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Monday, June 30, 2008

Is There a Silkier, More Polished Bottle of Cotes du Rhone?

Well unfortunately my favorite producer of Chateauneuf du Pape, Domaine de La Vieille Julienne, is financially a tall order for most of us (myself included, as I happily shell out 60 dollars for their appellation level Chateauneuf, yet can't roll w/ the ballers when it comes to the 400 plus clams that their nearly perfect Reserve clocks in at), but what gets lost in their portfolio is their Cotes du Rhone, which gets my nod as one of the finest in the Southern Rhone. Generally priced in the mid to high teens, the Cotes du Rhone vineyards from Vieille Julienne lie just outside the boundaries of Chateauneuf du Pape and are a stone's throw away from Charvin's well known Cotes du Rhone parcels. Stylistically, the Cotes du Rhone wines from Vieille Julienne take a page out of their Chateauneuf's book, showcasing vivid, velvety fruit that cascades in an almost ethereal glide across the palate in a pure, haunting display that belies the modesty of the appellation.

Just for show, Vieille Julienne produced a legendary Cotes du Rhone, called La Bosse, for their domaine's 100th birthday in 2005, which was as show-stopping as any Chateauneuf du Pape as I've ever tasted. While their traditional Cotes du Rhone is nowhere near as grandoise as the statement made by La Bosse, it easily stands apart from just about any other wine in its value-driven class & is a screaming value that is not to be missed for Rhone-ophiles.

Vieille Julienne Cotes du Rhone 2004
No matter what the wine, Vieille Julienne gets my nod for the most pure, rounded wines of the appellation w/ their effortless sensibility and brilliant expression of place. A spicy, peppery bouquet of meat juices, fig, blackberry sauce and blue fruits is found in this ’04 Cotes du Rhone (that neighbors the Chateauneuf borders). In the mouth, while full of earthy, spice box laced elements, it is suave, wonderfully silky and poised to a T. This medium bodied, impeccably balanced Cotes du Rhone should drink beautifully well for the next 6-8 years, 89 points.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

A few reds from Chapoutier, '05s for the cellar and a noble Pavillon

2005 Cote Rotie Les Becasses
Again, monocepage dictates that no Viognier is added to the Cote Rotie at Chapoutier, and the nose of this ’05 follows in noble suit with perfumes of violet, black currant, smoked meat juices, spice box and tar. In the mouth, the wine is wound tight as a drum, locked down in a sinewy structure that flexes obvious tannin, yet demonstrates the subtle polish one expects to find in fine Cote Rotie. The finish unwinds a bit, letting a buried hint of iron sing. This ‘barrel sample-like’ ’05 is going to demand quite a bit of patience and I wouldn’t touch another bottle until at least 2013, 91+ points.

2005 Hermitage Sizeranne
Another massive, grip-laced ’05 from Chapoutier that sports smoky loam, warm ganache, blueberry, bramble and pepper notes that foreshadow an immensely taut body. The wine is currently slathered in backbone a la a Bordeaux ‘vin de garde,’ as layers of muscle slowly unfold in the mouth w/ vigorous swirling and aeration. In spite of the frankly high tannin, things come together nicely on the finish, as a waterfall of purple fruits and beef blood punctuate the package. Like the Cote Rotie, this requires a multitude of patience, best after 2017, 93+ points.

2004 Ermitage Le Pavillon
One of Chapoutier’s top cuvees, Le Pavillon comes from compact granite soils and is supremely situated on the Hermitage hill. In spite of the astronomically high yields of ’04, this red is surprisingly beefy and more compact than I imagined it would be. Deep, rich dark cherry, crème de cassis, smoke, tree bark, toasted brioche and grilled steak notes are fairly locked down in the mouth, yet coiled, poised and waiting to explode. The finish shows terrific focus and class, pumping out textbook minerality in spades. Don’t treat this ’04 ligthly, as aggressive decanting is mandatory for near-term consumption, 93 points.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Michel's larger than life line-up of whites:

Crozes Hermitage, Les Meysonniers 2007
This cuvee comes from some of the oldest Marsanne vines in the plains of the appellation. The wine is fermented in 80% stainless steel, with the balance in old oak barrels, and the color was perhaps the palest straw of the bunch. A complex, nostril tickling bouquet of hay, chamomile tea, chive butter and citrus zest shoots from the glass. The mouth-feel is absolutely bracing, w/ a lightning beam of acidity carrying the trim, yet full flavored palate to the finish suggestive of apple pie crust. While young, I imagine this infant has the potential to gain a bit more depth w/ a few more months of bottle age, 88+ points.

Deschants, Saint Joseph 2006
The Deschants bottling comes from south-east facing slopes of pure granite soils and ratchets up the intensity, as this darker hued effort reveals a nose more on the tropical fruit spectrum. Scents of ginger, salted butter, tea leaves, coconut oils, apricot and quince fruit reverberate from the glass w/ vivid complexity and shoot through a laser of acidity in the mouth. Beautifully delineated, mid-weight beams of liquid minerals jet through the finish, letting a lingering note of protea flower & bitter almond sing in the background, 92 points & one knockout value!

Invitare, Condrieu 2006
A small portion of Condrieu comes from this domaine and is perhaps one of the brightest, most high toned Viognier of the appellation (there is no oak in the upbringing, with 90% of the fruit being fermented in stainless steel and the rest in demi-muids). Light golden hues foreshadow a nose of apricot cream, peach skin, lilacs and spiced orange marmalade. While full in the mouth, the wine is extremely light on its feet, dancing suavely from cheek to cheek w/ an illusive freshness that I hardly come across from a Viognier, 90 points. While Condrieus are not known for longevity by any stretch of the imagination, I’d recommend drinking up this particularly delicate version over the next year as the ’05 I tasted was already tiring & was almost faint in terms of explosiveness when compared to the ’06.

Chante Aloutte, Hermitage 2005
I couldn’t help but bring some of this golden colored elixir back to the States. The collective line-up of Hermitage whites, to me, are the most complex, rich and terroir driven white wines in the entire Rhone region. The Chante Aloutte cuvee used to encompass the entire white Hermitage blend before Michel took over the Domaine in ’89 and fragmented the wines into their particular terroirs. The upbringing consists of 1/3rd barrique, 1/3rd old oak and 1/3rd stainless steel. The riveting, idiosyncratic aroma is full of bee pollen, lanolin, honey glazed hazelnuts, smoked figs, lime candy and floral lychee notes permeate the aromatic profile of this uncanny wine. This monster is oily and thick in the mouth, w/ unctuous flavors that are beautifully reeled in by a stony sense of liquid minerality on the finish. In spite of its broad shoulders, the multi-layered textures bring symmetry & grace to this beauty, which leaves a chameleon-like impression on the finish. While this is technically the lowest end of the price/quality spectrum from Chapoutier’s white Hermitage line-up (and is the largest in volume at 1,000 cases), it is a stunning example of the potential depth and complexities of the Marsanne grape from the granite soils on the hill, 95 points.

De L’Oree, Hermitage 2004
Marsanne was on the Hermitage hill long before Syrah, and this example of white Hermitage tells red wine drinkers who’s boss, exhibiting more power & structure than several Syrahs that I’ve tasted! The L’Oree is one of Michel’s top cuvees and is a flat out amazing tasting experience. Thrilling aromatics of buttered walnuts, honeysuckle, crème fraiche, bitter almond, candle wax, citrus blossom and minerals are simply outrageous. In the mouth, the wine is monstrously thick, w/ an almost chewy texture that piles on opulent layers of hedonistic flavor that seem to go on for days. I still can’t fathom how this much intensity & character can be crammed into a glass, yet still retain a sense of balance & poise. Anything of this other-worldly nature is bound to stir w/ a controversial wand, but to this taster, it is the stuff dreams are made of, 99 points (and the highest rated wine on my trip)!

