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tasting notes

9 wines (or, actually, more…)

A holiday week dinner at Boston’s justifiably-renowned No. 9 Park, with an eclectic selection of wines from the restaurant’s brilliant wine director, Cat Silirie

Chartogne-Taillet Champagne Brut Rosé (Champagne) – Gorgeous, silky-creamy preserved apple and black fruit with yeasty complexity and pleasant minerality, both of which build and roll through the midpalate and finish. Beautiful Champagne in motion.

This is one of those grower-producer Champagnes that one hears about so often, and it’s also one of the best. There’s something more indefinably soulful about these vs. the big industrial names. Try it for yourself.

Alain Guillot Crémant de Bourgogne Blanc de Blancs (Burgundy) – Simpler and more direct, showing a character that’s either off-dry, botrytized, or possibly both (though I suppose it could also be an excess of leesiness), with straightforward grapefruit and green apple characteristics..

Crémant, a sort of catch-all French term for “sparkling wine not from Champagne” (though there are other possible terms as well), sells like crazy in France, but is a hard sell elsewhere. Primarily, this is because the wines – though unquestionably cheaper than Champagne – don’t really measure up. There are exceptions in each region, but those are also the wines that usually get snapped up by the local market. As for this particular crémant: other than the fact that this producer is situated in the Mâcon, and thus the grapes for this wine are likely to be from there, I know absolutely nothing about this bottle. Web:

Bisson 2003 Cinque Terre “Marea” (Liguria) – Rushing mountain waterfalls full of minerality and midsummer bursts of ripe green fruit. 2003 has rendered this wine slightly less unique, but more fun to drink; a fair tradeoff, though I wouldn’t want to make it every year.

The Cinque Terre, not unlike the Côte d’Azur, has a bit of reputation for overpriced yet underperforming wines. This one isn’t exactly cheap ($24 or so), but neither does it underperform; less hot vintages are more enticingly floral/mineral, and there’s something unique and interesting here that’s worth the extra tariff. The grapes are vermentino, bosco and albarola, with extra time on the lees to add body and complexity.

Les Crêtes 2002 Torrette “vignes les toules” (Vallée d’Aoste) – Begins stale and cranky, but develops into an individualistic stunner, with raw iron blocks and vividly floral mixed berries. Fragrant and seductive, but not particularly feminine, this is a wine that takes some time to get to know, but rewards the effort a hundredfold.

Mostly petit rouge (a grape virtually limited to the Valle d’Aosta), grown in moraine, calcareous and sandy soils. One of the more unique wines I’ve tasted over the past year, and in fact I’m not sure I’ve ever tasted anything like it. Web:

Clos de Haute-Combes 2002 Juliénas “Cuvée Prestige” (Beaujolais) – Classic violet berries in agrodolce with a fairly firm, if not at all powerful, structure and a really gorgeous finish. Beyond food friendly; perhaps food-enrapturing, instead.

I’m not sure why I’ve been drinking so much Juliénas lately. Random chance, I guess. This one is decidedly prettier than either of the two Grangers recently consumed, and in fact is pretty much everything a person could want from cru Beaujolais.

Meix-Foulot 2000 Mercurey “1er Cru” (Burgundy) – Less pretty and a little sluttier than previous vintages, though it would be especially churlish to call it anything other than tasty. There’s some very slightly grating tannin that looms over the fruit a bit, but this should be a good deal of nice drinking over the short term.

A blend from premier cru multiple vineyards (Saumonts and Ropitons, one site advises), from a solidly consistent producer of lighter-styled Burgundy at a not-unreasonable price. That, in itself, is a major accomplishment.

Pibarnon 2001 Bandol (Provence) – Texturally lighter than the previous three wines, with funky horse sweat and vine-rotted, shriveled fruit; it’s good, but it’s a little hollow and shrill for the usual mourvèdre (and, probably brett) stink, and I wonder if it might not be in a difficult phase.

