee des Capucines 2005 is a deep crimson, with good saturated color. It's very aromatic with smells of spicy red berries, tart cherries and a hint of dark minerals and licorice. Ripe, ripe cherry/berry with just the right touch of tart acidity to keep you coming back for more. It's hard to believe this wine could get any better, but my experience tells me that it will. I usually prefer Cuvee Haie aux Grives, which has a higher perecentage of Syrah, but the Capucines (100 percent Grenache) is very good in this vintage, and I'll be going back for more.

This wine is available at Sam's or Binney's in Chicago for about $10 a bottle. In Michigan, the price is about two to three dollars higher, but it's worth every cent. With the new appellation status and recognition of the quality, prices for this and other Plan de Dieu wines may soon go up in price.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Cotes du Ventoux La Vieille Ferme, 2005

You can find this wine almost anywhere, and I've seen it discounted as low as $5.99. I buy a lot of La Vieille Ferme, but every time I open a bottle I wonder why I don't drink even more.

I opened my first bottle of 2005 La Vieille Ferme a year ago today and marveled at how much it resembled the 2005 Domaine Sainte Anne Cotes du Rhone I had opened a day or two before. It was bluish and gushing with fresh blue/blackberry fruit with full cream but also peel extracts and tannin to give it substance. A year later, it still has a bluish purple tint as I look at it from across the table and the dark berries still dominate the aroma and flavors. Everything has deepened now, however, with emerging scents of black pepper, spices and Provencal herbs. It's exactly the quality I expect and love from a developing Southern Rhone. It has fresh, finely focused fruit with a full body and a serious demeanor.

While made for early drinking, LVF goes through a maturation process just like any other living organism. Whereas Domaine Sainte Anne might develop more slowly over a 10 to 12 year period, La Vieille Ferme goes through the same changes in about three to four years, depending on the vintage. At one year of age, it's become a young adult and will hold there for awhile before beginning to show its age.

The 2005 hit my store in mid-January of last year so the 2006 should arrive soon. I can't wait to taste it.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Louis Latour Ardeche Chardonnay, 2005

Louis Latour is one of the oldest and most reputable houses in Burgundy, with roots going back to the 17th century. You can pay several hundred dollars (wisely, in fact) for a Louis Latour white Burgundy (Chardonnay) from a Grand Cru vineyard. Or you can pay $8 to $10 for this very well crafted Chardonnay from limestone-based vineyards in the Ardeche, an area west of the Rhone Valley. I usually end up buying at least several bottles of Ardeche and Grand Ardeche Chardonnay every year.

The winemaker at Louis Latour is one of the best in the business at matching different oak (or non-oak) treatments to the characteristics of the fruit he has to work with. In this case, stainless steel vats are used to preserve the freshness of the wine. The result is a delightful drink, with ripe pear and honey balanced against green apple/lemon acidity. All of the unadorned scents and flavors of Chardonnay are here in a fresh clean package. It's light on its feet but also ripe and silky smooth.

If you prefer new oak, look for the Grand Ardeche. It costs a few bucks more and is generally richer and more flamboyant. This might match up better with a cream-based pasta or sauce. For rainbow trout, or any fish, however, you can't go wrong with the regular Ardeche Chardonnay.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Alquezar Somontano Moristel, 2005

Somontano is an isolated wine-growing region at the base of the Pyrenees Mountains in Aragon, Spain. Moristel is one of the traditional wine grapes of this area, accounting for about 20 percent of vineyards, but outside investors and the government of Aragon, in an effort to boost sales, have recently been encouraging the introduction of more well known wine grapes such as Temperanillo (used in Rioja wines). Moristel, however, is a perfect fit for this cool mountain climate, with exotic aromas and textures not quite like those of any other wine. I've had this wine twice at tastings and was enthralled each time.

It is a very bright ruby red with youthful aromas of dark berries and flowers. The flavors and textures remind me somewhat of a Beaujolais or a young red Burgundy. But really they are unique--unlike those of any wine I've tasted. Like the Chinon, it's a wine you can just keep drinking, and it gets cooler and more refreshing with every sip. "Silky" and "tender" are adjectives that come to mind. And at the end there's that refreshing, haunting flavor of a berry you've never tried before.

