Monday, March 31, 2008

Domaine Chante Perdrix Chateauneuf du Pape, 1978

With boneless leg of lamb marinated in black pepper and red wine, this mature wine was superb. The color was deep and dark for a 30-year-old Grenache-based wine. There were amber tones, of course, but you had to look for them. Opening the bottle was like opening a sealed container of exotic spices and dried berries. Very concentrated. It was the same on the palate--silky smooth and full-bodied. The label doesn't indicate alcohol level, but I suspect it is fairly high by the standards of 1978--14% maybe. The finish is cool with concentrated but not over-ripe fruit. This has to rank with the best red wines I have ever tasted.

I had the 1989 Chante Perdrix a couple of times last year and thought it was excellent but fading. This 1978 today tastes younger and better than the 1989, although I now suspect that the 1989 still has some years to go. Old-vine Grenache can take some unexpected turns, and the 1989 has the same range of exotic scents and flavors.

Chante Perdrix is a very traditional estate with old vines and old wine-making methods. Current vintages can be purchased for about $20 to $25--cheap by today's Chateauneuf du Pape standards.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Willm Alsace Pinot Gris Cuvee Emile Willm, 1983

It's my birthday today. I've never had a 1939 bottle, but anniversary wines don't mean much to me. What's important as I get a year older is to drink a few mature--or even overly mature--wines to see what aging is all about. I'll be having a 1978 Chante Perdrix Chateauneuf du Pape later today, but in preparation for the occasion I had the 1982 Cote Rotie Wednesday (only slightly over mature) and, last night, this beautiful 1983 Willm Alsace Pinot Gris. It was actually a wine that I had no intention of keeping this long; it just got overlooked in the cellar.

It's still a beautiful deep gold color with good clarity and brilliance. I expected some stink or oxidation from the nose of a white wine this old, but in reality it smelled amazingly fresh and lively. I smelled apricots (dried and fresh) and flowers;others at the table picked up the flowers along with ripe apples and a Riesling-like petrol. I too got a very Riesling-like impression along with the smoky, stone fruit qualities of good Pinot Gris. On the palate, it was rich and concentrated--although still restrained and elegant. On the finish, it opened into a peacock's tail of fruit and flower flavors. All very precisely focused.

If that's what age is all about in wine and life, I'm ready for more.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Camille Cayran La Reserve Cotes du Rhone Village Cairanne, 2004

This wine is produced by Cave de Cairanne, a cooperative of more than 80 winegrowers who pool their expertise and carefully tended produce in one commonly owned winemaking facility. My favorite Cairanne wines come from Domaine l'Oratoire Saint Martin but with their prices escalating to about $20 today, I have turned to Cave de Cairanne as a source and have had no disappointments to this point.

This 2004 is a bright crimson with a gem-like brilliance. It has incredibly fresh fruit scents and flavors--gushing actually with red berries, cherries, lavender and a hint of black pepper. Very ripe and forward. Fruit charm is what this wine is all about. The label says 65 percent Grenache but it smells and tastes like 100 percent. As smooth as silk with no tannins to be found. On the other hand, this wine is not to be taken lightly. There's a depth and seriousness that becomes ever more apparent as the wine warms and on the second night.

About 80 percent of this wine is given a traditional vinification but 20 percent is produced through carbonic maceration to preserve the fresh fruit flavors. It's the best of both worlds, and I love it. Cairanne wines rank high in my estimation, and Cave de Cairanne is a good source. I paid about $12.99 at Village Corner in Ann Arbor.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Paul Jaboulet Cote Rotie Les Jumelles, 1982

I once drove on a one-lane road through vineyards in Cote Rotie and can testify about the steepness of the "roasted slopes." There was no way of turning back, and there were times I felt the car might tip over backward. The steep slopes, the old vines and the cool climate produce Cote Rotie wines that are sometimes, though not always, capable of lasting for many years, although they are often made for drinking relatively early.

