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May-June 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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GOT GEWRZ? (June 23, 2002) Summer steamed into town yesterday, smothering us in a humid, 90-degree Bermuda high. But any weather is perfect for Gewrztraminer -- the grape that laughs at languid moods, impossible foods, tough-to-please wine-dudes and any other trouble that comes its way.

     Last night, as in 2000 and 2001, we celebrated more than 16 exemplars of the Other White Wine over a long, leisurely (and admittedly air conditioned) dinner. Highlights included:

    STARTER:

1996 Marc Tempe Zellenberg (Alsace). Promisingly fragrant, pleasantly spicy on the finish, but where's the middle? Like Zinfandel, Gewrz can often lose its sex appeal when still fairly young, leaving not much behind. A year too far?

    FLIGHT ONE:

*+1997 Schlumberger Kessler (Alsace). Alive, kicking and a little kinky. Aromas of lemon zest and basil flavors set it apart. Worthy stuff, but trumped by its companions

**1998 Zind-Humbrecht Herrenweg Turkheim. (Alsace). One of two super showings for this great bargain from Alsace's greatest producer. Pure lychee on the palate. Mineral and tropical flavors figure in on the beautiful finish.

**2000 Schoffit Harth Vielles Vignes (Alsace). Not as flamboyant as the ZH, but pleases me just as much. Sexy magnolia petal fragrance, essence of pears on the palate, slightly candied finish.

    FLIGHT TWO:

2000 J.P. Adam (Alsace) Neutral scent. Offers up a bit of fruit when you sip it, but it's thin and the finish is pretty pathetic. Chased off the table by the next two.

***+2000 Zind Humbrecht Hengst (Alsace) So young for a Hengst, but so seductive already. Rich rose petal aromas, followed up with lots of ripe lychee and greengage plum flavors. Walloping, peppery finish. Most remarkably of all, it's already showing a lot of finesse. Subtle variations tempt you with every new sip. Equally fine match to the game hen and sweet potatoes.

You might expect ***-2000 Zind-Humbrecht Herrenweg Turkheim (Alsace) to get upstaged by its Grand Cru cousin, but no. Seems to have a more residual sugar than the Hengst, but the acidity and fruit more than support it. Tightly wound, it keeps showing us little surprises as the minutes tick by. Tasted blind, this would blow away some Grand Crus from other producers.

    FLIGHT THREE:

***-1998 Albert Mann Steingrubler (Alsace). If you love the classic rose-and-lychee profile of Alsace Gewrz, get thee to Mann Steingrubler -- where else can you get so many buckets of Grand Cru pleasure for so few bucks? This could well be their best Steingrubler since the glorious 1993.

**1999 Albert Man Furstentum (Alsace) is no slouch, but more austere than the '98 Steingrubler, delivering pineapple flavors in addition to the usual. There's some discussion at the table whether the vintage or the vineyard is responsible.

***+1994 Zind-Humbrecht Clos Windsbuhl (Alsace) has shed its youthful baby-fat, but the mature wine reveals even more complexity. Still a huge wine, it shows mucho mineral along with the fruit it flashed before. Wow, is it deep and penetrating. No better time to drink than right now.

    FLIGHT FOUR:

In comparison to the best from Alsace, 2000 Bender Bissersheimer Sptlese (Germany) seems a little syrupy. Probably has plenty of acid, but the fruit's not quite up to ZH and Mann.

*++1998 Theo Minges Fleminger Herrenbuckel (Germany) is delicious in its way, but would anyone guess this is Gewrz? I would have said Sauvignon Blanc if I didn't know better. Everyone notices the gooseberry and cat pee. We speculate there may be some Shuerebe in the blend.

*+2000 Machmer Bechtheimer Stein Sptlese (Germany) is the most successful of the non-Alsace trio. Steely, with pear and apple flavors, it's crisp, correct and just the ticket if you're looking for a more laid-back Gewrz.

    FLIGHT FIVE:

***+1990 Zind-Humbrecht Hengst Vendange Tardive contends for Wine of The Evening and the favors are so classic, I'm not quite sure how to describe it without clichs. Let's just say it's got everything you crave in great Gewrztraminer -- flowery greeting, nectar-like fruit, lush texture and thundering finish, all braced up in a magical fashion so it never cloys or overplays. This 1990 Gewrz took its own sweet time to mature, but now is the moment. If you've got one, create an occasion and pop the cork.

***1990 Schoffit Rangen Clos St. Theobald Vendange Tardive gets dissed a bit unfairly for being sandwiched between the Hengst twins. Viscous, long, laden with fruit, it's wonderful enough in its way, but subtle banana nuances and a bit of cumin wrinkle some noses.

***++1994 Zind-Humbrecht Hengst Vendange Tardive. Yikes! How to decide between this and the amazing 1990? Well, here's how -- it's just as generous, but holding even more back in reserve. Take everything I said about the 1990 and crank up the volume another turn. Not fully integrated yet, but the pieces are all in place for perfection. I can't remember when I've ever tasted a greater Gewrz. WINE OF THE EVENING.


A NEW WHITE TITAN (June 12, 2002) Guess what newcomer snuck in and stole the spotlight from Kistler and Marcassin tonight? Before I give away the answer, here's the context:

***+1996 Marcassin Chardonnay Hudson Vineyard. Just approaching its glory days, this wine still needs an hour or so for the oak to roll back. When it does, there's no denying its power and finesse. Hazelnuts, honey, mineral flavors -- there's lots to enjoy and it all stains the palate. Now wouldn't it be nice if they made a little more?

***1996 Kistler Chardonnay Hyde Vineyard is the most mature-tasting wine on the table, but still showing plenty of fruit, custard and lingering toast on the finish.

**+1996 Kistler Chardonnay Vine Hill Vineyard has a little more zingy acidity, veering over to lemon and apple flavors. It's also not quite as generous as the others and I kind of think this is all you're going to get from it. Nice wine, but trumped by the others.

***+1997 Kistler Hudson Vineyard starts out kind of kinky, with earthy and smokey aromas. As it opens however, the stink subsides and big, flinty flavors come out to play. Then the tropical fruit rolls out and this wine is fantastic! Tough decision between this and the '96 Marcassin for Chard of the Evening.

     Pretty powerful crowd, yes? But then along comes...

***+2000 Turley Vineyards "The White Coat". Served blind, this wine raises eyebrows, then wins converts. Starts out a little dumb, then reveals a passel of floral notes, then almost begins to smell like a Sauterne. Thick and rewarding on the palate, enormous on the finish, trailing flavors of honeydew melon and apricot. I helplessly guess New World Semillon or maybe a Rhne clone from Sine Qua Non. I'm closer on the second, because it's a blend of Viognier and Roussanne. In any case, this is a huge success for Larry Turley and winemaker Ehren Jordan. I won't say it's better than the Kistler or Marcassin Chards, but it sure gets more attention tonight.


ONE OF CALIFORNIA'S BEST CULT CABS (June 5, 2002)...is an Italian Merlot? Yeah, sort of. Tonight we opened one of my favorite '97 Cal Cabs alongside a sensational Italian pretender and I was hard-pressed to pick a favorite. In fact, you could have switched the two glasses without raising too many eyebrows:

***+1997 Lail J. Daniel Cuve is developing wonderfully since release. Blackberries gush from the glass, shaded by notes of shoe polish, new leather and lead pencil. Silky tannins, long finish, aces all around. But it can't overshadow...

***+1997 Falesco Montiano. This 100% Merlot from Latium is everything Cal Cab lovers crave with a slight Italian accent. The oak has fallen away, revealing loads of blackcurrant, a little dark chocolate and some minerals on the finish. Pomerol it's not, but you'll grin with every sip.


MORE NEW WEST COASTERS (May 19, 2002) As I dashed through a trade tasting this past week, the nicest surprises included California Chardonnay and Pinot Noir:

Joan and Walt Flowers were pouring their **+2000 Flowers Sonoma Coast Chardonnay, the best vintage for this blend I've yet tasted. With elegant floral aromas, the wine has a very pleasing texture, rich fruit and finishes well. Just 30% new oak was used and I like the restraint. Grapes came from the Flowers' own Camp Meeting Ridge Vineyard and three other Sonoma Coast locations. The sexy bouquet may owe something to a musqu clone that figures into the blend.

