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January-February 2003


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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FAILLA CAN'T FAIL YA (February 22, 2003) Ehren Jordan has already made quite a name for himself with the wines he makes for Larry Turley and Neyers. Now he's got his own label, Failla, and these wines are phenomenal too.

     Served blind to a table of Burgundy lovers, **+2000 Failla Chardonnay Keefer Ranch wows us all. (I'm being conservative on the rating until I try it again in the company of other first-rank Chards.) Flavors of fig, mineral and cumquat swarm all over your senses. Was expecting some oak in a Chard this young, but it's already all been soaked up. Very distinctive stuff. You'd never mistake this for a Neyers Chard. Wonder what the clones are?


RIB REDS (February 22, 2003) Everyone brought their own idea of what might go well with barbecued short ribs. Can't complain about any of them, but strangely, the best match may have been a Pinot:

**+1999 Williams-Selyem Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir is the first WS wine I've tasted that was made after the controversial buyout. If you're still on the mailing list, I'd say you have nothing to worry about. With flavors of allspice, raspberry and sour cherry, the wine gets really tangy on the palate, beautifully complementing the rib sauce.

*++1995 Zenato Della Valpolicella Amarone is served blind and stumps us all. What really throws us off is the chili pepper notes on the finish. We guess Cab, Merlot, even possibly Zin. The plummy, ultra-ripe notes and alcohol might have tipped us off, but Italy never occurs to us.

***+1995 Turley Wine Cellars Petite Syrah "Aida" may not match up to ribs as well, but oooooh, what a wine! Nearly black, almost syrupy, it's developed a fabulous bouquet of roses. Gushers of blueberry and blackberry take over on the palate. Easily one of the best Petite Sirahs I've ever tasted.


JURASSIC WINES (February 15, 2003) If you pride yourself on an adventurous palate, have I got an acid test for you.

     White wines of the Jura have been celebrated as extreme expressions of terroir -- and whatever you think of that claim, you must admit they're, well, different. We recently tasted a bunch of them, and while I'm not wildly searching for more, boredom was never an issue:

     SPARKLER:

*+Domaine Berthet-Bondet Cremant de Jura NV. The most popular Jura wine of the tasting, it's also the most conventional, reminding me some of Carneros sparkling wine. Strawberry scents are joined by shades of pineapple on the palate, with enough acidity to make it very refreshing. Don't know the cepage but would guess it's a blend of Chardonnay and Savignin -- the latter grape a mainstay of this region.

     DRY WHITES:

Never in 100 tastings would I have guessed *-1989 Domaine de Montburgeau "L'toile" Cuve Spciale is 100% Chardonnay. With aromas of Marsala and Calvados, it tastes of hard apple cider and steel. Kind of tasty when you get used to it.

*1997 Chteau Bethanie Arbois Savagnin is my favorite still white wine tonight. Hits you at first with an overpowering fragrance of hyacinth petals, then yields up Winesap apple and mineral flavors. Probably not the biggest wine on the table, and maybe that's why I prefer it. A little Jura kinkiness goes a long way.

Others prefer the Jean-Pierre Salvadori "Macvin de Jura" NV. Smells to me like low-alcohol Armagnac. Tastes a little like pear liqueur. Finishes fairly long, which pleases those who like the flavor. Can't say I cozied up to it, but I'm willing to give it another try...sometime.

*--1995 Domaine Berthet-Bondet Chteau-Chalon might row your boat if you're partial to Fino Sherry. Nutty flavors with some apple-pear fruit underneath.

     SWEET WHITES:

The Jura is famous for its Vin de Paille -- made with grapes that have been dried on straw mats, in a manner akin to Vin Santo. *1998 Chteau des Jacobins Vin de Paille tastes a little like Cointreau. Not what I expected. (Not that there's anything wrong with that!)

*-1998 Morel-Thibaut Vin de Paille is more like a PX Sherry, with raisin and nougat flavors, finishing well.

     Lest you think we suffered tonight, not so. Our generous host rewarded our work with a flight of more conventional reds, all served blind.

     UN-JURAS:

**+1990 Hudelot Noellat Nuits St. George "Les Murgers" is all about finesse. First it's cinnamon toast and strawberry jam, then you get to the beautiful core of ripe cherries. Reminds me a little of older Williams-Selyem Pinot Noir at its best. Drink now.

*-1990 Leroy Vosne-Romane "Les Genevrires is dark and extracted, but notably tannic and acidic compared to the other reds. As the evening wears on, blackberry flavors recede and veer to cranberry. Too young or just plain unbalanced? I would guess the latter.

A mouthful of wild strawberries, **+1997 Denis Mortet Gevrey-Chambertin "Au Vell" is already stunning, and promises to reveal even more with further cellaring.

