Wednesday, October 31, 2012

El Chaparral de Vega Sindoa Navarra Old Vines Garnacha, 2010

I've noticed several wines claiming to be the "best Spanish Grenache for less than $10"; and most of the claims are valid. My candidate is this wine, which admittedly sells for a bit more (I paid $12.99). It has definite old vine qualities that you ordinarily find only in wines selling for much more.

The color is deeper and darker than you might expect from Grenache. That could be a sign that some of the wine was aged in barriques, but I doubt it. Everything else about this wine speaks of traditional winemaking. Powerful old viney aromas--dark cherries, nutmeg, cinnamon, black fruits. A bit gamey but that is part of the package. Falls into a pattern established by the Cairanne and Chateauneuf du Pape described below. Full and meaty on the palate. Steers a little too far toward raisins on the finish, but that doesn't turn me away.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Domaine de l'Oratoire Saint Martin Cuvee Prestige, 1998

As Chateauneuf du Pape prices have escalated, I find myself looking more and more toward Cairanne as a source of fine Southern Rhone wines. Domaine de l'Oratoire Saint Martin is my favorite Cairanne, and every time I have tasted this wine alongside a Chateauneuf du Pape I have preferred the wine from the lesser appellation.

Bright crimson./ Gamey old vine quality that reminds me a lot of the Clos Mont Olivet I had two nights ago. But may be even better. Red cherries, cinnamon, Provencal spices. Deep and concentrated, as always. Now some red licorice. Silky smooth on the palate.

The price tag reads $12.99, but the current vintage of the Cuvee Prestige usually sells for $28 to $30. For a wine of this quality, made traditionally from vineyards more than 100 years old, that's still a bargain. The Reserve des Seigneurs bottling, which I buy more frequently today, sells for $18 to $20. Coming from vineyards 50 years of age and older, it is very good but lacks the special qualities of the Cuvee Prestige.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Clos du Mont Olivet Chateauneuf du Pape, 2000

One of the favorite Chateauneufs in my cellar is the 1988 Clos du Mont Olivet. It is a BPC. (before prestige cuvee) wine.  Two years later, with the 1990 vintage, Clos du Mont Olivet started producing Cuvee du Papet, presumably using grapes from the estate's oldest and best vineyards. I'm not a fan of prestige cuvees because they are 1) expensive, 2) usually made in an international style using new oak or barriques and 3)  dilute the quality of the regular, traditionally made bottling.

I haven't tasted the 2000 Cuvee du Papet, but this regular bottling measures up well to what the estate produced prior to 1990. It's deep and dark with a powerful bouquet of cherries, black fruits and Provencal herbs. Somewhat funky but in the best tradition of Chateauneuf du Pape. When the wine was released, Stephen Tanzer of the International Wine Cellar found "little sign of the animal side of Chateauneuf." That is certainly not the case tonight. From the "charming, fruit-driven" style that Tanzer found, I smell and taste a big, traditional Chateauneuf, full of the depth and complexity that derive from old vines and traditional winemaking. There are still some tannins, I think, but they don't block the savory, sea salt nuances.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

La Vieille Ferme Cotes du Ventoux, 2006

Ventoux is a modest appellation, and La Vieille Ferme, at $6 to $8, is a wine to buy and drink often. I ordinarily try to drink my bottles within the first year, but if any are left over, as they often are, I don't worry because the wine is also capable of aging for at least five to seven years.

The color is a deep crimson, very bright. Deep cherry/blueberry smells with pepper, spice and garrigue. The bouquet has filled out nicely. Grenache and Syrah have blended together with the supporting cast of Carignan and Cinsault. Cherries and blueberries again on the palate--big and fruit-filled. Ripe mid-palate and finish. Much more expansive than I remember this wine from a few years ago. Could be mistaken for a Cotes du Rhone Villages.

Screw Top versus Cork

No one questions that screw top wine closures are handy, particularly when you're at a picnic and forgot to pack a corkscrew. But many wine drinkers do not take them seriously, and I have heard sommeliers (who should know better) claim that wines in screw top bottles are not serious or capable of aging. Stuart Blackwell, senior winemaker at St. Hallett's Barossa winery, takes exception with this view and is very happy that all of his wines--even the highly regarded Old Block Shiraz--are now protected by screw tops.

