Monday, June 30, 2008

14 Hands Washington State Merlot

This wine, recommended by a reader of this blog, was a revelation. I'm never surprised to find high quality Merlots (and Cabernets) from the state of Washington (Leonetti Merlot is one of the best I've tasted, but it now sells for about $100/bottle). I've seen 14 Hands at Target (of all places) for $10.

Deep, dark, bluish. The aromas are incredibly deep--dark cherries, chocolate, blackcurrants and hints of black tea and Asian spices. Has a richness that reminds me of the Burgess Cellars Vintage Select Cabernets from the 1970s. This wine has all the good qualities of new oak--framing and highlighting the aromas and flavors--but none of the hard tannins that you often get from inexpensive wines. Ripe flavors are all fruit- rather than oak-oriented, and they coat the tongue from front to back. The depth and complexity you'd expect from a more expensive wine.

I'll be going for more of this and maybe some of the Cabernet as well. 14 Hands apparently refers to the height of the wild horses that once roamed this area of central Washington.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

La Vieille Ferme Cotes du Luberon Blanc, 2006

I generally don't drink Rhone whites because they traditionally tended to be heavy, vinous and uninteresting. Well, I probably need to move into the 21st century. Rhone whites have changed over the past two decades, and this LVF white is a good example.

Aromas are incredibly fresh and vibrant. It's hard to miss the pineapple character but there are also subtle tones of mint, melon and musk. Flavors are also fresh with a nice liveliness for a summer meal. Good weight on the palate--neither thin nor neavy. The more I drink of this wine, the more I like it. A serious wine for pennies. As with LVF red and rose, $6.99 to $8.99 depending on where and when you buy. In Bloomington, IN, I saw magnums of LVF for $12.99.

Cotes du Rhone Villages Valreas Cuvee Prestige, 2005

This is a $5.99 wine from Trader Joe's. I loved the 2004 but was a bit disappointed by my first try of the 2005 vintage. This bottle changed my mind. With a few extra months in the bottle, the aromas and flavors have deepened considerably.

Medium deep ruby/crimson, good brightness. The 75 percent Grenache is apparent--ripe and pretty but with a lot more substance than the last bottle. Very strawberry with developing tobacco and pepper to add backbone. The lavender floral element is very satisfying. And over a three-day period after opening, the wine continued to improve. The ripe flavors are a perfect match for aggressively spicy black bean soup; against the relatively neutral backdrop of a veal chop, the wine also works well.

Like many of Trader Joe's European bargains, this wine comes from a coop--Vignerons de l'Enclave des Papes, a well managed and respected grower cooperative in Valreas. If you travel to the area, you're likely spend most of your tasting hours at more well known estates. Those who live in the area know the bargains a well run cooperative can offer. See:

Friday, June 27, 2008

Lindeman's Padthaway Chardonnay, 2000

This wine is now sold as "Lindeman's Reserve Chardonnay," even though most vintages are produced from grapes primarily or solely from the Padthaway region. Just south of the main highway between Melbourne and Adelaid, Padthaway is part of what is known as the Limestone Coast, an area once underwater and now covered with limestone soil. Limestone soil, for me, means lovely mineral-laden white wines such as Chablis and Sancerre, but Aussies apparently value Padthaway more for Shiraz than Chardonnay. The Padthaway designation is still used for Lindeman's Reserve Shiraz, and there are other respected Padthaway Shiraz wines such as the Henry's Drive Reserve.

This wine has always been one of my favorite every day New World Chardonnays, and, as this 2000 illustrates, it ages well over six to eight years or even longer in some vintages. It's a medium deep gold, certainly not overly mature. Aroma and flavors are at a lovely stage--honey, melon, tropical fruit and butter. It has a creamy mouth feel but with enough acid to keep it lively. What I don't get is the limey/flint flavors that many limestone soil whites offer. I suspect the winemaker is too enamoured of the barrel ferment/leesy style (which admittedly is attractive and popular) to let any mineral elements surface.