And this has to be the best outing yet for **1996 Beaux FrPres Pinot Noir (Oregon). Dismissed by some at release as an off-vintage disappointment, it's taken on weight and considerable complexity. Black raspberry flavors do a nice dance and finish with lots of finesse.


RHNE ALONE (February 3, 2003) Rhne is a watchword for red wine values these days, but don't let it dissuade you from splurging. For the money, the ultra-premium sector has long offered sensational quality -- and continues to do so, as evidenced by this recent meal:

     WHITES:

***1999 Chteau Beaucastel Chteauneuf-du-Pape (Blanc). WOW! Rich fig and honey flavors with a sensuous, slippery texture that can't fail to please. Drink now or in 7 years, but probably not in between. Tastes so good now, however, why wait?

***-2000 Chteau Beaucastel Chteauneuf-du-Pape (Blanc). Same story, a little less voluptuous, but maybe that's just the colder serving temperature. Same comments on drinking window.

*-1997 Grippat Hermitage (Blanc). Blown away by the Beaucastel, but nice enough. Fairly closed, it opens after 60 minutes and shows pleasant almond flavors.

     RED CTE ROTIE:

**+1995 Ogier (Regular Cuve). Ready to rip right now, offering violets, raspberries, blackberries and bacon. A hint of barnyard, but just enough to add to the appeal. Some actually preferred this wine to the next, but I cannot agree...

***+1995 Ogier Belle Hlene. Whew, is this big stuff! Aged in 100% new oak and you'd never guess -- all soaked up. Similar profile to the above, but twice as long and penetrating. Give it another 5 years at least if you want to enjoy it fully.

     RED CHTEAUNEUF-DU-PAPE:

**++1998 Chteau Rayas. Blackberries and sweet red cherries please the palate mightily, despite lingering tannins. Just a little rougher, a tad less alcoholic and a shade short of...

***+1990 Chateau Rayas. Port-like, says one taster -- true of the texture and intensity, but there's no heat on the finish. Lingering blackberries and red raspberries. Amazing purity, pleasure and length.

***+1995 Les Cailloux Cuve Centenaire. Lawdy, could anything get better than this? Meatballs, blueberries, strawberries and a hint of rhubarb pie. Bigger even than the Rayas, but suddenly dwarfed by the supernova...

***+1990 Les Cailloux Cuve Centenaire! I don't think I've ever tasted this when it hasn't swept all other reds off the table. Riper and plummier than the '95 and measurably broader, deeper. Someday I'd love to sneak this blind into a tasting of great Bordeaux and watch it steal the show.


BEEF BRIGADE (January 25, 2003) You might guess ahead of time that the best match to Beef Burgundy would be something red from the Cte D'Or. And sure enough, tonight it turns out to be...

***+1990 Mussy Pommard "Epenots". Fantastic aromas of rose petals -- so pronounced, I'm reminded of Alsace Gewrztraminer. On the palate, you sense more of the same, plus raspberries, autumn leaves and Darjeeling. The most impressive Pommard I've tasted in years.

The other wines tonight aren't a hardship, but don't quite serve up the same sex appeal:

**1991 Jayer-Gil Echezaux is served blind and fakes me out. It's so ripe and plummy, I guess California Pinot Noir, maybe from 1994. Deep ruby to garnet, this wine sure pumps out the pleasure, and I guess I can taste the tell-tale spice now that I know the source...but if blinded again, I still might guess New World.

**+1992 Joseph Phelps Insignia is also served blind, but this one's easy to nail. The black cherry, herb and mint could be nothing but Napa Valley Cab, and a super one. I might have expected this wine to be a little more backward than it's showing. Yes, you can sense lingering tannins, but the texture's pretty lush.

**1993 Philip Togni Cabernet Sauvignon surprises me in the other direction. By Philip's own account, this is his lightest wine of the '90s, yet tonight we get a big, black brooding giant. It's really taken on weight! With decanting and lots of swirling, the herbal notes gradually turn to floral, but I think I'll wait another few years before opening my next.

Finally, **+1995 Ambroise Nuits St. Georges "Les Vaucrains" charms the socks off me. Deep ruby, with ripe red cherry aromas, it's plush and velvety even now, although I'd expect another 5 years might help the flavors fan out.


KEEFER'S KEWL (January 25, 2003) Out in the Russian River Valley, Keefer Ranch is growing some serious fruit and selling it to producers who know their stuff. Both Ehren Jordan's **+2000 Failla-Jordan 2000 Keefer Ranch Pinot Noir and the **+2000 Flowers Keefer Ranch Pinot Noir deliver loads of intense fruit, shaded by notes of black tea. I was fascinated by the way they both bring out the same distinctive black cherry flavors. Call it terroir, clonal character or what you will, it's delicious. The Failla-Jordan is a little earthier, but both are irresistible drinking right now. NOTE TO EHREN: I'm so happy you ditched the wax capsules for 2001!