Michel Chapoutier, Masterpiece Theater

As I try to assemble my tasting impressions from this domaine I can’t help but ask, what can be said of this brash, yet phenomenally talented man that already hasn’t been well documented? His name seems to be synonymous w/ controversy, yet the breadth and scope of his operation is undeniably impressive. From the Hermitage hill to the land down under, he’s left an enological mark that spans the globe.

While his namesake domaine takes a backseat to Guigal in Cote Rotie, traveling south to the village of Tain makes Chapoutier’s Hermitage presence palpable, as it seems omnipresent, always looming in the distance like a halo. While Chave and Jaboulet are legendary domaines of the appellation, whose powerful reds are etched in literature like a symphony of classical verses, the white wines of Chapoutier have played the tune that touches me most. Truth be told, I went to a hearty, red wine region in search of un joli vin blanc, and found more than I bargained for.

Walking through the immaculately groomed tasting facility was an experience all its own, proving to be as stark a contrast as any when compared to the dingy cellars of my beloved Chateauneuf du Pape producers. While viewing a polished, corporate video presentation was hardly the welcome I’d come to expect from my visits in the Rhone, the visual tour certainly made the domaine’s message as clear as a bell. The buzz words ‘eco-system balance’ and ‘soil oxygenation’ punctuated Michel’s fanatical biodynamic principles that he instituted after he joined the domaine in 1989 (Chapoutier became a certified biodynamic producer in 1999). From Michel’s perspective, the vineyards had been completely desiccated from the years of pesticide/herbicide/fungicide abuse and had to be restored to life. The use of chemical fertilizers were banished in favor of whey, cowpat and ester sprays, the soils treated with organic compost and vineyard replanting was done at higher-densities, forcing the vine’s roots to dig even deeper for nourishment. The radical ‘house-cleaning’ at the domaine also included a drastic reduction of eviscerating finings/filtrations, exclusive usage of wild yeasts, vigorous canopy management/crop thinning to reduce the yield, hand harvesting and separating each bottling into a particular terroir, as the varied geologies and exposures all produce distinct expressions. In my opinion, it’s important for younger producers to carve out unique parcels of land and experiment w/ multiple cuvees as it’s a natural learning process for the vintner. I also believe that these experiences w/ smaller segments of a greater terroir will eventually provide the vintner w/ the necessary tools to express their greater terroir in an even more profound fashion, much like a chef understanding what proportion to use each ingredient to master the main course. While this theory of ‘progression’ is a generalization of sorts, I do think it helps elucidate the proliferation of separate cuvees in regions like Chateauneuf du Pape, chock full of new domaines that are essentially learning their own lands.

The domaine’s ‘mono-cepage’ (or one grape, one terroir) concept extends across all appellations in the Rhone. Their Cote Rotie is void of Viognier, their Chateauneuf du Pape reds are pure Grenache and their whites from the north are all 100 percent Marsanne. The Hermitage-based whites are some of the most polarizing, unadulterated expressions of terroir that I’ve ever come into contact with. While the big-ticket whites are frightfully expensive, the Saint Joseph & Crozes-Hermitage cuvees can prove to be thrilling, thrifty introductions to what heights Marsanne can achieve from the granite based soils of the Northern Rhone.

Tasting notes to follow…

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Summer Stock at Pratts

The scope and breadth of the now famous Pratt’s offline yesterday was tremendous. Dozens of sloppy geeks braved the trek to Yorktown Heights, teetering through the windy, narrow roads that parallel some of the greenest pastures us concrete-encased city folk have ever seen. As I waltzed through the Inn’s cozy, log-cabin like interior (clothed in my matching ‘Jay Hack sandals’ & beach shorts), I asked my Rhone table brethren ‘where are we?’ Their replies ‘our table is right in front of the cheese selection’ may have been in unison, but certainly missed the mark. ‘No, where the hell are we,’ I replied w/ a bit more vigor as they began to shake their heads a la Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz as she came to acknowledge her new surroundings. Needless to say, it’s good to get out once in a while.

Oddly enough, the wines failed to satiate me, in spite of their plentiful quantity and impeccable quality as I marched off to White Plains for beers after our vinous slaughter was complete. While the suds did indeed beat the summer heat, I still felt compelled to stumble on home for a greasy pizza, which of course demanded another bottle of wine. My internal organs are obviously the worse for wear, but the least I can do is pen an impression here and there, hopefully memorializing the first annual ‘summer session’ of New York’s own Pratt’s extravaganza. May god have mercy on my soul.


Non Vintage Mumm de Cremant
While Rhone varietals can certainly shape broad, rich white wines, they’ve yet to be harnessed into sparklers of any recognition, so we defaulted to a non vintage favorite from the chalky soils north of Paris. The exceptionally toasty nose was quite dazzling, w/ puff pastry, grilled nuts, buttered brioche and lemon zest notes erupting from the glass. While showy aromatically, the plate was much more compact, w/ a racy beam of citrus fruits pumping along a laser-like edge of smoky graphite flavors, reeling in its great acidity and focus on the finish, 93 points.

Procession of whites…

Blind contestant number one:
While I knew what this was the second I tasted it, it doesn’t say much about my ‘soothsaying ability,’ considering Roussanne based nuggets of this intensity don’t exist in much volume. This is a knock-out, acid-free powerhouse of a white, w/ beautifully exotic notes of papaya cream, honeysuckle blossom, quince paste and peach skins that bring a thunderclap of thickness, fat and luxurious flavors to the palate. While a couple percent of Sauvignon Blanc is generally added to the ’05 Stolpman L’Avion, the wine doesn’t profess to be ‘fresh’ and generally is best served at very cold temperatures. With all the being said; this white is a hedonistic delight and does manage to pull off its opulence w/o being cloying or ponderous, 93 points.

Alban Viognier, 2006
I initially thought the sequence we served the whites wouldn’t matter as the Viogniers and Roussanne-based whites were all fairly full-throttle, but all this changed as we tasted the Herman Story & Alban Viogniers after the Stolpman bombshell. The Ablan showed disjointed & hot, w/ a distracting persimmon and bitter almond finish clipping the wine well short of its typical outstanding profile. The temperature was a touch much and the body of the wine showed like a 6 foot tall toddler, clumsy, out of place and frankly off-kilter, 77 points (though not in sync w/ my other tastings of this wine).

Herman Story Viognier, 2006
Easily a step up from the Alban, showing a much more compact, linear and poised structure, full of ginger snap, wild flower and bright apricot flavors. While there was excellent focus and fine symmetry to this Viognier, it lacked excitement and was less than enthralling when push came to shove, 88 points.

A blind, little red devil:
Bob’s red definitely brought the smelling salts to my nostrils, as gamey, savory notes of wild mushroom, braised chestnut, Indian spices and hearty plum sauce notes tickled the senses like a feather duster. In the mouth, there is a severity to the youthful, tannic grip that makes this come off a bit raw and chunky, but there is so much character in this ’06 Perrin & Fils Les Cornuds (from the Cotes du Rhone villages, Vinsobres) that you can’t help but fall for it (not to mention its 15 dollar pricetag). I was fooled that the cepage of this 65% Syrah, 35% Grenache cuvee was Mourvedre based & was forced to eat a slab of humble, Rhone pie after my jubilant, blind victory on the L’Avion, 86 points.

Texier Chateauneuf du Pape, Reserve Improbable 2001
I was a huge fan of this big boy at first sniff, as I was greeted by some up-front subtlety hinting at rich loam, bailed hay, violet and tilled earth notes that belied the intensity that was to follow in the mouth. A huge, sweet attack of dark fig, raspberry compote and braised beef notes explode in the mouth in an uber-concentrated, flashy style that pumps out beef blood flavors on the lengthy finish. While this ’01 is loaded w/ a monstrous core of fruit, the wine is deceptively structured & certain to reward cellaring over the next decade, 94+ points.

