Subscribe in a reader

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

Subscribe to Unidentified Appellation by Email Top Blogs

Monday, July 27, 2009

Dagueneau, the Taste of an Icon

My relationship w/ wine has yielded very few regrets. In my life, I most closely associate regret w/ things that I didn’t do, as opposed to the stupid things that I’ve tried to do and failed. Chalk ‘em up to experience. Never visiting the World Trade Center comes to mind immediately as regret, and I know that if I dig deeper there’s certain to be a laundry list that I’d prefer not to delve into. In terms of wine, I’d like to think that if I have the desire and direction to do something, I’ll do it. Unfortunately, meeting the irrepressible Didier Dagueneau is no longer a possible aspiration, and that is where regret has found me. I have no tales of the person to share, so all I am left with is the image I get when I taste his wines.

Executive Wine Seminars put together a fabulous tribute tasting for Dagueneau that spanned vintages from the year 2000 through 2006. While I’ve tasted plenty of Didier’s singular Pouilly Fume wines, I’d never sampled his Buisson Renard, Silex and Pur Sang vineyards in juxtaposition. Not only did I jump at the chance to attend, I scoffed at Howard Kaplan’s (of said EWS) suggestion that I’d be more interested in a ’05 Chateauneuf du Pape horizontal. While several producers in Chateauneuf have collectively raised the bar for what Grenache is capable of, how often does one man transcend an appellation and a grape variety?

Onto the wines:

The first flight began w/ a ’00 Silex that immediately stuck out as a product of a botrytis inflicted vintage. One of the deepest golden colored Sauvignon Blancs of the flight, the scents reminded me of dry Sauternes, w/ saffron, bee pollen, honey and wilted flowers filling out the nose. Atypical, yet affable in its palate coating flavors that flowed like a running riverbed over a pebbly surface, ending w/ moderate length. The ’01 Silex was the smokiest, most flinty expression of the cuvee that we’d had all night. The Mosel Riesling like perfume of smoky slate, damp earth and crushed stones turned sinewy in the palate. An enveloping tide of saline, lime candy and macadamia nut flavors rocketed through the cheeks, driving the salivary glands to flood the mouth like tide pools. The consistent theme for the evening on top Dagueneau cuvees was typified in their persistence, and this ’01 was a case and point. This Silex was simply an outrageous tactile experience that has to be tasted to be believed.

We then moved on to the ’02 Pur Sang, which was a different animal altogether. The almost impenetrable mineral core could only be likened to climbing a rock wall w/ your tongue. This was all about raw power, energy and length, yet still left me w/ the feeling that bottle age would further delineate its flavors. Following that up w/ the Silex of the same vintage elucidated how Didier’s wines vary from parcel to parcel. A thick, layered wine, full of glycerin and profound flavors in the shape of peach, honeysuckle, sunflower seed and passion fruit notes. The textures were exotic, as they turned almost chewy in their opulence, yet I slightly preferred the exuberance and verve of the Pur Sang in this particular vintage. The flight was capped off w/ a ’95 Silex, which showed its age. Tiring, w/ oxidized characteristics buffered by a nutty, creamed corn like element in the nose. In spite of the advancement demonstrated by the nose, the palate still had an extra gear left, typified by an electric kick that kept the finish alive.

The group of ‘03s would have been fascinating to taste, considering the irregularities of the vintage, yet the EWS team was hijacked at the last minute, baited and switched w/ additional bottles of the ‘05s (which we happily drank anyway). The ’04 Pouilly Fume has significantly deteriorated and continued to falter as it aired. The classic oyster shell and lean lemon flavors were still evident, yet its skeletal frame had given way to age. The ’04 Buisson Renard was a fresh, rip-roaring malic acid bomb, w/ a Chenin Blanc like nose of green tea, baked apple, hay and sea breeze notes. The texture of a green apple peel was almost palpable in the mouth, as its tingling acidity carried the mineral-laced flavors to a mouth watering close. In relationship to the previous two bottles, one can’t understate the qualitative jump made by the Pur Sang and Silex cuvees. Both were outrageously complex in spite of how lean ’04 was as a vintage, but the Pur Sang’s poise and focus ended up winning me over. The brightness of the fruit took hold in the mouth, incrementally building and expanding from cheek to cheek, yet it is still in its infancy & its flavors remained relatively unformed. The Silex served as the yin to the Pur Sang’s yang, w/ its idiosyncratic array of white pepper, musky tobacco and white currant flavors coming at you in an unbridled display. While wild and singularBold, I felt it lacked the relentless tenacity of the Pur Sang in this particular vintage.

