Saturday, April 28, 2012

Domaine Sainte Anne Cotes du Rhone, 1998

I'm sure I am one of a very small number of persons still drinking this 14-year-old Cotes du Rhone. And that's a shame. It's only recently shed its blueberries and cream personality and is now beginning to take on more complex secondary and tertiary characteristics. All of these are fruit-oriented because the wine was produced in a reductive environment of stainless steel and cement tanks--no oak. It has thrown some sediment, but, even on the third night after it was opened, there is no oxidation and the tannins are still lively.

Bright crimson, no sign of bricking. Red cherries and raspberries are dominant in the aromas and flavors at this stage. The tartness of cherries and the sweetness of red raspberries. More acidity is showing than in past bottles, and, for me, that's a plus, because the wine's big fruit presence was a bit ripe previously. Age has brought on a spicy quality that reminds me of Mourvedre but apparently is Cinsault. The cuvee is 60% Grenache, 30% Syrah and 10% Cinsault.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Chalone Vineyard Monterey County Pinot Noir, 2005

Chalone has an excellent long-standing reputation for producing high-quality Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines. Located in the Gavilan Mountains, 1800 feet above the Salinas Valley, the estate has limestone soils similar to those in Burgundy and has been recognized with its own appellation--Chalone AVA. The estate wines are appropriately priced at $35 to $40 a bottle. As a result, I always do a doublte take when I see a wine such as this one on the shelves for $12 to $15. It's not Chalone Estate, of course, but is made from less reputed vineyards elsewhere in Monterey County. In this case, I bought with the assumption that the Chalone staff would know how to pick the right Pinot grapes and vinify them as they should be vinified.

This wine was clearly selected to represent the pretty rather than the austere face of Pinot Noir. It's a deep ruby red with lush aromas of red berries and purple flowers. Ripe and lovely. Now comes some spice--mostly cinnamon--but not enough to overwhelm the upfront fruit. In my view, this wine is more similar to the Ninth Island Tasmania Pinot than the ones from Goldeneye, Toulouse or Bink described below. On the palate, the spicy, earthy qualities of Pinot Noir take over, but there is still a nice red berry quality. I had a few bottles of this wine right after its release, and I would say that this bottle, at age seven, is none the worse for age. I wouldn't keep it much longer, though.

Chateau Moncontour Vouvray, 2004

When I'm in the mood for a Chenin Blanc, I usually choose Savennieres because these wines are usually a bit drier than the Vouvrays available in my market. With a few years in the bottle, though, the minerality and fruit of a Vouvray takes charge and the little bit of residual sugar can be a good match for a meal featuring spicy vegetables or fish. This 2004 Moncountour is showing very well tonight, although I'm sure it will be even better with a few more years in the bottle.

It's a medium deep yellow, still showing some youth. I smell pears, peach peels and flowers. Very nice. The wine has a fat feel on the palate--not really sweet, just ripe and plump with Chenin fruit and minerals. Long, ripe finish.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Delas Saint Esprit Cotes du Rhone, 2007

This is the kind of Cotes du Rhone I would expect from what Robert Parker called the vintage of his lifetime. It seduces you with lush, ripe fruit smells and flavors and then rewards you with far more depth and complexity you would expect from a wine of such a modest appellation. Unfortunately, nearly all of the 2007s I have tasted have given far more of the former than the latter.

Deep, dark, lustrous./ Ripe and luscious. Blue plums and red berries. The cuvee is 75% Syrah, and it shows: lavender, herbs and cassis. Yes, good cassis and also Syrah black pepper. / Teases the tongue with a full range of flavors. Ripe fruit in the middle and pleasing acidity at the edges to keep it interesting. Finally, a long, ripe finish of red raspberry-like fruit with the proper amount of black pepper. I've liked this wine from my first taste several years ago, and it just keeps getting better. That's what I expect from a better than average vintage.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Chateau Fourcas Hosten Listrac-Medoc, 1981

I am always amazed at the staying power of red Bordeaux wines. Fourcas Hosten is from Listrac, a good value appellation, and 1981 is not recognized as an ageworthy vintage. Yet, 33 years after the vintage, this wine is still showing marvelously.

