Sierra Vista 2000 Zinfandel Reeves (El Dorado) – Hard-edged wild berry fruit ripped and rent by thorny vines and the slashes of a razor, with shattered tannin and acid providing a fierce sort of structure. Zinfandel can mellow into something Bordeaux-like with age, but it can also go in this direction…one that’s more difficult to love, but in a strange way might be a little more appealing. In any case, this is a somewhat angry wine that may benefit from a little more age; on the other hand, at that point the tannin might dominate. It’s a judgment call that I’m not qualified to make. (12/06)
TN: Arena number two
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.
TN: Grüner or later (California, pt. 8)
(The original version, with nicer formatting and more photos, is here.)
26 April 2006 –San Francisco, California
Taylor’s Automatic Refresher – On a gorgeous, pure blue day on the Embarcadero, an outdoor table is too much to resist, and I end up here rather than back for another (expensive) bout with a few dozen oysters. The Wisconsin sourdough burger is, like all Taylor’s products, pure, drippy decadence. Not cheap, but worth it…especially when partaking of the burger joint’s clever little wine list. I cart a half bottle to my outdoor picnic table and feel completely decadent. (Also, later: sunburned.)
Storybrook Mountain 2003 Zinfandel Mayacamas Range (Napa Valley) – Fat and woody, with spiced cedar and huge blackberry fruit. There’s good acid though, and this really works best as simple, sun-drenched fun.
bacar – Packed, which renders service a little slow, and yet it’s good to see this excellent wine bar in fine economic health despite its slightly difficult location. My only complaint – and it’s a minor one – is that, for several years now, the enticing wine list has been rather dominated by blowsy 2003s. I suppose they have to sell through their stock, but I’m looking forward to being able to order Austrian, German, and other higher-acid whites with more confidence that I’m going to enjoy the results.
Nigl 2004 Grüner Veltliner Kremser Freiheit (Kremstal) – This wine undergoes a fascinating transformation from nose to finish. It starts out very salty, while showing classic celery and green, grassy acidity. From there, it proceeds to sweeter melon rind, green kiwifruit and floral aspects. Finally, it finishes almost fat, with orange blossoms, raw cashew oil and hazelnut. Such a procession from light and nervy to full and flavorful is one of the delightful surprises of good grüner, though it’s not usually experienced quite to this extent. It would be nice if the nose were a little more enticing, but I suspect that will come in time, as its center of gravity shifts forward.
Bründlmayer 2004 Grüner Veltliner Kamptaler Terassen (Kamptal) – White pepper, ripe apple blossom and white rice-encrusted apple and green plum form a ripe, vivid whip-snap, albeit one encased in silk. Skin bitterness adds structure and counterbalance to the fruitier aspects, which edges very slightly towards being a bit warmer (that is, more alcoholic) than ideal. That’s nitpicking, though, for this is a very good wine.
Donabaum 2003 Grüner Veltliner Atzberg Smaragd (Wachau) – A ripe, fat nose of rum-soaked banana skin doesn’t improve much on the palate, where alcohol adds a harsh burn. Things are a little better once one becomes accustomed to the heat, and creamy celery and cauliflower with ripe white asparagus steer the wine towards the silkier, more dairy-like aspects of high-test grüner. Still, as the wine fades, one is once more left with that buzzing, numbing alcoholic fire.
Hirsch 2003 Grüner Veltliner Heiligenstein (Kamptal) – A smoky nose full of mineral dust, ripe celery and heavy red cherries precedes a smooth, balanced palate and long finish that provide more of the same. Unfortunately, the wine also carries a throbbing, fiery burn from out-of-balance alcohol.
Revelette 2004 Côteaux d’Aix en Provence Rosé (Provence) – Salty canned fish (not, as it might seem, an inherently bad thing, though it is unusual) and heavy, molten lead with dead, softening wood rotting away in the background. OK, scratch the equivocation about the salted fish; this is pretty much the opposite of “fresh,” which I do believe is a virtual requisite for Provençal rosé. Worse yet: even with all the weirdness, the wine is boring.
Corbières du Boncaillou 1999 Corbières (Languedoc) – Gorgeous aromatics of dried flowers and spice with rustic undertones…but probe deeper, and there’s a smooth granite base with strong, complex striations. There’s a hint of something that tastes very slightly modern, but I’m not sure it’s possible to render Corbières all that urbane without leaving scars. No wounds here.
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: http://www.vanvolxem.de/.
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: http://www.jjpruem.com/.
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: http://www.weingut-vonhoevel.de/.
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: http://www.langwerth-von-simmern.de/.
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: http://www.evolutionwine.com/.