I also tasted their **2000 Flowers Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. It too sets a new benchmark for the cuvee. Balanced and Burgundian, it features classic raspberry flavors and should drink beautifully for the next 3 years at least.

Rob Jensen then gave me a taste of his **-2000 Testarossa Pinot Noir Palazzio. Fruit comes from three Monterey County vineyards -- Sleepy Hollow, Garys' and Ray Franscioni. The last is a new one on me, though not a new vineyard. If I got my facts right, Ray is the brother of one of the two Garys who own Garys'. (This tangle of names and families is starting to sound like Burgundy, isn't it?) Anyhow, The Ray Franscioni Vienyard is planted to Swan Clone, and this may account for the exotic blueberry flavors I taste in this wine. It's lush, juicy, ready to rip and well-priced at $32.

If you want a more elegant style, **2000 Testarossa Gary's Vineyard shows lots of finesse, supple tannins, and flavors of cherry and Darjeeling tea. This one should win lots of fans when served with food. Try to make it last an hour or two at least (might be tough!), so you can savor the complexity.


THE TOUGH & THE CUDDLY. (May 15, 2002) Some say 1989 Bordeaux is too tannic. Some say 1990 Bordeaux is too soft. I say I'll happily drink either and that's what we did tonight.

     We lined up mini-verticals of two wines that did well in both vintages, threw in a couple of extras, then set ourselves the happy task of determining which we liked better.

    What ensued was fascinating. The more they aired, the more they converged. The toughies got more seductive and the cuddly ones...well, here's what happened:

***+1989 Lynch-Bages blooms late, but bloom it sure does. Decanted an hour before serving, it sulks like a teenager at first. Tar, cedar, leather -- but where's the fruit? Wait, wait, here it comes. Masses of black currants. As the evening draws on, the wine shows depth, complexity, wonderful length.

***+1990 Lynch-Bages is the polar opposite when we pour it. Fleshy, flashy, seductive. Buttered toast and blueberry jam. (Basically the same way it showed eight or nine years ago, when some folks predicted it wouldn't age well.) Gradually, though, as the baby fat fades, you notice the serious wine below. By evening's end, it's tied with its older sister.

**-1999 Lynch-Bages, thrown in for fun, may not be as grand as the other two, but the aromas are close to the 1990 and it develops well over 3 hours. I'm thinking I may want a few for short-term drinking, if the price turns out to be right.

***+1989 Pichon-Baron follows the same route as '89 Lynch-Bages, only I find it even more complex and compelling. Dominated at first by lead pencil and shoe polish aromas, it opens at a steady pace until it positively oozes crLme de cassis. Classy as heck, it gets my vote for WINE OF THE EVENING. How can anyone not love it! But some actually prefer...

***+1990 Pichon-Baron. Fat and sassy, it gains muscle as its sibling softens up. Probably has more alcohol and a little less acid, but don't drink all your bottles just yet. The depth and balance say "decades of pleasure" to me.

And ***+1990 Leoville Las-Cases seems to combine the best of both vintages. Not as cute as the other '90s, nor as stern as the '89s, it delivers tobacco, mineral and pomegranate flavors by the bucket...and what a finish!


BLACKOUT! (May 2, 2002) Twice in the past week, I've wished I had 12 more hours just to sit at the dinner table, watching a young wine spread its wings and fly to the moon. Both these chicks were barely out of their shells by the evening's close, and worthy of further study:

***+1992 Dalla Valle Cabernet Sauvignon Estate is one of those bargains you wish you'd bought two more cases of. In the first half hour it's just India ink, but gradually it gathers speed like one of those big old black Baldwin locomotives. By hour two the whistle's blowing and it's powering down the tracks, shooting off aromas of blackberry, strawberry, mulberry, minerals, what have you. The finish is monstrous. This stuff went for just over $20 on futures and it's probably better than the phenomenally expensive 1997 Dalla Valle Estate.

I'll warn you that when I tasted ***1998 Fox Creek Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, it was wrapped in foil and I thought it was Oz Shiraz. The good news is that I figured it was terrific Oz Shiraz with a long way to go. Maybe in a few years, the Cab notes will come out to play. Or maybe in 10. It's that big. I tasted anise, blueberry, chocolate -- and I kept tasting it for about 2 minutes after I had my last swallow.


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