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Monday, July 26, 2010

Rock-Star Chablis on the Cheap

Christian Moreau Chablis ‘08

This is an outstanding wine for the money, no doubt about it. The richness of ’08 creeps into the body of this young village wine at a young village price (high teens or so)- as notes of crushed stone, lemon peel, ginger & poached pear pepper the profile. The entry is smooth and expansive, packing in atypical power & persistence for its category & relative weight class. I’m tempted to refer to the finish as heady, but haven’t the cojones to go for the jugular. No fear for the old Chablisean guard, the electric output is still churning at high acid wattage, in spite of the current of fruit, 90 points.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Finger Lakes Top Producers

Red Newt Cellars

Fans of Gewurztraminer take notice; Red Newt may be a New Yorker but boy does he make a kick ass German-penned varietal. Out of all the wineries I’d visited, no winery nailed Gewurztraminer & Pinot Gris like Red Newt. Gewurztraminer was a 3 tiered project: showcasing a dry label alongside two single vineyard designated bottlings. The Dry ’08 snapped w/ a strong floral nose of rose water & beeswax, turning dense & lush on its thick, flashy midpalate. The winery was pouring the ’07 SVDs, with the Sawmill Creek juxtaposing delicacy & power in its nose of tangerine, peach, spring blossom & honeysuckle. Flickers of spice pepper the palate, leaving a layered, resonating impression on the finish. The Curry Creek, another top Finger Lakes site, was muscular with Zind Humbrechtian beef, popping with a wild, vivid tang. Broad shouldered, with a full-bodied mouthful of flavors that wedged chalky spice notes from cheek to cheek, penetrating past the finish line. The Curry & Sawmill Creek versions are a bit pricy, but justifiably so & I can imagine them aquitting themselves beautifully next to top vintages from the Brand Vineyard in Alsace. The Pinot Gris ’07, also sourced from Curry Creek, was about as honeyed an unctuous an Alsatian fan could hope for. Rich & generous, with warm flavors of baked apple and nutmeg spices rolling over the tongue like a creamy dream.

For those at odds w/ Gewurz, the top Riesling & Franc from Red Newt are by no means slouches. The ’08 entry level dry Riesling, a shy bony chisel of a white, packed plenty of zip but left me wanting in the category of flesh. A marked step up was found in the ’07 Reserve, remarkably Trimbachish to smell and savor, w/ a plumy nose smelling of enough unleaded fuel to dent an energy crisis. A piercing entry zapped the palate through chords of slate & citrus, knotting up on a frenzy of a finish. The Sauvignon Blanc ’08 proved to be a tangy, simple sipper of snappy gooseberry & herb notes, finishing amply. The lone red that I tasted, a ’08 Cabernet Franc from Glacier Ridge Vineyards, rounded out the portfolio w/ its impeccably clean profile of crushed berries, pipe tobacco and licorice snap flavors. Its middle weight, yet full flavored sense of grace is sure to find plenty of fans & bodes well for the red colored spectrum of Newt’s stable.

Wine Rating
Sauvignon Blanc ’08 83
Dry Gewurztraminer ’08 88
Sawmill Creek Gewurz ’07 91
Curry Creek Gewurz ’07 92
Dry Riesling ’08 85
Reserve Riesling ’07 91
Pinot Gris ’07 89
Cab Franc Glacier Ridge ’08 88

Pioneers that trek up to Red Newt Cellars should schedule their visit towards closing time, wrapping up their tasting calisthenics at the terrific wine bar next door. The Red Newt Bistro offers about as frugal a chef tasting menu as this jaded pair of urban eyes as ever seen, 5 imaginative courses for 60 dollars. Dishes range from spinach ravioli with blueberries to bacon wrapped pork tenderloin stuffed w/ cherries. So goes the theme of eat local, with the drink local portion of the menu pitting flights of 04 reserve Rieslings together alongside sparkling wines from Konstantin Frank with vintage dates ranging back to the previous decade. All told, over 150 Finger Lakes wines are represented in the list, with the most expensive selections setting you back all of 40 dollars & change. This type of modesty for such gustatory goodness makes me want to pummel myself for living in New York City. Lay another indignant log on the blue flame.

To give you a brief window of what I sampled chez Red Newt Bistro, I began w/ the ’04 Tierce Dry Riesling, a veritable FLX all star team of winemakers including Anthony Road, Fox Run & Red Newt (emblematic of the cooperation seen at the highest level from FLX producers, e pluribus unum). The Tierce was idiosyncratic, showing mature, waxy notes & a lean mushroom edge. I moved onto ’04 Dry Rieslings from Fox Run & Anthony Road, w/ the former dazzling w/ the total package, jump started by smoky petrol notes- I can easily see this cruising in the cellar for another decade. The Anthony Road was a bit soft & gelatinous, leaving me wanting, but the terrific ’07 from ARWC more than atoned. I finished off the evening w/ an ’06 Gewurztraminer from Red Newt, dark gold in color yet as potent and crammed w/ baby fat as a new release. I’m starting to get the impression that these bright young Gewurztraminers from RNWC can go for at least 10 years before their characteristics atrophy.

Time to round ‘bout the wine trail cul-de-sac towards Anthony Road & Fox Run next…

Friday, July 23, 2010

Top Finger Lakes Producers

Hermann J. Wiemer

Next to Frank, Wiemer is as close as it gets to an ‘old stalwart’ of the region, crafting exquisite Rieslings that are a bit plumper than Ravines, yet equally distinctive. The domaine produces a Dry, Semi-Dry, Late Harvest, ‘TBA’ style, Reserve & two single vineyard designated Rieslings from the HJW & Magdalena plots. The ’08s were on display; with the Dry Riesling already developing into a dynamic, fresh white, w/ cackling nerve and a long, persistent finish. The Semi-Dry handles its residual sugar w/ kit gloves, as a tangy rope of acidity tugs along the middle weight frame to a fine finish. The Reserve is tangibly more complex, w/ vivid peach, orange peel and bushels of orchard fruit shimmering from bouquet to body. The textures were gorgeous & delineated, awash in pure, clean flavors that just wouldn’t quit.

The nerve center of dessert wines began w/ a Late Harvest Riesling, which was Spatlese-like for those familiar w/ Mosel monikers, showing round textured canned peach notes that stayed spry & straight to the finish. The Late Harvest Chardonnay demonstrated what an inherently trite grape it is in comparison to Riesling, boring, flat, verve-less. As for the Late Harvest Bunch Select ‘TBA style’ (for the non-German acronym-inclined, TBA doesn’t stand for ‘To Be Announced,’ it refers to its not so close kissing cousin ‘Trockenbeerenauslese,’ which for brevity sake we’ll simply call URD or ‘Uber Rich Dessert Wine), this was a sheer powerhouse and perhaps the most staggering wine experience of the trip in regards to price & power. The viscous, opulent dessert wine packed a torrent of baked apricot, apple pie and honey drizzled flavors that sizzled through the mouth richly, backed by a beaming brightness often found in cool vintage Sauternes.