Clos des Papes, 2000
I’ve shamelessly put down at least a half dozen bottles of this vintage and found this performance to easily be the most underwhelming. The nose and palate were unyielding, tight as nails and offering relatively no pleasure at all. There was zero indication that this wine was of the same breed of previously tasted bottles, yet there were also no noticeable flaws in terms of handling or TCA.

Pegau, Cuvee Laurence 1995
The profile of this wine revolves around telltale Pegau characteristics like fresh tobacco, garrigue, glazed mushroom, sea salt and red currant paste, yet lacks the depth of fruit that Pegau fans expect (making its skeleton a bit more apparent than most vintages). Don’t listen to what Michel or Jaouen have to say about this wine ‘dying’ or ‘being dried out,’ their palates are fried on Burgundy ;) While this vintage is hardly hedonistic or a mouth-filling performance for Pegau, it has plenty of nobility and jaw-searing structure to last (not necessarily evolve positively) for another decade. The question remains the same for this wine as it may for the ’05 Reservee (which brings to mind many of the ’86 Bordeaux that I’ve recently tasted), is there enough substance to balance out the sinew? 92 points.

Janasse, Cuvee Chaupin 2004
Reminding me more of the top Cotes du Rhones from Janasse in ’06 (especially les Garrigues, which is mostly old vine Grenache adjacent to the Coudoulet vineyard at Beaucastel), this vintage of Chaupin is precocious and loaded w/ up-front, lush fruit. Striking notes of raspberry ganache, kirsch liqueur and pine resin turn silky and sultry in the mouth, finishing with fabulous purity and a tantalizing. lingering note of crushed blueberries, 92+ points.

Domaine Saint Prefert Collection Charles Giraud, 2003
This producer, particularly along w/ Charvin and Pegau, really nailed this irregular vintage, showcasing the ripeness from the weather w/o compromising integrity of structure. Heady, seductive notions of linzer torte, café au lait, warm ganache, fig bread and seaweed weave in and out of the nose in a suggestive, tantalizing style. Layered and fabulously generous in the mouth, the classic Saint Prefert polished textures really shine through, gliding along w/ finesse & ease. While this is top shelf expression of the vintage, I still find the ’05 Charles Giraud cuvee to be her finest, 95 points.

Jaboulet Saint Pierre, Cornas 1997
This Cornas showed pruny, stewed fruit notes that were cut by searing acidity, awkward texture and minute length. I assume this bottle was heat damaged (it certainly better be), as it brought to mind a watered-down, late-harvest Zinfandel that was poorly acidified and destined to end up down the drink. I have been implored to mention that this wine had a distinct, five minutes of fame, much like the skies opening up in the eye of the storm briefly, before the heavens dump gallons of horrific hail and sleet all over the earth…but hey, a couple people really dug those five minutes of sunshine ;)

Colombo Hermitage Le Rouet, 1995
Considering Colombo has been stabbed w/ a ‘modern sword’ in terms of his style and overall enological practices, I was shocked to notice how brett-laced this funky creature was when I first smelled it. The wine is fresh and compact, steering its pepper, aged beef, earth and blackberry flavors tightly, as a river of acidity drives the mid-weight frame to a piercing, iron-laced finish, 89 points.

Ojai Thompson Vineyard Syrah, 1999
This 9 year old Syrah was a lovely surprise, showing not only wonderful purity of fruit, but fabulous freshness and definition. The vivid, floral aromatics became brighter in the mouth, showcasing black cherry liqueur, cocoa, hoison sauce and violet notes through the streamlined palate. There wasn’t substantial heft or power to this Thompson Vineyard expression, but it certainly showed off impeccable balance and vibrant, zippy acidity that surprised just about everyone, 92 points.

Alder Roadside, 2004
The Roadside bottling comes from the now defunct Rhone varietal based project called Alder and is a blend of 50% Grenache and 50% Syrah. Winemaker Steve Clifton’s deft touch is noticeable in this wonderfully rendered bottling, expressing pure strawberry preserve, pine resin, cola, rose petal and melted licorice notes in the nose. A sweet attack of red berry fruit pumps over a bed of sweet tannin with great definition, lift and poise. Whether the varietals stem from Burgundy, the Rhone or Italy, Steve Clifton has demonstrated his versatility from just about every angle and deserves to be mentioned in just about any discussion that involves California’s top winemakers, 91+ points.

PAX Obsidian Syrah, 2005
A Knight’s Valley based Syrah isn’t something I see everyday, and this vineyard seems to be in great hands w/ PAX at the helm. The flamboyant nose of decadent fruit explodes w/ violet, boysenberry, rhubarb pie, road tar and blueberry reduction sauce notes that are out of this world. In the mouth, there’s surprising grip, keeping the exotic layers of fruit in check & framing the full-bodied palate quite well. While the style is very frank, verging on outrageous, there is an undeniable sense of refinement that belies the wine’s indulgent character & may prove to channel this beauty into an impressive evolution, 94+ points.

Sine Qua Non Atlantis Syrah, FE203 1A 2005 I feel distressingly stale when I type this, but this had to be the most mind-boggling wine of the tasting. I’m certainly unoriginal and not one to ruffle any cuffs in terms of my commentary, but this, like all Sine Qua Non wines that I’ve tried, is a superlatively textured wine that not only wears its broad shoulders well, it seems as if it were sanded into shape by a perfectionist architect. Riveting notes of blackberry reduction sauce, roasted meats, warm brioche, cedar and lead pencil shavings cascade through the monstrous layers of flavor in as seamless a fashion as any hedonistic connoisseur could hope for. What really wows me is that a wine of this magnitude can still build in the mouth incrementally, and doesn’t really burst at the seams until the finish….which was as sensational and vivid as any I’ve experienced in a New World Syrah, 98 points.

Sean Thackery Orion, 2004
There are some brilliant raw materials at work in this ancient Sryah vine based red, yet I had a tough time getting passed some of its short-comings aromatically. There was an overwhelming scent of glue & a medicinal element that marred some of the more compelling notes of huckleberry, blackberry sauce, anise and fresh rosemary. The herbal elements managed to peek through again in the palate, which was thick, yet seemed deficient in terms of acidity and verve. While this is certainly an esoteric & impressive collection of ingredients, this showing seemed to reveal that the chef was a bit sloppy in his preparation and, to me, this was overshadowed by the other two titans from California, 89-92 points+?
Time for a couple '77 Napa Cabs to close the book on the afternoon...

Chateau Montelena, 1977
Boy was this a dead-ringer for an aged-to-perfection Pauillac or what? The aromatics were as aristocratic as they come, w/ classic notions of lead pencil shavings, cigar tobacco, black currant and gravel characteristics all making an appearance. The attack is still full of sweet, black fruits, pumping along a full body that is still formidably constituted & not short in terms of grippy tendon. The Montelena certainly demonstrates that patience can be a virtue, as this ’77 was a class act from head to toe, 94 points.

Heitz, Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet, 1977
Let me be abundantly clear, I tasted the Sine Qua Non first, and then dipped into this masterpiece of evolution (and it still brought a heavy stick to the dog fight). The essence of cool eucalyptus cascades from the nose like a waterfall, coating its crème de cassis and milk chocolate flavors in a finely woven quilt of finesse. In spite of its three plus decades in the bottle, the wine is massively concentrated w/ striking intensity, layers of flavor and uncanny richness. Like Mark Aubert’s Chardonnay, this is a class that I’m happy to lap up every last bit of sediment until the glass is spotless. Make no mistake about it; this was a genuine wine experience that will be filed away for a rainy day in my memory, 96 points.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Time to think Pink

Yeah yeah, rose being 'in' is as cliche as pink being sweet, but if any of you are like me, you're fixin' to dive into a paler hued red to beat the summer heat. An obscure little gem (for less than 10 dollars, mind you) provided me w/ just the ride I was lookin' for...and was wondering if any of you have any other 'by the case' type values out there to share so we can stock up for the sweaty days to come....

