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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

How does the 'American palate' respond to '97 Brunello?

I have never been at a tasting that was so outwardly fragmented when it came to judging wine quality than I was last night during the Executive Wine Seminars retrospective tasting of 1997 Brunello di Montalcino. I think there were a couple of forces at work that caused the tasters to be deliberately polarized, one of which is undoubtedly the fact that Tuscan winemaking is all over the map.

Having distinctive viticultural and cellar practices does make for dynamic wines, but this tasting revealed a bit more of a Sangiovese identity crisis as opposed to showcasing a tribute to its varietal diversity. There was no sense of continuity from one wine to the next. Even flaws varied greatly from the undernourished efforts that were already past their prime, to the over-nourished exhibitions of monstrous structures void of any substance. Some Brunellos were wonderful wines, albeit a bit ambiguous in terms of varietal correctness. Traditionalists generally struggled to find examples of Sangiovese that they could identify with, claiming they more closely resembled Napa than anything they were accustomed to in Tuscany. Personally, I didn’t think any of the wines tasted like a ripe Cabernet, but I did find that quite a bit of them attempted to conjure the opulent, hedonistic elements that are adored by the so called 'American palate' (the United States happens to be one of Montalcino’s biggest customers, and American critics tend to have quite a bit of say in which wines we spend our money on). Sometimes these methods worked beautifully; other times it created an appalling mess.

The Tuscan battle ground needs to consider something as they progress into the era of modern viticulture. They need to consider that the American palate is actually all over the place, at least when it comes to Tuscan wines. To be clear, I am not talking about the uneducated, point-purchasing palate, I am discussing a population that is a bit more secure in what they subjectively enjoy. This tasting demonstrated such divergent opinions on what high quality wine should be that I almost had to start second guessing myself! While there were a couple of pockets in the crowd that I’d come to an occasional consensus with, I had just as many tasters thoroughly disagree with my commentaries on the wines (much less the disagreeable scores from the Wine Advocate and the Wine Spectator).

So what does all that mean? Well, as we’ve said before, a singular voice is more valuable when you know where you line up with it, subjectively. So how can one find value in the culmination of several voices shouting in different directions? Well, I think there is quite a bit to be learned from consensus notes, it just needs to be read with different glasses than how one would view a Robert Parker evaluation. Allow me to explain.

The Executive Wine Seminars consensus notes do encompass both ends of the spectrum. As you read through, controversial matters will be noted and the character of the wine is described through various palate impressions. Is it less precise? Probably, but perhaps more relevant to some readers than one, specific palate is. Sometimes we try to analyze wine and evaluate it quantitatively with as much accuracy as possible, but considering how unscientific this passion can be, sometimes painting with a broader brush can best articulate a polarizing object. In addition, I’d like to note that the overall ratings of the wines (votes for 1st, 2nd and 3rd are tabulated at the end of the evening) in this case were extremely well balanced. The top wines were less controversial, but extremely well made (to just about everyone’s palate). The wines were all evaluated blind, which does have its pitfalls, but consensus opinion had nothing to do with label envy and was ultimately based on what was in the glass at that particular moment im time. Taking all of this into consideration, I think there is plenty of value to be had in not only attending one of these tastings, but in ascertaining the results (assuming they are interpreted appropriately).

Without further adieu, here are my impressions on the wines, followed by the consensus winners for the evening. Considering most of you are getting to know my palate, I hope you can find value in both my commentary as well as the audience winners.

Casanova di Neri Tenuta Nuova
Striking, pretty aromatics of fresh cedar, dark chocolate, black currant, iron and briar are unfortunately the wines best attributes. The flavors in the mouth come off as oaky, with angular acidity, as the tobacco and floral elements seem to be submerged in an intrusively tannic structure. The most difficult thing to assess about these wines, as a whole, was to determine whether or not they were drying out or simply unyielding due to an evolutionary phase. I leaned towards the former rather than the later in this effort, which unfortunately wasted a lovely nose on an attenuated palate that put the brakes on when it came to the finish. This was the only wine to receive zero votes by the entire audience. Poor showing, 84 points.
-For the record, I absolutely adored the '99 Tenuta Nuova and was surprised at how poorly the '97 showed.

Pertimali (Livio Sassetti)
One of the most promising wines of the flight, as this effort appreciably improved with exposure to air. A very floral, attractive nose that cast an array of crushed lilacs, Asian spices, and dark berry fruits upon the taster. The wine built in strength and power in the palate, time allowed the fruit to gain in richness, softening the wines chocolaty tannic structure. I believe this wine has some positive evolution ahead of it. 92+ points, received only 1 point from the audience.

