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March-April 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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CRAZY FOR CROZES HERMITAGE. (April 24, 2003) Producer Albert Belle first hit my radar screen with the 1990 vintage. Feeling stingy, I sprang only for his bargain *-1990 Albert Belle Crozes Hermitage "Les Pierelles."

     It was good enough stuff ten years ago, but who'd a thunk it would still be alive today?

     I had a backup handy when I pulled the cork of this long-misplaced cellar orphan. No need! Still very dark, though going vaguely garnet at the rim. Bacon and seaweed flavors recede to reveal a tasty blackcurrant core. Wouldn't call it youthful or age it another day -- but try a drink before you dump!


WHAT GOES WITH GEFILTE FISH? (April 19, 2003) You might think this an impossible task, but not if you've got great gefilte fish. Our friends have an unusually tasty recipe, yielding a smoothly textured, delicately flavored dish that cozies up well to just about anything. Tonight we tried it against...

     WHITES (served blind)

Honeydew melon and grapefruit flavors with a little spritz, presumably from recent bottling. Good texture, finishes well. Acidity surprisingly moderate, given what it turns out to be. Reminds me of a fruity, ripe New World Sauvignon Blanc at this stage, but it's actually *++ 2001 Maximin Grnhuser QbA Bruderberg Riesling.

No mistaking this one. Pure mineral flavors with slippery mouthfeel. It's**1989 -Bernard Morey Chassagne Montrachet "Les Caillerets."

Some oak shows at first, but quickly moderates, and whoa, what a finish! Lots of stuffing here. One taster understandably mistakes this for Coche-Dury, but it's ***-2000 Aubert Chardonnay "Ritchie Ranch." My first taste of master winemaker Mark Aubert's new venture, and I'm mightily impressed. Mark made the Peter Michael wines for years, but I like the minerally flavors, finesse and balance of this one even more than many PMs.

     REDS (served blind

A little cinnamon, a bit of beetroot and a great big wallop of cherry, with nuances of wet stones trailing on the finish. No one's fooled.  Plainly a fine New World Pinot. Yes, it's **1997 Martinelli Pinot Noir Reserve.

Ripe red cherry, Bordelaise herb and a very good, chocolately finish. Gotta be Right Bank Bordeaux. Reminds me a lot of 1990 Bon Pasteur and I'm not too far off -- it's **1990 Petit Village (Pomerol).

Final wine is the most fun of all. A twist of herb, a gush of blackcurrant, a hint of licorice on the long finish. No noticeable oak, lots of elegance. Bit of tannin, but not too much. I guess a great Pauillac from 1989 or 1988. And am I ever floored when the foil comes off and it's ***+1987 Dunn Cabernet Sauvignon "Howell Mountain"! All those guys who guffawed this tough baby would never come around should have a sip now. Wins tonight's beauty pageant and even minds its manners aside the gefilte fish.


SHOWING THE FLAG (April 6, 2003) Picking a theme for dinner tonight was not too tough. Justifying the prices for some of these American boutique beauties -- well, that's another subject. But for now, let's lift the chips off our shoulders and simply enjoy the pleasures of:

**++1992 Barnett Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Estate. Some tasters gripe about off-flavors -- free country, but they're wrong. My two cents says this is the sexiest red tonight. Floral scents seduce you and buckets of berries seal the deal. A hint of strawberry-rhubarb pie hits you on the finish. There's some tannin here, as with many of the better '92s, but an hour's decanting could have solved that handily.

***+1992 Ridge Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon is also still a little tannic, but a few swirls and a couple of bites of duck breast end that dilemma. Big, black, cuddly bear cub of a Cab. Loads of fun now and should be even more powerful when it grows up. Little dill on the finish reminds you it's Monte Bello, but that's part of the deal. Decant if drinking now, or hold 20 more years. RED OF THE EVENING.