Chateau Guiot, Rose 2007
This Grenache-Syrah blend is definitely a man’s rose, w/ a deep, brilliant garnet color yielding some serious hints of red cherry pit, strawberry sauce, chalk dust and rose petals. Surprisingly thick & heady, w/ great heft for a rose in the mouth, this charges through the palate w/ force & ends on a delicious, red fruit studded note. This is a knockout value from any class; perhaps its obscure Costieres de Nimes terroir is what allows the Robert Kacher team to price this so modestly, 88 points.

Oddly enough, I scored this puppy the same as a Bandol bottling from the hallowed Domaine Ott, checking in at 4 times the price. There's a time and a place, but from a value standpoint, the Guiot is a no-brainer.

Domaine Ott, Bandol Rose 2006
Perhaps w/ a bit more muscle and a touch less finesse than their Provence Rose, the Bandol ’06 shows an alluring copper hue that foreshadows subtle flower, peach skin, iron, strawberry seed and golden delicious apple notes. Over the past few vintages, the impeccable texture of this rose is what sets it in the standard bearer role, w/ a brisk drive to the extremely rounded, plush core of ethereal flavors that have nary a rough edge to be found. While I still find a touch more excitement and complexity in Tempier’s Bandol, this has got be as suave as rose gets, 88 points.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Can Cab Franc be Hedonistic, yet Varietally Correct?

I am an unabashed Owen Roe & Cayuse fan (both of their Cab Francs bring a jolt to my palate) & have had a select few from the Golden State that tasted delicious, yet reminded me little of the varietal. I actually believe that, from a domestic standpoint, the North Fork has made the most strides w/ this grape, Paumanok in particular. Granted there are still plenty of weedy, herbaceous and green-infused versions coming from Long Island, but when they strike it right, they seem to be able to pull off a style that finds a middle ground between right bank Bordeaux and a clean, poised Chinon.

Having said that, I believe this Californian producer deserves honorable mention in the ‘Franc Hall of Fame,’ albeit on a small scale in terms of production. The Foxen boys crank out quality wines from soup to nuts on the varietal scale, ranging from steely Chenin Blanc to surprisingly juicy Sangiovese. Their unadorned ‘tasting shack’ is as modest and unassuming as their free-wheeling style, yet anyone that can craft a quality Cabernet Sauvignon miles away from solid Pinot Noir has certainly got some serious talent underneath that humble façade. Their Cabernet Franc was my most recent Foxen shock to the system & is one of the reasons their ‘Anchor Club’ is a worthwhile venture (forget having to order massive quantities of expensive wine to keep your spot in the cue, they don’t make enough wine for that!). Hope you enjoy the impressions…

Foxen Cabernet Franc Tinaquaic Vinyeard, Dry Farmed 2005
Is there such a nexus where Cabernet Franc can be varietally correct, yet hedonistic? Foxen’s ‘mini-cult’ favorite certainly comes close to such honors, clocking in at 15.8 alcohol and offering an inky robe that foreshadows something severe, yet delivers a much subtler package than originally advertised. Classic aromas of sandalwood, sweet tobacco, crushed lilacs, grilled chestnut, blueberry and flashy red currant sauce set the stage for a well channeled palate. While the attack is sweet, weaving in flavors of mint and cocoa amidst its medium frame, this full-flavored effort is kept honest by its compact presence. The wine is remarkably round and long, thanks to deliciously ripe tannins and electric verve, 92 points.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Chateau Rayas, and its Band of Merry Men from Fonsalette

1999 Rayas Blanc
A 50/50 split between Clairette and Grenache Blanc (generally speaking, but who knows w/ this estate) that comes across as an imaginary cross of an aged Chablis and a youthful Sancerre. Flinty aromas reveal layers of smoke, apple peel, wilted lilacs and crushed stones. The flavors are subtle, evoking the essence of liquefied minerals, pumping along an intensely bright spine of turbo charged acidity, excellent persistence and fine precision, 89 points.

1994 Chateau Rayas
It’s been said time and time again, but this wine is, in fact, very Burgundian. A splash of garrigue, cherry pit and red plums dance through the air in the medium bodied wine of textbook elegance and finesse. The finish is coated in crunchy acidity, speckled with hints of earth and a firm, mineral laced grip, 88 points.

1995 Fonsalette Syrah
This bottle is a stark contrast to the same vintage I drank last week in that it was much less evolved. Structurally, this is packed, keeping a firm grip on the primary notes of violet, cassis and ground pepper flavors that pump out on a channeled, bright frame. Things lock down a bit firmly on the finish, as a buried hint of iron and intense graphite grip lurk in the background. Well stored bottles will likely need close to 5 more years to wiggle their way towards prime drinking, 93+ points.

1999 Fonsalette Cotes du Rhone
Ever wonder what Cinsault does to a blend? Well folks, here’s your answer. This red produced some of the most distinctive characteristics I’ve noted in recent memory, as a barrage of game-coated elements reveal themselves in the form of red cabbage, fried green beans, decaying vegetation, bramble, cracked pepper and worn leather. Certainly esoteric, w/ a rugged, raw presentation, yet manages to pull things together on the finish, thanks to the rustling acidity that keeps its almost unruly elements in check, 86 points.

1990 Fonsalette Syrah
While a Rayas trademark has been the lack of pigment in their wines, this was hands down the most inky, saturated robe I’d seen any Southern Rhone wine wear (much less at almost 20 years of age!). Swirling this diamond in the glass revealed pure, ambrosia-like delights, as a torrent of black truffle oil, freshly paved road tar, wild herbs, spice cake, fig sauce and unatamed earthy elements emerged in the jaw-dropping nose. The wine is fantastically proportioned in the mouth, w/ completely resolved tannin, magnificent presence and impeccable symmetry. There is a sense of presence to this wine that belies description and almost takes your breath away, finishing w/ verve and class. Make no mistake; this was a heavenly performance from Fonsalette. From a qualitative perspective, I think this would prove to be a fascinating ringer in a top Northern Rhone Syrah flight, not in the sense that it reminds me of the North, but it could hold its own amongst the best & is certain to turn heads, as it certainly did ours, 96 points.

1989 Pignan
Recent tastings of top ’89s have proved to please in all the right places (not to mention being youthful little buggers) and this Pignan was front and center, taking its cues beautifully. Heady, flamboyantly ripe overtones of black raspberry, kirsch liqueur, resin and black tea fill the air, as if to whisper reminders in my ears as to why I love great Grenache. The midpalate is one big mouthful of hedonistic, sweet fruit, undercut by a vivacious, pure beam of cleansing acidity. The wine is deceptively lush and round, w/ a formidable structure that is certain to carry its flesh for at least another decade in the cellar, 94 points.

1990 Pignan
Sadly, was not meant to be. The first bottle was corked, the second showed significant signs of heat damage.

1988 Rayas
The attractiveness in the 88’s bouquet brought a vision of ‘strawberry fields forever’ to mind, dazzling w/ scents of sweet raspberry preserve, cola, strawberry ganache and notions of cold steel. The sweet attack is vivid, nearly mimicking the sensation of biting into fresh berries, yet there is a bit of a detracting hollowness & heat that escapes in the mid palate, leaving me curious as to whether or not the body & length will expand in time. Is what you see, in fact what you get w/ the ’88 Rayas? Time will tell. Gaps aside, this vintage left us w/ much to appreciate, 92 points.

2000 Rayas
Perhaps the lone disappointment of the evening, in spite of the spine-tingling flutter of lavender, red cherry cordial, linzer torte and rose petal aromas, the palate simply didn’t step up to the plate. Alcoholic fumes intrude this light to medium bodied wine, masking its skeletal depth, austere profile and attenuated finish. While a bit of air exposure did soften the structure and flesh out the palate a bit, this will likely continue to be a sub-par performance for Rayas, missing the mark in a stellar vintage, 86+ points.

