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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Hey, pssst, Aubert fans, doesn’t this guy deserve a temple too?

Broadcasting a ‘calling all Aubert fans’ is tantamount to me saying ‘hey, you guys that are into wine, I’ve got something to show you,’ but trust me, there’s reasoning behind this. David Ramey is as well known for Chardonnay, if not more so than Mark Aubert, but, from the outside looking in, I haven’t noticed a shrine to Ramey anywhere near the magnitude of Aubert’s….perhaps Ramey worship takes place w/ less fanfare (or maybe I’m hanging in the wrong sewing circles)?

My scrutiny stems from my feeling that they are an apples to apples comparison in terms of breed, style & quality…heck, they even shop at the same store (Ritchie Vineyard Chardonnay fruit is used by both winemakers)! Seeing that they have both struck a similar chord in my Chardonnay spine, I’ve been helplessly addicted to each, yet the availability, price & production of the Ramey wines is ultimately more attractive to me. Ay, is that the rub? Is it the old adage of ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder,’ the answer to my question? Is it the scarcity that amps up the homage-o-meter, or am I missing something else?

Don’t get me wrong, I have no desire to promote an inflation of Ramey chardonnay pricing (or demand, for that matter), but I can’t help observe how the top single vineyard efforts really are cut from the same cloth as Aubert…cult or not.

Ramey Ritchie Vineyard Chardonnay, 2005
David Ramey, the master of French oak integration, has really struck gold w/ the ’05 vintage. A popular ‘grand cru site’ also used by Mark Aubert, this Ritchie Vineyard reveals aromas of tangerine spread, citrus zest, lemon oil, salted pecans, liquid minerals and quince. The mouthfeel is expansive, yet brutally precise, displaying a bright beam of pure stone fruit that pumps along a stony frame w/ great length and class. The poise, precision and persistence really set Ramey & Aubert apart, almost as if Meursault came to California & set up shop, 95 points.

Monday, July 28, 2008

So, two unfunctional wines walk into a bar...

Well, slapstick isn’t really my forte, but these puppies are on totally different ends of the spectrum (though color-wise, they are absolutely on the same page), but I have no clue what to do w/ either of them. Actually, strike that, no clue what to do w/ the second, the first wine needs to be flushed, like the urine-colored substance that it is. The second…is essentially a dry, botrytis-infused Pinot Gris, that isn’t without flaws, but what exactly is it? A dessert wine or an aperitif….or is it in wine purgatory?

Vigneti Sant’ Helena Pinot Grigio, 2006
What a clumsy mess this dark golden colored, unidentifiably Pinot Grigio is. A hyper-charged nose of mango custard, banana cream pie & rubbing alcohol stumble in the disjointed, flabby textured palate that has the precision of a 20/200 vision jet fighter. An obviously extracted, yet horribly constructed nightmare that resembles an over-ripe Viognier, stuffed in Muscadet clothing. Wines like this are not only seriously flawed, but they really lack purpose or place in such a wonderful wine world, 64 points.

Zind Humbrecht Pinot Gris, Thann 2005
Well, the color is the same as the Sant’ Helena, but the wine is, you guessed it, different! Like most Pinot Gris in the Humbrecht stable, this is exceptionally ripe, w/ this particular bottling showing some hints of botrytis. The scents evoke notions of dried apricot, bee pollen, coconut oil, quince jam and buttered flowers that strike a full bodied, yet fleeting chord in the mouth. Though it harnesses its ripeness well, reeling in the sweetness w/ fine structure (which is almost, gasp, bone-dry), but it fades a bit too quickly to hit the real high notes, 88 points.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Beaucastel, a reprise collection of the best of the best (89-06):

Chateauneuf du Pape Blanc:

Surprisingly still open knit and as youthful as ever, this vintage of Beaucastel Blanc (w/ 80 plus percent Roussanne) explodes from the glass w/ golden flower, honeysuckle, nutmeg and spiced rice pudding scents. The palate was thick, oily and decadent, w/ an impressive array of buttered melon flavors that envelope the mouth and are kept honest by good freshness and poise. When will this vintage creep into its awkward slumber? 93 points.

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:

The standard bearer of fine white wine from the Southern Rhone showcased just what distinguishes it from the pack, as its haunting depth and marathon length were on full display once the cork was popped. A pure Roussanne, from 50 plus year old vines, explodes w/ waves of orange marmalade, honey coated pineapples, lanolin, buttered walnuts and green tea notes that coat the saturate the palate w/ thick, intense flesh. The texture can be likened to flan, as the wine’s low acid, pleasure-filled thrill-ride overwhelms the senses to infinity. Depending upon the vintage, Beaucastel’s expressions can achieve what is perhaps the apex of the varietal, 96 points.

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:

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 close w/ a solid, graphite-laced finish, 91 points.

Chateauneuf du Pape Rouge:

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.

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.

While I haven’t tasted 80s or 90s Beaucastel vintages in their youth, I am convinced this is the most profound year for the Chateau’s base cuvee since the ’89, albeit in a style that some traditional fans of the estate may find to be atypical. While some bottles have been a bit more restrained than others, this showing was flat out ostentatious. A heady, massively endowed wine that overflows w/ fruitcake, date bread, brandy soaked figs, warm ganache and damp earth aromas that smell like a Grenache lover’s paradise. Full bodied and crammed w/ uncanny extract, glycerin and flavor, yet always retaining poise and balance, managing its broad shoulders beautifully. I simply couldn’t get enough of this wine last night and although I’ve found it to be a profound wine each one of the 8 or 9 times I’ve had it, this was by far, the most thrilling, Henri Bonneau-like showing yet. There is a tremendous life ahead of the ’01 Beaucastel, and it’s a wine I look forward to following for many years to come, 97+ points.