**2000 Signorello "Padrone" is plenty big and juicy, but doesn't quite develop as well as the Barnett and Monte Bello. I like the black cherries, appreciate the Bordeaux-type minerals and love the texture even at this stage. Give it five more years in the cellar and it may score higher.

***-1997 Tom Eddy Napa Valley puts in another fine performance, although it can't knock Monte Bello off the podium. More acidic than the three above, which will please some and offend others. Once again develops lovely cherry-kirsch flavors as the hours tick by.

*++1998 Hourglass Cabernet Sauvignon frustrates me tonight. Like the size, adore the fruit, but can't get used to the oak. Could well be it's just too young. Some like it better than I. Regret I wasn't able to sample it again at the end of the dinner.

***1997 Kistler Pinot Noir "Sonoma Coast" has no trouble standing up to the Cabs, and very nearly beats the bunch on their own turf. Brimming with cherries and raspberries, it's almost like a wine smoothie, but longer, far longer.


FRANCE & AMERICA (March 16, 2003) Sigh. I only wish the nations could get along as well as the wines tonight. They matched up so happily, eight people sat down for five hours and didn't discuss politics once. All were served blind and here's what happened...

     WHITES

**1997 Nicolas Joly SavenniPres "Clos de la Coule" is pretty obviously French, but no one guesses Chenin Blanc. Aromas of daffodil give way to Winesap apple flavors, finishing with a drumroll of stones. Pretty tight at evening's start, so I saved a bit in my glass 'til dessert. Even better.

There's no disguising the grape or producer for ***+1990 Zind Humbrecht Gewrztraminer Heimbourg Vendange Tardive. This stuff has never been better! You can sniff the roses two feet away from the glass. Sweet, sexy, spicy and a stunning match to Mushroom Soup with Pear Conserve and Cumin Oil. (Yet another proof that great Alsace can handle anything.)

     PINOT NOIR

*++1985 Leroy Monthelie has to be Burgundy -- strawberry, mineral, dirty socks -- but no one even comes close to guessing the commune. Starts out incredibly funky, then shapes up in a hurry, holding up well over the hour it stays in my glass. I've had Leroy's Monthelie once before and was impressed then too.

Must say I could get used to **+1998 DuMol Pinot Noir Russian River Valley. Someone said "Kistler." I wouldn't say it's quite that big, but it does have intense berry flavors and a long finish. The earthiness is an added turnon -- just enough to be sensual. Finesse, California-style.

I scratch my head over the final Pinot, then guess it might be Australian. It isn't, but at least I'm in the right hemisphere. *++2000 Hamilton Russell Vineyards Pinot Noir "Walker Bay" is the best South African Pinot I can remember tasting. Bright cherry with beetroot on the finish. Needs a few more years, I'd say.

     BIG REDS

From first sniff, I'm certain that **+1987 Duckhorn Merlot 3 Palms Vineyard is St. Emilion and Pomerol. Symphony of cedar, chocolate, bright red cherry and a touch of Bordelaise herb. Opens beautifully over the next 30 minutes, berries smothering any trace of wood. "Hey," says I, "at least I got the grape." Great ringer! This could be the fourth or fifth time I've seen Duckhorn Merlots or Cabs fool the table.

Having disgraced ourselves with the Duckhorn, we then decide **--1982 Petit Village (Pomerol) must be California Cab. Black cherry shaded by sandalwood with a hint of nail polish. Best this wine has ever tasted in my experience.

At least one taster hits paydirt with **++1990 Les Tourelles de Longueville, declaring that it must be great Paulliac. I only a wish I could have collared more of this second wine from Chteau Pichon-Baron back when it was under $20! A little more angular than big brother, but deep, dark and delicious enough. Lead pencil is the giveaway, but the ocean of blackcurrant leads some to assume California.

I wish I could say ***1998 Behrens & Hitchcock Cabernet Sauvignon Kenefick Vineyard is not my favorite red tonight, but you know? There's a reason these wines develop cults! Cherry preserve, piecrust, a touch of rhubarb and a very convincing finish. Pure yum and plenty of it. I've heard purists say they dislike the hint of dill in B&H Cabs. Lighten up, guys.


FAT TUESDAY WARMUP WINES (March 3, 2003) Truthfully, I don't know a soul who's planning on giving up wine for Lent, but our friends don't need more than the barest excuse to pull out big fat wines. The following accompanied a multi-course feast:

     SWEETIES

***+1995 Chteau Tirecul Monbazillac "Cuve Madame." Let there be no doubt this wine is fantastic -- unworldly in its richness and sweetness, like sex in outer space. We're divided, however, on how well it matches the food, which in this case is big chunks of hot foie gras in an apple-scented sauce. We taste, eat, taste, eat, taste, eat, and most praise the result to the skies. ("Is there only one foie gras course?" asks one hopeful taster.) Personally, however, I think this wine is really best all by itself. My prize for best foie gras enhancer goes to a technically lesser contender...

**++1986 Lafaurie-Peyraguey (Sauternes). Not nearly as unctuous as the Tirecul, but you know what? It cozies up to the foie gras instead of stealing the show. Flavors of botrytis, burnt cumquat, dried apricot and other goodies make my heart go galumph in between bites.

     PINOT NOIR

Frankly this flight is a bit of a dud, and I'm not sure the wines are to blame. For one thing, the food is duck salad with curry sauce, better matched to Gewrztraminer. More importantly, the sweet wines of the previous course totally nuked our palates, and it takes more than water to wash away the endless finish of the Tirecul. Be that as it may...

1994 Talbott Pinot Noir "Case" isn't showing much at all. A few years back, this wine was humming with cherries and tea. Now the autumn leaves are tumbling.

*-?1999 Merry Edwards Pinot Noir Russian River Valley is tight as a drum, but seems to open a bit more after about 30 minutes. Couldn't follow it further. Final judgement reserved.

Clearly the class of the course is **-1999 Domaine Serene Pinot Noir "Evenstadt Reserve" -- perfumed, fruity, meaty, everything you could ask for in a young Pinot Noir. I would have liked a little more oomph, but might have sensed more in a context friendlier to Pinot Noir.

     ITALIANS

***1998 Paolo Scavino Barolo "Bric del Fiasc" takes me totally by surprise. I'm not the world's biggest Barolo fan, but this wine is WOW with pasta and shaved truffles. Roses rule the nose and plums plunk a sonata on the palate.

**1997 Antinori VDT "Solaia". Berries and chocolate are out in force, and the texture is deliciously dense. No complaints and I'd happily drink it again, but this evening the Scavino rules. May have needed another two hours or so in a decanter.

     BORDEAUX

***1982 Chteau La Mission Haut Brion is textbook Graves and the most perfectly mature wine of the evening. Cigar-scented, lush, juicy, singing its great big heart out tonight. Basically all you could ask for, were it not that you could also ask for...

***+1989 Chteau Haut Brion! I love my La Mission, but oh you kid! Take all the tobacco, fruit and meat of the '82 La Mission and add something extra at the core. Deep as the ocean, but you can't dive all the way down tonight. Needs about 10 years. (So what!)

     CALIFORNIA CABERNET

Much as I love the Bordeaux, ***+1994 Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon "Hillside Select" is ON tonight and will not be surpassed. Black cherry to the power of ten, with emphasis on the BLACK. Plus, unlike the Haut Brion, this technically tannic titan tastes impossibly supple and velvety. WINE OF THE EVENING, although its companion is no slouch...

***1998 Harlan Estate Proprietary Red Wine is dissed by some, but I humbly beg to differ. Yes, this bruiser is backward and gruff, but what a wallop it packs! I remember when heavenly ***+1991 Harlan was a hulking tot and predict this vintage, though not quite as immense, will follow suit.


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