Browse Tag


TN: Catching up, pt. 2

St. Michael-Eppan “Sanct Valentin” 1995 Cabernet (Alto Adige) – Cedar, herbs and very slightly green cassis with the paired bites of acid and tannin poking at the edges. Perhaps only halfway to maturity, though I wonder if the fruit is sufficient to outcomplex the slightly hard, green notes. And for those interested in sly blind tasting adventures, this could pass for a Bordeaux with effortless ease. Not a great Bordeaux, but Bordeaux nonetheless. (9/06)

Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2000 Pinot Noir (Waipara) – At first, this wine can’t decide whether it wants to be grilled-plum syrah, or tart-berried pinot. There’s a lot of acid here, and eventually that acidity decides matters; the smokiness fades a bit, leaving a wine with lots of unfocused flavor but a somewhat hollow midpalate and a perhaps overly crisp finish. Starts wide, finishes narrow. It’s a good wine, but I’m not sure I’m entirely on board with the way it’s aging. (9/06)

Maculan 1998 Breganze “Torcolato” (Veneto) – 375 ml. A beautiful, inspiring mélange of cinnamon, nutmeg, pineapple, clove, blood orange, caramel and butterscotch with just the right amount of brightening acidity. My mouth is watering just writing this tasting note. One of the truly great sweet wines of the world, calling to mind all the classic elements of Sauternes-style wines, but with its own unique palette of aromas and characteristics. (9/06)

Prager 1996 Weissenkirchner Steinriegl Riesling Smaragd (Wachau) – Firm and stern to the point of being sour (more in mood than in structure), with dried greengage plum and wind-whipped limestone. Complex and interesting, but not – at this moment – pleasurable. It would appear to need time, since there’s an awful lot of “here” here. Or “there” there. Whatever. It’s a stupid turn of phrase anyway. (9/06)

casina ‘tavijn 2004 Ruché di Castagnole Monferrato (Piedmont) – Exotic, Thai-influenced red fruit with wild aromas darting from jarred cherry to makrut lime to rose jam, with juicy acidity and light, sandpapery tannin lurking in the background. Difficult to embrace without preparation, but lots of fun. (9/06)

Audras “Clos de Haute-Combe” 2002 Juliénas “Cuvée Prestige” (Beaujolais) – Gentle but surprisingly firm red fruit dusted with graphite and sweet black earth. Lithe and light, with fine acidity and an elegant, almost regal texture. Lovely. (9/06)

Kuentz-Bas 2004 Alsace (Alsace) – Fragrant, and promising more palate weight than it eventually delivers; the wine is fresh, lightly fruity (mostly from the white and green spectrum) and very lightly spicy, with a vaguely effervescent zing and good, food-friendly acidity. An hors d’oeuvre wine. (9/06)

Edmunds St. John 2003 “Rocks & Gravel” (California) – Dense, fruity blueberry compote with light leather and faint morels. Forward and juicy, with decent structure somewhat overwhelmed by a lot of friendly, smiling fruit. (9/06)

TN: Heights and lows (New Zealand, pt. 27)

[lunchtime in Bannockburn](The original version is here.)

No use crying

Dusty rock and scraggly, breeze-burnt trees surround us. Dry grass whips to and fro in the swirling wind. We’re seated at a concrete picnic table in a hollow, alongside what can only be described as a watering hole in the heart of Bannockburn wine country, and would be not at all surprised to see itinerant herds of antelopes (or hippopotami) making their jittery (or lumbering) way down to join us.

Bottles purchased at morning winery visits help weigh down the corners of our picnic set’s tablecloth, as we try to prevent its wind-driven flapping from catapulting our lunch into the pond. We very nearly succeed, until a particularly strong gust spills a full glass of wine all over…well, pretty much everything but us. I guess it’s good that it’s a white.

Amisfield “Lake Hayes” 2004 Riesling (Central Otago) – Lemon-lime and green apple; a fruit-forward and quite acidic expression of varietal riesling character, but with absolutely no additional complexities. There’s no depth here. I think I preferred it at the winery.