Moristel, I discovered, is a mutant clone of Mourvedre (or Monastrell, as it's known in Spain). But this wine has litte resemblance to the Yecla Monastrell of Castana I reported on last month. Actually, Alquezar Moristel is an example of collaboration between the cooperative that made this wine for decades and the importer from the United States. Modern wine-making methods introduced over the past 15 years include: 1) fermentation of de-stemmed whole berries, 2) whole bunch fermentation (also known as carbonic maceration) and 3) bleeding of the must to increase the skin-to-juice ratio. The wine then undergoes malolactic fermentation in new oak casks.

I'm a traditionalist, but having tasted it, I approve of whatever it took to make this wine so enchanting. And I've finally found a place where I can purchase it: Salut Beverages on Gull Road in Kalamazoo, MI. The price nationally ranges from $12 to $15.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Alderbrook Dry Creek Reserve Zinfandel, 2003

I don't buy or drink much Zinfandel these days, but the ones I like most, notably Ridge Geyserville and Trentadue, come from the old, gnarled vines of Dry Creek in Sonoma County. The Dry Creek appellation--as well as the $12.99--attracted me to this wine.

Your typical Zinfandel is nearly opaque and gushing with blackberry and black raspberry aromas and flavors. This wine is an exception--in part because of the old vines of the appellation and in part because of the very hot growing season, one of the hottest ever recorded in the area. The color is almost shockingly light for a Zin--a light crimson, closer to what you might expect from a Chateauneuf du Pape than a California Zinfandel. It looks mature and it also smells mature with lots of complexity--compact dried cherries and red fruits and a slight menthol quality. In the mouth, the wine is lean, with a tensile strength like a strong, thin wire holding it all together. It has old vines flavor intensity and a long finish.

This wine tastes expensive. And, in fact, it sells right now at the Alderbrook winery for $34 a bottle. The $12.99 price at D&W Fresh Markets in southwest Michigan, I am told, is due to a special purchase. If you like Dry Creek Zinfandel and cannot afford Ridge Geyserville (now $35 a bottle), this is a wine to try while it's still available.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Cotes du Ventoux Domaine de la Marotte Vieille Vignes, 2000

If you've ever been to the Southern Rhone tasting wines, you've undoubtedly driven through Carpentras; it's on the road between Gigondas and Orange, on your way to Chateauneuf du Pape. In what was formerly a 16th century monastery in Carpentras, a Dutch couple, Daan and Elvira van Dijkman, have established a winery producing a range of Cotes du Ventoux wines. Elvira tends the vineyards, and Daan makes the wine. The couple also run a bed and breakfast on the property.

Cotes du Ventoux is to the east of Carpentras; to the west is the pancake-flat Plan de Dieu, where some of my favorite Cotes du Rhones such as l'Espigouette, Favard and Vieux Chene originate. Temperatures in Ventoux are cooler than in the Cotes du Rhone, so the wines have lower alcohol, lighter body and color and more structure. In my book, all of those can be pluses, but they are probably the reason that Ventoux wines are priced even lower than Cotes du Rhone--another plus.

This bottle is the last of a case of the 2000 Vieilles Vignes I bought on release. It is beginning to fade a bit but still offers pleasure. The color is similar to the Font-Sane but with more crimson tones. As a 2000, it lacks the lifted menthol quality on the nose but makes up for it with a whiff of black licorice and dark berries. More subtle and subdued in its approach than its 2003 counterpart. On the palate, it's smooth, not as intense as it was three or four years ago but with clean, focused flavors. The winemaker (Daan van Dijkman) recommends drinking this wine at three to five years of age, and I have pushed it past that point...but with little harm done.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Cotes du Luberon Chateau la Canorgue, 1999

Located halfway between Avignon and Aix en Provence, Chateau la Canorgue is truly in the heart of Provence. What better place to make the film adaptation of Peter Mayle's A Good Year? If you go to the film, starring Russell Crowe, you'll see the beautiful estate, built on the site of a Roman villa, and get a glimpse of the laid-back life in Provence.

In the not-so-distant past, Luberon wines were frequently simple and weak, made from over-cropped vines. Because of this reputation, the wines are still relatively low-priced, although winemakers such as Jean-Pierre Margan are determined to change the image. Margan farms his vines organically and biodynamically with no chemical pesticides, and he maintains a clean, state-of-the-art wine-making facility from which he crafts wines that are in line with the best traditions of the area. Grapes are picked by hand and carefully selected. New oak is used sparingly, if at all.

