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BEST OF 2001 (December 31, 2001) In a year when
too many nightmares came true, wine and wine people provided some bright
Following are my picks for wine's most pleasant surprises of 2001:
BEST REDS FOR THE MONEY. California still yields a few terrific
values from producers like Patrick Campbell and David Coffaro -- but the
biggest jackpots are to be found in Italy, Spain and France's RhŰne
Valley. In particular don't miss the latest releases from Italy's Falesco. If you feel you must spend more money
than the $9 they ask for their luscious Vitiano, try their top-of-the-line
Montiano -- cult-quality Merlot that's still under $50.
BEST WHITES FOR YOUR BUCK. Two words: German Riesling. If you care at
all about value, you can't afford not to be drinking it. Perhaps, like me, you've been put off by the jawbreaker names. If so, do
like I do -- turn the bottle around, look for the name Terry Theise and
it's tough to go wrong. Your payoff is a level of quality that you'd
have to pay double to get from California Chardonnay.
BEST NEWS FROM THE CELLAR is that many of the stellar 1990 Bordeaux,
1991 Napa Valley Cabs and even some 1994 Napas (like the phenomenal
***+1994 Phelps Insignia) are drinking beautifully right now. No, this
is not cradle-robbing. Winemaking has changed, tannins are
suppler and you're going to love the results. You should probably still
wait before opening monsters like ***+1991 Dalla Valle Maya, ***+1994
Shafer Hillside Select and ***+1990 Margaux, but many others are
BEST TIP for Bordeaux-lovers is to watch for the forthcoming 1999s.
They were forgotten in the feeding frenzy for 2000 futures and I'm
hearing that bargains may be offered by overstocked wholesalers. Maybe
it's wishful thinking, but what can it hurt to be on the alert? Call
your local merchant and ask what's coming.
BEST NEWS FROM THE WEST COAST. Are you ready for
this? Pinot Noir. While the 1998 Napa Cabs are mostly underwhelming and
overpriced, West Coast Pinot Noir is on a roll. Look especially for 1998s and 1999s
from the Sonoma Coast or Oregon. Super examples that I've tasted in
the past year include 1998 Landmark Kastania Vineyard, 1999 Flowers Camp Meeting Ridge
BEST WINE TASTED BAR NONE. I slurped a slew of sensational stuff this
year, but none stunned me more than ***+1989 La Mission Haut Brion. Tasted last January alongside the
near-perfect ***+1994 Dominus, it simply blew its companion off the
table. I have never, but never, tasted a better La Mission Haut Brion. Itís a
baby still, but what a prodigy! Deep dark ruby-black, with a fabulous
tobacco fragrance. On the palate, you get cigar, earth and minerals,
atop untold depths of cassis.
BEST OF ALL. I've found that wine people tend to be
generous -- and exhibit "A" this year was the first Windows of Hope Night
on October 11, benefiting families of people in the food and beverage
business who lost their lives in the attacks on the World Trade Center.
Thanks to thousands of participating restaurants, wine merchants and
folks like you, the Windows of Hope
Family Relief Fund has already raised over $8 million dollars. If
you haven't contributed yet, you can still click
this link and do so. I might add that New York City's entire food and
has taken a big hit in business this year. They deserve a better 2002 and you can
make it happen -- go to Manhattan, eat out, buy wine, have a blast.
ULTIMATE CAB. (December 16, 2001) If tonight you
could drink any California Cabernet Sauvignon you wanted...what
would it be? That's the question a few of us unselfish souls decided to
research this evening.
To keep things sane, we confined ourselves to
the none-too-shabby 1994 vintage. We didn't bother to blind the bottlesó
tonight was all about label-drinkingóbut a few masked mystery wines were
thrown in for fun. Here's how it went:
FLIGHT ONE has a couple of bright moments and
one huge disappointment:
1994 Philip Togni is...oh no, it's corked! Happily, it's the only
corked bottle tonight.
**-1994 Groth Reserve. Here's a name that was all the rage in the
eighties, then fell out of style. Did they slip or did others get
better? This one makes me suspect the latter. It's got depth, complexity
and classic Cab character, but the body is more moderate than many than
followed. Some mint and herb aromas, with a trace of earthiness on the
Mystery Wine #1. With violet aromas, chocolatey flavors, and a
velvet-soft texture, this is one cute little kitten of a wine. It's
ripe, it's rich, but it's so ready, I doubt it will cellar well. Most of
us guess California Merlot, but it turns out to be **-1998 Jones
Family Cabernet Sauvignon. Delightful stuff, but don't hold it for
more than a few years.