My favorites from team Wiemer were the single vineyard Rieslings. Call me an SVD slut if you wish, but they more than merited their special designations. The HJW ’08 was gorgeous, competing w/ the Argetsinger for best dry Riesling in the country, demonstrating brilliant poise and focus. An impenetrably mineral-coated gloss, w/ a tightly wound beam of smoky slate holding sway over the green-fruited core today. Whispers at nuances sure to stun w/ short-term cellaring. The Magdalena, an appreciably warmer spot, dazzled w/ its ripe peach, apricot, Jon gold & floral notes that came on in textured waves, leaving you thirsting for another sip. Though I preferred the HJW, the showy Magdalena is the more approachable of the two.

While the sparkling wines generally disappointed on my trip, particularly due to my high expectations, Wiemer seems to have a firmer grasp on bubbles than most. Their ’06 Brut only takes a back seat to Lamoreaux Landing, showing a delicate balance between lush fruit and linear cut. The flavors were pure honey and golden delicious, w/ sharp edges framing the malic-acid tinged finish wonderfully. The Blanc des Noir ’03 has already evolved to a nutty profile, as hints of damp earth, cherry and peat moss fill out the bouquet. Softer and ready to drink, yet lacks the drive & punch of the younger Brut.

Next to Riesling the most consistent category in the FLX has to be Gewurztraminer, as Wiemer’s take revealed a deeply honeyed profile, w/ fragrant lychee & spice notes fanning out along the firm finish. An ’06 Rose was on tap & fans of bottle aged pink may find the tawny colored ’06 to be a uniquely earthy interpretation, with its singular toffee, underbrush and mushroom notes atop a bony frame. While a provocative take, this style doesn’t exactly rub my rhubarb, as I found the baby rose to be more palatable, albeit in a straight forward, trim & dry package. The Chardonnays were unremarkable quaffs.

My wife’s on-going Cabernet Franc contest, her favorite varietal, gave honorable mention to Wiemer. The ‘07s walked a fine line between herbacity & straight up vegetal spunk, with the entry level Franc cooking up a salad of cabbage, tapenade and red currant notes that possessed round textures & a pleasantly bitter close. A noticeably cleaner Reserve was all red fruit & cigar humidor, picking up bright, pliant layers in the mouth & packing enough density for cellar shedding.

While the line-up is dauntingly large, Wiemer manages to pack enough quality into the bottle to merit some breadth in experimentation. That said, I still feel their Rieslings are too terrific to not uproot the tame, expendable rows of Chardonnay in the vineyard.

Wine Rating
Pinot Rose ’06 78
Dry Rose NV 84
Blanc des Noirs ’03 83
Brut ’06 87
Dry Riesling ’08 87
Semi-Dry Riesling ’08 86+
Reserve Riesling ’08 90
Late Harvest Riesling ’08 88
HJW Riesling ’08 92+
Magdalena Riesling ‘08 91+
Bunch Select Riesling ’08 93
Gewurztraminer ’08 88
Cab Franc ’07 84
Cab Franc Reserve ’07 87+

For those that haven't visited the winery, I highly recommend taking a look at their library releases. While they don't have any vintages past 1990, I picked up an '02 'Johanisberg Riesling' (pre-appellation labeling law disallowed calling a non-Johanisberg Riesling as such...for those that are confused, think 'Korbel Champagne' being relegated to simply 'sparkling wine') which performed brilliantly:

This 8 year old Riesling was adorned in a light golden Chardonnay-like hue; w/ effusive and myriad scents that were akin to walking through a florist’s shop. The bouquet attacked at all angles, ranging from bee pollen, pine, apricot…countless and unnamable floral arrangements. The entry was spicy, spry and lighter than air, with an invisible depth of flavor that wrapped the palate in a gentle push, lingering & dramatic on the finish. Gorgeous, long, minerally- very impressive showing- best over the next few years, 91 points.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Ravines Wine Cellars, One of the Finger Lakes' Finest

The majority of my previous experiences w/ Finger Lakes wines were courtesy of Vintage New York, a creation from Rivendell winery’s Robert Ransom. Vintage, much like Ransom’s Hudson Valley winery, offered locals the opportunity to sample wines from Fork to Finger, where I had my first samplings of Lamoreaux Landing sparkling wine, Standing Stone Riesling, Wagner & the like. Ransom’s concept was a smart one, serving as an all-encompassing ‘New York Winery’ tasting room of sorts, where all wines could be sampled and purchased on the premises. The tasting room abutted a wine bar, carrying a broad spectrum of New York wines to be paired w/ various foods from said state. Smart business plan huh? Well New York apparently didn’t think so, as both Vintage sites in Soho & the Upper West Side eroded to sluggish sales & couldn’t compete w/ rising neighborhood rents. Thankfully the postmortem on Vintage proved the notion not in vain, as the ‘eat local-drink local’ baton has been successfully passed to NY’s Wine & Culinary Center of the Finger Lakes.

Suffice to say my background on the Finger Lakes was hardly extensive, so I did my best to stuff preconceived notion in the trunk as I hit the grape trail, getting my virginal palate acquainted w/ over a dozen new producers during the holiday weekend. I’d figured Hermann J. Weimer would be the top dog, considering the breadth of distribution in the city & previously contented purchases I’d made. Konstantin Frank was sure to be solid, but what of the others? Throw darts at a board, see what sticks. Had I been told an upstart winery that purchases most of their fruit would steal the show I’d certainly question the source. The source, in this case, was my own palate.

The finest winery I visited:

Ravines: While the bulk of Finger Lakes wineries offer a range in styles from bone dry to more than slightly sweet (some even feature a sweetness scale on the side of the bottle- talk about a knee in the nuts to the indecipherables from Germany), but Ravines’ scale would be best dubbed as dry, drier, driest. The winery was started by Morten & Lisa Hallgren, a European tandem from the South of France. Morten’s pedigree is there, coming from a family that owned a 270 acre estate (170 of which were vineyard) called Domaine de Castel Roubine. While Morten’s chromosomal connection is undeniable, his scholastic route, achieving advanced degrees in Enology & Viticulture at Ecole Nationale Superieure d’Agronomie in Montpellier didn’t hurt. Nor did his apprenticeship at Cos d’Estournel in Bordeaux. He finally landed a winemaking job stateside under none other than Konstantin Frank, culminating in the creation of his own label to start the 21st century. Though I’d never tasted nor heard of Ravines Wine Cellars before my trip, they are hardly a local secret.

