Monday, March 31, 2014

Domaine du Pegau Cuvee Reservee Chateauneuf du Pape, 1993

Now fully mature, Domaine du Pegau's 1993 Cuvee Reservee is no longer the "powerful, full bodied,...dense, tannic" wine it was when tasted by Robert Parker in June of 1996. A description of the wine today might include terms such as "mellow," "smooth" and "restrained." As with any Pegau, though, the range of aromas and flavors is remarkable.

When poured in small amounts, the wine is actually rather light in color--not at all what I expect from Pegau. The bouquet has some old-vine funkiness along with fresh and  dried fruits and flowers. The nose relatively restrained, however, compared to the array of flavors that dance across the palate. Very lively and intense for a mature wine. And, as to be expected, very long and satisfying.

As Pegau fans know, the Cuvee Reservee ages famously. If you still have bottles of the 1993, I would suggest drinking  rather than keeping. But you'll enjoy every minute.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Vietti Langhe Nebbiolo Perbacco, 2010

After giving me a sip to make sure the wine was not corked, the waiter at Rustica in Kalamazoo decanted this wine through an aerator. The next (aerated) taste was significantly better. This wine is definitely young, and I would not hesitate cellaring it for a decade or more. But it is drinking beautifully right now.

Perbacco is my favorite Nebbiolo and, although a bit pricey at about $21 to $25 a bottle, one of the best wine values on the market today. Made from excess grapes from Vietti's Castiglione Vineyard, it is basically a baby Barolo. If it were to carry the Barolo designation that it deserves, it would cost at least twice as much.

At Rustica, Perbacco is an even bigger bargain since the restaurant offers bottled wine at 50 percent off when ordered before 6:00 p.m. Sunday through Thursday. So this bottle, one of many vinous treats to help celebrate my 75th birthday, cost only $21, a few dollar less than retail.

One thing I love about Nebbiolo wines from the Piedmont region of Italy is their versatility. The high tannins are accompanied by an equally high level of acidity--allowing both power and finesse. Perbacco is a perfect match for my hanger steak with wine reduction sauce; and it also goes well with the fish soup ordered by my wife.

The color is a bright, deep ruby red with saturation all the way to the rim. The trademark Nebbiolo aromas of dark cherries, anise seed and flowers are tantalizingly slow to unfold but always there. The same is true of the flavors. Beautiful acid/tannin/fruit balance. Drinks like a Pinot but with Barolo potential. Still young. Very long finish that will become even longer and more complex as the wine matures with bottle age.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Domaine Grand-Romane Gigondas Cuvee Boisee, 1990

The last time I tried this wine, in 2012, I posted some negative comments. It must have been an off bottle; this one is beautiful.

Good deep color, looks younger than its 24 years. The bouquet is surprisingly reticent but opens slowly with smells of fresh berries and anise seed. Lush on the palate with mellow, ripe fruit. Smells and tastes sweet but in a good way. Seems much younger than the Coudoulet de Beaucastel from the same vintage. It's not as complex as the Coudoulet, but it's by no means a simple wine. Gets better with each glass on the first night but becomes overly alcoholic and Porty on the second night.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Coudoulet de Beaucastel Cotes du Rhone, 1990

I bought this bottle at the estate in 1992 and dragged it with me on the rest of our trip, along with a couple of Chateaneufs du Pape--1989 Domaine Pegau and 1989 Les Clefs d'Or. They were my favorites of wines I tasted in the Rhone. It was early Spring so I didn't have to worry too much about extremes of temperature but generally wines don't respond as well as humans to the rigors of long-distance travel.

More than 20 years later, however, the wine is none the worse for the stresses to which I exposed it. The color is light crimson and a bit burnished and faded with amber at the edges. The bouquet, though, is powerful even as the cork is pulled. Powerful scents of Mourvedre and Grenache. Now some Syrah. Spicy berries, barnyard and garrigue. This wine is very Beaucastel in its personality...and better than many I've tasted. The vineyards, in fact, border on those of Beaucastel and are just outside the boundaries of Chateauneuf du Pape. The cepage is the same.

