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November-December 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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FRENCH FOO-FOO WINES. (December 11, 1999) For us, the week began with a flooded basement and went downhill. Our friends had even grimmer stories. We were in no mood to trifle.

     So we used the season as our excuse to meet at the newly re-opened and re-Christened Birchrunville Store Cafť. New owner, new chef and the foodís even better than before. We all loved the fois gras and my venison was beautiful.

     Then, of course, we had to open some hoity-toity French bottles -- and, bless Les FranÁais, they delivered.

     We open with:

*+1996 Chateau Smith Haut-Lafite Blanc. Itís much as I found it last month -- a grassy, gooseberry, no-nonsense style of Sauvignon Blanc. Velvety texture provides a nice counterpart to the racy acid. I like it a lot. But Phylis, who hates acidic wines, takes a sip, makes a face and turns to the lone Californian on the table...

***+1997 Flowers Chardonnay "Moon Select." Much as we found it two weeks ago. Yeah, I know itís way too young. So what? Just magnificent. Not French, but close your eyes and itís Grand Cru Burgundy.

     Then onto the reds. Just to be safe, we've brought several. But we canít decide which to open. So heck, our friend suggests, letís try Ďem all:

**+1991 Meo-Camuzet Vosne-Romanťe "Les Chaumes" starts out with aromas of smoked duck and raspberry sauce. Too young? No, after half an hour, the smoke swirls away and the flavors stand out sharp and clear. Darjeeling tea, flint and berries. Medium weight, but quite long. Develops well all evening.

***1995 Chateau Monbousquet (St. Emilion) is too young, but wonderfully drinkable all the same. Mainly Merlot, I guess, but showing like a California Cult Cab. Shafer Hillside Select with a French accent. Deep purple, with big, big fruit flavors -- and showing more than a hint of sexy oak. Powerful argument for new-wave Bordeaux. Give it five more years in the cellar and prepare for a lot of pleasure.

By contrast, ***+1990 Pape Clement (Pessac-Leognan) is everything a classic-lover could ask for. Tons of tobacco with some prosciuto on the finish. A smokiní Bordeaux cigar! Best showing yet and WINE OF THE EVENING.

IN PRAISE OF CAYMUS SPECIAL SELECTION. (December 3, 1999) Caymus was one of the first Napa Valley wineries to bust the hundred-buck barrier for one measly bottle of wine. Theyíve taken heat for it ever since, including some from me. But I must confess that I really enjoyed what I tasted the other evening.

     Iím talking about ***1990 Caymus Special Selection. A friend brought it to dinner and it was easily the wine of the night.

     Iíll admit that, at first, the aromas are dominated by American oak. But within an hour the coconut and dill blow off, revealing a big, opulent, well-balanced wine. Lots of cassis and olive flavors. It seems to be maturing like some of the great Special Selections of the past, and could hold its own easily in a vertical. Overpriced? Maybe. But I canít complain about what I find in the glass.

     Unfortunately, my own matching contribution, #$%^1991 Shafer Hillside Select is CORKED. This is the second Hillside Select that Iíve opened in as many weeks -- and both have been corked!

     So instead, I open *+1997 Siduri Pinot Noir Hirsch Vineyard. A lovely wine that Iíve reported on before -- chock full of cherry and meat flavors. But tonight, the Caymus pushes it aside.

     We also open a couple of whites:

**1997 Newton Chardonnay "Unfiltered" is a big, deep Chard with plenty to enjoy. However, it isnít quite as complex as...

***1997 Peter Michael Chardonnay "Belle Cote." Continues to impress. I think it may be my favorite Peter Michael Chard of all time. Explosive papaya flavors with lots of leesy, bready highlights. Overtones of lime. Long, luscious finish.

DINNER WITH JOAN AND WALT FLOWERS. (December 1, 1999) Over Thanksgiving weekend, we had the great pleasure of dining with Joan and Walt Flowers, proprietors of a red-hot new winery on California's Sonoma Coast.

     What nice people they are -- and how unspeakably convenient to meet them at a restaurant in Lambertville, New Jersey! They're originally from this area and were visiting relatives.