Much like most 2000’s, this wine is extravagantly perfumed, forward and out-right precocious from the starting gates. Aromas whack you over the head w/ plum sauce, black currant, spice box, dried mushroom and gravel leading the way. A rich, multi-layered body, with a core of rich, gorgeous fruit gushes over the palate with such ease, making this wine nearly impossible not to love, 94 points.

Up w/ Bonneau, this has to be one of the more structured, tightly wound efforts of the vintage. This red is deep crimson in color, showing a primal, savory nose of dried Angus steak, cumin, curry powder, new saddle leather and gravely undertones. In the mouth, the attack is bright, beefy and layered in spicy characteristics. Juicy red currant sauce, cracked pepper and plums pump over a bed of garrigue, to a poised finish that is loaded w/ an unadorned sense of minerality. This effort easily has the structure to improve over the couple years, and perhaps end up as one of the longest lived Chateauneufs of the vintage, 93+ points.

Although the ’98 was a tad stubborn and extremely youthful at first, its notable quality was never anything short of classic. A blockbuster nose of pure kirsch liqueur, bittersweet cocoa powder, melted licorice, rose petals and melted asphalt powered from the glass, turning the dial up a few notches. The sweet attack unfolds its silky, sultry layers of sappy fruit into a controlled gush of powerful, hedonistic delight. Even though it was closed initially, this is a ’98 that simply seethes a character that dormancy can’t deny. The only troublesome issue w/ this vintage is the bottle variation, as there are decidedly inferior bottles that I, and several others have tasted which bare no resemblance to the greatness of this wine, 96 points.

This vintage of Beaucastel has always proved to be outstanding, but shows frustratingly irregular in terms of maturation. This bottle was the most evolved and expressive yet, as scents of truffles, cigar box, graphite, black currant, raspberry and loam emerge from the glass. While there is still a sinewy grip to its body, all the pieces seem to have fallen in the right place in this highly nuanced Beaucastel, 93 points.

This storied vintage was the chameleon of the night, morphing not only in color, but in profile. The faint, transparent ruby hues seemed surprisingly progressed, showing a bit more wear and tare than expected, but time in the glass brought out deeper saturation in color, as well as intensity of flavor. As the 18 year old Chateauneuf picked up steam, sweet raspberry, fresh garrigue, tapenade, tanned leather and spicecake notes danced from the glass. This opulent vintage showed surprisingly elegant and medium in weight, w/ good depth and a bloody, tar-laced grip shutting the door on the finish. This doesn’t seem to be the most representative of Beaucastel’s performance in ’90 (a bit of cork seepage & bottle shock could have been the culprits), but it was a solid showing even though it wasn’t Beaucastel’s A-game, 93 points.

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.

For a look at how Tablas Creek, the sister operation of the Perrins in Paso Robles, fared vs. Beaucastel, give this tasting a look:

Friday, July 25, 2008

Best of the base cuvees in Chateauneuf 2005

When I taste wines of this caliber from '05 it really makes me shake my head that I don't swoon over the vintage....but then I'm reminded of some of the jagged, austere tannins that other wines in the vintage produced & I slide back on the fence. I really feel that some producers 'got the vintage,' and others didn't know what to do w/ all the structure.

Next to Clos St. Jean's Vieilles Vignes (which is still in the vicinity of a mid 30's to low 40's price-tag) and Vieille Julienne, this has to be the best 'appellation level' wine in '05 from the broad group of producers that fashion multiple cuvees.

Barroche Chateauneuf du Pape Reserve, 2005
Just a flat out terrific, young Chateauneuf, crammed w/ polish and generous flavors of duck fat, cardamom, plum sauce, spice cake and raspberry demi-glaze. The palate is a hedonistic mouthful of plush, sappy flavors that pile on layers of creamy, rounded, licorice-infused notes that glide over the palate w/ grace & ease. As the wine airs, an overwhelming intensity of character builds, echoing espresso roast and cocoa powder notes on the gushing finish. What a base cuvee, 94+ points!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Top vintages of Beaucastel at Lotus of Siam

A trip to Sin City is not complete w/o a jaunt over to Lotus of Siam, the Thai lover’s paradise that is fawned over by all gustatory geeks alike. While I wouldn’t consider myself a Thai nazi by any stretch of the imagination, the barrage of dishes that I, Jack Bulkin and my wife, Ejehan, dove into were nothing short of mesmerizing. There was fantastic intensity of flavor, judicious spice and a delicacy in texture that was pulled together so seamlessly in each dish that I could not stop myself from eating, irrespective of my impending intestinal demise. The location is as unassuming and modestly priced as any ‘best kept secret’ around (though that cat has been out of the bag for quite some time now), and the foods (when the heat is dialed down accordingly) worked remarkably well w/ the robustly flavored, unoaked Chateauneuf du Papes from Beaucastel. While I am a ‘wine first, food second’ kind of guy, I can honestly say I haven’t stopped thinking about….gasp….Thai food.

Jack generously donated the ’90, I the ’01 and the ’98 we purchased off Lotus’ top notch list for a song. Although the ’98 and ’01 were somewhat uncharacteristic in style for Beaucastel, I found them to be absolutely breath-taking Chateauneuf du Papes that are likely to spur some controversy from fans of typical Beaucastel. While the ’90 revealed characteristics that were more identifiable to the ‘house style,’ it was certainly not cranking in high gear, although it made quite a comeback in the final stretch of the evening.