Fuligni Riserva
Easily the darkest wine of the flight, and certainly the best showing of the first 5 wines tasted. The nose had a much more vibrant, super-ripe attack of dark fig, blackberry ganache, cassis and mocha (which obviously pissed off the traditionalists, but I found it very attractive). A muscular, juicy effort that unwound its complexities in the mouth, finishing w/ elements of crushed berry fruit, bailed hay, oregano, spice and pepper. Walked the line, but walked it with balance and persistence. 94 points, received 8 total points from the audience.

Banfi Riserva “Poggio all ‘Oro”
This wall of cement had such impenetrable density that it could easily be mistaken as backward. The wine was dominated by a chewy, brooding structure that lacked enough pleasurable elements to keep it honest. There were trace elements of dark plum, cocoa, roast coffee and dark cherries that seemed to dissipate in time instead of augmenting. For tasters that have an addiction to tannin and the optimism of a saint. I have yet to have a Banfi wine that was thoroughly enjoyable. 87 points (with fingers crossed), received 2 total points from the group.

Pieve Santa Restituta “Sugarille” (Gaja)
One of the more modern, perhaps internationally styled wines of the evening. Perhaps it was a tad monolithic, but that didn’t distract from the wines sexy, plush texture that carried along succulent layers of spices, dark currants and chocolate notes to a solid finish. Never would have pegged it as a Brunello, but it was a well made pleasure pot of a wine. 91+ points, received 9 total points from the crew.

This was the first wine that really hit my pleasure spot of the evening, so much so that I broadcast my impressions to the group, only to hear “that was my least favorite wine of the flight” spat right back at me (it so happens that the next wine was her favorite of the flight and I found it to be the least compelling, go figure)! I got such an alluring, layered nose that screamed of leather, cigar tobacco, pepper, porcini mushrooms and dusky spice. The palate kicked things into high gear, gushing w/ velvet textured blackberries, black cherries and toffee flavors that had no quit in them. A seamlessly integrated joyride from start to finish. 95 points, 19 total points from the audience.

Castelgiocondo Riserva “Ripe al Convento” (Frescobaldi)
Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed this wine as I found it to be a sound and moderately expressive version of Brunello, but it simply was un-exciting. The scents of tobacco leaf, currant, cherry and peppery fruit were very ‘correct,’ but also quite dull. The attack was the strongest characteristic of this wine, as the mid-palate was clipped by excessive alcoholic heat and the chalky, splintered tannic finish kept this wine from achieving any form of greatness. 88 points, received 12 total points from the audience.

Fanti “Tenuta San Filippo”
Now this is exactly what I am looking for in a Brunello! Sticking my nose into a glass that is reminiscent of an Arthur Avenue Deli is exactly where I want to be….bring on the cured prosciutto and salami because I am begging for seconds! A meaty, savory nose of pure Tuscan heaven that evokes notions of truffles, sweet cherries, cocoa and spice box got the entire crowd off their feet. Not entirely full bodied, but had such layers of elegant, finesse driven fruit that was perfectly proportioned and in such harmony that it didn’t need to wow you w/ its mass. Exquisite example of 10 year old Brunello, 97 points and received a whopping 57 points from the group (WOTN).

Siro Pacenti
This was a showpiece of masterful winemaking in Tuscany that I felt privileged to taste. I must have gone back to this wine 6 times, with each subsequent visit netting a more compelling experience. Its poetry snuck up on you a la Lafite, notes of toast, shitake mushrooms, dark olives, cedar, blackberries and graphite kissed the senses like an exotic temptress wearing a red dress. Believe it or not, this wine had the most impressive length of the evening, with such juicy, purity of fruit that truly cemented its sheer sense of class. Although the Fanti drank slightly better tonight, I believe this effort from Pacenti will prove to be the better wine. 96+ points, racked up 50 total points from the group.

Gianni Brunelli
Likely to receive the award for ‘lightest hued’ of the evening, sporting completely transparent ruby specks that screamed old school from the get go. The nose followed through in character, with freshly cut mushrooms and Rose petal elements that whispered instead of shouting. There was a surprising sense of opulence and under-stated power in the palate, as the wine had some seriously supple tannins that carried along flavors of cherries, plums and tea to a poetic conclusion. Not the most seductive or exciting, but an outstanding showing for Gianni nonetheless. 92+ points, netting only 3 total points from the crew.

Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona Riserva “Vigna di Pianrosso”
Here’s where the real controversy starts. You know when a host of the evening is blatantly bad-mouthing the juice as ‘a bad Brunello masquerading as a Port, perhaps the worst wine ever poured at Executive Wine Seminars,’ you are in for an experience! Well, I happened to disagree, as did the other host of the evening, Howard Kaplan. I found the wine to be quite compelling, bringing a lot of penetrating, focused aromas of cigar humidor, chili powder, sweet dark cherries and game to the table. I thought the palate was absolutely to die for, offering up a veritable showcase of anise, fresh truffles and plum sauce. The wine had spellbinding concentration, a velvet-laced texture and admirable length to create an irresistible sense of synergy. 97 points, with the controversy muting the audience enthusiasm to a total of 12 points.

Cerbaiona (Diego Molinari)
Oddly enough, those that detested the Ciacci found the Cerbaiona to be a lovely wine of great fruit, focus and strength. Personally, I thought it was past its peak! The scents reminded me of a maturing Burgundy, full of underbrush, raspberry, meadow floor, decaying autumn leaves and bay leaf notes. While I found the nose to be quite pretty, the palate was skeletal, lacking sinew, stuffing and length. Some tasters thought it was drinking beautifully, so this is certainly a subjective matter, considering I tend to like wines that possess a bit more fruit and concentration. 85 points, 6 total points from the group.

Altesino Riserva
It wouldn’t be right if we finished up this helter-skelter tasting with a boring, uncontroversial wine now would it?! This puppy was a sheer powerhouse and perhaps the most uber-concentrated, thick effort of the evening. Spicy notes of melted asphalt, cardamom, cedar and tobacco erupted from the glass in volcanic proportions. Layers upon layers of fat, juicy fruit bombarded the palate while the structure of well rounded, suave tannins was nearly submerged by the wine’s opulence. The finish left me breathless, echoing in authority in a nearly vulgar, but perfectly powerful deliberation. Not for the faint-hearted. 98 points, garnering 19 total points from the group (again, a controversial wine).
As karma has it, this wine was a last minute replacement, because the Montosoli purchase fell through. Go figure!

Final Count:
  1. Fanti “Tenuta San Filippo”: 57 points

  2. Siro Pacenti: 50 points
  3. Valdicava, Altesino Riserva: Both 19 points

  4. Castelgiocondo Riserva “Ripe al Convento” (Frescobaldi), Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona Riserva “Vigna di Pianrosso”: Both 12 points

  5. Pieve Santa Restituta "Sugarille" (Gaja): 9 points

  6. Fuligni Riserva: 8 points

  7. Cerbaiona: 6 points

  8. Gianni Brunelli: 3 points

  9. Banfi Riserva "Poggio all' Oro": 2 points
  10. Pertimali (Livio Sassetti): 1 point
  11. Casanova di Neri "Tenuta Nuova": 0 points

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Head to Head
1998 vs. 2000 Chateauneuf du Pape

Head to head battles become an intriguing experience when the same producer is profiled through different vintages. While one cannot make a broad leap to characterize an entire vintage based on one performance alone, one can certainly ascertain how the producer handled different vintage circumstances to create the highest quality wine possible. I have been dipping into the watershed 1998 and 2000 vintages quite often recently and typically am lead to a similar conclusion:

Both years produced outstanding, concentrated wines that still possess a lovely sense of finesse. Both vintages are currently quite accessible, while top wines from each year have an even brighter future of potential evolution ahead. With each side by side comparison I make it becomes more and more evident that I tend to like the 2000 counterpart a little bit better.

Charvin 1998
The ’98 offers a very transparent, brilliant ruby color that is one of the prettiest hues you’ll see in Chateauneuf du Pape. The scents offer-up a lavender lover’s dream, backed by hearty plum, macerated wild berry and touches of honey. Very savory in the mouth, showcasing a mountain-herb smorgasbord, strawberries and charred steak notes that are supported by admirable lift, delineation and gossamer texture. As time passes, the ’98 builds in strength and punctuates even stronger with its crackling, racy acidity. I imagine this wine will only minimally improve in the cellar as it is nearing full maturity, but it should prove to drink exceptionally well until 2020, 95 points.

Charvin 2000
It is immediately obvious that this is a riper, lower acid wine when contrasted to the ’98. Much sweeter aromatically, cranking out boatloads of liqueur-laced fruit in the form of crème de cassis, kirsch and blueberry. A rich, plump texture seems completely unevolved initially, but elements of a mossy forest floor, cigar box, mint and bittersweet cocoa begin to take shape as oxygen unravels the wine. The 2000 is a larger scaled effort than the ’98, which exhibits weightier, more opulent characteristics and is obviously the product of a phenomenally concentrated vintage. While the ’98 is a more enjoyable, mature ride today, I believe the 2000 will eventually have an edge based on its sheer substance and future promise, 96+ points.

The raw materials that ’98 and ’00 provided where exceptional for the Burgundian styled Charvin domain, but it seems to me that ’00 offered a bit more depth, power and age ability when directly compared to its’98 sibling. Enjoy your’98 Charvin while you wait to be truly wowed by the ’00…..

