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Friday, May 30, 2008

A vertical of mythic proportions…and then some, Bonneau on display

The term ‘out of body experience’ seems as apt as any to describe the metaphysical sensations that tapdanced through the air during our vertical homage to Henri Bonneau at Tribeca Grill. I am certain that the sense of disarray we experienced is largely due to the formidably endowed, 17 plus percent alcohol that most vintages checked in at, but the evening was packed w/ much more than the fuzzy buzz that the booze provided. This group of Bonneau wines we sampled are some of the most singular, phenomenally constituted wines I’ve had the pleasure of tasting and certainly merit the legendary status they’ve already achieved.

Henri’s less than conventional methods of elevage (ranging from the unsanitary to the madly insane) are well documented, but still poorly understood. Whether or not Michel Roman is the heir apparent to the Bonneau throne, I couldn’t help but think that these types of wines will never be duplicated once Henri is no longer at the helm of his domaine. While tasting the tremendous ’90 Speciale, we broke into conversation about the 1947 Cheval Blanc (for reasons that I’ll elaborate on in the tasting notes), causing my mind to wander a bit. Will these wines become enological artifacts that cease to be reproduced in the squeaky clean, quality control oriented world of modern wine? When volatile acidity and residual sugar are looked at with almost universal disdain, how could anyone else but Henri Bonneau fashion a ’90 Speciale? What sane winery would release their product anywhere from 7 to 8 years after harvest, waiting for their wines, encased in filthy vats, to continue to ferment wildly, and unpredictably? While most winemakers I’ve spoken w/ freely admit that they are control freaks, who else would take the dramatic risk w/ Grenache, a varietal prone to oxidation, by letting it stew in the pot for that long? These are generally not things an oenophile would think of about a ‘living’ legend, but the passing of Robert Mondavi has forced me to acknowledge the industry’s great people while they are still breathing. I’ve become a bit of a softie, not unlike a young man who perilously gets involved with a femme fatale, who’s obviously over his head and certain to dump him at the drop of a hat. Better to have loved and lost they say….

Two quick points and then my fingers are off to the tasting note races:
  • There are indisputable variances in these wines. There were two bottles of each the ’95 and ’92 Celestins that could not have been more different than one another. While one could argue the two lesser bottles were flawed to some extent (TCA, TBA or oxidation from a low fill), neither of the two bottles showed obvious contamination/oxidation signs, they were simply inferior examples. Several theories are possible; laissez faire bottling, deplorable cellar conditions, counter-fit bottles or a concept that I’d like to refer to as ‘Consequences of Extreme Grenache.’ I subscribe to the latter notion, simply because the envelope can only be pushed so far, especially w/ minimalist winemaking that isn’t exactly known for its stability. My experience and research w/ Grenache has lead me to believe that it has a tendency to behave in an erratic fashion in the bottle, which I’d imagine is amplified even more when the grape is pushed to its physiological limits of ripeness. The ’98 Celestins and ’03 Clos des Papes may prove to be classic examples of that phenomenon.
  • The wine service at the Tribeca Grill is nothing short of superlative. David Gordon’s knowledgeable teams of sommeliers are as professional, attentive and passionate as any in all of New York. The only thing at Tribeca Grill that eclipses the quality of their service is their wine list; rivaling Mondragon’s famed Beaugraviere for the most breadth and depth of Chateauneuf du Pape wines across the globe. This is a stop that no Southern Rhone lover should miss when in New York City.

Now for the show….

Two gutsy blondes walked into the bar…

Grange des Peres ’01 Blanc
My first taste of this cult-worthy Languedoc white was an impressive one and comparable in quality to their Cote Rotie-like reds that have also been received remarkably well. The nose is wildly exotic, w/ grilled nuts, apple marmalade, corn meal, fig, sea salt and wilted rose filling the air w/ an impressive array of the esoteric. In the mouth, the body turns a bit fat and heady, spliced w/ fiery minerality that lasers its way to the finish. The Roussanne aspect of the blend seems to be transitioning from flesh to flair, leaving the wine a bit awkward and disjointed, but with undeniable raw ingredients that should round out the recipe beautifully in 3 or so more years, 92 points.
Brocard Montmains Chablis, 2002
The scents of this young Chablis were as funky as any Chardonnay based wine that I can recall, as moldy cheese, jasmine, flint and ginger waft from the glass in an almost earthy presentation. The attack pirouettes w/ a complete 180, picking up some snappy citrus and quince flavors that dance along a racy spine, picking up steam on the finish. At the end of the day, it’s an off-kilter performance that wins many hearts at the conclusion, 90 points.

Bring on the beef:

1994 Chateauneuf du Pape
In the game of finding the illusive sweet spot of a wine’s evolution, this ’94 had to be at as close to its zenith as I can imagine. This rock solid ’94 opens w/ perfumes of lavender, freshly tilled earth, graphite and glazed mushrooms. A sweet attack of surprisingly primary kirsch and raspberry fruit glide along a fresh, medium toned frame and echo in easy persistence. As balanced and poised as Chateauneuf gets, minus the rocket propelled fireworks of the vintages to come, 90 points.

1992 Celestins
Out of the two bottles we opened, this was clearly the more youthful and vibrant; sporting scents of red cherry, olive paste, pipe tobacco and meat drippings. The palate is by no means blockbuster in weight, but is striking in its purity, pumping out juicy sun-kissed fruits along a gorgeous beam of minerality. The Celestins packed a bit more heft and intensity than the ’94 base cuvee, but certainly isn’t worth the price hike, 91 points. Can any ’92 Chateauneuf du Papes take this guy to task?

2000 Chateauneuf du Pape
This showed decidedly less variation (in relation to the ’00 I popped a couple weeks back) and is certainly a wine who’s potential for future development belies its orange-tinged ruby color. Sweet scents of balsamic, strawberry preserve, fried sausage, plum and brick dust greet the nose. A bit of VA and sur maturite actually goes a long way for this wine, which still manages to inject bright acidity into its extracted flesh, as an earthy edge keeps your interest on the mouthwatering finish. It will be interesting to see if this develops along the lines of the ’94, but it seems extremely precocious at this stage, 89+ points.

1995 Celestins
Again, this was clearly the best of two bottles, but its evolution before my eyes really had my head shaking. Initially it seemed like a barrel sample, w/ monstrous, dry port like intensity to the black cherry liqueur, peat moss, sage, tapenade, cedar and sweet ganache notes. Although this was a massive performance right out of the gates, there was an uncanny lift to the body, never allowing it to be top-heavy and always maintaining a sense of poise and symmetry. Surprisingly, it seemed to wane a bit in terms of intensity and it evolved a bit more than I would have expected over the hour or so it spent in the glass. In spite of the various curve balls, sound bottles of this should likely drink well over the next 5-10 years, 95 points.

1998 Celestins
Al and I concur that this is clearly not up to snuff when compared to the heights that this wine has achieved in past performances, perhaps surfacing a bit from the fore-mentioned ‘Extreme Grenache-ism Syndrome.’ There was a confectionary tone to this from the start, w/ blowzy scents of burnt licorice, fudge cake, brown sugar and hints of VA. While not unpleasant in the mouth, there was an intrusive acidity and oxidative note that seemed entirely out of place which marred this clumsy, over-ripe giant a bit more. While there were no noticeable contaminants, this brings to mind the Marcoux VV ’98 and Clos des Papes ’03 in terms of bizarre variants from otherwise classic quality wines, 77 points?

2000 Celestins
I don’t know how its possible, but this great vintage produced a luxury Bonneau cuvee that still seems ‘under the radar.’ This gem clearly demonstrates the exceptional ripeness of the vintage, but shows a bit more restraint and allure than I had thought it would bring to the table. Beguiling aromatics of iron, truffle oil, raspberry cream, fried pork and gravel shoot out from the glass w/ precision and verve. While extremely concentrated in the mouth, the thickness and sinew has a remarkably coy sensibility. There is an almost flirty character to this wine, closing w/ a beam of rose petal and currant sauce flavors that just won’t quit. An absolute winner for Bonneau, whether or not he thinks it is ‘too tasty,’ 95 points.

