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November-December 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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BEST OF 2001 (December 31, 2001) In a year when too many nightmares came true, wine and wine people provided some bright spots. 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 sinfully delicious.

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 and 1999 Beaux FrPres.

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 bev community 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 finish.

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 guns:

***+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 structure.

***-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 Cab gets:

***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 scores.

*+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 it.

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 holidays?

**+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 18 years.

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 potato pie.

     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 Etzel.

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.

See more tasting notes (September-October 2001)

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