Archive for Red

Nov
11

A Quartet of Cabernet Sauvignon 07-12-17

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Here is a tasting we did recently in our VINO restaurant.

Yes, Cabernet is now being planted throughout the world. It seems to do well in many different kinds of soils & growing conditions. Having said that, finding distinctive, more unique & handcrafted renditions can be quite the challenge. Here are examples of four worth consideration.  Each from a different growing region.  How often do opportunities like this come about? 

2011 Gramercy Cabernet Sauvignon “Columbia Valley”–This is an important wine to consider as Washingston state is primed to really boom in the very near future with Gramercy Cellars being one of the shining lights.   What I learned to really appreciate on my recent trip to Washington state is several things.  The average cost of premium grapes run in the $3,000 to $4,000 per ton range, which is WAY lower than one would pay in Napa or Sonoma valleys.  This translates into less expensive bottle prices.  Secondly, many of the vines, especially in the top vineyards are own rooted AND have some age to them.  Stylistically, I really appreciated the savory edge many, such as this Gramercy, innately have.  I also appreciate how they approach their wines with Old World sensibilities–looking to wineries such as Chateau La Conseillante & Chateau Leoville Las Cases rather Harlan or Bryant Family.   Their 2011 is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, all from the truly iconic Phinny Hill vineyard & saw 20 months in oak, 35 to 40% new.  This wines does have wonderful savoriness & is so very elegant, suave, superbly textured & balanced.  As I had noted in a previous post, superstar Master Sommelier Greg Harrington is the vision & co-winemaker Brandon Moss is the energy.  Kudos guys!

2013 Chateau Aney “Haut Medoc”–Classic Left Bank Bordeaux–“65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc, and 3% Petit Verdot. Located in Cussac Fort Médoc lying strategically between St-Julien and Margaux, where the summer sun is tempered by the cool breezes of the Garonne, and round, polished, gravelly, river stones cover the vineyard”.  I have read somewhere how scientists have said noted that the vines’ roots cannot pick up the minerals & transmit them to the grapes.  Well, if that is true for limestone than they must feel the same about gravel.  So, my question is……then why does this wine smell of gravel? 

2013 Camino Cabernet Sauvignon “Montecillo Vineyard”–A wine to show tasters of the huge potential the Sonoma side of the Mayacamas truly has. This one is 100% Cabernet (planted in 1964), on steep, rocky hillsides, wild yeast fermented & sees 21 months in oak, 50% new.  This is the handiwork of Tadeo Borchardt (who is also the winemaker at Neyers.  I think of it as a real thoroughbred–powerful & full of mojo/character, all done effortlessly so & with no fan fare.  100 cases produced. 

2012 Selene Cabernet Sauvignon “Dead Fred Vineyard”–Classic Napa Valley! 100% Cabernet from the cooler (Coombsville) area of southern Napa Valley Valley. “Just under three acres are planted on soils that range from sandy loam to gravelly and even cobbly loams, with clone 8 Cabernet Sauvignon on St. George“.  Another masterpiece from superstar winemaker Mia Klein. Only 236 cases produced.  I would also like to add, Mia delivers these wines at such amazing prices, when one considers this is premium Napa Valley fruit crafted by a superstar winemaker!!!!  OMG

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Aug
13

Syrah from Washington State

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As you may have heard, I just came back from wine country in Washington state. Yup, eight days of walking the most revered vineyards and talking story with some of the real leaders of what’s happening there. (I am so thankful to all who made the trip so interesting and insightful.)

Early on, Riesling had its heyday.  Since then & now Cabernet Sauvignon based red wines is the most highly acclaimed.  For the future, however, it seems Merlot & Syrah is on the rise there.  On this recent trip it therefore turned out that Syrah was more of the focus for this trip.

We found their top Syrah renditions are unlike those encountered from California, Australia or France. One of the characteristics we really liked was the savoriness each offers.  That’s what inspired this tasting!   We tasted wines from three of the trip’s standout producers….all served BLIND, just for fun. How often do opportunities like this come about? We suggest you jump on the bandwagon early, as this train is ready to just take off.  Tasting wines from these 3 standout wineries will hopefully give you a glimpse of what all of the fervor and hoop-la is about.

2013 Gramercy Syrah “Lower East”–We are so impressed with what Gramercy Cellars and co-winemakers, Greg Harrington and Brandon Moss, are doing in Washington state through their wines. Theirs is a true pursuit of transparency, texture and & balance. The 2013 is 100% Syrah, which combines the freshness and acidity of Minick and Upland Vineyard, sitting at 1300 ft in the Yakima Valley, with the funk and meatiness of the rocks at Stoney Vine and SJR Vineyards in Walla Walla.   16 months in oak, only 10% new. 93 points.  Just so you know, this bottling is typically the entry to their world of Syrah.  With the 2014 vintage Gramercy released at least FIVE different Syrah bottlings–“Lagniappe” (a blend of Red Willow, Forgotten Hills & Minick vineyards)….”Columbia Valley” (northerly Oldfield, Olsen, Old Stones & Les Collines vineyards)…..”The Deuce” (Les Collines & Forgotten Hills vineyards)…..”Forgotten Hills”” (100% from their Forgotten Hills estate vineyard)….and “John Lewis” (100% Les Collines vineyard Block 46).  Each are well worth checking out……for different reasons.

2012 Reynvaan Syrah “The Unnamed”–There is no doubt Matt Reynvaan is one of the top winemaking phenoms of Washington state. This 95/96 pointed Syrah is produced from grapes grown “In the Rocks” estate vineyard & grapes grown in their vineyard in the foothills of the Blue Mountain (co-fermented with Grenache Blanc), which showcases very different character in the wine than that of Red Mountain and the other iconic Syrah sites.  Matt’s wine style is along the lines of those from Cayuse–very lavish, generous, rich, opulent, warm, VERY savory…….with lots of swag.  I noticed Matt did not produce this bottling in 2015.

 2012 Force Majeure “Collaboration III”–A 97 point rated stud! For this vintage, the 100% Syrah grapes come from the highly revered Ciel du Cheval vineyard of the Red Mountain appellation and crafted by Mark Ryan McNeilly & Mike Macmorran both of Mark Ryan winery.  This wine really is a stud–masculine & immense with lots of fortitude & mojo…..along the lines of a Syrah crafted by a Cabernet winemaker.  As I have noted on a previous post, with 2014 & on, Force Majeure will be focusing on making wines from their estate Red Mountain vineyard–which was planted in 2007 on the hillside above Ciel du Cheval & the Col Solare vineyards………AND with Todd Alexander (former winemaker at Bryant Family in Napa Valley) at the winemaking helm.  Yes, we will be witnessing a new era for this winery.

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I should also mention that Syrah is making great strides up in Washington state.

We did a dinner this past January at our Sansei Restaurant in Seattle with Master Sommelier Greg Harrington & wines from his Gramercy Cellars.  Greg is the type of person that looks to excel at whatever he does & has the kind of mind & determination to pull it off.

Since the dinner was held in January, we started working on the pairings in the Fall, months before using wine samples Greg had sent to us.  We all were very taken with his wines, as they were quite provocative, transparent, seamless, well textured & balanced & definitely some of the VERY best we have had from Washington state so far!

What an event!  (you can view the menu & some pictures of a different post–“A Dinner with Greg Harrington of Gramercy Cellars”).

During the course of the dinner, Greg talked about all of what he sees, understands & believes in what’s happening in Washington wine country.  His wines then clearly re-enforced what he was talking about.  It really was quite the experience.  I knew that night I needed to go visit.

The trip was planned.  Unfortunately Greg would be out of town at the time.  Long time friend/sommelier at the world renown Seattle based Canlis Restaurant, Elton Nichols, however, thankfully put me in touch with winemaker Morgan Lee of Two Vintners.  What timing!  Morgan was going to make a vineyard trek around the time I planned to be there, so we hooked up.

Up to this point in my observation, the Eroica Riesling project certainly had gained prominence, as had the Cabernet & Merlot based red wines from producers such as Andrew Will, Cadence, Doubleback, Woodward Canyon, L’Ecole & Seven Hills.  The media certainly had been going gaga over Quilceda Creek, Mark Ryan & Leonetti AND for quite some time.  I was therefore quite surprised that while Morgan made Cabernet & Merlot, his true passion was Syrah.  This was NOT at all what I had expected.

Up to this point I was fascinated with the Syrah based red wines from Gramercy first & foremost, as well as Force Majeure, Reynvaan & Cayuse, just to name a few.  I was even more thankful then tagging along, knowing Morgan was so Syrah enthused & that we would visiting Syrah vineyards.  AND, so serendipitous.

I always feel I can sleep, eat & taste wines at home, but I can’t see vineyards in Hawaii.  So, I was so eager the first morning.  Typically all of my attention is seeing, walking vineyards, hopefully with the respective winemaker.

Our first visit was to the Ancient Lakes appellation & specifically the Evergreen Vineyard.  Planted in 2001 at 1450 feet elevation, 250 of the roughly 450 acres was planted to own rooted Riesling.  These higher elevations help to mitigate the 80 to 100 degree day temperatures with 50 or so degree nights.  The underlying soils is basalt with top soils of wind blown loess.  Driving & walking around in this large site, however, one could readily see “ribbons” of caliche, a white, marine influenced soil.

I cannot help but ask if you are searching to produce a top quality Syrah, doesn’t this soil & cooler growing climate (cool enough for Riesling) spark an interest to ask more questions, especially in terms of suitability for Syrah?

At least, couldn’t it possibly result in a blending component that would add a whole ‘nother dimension to the resulting wine, aromatically, structurally,  character wise & possibly lowering alcohol.  Couldn’t some one just plant 1 to 2 acres just to check it out?

We also went to see Olsen Vineyard in the eastern part of the Yakima appellation.  The vineyard is roughly 1,100 acres planted between 800 to 1350 feet elevation with a varying 5 to 30 degree slopes.  Eventhough the elevation is high, the vineyard looks pretty flat nonetheless, atop basalt bedrock, 18 inches to 3 feet below the loess top soils.  The vineyard produces wonderful Cabernet & Merlot, but this was also the first vineyard I saw Morgan proudly light up when he started talking about the Syrah plantings. 

While there are other vineyards we visited in the general area worth discussing at length, the next real noteworthy Syrah site was the Boushay Vineyard.  Owner Dick Boushay, one of the state’s most iconic & legendary vineyard-ists started planting Syrah I believe in the early 80’s.  His eyes would sparkle when we spoke about Syrah.  And, later, he spent a lot of time tasting & analyzing the 2 German Rieslings AND the 2 French Syrahs I had brought & opened.  He got lost in the wines.  I couldn’t really tell if he was contemplating something of the past, present or future or whether he was assessing the nuances of the wines & comparing them to what he gets out of Washington state wines.  In either case, he took the wines seriously & very thoughtfully, especially the Syrah.  We all talked for hours.  He is a fascinating man to say the least, who I discovered is really fascinated with the Syrah grape variety, eventhough he grows some of the most heralded Cabernet & Merlot  out of the state.  Thank you for the visit.  Sunset was more like 9pm, as we headed to our hotel.

After my first day, I couldn’t help but think…”boy, the vineyards here are large in size & rather flat“.