1999 Celestins
While just about every ’99 Chateauneuf I’ve tasted to this point has been quick to mature, this has to be the most compact and coiled wine of the vintage. Tight as a drum, but full of gorgeous hints of Asian spice, nutmeg, smoked meats and candied orange peel notes that make the knees buckle. Although the attack is supremely sweet, w/ copious fruits and an array of heavenly delights lurking in the background, the structure still has a firm grasp on the palate, pinning it down from totally bursting. This is a rare occasion in the vintage where the wine demands cellaring, 94+ points.

2001 Celestins
After our fears that this was a counter-fit bottle were assuaged (come on, there’s no way Bonneau released this yet, it’s only been 7 years!), we dove into Pandora’s box of all the devilish Grenache treasures one could ask for. The bouquet is crammed to the gills w/ bloody beef, crushed flowers, super-ripe kirsch liqueur and just about anything one would hope for in supremely decadent Chateauneuf du Pape. The mouthfeel is absolutely outrageous, cutting a broad swath across the palate w/ ferocious intensity, drive and persistence. While only an infant, the quality of this vintage is undeniable as this is one hedonistic thrill-ride, as the jaw-dropping levels of extract reverberate on the palate for well over a minute. Buckle up your seatbelts for this one folks, 98 points!

Now here comes the Helen of Troy flight, certainly one to launch a thousand ships packed w/ drooling wine geeks:

1990 Marie Beurrier
Well, she had some stacked competition, but to be totally honest, this was my darkhorse surprise of the evening and a complete revelation in terms of how great a ‘lower tier cuvee’ can performa in a stellar vintage. An absolutely gorgeous nose broods from the glass with hearty plum sauce, lead pencil shavings, sweet tobacco and kirsch liqueur notes. The entry is sappy and decadent, paving the way for an immensely rich palate, exploding w/ tiers of spicy, unadulterated layers of fruit. The wine is fabulously textured and as generous as a top vintage of Celestins. This certainly would shock even the most experienced of Chateauneuf tasters in any blind line-up and owners of this bottle will likely enjoy another 5 plus years of top notch drinking from this vintage…thanks again for bringing this David, 95 points.

1990 Celestins
As far as reputations go, this bottle carried the loftiest expectations, and those expectations were met by the nose but fell a bit short in the mouth. A field of ambrosia was paved by the bouquet of black forest cake, menthol, warm ganache and fresh fig that I could have sit and sniffed all evening. In the mouth, while the wine was frankly concentrated, it lacked the depth and length of what I would consider a perfect wine. As it sat in the glass, the ’90 picked up some steam and started to flesh out a bit more, suggesting this will continue to cruise in the cellar & could benefit from a more generous decant, 96+ points.

1990 Speciale
Bonneau has only made the Speciale cuvee twice, the other declared vintage being 1998. While all of Henri’s wines are late harvest Grenache, this is a REALLY late harvest Grenache that even the most ferocious of yeasts couldn’t ferment dry, even after three years of trying! The wine must be close to 17 percent natural alcohol, and while there was supposedly 3 grams of residual sugar when it was bottled, it appears time has begun to convert this dessert wine into an outrageously compelling table wine. Easily the darkest, most opaque color of the flight, the nose is nothing short of remarkable, w/ luxurious notes of roast beef, date bread, truffle butter, freshly cut cedar, brandy soaked raspberries and spice cake flavors roaring from the glass. In the mouth, the wine simply has to be tasted to be believed, as it is incredibly opulent, thick and jam-packed w/ surreal layers that express the essence of old vine Grenache. Although it hits you over a head w/ a sledgehammer, the frame of the wine somehow keeps everything shapely and far from ponderous. Once this elixir traveled down the gullet, the sensual kiss of a finish must have lingered for close to 90 seconds. Bound to be a legend and possibly immortal Chateauneuf, I would extend the drinking window well into the middle of this century and I think owners of this wine will thank their lucky stars that they’ve held onto such an other worldly bottle when they finally decide to dive in, 100 points.

Chris brought up discussion of the ’47 Cheval Blanc when we popped the ’90 Speciale because it was a wine that was riddled w/ similar flaws at birth such as excessive alcohol (well, not quite at this level, but you get the point), volatile acidity, residual sugar and lord knows what else. Chris tasted this upon released and considered it to be more of a freak show than anything, but was shocked at how it has evolved in a more ‘normalizing’ fashion that anything (he would have bought a lot more had he known, damnit!). When coupling all these notorious flaws together in the right proportion (which seems an almost impossible feat to replicate, unless you have access to the magical ‘Bonneau pixie dust’ that he sprinkles in his moldy barrels), they seem to synthesize wines of uncanny longevity as well as character. Looking at each ‘flaw’ they are actually preservatives of sorts (Riesling fans are certain to be familiar w/ the wonders of what a bit of residual sugar can do in the cellar) & I believe wines that create this type of oxymoron (‘flawed perfection’) are the ones that get not only lusted over at auction, but deified over the wine-geek fireplace for years to come. Chris, I can’t thank you enough for allowing us to dive into this marvel of modern enology…but since you’ve raised the bar so high, I expect that ’89 Rayas you bring next time to really shine!

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Start Spreading the News

Well this was my tenth visit or so out to the northern fork of Long Island and it appears that a progress report is in order. A conversation with Paumanok’s Charles Massoud provided some wonderful perspective on the status of the region and enlightened me to a few key details that should round out my summary w/ just the quantitative edge it needed.

While I am still fantasizing about the possibilities of the 2007 vintage for Chateauneuf du Pape, this year seems to also have bestowed Long Island w/ similar gifts in the form of consistent sunshine, a rain-free harvest and loads of potential alcohol. Mother Nature’s fickle weather patterns in the North Fork seem to rival Burgundy in terms of irregularity and potential disappointment. The past several vintages in the 21st century have traveled a bit of a rocky road, through the overcast, cool 2003 growing season, to the harvest rains of nearly mythic proportions in 2005, it took a magical vintage like 2007 for growers to utter the term ‘ideal.’ For those of you that believe luxury cuvees are made every year, Eric Fry of Lenz (also a consultant to some 20 odd wineries on the east coast) neglected to bottle an old vine label from 2002-2006, and Paumanok’s ‘Grand Vintages’ are just that, and certainly few and far between.

In addition to the unpredictable continental climate, Long Island has to contend w/ soils that are so acidic (w/ a pH in the vicinity of 4, whereas a healthy vineyard craves a pH between 6 and 7) that the growers need to annually add lime to the loam in order to free up nutrients for the vines to feed on. The soils are not only acidic, they are nearly cost prohibitive, checking in around 100,000 bucks an acre, making the cost of fruit astronomically high for an ‘emerging wine region.’ A close proximity to the Hamptons and New York City prohibits any further developing of the region, which totals 3,000 or so acres in size (w/ roughly 30% of those acres belonging to the local giant, Pindar). Charlie Massoud believes the potential for growth in New York lies firmly in the Finger Lakes, a much more remote area that has already struck gold w/ solid Rieslings from top producers such as Hermann J. Wiemer, Standing Stone and Konstantin Frank.

In spite of uncooperative weather, ludicrously high land tariffs and a soil type that vines have no earthly business being in, a group of ten or so producers are persevering admirably with early ripening varieties such as Cabernet Franc and Merlot. The best reds show a sense of nobility and class that one often finds in good Bordeaux, w/ elegant profiles and tangy acidities. It’s difficult for Cabernet Sauvignon to achieve full ripeness in the North Fork, though Jamesport based vineyards have had a bit more success as they are located in the warmer western zone of the appellation (which are further away from the coastal breezes seen in the more eastern zones of Mattituck and Cutchogue). Eric Fry ironically uses Merlot to ‘beef up’ his Cabernet, making me question why growers are still hell bent on producing passable Cabs when their Merlots can truly excel.

When it comes to Pinot Noir, even the most stubborn of vintners have learned their lessons, reserving it strictly for sparkling wines (save for an insipid caveat or two of still Pinot), which are gaining steam in terms of quality and consistency. The natural acidity present in Long Island Pinot Noir seems destined for great sparkling wine; and as producers like Wolffer, Old Field (also made by Eric Fry) and Lenz continue to hone their craft w/ Methode Champenoise, the potential for profound sparklers in New York will be realized.

