Archive for the ‘Rating wines’ Category

Worth Dying For? The Executioner 2007

George warned me about this wine.

He (and by “He” I mean George Shinas, owner and winemaker) warned me that I better grab a lot of this wine, because there’s not much of it and it’s the best thing he’s ever made.

That’s saying something, because George makes really good wine. You can read all about it in my other post, “Taking Australia to Court.”

But here’s the story behind his latest creation. Shinas Estates makes three wines at their winery in Victoria, Australia: a Shiraz called “The Guilty,” a Cabernet Sauvignon called “The Verdict,” and a Viognier called “The Innocent.” From the 2007 vintage he left some wine in the barrel after he did his primary bottling, and early in 2011 he blended all three and bottled it as “The Executioner.”

You’re seeing a pattern in those names, right? And if I tell you that George is a criminal court judge, you’ll get it, right?

So The Executioner blends 55% Shiraz, 43% Cabernet Sauvignon and just a touch (2%) Viognier. You may think, “Hmmm, Viognier is a white grape, so what’s it doing in a red wine?” Well, it’s actually quite traditional in France’s Rhone region to blend Viognier with Syrah and other red grapes, and many Aussie winemakers do it, too. Read the rest of this entry »

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A Vanishing Breed: Guy Allion Malbec Le Poira 2009

Raise your hand if you’ve heard of  Malbec.

Now raise the other hand if you think it’s a wine from Argentina.

If you’ve got both hands in the air, you look like a lunatic and you’re only half right.

While Argentine Malbec is taking up more and more space on wine store shelves, the grape actually originated in France, where it was one of the six blending grapes used to create Bordeaux. In 1956 a killer frost took 75% of the Malbec crop in France, and while a small region called Cahors replanted, Bordeaux did not. Nowadays, you’ll find a little Malbec in Cahors, and even less in Touraine, a district in the Loire in northern France.

I found a bottle called Guy Allion Touraine Malbec Le Poira 2009, and I was too intrigued to ignore it. French Malbec is, after all, a vanishing breed, and the researcher in me was keen to see how the flavor profile of this Old World wine would compare to Mendoza’s New World Malbec.

My research showed me, first of all, that Malbec is a thin-skinned grape that ripens even more slowly than Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon. Holy Cow! How could it thrive in the cool climate of northern France? Just imagine how happy the grape could be in the foothills of the Andes mountains, where higher elevations produce tons of radiant heat, warm sunny days and cool nights to develop structure.. Read the rest of this entry »

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A Tale of Two Chardonnays: Part 1 (Cameron Hughes)

chardI like good Chardonnay. Still.

Even though we’re all supposed to be jumping on the New Zealand Sauv Blanc, Gruner Veltliner, and Italian White bandwagon, I still crave my richer, oakier, more hedonistic Chardonnay.

I know it’s not cool! But I still want some oak in my white wine.

Not too much, mind you. I agree that the “chewing-on-a-two-by-four” style of California Chard is way out of balance and not fun to drink. But after years of tasting and reading technical notes I’ve pieced together a “style profile” for my ideal Chardonnay: my Nirvana in a Glass will see only partial ML (malolactic fermentation), and a gentle treatment with French oak — not 100%, and not new barrels.

What will all that get me? A full-bodied but balanced Chardonnay, with richness on the palate, some crispness on the finish, and a little butterscotch along the way. I’ve had some great Chards that fit my profile, and they’re always priced upwards of $25 (try Kenneth Volk Santa Maria Cuvee 2007, or Ortman Edna Valley 2007). But is it possible to get this style for an everyday price?

Apparently it is. I’ve just discovered two California whites that I’d happily drink any day.

The first is Cameron Hughes California Chardonnay 2009, which is part of a new series from the smart California negociant and marketer (you can read my background article on Cam Hughes and a review of his Lot 190 Cabernet:  “The Rise of the American Negociant”.) Until  recently, Cam Hughes wines were marketed in “Lots,” each one a bottling of surplus juice from a respected appellation. Each was a one-time offering and when it was gone, it was gone.

