Saturday, January 31, 2009

Santa Barbara Crossing Santa Barbara Chardonnay, 2005

The movie "Sideways" popularized the Pinot Noir wines of Santa Barbara County, but the Chardonnays of this appellation are also worth a look. I tried this at a recent D&W tasting at Charlie Foster's in Kalamazoo and was impressed enough by the quality and price ($6.99) to spring for a few bottles.

With a light yellow color, the wine looks younger than its years. Aromas are fresh and lovely--white peaches, pears, flowers and a hint of passion fruit. There's a delicacy to this wine that is quite attractive to both the nose and palate. It captures the charm and complexity of Chardonnay without the oaky extras. Citrus and apples are apparent on the crisp finish. This, I believe, has been aged in new wood, but the oak is not at all apparent, and it has the qualities I love in a good New Zealand unoaked Chardonnay. It's my style and well worth $6.99, although I have yet to see it in the shops.

Domaine du Vieux Chene Cotes du Rhone Villages Cuvee Beatrice, 2006

This wine is delightful to drink now, but I suspect that the best is yet to come. The color is a deep ruby with warm purple tones. There is 50% Syrah in the blend, and that is showing in the dark color. The first sniff is redolent with red berries, and that is typical of the 50% Grenache. Flavors are ripe and forward, but there are substantial tannins in the background. Pepper, spice and garrigue emerge as the wine warms and airs. On the second night, the flavors are a bit tighter and harder, suggesting to me that the wine is likely to go into a closed stage before showing its true potential.

The Villages wines from Vieux Chene come from a special area of the estate with vines are organically farmed on rocky, deep clay-limestone soil. At this stage, the Cuvee Beatrice is probably no more impressive than the very good Cotes du Rhone cuvees (Haie-au-Grives and Capucines) from Vieux Chene. With a few years of age, I suspect its special qualities will emerge. The wine is now available from D&W FreshMarkets for about $14 a bottle.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Chateau St. Jean Belle Terre Vineyard Chardonnay, 2003

No, not another tasting note (I just did one on December 31) but a heads up. I was in Harding's Market on Crosstown Parkway in Kalamazoo this afternoon and saw a new case of this wine being lifted onto the closeout shelf for $13.39. I've already bought as much as I can afford, but the wine is undoubtedly still there waiting to be snapped up. It's a wine that ordinarily sells for $30 bottle and, in my opinion, worth every penny. At $!

Also available in huge quantities is the 2004 Fazi Battaglia Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico (see my note on December 7, 2008). It's the wine in a funny vase-shaped bottle for $3.39, and even though it's a 2004, it's still fresh and lively--a good fish wine. Try it first if you're not familiar with Verdicchio, but I don't think you'll be disappointed.

Nearly all of the closeout wines have some age on them; that's why they are being moved. But both of the above wines are all the better for their time in the bottle.

Cotes du Rhone Villages Valreas Cuvee Prestige Les Vignerons de l'Enclave des Papes, 2007

This wine is one of my long-time $5.99 favorites from Trader Joe's. I loved the 2001 and the 2004. I've had my ups and downs with the 2005 but finally decided that it had gone into a shell for awhile. If you have any of the 2005 in your cellar, give it a few months or open it a few hours ahead of time.

As for the 2007, I have not a shred of ambivalence. This is the best I've tasted from this Valreas cooperative. It's a very deep crimson; looks young and promising. The nose is bursting with ripe berries at the moment but there is still a depth and seriousness with spices, garrigue and a slight hint of pepper that will undoubtedly come out stronger as the wine ages. The wine has substance and depth plus significant tannins that get buried under the youthful fruit scents on the first night. The finish offers a touch of spice and a ton of promise. This 2007 is a beauty for drinking now and has plenty of room to grow. I'm heading back to Trader Joe's tomorrow and plan to pick up some more, assuming it's still around.