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Some hearty, high octane reds along w/ a couple weenie whites….

Stereotypical impressions in wine can certainly be enjoyable to play with, but are absurd to buy into. To the uninitiated, all wine fall into the dichotomy of white or red. You either like whites or you like reds, perhaps both will please the palate if your tastes are versatile enough. As one dives past the superficial aspects of color, grape varieties like Chardonnay, Riesling, Syrah and Cabernet are subject to just as much black and white judgment as the color of the juice itself. “Chardonnay slathers too much butter on her oak while the sugary sweetness of a Riesling is only good for adding a couple more unwelcome cavities to my already expensive dental work.” I could delve into the Zinfandel misconception that originated with one of the most lucrative mistakes that Sutter Home ever made, but I’ll spare you the sweet blush sob story.

An open mind is necessary for any taster to appropriately evaluate and enjoy the myriad of high quality grape varieties, viticultural areas and winemaking styles available on the market. The retail shelf is an expansive, fascinating space that should shame any consumer into trying just about anything once, without concern of the label or the color of the wine. This preamble should serve this evening of tasting well, as the most impressive performances had nothing to do w/ color, mass or alcohol content. Perhaps our group should fashion a wine related document with the Emancipation Proclamation in mind?

Mount Langi Ghiran, Victoria Australia Riesling 2004
While Clare Valley gets all the press, watch out for these under the radar gems coming from Victoria. Smoky aromas of warm slate, petrol and racy lemon zest have a supreme focus and penetration. The palate is blazingly crisp, evoking a zesty character a la Sauvignon Blanc, but with a pure core of tangerine flesh and hints of light cream. A bone dry, mineral infused expression that is reminiscent of a fine Grosset at half the price. We’ve got to convince the Aussies to export these beauties in volume! 91 points

Donnhoff Leistenberg Kabinett 2003
Frighteningly closed for hours until she came around to reveal hints of cranberry, spring flowers, honey and sweet peas in the nose. The palate was soft and feeble initially but shifted into balance as it became smokier in time, with peach, apple skins and mineral flavors took shape. A difficult year to produce an honest kabinett, but a producer of this caliber will always find a way. Give this baby at least another 5 years to sing. 90+ points

Alain Graillot Crozes Hermitage 2005
My third time tasting this has revealed much more generosity of fruit and a far superior integration of tannin. The perfume has always been a hit, revealing notions of tar, black pepper, game, rich blackberries and iron. While this is undoubtedly a masculine effort, the layers of fruit are beginning to conceal the firm backbone of this wine, making it a lovely drinking experience. Old school with a modern kick, and certainly a praiseworthy effort, 92 points

Turley Zinfandel Juvenile Vines 2004
Introduces itself with a whiff of volatile acidity which blows off in time to unveil mocha and rhubarb pie notes, hinting at what’s to come in the palate. The second this entered my mouth, I knew it was Chateauneuf time! Holy lord if the plum sauce, hearty fig and garrigue didn’t sing a Southern Rhone tune all the way! While it was a medium bodied wine that kicked off a bit of heat and didn’t exactly finish w/ a resounding thud, this was a top notch effort that admirably concealed the majority of its alcohol & structure. 90 points

Cristia Chateauneuf du Pape 2005
Obviously a backward, tightly knit youngster that took a bit of coaxing to round into form. In time, strawberry preserve, sappy red cherries, graphite and vanilla flavors filled out this medium bodied, silky textured effort. A well constructed base cuvee for Cristia that bodes well for the Renaissance label (which undoubtedly received better fruit), 88+ points

Senechaux Chateauneuf du Pape 2003
Classic example of 2003, w/ overtly over-ripe flavors of explosive kirsch, crème de cassis, blueberry liqueur, caramel and mossy earth that were not pruney, but were certainly not pulling any punches! Now I can imagine traditional fans of Chateauneuf being a bit disappointed with this wine, I think the substance of this wine had enough acidity and precision to keep an honest equilibrium (which did teeter on the edge). A controversial Rhone, which I found to have just pulled it off, 90 points

Melville Syrah, Verna’s Vineyard 2005
I am a huge proponent of Melville Syrah and Chardonnay, and this is one of those New World wines that became more and more provocative with exposure to air. Very rich and full of heady fruit, notions of bacony toast, raspberry jam, licorice and dark chocolate push their way through the palate via plush, creamy textures. Spice elements emerged in time, hinting that short-term cellaring will reveal more nuance & complexity. 91+