The new “California Series” is a more traditional model: he’ll source his juice from “top vineyards and wineries across California” and each variety will be available vintage after vintage. There are currently two wines in the series, a Meritage and the Chardonnay I tasted. Read the rest of this entry »

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Drink Your Way Through Europe (Without a Passport)

tamasLots of California wineries have jumped on the Pinot Grigio bandwagon. Way too many, in fact.

I have a problem with most West Coast Pinot Grigio, and my problem is that it tastes like anything but. It’s too fruity, too soft, too insipid. And the really cheap ones are too sweet.

So it was a thrill to taste a California Pinot Grigio that tastes like… Pinot Grigio!

This one is from Tamas Estates, a Central Coast winery owned by Wente Vineyards in the Bay area’s Livermore Valley. Tamas Estates seems to have a very specific demographic in mind: they’re aiming at “adventurous people interested in exploring new wines and new places.” I think that means Gen X and Gen Y.The packaging suggests exotic foreign destinations, and their back label slogan reads, “Hop on the Bus for a Multinational Wine Tour.”

Multinational, indeed. As soon as I cracked the cap on my Tamas Estates Pinot Grigio 2009, I was transported to… somewhere else. The nose screamed flint, minerals, and tangy acid. “OK,” I said, “this may not be your typical American white.”

The palate took me a few miles further. There was no rich fruit — no “fruitiness” at all! Crisp, mouth-watering acid led the way, followed by more minerals and slate. I was hard-pressed to find a fruit in here — lime, I guess (or maybe that “Kumquat” I see in wine reviews but never find in my grocery store’s produce aisle). The minerals and slate carryied through the crisp, clean finish.

Oysters anyone? This wine was screaming for shellfish, and I wanted to be sitting in a French cafe or Italian bistro as I sipped my wine and downed my slippery, slimy oysters. The wine style that Tamas has captured is all about northern Italian whites like Gavi or Verdicchio, or even a French Sancerre or Muscadet.

So how can anyone make this style in sunny California? Well, just look at the climate of the Central Coast: it’s not all palm trees and suntans. The region has a Mediterranean climate, with cool ocean breezes to moderate temperatures and very cool nights. This slows the ripening of the fruit, creating complex flavors and good acid.

It makes for a damn fine Pinot Grigio, and at just $10 or so, Tamas Estates is also an affordable one. So put on your favorite beret, and drag out that red-checked table cloth. You’ll be speaking Italian in no time. Cheers!

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Great Format, Great Wines: Wente, Murietta’s Well and Tamas Estates

karl wentePart of this story is about The Wonders of Modern Technology.

The other part is about good wine.

I’ll start with the technology part. A few weeks ago I was invited to participate in something called a Twitter Tasting. The invite came from Wente Vineyards, and although I didn’t have a clue what a “Twitter Tasting” was, I was keen to find out, because I’ve tasted and liked many Wente wines..

So our Twitter tasting happened last night, and now I can tell you what it is — it’s a blast! Turns out Twitter has this feature called TasteLive that’s like a video conference call. On my laptop the TasteLive page shows a live streaming video of the folks hosting the tasting, in this case Karl Wente and a young woman from their PR firm. He sipped his way through five wines, commenting on each. And we in the “audience” could comment or ask questions through the Twitter feed. A commentator off-camera read our questions/comments to Karl as they came through, and he replied or commented back. This is a fun and efficient format, and a great use of Twitter. Thanks to the folks at Wente for initiating it.

So let’s get to the wine. We tasted through five wines, and that’s more than I want to review in one post. I’ll look at two today and the others in a day or so.

The first two wines don’t bear the Wente name, because the family also owns Murietta’s Well (also in Livermore, California) and Tamas Estates in the Central Coast. Each winery has its own personality, wine style and price point, so let’s start with the entry level wine.

Tamas Estates is a label that’s designed to come across as “hip and adventurouus,” and I’m guessing it’s aimed at a younger audience. The wines are supposed to be ‘approachable,” i.e. fruit-forward and easy on the finish. The first wine we tried in the Tamas line is very new to the market, and I think is pushing the envelope for California “fun” wines. Tamas Sangiovese Rosato 2010 is a pink wine, and those of us in the wine biz know that 95% of Americans think pink means semi-sweet White Zinfandel.tamas rosato

This is most certainly not a White Zin. It’s made from Sangiovese with a dash of Pinot Noir, and it has real character and class. The color, first, is a deep rose, which indicates slightly longer skin contact than your average American blush. In the glass it’s very pretty, and invited me to come hither. The nose was relatively light at first, suggesting watermelon and maybe a hint of cherry. And thankfully, there was absolutely no sweet edge.