Bodegas Borsao Campo de Borja Vina Borgia, 2005

Of this wine, Steve Tanzer of the International Wine Cellar wrote: "To call this a bargain would be a severe understatement." I agree. I started buying Vina Borgia with the 2004 vintage when it was $5.69 a bottle. The 2007 vintage is now selling at Village Corner in Ann Arbor, among other places, for a whole 30 cents more a bottle. Considering the price, I once assumed this was a wine for early drinking, but I have a few bottles of this 2005 remaining from my original case, and it is drinking beautifully.

The color is a very deep brilliant crimson. Vina Borgia is an old vines 100 percent Grenache wine, and the aromas come forward readily as a distinctly Spanish Grenache--berries, flowers, herbs, spice and green olives. Ripe blueberries take center stage on the palate along with the spice and herbal notes. The fruit concentration is remarkable, and the finish is long and satisfying. A bargain? No question about it. And I suspect this wine will keep getting better for at least a year or two.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

A Tasting of Small-Production Boutique Wines

Peter Woods of the Midwest Wine Exchange/Henry A. Fox Sales Company presented an impressive array of boutique wines at a Tasters' Guild Wine Dinner last night (January 24) at the Park Club of Kalamazoo, MI. These small production wines are not widely available, but you may see them on restaurant wine lists in Michigan. And, if you are interested, you can contact the winery.

NV SHOENHEITZ CREMANT D'ALSACE: Mostly Pinot Auxerrois with 10% Pinot Blanc, this wine is delightfully fruity for an aperitif. The mouth feel is lush and somewhat sweetish. At about $17 a bottle, it's a good alternative to Champagne, but for about the same price, I'd prefer the more elegant approach of a Larry Mawby Blanc de Blanc or Blanc de Noir.

2007 BOKISCH VINEYARDS & WINERY ALBARINO, LODI: This is an interesting winery that makes wine solely from Spanish varietals. This Albarino, and the Chardonnay below, were paired with a first course of sauteed skate in beurre noir--an excellent match. Produced without new oak influence, the Albarino is again delightfully forward--bursting with fresh fruit salad, flowers, mint and basil. Smells and tastes thick.

2007 MAZZOCCO CHARDONNAY, SONOMA: This was one of my favorite wines of the evening. Tasted alongside the Albarino, you can sense the new oak influence in this wine, but it is well measured and subtle. I get fresh peach aromas and flavors, along with apple, citrus, flowers and a slightly smoky note. It's not at all showy but brings out the nuances of the Chardonnay grape that you usually get only in unwooded versons. There is actually 4% Pinot Grigio in the blend, and this may add some complexity. The skate, incidentally was fantastic--cooked to bring out the delicate textures and flavors of skate and accompanied by a rich brown butter sauce that picked up the smokiness of the Chardonnay.

2006 ELUSIV PINOT NOIR, MONTEREY: This wine, and the one below, is made solely for restaurant sale by the glass. I intend to look for them. This one was the lesser of the two, for my taste. It had typical Pinot notes of black cherry and earth that were open and inviting--and paired nicely with pan seared Kashmiri duck breast in a cherry walnut sauce. After several sips, it became apparent to me that the Carneros Pinot Noir below offered more complexity.

2007 ELUSIV PINOT NOIR, CARNEROS: There was not much difference in the color of these two Pinots, but this one had more floral tones in the aroma. Earth, cherry, pomegranate notes are brighter and fresher and also deeper than the Monterey Pinot. But both are enjoyable wines. The duck was a bit overcooked and dry for my taste, but the sauce was excellent and brought out all the subtle qualities of Pinot Noir.

2006 STARRY NIGHT WINERY ZINFANDEL, LODI: This Zinfandel was a hit with the crowd, and for good reason. It is a no pretenses Zin that reminded me of the ones I loved in the 1970s and 1980s. The blackberry qualities are front and center but well defined and not at all jammy. It's real Zinfandel and new oak qualities are used to frame and not dominate the vibrant fruit.

2004 WAUGH CELLARS ZINFANDEL, DRY CREEK: This was my wine of the evening, and it was a perfect match for the grilled New Zealand lamb chops with polenta and basil mint vinaigrette. I am partial to Dry Creek Zinfandel, and this one brought back memories of Ridge Geyserville. The Dry Creek old vine power and concentration are there--layers of berries, earth and dark chocolate.