Medium deep, bricking at edges. / Nice mature bouquet. Dried berries, flowers, cassis? Hard to pin down--just lovely, mature Cabernet smells with no hint of oxidation or drying fruit. / Also lovely on the palate. Sweet with a full range of flavors. Savory on the finish. Tannins are mature but not at all tired--even on the second night. This is an aristocratic old gentleman.

I paid $9.95 for this wine in the early 1980s; the current vintage (2009) sells for $18 to $20. Tonight, I far prefer it to any of the $50-plus Cabernets I tasted last week in the Napa Valley.

Boskydel Leelanau Peninsula Vignoles, 2009

Leelanau wines from Bernie Rink at Boskydel are for savoring--buy a case and follow the wine's evolution over three or four years. This 2009, from a weak vintage, is coming along nicely. I was assured it will last at least a decade.

Medium yellow, bright./ Lemon, pineapple, a hint of flowers/ Lemon acidity. Has the full body of Semillon or Chardonnay but the zest of a Sauvignon Blanc. Better than many white Bordeaux. Oak is unobtrusive if present at all. A very enjoyable dinner wine.

Domaine du Grand Prieur Cotes du Rhone, 2006

For about $8 a bottle, this wine sat on the shelves of D&W Parkview for an embarrasingly long time. I did my part; I bought a case early and several additional bottles later just to replenish the stash. I've been drinking it along with the 2005 (which may be slightly better) and the 2007 (which I don't like as much). Alas, this is my last bottle of the 2006, and it's still drinking beautifully.

The color is still a deep, dark ruby, darker than most Cotes du Rhones of this age. I smell ripe plums and dark berries, cassis and a hint of Provencal herbs. On the palate, it's spicy but not as peppery as the Oratoire Saint Martin (below). Lush and smooth on the mid-palate with a ripe finish of fresh berries with cassis. This wine would please me if it said "Vacqueyras" on the label, but the price would be twice as much if it did. The grapes actually do come from Vacqueyras but with a higher yield than that appellation requires. That may be why it's always such a good value. I've tried the Grand Prieur Vacqueyras, and, of course, it's better, but the price keeps bringing me back to the CDR.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Oratoire Saint Martin Reserve des Seigneurs Cairanne, 2008

This wine was available for about $15, about 25% below its usual retail price, presumably because of the relative weakness of the 2008 vintage. After trying my first bottle about a year ago, I was a bit dubious about my purchase, but this bottle is showing beautifully. While the 2008 vintage may not age as well as some Cairannes from this estate, it is a very fine wine for drinking now and over the next year or two.

Deep, dark ruby./ Very peppery and spicy--delightful. Dark berries and Cairanne cherries as well. At a beautiful stage of maturity for my taste./ Ripe blueberry fruit on the mid-palate and then a gush of peppery spice on the finish. The quality of the vineyards shows in the intricate twists and turns in the long after taste. Glad I bought a few bottles, even in an off vintage. One puzzling thing is the unusual amount of sediment left in the bottle--much more crust than in the bottles of the 1998 I've been enjoying recently.

Ninth Island Tasmania (Australia) Pinot Noir, 2009

With Anderson Valley Pinot Noirs lingering in my memory, I decided to open a Pinot that I've enjoyed in the past. Piper's Brook is a well regarded Tasmanian producer of Pinot Noir and sparkling wines; Ninth Island is the domaine's second label, and I found this bottle for $12.99 at Tiffany's in Kalamazoo. That is a very good price for a wine of this quality.

