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July-August 2002


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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PUTTING ON THE DOG AT RAT'S. (August 10, 2002) So what are we doing drinking killer Cabs on the hottest day of a hellish summer? Hmm. I guess we're trying to live up to the ambiance of one of the most surreal restaurants I've ever set foot in.

     The food's good at Rat's and the service is great, but the star of this show is the setting. Tucked away in quiet, unassuming Hamilton, New Jersey, it feels like a cultural annex to Disney World. The restaurant itself (inspired by characters from The Wind in the Willows) is colorful enough -- sitting by a storybook lake, all but hidden on this blazing hot day by swirling mists from hidden swamp-coolers.

     But even this pales in my memory, compared to the 22 acres in back. The dreamlike creation of sculptor J. Seward Johnson and friends, it's part sculpture garden, part French impressionist never-never land. Life-size, 3D recreations of Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party, Manet's Picnic on the Grass and other classics are set in landscapes exactly like those you see in the paintings. You look for water-lilies as you walk over a replica of Money's arching bridge at Giverney. Further down the path lie a skillion more outdoor sculptures by other artists.

     Anyhow, after snapping our fill of photos outdoors (click here to see a few views), we cooled off inside and settled into...

     FLIGHT 1

***1997 Marcassin Chardonnay "Hudson Vineyard." Oak blows off in about 15 minutes, revealing complex fruit that's still pretty primary, plus buckets of mineral flavors. Lingering finish.

***+1990 Zind Himbrecht Riesling Vendange Tardive "Clos Windsbuhl". Huge stuff. Soaring nose. Lush texture. Penetrates on the palate. Not showing sweet anymore, but dripping with petrol and pineapple. Near-perfect performance from a wine that rarely disappoints.

**+1994 Chave Hermitage Blanc. Bitter almonds and quince with a long, steely finish. Opens impressively through the course. 

    FLIGHT 2

**+1989 Raymond-Lafon (Sauternes). Still extremely young, showing little but sugar at first. Takes a while to show the botrytis flavors -- then they get exciting. Mighty fine marzipan aftertaste. Super match to the cold foie gras.

**-1991 Schoffit Tokay Pinot Gris Rangen "Clos St. Theobald". Not as sweet as the Raymond-Lafon, but reassuringly fruity and tangy, show big apricot and cumquat flavors.

***+1999 Cuilleron Condrieu "Essence díAutomne". Wow, this wine is so amazingly fragrant! Honeysuckle, violets, like spring in a scent-garden. Sweet and unctuous when you sip it. Who needs goose liver? This is a course in itself.

     FLIGHT 3

*++1996 Chicotot Nuits Saint George "Les Pruliers." Very, very tight. Tantalizing cherry-raspberry fruit that hints but never delivers. Maybe it needs a few more years. Whatever. Onto the next...

**+1991 Meo-Camuzet Vosne Romanťe "Les Brulees." Riot of aromas including game, raspberry, bacon and red cherry. Shows some oxidation that disappears as the fruit swells. Nice enough, but stomped by...

***1986 Williams-Selyem Pinot Noir Rochioli Vineyard. A fully mature classic that delights fans (like me) of Rochioli fruit. Sexy and silky, featuring tightly focused, ultra-ripe cherry flavors with no hint of tannin. Mouthwatering finish.

***+1995 Kistler Pinot Noir Cuvťe Catherine. Seven years from vintage, this is still just a pup. Super-concentrated, with a tightly coiled core of cherries and raspberries that only begins to unwind after an hour of swirling. Balance for aging.

FLIGHT 4

***+1990 Le Tertre Roteboeuf. Chocolate fudge spooned over a bowl of berries. Sensuous texture, like ice cream. Concludes long and loud, trailing almond nuances. Taste this blind and you'd be nuts not to guess California Cab, but of course it's French Merlot. Pleasure-fiends have no trouble naming this wine of the evening and I can't really argue.

***+1990 Latour. Wonderful aromas of tobacco, mineral and berry. Best nose of the flight, though not the most concentrated on the palate. One taster disses it for this reason. Aw, c'mon. Look at what it's up against. This is a great wine with penetrating flavors, and the first one I finish.

***+1997 Harlan Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. Wine from another planet. Plays a perilous game and succeeds in spades. Ultra, ultra, ultra-ripe fruit that's just a shade short of pruney. Texture is almost syrupy. Fabulous stuff, but is it Cab? I guess I don't care. This and ***+1989 Petrus may be the most amazing wines I've tasted all year. WINE OF THE EVENING.

