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January-June 2004


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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EXOTICA (May 16, 2004) Don't want to gush, but it seems to me the very top New World winemakers have raised the bar yet again with the 2001 and 2002 vintages.

     The wines aren't necessarily bigger than before -- that would be tough, because the best wines of the '90s could be enormous. But the flavors are increasingly pure and distinctive -- especially the fruit and floral notes. The following wines recently rang all the chimes in my pleasure-center.

***+2002 Shirvington Cabernet Sauvignon is not what I was expecting from Australia. The American oak is pretty laid-back -- you can taste the dill only if you hunt for it -- and the wine is so well assembled that two folks tasting it blind mistake it for 2000 Bordeaux in the first few minutes after it's poured. As minutes tick by and the fruit flows, they change their guess to Napa Valley. Wrong again, but I don't blame them. You get gushers of very pure blackberry and blackcurrant, with a suggestion of raspberry Chambord on the lengthy finish. If you're fortunate enough to find a few, grab 'em -- and prepare to change your mind about Australian Cab.

***2001 Forman Cabernet Sauvignon has to be Ric Forman's finest since his astonishing 1991. It may not be quite as big, but it's even more complex. Takes an hour to emerge in my sizable glass, so decant if you're planning on robbing the cradle. When things finally start happening, they come thick and fast -- lots of classic Cabernet flavor, followed by licorice, band-aid, and wait a minute, is that blueberry? Violets too. Bravo, Ric. Must see if I can find a few more.

***-2001 Behrens and Hitchcock Kenefick Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon is the most fruit-drenched of this delicious quartet, though it doesn't quite match the scale of the other three. Black cherry, tobacco and a hint of guava. Rose petal aromas rise from the glass. Ooh. Gotta stop thinking about it. Almost drooled on the keyboard.

***Arietta Variation #1 Hudson Vineyard may be the most exotic and puzzling of the bunch, with flavors of blackberry, strawberry, tapenade and chocolate. Tasting it blind, I mistake it for an older wine from Howell Mountain, because it's very smooth and resolved. However, it's jet black and holds up well throughout the evening. It's 60% Merlot and 40% Syrah. Not sure I'd cellar this one for more than a few years, but it certainly offers gorgeous drinking now.


HOW GOOD IS GALLO? (April 26, 2004) Remember back when Gallo released their first "really serious" Cabernet? Many of us were appalled that they dared to charge $60 for ***-1991 Gallo Northern Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon. But a friend served it blind to me recently, and I've got to say I was sucked in. It's still very dark and I guessed it to be a much younger wine. It's got depth, lots of fruit, some herbal complexity, and it didn't fade overnight in the fridge. 


CANADA RIESLING -- FOR REAL. (April 26, 2004) A while back, a winemaker friend gives me a bottle of **--1999 Cave Spring Vineyard Riesling Niagara Peninsula. "Try it," he says. "You'll be impressed." But alas, my cellar lacks a Canada corner. So the bottle kind of gets lost until I happen upon it last night. 
     I'm expecting something just okay. I worry it may have faded. But the first sip is fairly seductive and as hours tick by, it gets better. A whiff of diesel.  Some honeysuckle. The palate is peaches and apricot stones. Finish is very respectable. What have we here? I really like it! Twenty-four hours later, I'm taking another taste. Still really good. 


HOW OLD IS TOO OLD? (April 16, 2004) I'm in love with New World Pinot Noir, but wouldn't think of getting married. Five to seven years after vintage, the romance usually sputters and dies. Lately I've been revisiting some old flames with predictable results:

*++1991 Mongeard-Mugneret Echezeaux Vielles Vignes serves as my Burgundy benchmark for this exercise. Oxidation blows off in about 15 minutes, revealing a fine weave of strawberry and mineral flavors. Elegant, gracious and all that good stuff, but gone is the oomph of yesteryear. One taster professes to like it a lot. I liked it lots better five years ago.

*1994 Rochioli Pinot Noir Estate is supposed to be a decent ager and sure enough, hasn't dropped off the cliff. Over the evening, it opens to show some cherries and pomegranate flavors. Finesse freaks will appreciate it. Tonight I would have preferred a flashier date.

