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tasting notes

Turning the Tablas

[vineyard & rock]Notes from a Tablas Creek wine dinner at Simon Pearce in Quechee, Vermont. Food pairings, and their appropriateness with the wines, are described below.

Tablas Creek 2005 Grenache Blanc (Paso Robles) – Stone fruit and almond oil with hints of acacia. Crisp apples dominate the midpalate, which brightens and freshens everything before a denser finish of blood orange rind. This is a really nice wine, with more life and vivacity than one might expect from a Rhônish white, and it would appear to have some medium-term aging potential as well. (1/08)

Served with: Peekytoe crab & shrimp cake with a cucumber/lychee relish and a Key lime vinaigrette. This dish is a tremendous accompaniment to the wine, with each enhancing the other.

Tablas Creek 2000 “Clos Blanc” (Paso Robles) – 45% roussanne, 19% viognier, 19% marsanne, and 17% grenache blanc. Definitely showing signs of age, with a buttered caramel, lactic character dominating the nose. The palate, too, has turned to fat without sufficient substance. However, things are not quite so dire once one really works their way into the wine, which shows intense Rainier cherry, strawberry and apricot warmed by the hot Paso Robles sun. And then, things turn strange again, with an angular, somewhat distorted finish. I wouldn’t hold this any longer, if you’ve still got any. (1/08)

Served with: Atlantic halibut and smoked salmon roulade, almond orange rice pudding, and apricot honey vin blanc. The dish is grossly, inappropriately sweet, and completely obliterates the wine…not that what could be discerned seemed to match very well. Even taken on its own merits, this course is abominable. The rice pudding would be pretty nice on its own, as a dessert, but here? Ugh.

Tablas Creek 2004 “Côtes de Tablas” Rouge (Paso Robles) – 64% grenache, 16% syrah, 13% counoise, 7% mourvèdre. This feels a little lighter than previous vintages, but that may just be the influence of the food. Dark fruit and a slim but present structure dominate, with a dusting of fennel pollen and the very slightest edge of volatile acidity hovering atop the aromatics; nothing that anyone not oversensitive (like me) will notice, though. Soft and accessible throughout, though it seems to fill out on the finish. A typically solid, reliable, good-quality effort. (1/08)

Served with: juniper-seared venison loin, white truffle cauliflower gratin, and cherry molasses sauce. The food is too powerful for the wine, though I suspect a lower-volume dish with the same flavors would make a pretty good match. The sauce isn’t as sweet as it sounds, but the real star on the plate is the cauliflower gratin, which has a crumbed coating and is a really terrific way to extend the natural qualities of this sometimes overlooked vegetable.

Tablas Creek 2004 Tannat (Paso Robles) – 92% tannat, 8% cabernet sauvignon. This is my first domestic tannat; the only other examples I’ve tasted have been from France, Uruguay, and New Zealand. And if this is any indication, there’s great potential for this grape, though I can’t imagine the marketing nightmare it might represent. Deep, dark, mysterious, and even a little murky, with enticements of black licorice and blackcurrant, there’s the expected quantity of tannin here, but none of the usual qualities of tannin one expects from this legendarily tannic grape; instead, the structure is leathery, ripe, and…well, lush. It does calcify a bit on the finish, though…tannat fans need not worry overmuch…while the wine veers into an iron-rich, blood-like phase. There’s a touch of heat throughout, but only a touch. Terrific, and obviously quite ageable. (1/08)

Served with: braised veal cheek, caramelized shallot, marrow, and potato hash with pomegranate cassis jus. A little sweeter than it should be, but the braising and caramelizing components work well with the wine’s deep blackness. The marrow is completely lost, and I think that this dish would, in general, be better without the fruity enhancements. But, of course, Simon Pearce can’t help itself when it comes to adding sweeteners to food.