My first sip was lots of fun. The watermelon jumped up and said hello, followed by delicate cherry and strawberry flavors. There was good intensity to the fruit — you didn’t have to hunt for flavors like you do with too many roses. But the best part? There’s a great burst of bright acid around mid-palate that carries all the way through the finish. It keeps this Rosato clean and snappy, and sets it totally apart from all but a few American pink wines. It was a great choice to use Sangiovese to lead this blend, because its natural cherry fruit and high acid seem ideally suited for a good rose.

Another thing I like about this wine is the packaging — it’s vaguely exotic, suggesting faraway places and European origins. It helps differentiate it from the herd of American pink stuff.

And did I mention this Tamas sells for around $10? That’s a deal and a half. I’d certainly recommend it in my retail store as a fun picnic/barbeque/patio summer wine.

Next up is a wine that’s on a different planet from Tamas. The winery, Murietta’s Well, has a great backstory, and dates almost to the beginning of California wine. It seems there was a guy named Joaquin Murietta, who was, depending on which biography you read, a Mexican patriot who helped settle the West or a renegade horse thief. While running his horses down to Mexico sometime around 1850, he stumbled on an artesian well in the beautiful Livermore Valley, just east of the San Francisco Bay. The area became known to the locals as Murietta’s Well, and around 1880 a European immigrant named Loius Mel fell in love with it. He bought 92 acres and planted vineyards with rootstock from Chateau d’Yquem and Chateau Margaux. Not a bad lineage for a winery…

The Wente family, who have been making wine next door for even longer than Louis Mel, got involved around 1930, and ended up taking total control in 1990 when they set out to resurrect the historic Murietta’s Well winery. Their mission now is to create “unforgettable estate blends from California’s Livermore Valley.”

The first blend in our Twitter tasting was Murietta’s Well “The Spur” 2008, which plays a twist on the traditional Bordeaux-style blend. There are four Bordeaux varietals — Cabernet Sauvignon (54%), Petite Verdot (23%), Cabernet Franc (9%) and Malbec (4%), but they’re joined by a classic California grape — 10% Petite Sirah. And that 10% really sets the tone.spur

The color is deep and intense, and right off the cork the nose showed that fleshy, iodine-y thing I get from Petite Sirah. Not that that’s a bad thing! That component calmed down with some swirling, and then the dark fruit started to develop. I got deep Cab aromas like blackberry and blackcurrant, and then the oak started ro suggest itself.

The palate had loads of richness, with blackberry and black currant darkened by some gamy notes. An initial burst of acidity resolved to a soft, sensuous mouthfeel. The oak came into play as the wine sat and developed: caramel and vanilla rounded out the back of the palate, with a hint of exotic spice. Tannins were… not very tannic, so I guess they were well integrated.

This is a pretty hedonistic bottle of wine. It’s a “more is more” wine — not that there’s anything wrong with that! I’d like to drink this again with some rich comfort food (Lamb Stew anyone?). But I can certainly recommend it as a unique and well-made blend.

Thanks again, Wente, and Cheers!

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Melville Estate Pinot Noir 2009: It Takes Two…

melvThe name on this bottle belongs to Ron Melville, who grows mighty fine Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah grapes in the very cool climate of the Santa Rita Hills appellation in Santa Barbara County. The name of the winemakr belongs to another Santa Barbara winery.

But it takes two to tango, right?

Ron is the owner of Melville Vineyards, and he grows and sells wonderful grapes to some of the best names in California wine. Does Jaffurs ring a bell? How about Whitcraft? And what about Brewer-Clifton?

The Pinot Noirs made by these wineries from Ron Melville’s grapes have earned stratospherically high ratings, and command prices upwards of $50 a bottle. So what does Ron do when he wants to bottle his grapes under his own label? He teams up with the best winemaker he can find, who also happens to be one of his customers.