As for the other bubbly grape, Chardonnay, it continues to chug along the stylistic continuum, with the finest examples coming from Macari, Wolffer, Lenz and Paumanok. Lenz dabbles in each of the varied grapes expressions; a crisp stainless steel version with its malolactic fermentation blocked, a ‘west coast’ hommage, full of sweet toast and creamy undertones and a Burgundian interpretation, fermented in neutral oak barrels and displaying the finest level of finesse. In spite of the stylistic differences, they all show high toned stone fruits that pump along brightly acidic structures. Paumanok and Wolffer have particularly impressed me in terms of how they mature, as examples from the late 90’s and 2000 are beginning to evolve, showcasing the nutty poetry one hopes to find in aged Chardonnay as it unravels in harmony.

When it comes to Sauvingon Blanc, I actually believe the North Fork has a leg up on California, as most display the telltale citrus blossom, grapefruit candy and freshly cut grass bouquets in a more fresh, pure and exciting style than the ponderous, flaccid fare that most Californian producers crank out each year. The cooler climate is certainly in Long Island’s favor, but more importantly, they don’t fumble around w/ the use of new oak like the Golden State still seems to do, harnessing a better focus of the grape’s intensity and aromatics. Macari’s 2007 Sauvignon Blanc is the best I’ve tasted yet, outstanding in concentration and electric in its persistence, it reminded me of the North Fork’s version of New Zealand’s famed Cloudy Bay. Not to be outdone by the dry whites, late harvest Sauvignon Blanc has also impressed me from the Island, w/ Paumanok and Macari’s decadent nectars leading the way.

There are still quite a bit of experimental varietal bottlings being produced in the North Fork, w/ entirely varied results. Paumanok’s Chenin Blanc (the only such version available from the appellation) is fresh and lithe, w/ no shortage of waxy kiwi fruit dancing through the palate in an unadorned, yet solid style. Paumanok has also had success w/ Riesling, easily making the best local dry version that could certainly rival the top names up north in the Finger Lakes, while Bedell’s late harvest Riesling takes the cake in the dessert category. Channing Daughters, located in the South Fork, is known for their esoteric expressions of Italian varietals and have achieved a bit of early cult fame for them. There is a mélange of Malbec, Petit Verdot, Syrah, Gewurztraminer bottlings throughout the region, with decidedly less success, but this is to be expected and these hiccups are all part of the learning curve for most any emerging wine regions of the world.

Having said all that, there are still far too many producers that only profit from clever sales, marketing and event planning, instead of the quality of their wines. Raphael has been my personal whipping boy and is by far the worst offender; dazzling you with a glorious tasting facility that resembles a modern Italian villa (for which they charge a hefty 15,000 dollar wedding event fee and scored a starring role on the Apprentice) and the proprietors apparently hope the superficial seduction will blind your palate to the flavors of their caustic wines. If wine was about window shopping, the overpriced, wretched fare at Raphael would be all the allure you’d need. The red wines personify most of the issues that plague the region as they are marred by hollow midpalates, green tannins and shrill structures that offer little pleasure or textural polish. Raphael’s whites are benign enough, save for the cost, and exhibit bland, diluted flavors that can optimistically be described as neutral. There are countless other over-cropped grape factories that pump out high volume, low character wines that apparently are run by those w/ an eye on their wallets instead of their wines. Prices for North Fork wines in general are steep, and that particular issue has been by far the loudest outcry from the regions critics. While the objections on price tend to be a bit more muted from those that have actually tasted the wines (especially from the finest producers in blind match-ups versus top names from Bordeaux), it will likely be an issue that the region will continue to face even as the press becomes more and more favorable.

Vintage New York, the metropolitan epicenter for tasting, learning about and purchasing the state’s best wines, has fueled the ‘Californian arms race’ a bit too much for their own good. While I consider Vintage to be a brilliant concept and a fundamental player in the region’s success, I have taken issue w/ their callous swipes at Californian wine in an attempt to differentiate them as a product. Yes, Californian wines tend to be heady and broad shouldered and Long Island reds do offer a bit of a palate reprieve when it comes to freshness and subtlety, but the more you bash your perceived competitor to your consumers, the more they’ll remember California as a source of your own insecurity. I continue to support and encourage Vintage for all they’ve done for New York wines and New York agriculture, but I discourage the overt attacks they’ve continued to mount against the United States largest and most respected wine producing region.

Time, as well as rising land costs, will continue to sort out the contenders from the pretenders and the top producers will only get better as they gain experience and maturity in their vineyards. As more and more of the Bordeaux faithful continues to abandon ship for ‘less-green’ pastures (in terms of soaring futures prices and the weakness of the dollar vs. the euro), I’d like to encourage those consumers, in particular, to venture out to the Right Bank of the North Fork to check in on what’s been stirring 80 miles east of New York City. Keep your mind open and your palate sharp for something a bit different. There are more than a handful of elegant, age-worthy and complex gems out in the North Fork waiting to be savored, and if you look a bit closer, you’ll find a great deal or two. There’s plenty of room in the expanding wine world for another player, and lord knows it’s a refreshing one from the abundance of commercial crap from Australia that gets pounded by the gallons in the U.S.

I look forward to continuing to watch New York play a role in the ever changing wine world over the next decade. While things in Long Island remain in somewhat of an infant stage, time will tell which members of the dozen or so emerging producers will continue to lead, follow or get out of the way.

Top producers of Merlot and Cabernet Franc based blends:
Jamesport Vineyards
Pellegrini (which have aged quite well, they still have a few library releases for sale from the early to mid 90’s)
Paumanok (the 2000 Grand Vintage Merlot is stellar and one of my highest rated reds from the Island)
Lenz (while the old vines is a bit pricey, their 2001 Merlot represents value for the quality)
Wolffer (located on the South Fork, Roman Roth also makes some of the finest sparkling wines from the Island)
Macari (whose reds continue to improve in terms of texture and polish)
Osprey’s Dominion (still under the radar, unpretentious and consistently solid)
The Old Field

Top producers of white wine:
Macari (from top to bottom, their Chardonnays continue to ramp up in quality, their Sauvignon Blanc is outstanding and their Block E dessert wine is another consistent winner)
Paumanok (it gets old to continue to type their name, but their entire portfolio is excellent, including their age-worthy Chardonnay, late harvest Sauvignon Bland, dry Riesling and Chenin Blanc)
Wolffer (has also demonstrated that their Chardonnays can cruise in the cellar)
Lenz (runner up to Paumanok in terms of having a high quality, expansive portfolio)
Channing Daughters (a South Fork based producer that is perhaps the island’s most innovative producer of white wine)

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

This is why we taste blind, Chardonnay has its virtues

If you count all the wine related clichés, I’m certain that close to half of them involve our ubiquitous whipping boy, Chardonnay. If we put the jokes involving the neutral, over toasted stereotypes for the varietal aside, it’s evident that Chardonnay has seen a bit of a stylistic face-lift in the varied terroirs of the new world. We’ll call it the ‘buttered popcorn backlash,’ for alliteration sake. The ebbs and flows of pushing the envelope in terms of residual sugar, low acidity and heavy handed wood treatment have seemed to shift in favor of ‘naked’ or ‘unwooded’ expressions gaining a bit of market share steam at ‘the oak monster’s’ expense. There were only two major offenders during our tasting that spoke softly and carried a wooden stick, as most wines offered up refreshing acidity, clean profiles and judicious use of the good old barrique.
I think that tasting this particular line-up blind really opened our eyes to:

· The virtues of Kistler w/ a bit of age
· The gray area between the old and new world can become even more blurry when Californian winemakers throttle back on the wood and reel in a bit more finesse
· Gaja Chardonnay is over-priced to a scandalous degree (w/ all due respect to Angelo, we all wanted to beat him over the head w/ his own bottle after finding out how much the Gaia & Rey cost)
· 20 dollar Chardonnays from the Languedoc region can really rock your world
· 16% alcohol wines can be impeccably balanced and, gasp, minerally as hell
· Romanian Chardonnay sucks (well, this one wasn’t very good…I’ll keep an open mind if I taste another)

Wine number one:
As crude as it sounds, the color descriptor of very dehydrated urine is probably as apt as it gets, and oxidation is never far behind once viewing such a sight. The nose had a bit of an old Chenin Blanc spin to it, w/ a flutter of beeswax, witch hazel and tropical oils dancing from the glass. In the mouth, there is an off-dry, clumsy attack, that fought boisterously to make its expression, albeit a kinda clunky one that I kindly spat out instead of swallowing. The 1996 Murfatlar Romanian Chardonnay aint’ dead, but is in dire need of food to find any semblance of harmony, 71 points.

