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May-June 2001

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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LOIRE TIME. (June 24, 2001) Hot summer nights are prime time for crisp whites, cutting-edge rosés and soft, light reds. France’s Loire Valley is home to some of the coolest—and better still, many are findable and affordable. What’s not to like?

     At a barbecue yesterday, we tasted a bunch of Loire beauties, including:


*+Cuvée de la Chevalerie Saumur Brut (Non-Vintage). Here’s exhibit "A" in the case for Loire sparklers. It’s a little denser and fruitier than most Champagnes, but the acidity keeps it from cloying and it finishes pretty well too. For $10, you can’t go wrong. Chill and serve with just about anything you feel like eating.

*+1999 Pascal Reverdy Sancerre "Cuvée Les Coftes." At $16.06, it’s got the floral aromas of Sauvignon Blanc at its best, with pear and gooseberry flavors, and a long finish. Acid levels won’t punish your ulcers, but cut enough to make for fine summer drinking. Super with salad, squid, octopus, shrimp, lobster or lighter varieties of fish.

*1999 Patient Cottat Pouilly Fumé "Domaine des Berthiers." Although I find it not quite the equal of the Reverdy Sancerre, some might like it more. The fruit flavors are shaded by honey notes and the texture is a bit more slippery. Simpler and shorter, but showier. A veritable bargain at $15.99.


**1996 Didier Dagueneaux Silex is showing at least as well as it did two years ago and maybe better. No more oak showing -- but lots of honeydew melon and honeysuckle. Ample acidity, but it’s submerged beneath the wonderfully deep fruit. The only sad note is that this is a rarity and accordingly priced.

***1990 Domaine des Baumard Savenierres "Clos Saint Yves" reminds you that the Loire at its best can kick Burgundy butt. Very floral, very long and umm, yes, unctuous. Just hitting stride at 10+ years past vintage.


*1999 Francois Cota Chavignol does exactly what rosé should do -- tempts you with strawberry and raspberry scents, fulfills just enough to refresh you and balances it with enough acidity that you gratefully come back for more. Don’t shun pink wine until you’ve tasted the class acts. This is one.


*1995 Thierry Germain Saumur-Champigny "Marginale" is more than marginally pleasing. Deep red with lots of strawberry flavors and only a hint of the bellpepper that marks most Cabernet Francs, except the following amazing...


**-1996 Lang and Reed "Premier Étage" Napa Valley Cabernet Franc. This creates a big buzz at the barbecue by being loaded with ultra-ripe raspberry flavors, brambly notes and absolutely no vegetal notes whatsoever. Some grouse that it's atypical. Others say, "Yes, and your point is...?" It tastes like no Cab Franc I ever had, but I like it a whole lot. At about 13.5% alcohol, you’d never mistake it for a Loire.

UN-CABS. (June 17, 2001) I wouldn't exactly call these wines Cabernet Sauvignon substitutes, but they're nice for a change and hit the spot for not a ton of money:

*+1999 BenMarco Mendoza "V.M.S." is yet another piece of evidence in the case for Argentina as South America's best wine-producing area. Made from 60% Malbec, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12.5% Syrah and 15.5% Bonarda, it's far from a traditional Bordeaux blendbut it is big, red and loaded with blackberry flavors. Ripe and juicy on the mid-palate, it gets kind of dusty and earthy on the finish. Decent value at $19.99. Try it with spicy barbecue fare.

*+1997 "Les Cornuelles Vielle Vignes" Chinon is imported by Weygandt-Metzler, which is usually a sign that you're in for a good time. This Loire red is surely no wimp. Dark ruby, with lots of blackcurrant stuffing, it needs about an hour of some airing before it's ready to reveal itself. A little jalapeno on the finish is typical for Cabernet Franc and quite bearable in the scheme of things. You're not in Bordeaux, but somewhere else nice and the price is right at just $17.99. 

THE OTHER KIND OF CHARDONNAY (June 17, 2001) If you seek terrific Chardonnay for uninflated prices, don't scorn France's Macon region. Quality here is consistently inching up. Producers like Valette and Verget have received a lot of ink elsewhere, but do also try **1999 Pierrette et Marc Guiellemot-Michel Macon Village "Quintaine." It's the best vintage I've yet tasted from this excellent producer. Brimming with minerals and fig flavors, the wine has depth, nice texture and a long, steely finish. At $19.99, it's pricier than before, but appropriate value. Drink it now or squirrel it away for a year or two.

IN MY OWN BACKYARD (June 3, 2001) When I tell Left Coast friends that I live in wine country, I generally get a blank stare (when they don't smirk). But yes, California, the Mid-Atlantic states do have serious producers and, just like yours, they too are getting better all the time.

     In my own backyard, Eric and Lee Miller at Chaddsford Winery are now producing some 70,000 cases a year. You don't reach numbers like that in Pennsylvania unless you're doing more than a few things right. They've made very good whites for years and I've been a particular fan of their steely, minerally, Chablis-style Chardonnays. But Eric's been hunting the Holy Grail of East Coast Red for some time now and guess what? I think he's onto something.

     We stopped by the winery today with white in mind—and they were good—but it was the reds that made me get out my pen.

     Current releases that I like include:

*-1999 Chaddsford Pennsylvania "Proprietors Reserve Red." There aren't too many hybrid grapes that do it for me, but when Chambourcin is handled well, it works. This one's a big winner for $10.99—medium ruby and light-bodied, with lots of soft, ripe raspberry fruit and hints of cinnamon toast on the finish. This and the reds below are happily lacking in the sharp bell pepper notes that often mark East coast reds. Drink now while the young fruit is strutting its stuff. At the price, you can do so often.

*-1999 Chaddsford Pennsylvania Cabernet/Chambourcin. If you're cocking at eyebrow at the blend, I sympathize, but keep an open mind. At first sip, I wonder if the more structured Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc are simply covering up the juicy Chambourcin. But then the wine opens and tada—this too is a charmer. Flavors veer over to cherries and strawberries. At $14.99, it's still a value.

     Eric then took us down to the cellar and suggested we taste some of the 2000 vintage from barrel. I wondered at first what he could be up to, since the local weather last summer could be summed up as rain, rain and more rain.

     He confirmed it was the proverbial vintage from hell, but said they had enough sunny days at the right times to keep the vines healthy—and then came some blessedly arid weather in the weeks leading up to crush. This and hard work in the vineyards saved their bacon.

     He also confided that, like producers in France and on our own West Coast, he's been crossing his fingers and picking significantly later in the season, to get ripe flavors and sweeter, larger-grain tannins. This has plainly paid off in his newest reds, which I liked a lot.

*2000 Chaddsford Pennsylvania Cabernet Sauvignon (from barrel). With lots of ripe red cherry fruit, medium body, soft texture and a nice finish, this wine has none of the sharp angles I was expecting from such a tough year on the East Coast. Like it a lot. This and the next remind me some of the better Loire Reds I've been tasting lately.

*+2000 Chaddsford Pennsylvania "Merican" (from barrel). This proprietary blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot has a firmer texture and somewhat bigger body than the above wine, and again no bothersome burrs. The flavors tend more to black cherry and I'm especially pleased by the finish. Clearly a leap forward.

     And, in case you're wondering, yes, the white program continues to perform: 

*+2000 Chaddsford Pennsylvania Chardonnay "Miller Estate" (from barrel) is made from 7-year-old vines on their own tract up in Northern Chester County. Lingering mineral flavors are joined by yeasty, leesy notes on the finish. Another winner.

     I'm looking forward to tasting some other upcoming Chaddsford offerings. New state regulations finally permit Pennsylvania wineries to make a small percentage of their production with grapes from surrounding states—something that California producers often do. In particular, Chaddsford will be making a Long Island Merlot and a Finger Lakes Sweet Riesling. If their quality is on a level with the other wines I tasted today, we could be in for a treat.

WHEN YOU PIT BORDEAUX VS. BURGUNDY VS. CALIFORNIA (May 27, 2001)...who's gonna win?

     Let's not spoil the ending. We lined up:

***+1992 Ramonet Batard-Montrachet. Stingingly young still, but develops well over the course of three hours. Citrus and stones to the max. Penetrates to the core of your palate and hangs on close to forever. Best finish of the evening and very nearly the overall winner.

***1990 L'Evangile. Most elegant of the evening, not to say it lacks power. This wine has hit peak of maturity and the flavors are really rolling. Red cherry, mocha, splash of spice. Silky texture with a well-bred finish. Drink or hold.

***+1994 Araujo Eisele Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. A year ago, this wine was so tight that decanting was practically mandatory. Now it's open for business again and showing even better than on release. Chocolate-covered Bing cherry flavors mingle with buttered toast and cherry jam. As the hours pass, you keep peeling back layers but there's still more at the core. Power-play of the evening and maybe you would have found this your favorite, but I'm the scorekeeper here and I say the winner is...

***+1977 Taylor-Fladgate Vintage Port. Great Port shows so consistently that I generally don't even bother taking notes, but this virtuoso vintage from one of my favorite producers screams for special mention. The alcohol is completely covered with a riot of (still!) young red fruit, and what tannins remain are so velvety, they merely add to the fun. Drink it now or save it for ten more years, but you can't deny this is WINE OF THE EVENING.

1990 BORDEAUX (May 20, 2001) Hype is hot and heavy for the 2000 Bordeaux vintage, said by some to be the greatest since 1990. Which begs a big question -- how well are the 1990s holding up? We set out to answer that question tonight.

     The reds were tasted blind with a couple of ringers thrown in for fun. And since this was done over dinner, we started with some whites:

     WHITES (labels showing)

***1994 Peter Michael Chardonnay "Point Rouge." Perched atop the Peter Michael hierarchy of hard-to-find Chards, this wine showed a lot of oak at release, but has shaped up beautifully. There's still a dash of vanilla bean on the nose, but the palate is stones and pure Chardonnay fruit. The mineral-laden finish rolls on and on and on.

**-1999 Araujo Sauvignon Blanc "Eisele Vineyard." Aromas of grass and honeysuckle are followed up by a biting attack. Lots of fruit on the palate with little herbal character. The sharp malic acid is moderated by a satisfying texture. Drink soon, while the florals are still at their most seductive.

**+1997 Paul Hobbs Chardonnay Sonoma Mountain "Dinner Vineyard." The alcohol levels give it away as a California Chard, but the flavors are intriguingly atypical. Instead of the usual tropical fruit, you get a truckload of mineral flavors. Nice finish too. Not sure how well it will age, but who cares? Drinking superbly now.

***+1990 Zind Humbrecht Riesling "Clos Hauserer" Vendange Tardive. Steals the show. White of the evening and maybe the best wine poured, period. Gives a consummate come-on with huge aromas of diesel and pineapple, then delivers even more when you sip it. Very full, sweet as it needs to be and long as you could ever desire. Be sure to have some bread and water before moving onto the next.

     REDS (tasted blind)

RED WINE #1. Deep, deep ruby. Young, tough and muscular. At first it's mostly road tar and cassis, then opens with great reluctance. As it broadens you get a metallic hint and lots of meaty flavors. Very long finish. Cab Franc? Or what? Looking back on these notes, the name of this wine was staring us in the face. It's ***1990 Château Montrose, seemingly unchanged since I tasted it six or seven years ago. Wait five more years before pulling a cork or be sure to decant!

RED WINE #2. Deep ruby to garnet. Yummy aromas of chocolate fudge and strawberry. Soft and velvety on the palate with a satisfying finish. This one we guess to be Merlot-based—a sure bet for St. Emilion or Pomerol. No one mentions Cab Franc, but guess what? It's **+1996 Le Petit Cheval, the very sexy second wine to Cheval Blanc.

RED WINE #3. Nectar! Very deep ruby, with aromas of violet, cassis and cocoa. Clearly Merlot and a great one. Pure silk on the palate. Long finish. It's ***+1990 La Conseillante.

RED WINE #4. Exotic aromas arouse my suspicions from the start. Strawberries and cassis, with a touch of, what, rhubarb? Tastes at first like a more approachable version of Bryant Family Cab. Then super-ripe, plummy notes emerge. These grapes got about as ripe as grapes ought to get. Has to be from California. Yes, it's ***1995 Beringer Cabernet Franc "Howell Mountain"—a rarity available only at the winery.

RED WINE #5. Just when you thought reds couldn't get much better than #3, along comes this sweetheart. Chocolate, cherry, blackcurrant and herbal flavors storm your senses and depart with long, cocoa coda. This is such a complete wine that I'm inclined to guess Pauillac, but no, it's the amazing ***+1990 L'Angelus. My pick for WINE OF THE EVENING.

RED WINE #6. Deep dark ruby, with some oak on the nose that falls back to reveal a big vat of blackberry. Then pepper. Then blueberry! There's so much berry, but even more held back for future years. The longer it airs, the more you're impressed by its potential. Now this is Pauillac in spades. It's ***+1990 Grand Puy Lacoste and shame on me for not buying a case on release!

RED WINE #7. Similar in its flavors to #6, this wine starts out far more muted, then opens more completely. Big, broad, blueberry-laden and impossible not to adore, it's another great showing for ***+1990 Lynch-Bages. Years ago, I thought this wine might be giving too much away, too early—but it's just as generous now. Who says you can't have it all?

RED WINE #8 is even deeper red, packed with red cherry flavors and clearly fortified. Gotta be from far Southwest of Bordeaux. Yep, it's Port -- and a swell one too. ***1985 Grahams.

Conclusion? I fear fueling the buying frenzy for 2000 futures—but if this vintage is truly the best since 1990, it's bound to be pretty darned wonderful.

CATCHING UP (May 6, 2001) With so many interviews happening lately, I haven't had time to write up all the other wines I've been tasting. Apologies to those who missed them. Let's breeze through a bunch of the best right now:


1988 is my kind of Bordeaux vintage -- high in quality overall and happily unappreciated by status-seekers chasing '89s, '90s and '96s. Some of the better wines are pretty well-priced at auction right now, and if you can satisfy yourself about storage, I'd say go for it! Just how good these wines can get? Consider ***+1988 L'Angelus. Opened recently alongside the none-too-shabby 1997 Araujo Cab (reviewed below), L'Angelus danced away with wine-of-the-evening honors. With hints of cedar, loads of cassis, some Asian spice and other goodies, it seems to be at a peak of maturity and I doubt it will fade anytime soon.

Now's also a super time to uncork a ***1990 Cos D'Estournel. Much of the coffee bean aromas that mark youthful examples of Cos have now blown off, revealing stunning amounts of cassis, shaded by herbs and cigarette aromas. Complex, long, what's not to like?


Michel Niellon is one of those rare Burgundians who manages to please just about everyonepurists as well as folks like me who love to lap up the showy stuff. Certainly it's tough to hate **1997 Niellon Chassagne-Montrachet "Les Vergers." The attack bites you with citrus and flinty flavors unfold on the palate. This wine seems ready to rip right now.

If you want to taste just how terrific Pouilly-Fuissé can get, try a glass of ***1996 Guffens-Heynen Pouilly-Fuissé "Vintans." Made by wizard winemaker Jean-Marie Guffens of Verget fame, this cuvée comes from his own patch of land. Purists like to kick about the Guffens' use of oak, but the treatment here is in balance with the fruitwhich kicks major tail. Loads of minerals, steel and a lovely, lingering finish.


If you want a true Napa Valley Cult Cab at a fraction of the price you'd pay for Colgin, Araujo, Bryant or Screaming Eaglery the wines of William Seavey. The ***+1991 Seavey Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is certainly one of the greatest wines from what may be Napa's best-ever vintage. With a boatload of blackberry fruit, shaded by shoe polish, buttered toast, coffee bean and other attractive aromas, the wine reminds me not a little of Bordeaux's great 1989 Pichon-Baron.

Seavey Cabs fell back a notch in 1992 and 1993 -- perhaps because so many mature vines fell prey to phylloxera. But he's certainly back on his game with the remarkable ***1996 Seavey Cab. Opened alongside the 1991, this wine is perhaps not quite as huge, but not far off. Similar flavors, but a little less integrated. Give it several years in the cellar if you can wait.

A bargain at release, **+1991 Justin Isosceles went for under $20. I bought a bunch at the time, but sometimes wondered if this massive wine would ever mature. At last, it's open for businessbig time. With terrific concentration and broad, plummy flavors verging on the super-ripe, this proprietary blend features a large percentage of Cabernet Franc, but it couldn't be more different from its Loire cousins. Grown in the Paso Robles area of California's Central Coast, where you don't often find noteworthy Cabs. I understand that 1997 Isosceles went for under $40, still decent value in today's overpriced world of California wine.

I've heard it said that the 1997 vintage wasn't so great for producers in the northern end of Napa Valley. Daytime highs get hotter here because less fog rolls in from the south, and some are claiming that heat spikes compromised quality. Sounds plausible, but sorry -- I just don't see the evidence. Certainly, ***1997 Araujo Eisele Vineyard bears no witness to compromise. After about an hour in the glass, the oak flavors give way to the black cherry flavors that fans of this vineyard treasure. No signs of over-ripeness. Keeps broadening as the night wears on and it's hard to say no to a second glass.

Also going against this myth is the burly ***1997 Château Montelena. As you would expect from a great young Montelena, this wine is coal black, brooding, backward -- but already showing loads promise. The blackcurrant fruit on the finish is very long and intense. Yet this estate is even north of Eisele Vineyard, in Calistoga.

And if 1998 was supposed to be lousy for Napa Valley, nobody told the guys at Pride on Spring Mountain. The ***+1998 Pride Reserve Claret is frankly too expensive for my budget, but it sure wasn't painful to drink someone else's last month. My stars, this stuff is stuffed! Needs time in the cellar to smooth out the splinters, but packed with juicy black cherry, seasoned with spiceand the finish just echoes. Surprisingly, I understand this bruiser is 63% Merlot.

See more tasting notes (March-April 2001)

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