Thursday, July 31, 2008

Vinsobres Domaine Chaume-Arnaud, 2004

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

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

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Sancerre La Moussiere Alphonse Mellot, 2000

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

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

Monday, July 28, 2008

Cotes du Ventoux La Ferme Julien, 2006

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Cotes du Rhone Domaine du Grand Prieur, 2006

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

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

Friday, July 25, 2008

Chablis Premier Cru Vosgros Gilbert Picq et ses Fils, 1996

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

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

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Domaine de Font-Sane Cotes du Ventoux, 2005

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Domaine de Marotte Cotes du Ventoux Cuvee Eline, 2001

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

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

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

Macon Pierreclos Jean-Claude Thevenet et Fils, 2005

This wine was one of the first I reviewed [November 13, 2007]. It has gained some maturity over a nine-month period, but it hasn't lost any of its charm. It's a medium yellow with aromas of green apples, spearmint and fresh pears. Has a refreshing zesty feel on the palate and typical Macon Chardonnay flavors. On the second night the wine shows some nutty maturity...but still fresh and lively. This wine is what Macon is all about--unpretentious but full of personality.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Robert Mondavi Los Carneros Pinot Noir, 2001; Robert Mondavi Private Selection Pinot Noir, 2006

At seven years of age, the Robert Mondavi Los Carneros Pinot Noir is showing very nicely, in my opinion. It was served at the Kalamazoo Tasters Guild wine dinner with the main course of grilled rack of lamb with herbed mashed potatoes and orange dilled carrots.

The wine shows a lot of Pinot earthiness at first, followed by a rush of fresh berries and bing cherries. Ripe flavors and then more Pinot earthiness. There is a touch of volatility that adds to the wine's complexity. The finish is long, slightly astringent and true to Pinot Noir varietal characteristics. Reminds me a lot of Louis Latour's Pinot Noir Valmoissine. It costs about twice as much, however.

A few nights later, I had a chance to taste the 2006 Robert Mondavi Private Selection Pinot Noir. This is a less expensive bottling (usually around $10 to $12) than the Los Carneros and comes from Central Coast fruit. It also has far less complexity and varietal character. This wine is much deeper in color with bright, reasonably deep cherry-oriented fruit but none of the earthiness, borderline volatility or other varietal traits that distinguish the Los Carneros. From a plastic glass at an outdoor table at Taste of Kalamazoo, it was a very enjoyable wine. And it would also work well at a dinner party where the focus is on conversation. If want a wine to ponder over, savor and enjoy with a specially prepared meal, I would prefer the Mondavi Los Carneros ($25)...or the Louis Latour Valmoissine ($12).

Chateau St. Jean Sonoma County Fume Blanc, 2005

Now this is more like it. Fresh and crisp--a good accompaniment to the next course: shrimp tossed with olive oil and Old Bay seasoning on a bed of couscous. The Sauvignon Blanc is apparent with a hint of green pepper and enough cat pee to make it honest. But there is a small amount of Viognier blended in, and it kicks in with lovely floral/peachy/musky tones.

Fume Blanc was a creation of Robert Mondavi, styled to imitate the Pouilly Fume wines of the Loire. Compared to Sancerre, Pouilly Fume has broader, peachy tones. It's 100 percent Sauvignon Blanc in the Loire but Viognier works well in this blend to turn a relatively straightforward Sauvignon into a wine with added dimensions. For about $11, it's a very nice wine.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Stonehaven Australian Winemaker's Riesling, 2005

Served with a salad of fresh greens and fruit with blue cheese and fresh raspberry vinaigrette, this wine was a distinct disappointment.

A petroleum smell is considered typical of some Rieslings, but this wine has it to a fault. Motor oil here and none of the fresh flowers or peachy fruit of a good German or Alsace Riesling. Has some acidity, but it's basically too heavy for a Riesling and lacking in fruit and floral elements. It may be that this bottle has been improperly stored or has lost its freshness. It was, however, a pretty good backdrop for the raspberry/blue cheese flavors dominating the salad.

Gloria Ferrer NV Sonoma Brut

Served at a wine dinner, this sparkling wine was a good accompaniment to an appetizer of bruschetta with goat cheese.

Bubbles are small and persistent. The nose offers hints of pear, apple, almond and yeasty dough. On the palate, it's very refreshing with notes of lime and tonic water. Good richness on finish.