While Dick Boushay farms in the Yakima Valley & Rattlesnake Hills, I just found out that he has now also taken over the farming of Klipsun Vineyard in Red Mountain.  His comments on the differences between the appellations, especially with Syrah, was an ideal segue to the next day, as we headed to Horse Heaven Hills.  I had previously had visions of steep HILLS.  As we drove to the top, however, it became again quite flat.  A Plateau?  As we drove further & further, I kept wondering why it was called Horse Heaven HILLS. 

Our first stop, however, was the Discovery Vineyard, a 30 acre hillside site which overlooks the Columbia River.  There is 17 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, 6 acres of Syrah & 1 acre of Petit Verdot.  I am sure we were there to check out his Syrah vines.  One could see that Morgan & his team walked with a different bounce to their step at this vineyard.  He was focused on the newer vineyard manager & this time spent in the vineyard together was totally important, especially with some Syrah parcels & its fruit becoming available next harvest AND the specter of new hillside plantings on the horizon!  Yes, this was a Syrah source Morgan was excited about.  AND, when we later tasted a Syrah from this vineyard side by side with a Syrah from this vineyard that another quite acclaimed winemaker made, Morgan’s superior talent & skill was quite evident.  Even the vineyard manager (who also happened to be owner’s son) could see the blatant difference.  His winemaking fit in well with this vineyard’s grapes & created quite a synergy.  4 1/2 hours later……….time well spent.

Morgan dropped me off in Pasco.  It had been a wonderful couple of days….& countless vineyards.  Thank you Morgan!  

The next morning, I was off to meet up with Paul McBride of Force Majeure to see his new plantings on Red Mountain.   Previously Paul worked with fruit from the highly revered Ciel du Cheval vineyard & a collection of very esteemed Washington winemakers—under what they called “Collaboration Series”.  The Red Mountain appellation has roughly 2000 acres planted, & the 110 acre Ciel du Cheval vineyard was planted in 1974 on the lower elevation, seemingly flatter benchland below.  The Force Majeure estate vineyard is 20 acres located on the slopes above Ciel du Cheval vineyard & even above the Col Solare winery on much steeper hillsides, which they planted in 2007.  The soil is wind blown loess atop volcanic basalt AND has a VERY different aspect than the flatter Ciel du Cheval parcel down below.  Interestingly, this vineyard is planted to roughly 50% Bordeaux varietals & 50% Rhone varietals (6 acres of Syrah), all on their own roots.  As good & highly acclaimed as the Force Majeure wines are today, watch what happens over the next 10 years, starting with the 2014 vintage.  

In addition, former Ciel du Cheval vineyard manager, Ryan Johnson is also planting at higher elevations up on Red Mountain.  Extreme sites like this are quite breathtaking, but whose to say the resulting wines will be good?   Still, I plan to keep an eye on this project nonetheless……who will get the fruit & who will make the wines.

The next 2 days were in Walla Walla wine country, riding around with Brandon Moss, co-winemaker of the highly revered Gramercy Cellars.  Where Greg Harrington provides the vision, Brandon provides the energy.  Yes, he is a bundle of passion & unbridled energy.  Wow!  I am so thankful & grateful for his guidance, time, insight & packing so much into the 2 days. 

We start off in the “Rocks”, which interestingly actually crosses into Milton Freewater Oregon.  Steve Robertson is one of the founding pioneers/champions of the “Rocks” appellation & gave us a wealth of information–history, geology, climatically, geographically & where he sees everything headed to.  Rising above his 10 acre “SBJ vineyard” (planted in 2007) is the Seven Hills estate vineyard into higher elevations.  Wow, Rocks are everywhere.  Round cobblestones.  His vineyard is on the western boundary & much warmer than let’s say the Cayuse planting.  Even so, because the sites are low lying, they differently are vulnerable to the cold.  I therefore saw so many vines affected by the “killing freeze”.

When I later tasted the Syrahs from this area, I found them to be very unique & interesting–wonderfully savory, generous, luscious & very warm–which is quite the contrast to the minerally, meaty, higher toned, lower alcohol versions made from cooler sites.  Again, one style is not better, just different & therefore a preference thing.  

From there, we drove to the Northfolk area, which apparently is currently one of the new “hotpots” for grape growing, especially for the Rhone varieties.  Our first stop was the Elevation Vineyard” to walk the site with vineyard manager Ryan Driver.  The 15 acres (planted in 2013) is located at roughly 1700 feet elevation with basalt soils & gusting winds (which means NO frost issues to date) which literally pounds the vines.  The eastern slopes range from 110 degrees during the day to 70’s at night.  The Terraces are more in the 95 degree–daytime & 70’s at night.  They planted at least 9 different grape varieties, but its seems everyone is clamoring for the Syrah (Phelps vine selection), planted 3 feet by 3 feet vine density.  This is certainly a vineyard we will keep an eye on.

On this trip, I found this VERY dramatic hillside is for the most part an anomaly in comparison to the other sites I had visited.  Most of the other noted, revered vineyards, although located at high elevations, sway instead & therefore look rather flat to the naked eye.  Gramercy Cellars, for instance draws Syrah from their 6 acre estate JB George vineyard (850 feet in elevation), which is located by the Pepper Bridge planting; their 8 acre estate Forgotten Hills (1050 feet elevation at the base of the Blue Mountains); Les Collines (1100 to 1400 feet elevation); Old Field (Boushay farmed, 1315 feet in elevation) in the cooler Yakima Valley; Minick Vineyard (1400 feet elevation) near the town of Prosser; Red Willow (1100 to 1300 feet elevation) & their warmest site–Olsen Vineyard (1150 feet) in the Rattlesnake Hills.

Furthermore, the soils are more about wind blown loess, often with basalt sub-soils.  In addition, because the vines are own rooted (it seemed like all, although I am not sure), it appears to be a slow process to try & bring in any new vine material.  (I certainly wouldn’t blame anyone for the caution).

The point being, the Force Majeure estate & Ryan Johnson Syrah plantings on Red Mountain; the “Rocks”; Matt Reynvaan’s planting at 1600 feet elevation in the foothills of the Blue Mountains & the extreme Elevation Vineyard in Northfolk I surmise are the inklings of a new era in Washington for the Syrah grape variety as the vines get older & older & are followed by subsequent plantings.

This will most likely create other challenges, specifically costs for one.  Imagine buying vineyard sites at today’s prices?  Then the cost of planting meter by meter (or even denser) today, AND on these VERY rocky hillsides?  Then imagine the cost of farming (& harvesting) the radical parcels of the Elevation Vineyard versus the costs for the seemingly “flatter” vineyards?  Where I found the costs for grapes in the more western areas (such as Yakima, Rattlesnake Hills, Horse Heaven Hills &  Wahluke Slope) to be surprisingly low in comparison to what I hear from California, the looming question is what will happen in the future?

Stay tuned………

Categories : General, Red, Wine, Wine Thoughts
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In California, by comparison, the evolution & progress forward has been slow for the Syrah grape variety.  It has been like anxiously waiting for the sun to finally rise, but seemingly in slow motion & seemingly an eternity.  I often wonder if the process also took so long in the Rhone Valley.

By the late 80’s, on the California front, I already was working with the wines from Qupe & winemaker/owner Bob Lindquist.  His wines at that time were quite delicious, intriguing, well textured, balanced, food friendly & I loved selling them & then watching people’s faces smile from their pure enjoyment.  While these wines certainly deserved a place on a winelist, Bob’s real shining moments of glory really started when his custom Z Block hillside planting (planted in 1992) started coming into its own.  OMG, what a profound difference!

While I also tasted & appreciated the efforts from Joseph Phelps, McDowell, Edmunds St John & other prominent Syrah-ists, of the time, to me, Bob Lindquist & his Qupe Syrahs really stood out the most.  In the early 90’s there were a couple of estate Syrah bottlings from Bryan Babcock which also caught our attention.  Where Qupe crafted more elegant, refined, suave & well balanced renditions, Babcock’s were much more masculine, hearty & ruggedly structured.

Then, in the 90’s, we found & fortunately jumped early on to the bandwagons of Alban (1989 “Reva” Syrah) & Sine Qua Non (1992 “Black & Blue”, actually custom made by Mike Havens) before the HUGE hoop-la & prices really escalated.  These were/are standout bottlings, whose prominence & superstar status has stood the test of time & are still today some of the most prolific, revered, sought after wines out of California.  It certainly must have something to do with their focus & commitment.

Others certainly have tried to replace them as “king of the mountain”.  Even the media lavished high scores to newer generation Syrah producers such as Lagier Meredith, Shafer & other Napa Valley star wineries & while these wines are highly lauded, none of these Napa Valley-ers has yet to challenge or dethrone Alban & Sine Qua Non.

As it turned out the challengers are today really coming from the Central Coast of California.

Let’s start with Adam Tolmach & his Ojai label.  While I certainly appreciated the bravado & thunder that Alban & Sine Qua Non profoundly offered, the Ojai Syrahs had really caught our fancy more because of their mesmerizing transparency, intricate touch, wonderful texture & balance.  While I liked the Ojai Syrah bottlings from the early 90’s, I was especially much more enamored with their Bien Nacido Vineyard bottling from 1995 on (with the advent of grapes from Z Block, the newer, custom, hillside plantings of Bien Nacido vineyard, coming on line).  This bottling of Syrah has today really come into its own, starting with the 2004 vintage & as the vines got older.  (The 2010 which we sampled recently at a “Young Sommelier” tasting was really a homerun!)  Finally…a Californian grown & produced Syrah, which truly moved me!

(It was those relationships with Lindquist, Tolmach as well as Clendenen, Babcock & Whitcraft which cemented my keen interest in the wines of the Santa Barbara appellation, which is still quite active.  It had something to do with long growing seasons, marine soils & true mastery of winemaking).

I should also mention Randall Grahm & Bonny Doon here as well.  In the late 80’s/early 90’s, Randall was much more renown for his Grenache based “Le Cigare Volant” bottling than his work with Syrah.  That changed with his 1995 Bonny Doon Syrah, which featured grapes grown in the heralded Bien Nacido Vineyard of the Santa Maria Valley, the same vineyard source used by Lindquist at Qupe & Tolmach of Ojai.  The 1995 had a real gamey, rustic, provocative edge, which was a big step forward from his previous Syrah bottlings.  He was quite proud of the wine & deservedly so.  Randall’s biggest contribution, in my opinion however, was his remarkable talent for producing wines which would appeal to a wide spectrum of wine palates AND through his clever bottle packaging & amazing clever writings/marketing, he took Syrah & his other Rhone varietal bottlings, to a whole ‘nother, wider audience of wine drinkers.  He certainly was one of the real champions/crusaders of this niche of wines.  Thank you Randall!

In the early 90’s, the first red wine which started & egged on my fascination with the wines from Paso Robles further north, was the 1988 Justin “Isosceles”, a Cabernet blend from the westside of the appellation.  It clearly stood out in a line-up of other Cabernets from all over California.  It was partly because of the red rather than black fruit the wine exuded, but more importantly, it was because of the underlying minerality the wine innately had, instead of the gobs of super ripe fruit frequently featured.  Needless to say on my next trip to California I made it a point to visit the Paso Robles appellation to check the wine ongoings.  After days of driving around & tasting, Justin Vineyards & Winery was my only catch.  BUT, I was quite fascinated by the abundance of siliceous clay/limestone/white-gray soiled hillsides–which were heated by the 100 plus degree temperatures of daytime, but greatly cooled by the 50 degree nights.  I also remember telling Justin Baldwin at the time I felt this area would be a hotspot for Rhone grape varieties.

