Thursday, March 31, 2011

Domaine Sainte Anne Cotes du Rhone Villages, 1998

It's my birthday week, after all, so I'm having a ball opening some of my favorite wines. If you know me or come here often, you know that Domaine Sainte Anne ranks very high with me. The domaine's wines are not widely available; in fact, since the 2007 vintage, I haven't been able to find them in my own marketing areas. When they are available, they are great values (this CDR Villages sells for $10 to $12). And even the lesser cuvees are capable of aging for at least 10 years and usually much more. As for this 1998 Cotes du Rhone Villages, I tasted it right alongside the excellent Marcous Chateauneuf du Pape, and it held its own quite nicely. The color, as always, is a deep, pure crimson. The wine is fermented and aged in concrete and stainless steel vats with almost no exposure to air. The only problem with this is that the wine is sometimes so reduced that it fails to show all that it has to offer during its youth. Aromas and flavors are very deep and typical of Domaine Sainte Anne--dark cherries, blueberries, pepper and a ripe honey/vanilla note on the finish that might lead some to think (incorrectly) that the wine is aged in new oak. This wine admittedly does not have the concentration, richness or complexity of the older Chateauneufs I had last night. But it's very good.

Beware of Prestige Bottlings

In case you're wondering, the 1990 Marcoux reported on below is the regular and not the VV Prestige bottling that received the very high ratings from Robert Parker and which now sells for $600 to $700 a bottle. I don't buy Prestige bottlings of Chateauneuf du Pape for two reasons: 1) they are too pricey for my budget and 2) they are nearly always given special treatment with new oak and small barriques. I also resent the fact that many domaines put their best grapes into these special bottlings which get high ratings and, in turn, command high prices. My experience, when I have tried the two side by side is that I prefer the traditional bottling and that it nearly always ages better than the more expensive cuvee. For example, the regular bottling of 1998 Domaine de la Mordoree Lirac in my cellar is drinking beautifully. Its higher priced sibling, Cuvee de la Reine des Bois, from the same vintage is worth pouring down the sink. As for the 1990 Marcoux, here is what one taster had to say in a CellarTracker review: "beautiful wine. very soft. well balanced. full of roasted fruit. i think that it was better than the VV that i had a short time ago." With some things in life, you get what you pay for; with wine, that is not always the case.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Domaine de Marcoux Chateauneuf du Pape, 1990

This is probably my favorite Chateauneuf from the very good 1990 vintage, and it served as a worthy companion to the 1978 Chante Cigale. Both wines were made according to traditional methods and aged in large, seasoned foudres rather than new oak or small barriques. The color is brighter than that of the Chante Cigale but also lighter, with more amber at the rim. The bouquet and flavors offer up a similar Grenache cherry/berry character--more vibrant and with more complexity. Spices, pepper, licorice come at you from all directions. This is a very impressive wine. Compared to the Chante Cigale, Marcoux is a tease--exotic, flamboyant but less rich and less ripe. I like those qualities, but I also like the direct, no-nonsense approach of the Chante Cigale. Two excellent wines, two different experiences

Chante Cigale Chateauneuf du Pape, 1978

On my 72nd birthday, I wanted a wine that hints at immortality, even if I'm fully aware that there is no such thing for either humans or wine. Chateauneuf du Pape is not as ageworthy as Bordeaux or even New World Cabernet, but 1978 was probably the greatest Southern Rhone vintage of my lifetime. This wine (and the 1978 Chante Perdrix I opened on my birthday three years ago) may not be immortal, but they have everything you could expect--and a bit more--after 30 plus years in the bottle. The color is a true crimson, deep and dark although a bit murky. The bouquet is very Grenache and very pure--dried cherries and berries in the forefront. The palate is the same--very direct and very pure. Ripe Grenache flavors that glide across the tongue, leaving a trail of fruit pleasure. Very rich, very ripe finish. This wine doesn't have much complexity, but it doesn't need any. There is fantastic fruit here, clearly from old, well situated vines capable of delivering flavor for many, many years without any sign of attenuation. No frills, no pretentions, just a quiet sort of power.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Domaine du Cayron Gigondas, 1981