From about 1995 to 2000, Canorgue wines were available in my area (southwest Michigan) for $6 to $8 a bottle. I bought them regularly and drank them rather soon after purchase. I kept back a few bottles to see how it would age, and I was not disappointed in this 1999. At nine years of age, the color is still deep and dark--reflecting the high percentage of Syrah (70 percent plus 30 percent Grenache) in the blend. It has a big Syrah nose, similar to a good Crozes Hermitage (with a little less class). Blue plums, animal/brett, dark berries and wild herbs (garrigue). Unfiltered and a bit earthy (doesn't bother me). In the mouth, the Syrah blossoms forth--robust but with pretty floral edges. Softer red berry fruit lingers on the finish.

The 2005 vintage of Canorgue is now available, notably at Village Corner in Ann Arbor, MI and in the Bay Area of California, for about $14.99. The price has gone up, but Canorgue is still worth it for a good taste of southern Syrah. It's always a bit tight when it's young but don't worry about keeping it for a few years.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Is It Risky to Drink Inexpensive Wine?

You may have heard from wine drinkers who claim it is risky to buy inexpensive wines such as Cotes du Rhone in quantity for enjoying over a period of 10 years or more. My son's guitar teacher, who is certainly not well to do, said that he would never pay less than $20 for a bottle of wine. "It's too risky," he said. "You never know what you're going to get."

I think it all depends on your point of view, your income and your confidence in being able to find a wine that's real rather than artificial. I enjoy wine every night with family and am looking for something I can afford that pleases everyone and that goes well with food. For me, it's much riskier to spend $80 on one bottle of wine than $80 on a full case of wine that I know is going to be good from day one and is probably not going to go over the edge too quickly if I miss the mark and buy too much.

I have been buying inexpensive wines, mostly from the Southern Rhone, regularly since the early 1980s. I choose my wines carefully, and I'm rarely disappointed. The wines have nice early fruit that reflects the vintage, then start deepening out and taking on personality traits. L'Espigouette and Favards are right across the road from each other on the Plan de Dieu, but their personalities are unique enough that I could probably pick them out of a blind tasting. Vieux Chene is nearby and has several cuvees--all unique and all with different aging cycles. More recently, I've added Grand Prieur, Marotte, Sainte Anne and others. Until the Euro started strengthening against the dollar, I could buy any of these wines for about $50 to $60 a case, and I considered it much riskier to not have enough of them than to have too much. I start drinking as soon as I buy and I keep drinking until they're gone. In 20 to 25 years of drinking, I've rarely had a bottle reach the point that it became unpleasant to drink. Some blossom into nice surprises; others hang in there and stay about the same (I have no problem with that since it gives me a wider drinking window). And a few I know (such as 1998 Couroulou Vacqueyras) may need a decade before they start showing their stuff. I've talked to many of the winemakers of these estates and know that most make their wines for drinking within about three to five years. But they nod knowingly when I tell them of their wines that surpass that by several years. Yields in the Southern Rhone are relatively low compared to even some of the high-priced wines of Bordeaux and Napa. Winemaking has improved tremendously over the past 20 years, and the wines I love are made with a combination of traditional methods and contemporary know-how. They have good balance and, most important to me, are devoid of new oak. I know what I'm getting from these wines from day one, and I like the smells and flavors as they develop. In my opinion, they all develop--some faster than others. But most important, they taste good. And that's more than you can say about some $80/bottle wines.

Cotes du Ventoux, Domaine de Font-Sane, 2003

The last bottle I had of this wine was so bad that I decided to use this for the broth of beef bourguigogn. I had poured nearly half the bottle into the pot before I discovered that this wine was too good to waste--even in beef bourguigogn.

No slam is intended against Font-Sane. It is one of my favorite estates; I buy the Font-Sane Gigondas when I can afford it for special occasions and often buy a case of the Ventoux for every day drinking (it's usually $8 to $10/bottle). The Peyssons have 25 acres in Gigondas and 10 in Ventoux which have been in the family for many generations. The vines are 40 to 60 years old and well situated. The Peysson family always sold their wine in bulk to negotiants and other estates until Gilbert started the Font-Sane label some years ago. His daughter, Veronique Peysson-Cunty now makes the wine, and vignerons in Gigondas (who are mostly male and every bit as clubby as those in Chinon) agree that she is making some of the best wine of the appellation. They say she brings to her wines a feminine charm that is often missing from the sometimes rustic wines of Gigondas.