Oh, by gosh, by Gullies

The tasting facility at Akarua (technically known as Bannockburn Heights Winery, Ltd., though no one calls it that) is small and cozy, so it’s probably a good thing that we’re the only visitors. Attached are the winemaking facility and a small restaurant. Natalie Wilson, an engaging and eager-to-share host (and, not coincidentally, the winery’s Cellar Door Manager), does the pouring and talks us through the more interesting details, though she seems equally interested in our travels and experiences…a longer-form but no less charming version of “the conversation.” There’s a nice selection of wine on offer (perhaps more when the conversation turns geeky), and some brewed-on-site beer as well.

All the fruit used here is from estate-owned vineyards, and a new winemaker has recently joined, making the notes that follow a bit of an historical snapshot. The core winemaking and viticultural team is now 100% female; though women are not at all unusual at the helm of New Zealand wineries (witness Michelle Richardson, of Villa Maria, Peregrine, and now an eponymous label), women inhabiting all key positions is just a touch unusual.

Bannockburn Heights “Akarua” 2004 Pinot Rosé (Central Otago) – From what Natalie calls “dropped fruit” rather than from a saignée, which seems a somehow less manipulative thing to do than making a saignée rosé for the primary purpose of concentrating a red, as so often happens. This wine is decidedly not dry – which I guess puts it in the white zin category – but it handles that burden with much more aplomb than most “blush” wines, showing sweet strawberry and red cherry in a pretty, sun-filled punch. Not “serious” in the least.

Bannockburn Heights “Akarua” 2004 Pinot Gris (Central Otago) – Pear and dry, ripe apple with a really great intensity on the finish. This wine is partially fermented in French oak (I don’t know how old), and seems to absorb the experience with deftness. A nice wine.

Bannockburn Heights “Akarua” 2004 “Unoaked” Chardonnay (Central Otago) – Peach and tangerine; intensely ripe and fruity, with a short finish. Fun. One must approach most unoaked New World chardonnays with simplified expectations, and this wine satisfies those expectations.

Bannockburn Heights “Akarua” 2003 Chardonnay (Central Otago) – 100% malolactic fermentation, with a dollop of new wood (mostly expressed by a clove accent on the nose), but otherwise dominated by ripe pear and nectarine. Unfortunately, the finish is deadened; a nice wine cut short before its time. I often find this character in wines freshly pulled from new wood, but that doesn’t apply here, and so I’m afraid it must be attributed to the wine.

Bannockburn Heights “Akarua” 2003 Pinot Noir “The Gullies” (Central Otago) – A barrel selection despite the geographical-sounding name, with just 5% new wood and done in an upfront, early-drinking style. Perhaps extremely so: sharp strawberry and fresh red cherry with a rasp of slightly bitter tannin make this a wine very obviously for the now. Only just OK.

Bannockburn Heights “Akarua” 2003 Pinot Noir (Central Otago) – Smooth black cherry, plum and earth (it’s striking how easily these Central Otago pinots move into the black fruit realm), with its own very slightly underripe tannin, but showing much longer and more intense with superior overall structure. It will never be great, but it’s certainly very good, and has aging potential.

This is a pleasant and tasty lineup of wines…solid (if slightly underachieving) with potential and an apparent desire for improvement. Just around the corner, however, big things are happening. Big things.

Disclosures: free bottle of beer from co-owned brewery, trade discount on wine purchases.

TN: Black and Goldtröpfchen

[label]Poverty Lane “Farnum Hill” 2004 Kingston Black Cider “Reserve” (New Hampshire) – Striking raspberry and chalk with not-insignificant tannin. Minerality is cider is no less welcome than it is in wine. (10/06)

Apple: kingston black. Alcohol: 8.5%. Closure: cork. Web:

[vineyard]Bott-Geyl 2002 Riesling “L’Exception Botrytis” (Alsace) – The strong palate impact of drying botrytis dominates this wine, and though there’s some obvious sweetness it’s a pretty well-balanced wine. There’s also iced peach skin, ripe (and slightly sweet) celery, and a long, candied/gingered orange finish sharpened by shattered crystalline acidity. It won’t be for everyone, though. (10/06)

Biodynamic. Grape(s): riesling. Alcohol: 13.5%. Closure: cork. Importer: Solomon/European Cellars. Web:

Leitz 2004 Rüdesheimer Klosterlay Riesling Kabinett 005 05 (Rheingau) – Big, sweet and fruity, with a steely banana core and sharp acidity underneath. Perhaps not so much of a kabinett, but a good, balanced wine with aging potential. (10/06)

Grape(s): riesling. Alcohol: 8%. Closure: cork. Importer: Theise/Skurnik. Web:

[Piesport]Bollig-Lehnert 2005 Piesporter Goldtröpfchen Riesling Spätlese 05 06 (Mosel-Saar-Ruwer) – Sulfur and mint with a faint spritz. Otherwise, it’s somewhat of a dead weight. (10/06)

Grape(s): riesling. Alcohol: 8.5%. Closure: cork. Importer: Carolina. Web:

Valckenberg 2004 Gewürztraminer 07 05 (Pfalz) – Roses with light peach and pear. Fragrant and medium-sweet. Gewurztraminer with training wheels. (10/06)

Grape(s): gewürztraminer. Alcohol: 11%. Closure: cork. Importer: Valckenberg. Web:

TN: Catching up

Apologies for the long delay between updates. Life called, and it wasn’t bearing a case of La Tâche. Why does that never happen, anyway?

Ollivier “La Pépière” 2004 Muscadet Sèvre & Maine “Sur Lie” Moulin de la Gustaie (Loire) – Fresh and lively sea-breeze and apple, with complexing saltwater sand notes and dried white flowers. Somewhat mossy, yet as vivid as you’d want. A really interesting wine. (9/06)

Grape(s): melon de bourgogne. Alcohol: 12%. Closure: cork. Importer: Louis/Dressner/LDM. Web:

Unckrich 2005 Kallstadter Steinacker Grauer Burgunder Spätlese Trocken 013 06 (Pfalz) – Simple, slightly acrid pear squeezings (heavy on the skins) and faded grapefruit/lime soda, with nice acidity and a chalky undertone. It seems interesting at first, but after a while the realization sets in: it’s a little boring if taken in quantity. But “boring” doesn’t mean “bad,” and in fact this wine is tasty enough. (9/06)

Grape(s): grauer burgunder (a/k/a pinot gris). Alcohol: 13%. Closure: cork. Importer: Boston Wine. Web:

[Boulard]Boulard Champagne Mailly “Grand Cru” Brut (Champagne) – This is an older release, perhaps 1999/2000 or so. Deep, almost animalistic red fruit and black chanterelle aromas with a spicy, bready, brown-toned aura of brooding antagonism. It’s as forcefully flavorful as a fine red Burgundy, stronger-willed than most Champagnes, and seems fully mature. Striking wine. (9/06)

French bottling. Grape(s): 90% pinot noir, 10% chardonnay. Alcohol: 12%. Closure: cork. Web:

Gresser 2001 Riesling Duttenberg (Alsace) – Minerals through gauze, showing too much restraint and a thick, somewhat clumsy texture at first. This all resolves after an hour or so of air, and the wine’s minerality sharpens, turning to fine particulate glass in an overcast mood. All this indicates is that aging is most likely required. (9/06)

Grape(s): riesling. Alcohol: 12.5%. Closure: cork. Importer: Ideal. Web:

Karthäuserhof 1992 Eitelsbacher Karthäuserhofberg Riesling Spätlese (auction) 9 93 (Mosel-Saar-Ruwer) – Warring between its youthful crispness and its mature creaminess, this is a gorgeous soda of acid-washed quartz and bubbly cocktail lime. Perhaps even a brief shot of gin? Terrific riesling just on the other side of its midlife crisis.(9/06)

Grape(s): riesling. Alcohol: 7.5%. Closure: cork. Importer: Old Vine. Web:

R&V Dauvissat 1995 Chablis La Forest “1er Cru” (Chablis) – Blended herbal tea leaves with blackened crystal minerality and old stone fruit dusted with a cabinet full of faded spices. There’s old wood here too – not oak, but the antique smell of a great-grandfather’s desk – and a gorgeous, almost milky texture. Stunning. (9/06)

Grape(s): chardonnay. Alcohol: 13%. Closure: cork. Importer: Haas/Vineyard Brands. Web:

[Chapoutier]Chapoutier 1989 Hermitage (Ermitage) “Le Pavillon” (Rhône) – Medium-well leather and slow-cooked meat in a silky, sensuous, almost creamy wine full of soft, mouthfilling meatfruit and Provençal herbs. There’s so little structure than the creaminess turns somewhat flouncy on the palate, and one longs for a little muscularity, or at least assertiveness. Perhaps more importantly, there’s nothing about this that suggests any of the masculinity of great Hermitage. It’s a very good wine, but I’m not sure it’s a good representative of its appellation. (9/06)

Ermitage is an alternative form of Hermitage. Biodynamic. Grape(s): syrah. Alcohol: 13.5%. Closure: cork. Importer: Paterno. Web:

[Chapoutier]Chapoutier 1994 Châteauneuf-du-Pape “La Bernardine” (Rhône) – Corked. (9/06)

Biodynamic. Grape(s): grenache & syrah. Alcohol: 13.8%. Closure: cork. Importer: Paterno. Web:

TN: Arena number two

[Muga]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:

[DDC]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:

[Fèlsina]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:

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.

[Minervois]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:

[Dashe]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:

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:

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.

TN: From the farm to the white house

La Vieille Ferme 2005 Côtes du Ventoux Rosé (Rhône) – Slightly candied strawberry juice and canned red cherry, both overwhelmed by sweetening alcohol. (9/06)

50% cinsault, 40% grenache, 10% syrah. Alcohol: 13%. Closure: screwcap. Importer: Vineyard Brands. Web:

Sterling 2002 Chardonnay (71% Napa County / 16% Sonoma County / 13% Mendocino County) – Sweet peach, honeydew melon and orange with a pretty, albeit confected, palate presence and lots of buttery, toasty wood. Paint-by-numbers chardonnay, and tedious before the first sip has left one’s mouth. (9/06)

Alcohol: 13.5%. Web:

Faiveley 1998 Bourgogne Hautes-Côtes de Nuits “Dames Huguettes” (Burgundy) – Dead. (9/06)

French bottling. 100% pinot noir.Alcohol: 12.5%. Closure: cork. Web:

Faiveley 2002 Mercurey “Domaine de la Croix Jacquelet” (Burgundy) – Corked. (9/06)

100% pinot noir. Alcohol: 13%. Closure: cork. Importer: Wilson Daniels. Web:

Goats Do Roam Wine Company 2003 “Goat-Roti” (Western Cape) – Big, obvious dried blackberry and synthetic leather with tarred wood and rosemary squeezings. It’s exceedingly heavy, but somehow manages to lack structure. There’s nothing overtly wrong with this wine, but it’s not very interesting either. (9/06)

96% shiraz, 4% viognier. Alcohol: 14.5%. Closure: cork. Importer: Vineyard Brands. Web:

Trimbach 1996 Riesling “Cuvée Frédéric Émile” (Alsace) – From 375. Very, very tight and sulfurous at first. With a few hours of air and aggressive swirling, the classic CFE profile of liquefied metal appears, in a razor-sharp pillar of crystalline structure. In no conceivable universe is this yet ready to drink. (9/06)

Closure: cork. Importer: Seagram. Web:

Parcé “Domaine du Mas Blanc” 1998 Collioure Clos du Moulin (Roussillon) – Rough, leathery fruit that’s been involved in some sort of long-lasting street brawl, leaving it bruised and bloodied by somehow matured by the effort. The aromatics are enticing, showing dark wet soil and fall leaves, with brief intrusions of gentler floral notes and the occasional trace of dark soy. Really nice wine, though certainly not polished to a sheen for modern tastes. (9/06)

90% mourvèdre, 10% counoise. Closure: cork. Web:

TN: Barth and parcel

Barth 2004 Riesling Rebgarten (Alsace) – Ripe, crystallized peach and pear confiture with quartz-like minerality, lemon verbena tea and a spicy, rich sweetness. Everything rushes to a climax on the midpalate, leaving a finish that’s a good deal less sugary, but also fairly wan in comparison to the wine that precedes it. I don’t know that it tastes much like riesling, though, and while it’s loud, it lacks spine. (8/06)

Reports on the web indicate that this wine underwent malolactic, which is unusual (and usually deliberately avoided) for Alsatian riesling. The attenuated, nerve-reduced character is something I associate with the few companion examples I’ve tasted. As for the site, it’s near Bennwihr, generally east-facing and consists of multiple soil types. Alcohol: 13%. Closure: cork. Importer: Vineyard Research.