Because of its rare combination of beauty and power, Gigondas is usually drunk at a fairly young age--around 8 to 10 years after the vintage--before the power starts to recede. Cayron, my favorite Gigondas, is a notable exception, with a capacity to improve with several decades of aging. While 30 years may be extreme, this bottle is still giving plenty of pleasure. The color is a deep crimson, dark with only a bit of amber around the rim. The bouquet is expressive of all the qualities I love in Gigondas--a lilting floral quality along with berries and spice. On the palate, there is a rich strawberry compote flavor, similar to that of an aged Chateauneuf du Pape, but the high-toned floral quality is what makes it distinctively Gigondas. It's smooth and medium bodied, and the flavors reverberate into a ripe finish, but there is a slight dryness around the edges of both the aromas and flavors that signifies that this wine is nearing the end of the line. It's different and probably not as good as the last bottle I had several years ago, but I still regret that it's my last go at 1981 Cayron. About $8 to $10 a bottle, when I bought this wine, Cayron now sells in the United States for about $30. The last time I visited France, in 2006, I bought the current vintage of Cayron for about $12.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Chateau d'Yquem Premier Cru Superieure Sauternes, 1950

No, this is not a budget wine, but, again, I had the privilege of sharing this bottle with my brother-in-law in Australia. 1950 is his birth year. He bought this wine several years ago and has been keeping it for the right occasion. At 60 years of age and newly married, he is pleased that the wine is still singing. The color has turned to a light tea color, probably the only sign (aside from the label) that the grapes for this wine were harvested 60 years ago. Still good brightness and depth of color. The bouquet and flavors are rich, rich, rich--apricots, honey, brown sugar. Very fine and precisely focused. If tasted blind, we agree, this Sauternes would probably be tabbed as a very good German Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese from a great vintage of the 1970s. The finish goes on and on. This is not the oldest wine I have ever tasted. I had the 1928 Palmer and the 1947 Cheval Blanc at tastings in the early 1990s. But it is the first wine of such magnitude and age that I've had a chance to savor. Four of us consumed the bottle over about an hour with a selection of hard and soft cheeses. We were sad when the final drop was gone.

Matthieu de Brully Bourgogne Pinot Noir, 2005

After tasting several New World Pinot Noir wines over the past month, this French version stands out for its acidity, precision and brightness of fruit. Pure Pinot fragrance at the strawberry end of the spectrum with some light floral tones. More delicacy and length than your typical New World Pinot. Doesn't try to knock you over but serves as a perfect companion for grilled salmon. This wine costs less than $15, but it delivers the goods.

Domaine Chaume-Arnaud Vinsobres, 2004

One thing I like about Southern Rhone reds is the broad window of drinkability. Most wines drink well from day one, then develop their unique aromas and flavors over the next five to seven years, sometimes longer. This wine, though, was a bit tight over the first two or three years and is only now beginning to express itself.

It's deep and dark, and the bouquet is typical of Vinsobres--blueberries, black fruits, licorice, herbs and minerals. Not as round as Cairanne, not as dark and aggressive as Rasteau, but somewhere in between. Considerable depth and complexity. There is some tannic angularity on the palate, but that softens on the second night. This wine gets my approval because it represents the personality of Vinsobres and Chaume-Arnaud.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Why Age White Wines?

Why do I age white wines? For the same reason that I age reds: to let the minerality develop more fully and reveal the personality of the wine. It's possible, of course, that the wine, whether red or white, has no real personality worth getting to know aside from the cosmetic attractions added by the winemaker. In that case, the wine is probably not buying or drinking in the first place.