My slam is against the 2003 vintage in the Rhone--certainly not among my favorites. The summer was very warm in 2003, producing fatter, bigger wines that are closer to what New World wine drinkers in the United States and Australia expect. Robert Parker gave very high ratings to many Chateauneufs from 2003, and their prices soared. Many lovers of traditional Chateauneuf du Pape (myself included) did not agree. The 2003s all seem to have a lifted, minty high-pitched quality to the nose that I don't like. I dislike the sweet, raisined quality and miss some of the peppery spiciness I expect from Southern Rhone wines.

When I first tasted it, the Font-Sane Cotes du Ventoux was the very best of all the 2003s I had tried, so I bought a half case. As time passed, however, the wine seemed to be getting worse, and by bottle No. 5, it had become almost undrinkable. That's why bottle #6 was destined for the stew.

As I poured, the aroma kept wafting up to me, and it was pretty darn good. Mmmmm. I poured out a half glass. Still some bitterness because of the overly cool cellar temperature but some redeeming qualities. By the time the wine warmed enough to show its stuff, half the bottle was in the pot. But no more. The rest of the boeuf bourguigogne had to settle for the Railway Shiraz.

The color is medium deep and dark with some maturation notes. Even though this wine has about 40 percent Syrah, it is much lighter than the Australian Shiraz, mainly because it has not been raised in new oak. The nose is what sets it apart: it leaps from the glass with bright, fresh cherry and red berry aromas. Some menthol too but just the right touch. This Ventoux seems to just be coming into its prime. Flavors confirm the bouquet. Lovely cherry/berry charm with hints of Gigondas power and beauty. Still one of my favorite '03s.

And the beef bourguigogn was very good as well--all the better for the Font-Sane charm.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Hamilton Barossa Valley Railway Shiraz, 2000

I found this on closeout at Harding's Markets for $5.79--less than half its original price of $12.99. For a wine with eight years of age, it seemed worth a try. Actually, as the label points out, the vineyard has historic roots. The Hamilton family planted South Australia's first commercial vineyard in 1838, and this wine is "made from grapes off Railway Vineyard in the Barossa Valley by the re-established Hamilton's Ewell Vineyards."

To return to the theme of the Nine Stones Barossa, this wine is typically big, bold and tannic. Even at eight years of age, the color is very dark, nearly opaque. Same ripe berry fruit as in Nine Stones--blackberry dominates. It smells tannic and the flavors deliver everything that was promised. Ripe black fruit in front and back with a hard, tannic middle. All the strengths and weaknesses of Barossa Shiraz: impressive for size but too tannic for my taste. While time may some day tame those tannins, I suspect I won't be enamored with the fruit that is left.

Many Europhiles on wine boards use Barossa Shiraz as a way of picking on Robert Parker, who tends to give high points to big, bold, alcoholic and tannic wines. They say that winemakers there have bowed to Parker's tastes. The truth is that Barossa has always produced big, bold wines, and many Australian wine drinkers (mostly male) are drawn to them precisely because they are "so thick you can cut them with a knife." Hamilton's Railway is a good example of Barossa Shiraz, but I prefer the Nine Stones.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Nine Stones McLaren Vale Shiraz, 2005

The mid-palate is the thing in this wine, cuvee No. 2 of Nine Stones Shiraz.

Someone once told me that Australian wines are like doughnuts; they have a hole in the middle. And if you pay attention, you'll find that's generally true. After a ripe opening, you hit a firm, forbidding area in the mid-palate before the finish kicks in again with ripe fruit. The winemaker from Nine Stones explains on the label of this wine that McLaren Vale is an exception; knowledgeable winemakers have long sought out McLaren Vale grapes to fill out the mid-palate of their wines from other regions.

Whereas Barossa is just north of Adelaide (north=closer to the equator in Australia), McLaren Vale is just south, and it also has exposure to the cooling breezes of the Indian Ocean. If you like Australian wines that lean toward elegance rather than power, you might look for McLaren Vale on the label.

