Saturday, May 30, 2009

Some Favorites from Kalamazoo Food & Wine Fest

The 2009 Kalamazoo Food & Wine Fest offered a great opportunity for tasting. In two and a half hours, I could make it through only a small number of nearly a thousand wines available. And I had no time to take notes. Some observations:

RHONE: I had a chance to taste through the offerings of Les Trois Couronnes--Cotes du Rhone, Gigondas and Chateauneuf du Pape. My favorite was the Gigondas, a wine true to its appellation and not nearly as backward as the Vacqueyras at this stage. (The Vacqueyras was not at the tasting, but I had a bottle at home a couple of weeks ago.) It's got that streak of Gigondas gentle power running right down the middle. It's probably the Mourvedre in the blend that makes it special. The Chateauneuf was very good as well--Grenache centered and traditional but at this stage not showing enough to make me a buyer. The price for those attending the event ($23) is good, but my inclination would be to spend a bit more for (about $30) for a Fortia or Lucien Barrot.

One of my favorite Rhones at the tasting was the 2007 Vieux Chene Cuvee Friande Vin de Pay de Vaucluse ($7.99 event price); it's drinking beautifully right now. I also enjoyed the 2007 Chateau Suzeau Cotes du Rhone, which had a distinctive lemon peel trait. The Delas Saint Esprit Cotes du Rhone (75% Syrah, 25% Grenache) impressed me even more than it did last week at home. And I heard lots of good comments about this wine as I moved around the tasting. For those attending the event, it can be purchased for $9.59.

Also of note were the Languedoc wines of La Clape: Rouge des Karantes ($7.79), Domaine des Karantes La Clape ($10.99) and Diamant des Karantes ($37.99). They are all Rhone blends of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre, traditionally made and beautiful. Yes, the pleasure increases as you ascend the price scale, but, for me, the Diamante is not four or five times better than the simple Rouge des Karantes.

AUSTRALIAN: At the Australian table, there was a choice of the inexpensive Wishing Tree, medium-priced Rutherglen or premium-priced Elderton wines. I skipped the Wishing Tree since I've had these wines before and never been impressed. The Elderton Unoaked Chardonnay ($11.49) was very good, not at all what most Americans have come to expect from Australian Chardonnay. No butter, no cream just elegant Chardonnay fruit, well defined. The Rutherglen Red was a blend of Syrah and Petite Sirah; presumably, the Petite Sirah was added to deepen the color because this grape has relatively little flavor. But isn't the Syrah inky enough without it? This wine was okay, but I preferred the Rutherglen Reunion MSG (Mourvedre, Syrah, Grenache). Compared to other MSGs I've had, this one was fairly approachable and not too tannic. For $13.29 (event price), I could enjoy this wine occasionally, although it would never make me forget my Chateauneufs or even my Cotes du Rhones. The highlight was the Elderton Barossa Cabernet ($22.45)--a very sleek wine with well defined Cabernet fruit. I may well buy some because it's my wife's style of wine and would go quite well with roast lamb. The Elderton Command Shiraz (normally $100 but marked down to $66 for the event) was an impressive, powerful show wine. It fills the mouth and makes you say, WOW! But, for me, it's too big, too showy and too oaky. A wine to try, not to buy.

ITALIAN: Some of the wines making the most lasting impression on me were Italian Barberas. Were I a bit younger, I could go for Barbera in a big way. It has an exciting range of fruit and peel aromas with high acidity that keeps you coming back for more. Unlike most red wines, it goes well with salty foods (even popcorn and potato chips) and with either fish or beef. I've reported before on the San Silvestri Ottone Piedmonte Barbera ($7.99) and I couldn't resist trying it again. Beautiful. Then there was the Canavese Rosso ($16.59), a blend of Barbera and Nebbiolo, and the Canavese Barbera ($20.99). These are classier, more elegant renderings compared to the Ottone. I was also very impressed with a wine I hadn't tried before: Lionello Marchesi Morellino de Scansano ($13.99). This wine has a very powerful personality, right in line with my other Italian favorites.

There were other wines I tried and enjoyed, including a Frey-Sohler Alsace Muscat ($11.99), a Couly Dutheil Chinon Rouge ($15.99) and a Grand Moulin Rouge Cotes de Blaye ($12.69). But oh so many, I left untouched. There's always next year.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Domaine Sainte Anne Cotes du Rhone, 2004

Right now my cellar is well stocked with Domaine Sainte Anne wines from all of the good vintages since 1998. And that makes me happy. None of these wines is ready to fall off the edge--even the 1998s (especially the 1998s, I should say!)--and the range of vintages gives me a good feeling for how these wines develop. It's the lower-priced bottlings--the Cotes du Rhone and the Cotes du Rhone Villages--that interest me most at the moment because I know the high-end Notre Dame and Saint Gervais are good for the long haul.