Wine number two:
While I smelled a touch of TCA initially, the fruit of the wine was not suppressed and it showed honey glaze, smoked pear and brioche notes nose that were actually quite attractive. As the wine warmed, the richly fruited ride became a bit bumpier, as some alcoholic fumes entered the picture. Unfortunately time reveals all flaws, and the moldy National Enquirer magazine characteristics suffocated all that was once virtuous in the ’02 Kistler McCrea Vineyard. For the record, quite a few tasters initially had it pegged as a Chablis, NR.

Wine number three:
I really panned the hell out of this mess which exposed an appallingly earthy streak of white pepper, mustard seed and tepid bath water flavors that became entirely emaciated in the mouth. I’ve never experienced any of these characteristics in a Chardonnay, and for my palate’s sake, I hope I never do again. This ’05 Jean Noel Gangnard Les Caillerts Chassagne Montrachet better have been an off bottle, or else he’ll be just as deserving of a whack on the head as Angelo Gaja, 64 points.

Wine number four:
Ahhh thank goodness we’ve found a savoir in number four, which provided a turning point in the dynamic of the tasting. A thrilling nose of jammy quince, smoked pecan, cornmeal and salty sea breezes filled the aromatics in a beguiling fashion. Fat, but pure in the mouth, evoking a bit of Meursault-esque poise and paving the way for a gorgeous beam of minerality that pumped out rich flavors along the finely tuned finish. Call me crazy, but I think this ’99 Dutton Ranch from Kistler has some room for even more future development, 92+ points.

Wine number five:
Perhaps one of the more idiosyncratic noses of the evening, revealing iron, roasted marshmallows, lime candy and a mélange of tropical fruits in a subtle, less overt style than most Chardonnays of this breed. Unfortunately the foreplay in the bouquet evolved to be a bit of a quickie, as the midpalate was skeletal and dropped off on the finish like a bad habit. There was balance but little grace in the 1999 Gaia and Rey, whose three figure price tag was much more noteworthy than the substance it provided, 84 points.

Wine number six:
Time for a trip to Chablis, as this wine was full of classic crushed stone, clove, lilac and citrus blossom characteristics in the whispering little nose. The mouthfeel reminded me of Sancerre as it was light, but pleasantly elegant in a citrus-infused sort of way. While she finished quickly, the Chateau de Maligny Montee de Tonnerre ’04 managed to do so in a manner that we still enjoyed all the same. Sometimes sheer character can trump body and length, 85 points.

Wine number seven:
This contrasted beautifully next to the Maligny, as it showcased Chablis w/ much broader shoulders, offering up a similar sense of suave minerality w/ much more depth, persistence and layers of flavor. Baked apples, citrus cream and an overlay of freshly cut flowers sashayed through the palate w/ clarity and an absolute transparency of place. I was extremely impressed w/ how the ‘05 Domaine Pinson Freres Mont de Milieu managed to chisel its breadth into a compelling Chablis, 91+ points.

Wine number eight:
While suffering from the sticker shock of the Gaja, this was a more than welcome edition to our tasting that provided an absolute knock-out performance for about a tenth the price. From nose to finish, this was a complex and alluring interpretation of Chardonnay, offering a vivid nose of crème brulee, plump fig, sunflower and smoky graphite flavors that were funneled through the mouth by a gorgeous beam of racy acidity. Who knew such impeccably balanced Chardonnay could come from a humble Vin de Pays in the Languedoc? Great job Rodet, your ’06 is a beaut, 93 points!

Wine number nine:
Now what intrigued me most about this wine was that it must have been entirely void of new oak. It had the crystalline purity and freshness that I always associate w/ stainless steel (more specifically, how an infant Grenache Blanc tastes right out of the gates), displaying crushed tangerine, citrus peel and cantaloupe melon flavors that pumped along the palate w/ ease, thanks to the crisp, yet unadorned structure. The second Chateau Maligny of the night, an ’06 Vieilles Vignes, was another example of a wine that is anything but flamboyant, but you can’t help but admire its authenticity, 87 points.

Wine number ten:
Alright, disclaimer…I knew this was my wine. The ‘my wine’ bias aside, I still found it to be the most compelling Chardonnay of the evening (and no, it wasn’t an Aubert…those are terrible wines to bring to blind tastings, the cloudy haze always gives them away!). There is a striking intensity in this wine’s character, from the richness of its golden hues to the viscosity found in the palate. The scents of lemon peel, dried pineapple and cedar box are so channeled and precise, you can’t help but be intrigued as to what lies beneath them. While opulent and mouth-filling, there wine is personified by its presence, juxtaposing an overlay of cream with glorious mineral character. To me, the winemaking crew at Brewer Clifton is as top flight as any in California, and while their ’06 Sea Smoke Vineyard (which buries the Sea Smoke Chardonnay, by the way) is stellar, their Mount Carmel is even better, 95 points.

Sidebar: I waited until everyone tasted this and formed a concrete opinion before I dropped the bomb on them, telling them the labeled alcohol content is a heady 16%. No one believed it, and Michel’s oak/alcohol-aphobic palate enjoyed this wine quite a bit (I had a keen eye on him the whole time, seeing if Brewer Clifton could pass the Abood test, and they seemed to do so w/ flying colors). After visiting the winery and tasting some of their other projects; like Diatom, Palmina and Melville, I became completely hooked on just about anything these guys touch. I can’t praise their wines enough and hope they can persevere through their ‘pricing stigma’ which they seem to have picked up during the past couple years. Some brands, like Aubert and Kongsgaard, while expensive, don’t get quite the same pricing flack as Brewer Clifton, but in my humble opinion, the Brewer Clifton wines certainly belong in that category in terms of quality…and that quality comes at a price.

Wine number eleven:
Yep…there’s oak. Yep, there’s butter. Having said that, I found it to have plenty of super-rich Chardonnay fruit to match, making this a hedonistic thrill-ride that was just a bit too pricey for the admission fare. There’s no shortage of citrus oil, orange marmalade and other devilish delights in the mouth that maintain a sense of symmetry that demonstrates how the Jayson 2000 fits the Californian stereotype, but still manages to pull it off w/ just enough grace in its steps, 90 points. Michel said that this wine has not budged a bit since its youth…another good reason for a paradigm shift in the stereotype.

Wine number twelve:
Well, we saved dessert for the end as some residual sugar has crept into the Newton Unfiltered, 2004. Perhaps the most frank wine of the evening, w/ blatant fig, salted butter, brioche and poached pear notes that get a touch cloying in the mouth-filling, full bodied palate. Those that loathe the Chardonnay cliché will abhor this effort, but if you’re hankering for a bit of marmalade on your toast, this will certainly be your ticket. For me, this earns its marks on exuberance, but falls short of outstanding simply because it is flaccid and lacks singularity, 88 points.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Chateau Beaucastel, the Stalwart in Oldschool Chateauneuf has some Modern Digs!

Visiting Chateau Beaucastel revealed how dichotomous the estate is in the respect that the wines are traditionally made yet they come from perhaps the most modern facility in the entire appellation. Now when I say modern, I am not implying that they utilize fancy schmancy techniques (such as reverse osmosis, fermentation in heavily toasted barriques or inoculating w/ commercial yeasts), but their facility is not only immaculately clean, it is architecturally brilliant.