How long you age the wine is another matter that varies depending on the grape and its acids, tannins and phenols. Some wines take only a year or two to develop their charms while others require several decades. But as Bernie Rink, a Leelanau winemaker whose wisdom I respect, put it: "all wines improve with age." When I bought a case of his Soleil Blanc, he advised me: "It's good any time, but try to wait at least a year." That's when all of the minerals in the soil start to express themselves in the finished product. That's when it becomes wine and not just fermented grape juice.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Phillip Island Winery--Good Wine Is Made in the Vineyard

Most winemakers will tell you that good wine is made in the vineyard. But there is a lot more to the process than just letting the grapes grow. When Tim and Tricia O'Brien took over the Phillip Island Winery in the south of Australia, they inherited a small vineyard completely covered by netting. The idea was to shield the young vines from the strong winds coming off the Bass Strait and to protect the fruit from hungry birds. In the early days, the netting did its job, but the vines are mature now, and, as holes have developed, birds who do get in have a field day. One step inside the netting reveals too that the enclosure has created its own micro-climate. It's at least 10 degrees warmer inside and considerably more humid--cancelling out the positive effect of the cooler grape-growing climate and increasing the risk of leaf mold and botrytis. Tim plans to remove the netting soon, restoring the natural micro-climate.

As you may have guessed from the tasting notes below, I spent the last three weeks in Australia, and a visit to the idyllic Phillip Island Winery was a highlight of the trip. Tim and Tricia O'Brien gave us a tour of the vineyard followed by a tasting of the estate's wines and a delightful lunch of salads, home-made dips, and artisan cheeses produced in the area. The wines, which have been given high marks by wine critics, are still made by veteran wine-maker James Lance.

The flagship estate Pinot Noir is sold out, but this year's grapes were nearing complete ripeness when we visited, and I understand that picking started this week. Pinot grows in small berries, nestled tightly in bunches. Even tasted from the vine, it's possible to sense the intense flavors that will be translated into the wine. The tight clusters, however, increase the risk of botrytis--which might be fine for a noble dessert wine such as Sauternes but is not desirable in a fine Pinot Noir. Botrytis had indeed formed in some bunches, and, as Tim explained, it will have to be cut away, lowering the yield even more than it would otherwise be.

When the grapes are picked and the wine made, it will be snapped up quickly. And there is every reason to believe that the wine in the bottle will be as good as in past vintages. In the future, once the netting is removed, you can expect even better things from Prince Island Winery Pinot Noir.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Phillip Island Winery Pyramid Rock Shiraz, 2008

Phillip Island Winery is best known for its excellent estate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that have received high marks from Australian wine critic James Halliday. But it was this cool climate Shiraz that grabbed my attention at a tasting at the winery. While it may not appeal to American and Australian wine drinkers who are looking for a blockbuster Shiraz, it does a good job of capturing the delightful fragrance and flavors of cool climate Shiraz fruit.

The color is a medium deep ruby, and the first sniff brings out delightful aromas of red berries, cherries, pepper and spice. The palate offers up the same in a soft, medium bodied format. No oak is apparent, but there are substantial fine tannins on the palate. It's not your typical Shiraz, but I find it quite appealing, not only for current drinking but for keeping a couple of years.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Counterpoint Vineyards Moonambel Victorian Shiraz, 2001

At 10 years of age, this Shiraz is drinking nicely. The color is unambiguously deep and dark, and the black fruit-oriented aromas and flavors are intense. It's a full bodied and powerful wine, and the alcohol content is only 14.5%, but the finish has a menthol quality that reminds me of some Rhone wines from the warm 2003 vintage. Very enjoyable with the first few sips but soon gets tiring on the palate. Seems to me the alcohol and fruit are slightly out of balance at this stage of the wine's development.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Mount Langi Ghiran Victorian Langi Shiraz, 1992

Mount Langi Ghiran is my favorite Australian Shiraz, and 1992 may be the best vintage of the wine that I've tasted. Trevor Mast bought the property in the mid-1980s because he knew that this spot in the mountains was well suited for producing world-class Syrah wines. And then he set about making wines that reflected the unique terroir and micro-climate.

The color is a deep, dark crimson; good saturation with very little amber at the rim. The bouquet is very expressive--dark spices, black fruit, coffee and hints of American oak. The black pepper that was dominant when the wine was young has matured into scents of cassis/licorice. It's on the palate that this wine really shines. It's smooth and ripe from front to back with a very long, ripe fruit-oriented finish. I can still taste the lovely flavors several hours later.