Now 24 years old, this Cotes du Rhone is fully mature but all the better for it. It's not perfect on the palate. But who cares? It's rich and concentrated with flavors that just keep coming at you with an array of different nuances. Spicy, animal, haunting. This is a pre-birthday wine, and I'm already feeling the pleasures and rewards of maturity.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Louis Jadot Macon-Villages Chardonnay, 2011

This Chardonnay is 100 percent unoaked and all the better for it. Bright fruit smells and flavors explode from the glass. Spiced apples and flowers with a touch of citrus. This may have had some extended lees contact to produce the creamy mouthfeel but the fruit is ever present with good acidity and balance. Lovely finish that keeps you coming back for more. For less than $15, this wine is a perfect accompaniment for Tuscan vegetable stew and would match up well with serious fish or seafood entrees.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Franco Serra Barbera d'Alba, 2010

In the Piedmont area of Italy, Barbera is generally considered a rank below the Nebbiolo wines of Barolo and Barbaresco. Yet it's difficult to find a good Barbera d'Alba or Barbera d'Asti in this country less than $20. At $10+ a bottle, this wine from Franco Serra is a notable example.

Beautiful deep ruby. Elegant nose of dark cherries, licorice and flowers--a profile similar to that of Nebbiolo but with considerably less tannic power. Not much tannin but plenty of acid to keep it lively and interesting. Wonderful array of flavors and a persistent, grippy finish. A real gem worth seeking out.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Best's Great Western: Old Vines in the Grampians

Some of the best Australian Shiraz wines, in my opinion, come from the old vines and historic cellar at Best's Great Western, located in the Grampian mountains halfway between Melbourne and Adelaide. On my previous visit to Best's in the early 1980s, the late Trevor Mast was our gracious host. The estate's first hired winemaker, Trevor Mast worked with Viv Thomson at Best's before buying his own property at Mount Langi Ghiran, and the two men continued to learn from each other until Trevor's untimely death from early onset Alzheimer's disease.

Viv's son, Ben Thompson, is now the fifth generation custodian of the winery and vineyards that date to 1867. In a wonderful little booklet that Ben prepared and gives to cellar door visitors, he writes: "I know that we are farmers, but we are also wine growers, representing rich stories of the land and the people who call the Great Western region their home." He points out that this region is highly favorable to Shiraz because of the climate and soil: warm days, cool nights and a terroir that produces "Shiraz wines with lots of spice and complex aromatics." Finally, of course, there are Best's gnarled 147-year-old vines and a historic cellar that reminds me of those I saw at Chateauneuf du Pape: large old foudres and hogsheads of various sizes, labeled by hand and carefully tended. Visitors can take a self-guided tour of the cellar, and I recommend it.

The flagship Bin 0 Shiraz was not on the tasting list, but our energetic, knowledgeable hostess, Joyce, pulled out a bottle from under the counter and gave us a taste anyway. It was smooth, elegant, yet powerful and intense, reflecting the low yielding old vineyards from which it is produced. It is most definitely a "wine of place." I had the 1994 Bin 0 last September and posted notes on this blog.

I was also impressed by the less expensive Bin 1 Shiraz, which won the Jimmy Watson trophy two years ago and has a wonderful peppery, spicy personality. It's made from a combination of fruit from Best's and other area growers. There is also a Thomson Family Vineyard Shiraz that is made in very small quantities. At the tasting, I also enjoyed the traditionally made Riesling, matured in foudres.

It's not all history at Best's, of course. The winery has evolved since the 1980s with fresh ideas, new oak, up-to-date technology and recent plantings including a 1992 block planted on white gravel. Wine made in 2010 from this Hill Block, according to Ben Thomson's booklet, "displayed more overt, pungent aromas of pepper and sweet, fragrant tannins combined with medium-bodied fruit to create a complex Old World style, similar to Syrah from France's Rhone region."