While Jack stumbled away into the unknown, I chased my wife away from her nemesis, the Wheel of Fortune slot machine, which nearly caused us to default on our newfound mortgage. While most of my Vegas stories are unfortunately not wine related, I hope a few bottles of Beaucastel will satiate your reading thirst for the moment.

Beaucastel Vertical:

This storied vintage was the chameleon of the night, morphing not only in color, but in profile. The faint, transparent ruby hues seemed surprisingly progressed, showing a bit more wear and tare than expected, but time in the glass brought out deeper saturation in color, as well as intensity of flavor. As the 18 year old Chateauneuf picked up steam, sweet raspberry, fresh garrigue, tapenade, tanned leather and spicecake notes danced from the glass. This opulent vintage showed surprisingly elegant and medium in weight, w/ good depth and a bloody, tar-laced grip shutting the door on the finish. This doesn’t seem to be the most representative of Beaucastel’s performance in ’90, but it was a solid showing even though it wasn’t Beaucastel’s A-game, 93 points.

Although the ’98 was a tad stubborn and extremely youthful at first, its notable quality was never anything short of classic. A blockbuster nose of pure kirsch liqueur, bittersweet cocoa powder, melted licorice, rose petals and melted asphalt powered from the glass, turning the dial up a few notches. The sweet attack unfolds its silky, sultry layers of sappy fruit into a controlled gush of powerful, hedonistic delight. Even though it was closed initially, this is a ’98 that simply seethes a character that dormancy can’t deny. The only troublesome issue w/ this vintage is the bottle variation, as there are decidedly inferior bottles that I, and several others have tasted which bare no resemblance to the greatness of this wine, 96 points.

While I haven’t tasted 80s or 90s Beaucastel vintages in their youth, I am convinced this is the most profound year for the Chateau’s base cuvee since the ’89, albeit in a style that some traditional fans of the estate may find to be atypical. While some bottles have been a bit more restrained than others, this showing was flat out ostentatious. A heady, massively endowed wine that overflows w/ fruitcake, date bread, brandy soaked figs, warm ganache and damp earth aromas that smell like a Grenache lover’s paradise. Full bodied and crammed w/ uncanny extract, glycerin and flavor, yet always retaining poise and balance, managing its broad shoulders beautifully. I simply couldn’t get enough of this wine last night and although I’ve found it to be a profound wine each one of the 8 or 9 times I’ve had it, this was by far, the most thrilling, Henri Bonneau-like showing yet. There is a tremendous life ahead of the ’01 Beaucastel, and it’s a wine I look forward to following for many years to come, 97+ points.

Monday, July 21, 2008

A Couple Top Notch Whites that Still Sell for a Song

Mulderbosch Chenin Blanc, 2007
How much of a smoking value is this…and why is their Sauvignon Blanc nearly twice the price? Year in, year out this is a spectacular little Chenin, with this vintage sporting a beautiful bouquet of sage, paraffin, green tea, salted butter, lime candy and quince notes that jump from the glass. The palate is full of spicy, lively, mouth-filling Chenin flavors that are a touch more precocious than a young Savennieres, but have the same generosity and roundness of a Closel Chateau des Vaults. A versatile and delicious perennial value that’s received a bit more traction lately yet seems to be only a whisper in most Q.P.R. wine sewing circles, 91 points.

Argiolas Costamolino, 2007
Following suit from ’06, this ’07 is another generous, fat, uncompromisingly beautiful Vermentino from Sardinia. Offering up a cornucopia of tangerine oil, mango, peach and white flower characteristics that are wonderfully proportioned and rich in the mouth. Hints of crème fraiche add a bit of opulence and depth to the tropical fruit-studded profile that glide along the fleshy finish, 90 points.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Power of Pink

Do fashions in the wine world parallel other types of fashions? How about the herbal fashion of the early 90's, which saw a supplement crazed American population hop on the GNC bandwagon like those magical capsules were packing the cure inside. Wine, although not sold by GNC and prepared in a liquid form, just happened to be another element of the wellness tornado, which swept through the states on November 17, 1991, when CBS's 60 Minutes covered the 'French Paradox' story. The paradox was sensational (the media's number one weapon in attracting their sheep's attention), stating that the cigarette smoking, fat eating, sedentary French had less incidence of heart disease than us model Americans. The answer? Moderate consumption of red wine & its magical ferry dust, called Resveratrol, cuts the risk of heart disease in the face of the other risk factors. All of a sudden, wine is in, and our un-questioning American audience ate it up like a fudge covered brownie for dessert, as American wine consumption sky-rocketed through the roof after the segment (positioning the U.S. to be the number one global consumer of fermented grape juice circa 2010).

While I've stretched things a bit w/ said comparison, wait till you get a load of this doozey. See I get teased quite often for my sense of fashion, which I might add is not terribly far from the norm in terms of ‘European vogue.’ You know, the bright colored shirts, loud ties and, well, lots of pink. When the ridicules fly my way, I’m quick w/ my snappy replies, claiming ‘pink is the new blue!’ Call me crazy, but the color of clothing seems to be mirroring the color of French drinker’s wines. The Telegraph reports that pink wine (or its more politically correct term, rose) is in fact ‘the new white,’ surpassing vin blanc in terms of popularity in France. Now I know why the French have the been tagged w/ all those ‘weenie stereotypes,’ I mean come on, they’re slurpin’ up all that pink!

It has to be true of course, because…I heard it on the news. Now let me take that pesky tongue out of my cheek ;)

Monday, July 14, 2008

A Vertical of Pibarnon

2007 Rose
While the rose was bottled only a week ago, there was little evidence to suggest bottle shock. The blend of half Mourvedre and half Cinsault (Bandol rose tends to be a bit more structured and full bodied than Provencal rose as there is a higher requirement of Mourvedre demanded by the A.O.C.) displays lead, strawberry seed, rose petal and mushroom aromatics in the nose. The sweet attack rolls into a full body of round, yet crisp flavors that reel in a nice touch of finesse on the finish, 88 points.