TN: From the Saar to Groenekloof

Van Volxem 2002 Saar Riesling 01 03 (Mosel-Saar-Ruwer) – Gorgeously-textured silk paper with the thinnest possible coating of lime honey and a fine-grained granitic surface. The power is obvious at first, though it does recede at an accelerated pace, and this is not a wine for the long haul. (8/06)

Run by the incomprehensibly-named Roman Niewodniczanski, this is an estate with lots of creative ideas about wine. There are successes and there are failures, but certainly no one can say the property is dull. Age – as with this wine – helps clarify some of the notions that Mr. N. is pursuing, because some of his fresh-off-the-bottling-line efforts can be a little obscure. Alcohol: 11.5%. Closure: cork. Importer: Theise. Web:

JJ Prüm 1999 Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Kabinett 3 02 (Mosel-Saar-Ruwer) – Better than a previous encounter, with an old-riesling cream supported by dusty, post-windstorm summer leaves and a baked, country road strewn with gravel. Still, it’s definitely on the downslope. (8/06)

One of the better vineyards of the Mosel, producing wines that are usually on the fruitier side in their youth. And, unlike so many of its modern brethren, this feels like it should actually be labeled kabinett…rather than spätlese or, heaven forfend, even auslese. Alcohol: 8.5%. Closure: cork. Importer: Classic. Web:

[Scharzhofberg]von Hövel 2005 Scharzhofberg Riesling Kabinett 9 06 (Mosel-Saar-Ruwer) – Sweet melon and crisp, ripe engineered apple (by which I mean, one of those Honeycrisp-type breeds) with acidity and intensity, but not much cut or integration. It’s awfully young, so there’s still time, but this seems more a collection of fine ideas than a unified theory. (8/06)

Unquestionably one of the great vineyards of Germany, though the site is perpetually underutilized by many (most?) growers. The best wines have an impressive complexity that is maintained through a long aging curve. Alcohol: 9.5%. Closure: cork. Importer: Classic. Web:

[Hattenheimer Nußbrunnen]von Simmern 2004 Hattenheimer Nußbrunnen Riesling Kabinett 009 05 (Rheingau) – Sweet-tart key lime and shattered quartz crystal minerality with raw steel and a subdued, but solid, structure hanging out in the background. Promising, though there’s the threat of a heavy metal drone looming in the subaudible. (8/06)

The 1893 labels on this estate’s wines are perfect examples of how to make an already-unfamiliar wine completely unidentifiable. Which is a shame, because the wines are really terrific across the range. And “thanks” to a rough patch a short while back, they’re also relatively underpriced for their quality. Not that much in Germany is exactly overpriced in that regard. Alcohol: 11%. Closure: cork. Importer: Carolina. Web:

Sokol Blosser “Evolution” 9th Edition (America) – Off-dry, floral, fruity and fun, though it’s flabbier than a sea lion and sorta flops around in the glass. Cocktail wine, without question. (8/06)

Riesling, müller-thurgau, pinot gris, sémillon, muscat, gewurztraminer, sylvaner, pinot blanc and chardonnay. When this wine was first introduced, it was “Evolution #9.” I suspect Apple (the music publisher, not the computer/iPod manufacturer) had something to say in response, because it’s not called that anymore. Alcohol: 12%. Closure: cork. Web:

Roussel & Barrouillet “Clos Roche Blanche” 2005 Touraine “Cuvée Gamay” (Loire) – Bitterly tannic when first opened, though this quickly recedes under the impetuous crescendo of graphite-tinged wild cherry and rose hip fruit. There’s an almost vibrant sense of possibility here, though it buzzes and dances just out of perception for the moment, and the structure of the wine is, other than a slight gravitational tug towards the tannic, very nice. (8/06)

Gamay is so delicately malleable in the soils of Beaujolais that it’s almost certain to do wonderfully expressive things elsewhere. Yet it remains so relentlessly unhip that few are much moved to try. This isn’t to say that there’s not a lot of non-Beaujolais gamay elsewhere in France – there is – just that most of it’s fairly mediocre. Here, for example, is a delightfully different take on the grape from the soils of the Touraine. Alcohol: 12%. Closure: extruded synthetic. Importer: Louis/Dressner/LDM.

