Tasting Notes


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October-December 2000

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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FANTASY LAND (December 19, 2000). I wish I could say you can visit vinous heaven for under $50 a bottle. But here's the bittersweet truth:

1. The Sweet. Last night we enjoyed a true Fantasy Feast. The wines were indeed heaven, all but two cost well under $50 at release -- and I'm pretty sure that the two best were under $30.

2. The Bitter. Current releases of nearly all these wines are trending toward the stratosphere.

     Sigh. So what else is new? Well, here's what we uncorked:


***1990 Cristal. Long, strong, big stuff that's still very tight. You can't really get to the core, but you'll have fun trying to get there. Flavors tend to apples, lemons, sherry and bread. If you want your money's worth, cellar for at least another year.


***+1990 Chandon de Brialles. This tasted so good two weeks ago (see "Mighty Nineties," below) that we invited it back for an encore. Once again, it gets my vote for WHITE OF THE EVENING. It's got minerals and sexy apricot-tinged fruit and creamy sex appeal. Plus, it's got depth, length, finesse and one of the best noses of any White Burg in recent memory. Tonight it even noses out one of my favorite California Chards...

***1993 Marcassin Gauer Ranch Upper Barn. In comparison to the Corton, this seems like a pure California power play -- for a while. But then the oak drops back, mineral flavors come out to play and whaddya know? It's getting Burguindian. This is my third tasting the wine since release and it's still improving. The most complex it's ever been, with strength to spare.


**+1994 Beaux FrŤres. Still seduces, but it's closed down a bit since the last time out. If you want to open one now, decant for an hour or more. One of us complained it was "too heavy" at the outset, but an hour later, I caught him sneaking a second pour and grinning. As the flavors unfold, you can taste blackberry, forest floor and even a trace of sweat.


***+1987 Beringer Reserve. I've had this wine several times in the last several years. Up until now it seemed to be holding back, but now the curtain's up and what a show! Fabulous aromas. Cassis, tobacco, cedar -- a classic profile. It's silky and fulfilling on the palate, finishing well. Licorice flavors from earlier tastings are gone, replaced by subtle notes of bacon fat. Great finish. DRY RED OF THE EVENING.

***1997 Jones Family. Totally different game here. All primary flavors -- but oooh are they delicious. Black as a winter solstice midnight. Very thick, velvety texture. Riot of fruit including blueberry, cherry and raspberry, plus chocolate sauce and vanilla ice cream.


?**?1998 Kay Brothers Amery Vineyard Block 6. Even inkier than the Jones, if possible, and much tougher to assess. For quite a while it's all chocolate and tannin. Finally it creaks open and shows some berry flavors. The tannins are supple and the fruit seems in balance but this wine needs years in the cellar or hours of decanting. Judgment reserved.


***1986 Navarro White Riesling Late Harvest "Cluster Select." Deep, deep amber, like an old Madeira. Big flavors of peach, parchment, lots of botrytis and wow how sweet! I was expecting a lot of the sweetness to have blown off, but no -- it's riveting stuff. What a great performance for a California Riesling!


***+1977 Taylor-Fladgate Port. Just when you thought you had already tasted the wine of the evening, along comes this. Enormous red cherry flavors, seamless texture, right at its prime. Tonight I'll suspend my rule that a sweet wine can't win top honors. Merry Christmas, Taylor. You're WINE OF THE EVENING.

SHOULDA BOUGHT MORE 94. (December 10, 2000) Like many Bordeaux fiends, I bought cautiously when the 1994 futures came to market. The vintage had a decent but not great reputation.

     Now I'm wishing that I'd been more aggressive. The vintage was far cheaper than any that followed and some of the wines are turning out better than I dared hope. This includes the Pichon-Lalande and tonight's selection...

