A loaded evening of top Rhone Ranger wines w/ Saxum’s Justin Smith
The Wine Experience from Wine Spectator has brought some of the wine world’s most talented individuals out to New York City and last night one of them, Justin Smith, happened to join our ravenous band of merry Rhone men at Bobby Van’s Steakhouse. Strike that last comment actually, I should say Rhone wo-men, considering that the ladies almost outnumbered the guys in attendance, they deserve a bit of applause and recognition for forging their way out. They did their best to balance out the testosterone filled steakhouse air, which is a tall order, considering that the boisterous Jay Hack was present.
*Image from http://www.thewinerychannel.tv/home/dailycork/
I was able to vaguely acquaint myself w/ Justin, in spite of the immense volume of wine and ensuing noise pollution. I thoroughly enjoyed his candor, generosity & obvious passion for Rhone varietals. His success in Paso Robles w/ Saxum and Linne Calodo seems to be just the tip of the iceberg, as he has his hands in quite a few other cookie jars, consulting w/ various upstart producers in the fore mentioned region which has really caught Rhone-inspired fire of late. While its tough to sense the excitement of the Paso Robles A.V.A. by simply driving down the bucolic stretch of Highway 101 that connects Santa Barbara County to the lettuce patch dusted plains of Monterey, Justin is one of the leading pioneers that has been able to see the limestone-rich forest through Paso’s proverbial trees. It is a stimulating area for the future of California wine, in the height of the ‘Rhone gold rush,’ and I was very happy to share a table w/ one of the more influential catalysts involved in its coming of age.
I’d be remiss to thank Daniel and Amanda Moritz for their do-diligence in putting together the evening w/ their classic event coordinator’s touch, from the sheer organization to the perfectly spaced tasting note ledgers that I, in particular appreciated! You two are rock star planners and your efforts clearly showed as the evening couldn’t have been a more enjoyable one.
The initial flight of wines kicked off w/ a ’99 Charles Ellner Champagne Brut Seduction Millesime, a cuvee that had an oxygen exposed personality to it. The nose revealed toffee, glazed mushroom and brewed coffee notes that suggested a cuvee of much greater age. The palate picked up a fresh, vivacious kick, yet there was a disturbingly evolved feel to the wet stone and graphite finish that left me believing that these cuvees should be drunk up sooner rather than later. The ’05 Copain Viognier from Catie’s Corner Vineyard had a Condrieu-like bouquet of mango, freshly cut flowers, eggnog and honeydew melon. In spite of the exotic flair of the Viognier grape, the body was much more elegant and clean than most any Californian version I’ve tasted, finishing on a juicy, fresh note. As for the ’07 Dry Stack ‘Rosemary’s Block’ Sauvignon Blanc, consider me an immediately smitten fan. The fragrance is as New Zealand-like as they come, full of pungent cut grass, chive, passion fruit and herbal scents that soar from the glass. California richness and fat kicks in on the attack, revealing powerful flavor authority that’s kept in check by beautiful cut and precision, cackling away on the persistent, stony finish. I’d assume the freshness was maintained by blocking the conversion of malic acid to lactic acid, and the perfume had a purity that most other Californian examples lack as they are obscured by oak. Why don’t more Californian producers craft Sauvignons like this?
The flight was concluded w/ an idiosyncratic rose from SQN that tipped the scales at nearly 16% alcohol! The ’06 Autrement Dit has a sweet, sappy nose of candied strawberries, violet and watermelon flavored jolly ranchers turned round and plump in the mouth, acting more like a ripe Gamay than any rose I’d ever tasted. This is the rare occasion of rose wine that may benefit from some short-term cellaring, as the body was tightly wound and somewhat layered w/ good focus and sweetness of fruit. Acid-loving palates will likely turn a foul eye towards this wine, yet its uniqueness can’t be denied.