The Wine Spectator often awards Gloria Ferrer Brut high points, and I would agree. If I were choosing a Brut to serve tonight, however, I would prefer the L. Mawby Blanc de Blanc.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Xanadu Frankland River/Margaret River Shiraz, 2001

Xanadu wines appeared in my wine market, deeply discounted, about three or four years ago. As I understand it, complex changes were taking place in the ownership of the winery and apparently someone in the supply chain needed cash rather than a stockpile of wines. Regularly priced at $20 to $30 a bottle, the Xanada Chardonnay, Shiraz and Cabernet were offered for $8 to $12 retail. Western Australian wines (especially Margaret River and Frankland River appellations) are well known for their elegance and fruit purity and rarely sell at that price level. I took advantage of the buying opportunity and served Xanadu Chardonnay at my daughter's wedding.

This is the last bottle of Xanadu Shiraz I had in my cellar, and it is drinking significantly better than it was four years ago. From afar, the color is deep, dark and bluish; up close, you can detect a slight browning and maturation. It's at a good stage of development right now. I smell and taste blackberries, red raspberries, plums and a touch of French oak that is well integrated with the fruit. Some leather/shoe polish tones are beginning to develop; at this stage, they are just enough to add complexity to the well defined fruit. Flavors are ripe, full, friendly and slightly tingly (14% alcohol). Most good quality Australian Shiraz wines tend to start showing their best at around age eight, and this is a prime example. I still have a few bottles of the 2000 Xanadu Cabernet but am going to wait a couple of years before trying these again.

You might still see some bottles of the 2001 Xanadu Shiraz in shops. If so, try it first before buying in quantity. If it's come recently from an air conditioned warehouse, it's still going to be fine, but if it has been sitting on the shelf for four years, subject to temperature fluctuations and light, it's not likely to drinking as well as the wine I had last night from my cool cellar.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Torresella Veneto Pinot Grigio, 2006

This wine is a bit more expensive than the MezzaCorona Pinot Grigio but probably worth the premium if you're looking for a step up in elegance. It's in the same style--fresh, light and crisp with aromas and flavors of citrus, flowers and spice. Just right for spring and summer drinking or for vegetable-oriented meals.

Veneto is the area around Venice in northeastern Italy, and Torresella is located about halfway between Venice and Trieste. Although the winery was founded in 1935, the vineyards go back to Roman times. Wines are produced with an eye toward freshness and preservation of fruit: cool fermentation in stainless steel, then bottling while the wine is cold. This Italian Pinot Grigio approach produces a wine that is distinct from the more weighty Pinot Gris of Alsace. It's interesting to compare the two and choose the one that best suits the food you're serving, the season and the context.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Alsace Tokay Pinot Gris Etienne Loew Cormier, 2004

Most Alsace Pinot Gris wines are priced at about $15 or higher these days. This one was offered at $8.99 by Village Corner in Ann Arbor. Favorable notes from Dick Scheer, a wine merchant whose palate and advice have earned my trust over more than 30 years, convinced me to go for a case before having a chance to taste it first. I'm glad I did.

The color is a medium gold, and the wine has a classic Alsace Pinot Gris profile: honey, nuts, peaches and lemon creme. It has a substantial presence on the palate--big but also pretty with bright fruit tones. This is a wine that will provide much pleasure over the next several years, and I feel quite smug having a case in the cellar.

Why is the wine bargain priced? Certainly not because of any lack of quality. Etienne Loew is a relatively new and unknown name, at least in Michigan. All of the Loew wines are bargain priced, probably in an effort to introduce them. The domaine fits my Artisan Wine profile to a T. The vineyards have been in the family since the 18th century, and Etienne, the current winemaker, has been to oenology school and spent some time in Oregon learning how to make best use of four hectares of vines and several hundred years of family wine-making tradition. Have you heard the story before?

Etienne Loew: very pleased to meet you and your Pinot Gris. Next, I'll go for the Reisling.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Epicuro Salice Salentino, 2003

Compare this to the 2000 Agricole Vallone Salice Salentino I reviewed earlier [April 21, May 22, May 28, 2008]. Salice Salentino is a warm, dry wine-growing area on the Adriatic coast in southern Italy that is known for producing fruit-oriented but ageworthy wines that ordinarily sell for $12 to $15. I picked up the Agricole Vallone for $4.75 on closeout at a local supermarket; this Epicuro was $5.99 at Trader Joe's. I didn't get cheated with either one.