**+1994 Troplong-Mondot. It's cradle-robbing tonight, but the baby is a winner. Deep purple, with cedar and cherry aromas -- and a ton of black cherry fruit when you lap it up. As the evening wears on, you notice the tannins more. Yet they're well within balance and I expect super things as the wine matures. If you've got any, hold back until at least 2006, but look forward to that day! This was purchased this as a future for $35. Yeah, dem were da days.

We benchmarked this wine against the astonishing ***+1990 Troplong-Mondot, which is purring like a great big, beautiful panther. Deep ruby, it's revealing cedar, plum, cherry -- and name your berry. Velvety, voluptuous and bigger than the 1994, but there's a remarkable similarity between the two tonight. Rejoice if you've got some of this and indulge whenever you like. It's ready, but ought to hold for a good long time.

MIGHTY NINETIES FROM CB&B. (December 3, 2000) Nearly every year is a great vintage somewhere in the world, but in 1990 the wine gods smiled seemingly everywhere.

     In Burgundy, Bordeaux, the RhŰne, Champagne, Tuscany, Northern California, a Ď90 and youíre home free. It would have been nice to line up wines from all these places tonight, but we cheerfully settled for Champagne, Burgundy and Bordeaux.


**+1990 Bollinger Grand Annťe. Medium gold with a fine mousse. Flavors veer to apple, citrus and a hint of flint. Lingers pretty darned long. Still needs a year or two.


***+1990 Chandon de Briailles Corton (Blanc). If all white Corton tasted this good, Iíd vote to rip out the reds! Medium gold with a fabulous nose of minerals and crŤme brulťe that summons forth oohs and ahhs around the table. Full and generous on the palate. And you just canít turn off the finish. What is it, 45 seconds? I donít generally name a white WINE OF THE EVENING, but this oneís undeniable.

**1990 Lafon Meursault Clos de la Barre. More typical of many finer white Burgundies from the 1990s, this is a  big wine, but not quite open for business yet. Stonier and bonier than the Corton, it gradually opens after about an hour. Hold for another 2-3 years or decant two hours before serving.


***1990 Arlot Nuits St. George "Clos de LíArlot." Looks surprisingly old. Ruby going to garnet. But the aromas and flavors say "prime time." Strawberries, raspberries, forest floor -- the whole Burgundy orchestra playing your favorite waltz. Silky on the palate like great mature Burgundy oughtta be. I donít see any reason to hold this any longer if youíve got some. Pop a cork and prepare for much pleasure.

*+1990 Faiveley Corton "Clos de Corton." Kind of a cipher tonight. Much younger-looking than the Arlot and definitely sterner tonight. I might have guessed it for a Ď93 rather than a Ď90. Our friend who brought it asks, "Do think it will ever come around?" Toward the end of the evening Iím inclined to guess yes, because it seems to be emerging from its shell. Hold at least 2-3 more years and maybe more.


**1962 La Mission Haut Brion. An exception to the rules tonight but weíre happy to admit it. Itís a lovely old wine, with aromas of tar, tobacco, strawberry and mint. Some oxidation greets you at first, then it fades, but comes back in about half an hour. This wine is beginning to hit the downslope but still has a lot to offer.

***+1990 Ch‚teau Pichon-Baron. Is this the greatest PB Iíve ever tasted? Or does the 1989 hold the edge? Dunno, but this wine earns BABE OF THE EVENING for its power and fantastic fruit. Still years from its prime, brimming with flavors of coffee bean, cassis and cherry pie. Very purple, very long. Good things await owners who cellar this wine 5 more years. If you just canít wait, enjoy.

Can **+1990 Les Forts de Latour hope to compete with the Pichon-Baron? At first I would have said no, but the race is much closer by eveningís end. Itís a more "Bordelaise" wine from the git-go, showing cedar, cassis and earth. Fruit flavors grow stronger with each passing minute. Finally youíre faced with a lush Latour taste-alike. Impressive showing for a second wine.