Truth be told, the wines are nothing short of fabulous. The dry whites merge searing mouthfuls of Chablisean minerality w/ smoky flint notes reminiscent of Pouilly Fume. Ravines Riesling is an Old World palate’s dream. Morten’s staff was pouring ’06-’08 vintage, smartly holding back enough stock to demonstrate the benefits of ageing to consumers (not to manipulate demand a la Bordeaux). The ’06 vintage, a lean year that had its share of problems w/ dilution, had a nose of pure diesel & smoke. The palate was trim, yet subtly layered in dried honey, gun-flint, chive & lime notes, reminding me a bit of a Francois Cotat Sancerre. The ’07 showed contrasting ripeness, w/ dried pineapple, crushed rock & an unnamable Chablisean character. The frame was gossamer, w/ high toned fruit flavors that sailed on and on. The ’08, a tightly coiled embryo, seemed chiseled out of stone, w/ hay, floral and green fruit flavors contracting through the taut, firm finish. The gem of the collection, a single vineyard designated Riesling, comes from the Argetsinger plot. The ’08 was a full bodied, opulent, mineral-rich Riesling. Brooding, wrapped in a penetrating core of ginger, lemon peel, key lime and stone fruit flavors that seem backward to the point of intimidation, yet structurally impressive. This on'es built for the cellar. The ’08 Sauvignon Blanc was a touch angular, yet beguiling in its own right. The flinty nose of grass, savory herb, grapefruit & lime expanded & grew in complexity as the wine warmed. The inner-mouth perfume was a ricochet of scent, fleshing out a bit on the finish. The ’08 Pinot Gris was just bottled and suffered accordingly, though its honeysuckle & melon notes were round, juicy & ample, in spite of being bottle-shy.

I’d said previously that Pinot belonged in Finger Lakes fizz, well it doesn’t do a terribly bad Rose either ;) The winery was still pouring their ’08, a soft nose of berry and briar turning creamy and well textured in the mouth, finishing w/ a snap. The ’08 Pinot Noir was easily the most impressive offering I’d had during my tastings and also one of the lightest in color. The succulent nose of bing cherry, flowers and underbrush was a kinky display. The entry was sappy, middle-weight in presence & pushed by soft, gentle tannins. The ’07 Cabernet Franc was stellar, perhaps the best of the trip. A meaty, seared edge dominated the aromas, but the palate was all polish, tugged by a tarry, graphite grip on the finish. The Meritage, an ’06, was a long, red-fruit flavored Claret-doppelganger, keen on verve and finesse.

While the ambient conditions make Meritage blends & Pinot Noir somewhat challenging in the Finger Lakes, Ravines displays a deft touch w/ all varietals. The reds distinguished themselves in terms of balance, energy & superlative texture, yet the Rieslings stole the show & are arguably the best bone-dry Rieslings versions in the state, if not the country. I'm betting on door number 1 and number 2, Chuck. I’m hardly an advocate of wine clubs (I can count the number I belong to on the fingers of one hand), yet the 20% off the already modestly priced Ravines line-up made it impossible to resist. 14 bucks and change for Riesling this good is something worth shouting about, particularly for fans of Alsace, Clare & Eden Valley Riesling.

Wine Rating
Rose ’08 87 points
Dry Riesling ’06 90 points
Dry Riesling ’07 92 points
Dry Riesling ’08 91+ points
Argetsinger ’08 93 points
Sauvignon Blanc ’08 90 points
Pinot Gris ’08 87 points?
Pinot Noir ’08 87 points
Cabernet Franc ’07 90 points
Meritage ’06 88 points

*As I’ve already drunk a case of them I do offer one bit of serving advice:
Decanting is a must & they show best when they’re a bit warmer than fridge temp.

Other top producers to follow...

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Finger Lakes Region Report, I'm Hearing Great Things

‘Hey, I’m hearing great things about the Finger Lakes,’ spoken by the collective ‘they.’ Sure, I’d tasted a bottle of Konstantin Frank or two, but embarrassingly had never visited. Summer heat finally drove me to the car, down past the paper trail of Scranton, PA’s ‘The Office,’ north bound to Ithaca, the tail of Cayuga Lake, where all the smart Cornell kids dwell.

From a zoologist-in-the-sky eye view, the fingers themselves are more like salamanders, accompanied by various thumbs and toes. Facing north, Cayuga Lake forms the right hand’s ring, Keuka Lake the index & Seneca Lake offends as the middle finger. You best bring your driving gloves unless you plan on toting a canoe along (or pink paddleboat, for the manly men) as the lakes are long, undulating bodies that are not traversable by car. I chose to wedge myself on the southwest corner of Seneca for the beginning of the trip, as the bulk of the wineries I’d planned on visiting lie on the southeast & western segments of Seneca. For some reason I ended my trip in a town called Canandaigua, just north of Canandaigua lake- a lake I called ‘Chicamacomico’ throughout the trip because I couldn’t remember nor pronounce Canandaigua. This proved to be an idiotic move, as Canandaigua is about as convenient to the wineries as it is to Buffalo.

Geographically speaking, the Finger Lakes aren’t really near anything. That said, they’re also not terribly far from what seems about anywhere either. It takes around about 4 hours to get from the Finger Lakes to Pittsburg, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York City & what seems like just about anywhere else in the Northeast. This ‘somewhat remoteness’ contributes to the allure of the lakes, which are broad and beautifully maintained. Seneca is choked by vines on hillsides that drape the water east to west, cradling the lake for reflective heat. The vines naturally freeze in the winter, producing thick, vibrant dessert wines that garner just about the only premium prices you’ll see from the region. The land, with soils ranging from loam to gravel to slate, must be dirt cheap (no pun intended) relative to the vineyards of the North & South Forks of Long Island, giving the region a huge pricing advantage. I poked and prodded but never really got an answer to the question when I asked ‘so, how much cheaper is the land up here?’ A 30 dollar lunch for two at a spectacular microbrew called the Wildflower Cafe in Watkins Glen, as in Nascar & Indy Car Watkins Glen, told me all I needed to know about land prices. Are you sure you charged us for 4 beers, an appetizer and two sandwiches?

While just about every strain of popular vinifera imaginable is grown in the Finger Lakes, my real motivation for visiting was to gauge their take on Alsatian varietals (Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer- I think every single winery I went to makes a Gewurztraminer). That said, a quick word on the reds & stray whites:
  • Chardonnay was eh. Most of the examples I tried were mercifully unoaked, yet banal. To my way of thinking this grape is best served in sparkling wines when grown in Finger Lake soils. While I have high hopes for the region’s potential in the fizzy department, it still seems a bit behind in comparison to top sparklers from Wolffer, Lenz and the like from Long Island.
  • Sauvignon Blanc- though not nearly as widely planted as Chardonnay, Sauvignon seems to do exceptionally well upstate, with top examples showing Pouilly Fume-like notes of smoke, flint & citrus fruits, backed by bracing acidities. Some may be a bit severe, yet the bulk of my tasting revealed most versions carry plenty of flesh atop their bony structures.
  • Pinot Noir- don’t go there, just don’t. Each Pinot I tried (save for Ravines, which is a producer talented enough to make a Charbono from the Finger Lakes palatable) was boring, bitter or bad. Maybe the talent and persistence of the region will prove enough to tackle this grape, but is it really worth the effort when you can devote your energies to WORLD CLASS Riesling?
  • Blaufrankisch, the surprise of the trip. Granted, I’d only tasted a handful, but there’s undeniable potential here. I may have slight label bias, thinking latitudinally (Germany, Alsace & Austrian grapes seem to do so well here, why wouldn’t this one?), but the examples I’d had were undeniably good and, more importantly, unique. The one problem- they call it Lemberger here. Reason being- Blaufrankisch is a weird name, no one can market such an oddity, yet Lemberger is way too phonetically similar to stinky cheese for it to sell either. I hate Catch 22’s.
  • Cabernet Franc- while not quite on par w/ the North Fork as of yet, I saw nothing but promise from the producers dedicated to Franc. There’s been some interesting research at Cornell demonstrating that pyrazines (the unwelcome component implicated in the bell pepper phenomenon of Cab Franc) can be greatly minimized by leaf pulling early in berry development. Managing the canopies a few days before methoxypyrazine accumulation ramps up (roughly 30 days post bloom) seems to do the trick. Several Californian Franc producers have dealt w/ pyrazines by burying them under layers of ripe fruit, but the Finger Lakes aim is to nip them in the bud before they get cookin’ in the first place.
  • Other reds- I wish were a smaller focus, not to say there weren’t a couple solid examples of Meritage blends, but again- the Alsatian varieties are SO good upstate that I fanatically believe the bulk of the land, enological talent and time should be dedicated in their direction as much as possible. I do understand and empathize w/ the notion that the region is relatively young, experimenting and has their own agendas (far more important than mine!) to manage, but I’d be remiss to not mention that the potential greatness to be found in a Finger Lakes Riesling or Gewurztraminer is likely to be marginalized by a diffuse portfolio. Fair or unfair, it may be an unwelcome perception that stunts the region’s growth.

As for the top wines of the region, the styles vary from dry to semi-dry to semi-sweet. Fans of Mosel Riesling will likely find the semi-sweet wines of the Finger Lakes to be almost trocken (dry) by relation, as the alcohols trend well over 12 percent and the acidities are almost uniformly brilliant, RS or no RS. When there’s a bit more sugar to go around, these wines wore it exceptionally well. To generalize, Alsace, Clare/Eden Valley & Austria are better comparators, w/ Finger Lakes Riesling at its best showing an uncompromising severity akin to a Grosset Polish Hill or Trimbach Cuvee Frederic Emile (I’m not exaggerating on either front, fans of said wines will love a top Finger Lakes Riesling). The characteristics for drier Riesling varies from smoky slate & petrol aromas to subtle floral, citrus blossom notes & possess an near-impaling sense of cut. Off dry versions give you the classic peach, apricot and lime notes, yet are not short on nervy malic acidity to keep things fresh, focused and lithe. I was particularly impressed with how intensely mineral-driven the wines were as a whole, leaving me to believe that there’s no area in the US that churns the Old World mineral gear as it does here- at least not that I can think of.

Gewurztraminer & Pinot Gris can be exceptional in these conditions as well, with the former achieving more consistency in terms of quality than the latter. The best Gewurztraminers have explosive bouquets of rose water, apricot and lychee, with dense, rich midpalates & spicy finishes. The only gripe w/ Gewurztraminer was that some of the wines lacked depth & were a tad trim for my tastes; but all in all, there really wasn’t a bad Gewurz to be found (that is unless you loathe the grape all together, making this paragraph a non-event). The Pinot Gris tended to be either over-oaked or neutral, though a couple shining examples demonstrated that honeyed, gorgeously bright profile which brought Domaine Weinbach to mind. As an aside, I did not taste a Gruner Vetliner, but I can only imagine it would flourish in such an environment- latitudinally speaking.

I was a bit shy w/ the dessert wines, as that’s an area I tend to be too easily seduced by. Call it my fruity pebble palate- growing up on artificially sweetened snacks has rendered me a bit anxious in terms of offering anything of value in that department. That said, a few of which were too remarkable to not include in my tasting notes & I will attempt to do the wines a modicum of justice.

Tasting notes & producer impressions are to follow. I’ll give the most coverage to what I considered to be the top 3 producers. I will spill the beans on one thing- I joined one mailing list (I belong to all of 3 or 4, including the obligatories) and I’m already back to order more- the wines are so inexpensive and so damn impressive that I was actually giddy in the tasting room.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Rhone Ranger Relay, Hospice du Rhone

  • Samsara: The only winery visit I made on my way up to Paso (outside of the BBQ extravaganza jackknifed between Pisoni vineyard & a turbulent bump of lunar road). These wines are a bit of a personal project from Chad Melville, whose namesake winery’s line is made by Greg Brewer. The stylistic choices are certainly inspired by Greg- dumping inordinate bunches of kindling into the fermenters (upwards of 40% whole cluster) & practicing abstinence when it comes to commercial yeast. The whole line is Pinot Noir & Syrah, drawing from Mencocino to supplement the Santa Rita Hills based bottlings. The 2 Pinot Noirs I tasted, the ’06 Ampelos Vineyard & ’08 Melville, both emphasize dusty notes of chalk, sea salt & moist earth in their aromas. The Ampelos was a rounder wine, buttressed by soft texture and a long, fresh finish resonate of autumn leaves & berries. The Melville was the weaker of the bunch, as its violet & plum core turned a bit desiccated on the finish, as hints of dried fruit crept into the aftertaste. 90+ & 87 points respectively. The Syrahs took the cake for me, beginning w/ the ’06 Alder Springs from Mendocino, displaying brawn & bite. The flavors were unique, spectrally blue & almost mulberry driven, whistling in a sweet tobacco and anise note on the big-boned finish (91 points). The ’07 Verna’s Vineyard, a site I’m more accustomed to sampling Viognier from, was a cool breath of fresh air, feminine & svelte, w/ a red fruit profile that flirted on the strawberry end of the spectrum (not dissimilar to that of Arcadian). The bright, rose-petal driven finish really turned on the salivary faucets (92 points). The finest Syrah of the bunch was the ’07 Ampelos Vineyard, truly fascinating in its seething, rocky texture. The flavors of black raspberry, cola and pepper were sprayed over a chalky backdrop punched by snappy tannins & a long, kinky finish (93 points).