HAPPY NEW YEAR (January 1, 2003) and apologies for the Christmas hiatus. I've been hard at work researching the Perfect Holiday Tasting, and here's one that came pretty darned close to the ideal:

     FLIGHT ONE (with hors d'oeuvres):

***-1990 Egly Ourier Millesime. I've reviewed this several times before and it hasn't lost a step. Remains like Grand Cru Burg with bubbles.

***-1990 Champagne L'Harbonville "Premier Crus En Fft De ChLne." A mere babe, compared to the **1988 and ***1989, tasted previously. Right now it walks a wire between its predecessors -- racier than the unctuous '89 and fatter than the greyhound '88. Give it a year or so more in the cellar and it may outdistance both.

     FLIGHT TWO (with salad):

Does any wine taste better with salad? Maybe not, but Didier Dagenau's awesome ***+1996 Silex makes this thankless match-up look so easy, some think it wine of the evening. Amazingly tasty harmony of gunflint, gooseberry, cumquat and lilies. Slippery on the palate with a long, mineral-laden finish.

**--2000 Araujo Sauvignon Blanc also works well with the course, even if it can't best the stupendous Silex. A friendly arrangement of flowers and fruit, it's probably best consumed young. Mouth-coating flavors of grapefruit and honeydew melon would also make it a fine aperitif.

    FLIGHT THREE (with lobster):

***1997 Marcassin Chardonnay "Gauer Ranch Upper Barn" is mostly about primary flavors right now, but even the overture's quite a rouser. Papaya, bread dough, honeysuckle and vanilla, followed by a thundering finish. Give it another few years at least if you want to see the full show.

**+1999 Chave White Hermitage is also still too young to reveal all its tricks, but promises much. Aromas of toasted almonds and wet stones. Long, intense finish.

***+1991 Ramonet Batard-Montrachet has come of age and rules. Fabulous nose of matchstick, mineral and crLme caramel. Each sip soaks the senses for more than a minute.

    FLIGHT FOUR (with hot foie gras):

**+1997 Martini di Cigala "Percarlo" is not the best of matches, but excites admiration all the same. Sangiovese doesn't get much more intense and concentrated. Dried cherries dominate from crisp attack to lingering coda.

**+1990 Zind Humbrecht Gewurztraminer "Heimbourg" (Vendanges Tardive) has lost its youthful sugar. Marries well to the goose liver, but I wish I had caught it younger.

***-1988 Raymond Lafon (Sauternes) is pretty near prime time. Fantastic floral scent, sweet but not syrupy palate and cozies up to the foie gras like it's found true love at last.

But nothing tonight can challenge the juggernaut ***+1990 Franois Pinon Vouvray "Goutte D'Or." Favors of super-ripe pears that absolutely blast the palate. Easily the most impressive Vouvray I've ever tasted and WHITE WINE OF THE EVENING.

     FLIGHT FIVE (horizontal of 1997 California Pinot Noir, with quail):

In any other context, **++1997 Kistler Pinot Noir "Sonoma Coast" would have tongues wagging, with its generous raspberry flavors and plush texture. Of all the Pinot Noirs, this one actually seems close to its peak drinking window. But the competition couldn't be more formidable...

***+1997 Marcassin Pinot Noir "Marcassin Vineyard" is incredibly concentrated, yet beautifully balanced. Still a mere pup, it offers enormous pleasure even now. Cherries at just the right level of ripeness, with minerals on the finish.

***+1997 Kistler Pinot Noir "Kistler Vineyard Cuve Catherine" is a fascinating wine to compare to the Marcassin. Equally big, but more flamboyant, with super-ripe raspberry flavors. Right now the Kistler is offering more, but the Marcassin seems to have more in reserve. How nice it would be to taste these two wines side-by-side in a couple of years. (Dream on!)

      FLIGHT SIX (a vertical of Araujo Cab, with venison):

***+1994 Araujo Cabernet Sauvignon "Eisele Vineyard" is the most backward Cab of this flight, yet still bests all but one of its powerful brothers. Baby fat has fallen away, and the wine is all muscle right now. The characteristic chocolate-covered cherries show most on the 45-second finish.

Will ***+1995 Araujo Cabernet Sauvignon "Eisele Vineyard" ever shut down? Maybe not! It's still as lush as it was on release, yet also presents the densest core. The only time I ever was less than thrilled with this legend, the bottle was corked. Easily the RED WINE OF THE EVENING.

***1997 Araujo is running in fast company, but showing extremely well. Velvety texture that's not quite as sensuous as the '95 -- great finish that's not quite as long as the '94 -- but it's still got to be one of the best wines of this outstanding Napa Valley vintage.

***-1998 Araujo has the most tempting aromas of the flight, and delivers generously on the palate. Probably also holds the least in reserve for the future, but that's a relative thing. This is still probably a 15-year wine. Enjoy now or whenever you feel like it!


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