Mourvèdre can get stinkier, and it can get more forceful, but it achieves its personal pinnacle of a rustic sort of elegance in Bandol, the only Provençal appellation to really do much on the international stage. This wine’s a little odd, but one thing I’ve found to be true of Bandol is that the wines are almost always better with age. Web:

Schrock 2002 Ruster Ausbruch (Neusiedlersee-Huggenland) – Very thin at first, with clean but obvious crystallized citrus aromas. With air, however, it fills out to show lovely, fuller-bodied spice and sorbet characteristics with a succulent peach-candy finish.

An ausbruch must be made from shriveled, botrytized grapes picked at an exceedingly high level of ripeness. What this usually means is that the spicy/creamy botrytis notes overwhelm everything else; this isn’t a bad thing, but simple botrytis doesn’t have to be as expensive as these wines usually are. In this case, it’s the varietal characteristics of the pinot blanc and pinot gris grapes that first emerge, to be followed by the additional complexity of noble rot. This is a worthy accomplishment in itself, even though this bottling is far from the best that Ms. Schröck can do. Web:

Ferreira 1997 Vintage Porto (Douro) – Big, fruity, tannic and obvious; there is the very slightest hint of emerging spice, but fundamentally this is way, way too young.

I usually consider drinking young vintage Port a complete waste of time and money, and this wine does little to change that predisposition. There are plenty of fresh-tasting, blended ports if one craves berried exuberance, and tawnies from simplistic blends to majestic colheitas available if one wants instant complexity. But young vintage Port is rarely other than monolithic, so unless one’s purpose is evaluative, why waste the wine? Web:

Pierre Ferrand Cognac 30-year “Sélection des Anges” (Cognac) – Unbelievable aromatics of barrel spice and long-aged fruit with very little intrusive heat; goes down much, much lighter than one might expect, then fills and warms again on the finish, with elegantly lingering touches of bitterness. Just beautiful.

I never used to like Cognac, thinking it wan and simplistic next to the Bas-Armagnac I preferred. Then an enthusiastic young salesperson came to Boston, showing the Ferrand and Gabriel & Andreu lines, and everything changed. Here were real digestifs, with character and differentiation and (pun intended) spirit. Plus, they remain underpriced vs. a universe of oversold but undermade “name” brands. What’s not to love? Web:

Sec song

Ramonteu “Domaine Cauhapé” 2003 Jurançon Sec “Chant des Vignes” (Southwest France) – Zippy and fruity (no surprise from the latter, given the vintage), with candle wax and lanolin nearly overwhelmed by aggressive ripe grapefruit and white pear juice. Fleshy and ripe, with plenty of acidity. This is a marvelous (if very slightly obnoxious) wine.

This is the “early-picked” (October, which is not exactly early) dry Jurançon at this estate (see here and here for notes on one of the moelleux bottlings), made from justifiably under-appreciated gros manseng and just bursting with quality. Sometimes, terroir really does work its magic, but the skill of the producer has something to say here as well. Alcohol: 13%. Importer: Arborway. Web:

The old Granger

Granger 2002 Juliénas (Beaujolais) – Too small to be a fruit bomb – perhaps a fruit “poof” – with dainty red fruit and a sweet grin. There’s never much more to it than that, however. Furthermore, given that another recently-consumed bottle of this wine was entirely different, some blame has to be assigned to the variability of the synthetic cork seal.

See the previous note for not-very-much information on this wine. As for the cork, early demises and variability are an unfortunate side-effect of even the best synthetic corks (and this is one of the better ones; extruded, not molded). Removing the TCA threat is a worthy goal, and these corks do accomplish that, but they bring an even more loudly-ticking time bomb of their own. A shame, really. Screwcaps (and crown caps) are still the most promising of the various alternatives to cork. Alcohol: 13%. Importer: Rosenthal.