1997 Castalia Pinot Noir Rochioli Vineyard is dead, buried, pushing up daisies. No getting around it. I pour some into the griddle pan with my salmon. Doesn't even do so well there. This wine was delicious on release. With its Rochioli pedigree (same vineyard, same winemaker), I assumed it could go a greater distance.

1998 Panther Creek Freedom Hill Vineyard is so oxidized, I open another just to make sure it isn't a fluke. It isn't. This annoys me a lot, because I was told it was too stiff to drink on release! I'll give it the benefit of the doubt -- perhaps my bottles were damaged in transit back when I acquired them. Does anyone else have recent experience with this wine? [NOTE: Since the original posting, readers have written back with better experiences.]

At last some good news. **+1993 Beaux FrPres Pinot Noir is aging just beautifully. What a class act! Strawberries, minerals, a hint of raspberry, everything I hoped for. Nearly dumb on release, it's turned out better than most of the 1993 Burgs that I so carefully selected. Congratulations to Mike Etzel. (Or, as his brother-in-law would say -- kudos!)

**1995 Dehlinger Goldridge Vineyard is equally fine, if a bit less intense. Here we have more of the Russian River Valley red-cherry thing -- but this one too is more complex and interesting than it was on release. I wouldn't hold it much longer, but right now this is great intellectual date.

And **--2001 St. Innocent White Rose Vineyard kind of proves my point. It's so young and pretty! Red berries and floral notes. So much more fun than all but a couple of the above. Sure it might age well, but why risk it? Finish one off tonight.


A NEW NAPA STAR. (April 16, 2004) I sampled this wine twice in the past few weeks just to make sure I really liked it this much -- then opened another recently because I simply couldn't resist. ***2001 Veraison Synchrony Stagecoach Vineyard is plush, thick and bursting with blackberry fruit. Shows plenty of supple tannin, but it's very accessible right now. This is a winery to watch. Wonder when the 2002 will come on the market? Soon, I hope!


BOGART THESE WINES (March 6, 2004) I like to taste as much as the next geek, but some wines are simply off-limits. They must not be measured out by the ounce, slurped and spat -- it's sensory torture. The following wines should only be opened with reverence, a few friends and plenty of time:

     WHITES

***+1998 Peter Michael Chardonnay Point Rouge is, well, let's not beat around the bush. One of the sexiest, most intense blond bombshells I've ever met from any country. On the rare occasions I've tasted Point Rouge, it's usually been years from maturity. This one's at peak -- crPme brule to the max, with a 45-second finish. My friends often kid me for dumping the whites early on, but this doll's going nowhere. I want to keep sampling it all evening long. Whew.

***+1997 Marcassin Chardonnay Lorenzo may not be quite as big, but Burgundy-lovers may prefer its focus. It's mostly minerals and metal, with a wild streak of mango right down the middle. We go back and forth between this and the Point Rouge. They're so different. Really depends on your mood. And your mood's going to flip whenever you sip.

Just when you thought no other white could possibly claim your attention, ***+2001 Sine Qua Non "Albino" slips in and seizes the stage. Who the heck is this mutt? Chardonnay, Roussane and Viognier? How dare they? How will it age? WHO CARES! Oily texture... quince and apricot flavors... floral aromas... phenomenal.

     REDS

***+1993 Colgin Herb Lamb Vineyard opens in about 15 minutes, and the vanilla of its youth has dropped away. Mature and voluptuous. The blueberry and cherry pie are juicy as ever, the violets in full blossom. Is Colgin the world's most seductive red? Tonight for sure.

***+1997 Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon Hillside Select shows pretty much identically to my tasting note from January. It may not have the curves of the Colgin, but there's no denying its depth. Coin toss whether this or the Point Rouge are WINE OF THE EVENING.

Close on its heels is ***+2000 Sine Qua Non In Flagrante. Take the Colgin, make the fruit darker and give it more youthful tannins. Swap out the violets for honeysuckle. That's about what you get here tonight. California Syrah doesn't get more tempting. Yes, thanks, I'll have a bit more.

Is it fair to bring ***-1998 Merus Cabernet Sauvignon into this crowd? Tightly wound compared to the trio above, it eventually wins respect. Dried cherry and cranberry are the first flavors to play, then casiss and pomegranate pour forth. Super stuff! First time I've tasted it. If they fielded this fine a wine in 1998, what happened in 2001?