Before I visited Chateauneuf, I envisioned Chateau Beaucastel as a bit more of a cottage industry, perhaps because the wines have an old school type of austerity in their youth and reveal a trademark ‘stank’ in their aromas as they mature, endearing the estate’s avid fans in a manner akin to a Burg-fanatic. While I knew they were one of the most established, high volume producers of the region, I couldn’t help but envision a meeker, more soiled operation when sticking my nose into a gamey, leather-coated glass of ’83 Beaucastel (perhaps all those tales of the deplorably grubby conditions at chez Bonneau and Reynaud seeped into my Beaucastel image?). My perceptions were completely unfounded as the operation at the Chateau is as hermetic and high class as any top flight winery in Napa, offering up a stark contrast to most Southern Rhone producers that ferment in filthy old foudres in their parent’s basements. Perhaps this all adds more fuel to the debate as to whether or not the ‘Beaucastel funk’ is a by-product of the spoilage yeast brettanomyces, which is often associated w/ unsanitary cellar conditions, or the inherent characteristics of Mouvedre as a varietal.

Ironically enough, Beaucastel’s high energy sommelier Fabrice Langlois (who is now marching off to the Chateau’s marketing team) focused nearly his entire presentation on the vineyard, not the snazzy winery. The Perrins of Beaucastel have been farming organically since the late 1950s and the viticultural trends they set decades ago are beginning to catch on with the new stars of the appellation. The viticultural detail at Beaucastel is extremely meticulous, from rolled stone to rolled stone, regardless of the bottling the grapes end up in. Fabrice was particularly adamant when describing the Chateau’s philosophy that strives to find a balance between a stressed vineyard (that generally produces riper, more intense expressions) and an over-stressed vineyard (plagued by dehydrated fruit and lacking acidity). Never short on wit or clever commentary, Fabrice’s musical analogies, which compare the 13 grape varieties used at Beaucastel to orchestral instruments, always seems to win over the clientele.

While Beaucastel is most widely known for the longevity of their sturdy reds that contain an abnormally high percentage of Mourvedre, the recognition they are receiving for their white Chateauenufs, the Roussanne Vieilles Vignes in particular, has exponentially increased over the past few vintages. Considering that the vignerons of Chateauneuf du Pape, whom generally have very little regard for their own whites, say that Beaucastel makes compelling white wine, you know they must be something special.

While the Hommage a Jacques Perrin cuvee & Coudoulet bottlings are hardly secrets amongst fine wine sewing circles, I still think their sister operation in Paso Robles, California, Tablas Creek, flies way too far under the radar. Although there are countless Californian producers that offer little more to Rhone aficionados, other than a large fee, the price-quality ratio of the entire Tablas Creek line-up is formidable even for the most Francophilian of palates.

Chateauneuf du Pape Blanc, 2006
The Roussanne really was shining in ’06, as it represented over 80% of the white Chateauneuf and could rival quite a few vintages of the Vieilles Vignes. This showed beautifully right out of the gates, full of golden flowers, roasted pecans, fresh fig and honeysuckle glazed lemon scents that shot from the glass as if they were coiled on a spring. In classic Roussanne fashion, this cuts a broad swath across the palate, showcasing expansive layers of impeccably ripe fruits that are cut w/ ample acidity, crunching along to a persistent, powerful finish, 95 points.

Roussanne Vieilles Vignes, 2006
Believe it or not, I actually think this vintage needs another year in the bottle to delineate itself a bit more, as it is just so massive and craves a bit more definition. A heady, seething nose of extreme richness brings floral, lychee, tangerine oil and tropical notions of jammy quince fruit to mind. In the mouth the wine leaves a monstrous impression, with a thick, oily texture of remarkable extract, intensity and sheer hedonism. There’s a lovely sense of purity underneath the fat, and I’d recommend drinking this bombshell from 2009-2012, or waiting at least a decade to see what treasures lie in its maturity, 96+ points.

Coudoulet Cotes du Rhone, 2005
The 2005 vintage is a beautiful one for Beaucastel’s wines across the board, and their Cotes du Rhone (located just outside the appellation of Chateauneuf du Pape) is a complete knock-out. Hints of pepper, dried raspberry, framboise and mineral tones fill the nose, evolving to a mouthful of juicy, full-bodied fruit, revealing excellent depth. In the mouth, the layers of flavor gain in intensity and finish w/ a solid, graphite-laced finish, 91 points.

Chateauneuf du Pape, 2005
I was extremely impressed w/ how precocious and nuanced the ’05 showed right after the cork was popped. The blissful funk of Mourvedre was already apparent in the nose, w/ additional scents of dried flowers, raspberry ganache, tarred blackberries and melted licorice making an appearance. While the wine is absolutely massive in the mouth, its tannins are surprisingly supple and sweet, paving the way for generous tiers of dark fruits to tickle every inch of the palate w/ remarkable finesse. Judging by the Chateau’s track record I’d imagine this will no doubt close down for a period of close to 5 years, but it may surprise you w/ accessibility over the next couple years if your curiosity gets the best of you, 96+ points.

Chateauneuf du Pape, 2003
Not only was this not up to snuff in comparison to the ’05 Chateauenuf, the ’05 Coudoulet absolutely trounced this difficult vintage of Chateauneuf from just about every angle. It showed a bit soily, with horse stable floor, charred wood, blueberries and pepper in the nose, leaving a bit of an awkward first impression. The palate was austere, plagued by intrusive tannins, a shrill texture and a backward personality. Obviously not a good day for ’03 Beaucastel window-shopping, but even as it evolves, I doubt it will ever achieve the harmony, symmetry or generosity of any solid vintage this estate has produced, 87+ points.

Chateauenuf du Pape, 1989
This is arguably one of the finest vintages of Chateauneuf du Pape that Beaucastel has ever produced, and it is currently drinking absolutely beautifully. The aromatics are a heavenly concoction of black currant, cassis, graphite, freshly tilled earth, beef’s blood, olive paste and char-grilled game that splice the suggestive w/ the sauvage in absolutely textbook fashion. In the mouth, there is a confluence of textural complexities that are difficult to discern, as the wine is simultaneously chewy as well as silky, w/ a sheath of tendon that flexes some obvious tannic muscle, but eases up on the gas enough to allow an array of subtlety in. This impeccably balanced, structured masterpiece is sure to have at least another two decades of top notch drinking in its future, which is no small feat for a Chateauneuf du Pape, 98 points.

Friday, May 09, 2008

The Art of Fine Wine, Domaine St. Prefert

The purchase of Domaine St. Prefert in 2002 by Isabel Ferrando and her politically charged husband has been a godsend for those of us that thirst for compelling, seductive Chateauneuf du Pape. A banker by trade and artist by vocation, Isabel fashions some of the prettiest wines of the appellation that come from a rather hefty portion of Mourvedre (close to 40% in the Charles Giraud cuvee) in a preponderance of sandy soils among the domaine’s 15 plus hectares. While Philippe Cambie’s services certainly haven’t hurt the Domaine, Isabel’s competency as a top tier winemaker became immediately evident in the irregular 2003 vintage, as she handled one of the most difficult years of the 21st century w/ the finesse and grace of a veteran vigneron.

Her success with the Mouvedre grape seems a bit unheralded; perhaps because Beaucastel has the appellation’s key to its throne, but the immediate kinship she struck w/ Eric de St. Victor of Chateau Pibarnon during a trade tasting in New York speaks volumes for her focus on this variety. The sense of artistry and polish that extends itself from her paintings to her profound elixirs reminds me a bit of Cote Rotie star Rene Rostaing, whom takes a similar pleasure in chiseling untamed wines from monster mass to elegant masterpieces.

The first few vintages show admirable consistency across the board for each of her cuvees. The Colombis label was introduced in 2004, while the August Favier and Charles Giraud cuvees helped re-launch the St. Prefert domaine into stardom in 2003. There is also a classique base Chateauneuf and a white Chateauneuf that utilizes an extremely high proportion of Clairette, plumped up w/ a touch of new oak.

2007 Chateauneuf du Pape Blanc
The ’07 was just bottled, but showed extremely well (even better than the ’06), w/ exotic notes of honeysuckle, fresh fig, litchi, salted butter and warm brioche notes seeping from the glass. The palate still struck a fresh chord, with round, succulent flavors that wove an intense core alongside subtle mineral nuances. I absolutely love what she’s been able to do w/ her old vine Clairette, as the style is certainly exuberant, but when it is at its best it makes no apologies and is funnels all its energy into a seamless package, 93 points.