2004 Rayas
This 2004 is a beguiling, textbook example of 2004, that has a typical up front, precocious nature, yet offers plenty in reserve for the cellar. Alluring hints of dry rub spices (chili powder, cinnamon, cardamom), cracked pepper, freshly cut rosemary, angus beef and gorgeous kirsch liqueur scents filled the room, and our imaginations, with bliss. A fabulously elegant entry paves the way for spicy, suggestive charms that are undercut by an almost rugged, feral quality, giving the mouth-feel an uncompromising sense of tension, pumping out high toned fruit along the gossamer finish, 94 points.

2001 Rayas
This vintage is more frankly structured & more deeply colored than either the ’00 or ’04. The nose serves up concoction of grilled Provencal herbs, forest berry, underbrush, pine resin, red currant and roast beef scents seethe from the glass, w/ piercing, yet backward intensity. In the mouth, the wine is not fat, but it has pastry-dough like layers of flesh that coat the stiff, tendon-rich structure, only hinting at the potential depth and nuance this effort is sure to tack on w/ another 5 plus years of bottle age. The finish really sucks you in, w/ a gorgeous beam of buried minerality that sails along effortlessly, 93+ points.

2003 Rayas
In spite of the year’s extremities, Rayas crafted a fine example of 2003, revealing forward fruit, supple texture and finely grained tannins. While plump and certainly lower in acid, the plush flavors of black cherry liqueur, sandalwood, damp earth and rose petals are wonderfully framed and offer compelling depth. This 2003 didn’t reveal any flaccid, raisined characteristics and should have enough sinew to brace it for another decade of pleasurable drinking, 93 points.

2003 Pignan
The two bottles I opened were horribly cooked, smelling more like distilled brandy than wine and add yet another wrinkle to the debate of the countless tales of baked ‘03s. Whether it be sweltering cellar conditions, careless shipping or simply poor storage, it is a problem and has made purchasing these wines a precarious proposition.

1995 Pignan
The ’95 Pignan showed impressively, making my less than stellar previous encounter a distant tasting memory, revealing oodles of kirsch liqueur, black raspberry and melted licorice scents that exploded from the glass. While formidably constituted, the layers of flavor are still compact and either in need of vigorous decanting or a few more years in the cellar. This 13 year old still has the vigorousness of an infant and is a formidably muscular effort from a cool, sandy terroir, 91 points.

1995 Rayas
One of the most heralded vintages of modern Rayas has to be the ’95, a deep ruby colored Grenache that is as coiled as any, suggesting notes of blueberries, tree bark, kirsch liqueur, bittersweet cocoa powder, melted licorice and warm fig bread. While seemingly impenetrable in the mouth (not an easy feat for a pure Grenache wine), there is a sleeping giant of concentration, moments away from a colossal impact. Nothing short of monumental in terms of power and focus, yet excruciatingly restrained in a similar fashion to classed growth Bordeaux that is too youthful and backward to fully reveal its inner core of flavors. As the finish echoes a chorus of garrigue, a fleeting grasp of greatness escapes the palate to the old sports cliché: ‘wait ‘till next year,’ 96+ points.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Tour de Rayas…

Speaking w/ Ryan at Tribeca grill, one of the better sommeliers I’ve had the good fortune to come across in the city, re-invigorated the ‘Grenache chip on my shoulder’ that I’ve had since my first taste of Chateauneuf du Pape. Ryan’s tales of a ’45 Rayas bringing tears to the eyes of top New York sommeliers gave me such a vicarious thrill that I began to salivate at the thought. The knocks on the grape, whether it be an uncanny need for high alcohol to attain varietal character, an inability to age w/ the best Bordeaux, the outlandish ‘it tastes too damn good’ or its fragile vulnerability to oxidation all seem to collectively bar it from ‘nobility.’ What is nobility? Well, to me, it is a vaunted class of varietals the likes of Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Syrah, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and varied other hallowed grapes that have received a unanimously celebrated status from the old world and the new, driving consumer demand and producer intrigue, proliferating their cultivation throughout various terroirs of the planet. They not only have cache as a brand, they have a sense of respect amongst writers, tasters and all geeks alike, even the more extreme examples. But what of Grenache, where is its scribed poetry?

Another topic of discussion circulated around what a sweet spot Chateauneuf seems to be for Grenache, making me question if there really is ‘no place like home’ for this heart-felt grape of mine. Whether it be terroir specific or vine maturation (this region collectively has to have the oldest vines on the planet), it seems no other appellation has hit such heights w/ Grenache; making me question whether or not my predilection lies w/ the grape or amongst the galet covered grounds of the southern Rhone. Priorat can be compelling, yet polarizing. Old vine Australian Grenache can hint at greatness, but seems to get lost in the mix. Californian Grenache can be a heady delight, yet the only wines from the Golden State that truly evoke the sense of complexity, savory flesh and lushness of fruit seem to come from Zinfandel, which tends to leave me as puzzled as it does pleasured. To this point, for me, all roads still lead to the new house of the Pope.

In the majority of wine literature, Rayas is the icon that is synonymous w/ great Grenache, or the lone caveat that the grape’s doubters will collectively agree upon in terms of quality and longevity. I chose to dive into these mystical wines, not only to compensate for my lack of experience w/ the Chateau (the number of vintages I’d tasted could be counted on one hand), but to inundate myself w/ a pure, unadulterated Grenache from a uniquely sandy terroir. Another wrinkle the vertical provided was that of a change in regime….from the late, great Jacques to his quirky cousin, Emmanuel. Where the Jacques wines that great? Are the wines under Emmanuel up to snuff, or did they really loose a step?

Unfortunately, one tasting can never be comprehensive enough to tackle both questions to an appropriate degree (and this missing watershed vintages such as the ’78, ’85, ’89 and ’90), but I can unequivocally say that I was very pleasantly surprised w/ the quality of Emmanuel’s ’01 and ’04. I expected Emmanuel’s wines to be solid, but got a bit more than I bargained for in the earlier vintages The ’04 vintage, in particular, provided yet another fabulously under-priced winner (though not cheap, it happened to be the most inexpensive Rayas of the tasting)…but something tells me I’ve said that before about 2004.

Oh yeah, and the ’90 Fonsalette Syrah demonstrated, yet again, that Southern Rhone Syrah is by no means a laughing matter. Where there are ‘exceptions to the rule,’ there are bound to be more undiscovered gems lurking in the background….

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

A Vertical of Sassicaia

There’s something to be said for smaller, more intimately selected verticals. Nearly every time I return from an offline of 5 or so attendees (as opposed to the more customary baker’s dozen), I ask myself ‘why don’t we do this more often?’ Well, I’ve got a Napoleon complex as much as any other, wanting to squeeze in as many vintages as possible, recruiting plenty of my favorite geeks to fill the room. We get greedy….but alas, there is more than bliss in a cozy gathering, there’s clarity.

Although I’ve previously tasted almost every vintage in this particular Sassicaia vertical, this evening gave me a tangible pulse of the wines that I did not have before. With the exception of the mature ’94 and the infant ’04, the wines all shared savory mid-palates, w/ beefy overtones to their bright Bolgheri fruit. Aromatically, each vintage had a flutter of things to say, from decaying leaves and crushed flowers, to more classic graphite and black currant notes that we’ve come to expect from top Cabernet. The blend at Sassicaia is unique in that it is exclusively Cabernet, w/ Sauvignon taking up 85% of most blends and Franc rounding out the cuvee. The lack of the supple, fleshy Merlot is evident in the wine’s youth, as this estate is renowned for an immediate austerity that is almost unapproachable on release, but slowly develops and blossoms into a Tuscan swan, as this vertical demonstrated aptly.