**+1990 Riussec charms everyone immediately, with its lemon, apricot and tropical fruit flavors, shaded by notes of Botrytis. Itís ready to rip, which I canít say of tonightís final wine...

***1990 Raymond Lafon has penetrating botrytis and parchment flavors with a whalloping finish, but much of the fruit is held back for now. This is great wine, but youíre well-advised to hold for another 5 years.

ULTIMATE TURKEY WINES. (November 19, 2000) When it comes to selecting wines for big holiday gatherings, you can forget about being a perfectionist for least three reasons.

     One, cranberry sauce. No wine matches cranberry sauce, full stop.

     Two, the crowd. At our own Thanksgiving feast, for example, at least one person insists I provide Chardonnay, one brings her own White Zin and three stick to beer. The first two don't care they're incorrect and the last three may actually have the best food match. (See one, above.)

     Three, the occasion. Most people will be too busy catching up with each other to pay much attention to what they're drinking, unless it's unusually bad.

     All that being said, here are my own three favorite wines for the Big Meal:

1. Zinfandel. It's the All American Red Wine, which makes it conceptually well suited to Thanksgiving. It's big, bold and fruity, which makes it a crowd-pleaser. And it's got naturally high acidity, which means it can withstand the onslaught of the cranberry sauce better than most reds. My favorite Zinfandel tasted in recent weeks is **+ 1996 Turley Black-Sears Vineyard. A giant fruitcake of a wine. Flavors of chocolate-covered blackberries and plums. Long finish. (If you want a much easier-to-find Zinfandel that costs less than $15, look for *+1997 Marietta Sonoma County Zinfandel. Not quite as explosive, but an equally good match to the food.)

2. Alsace White. Especially Pinot Gris or Gewurztraminer. With their spicy flavors and floral notes, these wines match turkey meat and stuffing very well without overwhelming it. Their slippery texture and crisp acidity face up to the cranberry challenge at least as well as Zinfandel if not better. And, of course, the best ones deliver flavor that should even bring a smile to the family sourpuss. Look for any wine from Albert Mann, Paul Blanck, Weinbach or Zind-Humbrecht and you can't go wrong. My favorite Alsace White currently on the market is the heavenly ***1998 Zind-Humbrecht Pinot Gris Clos Windsbuhl. Essence of minerals, quince and pears. Fabulous lychee flavors on the lingering finish. A wine-for-all-courses that you can sip as an aperitif, quaff with your turkey and finish up alongside the pumpkin pie. At under $50, it puts Grand Cru Burgundies at four times the price to shame.

3. Champagne. It's fun, it's festive, it's the one best wine for holiday toasting and folks start smiling as soon as they hear the cork popping. All this, plus it matches up to all the different goodies on the groaning board almost as well as Alsace. Our current favorite super-sparkler is the divine ***+1990 Dom Perignon (see last year's article on Champagnes for notes). For Thanksgiving, we'll probably go with the only-slightly-less-awesome **+Tarlant Cuvťe Louis NV.

     Enjoy your own feast and God bless us, everyone.

BIG BURG FOR YOUR BUCK. (November 11, 2000) Just when you thought that Big Burgundy under $20 was but a memory, along comes **1999 Erker Givry 1er Cru "Bois Chevaux."

     Forget for a moment that it's not from the CŰte D'Or and let's glory in what it is. Deep dark ruby, it rushes at you with a riot of raspberry, strawberry and blueberry -- so young and rich, you'd think you were tasting a barrel sample. Lots of new oak, but the balance is flawless and I expect this puppy to age very well.

     Okay, maybe it does taste more like great California Pinot Noir than classic Burgundy, but at $19.95 I don't give a hoot. This gets my vote for Burgundy value of the season.

1990 CAL CABS: DRINKING WELL. (November 11, 2000) I continue to pull corks on some of the better California Cabernets of 1990 and so far the news is very good indeed. Tonight, **+1990 Simi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon reminds me of 1990 in St. Julien, with its tobacco nuances and bottomless pool of blackcurrant. Simi continues to make terrific reserve Cabs, but I haven't tasted a recent one that hits the heights of the 1990 and the equally fine 1991.

OFF-VINTAGE HOME RUN. (November 11, 2000) Bordeaux had a so-so vintage in 1997 and last time I checked, the prices remained unrealistically high. Still I can't help loving ***1997 Ch‚teau Lafite, a wine that makes you wonder if they misprinted the year on the bottle. With sexy aromas of coffee bean, currants and strawberries, this wine is rich and righteously drinkable now, but five more years should help to fan out the tail.

KINDA CHEAP. (November 4, 2000) When your definition of cheap wine becomes "stuff under $20," are you hopelessly out of touch with the real world? Or hopelessly in touch with todayís wine prices?

     However that may be, a bunch of us Hopeless Ones held a Cheap Wine Tasting tonight. The last time we tried this, six months ago, our cutoff was $13. Tonight we raised the ceiling to $20. The good news is that hiking the price improved the field -- and youíve already guessed the bad news.

     On to the notes. We tasted the wines double-blind and, Iím afraid, pretty frantically. There were more than 25 wines to taste, dinner to eat, and let me apologize here to the optimistic souls at our table who actually tried to make conversation. If Iíve mangled a name below (or done worse), let me know and Iíll correct it.


WHITE 1. Fresh aromas of pineapple and pear. High on the acid. Fair to moderate finish. Not bad! I guess Alsace Pinot Blanc. Itís *1999 Michel Brock Sancerre.

WHITE 2. Pears, apples and minerals on the nose. Toasty, creamy flavors emerge with some air, but overall the oak is quite restrained. Nice balance, good length. I like it a lot. Unmistakably Chardonnay and a well made one at that. I guess Pouilly Fuissť or Macon. Itís **-1998 Landmark Overlook Chardonnay. (Note: Iíve personally been unable to find this wine for under $20. At my local price of $23.99, itís still appropriate value.)

WHITE 3. Very pale. Faint nose of pears. Acidic attack, mild flavors, indifferent finish. Itís a disappointing showing for a wine Iíve liked in previous vintages, 1998 St. Francis Chardonnay.

WHITE 4. Kind of like the previous wine, but with a European accent. Mute nose, dilute flavors and not much finish. Acidity and a faint whiff of petrol makes me guess that itís some kind of German grape. 1997 Balthazar Ress Riesling Kabinett "Hattenheimer Schutzenhause."

WHITE 5. Extremely pale, pear-scented, oily-textured, with an acidic finish. Too young for me to enjoy much. Will it shape up with aging? 1999 Selbach-Oster Riesling Auslese "Zeltinger Schlossberg."

WHITE 6. Straw colored. Big blast of diesel, followed up by tropical fruit and minerals. Drenches the palate. Finishes long and sweet. Now this is righteous Riesling. Probably a Spštlese or Auslese. Yes. **1993 Merkelbach Riesling Auslese "Urziger Wurtzgarten" and my pick for WHITE WINE OF THE EVENING.

WHITE 7. No aromas of note. No flavors of note. Some acidity and thatís all she wrote. 1999 Vini Chardonnay (Bulgaria).

WHITE 8. Minerally and mouth-coating. Good finish. Probably Chardonnay. Yes, itís *1997 Silverado Chardonnay. Not quite as well-stuffed as the Landmark, but worthy juice.

WHITE 9. Pear-pineapple-petrol aromas announce the presence of darned good Riesling. Thick and satisfying. Excellent finish. Itís *+1998 Maxferd Richter Riesling Spštlese "Brauneberger Juffer." Pretty darned showy for such a young German Riesling.


RED 1. Strong nose of red cherries. Acidic but fruity attack, dried cherry flavors on the palate and a decent finish. Good juice that tastes like Sangiovese. Itís *1997 Scassino Sangiovese "Terrabianca."