2005 ‘Les Restanques’
A VDP from Pibarnon, which is essentially a second wine, crafted from younger vines in a more accessible fashion. Unlike the top cuvee, Restanques uses 30 percent Grenache (which is evident in the wine’s softer, approachable persona) and the ’05 boasts a spicy, dark bouquet of chocolate, pepper, roasted nuts and dark plum sauce. The wine is a middle weight in the mouth, with round, suave textures that let a smoky asphalt hint peek in through the beefy spine, 87 points.

2002 Pibarnon
The historic rains that inundated the Southern Rhone also took their toll in Bandol, rendering the wines a bit lighter, but pleasant enough for early-term drinking. The Pibarnon ’02 didn’t show signs of dilution, but was quite mature, revealing aromas of dry rub spice, cured beef, lavender and lilac flowers. While medium in proportion and moderately tannic, the mouth-feel full of bracing, mineral driven acidity, carrying red currant and sweet tobacco flavors to a spine-tingling finish. This vintage should be drunk over the next few years, 85 points.

2003 Pibarnon
Although the 2003 vintage was atypically hot across all of Europe, Bandol seemed to be a bit more equipped to handle the extremes than most wine growing regions. The nose was deceptively soft and suggestive, weaving in and out exotic hints of orange peel, black tea, red cherries, incense and clove. The dial gets turned up a few notches in the mouth, as a forceful, torrent of savory flavors deepen in the midpalate, slowly unfolding its layers to reveal a rush of Asian spices that pop on the finish. This vintage is characteristically distinct from the rest, but really sets itself apart w/ its exotic flavors and tremendous persistence and should provide lovely drinking over the next 7 or 8 years, 89 points.

2004 Pibarnon
This is a big league vintage for Bandol and perhaps was the most dramatic and beguiling bottle of the bunch. The sauvage, smoky scents of barbeque spices, charred steak, pepper, tree bark and crème de cassis are just plain heavenly. The palate is dark and brooding w/ a power-packed punch, yet remains admirably defined and restrained, acting like a tap-dancing chameleon. The finish sails off wonderfully, thanks to a refreshing kiss of citrus, maintaining a sense of poise and finesse that belies its breed, 92+ points.

2005 Pibarnon
Analytically, the wine has more acidity than ’05 but seems a touch more plumper, w/ a bit more frankness to the fruit. Like Bordeaux, the ’05 for Pibarnon was very ‘vin de garde,’ offering the most richness as well as structure, serving up a heady array of sage, blueberry pie, cassis, underbrush and warm chocolate ganache. While there is a flirty and hedonistic sensibility about this wine, it is quite closed, yet has an undeniable generosity in terms of texture and purity. The long, silky finish ties in the impeccably balanced package, hinting at some serious upside for ’05 in the cellar. Even the more patient fans of this estate should hold off on gratifying themselves w/ a bottle of this until after 2015, 93 points.

1999 Pibarnon
Like Chateauneuf in ’99, this vintage of Pibarnon is on a relatively quick evolutionary track, yet is still not mature. Hauntingly subtle, tempting hints of mint, crushed flowers, tilled earth and freshly picked mushroom scents shoot from the glass. An expansive mouthfeel throws down the gauntlet, burrowing brilliant flavors of hot blackberry sauce, game and black pepper to the powerful, grippy finish. Surprisingly, the ’99 Pibarnon was the most rugged wine of the bunch, flexing a more tannic muscle than its younger siblings (though I doubt it had a greater volume of tannins), 90 points.

I also tasted through the most recent vintages of the Pibarnon white wines, the ’06 and ’07. They are both blends of Clairette and Bourbolenc, completely fermented in stainless steel and undergo no malolactic fermentation, putting freshness at a premium. They are straightforward, uncomplicated wines, offering up a decent core of golden delicious, honeydew and white flower notes in racy, focused frames. The ’07 gets the slight nod, as it was a bit more suggestive, verging on the tropical elements of kiwi, nectarine and pie crust flavors.

’06 Pibarnon White 84 points
’05 Pibarnon White 85 points

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Bandol's Estate

While Bandol had always conjured rustic, almost savage imagery in my mind, the town itself is actually a tourist infested, seaside destination, complete w/ beach vendors and ornate summer homes. Just 3 kilometers away and 300 meters above sea level (a two week stint in France has done wonders for my metric conversions) you’ll find Telegraph Hill’s highest point at Chateau Pibarnon. Once through the meandering, labyrinthine dirt road (ample for the width of one Renault at best, on-coming traffic beware), complete w/ more twists and turns than a Hitchcock film, you’ll find one of the grandest views the south of France has to offer. Atop the meticulously landscaped knolls, complete w/ statues and shrubs akin to the campus at the Shining’s Overlook Hotel, is a pure panoramic delight. Terraced vineyard beds form streaming rows on the valley floor, as eroded hillsides wane every so slightly, allowing glimpses of the steel blue Mediterranian to peek between the earth. Peeling your eyes away for a moment, you note the exterior of the Chateau face, which exudes class and an almost aristocratic sensibility, while inside of Pibarnon forms a stark, almost medieval contrast, w/ a cold austerity that sends subtle bone-chilling goose-bumps down your back.

After I dropped off a care package for Eric de St. Victor from Isable Ferrando of Domaine St. Prefert (they had bonded over their love of the Mourvedre grape at a trade tasting in New York), I opened my ears to an impassioned tale of the family’s history at Pibarnon.