In the mid 90’s, I met Matt Trevisan, while he was an assistant winemaker at Justin Vineyards & Winery.  He had told me he & a partner were thinking about making their own wine soon.  The project was named Linne Calodo, which still produces standout wines to this day.  On a subsequent visit, I then met up with Justin Smith, who was to be Matt’s eventual partner, although I did not know at the time.  I, in fact, tasted a “home made” white wine at the Smith’s family’s cellar located in the James Berry vineyard below one the houses.  It was a blend of Roussanne & Viognier, done by Justin & his father Pebble.  This began a long running relationship with Justin Smith (Saxum), Matt Trevisan (Linne Calodo) AND the Paso Robles growing appellation.

There is no doubt, these two are the true standouts of the appellation.  I would also say, they both belong on the same pedestal as Alban & Krankl, in the quality of their wines, changing the game & leading the pack.

Matt is a master at blending.  He typically has 27 to 32 different cuvees to work with (a complex matrix of different vineyards, aspects, soils, micro climates, grape varieties all which have been harvested at different “hang” times & brix.  Furthermore, he has quite a stash of fermentation vessels–several concrete & wood–& in different sizes).  I therefore liken his wine blends as an orchestra as opposed to just a horn section.  It is a similar concept to what one could find from Cote Rotie, Barolo & Champagne in the old days before the single vineyard phenomenon.  His wines are lavish, ripe, though very layered, well textured & deftly seamless.

Justin Smith, in comparison, focuses on more single vineyard bottlings.  He is after all a man of the vineyard, so it makes sense.  (He however, also has a blended bottling, “Broken Stones”, as well).   The Saxum Syrah based wines have such remarkably civilized power, bravado, depth & layering which has certainly drawn incredible fanfare, accolades & a cult like following.

On another of the trips, I was invited to a blind tasting of Syrahs from the area.  This was during the Hospice de Rhone Wine Festival time, but ours was just a small, private get together separate from the festival itself.  Of the 20 plus wines poured, I was completely taken by what was in glass #7.  It really was unlike anything I had had previously.  The next morning, my friends & I were on the road to see Glen Rose Vineyard, the vineyard source of wine #7.  When we arrived, I was shocked how whitish the soils appeared.  Even on the way up to the site, the cuts in the hillsides along the road were “layered” with sheets of all white-gray looking soils.  On a later trip back to this vineyard with Bryan Babcock (whose Syrah at the time was one worth seeking out), he was also taken back at what he was seeing.  I remember him mentioning at the time, “the vines may have issues with shutting down because of how meager & extreme this site looked“.  Bryan & I also on this trip went to check out Heartstone Vineyard & walked the site with owner Hoy Buell.  It too was rather breathtaking in its rolling hills of whitish-gray soils.  The ball was really starting to roll & this appellation was just waiting to bust out to become a reckoning force in the California wine scene.

After those encounters, I therefore made I believe 6 trips in one year to Paso Robles, just to further dig around & get a better idea of what was happening & what would be coming down the road.

Justin Smith, as it turns out, is & has been a pivotal Paso Robles ambassador for us, as he later opened the doors to several of his consulting/helping out projects (early on in their development) of the region–Denner, Terry Hoage, Villa Creek, Booker & Epoch just to name a few.  These provided a whole ‘nother genre of California born Syrah based red wines–lavish, opulent & showy, BUT the limestone/siliceous vineyard soils seemed to greatly add interestingness & surprising buoyancy to the wines.

Further north in California, I also searched for Syrah based red wines.  Although I applauded the early Syrah efforts Joseph Phelps & McDowell pioneered, they weren’t really what I was looking for.  It really wasn’t until the 90’s that Syrah made a qualitative turn.

One of the early leads was based upon a tip from a respected wine friend.  I then drove to Bolinas, way out on the coast, to visit Sean Thackery, just to see his take on what Syrah could be.  As it turned out, his were very unique & idiosyncratic wines–deep, sinister, surly, feral, masculine, brooding–but certainly good enough that we later recommended him, when asked, to David Hirsch of Hirsch vineyard for considerations for Hirsch vineyard Pinot fruit.   I just thought that Sean’s mastery with Syrah, might also shed a different light of what Pinot Noir could be.  Here was one Syrah, named Orion, which really stood out, despite being wild & wooly.

A short time later, I made a trip to the Sonoma side to visit for the first time Wells Gutherie (Copain).  Although he was getting well known for his Pinot Noirs, I initially actually went there to try his Syrah based reds.  He had previously worked a stint with Helen Turley & a stage in France’s Rhone Valley, I believe at Chapoutier.   As it turned out, we liked the Copain wines, as they were much more worldly in style & Wells represented a new generation of young turks emerging on to the wine scene.  He scoured for grape sources & for Syrah even as out of the way as in Mendocino. He was very focused on his wines & his style of wines.  Despite the high acclaim & accolades, some people would say, however, the wines were quite masculine, structured, bordering hard & not so delicious.  Even so, he certainly was a star in the making.  He has since totally found his groove & his wines are today generally considered standouts.

There were, however, a few other winemakers who shared space in his Russian River facility & one in particular, Mike Officer (Carlisle) & his wines really caught our attention.  Mike started off as a home winemaker, but soon because of how good his wines truly were, decided to take the plunge professionally….although part time in the beginning.  He had a true passion for interesting, old vine Zinfandel (& mixed black grapes) vineyards mainly in the Russian River, but also included the Dry Creek Valley.  His wines had lots of mojo, swag, AND lots of intriguing, old vine character.  The high scores & acclaim were inevitable & much deserved.  As the Carlisle wines just took off, Mike also included some Petite Sirah & some Syrah bottlings along the climb.  Like his Zinfandels, his Syrah based reds were manly, unabashed, dense & significant with formidable structure & length on the palate.  Mike Officer’s star was definitely on the rise.  He knew what kind of wine he wanted to make & he since has passionately & skillfully fulfilled his vision.

On the same trip, we then drove to see Pax Mahle.  Back then, I don’t think there was GPS, at least available to me, so I got quite lost trying to locate him.  In following his directions, I kept ending up at a winery with some kind of Italian origin name.  I later found out he rented space there to make his wines.  On this first visit, Pax had 4 to 6 barrels of wine, which were neatly lined up in the middle aisle between their barrels.  We tasted through his barrels & I was especially taken by the Lauterbach Vineyard barrel of Syrah.  It wasn’t overtly fruit driven or oaky.  It had smells of meat, violets, lavender.  The fruit was very ripe, but didn’t smell over ripe.  It certainly was decadently mouthfilling, but still had structure & balance despite the higher levels of alcohol.  This gentleman certainly had a touch!  I believe Pax was also a former sommelier once, or maybe a retailer.  He had the right understanding & spin on his wines, really knew what he wanted them to be & what he thought they were at this time.  He was badass & I left there with my head spinning over the experience.  This was a guy worth keeping an eye for.  Fast forward to today, his Wind Gap wines are quite opposite in style from what he produced under his Pax Wine Cellars label.  They are now much more transparent, elegant, refined & balanced & well worth searching out for.  He is definitely in a real zome.

I thought the same of winemaker Ehren Jordan.  At that time, Ehren was winemaking partner at Neyers Vineyard & was also working at Turley.  Because of his cellar work with superstar winemaking consultant Helen Turley, his Chardonnays while at Neyers were so striking, provocative & highly acclaimed, as was expected.  I knew Ehren had done a stint working in Cornas & had a keen interest in Syrah & therefore was anxiously waiting to see what he would do at Neyers with Syrah.  While he & Bruce Neyers released some interesting single vineyard Syrah early on in their collaboration, it was actually their 2001 Syrah “Cuvee d’Honneur” bottling which really captured our attention.  This bottling showcased a fascination, respect & homage for the way iconic French Rhone Valley Syrah masters like Clape, Verset & specifically Allemand went about their craft (essentially 100% stems, foot stomped, wild yeast fermented & NO SO2).  The resulting wine had a much more of savory, soulful edge which for me was a considerable step above most of the other Syrahs out of California at that time.

This is an ideal opportunity to segue from Neyers wines to the true mastermind behind the wine project–Bruce Neyers.  I first met Bruce back in the late 70’s/early 80’s while he was still at Joseph Phelps.  Even back then I was fascinated with the way his mind worked & I therefore always had uku-zillion questions to ask him, especially regarding Riesling & Syrah, since I was such a fanatic of these 2 grape varieties (which were 2 of Phelps’ wine specialties back then).  It was a thrill to taste through their bottling(s) of each at the same time.  My next really significant meeting up with Bruce occurred when he took over the reins as National Sales Manager for Kermit Lynch Wine Merchants in the early 90’s.  I had already been to France a couple of times & visited many of the wineries he would now be representing.  He therefore was someone I could talk to for ages about Syrah & the wines of the Old World at length & in detail.  He could also better explain to me the Neyers transition of Syrah in the New World, based upon what he saw & learned on his many trips to the Rhone Valley, especially given his deep relationships with, what I would call THE Syrah “Masters”.  He became the yoda of Californian wine.

The next VERY noteworthy Syrah under Bruce’s watchful & insightful care, “started in the mid 90’s, when the revered Sangiacomo family developed their Old Lakeville Road” vineyard using budwood from the three primary red wine vineyards in the northern Rhône: Cornas, Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie. The 12-acre parcel was divided into three blocks, and each is harvested and fermented separately. From these three components, we created a blend which seems to have characteristics from each of the appellations. The vineyard is located in what is proving to be one of the most favorable spots for Syrah in California“, legally labeled as “Sonoma Coast”, though much closer to Petaluma & therefore greatly cooled by the ocean winds from the Petaluma Gap.  When I first tasted the 2006 Neyers Syrah “Old Lakeville Road”, I was quite stunned.  Finally….another Californian grown & produced Syrah with potential to move me.  The different, subsequent vintages of this bottling had its ups & downs.  Sometimes it was good, sometimes memorable.  Was it the extreme winemaking or the uneven-ness or the moodiness of the imported vines & resulting grapes which caused the disparity?  Or perhaps a combination of both?  Whatever the case, these wines clearly showed how much better vine material could greatly elevate quality.  As time went along, however, it became clear that the vines were not happy to be there & slowly faded into the sunset, with 2012 being the last bottling.  Yes, it was a mere flash of brilliance, but it certainly fostered the dream of what could be.

Although it took some time to get my foot in the door, I also worked hard to get the wines, Syrah based & otherwise from Les Behrens, who was then the winemaker/co-owner of Behrens & Hitchcock.  I especially liked his “Alder Springs” bottling.  When I later tasted a stellar “Alder Springs” Syrah from Pax Mahle, I made it a point to drive north, right outside the quaint town of Laytonville near the Humboldt county line to visit Stu Bewley & walk his Alder Springs vineyard with him.  The burning question & subsequent search was to find a Syrah that really would ring my bell.  This was heralded as one of those spots that could provide something noteworthy.