Ridge Geyserville Sonoma 2003
I was not a fan of this wine (and believe I was the only chap at the table that found it displeasing). The scents of brandy macerated fruit and hint of madeirization (I didn’t think this was oxidized per se, but it hinted at the ‘cooked’ profile which I do not enjoy) was not compelling to me in the slightest. While the texture of the wine was quite round, I found this effort to be blowzy, amorphous and lacking any sense of precision. I am choosing not to pan the wine, considering it is a profile issue (and one of which others can certainly enjoy) but I cannot consider at anything more than acceptable. The somewhat clipped finish sealed the deal for me, 78 points

Donnhoff Schlossbockelheimer Felsenberg Spatlese 2004
Another taut, supremely constructed German Riesling that absolutely demands patience. By patience, I don’t just mean cellaring, I also mean focus. This wine is so subtle and intricate that it gently sneaks up on you w/ complexities that certainly could be over-looked (ie: Didier Daguneau Pur Sang). A slow, quiet eruption of aromas began to brew, calling to mind thoughts of spring flowers, honeysuckle, ginger, quince and tea leaves. The gossamer frame has a pristine clarity and offers brilliant, focused flavors of apricots, petrol and crushed rocks. A slow seduction that overwhelms the taster with a sense of harmony, intrigue and potential…consumers with passion and patience will be rewarded, 95 points.

What was most beautiful about this evening was that a puny little 8% alcohol, off-dry Riesling could wow me more than a group of 15 plus percent alcohol powerhouse reds (even when tasting the Riesling last!). Now will this shape me into a helplessly paralyzed Riesling geek? Probably not, but it will undoubtedly reconfirm my stance that on any given night, any type of wine can steal the show, and perhaps, my heart.

Repeat after me:
German Riesling is more than Blue Nunn, Zinfandel is more than Sutter Home.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Chateau Angelus

How does one pick a favorite? Better yet, why does one choose a favorite? Perhaps American upbringing encourages our competitive spirits to pit competing forces against one another to see how they stack up. Monikers abound in just about any vinous related setting, whether it’s the wine of the night, wine of the vintage, wine of the flight….and so on and so forth. Professionals and amateurs alike tend to systematically analyze, compare and contrast peer groups in the hopes that some form of quantitative hierarchy can be created. This practice is quite customary and the conclusions that are formed typically lend themselves to witty debate and endless banter. Perhaps this practice shapes the foundation for quintessential ‘wine locker room’ talk.

Well, that brings me to a bit of a spin on a particular favorite of mine, Chateau Angelus. During our vertical tasting of the Chateau at Picholine, I was asked why I had such a hankering for Angelus and found myself stumbling on my words a bit. I chose no systematic pathway, nor enological algorithm to come to this conclusion. I don’t have a particular fancy for their proprietor and have no business ties to this famed ‘Right-Banker.’ I guess I just dig it.

I recalled a particular tasting, which was quite early on in my young fascination with wine, which pitted a young 2001 Cheval Blanc against a baby 2003 Angelus. Cheval Blanc had become a Hollywood icon after it was immortalized in Sideways, so lines and lines of thirsty tasters flocked like puppets on a string, just to see what the fuss was about. I personally had very little background information on either Chateau, but I proved to easy prey to the illustrious shadow cast by Cheval sticker shock. I remember the reactions of the uninitiated, gasping in awe of the famed estate as they sipped in what proved to be a lovely example of Bordeaux’s youthful elegance. Curiously, I decided to test drive the Angelus first, likely due to the ravenous behavior towards the Cheval that made sneaking in a pour of it a nearly impossible feat. My first scents were so naked, but so visceral w/ Angelus. I didn’t break it down into component parts like lilacs, blackberries and other laundry list items…I simply didn’t have to. My reaction was simple, in that this wine conveyed to me exactly why I love Bordeaux. It was pure, it was sexy and its subtle allure left me mumbling, as if I were pierced by the glance of a stranger. I couldn’t quite pen it, but knew I wouldn’t forget it.

While my romance w/ the Angelus could have lasted an eternity, I did finally make my way through the mosh-pit that was the Cheval Blanc segment of the table. The wine had class, lovely polish and one hell of a price tag. Had I tasted it first, the mighty Cheval just might have won me over, but it was a day late and a dollar short (or perhaps I was the one that was the dollar short of affording it?!). Angelus stole the show and stole my heart for claret, which validated my journey. Could it be that with wine, just as in life’s relationships, we never forget our first love? That, my friends, I why ‘I just dig it.’