Henri de St. Victor, after an awkward sales courtship, purchased the estate (w/ only a few hectares planted to vine) in the mid 70’s w/ little to no viticultural experience under his belt. Henri was in his fifties and struggled his way through vineyard planting mishaps, eventually deciding to lease small parcels from different growers in order to increase his production of Bandol wine. After years of trial and error, Henri honed his craft & became more adept at fashioning distinctive wines from very particular terroirs. Now the estate owns every one of their 46 hectares and is under the control of Henri’s son, Eric (who had top notch training through top producers from both Bordeaux and Burgundy).

The cool microclimate at Pibarnon, thanks to the high altitude and maritime influence, tempers the arid, searing heat of a Bandol summer. While Mourvedre has to form the majority of the blend in order for any wine to carry the Bandol A.O.C. designation, Pibarnon uses a particularly high amount in their reds (generally over 95%) in order to highlight its varietal uniqueness. While most wines from the appellation are notoriously tannic and nearly unapproachable in their first decade of life, Pibarnon’s reds are much more elegant, w/ an almost Burgundian sensibility about themselves. This is partly due to the geology of their vineyards, which are mostly composed of pre-Jurassic (or Triassic) limestone and an abundance of clay (which helps maintain moisture in the particularly dry years), as well as the high altitude exposures. Another aspect that contributes to the finesse in Pibarnon’s wines is likely their ‘progressive thinking’ elevage, which involves gentle extraction, de-stemming and brief periods of small barrel aging (to combat the reductive behavior of the Mourvedre grape and give the wines a bit more polish). The viticulture is yet another notch in the ‘green movement’s’ belt and just a few years away from being a certified, biodynamic property.

Onto the wines…

Friday, July 11, 2008

Burgundy, From the Outside Looking In

I’ve always had somewhat of a protective buffer between myself and Burgundy. While its timid, relatively modest alcohol content and mild tannic spine may seem harmless, the Burgundy faithful have always struck me as the ‘Red Sox Nation’ of wine aficionados (for you non-baseball fans, this means fanatical, uncompromising, and of their own world). Granted, this is all from a bird’s eye view, as I have chosen not to get too close to ground zero, but I sense an overwhelming tunnel vision from the ‘terroir-ists’ that stake their most substantial claim on Burgundian ground. While my prejudicial bias is referencing the extreme, psychotic Burgophile, the view from my ‘clos’ hasn’t offered enough middle ground to jump in and play nice (much less their frightfully expensive pricetags).

Are Burgundy addicts a different breed of wine geek? Well, different from what, you may ask? How about different from every other wine geek? I trekked up to the placid grounds of Westchester, past the aptly named ‘Sleepy Hollow’ to Mark Golodetz’s lovely, front porch dressed colonial home to taste some Burgundies in the hopes of shedding some light on the question. The tasting consisted of a group of vintages from the Grand Cru vineyard Clos de Vougeot, famous for its massive size and variable quality. I chose to play an unfamiliar role last night, acting more like a voyeur than the ‘too verbose for his own good’ rogue that I am accustomed to acting as. I knew next to nothing about the majority of my tasting company, save for the fact that they were more into Burgundy than I, and had the sole intention of making observations, on the wines as well as the tasters. Would their reactions to Burgundy elucidate why this region hasn’t tugged at my heart to the same degree as say, the Rhone?

We began w/ a pair of ‘85s, a Mongeard Mugneret and a Daniel Rion. The Mugneret was a touch more advanced in age, though that was by no means a consensus, displaying a savory array of Indian spices that speckled the subtle notes of iron, olive paste and beefy blackberry flavors that seemed completely weightless in the mouth. While not short on character, the intensity was lacking, epitomized by the wine’s light, waning profile. The Rion, on the other hand, was packed w/ a beam of quiet focus, coiling its flavors of pipe tobacco, red currant and wild herbs into a taut, structured frame that crept up on you as if it were a group of whispers that slowly built into voices. While ’85 is a watershed year for Burgundy, the table seemed under-whelmed by the collective efforts, and the thought of their prices in today’s market made us all cringe a bit.

Onward and upward, the red sea between me and the table parted a bit w/ the ’95 Gros Frere ‘Musigni.’ The deeper, more vibrant colors revealed an exotic, almost Cote Rotie like nose of paprika, smoked Angus steak, lavender and a potpourri of black cherries that exhibited more power than the ‘85s, with a sinewy, yet elegant spine that made little apologies for what it was. Most loathed this wine, while I felt smitten almost immediately. Not enough terroir? The ’99 from Robert Arnoux was clean, vibrant and full of dark cherry liqueur, violet and cardamom spices that were backward and a touch hard in the mouth. Full on potential but a bit shallow on pleasure, the core of intensity may take several years to be fully realized. There was some dissension in the crowd regarding Arnoux as a producer that fashioned sound Pinot Noir, yet poor Burgundy. Perhaps I understood this to a degree, as this wine, in particular, smelled like a Pinot, yet my uninitiated palate didn’t frown upon this experience.

The Hudelot Noellat flight, for me, put some perspective on the previously tasted wines ‘place’ when I stuck my nose into the only real dazzling elixir of the evening, the 1990. The cloudy, cranberry infused color brought forth layers of beguiling notes of lilacs, fresh raspberry, damp earth, sandalwood, sawdust and a warm, mineral bath aroma that would make the finest spa goers froth at the mouth. Tidal waves of red berry flavors incrementally flowed over the palate, from the attack to finish, in a quiet explosion that reverberated for minutes on end after being swallowed. The only poetic waxing to come from me was catalyzed by this nectar, who’s ‘understated flamboyance’ was exactly the Pinot Noir nexus I was hoping to find in the tasting….or, should I say Burgundy nexus? It came as somewhat of a surprise to discover that several tasters found ‘90s, in general, to be objectionably ripe and borderline pruney. Well, suggesting Grenache based wines to that breed of palate is likely to fall as flat as a lead balloon, so I’ll save that introduction for a later day.

