Yalumba Muscat “Museum Reserve” (South Eastern Australia) – 375 ml. Overwhelmingly sweet (of course), with slow-caramelized dark brown sugar, maple and molasses lent bucketloads of baking spice from the long oak aging. I find differentiating these wines almost impossible – they’re mostly of a piece no matter the initial materials – except in two ways: their structure (which is especially key in the face of so much sugar) and their oxidative qualities (here at a relative minimum, given the style). This is a fairly simple, obvious expression, but it’s quite enjoyable (for non-diabetics) all the same. (12/06)
Bantlin “Domaine Les Portes” 2004 Vin de Pays des Côtes Catalanes Muscat Sec “fin de la nuit” (Roussillon) – Faded flowers and dried fruit fading into an oxidative summer sunset. Yet there’s something intriguing about this wine, which keeps enticing me back for sip after sip, until the liquid’s gone. How’d that happen? (9/06)
Sauzet 1998 Saint-Romain (Burgundy) – Sweet-sour grapefruit with a bit of sweaty acridity, good but slightly disjointed crispness, and a light sheen of mature butter. It gains some crisp, citrusy spice with extended aeration. A pretty good, light, lower-tier white Burgundy at full maturity. (9/06)
d’Angerville 1994 Volnay (Burgundy) – Harshly tannic at first, but this slowly fades, giving way to a nice mélange of well-aged red fruit and crumbled autumn leaves fallen on a mossy ground, with the morning’s frost rising as steam from wet, aromatic earth. This is a really lovely wine, but it requires time to present itself. (9/06)
Trimbach 1989 Gewurztraminer “Sélection des Grains Nobles” (Alsace) – From 375 ml. Not even close to ready, with lychee and peach fruit only mildly spiced (though heavily sweetened), and showing almost none of the expected meat-like characteristics that come with aged versions of this grape. A dining companion notes an emergent bitterness, which is typical for late-harvested gewurztraminer; he dislikes it, while I find it a necessary balancing element in the wine’s sugar-dominated structure. Way, way too young, but potentially very nice. However, if you’re insistent on opening something, the ’89 VT is drinking much better right now. (9/06)
Muga 2002 Rioja Reserva “Selección Especial” (Center-North) – Coconut-infused wood. There’s very little else. Just the wood, and the coconut. (9/06)
70% tempranillo, 20% garnacha, 10% mazuelo and graciano. Alcohol: 13.5%. Closure: cork. Importer: Jorge Ordoñez. Web: http://www.bodegasmuga.com/.
Domaine de Chevalier 1988 Pessac-Léognan (Bordeaux) – A gorgeous nose of cedar, thyme and graphite with little dustings of black cherry and cassis builds to…absolutely nothing. Other than a tart core of acidity, this wine is virtually void of palate or finish. It’s a perplexing thing, but maybe the best option is to smell and dump, rather than drink. (9/06)
65% cabernet sauvignon, 20% merlot, 5% cabernet franc. Alcohol: 12%. Closure: cork. Importer: Wildman. Web: http://www.domainedechevalier.com/.
Fèlsina “Berardenga” 1997 Chianti Classico “Vin Santo” (Tuscany) – Sweet strawberry, lime, mostarda, cider and pomegranate in a wine that, despite its heady richness, comes across as delightfully light and breezy. Yet there’s plenty of seriousness and complexity underneath. What really makes this work, however, is its exquisitely beautiful balance. (9/06)
80% malvasia & trebbiano, 20% sangiovese. Alcohol: 15%. Closure: cork. Importer: Domaine Select. Web: http://www.felsina.it/.
Roussel & Barrouillet “Clos Roche Blanche” 2005 Touraine Sauvignon “No. 2” (Loire) – As usual, more Touraine than sauvignon blanc, showing chalky, aspirin-like minerality with wet limestone and flecks of the driest citrus wine. However, there’s a slightly oppressive weight, albeit a flavorless one, that renders everything a little sticky and comes to dominate the finish. I’m unsure about this; it may be legendary, or it may be too much for itself. Time will tell, I guess…or not, because the closure won’t allow reliable aging past two or three years. Still, that might be enough time to tell the tale. (9/06)
Alcohol: 13%. Closure: extruded synthetic. Importer: Louis/Dressner/LDM.