The Cotes du Rhone ($8 to $10) comes from younger vines (averaging 15 years) and is the least complex and resistant to change. This 2004 shows a bit more tannin than it did a couple of years ago...and a bit more than the 1998 and 2000. But it still has all the trademark elements--frank, open blueberry fruit with flowers, Provencal herbs and a very ripe finish. The trademark for me is a vanilla/honey/resin character that does not come from new oak barrels. (Sainte Anne wines are all produced in a reductive environment with stainless steel and concrete.) The stems and skins provide excellent structure, but they're ripe and round with no hard edges. And, as always, there is that strong core of berry fruit.

For my taste, the vanilla/honey element is a bit too prominent and one-dimensional, but that's part of the Sainte Anne Cotes du Rhone personality. The Cotes du Rhone Villages, which comes from older vines and sells for a couple dollars more, is more elegant with less vanilla and more crushed berry smells and flavors. I love both of them. But serious drinking starts with the Notre Dame and the Saint Gervais.

Mittnacht-Klack Clos St. Ulrich Alsace Riesling, 1997

Now this is my idea of what a white wine should be. I paired it with a spicy Mexican-style pulled pork from a Rick Bayless cook book, and it didn't flinch. But it was also beautiful to drink on its own before the meal. It has subtlty as well as power.

The color is medium deep--just right for its age. My wife spots the tell-tale petroleum (she always does), but it's not nearly as prominent as it is in many German Rieslings. For me, the bouquet offers up flowers, honey, botrytis and ripe peaches. In the mouth, it's waxy and big-boned with a full range of spicy concentrated flavors. This is Alsace Riesling, and I love it.

Redwood Creek California Sauvignon Blanc, 2007

This is a pleasing little Sauvignon Blanc for spring and summer drinking. It's very light in color and has fresh scents of mint and citrus with a slight hint of passion fruit. Good acid and plenty of fruit without sweetness that you might expect from an inexpensive New World white. For less than $5 a bottle, I picked up half a case for summer drinking.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Mas de Bouquet Cotes du Rhone, 2007

Compared to the Saint Esprit, this is a more typical blend for a Cotes du Rhone: 70% Grenache, 20 Syrah and 10% Carignane. The color is deep and bluish, could be mistaken for a 2005 or 2006 Grand Prieur. Aromas are already well developed with scents of pepper and spice as well as black fruits. Heady and inviting. In the mouth, the wine comes across as warm and full bodied. A check of the alcoholic content reveals that it is indeed 15%. This is almost as fiery as a Spanish Grenache such as Garnacha del Fuego, but it's still in the tradition of Cotes du Rhone. Mas de Bouquet also produces a Vacqueyras that I plan to try soon.

As for the 2007 vintage, I'm becoming slightly skeptical of the early hype. Robert Parker calls it the best Southern Rhone vintage of his lifetime and urges readers to snap up wines at all levels. So far, I have no reason to question the high quality of the vintage. I have tasted only a few lower level wines, but these wines, at this early stage, have not impressed me as much as did the young CDRs and CDR Villages from 1978, 1998 or 2001.

Mount Langi Ghiran Billi Billi Shiraz, 2003

This wine is a bit older than the Saint Esprit Cotes du Rhone, and it's 100% rather than 75% Syrah, but the two wines offer a good comparison/contrast in terroir and winemaking.

The color is a deep ruby, very similar to the Saint Esprit as they are viewed side by side. Smells are also similar--blackberres, black plums, dark cherries plus a herbal lift that is extremely rare in an Australian Shiraz. Aromas are bright and fresh, probably showing their best right now since this cuvee is not a wine for long-term cellaring. On the palate, there is a full range of fruit flavors plus cassis and black pepper. A deeper wine than the Saint Esprit, at least at this stage of its development.

Mount Langi Ghiran's regular estate Shiraz is a serious ageworthy wine, the equivalent of a French Hermitage, that sells for $35 to $40. It is, in my estimation, one of top two or three Australian wines. Billi Billi also comes from estate-grown grapes, but presumably younger vines, and is made for earlier drinking. I bought this at Sam's in Chicago for about $12.