I've never been able to locate a U.S. distributor of Best's wines, and that is a shame. These wines represent the very best traditions of Australian winemaking coupled with qualities that would please the most stubborn Europhile.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

McLaren Vale: d'Arenberg, Geoff Merrill

A little further up the road from Langhorne Creek, near the southern suburbs of Adelaide, lies the McLaren Vale wine region. The climate is warmer than in Langhorne Creek or Coonawarra but cooler than most areas of Barossa. Americans are familiar with McLaren Vale wines through the d'Arenberg wines, widely available in my marketing areas.

We tasted at d'Arenberg, now a big commercial operation that produces a mind boggling variety of wines, all with special proprietary names such as the Feral Fox Pinot Noir and the Lucky Lizard Chardonnay. D'Arry's Original has long been a favorite of mine, sort of an Australian Chateauneuf du Pape. It's a blend of Grenache, Shiraz and Mourvedre matured mostly in large barrels that no longer impart oaky smells or flavors. It's not a big, highly extracted wine but a small one with big flavors that just keep getting better with bottle age--even up to 30 years and longer according to the winery. It was better, in my opinion, than the higher priced GSM, The Ironstone Pressings. I have also purchased The Footbolt Shiraz, a $15 bottle that is a decent mid-term ager. In this case, I preferred the more pricey The Laughing Magpie, which has a small amount of Viognier in the blend. Among the whites, I liked The Hermit Crab Viognier/Marsanne, which I can buy at my local supermarket for $18. Any Viognier wine is bound to be aromatic, but this one has good acid and intensity as well.

My favorite wines from McLaren Vale were those of Geoff Merrill, who established a reputation years ago with his basket-pressed wines at Chateau Reynella. The scales on the Geoff Merrill label represent "the perfect balance," and all of the wines I tasted at the Geoff Merrill winery had just that, leaving a trail of lovely flavors from the tip of the tongue all the way down the esophagus. I still have a few bottles of Merrill's basket pressed Reynella wines; wish I could have access to wines from his own label. They are distributed in the United States by Vindagra USA of Boca Raton, Florida, but I have never seen them in Michigan or Chicago.

Langhorne Creek: Australia's Best Kept Secret

Just a few miles up the road from Coonawarra, heading north toward Adelaide, lies Langhorne Creek, a pleasant little town and an underappreciated wine region, even among Australians. You can taste freely at the tasting rooms of Langhorne Creek without battling the busloads and carloads of tourists.

If you have ever tried Wolf Blass wines, though, you have undoubtedly sampled Langhorne Creek. Wolf had high regard for the wines of this region, even when it was smaller and more under-rated than it is today. And his winemaker for many years, John Glaetzer, was even more enamored of Langhorne fruit (although true to the Australian tradition, it was often blended with grapes from other regions). John's Blend was started as a wine Glaetzer set aside for himself from the best Langhorne Creek lots. Since 1974, it has been sold commercially, and it was the best wines I tasted in Langhorne Creek--well worth a try if you can find it. It's distributed in Canada but not the United States.

John Glaetzer is the winemaker who coined the term, "no wood, no good." And Wolf Blass wines have always reflected that philosophy. Whereas Penfolds uses new oak barriques to extract more tannin, Glaetzer used it to soften the wine and make it more approachable--a style that has become quite popular among lovers of New World wines. It's definitely not my style, but I can respect it and appreciate the well made bottles of John's blend.

More to my liking are wines from the Metala Vineyard, one of the oldest in Australia, dating to the late 1800s. We visited these old, gnarled vines on the outskirts of Langhorne. And, on other ocassions, tasted two bottles of the 1992 Stonyfell Metala Vineyard Shiraz Cabernet. While the varietal fruit traits of both grapes had faded, this wine showed incredible secondary traits and old vine intensity. For my own pleasure, this is a wine I would choose over the John's Blend, the top Wolf Blass reds or even the Grange.