I should also mention the work the Peay is doing out on the true Sonoma Coast & their efforts at championing “cool climate” Syrah.  Yes, the wines are SOOOOO very different in aromas, character, structure & physiological maturity & deftly provide a whole ‘nother perspective on what Californian Syrah can be.

I also was at the time quite intrigued with the 1999 Edmeades Syrah “Eaglepoint Ranch”, which was crafted by winemaker “Vanimal”–Van Williamson.  At the time Van was producing some very hearty, old vine Zinfandel beasts from a variety of unique, old vine vineyards throughout Mendocino.  Interestingly, he also produced some wild & interesting Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Petite Sirah AND Syrah during his tenure at Edmeades.  I was so taken by his masculine, wild & wooly style of Syrah, which featured grapes grown in “Eaglepoint Ranch”..

A short ime later, Van introduced me to Casey Hartlip, the then vineyard manager of “Eaglepoint Ranch”, a vineyard planted I believe sometime in the 70’s/early 80’s (first Syrah planted in 1989), roughly 1800 feet above the town of Ukiah.  We subsequently made a couple of trips up to see & walk the vineyard.  With the 2001 harvest, Along with Jeff Figone, fellow Master Nunzio Alioto, we contacted Casey to buy 2 tons of Syrah fruit, based upon what we had tasted from Edmeades & Copain.  Since this brazen, warmer climate, “mountain grown” fruit had more than enough bravado, we then contacted Pinot winemaking master, Fred Scherrer, to craft the wine for us, hoping he could work his magic to make a much more elegant, suave style of Syrah.  That he did!  We thought the wine was stellar & definitely along the lines we were looking for.  It is still drinking quite superbly to this day.  (By the way, Fred today produces some very elegant, suave, classy Syrahs under his own Scherrer label, definitely worth searching for).

Interestingly, at this time, while we were quite intrigued with this wine, another fellow Master, Mike Bonaccorsi, made a comment I will always remember–“If you are interested in Syrah from California, you need to go back & check out what’s happening down in Santa Barbara“.

That I did!  Thank you Mike.  Back to where the interest & journey for California Syrah really began.

Mike was right.  The Syrah scene had really changed in the Santa Barbara appellation.  Newer Syrah “finds” included those crafted by Sashi Moorman (former assistant to Adam Tolmach) under the Stolpman label; Jason Drew (former assistant winemaker to Bryan Babcock) under the Drew label; Paul Wilkins (former assistant to John Alban) under the Autonom label & Paul Lato (former cellar rat for Jim Clendenen at Au Bon Climat) under the Paul Lato label, as well as Greg Brewer at Melville & Chad Melville under his own Samsara label.

One of those wines, the 2003 Drew Syrah “Morehouse Vineyard,” in particular was a true standout for me at the time.  (This was a time when Jason was still working down in the Santa Barbara region, first with Babcock & then spinning off with his own Drew label).  Because of his tenure at Babcock in the 90’s & Bryan Babcock’s very masculine, dark, manly, untamed, beasty Syrah wines, I had expected Jason Drew to do something similar in style.  Boy, was I surprised!  His 2003 was so classy, refined & provocatively transparent & intricate, with remarkable layering, savoriness, texture & balance.  The 2003 was a special wine, with something extra & unique, something beyond fruit & oak, qualities even the 2004 did not have.  I often wonder what ever happened to that vineyard since.  (And, as an update, Jason moved his winemaking operation up north in 2004/05, where his home & relatively newly planted, surrounding estate vineyard is located in the Mendocino Ridge appellation.  In the meantime, he has been sourcing from various vineyards in the area, & deftly crafting gorgeous Syrahs & Pinots well worth searching out for).

It was quite a few years later that we started to check out the plantings in the Ballard Canyon niche of Santa Barbara county, first with Stolpman in the early 2000’s & then much later (mid 2000’s or so) with the Jonata plantings.  I was actually introduced to Stolpman grown wine via the vineyard’s Sangiovese & Nebbiolo crafted by Jim Clendenen.  After tasting their Syrah, however, I knew they were on to something even more special.  Plus, under the direction of winemaker Sashi Moorman, the vineyard morphed & adjusted their vine plantings, but this time in keeping with what they learned was happening in Italy & France at some standout estates.  Coupled with Sashi’s meteoric learning curve, the wines, especially the Syrah based ones, just kept getting better & better.  The Estate Syrah typically offers such elegance, class, wonderful texture & balance.

I was then anxious to try the Jonata wines, after eye balling all of the work they put into developing their rolling hills (which we later discovered was mostly sand, instead of the limestone bedrock we saw at neighboring Stolpman estate) into vineyards, while sparing NO expense.  I also became a huge fan of winemaker Matt Dees with the first visit & even more so as time goes on.  He is totally in the winemaking sweet spot.  While my original interest was for their Cabernet Sauvignon & Cabernet Franc, their Syrah (Sangre) seems to be making the biggest splash so far & is a very masculine, savory, mega-intense stud, challenging for the top spot.  I also thought we would see some interesting Syrah being grown at the neighboring Beckman & Larner vineyards, but as it turns out, Grenache seems to be more of their thing.

Where to next?

 

Categories : General, Red, Wine, Wine Thoughts
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There was also Syrah/Shiraz from Australia to consider.

In the early 1980’s, for instance, I was drawn to another supposed Syrah based red–the 1975 Penfolds Grange Hermitage from Australia.  Unlike its Shiraz based peers & neighbors, this was one of immense power, concentration & grandeur that was truly monumental & full of mojo, vinosity & character.   It was really impressive to say the least & had the stuffing with quite the swag.

On another occasion, when looking for an appropriate wine to take to a BYOB red wine tasting I was attending in San Francisco, I remember trading one bottle of 1966 Chateau Haut Brion & one bottle of another wine in exchange for only one bottle of 1971 Penfolds Grange Hermitage.  Yes, the price was stiff & a very considerable expense for me, especially at that time.  As it turned out, however, the tasting featured quite THE line up of top caliber red wines from around the world from vintages 1966 to 1971 & this wine fit the theme so perfectly.  I could therefore see first hand how this wine would fare amongst the more familiar standouts.  There was also quite an impressive list of top echelon tasters attending & I could witness everyone’s candid reaction to this relatively undiscovered wine (at least in the U.S. at the time), since all of the wines were served blind.  What a line up & tasting this turned out to be!  I was really taken with the ’70 & ’71 Chateau Petrus & ’66 Chateau Latour.  Wow!  Wow!  Wow!  But I also remember being especially taken by the 1970 Giacomo Conterno Barolo Riserva “Monfortino” & my bottle of 1971 Grange Hermitage.  Both were truly like no other wine I had had previously.  I did not, however, find any aspects of either the 1971 or the previously tasted 1975 Grange that reminded me of Northern Rhone Valley Syrah (not that it should’ve).  It was quite another interesting genre of what this grape variety has to offer.  This tasting clearly showed to me, though, that Grange was definitely the wine that would open the door & usher Australia onto the world class stage of red wines.

I was, at the time, working at the Kahala Hilton Hotel & for a Food & Beverage Director who was originally from Australia.  (Since the hotel was part of Hilton International, we were fortunate to work with professionals regularly from all over the world). Interestingly, we also had had another Food & Beverage Director just a few years earlier who came to us from a sister property in Australia. I am very thankful for all of the knowledge & wines they both shared in helping me better understand & appeciate what was happening wine wise Down Under, especially on the “boutique” front. This really was quite the opportunity!

While I appreciated many of the wines from this new found niche of wines for me, the next real WOW bottling came years later & a winery named Henschke from the Eden Valley.  These wines floored me upon first taste & I remember both the 1985 (& later the 1986) “Hill of Grace” & “Mt Edelstone” like it was yesterday!  Where Grange offered bodacious, mega-intense, luscious fruit, the Henschke wines, in comparison, were much more about vinosity (old vine-ness) & savoriness on a more masculine, muscular frame with lots of saddle leather, cigar box, roasted chestnut, smoked bay leaf, charred sandalwood nuances.  I was later astounded to find out “Hill of Grace” was planted in the 1860’s, 1958 being the first release & Mt Edelstone was planted in 1912 (on its own roots).  Stephen Henschke oversaw the winemaking & his wife Prue was the viticulturist responsible for the care of these ancient vines.   What a talented combo & what a duo of standout wines!

The “Grange”, especially those back in the 70’s & 80’s, & the “Hill of Grace” bottlings are still the two shining stars for me EVER out of Australia even to this day.  Collectors over the years have pointed all of these much higher rated wines & those that are even harder to get.  But I find them not as interesting & not as “game changing”.

Grange to me, at least in the old days, was like an orchestra rather than just the horn section (just as I have heard & noted about old time Barolo, which was made from several sites rather than being a single vineyard, where the sum of parts was profoundly more complete & moving than each part individually).  The core was profoundly vinous & must have come from their elaborate scope of old vine sources AND a myriad of areas, soils, climates & terroirs.  To that base note, the Penfolds team layered it & added nuance through tireless, very detailed blending….just as one would add the string section, percussion, etc to the horn section.  An orchestra sound–layers upon layers & something to behold.  Another simple way to understand what I am trying to say is–in the music of the Beach Boys, there were the simpler, catchy, sing along songs like “Help Me Rhonda” & “Fun, Fun, Fun” AND then there was “Good Vibrations”, a tune seemingly comprised of 4 to 5 songs smashed into one, using 10 guitar tracks & 7 piano.  Epic, game changing!  Or the Beatles with “She Loves You” compared to the much more complex work on “Sgt Peppers Lonely Heart Club Band” album.  Grange was grand!  It was something to behold!  There has been no one peer to even come close.

Henschke, on the other hand, to me was Jimi Hendrix.  Jimi was so spellbinding–his sound & skill was distinctive AND so personal, heart felt & soulful.  I would be spellbound even if he played a solo guitar rant.  There truly has been no one else like him.  He really didn’t need an orchestra or even a band behind him.  He could stand out on his own.  That is Henschke “Hill of Grace” for me.  Only one vineyard, but the resulting wine was all about vinosity, was soulful to the core & heart stirring in its delivery.

I must also add, however just to be clear, I am speaking of Grange & Henschke of the 70’s, 80’s & 90’s here.  The prices of the current releases are just too prohibitive for me to even think of splurging.  I did, for example, fortunately have a 2009 & a 2012 Grange not that long ago & I will say, these are a VERY different kind of wine from those I remember having back when.  Today’s certainly have the stuffing, vinosity, mojo & character, but somehow I think the soul orientation has waned.  (Each were served blind & I know had been stored right).

The next BIG wave of “Thunder from Down Under” for me, was spearheaded by wine importer Dan Philips, who seemingly came out of nowhere & created a tidal wave of “must have”, artisan Australian wines. His company, the Grateful Palate, had a real cool “look”, schtick  & a well selected portfolio of mainly lavish, hedonistic, Old Vine Shiraz.  The wine media, especially the Wine Advocate, helped fuel a frantic, shark feeding frenzy for his wines & developed a cult like following–with wines from Torbreck, Dutschke, Henry’s Drive, Chris Ringland, Trevor Jones, Shirvington & later his own Marquis Philips (with partners Sarah & Sparky Marquis).   Sometime in the early to mid 2000’s Sarah & Sparky Marquis parted ways with Philips & founded their own Mollydooker wine label, starting I believe with the 2005 vintage.  The Mollydooker wines just exploded, taking off like a rocket, with immediate hype & fervor most wineries can only dream about getting.  There are still no signs of their “show” slowly down.  I had recently heard, though, that big personality front man Sparky is now out (divorced) & Sarah has taken over the reins herself.