Peillot 2003 Vin du Bugey Mondeuse (Ain) – Spiced blackberry soda, with blueberry skin and slashing razors of sharp herbs, tar dust and grillchar. Yet it’s full-bodied enough to withstand these rendings, and fills the room with delicious, pulsating fruit. A true success. (8/06)

See previous note for more on this wine. Alcohol: 12%. Closure: cork. Importer: Louis/Dressner/LDM.

Easton 2004 Zinfandel (Amador County) – Briary wild berry fruit and vanilla-coconut wood, with the suggestion more than the actual presence of firming structure…yet the wine is neither soft nor out of balance (for a zin). Good, early-drinking stuff. (8/06)

See previous note for more on this wine. Alcohol: 14.5%. Closure: cork. Web:

[Onyx]Darling Cellars “Onyx” 2002 “Noble Late Harvest” (Groenekloof) – Beautiful old honey and nut paste in a toasty-spicy cream. Extremely sweet, though buoyed by a fair sense of acidity, with rich sunset browns, oranges and golds lingering on the succulent finish. Gorgeous. (8/06)

100% botrytis-affected chenin blanc, 240 g/l residual sugar. Though it’s made from chenin, and should thus theoretically be more akin an ultra-late harvest Côteaux-du-Layon or Vouvray, the actual model here is Sauternes…most easily seen via the oak aging that lends much of the spice to this wine. In truth, many grapes respond well to this treatment, though few can reach the standalone heights of botrytized chenin in its native state. This is not to suggest that the winemaker missed the boat here (especially since the wine is terrific), only that alternative expressions are possible and might be worth exploring. Alcohol: 11.5%. Closure: cork. Importer: Loest & McNamee. Web:

TN: Mushroom, mushroom (Oregon, pt. 8)

(The original version, with bigger photos, is here.)[vineyard]

14 July 2006 – Willamette Valley, Oregon

Joel Palmer House – For some people, the Willamette Valley isn’t about grapes at all. It’s about mushrooms, which grow wild, and…apparently…in some quantity, or so one must conclude from their ubiquity on local menus. But no one does as much with as many champignons as this restaurant, yet another set in a converted house of considerable charm. Not that we get to enjoy much of that charm, because we sit outside. It’s a beautiful evening; why waste it?

Service is a bit on the quick side, and since we’re ordering the five-course mushroom tasting menu, this rapidity does impact our ability to finish each dish. However, it’s hard to find fault with a restaurant that passes out free glasses of Argyle when one of the managers learns he’s just become an uncle.

Argyle 2001 Brut (Willamette Valley) – Frothy. Tart citrus and more lurid tropical notes dominate a wine playing host to a war between simplicity and goofiness. It’s pleasant, but easily forgotten.

The tasting menu works like this: a diner selects a “main” course from the (already mushroom-dominated, though there are a scant few exceptions) regular menu, while the chef constructs the rest of the meal based on what’s been freshly-foraged. It’s an exciting concept, and we do love mushrooms, so…

Amuse bouche: mushroom risotto. The concentration of mushroom flavor here is almost unfathomable (one presumes mushroom stock of a rare intensity), though this is balanced by a heady dose of piquant parmesan. The risotto is done in the drier American style, in which the rice is a bit softer and the runoff less pronounced. But it’s no less excellent for it.

First course #1: porcini chowder. All the classic elements of pure New England chowder (well, minus the potatoes) are here, with the creamy and sweetly earthy power of porcini in their thick dairy sludge dominating the little counterpoints of corn. Delicious.

[cat]First course #2: mushroom soup (from an old family recipe). Theresa receives this as an alternative to my chowder…and while my dish is nearly flawless, this one is flawless. A beautifully-integrated mélange of flavors literally explodes with every bit of fungal earthiness one can imagine. It’s salty, but not overly so, and I could happily eat bowl after bowl of this. But then, I’d miss out on the rest of the meal. Pure umami, available by the spoonful and growing under a tree near you.