For an $8 to $12 wine, I consider this a good value and buy it less frequently than I did a few years ago only because other good inexpensive whites have crowded it out.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

La Vieille Ferme at the New Farm

On a visit to Bloomington, Indiana last week, I had a chance to eat at the relatively new FARMrestaurant. The restaurant specializes in "real food," based on chef Daniel Orr's belief that "simplicity is beauty." Among his stated goals: "the art of finding food's true essence and flavor." Appropriately enough, a featured wine at the Farm is La Vieille Ferme ("the old farm")--red, white or rose for $4 a glass or $7.50 for an old-fashioned pint milk jug filled to the brim.

Well, yes, the name is perfect; but so is the wine. La Vieille Ferme is based on the same themes mentioned above: "simplicity is beauty," and "the art of finding the true essence and flavor" of the grapes. A jug of LVF red for $7.50 was enough for three of us, and the flavors were every bit as simple, complex and artful as the food we were eating: sorghum glazed double pork chop with roasted root vegetables and greens; roasted tandoori salmon with cabbage salad and five-grain pilaf; and seared Fischer Farms skirt steak with garlic and chili fries. Wow. Talk about after taste: it's been a week, and I'm still enjoying.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Clos Saint Jean Vin de Pays de Vaucluse Les Calades, 2003

Now this is what Rhone-style blends are all about. And at $8.99, it cost less than half what I'd have to pay for a cheap imitation from California. The Grenache dominates the blend so it's a medium light crimson. Good brilliance with colors shading out from the center. The nose offers bright cherry fruit with high-toned '03 aromatics. It's ripe but not overdone. Not at all thick or clumsy, it's smooth on the palate with fresh fruit flavors stressing deep cherry/berry notes. This wine is drinking well right now with no signs of fading. I prefer the 2001 but can understand how others might go for this 2003.

2003 was the first year Phillippe Cambie took over winemaking at Clos Saint Jean, and I think his influence was positive. All the flavors and smells are clean, clear and well focused. For Clos Saint Jean Chateauneufs, Cambie used new oak treatment for the Syrah and Mourvedre components but not for the Grenache. I agree with his view that Grenache does not take well to new oak--becoming overly jammy and one-dimensiional as a result of its time in barrel. I doubt that any components of this Vin de Pays were aged in new oak, and that may be one reason it is an infinitely more interesting wine than the Westside Red from Paso Robles.

Austin Hope Westside Red, 2003

Since I love Rhone wines, it makes sense that I should enjoy a California Rhone Style wine, right? Wrong. I should have known better, but once again I fell for the hype on the wine list at Zingerman's Road House in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Westside Red is heavy on Syrah (43%) with 42% Mourvedre and 15% Grenache. (That's a Rhone-style blend I haven't encountered in a wine from the Rhone.) That blend, along with aging of about a third of the cuvee in new French oak barrels (the rest in one- and two-year-old oak) accounts for the dark bluish purple appearance that wine drinkers have come to expect from Napa Valley Cabernets (but is not typical of wines from the Southern Rhone). True to the description on the wine list, I get an upfront aroma of plums and mulberries--very ripe. The "light notes of tobacco" unfortunately are so light that I missed them completely. Yes there are "ripe red fruit flavors and subtle spice" (perhaps a bit too subtle for the latter) but the "firm acidity" that is advertised is not to be found. The wine has good fruit and smooth tannins, but for my taste it is too flabby to be enjoyed with a serious meal. Those who drink wine by itself as an alternative to a cocktail will undoubtedly like this wine better than I did.

Zingerman's Road House advertises a 100% American wine list so I had no chance of getting a true Rhone blend. With hindsight, I should have gone for the Ridge Three Valleys Zinfandel. Of course, Zinfandel is not found anywhere in the Rhone Valley, but the winemakers at Ridge know how to let the grapes speak for themselves.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

If someone brings a $75 bottle of wine to a party...

If someone brought a $75 bottle of wine to a party, would you--or anyone--recognize it as a special bottle? Unless you are a wine geek, you probably wouldn't...just as you might not notice if a world class violinist were performing for tips in the subway. It's partly a matter of context and partly a matter of paying attention.

I bring up the question because that's exactly what happened a few days ago: someone brought a bottle of the 2004 Frederic Magnien Nuits St. George Premier Cru Coeur du Roches to a party. My eyes almost popped out of my head when I saw the label, but it wasn't my party so I didn't have to agonize over the decision of whether or not to open it. It so happened that it was not opened so I cannot really answer the question posed above. This Nuits St. George Premier Cru sells for upwards of $75 a bottle.