2005 SKY SADDLE CABERNET SAUVIGNON, MENDOCINO: The final course featured pan-seared pepper crusted petit filet mignon in its natural jus with potatoes and asparagus. It was beautifully cooked and presented, and the pair of Cabernets did their part. Mendocino Cabernets do not have the reputation of their Napa and Sonoma cousins, but they can be very good. This one is made from organically grown grapes in a biodynamic vineyard. Aromas are somewhat restrained at first, but they open up nicely with elegant Cabernet fruit featuring dark cherries and berries. Has good acid to frame the flavors.

2006 FORCHINI VINEYARDS & WINERY CABERNET SAUVIGNON, DRY CREEK: I preferred this Cabernet, which reminded me of some of my favorite California Cabs from the 1970s such as Burgess, Conn Creek and Keenan. It's a no holds barred style with bold aromas and flavors of black currants, cassis, chocolate and coffee. The Dry Creek qualities are there too--depth, power and size.

2006 DI LENARDO VERDUZZO, PASS THE COOKIES! FRIULI: Actually, to the disappointment of many guests, there were no cookies. The wine (with cookies incorporated into the name) was dessert. And, after four courses of fish and meat plus 10 wines, who was to complain? This was my introduction to Verduzzo, and I was pleased. It was an easy going wine with a smooth texture and rich flavors of caramel, honey, vanilla and dried fruits. At about $18, it's a decently priced dessert wine.

In Kalamazoo, wines from this tasting will be available through D&W FreshMarkets on Parkview and Bacchus Wine & Spirits.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Alois Lageder Riff Pinot Grigio delle Venezie, 2006

This wine comes from Dolomites, the foothills of the Alps in northeastern Italy. Riff is German for "reef" and refers to the vineyard's geologic origin, once the bottom of an ancient sea. The soil, as a result, is high in limestone like that of Chablis and some of the Loire Valley in France.

Riff Pinot Grigio is a medium straw yellow color, and the wine looks more viscous than other PGs from northeastern Italy, such as MezzaCorona. One taste confirms that it is indeed full bodied and richly flavored. Aromas and flavors include pears, flowers, earth and lime. This limey quality is definitely distinct from the French-oak influenced lime notes of the Edna Valley Chardonnay below. Whereas the Chardonnay has the acid zing of a freshly cut lime, this Pinot Grigio has more of a mineral, earthy quality, presumably from the soil.

Priced at under $10, this is a good alternative to MezzaCorona for meals requiring a bit more richness in texture and flavor.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Edna Valley Vineyards Paragon Edna Valley San Luis Obispo Chardonnay, 2005

The Edna Valley Chardonnay you'll find in the market right now is probably the 2006 or 2007. This 2005 is drinking nicely right now though and would be a good pickup if you see it on closeout.

It's a medium light yellow. The aromas are still vibrant with French-oak-influenced lime broadening into scents of brown butter, apples and white peaches. The oak influence is strong but it gives the wine personality. Barrel fermentation has given the wine a creamy texture. Drinking at or near its prime.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Etienne Loew Alsace Pinot Gris Cormier, 2004

This wine is drinking beautifully right now. It's a deep gold color and has the weight and concentration of a good Alsace Pinot Gris. Dried apricots, pears and apples on the nose with rich fruit flavors on the palate and a medium long finish. This is definitely Alsace rather than Italian Pinot Gris, and I approve wholeheartedly.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Pierre Andre Bourgogne Chardonnay Reserve, 2005

Wow! This may be one of the best Bourgogne Chardonnays I've had. Bourgogne Blanc is the least expensive, generic appellation of white Burgundy, usually the produce of young vines or grapes from higher-priced appellations that didn't make the cut. Most are very good values, but this one is particularly impressive.

The color is a medium gold with good brilliance. The nose is very deep and classy with scents of peaches, apricots and the mineral qualities I love so much in wines from Puligny-Montrachet and Saint Aubin. There are also broader aromas of hazelnuts and grains plus hints of limey French oak (not too much). There's a nice racy quality in the aromas to counter the ripe fruit. In the mouth, there's a rich, creamy feel and the flavor components are persistent and finely focused. This tastes expensive, as fine white Burgundy shou ld. It's at a good state of maturity for drinking right now, but I don't expect it to fade any time soon.