2006 Chateauneuf du Pape Blanc
While I’d tasted this wine on a couple other occasions, this showing was not as on point as it had been recently. The barrique notes were a bit disjointed, clipping the lemon verbena, mango and custard notes from exhibiting their full-bodied, powerful expression. I imagine a quick decant would have brought all the elements back into place. Tired of banal Chardonnay? Try some of Isabel’s Clairette, it will bring the weight and richness you’d hope for in fine Chardonnay, with more distinction and character coming along for the ride, 90+ points.

2006 Chateauneuf du Pape, Reserve August Favier
Isabel just bottled the ‘06 Charles Giraud and it was certain to show in irregular fashion, so we just dove into the August Favier cuvee, which is a textbook example of the vintage. Forward and lush, the showy nose is full of plum cake, black currant, warm ganache and spice notes. In the mouth, the wine shows immediate accessibility, rounded edges and a nice depth of flavor, as sun-baked fruit notes creep back in on the long finish, 92 points.

The 2007 barrel samples of the August Favier and Charles Giraud cuvees were not nearly as showy as most other domaine’s at this juncture. While they exhibited more tightly knit, closed characteristics, they were massive and dark in the mouth, with a gorgeous sense of refinement to tug of tannins in the mouth. The promise of this vintage appears to be real, and with the top producers, it is one that I’ll likely be buying across the board.

Older vintages:

St. Prefert Charles Giraud 2005Isabel’s juice always seems to be so pretty. Perhaps my opinion is a touch biased considering I know that there is a feminine touch behind these wines, but they truly are full of poetry, finesse and ballet around the sultry side of Grenache to a tune that Baryshnikov himself would take note of. Still subtle and a bit bashful aromatically, but pure treasures begin to unveil themselves from the satin cloak that is currently covering them. Fresh and scintillating in its perfumes of crushed rose petals, raspberry, kirsch, spicebox, black forest cake and crisp minerality that shudder their way through the palate effortlessly. I believe this is the most compelling vintage yet for St. Prefert’s flagship cuvee, as it manages to harness its substantial structure w/ a silky overlay of flesh that makes it deceptively approachable. This has the poetry of a pinot noir w/ the substance of old vine Grenache. Should develop quite well, 96+ points (easily outshines the August Favier in this particular vintage).

Domaine Saint Prefert, August Favier 2005Diving in a bit early on the Favier was not quite as rewarding as it was for the Charles Giraud. After 2-3 hours of decanting, the character of this young Chateauneuf du Pape began to slowly reveal itself. The deep ruby colored wine expressed sharp, sensual arrays of kirsch, ground cinnamon, sage and blackberry reduction sauce in the nose. Seemingly Burgundian in its finesse, offering up a succulent and juicy palate full of freshly ground pepper and dark fig cake flavors check in on the finish. I imagine a couple more years of bottle age will unveil a touch more nuance, additional depth and weight in the palate. Believe it or not, I like the 2004 better! 92 points.

Domaine Saint Prefert, August Favier 2004
The Favier cuvee is a bit more traditional blend of Chateauneuf du Pape, consisting of 80% Grenache, with Cinsault, Mourvedre and Syrah rounding out the remainder of the blend. The elevage is strictly in tank and foudre (unlike the Charles Giraud which uses a portion of small barrels). The perfumes of this vintage were so seductive and pure they nearly paralyzed me at the knees and put the hair on the back of my neck on edge. The delightful scents ran the gamut from violets, melted licorice, raspberry ganache, exotic nutmeg and sweet cardamom spices. In the mouth, the palate had an ethereal sensitivity that belied its stature, with subtle layers of flavor that enveloped an undercarriage of mineral definition, with meadow herbs checking in on the persistent finish, 94 points. Although these cuvees are relatively scarce, I still believe they are undervalued (and in the case of the 2004 vintage, under-rated) and should be gobbled up before the price catches up w/ the quality.

Isabel Ferrando, Colombis 2004 (consumed from a magnum)Isabel’s Colombis label, coming from sandy/clay soils in two separate parcels, is a worthy successor to her more widely known line from Domaine Saint Prefert. A full-throttle performance for the vintage that is saturated with fig, cassis, loamy sage, molten chocolate and graphite flavors that glide over the palate with velvety ease. While the structure is nearly concealed by the wine’s fleshy character, the tannins are formidable and should help preserve this well constructed red for well over a decade, 92 points.

2003 Domaine Saint Prefert Collecion Charles Giraud
While this vintage is certainly a polarizing one to the Chateauneuf faithful, this was the break-out year for Isabel Ferrando and her immediate success in such a year is almost uncanny. The wine is very deep in color and supremely endowed aromatically, chock full of raspberry ganache, fig and kirsch flavors that brew a seductive concoction of pure, heady delight. In the mouth, the wine is ultra-rich and plush, with a gorgeous intensity that exhibits a sense of feminine grace that enshrouds its muscularity. Additional nuances of garrigue and Valhrona chocolate sneak up on the finish, picking up more and more steam as the wine sits in the glass, 95 points.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Zinfandel

What happens when Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde don’t get along? Well, a bit of WWW (world war wine) leaves plenty of bottle casualties behind on the dinner table, as the dump buckets fill to the brim w/ inky purple blood spewed from the wounded. Dr. Jekyll, the ambitious vigneron that he is, has an obvious penchant for hang-time induced sugar surges, beefing up Mr. Hyde’s profile to stratospheric proportions. Considering Mr. Hyde, our beloved Zinfandel, is already of the wild and wooly sort, toying w/ him in such haphazard fashion is bound to yield some erratic results. Erratic indeed….

During our last Zin-fest I became deliriously enthralled w/ the rambunctious complexities of the grape, as it put on a display, bottle after bottle, which showcased how compelling the grape can perform when its untamed natures are channeled into a supreme focus. In spite of my excitement, the notion that these wines were ‘playing with fire’ (almost literally, if one lit a match amongst these alcoholic gas bombs I can only image the carnage that would follow) and it would be a matter of time until we all got burned. Last night was tantamount to a sequel of the movie Backdraft, complete w/ a set of 2nd degree scabs as party favors for the road.

I scored a handful of amorphous blobs in the 70s and low 80s (Crauford NPA Kilt Lifter ’04, Hartford Highwire Vineyard ’04, Turley Hayne ’97, Martinelli Jackass ’97) as they were not only disappointing to taste, but tiresome in their malignancy. Stickly sweet and mildly interesting attacks would devolve into attenuated, angular flames that finished without verve, spirit or a pulse. The ’97 Hayne was particularly disappointing considering the press and clout of the producer, vineyard and vintage. The aromatics suggested that the wine was still in a youthful, energetic shell, but it quickly fell apart and degraded in the mouth, finishing with a skeletal, meager stamp. The Martinelli, equally dissatisfying, was all show and no action, as a quick disappearing act in the palate nullified its dazzling entry. Schrader’s Vieux-OS Ira Carter Vineyard ’03 transposed things a bit, showing structure and depth in the mouth, but the nose presented an awful array of dried fruits left on the burner too long, the proverbial death Nell for us ‘cooked-zin-aphobes.’

A relative success came in the form of Mark Squires ‘mystery meat theater,’ a Dalton ’05 Zinfandel from Israel, which only was looked at w/ a relatively positive eye due its competition (or lack there of). A dusty, cigar tobacco and white pepper kissed nose paved the way for bright, figgy fruit, enshrouded with enough earthy elements to keep things interesting. The biggest apprehension Mark had w/ this wine, other than its banality, was that of its maturity, seeming to evolve at a Steve Prefontaine pace over the past 6 months.

The silver linings to the overblown cloud cover came in a couple varied forms. A Rosenblum Richard Sauret Vineyard 2002 that actually got a bit better w/ air-time, showing more lift and precision to carry along its ganache-coated fruits in a bit more honest fashion. The Elyse Korte Ranch 2002 showed a bit more allure w/ its heady perfumes of date bread and Turkish coffee, following things up wondrously w/ a sense of finesse and poise that belied its alcoholic constitution. The youthful ’04 Turley Presenti Vineyard had an honest craftsmanship in its rose petal, sweet cherry preserve flavors as the thickness of the wine was much more framed than that of its wandering peers.