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: http://www.terrerougewines.com/.
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: http://www.darlingcellars.co.za/.
TN: Royal and green mountains
Notes from a few days in Montréal and Vermont:
Dard & Ribo 2004 St-Joseph (Rhône) – Exciting and complex, if fairly primary, showing grilled blackberry residue, pure essence of nighttime blueberry, and the essential Northern Rhône “meat liqueur” character, all layered over rich, dark black earth dusted with urfa pepper. The acidity is shockingly vivid. Outstanding. (8/06)
St-Joseph is becoming like Cornas: a appellation almost forgotten outside of the work of a very few committed producers. These 100% syrahs lack the masculinity of Hermitage and the Burgundian elegance of Côte-Rôtie, but replace them with more upfront fruit and a generous texture. Plus, they’re cheaper than both. This should be a recipe for export success, shouldn’t it? Closure: cork.
Foillard 2004 Morgon Côte du Py (Beaujolais) – Perfectly ripe berries bursting from their skins, showering fresh tarragon and light grey graphite with beautifully enticing juice. It’s light and flirty as an apéritif, more serious and substantial with food, and effortlessly moves between the two states. This is the kind of wine that makes you want to roll around in the grass and giggle. (8/06)
Gamay is not often an ageable grape, except over the very short term, but from a few select terroirs the story changes. Morgon Côte du Py is one such terroir. But unlike some other ageable Beaujolais terroirs, like Moulin-à-Vent, the solidity and structure is not immediately evident. Morgon Côte du Py bridges the gap between the pure aromatic delight of other Beaujolais and the deceptively firm construction necessary to support the wine’s future development. Closure: cork.
Cazes 1991 Rivesaltes “Ambré” (Roussillon) – Old sugar, caramelized and spicy with moderate oxidative notes and a crisp, apple-skin bite sharpened by walnut oil. It’s not particularly complex, but it’s quite delicious. (8/06)
Rivesaltes of this form is a vin doux naturel, which means high-sugar grapes have their fermentation blocked by the addition of alcohol, thus fortifying the wine and leaving it with a good deal of residual sugar. This method is more familiar when used to make Port, but it’s done all over the winemaking world, and is very common around the Mediterranean. Fortified muscat is the best known form of this wine, but this particular bottling happens to be made from grenache blanc. And finally, these wines are typically consumed young…but as this wine shows, given the right conditions they can age quite well. Closure: cork. Web: http://www.cazes-rivesaltes.com/.
Serge Dagueneau 2004 Pouilly-Fumé “Les Pentes” (Loire) – Light, pale schist and dust through a gauzy filter, with faint grass and green apple notes. A very indistinct wine that tastes completely stripped. (8/06)
100% sauvignon blanc, with none of the allegedly-signature “gunflint” promised by the appellation, and every evidence that the wine has been excessively filtered. Pouilly-Fumé doesn’t have an excessive number of high-quality proponents, but I’ve had much better from this domaine in the past. Web: http://www.s-dagueneau-filles.fr/.
Cazes “Chateau Les Ormes de Pez” 1996 Saint-Estèphe (Bordeaux) – Almost as pure an expression of the classic Bordeaux descriptor “cigar box” as one will ever experience. And “almost” because the other major aromatic impression is of sticky waves of butterscotch-tinged oak. There’s a really beautiful wine lurking in here, but the wood – at least at this stage – is doing its best to bury it. A shame, really, but maybe time will heal this wound. (8/06)
A cabernet sauvignon-dominated blend (with merlot and cabernet franc playing supporting roles). As for the oak…unfortunately, that horse left the barn a long time ago, and it’s probably too late to coax it back in. How Bordeaux is improved by being made to taste more like anonymous New World cabernet I can’t imagine. Closure: cork. Web: http://www.ormesdepez.com/.
Everett Ridge 1999 Zinfandel (Dry Creek Valley) – Massive blackberry and boysenberry fruit bordering on concentrate, with jammy inclinations only slightly mitigated by a nice dose of ground black pepper. A one-note wine…though it’s a tasty note. (8/06)
Zinfandel is capable of aging, certainly (though a significant number of the most ageable are not 100% zinfandel at all), but – especially these days – two destines are more likely. The first is excessive alcohol dominating all else, which is the fate of some of the more overdriven and overripe versions (though high alcohol at bottling is not a 100% reliable indicator). The second is where we find this wine: ever-more concentrated fruit, moving from on-the-vine, to jam, to syrup. (More coverage of Everett Ridge can be found here.) Closure: cork. Web: http://www.everettridge.com/.