Beautiful medium deep ruby./ Captivating aromas of ripe strawberries, red raspberries and cherries. Light spice: cinnamon and thyme./ Very appealing ripeness on palate. Not as earthy and dry as many Pinots. Has some of the red berry charm of the Goldeneye but lacks the haunting complexity of that wine. Fine tannins are the number one trait. A good value for frequent drinking.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Tasting in the Anderson Valley: Bink Vineyards

Bink's tasting room is in a small shopping center right next to Goldeneye and down the road from Toulouse. Winemaker Debbie Schatzlein and her partner Cindy Paulson have a small number of vineyards in the southern part of the valley near Cloverdale. It's warmer there so the Pinot Noir is a bit fuller and riper but perhaps a bit less multi-faceted than those from the northern part near Goldeneye and Toulouse. The climate must be very good for Syrah, though; the 2003 and 2006 Syrahs presented were beautiful, the highlights of the tasting for me.

2010 Bink Pinot Gris: The wine was cold fermented to preserve the zesty fruit qualities. But it still has a full bodied Pinot Gris style more typical of Alsace than northeastern Italy. For $16, it a good wine and a good value. I enjoyed a bottle of this Pinot Gris with a Chinese meal in Redding as well as at the winery. It was a beautiful match for the spicy Mandarin dishes.

2010 Bink Sauvignon Blanc: Bink purchases its Sauvignon Blanc grapes from Yorkville Cellars, located in the Yorkville Highlands at the southern end of the valley. This wine is also zesty and crisp with aromas and flavors leaning toward grapefruit, jalapeno and minerals. It's less shrill than most New Zealand Sauvignons, however; more like a Pouilly Fume from the Loire.

2007 Bink Weir Vineyard Pinot Noir: aged 22 months in French oak, partly new, this is accurately described on the tasting sheet as "a mouthful of black cherries." Full bodied for Pinot. Red berries, flowers and vanilla.

2003 Bink Hawks Butte Estate Vineyard Syrah: my favorite of the tasting. Deep and dark but not inky. Berries, black plums, cassis and the subtle herbal notes that are common in Northern Rhone Syrahs but rarely are found in New World wines. Light touch with the oak--barely noticeable. A very attractive cool climate Syrah.

2006 Bink Hawks Butte Estate Vineyard Syrah: an even better wine from a superior vintage. Deeper and stronger than the 2003 but still a bit closed at this stage. This is a wine I would buy and lay away for 8 to 10 years.

2007 Bink Melange--Hawks Butte Estate Vineyard, Old Chatham Ranch: a blend of Cabernet, estate Merlot and estate Syrah. I expected a wine similar to an Aussie Cab/Shiraz such as Penfold's Bin 389, but, at this stage, Melange is lighter bodied and has more of the green bell pepper smells of Merlot. Also some currants and spice with soft tannins that make it easy to drink. Not my style.

Tasting in the Anderson Valley: Toulouse Vineyards

Toulouse Lautrec, right? Sounds French, and the wines are made with somewhat of a European touch. But the winery's logo features a goose so I can't help but think of word plays such as "too loose." And most things are a bit loosey goosey in Mendocino.

Toulouse throws a good, old-fashioned tasting--no fancy tasting room with bar tenders for the tourists but rather a corner of the barrel aging room of the winery. Come in, find a place to perch your wine glass and discover what our wines are about. There is a generous dish of cheesy crackers to help you prepare and clear your palate ("buy on bread, sell on cheese," say the French) and an energetic, knowledgeable young woman to tell you about the wines and give you recipes for food pairing. Whereas we paid $20 to $25 for every tasting in Napa, every tasting we had in the Anderson Valley was free. The wines there need--and deserve--exposure.

2010 Toulouse Estate Riesling: Floral, spicy, lovely! Oily note typical of Riesling but basically a fine-boned wine. 1.0% residual sugar.

2010 Toulouse Pinot Gris: This has a big Alsace Pinot Gris nose--lemon, white peaches and bosc pears. Medium light in color and body. 0.5% residual sugar is a nice counter to the zesty citrus notes.

2011 Toulouse Gewurztraminer: A bit sweeter than the Riesling or Pinot Gris at 1.9% RS. Explosive aromas of flowers, spices, lychee and ripe fruit. Classic Gewurz on the palate--viscous and ripe.