Julien “Château Villerambert Julien” 2005 Minervois Rosé (Languedoc) – Slightly muted raspberry and lead, with a gauze-like texture. I think this may be very mildly corked, but in any case it’s not performing as it should. (9/06)
40% syrah, 30% grenache, 20% carignan, 10% mourvèdre. Alcohol: 13.5%. Closure: cork. Importer: Ideal. Web: http://www.villerambert-julien.com/.
Dashe 2002 Zinfandel Big River (Alexander Valley) – Big and slightly fierce, showing thoroughly untamed wild berries – dark and angry – with concentrated blackness somewhere in the realm between grilled meat and tar. There’s spice and structure to spare, and the wine grows more deliciously aromatic with aeration, yet its clenched fists never quite relax. Terrific, balanced, muscular zinfandel still in the hormonal rages of its rebellious youth. (9/06)
Alcohol: 14.9%. Closure: cork. Web: http://www.dashecellars.com/.
Ceuso 2004 “Scurati” (Sicily) – Dusty, fire-blackened blackberries, black pepper and asphalt-like rigidity that takes a jarring turn towards the sour on the palate; the acid and the black tannin then combine to dry out the finish. I want to like this unoaked nero d’avola for it’s relatively unspoofulated nature, but I just can’t. It’s as if these grapes have been pushed far past their endurance, only to collapse in exhaustion in the bottle. Proving, I guess, that over-oaking isn’t the only way to ruin nero d’avola. (9/06)
100% nero d’avola. Alcohol: 13.5%. Closure: cork. Importer: Vias. Web: http://www.ceuso.it/.
Arena 2001 Muscat du Cap Corse (Corsica) – Sap-exuding conifers, crushed pine needles and windswept maquis with gorgeous, crystalline, high-toned minerality in a steady rain of aromatic white flowers. Lovely acidity balances the succulent sweetness here. This is a fantastic, unique vin doux naturel from a grape that all too often renders its vinous products asymptotically indistinguishable. (9/06)
Alcohol: 16%. Closure: cork. Importer: Lynch.
Koehly 2004 Riesling Saint Hippolyte (Alsace) – Freshly-crushed stones, amidst which are sprouting delicate little alpine flowers; the latter eventually grow in proportion to all else. There’s a very slight hint of spicy sweetness, but juicy acidity brings the wine back to something that tastes no more than barely off-dry. Unfortunately, the finish is nonexistent. Koehly usually does better work than this. Perhaps cork failure or taint of some sort? (9/06)
Alcohol: 13%. Closure: cork. Importer: Rosenthal.
14 July 2006 – Willamette Valley, Oregon
Belle Pente – When first visiting a wine region, I normally like to taste as widely as possible. This necessarily precludes appointments, which demand more attention and longer stays (the downside, of course, is that casual tasting cannot replicate the in-depth knowledge acquisition achieved by conversations with winemakers). However, some wineries are only open by appointment, and so it can’t be helped. Such is the case at Belle Pente.
I first encountered this winery years and years ago, on one of the online wine fora; some guy named Brian O’Donnell would occasionally post, and in-the-know locals would in turn laud the wines – mostly pinot noir, but also selections from the Alsatian palette – he was making. They weren’t available where I lived at the time, and later encounters here and there had left me…not so much underwhelmed as confused. I couldn’t figure out what the wines were trying to be.
But then there was another bottle, and another, and pretty soon I was as intrigued by the winery as those aforementioned locals. So when it came time to visit the Willamette Valley, there was just one person I actually called for a visit.
Craig Camp from Anne Amie guides us down dusty country roads to an unassuming property with a hillside vineyard, and…hey, wait, is that a llama? Well, yes, it is. He’s supposed to be on guard duty over other livestock, but mostly he appears to be hiding in the shade, well away from his charges. Bad llama. Bad, bad llama.