The 2005’s had a bit better pedigree, as even the Pouilly Fume shone through w/ its snappy pepper, citrus and stone fruit flavors, beaming through the rock solid finish. The Buisson Renard was simply effusive, w/ its ostentatious perfume carrying along to the richness of the palate. Relative to the ’04, the ’05 Renard demonstrates more depth, intensity and persistence. My perception of Didier’s top cuvees shifted in ’05, as I found the Silex not only to be the better of the two, but the best of the show. The nose was absolutely hypnotic, as its kinky layered nose came at me in waves of quince, unsalted butter, chive and honeysuckle. There is an immediately powerful impression on the attack, revealing uncanny size and scope as it moves through the mouth. While the texture is so generous it borders on unctuous, the underlying vibrancy and reserve wraps the entire piece together. While I find it instantly compelling, its elements almost dizzy the senses and it may be prudent to cellar over the short term. The Pur Sang served as more of a classical interlude to the Silex’s crescendo, washing over the palate like a rising tide to the shore. The wine struck me as a visceral experience that comes off better in poetry than any feigned attempt at describing particular flavors. Its only flaw was that it was tasted alongside the Silex of the same vintage.

We unfortunately finished things off w/ the 2006 vintage and I found it aloof by comparison to the rest of the bunch. The Pur Sang shuffled through some Viognier-like tones of golden flower and sweet peach, seemingly spruced up w/ a touch of residual sugar. The Silex, although unique, also failed to truly compel as I found its macadamia nut, lychee and hummus notes to be confused in their creamy, almost gelatinous textures that obscured any mineral definition. While neither wine was poor, they lacked varietal recognition and came off as blowzy compared to their older siblings. Whether or not this is a matter of vintage, raw age or stacked competition is difficult to say, but to be fair, ’06 was not without its fans.

Didier’s ’04 Jardin de Babylone capped off the evening w/ its tasty notes of brown sugar, over-ripe banana, papaya and apple peel. Thick, yet fresh in the mouth, w/ a nice sense of drive keeping the flavors defined to the finish.

I left the tasting w/ a few thoughts & questions regarding the tasting and the group’s discussion:

· Each vintage shone through the wines transparently. Whether or not you appreciated the botrytis of ’00, the angularity of ’04 or the exoticism seen in the ‘06s is up for debate, but Dagueneau never tried to mask the weather.
· I like the Pur Sang Vineyard better than the Silex.
· I like the Silex Vineyard better than the Pur Sang.
· See point one for further clarification on points 2 and 3.
· I can’t emphasize enough what remarkable feats these are for dry white wine. The definition of the variety is forced to become an evolving document because of Didier’s wines.
· It is tough to summarize the ‘house style’ as each wine takes different shape from the next. That being said, I think it is fair to say that most of them have a sort of enveloping severity to them that is almost indescribable. There are some classic elements of Pouilly Fume, some white Bordeaux & some sauvage…they are a powerful ballerina w/ a razor sharp shave.
· Do any other Sauvignon Blancs remind you of Didier’s?
· Do any other Pouilly Fumes remind you of Didier’s?
· If the answer to the previous two points is no, then we can’t complain about the price, because there is no comparison. If the answer is yes, I’d love a bottle.
· Who in the wine world (old or new) has reshaped your vision as to what a varietal and/or appellation is capable of?