The line-up of older Syrahs commenced w/ a magnum of the Araujo Eisele Vineyard from the less than stellar 2000 vintage. While the wine wasn’t a powerful or overwhelming presence by any stretch of the imagination, the notes of gravel, charcoal singed beef, violet and cassis have evolved wonderfully. The palate has a sense of brightness to the fruit that is tinged in a pepper cloak, gliding along the resolved backbone to a finish that reminds me of a lighter version of Jean Luc Colombo’s Cornas. The oldest of the bunch, a ’96 Qupe Los Olivos Cuvee, let its Mourvedre and brett do most of the talking, revealing a nose that was objectionably endearing, much like one’s first encounter w/ stinky cheese. The flavors cried Bandol, reminding me of a ’97 Pradeaux I had just drank recently, w/ salted raw beef, white pepper, hearty plum sauce, garrigue and burnt hay flavors chiming in along an ethereal, effortless finish. Bob Lindquist’s wines challenge traditionally narrow drinking windows of Californian wines and seem to be consistently under-estimated in terms of longevity. The first Saxum of the evening, the ’00 Bone Rock was a dichotomous wine that hinted at sauvage elements in the nose, yet the beefy, leather-like scents packed their bags on the palate, paving the way for a vivid mouth-full of blueberry and cassis, revealing excellent sweetness of fruit and zero rough edges. While this vintage lacks the power and explosiveness of younger vintages, it has evolved quite nicely and possesses lovely harmony.
The Grenache-based flight was a real showpiece for the varietal’s potential in the Golden State. While most California versions lack the complexity, poise and depth of even basic level Chateauneuf du Papes, Saxum and Linne Calodo’s examples appear to be the real deal. The ’03 Rocket Block was the strongest wine of the night yet, albeit in an atypical profile for the cuvee (the percentage of Mourvedre was close to half of the blend, whereas other vintages only dust sparse percentages into the cepage) that had a distinctly beefy profile w/ grilled steak, bay leaf, crushed violet and boysenberry flavors filling out the exotic bouquet. The attack demonstrates raw power, with copious amounts of glycerin tickling each inch of palate w/ an almost viscous thickness that is all about presence. On the other hand, the ’05 is a flat out explosive, pleasure-packed vintage that is crammed with kirsch liqueur, melted licorice and bittersweet cocoa powder. In the mouth, the wine is simply stacked w/ oodles of richness that bring the definition of hedonism to the 3rd power. The cashmere-like texture and purity of fruit personify what the archetypal fruit bomb is all about, and this fires on all cylinders as the most profound Grenache based wine I’ve tasted from California. Not to be outdone, the ’03 Linne Calodo Sticks and Stones is a classic expression of the Pinot Noir side of Grenache w/ its forest floor, pine, resin, rose petal and sweet cherry flavors that have a high toned, more energetic feel to the flavors. In spite of its weight and intensity of fruit, there is an overriding impression of freshness that this singular effort leaves you with that I found sexy and utterly compelling. Unfortunately I missed out on the Copain James Berry ’04, so whoever pilfered my glass will have to step up w/ their impressions of that bottle.
The North Coast group of Syrahs was lead by what I believe to be the finest Syrah from the state, Kongsgaard’s Hudson Vineyard ’05. I’m so enthralled w/ the confluence of spicy, peppery elements and the unctuousness of blackberry liqueur-like fruit. The wine shares elements of BBQ spiced game, earth and dark fruit simultaneously, with unparalleled symmetry, intrinsic purity and elegance. To me, this is a synthesis of the styles of Sine Qua Non and Cayuse, except w/ a more European sensibility. As for the two Pax bottlings, the ’06 Nelleson Vineyard demonstrated the difficulties of the vintage, w/ noticeably elevated acidity and an austere feel to the plum sauce, cold steel and freshly ground pepper notes. While this may prove to flesh out nicely in the cellar, the chalky, slightly drying tannins leave me a bit concerned. The ’04 Alder Springs Vineyard on the other hand was an absolute knockout and provided just about every nuance I look for in New World Syrah. A primal torrent of grilled steak, dry rubbed spices, boysenberry sauce and grilled Provencal herbs soar from the glass. The chunky, thick palate reveals great density, brisk underlying acidity and a savagely compelling finish that goes on and on. The ’05 Carlisle Papa’s Block was rock solid, as warm ganache, dark cherry and black forest cake notes turned expansive and polished on the palate, w/ a succulence of flavors that gave way a bit on the grippy finish; suggesting short-term cellaring would be beneficial. The ’06 Jemrose Cardiac Hill was my first taste of the now cult-ish producer and arrived just about as good as advertised. The nose evoked imagery of a Northern Rhone, w/ meaty elements dancing around the spice box, melted licorice and black currant liqueur notes. The telltale characteristics of ’06 reared their head a bit, as the thick, multi-dimensional flavors were not able to disguise the structure, as powdery tannins chomped away at the finish. Even though it isn’t as seamless as some, there are outstanding raw materials here that threaten to do some serious future damage to my wallet.
