Tasting Notes


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January-February 2001

HOW TO USE THESE NOTES: Many of my tasting notes take the style of mini-articles and discuss multiple wines. So, rather than bust them up, I've organized them in the order they were written, with the most recent at the top.

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AFFORDABLE PINOT NOIR. (February 24, 2001) Once upon a time you could buy excellent Burgundy for under $15. It may be a fairy tale today, but I came pretty close this week with:

*1999 Steven Ross Central Coast Pinot Noir. Medium ruby with lots of seductive red cherry flavors -- and absolutely none of the cola and vegetal notes can be so annoying in Central Coast Pinot. At $15 a bottle, it may not be Burgundy, but I'm thinking of buying a case.

*+1999 Domaine Arlaud Bourgogne Cuvée Unique "Roncevie." This stuff is a little more serious. Dense, deep ruby and purple juice that could use another year in the cellar. Give it a half hour at least in a decanter before you start sipping it down. You'll be rewarded with lots of ripe red raspberry flavors, shaded with a hint of Burgundian sweat. Oak is in keeping with the fruit, but may deceive those who don't decant. A beauty for about $20.

LOVE THOSE LANGUEDOCS! (February 17, 2001) Time was when France's Languedoc region was all about bargains. Values are still excellent, but now the quality's even better. Lately I tasted two that can vie with the best:

**+1993 Grange des Pères. The very name of this massive Syrah-based wine seems to invite comparison with Australia's most famous wine and you know what? It gets away with it. Flashy, juicy and drenched with raspberry and cherry flavors, it initially reminds me of a superstar Oz Shiraz. With airing, it shows plenty of structure for longer aging. Best of all, it cost me all of about $30 -- less than a quarter of its legendary namesake.

**+1998 Domaine de la Combe Blanche "La Chandeliere" (Minervois). Thick, lush stuff with aromas of violets and deep black cherry flavors. Develops well with air, showing nuances of garrigue and pepper. If all Minervois wines were this delicious, I'd seldom have reason to drink anything else. Imported by Dan Kravitz of Hand Picked Selections. Seen in various states at prices ranging from $22 to $32, it's a great buy at either price.

BORDEAUX-STYLE BLENDS TO BAWL ABOUT. (February 10, 2001) Over pasta and pizza, we opened three new-wave proprietary reds. They couldn't have tasted more different, but it was tough to pick a favorite.

AWESOME. Drinking ***+1996 Peter Michael "Les Pavots" is kind of like watching a Grizzly bear dance down a tightrope. It's large, dark and muscular, but impeccably balanced. Also, complex as all get-out with fabulous flavors of cherry, leather, shoe polish and purple cassis. Careful if you share this bottle with someone you love. Fights may erupt.

UNREAL. Like earlier vintages, ***+1997 von Strasser Reserve must be tasted to be be believed. The heavy percentage of Petit Verdot in the blend gives it an incredibly bright, blueberry-flavored attack -- unlike any mere Cab you've ever sampled. Tannins are here in abundance, but they're so super-ripe that you don't really mind.

ALMOST AFFORDABLE. With the heaviest, oddest bottle of this ostentatious bunch, Argentina's **+1999 Tikal "Jubilo" looks and tastes like a California cult wine. You get a gusher of blackcurrant, then a wave of black cherry. Pure pleasure. Oak is prominent too -- but it seems in balance, and hey, this is a 1999! At around $45, it's appropriate value. However, it's not twice as tasty as the kinky $21 Tikal "Corizon," reviewed below.

A SHOUT FOR CHARD. (February 3, 2001) Want to prove you really think for yourself? Then pour yourself a glass of the wine that snobs love to hate...

     California Chardonnay! Long may trophy-seekers scorn it. The quality keeps getting better and although prices could be lower, they're usually half what you'd pay for Cal Cab of similar stature. Here's what's been delighting me lately:

*+1998 Kirkland Ranch Chardonnay. Excellent juice under $20 with silken texture and flavors of apples, cream and wet stones. Oak is mercifully light.

**1998 Flowers Porter-Bass Chardonnay. Floral aromas followed up by papaya and minerals. Darned nice finish. Hold for six months so the oak can knit together a little better.

**1994 Talbott Diamond T Vineyard Chardonnay. Beautiful expression of ultra-ripe Monterey fruit. Pineapples and pears, lotta depth, lotta length, what's not to like?

**1998 Mer et Soleil Chardonnay. Is this the best wine that Caymus is making these days? Seems that way to me tonight! Yes, it's showing oak, but the fruit is so good the wine gets away with it. Very impressive length. Reminds me of Beringer Sbragia.

**1995 Shafer Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay. Biting attack is followed up by powerful fruit. Flashy stuff and I don't mind. The only non-malolactic Chard of the bunch -- but it doesn't taste non-malolactic. Where does the cream come from?

**+1994 Williams-Selyem Allen Vineyard Chardonnay. Tasted blind, this wine makes me guess Meursault or possibly even Grand Cru Chablis. Medium gold, truffle-scented with lots of flint-tinged flavor. Acidity also seems a little high for California Chard.

***+1996 Pahlmeyer Chardonnay. The biggest, ripest, leesiest, doughiest, most-pleasure-packed Chard I've tasted in months. Huge wine. Some folks can't enjoy a white wine this extreme. Pity them.

**+1997 Pahlmeyer Chardonnay. Stellar but still a bit of a comedown after the '96, above. Similar but seems to have more acid and a little less fruit. One can only regret the fact that it cost even more.