Wine Rating
’00 Silex 89
’01 Silex 95
’02 Pur Sang 95+
’02 Silex 94
’95 Silex 76
’04 Pouilly Fume 71
’04 Buisson Renard 91
’04 Pur Sang 96
’04 Silex 95
’05 Pouilly Fume 92
’05 Buisson Renard 93+
’05 Pur Sang 95
’05 Silex 98
’06 Pur Sang 90+
’06 Silex 91+
’04 Jardin de Babylone 89

Thursday, July 16, 2009

California Dreaming, 2nd Installment

Jonata, Great Expectations

While I’d never tasted a wine from Jonata before Friday morning, I’d already compiled a stack of bias as high as the mass of dollar bills it took to buy one of their bottles. The wines are expensive, almost outlandishly so in a region known for its value and overall rusticity. That being said, I had to admit that Jonata’s Screaming Eagle clout brought an interesting dynamic to the region. That dynamic could be looked at in two ways, one being of validation. The up and coming viticultural promise has officially arrived, and top enological dogs like Michel Rolland have finally taken notice. The other interpretation is a bit more dramatic, seeing the Jonata flag as a signal of invasion. The big money investments of the north were going to take over. Imagine how the cattle ranchers must feel about it. It’s one thing to be pushed out by passionate farmers, but it has to be decidedly incising when it’s a money manager that uprooted your land to plant vinfera. I, the urban outsider, really didn’t entertain much of an opinion either way. I imagined that some found the prices arrogant, yet could equally see the view that they were still relative bargains by Napa standards. I was just there to pack that bias away and taste some wine.

When I turned off the main drag in Buelton towards the winery’s address, I was surprised to see Jonata had no formal tasting room. The building was large, with no formal labeling from door to door and I wandered about, resembling just the type of tourist I despised. Around the bend I noticed a crack in the door and pushed it in just enough to take a peek. There was a group of middle aged men and women standing around the stacks of sweet smelling French oak barrels w/ empty glasses. I was thirsty and glad to see I wasn’t too late.

I saw Mat Dees, Jonata’s winemaker, walking up and down the aisles of oak barrels w/ his wine thief, calculating which casks to draw from. Matt is a young man, even younger than myself, but has learned his craft quickly. Part of his training was spent in Napa Valley w/ Garren Staglin of Staglin Family Vineyards. The Staglin’s also work w/ Rolland, and if I were a wealthy man I’d happily own a great deal of their Cabernet in my cellar. Matt is very bright, easy going and obviously passionate about what he does. It felt good to finally interact w/ someone as young as me in the industry. You only feel crazier in an asylum by yourself.

Matt would explain that Jonata’s plots (which are all young vine, estate fruit) were unique in that they were composed mainly of sandy soils. Jonata’s line-up has a dizzying amount of variety between its Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc, Petite Verdot, Grenache, Syrah and even a smattering of Semillon. The ‘kitchen sink’ approach was implemented initially to see what thrived in the area and what didn’t. Well, years later, just about every grape has done pretty well, with no blaring inadequacies. So as of now, the jack of all trades approach will be continued until they are not pleased with the results. While I’d imagine working w/ such a vast variety of grapes is a daunting enough task independently, Matt was given only one other directive by his superiors. Make the best wine in the Santa Ynez Valley. At least they put their money where their mouths are.

We sampled the ’07 vintage from barrel to barrel. While Jonata has a unique name for each blend, our tasting was of the components alone, so I made my comments from varietal to varietal.

We began w/ the only backward wine of the bunch, the Sangiovese. The scents picked up an overtly toasty note, and while the hearty, spicy character of the wine was attractive, I could tell we did not taste it at its best moment. The Cabernet Sauvignon immediately got my attention. Appellations surrounding the Santa Ynez Valley have produced notoriously green, weedy Cabernet (thankfully most has been up-rooted for more fashionable, cool climate varieties), but this one bucked the trend. The bouquet was effusive, revealing a true perfume of mint, rose, freshly picked herbs and warm black currants. The flavors were chewy and layered, striking me as honest and charming. That said the father grape, Cabernet Franc, really stole the show. The sample smelled of blueberries and violets and could only be described as highly desirable. The rugged sinew of Cabernet Franc appeared in the mouth, w/ notes of dusty cocoa and peppery spices filling out the palate. A wine of finesse and character, and only rivaled by Foxen’s dry farmed version for the best in the valley.