As we dipped into another ’99 from Hudelot, conversation arouse regarding whether or not this blessed year could develop into a similar grand gift that was bestowed upon us in the 1990. The ’99, not unlike the Arnoux (typicity aside), was front loaded w/ an acidic spine, that kept the spicy, peppery notes of game, raspberry sauce and leather (eh-hem, seemed like brett to me, but I certainly wasn’t complaining!) at bay. While compressed in the mouth, it was texturally intriguing, finishing w/ a bracing, tactile sensation similar to biting the surface of a cherry skin. While I imagined this vintage would unfold nicely in the cellar, I couldn’t imagine it striking a similarly opulent chord as the plumper, rounder ’90…but lord knows what that vintage showed like in its youth?

The cork casualties were not insignificant, as the Faiveley ’91, and Hudelot ’97 fell victim to TCA’s moldy kiss of death like an old edition of the New York Times. The ’96 and ’00 were two other Hudelot wines that were perceived very differently from the tasters. I found each to have a cackling, lithe acidity that pumped their bright fruit flavors along mineral-soaked spines that evoked the image of Burgundy’s hallmark limestone soils (terroir, right?). The bone of contention I had w/ the more Burgundy savvy palates was that I found the vintages a bit thin, clipped and lacking pleasure, limestone or no limestone. Different strokes, as they say.

The counterpoint to the glorious performance by the ’90 had to be the ’99 Vincent Girardin, an appallingly insipid, fleshless palate was as watered down and underwhelming as any 70 dollar wine of recent memory. Interesting aromatics, such as the ‘99’s bay leaf, bailed hay, damp meadow and parsley notes were completely forgotten when the lambic-like acidity washed away all its compelling natures into a vapid pit. Others were not nearly as harsh as I, but ‘where’s the beef’ will have to serve as the swan song from my perspective.

So if I had to evaluate the wines collectively, my conclusion would be quite trite, as ‘fleeting greatness’ has been a tune sung by many in relationship to Burgundy, though the Girardin was the only true landmine that I thought we hit in respect to Clos de Vougeot. I’m careful not to draw any conclusions from a wonderful group of people (especially considering that I barely know them or the scope of their Burgundy compulsion), but my observations lead me to believe that there was much more thinking than drinking. This could certainly be due to the fact that the wines, as a whole, were not striking their fancy (or long rides home prohibited them from over-indulgence). That being said, there was a much greater sense of introversion and second guessing on this particular evening than I am accustomed to w/ other wine regions. Is this a more philosophical wine? Are acidity and minerality Burgundy’s yin and yang? Has an evening of deep thought made my mind wander more aimlessly than it should?

I guess another question I put out to the wine geek faithful is whether or not one can ‘kinda like’ Burgundy. There seems to be a strong polarity in the region, but I’ve always been more of a fence sitter than a black or white representation of what this region tends to do to oenophiles. My appreciation of the cerebral certainly is an aspect of what drives me to wine, but I guess I just need a bit more pleasure w/ the provocative to ‘push me over the edge.’

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Leoville Poyferre Vertical, Vying for a Moment on the St. Julien Stage

The forgotten Leoville of Saint Julien, the Poyferre, was given a thorough test drive through just about every storied vintage last night. Several verticals leave you wondering ‘how would this vintage have fared in such competition,’ or ‘great tasting, too bad you didn’t try that vintage,’ but this one had everything but the kitchen sink and displayed the apex of this estate’s recent accomplishments. I’ve always had a soft spot for Poyferre, which seems to always play ‘third fiddle’ to the illustrious, pseudo first growth Las Cases and the noble, sturdy Barton in the trio of Leovilles. The chateau’s profile may have taken a bit higher brow turn when they hired Michel Rolland, but for me, the irregular 2003 vintage was the authoritative ‘I’m mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take it anymore’ statement that put this Leoville firmly on my radar screen. When I tasted the Poyferre blindly, against the best ’03 in Bordeaux at Executive Wine Seminars, I felt that this red-headed step child had decided to color its hair a different shade (and immediately bought as much as I could afford!).

Compass, in the Upper West Side of New York, dazzled once again w/ their dynamite cuisine and easy handling of our high-maintenance wine desires. Ben Goldberg took the reigns of this offline w/ kit-gloves, designing flights of three that were ‘single-blind,’ knowing the vintage yet not the order. I can honestly say that the vintage characteristics of each flight showed through in brilliant fashion, making the blind aspect of this tasting fun, yet almost a formality (although towards the end, we needed a sledge-hammer like the ’03 to announce itself like a lightning rod, as our senses were a bit…blurred by then). Great group of guys, except Gary, who panted like a dog all night and perhaps was suffering from ‘Queen withdrawals.’

A wicked tease:

Francois Cotat Sancerre, Les Monts Damnes 2002
Why is the tease wicked? Well, an aged Sancerre just isn’t my bag baby, and this wine reaffirms why I need to attach very narrow drinking windows to neutral vessel fermented Sauvignon Blancs. I initially didn’t hate this wine, as its nose was somewhat intriguing, weaving in peanut oil, saffron, green tea and smoky lemon verbena aromas that were complex, yet not utterly compelling. As the wine aired it became more and more blowzy, evolving in the mouth to develop a shrill, hard as nails texture that revealed oxidative notes and a borderline offensive swath of sour gooseberries. The focus of this wine became as foggy as a person with 20/200 vision, with the only ‘laser correction’ being the suggestion ‘drink ‘em while they are young,’ 64 points.