Before I articulate my impressions on the vintages, I’d like to give a brief, non-visceral, synopsis of the Chateau. While the wines of the 1960’s and 1970’s had never achieved any semblance of critical acclaim, Angelus has undergone a qualitative renaissance since the mid 1980’s. Hubert de Bouard de Laforest hired renown consulting enologist Michel Rolland and dramatically changed the state of affairs for the Chateau’s wines. Late harvesting, selection tables, lower yields, Burgundian inspired wine-making practices and a boatload of new French Oak barrels turned the Angelus fortune around. The results have been staggering, as the run of excellent vintages has clearly demonstrated. The estate was elevated to Premier Grand Cru Classe status in the reclassification of St. Emilion in 1996.

There is roughly 60 acres of land planted to vines for Angelus, w/ 50% of the acreage being composed of Merlot, 47% to Cabernet Franc and 3% to Cabernet Sauvignon. The vineyards are planted on slopes of the Mazerat Valley in St. Emilion and are graced by a southern exposure. The soils are predominantly composed of clay, loam and sand, which suit the chosen grape varieties quite well. Close to 7,000 cases of the Angelus are produced in an abundant year, while a second wine called Carillon de l’Angelus has been created to ensure the integrity of the grand vin.

Most of the vintages selected for the vertical flight were watershed years, with the exceptions being 1996, 2001 and 2003 (too variable on the Right Bank to be considered exemplary). The wines were served in the order of oldest to youngest, with the 1989 coming from two half bottles instead of one 750 ml bottle (which may have expedited the aging process a bit).

1990 Bollinger RD
We served this vintage bubbly to catalyze the evening, and this 17 year old Champagne suited our desires perfectly. A very precise, linear bead of pearls gave way to notes of multigrain bread and glazed pears in the nose. The attack of the wine was explosive, erupting with a doughy, hazelnut infused body that became increasingly racy on the bone-dry, sour apple skin inflected finish. Plenty of purity and extremely classy. 93 points.

1989 Angelus
Wows across the room for this stunner as it seemed to bring the best of both worlds to the table. A scintillating array of graphite, sweet loam, freshly cut lilacs, raspberry and mushroom greets the taster’s nose in such delight that you just can’t help but smile. There was a wondrous lift to the palate, keeping the bittersweet cocoa, plum sauce and tapenade flavors fresh and perfumed. A beautifully constructed wine, which encapsulated with a marriage of flawless texture and lush fruit on the lingering finish. 96 points

1990 Angelus
A 180 degree spin from the 1989 as this effort was much more masculine, extracted and youthful than its femininely shaped, older sibling. Roasted notes (which seem to characterize the vintage) of grilled meats, smoky blueberries, boysenberry, spicebox and melted licorice became noticeably more seductive and delineated as the wine sat in the glass. An endowed effort of strength and concentration that flexes its sinew and opulence throughout the palate like a competitive bodybuilder in Venice Beach. The only detracting characteristic of this wine was that it lacked the length necessary to make it a world class effort. This backward Angelus will undoubtedly reward w/ additional cellaring, 94+ points.

Which three letter acronym trumps any and every corporate abbreviation in its evil sense of wickedness?

A fine effort from less than desirable vintage conditions in the Right Bank, this wine is already creeping into an early maturity. Notes of truffles, cedar, meat and a higher toned sense of fruit (red spectrum, strawberries and framboise) rise from the glass. A linear, crisp, medium bodied effort that kicks off a bit of heat from its compact frame. Not otherworldly but a praiseworthy Angelus given the lack of cooperation that Mother Nature provided in 1996. 92 points.

I have consistently adored this wine and found it to be one of the most compelling examples of wine produced east of the Gironde in 1998. A brooding, penetrating nose of dark plums, hickory smoke, crème de cassis, licorice and dark chocolate bombard the senses. Dense as a brick in the mouth and nearly impenetrable, but masterfully rich and so decadent in form as it only hints at what bounty is to come with further cellaring. A glorious wine indeed, 97 points.

My shocker of the evening, hands down! A super saturated example of Bordeaux, exhibiting an inky, purple color I only tend to find in the most endowed Malbecs from Mendoza. A flame of espresso roast, caramel, plum liqueur, bittersweet chocolate, and freshly paved road tar encapsulate a seductive core of juicy boysenberry fruit. Spectacularly rich layers of deep, powerful fruit steamroll the palate but maintain a sense of grace and charm that the 1990 was lacking that evening. A dramatic wine, which flaunts a sense of symmetry and length that only the finest Bordeaux aspire to achieve. A tribute to modern winemaking, 99 points.

While this is obviously a product of a lesser vintage (with regards to ripeness), what began as sultry and subtle in the nose became less and less interesting with time in the glass. Notes of tilled soil, tea, Autumnal brush, berries and cocoa present themselves aromatically, but then dissipate in the body of the mouth. The palate is bland and almost feeble, lacking any sense of punctuation or follow through to the finish. I was extremely disappointed with this showing, considering that I’d peg it as a very good 15-20 dollar Fronsac if I tasted it blind. 87 points.