O’Donnell has squeezed us in on a busy day and at the last minute, but generously runs us through a quick tasting that gets less quick as time goes on. Like most winemakers, he’s reticent at first, but warmer later, and the wine conversation grows more effusive and expansive as we proceed. He explains that their property dates to the 1840s, and that they’re only the fifth people on it; at the time of their 1992 purchase, it hadn’t been farmed in thirty years.
The initial plantings were pinot noir, chardonnay, pinot blanc and gamay, though this mix has changed and grown over the years. About 50% of the fruit is from estate vineyards (totaling about 16 acres, 12 of them pinot noir), and the winery’s long-term commitment to organic viticulture has grown into the full biodynamic regimen that will begin with the 2006 vintage. O’Donnell mentions that there’s quite a “study group” on biodynamics in the Willamette Valley, led by Mike Etzel of Beaux Frères, and that we’ll be seeing more and more such wines in the future.
Belle Pente 2005 Muscat (barrel sample) (Willamette Valley) – Dosed with sulfites just prior to our arrival, and thus showing a little oddly, but the quality is obvious. All the muscat signifiers are there – flowers, yellow plum, exotic perfume – with a striking mineral core and a long, dry finish (the wine carries just four grams of residual sugar). It might be just a bit too dry for the average muscat fan, but I think there’s obvious potential here, and would like to taste it when it’s free of the sulfites.
Belle Pente 2003 Gewurztraminer (Willamette Valley) – Light and shy on the nose, with full, fruity orange and peach dusted with a little spice. The finish is long and equally fruity. O’Donnell seems unsure about the wine, but I think it tastes like a cold site Bas-Rhin gewurztraminer, which isn’t a bad thing at all. What it’s not is lush and full-bodied, as many people presume gewurztraminer must be. Still, it’s outclassed (in a sense) by the next wine.
Belle Pente 2005 Gewurztraminer (barrel sample) (Willamette Valley) – From chardonnay vines grafted over to gewurztraminer (virtually the definition of a universal good), showing honeysuckle and a long, balanced and dry finish. There’s still not the overwhelming “whomp” of highly-ripe gewurztraminer in the Alsatian style, but what this wine has – and the 2003 lacks – is coherence and harmony. On the other hand, at the moment the 2003 is definitely more fun to drink.
Belle Pente 2004 Pinot Gris (Willamette Valley) – Anise, leaves and mild residual sugar with faint minerality. The finish is long and soft. One wishes for a little more of…well, something. The wine doesn’t necessarily need size, but in its absence more nerve and clarity would be welcome.
Belle Pente 2004 Riesling (Willamette Valley) – O’Donnell labels this wine “the upper end of halbtrocken,” and notes that some of the fruit is from the third vineyard planted in all of Oregon. It’s a beautiful, late spring wine, showing crushed slate (between which flowers are blossoming) and honey, with great acidity. The minerality expands and sharpens on the palate and throughout the finish, giving this wine the razor-edge necessary for riesling, but in a somewhat smiley-faced and more immediately appealing fashion than its Germanic ancestors. Among North American rieslings, this is near the top of its class; in the Fatherland and its oenological brethren (Unclelands?), it would be about middle of the pack. That, lest its unclear, is pretty high praise.
Belle Pente 2003 Chardonnay “Reserve” (Willamette Valley) – Two-thirds estate fruit, spending eighteen months in barrel on the gross lees (O’Donnell calls it an “extended élevage experiment”). There’s great, spicy orange rind and candied tangerine on the nose, though the wine’s initial attack is a bit hollow. Things fill out on the midpalate, and build towards more tangerines just loaded with barrel spice and yeasty tingles. There’s even a bit of gravel. It’s very good in its idiom, though it tastes a bit more “made” than the other wines in this portfolio.
Belle Pente 2004 Pinot Noir (Yamhill-Carlton District) – These are young vines, and the fruit spends twelve months in barrel. The wine shows elegance, with dried strawberry leaves in the key of autumn, and gray soil in a cold fall light. Is that a hint of funk on the finish? A very pretty wine with some brief notions of complexity, but some rebellious elements as well.