Delas Saint Esprit Cotes du Rhone, 2007

D&W FreshMarkets offered a case price special on this Cotes du Rhone, and since the 2007 Southern Rhone vintage is attracting a lot of attention, I couldn't resist. Unlike most Cotes du Rhone, this one is 75% Syrah and only 25% Grenache, and it comes from a Northern Rhone producer. The result is a style of wine quite different from the other Cotes du Rhones I buy regularly and provides a pleasant change of pace.

The color is deep and bluish, indicative of the high percentage of Syrah, and the nose also has distinctive Syrah traits--black fruits, berries, herbs, very ripe with a broad appeal. Others at the table immediately perk up. I also find pepper and spice but in a Northern Rhone sense. The flavors are particularly forward and ripe--black and blue berries with a nice acidic herbal tone that you're more likely to get from French than from Australian or Californian Syrah. The mouth feel is very soft, particularly on the second night; I suspect that at least part of the juice was put through carbonic maceration to bring the fruit forward. There is plenty of grip, but this is a wine for enjoying in its youth. Very good.

Villa Giada Suri Barbera d'Asti Rosso, 2005

To accompany pasta with a tomato-based sauce, I usually prefer a red wine--maybe a Cotes du Rhone or Cotes du Rhone Villages. But this sauce featured crab meat and was spiced with lemon and cilantro. Mmmmmmmmm. But how about a wine to match up with the broad flavors of the crab meat and the high acid of the lemon and cilantro? This Barbera d'Asti from the Piedmonte region of Italy turned out to be an excellent choice.

The color is a beautiful deep, saturated ruby red. You can see the good smells and flavors before you even put your nose in the glass. Powerful red cherry aromas with lots of uplift, almost to the point of volatility. Very Italian in its approach, featuring macerated skins rather than oaky tannins. In the mouth, the wine has a silky texture and lovely ripe flavors front to back--as delightful as a bowl of fresh cherries. The acidity is perfect for the pasta dish and keeps me coming back for sip after sip.

Barbera from the Piedmonte is nearly always good. Villa Giada's Barbera d'Asti is particularly fine in the 2005 vintage and is fairly widely available for about $12 a bottle.

Friday, May 15, 2009

La Vieille Ferme Cotes du Ventoux, 2004

I usually think of La Vieille Ferme as a wine to drink within the year of its release, but this 2004--a left over from a string of attractive vintages--changed my thinking. It's drinking beautifully, at least as good as when it was young.

The color is a deep ruby with good brightness and clarity, and the first sniff from the glass is brimming with fresh blueberries, violets and herbs. I sense no come-down in freshness from the 2006 Font-Sane next to it; in fact, La Vieille Ferme is more open and aromatic at this stage in its development. It has everything I expect from a Ventoux with ripe fruit-forward flavors but also a firm tannic structure. On the finish, it lacks the deep red raspberry core that the Font-Sane offers, but that's no insult. The Font-Sane is special; LVF is a worthy match, and I'm looking forward to the 2007s from both estates. Actually, LVF arrived a few weeks ago and is widely available for $6 to $8--probably the best wine value in the market today.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Domaine de Font-Sane Cotes du Ventoux, 2006

I drank this side-by-side with the Grand Prieur (below). They are similar Grenache/Syrah blends from the same vintage. At $8.99, they are two of my favorite Southern Rhone bargains.

The color is medium deep ruby, neither as dark nor as bluish as the Grand Prieur. Aromas and flavors are a bit reticent compared to the Grand Prieur, but they open nicely with a little time and a little reflection. Ripe red raspberry fruit with spice and herbs--a full range of flavors that coat the tongue from front to back. It's less ripe and friendly than the Grand Prieur but ultimately has more substance and depth in a classic Southern Rhone style. Tonight, I'll take the Ventoux.

Domaine du Grand Prieur Cotes du Rhone, 2006

The 2007 Grand Prieur has hit the shelves, and I'm sure it's lovely. But tonight the 2006 works quite nicely with rigatoni arrabiata.

It's very deep and bluish for a Cotes du Rhone and redolent with scents and flavors of fresh blueberries, spices, herbs and peppercorns. Ripe blueberries and cream coat the palate, but the wine has the structure to counter the spicy tomato sauce. It's very open on both the nose and the palate, sleek and silky in texture with plump, ripe flavors. Compared to the Salice Salentino, this is almost a softie, but that's what Grenache is all about. This is as good as it gets--spicy rigatoni and Grand Prieur Cotes du Rhone.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Epicuro Salice Salentino Riserva, 2004

An article in Australian Gourmet Traveller focuses on Aussie winemakers travelling to Italy and "rediscovering the role of grape skins." This Salice Salentino--a $5.99 bargain from Trader Joe's--is an excellent example of a wine built around skin tannins; it's big and full-bodied like an Australian Shiraz but without the toothpicks.