I enjoyed some bottles of this wine at about 8 to 10 years of age when it was showing beautifully. Then a few years later, the flamboyant flavors and aromas seemed to disappear, and I truly thought the wine was dead. Fortunately, I didn't drink it up or throw it away, and a decade later I came to it again to find a different but no less beautiful wine. Now fully mature, the color is a medium garnet with more than a touch of amber. But it still has good clarity and brilliance. The aromas are what you expect from Cote Rotie--smoky bacon fat, grilled tomatoes and violets. There are also some old barrel smells, but I don't find these distracting. The taste is typical of mature Syrah with good acid to carry the flavor through the finish. There's a salty, savory character that I find quite nice. It's not as good as the 1982 Domaine Thalabert I had last Christmas nor the 1982 Hermitage la Chapelle I had several years ago but still has pleasure to give.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Why I Blog

If you read this blog fairly regularly, you've probably figured out that it's mainly a diary of the wines I drink every night with dinner. You're invited to share them vicariously with me, if you wish.

Artisan Wine on a Budget is admittedly an act of self indulgence. My wines and my views about those wines are ultimately not all that important to anyone but me. The act of writing helps me understand and appreciate the wines on a different level, and I enjoy that.

I should make it clear that I am not ranking nor recommending these wines. They are not necessarily the best wines nor the best values. They are simply the wines I enjoy for the reasons that I state. Although I have been tasting and enjoying wines for about 30 years, that doesn't qualify me for any special expertise or critical judgment. In fact, it may have locked me into certain biases that you have probably already discovered.

The product of my self indulgence, however, is an ever-growing collection of tasting notes, which I trust will be useful. As a wine lover, I spend a good part of my life searching for tasting notes on wines--those I haven't tasted and those I have. I want to compare notes with others who enjoy wine. When I agree with the taster, whoever it may be, I gloat; when I disagree, I move on to find someone who has tastes closer to my own.

As you may have noticed, I am particularly conscious of price, value and availability. No matter how much money you have, there's never enough to spend on the wines you want. That's why I'm a bottom fisher, constantly looking for values. Stick with me on this blog, and I'll try to show you how to get the best wine for your money.

That's all. I appreciate comments, disagreements, ongoing arguments. If you simply don't like my blog or find it boring, I'm sure you won't stick around long enough to let me know.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

A Trip Down Memory Lane with Wine Prices

In order to illustrate changing values put on wine, I dug out the May, 1985 Spring Wine Sale Booklet from Village Corner. That was a time when the American dollar was particularly strong against the French franc. And it was also a time when many excellent French wines were being made and introduced to the American public, primarily by Robert Parker.

A look at the Rhone section shows that Jaboulet's Hermitage la Chapelle was selling for $10.95, Domaine Thalabert Crozes Hermitage for $5.25 while Domaine Sainte Anne's Cotes du Rhone Villages was $3.59. By comparison, the current vintage of Hermitage la Chapelle commands upwards of $150 a bottle while Domaine Thalabert is $20 to $25 and Domaine Sainte Anne $10 to $12. So there's clearly a lot more than inflation at work here. An income of $15,000 to $20,000 a year was pretty good in the mid-1980s, so a $10 bottle of Hermitage was not really considered a bargain. But Kistler's Winery Lake Chardonnay was $11.50 and Caymus Cabernet (regular bottling, not the Special Selection) was $14.50.

At the upper end, wine prices today have soared. There are many Americans who can afford to spend $100 or more for a bottle of wine and will bid prices ever higher to make sure they get the wines they want. And there are many who can't afford to spend that kind of money who do anyway. On the other hand, Domaine Sainte Anne CDR Villages and comparable wines are selling relatively close to their 1985 prices. In my opinion, these lower level wines have become substantially better over this 23-year period while the quality of the Jaboulet wines has deteriorated.

My quantity purchases in 1985 were of wines in the Sainte Anne and Domaine Thalabert range. That was what I could afford, and they turned out to be wines that were most useful and satisfying. I could and probably should have bought more of the Hermitage la Chapelle, but realistically I wouldn't have had as many occasions to drink it, and while it's better than the Thalabert, it's certainly not twice as good. So even at 1985 prices, the Thalabert was a good deal.