Greg Brewer is one of the leading lights in Santa Barbara winemaking, and arguably makes some of California’s best Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. At Brewer-Clifton, he’s created Pinot’s and Chardonnays that are very Burgundian in style: elegant, well-structured and age-able. Read the rest of this entry »

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Mollydooker Knocks It Out of the Park (Again)

feetGetting to know Mollydooker wines is like getting to know the hottest guy in town — it ain’t easy. He’s a lot more popular than you are, so he can be choosy, and make you wait.

I’ve been trying to get to know Mollydooker wines, but they’re maddeningly hard to get (because they sell out). I can’t find them at all in my home state — I had to have a single bottle delivered like a CARE package from the state next door. It was The Boxer, and it was great, and I wrote a story about it that you can read here.

So I just about jumped out of my skin when I saw not one, but two bottles of Molly Dooker Two Left Feet 2008 sitting on a retailer’s shelf. They went home with me, needless to say, and I treated them to a Rib dinner.sarah sparky

Before I talk about the wine, let me fill you in on the winery. ”Mollydooker” is another one of those wacky  Aussie words, and it means “left-handed,” which describes Sarah and Sparky Marquis. This young couple are Australian wine royalty, having won everything from Australian Winemakers of the Year (several times) to  five, count’em, five 99 point ratings from  The Wine Advocate. They started out partnering with grape growers to create exceptional fruit, from which they made exceptional wines. Some of their early brands include Marquis Philips and Henry’s Drive, both of which win the ratings sweepstakes on a regular basis.

The key to their exceptional wines is the vineyard, with a trademarked process they call the “Marquis Vineyard Watering Programme.” Vineyard canopy management and irrigation are meticulously controlled throughout the season, particularly as they near harvest. Here’s why: As grapes near maturity, their sugar levels shoot up very quickly. That may seem like a good thing, but there’s a catch: to reach their full flavor potential, grapes must also be physiologically ripe. The ripening of the polyphenols and other compounds that produce complex flavors lag behind the sugars, so here’s what they do:

“the Mollydooker team applies water to control the sugar level until the flavor level catches up. Leigh, Sparky’s Dad and Vineyard Programme Manager, tells us, “It’s the range and intensity of the flavor which translates into Marquis Fruit Weight™, and ultimately into the incredibly rich, velvety wines that have become Sarah and Sparky’s trademark.”

Now isn’t that cool? Read the rest of this entry »

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The Tale of Four Juan Gil’s

jumillaSometimes catastrophes are a good thing. Really.

Now before you start saying I’m callous and heartless, let me explain the circumstances. Just over 20 years ago, the region of Jumilla in southeastern Spain was hit (finally) by the phyloxxera epidemic that had long since decimated the world’s vineyards. In case you haven’t met phyloxxera, this little louse ran rampant through Europe a century ago and wrecked havoc on the economies of Europe’s wine-producing countries. Vineyards were replanted, but at great cost to wine producers.

So when Jumilla grape growers saw their vineyards curl up and die, they took a bold approach. They not only replanted, but chose different varieties for their vineyards that promised to produce better quality wine. They also invested in modern technology, so they could produce wines that would compete on the world stage.

And compete they did. Wineries such as Bodegas Juan Gil now earn high ratings, and have been aided and abetted in their penetration worldwide by my favorite negociant, Jorge Ordonez. But more about him later. Let’s look again at Jumilla.

Tucked away in southeastern Spain, Jumilla has a warm continental climate that’s prone to drought. But wine grapes like a warm, arid climate.

The vineyards are situated on a plateau 2000 feet or more above sea level, and grapes like the slightly cooler temperatures combined with plenty of radiant heat. It helps create intense flavors in the grapes. Read the rest of this entry »

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Intensity Without Heaviness: Siduri Strikes Again

siduriI’ve said plenty of nice things about Siduri Pinot Noir, because they just always seem to be knock-down good.  So when I wanted a Pinot for a wine and food pairing dinner, I took a flyer on a Siduri I’d never tasted and that was so new it had (gasp!) no ratings!