Like the Barossa cuvee, this wine is very deep and bluish in appearance. Beautiful aromas come right out at you--cassis, fresh berries and flowers. Forceful yet pretty, like a young Gigondas. If you're thinking mid-palate as you taste the wine, you're going to say, "yes!" Beautiful persistent flavors. Tannins are ever present but soft and ripe. This is my style of wine.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Nine Stones Barossa Shiraz, 2005

Nine Stones wines are produced by the Evans Wine Co., initiated by the Australian wine writer Len Evans, who died in 2006 at age 76. While a true believer in the quality of Australian wines, Evans was more attuned than most Australians to the European notion of micro-climate and place. Nine Stones Shiraz comes in three cuvees, each with a unique personality representing its place of origin.

Barossa, with a climate comparable to that of Portugal, is known for its bold, flamboyant big-shouldered wines. And this wine is Barossa at its best--deep, bluish purple in color with a "wow" nose of blackberries, coffee and oak. Even though it's thick and rich, in true Barossa tradition, the wine has flavors and smells that are clean, well focused and delineated. No stewed fruit here, as you may find in some Barossa Shiraz. Very ripe at the front with a firm, tannic middle and then a long, fruit-centered finish. Plums and black- and blue berries. If you're a fan of Australian Shiraz, you won't be able to get enough of this wine.

Considering today's prices, Nine Stones Shiraz is a decent value at $13.99 (the price I paid at D&W in southwest Michigan). If you can find it for $10 or less, buy, buy, buy.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Cotes du Rhone Domaine Sainte Anne, 2000

This is my favorite Cotes du Rhone, gaining the edge over Grand Prieur and Vieux Chene mainly because it's so consistent and keeps so well. Over the last six months, I have had the 1998, 1999, 2004, 2005 and now the 2000, and all have exhibited the same youthful personality.

The nose is classic Sainte Anne CDR--blueberries and cream, ripe cherries, vanilla and a hint of Provencal olives and herbs. Vanilla is ordinarily a trait that comes from new oak, but that is not the case here. Sainte Anne's wines are all made traditionally, and the vanilla character probably comes from use of stems in whole bunch fermentation. This wine is fruit friendly, ripe and silky from front to back. None of the fire of Garnacha de Fuego but lots of ripe berry Grenache charm. This wine drinks so well that it's easy to underestimate its power, depth and potential. At eight years of age, it's not even thinking about growing old.

Sainte Anne's Cotes du Rhone Villages is even better, with greater subtlety and complexity. And the special cuvees--Notre Dame des Cellettes and Saint Gervais--are worth a special search. Unfortunately Sainte Anne is imported into only a few states--mainly Michigan and the Pacific Northwest. The price is low enough ($8.99 for the CDR) that these rank as "hush hush" wines.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Chinon les Morinieres Joseph Mellot, 2004

"Beuvez toujours, vous ne mourrez jamais." That motto--attributed to Rabelais--is roughly translated as "drink constantly, never die." And Rabelais loved Chinon.

Jacqueline Friedrich, author of Wine and Food Guide to the Loire, calls Chinon a "buoyant wine, ...a cross between a juicy Beaujolais and a young claret." And she says, "With rare exception, every single Chinon could--could and should--be better." The reason is that the winemakers there are so darn sociable. "More than anything, the Chinonais vigneron makes wine for his buddies, for endless afternoons that melt into late nights in the bowels of cellars."

So imagine, if you will, as you drink this wine that you are with the winemaker and his or her buddies, standing around in the dank cellar, clad in boots and overalls, drinking glass after glass of Chinon (with an ancient bottle or two of Vouvray waiting for later in the session). There is a rough table in the center holding numerous half-consumed bottles plus cold cuts. And around the circle of drinkers is an outer circle of faithful, beloved dogs, waiting for scraps and kind words.

Chinon les Morinieres is everything one could expect, and glasses are raised to salute the vigneron. Deep bluish, almost purple robe. The nose is very fruity--mashed cherries, crushed raspberries and a tiny bite of dust that's typical of Loire Cabernet Franc. Ripe, ripe flavors followed by a dusty finish that gives it structure. With this wine in your glass, it's very easy to drink, and you feel as if you will live forever. Salut!

I bought this wine for $13.99 at D&W Fresh Markets in southwest Michigan.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Calatayud Bodegas Ateca Garnacha de Fuego Old Vines, 2006

My Cabernet-loving friends raise their eyebrows when I tell them that Grenache-based wines are among my favorites. If you've ever tasted Grenache wines from California or Australia, you may understand their skepticism. These wines, usually from young vines with high yields, aged in new oak, are typically jammy and one-dimensional. No thanks, I say.