Tablas Creek 2005 Vin de Paille “Sacrérouge” (Paso Robles) – A dried-grape sweet wine made from mourvèdre. And it tastes like…figs! Black Mission figs, to be precise, in an almost uncannily accurate alcoholic form. Vague suggestions of strawberry jam, plum, or even prune are quickly dismissed by the figgy assault, and the wine has the texture of the seedy pulp left over from squeezing fruit as a preliminary step towards producing jelly. It’s relatively balanced and really, really fun. Will it age? Maybe, but I defy anyone to stop drinking it, once they’ve opened a bottle. (1/08)

Served with: Guanaja chocolate chèvre cheesecake with a hazelnut/fig spread. I should note, up front, that I’m not a big fan of figs except in their raw fruit form (and even then, I can take or leave them), so for me the hazelnut/fig elements of this dish are a complete waste of time. The “cheesecake,” however, is another story…brilliant, in fact, with an unusual texture and a fascinating mix of soft and chalky, bitter and sweet, that pairs beautifully with the wine.

What we ate, pre-2008

[wine cave]This New Year’s Eve was not, for me, an event fraught with wine geekery. Thus, I didn’t take notes (though I scribbled some impressions the next morning). I did plan a menu with wines to match each course, though of course some of the guests were a little more concerned with quantity than quality. Given that, I thought I’d take a slightly unusual approach to this set of tasting notes, and talk about the food and the wine together…why they were chosen, and how they ended up interacting with the food (and the diners). Some would argue that this is what all tasting notes should be. I think that argument has considerable merit, but ultimately I don’t think that specific wine/food matches are a particularly useful form of service journalism; now we’re not just letting wine critics pick our wine, we’re also letting them pick dinner. That seems, at least to me, to be the opposite of progress.

In case the menu looks bizarre, it was done to reflect all the different ethnicities at the table. Which made it more than a little schizophrenic. That said, everything was very, very tasty.

The wine – Roederer Estate Brut (Anderson Valley)

Why it was chosen – Brought by guests as an apéritif, to begin the festivities.

Did it work? Yes. The Roederer Estate is a solid, good-quality sparkling wine that doesn’t make significant demands on the palate, either through excess delicacy, force, or complexity. It’s strong enough to serve with food, especially given the strong pinot noir component that always seems to dominate the blend

The food – Wellfleet & Duxbury oysters with a standard mignonette

The wine – Ollivier “Domaine de la Pépière” 2006 Muscadet Sèvre & Maine “Sur Lie” (Loire)

Why it was chosen – oysters and Muscadet…how can you go wrong? It’s classic pairing for a reason.

Did it work? Surprisingly, no. It was OK (though not special) with the briny, sweet, thoroughly appealing Wellfleets, but it turned metallic and bitter with the more strident Duxburies. This was a very surprising result, frankly. I’m used to Muscadet shifting with an array of differently-flavored oysters, but not to it simply refusing to play at all. Yet both the wine and the oysters were perfectly lovely on their own. This was a good reminder that to every wine-pairing rule there is at least one exception.

The food – domestic “caviar” (whitefish and salmon) with buckwheat blini, plus the usual accompaniments

The wine – Quintas de Melgaço “QM” 2006 Vinho Verde Alvarinho (Monção)

Why it was chosen – salty fish eggs, the “sweetness” of the blini, and the acidic bite of the onion…the wine pretty much has to be something that normally plays well with fresh seafood of a saltier ilk, and the QM has a core of fruit that can seem almost sweet against the right backdrop of food. There’s plenty of acid for the onions. Plus, there’s an engaging pérlance to the QM that I thought would be fun with the “pop” of the eggs.

Did it work? It was OK…an indifferent match. One of those times when it’s better to alternate the wine and food rather than attempt to pair them. Nothing was damaged, but nothing was enhanced, either. That said, the wine did an admirable job of clearing and resetting the palate for each bite.