Mount Langi is no longer a Trevor Mast wine, and Trevor, sadly, at age 62, is a victim of early Alzheimer's dementia. Under new owners, the estate makes wines that win medals, but Trevor's wife, Sandra, told me they are no longer made in the same style. Fortunately, I have more of this 1992, as well as other vintages of Langi Shiraz, as a fond memory of an extremely talented winemaker in his prime.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Petaluma Chardonnay, 2003

This is one of Australia's better Chardonnays, with a personality that tends to showcase fruit rather than oak. It's a deep gold color, showing full maturity but with well preserved fruit qualities. Deep peach and guava aromas and flavors that are on the sweet side but with enough limey acidity to keep you coming back for more. The personality, though, comes mostly from a spicy clove and cinnamon quality that reminds me a bit of Belvedere Alexander Valley Chardonnays and some Saint Verans from France.

Penfold's Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz, 1998

This is another Penfold's Australian classic--a blend of Cabernet and Shiraz that has a personality distinct from either varietal. When I tried this last (in 2007), it was hard and disjointed. Today, it has opened up beautifully and is showing signs of even better days to come.

The color is deep, dark and bluish. Bin 389 is aged in American oak, but the wood has integrated nicely by now. Smells and flavors of blueberries, licorice and black raspberries. Dark tones that are typical of this blend, without the herbal qualities of either Cabernet or Syrah and very little of the vanilla and dill that you can expect from American oak. Goes down very smoothly from front to back with a thick, lush mouthfeel and a long finish.

Bin 389 is sometimes known as the "poor man's Grange," even though this wine is clearly a blend while the Grange was for many years billed as Shiraz. But they are clearly very similar in personality. Bin 389 generally sells for about $25 in the United States, often a little more in Australia. It's an excellent value, although it's still generally outside my buying range except when I can find it at discount. In a good vintage, though, keep in mind that it will probably not show its best until about 12 plus years in the bottle.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Penfold's Grange Hermitage, 1978

I'm not going to pretend this wine fits into anyone's budget; this 1978 now sells for $500 to $700 a bottle, and even the current vintage will cost you almost as much. Grange does rank as one of the world's great red wines, however, and I feel privileged to have a chance to try a bottle from someone else's cellar.

At 33 years of age, the color is amazingly deep, dark and saturated all the way out to the rim; surely there is some browning, but my eyesight is not sharp enough to spot it. The bouquet and flavors are equally well preserved. Although 90% Shiraz (with 10% Coonawarra Cabernet), it's the Cabernet that strikes me as dominant at this stage of the wine's evolution. Black currants, plums, dark cherries and a hint of mint. Very pure, focused smells and flavors. I get a tiny bit of dry tannin on the mid-palate but mostly bright, lively fruit that lingers and lingers. This is indeed a special wine and is showing no signs of aging. Is it comparable to a Rhone Hermitage? Not at all. If I had it in a blind tasting, I would peg it as a Bordeaux, probably a St. Julian such as Gruaud Larose, from a very good vintage. I've had other vintages of Grange, but this is by far the best I've had.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Mitchelton Imprint Victorian Shiraz, 2008

This is another fruit-oriented Aussie Shiraz--must be a trend. Berries, berries and more berries with very little oak and no intrusive tannins. There is an astringent herbal element in this wine, though, that counters some of the ripeness. If it were a French wine from the Rhone, I would say this was a result of whole bunch fermentation (with the stems). In this case, I think some of the grapes were picked slightly unripe to keep the alcohol level within reasonable limits.

Leeuwin Siblings Margaret River Shiraz, 2008

The wine list says this wine is "strongly fruit oriented," and that is an understatement. Aromas and flavors of boysenberry, blackberry, black raspberry and cherries are almost overpowering. Almost like a fruit smoothie. Very ripe fruit with no tannins or oak to get in the way.

As much as I like fruit-oriented wines, this one may go a little too far in that direction. On the other hand, it holds up very well against the bold flavors of a lamb kebob. It's by no means simple, and I wouldn't rule out substantial development with a few years of bottle age.