2010 Toulouse Rose of Pinot Noir: I'm usually not big on roses, but this is a very nice wine to serve with appetizers or summer meals. 100% Pinot Noir with fresh aromas and flavors of wild strawberries.

2008 Toulouse Anderson Valley Pinot Noir: Medium dark garnet./ Lots of interest on the nose--smoke, spice, cinnamon and sweet cherries./ Lush fruit presence with cocoa, cinnamon and Pinot earthiness. Impressive mid palate fruit.

2008 Toulouse Estate Pinot Noir: Bright garnet/ruby./ Big, forward nose of bing cherries, riper than the Anderson Valley above and friendlier on the palate. Bright fruit, not as earthy nor as spicy. A very attractive wine and the one I purchased as a gift for our hosts, the Randles.

2009 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir: This seems to be a better vintage. And because it's a year younger, this wine has brighter, fresher fruit aromas and flavors. Red cherries, dark cherries, currants and berries--very bright fruit. Not as much earth as the 2008 Anderson Valley but plenty of spice--mainly cinnamon and anise seed. The wine should age beautifully for five to eight years.

2008 Lautrec Pinot Noir: Now we get Toulouse Lautrec! It's sort of a second label; a neighboring winery went under, and Toulouse winemaker Vern Boltz liked the wine that was in barrels waiting for bottling. It has the Anderson Valley stamp on it and is basically in line with what Boltz produces. At $26 a bottle (compared to $50 for the Estate and $46 for the Toulouse Anderson Valley Pinots), it's a very good value, and I would have bought a few bottles if I had been closer to home. It's not showy on the nose but it has good Pinot qualities of ripe blueberries, cocoa, spice and earth. Good strong Pinot fruit unfolds nicely when you give it time and attention.

Anderson Valley: Home of Fine Pinot Noir

The Anderson Valley of Mendocino County may be one of the most beautiful spots in the world. As you drive down Route 128 from Cloverdale to the Pacific Coast, you pass through a rural area dotted with vineyards that gradually narrows until you are surrounded by massive redwoods, shielding you from the sunlight until you suddenly reach the narrow coast road and the sound of the North Pacific beating against the rocky coast.

It's only a few miles away from the popular Napa and Sonoma wine regions and it's relatively undiscovered. You can drive in and taste wine here, usually without a fee or a tour, as you could in the old days in other areas. I recognized only a few of the names, but the wines were very good--particularly the Pinot Noirs and Alsace varietals such Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc.

Our friends, Dave and Nancy Randle, who live in the area and visit the valley regularly believe that Anderson Valley Pinot is the best in California and better even than Oregon Pinot Noir. I'm becoming a believer, although the prices are at least as high and probably a bit higher than red Burgundy from France for comparable quality.

The Randles introduced us to Goldeneye Anderson Valley Pinot Noir several years ago at our house. It was very good. We had a bottle of the 2008 Goldeneye at their home on this visit, and it was even more impressive: concentrated black and red raspberry aromas and flavors with a haunting, spicy after taste. It's clearly a special wine, but it sells for $55 at the winery and $57 at D&W in Kalamazoo. (My mouth waters at the thought of what I could buy for that price from Burgundy!)

Goldeneye is a branch of Duckhorn, known mostly for its excellent (and also expensive) Merlots. For its regular Pinot, Goldeneye carefully selects a number of vineyards and clones to produce a distinctive style. For $35, you can buy Migration Pinot Noir, also from the Anderson Valley but from lesser sites. But if you want to hold the price down to the $20s (still steep for me), you'll have to go with Decoy and grapes sourced from Sonoma. Duckhorn is a fine winery, and their people clearly know the value of Anderson Valley Pinot Noir.