Blackwell pointed out that 24 percent of the bottles of his excellent 1991 Old Block Shiraz were tainted by bad corks--a very distressing situation for the winemaker as well as the consumer. Most wine drinkers recognize the damp cardboard smell and off flavors of a badly corked wine, but the signs in many corked wines are not that obvious. Some have a vague woody quality; others merely smell and taste stunted, failing to show their expected aromas and flavors. Reputable merchants and wineries will, of course, replace corked bottles, and the problem was so bad in 1991 that Blackwell had to hold back about a third of his production back in order to provide replacement bottles to his customers. He's still searching for bottles, in fact, and buys back bottles whenever he can find them at auction.

The advantage of the screw top closure, according to Blackwell, is not just to protect the wine from bad cork smells and flavors but to allow the winemaker more control over the finished product. Good wine always involves an interaction with a small amount of oxygen that is in the space between the wine and the cork or fights it way through the cork, Blackwell said. (The matter of air getting through the cork is a controversial matter, by the way.) In a screw top, no air gets through so Blackwell adds more oxygen to each bottle, and the result is a wine that shows better when it's young but is still capable of aging. He's been using screw tops long enough to be confident of the long-term as well as the short-term results.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Wynn's Coonawarra Estate Shiraz, 2003

Coonawarra is Cabernet country, but the relatively cool climate is also good for Shiraz, particularly from producers like Wynn's and Bowen Estate.

Very deep and dark but sediment is beginning to form. Nice aromas of red fruits, oak and herbs. Also some anise. On the palate, it's just beginning to shed its tannins. Thick and plummy black fruits with a moderately long finish. I don't think you could mistake this for a Syrah from the northern Rhone, but it's a very enjoyable Australian Shiraz.

La Cote Blanche Chardonnay Macon-Villages,2010

If you like unoaked or lightly oaked Chardonnay, as I do, this is an excellent inexpensive choice. Pears, vanilla cream and lemon twist aromas and a creamy texture on the palate. Has probably rested on its lees for awhile to give it that creamy mouthfeel. Very fresh and light with lots of flavor. This Macon-Villages stacks up well against the 2009 Duboeuf I reported on last week.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Barossa Gets a Bad Rap

Among American wine enthusiasts, Australia's Barossa Valley, near Adelaide, often gets stereotyped as a warm to hot climate area incapable of producing anything but anonymous jammy, high alcohol wines. There is, of course, no shortage of such wines on the market, many of them produced specifically for the American market and never sold in Australia. In most cases, these wines carry a broad appellation such as "southeastern Australia" and come from inferior, high-yielding vineyards.

In fact, some of Australia's very best Shiraz wines--Henschke's Mount Edelstone and Hill of Grade and Penfold's Grange Hermitage come from Barossa vineyards. And respected wineries such as St. Hallett's, Peter Lehmann and Wolf Blass are all located there.

Yes, Barossa has warm to hot weather but within the broad appellation are diverse micro-climates that include several cooler areas on sloping hillsides or the southern part of the valley. And the whole area is very dry--a plus for good winemaking. Barossa is also the site of some of Australia's oldest vines, planted in the 1840s by German immigrants from the Prussian province of Silesia.

Stuart Blackwell, chief winemaker at St. Hallett's, talks lovingly of the gnarled, treelike vines that go into his Shiraz wines. At the low end is the St. Hallett's Faith Shiraz from vines up to 50 years of age. The Faith Shiraz I tasted at the Oakwood Bistro was red fruited and lively--a trait many would associate with cooler climate Shiraz. Blackwell says this is a trait of the "younger vines"--up to 50 years of age and with yields under 4 tons an acre.

St. Hallett's Blackwell Shiraz comes from vineyards up to 80 years of age with yields of 1 to 1.5 tons per acre. This mid-level wine gets more new oak treatment (American oak) but also has a different personality--black rather than red raspberry plus intense layers of licorice, anise, mocha and spice. Some of this derives from the new oak but much comes from the soil--the old vines that dig deeper into the soil for sustenance.