1997 Araujo Eisele Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. RUINED BY CORK-TAINT.

When ***+1994 Dominus doesn't win its flight, you know the competition's stiff. Lives up to my notes from a week before, but the Harlan can't be denied.


'91 VS. '94 NAPA CABS. (August 3, 2002) Of all the endless arguments we grape-geeks bore our friends with, I personally like to debate Napa Valley's best Cabernet vintage (preferably with the wines in front me). So far, we've pretty much narrowed the choice to 1991 or 1994. Tonight we matched a few of the best from each vintage, head to head:

'91 vs. '94 Joseph Phelps "Insignia". These two differ the most of all the match-ups tonight. Mature and kind of kinky, **+1991 offers aromas of violets, tobacco and a bit of bacon. Pours plenty of fruit on the palate, with game and herb accents reminiscent of Bordeaux. But the awesome ***+1994 hasnít changed much from my barrel-tasting notes. Boatloads of blackberry and black cherry, charged with a touch of Asian spice. Not even close. '94 kicks tail.

'91 vs. '94 Chteau Montelena. Twenty years from now, these two wines might rule the evening. Both seethe with blackcurrant fruit, but they're also clearly the toughest on the table. The ***+ 1991 is so enormous, you might not guess its tannin-levels until they kick in on the finish. The ***1994 is even more primary and grapey, but seems to linger a little less. Most of us favor the '91.

'91 vs. '94 Dominus. What a high-class problem here! Both are open for business and each could be WINE OF THE EVENING. Just a tad softer, the ***+1991 has developed more of the earthy notes so characteristic of Napanook Vineyard wines. The ***+1994 may be a touch sterner and fruitier. Both dominate (get it?) your attention, thrill every scent-receptor and transport every tastebud you possess. Tonight it's a tie. I would guess the '94 may be longer-lived.

'91 vs. '94 Araujo "Eisele Vineyard". Coming after all the above, the **1991 puts in a disappointing performance. Shows a good deal of the expected black cherry and chocolate, but thins on the finish. I've had better bottles.  The ***1994 is much more like the Araujo I love. Like many '94s, it needs a few more years to open fully. Clear advantage here to the '94.

     Just for fun, we also threw in three foil-wrapped mystery Cabs...

Blind Cab #1. Big, black berry-cherry fruit, shaded by Asian spice. Broad, generous, deep, dynamite! Slight grassiness indicating perhaps some Cab Franc in the blend. The flavors alone are a dead giveaway and the bottle-shape clinches this is ***1999 Joseph Phelps Insignia.

Blind Cab #2. Somewhat similar to the above, but there's a bit more red cherry, some licorice and a tinge of mint on the tail. Lot of substance, excellent coda and seems to me like pure Cabernet Sauvignon. I guess 1992 Beringer Reserve. Close, but it's **+1993 Joseph Phelps "Backus Vineyard".

Blind Cab #3. Straight-down the middle Cab flavors, in a big but beautifully balanced package. Fruit, tannin, acid and everything come up aces. Lots of blackberry, hint of vanilla bean, walloping Cab finish. Everyone's stumped. It's the amazing ***+1991 Forman Cabernet Sauvignon.

     And we did open some whites, including...

***+1997 Peter Michael Chardonnay "Point Rouge". If acid and focus are your thing, you may prefer this to the near-perfect Chard below. Sharp attack, laser-like fruit, roller-coaster finish. Out-Burgundies Burgundy. How do they do it? Choosing is tough, but ultimately this gets my nod for CHARD OF THE EVENING.

***+ 1996 Kistler Chardonnay "Cuvťe Kathleen". Pure California and proud of it. Butterscotch aromas that fan out to mango, papaya and fresh dough. Absolutely coats the palate. Ample acid, but softer and rounder than the PM.

***1996 Marcassin Chardonnay "Lorenzo Vineyard". Criticized at first by one taster for being splintery, it rapidly develops with air and blows off the oak. Bravo. Remarkably similar in character to the Kistler, but perhaps a tad riper.

**+ 1996 Paul Pernot Bienvenue-Batard Montrachet. Worthy stuff, but can't even win tonight on its strengths as a Burg. Shows more minerals and less obtrusive oak than the Kistler and Marcassin, but doesn't have the stature, while Point Rouge outshines it on its own merits.