Once we got to the Syrah, I could feel the pedal pushing further and further downward. An absolutely explosive, almost savage Syrah stormed from the barrel like a young Alban. The flavors of raw beef, roast nuts and warm chocolate sauce enveloped the palate, yet tip-toed to the finish w/ a subtle kiss of gravel and pepper. In spite of its size, the wine has a genuine mineral character and remains well balanced. After the Syrah we tasted the final heavyweight in Jonata’s stable, the Petite Verdot. While I do enjoy an occasional California Petite Verdot for its effusive blueberry flavors, they tend to be either too simple or too clunky for me to really wrap my head around. That said, Jonata’s, which Matt prefaced ‘wasn’t for everyone,’ is a unique take on the varietal. While typical in its monstrous size and force, this was not a surly wine. It was structured and broad, yet possessed a sense of suaveness that made it immediately approachable, and the Zinfandel like fruit of raspberry gananche and melted licorice were delicious. The finish really took off, reminding me of that smoky bite you’re left w/ after having a strong, rich espresso.

While Matt and I got to talking about Sauvignon Blanc, Bordeaux Blanc in particular, I noticed that we seemed to share the same favorites. Locally, he loved Araujo’s Eisle Vineyard and Peter Michael’s just as much as I, and when I found out that Jonata made a Sauvignon blanc as well, I told him I wouldn’t leave until he dug some up for us. Well…I actually asked him where I could buy a bottle locally, and he was nice enough to pop a bottle of the ’06 Flor de Jonata. I did not spit. To say this was outrageously good is mere foreplay. A very Pessac-like nose of honeysuckle, chive, lilac, citrus peel and chalk dust notes burst from the glass. The mouth-feel seemed like a Pouilly Fume on steroids, yet w/ impeccable poise for a wine of such intensity. Candied grapefruit and liquid stone notes wove in and out through the long, succulent finish. This was a wine of sheer presence and easily the white of the trip, 95 points.

I was glad to have met Matt and taste Jonata’s wines for the first time. In terms of quality, I can honestly say they are about as good as one could imagine. They’ve exploited a unique, sandy plot of land w/ some top notch enological talent. To achieve this level of quality w/ such a myriad of varieties is astounding, yet I imagine a sharper focus on a few signature blends is in store down the road. Unfortunately, the wines are out of my price range and while I may splurge on a bottle or two of that fabulous Sauvignon Blanc, they are obviously going after a different demographic. Jonata may be most successful in attracting Napa Cab-centric consumers w/ their pedigree, or perhaps this label will come to be recognized a reference point of the valley in due time. More broadly, Jonata’s early success w/ Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc are very promising for Santa Ynez, where these varietals have struggled to find their footing.

The tasting demonstrated that the product is indeed a high quality one, but I still found the overall focus to be a bit diffuse. Other than being very good, I guess I still don’t know what Jonata is all about. I suppose the question I have for the owners at Jonata would be, is being ‘the best’ good enough?

Monday, July 13, 2009

California Dreaming

Steve Clifton: the man, the myth, the minerality

In my opinion, the best Chardonnay I tasted from California’s 2006 vintage was not from Aubert, Peter Michael, Kistler, David Ramey or Kongsgaard. While those other names produced affable, if not spectacular Chardonnay expressions, they were not able to match Greg Brewer and Steve Clifton’s achievements from the vintage. ’06 saw Greg’s Diatom label begin to take off, as it quickly became the best version of un-oaked Chardonnay in the state. In addition to Diatom’s rising star, Brewer Clifton’s Mount Carmel single vineyard (w/ the Sea Smoke right behind it) stood head and shoulders above every other bottle of Chardonnay I’d had from the state in ’06. When I arrived at Brewer Clifton's new facility in Lompoc on a foggy June morning to taste the ‘07s, I couldn’t wait to see how they’d stack up to their younger siblings.