IS THIS VINTAGE CRACKING UP? (March 3, 2004) Count on it like the swallows of spring -- at least once a year,  rumors will spread on bulletin boards that a well-thought-of vintage or wine is cracking up. The latest debate is about California Cabs from the 1990s and 1994 in particular.

     ANSWER: No, the better ones are singing! In fact, I've been drinking well-reviewed Cabs from the early '90s quite a bit lately, and they've never been better. But there's often a grain of truth behind every crack-up panic. Here are my usual suspects:

1. Storage, storage, storage. I wish it were nitpicking to insist on perfect storage for wines you won't drink immediately. Tain't so, alas. As years go by, you'll dependably see bad tasting notes on great wines that were not purchased in perfect condition and stored in a temperature- controlled unit.

2. If you're dying to taste a damaged bottle, buy a trophy wine on the secondary market. Many wines offered at auction are in perfect condition, but I've tasted a lot of disappointments. The more times a wine changes hands, the more likely it is to be a clunker. People tend to sell off their mistakes.

3. Free-floating anxiety. Bad bottles do happen, even in good cellars. A wine geek who has sunk many bucks into a big stash can get squirrely on such occasions. Feel his pain, but don't be quick to share his panic. If  you can't find your keys, it probably doesn't mean you have Alzheimer's.

4. Even great wines change as they age. Barrel samples are different from wines at release and the latter won't taste the same seven years later. Ideally, what happens is that the baby fat drops, the tannins moderate, and the underlying fruit is revealed. If you're in it for the baby fat, sell off your cellar and drink all your wines at release.

     HINT: Give an "adolescent" wine at least an hour to open. The aging process doesn't always happen in sync, and the result can be a temporarily awkward-tasting wine. But even a dumb wine can improve amazingly in a large glass or decanter. In the first hour after you open it, the wine can taste pretty lean -- but if you're patient, you'll often find the tannins yield. This is exactly what happened last night, when I opened...

**1994 Viader Proprietary Red Wine. I've watched other vintages of this wine fool tasters who rush to judgment. Tonight's bottle follows form. In the first fifteen minutes, you taste the blackcurrant and can't help noticing herbal notes from the Cabernet Franc in this blend. As minutes tick by, the initial fruit fades and tannins clamp down. But hang in there! Everything comes into balance after about an hour of airing and you're left with violets, cassis and a bit of cedar, like a fine St. Emilion. Cracking up? No way!


OZ SHIRAZ & ALL THAT JAZZ (February 26, 2004) I've been berated for neglecting the tasting notes. Sorry friends, here's amends from a recent Oz-a-thon.

     Some of these wines were very impressive, but in general I found them much of a muchness. This is an oft-heard criticism of Australian wines that I usually dismiss as snobbery. But tonight, well...maybe I wasn't paying attention or maybe the wines weren't deserving. Anyhow, let's start with the good news:

Even if you're feeling grumpy, ***+1998 Killibinbin Shiraz is impossible to bash. A lick of licorice is followed by buckets of bramble-berry, bing cherry and other beauties. Someone sniffs about the oak. Aw c'mon. A puppy jumps in your lap, licks your face, and you're gonna argue about the breed?

**++1998 Warrenmang 1998 Estate Shiraz starts out sullen and brooding, but sweetens up convincingly over the course of a three-hour meal. Sugar-and-spice types might mind the earthy notes, but there's ample blackberry and blackcurrant too. Should age pretty well, but I'd drink it now, before the gaminess gets more severe. 

**2000 Noon Eclipse Grenache is righteous raspberry essence. Sort of reminds me of the 1995 Clarendon Blewitt when it was a babe. The latter didn't fare too well on a recent tasting, so I'd err on the side of infanticide here.

I threw in **+1992 Edmunds St. John Durell Vineyard Syrah from California, partly as a benchmark, but also to see how this favorite is faring. The answer is wonderful if you like mature Rhnes, but there's a tradeoff. The blueberry fruit of its infancy isn't quite as outasight. In its place you get leather, pepper and other Rhnish flavors. This trend can only intensify, so if you've got any, drink accordingly. It's not by any means over the hill, but I personally preferred it younger.

1998 Leamon Reserve Shiraz downright disappoints. Cherry and vanilla flavors thin out after about an hour, leaving behind a tart cranberry cocktail. It's drinkable and that's about it. Was it better on release? 