The star of the evening, relative as it may be, was a ’96 Turley Tofanelli Vineyard, as it managed to maintain its intensity of fruit while gaining a bit of additional nuance and depth in the bottle. Doing what ‘it’s supposed to’ is hardly praiseworthy, but meeting our expectations was rare yesterday, as the virtues of such a vulture can certainly sting, as well as sing, on any given evening.

In spite of the sting, the alcoholic bliss tickled us all by evening's's to the hopes that she didn't bite back too harshly at y'all this morning!

'Sometimes you eat the bar, and sometimes, well, he eats you,' -Big Lebowski

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Two Young Guns from the Old World

From the outside looking in, it seems the face of the appellation has changed dramatically over the past couple decades, considering the proliferation of new producers that have decided to domaine bottle their own wines that had long been sold off to negociants. While that paradigm shift is obviously in full swing, talking to the people of Chateauneuf made me question whether or not any change at all has happened. There is a steadfast pulse about the region that belies all of its newfound excitement and success, and if you stop anybody on the street and ask them what this place was like 20 years ago, they’ll say simply, ‘the same as it is now.’ Perhaps my American curiosity got the best of me, but I think I found out why the old adage ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same,’ works for Chateauneuf du Pape, and I think it is personified by the new regime. While Alexandre Favier and Julien Barrot have their differences, their similarities seem to strike me most. They are both younger than me (and much more accomplished than me too, but we’ll leave the self deprecation for another day!) and both seem to represent the face of the ‘new’ appellation. They carry much more experience on their resumes than their youth suggests, and most importantly, they respect tradition and share the same zeal for the concept that wines are made in the vineyard, not in the cellar. With all their youthful energies comes a quiet modesty about themselves and a pride in their land. Superstar glitz and glamour doesn’t seem to be on the radarscreen for them at all, and for that matter, I don't imagine the humble village of Chateauneuf du Pape lusting after fame either. As the harsh Mistral wind blows from the north, the vines dry out, the shudders of homes close and a refreshing sense of humility prevails.

Chante Cigale has one of the largest holdings of Chateauneuf du Pape, owning a total of 46 hectares of vineyards under the A.O.C.(of 35 different parcels!), w/ an additional 3 hectares of Cotes du Rhone. Christian Favier bequeathed most of the winemaking duties to his son, Alexandre, in 1999. Alexandre, now in his mid twenties, has close to ten vintages under his belt and in spite of his youth, is as traditional as they come. There is a gritty, blue collar workman like spirit in his demeanor and it is unfathomable how he handles such massive vineyard holdings (spread throughout the appellation) w/ relatively little help at all. When I asked him where his staff was, he replied w/ a smile ‘you’re looking at it.’ Half-joking, but also half-serious, my friend Harry Karis had mentioned to me that Alex was perhaps ‘burning the candle at both ends’ and I begun to see where he was coming from.

As I begun to taste through the wines of Chante Cigale, the uncanny diligence of Alexandre and the exceptional quality of his vineyards became more and more evident in the glass. The wines show vivid terroir character and precocious fruit that cover their iron clad structures exceptionally well. They are traditionally vinified and aged in mostly cement and foudre, w/ a small portion of the Vieilles Vignes (from vines older than 65 years of age) cuvee seeing some small barrels for the elevage. A relatively large volume of white Chateauneuf is also made at Chante Cigale, coming from 5 hectares of equal parts Clairette, Roussanne, Bourboulence and Grenache Blanc. The white varieties average 45 years of age and are cleanly fermented in stainless steel tanks to showcase their uncomplicated, fresh character.

Pegau fans should have this producer on their radar as Alex seems to have a touch with his Chateauneuf that reminds me a bit of the style of Laurence Feraud. I brought a bottle of ’98 Chante Cigale to the Feraud’s home because of the similarities I saw in their vision.

To this point, this Domaine remains well under the radar and is still very reasonably priced, considering the quality of their wines. The Vieilles Vignes cuvees made in 2003, 2005 and the 2007 barrel sample are potential classics and shouldn’t be passed up.

Domaine Barroche covers roughly 12.5 hectares in Chateauneuf, mostly in the Northeastern sectors (with soils composed mostly of sand and red clay), with the prime jewel of the holdings being their 100 plus year old Grenache vines (which equal one third of the domaine’s vineyard land). There are also several southern parcels w/ a greater composition of galets roules and gravel. Because soils and exposures vary greatly and three separate cuvees were introduced to showcase these differences and are called: Reserve, Fiancee and Pure (I will delve into those wines in the tasting notes segment).

The amount of manual labor in the vineyards is nothing short of fanatical. All of the vines are treated biodynamically, with back-breaking attention to detail that essentially involves handheld care of every single vine and all the soil surrounding it. The winery at Barroche utilizes gravity flow, with fermentation in concrete tanks and a strict adherence to the lunar calendar. Cold soaks and gentle extraction techniques are used for most varieties and the Mourvedre is typically aged in small barrels to combat its reductive tendencies.

Julien Barrot joined Domaine Barroche in 2002 after learning from top producers in Bordeaux, the Languedoc and Australia. He’s as selfless as they come; imbued w/ a sense of hospitality that American southerners only wish they had. While he’s chock full of exuberant youth and a bit of impatient feistiness, he has an internal drive and passion for the vineyard that is second to none. Before tasting his wines, he made a point to show me each selected parcel that they come from, describing the soils, vine age and pruning techniques involved w/ the same enthusiasm I had as a child during Christmas time. Once I crawled through the trap door to the cellar and began tasting (complete w/ a picture of Julien and Russell Crowe taped to one of the massive foudres), I honestly was thinking about the vineyards we had just seen and every painstaking element it took to get the grapes in the glass. He may be young, but he definitely knows what he’s doing.

At 27 years of age, what he’s been able to produce in his first couple vintages is almost frighteningly good. All of his wines have glorious perfumes, uncanny depth and a seamless polish to their textures that makes them utterly seductive (even the barrel samples were refined...aren’t they supposed to be rough and rugged?!). Although he hopes that all his cuvees are looked at similarly, his Pure is truly in a class by itself. It is no small feat to be mentioned in the same breath of wines like Usseglios’s Mon Aieul, Janasse’s Chaupin and Vieille Julienne by your second vintage! Although he’ll be quick to remind me that it has nothing to do with him and it has everything to do w/ his ancient vineyards, his vision, finesse and dedication aren't things I’m not willing to overlook when praising his wines. His modesty extends to pricing as well, with the understanding that a cluster or two of grapes per vine isn’t exactly the most logical way to run this business, but he thinks everyone should be able to at least buy a bottle or two of his liquid treasure, and I do too.

The wines of Clos du Mont Olivet

There are 25 hectares of Chateauneuf du Pape for the traditionally styled Clos du Mont Olivet domaine (only 2 hectares are dedicated to white grapes). Thierry Sabon has recently taken over the winemaking duties and looks to be in fine form after a hiccup or two during his first vintage. The quality level of the red wines from Mont Olivet, in particular the Papet, is no secret, but what may surprise their fans is the domaine’s potential for making truly profound white wines. The evolution of their 2001 proved to be one of the shockers of my trip and was a tasting experience I shared w/ just about every white Rhone naysayer I could find. In addition, the breadth and diversity of the Cotes du Rhone wines in the stable of Clos du Mont Olivet are worth looking into as well.

Chateauneuf du Pape Blanc, 2007
7 grape varieties are used in the white Chateauneuf, with the Roussanne (20-25%) seeing some time in barrel. The nose is lush and inviting, full of tropical characteristics such as peach, mango, white flowers and the telltale honeysuckle note I’ve come to adore in these whites. In the mouth, the wine is bright and stony, w/ an excellent mineral definition that chisels its body beautifully to the finish, 91 points.

Chateauneuf du Pape Blanc, 2001
Perhaps the white wine that I championed more than any other during my trip, this wild and idiosyncratic gem was a dead ringer for a top notch Meursault (which happens to be my favorite zone for Chardonnay in Burgundy). A fantastic bouquet, laced w/ grilled hazelnuts, smoked maple wood, dried flowers and honeyed quince notes that sent shivers down my spine. In the mouth, there is ample fat and concentration, but the razor sharp intensity is what provides the drive, stretching its legs w/ terrific length on the finish. If tasted blind, this would absolutely shock any die hard Burgundy fan w/ its oodles of complexity and fabulous purity. Next to Clos des Papes, Beaucastel, Chave, Cuilleron and Chapoutier, this performance was as thrilling as any Rhone white I’ve put to my lips, 94 points.