Brewer Clifton’s Chardonnays are serious, age-worthy wines that demand multiple hours of decanting when consumed in their youth. The elevage has progressively weaned away from the use of new oak entirely, as the ’06 vintage incorporated roughly 10-20% of new barrels, w/ the ‘07s completely eliminating the use of any new wood. The rest of the cellar work is simple: minimal SO2, no racking, no stirring of the lees, no nothing. Steve’s philosophy is best described by his hourglass concept. At the top of the glass lies a wine’s angularity, characterized by crisp acidity & lean flesh. As you travel towards the bottom of the glass, ripeness increases, rounding the edges of the fruit. The middle of the glass is where the synthesis of both worlds lie, creating a hypothetical nexus of sorts. I like to call it ‘the perfect mixture of the pleasurable w/ the provocative.’

From Steve’s standpoint, most of Californian wine settles towards the bottom of the hourglass due to the nature of the climate, while areas like the Mosel would naturally float closer to the top. Cellar practices that incorporate battonage, new oak barrels, racking or malolactic fermentation will continue to push the wine deeper towards the bottom of the hourglass, driving pH up and adding viscosity to the texture. Steve’s goal is to strive towards the midline of the hourglass, and the only way to do that in California is to farm a cooler site. As for what to do in the cellar, follow Jake Gittes advice from Chinatown. ‘As little as possible.’ It makes very little sense to emulate what is done in Burgundy w/ California fruit if the vintner desires to move towards the middle of the hourglass. Burgundy works its way down the glass and California works its way up. While this analogy is practical, this philosophy is rarely executed by producers in California.

Old World pundits are quick to criticize features of Californian Chardonnay, one being its lack of minerality. Something as nebulous as minerality is difficult to pinpoint in a wine, much less describe in writing. The origins of minerality are perhaps even more controversial, but soil type is often cited in the literature as a contributing factor. What I think is not discussed enough are the factors that obscure a wine’s mineral expression. Malolactic fermentation, new oak aging, excessive racking, stirring the lees, sur maturite and other more controversial techniques not only change our perception of a wine’s acidity, but they hide its potential minerality. The site can be great, imbued w/ potential for minerality, but that potential can only come to fruition if obscuring factors are minimized. Brewer Clifton is a prime example of a site’s potential being realized through avoidance of technique. The minerality in their wines is as legitimate as the wines themselves (no need to fabricate something that isn’t there, nor confuse a pear for a rock).
During my visit w/ Steve Clifton I continuously probed him on B.C.’s alcohol levels and acidity, as if I were asking a soothsayer for a winning lotto number. Much like a freakish athlete that weighs in well over 300 pounds and runs a 40 in 4.6 flat, how can a Chardonnay contain over 16% alcohol and possess mouth-watering acidity? A loaded question and a climate answer. No voodoo magic in the cellar, no pixie dust in the fermentors (in fact, next to nothing is done in the cellar as Brewer Clifton doesn’t even own a de-stemmer!). The most sensible reasoning is tied into two different climatic factors:

· Date of bud break
· Wind

What I didn’t realize is how exceptionally long the growing season is in the Santa Rita Hills. Bud break typically happens in February, when just about every other region’s vines are still dormant for months to come. Months and months of moderately warm days spread out to the fall, where harvest occurs w/ very little trepidation of autumn rain. The early morning fog further retards the growth. Sugar accumulation is exceptionally slow, and the chilly nights maintain freshness in the wines throughout the growing season. The wind, an unheralded aspect of terroir, concentrates the berries while conversely cooling them down. When the rain does come, wind can be counted on to quell the spread of rot.

The maritime influence warms the winter and cools the summer, making this region akin to a viticultural Goldie Locks of sorts. Not too hot, not too cool, just right…just about all year. Don’t blow it in the cellar, and you’ve got something really special on your hands.

That being said, out of the entire lot of Santa Rita Hills Chardonnay that I’ve tasted, none have been as singular to me as a bottle from Greg Brewer and Steve Clifton.


Babcock & Huber Vineyard 2008
The Diatom label is the brainchild of Greg Brewer, inspired by a trip to Chablis. None of the single vineyard Chardonnays sees the inside of an oak barrel, as they are fermented in stainless steel and bottled in their youth to preserve freshness. Each vineyard offers a mouth-filling, rich interpretation of Chardonnay that offer up sensual experiences akin to biting into juicy orchard fruit.