At its regular retail price of $14.99, I would consider this wine a good value. I feel almost sheepish to admit that I got it for $5.49 on the surplus wine closeout shelf at Harding's Market. Sorry. I bought all that was there; otherwise, I'd go back for more.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Bodegas Montecillo Rioja Crianza, 2000

Probably the wine that got me hooked on wines for good was a 1973 Rioja Vega. I bought it because it was so inexpensive--about $3 a bottle--and it already had seven years of bottle age on it. I bought a few bottles, then a case and later a second case. Along with my circle of friends, I became enchanted with the classic Rioja scents and flavors--American oak, cherries and a delightful level of maturity. Compared to the domestic wines available at that price range--Almaden, Inglenook, Beaulieu Burgundy, Pedroncelli--this wine had real personality. When the supply of Rioja Vega started running low, I found an even greater bargain, Domaine Domecq Rioja at $2.69 a bottle! And it was at least as good.

I still have a few bottles of Rioja in my cellar from that era--Olarra, Ramone Bilbao and Muga-- and every time I open one I smile. That haunting bouquet that drew me in, I now know, has more to do with oak than with fruit, a product of long aging in old American oak barrels. But the wines were all traditional artisanal wines made in the mountains of Spain.

In the early 1980s, many of the bodegas of Rioja moved away from traditional winemaking and became wine factories not unlike Almaden and Inglenook. I moved on to other wine regions but still venture back occasionally, and this Montecillo reminds me quite a bit of the Riojas of the 1970s. American oak takes center stage but it's married gracefully to mature cherry-tinged fruit. While the fruit gives a ripe, full bodied impression, there is a strong acidic backbone that keeps you coming back for another sip. Rioja, because of this acidity, is a red wine that goes well with chicken, fish or ham as well as traditional red wine dishes.

Crianza means literally "made with care." Montecillo also produces a Reserva, which is made with a little more care and, as a result, is more ageworthy. A higher level yet for Rioja is Gran Reserva. A few years ago, I had a 1954 Rioja Gran Reserva, brought back from Spain by a friend, that provided one of the most exhilarating experiences I have ever had. The combination of old American barrels and incredibly alive 50-year-old fruit (temperanillo and garnacha) created layers and layers of complex aromas and flavors.

I bought this 2000 Montecillo Crianza a few years ago, and it is definitely ready for drinking. In fact, I'm sure the 2005, now on the market, would be showing even better. For a blast from the past, it's worth a try.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Premier Cru Chablis Vosgros Gilbert Picq, 1997

This was a budget wine (less than $15/bottle) when I bought it a decade ago. Today, it is worth at least $30, which is the price you'd have to pay for the 2007 Gilbert Picq Vosgros.

It's a full gold color, not overly so. The bouquet is simply gorgeous--lime, butter, pear, apples with a hint of flowers and flinty minerals. This is unwooded Chardonnay at its very best. Now I smell some hazelnuts and nutmeg, but only hints. Nothing is overdone. On the palate, this Premier Cru Chablis has the texture of satin, full but not heavy with finely tuned flavors that spread out over the tongue and linger. Gets better with every sip; the deep concentrated flavors follow me for hours after the meal is complete. Superb.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Frei Brothers Redwood Creek Sauvignon Blanc, 2007

This is a bargain Sauvignon Blanc ($5.49) I bought on the recommendation of Dick Scheer of Village Corner in Ann Arbor ( Light in color, fresh and lively, it's a wine for drinking now--although I hope I'll have a few bottles left for next Spring and Summer in the back yard. It has good Sauvignon Blanc character with passion fruit, melon and pears. Nothing green, nothing tart about this wine. Dick correctly pegged it as Loire-like in its aroma and flavor profile, although I find it a tad sweeter than most Loire Sauvignons. I think many will find that combination to be just exactly what they're looking for.