FLIGHT TWO matches two down-the-road rivals:
***-1994 Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon is showing even
better than it did when I tasted it two months ago. This is what Cal Cab
is supposed to taste like, nothing more and nothing less. Doesn't
clobber you, but seduces with carloads of cassis, a hint of bell pepper
and a satisfying, fruit-laden finish.
**++1994 Beringer Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon gets a lot of praise
for its riper, stouter character. And yes, it's bigger than the Mondavi,
but as it opens, I'm not quite so wild about what I find. I love the
blackberry flavors, but they're slightly overripe. I appreciate the
depth, but the alcohol's a bit too heavy. Some think it beats the
Mondavi, but I'm not among them.
Mystery Wine #2 all but hollers "I'm Bordeaux." The
grape is plainly Cabernet, but it's got so much lead pencil on the
palate, you have to wonder what it could be if it isn't left bank
Bordeaux. The fruit's ripe and exotic -- is that watermelon I taste?
Earth and mushroom on the finish make some guess Dominus, but I'll stick
with Bordeaux and yes, it's **+1994 Latour. I'm kind of surprised
it's showing so well at this relatively young age, although tannins do
come out with further airing.
FLIGHT THREE calls in some even bigger
***+1994 Joseph Phelps Insignia is one taster's choice for Wine
of the Evening. Has the sheer size of the Beringer and then some, but
without the faults. You taste spice and tobacco on the attack, bright
cassis on the mid-palate, and meaty notes join the party on the finish.
And ooh, is it juicy! Lipsmacking stuff, notwithstanding its massive
***-1994 Caymus Special Selection frankly surprises me by running
right up alongside the Big Dogs. Contrary to expectation, it's not
overoaked and shows lots of black cherry. Thins just a tad on the finish
compared to the Phelps.
**Mystery Wine 3 trails the flight, but look at the competition.
Bitter chocolate flavors turn lush and fudgy with air. Blackberries
emerge, and so does some tannin. Big young Merlot? I guess it to be a
youthful St. Emilion and yes, it's 1994 Troplong-Mondot.
INTERMISSION features a last-minute throw in:
***-1994 Etude is another masterpiece for recently retired
winemaker Tony Soter, reminiscent of the 1994 Araujo (which he also
made). Not quite as deep, but enough to float a boatload of chocolate
cherry fruit. Plenty of structure, but so supple, you just have to take
another sip. And another.
AND FLIGHT FOUR is as close to heaven as Cal
***1994 Ridge Monte Bello has already soaked up most of the
American oak that this Santa Cruz Mountain classic typically sees. A
hint of dill is all that gives it away. This aside, it's the most
Bordeaux-like of the great '94 Californias tasted tonight, pleasing the
palate with blackberries, herbs and even a trace of cigar leaf.
***+1994 Dominus is singing like a choir in Carnegie Hall
tonight. Floral aromas, berry flavors, earthy undernotes and a whole lot
more, all in perfect harmony, echoing long after the last sip. Everyone
gets excited. You can't find anything not to like. The only
remaining question is whether it beats...
***+1994 Shafer Hillside Select. And the answer is, well, it
depends. The Dominus is on tiptoe tonight, belting out choruses at the
top of its lungs. The Hillside is just as deep, just as big, just as
fruity, just as persistent, but you can tell it's got even more held
back for the future. To me, this makes it Wine of the Evening.
Your mileage may varyóI'll admit it's a little more tannic on the
finish. If I had to choose between this and the Dominus to open
tomorrow, I might pick the latter, because it's on top of its game.
But then again...
HOLY MOLY (November
30, 2001) If the rest
of the '99 Turleys are as good as ***1999 Turley Tofanelli Zinfandel, I may
have to eat my words about their Ď97s being Zins of the Century. This is
the biggest Tofanelli Iíve ever tasted (and I think Iíve tasted all of
them). Inky purple with aromas of violets, black cherries and a shade of
soy. Spicy and juicy on the palate, it finishes long and strong.
BURGUNDY'S TURN (November 29, 2001) After so many
notes on West Coast Pinot, here's a quick look at The Main Thing.
We're on trickier ground. When Red Burg is
unready, you want to kick yourself for being too eager, but it's also all
too easy to hold them too long. Picking the right time to pull the cork is
half the game. We mostly won tonight, but note the exceptions:
1990 Serveau Chambolle-Musigny "Les Amoreuses" (1er Cru) is
charming in an underwhelming way. A little strawberry, a little
raspberry, a little horse-sweat, but too little of anything to light my
fire. Cellared too long, poorly stored or maybe a little of each?
Whatever, if I had anymore, Iíd drink up.
**1996 Comte Armand Pommard "Clos des Epenaux" (1er Cru,
Monopole) veers off in the other direction. Beefy but backward, with
tightly wound red fruit that needs much more time to unfurl. Gets better
with air and after a while itís highly enjoyable, but oh, what it
could be someday. Hold 3-4 more years, at which time it may earn higher
*+1990 Henri Girardin Pommard "Les Grands Epenots" (1er
Cru) may not be as impressively stuffed as the Armand, but itís
closer to payday. Barnyard and berries contend for awhile before fruit
wins the day. Drink now or wait.
**+1990 Gaunoux Corton-Renardes (Grand Cru) is right on the
money, honey. Pristine, dense, full, lush stuff thatís showing well
tonight. Gamy flavors play well with winter dinners. Drink now for the
fun of it.
The wine of the lineup might be ***1995 Mongeard-Mugneret
Grands Echezeaux (Grand Cru). Certainly itís flashy enough tonight
to bring smiles to all tasters, and the raspberry, rust and other
mineral flavors make it addictively interesting. But on my card, itís
nosed out by...
***1995 Fourrier Gevrey-Chambertin "Combe Aux Moines" (1er
Cru). Right on point and showing off its Chambertin goodies
shamelessly. Cherries, strawberries, barnyard with raspberry flavors in
the background. Acidity is just enough to be bright without getting
shrill. Not a subtle customer, but that's fine, just sit back and love
FOR CHARD JUNKIES ONLY. (November 18, 2001) You
know who you are. Fess up and walk tall. I've got friends who feign to
cock a snoot at broad-shouldered California Chards, but it's funny how
fast the Kistlers and Marcassins disappear when we dine together.
If you're thinking of opening one of the Big Dogs
for an upcoming feast, here's how some of the better ones are performing:
**-1995 Pahlmeyer Napa Valley. When this wine was a pup, it would
bound up into your lap and lick your face, but I regret to report it seems to
have shed some zip. Slight oxidation at the get-go disappears as
the wine warms, but it's noticeably thinner on the finish. Still very
enjoyable, but drink up before it fades.
On the other hand,
***1996 Pahlmeyer Napa Valley has moved into
prime time. Still lush and long, but showing better integration than
last year, with fig flavors aplenty. If you've got some, why not pull a cork over the
**+1999 Konsgaard Oakville turns heads when served alongside the
above. A different beast from the Pahlmeyer, it's sharper,
more mineral-laden, with impressive concentration. Nice for a change.
Wish it were cheaper.
Yes, I realize ***+1990 Bouzereau Meursault-Charmes is
Burgundy, but keep reading, because it's a telling benchmark. Matches
California in the body department, then pulls ahead in complexity --
with aromas of roasted hazelnut, plus the customary stone and crLme
brulťe flavors. And, Burgundy nuts, note
the oak. It's in balance, but it's here, and neither more nor less
intrusive than the oak in great California Chards. For example...
***-1993 Marcassin Gauer Ranch Upper Barn has been decried for
being splintery, but at this stage of life, it's all knit together
in one dreamy, nutty, creamy mouthful. Fully mature, so there's no
reason to deny yourself.
***1993 Kistler Cuvťe
Kathleen is showing even bigger, with a walloping attack and long
finish, revealing loads of delicious scents and flavors to keep you
interested. It clearly bests even the Marcassin when
both are served blind, head to head. But the most marvelous Chard I've tasted all
autumn must be...
***+1995 Kistler Cuvťe Kathleen
drops jaws even after a flight of big reds (never mind
why the cork was pulled) and I can still taste the finish. Exotic and
fun, with papaya, mango, plus a hint of coconut milk and Brazil nut.
Tremendous concentration. What a Chard!
MORE TURKEY SLURPS (November 11,
2001) Following, a few more West Coast Pinots. (My last for a while, I
promise. Burgundy & Chard are next up.)
**-1986 Calera Reed Vineyard Pinot Noir reminds
me of what a powerhouse producer Jensen used to be. Deep garnet, it's
getting a little light around the rim, but the wine still is loaded with
fruit. The bright cinnamon and spice notes are typical of Calera's
style. A streak of celery prevents me from giving this a higher score,
but it's still a very enjoyable wine, holding up great for a 15-year-old
Pinot Noir from anywhere.
**1988 Williams-Selyem Rochioli Vineyard Pinot Noir has
to get the overachiever award of this group. A veteran Burgundy-lover
was sure it was Cote D'Or when he tasted it blind. Still at a peak of
maturity, with no trace of oxidation, it features the classic ripe red
cherries that make Rochioli Vineyard such a benchmark for Russian River
Valley -- plus a grace and finesse that I rarely find in any California
Pinot. All this from the lousiest California vintage in the last
And if you're sitting on any **+1996 Rochioli Estate
West Block, do yourself a favor and lose it for 5 more years. Same
style fruit as the WS, but packed too tight to afford full pleasure.
Very focused, primary and promising but needs time.
TURKEY SLURPS. (November 9, 2001) As feast days
draw near, the mother of all wine-matching riddles raises its Sphinx-like
head yet again...
What goes great with turkey and
stuffing and cranberry sauce and sweet potato pie?
Like all great riddles, it has no answer.
Alsace whites and Champagne get by pretty well, but folks generally want a
Big Red on the Big Day, and there's the rub.
Sound like you? Then let me suggest West Coast
Pinot Noir. It's American, tastes good, loves turkey, finesses the
stuffing and, well, even beer can't stand up to cranberry sauce and sweet
Some friends and I recently took on the
hardship of lining up some of the best. We tasted most of them
double-blind and didn't even guarantee one another that they'd be Pinot
Noir. Here's what happened:
RED #1 is extremely dark, with very ripe, pure raspberry flavors.
It's obviously young, loaded with primary fruit and the finish is
intense. It's a cinch this is a young West Coast Pinot with a great
pedigree. I guess Sonoma Coast and it turns out to be ***1999 Beaux
FrPres (Oregon). This is
in a class this with the 1994 Beaux FrPres,
only without the freakish concentration and alcohol. Nice going, Mike
RED #2 excites some controversy about its origin. It's also dark,
young and fruity , but has gamy aromas, plus some Darjeeling tea mingled
in with the more expected cherries. On the palate, you get ripe red
cherries and minerals. I'm tempted to say Burgundy. I do. I'm dead
wrong. It's ***1997 Lynmar 5 Sisters from the Russian River
Valley. I'll be doggone.
RED #3 has a little cola, a little herb and a big rushing river of
deep ripe red cherry fruit. Last one's the giveaway. It's Russian River
Valley. Maybe Williams-Selyem Allen Vineyard? Bingo. I'm just a tad off
the mark with **1995 Williams-Selyem Olivet Lane Vineyard.
RED #4 is placed in the lineup at the last minute, with the label
off. Doesn't matter, it's huge, still very young tasting, oozing
raspberry, cherry and flinty flavors, finishing long. It's ***+1996
Kistler Sonoma Coast and one more glass of evidence that Steve
Kistler is the reigning Pinot producer in America. Wish he made more.
But RED #5 yields the most fun of the evening. If the Kistler and
Beaux FrPres were dark, this
is positively inky. On the palate it tastes a lot like Pinot Noir --
with bright red cherry flavors -- but it's so darned dense and big, some
tasters swear it must be Syrah. No, I'm not so sure. Looks like Syrah,
has the structure, but tastes like Pinot Noir. There's also some reduced
sulfur that has to blow off, and oak. That could be misleading us.
Whatever, this wine is frantically young. Gotta say something, so I'll
say New World Pinot Noir. And guess what? It's **+1998 Gnadenfrei
Barossa Valley Pinot Noir Shiraz, an outrageous mongrel that's 70%
Pinot and 30% Shiraz. Maybe this is what the great Burgundies of old
tasted like back when vintners cheated regularly.
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