The Babcock presents a honeyed nose of baked apple, corn meal, hay and pear skin notes. The flavors cut a broad swath along the palate, with fabulous energy and verve, as a rich, sweet core of fruit funnels over the tongue, leaving a chalky spackle on the roof of the mouth. The Huber Vineyard has a higher toned, exotic fruit characteristic to its aromas, carrying spring blossom, cantaloupe & quince notes through the mouth w/ great symmetry and poise. As usual, each carry their alcohol very well, thanks to their vigorous, palate cleansing acidities, 92 & 93 points, respectively.

Brewer Clifton Chardonnays (each were decanted over a period of hours):

Sea Smoke Vineyard
There is a striking intensity in this wine’s personality, from the richness of its golden hues to the electric energy found in the palate. The scents of lemon peel, dried pineapple and cedar are channeled into dichotomous waves. Upon entry, the layers of flavor unfold themselves in the glass. A tier of cream burrows underneath the wine’s glorious, powdered stone-like mineral character, drifting away to the finish. While opulent and not short on power, what typifies this wine is sheer presence, 95 points.

Mount Carmel Vineyard
This is deceptive and coy. A precocious introduction, with its flirty perfumes of honeysuckle, passion fruit, pecan and sweet spice notes. The entry takes a slow step-back, then incrementally builds over the palate, unfolding layer upon layer of richness, deepening on the finish. With each sip, the subtle explosions of flavor further harmonize, wrapped up in a river of mouth-watering acidity, staying shapely. Compelling, age-worthy and indeed profound, 96 points.

An appellation level wine was added, w/ the Santa Rita Hills cuvee pushing 1,000 cases (which is quite a bit for this operation). The wine is succulent and bright, w/ sweet citrus peel, green tea and tangerine notes. Out of all the single vineyard cuvees, the Rancho Santa Rosa tends to be my least favorite. Its disposition is forward and primary, w/ sweet notes of peach and apricot fruit that are round and penetrate the palate well, yet lack the added dimension of the best SVDs. The Sweeney Canyon demonstrates a more intriguing earthy, floral meadow element in its perfume and demands extended aeration to unwind all of its nuances. The Santa Rita & Santa Rosa merit low 90's scores, w/ the Sweeney approaching classic quality.

The ’07 vintage possess excellent structure and balance, with a bit more lift than I’m accustomed to from the AVAs I visited. This is the first vintage that Brewer Clifton utilized a completely neutral barrel program and the wines are striking in their purity and finesse. To my palate, while there are a few producers that I consider to make comparably high quality Chardonnay in California, Brewer Clifton remains at the very top of my list for great American Chardonnay.

A note on the Pinot Noirs from Brewer Clifton:
The 100 percent stem inclusion in these wines gives them a distinctly spicy, novel flavor profile that separates their wines stylistically from several other Santa Rita Hills producers. While I believe the truly great wines being made by Greg and Steve come from Chardonnay, their Pinot Noirs can best be described as tactile experiences. The wines are 3 dimensional: funneling their flavors through your cheeks side by side, leaving a chalky glaze on the roof of your mouth in their wake. This is complicated by their high acidity and powdery tannins, making them truly a touch-based sensory experience. I almost never write down fruit flavors when tasting through them.

Their Pinot Noirs are not constructed to universally please all palates, but I highly recommend you taste them if you have yet to do so. The uniqueness of the experience is worth the price of admission.

A note on Steve Clifton's Palmina:
I over-extended my stay in Paso Robles and was not able to keep my appointment at Palmina. I’ve tasted through several of the wines at different junctures and find them to be varietally recognizable, authentic wines. Perhaps the one true Cal-Italian success story that I’m familiar with, Palmina’s line-up is fairly priced and exceptionally well made. The Nebbiolo more than held its own in a blind line-up of young Barolo, and a Nebbiolo blanc appears to be in the cards for Palmina over the next few years. While I personally would find little interest in the concept of planting Italian varieties in California, I’m very glad that the team at Palmina felt otherwise as the early results are very promising.