While the special pricing may have expired, the wine is widely available for $6 to $8. I'm looking forward to drinking it frequently over the weeks ahead.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Domaine Sainte Anne Cotes du Rhone, 2000

If you read this blog regularly, you know that this is my go-to Cotes du Rhone. It rarely disappoints. The 2000 may be a bit more advanced in its maturity than the 1998 and 1999, but it's still drinking beautifully.

The color is medium deep ruby/crimson, maybe just beginning to turn color. The nose offers a thrust of cherry/berry fruit plus Provencal herbs and a hint of mint or menthol. Typical Sainte Anne aromatics--in the Sainte Anne Cotes du Rhone, crushed blueberries are dominant; in the Villages, there are more red raspberry scents. The texture is one trait that makes Sainte Anne special. It's very silky and fills the mouth with a range of flavors. Broader, more mouth-filling but less elegant than the Villages. Long, fruit-oriented finish but with more calm-tempered spice and pepper than when it was young.

You're unlikely to see older vintages of Sainte Anne offered at close-out prices. But if you do, you probably don't need to worry about this Cotes du Rhone going over the hill. In fact, I've yet to encounter an over-mature Sainte Anne.

Cotes du Rhone Villages Chusclan Melodie d'Amour, 2003

If this wine were a Zinfandel, I'd be singing its praises. It's not, and I'm not. The 2003 vintage in the Rhone was very warm and wines produced were atypical. While this is not my least favorite 2003 Southern Rhone, it does show some of the negative effects of the vintage.

The color is very dark, and the nose has a ripeness that is more like California Zin than Southern Rhone--very black fruit plus licorice and raisins. It's the raisins that turn me away; they create a soupy one-dimensional quality. The wine is full bodied and glides down smoothly. Alcoholic content is only 13.5% but the wine is simply too sweet for my tastes and does not reflect its origins.

Don't take this as a slam on Zinfandel. I love good Zinfandel. When I think of Ridge Geyserville, Teldeschi or the Alderbrook Old Vines Dry Creek Zin that I've reported on previously, I envision wines with considerable complexity and character. The Zinfandel grape is relatively large and thick-skinned, and the wines it produces are expected to be full bodied with bold, ripe, raisined aromas and flavors. That's not the profile I expect from Grenache-based Southern Rhones.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Domaine le Couroulu Vacqueyras, 1998

Couroulu may have been my introduction to the wines of this appellation, and it's still my style of Vacqueyras. I went through about a case each of the 1984, 1985 and 1986 Couroulu, discovering that they aged pretty nicely over 10 to 12 years.

Considering the quality of the 1998 vintage, previous bottles of this wine have been slightly disappointing, but this one was a charmer from the time the cork was popped. It's a medium deep crimson with a little brickiness developing around the edges. At 11 years of age, the bouquet is coming together nicely with black fruits, licorice, Vacqueyras earth and minerals and probably some brett. Pepper and spice emerge; there's surely some Mourvedre in the blend, and it should become even spicier in a year or so. Flavors are very savory, almost salty but with a ripe finish. This wine is not for everyone, but it's classic old-time Vacqueyras at its best. And I love it.

Chateau Graville Lacoste Graves Blanc, 2002

When I bought this wine some years ago, my idea was: drink some now, save the rest for later. In its youth, this was a classy, complex white Graves. It's a very different wine today but still a classy, complex white Graves and a perfect match for a rich shrimp or seafood dish.

Since Graville Lacoste comes in a clear bottle, it's possible to follow one sign of its maturity without even pulling the cork. It's a deep, mature color, but the smells and flavors indicate that it's by no means over the hill. The aromas are relatively restrained at first but then get gradually more intense--mint, melon, citrus and minerals. The blend is 80% Semillon, 15% Sauvignon Blanc and 5% Muscadelle from old vines. Right now, the Sauvignon is probably more apparent than it was in past years, but the Semillon still dominates, giving a rich, full-bodied texture and complex smells and flavors. The body is what you might expect from a fine Chardonnay, but the finish is crisp with a citric edge. This wine grows with every sip; it has an incredibly full range of flavors.

I believe I paid $12 for this bottle; the current vintage sells for about $20--a bit rich for my pocketbook but certainly worth it in terms of quality and class.