San Alejandro “Las Rocas” 2001 Garnacha “Viñas Viejas” (Calatayud) – Insistent strawberry and plum pit with dried roadside tree bark, a warming palate impression, and a decent amount of support and structure. Whether this wine is falling apart or closing down is anyone’s guess at this point, though the emergent heat hints at the former. On the other hand, it is a fairly hot-climate red, and some obvious alcohol isn’t necessarily a reason for anxiety. Still, I’ll drinking most of mine sooner rather than later.

There’s been controversy about this wine – multiple bottlings leading to one critically-heralded version and another that’s apparently not up to snuff – but this purchase (a multi-bottle lot) was unquestionably one of the good set, and even though it’s not the full-fruited monster it was in its youth, its still a fun and good value quaff. Alcohol: 14%. Importer: European Cellars.

Hot pink

Tablas Creek 2003 Rosé (Paso Robles) – Neon lavender squeezings, concentrated strawberry preserve, wood spice, and tongue-numbing alcohol.

As much amazing flavor as they’ve packed into this wine, 14.8% is just way too much alcohol for a rosé. I don’t know if they’d consider it (probably not), but a spinning cone might indeed be the answer. Nonetheless, I’m sure this is a hit among the bigger = better herds. 64% mourvèdre, 28% grenache, 8% counoise. Alcohol: 14.8%. Web:

The young and the fruitless

(Short excerpts from a longer narrative, which can be found here.)

Château de Fieuzal 1993 Pessac-Léognan (Bordeaux) – Full of pine needles and silty peat moss dust, with something in the licorice family – I proceed through fennel, anise, and pastis before finally arriving back at fennel fronds – with a brassy, tinny aspect.

Mumm NV Champagne Crémant de Cramant Blanc de Blancs (Champagne) – Of indeterminate age, but most definitely not a new release. Smells like a Dairy Queen chocolate shake, though there’s also a malted element to it and perhaps something more custardy from the Ocean City boardwalk would be a more appropriate descriptor. On the palate, there’s some bitter lemon and stingingly tart apple to balance things out, but the overall impression is of a sugary, confected ball of barely-bubbly strangeness.

Chapoutier 1989 Hermitage Blanc “Chante-Alouette” (Rhône) – Lemon peel and peanut oil on the palate, but nothing at all on the nose. It’s less than half a wine, though this performance doesn’t really surprise me from Chapoutier.

Chave 1996 Hermitage Blanc (Rhône) – Manzanilla sherry, creamy puréed earth and chestnuts, but nothing on the palate.

R. Lopez de Heredia “Viña Tondonia” 1989 Rioja “Reserva” “Viña Gravonia” – Still vivid and – say it ain’t so – possessing something that might easily be labeled fruit, which I point out should necessarily exclude it from our evening. Nonetheless, it’s nice, showing baked pear, baked peach, and a bright, spicy finish. By far the liveliest wine of the night so far.

R. Lopez de Heredia “Viña Tondonia” 1987 Rioja “Reserva” “Viña Tondonia” – The color…well, basically, there’s no way to describe the color other than “fill the cup, please.” Sour plum, blood orange blossoms and dried flower petals mark a long, complex, and surprisingly pretty wine. Pretty, but with a lot of depth, and probably the best wine of the night.

R. Lopez de Heredia “Viña Tondonia” 1976 Rioja “Gran Reserva” “Viña Gravonia” – Dark brown, with caramel laced with cidered apple and baked potato. It’s juicy and long, with pretty decent acidity, but it’s also rather heavy and thudding, and I find myself going back to the ’87…as does the rest of the group…leaving a lot of this brooding and mud-colored wine still resting in its decanter.

Ramonteu “Domaine Cauhapé” 2001 Jurançon “Symphonie de Novembre” (Southwest France) – Tasty but “off” in comparison to an earlier bottle, and I wonder aloud if it isn’t some of that “romantic and traditional” cork variation that we all know and love (at least it’s not also-much-beloved cork taint). There’s very slightly oxidized sweet spiced peach, bitter skins and light botrytis spice with a balanced, drying finish…but all the lushness of this wine is under some sort of shroud.

Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 1999 “Finale” (Waipara) is much better, showing creamy sweet tangerine, orange, spicy wood and noble rot influences, and a luscious balance and texture.

Bubble, bubble, chasselas & cabernet

Gibellini “Tenuta Pederzana” 2004 Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro (Emilia-Romagna) – Rough-hewn purple berry slushie, with zingy acidity, lip-staining tannin and a delightful froth of bubbles. Soda for adults…but adults who own a good toothbrush…and more fun every time I drink it.

“Oh, even I know that wine,” remarked my non-wine drinking mother over the holidays. Well, no she didn’t…which is lambrusco’s problem. Too many sickly-sweet versions in decades past have pretty much ruined the reputation of this grape. But if zinfandel, Chablis and even Soave can be resurrected, why not lambrusco? Yet to call this a “serious” lambrusco would also be missing the point; little about good lambrusco is “serious” in the manner of, say, a fine Bordeaux. That’s what makes it great. Alcohol: 11.5%. Importer: Ideal

Zusslin 2004 Chasselas “Vieilles Vignes” (Alsace) – Skins, very light lees, and mildly milky beige earth. It takes work to make chasselas interesting, and I don’t know that the requisite work has been done here.

Chasselas is a grape without much of a future in Alsace. New plantings are prohibited on grand cru sites, those that exist can’t carry the names of their crus (though some producers resort to semi-arcane codes to get the information out there), and there’s not much of a market for it outside Switzerland (where they mostly drink their own chasselas anyway). So it takes a special sort of monomania to grow and vinify the grape. But chasselas needs something special to make it more than alcoholic water, and most of the best terroirs are already being better-used by grapes that are, probably, of greater inherent worth. It’s a dilemma without an apparent solution. Alcohol: 12%. Biodynamic. Importer: Violette. Web:

Roussel & Barrouillet “Clos Roche Blanche” 2002 Touraine Cabernet (Loire) – Not-yet-blended red and black berries with ripe but hard tannin and a chewy, food-devouring texture. It lingers and lingers on the finish, getting more balanced all the while, so one (rightly, in my estimation) expects ageability. And this is important: it plays much more nicely with the right cuisine. Thick slabs of animal work best.

It initially seems to important to know whether the “cabernet” of the label implies a varietal cabernet franc, which would be typical for the Loire, or a cabernet franc/cabernet sauvignon blend. However, one must ask: is it really all that important? Certainly the father-and-son grapes aren’t going to be so wildly different that the distinction is vitally important in this case. This producer makes a host of varietal and semi-varietal wines from the soils of the Touraine, and while not all of them are at the same level of quality, this is one of their more reliable performers…and from an excellent vintage in the region. I’d recommend stocking up.Alcohol: 12%. Importer: Louis/Dressner. Organic.

S. Stefano 2004 Moscato d’Asti (Piedmont) – The usual perfume truck crashed into the usual flower shop, but this time there was a fruit stand in the way. This is decidedly on the fruitier side of moscato d’Asti, and also decidedly less lithe; it’s thick and sweet enough that one could easily confuse it for a higher-alcohol muscat were it not for the sudsy bubbles. It’s tasty enough, if perhaps a bit lurid, but I’m not sure this is the correct goal for moscato d’Asti.

Like the above-mentioned lambrusco, moscato d’Asti carries the baggage of a bad reputation. Except that this one is particularly mis-applied. First, Asti is a place, not a grape or a wine style. Second, despite the generally low quality of Asti Spumante (the wine that leads to the lousy reputation) on U.S. store shelves, the only inherent difference between that and moscato d’Asti is the alcohol level. That said, the general industrialization of producers of Asti Spumante is, indeed, to blame for the aforementioned low quality. All of this is a grand shame, because moscato d’Asti is one of the most delightful beverages anywhere; pure fun in a glass. And while this example doesn’t show all its potential qualities to the fullest potential, a chilled glass of moscato d’Asti is – except at its very, very worst – never a bad thing. Alcohol: 5.5%. Importer: Clicquot.