Isabel 2004 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Slightly heat-damaged by the external evidence, and the wine bears this out: the intense aromatics and green-tinged edges are gone, replaced by a creamy, pear-dominated wine that’s primarily about its texture. Sourced from the New Hampshire state liquor system, which has a long and dedicated history of baking their product. (8/06)
The state of this wine is a shame, because Isabel – while it has gone through peaks and valleys – makes a sauvignon blanc that does not ape the popular tropical fruit salsa (complete with hot pepper) style, but rather exercises restraint in the pursuit of structure. Also, their sauvignon blancs are much drier than most of what’s commercially available these days. Alcohol: 12.5%. Closure: cork. Web: http://www.isabelestate.com/.
TN: A Ridge and three valleys
Jadot 2004 Pouilly-Fuissé (Burgundy) – Light, clear pear and faint dried orange with a thin layer of spice. Decent, quaffable, nothing special. (7/06)
My father-in-law’s favorite wine. Why? I have absolutely no idea. It’s recognizably white Burgundy, but beyond that…I dunno. Alcohol: 12%. Closure: cork. Importer: Kobrand. Web: http://www.louisjadot.com/.
Banfi 2004 Pinot Grigio “San Angelo” (Tuscany) – Light lemon-grapefruit juice with a sticky, palate-deadening texture. Off-dry? This is cocktail wine, totally unsuitable for food, and just reeks of industrialism. (7/06)
This is the pinot grigio style that has made it the most popular imported white wine in the United States: simple fruit, simple sugar, absolutely no complexity. There’s really not much to say about wines like this. They are what they are. Alcohol: 12.5%. Closure: cork. Importer: Banfi. Web: http://www.castellobanfi.com/.
Ridge 2002 Zinfandel Ponzo (Russian River Valley) – Big, almost explosive fruit and oakspice with a particulate leather texture, black earth, and an utterly compelling and enjoyable presence on the palate. Delicious and not yet fully mature, but drinking incredibly well now. (7/06)
96% zinfandel, 2% carignane, 2% petite sirah. This isn’t a vineyard Ridge has been vinifying separately for long (it used to go into a Sonoma blend), but the results so far have been highly promising. Alcohol: 14.4%. Closure: cork. Web: http://www.ridgewine.com/.
Ruffino 2001 Chianti Classico Riserva “Ducale Oro” (Tuscany) – Roasted strawberry-encrusted game and white-peppered earth, but overly restrained, as if tasted through gauze. Very matter-of-fact, with a simplistic finish. (7/06)
85% sangiovese, 15% “other.” A Riserva should be a masterwork of sangiovese and the terroir, but this wine has slid year by year into a sort of comfortable mediocrity. It’s a shame, too, given its ubiquity in the marketplace, as many people will get the incorrect idea that this is what Chianti Classico Riserva is about, and all it can achieve. There’s a lot of underachieving wine in Tuscany, and this is a sort of poster child for the underachievement. Alcohol: 13%. Closure: cork. Web: http://www.ruffino.com/.
TN: Gardens & grigios (San Francisco, pt. 2)
23 April 2006 – San Francisco & Berkeley, California
Lichee Garden (1416 Powell) – A person could spend years touring the dim sum options in San Francisco (not to mention elsewhere in the Bay Area). It’s not generally thought that the best are in or near Chinatown, but for various logistical reasons we need to find one in that area, and thus after some research we find ourselves meeting out-of-town friends here. It’s quite good, with vivid flavors in the best dishes and inexplicably absent flavors in the worst (fish- and starch-based items seem to be the best, meat the most inconsistent), and seems to be primarily populated by locals. And, of course, it’s stupidly cheap…$12.50 per person, 17 “courses” later.
Wine tasting in Berkeley – Steve Edmunds is having a little inventory blowout, and with a few other wineries hawking their wares and my wife busy at a conference, it seems silly to not go. The room is small and dark, but there’s light (and food) in a sort of courtyard, and the operation – which involves both tasting and selling – is relatively efficient. What I really notice, however, is that despite our being in a relatively unassuming location, far from anything else commercial, there’s a steady inflow of consumers – even passersby – on an otherwise restful Sunday. Only in California…
Edmunds St. John 2002 Pinot Grigio Witters (El Dorado County) – Juicy pear skins and dried leaves. Just barely rises to the level of “eh.”
Edmunds St. John 2003 Pinot Grigio Witters (El Dorado County) – An improvement, especially as the flavors drift over to the red side of things (for dark-skinned pinot gris, I think this is a highly positive quality), showing strawberry and rhubarb. It’s fuller-bodied than the ’02, but it also has an odd, out-of-place feel to it.