  • Gramercy Cellars: The John Lewis Reserve Syrah in ’07 is an outrageously powerful, impressive Washington Syrah (when this state gets Syrah right it doesn’t get much better for the New World persuasion). The concentration & depth of fruit carried this cuvee, from vintage to vintage, though the tarry ’06 was the shallowest of the bunch. A barrel sample of ’08 demonstrated terrific texture for such an embryonic Syrah, already laced in layers of pure, suave, polished fruit that is sure to please palates the second it reaches retail shelves.

  • Herman Story: Russell From continues to axe his way through the vineyard, complete with Paul Bunyan flannel, grizzly face fuzz & easy going grin. Stylistically, the wines have behemoth girth, blasting you with flavor & wearing as much oak as they damn well please. Personally, I find oak & Grenache to be a match made for divorce, yet Russell’s ’08 is the first vintage where I found the wood relegated to shadow puppetry. The wine is all about pure fruit, round, lush, explosive. Varietal recognition is secondary to fruity bliss. The Casual Encounters, an inventive co-fermentation of equal parts Grenache, Syrah & Mouvedre, showcases the experimental side of things in the cellar, but the end result is the same- she’s one big, spicy bitch. Those that can sit on subtlety & swallow their tender sensibilities will find Herman Story’s wines to be as endearing & snug as a black bear hug.
  • Hug Cellars: I’d communicated w/ Augie Hug intermittently through the cyber waves, but this was the first I’d met him in the flesh. He’s a wonderful man, with a soft grin & sugar-sweet disposition. His wines struck me as a bit of a cross between Jim Clendenon & Villa Creek, as they emphasize an almost Burgundian sensibility w/ earthy, stylish spice notes. The ’06 Cedar Lane Viognier maintained fine proportion, avoiding the hysterical highs or flabby lows seen w/ this grape in Califonian soil. A real tangerine character tugged at the palate, freshly wrapped in a balanced fist. The El Pape, a GSM Central Coast blend, was one of the more feminine, strawberry-inflected expressions you’ll see from a Grenache dominated blend. Proportion, proportion, proportion…if weighed on a scale its body mass index would be smack dab in the middle of ‘ideal.’ The ’07 Mourvedre, sourced from the Santa Barbara Highlands (not to be confused w/ Santa Lucia), had an exceptionally bright citrus tone to its chalk, briar and white pepper notes whose rusticity was complemented by sheer gentility. Sound like any Mourvedre you know? ‘She’ was one of a kind, perhaps the Crying Game transvestite of Mourvedres, which I admittedly fell for. El Jefe, an ’08 GSM blend, showcased Syrah at a louder volume than the rest, with its peppery blackberry notes forming the flesh above the lush belly of warm milk chocolate. A long tug of dark fruit sneaks up on the finish, boding well for the cellar. The ’07 Cedar Lane Syrah was a terrific tactile experience, letting iron, pepper and chalk dust notes into the fold. The ashy, slate-like mineral impression left on the palate was like no other Californian Syrah I could recall, save for Edmunds St. John. The ’08 El Grande was just as it sounds, a purple fruited, more Paso Robles-like Syrah w/ a mouth-full of sun-baked primary flavors. The least ‘Hug-like,’ as I wrote that this seemed if it came from another winery, yet its creamy textured seamlessness made it entirely gulpable. I finished off w/ El Maestro ’08, an 80/10/10 split of Grenache, Mourvedre & Syrah (a common theme, chez Hug). Augie seemed to know my palate well enough to serve this one up at the end, as it was yin & yang, essentially the chiaroscuro of Grenache light & dark (who’d a thought I’d bust out a chiaroscuro in Grenache description? Thank god for Freshman English). Input your paradox here: Lush, yet seriously biting. Spicy, yet soft. All in shades, a doppelganging chameleon in shadows. To me, Augie’s Grenache has the potential to match up w/ the best in the state (which is high praise from me), but I think this particular blend was so compelling because it was seasoned brilliantly: by just the right amount and just the right type of supporting cast. Well done, and for those like myself that have a penchant for whole cluster, wild fermentation, Hug cellars is more than worth the gustatory trek.