Other wineries along the Anderson Valley route include Yorkville Cellars (100% organic and available at Sawall Health Foods in Kalamazoo), Handley, Husch, Navarro, Londer, Black Kite, Breggo, Toulouse and Bink. These are hardly household names, but they are likely to be better known in the future. We tasted at Yorkville, Toulouse and Bink and found many intriguing wines.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Tasting in Napa Valley: Clos Pegase Winery

If you ever go to Napa, Clos Pegase Winery is worth a stop, not just for the wines, which are more oriented toward the European style than other California wineries, but also for the art work. Before you even make it to the front door, you encounter more original pieces of public sculpture than you find in cities such as Chicago or Detroit. Inside, you will find a major collection of paintings, sculpture and wine-related art and antiquities, including works by Henry Moore, Dali and Francis Bacon.

Several tastings are available; the estate tasting ($20) gives a good view of the winery's style. The 2010 Carneros Estate Sauvignon Blanc has a passion fruit quality I like in Sauvignon Blanc along with citrus and a nice mineral element. The oak is much less intrusive than in Sauvignons from other estates I visited.

The 2008 Pinot Noir also comes from Mitsuko's Vineyard in Carneros. I smell wild strawberries initially, but this is not a lighter-styled Pinot. Dark cherries, vanilla and spices come through on the palate. At $35 a bottle, this is a pretty good value compared to Anderson Valley Pinots I tasted. But you can get a lot of red Burgundy for that price.

The 2007 Napa Valley Cabernet Franc is soft and accessible with bright red fruits and a medium weight. The 2008 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is a more serious wine, oriented toward black cherries, plums and cassis. There are also some floral tones and fine tannins that give it a European feel. It has spent 18 months in French oak, but I doubt that all of it was new wood.

Tasting in Napa Valley: Groth Vineyards and Winery

Dennis and Judy Groth were lovers of Napa Valley wine when they invested some of the money Dennis had made as an executive at Atari in prime Napa Valley vineyards. It did not take them long to discover that they owned some of the best property on the Napa floor in Oakville.

I remember buying the 1982 Groth Cabernet and loving it. When the 1985 Groth Reserve Cabernet was released, Robert Parker gave it 100 points, the first perfect score he ever awarded to a California wine. The Groths, I was told at the winery, were not Parker point counters and were not particularly pleased with the attention that the perfect score gave them. They were overjoyed, however, at the taste and quality of the Cabernet wines that continued to emerge from their vineyards.

Nils Venge was the Groth winemaker at that time, and I remember buying his wines from Saddleback Cellars a few years later when the prices for Groth continued to escalate. Both he and Michael Weis, the current winemaker, are highly regarded.

My tasting included Groth Vineyards' four current releases: the Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, the Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon and the Oakville Reserve Cabernet.

The 2010 Sauvignon Blanc, which contains 3% Semillon, comes from both warmer and cooler areas of the valley. Whole cluster pressing was used to preserve the fresh fruit qualities--ripe melon and white peaches with a lively acid backbone. It's a flavorful wine with a bit of complexity--sure to win over both consumers and critics, but it is far too oaky and leesy for my taste.

The 2009 Chardonnay was made from estate vineyard fruit, mostly from the cooler Hillview parcel in the Oak Knoll District. As I was told at other wineries, the Chardonnay was not put through malolactic fermentation; the big, buttery qualities that wooed drinkers in the 1980s are now passe. But it was barrel fermented and aged on its lees for eight months in French oak barrels, 25% of which were new. That's a lot of oak and a lot of lees, and the result is a flavorful wine with tropical fruit, citrus and mineral notes. But I would not expect it to age for an extended period.

The two Cabernets, of course, are what Groth Vineyards is about. The 2009 Oakville Cabernet (20% Merlot) was fermented in temperature controlled stainless steel tanks (85 degrees F) and then aged for 22 months in small French oak barrels. It's a deep, purplish color and has all the lush smells and flavors you expect from a Napa Cab. Blackberries, black cherries, vanilla--very ripe and very supple. You wouldn't hesitate to enjoy this wine tonight with a good steak, but there are plenty of tannins for aging. The winery suggests 10 to 15 years, but the 1982 was beautiful after 20 plus years.