Such an irregular vintage tends to create eccentric results. Freakishly great, appallingly poor, or in this case, unpredictably closed? I’d tasted this several times and this was by far the poorest showing, exhibiting aromatics that were entirely dominated by coffee (which wouldn’t be all that terrible if I were an early wine drinker that liked his Merlot w/ eggs). While it was difficult to coax any fruit away from the taut shell, additional notes of smoke, blackberry jam and vanilla bean began to emerge. The texture was still generous and tannins were noticeably plush, but the unyielding nature of this wine made it difficult to evaluate. 92+, be careful which 2003’s you play with as you don’t know what you are going to get!

The restaurant where the wines were tasted, Picholine, fashioned such an impeccable menu that it warrants repeating:

  1. Squash Gnoccchi with wild mushrooms, biscotti crumbs and sage.
  2. Skate "Choucroute Garni" with rutabaga, suerkraut, mustard and beurre rouge
  3. Duck Risotto with wild mushrooms
  4. Reg-Legged Partridge with kabacha squash, sprouts and poivrade sauce
  5. Millbrook venison with spiced pain perdu, cranberry and ginger
  6. "The Cheese Plate"
  7. Warm Caramel Apple Brioche with apple salad and salted caramel ice cream

Special thanks to Dan Tisch for putting this all together, bravo!

Monday, October 01, 2007

East Side Tackles California's Best Pinot....

Is there a better way to send yourself off to the Central Coast than by spending an evening inundating your palate w/ some California’s best pinot fruit? The Upper East Side crew had a western geographical sensibility last night as we immersed ourselves some real stunners, showcasing what staggering potential that the sunshine state truly has w/ this en vogue varietal. You couldn’t help but notice how vast each expression of pinot can be when faced w/ a variety of its clones, vineyards, vintages and divergent enological practices that all conjure a unique silhouette. Experimentation will undoubtedly net a multitude of failures, but that which has succeeded will only become progressively stronger and more convincing in subsequent vintages, thanks to the open minds and adventurous hearts of the Californian Pinot Pioneers.

I find one of the most fascinating aspects of this emerging Pinot renaissance is imbedded in the relative uncertainty of how the wines will evolve. Our opinions, while valid, were almost entirely based on ‘feeling’ where the wines would go or where they wouldn’t go. The track records are a proverbial tabula rossa, with few benchmark wines actually existing long enough to track their progress in the bottle (and several of these wines are simply too delicious to wait for, why risk the disappointment?). Our commentaries are almost virginal, as the learning process unfolds not only for the wine makers, but the wine drinkers.

To find one of California’s most influential harbingers of fine wines, one should look no further than to the late Andre Tchelistcheff, who catalyzed the competitive revolution for America’s quest to make wines that rivaled the great Bordeaux and Burgundies being made in the 20th century. Although he was best known for his finesse in BV’s vineyards and cellars w/ respect to Cabernet, I couldn’t help but think of his fleeting accomplishment w/ Pinot Noir, harvested in the 46 and 47, and blissfully advanced well into the 80’s in, dare I say, Burgundian fashion. Granted, this grape was one of which he did not fully understand, nor have much documented success with….but if just one of the pinots we tasted last night has the ability to not only evolve, but appreciably get better in the bottle over the years….look out Burgundy.


Kosta Browne Rose 2006How does a no holds barred producer, known for cranking out some of the most muscular pinots on the planet, fashion a pink wine?! Well, not entirely unlike their reds, as this rose certainly was in a darker, more large scaled fashion than any Tavel consumer would be familiar with. It is brash, w/ smoky spice, dried strawberries and a rather plump mouth-feel. Unfortunately it kicked off a bit more heat than I’d like, and was marred by a bit of an off-dry, disjointed personality that never really found its sense of finesse, nor composure. Enjoyable ride none the less. 85 points.

Pazo Senorans Albarino 2005
I brought this just for the hell of it, and considering that Jorge (Senior Spain, if you will) is not totally on board w/ the grape, I am glad I did! One of the most quality minded producers in Rias Baixas, known for low yields and battonage, produced a wine of laser like focus in 2005. Flinty, w/ citrus blossom, tangerine and crushed stone flavors that are creamy, but showcase excellent acidity and minerality to keep your heart racing. Another winner. 91 points.

1998 Saintsbury Brown Ranch Vineyard, Carneros
The unofficial king of Carneros, Saintsbury wines seem to have fallen off the radar a bit as ambitious, glitzy competition has taken over the scene of the 21st century. This ’98 has likely seen better days, as the fruit was fading, and the personality was dominated by rusty anise, iron, mushroom and modest cherry notes that were slightly hollow in the mid-palate and drying on the finish. Not a bad drink, but it aint what it used to be! 84 points.