***1994 Peter Michael Chardonnay Cuvée Indigène. Strong long and in its prime. The oak that poked out in its youth is gone, leaving an ocean of crème brulée and pure Chardonnay fruit.

     Now I can hear you saying, "Yeah, but California Chards don't age! In a few years, they drop their fruit." Wanna bet? Take a virtual slurp from the following well-cellared bottle of:

*+1988 De Loach Chardonnay. The Chards from De Loach have never been famous for aging and some say 1988 was Sonoma's worst vintage in memory. Yet when we open this bottle alongside the aforementioned Pahlmeyer and Talbott selections, it proves to be quite alive, kicking with mineral flavors and even showing earthy nuances

     And to ice the cake:

***1993 Greenwood Ridge Anderson Valley Chardonnay Late Harvest. Picked at a tooth-hurting 42 degrees Brix, this stuff packs 24.5% residual sugar and gets away with it easily. With ample acid, it never cloys but wallops you with enormously sweet, drenching flavors of poached pears and cream. Clean aftertaste too.

WEIRD & WONDERFUL (January 26, 2000) With its big heavy hulk of a bottle, this stuff looks like it ought to cost plenty. Happily, though, **1999 Tikal "Corizon" Altos de Mendoza costs a mere $21 and is worth every penny. It's dark and mightily concentrated, with a bunch of juicy berry flavors. Give it plenty of air -- it showed best 24 hours after I opened it.

     Now for the hard part. What is it? Well, the label says 35% Malbec and 65% Bonarda.

     But what's Bonarda? Turns out to be the most widely planted grape in Argentina, second only to (you guessed it) Malbec. More research reveals that Argentina Bonarda may be an Italian grape. Or maybe it's really the stuff they call Charbono in California.

     Whatever. Just enjoy it. Or take it with you next time you're invited to dinner. Your host will be impressed, if a little puzzled.

ACTUALLY WORTH THE MONEY. (January 22, 2001) In a market swarming with $50+ mediocrities, you have to look harder than ever for sweet spots -- but they're out there.

*+1997 BV Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley. I've been critical of BV in the past for underperforming its heritage. Maybe things are turning around. This is a terrific buy. Dark ruby with pleasing aromas of black cherry and acceptable levels of dusty tannin. At just $14.99, it's what the not-as-good $65 Caymus Napa should cost.

**1997 Laurel Glen Cabernet Sauvignon. Bob Parker, bless him, has rated this famous wine under 90 points, which means you still may be able to find a few bottles. Mind you, I agree with him that this vintage seems more acidic than previous ones. However, when I opened one last night, I also found an ocean of sweet cherry and cassis flavor, nice texture and a real nice finish. If you're not averse to acidity, this wine is a good buy for around $45. (By the way, I'm sure the wine wasn't acidified -- it's just what happened in 1997 on Sonoma Mountain.) 

**-1997 Ridge York Creek Petite Sirah. Tasted within a flight of Oz wines, this California classic outperformed "real" Syrah. Not the tannic, backward chap I expected, but oozing blueberries. I think it's priced in the mid-twenties.

OLD IS NEW. (January 1, 2001) Blind tasting is getting increasingly perilous. One of the best new Australian Big Reds that I've tasted is actually from...

     Italy? Yes, although even the name would lead you to guess "New World."

     **1997 Rosso Conero "Visions of J" is from one of Italy's most innovative producers, Fattoria Le Terrazze. Proprietor Antonio Terni is reportedly a major Dylan fan, so I have to guess the wine is named in tribute to one of my own favorite tunes, Visions of Johanna.

     One thing's for sure -- this wine rocks. It's inky black and very dense, with Oz-type flavors of blueberry, spice and chocolate. There's also an earthy note that I'm guessing must be from some Montepulciano grapes.

     I have no idea what the blend is. Montepulciano for sure. Plus maybe Merlot, Syrah, Cab?

    Another big question is when to drink it. Maybe in five years? Or now, if you've got a decanter, a stereo and a copy of Blond on Blond.

BACK TO BORDEAUX. (January 1, 2001). With the California Cabernet and Merlot prices getting so insanely high, I've made a New Year's resolution to drink more of the French stuff.

     Granted, there's a price bubble in Big Name Bordeaux as well, but this area makes an ocean of wine and bargains are appearing. For example, I recently heard that a major East Coast retailer is blowing out the superb **+1994 Troplong-Mondot for just $34.50. Plus, I'm not the only one who expects to see prices for the 1997s plunge pretty darned soon -- warehouses are stocked to the ceiling and no one's buying.

     Then, of course, there's the happy fact that most great Bordeaux doesn't have to be drunk in a hurry. You can buy when it suits you, uncork it years later and congratulate yourself all night for squirreling it away.

     Lately, we've been enjoying:

***1990 La Dominique. Best showing yet for this undervalued gem of an estate. Still very youthful, with lots of blackberry fruit balancing the chocolatey oak. Tannins are still a factor, so be sure to decant. Or just sit on your stash. It's got the stuffing to age and improve for at least another decade.

**1985 Ducru Beaucaillou. Beautiful, down-the-middle Bordeaux that has seemingly entered its prime. Classic nose of tobacco and cassis. Silky on the palate. As the hours pass, the wine shows even more grapey fruit.

**+1988 Ducru Beaucaillou. Similar to the 1985, but deeper in color, and maybe more intense in flavor. Also more tannic. Prime time is still at least 3 years away.

***-1989 Pichon-Lalande. The last few times I've enjoyed this wine, it seemed ready to rip. Tonight it needs more coaxing to unleash its depths of ultra-ripe fruit. I'll open my next in 2003.

See more tasting notes (October-December 2000)

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