     I'll be covering details about the Flowers winery in an upcoming interview. But tasting notes on their new releases can't wait. We opened:

***+1997 Flowers Chardonnay Camp Meeting Ridge "Moon Select." The Moon Select designation is reserved for their top cuvťes. And as much as I like the "regular" Flowers Chard (see below), this one is even better. The wine is incredibly focused and intense. Hits your palate like a laser beam. And although the wine received 88% new oak, itís been all soaked up. Nary a splinter! Walt Flowers predicts a long life for this wine and feels it needs a few years to mature. As dicey as it is to age California Chards, Iíll go along with his assessment. Certainly, the 1995 Chardonnay continues to improve. The 1997 Moon Select is among the best Chardonnays Iíve tasted all year, including Burgundies.

***+1997 Flowers Pinot Noir Camp Meeting Ridge "Moon Select." Bright, beautiful and Burgundian. Aromas of red raspberry. Ultra-concentrated on the palate. Shows some tannin too, but the finish is outrageous. Wow! This wine is well-balanced and seems to have the stuffing for long-term aging. I find it comparable in style to the Kistler Pinot Noirs -- which shouldnít be a big surprise, as the Flowersí are big fans of Steve Kistlerís wines. As with the Chard, Walt feels the wine needs years in the cellar to show its best. Probably true, but I sure enjoyed it tonight!

     For comparison, I had brought one of my favorite young red Burgundies:

**1995 Bertagna Vougeot "Les Cras." On its own terms, this is a fruit-packed wine with plenty of complexity. It has a mineral note that I didnít find in the Flowers, but otherwise the flavor profile was similar. When it comes to intensity, however, this wine was simply blown away by the Flowers!

     Once again, Iím mightily impressed by the potential of Sonoma Coast vineyards to produce world-class wines from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. More on the Flowers at a later date.

RHONES AND...WHAT? (November 20, 1999) The reds tonight were mostly big, classic Chateauneuf du Pape. Iím not sure what to call the whites, but I do know I liked Ďem a lot.

     We were dining at Philadelphiaís hot new restaurant on Market Street East, Fork, and let me observe parenthetically that I have never seen the cityís eateries doing better business. Every place in the area was jammed. They seemed almost to be leaking diners out onto the street and parking was nearly impossible.


*1997 Schuman-Nagler Reisling Brut Sekt b.A. Rheingau Geisenheimer Monchspfad. I often joke that German wines require more time to copy down the name than to write the tasting note. In this case, I exaggerate not. Folks impatiently yell "pass the bottle!" as I try to make sure I've spelled "Monchspfad" correctly. Anyhow, as sparkling Reisling goes, this is a beaut. Fruity but racy enough to kick your palate like Champagne.

     WHITES tonight consist of a vertical from the hot new California producer of Rhone-type wines, Sine Qua Non. I believe all the wines are mostly Roussanne, though thereís other stuff in here too. Seem to remember that the Ď95 has some Chardonnay it in. If anyone knows for sure, let me know. Anyhow, we open:

***1995 Sine Qua Non "The Bride." The debut white from this winery and probably still their best to date. Terrific aromas of all kinds of goodies. Tropical fruits, creme brulee, sea breeze, cashews, other stuff too. Seductive and slippery on the palate, too, with a racy tang that only adds to the fun. I first tasted this wine two and half years ago. Now the wineís more integrated and seemingly just as powerful. DRY WHITE OF THE EVENING.

1996 Sine Qua Non "Omadhaun and Poltroon." CORKED, and Iím really getting sore. Iíve opened three irreplaceable bottles this week that have all been tainted with TCA. Some at the table say this bottle is the weakest in the vertical -- but that isnít really fair. TCA doesn't just make the wine taste musty; it mutes the others flavors too. Judgement reserved, perhaps forever, because I doubt Iíll ever taste another.

**1997 Sine Qua Non "Twisted and Bent." Young, tight and still somewhat disjointed, this wine improves quite a bit by the end of our meal. Even at this stage of development, itís impossible to resist. Similar flavor profile to the Bride. Same lovely mouthfeel. However, from my memories of the Bride when young, Iím guessing the latter will ultimately prove to be the bigger wine.


**+1989 Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape. In keeping with previous notes on this wine, itís big, wide and wild. Storm-force aromas of raspberry and roasted meat. The Mourvedre in this wine is getting more evident with each passing year. DRY RED OF THE EVENING.

**1990 Brunel Chateauneuf du Pape "Les Cailloux." Now weíre on the civilized side of Chateauneuf du Pape. Pure, sweet, slow to open, but ultimately very rewarding. You could call it elegant, but understand thereís a lot of substance here. Probably still several years from its plateau of maturity.

1990 Bonneau Chateauneuf du Pape "Marie Beurrier." CORKED, and if I was sore about the SQN, now Iím beside myself! The wine is so big that the fruit almost covered the mustiness. But alas, itís ruined. On the desperate hope that I might be proven wrong the next day, I recork the bottle and try it the following evening. Nope, itís even worse. Down the drain goes yet another rarity.

*+1997 Sheutz-Oles Petite Sirah "Rattlenake Acres." Thick, sweet blueberry juice laced with coconut. Reminds me of the Ď94 Rockland PS as it tasted several years ago. Will this stuff age? Who knows. Iíd drink now.

     Iíve disqualified DESSERT WINES from claiming "Wine of the Evening" honors, but I'm sorely tempted to revoke the rule tonight. The only argument I hear at the table concerns which sweetie we prefer. At first, I think it will have to be:

***1977 Fonseca Port. Decanted three hours before consumption, it still hadnít opened fully. Tremendously concentrated, with a 60-second finish, this is great Port and what could be finer? Much to my surprise, the answer is:

***+1989er Winzergenossenschaft Vier Jahreszeiten-Kloster Limberg Durkheimer Hochmess Riesling Eiswein. (And you thought the bubbly above was a jaw-breaker?) Medium gold and not only super-sweet, but endowed with so much flavor and backbone, you never get tired of it. One of the best Eisweins Iíve ever tasted. Normally I prefer Port, but this wine is just so intense and well-balanced, you canít deny it the crown.

A BLAST FROM BRUNELLOíS FORGOTTEN VINTAGE. (November 20, 1999) You wonít find too many people with much nice to say about 1991 Brunellos. So that made it all more satisfying to uncork **1991 Uccelliera Brunello di Montalcino.

     Consumed with a splendid meal of Chicken Marengo at a friendís home, this wine made a number of us drop our jaws and stare into the glass. Classic Brunello aromas of dried cherries, roasted meat and cedar. Lots of punch on the palate. Tannins evident but the rough edges are gone. This wine is still a few years away from its prime, but so well-balanced you can enjoy it tonight.

     Also delicious but way too young was **1996 Falesco Montiano. Deep purple, pumping out cherry-currant flavors, but hasnít yet knit with its new oak. Reminds me a little of the 1990 Bon Pasteur when it was first released.

CALIFORNIAíS FINEST. (November 20, 1999) When my precious %&*$#1992 Shafer Hillside Select proved to be cork-tainted, I muttered a mighty oath. But other stuff soon soothed the savage soul. At Chester Countyís tiny new gem of a restaurant, Catherineís, we sampled some frighteningly young California cuvťes, including:

***1997 Flowers Chardonnay "Camp Meeting Ridge." Tight and needs time, but itís stuffed like a Burgundy Grand Cru. The remainder of the bottle, consumed 2 nights later, was humming along without a trace of decay. Is this even better than the stellar Ď95?

***+1995 Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon "Hillside Select." You know, Shafer wines are so supple they can deceive you. This one has such well-behaved tannins that you almost ignore them at first -- but donít get suckered. This stuff is massive and really needs years to show anything more than a hint of its power. Heady aromas of chocolate cherry. On the palate, you get tempted with lots of delicious fruit on the palate, but then, BANG. You hit a wall. An hour into the game, you begin to sense what lies beyond, but you just canít get much further tonight. Itís too full of goodies not to enjoy, but youíll be much better rewarded by cellaring your stash for at least 5 years.

***1995 Etude Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley. Similarly supple and dense. Same story, really, as the Shafer, except this wine is more flattering right now, and probably less powerful in the long run. The second half of the bottle, consumed the following night, hadnít budged much.

THE MAIN STUFF. (November 13, 1999) Sigh. We rant about the skyrocketing cost. We boycott an overpriced vintage or two. But when you get right down to it...

     No one does it better than the Bordelaise.

     This fact forced itself on us yet again last night as we joyously slurped our way through a bunch of the main stuff at Phillyís stylish South American eatery, Pasion. The goodies included:

*1982 Domaine de la GaffeliŤre. This older St. Emilion just arrived in Pennsylvania State Stores and I would guess itís a re-release from the Chateau. In any case, itís in pretty good shape. A little bricky at the rim, it shows some oxidized aromas as soon as you pour it. But after a while, a layer of nice, sweet fruit reveals itself. As the night wears on, the wine slowly fades, so I wouldnít buy any to lay down for future use. But I like it for drinking tonight.

**+1982 Chateau La Pavie. Clearly a classier specimen from the vintage, this wine is in its prime. Rich, dark ruby stuff, showing clear at the edge. Aromas of blackcurrant and olive. Pure velvet on the palate.

?*1986 LaMission Haut Brion. My first whiff of this wine revealed a slightly musty note, but it quickly gets overwhelmed by the expected Bordeaux aromas. As the evening wears on, however, it becomes clear that something is wrong with this bottle. The fill is good and it doesnít taste heat-damaged, but this is not what youíd expect from La Mission in a great year. So Iíll go back to first impression. Borderline cork taint.

**+1989 Mouton (from half-bottle). As I sip this wine, I think to myself, "I really, really, really love Pauillac." Okay, this is not the biggest Mouton Iíve tasted. And the tannins are more resolved than you might expect from a 1989 First Growth. But all the cylinders are firing . First you smell a ton of mushroom. Then the fruit and spice pokes through. And when you finally dive into the glass -- ooh, itís so good. Sexy, chocolately, oak-influenced in the best sense. And a core of pure, deep, Cabernet yum.

***1990 Chateau Lagrange (St. Julien). Still a little tannic and could use maybe a few more years in the cellar, but thatís a quibble. Stuffed to the gills with Bordeaux blackcurrant flavors, shaded by Asian spice and even some almond. As the night wears on it just gets better.

**1989 Chateau Lagrange (St. Julien). A lot like the 1990, but seems a little more austere and acidic and seems further down the aging curve. In fact, the two wines seem very representative of their vintages. Both outstanding, with the 1990 more voluptuous.

     We end the evening with yet another Oz sweetheart...

**Seppelt Ruthglen Show Muscat "DP63". Another Madeira taste-alike that I fall for in a big way. And a bargain, which is more than a miracle in todayís over-juiced wine market. Okay, maybe there is something to be said for non-Bordeaux wines.

ITALIAN THOROUGHBREDS LOSE A HORSE-RACE. (November 12, 1999) All year Iíve been tooting the horn for Italian reds. So I really looked forward to tasting a bunch of legendary names this week.

     We gathered at Phillyís hot new restaurant, Vetri, and the food was as good as the menu looked. You havenít lived until youíve had Chocolate Fettucine with Wild Board Ragu.

     And the Italian wines were very, very nice. However, my favorite three wines were not Italian but...

     Okay, hereís what happened:


**1989 Egly-Ouriet Champagne "Cuvee Millesime" is magnificent as always, and despite my note of a year ago, it hasnít passed peak. Exploding with mature, apple and pear flavors.

**1995 Kistler Chardonnay "Vine Hill" wins applause for its class and complexity. Smoked nuts, minerals, tropical fruit, all knit well together. May improve, but the intensity is so terrific, why not drink now?

**+1994 Zind Humbrecht Riesling "Clos Hauserer" is on the point too, loaded with diesel and pine-sap aromas, and lots of fruit all through the finish. WHITE OF THE EVENING.


**+1988 Sassicaia is a classic Bordeaux taste-alike. Aromas of coffee, fudge and cassis, with lots of pleasure when you taste it. Tannins resolved, velvet smooth. Beautiful finish. Thereís an overall elegance that might betray it as Super-Tuscan. But serve it blind in a flight of outstanding St. Emilions, and who would suspect?

*+1988 Tignanello is perhaps a bigger wine, but not as generous. Maybe it needs more time? Lovely stuff, donít get me wrong, but clearly outclassed by the Sassicaia.

*+1983 Quintarelli Reciota della Valpolicella Amonderlato goes beautifully with the wild boar, and the big, alcohol-tinged, overripe flavors are a nice counterpoint. But I keep going back to the Sassicaia. Until I taste...

***1991 Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve. Okay, itís not as ready as the Italians. But I canít get enough of it. Essence of Cabernet Sauvignon. Amazing purity and depth of cassis fruit, with all the little varietal subtleties you could want. RED OF THE EVENING.

     And my third favorite? Iím currently disqualifying dessert wines from contention for wine-of-the-evening honors, because Iím just too much of a sucker for them. But, if I hadnít...

**+Yalumba Old Sweet White Museum Reserve might have won again! See my note on this wine from last month.

WEST COAST CAB FRANC. (November 9, 1999) For years I was underwhelmed with Cabernet Franc, with the notable exception of Cheval Blanc. The grape can present you with wines that are weedy and dull, and usually does.

     But lately the stuff is getting my serious interest. Iíve tasted a few Loire reds that actually seem ripe and have some concentration. And now even a few American wineries are doing good things with it.

     You gotta like Dalla Valle Maya, even if you hate the price. Viader has been on my "buy" list since 1991, although price may cause me to skip the 1997. And tonight we tasted a couple of other goodies:

***1995 Pride Cabernet Franc. Black and backward, but oozing fruit all the same. Barrels of berries, dipped in chocolate. Not for Loire nuts, acid freaks or finesse-fiends, but ooh-la-la! Grows in majesty as the evening wears on.

*+1996 Justin Isosceles. Cab Franc is just one of the grapes in this blend, but to me it defines the wine. Always seems made in an ultra-ripe style and this vintage is no exception. Very dark, though not as black as the Pride. Fragrant, plummy, just short of pruney, but it works.

     We also tried:

*+1994 Shafer Firebreak. Combines the cherry flavors of Sangiovese with the supple depth of Shaferís Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon. Initially I would have ranked this even higher, but it thinned out notably as the evening wore on. Still like it a lot.

?1995 Simi Sendal White Table Wine. Seems like it has a lot of Semillon. Kiwi and saltwater taffy flavors. Good mouthfeel. Canít make up my mind about it.

*+1997 Horton Viognier Reserve. Surprises me by being so controversial. Beautiful perfume on the nose. Pure, varietally true and oakless on the palate. I like it a lot. Another taster says itís not the equal of the 1993 Horton. Another just doesnít like it. Well heck, I do.

**+1995 Flowers Camp Meeting Ridge Chardonnay. Best performance yet? Very intense. Expands impressively with airing. Yes, new oak, but behaves like a classified growth Burgundy.

MASKED REDS ON HALLOWEEN. (November 9, 1999) Nine days after the fact, I can still taste the wines we blind-tasted on Halloween night. Zin wimps can skip to the next notes, because these guys are B-I-G.

     For those who care, let me add that the wines were served double-blind and their identities were not revealed until all the blinded wines were tasted. Here are my notes:

MASKED RED #1. Deep ruby. Strawberry and bramble-fruit aromas. Spicy, big and thick on the palate. Shows the most alcohol of the bunch, but in keeping with the enormous flavors. Lots of finesse and complexity, despite the scale. I guess itís a single-vineyard Zin, which ainít rocket science, and hazard that it may be from sandy soil. Right grape, wrong dirt. Itís **+*1992 Williams Selyem Zinfandel Russian River Valley. There's some discussion about whether this was made from Martinelli Jackass Vineyard fruit; turns out that 1992 was the first year WS didn't get those grapes. 

MASKED RED #2. Seamless, smooth, strawberry-raspberry fruit bomb. Thereís less alcohol evident here than in wine #1. Also a little less roughness around the edges. Zinfandel is again the easy guess -- and itís so beautifully put together that I conclude it may be a blend. But itís ***1996 Martinelli Zinfandel Jackass Vineyard. Best showing that MJV has ever made in my presence, and itís fun to compare this to the Williams Selyem. Both, you see, have about the same alcohol level (somewhere between 15% and 16%). Yet the Martinelli has less heat.

MASKED RED #3. Darkest by far. Also the most tannic. Also the deepest and biggest and...well, yes, Iíd say the best. Super-ripe stuff with plum and chocolate flavors. Alcohol coats the sides of the glass, but thereís not a trace of heat. In fact, it seems the coolest of the three. Easily WINE OF THE EVENING. I guess Zin again and Napa Valley Zin at that. Our host grins and asks how old we think this wine is. I guess itís 5 years from vintage. Finally I get one right! This is ***+1994 Turley Zinfandel Hayne Vineyard and oh my, is it magnificent tonight.

     We then uncorked a couple of others without bothering to uncover the labels. Both were either showing very backward, or else overwhelmed by the Zins. Maybe both? Good stuff, all the same:

*?1996 Clarendon Hills Kangarilla Vineyard Grenache. Wasnít decanted and badly needs it. Big tannins, covering a packed-up wad of raspberry flavors. Lots of pepper. Forget about this guy for a couple of years at least.

*?1994 Rockland Petite Sirah was decanted, but needed 24 hours. Ink black, with some blackberry and soy aromas. Palate says next to nothing. By the next night, it had begun to talk, but too little, too late. Stick this one in the back of your cellar for another decade, Iíd guess.

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