Flowers, Sonoma Coast 2004
Stark in contrast to the Saintsbury, this was a young stud that was just beginning to strut its stuff out of the bottle. Lively and vibrant, with pretty scents of rose petal, vanilla, boysenberry and framboise that are not overtly showy, but very attractive. The wine has rich, mouth-filling body that is kissed w/ just a touch of minerals on the medium length finish. A nice showing, 90 points.

Domaine Alfred, Califa 2005
My enthusiasm for this wine was likely tempered by how much I raved for its former vintage (the 2004 was the most impressive California Pinot Noir I’ve ever tasted), but this certainly was no slouch. A baby, with plenty of positive development in her future, the wine shows sweet toast, anise, pepper, crushed raspberries, pure cherry and a hint of cinnamon up front. Juicy and structured in the mouth, w/ thick, firm tannins echoing a sage note on the finish. Should be a star for the cellar. 93 points.

Siduri, Gary’s Vineyard 2005
I think Adams candor regarding how he handled this vintage was evident in the profile of this wine. It was by no means offensive or displeasing, but it was simply superficial from start to finish. Notes of candied watermelon, pressed pomegranate and an under-card of earth played second fiddle to somewhat obvious traces of residual sugar. Simple, somewhat sweet and under-whelming for both the vineyard and the producer. Get ‘em next time Adam. 85 points.

Rochioli Three Corner Vineyard, 2002
A sincere, Burgundian effort that set itself apart from the pack immediately w/ it’s nearly sauvage character aromatically. Dried mushroom, sweet tobacco, underbrush, clove and iron scents emanate from the glass like a spotlight’s focus on a theatrical center stage. Lively and rich in body, shuddering silky shivers of sweet cherry, licorice and raspberry down the spine. A real stunner that encapsulates nearly all one could hope for in New World Pinot. 96 points.

Kistler, Hirsch Vineyard 2000
Hello controversy, where have you been all evening?! Exactly one day after I was singing their praises for the 2001 Sonoma Coast (the first Kistler Pinot I had ever tasted), I am greeting w/ a Mr. Hyde rendition of epic proportions. The wine was flat out opaque, completely shrouded in an impenetrable black cloak of extraction. Brooding elements of dark fig, huckleberry, raspberry ganache, licorice and coffee erupt, screaming ‘anything but Pinot!’ Round, saturating and masculine, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons to a young, heady Grenache (especially when it came to the sweet finish). What blind tastings were made for (and you thought the responses that came from the judges of the Paris tasting were ridiculous?!). I can imagine several would pan this wine, and others may laud it unconditionally. I chose to evaluate it as a wine, not as a pinot noir, simply because it is an outstanding wine! This may garner criticism, but I find it to be the most logical solution to handling this lightning rod of a divisive wine! 93 points.

Dumol Ryan Vineyard, 2003
This producer is exceptional from top to bottom, and the cream of the 2003 Ryan vineyard soared to the top this evening! This young pinot was so nuanced, layered and seductive, exposing notions of decayed leaves, violets and black tea through the nose. The palate was really showy, but tantalizingly ethereal and always mirrored a sense of pristine symmetry. Caramel, raspberry, blueberry and mineral flavors funneled through the mouth w/ absolute precision and grace. Consensus wine of the night as it left us all breathless. 97 points!

Sea Smoke Southing, 2005
This is the 5th time I’ve enjoyed this bottle, which should speak volumes as to the pleasure it consistently gives me. Just as I remember, exhibiting a myriad of rich, lavish red and blue fruits in subtly detailed arrays. Palate coating and full of depth that manages to maintain a beautifully plush sense of proportion. Easy to love. 93 points.

Kosta Browne Russian River Valley, 2004
Interestingly enough, this didn’t evoke anywhere near the amount of debate as the Kistler did! Another wine I’ve made multiple passes at (this is probably the 4th time I’ve indulged on this particular bottling) and I believe it belies traditional note taking. Some of the comparatives I offered up during the evening are probably inappropriate for the board, so I will bring some Cliff Notes to the table. If pinot were a stereo receiver, Kosta Browne cranks up the volume to 15 on the 10 segment dial. What I find so fascinating about this comparison is that the volume, although blaringly loud, is completely transparent! Although it is heady and overtly lush (not to mention delicious), it maintains a sense of not only balance, but varietal character. The 200 pounds of pure, opulent fruit that Michael and Dan pack into the 150 pound Pinot frame somehow make sense, and I can’t articulate why! The most impressive appellation level Pinot I’ve tasted from California. 96 points.