In addition to the lack of Merlot (or Sangiovese for that matter, as several Super Tuscans have taken to the blending of Bordeaux varieties w/ the Tuscan staple), Sassicaia tends to be one of the first to harvest a la Moueix, to preserve freshness and bouquet. While the vintages we tasted through didn’t show green characteristics, they had a profound sense of verve, with high toned fruit and fresh, floral qualities that later harvesters (like the Ornellaia ’97 Tim brought for the end of the tasting) don’t preserve to the same degree. Stylistically, I appreciate both camps when they are executed well, and Ornellaia provides a supremely successful counterpoint to the Sassicaia M.O.A. The one, over-riding advantage I noted from the viticultural choices made at Tenuta San Guido was found in the scorching 2003 vintage. I’m certain that the coastal Bolgheri breezes tempered some of the heat, but what really struck me about the ’03 was its confluence of dramatic richness and airy sense of lift (likely due to an earlier harvest). All of us were wowed by the ’03 and it’s a vintage that, in spite of the lofty price tag, I’m certain to buy and tuck away as it evolves into what I believe will be a legendary wine.

Many thanks to the uncompromising generosity of Leo, not only in setting this up but for bestowing us all w/ his bevy of Sassicaia knowledge, passion and, of course, wine. I really enjoyed all our discussions (which are immensely difficult to have when there are 12 large at the table) and I think this evening demonstrated that there is more to this producer than a commercial ’68 vintage & a profound ’85 vintage. Let’s hope that the best is yet to come.

The perfect foil for the abusive heat that reeked havoc on our tasting, showing wonderfully mature hints of decaying foliage, dried mushrooms, rose petal and tomato seed in the soft, subtle aromatic profile. In the mouth, there was a refreshing, almost lip-smacking acidity that kicked the red fruit laced palate into high gear, pumping out bing cherry and red plum sauce notes along a fine, minerally spine. The wine was deceptively medium bodied and actually gained a bit of steam as it aired, picking up a truffle laced grip in the back end, 88 points.

While this vintage was more frankly concentrated, I didn’t find it to be any more compelling. Distinctive scents of iron, wilted lilac, and bloody black currants shot through the air w/ a bit more density and penetration than the ’94. The attack came off to me as a bit stewy, w/ a cooked beef and a tomato leaf undertone that was firm, yet high toned and completely esoteric. While the ’94 was gaining in presence from air exposure, I noted the ’96 becoming more shrill and angular. To me, this was an esoteric showing that was outclassed and overmatched by its peers, 86 points.

Welcome to the big leagues of Sassicaia….I couldn’t imagine a sharper contrast than this titan and the ’96. A completely alluring nose of graphite, melted licorice, freshly paved road tar, peppered steak, hearty plum sauce and notions of cold steel shuddered from the glass. The attack is intense, channeling its great depth of flavors through a dense, constituted mid palate. While there is no shortage of flesh, what separates this wine is its ability to effortlessly glide its layered heft over a bed of minerals w/ an almost electric pulse. This ’01 is a distinctive class act that is sure to cruise in the cellar, 95 points.

While I have not had the fortune to taste the ’78, ’85 or ’88, vintages like this can only lead my mind to wander aimlessly as to what the great ones were like. This is easily the ripest, most glycerin packed Sassicaia I’ve tasted, as it exploded from the glass w/ toasty black currant sauce, truffle oil, cocoa powder, violet and all sorts of devilish aromatic delights. Dark and hedonistic in the palate, w/ fantastic levels of extract, coating an enormous wealth of tannic structure that is almost completely concealed by the wine’s richness and supple layers of texture. In spite of all its excess, there is a river of freshness flowing underneath all that sinew that wraps up the package in sheer wonderment. As I mentioned before, I’m very confident that this will continue to evolve into a legendary Sassicaia and I imagine it will go toe to toe w/ the top left bank Bordeaux of the same vintage, 96+ points.

I know most of the table was disappointed w/ this vintage’s performance (I had high expectations too, simply based on how great the Guidalberto from Tenuta San Guido is showing), and I do wonder if our impression was affected by the two diamonds we drank right before it. Easily the most backward wine of the evening, only hinting at crème de cassis, mocha coated toast, dark plum and lead pencil notes. This was tight as a drum in the mouth, but revealing excellent concentration, w/ a focused charge of acidity beaming the body along to an easy finish. While there is great structural density and a foundation for solid potential, I’m not convinced that the materials will be truly compelling as they unravel, 91+ points.

There was a bit of a troubling impression w/ the ’04 as it aired, become a bit sweeter and dominated by toasty, new oak. We can only speculate as to whether or not the formula at Sassicaia has changed a bit for ‘04, but I think a few more years in the cellar will help ease those fears.

1997 Ornellaia
This was a terrific way to punctuate the evening, and although the wine’s temperature (much less our, sweat drenched body temperatures) was a touch hot, there was no denying the outstanding quality of Ornellaia’s flagship Cabernet. The color had a more saturated purple core than any of the Sassicaia wines, revealing an exotic nose of Asian spices, warm ganache, incense, fried truffles, and heady black currant paste. Initially this seemed a bit rambunctious, but it settled into a dynamo, revealing terrific opulence, plush texture and a long, seamless finish. What surprised me, and perhaps the rest of the group, was that this was the most Bordeaux like wine of the evening and the only wine were I made the ‘left bank like’ remark in my notes, 94 points.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Character Lines from Old Vines

Another aspect of my conversation w/ Rene involved a bit of debate regarding the age of his vines and its relative importance to a wine’s quality. Rene takes the stance that vine age is essentially a non-factor and considers the ‘old vine quality’ to be a myth. Hearing this perspective almost seemed like blasphemy after spending close to ten days in Chateauneuf, a land where century year old vines are more prized than gold, but his argument is not without merit. One of the most sought after wines in the world, the single vineyard Cote Rotie La Turque, from Guigal, come from vines barely in their adolescence (the vineyard was planted in 1981). You simply can’t attribute the spectacular heights that La Turque achieves to old vines.

I don’t think the discussion of vine age can occur in a vacuum. An appellation like Cote Rotie seems to belie a vineyard’s maturity due to its geology, angle extremity and the overall severities of terroir that naturally decrease yield, intensify flavors and retain acidity. Is the age of a vine in North Fork, Barossa Valley or Chateauneuf du Pape a negligible factor? Although viticultural practices such as green harvesting, trellis system management and leaf-pulling can combat the youthful vigor of immature vines, can they replicate the depth character that is often only associated w/ ancient vines? The answer is decidedly maybe, sometimes.

While one could make a sound case for both camps, I have to associate part of my affection for fine Grenache from Chateauneuf w/ its gnarly, old vines that have evolved and adapted over the past century. Not only do they produce less fruit, they have deeper penetrating roots that dig well into the earth for nourishment, giving them an intense layer of minerality that is highly associated w/ elder vineyards. In addition, some vines like Grenache are highly mutable and adapt to their environment over the years, learning to survive and thrive in their respective terroirs. Do they grow ‘character lines’ with age, like an old man whose wrinkles tell a story about what he’s done and where he’s been? I am not sure, but fans of Chateau Rayas are quick to cite the vast re-planting done at the vineyard when discussing the domaine’s less than stellar performances in top vintages like ’98, ’00 and ’01 (in addition to the changing of the guard that occurred when Jacques Reynaud passed in ’96 and Emanuel took over).

Obviously old vines are not everything, but I consider it to be a foolish statement to deny their importance all together. It seems that certain terroirs can shine so brightly that a vine’s age may barely play a supporting role, but when looking at the bigger picture of all the various wine growing regions that this enological world has to offer, I have to consider old vines to be an invaluable asset to any vintner’s repertoire, and one of which that many of the Old World’s best wines are certain to have.