Second course: three-mushroom tart. Simplicity works best here, showing off the quality of a blend of mushrooms that, contrary to many such tarts I’ve had, are not variably overcooked. Perfect.

Third course: baked portobello with gruyere. Decent, but nothing special.

Fourth course: sautéed morels with crisp potato curls. Just when the earthy intensity of the mushrooms – and these are pretty spectacular morels – threatens to overwhelm, these crisp little shreddings of potato liven things up. Sort of a root vegetable intermezzo, if you will.

Fifth course: local (from nearby Carlton) fallow venison served with juniper-infused red cabbage and black trumpet mushrooms. My most disappointing dish, and one I do not care for at all. The problem here is the cabbage; an extremely sour and over-flavored expression that reminds me of an Vienna-style Christmas dish cranked up to eleven (or perhaps about eighteen). It obliterates the mushrooms, and comes very close to muting any positive qualities of the venison as well. What’s the point? Theresa opts for a ’shroom-less rack of lamb with jalapeño cornbread, which is quite nice but very spicy…and also a huge amount of food to appear this late in a tasting menu.

Sixth course: candy cap mushroom ice cream, with caramelized candy caps and candy cap cheesecake, plus a hazelnut/chocolate torte with raspberry sauce. Now, careful readers will note that the five-course tasting menu has, including the amuse bouche, become seven courses comprising nine different dishes. This isn’t a bad thing at all, but given the quantities involved it’s worth noting. More importantly, this is an incredible dish, utilizing the natural, maple-like sweetness of this rather unique mushroom to stunning effect. The non-mushroom torte is awfully nice as well, with a better balance between the nuts and the chocolate than such concoctions usually possess, and showing admirable restraint with the sauce.

All of this is paired with a selection from a very long wine list, jammed with local specialties (and, of course, very heavy on the pinot noir, which can and does excel with the mushroom-dominated cuisine) and littered with mini-verticals. However, the markups range from large to huge, and there’s very little that comes with a “name” or an appealing number of years in bottle to be had for less than three digits. It’s not that there’s a lack of bottlings at more reasonable prices, it’s just that with a list like this, one hopes to be able to drink something not currently (and widely) commercially available without sending the tariff into the Michelin-starred range. We have a long, friendly, but ultimately frustrating dialogue with a waiter who presents himself as the wine guy for the evening, though he seems unable to find something to our tastes (all his suggestions are way, way above our oak/extraction thresholds) without several consultative trips to the kitchen…and even then, his suggestions are not really what we’re looking for. Lacking expert local guidance, we turn to a bulkier variation on an old friend.

[vulture]Domaine Coteau 2002 Pinot Noir “Reserve” (Yamhill County) – Solid, with dark fruit and black, post-forest fire undergrowth. A dense, muscular structure surrounds the brooding fruit, and there’s incredible aging potential here. Right now, however, it’s all a bit much to take, and requires aggressive food to keep it in check.

Coffee is weak…not that it much matters, because we’re stuffed to the gills. I take a flyer on a glass of dessert wine, though in the end I wish I’d not bothered.

Sineann 2002 Riesling Medici (Willamette Valley) – The restaurant’s wine list calls this “late harvest,” but I can find no evidence that such a wine exists in the Sineann portfolio, leaving this as the only identifiable alternative. Anyway, it’s out of balance, showing sweet lime, lemon and green grape with spiky acid that’s completely unable to beat back a thick, goopy sludge. Those for whom intensity is the only worthwhile virtue in wine will find this exemplary. But it’s not good. It’s not good at all.

The final verdict on the Joel Palmer House is this: the chef has a clear specialty, and like many other such chefs can appear to lose interest in dishes that don’t fit the theme. Almost any dish with mushrooms will be somewhere between good and extraordinary, while other dishes are decidedly more variable. And the salt-averse will want to be wary here. However, the relentless brilliance of the majority of the mushroom dishes makes this one of those meals that surpasses its objective quality, making it truly memorable. That’s something that even many of the best restaurants in the world can’t say, and something to be cherished.