Epicuro's Salice Salentino is a very dark, bluish color with amber tones shading to the rim. Still young. The label describes "intense and persistent aromas of red woodsy berries," and I agree. There are fresh blueberries in the salad I'm eating, and there is no question that the wine's aroma and flavors also echo those of the blueberries--wild and woodsy. In the mouth, the wine is rich and creamy, leaving some tingly areas on the tongue but nothing harsh, hard or tannic. It's very ripe, in the 2003 mode, but the alcohol level is only 13%. It's neither hot nor raisiny; simply ripe and what you might expect from blueberries and raspberries--wild and freshly picked. It's hard not to like this wine, and I plan to go back for more. Although it may not be made for long-term aging, the fruit is strong enough to hold up for several years.

Is it better than the Agricole Vallone? I think many tasters would like it better. It's three years younger and significantly riper. What it lacks, for me, is the pleasantly bitter tones on the finish that are to be expected of Salice Salentino and very nicely presented in the Agricole Vallone. For the price, I'll take a case of each and enjoy every drop.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Domaine Sainte Anne Cotes du Rhone Villages, 1998

Another 10-year-old Cotes du Rhone Villages, and this one is just hitting its stride. It's no secret that all of the Domaine Sainte Anne reds, even the simple Cotes du Rhone, are capable of going 10 years or longer in a good vintage. Guy Steinmaier's well run estate is located in St. Gervais in Gard, a relatively cool area of the Southern Rhone.

Sainte Anne's 1998 CDR Villages is a medium to deep crimson with good color all the way to the rim. The nose has a lifted vanilla/resin/honey element that is typical of Sainte Anne wines in a good vintage. It does not come from oak aging (the wines are aged in stainless steel) but probably from the practice of including stems for whole bunch fermentation. A good number of Southern Rhone estates follow this traditional practice, and Steinmaier uses it only in vintages when he is certain the stems are fully ripe and in good condition. The result is a cool aromatic quality that blends nicely with the blueberry and garrigue scents. The wine is also cool on the palate with good fruit flavors. There's a slight dryness on the mid-palate; otherwise it shows good ripeness and a long follow through.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Laurent Gregoire Domaine de Beauregard Muscadet Sevre et Maine, 2006

If you haven't had a Muscadet recently, you might be surprised by this wine. It represents a growing trend toward bigger, richer more dramatic wines from this area of the Loire. But it's still very much within the Muscadet tradition and a perfect match for oysters or seafood.

The "sur lie" on the label indicates that the fermenting juice has been left for a certain period on the spent yeast cells--a process that adds complexity; a creamy, yeasty flavor; and sometimes a slight tingly feeling on the tongue from carbon dioxide. "Sur lie" is part of the Muscadet tradition, but it's also become an accepted part of New World winemaking. I noted last weekend that some of the Good Harbor whites (the Pinot Grigio and the Tall Ships Chardonnay) had been given this treatment after fermentation in stainless steel. It's a pleasing alternative to barrel fermentation or barrel aging, both of which are more inclined to add some vanilla sweetness along with the lemon cream. When lees aging is combined with barrel fermentation and barrel aging, then you have a white wine that may be getting too big for its own good.

This wine, however, is nicely scaled. The "leesy" smells remind me of pears and apples with a lemon butter sauce. Plenty of pineapple and melon too with a slight chalky finish. Rich but no sweetness. Big for Muscadet; could be mistaken for a Chardonnay. The tingly finish works fine with grilled salmon and roasted vegetables but might be too powerful for whitefish.

Even with the unfavorable exchange rate, I bought this Muscadet for $10 at Village Corner in Ann Arbor--an excellent value. I'm glad I have more, because this wine is not going to fade any time soon.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

45th Parallel: Michigan versus France

While visiting the Leelanau Peninsula of Michigan last weekend, I frequently drove past the sign on M22 marking the 45th parallel. Paul Jaboulet's Cotes du Rhone, Parallelle 45, is so named because the 45th parallel also passes through Jaboulet's estate near Hermitage in the Rhone Valley. In France, Rhone wines are considered warm climate; in the United States, Michigan is known as a cool climate wine region.