I admit that I’ve never been much of a fan of Steve’s pinot grigios (I’ve decided that my long-time affection for the Alsatian expression of this grape must have something to do with it), and these wines do nothing to change my mind. He claims his 2004 is better, but I’ve tasted it and can’t share his enthusiasm. Well, tastes differ…
Edmunds St. John 2001 “Los Robles Viejos” (White) Rozet (Paso Robles) – Fat and fruity, like thick peach soda. There’s also pear, grapefruit rind, and a long, sticky finish. This is just a bit on the goopy side at the moment, and I think it was better a few years ago.
Edmunds St. John 2002 “blonk!” (Paso Robles) – Balanced and pretty, with richly-spiced nuts (mostly cashews) and a lovely finish. This is one of the wines I take home with me…
Edmunds St. John 2003 “Los Robles Viejos” (White) Rozet (Paso Robles) – …and if I didn’t already own a whole bunch of this, here would be another. Peach flowers in a thick brew, with a slight bitterness that adds to the complexity and helps prevent it from being as sticky as its older brethren. The finish is long and broad, and there’s clear potential for development.
Edmunds St. John 2003 Viognier (Paso Robles) – Everything you want in a viognier: flowers, apricots, peaches, and a silky texture. Heavier vs. most quality Condrieu, but then that’s to be expected from Paso. This, too, hits the shopping cart.
Edmunds St. John 1999 Sangiovese Matagrano (El Dorado County) – I’ve always felt about this wine the way I feel about ESJ’s pinot grigio: indifferent at best. But today, I’m forced to drink my words. Spicy, black pepper-encrusted strawberry and bitter walnut skin with some tannin and biting (but not overdone) acid. In other words, the ultra-rare California sangiovese that tastes like a sangiovese. It’s still a little on the extreme side, but this has finally come around, and I can’t resist a few bottles.
Edmunds St. John 2001 Zinfandel Peay (Sonoma Coast) – 15.2% alcohol, though there’s reason to believe it’s a bit higher than that. In any case, it doesn’t really taste more than a little bit hot. What we’ve got here is actually zin done in an older, almost bygone style, with concentrated wild berries, tannin and acid to spare, and a peppery finish. The heat expresses itself with a little herbality, a bit like juniper (or, I guess, gin). Steve hears our discussion, notes that this bottle was opened yesterday, and uncorks another.
Edmunds St. John 2001 Zinfandel Peay (Sonoma Coast) – Bigger, juicier and fruitier than the aerated version, with spicy berries dominating and the structure retreating a bit in the face of the “zinberry” assault. Yet another wine to purchase.
(For updated and more detailed takes on a few of these wines, take a look here.)
TN: Three from ESJ
Edmunds St. John 2003 Viognier Rozet (Paso Robles) – This has taken on deeper, earthier, more coppered (or perhaps bronzed) characteristics with a little extra age; almost, but not quite, a sort of fetid fruit “funk” to go with the well-oiled flowerbed that is viognier. I think it’s drinking marvelously well, but it’s probably a little bit controversial at this stage, and the timid might want to approach gingerly. (Speaking of which: there’s just a hint of ginger in there. Coincidence?) (6/06)
I’m occasionally asked, “what do you think is the most overrated grape out there?” (Actually, people usually say “overrated varietal,” but we’ll forgive them the grammatical error for the time being.) A semi-professional cynic, I’m frequently moved to be snarky and answer “chardonnay” (or “merlot”, or perhaps “cabernet sauvignon”). A bit of actual thought sometimes leads to sangiovese, based on the devolving mess that is Tuscany. But truth be told, I think the answer has to be viognier. In its “qualitative home” of Condrieu, a relatively small number of wineries made decidedly overpriced wine that is almost inevitably both too alcoholic and lacking in acidity. Elsewhere, things get even heavier and less interesting, and the ugly specter of new wood too often raises its vanilla-infused head (in Condrieu too, these days). It would be easy to completely dismiss the grape, except that when it is good, it’s so deliciously individualistic – fragrant, summery, silky and seductive – that hope is, at least in part, restored. In the U.S., however, I have to say that pretty much all of it sucks. A producer here, a producer there…really no different than in Condrieu, to be honest…but most of it is just not worth drinking, unless motor oil blanc is your thing. Based on recent efforts, however, I think Steve Edmunds is getting a handle on this grape, which he more typically uses in Rhône-style blends. The results, from a winery who most definitely does not overprice its wines, should be interesting if they continue. Alcohol: 13.9%. Closure: cork. Web: http://www.edmundsstjohn.com/.