Flight number one:

Wine one:
Well, I believe it was actually wine three, but chose to taste this first as it was the most advanced in color, displaying a browning edge and brick hints throughout the glass. A lovely mature nose displays decaying vegetation, wet leaves, cedar, olive paste and dried red currant fruit. The mouthfeel was full of a vibrant, bright pulse, beading the earthy, fading flavors along a somewhat firm spine that showed this ’75 was kickin’, but perhaps on legs that were a bit more hobbled than they used to be, 84 points.

Wine two:
This was the showpiece of the flight, displaying a very youthful robe and a gorgeous, yet reserved nose of cigar humidor and lead pencil shavings. The palate demonstrated a much more grippy, tannic spine, yet was crammed w/ a savory layer of spicy, black currant fruit that vigorously pumped out along the fresh, sinewy finish. Surprisingly the ’83 had more stuffing than the more highly touted ’82, and should cruise in the cellar for well into the next decade. Why aren’t these ‘83s more popular, 91+ points.

Wine three:
As I mentioned before, most wines showed their vintage characteristics w/ ease and transparency, but this was the caveat emptor. The medium bodied, almost bracingly brisk ’82 was the most mineral driven, ‘pretty’ wine of the bunch, displaying floral notes of lilac, worn leather, cassis, sweet loam and a touch of game. While I enjoyed the profile, this vintage lost points for its somewhat angular, clunky texture that demanded a bit more flesh to round out its edges, 89 points. Wouldn't exactly call this a value either, at today’s ludicrous prices...

The flight w/ a bit more eternal youth:

Wine one:
While the bouquet was keeping things close to the vest, it was still undoubtedly constituted, w/ sultry scents of violet, crème de cassis and campfire smoke lurking in the background. A sweet attack of thick, concentrated fruit takes a compact turn, closing down in the mouth and flexing a serious tannic spine. While the ’95 is by no stretch of the imagination ‘ready,’ the long finish really let a buried hint of sweet tobacco and briar sing, suggesting a special package is in store for patient consumers, 92+ points.

Wine two:
What a difference a year makes! The ’96 couldn’t have been more primal and Syrah-like if it tried, dazzling in the nose w/ tarry, melted asphalt singed notes of char-grilled beef, black currant and dark cherry fruit. While the tannin level in this vintage may be similar to the ‘95s, the ’96 currently wears it in a much more polished, symmetrical fashion, as mouthfilling layers of extract are wonderfully proportioned, plush and rounded to a T. This vintage may not live as long as the ’95, but its already providing quite a bit of pleasure, 94 points.

Wine three:
An austere, brutally tannic ’86? No, you don’t say? The scents were obviously a bit more on the mature side, as hints of fresh mushroom and underbrush would suggest, but the cinder-block like thud that greets the palate w/ an iron fist was as unwelcome as a kick in the teeth. Sure, it’s powerful, but where’s the pleasure? This vintage may never die (ie: turn to vinegar), but it is becoming more and more apparent that ’86 Bordeaux is the year for the masochists, 78 points.

The breakfast of champions:

Wine one:
’88 is a year that seems to have very vibrant fruit, yet carry it w/ more freshness and less weight than its more stout ’89 and ’90 counterparts, and this year for Leoville Poyferre hits that mark as accurately as any other. Streamlined notes of cassis, dark berry fruit, cocoa powder and smoke glide along a brisk, trim frame, displaying lovely balance and elegance. This is a solid claret for consumption over the next few years indeed, 88 points.

Wine two:
The proverbial ‘wine of the evening’ showed up midstream, w/ a knock-out nose of warm ganache, crème de cassis, fig paste and other jammy, heavenly delights. The palate is a low acid, plump presentation of sheer decadence that you can just bite right into, drowning your senses in hedonistic desires along the lush, lavish finish. This ’90 has aged much like Billy Idol, still rockin’ out w/ the 6 pack and spiky hair, w/o missing a beat (or a 4th encore) and is, indeed, a flesh for fantasy, 96 points.

Wine three:
I feel like Bordeaux and Chateauneuf have mirrored one another in terms of the vintage characteristics of ’89 and ’90, and this duo certainly fits the image yet again. Much more restrained and poised than the ’90, the ’89 has a tightly packed, deep core of permeating fruit that channels its intensity in a much more defined tone. Dark chocolate, olive paste, currant and tobacco smoke slowly unfold in layers along a full-bodied, powerful frame that is certain to be longer lived than its more robust partner, yet may never hit those same heights of expression, 93+ points.

The finale of youth:

Wine one:
HUGE! Yep, it was the ’03, and yep, it was in a weird stage. While wound up, ready to gush sensations of melted licorice, blackberry sauce and loads of intense fruit were very evident, they were also interrupted from hibernation in an almost suffocating sense of youthful exuberance. The vintage’s irregularity left us all to question whether or not the wines would ‘close-down’ and this appears to be what’s happening to the Poyferre. There is tremendous character and promise in this wine, which is a bit more of a gamble than the ‘hedged bet’ 2000, but if the wager pays off, it will reward w/ sheer majesty, 95+ points.