Aucœur 2002 Régnié “Cuvée de Vernus” (Beaujolais) – Tart raspberry, underripe red cherry and apple with acid-spiked sheets of rusty iron. This is starting its downslope, and giving way to the powerful acidities within, but it was fun while it lasted.

Régnié is one of the ten crus of Beaujolais, and according to most observers I’ve talked to one of the least definable; the wines have to be taken on a bottle-by-bottle basis. This is a wine I’ve liked a great deal, and I admit to surprise at the downturn; it was never a blockbuster gamay, but it was fairly solid and balanced, and three years isn’t that old. Serve it with tart food, however, and things should be OK.

Alcohol: 14%. Importer: Violette.

Beaumont 2004 Lirac Blanc (Rhône) – Stone fruit: the cocktail version. It doesn’t require a colorful paper umbrella, because everything’s fairly restrained rather than fruit salad-y, but this texturally sticky-silk wine is rather a mélange of varied fruits uncomplexed by more interesting characteristics. As with many Southern (and Northern) Rhône whites, interest may develop with age, but I’m not sure this wine has the structure to support much aging.

Despite being right next door to Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe, Lirac is – along with its west-of-Avignon partners Tavel and the villages of Chusclan and Laudun (the latter duo more north than west) – somewhat of a forgotten stepsister. Despite sharing with its neighbors a healthy grenache component, the reds from this appellation always seem more like syrah and/or mourvèdre to me. I’ve had very few rosés, and I believe this is one of the first domaine-bottled whites I’ve tasted. The grapes may include clairette, bourboulenc, grenache blanc, ugni blanc, picpoul, and the usual trio of Rhônish white grapes: viognier, marsanne, and roussanne. While I don’t know the specific cépage of this wine, I suspect the lack of greater complexity is due to the blend being dominated by the grapes at the former end of that list (which is required by law), rather than the latter. Or maybe it’s just not an ideal terroir for whites. More research is needed.

Alcohol: 13.5%. Importer: Vineyard Research.

Dashe 2002 Zinfandel (Sonoma County) – Unlike another recently-consumed bottle, this one has chosen to cower under a tight sheen of coconutty oak. There’s big, generous zinberry fruit underneath it all, but the performance of this wine is a touch inexplicable. Finishes with the expected blackberry liqueur and black pepper residue, though it’s important to note that this wine isn’t hot or boozy.

Mike Dashe used to make wine at Ridge. That should be enough to convince anyone of the potential quality of his zins (which make up the majority of his portfolio). If not, try this: Mike and his wife Anne are dedicated Francophiles; even with zinfandel, the monster truck of wine grapes, they do work to achieve balance in all that they do. (NB: Anne should be a Francophile, since she’s French…) Finally, they’re friends of mine. OK, maybe the last isn’t exactly a selling point, but I thought I’d throw it out there. It may help explain my enthusiasm for these wines, which are as big and bold as anyone could want, but rarely over the top (note: “rarely,” not “never”), and my confusion as to why Dashe isn’t more popular. Anyway, what we’ve got here is a lower-cost blend from some of the single-site wines the Dashes work with, designed for earlier drinking but – surprise, surprise – built for a little aging as well.

Alcohol: 14.1%. Web:

Zusslin Crémant d’Alsace Brut “Prestige” (Alsace) – Tight and unyielding, showing the barest hints of tart fruit and a featureless grey wall of industrial steel.

Valentin Zusselin et fils is a producer in Orschwihr about which I don’t know a lot, though I have tasted the wines both in Alsace and in the States, at their local importer’s tastings. This is not my favorite of their various wines, but I do encourage seeking out the others.