In the Southern Rhone and in Spain, on the other hand, Grenache-based wines generally come from old vines, struggling to produce even low yields in rocky soil. New oak is rarely if ever used. That's Grenache of a different color.

Garnacha de Fuego is an excellent example. It comes from 60- to 80-year-old vines on rocky slopes in the mountains of Calatayud. The weather is hot, so the wine is fiery, as the name suggests. But very good.

The color is very deep and dark for Grenache. It smells very ripe--dark cherries, black raspberries, plums--but also very deep--grape peels, dark chocolate and fruitcake. Although uniquely Spanish and warm-climate, this wine's depth reminds me more of Le Vieux Donjon than Grand Prieur. It's also very rich and deep on the palate, with lush fruit rolling over the tongue but with a fiery (de fuego) bite (14% alcohol). Very full bodied. The ripe flavors of this wine are counter-balanced by a solid under-pinning of herbs, tobacco and white pepper. None of the cloying, jammy finish you're likely to get with a New World Grenache wine. At $7.99/bottle at World Market, this wine is a super-bargain.

I've never aged this or similar wines because they haven't been available in the United States that long. But I'd like to see how it develops over a 10- 12-year period.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Chateauneuf du Pape Le Vieux Donjon, 1994

The best thing about buying case lots of wines like Grand Prieur is that it allows you to buy smaller quantities of wines like Le Vieux Donjon for longer term cellaring. This bottle cost me less than $15 about eleven years ago. To replace it with the current vintage, of course, would set you back about $50.

Medium deep and dark./ Very rich nose, deep and layered like fruit cake. Hints of barnyard (but not nearly as much as in the 1994 Bois de Boursan). Great fruit concentration./ Same on palate. Deep, concentrated flavors. Very much an old fashioned CdP; reminds me of 1988 and 1989 Lucien Barrot. Old vine Grenache berry/cherry/tobacco, Provencal herbs and spices. Mature and lovely. My kind of Chateauneuf du Pape, and it's drinking beautifully right now.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Cotes du Rhone Domaine du Grand Prieur, 2006

I posted a note on the 2005 Grand Prieur earlier, and have been waiting anxiously for the 2006. At $7.99 (minus discount) I bought a case without even trying one because I know from experience that this wine never disappoints. And it didn't.

It's very deep and dark with powerful scents of black licorice, minerals, black fruits and purple flowers. Very dense and deep, more like Vacqueyras or Rasteau than Cotes du Rhone. At this stage the wine is bursting with fresh fruit flavors from front to back; it would be a shame not to drink several bottles right away before it loses this youthful charm. But it also comes in a serious package with good depth and concentration of flavors. A very long finish.

I've never kept Grand Prieur wines longer than one or two years, but this one seems to have the stuffing to last a bit longer. At the price, I may go for another case.

Vouvray Domaine le Peu de la Moriette, Pichot 2005

Another inexpensive dessert wine from the Loire Valley. I paid $10.99 for this in Chicago, and I have seen it in Michigan for $12 to $14. It is a dandy.

The label gives you no hint that this is a dessert wine. It merely states "Vouvray," and a Vouvray can be dry, semi-dry or semi-sweet. Many on the market--even some with higher price tags--can be thin and rather uninteresting. Not this one.

Like Coteaux du Layon, Vouvray is made from Chenin Blanc grapes; they are simply from different regions of the Loire Valley. Both usually have a good dose of botrytis and age beautifully, taking on complex nuances with each passing year. In the 1970s and 1980s, most of these wines did not show very well when they were young, but that is certainly not the case today.

This Vouvray is much lighter in color than the CDL--still young. The "legs" it makes on the glass when you swirl it shows how rich and viscous the wine is going to be. The depth and concentration are apparent from the first sniff--all the qualities of Roulerie plus plus. Honey, peaches, quince, melon and citrus peel. Very pungent on both the nose and the palate--honey with very ripe brie or camembert cheese. Beautiful. Clings to tongue. Less sweetness, more power than the Roulerie. A dessert wine of this quality from any other region of the world would cost you at least $30.

I had the bottle open for nearly 10 days, drinking some each day. It held up extremely well, just getting better with exposure to air. I wouldn't hesitate to age this wine for two decades or more. But why wait?