The ’06 Saxum line-up stars were the Bone Rock and Broken Stones labels. The former revealed a drop dead sexy profile of crème de cassis, brown sugar and currant paste that cut a broad swath across the palate with a sultry, multi-textured personality. It was just about irresistible. The Broken Stones didn’t pull any punches and came across gushing from the glass w/ crushed berries, rose petal and milk chocolate aromas that turned sappy on the attack, with thrilling levels of glycerin and a drop dead gorgeous finish. The Heartstone took a different approach, demonstrating great tension between the jammy berry fruits w/ a pleasant, bittersweet element that stemmed from the café mocha like notes. The palate had fantastic purity, definition and poise, and had perhaps the strongest structural characteristics of the bunch. I found the Booker Vineyard to be the weakest and most superficial, yet don’t get me wrong, it was still wonderfully textured and delicious! The sweet, supple flavors were tantamount to eating a cherry sauce dipped brownie and were as primary as they come, in a distinctly grapey sort of way. The Alban Reva ’05 continues to impress, with its paved road tar, tanned leather and black fruit profile, except this showing demonstrated a spicy, more peppery dimension that emerged in the thick, robustly flavored palate that puts the M in massive. The ’04 Lillian Syrah suffered a bit in the company, as its cedar toned, spice box nose transitioned to a more sturdy, honest frame that exposed a few more bumps and bruises along the road (which I’m sure were amplified by the velvety textured company). While the tannins had a more frankness to them, they were still fine and complemented the medium-bodied elegance of the wine nicely. Sadly, I was 0 for 2 on tasting the Copain reds and didn’t get a chance to dive into the James Berry Vineyard Syrah ’04.
The sweeties, a phallic shaped magnum of Donnhoff Auslese Schlossbockelheimer Felseberg (say that 5 times fast) ’06 and a ’03 Lafaurie-Peyraguey were both excellent, for completely different reasons. The Donhoff was fantastically pure and racy, w/ shades of green apple buttressing the honeyed apricot notes in a compelling, albeit infant fashion. The Lafaurie was a stark contrast, revealing an unctuously honeyed consistency that has the viscosity of a Vin Santo. This decadent, yet vividly delineated sticky is propelled fantastic depth, length and immediate complexity.
Ellner Seduction Champagne ’99 87
Copain Viognier Catie’s Corner ’05 89
Dry Stack Sauvignon Blanc ’07 93
Sine Qua Non Autrement Dit ’06 87+
Araujo Eisele Syrah, 00 90
Qupe Los Olivos, ’96 89
Saxum Bone Rock ’00 92
Saxum Rocket Block ’03 95
Saxum Rocket Block ’00 97
Saxum James Berry ’06 94+
Linne Calodo Sticks & Stones ’03 94
Carlisle Syrah Papa’s block ’05 91+
Pax Syrah Alder springs ’04 95
Pax Syrah Nelleson ’06 89+
Jemrose Syrah Cardiac Hill ’06 93
Kongsgaard Syrah Hudson Vineyard, ’05 98
Saxum Broken Stones ’06 94
Saxum Bone Rock ’06 95
Saxum Heartstone ’06 93+
Saxum Booker Vineyard ’06 91+
Alban Reva ‘05 96
Lillian Syrah ’04 91
Donnhoff Auslese Schloss. Felsenberg 93+
Lafaurie-Peyraguey ’03 94
Copain Grenache James Berry Vin. Not tasted
Copain Syrah James Berry Vineyard Not tasted