Font de Blanche Cotes du Rhone, 2006
A solid ’06, with scents of strawberries and briar in the nose that turn a bit chunky in the mouth, as the palate flexes some tarry grip on the iron kissed finish. While I doubt this will ever be a seamless wine, some short-term cellaring should help round out her edges nicely, 85+ points.

Montueil La Levade Cotes du Rhone Vieilles Vignes, 2006
The older vines give this cuvee much more density to the dark cherry, spicebox and bramble notes. Chewy and a bit burly in the mouth, w/ very good depth and concentration, as a flutter of garrigue checks in on the finish, adding a suggestion of additional complexity, 88+ points.

Serre du Catin Cotes du Rhone, 2006
Perhaps the most intriguing and ambitious Cotes du Rhone bottling, the Serre du Catin is 100 percent Grenache, a rather unique cepage for the unassuming appellation. This effort is all about finesse and purity of fruit, speckled with precocious raspberry ganache, cardamom and a mélange of other tempting spices. The attack is silky, seductive and delivers delicious waves of finely proportioned red fruits in a fashion that seems to personify the vintage to a t, 89 points.

Les Petit Mon, Chateauneuf du Pape 2006
This is a relatively new cuvee for Clos du Mont Olivet and is carved out of the domaine’s younger vine parcels. This is generally an offering that will provide immediate accessibility and short-term drinking, but this sample had just been bottled and may not have shown its best. Demonstrating a vigorously tannic texture that was abnormally coarse for the vintage, the flavors of anise, pepper, cherries and underbrush were a bit less charming than I had hoped for. Once this settles into bottle a bit more, I imagine it will provide plenty of pleasure over the next 5-7 years, 86-88 points.

Chateauneuf du Pape, 2006
The typical blend for Clos du Mont Olivet consists of roughly 80-90% Grenache, 10% Syrah and the remaining proportion goes to Mourvedre. The difference in quality from the Cotes du Rhone & Les Petit Mon bottlings is immediately apparent, as the Chateauneuf du Pape showcases a much suppler, round, suave profile. The nose is forward and full of dark fruits such as plums, fig and dark cherries. Fabulously textured in the mouth, as layers of melted licorice coat the medium bodied, finely grained structure, letting hints of minerality check in on the finish, 91 points.

Cuvee du Papet, 2006
This ’06 barrel sample represents the best parts of the most coveted vineyard parcels and is only made when the vintage conditions warrant it (thus far it was made in 89, 90, 98, 00, 03, 04 & 05). Easily the most constituted and sappy in the mouth, as dark cherry liqueur, kirsch, pepper and spicy black fruits pump out along some serious structure and big time length. One of the more powerful, darker toned wines of the vintage and is certain to merit some short-term cellaring, 91-93 points.

Chateauneuf du Pape, 2005
When I tasted this upon release, I found it to be fairly backward and unyielding, but the past few experiences have proved to be much more generous. The nose sports a piercing set of aromatics, w/ baked gingerbread, blackberry sauce, kirsch and liqueur-like fruits that detonate in the mouth. Pure fruit and absolutely dynamite on the attack, with lush tiers of flavors gliding along firm, yet well ripened tannins to a top flight finish, 93 points.

Chateauneuf du Pape, 2007 barrel samples
Thierry poured us a couple different samples from ’07, teetering on which would be the Papet and what tank would best be served as the foundation for the base cuvee. While both were spectacular, we ended up agreeing on which one was the real all-star. The Papet showed a brooding profile that was almost severe, building tremendous viscosity in the mouth, coupled w/ depth of flavor that was out of this world. I pegged the samples at 92-94 and 94-96, respectively.

Chateauneuf du Pape, 2004
Another high toned, forward example of ’04 that continues to show extremely well is the Clos du Mont Olivet Chateauneuf. Full of hot stones, crushed berry fruit, kirsch and gingerbread flavors that are as pure as can be from start to finish. There is ample weight, intensity and freshness to provide excellent drinking over the next decade, 91+ points.

Chateauneuf du Pape, 2003
Thierry is not entirely keen on his ’03, even though most customers that visit the cave seem to love it. The heat of the vintage seems to have tempered the wine’s depth and length a bit, as it showed in a more superficially pleasing fashion, with rose petals, licorice, cinnamon stick, date bread and nutmeg notes. The attack had frank sweetness to the fruit, as it seemed ripe and figgy, but the wine is plagued by a shallow and attenuated mid-palate and is likely best drank over the next 4-5 years, 85 points.

Chateauneuf du Pape, 1999
This is yet another classic example of the quick to mature vintage and is arguably showing at its apex, w/ a complex of array of licorice root, beef juices, fig and braised game notes. Again, this will definitely not be one for the brettophobes, but it’s important to note that the layers of sauvage elements are interwoven w/ fruit in an easy harmony, echoing along the sappy finish for close to 30 seconds, 92 points.

Cuvee du Papet, 1998
This is one of the benchmark vintages of the luxury Papet cuvee, and it has really begun to hit its stride. Powerful and full of youthful vigor, the gorgeous aromatics of graphite, garrigue, brick dust, pepper and black currant hypnotize the taster to another sip. Deep and beefy in the mouth, the wines immense body pumps out Provencal essences and terroir in spades. In spite of the Papet’s thickness and extract, there is a lovely sense of imbedded finesse that is beginning to emerge from its ten year stint in the bottle that makes it compelling to drink today, 95 points.

Mystery half bottle…
Thierry cryptically opened an unmarked 375 milliliter bottle for ‘dessert’ and it proved to offer a fascinating conclusion to the tasting. The wine was wildly esoteric in its synthesis of the sauvage and the herbaceous. Perhaps the only wine I’ve had in recent memory that I could actually differentiate separate types of meat in its character, as fried sausage, salted pork, bailed hay, grilled plum and blood all made an appearance in the nose. The palate was a touch bitter and a bit too herby for its own good, but certainly didn’t lack character or complexity, leaving a distinctive sense of sweet balsamic and loam in its tracks on the finish. Although my mid-80’s experience w/ Chateauneuf is relatively paltry, this 1984 Clos du Mont Olivet provided me with a much needed window of how the relatively poor years can still muster quite a bit of life at age 24. Certainly not the most pleasurable or compelling wine of the trip, but it etched a memorable impression & left me with a tangible time capsule of sorts that I won’t soon forget, 83 points.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

KB’s back, baby!

Well, I’m sure plenty of you are asking ‘back…from what, where’d they go?’ Well I personally was a huge fan their breakout ’03-’04 blockbusters and found the ’05 vintage to be quite a departure from the fore-mentioned years in terms of opulence and excitement. Don’t get me wrong, the ‘05s were solid, and some of which I thought were outstanding, but I found that the vintage overall didn’t deliver the ‘this is what I’m talking about’ experience I had come to expect from Kosta Browne. While tasting through them last year, I distinctly remember wanting more, craving those chills the ‘03s and ‘04s sent down my spine as if they were gateway drugs. A couple quick scents of their ’06 Sonoma Coast brought back the same visceral reaction that I missed through the speed-bump hiatus that was ’05.

When they strike it right, I find the wines unique in their ability to pull off the ‘Pinot on steroids’ stereotype as they shout out their aromas through a megaphone but then reel them into supreme focus in the palate, as all the intensity of fruit beams along effortlessly. No wimpy wines, no concern over alcohol content and nothing but varietal purity…just at a more thrilling, pleasure-induced volume.

Kosta Browne Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, 2006
Aromatically intense and opulent, w/ a flutter of licorice, black raspberries, smoked pork, tree bark, cocoa, thyme and dark cherry liqueur notes intensely filling the room. The palate is laced w/ sweet, crushed berry fruit that drips in sap but is not short on lithe precision. A beautiful combination of muscle and weightless finesse creates a performance that nets the most compelling KB I’ve tasted since the knockout ‘04s. What a spectacular effort for an appellation-level bottling, 95 points.