Steve Clifton has teamed up with New York restaurateur Joe Bastianich and Argentine vintner Matia Mayol to create a Malbec from high altitude sites called TriTono. I have yet to taste it, but I’ve heard there are stylistic similarities to Achaval Ferrer. Needless to say, I’m excited about the potential of this project.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

My most recent trip to California wine country, a prologue

There is something spectacular about driving alongside the west coast. It is as clean as a childhood memory. The unfettering breeze that flows through the car window whisks away all my lethargy, alive and easy. As I travel up the road past the city lights, I clearly see the rolling hills begin to form like moguls down a ski slope. The hills are arid & tawny colored, with sun-burned grass and dry clay-loam soils filled with powdery cracks that run up and down them like wrinkles on an older woman. The hills are brushed w/ mossy green trees and lush shrubs, contrasting the tawny colored bends like chiaroscuro on a mat screen. As I travel along the road I can sense the ocean to the west, though I cannot see it. The saline smell of oysters on the shore and the sounds of foamy waves inching up the coast-line let me know that the water is west of those hills, but I cannot see it. I close my eyes for a brief minute, steadying the wheel of the car, and feel the crabgrass underneath my feet. The rhythmic pulse of the tides takes hold for a moment, reminding me how vivid a human's senses can be when one's over-reliance on sight is discarded. I open my eyes, satisfied in the moment.

The windy roads snake along the bend of the hills sweeping broadly, with swift turns and slopes that linger through dusk. As the hot sun cools its rays, setting past the ocean to the west, I can't help but feel fresh and youthful. As a child I hated to travel by car. The trips seemed too long and the excitement of the destination would always end up agitating me. Perhaps that sense of anguish is what made the payoff all the greater when we finally wound up where we were going. The difference now is that this journey is a calming one. My thoughts were no longer of anxiety and impatience, but of observance and anticipation. The scents of the dusty herbs and the liveliness of the air conjured an almost idyllic feeling, a sense of warmth that is lacking in the cold, concrete months of a big city. The luxury of these thoughts seems to be at a premium as I grow old and become preoccupied with other such nonsense. I was content to think this way again, hoping I'd get to where the green vines would meet the mossy trees and lush shrubs soon. I hoped I'd get there soon...but if I didn't, that would be alright too. The only sin about coming to this place is that I know I’ll have to leave it.

Once I entered the tunnel on the main highway, I knew that the town of Buelton was almost in sight. I thought of sipping wine and smiled. This was going to be a great trip.

Notes to follow.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Perhaps the most searing minerality I've experienced in a wine, how 'bout u?

This would be a great example to show to those that ask ‘what does minerality taste (feel) like?' I do think this Closel will round into form once the plastered mineral casing takes a backseat to the fruit.

Domaine Closel, Chateau des Vaults, Clos du Papillon '05
Light gold, w/ a sprinkle of green in the color. From sniff to sniff, the aromas are delineated into two main components: melted candle wax and an effusive nuttiness. The attack hints at quince, saline and spicy lime fruit, which pops almost immediately on the entry. After the initial wave subsides, a dense severity shadows just about anything else. While broad and powerful, the tenor is far from lush, as a heavy mineral coat envelopes the palate like a brick. Backward and pleading for the cellar, I believe that the muted persimmon fruit will really sing once the structure unwinds, 90+ points.

What wine would be your candidate for mineral bath of the year?

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Independent Wines for the 4th

For the 4th of July, Ejehan and I decided to take advantage of our newly created deck, inviting a few thirsty patriots over to partake in some vinous fireworks. A couple friends from Washington D.C. were in town, with eBobers George Chyla, Sherry Chyla, Jamie Manley & his lovely lady all nestling up to our grill for the evening. In addition to the wines, the wife’s beer can chicken seemed to garner most of the attention, as ravenous hands tore into it w/ as much fervor as a rabid dog on road kill.