The food – beef & chimichurri empanadas

The wine – Edmunds St. John 2005 “Shell and Bone” (Paso Robles)

Why it was chosen – given that we’re still in the early stages of the meal, I wanted something white here, but for beef with chimichurri seasoning it had to be a substantial one. There were tomatoes, pimientos, and green olives in the filling, which should have argued against this pairing, but I gambled on the notion that they’d be overwhelmed by the meat, spice, and pastry combination.

Did it work? Yes, very well. The acidity of the tomatoes didn’t interfere with this lower-acid wine, the spice played well with the wine’s particular complexities, the olives were brought out by the pairing (in the empanadas themselves they were overwhelmed by other elements), and the beef (rather than the wine or the spice) became the sharpening element in the mix. That was an interesting result. The “fat” of the wine was a fine foil for the pastry dough, as well.

The food – butter-poached coho salmon, dill/sour cream cucumber salad with Murray River salt and white pepper, smoked salmon

The wine – Roussel & Barrouillet “Clos Roche Blanche” 2006 Sauvignon Blanc “No. 2” (Loire)

Why it was chosen – normally I’d want a little more weight and “fat” with wild salmon, but the cucumber salad was, I thought, the dominant flavor element here. Thus, something with a greenish tinge was called for…but not something that would turn too angular with the salmon. Acidity was a must, too, as a match for the salad and a foil for the smoked salmon.

Did it work? Yes, better than I’d hoped. There’s a kind of spread to good Touraine sauvignon that’s not achieved in Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé (though those wines have other qualities, of course), yet this particular wine had enough subtlety to not overwhelm the more delicate aspects of the dish; something as aggressive as a Marlborough sauvignon would have been too dominant. The salad and the wine poked and prodded at, but did not penetrate, the poached salmon, seeming to bracket it with different takes on the same realm of flavors. The smoked salmon provided a sort of “seasoning”…which was, in turn, a fine counterpoint to the earthiness of the wine, turning its chalk to salt and the smoked salmon’s salt to a more basic minerality. This was fun.

The food – freshly-made fettucine with broccoli, pine nuts, tomatoes, saffron and Manchego

The wine – Forsoni “Sanguineto I e II” 2004 Rosso di Montepulciano (Tuscany)

Why it was chosen – for whatever reason, I couldn’t get sangiovese out of my head for this dish. Certainly I needed acidity (for the tomatoes), but also enough heft to rise above the Manchego and saffron. And yet, not so much ripe fruit that the broccoli turned weedy.

Did it work? Yes, essentially. I wouldn’t call this pairing indifferent, but both the wine and food stayed mostly to themselves, not really interacting much except at the fringes, where both the saffron and tomato teased some additional complexities from the wine. I think the correct white would have been slightly better here, but we’d had a lot of whites already, and I felt that the switch to red was overdue. I’d like to try a Basque white with this.


The food – spicy Portuguese squid “stew” (tomatoes and lots of heat)

The wine – Sella & Mosca 2004 Cannonau di Sardegna “Riserva” (Sardinia)

Why it was chosen – under the assumption that, given a red with the previous course, a red would also need to be poured here, I wanted something that could handle tons of acidity (from the tomatoes, onions, garlic, wine, and red pepper), was light enough for fish, and was strong enough to deal with the spice. That’s a tall order, and I’m not sure there’s any one perfect solution, but I’ve always found this Sardinian grenache to be an excellent cross-color match for fish, so I thought I’d give it a try.

Did it work? Yes, absolutely. Though some of the wine was certainly hard-pressed to stand up to the dish’s heat, its core of sweet, ripe, red fruit (strawberry and bubblegum, in the classic grenache fashion) remained unbent, while the “space” inherent to the wine allowed the fish to join the party unmolested. This was neither my favorite nor the most surprising match of the evening, but there was something about it that was just right.

The wine – Feuillatte Champagne “1er Cru” Brut (Champagne), from magnum

Why it was chosen – brought by guests for toasting at midnight.