  • Cabot Winery: What is a Humbolt county and what planet is it on? Who’d a known? - A winery that carries its own appellation flag, no neighbors in sight. Unique dirt, the footprints all John & Kimberly Cabot’s. For the record, I felt like I was the ‘last to know’ in terms of Cabot vineyards (as they’ve establish a cult-wine bulletin board following of sorts via typed word), but for those in the dark like myself, Humbolt county is in the far Pacific Northwest portion of California, North of Mendocino & well on its way to Oregon territory. John & his wife Kimberly planted 12 acres of organically farmed Syrah (& sparse Viognier is dusted throughout for co-fermentation of the red blends) in 1998 and 2003. The breadth of their vineyard acerage is hamstrung by minimal availability, mainly due to dense forestation & sprawling mountain ranges that rule the Humbolt lands. From the couple vintages that I sampled through I quickly noticed a familiar theme. Tar, gravel, bramble; tar, gravel, bramble. The signature bouquet. The ’07 Humbolt County Syrah was the most floral of the bunch, awash in tapenade, soy & spicy flavors that were still a tad taut & lean, but finished strong w/ good palate penetration. The ’06 Kimberly Syrah, lifted by 5% of co-fermented Viognier, was as tarry and brambly as they came, w/ a firm, sinewy grip that finished w/ the essence of dusty pebbles. Back to ’06, an Aria’s Syrah in two faces. The first of which was brought up in 6-10 year old barrels & underwent a 50% whole cluster fermentation. The peppery, suave palate was crammed w/ dark berries, hot stones & freshly paved road tar, cloaked in a velvet robe, finishing suavely. The counterpoint, an ’06 Aria for 30 months in old barrels, was a softer, more delicate wine, w/ licorice inflected red fruit notes. This was easily the most gentle of the bunch, lacking the Cornas-like brawny tannins of the more traditionally aged Syrahs. The star of the show, an ’06 aptly named ‘The Bacon Fat,’ was a powerhouse, amped by a wealth of fruit & notes of tilled soil, violet, cola & steamy pork grizzle fresh from the pan. A full bodied mouthful of beefy, chewy Syrah seared in a rocky edge & framed by firm tannins. The Cabots have really got something here & it will be a fascinating project to follow as they continue to unearth new enological ground.
  • Tercero: Larry Schaffer’s baby, Tercero, is a project from one of California’s staunch Grenache advocates who ascended to his own label by way of Fess Parker. Larry’s a passionate, yet empathetic and oddly magnanimous producer that tends to observe all sides closely before weighing in personally. His wines seem to share that similar measured sensibility about them, avoiding the dogma & obfuscation found in the triple-D top heavies or the enamel vaporizing emaciated pH rides. While Larry cheated a bit, dropping in a Gewurztraminer here and a Petite Sirah there during an exclusive Rhone-for-all (house rule my friend, consider yourself HDR hand-cuffed), I thought that his line-up acquitted itself well, particularly when considering the breadth of his project (he seems to make nearly as many wines as Tablas Creek). The big wines- big in good taste, well tailored & HGH free (the Petites were anything but, yet were honest & more about structure than bombastic fruit). The smaller wines- had pH levels well past 2, were full-flavored & generally avoided the ‘I’m small and I’m proud’ Napoleonic complex that plagues wines of certain stature fighting out of their weight class. The Gewurztraminer & Grenache Blanc, two delicious favorites, both were textbook, varietally crafted examples. The Gewurz was sheer rose water & lychee, complemented by a bright spine seen in the better examples of Anderson Valley renditions. The Grenache demonstrated that bright honeydew melon belly, w/ crunchy acidity & a bit less overt sweetness than the popular, becoming somewhat-too-pricey Curran version (of Sea Smoke fame). The Tercero Rose was pure strawberry & chalky lime, w/ an ample, plump frame giving it a bit more culinary flexibility at the table. The Watch Hill Grenache ’07, which Larry notes includes some stems, showed notes of pipe tobacco, briar and crushed berry fruit that filled out a succulent, atypically opulent palate. While more muscular than most, it is as soundly recognizable a Grenache as any from the Golden State (which is no small feat). The Mourvedre immediately became one of my favorite New World examples (alongside Tablas & Villa Creek’s), smelling of enough raw beef, animal fur, leather & pepper to choke a Bandol horse (that is of course if Bandol is home to members of the Equine persuasion). In spite of its fungal, funky fumes, the attack is spry and unfurls a juicy core of fruit, peppered w/ copious amounts of gentle tannins. The ’07 Larner Syrah had all the forward, chocolaty fruit one comes to expect from the vineyard site, wound in hot blackberry sauce & anise notes. The tannins are polished and dissolve on contact, leaving the wine w/ an easy to drink sensation on the back of the tongue. While tasty, I’m finding that Larner Syrah tends to be a bit pedestrian in terms of dimension & complexity- not discrediting the quality of fruit, but perhaps its dynamism. The ’07 Thompson Vineyard Syrah was a big ball of mouth-filling, purple fruit, finding a firm landing on the chocolaty finish. As the Petite Sirah entered the line-up, the sense of dark heft brooded over the wines one by one. The Climb, half Petite from Rodney’s Vineyard (a Fess Parker site) and the other half Syrah from Thompson’s, was a decidedly chunky, substantial red showcasing fruit of a deep nighttime shade. The force behind the ’07 Climb felt like a pile-driver, ending on a warm ganache & slate note. The ’07 Petite Sirah could only be dubbed as a ‘structure bomb,’ lambasting other such members in the category to shrivel in shame. While embryonic & a bit distorted in volume, the searing finish resonates w/ promise. To my palate, the ’08 Petite had a much more alluring floral character, fleshing out attractively as it unwound (but don’t get me wrong, it’s firmly in the burly camp). The Thread ’07 was inviting, w/ sweet licorice notes wrapped in a fine, muscular spine. The Loco, a 50/50 blend of Grenache & Syrah, wound out the Tercero portfolio w/ nice balancing tension between the softness of the Grenache & the tug of the Syrah.

  • Red Car: Fans of Saxum should definitely take a spin in the Red Car, as the Syrah shares a common ‘rainbow of fruit’ like thread. The ’08 Estate, which I believe comes from a Sonoma site adjacent to the Hirsch vineyard, is as silky smooth as they come. The fleshy mid-palate unwinds its layers of hidden spice, brine & kaleidoscopic fruit over a pillowy bed of tannins that are soft as couch cushions. The Cuvee 22 slides up and down a blue-purple teeter totter of fruit in vivid, almost glossy coats, kicking in that welcome spice note on the easy finish.
  • Arnot Roberts: Wineries like Arnot Roberts stir the pot so beautifully, ablating objective truths with each spin & flicker. Brewer Clifton, a winery which I unabashedly admire and regularly inflame my hepatic organ w/, primarily achieves such high alcohol levels to allow the stems enough hang-time to lignify (turn woody), as the wines are all whole cluster. From a whole cluster apprehension-o-meter standpoint- bitter, vegetal stems are as much of a bummer as goopy cream in tepid coffee. Arnot Roberts, who also goes the whole cluster route, takes a paradoxically different approach, throwing the concept of lignification right through a UC Davis grade wood chipper. Their wines are so low in alcohol that producers in Cote Rotie might even tease them for it (just imagine a European encouraging a California producer to chaptalize their wine to increase the alcohol; the bizzaro-world indeed). The Clary Ranch, Hudson North Block, Griffins Lair ’08 Syrahs range in alcohol from 11.5% to 12.2% to a titanic 13.4% (the Alder Springs vineyard apparently has done a bit of heaving lifting). Ironically enough, the winery almost uses the alcohol levels as a selling point, perhaps hinting that the counter-cultural de-alcoholization revolution is afoot. Super-sized foods, biceps, mammary glands, buildings, bank rolls, cinema budgets, viscera, waist bands, blood sugar, etcetera have all become so disgustingly stereotypical that they’re inching they’re way to taboo, is alcohol too far behind? While I can hardly imagine a plastic surgeon’s pile of breast augmentation charts to be surpassed by reduction requests for said organs anytime soon, I do look at low alcohol California reds as a bit of a groping towards equilibrium. All that conjecture aside, the wines from Arnot Roberts seemed to have no problem achieving phenolic ripeness, regardless of their weenie alcohols. The wines are intensely bright, littered in aromatic complexity so varied & vivid that they seem to be originating from multiple species. The Green Island & Bea Ranch North Coast Chardonnay, a bootlegged bottle in-HDR-cognito, had all the tang of green tea, backed by lemon candy, bitter chalk dust, sea salt & honeydew notes. It was refreshing enough to be named as the honorary palate cleanser of the event- just what the nurse practitioner ordered after sampling all ‘em inky Rhones. I joked that you could measure how far away you could smell the wine from the glass as an alternative to counting seconds on the finish (ie: ‘I could smell the wine 20 feet away’ instead of ‘it had a 45 second finish’), that should keep the numbers geeks in check. As for the Syrahs, they are not short on beloved funk & arguably have enough range to match up to anything from fish to filet. I found the Clary Ranch to be the most compelling, so light in weight yet dense in flavor, packing enough zip to please even the most jaded lover of Muscadet. As the wines progressed to Hudson & Griffin’s bottlings I found that the more alcohol they had, the less distinctive they were. Less is more- perhaps reverse osmosis isn’t far behind? Research the anatomy of a wine long enough and you’ll be left w/ more questions than answers.