REACH FOR THE ROSSO. (July 30, 2002) Hyped to the moon, 1997 Brunellos are unfindable, unaffordable or both, but we do have alternatives. Lowly Rossos from the same producers are giving a whole lot of bang for one-third the bucks. Tonight we tried...

*++2000 Ciacci Piccolomini Rosso di Montalcino. Bright red cherry flavors with cherry-blossom fragrance and quite a nice finish. Opens soft and lush, then just gets juicier as the night wears on.

*++2000 Livio Sassetti "Pertimali" Rosso di Montalcino. More acidic and structured than the Ciacci, it rewards patient airing with a bravura performance. Similar flavors to the Ciacci, even fuller on the palate, though perhaps a little less tempting to the nose.

      Both blew away a more famous Italian costing three times as much...

*--1995 Paolo Scavino Barolo Bric del Fiasc. Still pretty tannic, offering some florals and plum flavors. Okay in its way, but largely ignored in favor of the far sexier Rossos.

     Also tasted tonight...

**-2000 Vieux Telegraph Chteauneuf-du-Pape (Blanc) Perfect white for tonight's tough-to-match broccoli rabe appetizer, it asserts itself and cleanses the palate with a squirt of lemon, then caresses with almond, hazelnut and kiwi flavors, finishing well.


GREAT WITH GRILLED SALMON (July 18, 2002) I normally shrink from serving Pinot Noir on the patio, because the aromas get knocked away by any breeze. But grilled salmon is such a perfect match to the heartbreak grape that we made an exception -- took out some big balloon glasses -- and it worked:

**1999 Girardin Volnay "Clos de Chene" is just beginning to get drinkable. Dark and dense for a Volnay, it fools some folks into guessing "New World." Cinnamon, allspice and mineral aromas give interest all the berry flavors that linger convincingly after every sip.

**-2000 Capiaux Russian River Valley "Widdoes Vineyard" is actually gamier than the Burgundy! A hint of sweat on the nose might fool an unwary taster. But the raspberry flavors are so ripe, and the texture so silky, that our friends correctly guess the country of origin. Although slightly smaller scaled than the Volnay, this wine actually beats it on finesse -- exactly what you wouldn't expect.

Alongside these pretties, **+1995 Sean Thackery "Orion" (mostly Syrah) seems like it needs another 3 years of cellar time. Sandalwood and seaweed aromas, followed by buckets of blackberry flavors. Lingering finish that seems more than a tad tannic tonight.


2000 CNDP KICKS TAIL (July 5, 2002) So if you had a $30 Chteauneuf du Pape sitting beside a $150 Opus One, which would you drink first? As it happens, the answer tonight is Opus One, but not by much. Here's the lineup:

**-1989 Leoville Barton is classic Bordeaux coming into its own. Generous aromas of leather, currant and tobacco, medium body and still some tannin on the finish. No blockbuster, but a swell dinner wine, sized just right for my pheasant and truffled mashed potatoes. Tough not to drink, but you can hold it for years to come.

*+1988 Leoville Barton reveals the difference between the two vintages. Sterner stuff from sniff to finish, though still enjoyable. The question is whether it stands to gain anything from further cellaring. Might lose some tannin, but is there enough fruit?

*++1995 Kistler Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast has lost some of its childhood oomph and gained a little complexity. But you know, I kind of liked it better as a kid. Good juice, needs drinking, lets leave it at that. Makes me think I should enjoy my remaining sensational '97s while they're still fat and sassy.

***+1997 Opus One is served blind and frankly fools me. The nose is just amazing right now -- violets galore, with a hint of gaminess. Take a sip and you swoon for the strawberries and ripe currants. And there's so much finesse to this wine. Maybe that's what throws me off. I guess it for a heavy-hitter Bordeaux from 1995 or 1990 or maybe, just maybe, very ripe Cabernet Franc from who knows where. This has got to be the most opulent Opus I've tasted to date.

But the one I'll be buying more of is **+2000 Domaine de Beaurenard (Chteauneuf du Pape). Cherry pie on the nose, followed up by focused flavors of kirsch and pomegranate. Plenty of alcohol but carries it with aplomb. Huge concentration, finishes strong. All for about $30! (If the regular bottling is this good, I'm tempted to hunt down some of the Cuvťe Boisrenard.)


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