Did it work? Not my favorite producer. Feuillatte’s bubblies tend to be overly angular while lacking incisiveness, and this was no exception. There was a little more leesiness than usual, but it was like dousing a nascent brioche with a too-tart lemon glaze. Still, we were amidst all the usual turn-of-the-year midnight stuff, and not really paying all that much attention to the wine, so it didn’t really matter that much if the wine wasn’t a great one..

The food – duck terrine (all duck; we had several non-pork eaters) with an endive/dried cherry/walnut salad

The wine – JM Burgaud 2006 Morgon “Les Charmes” (Beaujolais)

Why it was chosen – another nod to classicism in the gamay/terrine pairing, the heft of a Morgon (plus its acidic cut) for the weight of the duck, and the particular qualities of the wine for the dried cherries and walnuts (the latter of which, I felt, would need tannin in the wine to offset their own).

Did it work? Incredibly well. Probably the best match of the night. Everything worked as I felt it might, and the wine’s structural length managed to linger as long as the delicious gaminess of the terrine. This is a classic for a reason, I suppose.

The food – lamb tagine (ras el hanout, raisins, dense meat stock reduced until almost syrupy, honey)

The wine – Easton 2006 Zinfandel (Amador County)

Why it was chosen – a big red was unquestionably called for, but the sweetness in the dish needed addressing. I could have gone for an outright sweet wine, but I felt that would be overkill, and most off-dry reds are either light or slightly candied, and thus would be grossly out of place here. The only options that make real sense are, perhaps, an off-dry Banyuls or an Amarone, but both represented enough of an uptick in cost that I was eager to find an alternative. My thought was that zinfandel, via the qualities of its fruit and, at times, its high alcohol, would provide a “sweetness” of its own…one that could deal with the dish’s peculiarities.

Did it work? Fairly well. In retrospect, a lush Australian shiraz or domestic syrah might have been an even better choice. The thing about zinfandel is that despite its high alcohol, explosive fruit, and general intensity, there’s usually a nice dollop of acidity that can only be beat back by the most extreme ripening regimens. I normally like acidity with heavy dishes, but I don’t think it works as well when the dish is heavy and sweet. There was nothing bad about this pairing, but it didn’t exactly sing, and eventually the food proved too dominant for the wine.

The food – a selection of Swiss, Irish, & English cheeses

The wine – Costières & Soleil “Sélection Laurence Féraud” 2005 Séguret (Rhône)

Why it was chosen – I’m generally in agreement with those that think, on average, whites go better with more cheeses than reds. But I’ve also learned that when the wine is red, I like a little sweat and leather. Hence, a Southern Rhône. And, frankly, knowing that at this stage the alcohol has been piling up for everyone, an uncomplicated wine seemed called for.

Did it work? See above, re: the quantity of wine preceding this course. But yes, it worked OK. I’m not sure there’s a good wine match for proper Cheddar (and I’ve tried most of them), but the Séguret was decently versatile, and flavorsome on its own. I wonder if the ESJ “Shell and Bone” might not have been a better choice for this position.

The food – “Irish cream” bread pudding with white & black chocolate

The wine – Mas Amiel 2004 Muscat de Rivesaltes (Roussillon)

Why it was chosen – I actually wanted a Banyuls Blanc here, or something similarly weighty (a sweet oloroso Sherry was also a possibility), but I had no luck finding either, and I wasn’t willing to chase all over town looking for a perfect match. So I defaulted to this, figuring that fortification would help mitigate muscat’s lack of weight and harmonious (with this food) aromatics.

Did it work? No. Not heavy enough. and too…well, muscat-ish for this dish. It was tasty on its own, but didn’t work at all with the dessert.

Red soil at night

[terre rouge vineyards]A tasting of and dinner with the wines of Bill Easton (Domaine de la Terre Rouge), hosted by Bill Easton himself at Oleana in Cambridge, MA. This was mostly a social event, and so the following notes will be comparatively light on the wine geekery, other than the notes.