*1997 Rosemount Balmoral Shiraz is actually very nice, but not nicer than a twenty buck Rhne. Fruit, earth, balance, everything's here, but not quite enough for the money. (Notice how I'm running out of descriptors? That's what I mean by much of a muchness.)

Well, I sure can't accuse 1997 Irvine Grand Merlot of tasting like the others.  Served blind, it shows aromas of stewed beets and tastes like pruney charcoal. (NOTE: I can hardly believe this is the same wine I tasted and liked a lot, just a year and a half ago. I must assume some bottles were damaged in transit from Australia.)

And you can't blame Oz for producing 2001 La Planeta Syrah, which seems to be proof that not every wine out of Sicily is a bargain. Varietally correct, but too thin and short to  hold your interest. 

Finally, one of the tasters uncorks **2000 Turley Zinfandel Moore "Earthquake" Vineyard. It's not the biggest Moore I've tasted, but shows well against the Ozzies. Cassis, pepper and fennel, finishing well.


1996 vs. 1997 CALIFORNIA CABERNET (January 9, 2004) These two great vintages are starting to remind me a little of 1989 and 1990 Bordeaux. The earlier vintage is showing its bones, while the other tastes just as juicy as ever. No complaints about either, but if your corkscrew is getting itchy, I'd opt for the '97s and hold the major '96s a few more years. Here's how some of the big guns compared at a recent celebration:

***+1996 Shafer Hillside Select vs. ***+1997 Shafer Hillside Select. Virtually identical in their enormous scale, unending finish and seductive flavors of chocolate-covered cherries. The two contended for wine of the evening honors. But the 1996 is perceptibly more tannic. I'm not sure this means it will age longer than the 1997 -- both continue to open impressively throughout the evening. Note also that the '96 isn't as structured as the 1999, which may be the most backward Hillside I've ever tasted.

***-1996 Dominus vs. ***+1997 Dominus. Both are delicious. Both unmistakably from Napanook Vineyard, with aromas of violets and a leather, followed by flavors of cherries and red currants. But the 1997 clearly outsings its sibling. Some may fault it for being gamier, but there's more of everything going on. Why?

***+1997 Araujo goes from strength to strength every time I taste it. If anything, it's even more lush and fruity than it was on release! Kind of like 1990 Pichon-Baron, it refuses to drop its "baby fat." It also shares the minerals and lead pencil flavors of the PB. Would love to compare them blind sometime.

***1996 Jones Family is beginning to lose its baby fat, but what's left reminds me a bit of the young 1992 Peter Michael Les Pavots. Intense, focused red cherry flavors with a very convincing finish. Opens gradually to reveal voluptuous texture. No question, however, that it's not quite as plush as it was on release. I'm inclined to believe that the wine may age well, but there's no track record here. If you're in a mind to open one, it couldn't hurt to decant.

***+1996 Abreu gets some tongues wagging, but mine just hangs out in awe. To me, it's the wine of the evening -- a neutron star of blueberries, cranberries, blackberries and so berry, berry long. Others can't seem to get past the structure, calling it too acidic. Well, it does have more acidity than the Araujo, Domini and Shafers, but the balance is impeccable. Might be better in 10-15 years, but I'll probably never find out.


HYPE OR HERO? (January 1, 2004) 2001 Paloma Merlot is almost as black as the ocean of ink that's been spilled in its praise, but what does it taste like when you can't see the label? We served it blind to some platinum palates and, well... they were wow-wow-wowed! At this stage, it may still be splintery if sampled direct from the bottle, but an hour's decanting turns it into a beautiful box of fruit-filled chocolates. Voluptuous texture. Long finish. May age well, but why the heck would anyone wait when the debutante's so delicious today? Won't bother scoring it -- you get the picture. Good luck trying to find one!


UNSUNG SENSATION (January 1, 2004) Not only does Patrick Campbell deserve a medal for championing down-to-earth pricing, he's also created more than his share of out-of-this-world wines. We uncorked his ***+1992 Laurel Glen twice in the last few weeks, and both times it flew to the moon. HUGE bouquet of violets, followed by saddle soap and berries. Round and ripe on the palate, with supple tannin on the finish. Use your decanter if you have one -- otherwise, let it sit in the glass for an hour before tasting. 


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