Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Domaine de Font Sane Cotes du Ventoux, 2005

When I last opened a bottle of this wine, it was mid-summer [July 24, 2008], and I described it as a perfect wine to drink in the backyard because "it smells like a herb garden surrounded by flowers in bloom." A hummingbird found the deep crimson wine as attractive as I did and considered dive bombing the glass. In late February, at the end of a long, cold winter, Domaine de Font Sane Cotes du Ventoux is equally appealing and a good match for the Asian spices blended so skillfully by Chef John Tsui of Chin Chin Asian restaurant in Mattawan, MI. (The meal was ordered take-away, and the wine was from my cellar rather than the restaurant wine list.)

Most Cotes du Ventoux wines are Cotes du Rhone look-alikes, although the smells and flavors of Ventoux have a unique cool-climate freshness and focus. As a blend of Grenache and Syrah, Font Sane is a bit firmer in the middle and more serious in its ambitions than, say, La Vieille Ferme. The Syrah is showing more strongly tonight than it was last July, and it's very finely delineated cool climate Syrah. Grenache strawberry and Syrah black raspberry--ripe and mouthwatering. An elegant, classy wine tonight with a bit less garrigue than I remember from last summer and a few more Asian spices. The tannins are there for backbone but they let the fruit flow freely. Long, long finish.

The 2006 version of the Font Sane Cotes du Ventoux is now on sale at Village Corner in Ann Arbor for $8.99 to members of the Ann Arbor Wine Club. I just bought my six bottles this afternoon and am looking forward to seeing what the 2006 vintage has in store.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Domaine des Amouriers Vacqueyras, 1998

I had a vigorous online discussion last week with none other than Robert Parker on the relative merits of traditional versus modern wines of the Southern Rhone. Unlike Parker and others, I am a firm believer in traditional methods for the Grenache-based wines of the Southern Rhone. That basically means use of large old oak foudres or concrete vats rather than new oak barriques for aging the wine. In some cases, it also means use of whole bunches, including stems, in fermentation, although that practice varies from estate to estate and, in some cases, from vintage to vintage. The ideal scenario, as I have mentioned many times on this blog, is for a son or daughter to get a wine-making degree and return to the ancestral estate to blend science and tradition.

This bottle of Domaine des Amouriers Vacqueyras illustrates, it seems to me, both the strengths and weaknesses of my traditionalist arguments. As RMP might point out, the wine has flaws that might have been corrected with a new oak barrique. It also has powerful aromas and flavors that, for me, more than make up for these flaws.

The color is a deep ruby red, no signs of advancing age. The nose, however, does offer up some stale scents of tired fruit along with licorice, pepper, spices and Vacqueyras dark-toned minerals. There's no reason to expect a Vacqueyras to be singing at age 11; the primary fruit smells and flavors have given way to the mineral and earth elements. As I continue to drink the wine, however, the flavor elements become increasingly blended and enjoyable--rich and expansive like a beef burgundy dish that has been bubbling in the oven all afternoon. The old vine fruit for this wine is so powerful that, at least for me, it covers up any wine-making flaws.

Let me say, however, that wine-making flaws and traditional wine-making are by no means synonymous. At Domaine des Amouriers, Jocelyn Chudzikewitz returned from oenology school in 1985 to take over wine-making duties from her father, and I remember many of her Vacqueyras wines that aged beautifully for 10 to 12 years...with nary a trace of tired or stale fruit. When Jocelyn died (age 47) after a tragic accident in 1997, wine-making duties were taken over by Patrick Gras, her second husband and an employee of the winery up until that time. 1998 was apparently the initial vintage for Mr. Gras, and it certainly lacks the refined touch I had come to expect from this estate. I suspect the wine was left too long in concrete vats, allowing the fruit to dry up prematurely.

I haven't tasted any recent vintages of Domaine des Amouriers; nor have I tried the cuvee imported by Robert Kacher. For wines he brings into the United States, Kacher insists on new oak barriques that he buys himself because he feels this is what the American wine-drinking public expects, even if it adds a few dollars to the price of the wine. The wine I prefer is the traditional cuvee imported by J et R Selections of Mount Clemens, MI, not because it is less expensive but because I feel it preserves more of the special qualities of the Domaine des Amouriers soil.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Toasted Head Russian River Chardonnay, 2005

The Russian River Valley north of San Francisco is a cool growing area with a reputation for producing lean and elegant Chardonnays. While I'm not sure I would describe this wine as lean, it is certainly an elegant, classy expression of Chardonnay. Aged in 100 percent French oak (seasoned and new) and aged on its yeast lees for 10 months with weekly stirring, this Chardonnay is not the type of wine I usually seek out. (I generally go for less manipulated styles.) I am nevertheless very pleased that I found it.