Belle Pente 2003 Pinot Noir Belle Pente Vineyard (Willamette Valley) – Eighteen months in barrel, and adjusted to 24 brix before fermentation. Ripe strawberry and red cherry with a hint of fraise liqueur, an intense floral overlay, and a sturdy, tannic structure. The finish is very long. A wine more for the future than for now, and it should definitely reward careful aging.
Belle Pente 2003 Pinot Noir “Estate Reserve” (Willamette Valley) – O’Donnell explains that this wine stems from a “red fruit/black fruit” decision, with the Estate Reserve designed to express the latter. The difference is immediately obvious, with a heady wave of cassis and blueberry supported by great structure constructed of perfect, ageworthy amounts of tannin and acid. The acidity and the sheer stuffing of this wine quite literally buzz on the palate, especially as the finish lingers. Gorgeous, and highly ageable. However, there’s a caveat: for some people, the greater heft of this wine is what will define its quality. I quibble with that characterization. The wine probably is “better” than its red-fruited brethren, but not because of the red/black fruit divergence or its size and impact, but because of its overall balance and harmony. Further, it is a forceful wine that expresses the potential of pinot noir in a completely different way than its predecessors…which means that the wine will have different uses on the palate, at the table, and in the cellar. Those who appreciate the wonderful malleability and diversity of pinot noir will embrace both styles for what they are.
(The original version, with more photos and less margin-squishing, is here …)
22 April 2006 – San Francisco, California
Aziza – This Richmond District Moroccan is always a lot of fun. We’d resolved to come back after our somewhat disastrous last experience…which wasn’t the fault of the restaurant, but rather of some sort of epic road rage incident on Geary Avenue that resulted in our dining companions’ new BMW being totaled while we noshed on lamb shanks.
Determined to do better, we arrive to a cheery staff who immediately appears to recognize us. Whether or not we’re unusually memorable, I can’t say, but it’s soon obvious that they all recall last year’s incident. The restaurant is packed and noisy (it is, after all, a Saturday night), but we’re put in as remote a corner as can be had, and this helps quiet the din somewhat. Food highlights include pistachio-encrusted goat cheese on a tomato/citrus jam with zaatar croutons, seafood phyllo triangles delicately laced with saffron, and a selection of wild mushroom with Manouri cheese (also on phyllo), but the star of the evening is presented as a special: a carrot soup with an utterly seductive mélange of spices and a flawlessly silky texture. After that exciting array of appetizers, the main courses are a bit less exciting, no thanks to a somewhat bland vegetarian couscous with tragically mild harissa. A terrific black cod claypot dish and a bit of the signature basteeya improve matters once more, to the point where we are simply incapable of eating another bite.
Inevitably, they bring us a selection of (comped) desserts: a piercing rhubarb tart, a strangely prosaic chocolate concoction that draws initial indifference but improves with each bite, and a fascinating reinvention of pistachios.
As for wine, I’m eager to sample from the always-enticing list, but our companions have brought their own, and who am I to look a gift bottle in the mouth?
Deiss 1998 Muscat d’Alsace Bergheim (Alsace) – Balanced and integrated floral aromatics (mostly orange blossoms) with great weight and concentration. Eventually one starts to tire of the aforementioned weight (it’s a bit fat on the finish), but this wine has aged nicely. It’s nice to know Deiss is still capable of making good wine.
Schaefer 1999 Graacher Domprobst Riesling Spätlese 17 00 (Mosel-Saar-Ruwer) – Quite sweet and possessing the texture of liquid glass, with ripe, sweet crabapple and a long, vivid finish. Glows with power, but it’s still fundamentally primary. Let it rest.
I top this off with a glass of the always-reliable Macallan 18 Year Scotch Whisky (a near-perfect blend of primary and oak-derived aromatics), while our dining companions introduce me to yet another take on anise liqueur, Lebanon’s arak (producer unknown), which has more bite and verve – albeit more rusticity and burn – than most of these beverages do. Fun stuff.