The color is deep, bluish, almost opaque, and the wine gushes with aromas of floral- and herb-tinged black fruits. Basil, rosemary, dark cherries, and you can literally smell and taste the macerated grape skins. Very Italian, very rustic and very enjoyable. This Salice Salentino has the flamboyance of a high-alcohol wine, but it clocks in at only 13%. All fruit and all good; skins rather than oak. And ripe to the point of decadence. This wine is a perfect match for Ribollita--an incredible Tuscan soup made of "re-boiled" vegetables--onion, celery, carrots, Tuscan kale and white beans. All vegetable and all good.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Monkey Bay Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, 2007

Sauvignon Blanc is not a wine for aging, but sometimes a few months in the bottle can make a difference. This New Zealand Sauvignon was good when I tasted it in early December; today, it is special.

Aromas are brisk and have good lift--grapefruit, mint, basil. It's similar to the Santa Rita (below) but without the passion fruit. On the palate, there is good balance between the ripe fruit and citric acidity, and the wine has more depth and complexity than you'd expect from a Sauvignon Blanc. The finish is very long and very ripe with a unique blood orange quality. I like it.

Domaine des Favards Cotes du Rhone, 2001

Robert Parker considers the 2007 vintage in the Southern Rhone the best he has tasted in his lifetime, and from the wines I have tasted so far, I have no reason to question that judgment. There have been many very good to excellent vintages recently, however, including 1998 and 2001. From Cotes du Rhone all the up to Chateauneuf du Pape, the 1998s were hard to resist when they were young--more impressive, in my opinion, than the 2007s at the same stage. And with few exceptions, the ones I've tasted have aged very nicely so far. The 2001s, even simple Cotes du Rhones, were a bit reticent when they were first released, but the quality was apparent. And these wines seem to be aging as well or even better than the 1998s--as evidenced by this inexpensive Cotes du Rhone, drinking beautifully at age 8.

The color is a medium deep ruby, and the aromas are fresh and lovely--blueberries, spice, flowers and just a hint of peppercorns. In the mouth, the wine is medium bodied and sleek. It has the structure, substance and drinkability of a good Pinot Noir. Even at age 8, this Cotes du Rhone could easily be mistaken for a 2007.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Domaine de l'Oratoire Saint Martin Cairanne Cuvee Prestige, 1998

I've been buying Domaine l'Oratoire Saint Martin since the early 1990s, and I can always depend on it to deliver a decade or so of decadent pleasure. I prefer the Cuvee Prestige to the Reserve des Seigneurs--although both are excellent. And the 1998 vintage produced particularly noteworthy wines from this estate.

There is still a deep, dark robe surrounding this 1998, and the bouquet is as fresh and lively as it was 10 years ago. I'm still eating Provencal lamb leftovers, delicious at any stage, and this wine, with its intense garrigue character, is a perfect match--thyme, rosemary, lavender and sage, then fresh berries and peppercorns. It too is delicious at all stages of development. Deep, layered, ripe and lovely. In the mouth, the wine is all that the nose promised and more--ripe, ripe, ripe front to back with a pleasant hint of Provencal olives on the long finish. I would not compare this wine to Chateauneuf du Pape because it is Cairanne and has distinctive Cairanne traits. It will not keep for two or three decades as some Chateauneufs will. But in terms of quality and the enjoyment it delivers, it's every bit as good, in my estimation.

The price tag on this bottle reads $13.99; that was before the Ann Arbor Wine Club discount. Today, this cuvee retails for $25 to $30 (the Reserve is about $5 less). That's high for a Cairanne and outside my price range. Is it worth the premium? There is no question in my mind.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Santa Rita 120 Lontue Valley (Chile) Sauvignon Blanc, 2008

Someone else brought a bottle of this to a dinner party, and I liked it well enough to go out and buy a few for myself. It is a very enjoyable Sauvignon Blanc that sells for about $7.

I like the smell of passion fruit in a Sauvignon Blanc, and this wine is gushing with it. I also smell and taste melon, mint, grapefruit, peaches--all very fresh and ventilating. The wine has a high-acid zing but does not taste tart as some Anjou Sauvignons do. Nor does it taste sweet. It has the perfect balance, perfect cut for enjoyable spring and summer drinking.