Did I dare serve a wine that hadn’t been blessed by one of the Godfathers of the wine biz? This would be crazy behavior for all those review freaks who drink and buy according to someone else’s opinion, but I know Siduri, and Siduri knows Pinot Noir, so I knew I’d made a safe bet.

So lets’s get down to the wine. I chose Siduri Sonoma County Pinot Noir 2009, which was so new that it hadn’t even made it to Siduri’s own website. I checked out the tech notes on the previous vintage (which was, of course, long since sold out), and learned that Siduri’s Sonoma County is usually a blend of  fruit from several vineyards from Sonoma Mountain and the Sonoma Coast AVA. I’ll discover the blend eventually, but the proof, as they say, is in the pudding, and we sure loved our pudding…

The wine I poured showed very youthful, vibrant color and the nose jumped right out of the glass and into my nasal receptors.The intensity of the fruit was clearly obvious, with rich dark cherry, spice and a hint of smoke. The palate didn’t disappoint — sweet berries hit me right up front, followed by hints of cola, tobacco, and more rich berries. The whole thing was wrapped up in a velvet package, with a mouthfeel that was so voluptuous it was almost sinful (almost…).

Here’s the best part: it was intense without being heavy. It never slipped over the line into that, “Is this a Pinot or Petite Sirah” territory. I think this is an indication of masterful winemaking, and that’s why Adam and Dianna Lee, Siduri’s owners/winemakers, been so well awarded over the years.

Clearly, I was knocked out (again) by a Siduri Pinot. I want to taste it again, though, and see what a few months of bottle aging does to it. Hey, I see another wine and food pairing dinner coming on…. Stay tuned!

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A Carmenere of a Different Color: Errazuriz 2008

chileOK, so in my post a few days ago I promised that we’d do our own Battle of the Carmenere’s. If you read that piece, you got a crash course on the history of the grape that’s been called, “the lost Bordeaux varietal.” Of course, it was never really “lost:”  all along it was flourishing in Chilean vineyards, disguised as Merlot. Once it revealed itself to grape growers and the wine world at large, some good varietal and blended wines started happening.

Our first Carmenere, Morande Pionero Carmenere 2009, was an entry-level, bargain buy. Not that there’s anything wrong with that… But it usually dictates the style: you can expect the wine to be lighter-bodied, less complex, and less structured. And you know what? That’s often just what you’re looking for…

But last night we stepped up to a more upscale Carmenere. This one, Errazuriz Single Vineyard Carmenere 2008, is priced almost twice as much as the Pionero (although still under $20), and comes from a winery that’s been producing wines for more than 100 years. Errazuriz is very well respected, too: they get high ratings from Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate and all the big boys. So let’s get to it…

As its name implies, the grapes for this wine are sourced from a single estate vineyard. Does this make a discernible difference? You bet — it’s assumed that the grapes are of higher quality than those used for a blend. The Errazuriz opened with a bright purple color and a tight nose: it seemed to me that this wine is still young and needs more time to develop. By swirling like crazy I got some subtle aromas of red berries and iodine. After more swirling like crazy, I sipped, and the red fruits were there, with some earthiness chasing them around the glass. I still sensed a tightness, as though this thing was hiding its best features.

I was a little frustrated by now: I’d expected to be wow’ed by this wine, because it got a great rating from the Wine God himself. I wasn’t finding this wine to be “mouth-filling and pleasure-bent.” On the contrary, I was working way too hard to pull something out of this bottle.

So I thought about the lost-and-found-again Carmenere grape. In France, it was a blending grape, grown to play its part in the pageant that was Bordeaux. In Chile, it found a second home, and one where the friendlier climate allowed it to reach its potential. But does it really have the potential to carry a wine all by itself? Or should winemakers accept its mission to be a contributing player on a bigger playing field?

Maybe. If this is a great Carmenere, maybe this grape doesn’t have everything I need to create a single varietal that I can love. When it comes right down to it, I’d rather drink the simple but pleasurable Pionero Carmenere, and save myself a few bucks.

But please: if you’ve had a really good Carmenere, send me the name so I can check it out. In the meantime: try Malbec instead??


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