Our evening at the Beau Rivage was capped off w/ a glorious dinner and a couple gems from two of the regions finest producers, Yves Cuilleron and Michel Ogier.

Cuilleron Condrieu Le Petit Cote, 2006
While most of the oak averse locals in Condrieu find a bit more pleasure from Francois Villard, I happen to adore just about everything Cuilleron has a hand in (including his reds in 2005). The ’06 Petit Cote is absolutely outstanding, jam packed w/ an effusive nose, evocative of beeswax, lanolin, crushed flowers, poached pears and honey-dipped quince notes. The intensity in perfume almost knocked me out of my seat, like a summer breeze on a tropical island, whisking you away to all its ambrosia-like delights. While creamy, plump and low in acid, the body of the wine has a fantastic, bracing minerality, keeping the opulent layers of flavors in check, as the chiseled finish that lets a jagged edge of quartz sing, 93 points.

Ogier Cote Rotie, 1999
The Beau Rivage wine list was anything but inexpensive, but an Ogier ’99 for 70 some odd euros was a deal I could not pass up. Out of my two weeks in the Rhone, this gets my vote for top three in terms of aromatic firepower, shot-gunning a series of smoky, savage and spicy scents that hit the nostrils w/ a thunderclap of intensity. Notions of road tar, blackberry sauce, lead pencil shavings, charcoal singed beef and cigar smoke simply made our jaws drop to the floor. In the mouth, the wine tastes like the essence of beef juices dripped over dark fruit, carried along w/ an almost piercing freshness, laser-like focus and blockbuster finish. In spite of the concentration in flavor, the wine is seemingly weightless a la Chateau Lafite, leaving you w/ a wonderfully elegant impression as its flavors glide on for well over a minute after the wine leaves the palate. Ogier’s 99 Cote Rotie is as ethereal as Syrah gets and was one, fantastic tasting experience, 96 points.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Sculpting Fine Wine on the Roasted Slope

Rene Rostaing’s modest wine cave is tucked away by the river, just off the main road and a stone’s throw away from the imposing Guigal castle, which seems to dwarf just about everything in the town of Ampuis. Rene has been making small amounts of his treasured Cote Rotie since 1971, only recently dabbling in the Languedoc to fashion a top flight Syrah blend and an idiosyncratic white from Grenache Blanc, Vermentino and Viognier. While Rene also produces a Condrieu, it is so small in quantity that even I felt guilty when he offered me a taste of his golden colored ‘07s that were resting in barrel.

Rene is a passionate gentleman, with an old school charm that he wears on his weathered, yet ruggedly handsome face. His strong sense of subjectivity may make his perspective seem a bit jaded, but I happened to be taken in by it…entranced by his animated speech, lead by the rhythm of his hands, guiding each word like the conductor of a symphony. He views his job as that of a sculptor, with his terroir at Cote Rotie producing wines full of fat that meant to be chiseled and shaped. Carving out elegance and finesse in wine is what he loves and does best. While he detests sheer mass in wine (and was very outspoken when I asked him what he thought of his neighbor’s wines), he also demands substance, finding the wines of Jasmin to be too light, albeit in a style which he appreciates. ‘Anyone can make a massive wine, but finding finesse and subtlety is difficult,’ repeated Rene, spoken as if it were a mission statement. With his particular terroir, he may be correct, particularly with the famed La Landonne vineyard, a plot known for its muscle, firm spine and longevity.

Rene essentially has no staff, save for harvest time, and he does just about everything by himself. He even manned the labeling device when my wife and I purchased a couple bottles of his Puech Noble on our way out, noting that he keeps things small enough so he can maintain a firm grasp on all the facets of each operation. He did admit that ‘his hand’ is responsible for the textural similarities in his wines, yet he still believes each distinctive segment of land speaks more loudly than any technique he happens to use. Rostaing’s favorite recent vintages are the 2000 and 2006 (which are still resting in barrel) and he has made it no secret that he completely loathes the freakishly ripe ‘03s (which happened to receive more critical acclaim than just about any other vintage he’s produced). The pride he has for his ’06 vintage was palpable as we tasted through what he refers to as ‘real Cote Rotie,’ the type of wine he strives to make each year and will never make any apologies for.

Cote Rote 2006
During fermentation, the Cote Roties undergo pigeage 3 times per day to gently extract as much flavor and color as possible. The Cote Rotie vineyards are between 100 and 300 meters in elevation above the river, using the steep slopes of the hill & reflective heat from the river to attain as much ripeness as possible. The ’06 appellation level cuvee has 1-2 percent Viognier co-fermented and revealed a soft, supple texture, packed w/ notes of bacon grease, warm toast, sweet spices and dried flowers. The mouth-feel was coated in silk, w/ a nice depth of flavor to the dark fruit flavors that beamed along a medium bodied spine to a fresh, crunchy finish, 90-92 points.

La Landonne 2006
Texturally, the La Landonne had a similar polish to the base Cote Rotie, but showed a bit more opulence and animal notes, with smoky, sauvage undertones weaving in and out of the violet and blackberry flavors. Although there is a bit more sinew to the La Landonne, the wine displays a suave personality, under-pinned by a striking sense of minerality that really sings on the long finish, 91-93 points.

Cote Blonde 2006
Perhaps the most exotic of the three cuvees, displaying blueberry, boysenberry and gravel notes in a plush, showy style. While more open-knit than the La Landonne, the Cote Blonde was full of poise, fabulously textured and stretched out its flavors beautifully on the finish, allowing a grippy iron-kissed note to peek in. The ’06 Cote Blonde synthesizes the seduction of Cote Rotie w/ a rugged, unbridled sense of earth, 92-94 points.

Puech Noble, 2005
This outstanding Syrah from the Coteaux du Languedoc also incorporates 10 percent Grenache and 10 percent Mourvedre into the blend. The nose of this red is as primal as any, crammed w/ braised beef, Indian spices, cedar, crushed flowers and blackberry reduction sauce aromas. A hearty, savory attack in the mouth paves the way for a chewy, yet refined textural experience, w/ layers of sun-baked fruit, hints of brett and unbridled Syrah characteristics steaming through the palate to the finish, rippling w/ earthy minerals. In France, Rostaing lovers can grab a bottle of this nugget for 10 euros per bottle, an absolutely screaming value, 91 points.

Puech Noble Blanc, 2005
The fore-mentioned white blend from the Languedoc is an atypical, esoteric tasting experience. The scents strike a bit of a Riesling chord, hinting at warm slate, freshly sliced melon, fennel seed and apple peel notes that are sure to either offend or endear just about as many. The body strikes a plump, juicy chord that is suggestive of the Southern warmth, but isn’t short on salty, citrus squirts of acidity that move things along w/ verve. The only issue I have w/ this wine is that it comes in somewhat of an awkward package, seemingly trying to find itself as it unfolds in your mouth, just missing the mark from completely coming together, 87 points.

Condrieu, 2007
Although it was still undergoing malolactic fermentation, the scents of this liquid treasure were as heavenly as any, ejecting spearmint, lemon drop, honeysuckle, peach custard and melon ball notes from the glass. Tougher, leesy and a bit disjointed in the mouth, but full of underlying intensity that is screaming to get out & sure to please as it rounds into form.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Who says they can’t make kick ass Syrah in the Southern Rhone?

Well, just about every vintner in Chateauneuf does, but then again, they are biased. I think part of their dilemma, in addition to the intensely hot climate, is that they constantly make comparisons to standard bearers like Cote Rotie and Hermitage instead of appreciating the distinctiveness in character that the varietal achieves in the south. The team from Pegau, Clos du Mont Olivet and Charvin were all very outspoken regarding their relative disdain for the variety when it came from their southern soils, with only Fortia and Barroche (Julien Barrot, Barroche’s rising star, has already received quite a bit of flack for using such a lofty chunk of Syrah in his Chateauneuf called ‘Fiancee’) coming to mind as real champions of the grape. Now don’t get me wrong, I love Grenache more than any other and I am not campaigning to dethrone the undisputed champion of Chateauneuf du Pape. Having said that, I’d be remiss to not appreciate the merits of a Southern Rhone Syrah when it is done well, even if it’s only a supporting player in a blend. Its lusty pepper scented bouquet adds a welcoming gaminess to some of the finest Chateauneuf du Papes that I choose to laud, instead of apologize for.