Coonawarra: Red Soil on Limestone

Coonawarra is probably the most well known red wine appellation in Australia. The secret, according to Australians, is the Terra Rossa--the layer of red soil that lies over a limestone base. Regions outside of this narrow strip cannot claim to be Coonawarra even though they lie along the limestone coast of South Australia. I suspect that the micro-climate also plays a role, and one winemaker told me that the average temperature of Coonawarra is about two degrees cooler than nearby areas.

My favorite wine tasted on our visit to Coonawarra was the 2011 Bowen Estate Shiraz. The late Trevor Mast often spoke highly of the wines of  "Dougie Bowen's wines." Doug is still living but has turned over vineyard and winery duties to his daughter, Emma. In what was recognized as a difficult vintage, Emma produced a beautiful Shiraz. Peppery, spicy and energetic; made me want to come back for more.

Redman is another old-line Coonawarra facility with duties recently being turned over to younger members of the family. The wine is made using open fermenters, concrete tanks and seasoned oak barrels--a traditional approach that I like. The wines I tasted, though, were not as immediately enjoyable as those at Bowen's. My favorite, the 2008 Cabernet, was fat and ripe but a bit alcoholic and one dimensional at this stage. Away from the winery, I enjoyed a 1984 Redman's Cabernet from a Jereboam (the equivalent of 12 bottles) that my brother-in-law purchased on release. Lush and ripe but with lower alcohol than the 2008 tasted at the winery. A wine that has aged very gracefully.

Probably best known to Americans are wines from Wynn's Coonawarra Estate. These wines are still highly regarded (as mentioned by Emma Bowen) and showed well at our tasting. I used to buy Wynn's wines for under $10 a bottle in Michigan, but the price has increased considerably even at the Cellar Door.

Australia: A Place for Wine but Not Wines of Place

This is my first post in nearly a month, and I apologize. I was in Australia for three weeks and, even though I was enjoying wine every day, I never found the time or energy to record my experiences. At this point, I cannot give detailed notes but only some general observations.

As you've probably discovered, I am a wine terroirist; I find it most interesting to explore the soil, micro-climates and vineyards that produce exciting wines. Even quality is less important to me than place, origin and the qualities they bring to what is in the bottle. In Australia, that approach is not so popular. The most revered wine, in fact, is Penfold's Grange Hermitage, a wine that refuses even to reveal the source of the grapes used, which presumably differs with each vintage. Even though the wine is generally recognized as a Shiraz, there is usually a bit of Cabernet in the blend as well. Grapes are chosen for their quality and their ability to represent the Grange's distinctive personality. Grange is clearly a winemaker's wine, not a wine of place.

Thanks to the generosity of my brother-in-law, we enjoyed a bottle of the 1979 Grange. It was beautiful with a powerful fruit presence both on the nose and palate, even at 25 years of age. I think I could detect both Syrah and Cabernet, but they blended together beautifully with each other and with the oak. I remember dark cherry, cassis and leather. At $600 plus a bottle, Grange has never been on my shopping list. But this is an undeniably special bottle, even if it is not a wine of place.

We also had a bottle of the 1998 Penfold's Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz, a wine that is matured partly in barrels previously used for Grange Hermitage. Bin 389 is a very good wine that has been increasing in price much more rapidly in Australia (where it now sells for upwards of $50) than in the United States (where buyers seem to balk at price tags over $20 for this wine). On our visit three years ago, this 1998 Bin 389 was showing beautifully; by 2014, its charms were possibly beginning to fade a bit. But it's still a very enjoyable wine that will carry on for several more years.

That said, I will now report on several Australian wine regions we visited--each offering distinctive traits deriving from what Europhiles call terroir.