Looking to the future, there's no way of knowing which wines are going to increase the most in market value; nor which wines are going to last for 25 years. But there's a sure way of knowing what wines are going to bring you the greatest, next week and next year. Taste carefully, make note of which wines improve with time in the bottle and at what stage you like to drink them. And don't worry about opening a wine that tastes fantastic to you right now and matches well with what you're putting on the table.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Paul Jaboulet Parallele 45 Cotes du Rhone, 2005

I rarely bought Parallele 45 Cotes du Rhone during the 1980s and 1990s. The flagship wines of Paul Jaboulet, of course, are Hermitage la Chapelle and Domaine Thalabert Crozes Hermitage. During the early 1980s, the Domaine Thalabert was only a few dollars more than this simple Cotes du Rhone, so I spent my Jaboulet money on Thalabert and looked for estate bottled Cotes du Rhone and CDR Villages from domaines such as l'Espigouette, Vieux Chene, Sainte Anne, Couroulou, Soumade and l'Oratoire Saint Martin--all for about the same price as the Parallele 45.

As the latter wines have gone up in reputation and price, Parallele 45 is now a more attractive low-price option. Over the past three vintages, I have enjoyed this Jaboulet CDR. It is made traditionally, with long vatting, controlled fermentation temperatures and aging in stainless steel tanks, according to the Jaboulet web site.

The 2005 Parallele 45 is a deep, dark ruby with bluish tints. Almost a year after release, it is developing some pepper and spice complexity to go along with its purple fruit aromas and flavors. There's a hint of cassis but none of the black licorice that you would expect from a Plan de Dieu Cotes du Rhone. No wood tannins but plenty of substance and body. Good full mouth feel and well defined fruit-oriented finish.

I bought this bottle for $9.99 from Cost Plus World Market. At that price or less, it's a good value.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Domaine Sainte Anne Cotes du Rhone Villages, 2000

Domaine Sainte Anne is not a typical Cotes du Rhone Villages. At eight years of age, when many CDR Villages have faded away, this wine is still not showing its best--although its lovely fruit-oriented flavors are hard to resist right now.

The color is a deep, dark crimson with good saturation. The aroma and flavors are bursting with fresh fruit--raspberries and blueberries in full cream. Ripe Syrah is showing but so is Grenache. There's a menthol-like fragrance--more like vanilla and honey than anything green or herbal. The palate feel is full bodied but not thick or heavy, and it's silky smooth, coating the tongue with ripe fruit flavors. At this stage, the 2000 CDR Villages is very similar to the 2005 Sainte Anne Cotes du Rhone. Both are delicious, but I know from experience that there's more to come in the way of depth and complexity.

Winemaker Alain Steinmaier thinks of Sainte Anne as "an intermediary wine between Gigondas and Chateauneuf-du-Pape." In terms of quality, I agree, although it is better than many wines from either of these appellations. In terms of style and personality, though, it is a unique expression of Grenache and Syrah. The CDR Villages is 60 percent Grenache, 30 percent Syrah, 10 percent Cinsault and Mourvedre from vines 20 to 30 years of age situated on a high wind-swept plateau. The wine is raised in concrete vats--no new oak--and the vanilla/honey/resin character comes from whole bunch fermentation with stems--a practice Steinmaier uses only when the stems are ripe and of good quality.

Outside of Michigan, New York state and Seattle, Domaine Sainte Anne wines are hard to find. And that's fine with me. If everyone knew how good they are, they would be even harder to find...and more expensive.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Martin Ray Angeline Mendocino County Pinot Noir, 2004

This is a delightful Pinot Noir from cool climate vineyards in Mendocino County. The winemaker reports that his goal was to preserve the bright fruit flavors by "cold soaking" the crushed grapes and fermenting them at moderate temperatures.