St. Hallett's Old Block Shiraz is the top of the line, coming from vineyards up to 120 years of age and yields of less than a ton an acre. It was not offered at this tasting, but winemaker's notes include descriptors such as nutmeg, cinnamon, menthol, dark chocolate, cherry, plum and eucalyptus--some undoubtedly derived from the French oak in which it is matured but also traits of the even older vines. The excellent 1991 Old Block sometimes shows up at auction, Blackwell says, and he buys all he can get to replenish his stocks at the winery. Other top vintages include 2002 and 2004, and, if you happen to find or own any, you should not be in any hurry to drink them.

Tasting St. Hallett's Barossa Valley Wines

Stuart Blackwell, senior winemaker at St. Hallett's Barossa Valley winery, came to Kalamazoo last night to present his wines at a wine dinner at the Oakwood Bistro. We enjoyed an excellent five-course meal prepared especially to match up with the wines of this high-quality Barossa Valley estate.

I was fortunate to get a seat right across the table from Blackwell, delighting in his stories, good humor and  broad knowledge of Australian wines and vineyards. Americans are accustomed to the cheap commercial Australian wines (such as Yellowtail) made specifically (and somewhat cynically) for the American public. To counter this image, Blackwell and St. Hallett would like to establish a reputation for high quality Shiraz and other wines. They fit the pattern precisely of what I consider "artisan wines"--wines carefully made to express their origin and the varietal traits of the grape.

The 2009 Poacher's Blend Barossa White (Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling) is what Blackwell calls "26 fluid ounces of fun"; it offers up zesty lime and tropical fruit smells and flavors. The Semillon/Sauvignon blend is typical of white Bordeaux. Riesling adds structure and mouth feel. At about $10 a bottle, it is a good choice for frequent drinking.

The 2009 Gamekeeper's Shiraz, Grenache, Touriga was perhaps my favorite of the evening, even though it too can be purchased for about $10 a bottle. For this wine, Blackwell blends well chosen old vine Grenache and Shiraz  grapes with Touriga, a grape ordinarily used in making fortified Port or Portuguese dry wines. It's a fortunate combination, with the Touriga adding what Blackwell describes as a rose petal quality. The Grenache and Syrah grapes sit on their lees for two months, picking up unique and unexpected aromas and flavors. It's a deep crimson color with wonderful spicy, gamey notes. Blackwell delights in telling of the critic who told him "the oak in this wine is really subtle." "Yes, it is really subtle," he answered. "No oak at all." Stuart is also fond of this wine, speaking of its versatility. "It's great with duck but also with pork--anything smokey. And it's a ridiculous price for a wine of this quality." I agree wholeheartedly and plan to add some to my own cellar.

Shiraz, though, is what St. Hallett's is building its reputation around, and Stuart Blackwell knows how to select and use grapes from the best of Barossa's vineyards. Many of these vines--gnarled and tree-like--were planted by German immigrants to Australia around 1840. The oldest and best--some up to 140 years old--go into St. Hallett's Old Block, which is not made in large enough quantity to be presented at a tasting such as this one. I have had it before and agree with Stuart that it belongs in the top ranks of Australian Shiraz.

The 2009 Faith Shiraz is at the low end of the price range, at about $20 a bottle. It comes from vineyards up to 50 years of age, and, as Blackwell explained, it has more of a red fruit quality--red raspberries, cherries, red fruit and spices. He vinifies it as an accessible fruit driven wine. Some new oak is used but it's not at all obtrusive. Much of the wine is aged in seasoned French and American oak--one, two and three years of age. I enjoyed this wine a great deal.

The 2008 Blackwell Shiraz, sourced from vineyards up to 80 years old and with lower yields than the Faith, is aged in American oak, and this is quite apparent on the nose at this point. From vines older than 50 years, Blackwell pointed out, "you get more black fruit qualities" as well as mineral qualities from deep within the soil. Black raspberries and blackberries plus licorice and vanilla. Although the wine is still very young and tannic, it has a soft feel on the palate. For this dinner it was served with a coffee and cocoa rubbed ribeye loin steak--a perfect match. But it's also lush enough to enjoy on its own.