The Alsatian biodynamic crew’s wines share a restrained, difficult quality that with every passing year becomes ever more undoubtedly an outgrowth of the methodologies, and the argument that these issues are resolved by superior aging seems to me to only be borne out about half the time. I have no idea why biodynamics might be less successful in Alsace than elsewhere, though from both theoretical and practical standpoints it is difficult to fault the viticultural practices, and biodynamics are rarely paired with poor or abusive vinification. Elsewhere, I have heard theories (upon which I personally have no opinion as yet) that already-stressed vines don’t respond well to biodynamics, yet except on certain truly difficult sites, it’s not my impression that the grapes of Alsace are particularly stressed; in point of fact, the range of Germanic and Burgundian transplants seem often to have a fairly cushy lifestyle in the hills, slops and plains of the region. All of this summarizes to a big “I don’t know what’s wrong,” I agree, but I don’t know, and I’d love to. Any theories?

Alcohol: 12.5%. Biodynamic. Importer: Violette. Web:

Granger 2002 Juliénas (Beaujolais) – Dense and tannic. Dark berries land with a militaristic thud on the palate, and only some vividly floral aromatics and backpalate acidity mark this as Beaujolais at all. An ager, though I wonder if there’s enough fruit to meld with the structure.

This is another producer with which I don’t have much experience. After tasting this wine, I’m a little surprised, though I suspect the constant focus by local gamay fans on the wines brought by Kermit Lynch and Louis/Dressner may obscure the consistently good work done by Rosenthal in my market. Anyway, there’s much here worthy of deeper study, and I will attempt to sock a few of these away to continue the “research.”

Alcohol: 13%. Importer: Rosenthal.

Sierra smile

Sierra Vista 2003 Grenache (El Dorado) – Weighty but not powerful, with raspberry and pomegranate but very little of the expected bubblegum, a slightly sludgy structure (though there’s plenty of it), and a somewhat more promising introduction of ground-flowerbed earthiness and spice on the finish. I’m unsure about this wine.

This producer, hidden amongst the remote hills of California’s gold country, gets very little respect vs. the quality of wine they produce…an obvious result of location; put them in newly-hip Paso Robles and the wines would be both expensive and impossible to find. Their syrah, zinfandel, and cabernet are often world-class, and the rest of the portfolio isn’t bad either. This bottling, formerly a blending component in a Rhône-style wine called “Fleur de Montagne,” perhaps shows some of the potential flaws of varietal grenache…except that it is apparently the recipient of a little blended syrah. I do wonder if they’re using their best grapes for this wine, and based on their other results I suspect that if they did, matters would improve. I could easily be underrating it, however. Alcohol: 14%. Web:

In the Frick of it

Frick 2004 Pinot Blanc (Alsace) – Slightly sour grapefruit and limestone. Surly and maybe even a little bitter at its existence; one hopes a little time will smooth things over, but it’s not all that much fun to drink right now.

Frick is a producer I think I should like – good vineyard work, brought in by an importer whose wines I usually like, biodynamic (which usually indicates a certain qualitative fanaticism, apart from whether or not biodynamics actually work) – but don’t as often as I’d think. I’m not sure what the problem is…but if anyone knows, I’m open to suggestions. Alcohol: 12.5%. Sealed with a crown cap. Biodynamic. Importer: Louis/Dressner.

The Belle of the ball

Belle Pente 2003 Riesling (Willamette Valley) – Clean, water-washed ripe red apple and ripe lemon with moderate sweetness. It’s good for a fruity expression of riesling, but (at least at this stage) it lacks further complexities of the mineral or floral variety. The balance is there, but it remains to be seen if the wine will develop into anything more than pleasant.

Belle Pente (pronounced “bell pont,” in the French manner) is a winery best-known for its often-striking pinots, done in a restrained, elegant, and – dare I say it? – almost Burgundian fashion. Pinot and riesling are often paired in the minds of terroir-obsessed oenophiles, but outside New Zealand it’s rare for a winery to make them both well. One does indeed hope for more here, but it will be a long while before we can tell if the problem is the site or the application…and anyway, it’s not like the wine is unpleasant or flawed in any way. It’s just not as good as the pinots. Alcohol: 13.7%. Web: