Tasting Notes


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March-April 1999

Notes are in chronological order, with the latest at the top.

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GREAT FRUIT, LOUSY OAK. (April 29, 1999) I've been hearing complaints in some quarters about overuse of French or American Oak. Here's a different critter altogether.

     1996 J. Portugal Ramos Vila Santo (Vinho Regional Alentejo) is a big, dark, fruit bomb of a wine. The flavors make you think of Chambord. There’s so much red raspberry in the bottle, you’re practically picking seeds from your teeth.

     But then...something bitter cuts in. Tastes like I’ve been chewing bark. Yuck. What could it be? I check the back label. "Aged in Portuguese half casks."

     I’m all for local character, but please -- change the wood on this wine. At $14.99 per bottle, it was almost a great bargain.

ZIN & FOOD. (April 27, 1999) Some say that Zinfandel is a descendant of the Italian grape Primitivo. Some curmudgeons say it’s the other way around. However that may be, Zin goes great with Southern Italian food -- and we proved it last weekend at Franko & Luigi’s in the heart of South Philly.

The winner tonight was ***1995 Turley Whitney Tennessee Vineyard Zinfandel. A juicy, chewy young wine that gives all the toffee and cassis flavors your heart could desire. Yet it married beautifully, sip for bite, with my chicken and pasta in red sauce. Couldn’t ask for a better pasta wine.

More restrained -- but only relatively -- was **1995 Turley Duarte Vineyard Zinfandel. Way different in flavors too, emphasizing strawberries, minerals and even a little tobacco.

The only one that wanted to be by itself was *+1995 Turley Moore Vineyard Zinfandel (Late Harvest). This wine was vinified with a small amount of residual sugar -- and even so, it’s got 16.8% alcohol. Still there’s not a trace of heat and the wine seems remarkably balanced. But the sweetness, while pleasant, made the wine a little tougher to drink with the entree. Much better with my cannoli afterward.

     Over dinner, we all remarked on how well the wines were showing -- and how the alcohol some complain about really didn’t intrude. I’d love someday to do a blind tasting with Turley versus other Zins, and ask folks to try and guess the alcohol content of each wine.

SIERRA SUPER SYRAH. (April 24, 1999) I must credit Stuart Yaniger of  The Stupids for turning me on to the Sierra Foothills region in general (click here to see my article) and to**1997 Sierra Vista Syrah Herbert Vineyard in particular.

     When I visited the winery last month, I thought this wine was excellent value at the suggested retail of $18. Now I’ve found it closer to home and tried it again with consistent notes. What does it taste like? Well, think of Domaine Peyre Rose or Edmunds St. John. It’s that good. Deep, deep purple. Juicy black cherry and blueberry fruit. Lots of depth. Structure for aging. And it tasted even better after a day in the fridge.

LAUREL GLEN DOES IT AGAIN. (April 23, 1999) Patrick Campbell’s 1996 Quintana was so delicious, I felt sure that big brother must be commensurately grand. I finally opened the main event tonight. No disappointment!

     **+1996 Laurel Glen resembles the stellar 1994 with a bit less tannin and stuffing held in reserve -- and because it’s more accessible, I’m sure that some folks will like it even better. Big hit of violets on the nose, followed by cassis, lead pencil and a slight gamey note. Fabulous juice for the ‘96 vintage and one of the very best buys among California’s Big Boys.

95 TEST DRIVE .(April 21, 1999) Lunchtime. Walk into the wine store. Oh, look here. **+1995 Forman Cabernet Sauvignon! Plenty here still on the rack. Better buy a bottle before committing. Tonight, sashimi-grade tuna steaks. Good time. Can't wait.

     Wait. Five hours pass. Time! Pull the cork, glug, glug, glug. Sniff. Mmm. Lotta cassis and what’s that zing? Better taste. MMM. Major zing. I can taste several layers already. Better have another glass just to make sure.

     Okay, I’m sure. Buy more.

BURGLING THE CRADLE. (April 17, 1999) Will she age? Do I care? Not tonight! **1995 Bertagna Vosne Romanee "Les Beaux Monts" was crying to me from the depths of the cellar -- so I liberated her. She’s purple to deep ruby and speaks in seductive tones of pure raspberry. Not exactly fleshy but gracious and curvaceous. Classy and beautiful candidate for cradle robbery.

BLIND, CHEAP & ROWDY. (April 15, 1999)    The wines were tasted blind. As you might expect, the results were mixed. Some were good, a few were dreadful and a couple were just plain weird. None of them blew me away, but I did taste some that I really liked. And a number of these actually played by the rules -- meaning you could honestly buy them today for $12.99.

     THE WHITE FLIGHT. Not enough whites were tasted. Happily, a couple were very good.

White #1. Very pale, with faint aromas of pineapple and vanilla. Spicy on the palate, but kind of empty. Lots of acid. One taster says, "If this isn’t Alsace, I’ll leave the room." I say, "I don’t like it much, so it must be German Riesling." Another taster comments, "Chenin Blanc."And what do you know, it turns out to be 1997 Navarro Chenin Blanc. He flashes a told-you-so grin. I shrug.

White #2. Deeper gold. A ton of diesel! And on the palate, flavor! Well, this is wine. One taster guesses an old Spatelese. Yup, I say, gotta be. It turns out to be *1989 Peter Scherf Spatlese "Kaestler Nieschen" Riesling. A fine value. VOTED BEST OF FLIGHT.

White #3 arrived late, so it wasn’t tasted blind, although the label was incredibly moldy. It was nutty, earthy white Burgundy, matured to a perfect moment. *+1989 Saint-Bris Bourgogne Cuvee du Corps de Garde, purchased at the Domaine for $5. My choice for WHITE OF THE EVENING.


Red #1 has serious fruit but something strange on the nose. What is that? Banana? Anyhow, once you get beyond that flavor, it unfolds to be something more familiar. I guess a Cotes du Rhone or more likely a Languedoc Grenache. It turns out to be Chateau La Roque Pic St. Loup "Cupa Numismae." Others like it quite a bit, but I think it’s the weakest in a very strong flight.

Red #2. Very fruity nose with a touch of bubblegum. Broad, soft and boisterous on the palate and some flavors I usually associated with Beaujolais, but it could be any soft young wine made with whole-berry fermentation. I guess Beaujolais, without much conviction. but it turns out to be *1994 Domaine de Fontenille Cotes du Luberon. I’ve had this wine before, and never noticed how much the carbonic maceration shows. Blind tasting can be very revealing. Still, a very good wine for the money.

Red #3 is dark and more viscous than the other two. Very deep raspberry flavors, followed by strawberry. Some chocolate too, with meaurable tannin on the finish. Immensely enjoyable. It’s so fruity that I guess Zinfandel -- after all, someone must have brought Zin tonight. One taster says "no way," but offers no better guess. It’s *+1997 Falesco Merlot Umbria. VOTED BEST OF FLIGHT though nobody else guesses Merlot. Maybe we just didn’t expect such a serious wine could be bargain Merlot? I’ll award this part of a three-way tie for my DRY RED OF THE EVENING. (Frequent readers may remember this wine was recommended on our bargains page weeks ago!)


Red #4 is funky, tarry, but otherwise quite similar to Red #2. Peppery. Grenache. Well heck, I suddenly remember what I brought. I proclaim "Cotes du Luberon" and voila! It’s 1992 Domaine de Fontenille Cotes du Luberon. I had an unfair advantage, but at least I recognized it. Not showing as well as the 1994 and my least favorite of the flight.

Red #5 is full of delicious cherry and strawberry flavors, with an astringency on the finish. I like it. I guess a Loire red. Nope, it’s *1995 Ciacci Piccolomini Rosso di Montalcino but you’re out of luck if you want the 1997 release, because they just jacked up the price to $24. Yipe.

Red #6 has Cabernet aromas. Yummy, soft and fruity with chocolatey oak on the finish. Guessing goes all over the place, but I declare it a Sonoma Cab or some other oak-aged Bordeaux variety. Sure enough it’s *+1995 Villa Bel Air Graves. Another big vote for 1995 Bordeaux, though it doesn’t taste much like Graves.

     THIRD RED FLIGHT. (Note there was no Red #7.)

Red #8 Smells like a combination of prune juice and unbaked bread. Overripe and alcoholic. Like an Amarone without the fruit. I say its Italian. It’s 1997 Na Vota Ruche di Castagnole Monferrato (Cantine Sant’Agata) (Piedmont). If you don’t mind overripe fruit, this might ring your chimes, but I gotta say that I hate it.

Red #9 has really big fruit and more than a hint of whole berry fermentation. There also seems to be a substantial amount of oak tannin. I guess it to be a classy Cotes du Rhone or more likely a California Rhone Ranger. It turns out to be 1996 Domaine de St. Martin de la Garrigue. VOTED BEST OF FLIGHT.

Red #10 is lightly corked and I can’t get beyond that. It was 1994 Merlot Francois Labet Vin de Pays de L’Aude.

     FOURTH RED FLIGHT. (The flight from hell.)

Red #11 is, uh, the strangest wine of the evening. Tastes like kiwi-raspberry jello. What on earth could it be? Well, it turns out to be a Homemade Pinot Noir-Riesling Blend created by one of the tasters. Once you know that, you can sit back and say "Well, it’s not bad for a blend of Pinot Noir and Riesling." Why he decided to blend them is something he will have to answer himself.

Red #12 Light raspberry-strawberry flavors. Some wood tannin. Pleasant, if simple. No idea what it is. Turns out to be 1997 Syrah Cuvee de la Coutiat. VOTED BEST OF FLIGHT, but I marginally prefer the previous concoction.

Red #13. Strong stench of musty wood. Corked? Or just a ton of old American oak? "Horrible Spanish wine," says one taster. Sounds like a reasonable guess to me, not to mention a great descriptor. Turns out to be 1989 Valfornosa Penedes "Gran Riserva".

     FIFTH RED FLIGHT. (Note, there are no wines #15 or #16.)

Red #14 is full of beautiful strawberry fruit, with some herb and leather. Seems easy enough. I guess an older Bordeaux. Lovely stuff, especially after the last flight. It’s *+1989 La Faurie Maison Neuve Lalande de Pomerol. BEST OF FLIGHT by an almost unanimous vote. Tied with two others for DRY RED OF THE EVENING.

Red #17.Weedy dill and cedar. Strong, fruity, oaky aromas. Strawberry sundae. Not bad! California. It’s 1996 Seghesio Zinfandel.

Red #18 is also pretty darned good! Herb, cassis aromas. Shouts "Bordeaux" at you and sure enough it’s *1990 Chateau Moulin Rouge Haut Medoc. You know, this is turning into rout for France and Italy! Could have won any preceding red flight except perhaps #1.


Red #19 is another real beaut! Blast of herbs, followed by a rush of fruit. Blueberry. I guess a terrific Cotes du Rhone or an obscure Italian variety. Turns out to be *+1990 Thalabert Crozes-Hermitage. VOTED BEST OF FLIGHT. Tied on my card for DRY RED OF THE EVENING, along with the 1997 Italian Merlot and the 1989 Lalande de Pomerol.

Red #20 shows lots of oak, bright cherry flavors and an oaky finish. I never would have guessed Burgundy, but its 1995 Tollot-Beaut Chorey de Beaune. I don’t like it, but there’s plenty here on the table that I do.

     DESSERT WINES. I didn’t take careful notes on this flight, but the winners for me were :

*1997 Domaine Richou Coteaux de Laubance. Honey, hazelnuts, wonderful balance. Not very sweet, but so refreshing! Nice finish too. And finally...

**Reynella Old Cave McLaren Vale. A terrific ringer for old Tawny Port. Loaded with mushrooms and mellow fruit. WINE OF THE EVENING.

MAINLINING MERLOT. (April 10, 1999) Even geeks who tip their snouts up at most Merlot out on the market these days have to admit that every region has at least a few big winners.

     Tonight, at Saranac restaurant on Philadelphia's Main Line, we lined up a world-class assortment. The styles were in many cases wildly different, all seeming to point to one lesson -- Merlot, though sometimes slammed as a monolithic blending-grape, can actually offer a dazzling spectrum of flavors, if the oak isn't overdone. Here's what we tasted.

     From Washington State...

**1997 Andrew Will. Just outstanding. Lots of juicy fruit with big blueberry flavors that mark it as unique. Tannins aplenty, but the supple kind, so highly drinkable now. Family resemblance to the 1997 Andrew Will Cabernet Sauvignon (from barrel) that I tasted last month.

1996 Leonetti. Very dark, with lots and lots and lots and lots of oak. Too much oak for me. Way too much. There did seem to be substantial fruit below the oak, and it did emerge after some airing, but I just didn't enjoy this style. The one thing I can say in the wine's defense is that there seemed to be a slight mustiness, which may mean the fruit was quashed by marginal cork-taint.

     From California...

**1995 White Cottage Ranch Howell Mountain. Way different from any of the others. Intensely forward, delivering luscious raspberry and currant flavors directly to your nerve-center. Made every other wine on the table seem restrained. Zero astringency or earthy character, but complex. Whether you like this or not is another matter. I certainly do.

*+1996 Whitehall Lane Leonardini Vineyard. Lots of oak here, but not quite as over-the-top as the Leonetti. It's well-stuffed and seems like it could do with a year or so of collaring, at which time the oak may have knit better into the wine.

**1989 Duckhorn 3 Palms Vineyard. Fabulous performance for the vintage. Big, dark wine with flavors much more like the Vieux Chateau Certan (below) than any of its California cousins.

     From France...

*1982 Chateau Nenin (Pomerol). Definitely showing its age, maybe even on the downslope, but a fascinating wine for all that. Garnet colored with herb, tar and some berry at the bottom, plus cedary bottle-bouquet. If you're a fan of older Bordeaux you might love this a lot. But tonight, I felt it was upstaged, even within its style by...

***1986 Vieux Chateau Certan (Pomerol). Caught at a beautiful moment, tannins resolved and still packed with power. Hmm, let me be more emphatic -- it's kicking butt! A very concentrated and complex blend of cassis and Bordelaise herbs, with some metal and horse poop on the finish. Even if you go for fruit bombs, this is impossible to resist.

     And from Italy...

**+1996 Falesco Montiano (Lazio). Probably the most backward Merlot of the evening, with very pure flavors of currant and chocolate, firmed up by plenty of tannin and a winge of metal on the finish. A massive Merlot that is perhaps not quite as delectable as the 1995 Montiano, but I'll take it, thank you.

     Also worth noting tonight was a California Chardonnay of unusual character...

*+1997 Paoletti Napa Valley Chardonnay. Striking flavor combination of creamy fruit and flint. It works. Nice finish, excellent juice!

SANTA CRUZ MTS. STRIKE AGAIN. (April 8, 1999) Dinner tonight was grilled filets, so I opened a big red and hoped it would star. But the wine of the evening was **1997 Thunder Mountain Chardonnay "Ciardella Vineyard." Another big win for Chardonnay grown in California’s Santa Cruz Mountains. It shows a great depth of fig and kiwi flavors, some yeasty complexity and a fruit-dominated finish, with balanced acidity that keeps it from ever tasting flabby. Might even remind you of Mt. Eden Chard from a good year.

     I wish the reds had been as memorable. A 1993 Forman Cabernet Sauvignon was marginally corked -- which is to say, ruined -- and my backup was a *1995 Chateau St. Jean Cinq Cepages. This is a bold, dark, well-stuffed wine that some may like better than I. On the good side, the chocolate, cassis and cranberry notes give me what I want in a Cab. But there’s mucho oak here too and I found that kind of annoying tonight. Maybe because the tainted Forman gave me a teasing suggestion, behind the corkiness, of how good pure Cabernet fruit can be.

PISONI RULES. (April 4, 1999) We celebrated both Easter and my Mom’s birthday today with lobsters and a bottle of **+Siduri Pisoni Vineyard Pinot Noir. Wine verdict -- as good as the '97 Siduri Hirsch is, this one offers just a little more in every department. Darker hued, it also seems even more complex on the palate, layering blackberry, raspberry, vanilla, game and other flavors. It’s also more structured and probably a year or two away from drinking at its best. All in all, one of the best new Pinots I’ve tasted in the last year. 

FRENCHIES AND A FOOLER. (April 3, 1999) After a week’s vacation in California merrily drinking Cabs, I was in the mood for Bordeaux. So off we scooted to a favorite local BYO, with friends, to enjoy the following...

*1989 Clerc Milon. Quite dark though beginning to go garnet at the rim. Tempts you with cedar, chocolate and currant aromas. Sip it and at first you’ll confront dusty tannins, but the wine opens convincingly with more airing. We kept half the bottle in the fridge overnight and I’m sampling the remainder as I write this. It’s even better -- more velvety, currant flavors much more to the fore, framed with the cedar and cocoa. Like many of the better 1989s, this wine has some tannins to shed but seems stuffed for the haul. Decant if opening now.

**1986 Talbot. I was expecting this to be even harder than the Clerc-Milon, but no! It’s mature -- with sweet, almost flowery aromas and a bit of the barnyard. A tasty and dense concoction that matches my porkchop very well. RED OF THE EVENING.

     Nice, huh? Just what you might expect. But surprise! One of the best "Bordeaux" was...

*+1990 Duckhorn Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley. When served this wine blind, one of our party guesses "Pichon-Baron." Understandable. It’s eerily at home with the ‘89 and ‘86 Bordeaux. Four years ago, this wine was obdurate and dumb as a boulder -- and I wondered, geez, is there anything here at all? Since then it has developed into a really nice impression of a St. Estephe, with roasted herb, olive, earth...and once you get down to business, it isn’t long before you find a beautiful core of fruit.

     We also enjoyed a couple of noteworthy whites...

1997 White Rock Napa Valley Chardonnay. Lime and some lees on the nose. Full flavors when you sip it, but there’s an oaky edge that needs filing down. Wine is young. Hope it happens.

**1994 Peter Michael Chardonnay "Cuvee Indigene." Just fabulous. The oak pokes out on first sip, but quickly subsides beneath the waves of fruit. Thick, silky texture. Tremendous finish. A good argument for letting the bigger Peter Michael Chards age a couple of years before opening.

THE ACID TEST. (April 2, 1999) Some folks demand high acidity in their whites. But I don't and my wife simply won't drink the stuff when it gets too racy. So I've got mixed feelings about 1997 Lusco Do Miño "Lusco Albarino" (Rias Baixas, Spain). It's light gold, with intense flavors of lemon and gooseberry. Kind of reminds me of a crisp Sauvignon Blanc, without the grassiness. Lots of nice fruit, but man, what a bite! The acid reaches a level that some might call refreshing, but for acid-sensitive Phylis it was just too much. Still, it's one of the better Spanish whites I've tasted. Could be just your ticket. About $15.

*+1997 SIDURI PINOT NOIR HIRSCH VINEYARD. (March 31, 1999) The first couple of vintages from Siduri gave us gushers of fruit. In 1997, the style seems to be veering more toward finesse. More, dare I say, Burgundian? Whatever. This is beautiful juice. The most elegant and complex wine I have yet tasted from Siduri. First you get a whang of tangy, meaty, flavors...then a hit of sweet red cherries...and the cherry flavors just keep getting more pure on the finish.

WHITE COTTAGE RANCH PRE-RELEASE & BARREL TASTING NOTES. (March 25, 1999) The following notes are excerpted from my interview with owner and winemaker Dennis Johns. (Click here to go to the interview.)

     **1998 White Cottage Ranch Sangiovese and Zinfandel (from barrel). This is the blend that will become the wine Dennis calls Ezivese (pronounced "EE-zee-vay-zee"). And wow, is it easy to like! Deep, deep ruby with beautiful cherry and bramble flavors. Like biting down on the richest, ripe berry and feeling it burst in your mouth.

    *1998 Saviez Vineyard Zinfandel (from barrel). This is a wine that Dennis is making for a client, from Calistoga grapes. The wine has a lovely fragrance to it and yields pure raspberry flavors on the palate. Really makes me hungry, too.

     **1998 White Cottage Ranch Howell Mountain Merlot (from barrel). For anyone with a nose, this stuff will be irresistible. Violet and chocolate aromas shoot out of the glass. It's medium-thick on the palate, with more chocolate, loads of cherries and a raspberry-tinged finish. A touch of cabernet Sauvignon will be added to the final blend. I tasted the blend and it expanded perceptibly -- finishing even longer.

     **1996 White Cottage Ranch Ezivese. Juicy berries with plenty of spice. Lingers long. The blend this year is about 1/3 Zin and 2/3 Sangiovese, with traces of Cab and Merlot.

     **+1996 White Cottage Ranch Merlot. Oh my! Again the raspberry juice. The chocolate. The length. Can't bear to spit it out. Could this be even better than their 1995 Merlot?

FOR A FEW DOLLARS LESS. (March 19, 1999) World-class Cab for $11.99? Try *1996 St. Francis Cabernet Sauvignon. Brimming with ripe, plummy flavors. Lots of toasty oak, but it works -- the effect is chocolatey, with no the whiskey-barrel flavors. And you'll never get a cork-tainted bottle, because every St. Francis wine is finished with an easy-to-extract SupremeCorq.

A GOOD $13.999 MERLOT. (March 18, 1999) The Italian producer Falesco makes such a delicious high-end Merlot ("Montiano") that I had high hopes for the new release of their basic *1997 Falesco Merlot Umbria. Turns out it is very good -- but give it some air!

     The first time I tasted it, two nights ago, it seemed way tannic, with some dried cherry flavors. My guests and I had a few glasses anyway, whereupon I put the bottle in the fridge. By the next night the wine had opened and was much more generous, yielding up the chocolate and berry flavors I was expecting. The texture had also thickened some.

     This wine won't make me forget the terrific Adastra (below) -- but it's also almost half the price and good value for what it is. You may want to buy some now and sock it away for six months to a year. Can't hurt.

HOWELL MOUNTAIN BALLERINA. (March 16, 1999) Adele and Dennis Johns say they want to make wine that will "make your mouth water." They get their wish with *+1995 White Cottage Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain.

     If the site makes you expect a tannic bruiser, you're going to be shocked, because this is a balanced, gracious ballet dancer. Give it a half hour in a big glass and you'll be seduced by the fragrance of violets and berries, almost like a rich Pinot Noir. But there's plenty of substance and lead-pencil Cab character here as well. About $35 from the winery.

CHARDONNAY FROM WHERE? (March 16, 1999) The bite of an excellent Macon...lemon and minerals galore...with just enough well-restrained oak to offer a kiss of creme brulee on the finish. Kind of reminds me of Domaine Valette, but this baby is from Portugal.

     It's 1997 Sabe Chardonnay "Entre Serra" Vinho Regional Beiras and it only cost $9.99 full retail. Beautifully balanced character that should satisfy my flab-averse friends, yet the flavors are so full that even my wife Phylis ("make mine California Chard") gave it the thumbs up.

DIAMOND IN THE OAK. (March 13, 1999) A gang of grilled yellowfin tuna steaks wanted something and I figured, okay, this is close enough for Cab. Browsed the cellar and **1994 St. Francis Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve called to me. Fine. Won’t be corked! Let’s see how it’s doing...

     Black, massive stuff! There’s still a husk of oak -- they do like their oak at St. Francis -- but underneath is a gem of a wine. Rich, thick, black cherry scented. Good length, and with air the oak begins peeling off. So decant it if you open now or wait another five years. And if you absolutely, positively can’t stand oak, too bad. There’s a diamond inside.

PLANT MORE CHARD IN SANTA CRUZ MOUNTAINS? (March 5, 1999) Lately I've been reading a lot of talk online about the great reds of the Santa Cruz Mountains, but I started wondering tonight if people should be planting more Chardonnay here.

    **1994 Mt. Eden Estate Chardonnay Santa Cruz Mountains disappointed me a bit last November and I was wondering if we'd ever again taste the likes of the stellar 1992. But tonight it finally opened for business and zorch...what a palate-stinger this is! Burg-snobs who crave structure should give this one a taste. It just may satisfy their idea of "balance."

   By contrast a 1997 Shafer Chardonnay Red Shoulder Ranch, opened the same night, seemed softer and more laid-back. But vintages '94 through '96 of this non-malo Chard have pleased me so much that for now I'll suspend judgement. It's just been released and may need time to fall into place.

THE SPICE OF LIFE. (March 5, 1999) What does "typical" Chateauneuf du Pape taste like?

     Best answer: like just about anything. It can taste like great Burgundy, like cherries, like pepper -- and certain CNDPs have been accused of emitting aromas like, well, you know what.

     Tonight we tasted a "typical" foursome of Chateauneufs, bought at original prices I would estimate from about $9 to $30. And I guess it's been too long since I've done something like this, because I was really blown away by the stunning variety of flavors this wine affords you at what are still reasonable prices.

    From the cheapest to the grandest, they were:

*1988 Saint-Préfert. Mature with miles to go. Surprisingly thick and textured. Red cherry flavors with simple spicy accents. Our friend Michel, who brought this wine, expressed some embarrassment when he saw the other selections on the table. But the wine had nothing to apologize for -- and I would bet the current vintage is under $15. BARGAIN OF THE EVENING.

**1988 Bonneau Cuvée Marie Beurier. Intensely aromatic and complex. What many would-be great Burgundies would like to resemble -- full of raspberries and Asian spice. Pepper galore and a trace of oxidation that made me remark at the time that this wine "needs drinking." But the remains, consumed the next day, were equally glorious, so it's probably okay to hold it at least a few more years. The cork was soused to the top, so it could be this bottle was simply improperly sealed. Still, if this is an imperfect bottle, wowie when you open a good one!

**½1989 Brunel Cuvée Centennaire.  See its sister below. Very similar behavior, but maybe a shade less powerful.

***1990 Brunel Cuvée Centennaire. Fantastically tempting to the nose -- and then the eraser hits your tongue! But it's so intense and long you keep coming back for more punishment. Very pure cherry and blackcurrant flavors that easily punch through the  tannin barrier, then fan out and fascinate you. In ten years, when it finally reaches its prime, this wine may reveal itself as a legend -- till then it's "merely" a showstopper and WINE OF THE EVENING.

     We also opened a 1990 Jaboulet White Hermitage Chevalier de Sterimberg that puzzled me a little. It started out so musty and closed that I suspected borderline cork-taint, but revealed delicious green-apple and lemon flavors as the evening wore on. Still, it was much less impressive than the terrific bottle we had a few months ago, so perhaps the cork was the culprit after all.

     With dessert, 1996 E.A.R.L. Longepe Bonnezeax "Domaine de Grandes Grosses." This Chenin Blanc wasn't very sweet, but charming, balanced and flavorful. Hand-bottled at the domaine by Michel's brother -- with the vintage year lettered in by hand! It was purchased for the grand sum of $6, nailing home the lesson of the evening: if you hunt hard and don't drink labels,  France is still a motherlode  of bargain wines.

adastramerlot.jpg (10006 bytes)TWINKLE, TWINKLE. (March 4, 1999) Those who mutter darkly about Napa Valley Merlot are often vindicated, but tonight the stars twinkled down on our dinner table.

     This was the first bottle I've ever tasted of *1996 Adastra Merlot Carneros Napa Valley and if I can collar some more it won't be the last. The wine is deep, deep ruby with aromas of mocha and cassis. Lots of velvet and glycerine on the palate, backed by bearable tannins. Ample oak on the palate but not overdone – a sweet, ripe, chocolatey glass of pleasure. Okay, it won't make you forget '95 Trotanoy, but at around $25 a bottle, does it have to? Now the sad news: only 225 cases were made.

See more tasting notes (Jan-Feb 1999)

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