For dessert, we had a dense chocolate torte served with the 2008 Gamekeeper's Shiraz Cabernet. Both were very good, but I'm not a fan of this kind of dry red wine/chocolate dessert combination. Shiraz Cabernet is a unique combination that admittedly has dark chocolate traits. This young Shiraz Cabernet is still tannic, however, and it tasted even more bitter when tasted against the chocolate torte.

If you're a fan of Shiraz/Cabernet wines, you might want to pick up a few bottles of the St. Hallett's right now at a good price. Only four cases were brought into Michigan, and St. Hallett's doesn't plan to bring any more in. At this time, Stuart Blackwell wants to focus sharply on St. Hallett's as a premium maker of excellent Shiraz wines, all produced from well selected old, low-yielding vineyards.

Domaine de Font-Sane Gigondas, 1999

This 1999 Gigondas was tightly closed and not overly enjoyable when I last tasted it about five years ago. Tonight, it is showing everything I like in a Gigondas.

The color has turned a bit but that's the only sign of the wine's age. Big, powerful bouquet--very Gigondas. Dark cherries and berries, cloves, garrigue and black pepper. A meaty, large-framed beauty. I can detect the 14% alcohol on the finish, but it seems appropriate for this wine--alcoholic warmth to counter the cool clove/mint quality. This is showing much better than any of the 1998 Font-Sanes I have tasted. Good to go right now, but I don't expect it to fade anytime soon.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Georges Duboeuf Macon-Villages Chardonnay, 2009

I frequently buy this several bottles of this wine every vintage because it's usually reliable and one of the least expensive Macon Villages wines. I can't remember any, though, better than this 2009.

It's a light gold color, bright and lively. I smell white flowers, green apples and citrus--all the lovely smells of a good unoaked Chardonnay. Same on the palate. Fresh and bursting with life. Hint of almonds on the finish. A very enjoyable wine that is readily available in most markets for under $10.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Matthieu de Brully Bourgogne Pinot Noir, 2005

I've heard it said that if you drink wine long enough, you'll eventually become a fan of Pinot Noir. I don't know about that. After starting with a love for Cabernet and Syrah; I've been hooked on Grenache and Mourvedre based wines from the Southern Rhone for nearly 20 years. Over the past year or two, though, particularly after a trip last Spring to the Anderson Valley of northern California, I have become more and more appreciative of what good Pinot has to offer. Matthieu de Brully's Bourgogne is from an inexpensive, low-end appellation, but 2005 is a particularly good vintage for red Burgundy. A bit acidic and tight when it was young, the wine has matured nicely.

Medium light ruby./ Sweet scents of berries and flowers. The aromas don't jump out at you; you have to pay careful attention, but that is what Pinot Noir is about. Light, lovely perfume. Now some hints of spice and earth. Gets better and better./ On the palate, there is still plenty of acidity and some dry tannins but with  swirling the fruit emerges. You have to love Pinot Noir to get your love returned. Subtle but fine. Spice and pepper on the finish with a touch of spice.

Admittedly, there are many bad Pinot Noirs on the market. It's all about the clones, where the grapes are grown and how the wine is made. And, for many red Burgundies, even those at the low end, it's important not to rush. The maturity is all.

Bodegas Luzon Jumilla, 2009

I am a fan of the wines of this bodega, and even though the Luzon prices have moved up a couple of dollars a bottle, they are still tremendous bargains. I have previously given enthusiastic reports of Luzon Verde, an organically grown Monastrell. This black label Luzon is apparently not organic, and it's a blend of Monastrell and Syrah.

Deep violet color./ I also get a strong whiff of violets on the nose. That's the Monastrell (Mourvedre) speaking. There are also aromas of black licorice, herbs and spices. Very spicy in fact and almost a green  element that is not so much to my liking. This is a big, rustic wine with some of the traits of a Vacqueyras from the Southern Rhone. Blackberries, black licorice, herbs and spices. Lacks the delicacy and subtlety of the Verde, but still very good and an excellent value at $8.99.