Odds & Ends:

  • While Grenache still struggles to find its footing in California, some of the successes I’ve seen come from (in addition to the producers already mentioned): Beckmen/Kaena, L’Aventure’s Cote a Cote, Alban, Stolpman, Copain & Villa Creek. There’s more than one way to skin & Grenache, and California’s spotty success includes dense, beefy examples as well as spry styles of the more red-fruited variety.

  • Tablas Creek, arguably the preeminent producer of Rhone Ranger wines in California, deserves additional mention for their influence on winemaking, plant material & could easily be dubbed as the pioneers of Paso. In addition to the obvious, the trend to team Californian know-how w/ French sensibility seems to continue to gain steam, as evidenced by the growing number of joint venture projects in the Rhone Ranger realm.

  • Arcadian’s Syrahs could be the antidote for weaning Pinot Noir lovers off their expensive habit. Joe’s ‘Pinot lover’s Syrah’ possess such delicacy and finesse that they could easily be confused w/ a wine of the Burgundy persuasion if tasted blindly. Fans of crunch acid, red fruit dominated Syrah owe it to themselves to taste Arcadian’s entire line-up, beyond the Pinot and Chardonnay.
  • Foxen, a winery that’s about as rangy and unpretentious as they get, make terrific Rhone Ranger inspired wines at the heart of their portfolio. Their beefy, chewy Syrahs tend to get the most critical praise, but don’t miss the well crafted Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre blend (Cuvee Jeanne Marie, Williamson Dore Vineyard).

  • Harrison Clarke, a new winery for Syrah loving fans to pay close attention to, has recently latched onto a terrifically exposed limestone patch atop the Ballard Canyon Road (well past Stolpman & Larner Vineyards). Roger Harrison, a South African native, has brought on Sashi Moorman, local consultant extraordinaire, to make the wine for his namesake winery. The cuvee Charlotte Syrah, from the aforementioned contiguous limestone plot, is one of the most structured, dense & layered Syrahs I’ve tasted from the ’07 vintage- keep an eye out for this one.

  • The quality of these top producers was almost uniformly excellent, save for my folly of slipping in a few tastes from Rosenblum Cellars. Not to belabor any abject criticism of the winery for the few bottlings they poured at HDR, but all that can be said of the profile of said botttlings is that they tasted of alcoholic fruit punch, with all the characteristics one would expect from fermented Concord grapes. If that is what they’re aiming for, they’re better served sourcing their fruit from the Grand River Valley in Ohio, from vineyards that likely do a better Concord (Niagra, Catawba, pick your poison) than Rosenblum does an imitation Concord, and I’m certain land out there is dirt cheap compared to California. No offense to people that dig jug juice, but they shouldn’t have to pay California prices for it, much less deal w/ the faux-Syrah labeling subterfuge.

Hospice du Rhone: Misc notes from CDP to Cote Rotie

The following impressions were collected over a couple two hour walk around sessions during the Hospice du Rhone. Considering the environment, my propensity to babble on w/ winemakers & the frenetic pace of each event, my notes aim to capture a bit broader stroke than the typically pedantic wine prose to which you may be accustomed. My penmanship deteriorated as the afternoon’s progressed, as did the content of my impressions. My hopes are that this preface suffices as an adequate apology for the shortcomings of the following:

· Clos St. Jean: In addition to the behemoths that were sampled during the seminar, Vincent poured his ‘08s, a vintage destined for obscurity, caught in the vortex of the ’07-’09 tornado. The Vieilles Vignes showed very well, w/ forward fruit in an immediately complex package. The palate was augmented by a wily spice note & framed by well rounded tannins. If the price is right, the balance of this young wine should provide for great drinking early in the game. The Deus Ex Machina & Combe des Fous suffered a bit from high extraction syndrome- all thrust & not enough raw materials to fill out their stocky shoulder pads. The bittersweet cocoa & espresso notes were there, but each cuvee displayed a level of grit that I had yet to experience from either. ’08 will likely be a year to avoid Clos St. Jean’s luxury cuvees, save for an unlikley discounting freefall.
· Domaine de la Solitude: Perhaps the least represented great producer in my Rhone-centric cellar. My excuse? Idiocy. I plead hollow cranial disease, particularly in regards to the cuvee Barberini, pound for pound one of the most under-rated wines of the appellation. The ’04 showed brilliantly w/ its peppery, velvet textured palate displaying equal sides of grace & power at this stage of its evolution (94 points). The ’07 Blanc was solid (89 points), but a mere afterthought once the elephantine Secret de Solitude ’07 passed my lips. The superlatives were super-elementary and might as well be distilled into recess garbles of ‘totally awesome’ and ‘wicked great dude’ and ‘stuff rocks man’ nonsense, as the overwhelming intensity of the wine battered my dissection of the wine’s characteristics to sophomoric dribble. Gorgeous young trophy wine, and a genuine trophy she is (99 points). The Cuvee Constanza (originated in the ’05 vintage, 100% Grenache aged in 80% tank, 20% wood barrels) demonstrated just how dramatically different the ’05 vintage is from ’07, particularly at this stage in development. The ’05 had a taut, sinewy spine that was wrapped in a great wall of tannin- China style, while the ’07 was an enveloping, lush siren, pillowed impressively in sweet Grenache baby fat (95+ and 97 points respectively).
· La Nerthe: One of my favorite white Rhones year in; year out has to be from La Nerthe, w/ their ’09 CDP blanc generating all that Chenin Blanc-like character I’ve come to expect from the house. Aromatics of green tea, persimmon and baked apple were backed by a lilting, zingy palate that kept freshness at the forefront (92 points). The ’07 Chateauneuf du Pape Rouge echoed just the reminder I needed regarding the vintage: buy cheap cuvees by the truckload. Just a beautifully poised, round young Chateauneuf du Pape w/ all the depth of flavor you’d hope for in the Cuvee des Cadettes (sans the oak) & a style that likely will be most flattering over the first dozen years of its existence (94 points).
· Domaine de Barroche: The two traditional cuvees from Barroche contrasted the ’08 & ’07 vintages nicely, w/ the ’08 shaded in a floral, elegant frame lifted by easy delineation and harmony. The ’07, on the other hand, blackened to the core, brooding & bubbling over a powerful fist of fruit that trumped the anthropometrics of the ’08 in terms of length & breadth, reminding me how opulence can overwhelm charm at a tasting such as this, like bringing a knife to a gunfight (92 and 95 points respectively).
· Domaine Cristia: The 3 offerings from Cristia were tri-polar, filling out one of the most awkward wine geometries imaginable. The ’06 Vieilles Vignes, a pure Grenache cuvee, must have been the inspiration for Justin Smith’s ‘Rocket Block’ nomenclature, as it was a flat out rocket blast of fruit, rifling through spades of kirsch, fruitcake & sweet licorice notes as if touched off by high energy dynamite. This fantastic, scintillating ride is well worth the amusement park line wait & is simply uncanny for an ’06 (96 points). The Renaissance ’05 was an inevitable drop-off, though I didn’t imagine the drop would cover such ladders of altitude. The wine was a grapey monolithic mess, disjointed at oblique angles and puckered to an astringent clip. I have no idea what was cooking w/ this showing but let’s cross our fingers and toes and chalk it up to ’05 structural awkwardness. Phasic. The Quartz, ’07, had no such excuse, yet was equally awkward in its unyielding, compressed profile that was far too tight-lipped to utter a sound. I do not know if this was a late bottled version, but ‘07s don’t tend to be shy, rather they trend in a 180 degree direction.
o Note. Justin Smith likely did not name his Rocket Block after the Domaine Cristia VV ’06. In fact, it would be chronologically impossible for him to do so, considering his Rocket Block originated before said vintage of said wine was hatched. I have not discussed the naming of Rocket Block w/ Justin during any occasion, past or present. I disclaim everything and fabricate anything.
· Yves Cuilleron: One of Neal Rosenthal’s more modern imports, Cuilleron’s Condrieus have always been impressive w/ their bright, flashy expressions of Viognier fruit, w/ the ’07 Vertige firing on a powerfully opulent angle for the region. What impressed me most w/ Cuilleron is the progress he’s made w/ his Northern Rhone reds, as his Saint Joseph Serine (an appellation the performed particularly well in ’07 based on these tastings) achieved a confluence of seamlessness & savagery. In spite of its beefy nerve it was wrapped in a burnished texture that made it instantly approachable. As for the Cote Rotie, Terres Sombre ’07, it was a much more backward, cellar-worthy red, with notes of bay leaf & spicy graphite holding sway over its tight tendons of dark fruit. His wines; both white and red, are expressive, plump vixens that cover an opposing stylistic ground to Villard.
· Yves Gangloff: The biggest tease of the tasting came from Gangloff in the shape of a 2 case import, Saint Joseph. Its production & distribution might as well make it a 100 foot plot in some obscure Burgundy appellation, yet Domaine Gangloff had the audacity to pour their diminutively produced bauble at Hospice, which was an ’08 that came damn close in quality & form to the ’04 Chave Hermitage Blanc we’d gulped through at lunch. There’s such limited supply that I doubt I’ll find anyone who’s tasted it to disagree w/ me on its merits, but let me make a not so unobvious plea to the Domaine to either ramp up production (this was their first vintage), extend their reach overseas or simply stop pouring this sauce in places that can’t access it, ie: America. Anyways, the ’08 Condrieu was a sensuous walk through the tropics, with soaring perfume and a lush, apricot inflected palate. The ’06 La Barbarine, Cote Rotie, was an absolute beauty. While I’ve generally considered this vintage to be a bit of a ballerina, this showpiece was loaded, w/ a concentrated wedge of white pepper, mesquite smoke & beefy currant notes that fanned out in long, lush, symmetrical tiers. Out of all the Cote Roties I’d sampled through, this was the most salivatory (next to Ogier), 96 points. The wordplay award goes to team Gangloff for their Santa Barbarine, a Santa Barbara county take on the aforementioned Cote Rotie. Kunin provided the territorial acuity for the project (which I believe is sourced from a vineyard previously owned by Andrew Murray), with the ’07 toeing the line between both worlds Old & New. The nose mixes animal & intensity, with an array of road tar, licorice, cassis & funky unmentionables that neck up & down the spice rack of the kitchen. The round generosity & warmth of the palate is all Santa Barbara, but what really compelled was the outrageous encore, taking shape in a long, multi-dimensional finish which sparked a bitter chocolate bite. The ’06 was even broader & deeper- which could arguably be credited to bottle ageing as much as the distinction between vintages. Gangloff’s dazzling New World joint venture was as much the talk of the floor as any during the big tent tastings at Hospice and deservedly so. I pegged both wines for mid 90’s ratings.
· Francois Villard: Was there a more enjoyable tasting table than Francois Villard’s? Probably not, considering the guy seemingly makes dozens of different wines (all of which rock like a mineral). The ’08 Version, St. Peray, A Marsanne that takes tang to a new level, cackling away w/ green tea, blanched almond & honey notes that cut through the palate like a switchblade, leaving the mouth watering for another sip. The Mairlant, a 70/30 Marsanne/Roussanne blend, picks up the zip where the St. Peray left off, tucking in quite a bit of nuance to its bony frame. Moving to Francois’s Viogniers, the best deal of the house has to be his Les Contours de Deponcins VDP ’08, full of peaches ‘n cream & baked apple flavors that snap up & down the tongue to a fresh finish w/ pronounced clarity & drive. The diamonds of Villard’s collection come in the shape of 3 Condrieu’s: Deponcins, Les Gran Vallon & Les Terrasses Du Palat. The ’08 group, beginning w/ Les Terrasses, shows the flesh & thickness of a Cuilleron, yet w/ hairpin focus & poise, extending to the long, almost ethereal finish. Les Gran Vallon ratcheted up the depth a bit, yet my favorite of the bunch, the De Poncins, had a crunchy, almost severe minerality that buttressed the sparkling tiers of bright licorice & exotic green fruit flavors (92, 93, 94 points, respectively). Again, the ’07 St. Josephs show that they’re a force to be reckoned w/, as the Reflet proved to be the most dynamic & nimble of Villard’s bunch, showing fascinating tar & spice notes throughout its complex, seamless frame. Not to be outdone in the joint venture department by Gangloff, Villard has teamed up w/ Dave Miner (HDR’s person of the year in 2010) to create ‘La Diligence,’ Stagecoach vineyard picked Marsanne & Syrah wines that are also worthy of a wine-search for Rhone enthusiasts. Tablas Creek was onto something w/ this whole Frenchofornian Paso thing…

As an aside, our sips and slurps stumbled a bit when the Cotes du Rhone girls walked through the room, scantily adorned in black & red sultry-wear, perhaps metaphorically hinting at the formerly beleaguered region’s current sex appeal. Lipstick wearing Grenache blends may be a new marketing trend, aimed to compete globally w/ Australian Kangroos, Cape taboos & Californian tattoos, but I’d be lying if I didn’t mention that they’re designer perfume came off smelling a bit cheap.

I’ll splice in the New World Rhone blends on the next installment, allowing you some time to digest. In totality, wines were universally impressive from either side of the pond, though I do have to couch that appraisal w/ the fact that the Franco-contingency was well represented by almost exclusively top tier producers (and my snobby eyes tend to gravitate to the best).