What began this ‘defense of Syrah from the south’ diatribe? Well, a bottle of 1995 Chateau Fonsalette Syrah that I indulged in over my first anniversary dinner last night got my mind brewing. Not only was this bottle no whipping boy, it was flat out fabulous in every way I’d hope a Southern Rhone red to be, regardless of grape variety. It opened up to reveal alluring, earthy aromatics of worn leather, grilled steak, hoison sauce, rust, wild mushrooms and copious amounts of cracked pepper. Its deep blackberry flavors cut through the palate like a champion figure skater performing a triple axel, with precision and an almost ethereal glide, thanks to the imbedded tidal wave of vigorous acidity. While there was still an ironclad grip of youthful, tannic structure, it married beautifully to the deep, dark berry fruit and never lost its stride. As the finish churned along, there’s a suggestion of a mossy underbrush note, as whispers of mountain herbs dance away in the background… easy 95 points, second hand Syrah and all.

What I loved most about the wine was its typicity, not only of place, but of varietal. It did indeed taste and feel much like a Syrah, but more importantly, like a great Syrah from the southern Rhone (no, that is not an oxymoron!). It had a synthesis of spicy, savory elements that struck a Chateauneuf-like chord, but a more firm, dark tone to the flavors that could have only be attributed to Syrah. Perhaps most importantly, a Syrah like this could only have come from the southern Rhone. While it’s no Hermitage or Cote Rotie, the wines from the north could never duplicate what this vintage of Fonsalette was able to achieve.

I think wines like this make a strong argument for the transparency of fine Syrah and, in my opinion, make a statement that southern Rhone Syrah can in fact be great, and at the very least, should be respected for what it is, not berated for what it isn’t. I appreciate the fact that most Syrah from the south may be best suited as a member of the supporting cast…but if Rayas can make a southern Rhone based Syrah that is this compelling at age 13, I’m convinced Syrah’s place amidst those sun-drenched galets is an invaluable one that shouldn’t be taken with a grain of salt….or pepper.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

The Vieux Telegraphe Stable

Along with the Guigal bottlings, the wines of Vieux Telegraphe are some of the most commercially visible Chateauneuf du Papes in the states. The origin of the domaine can be traced back to Hippolyte Brunier, who began planting vines in the famed La Crau district of the appellation roughly 110 years ago. Their vineyard holdings are substantial, tallying roughly 70 hectares, and are distinctive in that they are centralized on one plot (the majority of domaine’s in the region source fruit from varied sectors of the region). The vines of the domaine mainly consist of Grenache (65%), followed by Syrah and Mourvedre (roughly 15% a piece) and average 50 years of age. The soils of the La Crau plateau are famous for their preponderance of rolled stones and give the Telegraphe reds a sturdy, tannic backbone.

Although the house style at Vieux Telegraphe is as traditional as they come, they do make a second label called Telegramme as their selection process has become more draconian to ensure the quality of the grand vin. The Brunier brothers also own La Roquette (another Chateauneuf domaine) and Domaine de la Pallieres in Gigondas. I was particularly impressed w/ the whites from Roquette, which are highlighted by a judicious accent of toast, as well as their luxury red cuvee called ‘L’Accent.’

La Roquette Chateauneuf du Pape Blanc, 2007
When tasting through the white wines of Chateauneuf du Pape, I noticed more and more experimentation in terms of style. Whether it be single varietal (pure Roussanne bottlings are becoming more and more popular), stainless steel tanks or some fumbling around w/ new oak, several domaines are beginning to take more of an interest in their white wines. The ’07 Roquette demonstrates a deft touch w/ the barrique, seamless integrating subtle layers of sweet toast between the honeysuckle, dried apricot and tropical fruit flavors. While intense and layered in its approach, the wine maintains great definition & cut, finishing w/ a welcome rush of graceful acidity, 91 points.

Domaine Les Pailliers Gigondas, 2005
Out of the few dozen ’05s I’ve tasted from this region, this effort happens to be one of the most elegant. The nose is full of black raspberry, lead pencil shavings, pepper, briar and hot stone notes that have somewhat of a smoky disposition. In the mouth, there is a bit of a chunky attack that turns fresher as the wine builds on the palate, w/ a sandy, mineral overlay adding an earthy intrigue to the dark cherry fruit. Medium bodied and full of poise, this young Gigondas drifts away to a piercing, iron-tinged finish w/ ease, 90 points.

La Roquette Chateauneuf du Pape, 2005
The base cuvee from La Roquette is aged completely in foudre and shows the sinew of the vintage, yet maintains a supple texture that suggests it may be approachable in its youth. Full of sweet cherry liqueur, orange peel, crushed raspberry and spice box notes that are coated in a firm, tannic backbone, possess excellent acidity and persistence, 89+ points.

La Roquette L’Accent, 2005
The quality of L’Accent in this vintage, a blend of 90% Grenache and 10% Mourvedre, is absolutely superb. This super-ripe example of old vine Chateauneuf easily pushes 15% alcohol and explodes w/ sweet kirsch liqueur, plum sauce, grilled herbs and rose petal characteristics in the nose. The mouth-feel gushes in terms of concentration, intensity and layers of fruit, w/ a gorgeous, buried minerality lurking in the background, 94 points.

Vieux Telegraphe Chateauneuf du Pape, 2005
This is a powerhouse vintage for the top Chateauneuf of the estate, crammed w/ sweet tobacco, meaty black raspberries, black cherry liqueur and forest floor notes that are effusive, concealing the serious structure of the vintage. The mouth-feel is firm, yet yielding, w/ highly extracted, sappy fruits coating every inch of the palate. The flood gates open up on the finish, allowing the notes of graphite and hot stones to really sing, 93+ points.

The Vieux Telegraph 2004
While there is much more immediate balance and accessibility in the 2004 VT than its riper, rougher and more alcoholic 2003 sibling, the '04 will never possess the 03's level of power, fat and density.A brief 45 minute decant revealed melted licorice, cedar, blueberry and sweet fig notes in the nose. The palate was surprisingly fruit driven, w/ sweet cherry, clove spice and cocoa notes gliding on a silky, crisp frame, evoking imagines of Pinot Noir. Time in the glass showed some modest increases in depth, so brief cellaring may tack on a bit more weight, but it is easily accessible at this stage, 91 points.

Vieux Telegraphe 2000
One of the more rustic expressions of the 2000 vintage and certainly doesn't win its fans for a sense of charm and grace, but has plenty of merit in its own right. Classical scents of cedar, tree bark, dried cumin, pepper and blackberry reduction are abundant, if a bit on the rugged side. The profile in the mouth follows in a bloody, slightly chewy fashion, but it is loaded w/ character that churns out in spades along the finish. Although this wasn’t my favorite vintage of their Chateauneuf, I have a soft spot for its distinctiveness, brash or not, 90 points

Vieux Telegraphe, 1995
This is perhaps the best Telegraphe that I’ve ever tasted, putting the pedal to the medal in combining a sense of brute strength with just enough polish to make it truly compelling. Classic aromas of lilac, freshly cut cedar, garrigue, olive tapenade, dark fig and spicy blackberries fill the room with a truly compelling allure. The palate had that grippy, dusty hallmark of the estate, but it was reeled in w/ poise, well-proportioned structure and an effusive finish that tied it all together beautifully, 95 points.