The 2008 Reserve Cabernet (9% Merlot) comes from the estate's finest, lowest-yielding vineyards and, I was told, it's given all the pampering needed to be a fine wine: thinning of clusters, night harvesting, hand sorting and de-stemming, making sure only the best berries go into the fermenters. Then it's aged for 22 months in 100% new French oak. The wine sells for $125 (versus $50 for the estate), and, considering the special treatment, it's probably worth it, given that you have that kind of disposable income. For me, $50 is too much. And to be honest, I prefer the regular Oakville bottling, at least at this point in time. Cabernet loves oak, but, in my view, 100% new French oak is a bit much, even given the prime fruit.

Tasting in the Napa Valley: Turnbull Cellars

"Turning heads since 1979," proclaims the Turnbull Cellars website. The estate was named Johnson-Turnbull at that time, and I bought the Cabernet in 1980, 1981 and 1982. Most of my bottles were consumed 20-plus years after the vintage, and all were very good.

Now, as then, Turnbull Cellars is not as well known as it deserves to be. Its vineyards are located right across the road from Robert Mondavi's acclaimed To Kalon Vineyard, from which the Mondavi Oakville Cabernet is produced. And the Turnbull Cabernet has many of the qualities that you expect from the better known and higher-priced wine.

The tasting started with the 2010 Viognier, which reminded me more of the Rhone Viogniers I've had than the usually overly sweet and oaky New World versions. Smells of musky melon, white peaches and honeysuckle make you think you're going to get a sweet wine, but the mid-palate and finish tell you otherwise. It's a bit hot on the finish, as Rhone Viogniers usually are, but there is good strength and concentration. For $30, though, I would prefer to buy two bottles of the Domaine Sainte Anne Cotes du Rhone Blanc, which is 100% Viognier.

The 2007 Merlot tastes more like Cabernet to me, and the wine clerk tells me it has some Cab in the blend. Fortunately, it lacks the green bell pepper smells and flavors I get from many New World Merlots. The 2007 Cabernet Franc is probably my favorite of the tasting. It has bright red fruit smells and flavors with soft tannins and some vanilla on the finish. It's similar to a Loire Valley Chinon, but without the earthy qualities.

The star of the tasting, of course, is the estate 2009 Cabernet blend. In addition to Merlot and Cab Franc, the cuvee contains Petit Verdot (a nice addition) and a small amount of Syrah. The result is a very Australian-like Cabernet: big and fruit forward with lots of minty eucalyptus character. These smells, I was told, come from the eucalyptus trees that border the vineyard. It's a controversial topic, but the eucalyptus quality is unmistakeable, as it is in Cabernet wines from Mondavi's To Kalon vineyard across the road and in wines from Australia where eucalyptus is even more prevalent. In the 1980s, this quality was highly prized, but many winemakers today try to cover it up because it is not a "classic" Cabernet trait. It's to Turnbull's credit, I believe, that the winery still turns heads with eucalyptus and strong fruit...just as it did in the early 1980s.

Tasting in the Napa Valley: Chateau Montelena

Even back in the days when I could afford Napa Valley Cabernet, Chateau Montelena was usually out of my range. Although it was always one of my favorites at large tastings, the price ($18 to $20 compared to $10 to $12 for Conn Creek or Burgess Cellars) kept me from buying regularly. I recall, though, a time in the early 1990s when the 1978 Montelena Cabernet was available at auction for $120/case. After thinking seriously about it, I finally decided I really didn't have the $120 nor the cellar space to spare. That was a really bad decision, of course, because I would still be enjoying that wine today.

Located just outside Calistoga, on the north end of the valley, Montelena is one of the true aristocrats of the appellation with a personality that has changed little over the past three or four decades. It's a distinctly New World style that attracted me in the early 1980s. And I must admit that it's still immensely appealing even though my tastes now are generally oriented toward more restrained European qualities.

The 2009 Napa Chardonnay is pleasant. Like many California wineries, Montelena now avoids the big, buttery style of the past by avoiding malolactic fermentation. I get aromas and flavors of white peaches, citrus and flowers. Aged in 100% French oak, but only 9% new barrels, the wine is still a bit too oaky for my taste.