Wine two:
Frankly ripe, yet in a more classy and reserved fashion relative to the ’03, the ’00 shows purple flowers, lead pencil, blueberry fruit and high class toast aromas in the nose. Incredibly silky in the mouth, yet formidably closed, there is an essence of crushed berry fruit that pumps along its broad shoulders in a compelling, albeit closed fashion. Yet another ’00 that oozes potential and makes me wonder how it will stack up to the ‘05s as they circle the marathon track in the years to come, 95 points.

Wine three:
The ‘knife to the gunfight’ ’99 showed proudly and quite well relative to its opulent peers, in a medium proportioned, extremely approachable profile. Leoville Poyferre, like other ‘99s, shows hints of flash, yet likely will not get much better over the next decade or so and is a fairly priced claret that provides lots of charm and pleasure for current drinking, 90 points.

We capped off the evening w/ an delicious sticky provided by Leonard, the 2001 Doisy Vedrines, which displayed hints of beeswax, apricot marmalade and honeyed pears in an unctuous style that sailed us away to Bordeaux dreams….only to be rudely interrupted by morning hangovers. Until the next time gents!

Sunday, July 06, 2008

The Other Side of Chardonnay

Alongside Merlot in America, this grape has gone from beloved to berated….chalk up another victim of its own success. While I don’t think Chardonnay can blame an influential movie for falling out of favor with its diehard fans, I do think the old adage ‘too much of a good thing’ can begin to describe its downfall in popularity. If one likened the use of French Oak and malolactic fermentation to ‘seasoning with salt,’ Chardonnay’s American envelope has been pushed to hypertensive levels, causing a flurry of consumers to say ‘enough is enough.’ The ‘less is more’ approach has brought out the balance in Chardonnay, personified by a proliferation of ‘naked’ or ‘virgin’ bottlings that use absolutely no oak at all.

Is this wave of ‘Chardonnay counter culture’ a revolution of sorts? Not really, as crowds of consumers will embarrassingly admit their penchant for the buttered popcorn vogue & will happily gobble up bottlings in that vein from retailers fully stacked shelves. What I think this paradigm shift has caused is an acknowledgement and celebration of the grape’s diversity. I’ve heard some winemakers refer to Chardonnay as a ‘neutral’ grape of sorts, likening it to an empty canvas for them to paint as they see fit. While I’ve been quick to hammer it for lack of varietal character & benign neutrality, the flourish of successfully unoaked versions have demonstrated there is indeed lots to love about Chardonnay. While for my palate, the most profound Chardonnays find a harmony between intensity, concentration, minerality and depth, the unwooded examples merit honorable mention because:

  • Most of which come under screw-cap closures.
  • They are a polar opposite to the over-oaked, mass produced and severely manipulated fare that has given the ‘A.B.C.’ crowd (Anything But Chardonnay) their axe to grind.
  • They offer a wide range of food pairing opportunities and are arguably more flexible at the dinner table than their barrique-infused counterparts.
  • Its summer time and these wines are a terrific alternative to beat the summer heat, thanks to their refreshing, palate cleansing acidity and pure fruit flavors.
  • I have a soft spot for any positive stimulus for change in the wine world.
  • They are easy on the wallet (with the exception of Chuck Wagner’s ‘Silver’ bottling), as they don’t require the expense of pricy French oak barrels that need renewing on a regular basis.

California, New Zealand and Australia are leading the New World pack w/ a wide variety of bottlings that should be readily available at most value-oriented retailers. Here’s a list of my favorites that I’ve enjoyed over the past couple months (most of these wines are likely best suited for near-term drinking and score in the high 80's):


  1. Four Vines ‘Naked’
  2. Travis Unfiltered
  3. Mer Soleil ‘Silver’ Unoaked
  4. Iron Horse Unoaked
  5. Diatom
  6. Melville

New Zealand and Australia:

  1. Yalumba Unwooded Y Series
  2. Razor’s Edge Unwooded
  3. Hugo Unwooded
  4. Saint Clair Unoaked
  5. Trevor Jones Virgin
  6. Kim Crawford Unoaked
  7. Wishing Tree Unoaked
  8. Nepenthe Unwooded

I’ll leave you w/ a note on the wine that inspired this post. Hope this finds you well:

Trevor Jones Virgin Chardonnay, 2006
Crafted in a similar vein as Dan Kravitz’s ‘Travis Unfiltered’ from the Central Coast, this Australian bargain displays gorgeous, unadorned Chardonnay character sans oak dressing. A heady nose of ripe Chardonnay fruit displays peach skin, nectarine, sliced apple, citrus oils and the slightest hint of melted butter in a transparent, pure fashion. In the mouth, the wine is juicy and lifted, as a round body cuts a broad swath across the palate, finishing w/ great purity and harmony. Just as every fad weaves in and out of fashion, the barrage of oak-less Chardonnays are a welcome addition to the marketplace (especially in the face of summertime heat), making a statement that Chardonnay can do just fine on its own & has a bit more versatility than the ‘A.B.C.’ stereotype suggests, 90 points.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Cotes du Rhone, an Afterward

The Charvin '05 is a stark contrast relative to the Vieille Julienne in terms of style (ah-hem, the thrust of the post!), dancing on the eathier elements of the spectrum w/ notes of leather, braised chestnut, fried sausage, earth, cigar ash, red currant paste and hints of rosemary. The attack harnesses a chunky, bracing texture, that becomes more suave & approachable as it builds in the palate. While crammed w/ vigorous, youthful tannin, the wine should flesh out a bit more after a couple years of cellaring & really stretch its legs over the following 5 years or so, 87+ points.

Although the vineyards are close by (and the overall quality is high at both sites), Charvin's upbringing involves 100 percent of the stems & coupled w/ the density & structure of '05 (vs. the Vieille Julienne in '04, a more precocious, forward year), the wines couldn't be more different.