Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Chateau St. Jean Belle Terre Vineyard Chardonnay, 2003

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

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

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

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Boulder Bank Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc, 2007

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

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

Calatayud Old Vines Garnacha de Fuego, 2006

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

Louis Latour Domaine de Valmoissine Pinot Noir, 2005

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 26, 2008

Chateau du Coulinat Saint Croix du Mont, 1975

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

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

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

Marcel Juge Cornas, 1994

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

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

Domaine du Haut des Terres Blanches Chateauneuf du Pape, 1994

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

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

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Keenan Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, 1979

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

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

Chateau Saint Bonnet Medoc Cru Bourgeois, 1982

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Edmunds St. John El Dorado County Pinot Gris, 2006

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

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

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

Les Trois Couronnes Cotes du Rhone, 2007

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

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

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

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Domaine du Grand Prieur Cotes du Rhone, 2006

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

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

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Monkey Bay Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, 2007

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

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

Hamilton's Ewell Vineyards Barossa Valley Railway Shiraz, 2000

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

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Fazi Battaglia Verdicchio Dei Castelli di Jesi Classico, 2004

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

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

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

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Domaine de la Janasse Cotes du Rhone, 2005

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

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Gaetano d'Aquino Pinot Grigio delle Venezie, 2007

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

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

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

Monkey Bay New Zealand Chardonnay, 2007

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

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