TN: Bugey Bay

Bottex Bugey-Cerdon “La Cueille” (Ain) – The usual slightly off-dry raspberry froth, with a slightly bitter and hollow edge that’s definitely not usual for this wine. (8/06)

Gamay and poulsard, allowed (rather than induced) to sparkle. Alcohol: 8%. Closure: cork. Importer: Lynch.

Westport Rivers 1999 Brut “Cuvée RJR” (Southeastern New England) – Tastes strongly of tonic water and mineral salts, with grapefruit and some aged, yeasty creaminess lurking in the background. This has always been a bit odd and slightly disjointed, and age doesn’t seem to be helping. Look for other vintages. (8/06)

Don’t let my tepid reaction to this wine turn you off Westport River’s sparklers in general, which are usually quite good…and incredibly good considering their Massachusetts origin. It’s definitely cool-climate viticulture, but that’s a boon for sparkling wine production. As for other vintages: if you run across any ’98, snap it up. It’s drinking beautifully right now. Closure: cork. Web:

JJ Prüm 1999 Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Kabinett 3 02 (Mosel-Saar-Ruwer) – Soft and fully creamed, perhaps overly so, with spicy dust starting to fade away on a dry Sahara wind. (8/06)

This isn’t overly old for a kabinett, so a less-satisfying performance is a little surprising. It’s probably an artifact of the vintage, but it could also be something in the wine’s storage history (it was recently purchased, rather than bought at release and cellared). Still, it does point out why even ageable kabinett usually gets consumed in the first flush of youth: the rewards of aging are not always as clear as they are for spätlese and riper styles. Alcohol: 8.5%. Closure: cork. Importer: Classic. Web:

[Tablas Creek]Tablas Creek 2002 “Côtes de Tablas” Blanc (Paso Robles) – Mixed nut oils and dried apricots with a roasted earth and mushroom character. The wine doesn’t initially seem all that assertive, but there’s a surprising amount of power and concentration, which must eventually express itself as force. This is a very complete and impressive wine. (8/06)

36% Viognier, 30% marsanne, 26% grenache blanc, 8% roussanne. I’ve noted before how I find this winery’s Rhône-style whites an even more impressive achievement than their reds, and this is another reason why. Rhône whites are notoriously cranky agers, and yet bottle after bottle of this wine shows clear development and increased complexity. Alcohol: 14.2%. Closure: cork. Web:

[Tempier]Peyraud “Domaine Tempier” 2003 Bandol Rosé (Provence) – Orange blossoms and lavender. Serious and structured for a rosé, but in a very light-bodied way. In other words, just about everything one wants from a rosé. Yet the finish is nearly absent, which is probably an artifact of the vintage. (8/06)

This is a very expensive rosé (around $30 at one local store, though I bought it for much less), and one expects a lot at that price. In many years, Tempier delivers. This, at least, is a healthy attempt. Alcohol: 11-14%. Closure: cork. Importer: Lynch. Web:

[Van Duzer]Van Duzer 1998 Pinot Noir “Barrel Select” (Willamette Valley) – Brown earth, loam, wet autumn leaves and dried cherries. Just a little tiny bit past it, with the tannin biting the remaining aromatics into rough chunks, chewing them up, and spitting them out in an increasingly angry way. Drink up soon. (8/06)

Van Duzer has taken a turn for the commercial and increasingly dismal, but this is a reminder of a time when they made better wine. Even then, the last time I tasted this wine (maybe 2004 or so), it was drinking beautifully. Well, that was a quick demise… Alcohol: 13.5%. Closure: cork. Web:

[Pegasus Bay]Donaldson Family “Pegasus Bay” 2000 Pinot Noir (Waipara) – Massive black fig, dark plum, orange rind and intense, ripe red beet. It seems like it should be packed with structure, but it’s really not. A bit of a hammer blow pinot, yet one with amazing complexity and persistence. Still, it is big. (8/06)

Outstanding pinot in the forceful modern style. In fact, it does veer into syrah territory, and many will dislike it for that reason – I myself would be disheartened if most pinot tasted like this – but as an occasional alternative, its qualities are impossible to deny. Alcohol: 13.9%. Closure: cork. Importer: Empson. Web: