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November-December 1998

Notes are in chronological order, with the latest at the top.

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THE OTHER HEIDSIECK. (December 27, 1998) Maybe you’ve tasted Chuckie and Piper, but have you ever tried plain old Heidsieck? We uncorked a bottle of *HEIDSIECK MONOPOLE "BLUE TOP" NV tonight to accompany smoked salmon, pate and cheese. Beautiful stuff for the money, with a zesty attack and plenty of fruity complexity. One of the best NV Champagnes I’ve tasted all year.

SYMPHONY OF STYLES. (December 21, 1998) I’ll concede one tonight to the terroiristes. If you spend enough money, wait long enough and get lucky, Burgundy can reward you with a symphony of styles.

     Preceding the main event was a motley miscellany of worthy whites. All outstanding. But I must admit, Burgundy carried the day:

***1991 COCHE-DURY MEURSAULT LES ROUGEOTS. Hazelnut aromas, then custardy flavors, but this was just the warmup. One hour later it had opened to reveal its shining center — rich, thick essence of the Chardonnay grape. Sauvage and refined at once. Gave the appearance of being unfiltered — one of us found a grapestem in her glass! Stunning from the first pour and kept getting better all night. WHITE OF THE EVENING.

***1992 MARCASSIN GAUER RANCH UPPER BARN. A bigger wine with (don’t throw things at me now) an even longer finish than the Coche-Dury. I mean really, really long. And it had aged well. All creme brulee, with not a hint of a splinter. But tonight I have to give the nod to complexity and the Coche-Dury. Remarkably, so did California-lovin’ Phylis.

**+1996 SINE QUA NON OMADHAUN AND POLTROON. Won raves around the table from folks who were fascinated by the cepage — a blend of Roussanne and Chardonnay, and it works! The result is a wine with the lush mouthfeel of white Hermitage combined with some extremely sexy flavors and aromatics. Peach, honeysuckle, something different every time you sniff and sip. Also, remarkably, it has the acid to carry all this weight. One taster compared it to Condrieu and that works for me. Probably needs another year to show all it has, and may earn another star from me then.

*1985 DOM PERIGNON. Yum yum yum. Ripe, creamy, and still kicking ! Very different style than tonight’s other big bubbly...

**1989 BOLLINGER GRANDE ANNEE. Way off in the other direction, with sharp attack and apple-tinged flavors. A matter of choice compared with the Dom — but I’d drink this one while cellaring the other.

     Then it was time for the red riot.

***1988 PONSOT CLOS DE LA ROCHE. Give label-drinking its due. This wine had to perform and it did. Big nose of raspberry and decayed leaves. On the palate, it plays the mercurial Burgundy game. Holds back, then gives, then levels, then gives, then takes back, and it’s back and forth like this all night. Fruit triumphs over the 1988 tannins, but the latter are still there and I’d say this wine needs another couple of years more to peak. Almost wine of the evening, but for...

***1990 MEO-CAMUZET CORTON CLOS ROGNET. Way different in style. If the Ponsot was all about finesse, this was a fruit bomb in the best sense of the word. Dark, dark ruby and absolutely gushing raspberries. But definitely Burgundy — has the acid to keep it balanced on a knife-edge. And you still haven’t tasted all it has to give. As the evening continues, it explodes. More, more, more! Great now, great future. Slam dunk for WINE OF THE EVENING.

**1990 MONGEARD-MUGNERET ECHEZEAUX VIELLES VIGNES. Yet another super take on Pinot Noir. Sharp attack, racy strawberry fruit, very light its feet. An intellectual wine — penetratingly witty. Made for meat.

*+1988 CORTOCHOT MAZY-CHAMBERTIN. A 1988 whose time has arrived. Berries, tea, gamy accents, strong acidity and a lot of movement. Took a while to get into its game. Disappointed in the first hour but came back long and strong.

*1994 ROUSSEAU RUCHOTTES-CHAMBERTIN CLOS DES RUCHOTTES. Now we’re moving down to the realm of the mere mortals. Medium ruby. Opens quickly to reveal a great deal of fruit. Very soft and friendly. I wouldn’t hold it much longer — but don’t get me wrong. It tastes very, very good, and in lesser company, it would have shone brightly.

1987 JEAN GROS RICHEBOURG. Perhaps the only wine tonight that underperformed its label. An initial burst of fruit soon falls prey to oxygen. Not a bad wine, but do drink up.

And the 1977 DOW’S PORT? Port is supposed to be the reliable wine of the evening, but alas, this potential masterpiece was corked! However, I count this a small price to pay for such a good evening with the most fickle of wines.

LECLERC AT LA COCOTTE. (December 22, 1998) Not too many folks in Chester County are aware that West Chester’s well-known restaurant La Cocotte will allow you to bring your own bottles (if they’re good ones). How did I find out? I asked. Always ask!

     We met a couple of friends here for a pre-Christmas celebration. I brought *1993 RENE LECLERC GEVREY-CHAMBERTIN CLOS PRIEUR and happily had no need for the backup. Overlay tannic a year or so ago, this wine has edged past adolescence and is just beginning to blossom -- which may just be my favorite time for Burgundy. Deep ruby, giving black cherry and darjeeling scents, with a whiff of forest floor. Trails off to a quite bearable hint of tannin on the finish. Terrific match to my Chateaubriand and good too with the slice of duck I filched from Phylis.

YOUNG DUDES. (December 13, 1998) On Sunday night, Saranac in Bryn Mawr was featuring lamb chops the size of filet mignons. Yeah, I’ll do that. Medium rare, please.

     To accompany it, we opened a foursome of bold, young, no-holds-barred, California rockers.

     The warm-up act was:

**PAHLMEYER 1995 CHARDONNAY. Still as it was a year ago. Big fat daddy of a Chard, playing a loud, long tropical melody backed by lots of complex leesy chords. Yum.

**KISTLER 1994 MCREA VINEYARD CHARDONNAY. A capella Chard, but equally loud. More structure, less lees. Nice contrast. Both great with Saranac’s excellent paté and Caesar salad.

     Then came the main bill:

***PHELPS 1995 INSIGNIA. Tempts you with tobacco and spice aromas, then assaults your palate with fruit -- before shutting it down. It’s those 1995 tannins! Gets nice with the lamb, but don’t try this it home, kids. Aerate for two hours before serving, or better yet, send it to the cellar for five years.

***+SHAFER 1994 HILLSIDE SELECT. Whomp, whomp, WHOMP! One of the most powerful glasses of black cherry fruit it’s ever been my pleasure to sip! Also pretty tannic, but not as mouth-drying. Maybe it’s simply because the fruit just can’t be suppressed. Really needs more time too, but this is going to be a tough game of keep-away. Does a beautiful dance with the lamb chops. Hey, let’s have that one more time!

FRUIT & VEGGIES. (December 12, 1998) The restaurant last night was Nan, a near Penn Campus in Philadelphia. Service was good, glasses were nice and the food, except for a so-so Caesar salad, was excellent.

     To match the Thai-influenced food, we chose West Coast Pinot Noir and Alsace Gewurztraminer. The results were mixed. Here’s what happened:

     The *WEINBACH 1993 GEWURZTRAMINER FURSTENTUM CUVEE LAURENCE was an easy winner. Maybe the food-friendliest of all the wines tonight, with intense aromas of rose petal and lychee, plus plenty of thick, palate-coating texture and a satisfying finish. In other words, your basic Alsace fruit-bomb. Seemed a tad sweeter than the Mann and Zind-Humbrecht ‘93s I’ve sampled, but went beautifully with the peanut sauce in my Chicken Saté appetizer. Score one for the fruit.

     Then we opened AU BON CLIMAT 1993 PINOT NOIR TALLEY ROSEMARY’S VINEYARD, and asparagus stalks raised their unwelcome heads. Our friend at first wondered if the problem was brettanomyces. I only wish it were. No, it’s those dread Santa Barbara vegetables. Now here’s the maddening part -- two years ago, this wine was dense, delicious and raspberry-drenched. Fantastic, 93-point Pinot! But I have learned the hard way that you pay a penalty for holding Central Coast Pinot Noir too long, especially if the wines are from Au Bon Climat. The good news is that the veggies blew off for the most part toward the end of the evening, and I’m sipping a glass from the same bottle tonight that shows just a whisper of tomato. The bad news, however, is that what’s left is just pretty good. Older strawberry flavors. An acceptable wine, but nothing you’d want to pay more than ten bucks for. Sigh.

     The third act gave us a happy ending, however. Spend a little time with **KISTLER 1994 PINOT NOIR HIRSCH VINEYARD and you can understand why some folks are saying the Sonoma Coast is the promised land for California Pinot Noir. The wine does need decanting if you’re going to drink it tonight. The initial aromas were alarmingly reduced. Tar, sulfur, all that kind of stuff. But a little nursing and swirling reveals a boatload of tightly packed fruit. Stings the palate, there’s so much of it. Very, very impressive Pinot Noir. Aces with my rack of lamb. Fruit wins the night!

     Toward the end of the evening, our friend complained that the Kistler was too tannic, with not enough stuffing underneath. Hmm. No, I disagree. Tannic yes, but I’m not averse to a little tannin on young wines, as long as I can taste a lot -- and the fruit here bowled me over. the real question is whether to drink or hold, if you’re lucky enough to own some. I’d say hold a year or two. But then, I’m the one who said that about the ABC Rosemary’s.

GO-FOR-IT ZIN. (December 11, 1998) Yesterday we celebrated a turn for the better in my Dad’s health with a go-for-it wine — **TURLEY 1996 MOORE "EARTHQUAKE" VINEYARD ZINFANDEL. And let me tell you, we went for it!

     If there were any remaining doubt that Larry Turley and his winemaker Ehren Jordan are the new kings of the Zinfandel hill, this wine should dash it to smithereens. Let me present the evidence.

     Exhibit one, and most significant. It tasted wonderful. Imagine raspberries and blueberries shaded by olive notes. Yes, olive — redolent of Bordeaux (yes, I said Bordeaux). What I’m saying is that this wine has in-your-face-fruit and fascinating complexity, a combination not often found in any Zinfandel, much less a ‘96.

     Exhibit two — oak, or lack therof. Even at this young age, it is displaying notably less oak than, for example, St Francis Pagani. Fact is that the Turley Zins only receive about 25% new oak to begin with. More importantly, they soak it up much faster than other Zins.

     Exhibit three — finesse. The wine was remarkably elegant for all its 15.1% alcohol, betrayed no heat and harmonized beautifully with the big slabs of cow we were digging into.

     Exhibit four — value. Yes, value. The wine set me back $30, no more than the previous vintage. That’s rather moderate given the typical resale price of these wines. More to the point, for the money, I’d be hard-pressed to name you a wine that delivers more pleasure.

NEW QPR CHAMP. (December 9, 1998) How delicious, after 10 days with a cold, to be able to smell and taste. In celebration I grilled a New York Strip and uncorked a *1996 QUINTANA CABERNET SAUVIGNON. This is the new "third wine" from Patrick Campbell, made primarily from Laurel Glen estate grapes, priced a notch below his Laurel Glen and Counterpoint.

     After one taste I sat up and took closer notice. It’s not quite as concentrated as Laurel Glen Estate, but I wonder if it may get even higher scores from folks who adore forward fruit. The color is dark ruby, the aromas are rich and fruity...and the flavors leave you thinking about comparisons with Chateau Pichon-Baron.

     Yes, of course, I’m serious. Cassis, blueberry, a whole lot of lead-pencil, and a longer finish than you dare hope for a wine priced well under $20. All that, and a meaty under-note that matches perfectly with rare steak.

     Vacu-vinning the bottle after two and a half glasses practically broke my heart.

TDAY SURPRISES. (November 26, 1998) It was my job this year to bring Thanksgiving wine for a gathering of 18 people, most of whom prefer beer anyway. I tried to keep the price reasonable and didn’t have grandiose expectations, but wound up being pleasantly surprised by a couple of the selections:

CARTLIDGE & BROWNE 1997 CHARDONNAY. Light gold, lovely scents of pear and figs, plenty of fruit and not too much wood. Everything seems to have been done right here, with no annoying excesses. A very, very good Chardonnay at a quaffable price.

CARTLIDGE & BROWNE 1997 PINOT NOIR. Now this is a terrific find! Bright cherry, Russian-River style fruit that, again, is not overwhelmed by spicy oak. Compared quite favorably to another Pinot Noir that cost twice as much. If you like the Napa Ridge Pinots try this — even better, at a similar price.

     The following night a smaller group of us dined on ribs and opened up something a little more serious:

*1985 LAFON-ROCHET. Soused cork. Indifferently stored, no doubt. But a very impressive performance. In an hour’s time it progressed from a pleasing, herbal wine to a complex delight. A core of blackcurrent fruit revealed itself and finally demanded admiration. Ah, Bordeaux.

     Over the weekend, in the course of a long drive home, my annual holiday cold descended. I consoled myself in a mild sort of way with CASA LAPOSTOLLE 1996 MERLOT RAPEL VALLEY CUVEE ALEXANDER. It was dark enough and had body, but on the first night proved unpleasantly woody. I think it had improved quite a bit by the second night, but my sniffer’s suffering so that I can’t be sure.

SMALL JOY. (November 23, 1998) Sometimes wine dominates dinner. Sometimes it’s just there. We gave it a good shot last night at Philly’s worthy new BYO restaurant, Gnocchi. Food was good -- though they could use a better cheese supply. Had a nice time But oh, the bottles just wouldn’t cooperate.

     ARAUJO 1996 SAUVIGNON BLANC. Thick and melon-scented, with just a whisper of grass. Not for you cat pee and gooseberry bush fans, but lovely enough in its own right. Probably was more vivid six months ago. Drink up.

    *MT. EDEN 1994 CHARDONNAY. Best candidate in an indifferent night. Concentrated but still monolithic. But this one seems to me on its way up. Needs another year or two for the flavors to fan out as they did for the ‘92 and ‘93.

    STAGLIN 1991 CABERNET SAUVIGNON. On release, some 4-5 years ago, this Cab was full of promise. Crammed with dense fruit and seemingly the equal of such contemporaries as Phelps 1991 Eisele. Well, time has been kind to the Eisele, but Staglin is now a cipher. Opened it, sensed the cassis core, but the wine never delivered. The tannins did seem to soften with airing, but the fruit gusher never erupted. Oh, it was enjoyable, but I was expecting more. Was this wine over-acidified? Or is it just the wrong time to be trying? Hmm.

     KLEIN KOSTANTIA 1993 SHIRAZ (South Africa). A legendary name, but not a legendary wine. Light-bodied like a Cotes due Rhone. A little bretty, or be kind and call it gamey and leathery. Eh.

SCOTLAND 94 PINOT NOIR. (November 17, 1998) No, it’s not grown on the highland moors. It’s a Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir made by the talented Bruce Scotland -- the same fellow who made the delicious TAY CABERNET SAUVIGNON that I enjoyed a few weeks ago.

     This was my last bottle of 3 and I must say the wine fooled me. I opened the first bottle on release a couple of years ago and found it very tasty, but oddly mature in its flavors and colors. Almost garnet at the rim, with strawberry aromas, joined by spice and herbs on the palate. Kind of a thin texture, too.

     Fast forward to last night and guess what? It’s gotten thicker and silkier. The strawberry herb-flavors are unabated, maybe even a little better. Really enjoyed it with my tuna steak.

HOW ARE YOUR 91s? (November 11, 1998) Every week, I try to bring my Dad a different treat to sample. I’m not waiting for the perfect time. If it’s reasonably ready — out it comes. Last night my eye fell on **+1991 Forman Cabernet Sauvignon. Wonder how it’s drinking? No time like the present to find out.

     It’s dark as ever. Nose of black cherries and cassis. But when it hits the palate — kaboom. All the rich, fruity pleasure it showed on release, but now you can taste the strength of this wine. And there’s a tough, wiry skeleton supporting all the muscles.

     Yeah, what a body. But this ain’t no Jesse Ventura — it’s a Remington bronze. One for the ages.

     So tell me, how are your ‘91s drinking?

CA VS. WA PART 2. (November 6, 1998) Back at Saranac in Bryn Mawr, once again we pitted California Cabernet against the good stuff from Washington State. And once again we opened with a stellar white:

     **FLOWERS 1995 CHARDONNAY CAMP MEETING RIDGE. I’ve kvelled enough. See previous notes on this wine. Third tasting in about two weeks with consistent notes. This time there was nothing left in the bottle at the end of the evening. (And this time we didn’t offer any to the wait staff.)

     The California Cabernet entry tonight was from a producer I for one had never heard of, much less tasted before:

     **TAY 1993 NAPA VALLEY. Super-easy to like, this beauty exploded with a blast of blackberry aromas as soon as the cork came out of the bottle. On the palate it showed structure, but so much fruit it seemed softer than it probably is. Not a complicated wine, but so gosh darned pleasurable I eventually judged it RED OF THE EVENING.

     The Washington entry was *QUILCEDA CREEK 1992. Unfortunately the first one we opened was corked. At least one person at our table wondered about the verdict -- but, by dumb luck, we had a duplicate on hand. The second bottle settled the question. MUCH better. (This, by the way, is typical of corked bottles. Some folks can’t taste the TCA, but, if they’re given a chance to compare the bottle with an untainted one, everyone usually agrees that the fruit has been masked.)

     Less showy than the California entry, this wine began with much less folderol than the Tay. Very dark -- and you could taste fruit on the finish -- but the aromas were in hiding. Slowly it expanded, showing ripe cassis flavors and impressive concentration. At one point I thought it might overtake the Tay, and the arrival of my steak (piled high with crabmeat) food lent it additional oomph. Excellent wine. But. By the end of the evening, the Tay was still ahead.

      So...score one more for California. I’m still pulling for Washington, and will be buying the ‘95 QC, but have yet to be entirely convinced.

CAL SYRAH STOMPS. (November 5, 1998) If all California Syrah were as good as the two I had last night, then Oz and the Rhone might have something to worry about.

     It’s not, of course, and they don’t. Yet. But oh my, this can be awfully good stuff, with a signature all its own. If the Rhone offers structure and gamey character...if Australia offers plush fruit and lots of oak...then California can give you a marvelous purity of flavor and sensational aromatics.

     We opened the evening with two whites that very nearly stole the show:

*JABOULET 1990 HERMITAGE CHEVALIER DE STERIMBERG makes another good case for white Hermitage being the holy grail of whites, matching up with the toughest-to-please foods and tasting fabulous all on its own. Aromas of honey, green apples and what’s that flavor -- quince? Then there’s the mouth-feel, slippery and thick. And the nutty flavors on the finish. Good sipping before dinner, aces with my Caesar salad, and I’d love to have a bottle for Thanksgiving dinner.

**VILLA MT. EDEN 1996 CHARDONNAY BIEN NACIDO SIGNATURE RESERVE made such a strong showing -- again -- that I’m starting to wonder if the Bien Nacido Vineyard may be even better suited to Chardonnay than Pinot Noir. Intense aromas of mangos, kiwi and cream are magnified on the palate, then trail off to a satisfying finish. This is an unashamedly fruity but very complex style of California Chardonnay that doesn’t pretend to be anything else and succeeds on its own terms superbly.

     All this time, I was swirling the reds (or should I call them blacks?) in their glasses, hoping they’d open in time to sing harmony with my wild boar. Blessedly, they all cried out on key:

**˝ SINE QUA NON 1995 THE OTHER HAND. Maybe it’s a minor point, but you’ve got to love the package for this wine -- the 10-ton bottle that looks more like a magnum than the 750 it is, the weird art on the label, and the declaration that 16 hogsheads were made. Tough to steal the show from this, but the wine inside does. Starts out like pure crushed blackberries -- thick as a Grange without the coconut-laden oak. Then settles down and tastes like Syrah, but Syrah of the purest, edgiest kind. Now this is something to sip with roast boar! I finished what little was left tonight and scarcely need add it hadn’t diminished a whit.

**SWANSON 1992 SYRAH. Opens with a rush of raspberries, smelling almost like a Burgundy. Then shuts down. Then roars to life once more. The aromas get more complex. Something like kirsch. Finally, it gets a little gritty on the finish. Considerably smoother than it was on release, this wine is nonetheless spouting fruit. I’d call this its best showing yet.

1988 LA CHAPELLE. Very different kind of wine, though practically the same color as the other two. This is gamy, leathery stuff, though there’s ample cassis underneath.A more moderate wine in comparison to the two bruisers above, but worthy enough.

     Last we sampled some *1983 BOBERG PORT from South Africa, yet another excellent and reasonably priced vintage from this producer that I hadn’t even heard of last year.

CAN’T KILL THIS PN. (November 5, 1998) I have to plan carefully when I open a bottle of Pinot Noir. Phylis can’t drink red and I don’t like keeping a bottle of this fragile juice open for more than 24 hours.

     But sometimes you get stuck. I opened a bottle of SIDURI 1996 VAN DER KAMPE last Friday evening for some friends. We only consumed about half of it. Problem was, I proceeded to dine out for the next 6 nights. (You know how it is; one thing led to another.)

     So tonight I finally pulled the Siduri out of the icebox. It’s been a WEEK. Hardly dared hope for anything -- and I never thought of this one as an especially big wine to begin with.

     But what do you know? It’s not only drinkable -- it may even be better than it was last Friday.

     You can’t kill this stuff! (Just have one bottle left, then onto the 97s.)

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