Tasting Notes


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May-June 1999

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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KIWI RIESLING. (June 25, 1999) By "kiwi," I mean it's from New Zealand. But the flavors are exotic as well. 1998 Huia Marlborough Riesling offers up aromas of tangerine peel, orange blossom and yes, kiwi fruit!

     Swirl it around and there's a fair amount of diesel as well. ("Ugh," said Phylis. "Tastes like asphalt.")

     It's fairly dry and weighs in at 13.5% alcohol. I rather liked it, and it's affordable at $16. But I don't think the folks in Germany and Alsace should lose any sleep.

BASICALLY BERINGER. (June 24, 1999) You could make a good argument that Beringer is the most consistent of all the large-scale California producers. I'm not saying they've got it locked, but they're certainly in the running.

     In any case, "consistent" is the verdict we arrived at after tasting through four vintages of Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. They were so consistent, in fact, that only one stuck out as really different in character.

     Before settling down the reds, we sipped a couple of vintages of Beringer best whites. These too were very similar to one another:

**1996 Beringer Chardonnay Sbragia Limited Release. Could have been me, but this wine seemed to be a little less expansive than the last time I tasted it, about a month ago. Still, it's a fruit-driven delight, exhibiting tropicals and toast galore, with a lingering finish.

**+1995 Beringer Chardonnay Sbragia Limited Release. I thought this one seemed a little more concentrated. Phylis disagreed. But it's not important. You could have shuffled my glasses while I was looking the other way and I wouldn't have noticed.

     Then, we tasted through:

*+1987 Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. This is the only wine of the flight that seems mature. It has the same deep black cherry, anise and toasty flavors as its brethren. But it also shows some very pleasant Bordeaux-style herbal notes. I should also note that the lovely violet aromas are quickly joined by something gamey, even a little rank. It's the only bottle in the vertical that shows this gamey caharacter.

**+1991 Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. Starts out rather hard and ungiving. The baby fat has dropped away and the tannins are still a little tough. Airing does wonders, however. By the end of the evening, this was perhaps the most fascinating and pleasurable wine of the flight. Long finish.

**1993 Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. Still a very young wine. Lots of blackcurrant and lots of toasty oak. Needs a few more years to pull itself together.

**+1994 Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. A great big wine that may one day even outclass the 1991. More than one taster thought it the best of the flight and it's certainly at a very attractive stage -- dripping with young fruit. Also, however, it seemed the oakiest of the bunch. Perhaps that's simply because the oak hasn't had time to integrate.

     Four terrific wines, no doubt about it.

     Now for a tougher question -- how do they size up against their competition? They're roughly the same price as Mondavi Reserve and Ridge Monte Bello. And they're equally big (at least!) in concentration, depth and finish.

     But there's one area where Beringer may fall short. Call it interest. Or complexity. Maybe it's the amount of toast, or something less definable, but I can't help feeling that, for example, 1994 Beringer Reserve is just a little less fascinating than '94 Mondavi Reserve.

     A couple of years ago, I tasted a broad array of Beringer wines against those of Mondavi -- and Beringer won hands down. But I'm not sure the score would come out the same if we compared the top cuvees of each vintage.

     Maybe my next step should be to line up "the big three" in a shoot-out. I'll report the results here when I do.

WINES OF PASION (June 18, 1999) Matching wines to spicy foods is a science of compromise, I have found. But when the food is great and the wines can stand up to it, who cares?

     So it was Friday evening at Philly’s new South American eatery, Pasion. The menu is exciting, appropriately unusual and the dishes are, well, let’s call them piquant rather than fiery. We also found the service pretty darned good. Here’s what we drank:

**+1989 Muller-Catoir Mussbacher Eislehart Sheurebe Auslese (Trocken). One of the few "dry" Germans I’ve tasted that really works for me. Big bouquet of gooseberry, cat pee and honeysuckle. And -- miracle of miracles -- Phylis the Chard hound adores it! "Tastes like flower petals," she says. Yes it does. White of the evening and a stunning match to the food. I’m surprised that some at our table find it wanting. Too dry for them, I guess.