Edmunds St. John 2001 Zinfandel Peay (Sonoma Coast) – Aggressive, with delicious blueberry and olallieberry marmalade fruit zested by crisp acidity and that very slightly spirituous midtone that is so often present in high-octane zin. But there’s chunky, graphite-infused earth as well, and a nice, balanced finish that shows less heat than the initial palate impression promises. A very good wine, made in a more classic style, and rounding into some tertiary characteristics that really improve it. (6/06)
The story of the making of this wine is rather entertaining, and illustrates some of the problems that non-industrial winemakers (those who don’t work via recipe) face on a yearly basis. I have no idea if the 9% syrah (added not for its syrah character, but to re-energize the fermentation) or the two years it took to finish said fermentation made this wine into something it might not otherwise have been…though it seems likely…but the end result is so definitively zinnish that it hardly matters. I’ve often read that many historic zins were actually field blends of semi-mysterious composition, so maybe as a mutt rather than a purebred this represents something more authentically, historically Californian than all the carefully-managed single-site zinfandels of today. And then again, maybe I’m overanalyzing this, and should just shut up and drink the wine. Alcohol: 15.2%. Closure: cork. Web: http://www.edmundsstjohn.com/.
Edmunds St. John 2001 Syrah (California) – Leathery, smoky and a little sweaty, with old blueberry and decidedly carnivorous characteristics thickly coated by layers of tannin and dried fruit residue. The finish is a little brighter – raspberries, mostly – but then heavies up again…and lingers, and lingers, and lingers. For the sub-$20 price, this has always been, is, and probably will be for some time a spectacular value, showing more character than scores of California syrahs at three times the price. (6/06)
A multi-site blend, usually from lots and sub-lots that don’t make the single-site bottlings, but while it doesn’t speak of place that much (it seems a little confused if it’s from California or the sun-drenched hills of southern France), it most certainly speaks of a recognizably Old World expression of varietal character, but with the elevated fruit of a New World wine. Alcohol: 14.1%. Closure: cork. Web: http://www.edmundsstjohn.com/.
TN: Two with screw & Kanu too (plus, Easton)
Kanu 2004 Chenin Blanc (Stellenbosch) – Softly enticing, with hints of chalk dusting subdued pineapple, apricot and Meyer lemon flavors. A lovely, simple summer sipper. Just a bit off-dry, but it comes off as more of a softening element, rather than actual sweetness. (6/06)
This is the point where wine writers inevitably say something like “chenin blanc is traditionally known as ‘steen’ in South Africa.” Well, it’s not untrue, but in reality almost no one actually calls it that anymore. Why do we keep repeating this cliché? Inertia, most likely. Anyway, there’s a teensy bit of chardonnay in this wine, but not enough to notice. Alcohol: 13.5%. Closure: cork. Importer: Cape Classics. Web: http://www.kanu.co.za/.
Easton 2004 Zinfandel (Amador County) – A hefty lumberjack of a wine (not to suggest overwooding, though wood is definitely present), showing thick and somewhat feral dark fruit lightened by sticky red cherries and then counter-weighted with a dense, intensely “winy” texture. Nice, and a good value, but not for the faint of heart. (6/06)
Winemaker Bill Easton is a great guy, I’ve played golf with him, and I like both him and his wines a lot…but when he calls this “cru Beaujolais-styled” (as he does on his web site), I have to wonder if he’s been in Amador – where the wines are men and the sheep are nervous – a little too long. Beaujolais on anabolic steroids, human growth hormone, and a ten year weight training regimen, maybe. In any case, this retains classic wild-vine Amador character without the rough edges exhibited by so many other wineries in the region; the tradeoffs are a little less fiery exuberance and a little more slickness, but that’s a fair price to pay. Alcohol: 14.5%. Closure: cork. Web: http://www.terrerougewines.com/.
Tohu 2004 Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) – Second note, same as the first. (Does anyone remember Herman’s Hermits?) (6/06)
Ditto the write-up. This is a remarkably consistent wine. The screwcap undoubtedly helps that: a reliable wine presented exactly the way the winemaker intended, without all the inevitable cork-induced variability. Alcohol: 13%. Closure: screwcap. Importer: Davies & Co. Web: http://www.tohuwines.co.nz/.
Bonny Doon “Ca’ del Solo” 2003 “Big House Red” (California) – And again with the reliability. This is a good wine that’s just not worth extensive re-notation, especially when all the notes start to read the same. (6/06)
This would make a good “house wine,” especially for the budget-conscious, but one of its strengths is that it’s just a little bit better than that. Alcohol: 13.5%. Closure: screwcap. Web: http://www.bonnydoonvineyard.com/.
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: http://www.dashecellars.com/.
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: http://www.valentin-zusslin.com/.
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.