As for the wines, we began w/ a Kermit Lynch import from Tavel, the '08 Chateau de Trinquevedel. The copper tinted rose showed a lively profile of sweet red cherries, white pepper, pipe tobacco and an intriguing earthy undertow on the snappy, mineral-rich finish. The whites were a pair of beauties from Francois Cotat, w/ his '07 Les Monts Damnes & Les Culs de Beaujeu demonstrating a brilliant combination of intensity and elegance. Their perfumes were packed w/ an array of meadow flowers, chive, hay, honey, quince and macadamia nut notes. Intensely concentrated and tangy, their flavors penetrated the palate w/ a rush of liquid rock & citrus tones that lingered on and on. Evolved and showy, each cuvee should drink exceptionally well over the next 5 or so years. The whites were bookended by a NV Mumm de Cramant, a concentrated, powerfully bubbly full of toasted almond, graphite and sweet fig flavors that danced along the palate, knifing their way to the finish.

The reds commenced w/ a magnum of '01 Vieille Julienne Chateaunuef du Pape, which gained in depth and flavor delineation as it aired in the glass. Classic notes of sweet cassis, blueberry, forest floor and underbrush filled out the medium weight palate w/ great freshness, purity and follow-through. Surprisingly, the '03 Pape Clement strut its stuff right out of the gates, showing none of the blowzy, superficially sweet characteristics that often typify the vintage. Ripe, yet distinctly Graves in profile, the nose of sweet tobacco, cedar, cassis, incense and melted licorice rocketed from the bottle the moment the cork was popped. The flavors enveloped the palate, w/ a juicy, velvety textured wave that cruised on through the finish. The Pape firmed up a bit as it aired, suggesting that it should be drunk without a decant or cellared for at least another 5 years.

Things heated up w/ Sine Qua Non's Atlantis Syrah, screaming a distinctive black pepper and mint leaf note that didn't appear in the previous bottle I tasted. Large-scaled, yet with a bit more lift than most vintages of SQN, the wine is characterized by great density and power, finishing off w/ a molten chocolate cake and blackberry liqueur-like note. We took a quick dip into the Malbec pool as the dessert arrived, swimming through an '08 Achaval Ferrer that showed its telltale graphite and purple fruit profile, pushed along by zippy acidity and great mineral definition.

Wine Points

NV Mumm de Cramant 92 points

'08 Chateau de Trinquevedel 86 points

’07 Francois Cotat Les Monts Damnes 93 points

’07 Francois Cotat Les Culs de Beaujeu 92 points

'01 Vieille Julienne Chateaunuef du Pape 91 points

'03 Pape Clement 95 points

’05 Sine Qua Non's Atlantis Syrah 96 points

'08 Achaval Ferrer Malbec 91 points

Friday, July 03, 2009

Outrageously Good Grenache

I just returned from a whirlwind tour through the arid hills of the Central Coast. The weather was warm and comforting, especially when one considers the transposition NY's climate seems to have made w/ Seattle. I didn't exactly have a major objective in mind. The trip was more of a reprieve than anything. That said, I continue to be on the look-out for good Grenache, which has been as fleeting a California concept as any. I’m pleased to say that the more I taste, the more it seems that there’s light at the end of that tunnel. For the purposes of this post, I’ve decided to highlight just one, as it commands quite a room. I plan on connecting the dots of my trek later this afternoon as I synthesize some organization to my observations.

Alban Grenache, '06
While this grape certainly has struggled to find its footing in California, I must admit it does come in shapes and sizes that you just don't see anywhere else. Here’s a case and point. A dark, essentially black, brooding wine that is as opaque and authoritative an expression of Grenache that you'll find (John, are you cheating w/ a bit of that Syrah of yours?!). From a character standpoint, this is quite a change in pace from the '05, which was downright savage. The '06 is much more varietally recognizable, w/ the classic elements of melted licorice, crème de cassis, kirsch liqueur, forest floor and spice box coming to the forefront. Thick and jam-packed w/ glycerin, the waves of flavor compel w/ sheer intensity, viscosity and power, yet maintain a solid sense of focus from top to bottom. The finish lingers on & on, much like the purple colored legs on the stem after a vigorous swirl. I imagine fans of Clos St. Jean's top cuvees will go bonkers over this one, 97 points.

While Alban sure as heck aint new to most of you, the 2006 vintage represents what I believe to be his first year of great Grenache. His other bottlings were great wines, yet reminded me of the grape very little. If this is a window of things to come for the team at Alban, I can only hope that John & Lorraine share their learning’s w/ the other inspired growers of the Coast. This was really something special.