I’m the last to arrive, thanks to Oleana’s difficult parking situation, and the rest of the attendees have started with a little Prosecco at the bar. We move to the table while I catch up.

Adami Prosecco di Valdabbione “Sur Lie” (Veneto) – Tart and papery. Segmented, and the lack of cohesion renders the wine a little flat. Unserious Prosecco is fine, even welcome, but it needs to taste alive. This tastes like it’s attempting some sort of profundity, but if so it’s a failure in that regard. It simply comes across as deadened. (5/07)

Easton 2005 Sauvignon Blanc (Sierra Foothills) – Big and aromatic…is that a little creamy leesiness?…with a surplus of ripe gooseberry and some fat to the texture. The cream and its accompanying butter are deceptive, as the wine doesn’t go through malo, but the ripe greenness reasserts itself on the finish. This drinks like sauvignon blanc aromatics wedded to a viognier texture (though without the heat that so often plagues the latter). Interesting, though unmistakably New World.(5/07)

…continued here.

A bone in the nose

[clivi bottles]A tasting of and dinner with the wines of I Clivi, hosted by Mario Zanusso (from the winery) and Jeannie Rogers (the importer) at her restaurant Il Capriccio, in Waltham, MA. And a note: there is an extensive tasting at the winery, from November of 2007, that will eventually follow these notes. Stay tuned.

When I arrive, Mario is not long off the plane, and to be honest he has that telltale dazed, glassy-eyed look that inevitably follows such voyages. He’s sipping on a restorative martini, which wouldn’t necessarily be my pick-me-up of choice, but he manages to remain fairly alert until the tail-end of the evening.

For the first twenty minutes or so, it’s just me and Mario, so we chat for a while about matters various and sundry. He explains that his wines have “some similarities with Hermitage blanc,” though they’re much lighter in feel. Still, weight is an issue, and last year’s 16% tocai (despite being picked two weeks early) was a signal that warmer global temperatures aren’t going to leave Friuli unchanged. Clivi has had to modify their pruning techniques to lower ripeness, which has slowed down the grapes a bit, leading to a better balance.

In the near future are two hectares of ribolla gialla, but for now there are ten hectares of their own grapes, with some additional grapes purchased, and a total production of between 25,000 and 30,000 bottles.

Eventually, the other guests arrive, and we move to the table. With a procession of Il Capriccio’s typically excellent fare, we taste quite a lineup of wines. Here are the notes, interspersed with Mario’s commentary.

…continued here.

Wyndham Estate – a shiraz tasting

[bottle]Wyndham Estate 2006 Shiraz Rosé “Bin 505” (Australia) – Not a saignée, but rather a wine from grapes dedicated to this purpose, with the must chilled and a relatively cold fermentation. It’s simple, with clean, minty cherry dominating, and it’s full-bodied without being over the top, with a wet finish and good acid balance. Enjoyable. (9/07)

Wyndham Estate 2005 Shiraz “Bin 555” (South Eastern Australia) – This is Wyndham Estate’s biggest seller, and the goal is a “ripe” character…one that I don’t think they achieve. I also have a bit of a history with this wine: a negative note many years ago on one of the online wine fora caused a blizzard of hate mail from one dedicated but obviously underworked 555 lover. And now? Chocolate-covered paper, flat and dull, then turning soupy on the finish. Tannin is a minor component. This wine just isn’t interesting, at all. (9/07)

Wyndham Estate 2004 Shiraz “Show Reserve” (South Eastern Australia) – Aged in American oak, and it shows in the soft coconut wood influence. It’s big. Strawberries and plums are prominent, with chocolate and a warming, spicy component that turns to oak dominance on the finish. This is a well-made wine, but not my style. (9/07)