Three years after its release, the wine is showing well. It's a brilliant light ruby color with delicate but persistent aromas of cherries, red raspberries and pomegranates. Classic Pinot Noir. It's silky smooth on the palate without harsh tannins. Very ripe but with enough tang to keep you coming back for more. The 4% Sangiovese in the blend may account for this racy quality on the finish.

Whether the winemaker intended it or not, this wine seems to be made along the lines of the very fine Louis Latour Pinot Noir Valmoissine that I reported on earlier (February 3, 2008). At $10 to $12, both are excellent Pinot values for every day or special occasion drinking.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Edna Valley Vineyard Edna Valley Chardonnay Paragon Vineyards, 2005

Winemaker Harry Hansen says his primary goal with this Chardonnay is to emphasize the "sense of place"--the unique aromas and flavors that derive from Edna Valley, with its long growing season and cool breezes from the Pacific Ocean. The soil consists of layers of clay and volcanic rock over ancient ocean subsoil.

A great deal of the character of this Chardonnay, however, comes from techniques that are common among New World winemakers: barrel fermentation and malolactic fermentation for the rich, creamy texture and new oak barrels for buttery tropical fruit aromas and flavors. 90 percent of the wine is matured in new oak; 10 percent in stainless steel.

It's a deep gold, and the buttery scents and flavors are well developed. This wine is more mature than I would expect from a 2005, and it is drinking very nicely right now. Aromas and flavors of white peaches, apricots, citrus and butterscotch--friendly and open. It's a fat wine with low acidity, but the assertive fruit flavors are strong enough to stand up to shrimp in a spicy tomato sauce. And they add a slight mineral spiciness of their own. For my tastes, I would prefer a bit more of this spiciness and a bit more acidity.

Edna Valley Chardonnay usually retails for about $15 but is often offered for $12.99 at Cost Plus World Market--a good value. I bought mine from D&W Fresh Markets in Kalamazoo for $10.99--an even better value. And I recently saw the 2006 on sale for a comparable price.

I used to age Edna Valley Chardonnary for five years or longer, but the maturity of this bottle indicates that the wine should be consumed as early as possible.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Trader Joe's for Wine?

In terms of wine, Trader Joe's is best known for Two Buck Chuck--Charles Shaw wines selling for $2 a bottle in California and a bit more than that in the rest of the country. I've tried Two Buck Chuck Chardonnay and found it decent enough, although not as good, in my opinion, as other low-priced options on the market such as Crane Lake and Crow Canyon, which are widely available at places such as Meijer's and Hardings grocery chains.

For imported wines, Trader Joe's representatives scour the world for good values and often strike gold as they did with the Italian Wines I've reviewed, Nerello del Bastardo and Epicuro Aglianico. The store also offers a zesty Pinot Grigio Venezie for $3.99. Wines imported from the Southern Rhone in France often come from DuPeloux, a negociant who offers good value wines, particularly in strong vintages. I have been intrigued by inexpensive wines from Spain and Portugal but haven't tried any.

Trader Joe's also has some Australian wines that are generally not found elsewhere, such as Terra Australis. It's probably a second label for a winery such as Tyrrell's. For about $4.99, Terra Australis offers a good unoaked version of Shiraz and Chardonnay. For a dollar more, the Terra Australis Reserve bottlings have new oak qualities and are more typical of Australian Shiraz. A few months ago, Trader Joe's in Ann Arbor, MI offered Climbing Shiraz and Chardonnay from the Orange District of New South Wales, Australia for $5.99. These same wines are now being sold elsewhere, including Target stores, for $11.99. This is the winery that was once known as Reynolds Vineyards.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Beneventano Epicuro Aglianico, 2005

Aglianico is one of Italy's great wine grapes, producing a wine that is sometimes called the Barolo of the South. In the early 1980s, I bought and enjoyed many Aglianico del Vulture wines from 1970s vintages that drank beautifully well into the mid-1990s. At that time, I paid $3 to $6 for them, and their counterparts in stores today, when they can be found, are still bargains at about $10 to $25. When I saw this Aglianico at Trader Joe's in Ann Arbor, MI for $5.99, I couldn't resist giving it a try.

Beneventano Epicuro is deep and purplish. Smells thick, and it is. An enormous wine with fruit tannins galore. From the deep color and the thick legs of glycerine clinging to the side of the glass, you might mistake this for an Australian Shiraz or a California Zinfandel. But there's clearly no new oak treatment for this wine--the tannins all come from the peels and pips. It's very young and primary in its fruit aromas and flavors--blackberries, black cherries with a spicy tang. Very full bodied with a velvety mouthfeel, but with good acidity and only 13.5 percent alcohol. I think this is a wine worth buying in quantity for drinking slowly over the next few years to see how it ages; my guess is that it would improve for a decade or longer. But it's also too good to miss right now. At $5.99, it's almost as good a value as the Nerello del Bastardo (see my report November 13, 2007) sitting beside it on the shelf for $6.99.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Domaine de Marotte Cotes du Ventoux Cuvee Eline, 2001

This 2001 Cotes du Ventoux has reached a level of maturity that suggests where the 2006 La Vieille Ferme is headed...although LVF may not take five years to get there. It's a medium crimson color, maybe with a bit less luster and color saturation than it had a few years ago. Aromas and flavors are of red cherries, strawberries and just enough black licorice to give it a solid underpinning. They're not as intensely fruity as those of the younger wine but they're a bit deeper and more complex. It goes down very easily with food or on its own.

Daan and Elvira van Dijkman named this cuvee after their daughter, Eline. It is my favorite of their lineup because of its ripe tannins and laid back personality. Mostly Grenache with 10 percent Syrah and 10 percent Carignane, it is aged, according to traditional practices, in large, old barrels that allow good fruit expression.

I haven't seen recent vintages of Marotte wines, but they are imported by Kent Beverage in Grand Rapids, MI and Vineyard Expressions of Ithaca, NY. Five years ago, all of the Marotte wines were priced between $5 and $8, and, even given the weakness of the dollar versus the Euro, I suspect they are still excellent values.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

La Vieille Ferme Cotes du Ventoux, 2006

The 2006 vintage of this old favorite has reached the shelves...and at the same low price--$6.99. I like drinking wines like this one and Grand Prieur Cotes du Rhone as early as possible because they give a good foreshadowing of what the more serious wines of the vintage may eventually become.

My initial impression of the 2006 LVF is that it's a bit lighter in color and a bit less effusive than the 2005 was a year ago. Compared to the 2005, it has more spice, pepper and floral scents, more red than black/blue fruits. It's more subdued and subtle but very good.

On the first night, I decided that I like the 2005 a shade more. But after sitting on the shelf for two days (without even having the air pumped out by Vacu-Vin), this wine improved immensely. It seems to have taken on weight, body and richness with the benefit of two days of aeration. It's ripe, full bodied and delightful. I am looking forward to many happy occasions with this wine. But I still have a few bottles of the 2005 and it is drinking beautifully.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Louis Latour Savigny les Beaune Blanc, 1996

When Donna and I were married on March 10, 1973, I wasn't a wine drinker. But I've had quite a few 1973 "anniversary wines" over the years--mostly California Cabernets and Spanish Riojas--to celebrate the occasion. Unfortunately, my 1973s are all gone, so I chose what I consider one of the best whites in my cellar to accompany grilled salmon with roasted vegetables and potatoes. It was a good choice.

Savigny les Beaune vineyards are only about 10 minutes north of Beaune in what is primarily a red wine area. Chardonnay vines, comprising only 3.5 percent of the production from this area, are situated mainly on higher slopes and on soil that is similar to that of Corton Charlemagne. Savigny les Beaunes, as a result, is sometimes called the poor man's Corton Charlemagne. Corton Charlemagne, according to reports I've heard, is the wine that made Richard Nixon vow never again to be poor. This wine tonight confirmed for me that there's no need to be like Dick in order to drink good wine.

Louis Latour's 1996 Savigny les Beaunes Blanc is a brilliant deep gold, a near perfect level of maturity. The nose is similar to that of many excellent California Chardonnays, billowing with fresh citrus scents and hints of butter. But oh so classy. The wine is also fat and creamy in its mouthfeel but the remarkable thing is the racy, citrus-tinged fruit on the inside. Flavors dance on the tongue and the aftertaste goes halfway down the esophagus. Incredible wine!

The tag on the bottle says $17.99. 2008 prices are much higher, but, even so, I dare you to find a better New World Chardonnay for a comparable price.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Oyster Bay Hawkes Bay Merlot, 2006

I'm a hard sell on Merlot. In fact, knowing the prestige of Chateau Petrus (100% Merlot), I'm often a bit embarrassed to admit that I generally don't like Merlot. I've tasted Petrus and, of course, would have a cellar full of it could I afford it. And I've also tasted and enjoyed excellent New World Merlots from Leonetti and Duckhorn. Most inexpensive Merlots, however, tend to have a shrill green pepper/celery component that I have a hard time swallowing...or a candied, oaky sweetness that covers it up.

With a group of four for dinner, many of whom were Merlot fans, I couldn't pass up this 2006 Oyster Bay Merlot, offered for $28/bottle on the wine list at Oakwood Bistro in Kalamazoo, MI. Glad I didn't.

Fresh scents of red berries/cherries and not even a hint of green! Fine boned but with good strength. Fortunately this wine makes no attempt to be a blockbuster, and it has good acid backbone for aging. Ripe, delicate finish. Great with rainbow trout, pork, salmon or pot roast of beef. This wine is now on my shopping list. And I'd also like to try the Oyster Bay Pinot Noir. The cool climate of Kiwi-land is good for Pinot Noir and, as I discovered, Merlot.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Lelia Carinena Garnacha, 2004

This is one of several excellent Garnachas on the market selling for under $10. I bought it at World Market for $6.99 and plan to go back for more. Garnacha, of course, is Grenache, and these Spanish versions are similar to those of Southern France, although a bit more fiery in their palate presence.

It's a deep crimson with good saturation. Peppery, spicy scents and flavors provide the focus but ripe berries and cream are there as well. It's only 12.5 percent alcohol, but pleasantly warm on the tongue. The wine leaves a trail of ripe fruit from front to back with a peppery finish. The fiery qualities become tamer as the wine airs, however.

Lelia Garnacha has good fruit for current enjoyment but also depth, and I think it has the potential to get even better. It comes from a small family-owned bodega in northern Spain.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Jacob's Creek Shiraz Revisited

When there's wine left in the bottle, I pump out air with a Vacu-Vin and put it on the shelf for the next night. I rarely notice an appreciable change on the second night. The Jacobs Creek Shiraz 2005 is a notable exception. There is definite volatility (vinegary quality) in both the aromas and flavors of the wine--not what I'd expect from a 2005 wine that only a few months ago was showing well enough to win a double gold medal from Taster's Guild.

I have nothing against a wine being made for drinking within the year. That's what I expect from La Vieille Ferme and Grand Prieur, other wines in the $7 to $10 price range. Generally, though, these wines tend to taste a little better by the time the next vintage comes out, and in most vintages they hang in there for five years or so. The Jacobs Creek Shiraz, on the other hand, appears to me to be a wine that is manufactured to show well for a limited period of time. It's not a wine I would buy in quantity.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Jacob's Creek Australian Shiraz, 2005

Jacob's Creek is Australia's biggest wine exporter, and the traditional Jacob's Creek wines are huge sellers throughout the United States. The winery's stated goal with this inexpensive line is to provide accessible, fruit-driven wines that do not need cellaring. The Jacob's Creek Shiraz, either the 2005 or 2006 vintage, is widely available in most areas for about $6 a bottle.

Jacob's Creek is the name of the first vineyard planted in the Barossa Valley by Johan Gramps in 1847, but the label indicates that this wine is "named after" Jacob's Creek rather than a product of the Jacob's Creek vineyard. Whereas place is a crucial factor in European wines (can you imagine a wine "named after" Clos du Papillon or Clos Chaudenay?), the Australian tradition rather focuses on producing a consistent style of wine year after year. With the Jacob's Creek Shiraz, as in many Australian wines, this is done by blending grapes from vineyards in many areas of the country.