If the wine had been opened and if no one had noticed or had actually preferred the Kendall Jackson Merlot sitting beside it, that would NOT have proven a thing to me about the quality of expensive wines nor the intelligence of those willing to pay high prices for them. Although this is not a wine I would buy, it is unquestionably worth a good bit of money.

Wine is art--created in part by humans and in part by factors such as vines, soil, climate and vintage. Wine growers and consumers discovered many decades ago that wines from certain areas of Burgundy (including Nuits St. George) are worth a premium and that certain vineyards within this appellation are situated so that they produce special wines. Contrary to popular belief, special wines do not necessarily blow you away or call attention to themselves. They have qualities that unfold slowly and subtly for those who know what they are looking for and paying close attention.

I think the bottle was brought to the party by mistake by someone who did not know the quality of the wine. I'm glad it wasn't opened. But if it had been, I would have been lining up for a taste.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

California Rosso Classic Francis Coppola

51% Zinfandel, 29% Syrah, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. Frequently discounted to $6 to $7 a bottle, this is a nice fruit-oriented Rosso that makes no pretenses but delivers plenty of flavor. This is last year's vintage and still drinking nicely.

Deep purplish. Zinfandel blackberry, big and bold. But I can smell the Cabernet blackcurrant underneath giving an air of seriousness. Dark spicy smells and flavors. Firm on the palate but ripe and friendly. Hint of vanilla on the finish.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Chateauneuf du Pape Domaine du Pegau, 1994

If there is a better match for grilled rack of lamb on Father's Day, I don't what it would be.

Medium deep crimson with amber tones./ How better to describe this wine than to say it smells like Domaine du Pegau? It's about as classic Pegau as you can get with ripe cherry, strawberry fruit poised against deep earthy, leathery elements. There is a high-toned aromatic quality that's hard to pin down. Not floral, not menthol, not Cheracol; simply Pegau. The label says 13.5 percent alcohol but I suspect it's a good bit higher than that. Gives it a cool smell but pleasant warmth on the palate./ Rich, rich, rich and silky smooth--as I say, a perfect match for rack of lamb. The ripe fruit flavors linger for several minutes.

As I reread my notes on the 1993 Pegau Cuvee Reservee from Father's Day last year, I find almost identical impressions. Maybe if I had the wines side by side, I could see the superiority of this 1994, but my memory finds them virtually the same. It's been several years since I've tasted the 1988, 1989, 1990, 1996 and 1997 Pegaus, but I remember all as having the same rich aroma and flavor profile.

I fell in love with Domaine du Pegau when it was first brought into Michigan by J.C. Mathes of J et R Distributors in the late 1980s. At a time when Beaucastel and Vieux Telegraphe (my previous favorites) were escalating in price, Pegau was an inexpensive and delicious alternative. Fortunately (for those producing the wine) and unfortunately (for me), the world has discovered Pegau: the 2005 vintage on the market at the moment retails for about $100 a bottle. It is no longer on my shopping list.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Jumilla, Luzon Verde 2005

This wine is one of a number of very good, inexpensive Spanish Monastrell wines on the market today. Others I have tried and enjoyed include Yecla Castano and Yecla Carro. All are widely available for less than $8.

100 percent Monastrell (Mourvedre) grown organically, Luzon Verde is apparently another product of traditional vines and know how combined with contemporary technology and marketing savvy. The wine is dark, purplish as you would expect from young Mourvedre. Smells and flavors are a bit reduced, coughing for air. When you swirl the glass or let it sit for a few minutes, lovely aromas of violets, blueberries, cherries and warm spices come out to tease you. The smells and flavors seem intense but rather muted as if they are covered by a thin cloth. That's young Mourvedre. I've heard it said that the grape's profile fluctuates between violets and tree bark. I find some of both here, and I like it. The winemakers of all three of these Spanish wines--Castano, Carro and Verde--have done a good job of highlighting the attractive features of young Mourvedre. Of the three, I think I prefer the Castano; all are very good.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Mittnacht-Klack Alsace Tokay Pinot Gris Clos St. Ulrich, 1999

The color of this wine tells me that I kept it too long: it has deep copper tones. There's a lot to like, however, in the mature Pinot Gris bouquet and flavors--waxy, nutty, honeyed with dried apricots and vanilla cream. Very ripe, rich and concentrated like a Sauternes. It's sweeter than I would expect from a table wine but the finish is lovely with layers of interest and complexity.

My impression--admittedly based on a small sample--is that wines from Alsace and Chablis are generally a bit sweeter at the start and have less staying power than they once did. I have Alsace wines from the early 1980s that are not as advanced as this wine. The same seems true for Chablis. I suspect that many producers, seeing their sales in the U.S. flounder for many years, decided to appeal to what they saw as American taste--sweet and early drinking. Try as they might, however, it's difficult to destroy the striking qualities that come from old vines well situated and well tended.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Domaine de la Janasse Chateauneuf du Pape Vieilles Vignes, 1989

This is an old note--from March 30, 2004. I am posting it to demonstrate the quality of Domaine de la Janasse's best cuvee, this Vieilles Vignes Chateauneuf du Pape.

"Medium deep crimson with brickish, garnet tones. Mature Grenache./ My first impression on smelling the wine is that it's very Grenache--strawberries and sea salt. With each sniff, the depth becomes more apparent with layers of dried and fresh fruits highlighted by hints of herbs and flowers. Very deep and haunting./ Big and old-fashioned in the mouth. Ripe at the front with a full rich follow through. The label says 14.5% alcohol but there is no heat or jamminess. Long exotic finish."

At that time, I thought the wine was in middle age with a fairly long life ahead of it. It was definitely an old fashioned type of Chateauneuf of the type I love most, along the lines of the 1988 and 1989 Lucien Barrot, the 1989 Chante Perdrix and the 1988 Clos Mont Olivet. More recent vintages, I understand, have at least part of the cuvee exposed to new oak in small barrels. (For 2006, according to the web site: 25% raised in barrels, of which 40% were new; 75% aged in vats. 80% de-stemmed with 28-day maceration.) I haven't tasted recent vintages but would love to hear from anyone who has.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Domaine de la Janasse Cotes du Rhone, 2005

Aime Sabon and his son Christophe (who is now in charge of producing wines at Domaine de la Janasse) appreciate Grenache, and they have many fine Grenache vines planted by their forebears at their estate between Courthezon and the Crau Plateau in the Southern Rhone. This is prime territory for Grenache, and the old vines are tended according to organic principles.

Domaine de la Janasse produces three cuvees of Chateauneuf du Pape which are among the finest of the appellation and priced accordingly. This wine (55% Grenache, 25% Syrah plus Cinsault and Mourvedre) is their lowest priced Cotes du Rhone, and, in my view, one of the very best values of the appellation. It's a deep, bluish color, and the scents of Provencal gush from the glass--garrigue galore, then flowers and red and black berries. Deep and serious. Serious depth. On the mid-palate, there's still some tannin but the fruit still comes flowing through--sweet cherries and strawberries, smooth and luscious. This wine reminds me quite a bit of the 2005 Grand Prieur (high praise for either wine) and is a notch above the 2005 Grand Veneur in my estimation.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Oyster Bay Marlborough Chardonnay, 2006

In a blind tasting, I probably would not pick this wine as a Chardonnay. It's brisk, tart, almost aggressive. It is nothing at all like a buttery, tropical fruit Monterey Chardonnay, but it's not like French Chablis either. Whatever it is, I like it.

There are strong mineral scents upfront, then gooseberries, lemon and semi-ripe pears and nectarines. Has the structure and weight of a Sauvignon Blanc but with an even richer flavor profile and finish. A very exciting wine, particularly for the warm days of Spring and Summer.

Marlborough is on the south island of New Zealand--a cool climate area that produces most of New Zealand's well recognized Sauvignon Blancs. Some of these Sauvignons are a bit green for my taste; this Chardonnay is right up my alley. It's regularly priced at $14.99, but I bought this bottle on sale for $11.99 at Sawall's Health Food store in Kalamazoo.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Vin de Pays de Vaucluse Clos Saint Jean Les Calades, 2000

This has always been one of my least favorite vintages of Les Calades. It has less power than the 1998, less precision than the 2001. For the past year or so, it's also had a stinky element (hydrogen sulfide?) so I've been avoiding it. The 1994 had the same kind of stink at a certain stage but passed through it, and so has this wine.

The color is deep and dark but it lacks the lustrous shine that I would like to see. Les Calades is a blend of Grenache and Syrah, but Syrah seems dominant at this time with dark berries, sweet cherries, herbs and flowers. Donna smells shoe polish, which is also a Syrah trait. Flavors too are pleasant and mature with a smooth mouthfeel.

This wine seems typical of many lesser appellations from the Southern Rhone in 2000. There's a ripeness that makes the wines appealing in youth but not enough acid to keep them interesting as they age. By contrast, wines from 2001 took longer to open up but are now showing beautifully. I have some 2000 Chateauneufs and am wondering if I should begin to look at them for drinking.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Salmon Creek California Pinot Grigio, 2007

Salmon Creek wines do not really deserve the "artisan" label, but they are certainly budget. I saw this in the store two days after trying--and enjoying--a Salmon Creek Cabernet from a restaurant wine list. Otherwise, I might have been skeptical about the $5.29 price tag.

I learned later that Salmon Creek wines are products of Fred Franzia and Bronco Wines, better known for two buck Chuck (Charles Shaw wines sold at some Trader Joe's stores for $1.99). Franzia believes restaurant goers should be able to buy a bottle of wine to accompany their meal for $10, and he is willing to sell restaurant owners his Salmon Creek line for $2.50/bottle to allow them to do so. (Actually, I paid $5 for a glass of my Salmon Creek Cabernet.)

The 2007 Pinot Grigio has some of the herbal highlights of the MezzaCorona, although perhaps not as delicate as MC in its youth. Bay leaves, mint, flowers and musky peach skin scents dominate the nose. On the palate, it's smooth and graceful with flavor interest; it does not taste cheap. Both this Pinot Grigio and the Cabernet are definitely middle-of-the-road wines, avoiding both the overly showy and overly bland approach that characterizes many inexpensive wines. I would choose them over many of the $40 wines I see on most restaurant wine lists.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Domaine l'Oratoire Saint Martin Cairanne Prestige, 1998

I buried this wine, like a dog burying a bone, some eight years ago, knowing that otherwise I would drink it all up before it had a chance to show its best. I buried it too well and only last week had the energy to dig it out. I was pleased to find out that I hadn't missed any pleasure.

It has a good deep crimson color all the way to the rim. My first whiff is of black olives; my wife smells some barnyard initially but I guess I just wrapped that into my expectations. I love Southern Rhone barnyard. Very quickly the earthy notes give way to beautiful blueberry/raspberry fruit and garrigue. Very delicate scents of lavender and rosemary. My wife is loving the wine by now and brings over some lavender and rosemary from the garden to confirm the lovely scents. They are almost as fresh as the real thing. On the palate, it's smooth and cool with a long, long finish. Teases all the way down. This is every bit as good as most Chateauneuf or Gigondas wines, but why make a comparison? It's Cairanne, and it's lovely.

From the late 1980s through the mid 1990s, I bought this wine by the case every year. Always less than $100/case, it was one of my every day favorites. Now about $25/bottle, Domaine l'Oratoire Saint Martin is no longer every day fare, but the quality and pleasure are still there.

Yecla Carro, Senioria de Barahonda, 2006

I've read some positive reports of this wine and decided to give it a try. I found it to be far more serious than suggested by its low price ($6 to $8) and simple orange label (with a drawing of a "carro" or cart).

The wine clearly has a good dose of Mourvedre (or Monastrell as it is known in Spain), as evidenced by its deep, dark purple-tinged color and its reticent nose of violets and black fruit. Also plenty of spicy smells and flavors. Either the wine or my taste buds are a bit closed tonight and I get some chewy tannins on the palate...but also loads of promise for the future. This is a wine I'd like to come back to with just a few more months of aging. It's widely available, and the price is unbelievable, given the obvious quality of the fruit and winemaking.