The 2008 Montelena Estate Zinfandel is a particularly fine example of an elegant, fruit-oriented Zinfandel. It has the dark berry qualities of Zinfandel and just enough oak to frame it. As an added treat, the wine clerk gives us a taste of the 2007 Petite Sirah. After double decanting, the sweet blueberry traits of Petite Sirah show nicely.

But clearly the star of the tasting is the 2008 Napa Valley Cabernet. Other appellations can make better Chardonnay, but Cabernet is what Napa is about. It's deep and purplish in color, and the aromas and flavors are suitably lush with dark cherry, cedar, vanilla and leather. There are firm tannins, but they don't get in the way of the ripe fruit flavors. The cuvee is 98% Cabernet Sauvignon and 2% Cabernet Franc, aged for 22 months in 100% French oak, 34% of which are new barrels. The barrels are a major reason for the high price, of course; and without the high percentage of new oak, the wine would not be as lush and attractive, particularly in its youth.

The soil and micro-climate, however, are clearly capable of greatness. A handout gives a useful explanation of the estate's basic soil types--alluvial, volcanic and sedimentary--and what they contribute to the characteristics of the wine. Most of the Cabernet grapes come from alluvial soil--"earthy, aromatic, complex and concentrated." Volcanic soil around the edges of the estate add "spicy, cedary, often minty" qualities. (The minty qualities, though, seem to be less prominent than in wines such as Turnbull, Mondavi and Groth from the Oakville area.) Only a small number of vineyards are on sedimentary soils "formed by the settling of an ancient sea or lake." These vines contribute the strongly flavored "ripe berry & fruity, can be herbal." All together, these make up Chateau Montelena. Yes, I wish I had bought the 1978 Montelena Cab.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Napa Valley: Location, Location, Location

A visit to California wine country last week confirmed to me that domestic wine producers are buying into the concept of place that has long dominated European wine. If you want to know which wines to buy--or which ones are too expensive for your budget--you might want to consult Napa real estate prices or a map of the area. As you ride into the valley from Healdsburg and Geyserville, you pass through the middle class Zinfandel neighborhoods of Sonoma before you hit the high-rent Cabernet districts of Calistoga, St. Helena, Rutherford and then Oakville.

Most of the aristocrats--Opus One, Mondavi, Groth, Saddleback Cellars, Silver Oak--are congregated in a small area around Oakville. Be careful when you buy though; some prestigious, well situated wineries are likely to fill at least some of their bottles with produce from vineyards located in Sonoma or even farther afield in Lake or Mendocino County. Such a practice would be considered almost a capital offense in Bordeaux or Burgundy.

Right next door to Oakville is Rutherford where prices tend to be slightly lower. (Is Turnbull in Oakville or Rutherford? Whatever...the wines taste good, with a distinctive minty eucalyptus quality, and are a good value.) Between Rutherford and St. Helena is Conn Creek, one of my old favorites from the late 1970s. The 30-something Conn Creek Cabs in my cellar are still going strong, but the prices for recent vintages have escalated along with the reputation of other vineyards in the area Farther along the creek toward Oakville are Groth and Saddleback Cellars. I bought Groth Cabernet from its first vintage in 1982, but the price of the wine soared when Robert Parker gave the 1985 Groth Reserve an insane score of 100 points. So I moved to the more reasonably price Saddleback Cellars, which I find is located just down the lane. It's understandable that the wines had similar aromas and flavors. The skilled winemaker Nils Venge moved from Groth to Saddleback about the same time. Today, both wines are priced well out of my reach.

Off to either side of the two major wine trails are the moutain appellations producing more powerful, concentrated Cabs. For these hillside vineyards, growing seasons tend to be longer and yields, lower. And on the steepest slopes the grapes must be picked by hand. You can expect to pay premium prices for these wines as well.