The color is a dark ruby with strong purplish tones. Even from sniffing the wine, you immediately become aware that it is big and tannic--fruit-oriented, yes, but not in the same way as Reserve Henri-Marc Syrah or La Vieille Ferme. There's not much new oak but what there is is firmly wrapped around the fruit. The palate impression is the same. It's pleasant up front with fruit flavors emerging along with tannin on the mid-palate--licorice, plums, dark chocolate and vanilla-flavored coffee. It's ripe and sweet but really not very supple.

I prefer wines like La Vieille Ferme and Reserve Henri-Marc Syrah, but there are clearly many other wine drinkers who think differently. For this style of wine and price level, it's well made. And its double gold medal from Tasters' Guild ($7 to $10 category) is well deserved.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Mezzacorona Dolomiti Pinot Grigio, 2005

All of the grapes for this widely available wine come from Mezzacorona's vineyards in the foothills of the Dolomiti mountains in the far northeastern corner of Italy. This is a cool climate, ideal for producing crisp, well structured white wines.

A year ago, this 2005 Pinot Grigio was fresh and lively, teasing the tongue with subtle flavors. Today, it is still fresh but with fuller, more rounded flavors. Still a lovely wine. It's a light straw color. Clean, well delineated aromas and flavors of citrus, green apples, minerals and a hint of green herbs. It's a versatile wine--good with vegetable-oriented meals, soups, seafood pasta, pork or sipping on its own.

This wine is frequently discounted to $6.99 at my local grocery, D&W FreshMarkets, and when it is I usually stock up because I know there will be many occasions to serve it.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Muscat Cuvee Engel, Domaine Fernand Engel, 2005

If you've ever made your way along the wine route through the storybook Medieval villages of Alsace, you've undoubtedly visited Chateau Haut Koenigsbourg, the old castle atop the big hill. It's a major tourist destination. The grapes for this wine come from vineyards right at the foot of this hill, tended for three generations by the Engel family. Grapes are hand-picked and traditional methods of wine-making are used with the juice resting on the lees long enough to give a round, full mouthfeel.

Dry Muscat d'Alsace is almost too pretty. Those who smell the sweet perfume think they're getting a sweet wine. While this Cuvee Engel is finished dry, the flavors are so overwhelmingly beautiful that it's easy to overlook all of the depth and complexity it offers.

From the first sniff, the Cuvee Engel charms with spring flowers, peaches, pears, lime zest, rose petal. This wine would be easy to mistake for a Gewurztraminer. It's medium bodied on the palate but intense and concentrated with the ripe fruit and zesty citrus elements fighting for your attention. It has a very long and complex after taste. With avocado salad and split pea/wild rice soup, it was an ideal accompaniment. But it would also be good for sipping on its own.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Penfolds Bin 128 Coonawarra Shiraz, 2003

Max Schubert, the Penfolds winemaker who created the famous Grange Hermitage--now one of the most expensive wines in the world--originated the numbered "bin" system of identifying the winery's best wines. The idea was to give a clear identity to each wine that serious wine drinkers could rely on from year to year. Penfolds is now a large corporation, but fortunately it has tried to maintain the traditional profile and personality of each bin numbered wine.

Penfolds Bin 128 Shiraz is one of my favorite New World wines, matured in French oak casks to preserve the subtlty of the flavors and aromas. I find the suggested retail price of $20 to $25 a bit pricey, but the wine is sometimes discounted to $16--at which point I snap up a few bottles for the Australian wine lovers in my family.

The 2003 is still a bit young; it is a deep, bluish color but has some amber developing around the rim. The aromas are mostly oak-influenced (cedar and spice) but they're very lifted and pleasant. The flavors are flush with fruit--currants, black raspberries and hint of citrus zest. It's supple and smooth from front to back, full bodied and ripe. There's a lot to like in this wine, and it's going to get better over the next five years or so.