On the other front, Dan Philips just kept his ball rolling & continued where Sparky left off, using the BIG name Chris Ringland as his winemaking “face” for the wine world to see.  It seemed to work for a couple of years, but inevitably the whole “Grateful Palate” operation just seemed to ride off into the sunset, although I heard there was a brief stop in Italy (for Philips) & Spain (for Ringland) along the way.

Our next real interesting Australian Syrah maestro we encountered was Serge Carlei from Victoria (with vineyards also in Bendigo).  Serge produced wines with real mojo, intriguing vinosity & layering, all done in a much more sensible style–suave, well textured & balanced, without the extreme showiness, flamboyance & decadence often seen during Australia’s 1990/2000’s heydays in the U.S..  They had a different beat, were much lighter on their feet, easier to enjoy without compromising complexity, vinosity, integrity or mojo.  I don’t think it a coincidence that Serge was recognized as one of Australia’s top Chardonnay & Pinot Noir specialists prior to his Syrah bottlings, & is probably why I was so enamored by his wines.  A Syrah crafted by a Pinot maker?  I often wonder why neither he nor his wines ever got too much international superstardom?

Our search for really good Syrah from Australia continues.

We recently had a Grenache from fellow Master Sommelier Richard Betts under his Sucette label.  90 plus year old, own rooted vines, 25 to 40 stems….this was some kind of Grenache & one that was truly memorable.

If someone, in this day & age, can come up with something this superb, imagine the possibilities with Syrah?

Categories : General, Red, Wine, Wine Thoughts
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I realized early on, I am by no means a skilled writer, but, because of this recent envious Syrah tasting I attended in San Francisco, I just wanted to jot down some of my thoughts & experiences with Syrah, while the juices were flowing.  At least all of the reminiscing will make me smile.

It starts with…….I really enjoy a well grown, well made Syrah.

The initial most enlightening renditions for me were from a trio of masters from France’s Rhone Valley–Gerard Chave, Marius Gentaz & Noël Verset.  Although by this time I was well under way with the wines from Germany, Italy, Champagne, Burgundy, Bordeaux, Port AND California, there was nothing I previously tasted that even came close to what I experienced from these majestic , highly personal Syrah based reds.

I became an instant fan!  These created a new standard for me to measure others by.

Each of these producers made wines which were much more interesting to me, AND consistently way more moving than those I tasted from the much more heralded trio of Jaboulet, Chapoutier, Guigal also of France’s Rhone Valley, just to name a few headliners.

My first trip to see these French vignerons was in the cold months of January 1991.  Our list of appointments (made by fellow traveler, Fran Kysela M.S., then the National Sales Manager of Kermit Lynch Wine Merchants) included Marius Gentaz (Gentaz Dervieux), Rene Rostaing & Robert Jasmin of Côte Rôtie; Gerard Chave of Hermitage; Joseph Panel of St Joseph AND August Clape & Noël Verset of Cornas, just to name a few.  The weather was quite inhospitable, vineyards barren & even the wine cellars quite cold, despite the lack of a wind chill factor.  We visited, we talked & we tasted each day till well into the dark.  At several of the stops spitting wine out on the floor seemed inappropriate, especially where in some cases there was so little wine in their cellar to sell to begin with.

Our first stop in the northern Rhone Valley, was at the Chez Chave.  Talk about apprehension!  Here was a family who owned & farmed the truly iconic Hermitage hill since 1481!  (please keep in mind Christopher Colombus sailed to the New World in 1492 for goodness sake!)  The family owned roughly 10 hectares , in 7 different parcels.  We met & spent time with Gerard Chave.  (I certainly will never forget this opportunity!)  We started with a tasting of his Hermitage Blanc (roughly 85% Marsanne from 80 to 85 year old vines AND 15% Roussanne, also from 80 to 85 year old vines).  It has taken me quite some time to understand & appreciate this wine.  I previously just didn’t get it.  I was awestruck by the sheer power/intensity, viscosity, bordering unctuou-ality, & reverent vinosity & breed of the ’90 & ’91.  They were both resoundingly masculine AND grandiose each with very different perfumes, tastes & character.  We continued with the ’90 St Joseph Rouge & then the 1989 St Joseph Blanc, which I remember thinking was quite an interesting progression  (I certainly would not question a Master!)   We then proceeded downstairs & barrel tasted through 7 lots from the 1990 vintage–Bessards (80 year old vines), Le Meal (80 year old vines), Rocoules, Peleat (a monopole), Diognieres, Baume & L’Hermite.  Wow!!!! what a huge opportunity!  (I have written an earlier piece on this with more specific notes of each.  please check it out in archives).  We also tasted the 1989, 1988, 1987 & some older vintages of his Hermitage Rouge, all, with color commentating by Gerard while he tasted along with us.  What a day!  I walked away with an even greater appreciation of Chave Hermitage because of this behind the scenes master class.  I have visited this domaine a few times after & always walked away with an even greater understanding & appreciation of what this family does.

In addition, the times of walking Hermitage hill, parcel by parcel, with the color commentating by Chave is truly some of my best memories ever in wine country.  I had previously thought Hermitage hill was all granitic soils.  As was explained to me later by Jean Louis Chave, over time, glaciers collected & smashed different soils up against what was already there.  That is why there are so many soil types found in different pockets.  The Bessards lieu dit, for example, is mainly granitic; Le Meal has river stones; Peleat has more clay/sand; & Baume–pudding stones.   And, these different soils also help create the layering of his red Hermitage wine.  It is therefore a blend, rather than a single vineyard.

We then went on to visit August Clape in Cornas.  They own 5.5 hectares, 50% on the “hill”.  This was also a rustic, very small family owned winery & I loved the strong sense of heritage, culture & family here.  We tasted many wines here, back to 1981 & I was awed by the masculine soulfulness of the wines, which were much more blue collar & rugged than those at the Chave stop.  But, they were still so memorable.

Probably the most emotional visit for me in all the years of visiting vineyards & wineries was our visit with Noël Verset.  I was already so taken by his wildly rustic, profoundly soulful Cornas wines & meeting him & tasting wines with him, tugged at my heart that much more.  I sometimes hear all kinds of disenchantment with his wines & their flaws.  Get a life!  This was an honest man who made wines that touched us deep inside.  He reminded me of a painter/artist from way back when.  Just went about his business. No frills.  While there the last time, he hinted he would be retiring.  Perhaps 2000 would be the last?  Ha!  I saw some 2003 show up.  Then 2006.  Surprise!  Then there was none.  There will sadly never be another like him or his wines.

It was quite late the night we visited Joseph Panel in St Joseph across the river from Vienne.  St Joseph is a long, thin appellation & therefore has quite the variety of vineyard site topography, soils & growing conditions.  Panel’s was at the top of a hill.  It was cold & even colder because of the fierce pounding wind & what seemed like sleet.  I was hoping it would be warmer in the cellar, but the coldness permeated through the rock floor numbing my feet & then worked its way up.  His estate was 200 years old–7 generations.  I felt like I was hanging out with a farmer rather than a winemaker.  He was a true artisan & I loved his St Joseph reds, as they were so honest, earnest, earthy, feral & full of countryside character.  They also had delicious-ness in a very masculine, savory way without any sense of heaviness.  I was very sad when he retired & his wines were no more.

I was really glad to visit with Robert Jasmin (& son Patrick).  Robert made you feel very welcome.  He seemed gregarious with a big personality.  He looked like he was a true blue collar type, never afraid of getting dirty.  He owned 4 hectares of vineyards, mostly in the Côte Brune & the Côte Blonde, planted to 96% Syrah (mostly Petite Serine from Hermitage) & 4% Viognier.  He proudly told us, he typically uses only about 10% new oak (since 1984) & does not filter or fine (since 1989).  His were big, “down to earth”, masculine, savory, surly wines with the same kind of manliness he had.  I was sad to hear of his passing in I believe 1999.

Marius Gentaz had an old, earthen floor “shack”, which looked no bigger than a 3 car garage.  Marius seemed like an every day kind of guy, dressed simply, reserved, but very articulate as he explained to us the 5 hillsides that comprised the Côte Rôtie, while showing us each on an old map on one the wooden walls.  He spoke very little English, so our traveling companion, Dennis, acted as the translator.  His family could be traced to the 1700’s in the area.  He had a little under 2 hectares of vines, split into 2 parcels.  The vines averaged 45 to 80 years in age & he smiled when he spoke of his Petite Serine vines, which he seemed more proud of & happy with in comparison to some of the “Mauvre” vine selection (tightly packed, BIG berries) he also had planted.  He also had a tiny bit of Viognier planted of which he would blend .5 to 1% into his Gentaz Dervieux Côte Rôtie, depending on what he felt the wine needed.  He was kind enough to open & share with us the ’90, ’89, & some older vintages.  I was absolutely blown away with each.  I had never had Syrah like these before.  Just before we left, he sadly informed us, he thought his nephew, Rene Rostaing, would be making the wines after the 1991 vintage.  OMG, the end of an era.  (as it turned out I think he also made a ’92 & a ’93).

Our next visit, as it turned out, was in fact to Rene Rostaing.  It was in the early evening & quite cold.  I was shocked as we walked up to see what looked like a modern winery, as if it could be in California.  I was further anxious later on the visit after seeing the barrel room, full of new oak barrels.  It was almost opposite of what we experienced at Gentaz.  Rene has 17 different parcels (which included absorbing the Dervieux-Thaler parcels), his prized lieu dit was 1/4 hectare in the Côte Blonde of 80 year old vines.  Rene was very neat & precise & I dared not spit at this domaine, eventhough it was quite late & we were all so tired.  Both his 1990 “La Landonne” & ” Côte Blonde” had sweet, very ripe fruit & with quite noticeable oak presence & grip, despite being only 18 or so months in 25% new.  I walked away remembering all of that new oak barrels & asked myself, what will happen when he takes over Marius Gentaz’s magnificent vines & fruit?

Imagine, these were just the highlights of the trip AND only the northern Rhone Valley leg.  Still, it solidified my fascination with the Syrah grape variety, what it was capable of & insight into the true Masters of the French renditions.

A short time later, I was again blown away at a casual dinner held at Square One restaurant in San Francisco, where my long time wine brother, Nunzio Alioto, kindly opened 4 amazing, for me, “once in a life time” French Syrahs–1990 Vincent Gasse Côte Rôtie, 1990 Gallet Côte Rôtie, 1990 Gentaz Dervieux Côte Rôtie  & a 1990 Jean Louis Chave Ermitage “Cuvée Cathelin”.  Wholly smoke!, this certainly was a night to remember & really fueled my love for such northern Rhone Syrah wines.  It made me wonder, how could man create wines like this that transcend what the fruit & the oak offer?