Howell Mountain is home to Dunn Vineyards, Viader, Forman and Burgess Cellars (another old favorite of mine from the late 1970s and still a good value).

Stag's Leap has always been a favored--and pricey--appellation. Along with Stag's Leap Wine Cellars (often called a Napa Valley "First Growth"), there is Stag's Leap Winery, better known for its Petite Sirah. The good value Cabs with a Pedregal label I bought in the late 1970s were from Stags' Leap Winery. At that time, a patent battle prevented them from using the more prestigious name. Other wineries in the Stag's Leap appellation include Shafer, Steltzner, Pine Ridge, Silverado and Robert Sinskey.

On the other side of the valley lie Diamond Mountain (Diamond Creek, Pride Mountain, Schweiger); Spring Mountain (Keenan, Spring Mountain, Cain) and Mount Veeder (Trinchero, Mayacamas, Hess and Mount Veeder). All have their advocates.

If you wonder why some California wines you see on the shelves carry hefty price tags, the most obvious answer is the location of the vineyards. But look carefully at the label. It's not the name or the location of the winery but rather the appellation tag that tells where the grapes were grown. You may like the "California Cabernet" you find on the shelf, but there is good reason it is less expensive than the "Mount Veeder Cabernet" beside it. It's all about location.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Mas de Gourgonnier Rouge Les Baux de Provence, 2009

This has everything I expect, and more, from a French Mediterranean wine. Why has it taken me so long to find this little jewel?

I've seen Mas de Gourgonnier on the shelves often in the past, and the price is always under $15. But the blend--Grenache, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Carignan--is a bit unusual, and the bottle has an unusual shape. I was always curious but never tempted enough to buy until I saw it on the wine-by-the-glass list at Chez Panisse Cafe in Berkeley, California. It was a perfect match for the lovely Provencal fish stew.

Deep, dark ruby. From the color and the aromas, I thought I was drinking a Mourvedre. The aromas and flavors are also Mourvedre like: lavender, thyme, rosemary--picking up all the aromas and flavors of the fish stew--plus purple flowers, plums, dark cherries--incredibly aromatic and complex. Smells and flavors that weave in and out of those created by the Chez Panisse chef in the fish stew. What a wine! What a meal!

On the way home, I stopped at Binny's in Chicago to buy a few bottles ($15.99) to take home. The fish stew, alas, is only a memory.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Domaine du Grand Tinel Chateauneuf du Pape, 1990

For Easter dinner featuring grilled leg of lamb, this traditionally made Chateauneuf du Pape was the perfect accompaniment. Robert Parker said to drink the 1990 Grand Tinel early, and I did. But I'm glad I bought in quantity and held back a few bottles. It's as fresh and lively tonight as it was 15 years ago.

I smell dark cherries, black licorice, herbs and minerals; and the same qualities come through on the palate. Like a cherry tart--rich, smooth and ripe but not at all heavy. A traditionally made wine that carries its 14% alcohol well. I like it much better than the 2009 Grand Tinel I had at a Tasters' Guild event in February.

Trentadue Old Patch Red

I drove past the Trentadue Vineyard last week but, alas, passed it by for tastings at more prestigious Napa Valley establishments. Back home in Michigan, though, I snagged a glass of Trentadue Old Patch Red, an old favorite, at the Bentwood Tavern in New Buffalo. The wine was every bit as enjoyable as I remember.

Ridge Vineyards' Geyserville Red comes from some of Leo Trentadue's oldest vines, some of which date back to 1898. A poor man's version of Geyserville, Old Patch Red, is a similar field blend that's mostly Zinfandel along with Petite Sirah, Mourvedre and Carignane. I buy Geyserville when I can afford it (which is not often these days) and Old Patch Red when I can find it (which is also infrequent).

As usual, the Old Patch Red is a deep, inky color. Deep, funky old-vine smells--dark cherries, pepper, spice and dried blueberries. Full blooded but ripe and easy on the palate with a long finish. Very nice. Wish now I had stopped at Trentadue's tasting room.