*1996 Kurt Darting Durkheimer Nonnengarten Rieslaner Auslese. Almost a polar opposite to the Muller Catoir. Sweet, rather soft and filled with pineapple flavors -- but oddly it offers few aromas. What’s going on? Is that just the nature of the grape? Nothing to complain about, but I much preferred the other.

*+1996 Mer et Soleil Chardonnay. This wine is produced by Chuck Wagner of Caymus and I know what you’re thinking -- oak, right? But this is the second time I’ve tasted this wine and once again I must say I like it. It does indulge in a lot of new oak but somehow it gets away with it. Lots of substance on the palate and a good finish.

$#@&1988 Bonneaux "Marie Beurrier." Corked! What a tragedy.

**1990 Brunel Les Cailloux Chateauneuf du Pape. Entering its prime. Deep ruby, going to garnet at the rim. Lots of fruity, spicy aromas. On the palate, it’s loaded with Damson plum and mocha. You couldn’t ask for a better red wine to consume with my cayenne-seasoned lamb.

**+1990 Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape. This seems like a bigger, more backward wine than the Brunel, but it still has plenty to say. Meaty, bloody aromas are followed by a great big hit of raspberry, and the finish just keeps rolling along. I’ve had slightly better bottles, but no complaints!

?*1989 Chateau de la Nerthe Cuvee Des Cadette Chateauneuf du Pape. A cipher. Color is healthy and there’s some nice texture, but the flavors are shut up tight.

**+1997 Rombauer "Joy" Late Harvest Chardonnay. Did you know that Rombauer Winery is owned by the family of Irma Rombauer -- who wrote The Joy of Cooking? They selected a terrific wine to honor her achievement. Made from grapes harvested at 43 degrees brix, the wine has 27% residual sugar and carries it off with panache. Drenches your senses with poached pear and honeydew flavors. You keep thinking "okay, this is the last sip" and then you keep taking another.

*+1994 Eola Hills Oregon Vin D’Or "Ultra Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc. Not quite as sweet, more pungent, with peach and apricot flavors. Darker and not quite as flamboyant as the Joy, but a very worthy sweetie.

BURIED GEM. (June 11, 1999) I wonder how many super Pinot Noirs lie hiding in the countless acres of Carneros grapes currently destined for bubbly? **1997 Ancien Pinot Noir Carneros is made with grapes from the Domaine Chandon Estate -- which fact I confess did not inspire me with awe prior to tasting the wine. I was expecting something airy and acceptable. Not so! This is deep stuff with loads of raspberry-scented fruit and the nerve to carry it off.

STERN SANGIOVESE. (June 7, 1999) I expect Brunello di Montalcino to be a little backward on release, but when a newbie Sangiovese shows up with the same kind of structure...well, I have to wonder what will happen.

     1997 Morellino Di Scansano Vigna Benefizio is very dark, with considerable depth of fruit. But over the course of two days, it never really opened in the way I would have liked. Enjoyable, and the price is affordable at about $15.99. But for now I'll say it's just shy of being a Better than Bargain.

ONE NIFTY NINETY. (June 4, 1999) I cellared the ***1990 Simi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon for lo these many years and tiptoed past the bottles night by night. Until tonight.

     "Arthur," whispered the wine. "Take me tonight. Oh, am I ready. What an evening we'll have."

     Okay darlin', you're on.

     Sure was! This is a deep dark wine with HUGE Bordeaux aromas -- tobacco and herb, covering a core of cassis. A little grit still on the finish, but it's a long one. Fabulous wine! I hear that plonk-producer Canandaigua has acquired Simi. Hope that doesn't prevent them from producing more stuff like this.

COULD IT BE? (June 3, 1999) An excellent Chenin Blanc from California? The back label on the *1998 Weinstock Cellars Contour (Clarksburg) promises it can compete with Vouvray. Fightin' words, but gotta say...they may have a point!

     It's got loads of pear, pineapple and kiwi flavor and very decent acidity for a hot-climate Chenin. Vouvray it ain't, but on its own terms I like it a lot. Kudos to wine-buddy Stuart who made me drink it.

DUELING DOMINIQUES. (May 28, 1999) I never hear much about La Dominique and I’m almost afraid to talk about it, because this is one St. Emilion I love that I can still drink. Tonight, with prime rib, we attacked:

**1993 Talbott Sleepy Hollow Vineyard Chardonnay. Not quite as complex as the bottle we enjoyed a couple of weeks ago, but no slouch. Mature flavors mingle terrific tropicals. Peak? Some brave soul should hold one of these for three more years and see what happens.

**1989 La Dominique. Meaty and gamey, with a core of mocha and Bordeaux herb. A stern note on the finish is a sign of the vintage, I guess. Beautiful tonight, with years ahead of it. Keeps unwinding all evening.

**+1990 La Dominique. Coffee bean aromas. Sweeter and more velvety on the palate, but just as deep. Take your pick between the two. Loved both.

WHEN YOU DON’T HAVE TO IMPRESS ANYONE...but yourself, what do you really want? (May 25, 1999) Confession. I had a birthday. I celebrated. And, like every other wine geek on the planet, I seized the excuse to pull a cork. Or two.

     Now this is when you learn what you really, actually like. You don’t worry about pleasing other palates. Labels don’t count -- it just has to be good. You walk around the racks and say, "What do I want most?"

     And guess what? It turns out -- duh! -- I really do like Champagne, Bordeaux and Cab. We had:

**Tarlant Cuvee Louis. Much like it was back on New Year’s Eve. A tight young wine that eventually opens and fascinates like Grand Cru Chablis. With bubbles. Every sip is a trip.

**1979 Chateau Pichon-Lalande. On the edge, and still a terrific wine. Smooth as silk, all tannin gone, chock full of chocolate-tinged fruit on the palate. A trace of oxidation on the finish. Yum, but drink up!

***+1990 Dominus. At the other side of the bell-curve, still climbing the mountain. And it’s a steeper one. Developing the gamey nose of Napanook wines. Slurp. Yes! What a blast of currant, cocoa and herb when you swallow! Twinge of tannin on the finish. Great wine that will probably never close down.

FURRY LIPS. (May 24, 1999) I can take a bit of tannin in stride, but tonight I tasted a Cabernet that made even my lips feel dry. Still, I have a feeling that **?1995 Agricola la Palazzola "Rubino" will eventually come around and sing a Bordeaux-type tune. It's yet another impressive effort from the Umbria region of Italy.

     Dark and backward as all get out, it initially yields up little more than a vague whiff of brimstone. After a couple of hours in the glass, the currants come out and convince you that good things may lie in the future. But don't hurry this monster. Give it at least five more years in the cellar before you try your luck.

IF YOU LIKE ROCHIOLI...(May 21, 1999) I sure do like the Pinot Noirs that Rochioli produces from its Russian River Valley estate. So maybe it's not surprising that I fell in love with *+1997 Castalia Pinot Noir.

     It's made by Terry Bering, the winemaker for Rochioli, from Rochioli grapes. And it features the pure, intense, red cherry flavors that I crave in Pinot Noir from this region. Starts out very oaky indeed, but this proves temporary, as it rapidly shrugs off the spice and lets the fruit sing. Probably needs another six months or maybe as much as two years before it hits maturity, but tonight it was a pleasure to rob the cradle.

PHILIP’S CHOICE. (May 20, 1999) If you tell Philip Togni you opened one of his ‘91s and that it contended with Latour, he’ll say...

     "That’s nice, but the ‘91 really isn’t ready. You should have opened the ‘93."

     Okay. We’ll do it his way. Last night I shared **1993 Philip Togni Vineyard Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon with my Mom and Dad over some strip steaks. And...

     If this is his smallest Cabernet Sauvignon of the ‘90s -- and I suppose it is -- well. Wow. You’d think were drinking 1989 Leoville Las Cases. All right, maybe 1994. It’s deep, deep dark, and drenches you in minerals, cocoa, cassis and herbs.

     Nice going, Mr. Togni. Now when can I open a ‘91?

CAN OZ STILL DELIVER VALUE? (May 17, 1999) Time was when good Australian Shiraz was a no-brainer best buy. But here in the USA, at least, it seems this happy hunting ground of value is gradually vanishing.

     Tonight I opened an Ozzie that still delivers decent value for the money, but boy do I wish it were just a few dollars less. *1996 Cape Mentelle Shiraz "Margaret River" is very dark,with aromas of wildflowers and a hint of game. On the palate, it's thick, plummy and chocolately. Verging on overripe but stays in bounds. At $12 this would be a sensational value. But it's $16.99 and a buck over my limit for "Better than Bargains."

PLEASE PASS THE PAUILLAC. (May 14, 1999) Wineflation has driven me lately to seek out stuff from places I used to ignore. And I guess that’s good, but you know what? Ain’t nothin’ like the real thing, baby.

     Last night, ten of us raided our cellars and poured out the precious Pauillac. The gods of treebark must have been smiling because nothing was corked and only one stopper crumbled.

     The whites nearly stole the show:

***1993 Talbott Chardonnay Sleepy Hollow Vineyard is having a happy moment, fruit still kicking with mature flavors kicking in too. Hazelnuts and honeysuckle hit your nose first, then mango-apricot flavors greet your palate. Lovely length.

*+1997 Araujo Sauvignon Blanc puts in its best performance yet. Much more open than a couple of months ago. Lots of melon and round, fruity goodness. If you have any, I’d say pull a bottle out now, because these wines aren’t for the ages.

**+1991 Coche Dury Meursault gives an astonishing show. It’s fully developed and the tertiary notes are a nutty, mellow delight.

*+1994 Ramonet Puligny Montrachet "Champs Gains" might need little more cellar time, but still pleases the crowd. Lots of grapefruit and vanilla, with creme brulee on the finish.

     Nonetheless I couldn’t wait to get at the reds:

*1988 Latour is the only Bordeaux that has people wondering if this was the right time to open it. I’m not sure what’s going on here. There’s a hint of garnet at the rim. The nose doesn’t tell you much. The wine starts out surprisingly open and approachable, but then gets increasingly tannic and unrewarding. Kind of the reverse of what you might expect.

***1990 Lynch-Bages needs no such analysis. It’s starts out tasting wonderful and just gets better and better. Fabulous, coffee-tinged nose. Supple on the palate, but there’s plenty of fruit in reserve. Boatload of cassis. Reminds me a little of Shafer Hillside Select with some additional herbal complexity.

***+1989 Pichon-Baron is still sewn up, but so well-stuffed it’s bursting at the seams. Lead-pencil galore. Currants, chocolate, roasted meat, magnificent! Better than the 1990? Don’t think so, but vive la difference!

**1988 Pichon-Lalande might normally claim my undivided attention. Not quite as spectacular as the L-B and P-B, it’s a softer wine that’s ready to rip from first pour. Doesn’t fade, pleases mightily. Bordeaux herbs and cocoa dominate.

     Then we had fun with a couple of wines served blind:

Mystery Wine "A" gets a lot of comments about a strange aroma. Or not so strange? First seems meaty, then sweaty, then downright horsey. Brettanomyces? The foil comes off and its 1986 Phelps Insignia. I had heard that some bottles of this wine were bretty, but prior tasting notes don’t indicate it. This one sure got a good dose.

Mystery Wine "B" shows much more classic Bordelaise flavors -- coffee bean, herbs, metal and some tannin on the finish. Then I taste a hint of coconut that makes me wonder if this is an American wine. Whatever, I like it a lot. It turns out to be *+1986 Clerc Milon. Mouton’s oak treatment is typically very sexy, and perhaps that’s what caught my attention.

     We wound up with **+1990 Guiraud. So deep in color that, at a distance, I mistake the wine for a rose. My goodness, though, this is a wonderful Sauternes -- dripping with peaches and apricots.

THE MONTROSE OF MONTEPULCIANO. (May 9, 1999) The Italian grape Montepulciano doesn't normally get much respect.

     It doesn't help that there's also a Tuscan town called Montepulciano -- and a wine made nearby called Vino Nobile de Montepulciano, which is confusingly made from a special clone of Sangiovese.

     So let's be clear, I'm talking about the grape. Those of us who know it at all usually associate it with hearty, good-bang-for-the-buck pizza wines like Farnese Montepulciano D'Abruzzo.

     But last night I discovered what Montepulciano really can do when it's treated like a lady. The result is *+1996 Fattoria Terraze Rosso Conero "Sassi Neri" ( a Marc de Grazia selection).

     Oh, it's still plenty hearty. But it's also the most fascinating wine I've ever tasted from this grape. Deep purple, with a beautiful fragrance of violet and silverberry. On the palate, you taste truffles, brass, earth and herbs. Kind of reminds me of Chateau Montrose. There's plenty of body and depth -- and the glycerine runs down the side of the glass like it does with a big Zinfandel.

     The appellation of this wine hasn't received much recognition either. Rosso Conero is made in a small region on the Adriatic Coast, just below the latitude of your favorite Tuscans. Books will tell you the wines are mostly undistinguished.

     Once again, though, it seems the old books on Italian wine need an update. Snatch a bottle if you can find one and taste for yourself. The price looks to be about $20-$24. Worth it.

MAKING DO. (May 5, 1999) The powerhouse 1994 Janus (below) wowed me, but I couldn’t quite justify shelling out $90.

     I did, however, purchase the currently available "regular" cuvee from this Spanish producer to see how close it came. And the verdict is...

     Nice, but definitely a step down. *+1996 Alejandro Fernandez Pesquera "Crianza" (Ribera del Duero) is a predictably dark wine and a bit backward. Ultimately it yields up delicious red raspberry and roasted meat flavors. Finishes well. Rather tannic, it probably could benefit from a couple of years in the cellar, but drank well tonight with my rare strip steak.

     At $26.99, value is appropriate, but I won’t be rushing out for more.  It’s the same dilemma as I had with the Janus, albeit at a different level. I'm paying too much of a premium for the name. There are too many other wines competing at this price-point -- and Ribera del Duero’s own *1994 Val Sotillo is almost $10 cheaper.

BRING OUT THE SHOWSTOPPERS. (May 2, 1999) When your dear old Dad turns 80, it’s time to count your blessings and search for the best in your cellar, bar none.

     Forget about timing. The right time is now. Does it taste fantastic? Good, pull the cork!

     So today, we took Dad to Chester County’s Dilworthtown Inn and proceeded to pour:

***1990 Dom Perignon. The best performance yet from this child prodigy. Dense and creamy flavors that dance on the palate. You can taste serious wine below the bubbles, but it’s not ponderous, just fascinating. Went fast. Then we moved on to...

***1996 Peter Michael Chardonnay "Belle Cotes". A new cuvee for Peter Michael, and on the basis of this tasting, I’d have to say I like it even better than Mon Plaisir. Aromas of mango, papaya and fresh bread. Lots of texture and a long finish. A little cloudy, but who gives a shoot?

***1996 Beringer Chardonnay "Sbragia Limited Release". Perhaps a shade deeper and longer than the PM, but not quite as sexy or complex. Really, a difference in style.

***+1990 La Conseillante (Pomerol). Uh-huh, oh yes, this is wiiiiine. Cherries, chocolate and more in an endlessly fascinating interplay. Slightly earthy notes but not a trace of herb. Silky texture. Long finish.

     Finally, lest you think all our wines were too young, let me tell you about...

***+1920 Favilla Viera Malvasia Madeira. We had tried to locate a 1919. Had to "compromise." Found this. To call it a palate drencher is faint praise. Essence of apricots, lemon, hazelnuts, with vanilla and coffee on the aftertaste. The finish is staggering. I can’t remember paying more for one bottle of wine, but it was worth every penny. When you consider how much pleasure each glass gave to each of 8 people -- one of them 80 years old -- the price wasn’t really that high.

THE GOOD, THE OLD & THE DEAD. (May 1, 1999) Yes, California Cabernet Sauvignon can age beautifully...but don’t push your luck. That was the lesson from our lineup tonight, over dinner at Philly’s Harrison Row.

We started out with a couple of whites that dramatized how good -- and how boring -- California producers can be with this grape:

***1995 Kistler Durrell Chardonnay is flat-out great. An enormous, fat wine that wows your palate, with enough zing and structure to keep the show interesting. Went beautifully with my fried oyster salad. Could probably use another year in the cellar, but the food match made it sing. By contrast...

1996 Preston Sauvignon Blanc Cuvee de Fume was dull and boring. Very little in the way of aroma, with some vague melon flavors if you search hard. Not even any oak. This should have been the wine for salad, but sorry, I’ll take the Chard.

     Then onto the Cabs:

1968 Mirrasou. This parrot is dead. Nothing left to taste but celery juice.

1971 Beaulieu Vineyards. Not quite deceased, but wheezing hard. Raisins, alcohol and ashes.

*+1978 Ridge York Creek Merlot-Cabernet. What a lovely performance! Tannins are fully resolved, revealing bright blueberry flavors, with a trace of chocolatey finish. Perfectly balanced -- the pristine fruit shows no trace of decay.

*1978 William Hill Napa Valley-Mt. Veeder. Probably had more stuffing to begin with than the Ridge, and it still does -- but it’s aged less gracefully. Big, super-ripe Cabernet flavors make this a very pleading wine. However, there’s a trace of tarry oxidation on the nose, and the finish shows lingering tannin. I prefer the better balanced Ridge, although both wines are very good.

**1986 Stag’s Leap Cask 23. I was expecting this wine to be a little more backward, but it’s fully mature. Shows the soft, supple texture of Stag’s Leap at its best, with subtle layers of blackcurrant and mocha flavors. A fascinating wine. Whether you prefer this or the next is really a question of style. But I preferred...

***1992 Stag’s Leap Cask 23. Brighter, more intense and more packed-up than the ‘86. If you give it a little time in the glass, however, it unfolds superbly. A coffee-fudge sundae studded with blackberries. Yum, yum, yum!

We wound up with a splendid performer from Oz:

**1981 Para "Vintage Tawny Port". Nutty, mellow nectar that’s a dead ringer for the Portugese stuff, though undoubtedly made from Shiraz. Are dessert wines Australia’s best bargain today?

SPAIN’S NEW STAR. (May, 1, 1999) No doubt about it, Spain’s Ribera del Duero region is coming on strong. The bad news is that prices are too. ***1994 Pesquera Janus -- the top of the line from star producer Alejandro Fernandez -- is going for $90!

     All the same, this wine makes me keenly regret that I’m not an NBA center. It’s purple-black and plenty thick, with gorgeous aromas of cherry kirsch, blackberry, cocoa and currant. Oaked to the max -- but you know what? -- the wine shrugs it off. Might make me forget Clinet if I could afford Clinet to begin with.

See more tasting notes (March-April 1999)

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