The wonders continued with samplings of the string of Chave Hermitage–the 1978 & 1983 really being memorable; multiple aged vintages of Gentaz Dervieux, Verset & Clape wines.  Each were WOW, beguiling experiences & I am so thankful to have experienced such treasures, especially with my dear friend Nunzio Alioto & later with the VINO gang.

Furthermore, because of these Syrah epiphanies, I still always keep an eye out for Syrah based red wine that would also ring my bell.

I remember, for instance, noticing a lot of 1982 Gentaz Dervieux Cote Rotie at the KHPR Radio wine auction one year.  The wines were procured by well renown wine auctioneer, Archie McLaren from a collector in Texas.  Jim Clendenen & I stood in the back anxiously waiting for the lot to come up for bid, like two hungry wolves.  We should have been smarter, as we did not have an auction paddle & just held up our hand to place a bid.  Since Hawaii is such a small town when it comes to fine wine, others starting bidding too, because they saw it was the two of us & figured if we are bidding on these wines, they must be good!  I shouldn’t complain, though, as we still got the lot for $35 a bottle, a REAL steal, even though this was in the mid-90’s.   I truly believe that only Jim, myself & perhaps Archie had a grasp of what these wines were or how hard they were to get.  Well, that is certainly not the case any more, that’s for sure.  (By the way, tasting the wine eventually was yet another mind blowing experience.)

My generation was very fortunate to have a visionary palate & importer like Kermit Lynch to sniff out these kinds of “game changers” & expose them to young, impressionable minds like myself.  When more & more small, specialized importers came onto the national wine scene, I realized what separated Kermit from the rest, was his eye for that special artisan, who could connect & realize the true potential of a special site in a very personal way.  Furthermore, many of the selections had a soulfulness to them AND thankfully a wonderful deliciousness & remarkable balance.  Yes, he had/has a gift.  There has been, after all, only one Marius Gentaz & only one Noël Verset, just to name a couple of examples.

Aside from who I considered to be the 3 masters of the time–Chave, Gentaz & Verset–Kermit also championed St Joseph “below the radar” winemaking studs such Joseph Panel & Raymond Trollat & Auguste Clape (& son Pierre-Marie & grandson, Olivier) & later on Thierry Allemand from Cornas.  These are/were truly artisan, profound, rustic, soulful Syrah, done in a style we sadly see less & less today.  And, later on, Kermit would introduced us to Pierre Gonon & Jean-Pierre Monier of St Joseph & Philippe Faury.

Again I ask–how could man create wines like this that transcend what the fruit & the oak offer?

Categories : General, Red, Wine, Wine Thoughts
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We gathered the gang again to do yet another BYOB BLIND tasting.  The theme was to explore “other” grape varieties in the New World……yes, still in search of what is “good” wine.  We ask, how much would you pay for this wine?  And, what kinds of foods would you pair it with?  Yes, questions pertinent to working the floor…….just another way of learning!

2013 Palmina Dolcetto “Santa Barbara”–we started the tasting with an Italian grape variety grown & produced in the Santa Barbara appellation of California.  I had previously tasted & enjoyed many Italian grown Dolcetto red wines over the years, BUT not too many ever REALLY rang my bell.   What drew me to this bottling, however, is how delicious, juicy & well made this wine is & still with the earthy, savory, masculine, dark fruited qualities one normally would find in Italian versions.  I also feel the price makes since this wine even more compelling, especially when one compares the quality/dollar ratio of other red grape varieties such as Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Barbera & the sort.  the challenge then for the sommelier is how to sell it on the floor.

 

2011 Scherrer Zinfandel “Shale Terrace”

1998 Scherrer Zinfandel “Old & Mature Vines”

Both of these Zinfandels come from Fred Scherrer’s father’s vineyard in Alexander Valley, located on a bench above the Silver Oak planting.  The Zinfandel was first planted in 1912 & was subsequently supplemented in waves over the years.  As I have mentioned before, the Scherrer Zinfandel “Old & Mature Vines” are some of our all time favorite bottlings of this grape variety.  They standout because of how surprisingly elegant, suave, & well textured & balanced they are……quite the contrast to hearty, robust, higher alcohol versions from other wineries.  The 1998, brought & shared by Erica & Jamm was stunning.  The edges were even rounder & the wine much more integrated.  In addition the old vine nuances really sang out with the fruit & spice qualities now much more in the background.   Who says Zinfandel doesn’t get better with bottle age?  In comparison, we tasted the 2011 “Shale Terrace” which from a particular parcel of this vineyard which as the name suggests, much more rocky in make up.  It really does want to say something different, with higher toned, almost nectarine/peach fruit aromas & seemingly much lighter on its feet.  In both cases, I felt the wines were excellent!

2013 Ancient Peaks Petite Verdot “Santa Margarita Vineyard”–The Santa Margarita Vineyard is located at 1,000 feet in elevation down in southern Paso Robles.  I had tasted a Petite Verdot (blended with Merlot) bottling from this vineyard produced by another winery a few years back & was so impressed I started working on actually visiting the ranch.  After much effort, we were finally able to get in & 4 wheeled our way through all of the nooks & crannies of this remote, 900 plus acre “mountain”  site.  There are actually at least 5 distinct soil types here, & the most compelling were the fossilized oyster bed & the more common shale parcels.  When I was later asked to help find wines for the First Class service of Hawaiian Airlines, I instantaneously knew this was the vineyard I wanted to work with AND I had a notion there would be a good portion of Petite Verdot used in the blending. Yes siree!   As it turned out, however, on the first go around, I realized that this vineyard’s Petite Verdot was much better as a blending component rather than being a stand alone.  This 2013 reconfirmed that.  While I think the wine was good, it actually got unintentionally dwarfed by the 2012 Cambiata Tannat “Monterey” it was paired with.  This was truly a black beast–black as old fashion shoe polish, mega-intense, dense, seemingly just packed as packed could be, hearty, robust, masculine though surprisingly well textured & well balanced.  How does one corral such a wild, full on monster like this?  How does one manage the searing tannins & acidity?   Other winemakers, first of all, would probably not even take on such a project.  And, if they did, many today, I would guess, certainly would explore what micro-oxygenation could do.  Winemaker/owner Eric Laumann instead chose the virtue of patience.  The first vintage of this wine, 2004,  I had tasted was aged for I believe an astounding 40 plus months in oak barrels.  The 2012 was a mere 28 months.  In both cases, the time in oak helped to round out hard edges & helped frame an otherwise uncontrollable beast.  I am not necessarily looking for such esoteric wines, BUT when it is this good, especially when one considers the price tag, how can you not go all in?

2013 Linne Calodo “Nemesis”–we have been huge fans of the wines from Linne Calodo for quite some time.  We shared this bottle of 2013 Nemesis (82% Syrah, 14% Mourvèdre, 4% Grenache) to show tasters an example of well grown & crafted Syrah based red from the westside of the Paso Robles appellation.  Despite this being a lavish, opulent, luscious, higher alcohol wine with lots of bravado & mojo, the wine’s innate minerality from the limestone/siliceous clay soils it was grown in, made it so provocative & surprisingly more buoyant.  It certainly had the wow factor & was quite impressive.  Because of its density, showiness & mouthfilling richness, we feel this wine could be a segue for many Cabernet fans into a whole new world of wines to experience, once again helping to fill that puka between Californian Pinot & Cabernet (closer to the Cabernet end of the spectrum).  The 2015 Stolpman Syrah “Estate” on the other hand, shared by Rick, was a much more elegant, suave, more transparent style of Syrah & therefore lied closer to the Pinot end of the spectrum.  What a fabulous comparison!

2013 Gramercy Cabernet Sauvignon “Columbia Valley”–there is little doubt it is becoming Washington state’s “time in the spotlight” more & more.  The wines have gotten much better, partly because the vine material & plantings have gotten much more interesting AND there is quite a growing number of winemakers (& grape growers) changing the game.  One of those leading the charge is Greg Harrington of Gramercy Cellars.  A Master Sommelier & former wine director for both the Wolfgang Puck & Emeril Lagasse restaurant groups Greg intuitively grows & makes wines in pursuit of balance.  While his Syrah & Mourvedre based red wines are at the head of the class, we wanted to showcase one of his Cabernets just to show tasters, Washington state has arrived!  we were so fortunate that Brent & Helen brought & shared a bottle of the 1997 Laurel Glen Cabernet Sauvignon “Sonoma Mountain”.  It was a very fine example of where we came from, in terms of Cabernet Sauvignon in California.  Back in the 80’s & 90’s, this bottling was one of the very best California had to offer.  Grown in a very spiritual felt vineyard on top of Sonoma Mountain, this was one of those vineyards that offered something special & unique & this wine really showcased that.  These Laurel Glen Cabernets were always something more than fruit, ripe fruit & oak.  They had mojo, spirit & heart.  This one was spectacular on this evening AND soooo remarkably youthful still.  I wish more people would make & appreciate wines like this today!  AND, if my memory serves me correctly, the 1997 was the first Cabernet, winemaker/owner Patrick Campbell produced up to this point that was over 14 degrees alcohol.

2015 Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir “Santa Barbara”–Au Bon Climat is one of the true leaders (AND for quite a long time) out of California for producing more elegant, highly refined, very transparent & worldly Pinot Noirs.  This is an example of his work, although there was a surprising rustic edge to the wine showing (perhaps from some Mondeuse he typically blends into this bottling).   Still there is a fine-ness on the palate with wonderful texture & balance.   I believe he has never really gotten enough credit for all he & his wines have done for the Californian wine industry.  Thank you John for sharing.  I was glad Ann kindly shared a bottle of the 2015 Maison L’Envoye Pinot Noir “Tasmania” on this day.  When I was growing up in this industry I would frequently hear about the terrific potential the Island of Tasmania had for growing & producing sparkling, Riesling AND Pinot Noir wines.  This bottling is by far the best example I have to date, 30 years later.  I would not even think this was Cru quality by any means, BUT it is elegant, fine, classy, well textured & balanced…all at quite a remarkable price.

2012 Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir “Bien Nacido Vineyard”–I just loved this wine for its intoxicating perfume–musk, earth & funk AND its wonderful transparency, refinement, remarkable texture & balance.  It was the wine of the day for me, which is saying a lot.  PLUS, when one considers the quality for dollar ratio, it’s an absolute NO-brainer,” on the list” wine for me.  Done deal!  I also greatly appreciate Rick bringing to share his wine, the 2015 Tyler Pinot Noir “12th Ave Grill” with all of us.  Tyler winemaker/owner Justin Willett masterfully crafts Pinot Noirs like this (& a bevy of Chardonnays) all about precision, refinement, transparency, texture, balance & class, as this wine clearly showcased.  Kudos to Rick & Justin!!!!! I just wished I had poured it before the Au Bon Climat.

Categories : Red, Wine, Wine Thoughts
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May
14

Keplinger Wines

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One of the true, New Age winemaking phenoms is Helen Keplinger, 2012 Food & Wine magazine “Winemaker of the Year”.  Although for some, she seemed to have come out of nowhere, she has worked at some very considerable wine projects–“Since 2004, I have been the winemaker for some exciting projects, including Cellers Melis (Priorat), Kenzo Estate, Fort Ross, Sarocka, Scullly, Arrow & Branch, & Bryant Family Vineyards”.