The color is a deep gold, just the right stage of maturity. The aromas are fruit-oriented and very expressive--ripe pears, melon, lime, buttered apples and nutmeg. The winemaker (Blake Kuhn) has pulled all the stops but with excellent results. He clearly had superior fruit to work with, and the cool climate flavors and aromas are beautifully focused. The lees aging has given the wine a creamy mouthfeel with a hint of butter on the long, racy finish; yet, again, elegantly rendered. This is not your typical big, buttery Chardonnay.

Toasted Head makes wines at several price points. This Russian River Chardonnay sells for about $20 retail, but I picked it up for $6.69 on the surplus rack at Harding's Market, Crosstown Parkway in Kalamazoo. Another incredible value.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Domaine La Garrigue Cuvee Romaine Cotes du Rhone, 2006

The 2007 release of this wine is getting good press on wine message boards. If this 2006 is any indication, it's a Cotes du Rhone worth seeking out.

The color is a deep, plummy red, darker than a typical Cotes du Rhone. It could have some new oak treatment, but if so it was very skillfully handled because everything else about this wine is true to its Southern Rhone traditions. The aromas of the garrigue (Provencal herbs) come out to greet you at the first sniff along with blueberries, black licorice and Vacqueyras minerals. The estate is located in Vacqueyras, and the wine is very much like a good Vacqueyras...but at a Cotes du Rhone price. Bold peppery, spicy Grenache flavors add to the complexity and the finish is long and ripe.

The Bernard family who run Les Florets, a beautiful country inn near Gigondas, produce this wine, apparently with the assistance of wine consultant Phillipe Cambie. I enjoyed the La Garrigue Vacqueyras while staying at Les Florets several years ago, and I'd be quite happy to re-visit both the Cotes du Rhone and the Vacqueyras frequently in the months ahead.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Stonehaven Limestone Coast Shiraz, 2001

I've seen Stonehaven wines for under $10 so I wasn't impressed when I saw this one for $10.99 on the closeout shelf at Harding's Market. A closer look revealed that it's Stonehaven's premium Limestone Coast Shiraz (usually selling for more than $20 retail) and that it has enough age on it that it should be showing well. Having tried it, I'm sorry I didn't buy more.

The color is deep and dark, nearly opaque. I also detect some coffee oak tones in the bouquet; but this is not your typical inky Aussie Shiraz. Smells and flavors are well defined--red berries and mint as well as black fruit and dark chocolate. It tastes less tannic than it smells, gliding smoothly along the palate, leaving a trail of fruit-oriented flavors and a long finish. I want more of this wine.

Suzanne Bell, the winemaker at Stonehaven, is proud of the vineyards that produce this Limestone Coast Shiraz. They are located south of Adelaide, on the coast between Padthaway and Coonawarra. Although the vines there are younger than those in Coonawarra, the elevation is higher, and the terra rossa soil is the same. She likes the cool growing season for the same reason I do: it brings out well defined fruit flavors. Stonehaven is a label that I will now look at more seriously.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Domaine Sainte Anne Cotes du Rhone Villages, 1998

As much as I loved the Lou Peyrau Cotes du Rhone last night, this 1998 Sainte Anne CDR Villages blew it away. Made in a similar red-fruited style, this wine simply has more concentration, depth and class.

It's a very deep plummy red, noticeably darker than the Lou Peyrau. Crusted sediment on one side of the bottle is a good omen. This is a Grenache-based beauty stuffed with ripe fruit and good balancing acidity. The bouquet is well developed but still fresh with red raspberries, flowers, spices and garrigue. The texture is silky smooth and mouth filling with layers and layers of flavor. Tannins are very fine and ripe, adding good structure and lift without obstructing any flavor elements.

Sainte Anne wines come from the Gard region of the Southern Rhone, which is cooler than Vaucluse, allowing good acidity for grapes picked at optimal ripeness. And the domaine takes great care to make the wine in a traditional style with minimal exposure to oxygen. Many 1998 Cotes du Rhone Villages wines are showing their age by now, and that's no embarrassment. This wine has many years ahead of it.

Domaine la Monardiere Cotes du Rhone Lou Peyrau, 2001

My last report on Lou Peyrau 2001 (December 4, 2007) said it still had room to grow. And grow it has over the past 15 months, even though it was pretty fantastic then. This property, run by Martine and Christian Vache, is one of my favorite sources of Cotes du Rhone and Vacqueyras. As far as I can tell, Domaine la Monardiere no longer makes Lou Peyrau Cotes du Rhone, choosing to focus on several bottlings of Vacqueyras. The excellent Mondardiere Vin de Pays, a blend of Grenache and Syrah, is still available for about $10, but, alas, it is no match for the Lou Peyrau CDRs produced from 1998 to 2001.

The color is a medium to deep ruby with good brilliance. From the first whiff, I know it's Valentine's Day--delicate red berries, flowers, spice. Ripe and ready. In the mouth, the red raspberries are lovely. Hints of licorice, black fruits and toffee emerge with airing, but the focus is still on the red berries. At eight years of age, this Cotes du Rhone is so fresh and fruity that you'd swear it was a 2007. Yet it still preserves some of the dry sternness that has always been part of the personality of the very good 2001 Cotes du Rhone wines. Lou Peyrau still has its share of tannin, depth and substance but it is singing a pretty tune right now. Unfortunately, it's my last bottle :(.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Fazi Battaglia Verdicchio Dei Castelli di Jesi Classico, 2004

Mike T. reported recently buying two closeout bottles of this wine that had turned to vinegar (see comments on January 26, 2009 posting "Chateau St. Jean Belle Terre Chardonnay"). This bottle, which I bought in early December at Harding's Crossroads for $3.39, is as fresh and lively as the bottle I reported on December 7. Later shipments arriving in January were apparently heat damaged since this 2004 is showing no signs whatsoever of advanced age.

The color is a brilliant yellow, very lively. Aromas are fresh and forward--green apples, flowers, hazelnuts. It's not a wine that fits neatly into categories (Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris) that most Americans recognize, but I consider that a plus. There is crisp acidity framing the fruit flavors and a pleasant touch of bitterness on the long finish. It's an excellent choice for vegetable-oriented meals, particularly those including spinach.

I know that duds appear periodically on these closeout shelves; I took back two bottles of 2002 Firesteed Pinot Gris this week after opening the first and finding it was hopelessly oxidized. That increased risk explains why the wines are marked down so steeply. But there are occasional treasures to be found that make the risk worthwhile. The secret is to try the wine before you commit yourself to large quantities. And don't be embarrassed to take the wine back for a refund or exchange.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Evans & Tate Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon, 2005

Changes in ownership and distribution rights probably led to the close-out price of this wine--marked down from $21.99 to $10.99 at Sawall's Health Food Store in Kalamazoo and undoubtedly other locations across the country. That is an excellent price for a Margaret River wine.

I have found Margaret River Cabernets (such as Cape Mentelle) to have a cool climate elegance and fruit definition that is somewhat Bordeaux-like, and this wine fits that description well. The color is medium deep with good brilliance, but it's neither opaque nor purplish. Aromas come forward nicely with currants, blackberries, coffee oak and a hint of mint. The palate feel is particularly noteworthy--very ripe and smooth without noticeable tannins but good fruit concentration. This is a serious wine but one that can be enjoyed right now as well as five years from now. Berries and currants linger a long time on the finish. This is not your typical $10 Aussie red.

D. du Pegau Plan Pegau L-2000

When I bought this wine (2002?), Domaine Pegau's Chateauneuf du Pape was rapidly becoming a cult wine. On the message board, you could find numerous tasting notes and raves about Pegau and its winemaker, Laurence Feraud. I was pleased with the recognition being given to this estate. I had been buying Pegau Chateauneuf in quantity since the 1988 vintage and had visited the estate and talked with Laurence Feraud in 1992. It was one of my favorite wines and one that I could afford to buy in quantity ($8 to $12 a bottle) and drink with some regularity. With the 2000 vintage, however, the increased attention started to bring a dramatic upswing in price. When I saw the $37 tag on the wine I considered one of my "regulars," I decided to look elsewhere for good buys in Chateauneuf du Pape. That price now looks like a bargain; the 2005 vintage is selling right now for about $100.

In that context, this 2000 Plan Pegau, a non-vintage and non-appellation wine produced by Laurence Feraud, seemed like a super bargain. Fellow wine lovers on the ebob message board were singing its praises as a baby Chateauneuf, and I was quite smug when I saw it available and picked up three bottles at $12--a price I once paid for the real thing.

The first bottle I brought out over the holidays that year, with great expectations...and more than a little disappointment. The wine was uncharacteristically hard, even for a young wine--not what I had previously encountered with Domaine Pegau. I waited at least a year before opening the next bottle but had a similar impression. Although the tannins had softened a little, they were still a bit rustic and there were none of the qualities that defined Pegau for me. This final bottle got overlooked in the cellar, and I'll admit that I may have waited a bit too long to pull the cork. My impressions are mixed but still negative.

The color is a deep ruby, somewhat burnished, but healthy. The earthy, funky smells of Pegau are obvious--animal fur, black licorice, pepper, berries and probably brett or H2S. All of the smells are deep and black and remind me of old time Vacqueyras from the early 1980s. I like these qualities, but I know that many others (including my wife and daughter) do not. On the palate, the impressions from the nose become more negative. Too much funky business, even for me. There is an off note (H2S? or maybe too much age?) that causes a tingly feeling on the tongue and cuts off the flavors I expect on the finish. In a Pegau Chateauneuf du Pape, the funk is part of the attraction but it is always countered by a beautiful, sweet, delicate floral and red fruit charm underneath--an entrancing combination. And that's what is missing from this wine.

On the second night, after the wine had sucked up some air, the flavors became more positive and the off note not as apparent. It's a decent vin de pays but not a baby Chateauneuf du Pape. For $12, I can find a better Southern Rhone.