Wyndham Estate 2003 Shiraz “Black Cluster” (Hunter Valley) – This is the first release of a wine intended to be “iconic,” from older vines. There is no ’04, but there is an ’05 and there will be an ’07 (thought to be the best of the bunch thus far), while a decision on the ’06 had not yet been made at the time of this tasting. Here is a much more serious style of shiraz, though still commercially accessible, with deep fruit showing blackberry, blueberry, plum and apple-crisped acidity, dark earth redolent with black truffle, and a little meat and leather in the picture as well. Very solid and nicely done. (9/07)

Wyndham Estate Sparkling Shiraz “Bin 555” (South Eastern Australia) – Blueberry and sweet plum with licorice candy. It’s too sweet for me (25g/l residual sugar), a berry dessert with a little tannin, but as dessert I suppose it’s OK. I just think dry versions are so much more interesting. (9/07)

Disclosures: many, in this case. Lunch, drinks, and post-drinks drinks (not a typo) paid for by the winery and/or its PR agency.

What is a tasting note?

A tasting note is an impression frozen in time. It is fleeting and ephemeral. It is one person’s opinion at one particular moment. It is a one-night stand.

It is not an objective assessment of the wine’s past, present and future. It is not Holy Writ. It is not a communal judgment, and does not represent some Zagat-like conventional wisdom. It is not a poll. It is not “wrong.” It is not a personal attack, or indeed to be interpreted personally in any fashion whatsoever.

It may or may not be an invitation to dialogue. The note itself may be all the dialogue its author intends. Alternatively, the note may instead represent the author’s dialogue with the wine. It may or may not be reflective of an overarching philosophy. Sometimes, a note is just a note. It may or may not be consistent with previous notes. Wine, despite the best attempts to industrialize it, remains a variable and living product.

What is a good tasting note?

If it pleases the author, it’s a good note. Nothing is more destructive to the purpose of tasting notes than the demands of others; neither descriptors, nor data, nor formatting, nor points and other qualitative shortcuts should be imposed upon the author from outside.

Notes may be structural, as exemplified by the methods taught to candidates for the Master of Wine examination, wherein the components of wine are systematically broken down to aid in analysis and identification. Notes may be organoleptically iterative, in the manner of modern North American wine writing – “laundry lists” of fruits, vegetables, flowers, rocks, etc. – or they may be as austere and ungenerous as the wine they describe. Notes may be metaphorical, comparing the experience of the wine to just about anything in the realm of experience, including anthropomorphism. Notes may be fanciful, reflecting the joy inherent in the beverage. Notes may be contextual, comparing one experience to another or giving the wine an active role in a real world narrative. Notes may be educational or informative, carrying the weight of experience and the power of data collection with every word. Notes may be a ranking and a justification thereof.

Indeed, notes may be all, any, or none of these things, and will still find their audience. What an audient should not do is insist that all critics compose notes to their preference. Critics are – usually – not prostitutes. On the other hand, requests, sensibly justified, are acceptable. (Similarly, critics should not insist that all winemakers create wines to their preference, but it is acceptable to express those preferences in the context of criticism when those preferences are supported by reasoned discourse.)

What is a useful tasting note?

A useful tasting note answers three questions:

  1. What is the wine?
  2. What are the critic’s impressions of the wine?
  3. What are the reader’s likely impressions of the wine?

1 requires that proper notation be observed. There are many paths to correctness, but undue abbreviation is not one of them. 2 has already been covered herein. 3 requires communicative skill on the part of the critic. Around this point revolves the fundamental different between a good note and a useful note; the former is free to ignore the consumer, the latter must not forget the consumer.


At times I attempt to compose good notes, and at times I attempt to compose useful notes. Sometimes, I attempt and achieve both, but I do not always make that attempt, and do not always achieve that goal. Sometimes, I fail in every manner possible. When forced to make a choice, I choose good over useful. Accuracy, however, is a must, and I will go to certain lengths to assure it; corrections are always welcome.

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