Keplinger is her sole focus now.

Here are the two wines which has arrived to the Islands.

Keplinger “Sumo” Red 2014–a lavish, rich, deeply flavored red with near decadent opulence & a dense, hedonistic mouthfeel. Still, despite its heft, the 2014 is still wonderfully delicious, juicy & well textured with a stoniness in its core.  “Sumo is a Cote Rotie twist on Petite Sirah – Petite Sirah co-fermented with Viognier, and blended with a small amount of Syrah. The 2014 Sumo is a blend of 84% Petite Sirah, 13% Syrah, and 3% Viognier, all from Shake Ridge Vineyard. The Petite comes from three blocks, one is 80% rock and produces small, thick-skinned berries with intense aromatics and dense structure. The second Petite block also has very rocky soil with a western exposure – the berries are ever so slightly larger and the skins slightly thinner (remember this is still Petite!), bringing a juicy elegance to the blend. The third Petite block is at the bottom of a north-facing block, and is all about vibrant, fresh fruit – the lifter of the trio. The 2014 Sumo was aged in a mix of barriques, Muids d’Oc, and Demi Muids – all French Burgundian cooperage – 75% of which was new.   290 cases produced“.

Keplinger “Lythic” Red 2014–another intriguing, deeply flavored red–in 2014–a blend of 32% Grenache, 36% Mourvedre, and 32% Syrah – all coming from Ann Kraemer’s incredible Shake Ridge Vineyard, 1700’ in the Sierra Foothills of Amador County. Farmed to perfection, the extraordinary Sierra uplift soils, loaded with quartz, basalt, soapstone, and shale always combine to create wines of great purity, richness, and minerality. The Grenache, Mourvedre, and Syrah blocks are all on rock-filled slopes with excellent exposure and drainage. The blocks were harvested for optimal ripeness on five different dates, and combined into small co-fermented wine lots, each with a different percentage of whole cluster grapes. The wine was aged in once-used and neutral French Demi Muids for 16 months before being bottled without fining or filtration. 250 cases produced“.

I could spend a very long time speaking of the merits of Ann Kraemer’s Shake Ridge Vineyard up in the Sierra Foothills.  The soils are mesmerizing & seemingly everchanging from parcel to parcel & from hill to hill.  And, Ann is one heck’uv a farmer, that’s for sure.  That is also a big reason why these wines are so darn good!

And, just to give you history, here is what Antonio Galloni wrote about last year’s collection from this winery.

VINOUS: 2014 Sonoma and Points North: New Releases, Parts 1 & 2 (Feb 2016)    by Antonio Galloni

These are without question the finest wines I have tasted from Helen Keplinger. The 2013s and 2014s are simply captivating across the board. Over the years, Keplinger has refined her approach, which includes a greater reliance on large format oak as well as important investments in equipment. The result of those significant sacrifices are very much in evidence. Readers will find a few new wines in the range, all of them welcome additions. As good as the 2013s are, the 2014s have the potential to be even more compelling. I can’ t say enough good things about these wines and the daring spirit they embody.  Full Review

2013 Hangman’s | 95+

2013 Diamond Bar | 95

2013 Sumo | 95

2013 Lithic | 94

2013 Fuego y Mar | 93+

2013 Caldera | 93

2013 Basilisk | 93

2013 Mars | 93

2013 El Diablo | 92

2014 Eldorado | 90

 

 

Categories : General, Red, Wine
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A chance to get together to taste wines, talk story & share insight.  Thanks to all who came.

2012 Cambiata Tannat “Monterey”–we found this winery sometime back.  Our relationship with owner/winemaker Eric Laumann with his Albariño, which stood out among its Californian grown peers, but later very impressed, as well, with his big, black 2004 Tannat red wine beast & its character, texture, remarkable balance despite its enormity.  Albarino, Tannat????  Who in their right mind specializes in these kinds of grape variety & challenges & still have a viable business model in California?  Here is what Eric has to say about it all–“Cambiata is not your average California winery.  I launched Cambiata in 2002. My intention was to make distinctive wines that go beyond the Franco triumvirate of Bordeaux, Burgundy and Rhone. Today, we are vinifying a handful of compelling wines from some of California’s scarcest grape varieties including Albariño, Tannat and Dornfelder.   We planted our small Tannat vineyard in the rocky and well drained soils of the Santa Lucia Mountains. Tannat has an incredible ability to absorb oxygen. Technically speaking, the wine is full of procyanidintype tannins, which slow the aging and development process to a crawl. While today’s technology has given winemakers aggressive tools to introduce oxygen, at Cambiata we do it the oldfashion way – extended barrel aging. For our 2012 Tannat it took 28 months before the wine had reached an appropriate balance between fruit and tannin that allowed us to put it into bottle.  We fermented the black juice in small opentop fermenters.  The wine was then pressed straight to 60 gallon barrels (100% French, 40% new). Our 2012 Tannat is incredibly deep and concentrated with notes of earth, blackberries, saddle leather and licorice. On the palate it is thick and chewy with bold, wellintegrated tannins“.   Our intent was to show the younger generation, “good” wine can be found out of the box, without getting esoteric & trying to carry the next new frontier.  In our humble opinion there are opportunities in our VINO restaurant for wines like this…because it is very good……especially for the dollar.

2013 Hilt Pinot Noir “Old Guard”–on one of last trips to Californian wine country, this was THE standout of 8 days of visiting countless wineries, vineyards & tastings.  We loved how un-clonal it was, showcasing amazing intensity without any sense of overdone-ness & how seamless, well textured & balanced it really was.  We later found out, the core is old vine Mount Eden vine selection (with a little Martini as well), from the iconic Sanford & Benedict vineyard.  Their parcel was planted in 1971 on its own roots & organically farmed.  (I don’t think the rest of the vineyard is organically farmed).  I just to show the tasters what American grown Pinot Noir can be.  2014 Guillemot Savigny-lès-Beaune “Vieilles Vignes”–in comparison, here is a Pinot made in the “old fashion” way.  The vines average 55 years in age & are grown in limestone, marl, clay & gravel.  I have to say, however, this wine is SOOOO transparent & ethereal–much more about the limestone, especially in taste.  I could tell from the tasters’ faces, it was something they were not used too.  I understand, as it took quite a long time to understand & appreciate these wines too.  The 2014 came from 3 parcels–Planchots de la Champagne, Dessus les Gollardes, Vermots within the village.  Here is what importer Kermit Lynch appropriately says–“The Guillemot family has worked Savigny-lès-Beaune vines for eight generations (!) and produces wines with classic Burgundian finesse and balance, all while leaving us a reminder of Savigny’s rustic character. Guillemot is one of the quintessential KLWM producers, with wines that epitomize the local terroir and emphasize grace and elegance over power and structure“.

Sang des Cailloux Vacqueyras–this particular bottling/producer is one of typical favorites from the Southern Rhone Valley of France.  I am the first to admit, these wildly rustic, hearty, masculine red wine beasts are not for everyone.  Even the majority of the professional wine community I surmise probably would not tolerate the higher levels of volatile acidity & brett frequently found in these wines.  Still, for me, the true soulfulness this wine typically has is the reason I keep coming back for more, which is partly why I therefore presented these 2 wines.  In addition, I thought it would be interesting to compare a younger vintage to one completely different in profile AND with a little bottle age.  We started with the 2014, as it was showing well right out of the gates—surprisingly approachable, transparent & tame with lower in alcohol & tannin levels.  It reminded me of some of the vintages back in the 1980’s which featured rusticity, integrity & soulfulness without so much bravado.  I also would add, I cannot wait to try this wine again when it is 10 to 15 years of age, as I think it will be quite the experience!  For comparison, we then poured the 2007, a wine now 10 years of age.  I remember trying this wine upon release & thinking how humongous it really was–much darker than usual & showing mostly deep, lavish, opulent fruit & a profile I was not used to from this domaine.  (Please remember, this was coming after the 2006–which I found to showcase its feral/rusticity & stoniness right out of the gates with lighter coloring & a leaner mouthfeel….& the 2005–which was power packed & such formidable structure).  I was anxious to taste the 2007 again, as it had been awhile.  In short, despite much early on apprehension, I was mesmerized how gorgeous this wine tasted on this night.  OMG!  Yes, 10 years of bottle age had done wonders for this behemoth.  One memorable facet, was how the visceral, higher alcohol & glycerine levels from the vintage’s generous sunshine added a very different & luscious texture to the wine & the innate rusticity & stoniness was once again shining through, though with seemingly deeper base notes.  Wow!

Piemonte Reds–while we all are quite fascinated with the standout style of wines, at VINO, we also work hard to keep an eye out for really good “country” styled wines–those that are delicious, lighter, food friendly & gulpable–& therefore well suited for the dining table.  We frequently encounter 2 real challenges on that question, living way out here in the Islands.  The first is availability/supply (which is undoubtedly linked to the lack of demand here) of the smaller, true artisan renditions.  We instead see examples from large houses or those done, almost as an after thought.  Secondly, finding examples which are shipped all the way here in temperature control.  Yes, all of this can be quite formidable.  We tasted these 2 wines to show participants, it is though possible.  In addition, we wanted to show tasters 2 completely different “takes” on what dinner table red wines can be, at least from Piemonte.  The 2014 La Palazzotto Dolcetto di Diano d’Alba–we started the duo with this wonderfully delicious, fabulous new “find”.  Yes, there are quite a bit of very good Dolcetto based reds available.  I, however, don’t run across which catch my fancy like this one did.  Why?  Because of its real deliciousness.  Furthermore, it still has such a wonderful artisan feel & therefore displays the earthiness, muskiness, spices I find in many Piemontese quality reds.  In comparison, we then poured the 2015 La Pergola “Il Goccetto”.  As VINO regulars well know by now, we have been really searching for well grown & made aromatic wines, both white & red (& I am sure soon to include rose too).  They can uplift foods, just as fresh herbs do.  Here was our latest arrival, produced mainly from the lighter colored, highly perfumed Brachetto grape variety, along with some Barbera for structure & core.  It certainly did not disappoint.  The perfume is quite a shock for most.  Many wine drinkers today after all been trained in the wine world to think, bigger & darker equates to higher quality, even with innately lighter pigmented grape varieties such as Pinot Noir.  Imagine trying these 2 wines with VINO food–whether it is our Braised Spanish Octopus served with a ham hock stew or our homemade fennel sausage pizza!  The Dolcetto would be much more classical & the Brachetto would provide a completely different & unique experience.  Isn’t that at least part of the fun of pairing wine & food? 

We then followed with a duo of exemplary Nebbiolo based Piemontese red wines to remind tasters of the difference between “country”/dinner table wines & more top echelon Piemontese wines.  Furthermore, this could hopefully provide a glimpse of how different Barolo & Barbaresco can be.  2012 Cavallotto Barolo “Bricco Boschis”–yes, this is certainly one of our favorite Barolo producers, located in the Castiglione Falletto appellation.  The family owns 25ha of prime vineyard, mainly in the Bricco Boschis & Vignolo crus, all organically farmed.  We loved the 2012 because of its perfume, purity, vinosity, depth, mojo, structure & balance.  It is a real GUN.  In comparison, we poured the 2011 Cascina Luisin Barbaresco “Rabaja”.  Their winery is located on the ridge lying above the iconic Rabaja cru, right down the road from Giuseppe Cortese, another favorite producer.  This estate was founded in 1913, owns 7ha, mostly in the Asili & Rabaja crus.  The 2011 was very pretty, seemingly softer, more broad, flatter & approachable than the Cavallotto, yet still showcasing the purity & virility their wines are renown for.  This past October while visiting Piemonte, I was reminded how wonderful AND true these 3 producers’ wines are & how each is done with much respect to where they came from.