I have heard it stated by those who know wine that Michigan is incapable of producing high quality red wines--the grapes simply don't ripen enough to get good color and tannins. I didn't taste many Leelanau red wines on my visit, but the Leelanau Cellars Sleeping Bear Red (a blend of Pinot Noir, Merlot and Baco Noir) is probably typical--a light garnet color and subdued earthy flavors. When I first tasted Chateau Chantal's Malbec, I couldn't believe the dark color and deep cherry flavors came from Michigan grapes. It tasted like an Argentinan Malbec. And indeed that was where it came from; Chateau Chantal's owner apparently liked a certain Argentinan wine so much that he bought the vineyard and winery. But I'm not ready to write off Michigan for red wines. In recent years, some good Pinot Noirs and Cabernet Francs have been produced in Leelanau and in southwestern Michigan. But I didn't taste any good examples on this trip.

Leelanau has a good climate and soil for Vignoles, and during the early 1980s I enjoyed many good dry Vignoles from Mawby, Good Harbor and Boskydel. Most Vignole wines have now been replaced by Pinot Gris (or Pinot Grigio), which is more vulnerable to frost damage than Vignoles but more popular among consumers. When choosing from a wine list in Leelanau, I am rarely disappointed when I choose a local Pinot Gris or Pinot Grigio.

The best wines--and certainly the best values--in my opinion, come from the old guard--the ones who bought their land when it was cheap: Mawby, Good Harbor and Chateau Grand Traverse. The grape that does best on Old Mission Peninsula, IMO, is Riesling--as cool climate as you can get. Chateau Grand Traverse Late Harvest Riesling with dessert while looking out over the lake...mmmmmmmmmm.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Larry Mawby's Sparkling Wines

What better place to savor Larry Mawby's sparkling wines than on the deck of the winery, overlooking the vineyards, near Sutton's Bay on the Leelanau Peninsula of Michigan. After tasting four of his top cuvees side by side there last weekend, I hold to my previous assessment that the Blanc de Blancs is particularly good this vivtage.

The L. MAWBY CREMANT ($22)--100 percent estate grown Vignoles--has strikingly fruity, yeasty aromas and flavors and a creamy feel on the palate.

The L. MAWBY TALISMON ($30) is a blend of Vignoles, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. This wine has a decidedly toasty character--a bit too much for my taste but a good backdrop for a broad array of flavors. Like the Cremant, the juice is fermented first in small oak barrels and puncheons and then again in the bottle according to the traditional method.

The L. MAWBY BLANC DE BLANC ($18), 100 percent Chardonnay, is particularly fresh and zesty but also has the rich, yeasty character of a fine Champagne. It is produced from 100 percent Chardonnay grapes, fermented first in stainless steel and later in the bottle.

L. MAWBY BLANC DE NOIR ($18): I usually prefer a Blanc de Noir, and Larry Mawby makes a particularly good one from 100 percent Pinot Noir. It's made like the Blanc de Blanc and has a similar elegance and a touch more complexity. This is a wine that grows on you with each sip. In any other vintage, I'm sure I would prefer the Blanc de Noir; in the vintage that's now on the market, my vote still goes to the Blanc de Blanc.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Domaine des Favards Cotes du Rhone Villages, 1998

The label of this wine modestly proclaims: "Si ce vin est sur votre table, vous etes un connaisseur." Or "If this wine is on your table, you are a connoisseur." My corrollary would be: "If you have a 10-year-old Cotes du Rhone Villages on your table, you had better be sure it's worth drinking." I knew, of course, that Domaine des Favards is indeed a connoisseur's wine and that it is capable of aging 10 years or longer.

It's a deep crimson/ruby all the way to the rim. The cherry/black licorice/garrigue aromas are deep and concentrated. This wine has the combination of power and beauty that, for me, is typical of Gigondas. And this is a baby Gigondas. Favard's Villages probably has more Syrah in the blend than its Cotes du Rhone (which is 80% Grenach and 20% Syrah). Both the color and the flavors are darker than you'd expect from Grenache. There's some tannic firmness at first, but the flavors open up nicely after about 15 minutes of airing. The tag says "$8.99," but my pleasure meter goes two to three times higher than that.

I've been buying Domaine des Favards Cotes du Rhone and Cotes du Rhone Villages since the 1985 vintage, and I once rushed to finish off my case within three to five years. Eventually, I learned that there's no hurry with these traditionally made wines. While they don't change as much as a classified growth Bordeaux might with aging, they are capable of keeping and even improving for well past a decade. The estate is located on the Plan de Dieu, very near to two of my other Vaucluse favorites: L'Espigouette and Vieux Chene. The drive from Gigondas to Orange will take you past all three properties. But regardless of how close they are to each other and how similar their blends, these three wines are very different. That's what I love about artisan winemaking.