Categories : General, Red, Wine, Wine Thoughts
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GRENACHE 

2014 Sucette Grenache–here is a standout Grenache from superstar Master Sommelier Richard Betts, certainly worthy enough to measure others by.  It is lush, lavish, SAVORY & ripe, yet still remarkably transparent, delicious & surprisingly UN-heavy.   Richard selected this parcel of 90 year old vines….own rooted in the sandy soils of Vine Vale (Barossa Valley)—because of the sand & the old vines, both reminiscent of Chateau Rayas of the southern Rhone Valley of France, in addition to the vines being grown in the wild & therefore completely feral. 20 to 40% stems. Basket press. Aged in OLD oak

2011 Sella & Mosca Cannonau de Sardegna Riserva–made only in select vintages. 100% Cannonau, 2 to 3 years in old Slavonia oak.  There is much discussion about whether the Cannonau grape variety is in fact Grenache or a descendent & even some who think Grenache is a descendent of Cannonau.   I’ll leave that to the scientists & wine geek patrol.   I think this Sardinian red offers SENSATIONAL VALUE, which is why we put it in this flight with lots of Grenache like qualities, done in a VERY delicious, rustic, food friendly, “country” style of red wine.

2014 Sang des Cailloux Vacqueyras–This is undoubtedly one of our favorite Grenache based wine blends, because of its wild/feral edge & soulfulness, in spite of what many wine professionals would say are winemaking “flaws”.  That’s is probably why this wine is still so reasonably prices, especially considering the quality & soulfulness the wine innately has.  “All of Serge’s seventeen hectares rest on the great Plateau des Garrigues, where red clay, limestone, and the famous galets roulés, or rounded stones, impart a terrific intensity and depth to the wines. Given the aridity of the soil, the vines here are naturally prone to lower yields—this gives the wines their concentration and power. That Serge has been farming organically for years but has never sought certification says something about his philosophy. He is not looking to impress; only to make the best wines he possibly can. 70% Grenache, 20% Syrah, 10% Mourvèdre & Cinsault. Hand harvested, de-stemmed, wild yeast in cement cuvees & 6 months in old foudres. Bottled unfiltered, unfined”.  We are huge fans!

MOURVEDRE

2011 Gramercy Cellars “L’Idiot du Village”--Gramercy is the project of superstar Master Sommelier, Greg Harrington.  FYI–Greg used to be the wine director for all of the Emeril Lagasse restaurants & the Wolfgang Puck empire.  His highly lauded Washington based winery specializes in Syrah, but also produces a very noteworthy Mourvedre based red shown here.  Greg has told me that he feels this grape variety has huge potential in his neck of the woods & we have seen quite the improvement with each vintage he releases.  The 91 point rated 2011 “L’Idiot du Village is 90% Mourvedre, 5% each Syrah & Cinsault.  The fruit comes from eastern Washington—Olsen (near Red Mountain) & Alder Ridge (Horse Heaven). Roughly 50% whole cluster (dependent on the vintage) & aged for 15 months in old oak. Typically 200 to 350 case production.

2014 Domaine de la Tour de Bon–We decided then to compare the Washington grown Mourvedre with one from the Bandol appellation of Provence, France. Domaine de la Tour du Bon rests peacefully atop a limestone plateau in Le Brûlat du Castellet, in the northwestern corner of the A.O.C. Bandol. Nestled beneath the mountains to the North, it is a bastion of tranquility, an oasis on the Mediterranean surrounded by beautiful gardens and vineyards The Hocquard family has been farming this land since 1968, though this has been a full-time farm since 1925. Today, Agnès Henry runs the show. Independent, finally set her mind to making them on her own, she hit her stride, crafting wines with power and precision, but also finesse and charm. The domaine is situated at an altitude of 150 meters above sea-level—a high point on this coastal appellation where maritime breezes cool the arid climate. Fourteen hectares of red earth, clay, sand, and gravel rest upon sturdy limestone bedrock. Brow-beating excavation and focused determination alone have built these vineyards. 55% Mourvèdre, 25% Grenache, 15% Cinsault, 5% Carignan. de-stemmed. Traditional vinification with indigenous yeasts. age in foudres for 18 months“.

CARIGNANE–We are increasingly more & more intrigued with old vine Carignane & what it has to offer.  It started way back when with Californian old vine bottling we discovered here & there over the years.  We then became huge fans of bottlings back in the 1980’s we had from Domaine Fontsainte of Corbieres.  In our continual search for noteworthy bottlings, here are 3 fabulous, interesting Carignane based red wines that will shed new light on what this grape variety has to offer.   

2015 Neyers “Sage Canyon Cuvee”–I always refer to this very special & unique bottling as a homage to the wines of Maxime Magnon (see below).  The 2015 is 45% Carignan (vines are 140 years-old), 25% Grenache, 15% Mourvèdre and 15% Syrah—heritage/heirloom, foot stomped, wild yeast fermented & then aged in old Oak.  Absolutely delicious!!!!!!

2012 Leon Barral Faugères “Jadis”–I believe Didier Barral took over the domaine with the 1993 vintage & as he converted the vineyards & winemaking to a very fanatical uber au naturale mind set, quite candidly there were quite a few of rough patches along the ways.  In addition, he relied a lot of the Syrah grape variety as the core for his various bottlings…..with one specific showpiece which was Mourvedre dominated.  Somewhere along the way, his appreciation for old vine Carignane grew & so it is thankfully today.  We love the deliciousness it brings to the otherwise wild, feral, intriguingly rustic, earthy, core of his wines.  “Deep in the heart of the Languedoc, in the Faugères appellation just outside the hamlet of Lenthéric, Domaine Léon Barral is a beacon of revolutionary winegrowing.  50% Carignan, 30% Syrah, 20% Grenache, biodynamically farmed, hand harvested. de-stemmed, however whole clusters are also used. No SO2 is added. vinified in gravity-fed, cement cuves with natural yeasts. lightly pressed with an old, wooden, vertical, basket press.   aged for 24 to 26 months in barrel (10% new oak)“.

2014 Maxime Magnon “Rozeta”–Maxime is yet another one of the “young guns” of southern France changing the “game” both in the vineyard, the winemaking & his belief in old vine Carignane.   While he produces a few different bottlings, his Rozeta cuvee is typically our favorite, because of its wonderful perfume, vinosity & supreme deliciousmess.  “Maxime Magnon is part of one of the most revolutionary wine movements in France. He was fortunate to have purchased some prime parcels of old vines from abandoned plots and rents his cellar—a garagiste if ever there was one. He farms nine parcels over eleven hectares, with steep vineyards that reach high altitudes, and manages it all on his own. Maxime is part of the new wave of passionate viticulteurs who cultivate their vines with the utmost respect for nature and the soil. He’s certified organic, but also incorporates biodynamic practices into his vineyard management. Most of Maxime’s vineyard land is comprised of schist and limestone subsoils in the sub-appellation Hautes Corbières, bordering Fitou to the South. This is incredibly tough terrain to farm in, as there is virtually no top-soil, just pure rock and garrigue. The Corbières “Rozeta” is a blend of these two district terroirs. This blend is particularly unique, from 50 to 60 year old vine Carignan vineyards that are dispersed with numerous varietals of older vines, namely Grenache Gris, Macabou, and Terret, which are all picked and fermented together—a true field blend of the old school.   Grapes from field blend are picked and fermented together & aged in old Burgundian barrels from a producer in Chassagne-Montrachet“.

SYRAH

2014 Mollydooker “Blue Eyed Boy”–a lavish, opulent, highly lauded Australian “fruit bomb” in all its glory!  The fruit comes from McLaren Vale–Coppermine Road, Long Gully Road & Mollydooker Home vineyards…& Joppich vineyard of Langhorne Creek.  Sustainably Grown.  Barrel fermented and matured in 100% American oak—70% new; 30% one year old.

2014 Anthill Farms Syrah “Sonoma Coast”–Grown out on the true Sonoma Coast near Annapolis & crafted by a trio of Pinot Maestros.  The core comes from 2 main vineyards–Campbell Ranch is a few miles from the Pacific Ocean, near the tiny town of Annapolis, and is farmed by Steve Campbell. At approximately 750 feet above sea level, it sits right at the boundary of the marine layer, ensuring that the cool, coastal climate delays ripening well beyond the warmer vineyards to the east. The two-decade-old vines grow on sandy, low-vigor Goldridge soil, which helps reduce yields to near two tons per acre.  The Peters Vineyard Syrah–Randy Peters farms this vineyard outside of Sebastopol in western Sonoma County. The southern slopes of these hills form the northern edge of the Petaluma Gap, which rushes cool, marine air from the Pacific Ocean inland. These Syrah and interplanted Viognier vines, which Randy put in for us just a few years ago, occupy less than an acre at the lowest edge of this cool, foggy vineyard. The entire block produced just above three tons of fruit.  I am sure there is fruit from other vineyards blended in too.

2013 Chateau Fontanes Pic St Loup “La Petite Sérine”–Here is an absolutely thrilling, new wine discovery.  The conventional Old School thought in the northern Rhone Valley of France is the appreciation of the La Petite Sérine, a selection of the Syrah grape variety made famous by iconic Syrah masters such as Marius Gentaz of Cote Rotie, Chave at hermitage & Noel Verset at Cornas.  Here is the results of some cuttings, planted down in the Pict St Loup appellations southern France–organically & biodynamically farmed, & hand-harvested. 60% de-stemmed, wild yeast fermentation in cement tanks, aged in cement tank and foudre that have aged 2, 3, and 4 wines for 3 to 6 months & bottled unfiltered, unfined,

2009 Clape Cornas–One of the “Hall of Fame”, true stalwarts of northern Rhone valley Syrah.  “The Clapes farm only eight hectares, the challenge presented by the rough, tightly stacked terrace vineyards of Cornas is largely enough to handle by anybody’s standards. The dicey precipices make using any machinery in the vineyards impossible. All work must be done by hand. There are no official rules to their viticultural methodology—they work the old-fashioned way, by instinct, feeling, and common sense. The vineyards sit on granite subsoil, behind the village, with optimal sun exposure. They farm a number of prime parcels, including Reynards, La Côte, Geynale, Tézier, Petite Côte, Les Mazards, Patou, Pied La Vigne, Chaillot, and Sabarotte, the latter purchased from Cornas legend Noël Verset. Whole grape clusters are fermented with natural yeasts in open air cement cuves with punch-downs or pump-overs twice a day over 12 days. Malolactic fermentation occurs in foudre. Then, aged for 22 months in 6 or 12 hl-foudres”. Now, this is Syrah–soulful, profound & worth searching out to taste.

Categories : Red, Wine, Wine Thoughts
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