RED 2. Brambly, mushroomy nose. Very RhŰne-ish. Nice raspberry flavors and it winds up quite respectably. Iím guessing itís a 1998 Cotes due RhŰne. No, itís *1997 Mirassou Petite Sirah, showing softer and juicier than the grapeís reputation. Thank goodness two bottles of this were included in our blind-bagged lineup. One was badly corked.

RED 3. Smells of game and autumn leaves. Thin on the palate. Reminds me of a so-so generic Burgundy on its last legs. Well, I got the so-so right. Itís 1996 Vini Cabernet Sauvignon (Bulgaria).

RED 4. Whoa! This is wine. Big and bold. Pomegranite and raspberry. Thick and silky on the palate. RhŰne-type flavors persist for a nice long time. Itís **1998 Clavel "Copa Santa" Coteaux de Languedoc and RED WINE OF THE EVENING.

RED 5. Pleasant nose of cherries, minerals and forest floor. Pepper and alcohol show on the palate. Good structure and plenty of stuffing. No idea what the grapes are. The pepper persuades me itís probably French. Itís *1995 Pradeaux Bandol.

RED 6. Some oak. Thin cherries. Nothing much here. 1991 Bouzerand-Dujardin Monthelie 1er Cru.

RED 7. Mute nose. Mute palate. Some oxidized flavors. Whatever it was isnít here anymore. But others have high praise for 1991 Domaine du Terme Gigondas. Your mileage may vary too.

RED 8. Raspberry scents that remind me of Pinot Noir. Elegant flavors that remind me of village Burgundy. Finish isnít bad -- but who would have dreamed this stuff is Cabernet Sauvignon? 1997 Franciscan Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley. Overcropped?

RED 9. Pure and focused red cherry aromas. At first thereís a slight note of cough syrup on the palate, but that goes away. The cherry flavors build with airing. No idea what it could be, but I wind up liking this wine quite a bit. Itís *+1995 BV Grenache San Benedito South Hunt Vineyard.

RED 10. Thin, oaky stuff. Eventually some Cabernet flavors emerge. Boring stuff. It turns out to be a ringer -- 1995 Stagsí Leap Winery Cabernet Sauvignon, selling for a depressingly believable $37 a bottle.

RED 11. Intense raspberry-vanilla flavors. Plenty of oak here, but the grapes can withstand it. The alcohol tells me they got plenty ripe. Australian Grenache? Not far off. Itís *+1997 Cline Ancient Vines Mourvedre.

RED 12. Vanilla and sulfur tend to obscure some nice RhŰne-type flavors. When youíve had your taste, thereís really nothing to write home about. This wine has received rave reviews elsewhere, but I canít say Iím impressed with 1997 Antinori Chianti Classico.

RED 13. Glass full of raspberries. Not awfully complex but doesnít need to be. A real crowd-pleaser that no one can fault. Itís *+1993 Acacia Old Vine Zinfandel Napa Valley. The only Zin in the tasting -- surprised? Good Zins under $20 are getting much tougher to find.

RED 14. Strawberry scents and flavors. Herbal aftertaste. Reasonably long. I like it. Itís *+1995 Philippe Allier Chinon Vielle Vignes and a very good argument for Loire reds at this price-point.

RED 15. Aromas of died cherries, minerals and earth. Full cherry flavors and nuts on the palate. Really good stuff that holds your interest. Depth, complexity, yum. My second-favorite red of the evening turns out to be **1998 Sassetti Livio Pertimali Rosso di Montalcino.

RED 16. Big oaky husk with some rich blackcurrant flavors at the core. With airing, the oak falls back a bit. Not to hard to nail this wine as a heavily oaked California Cab. I guess Sonoma, but itís *+1997 Raymond Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Napa Valley -- and the only truly respectable Cabernet Sauvignon in the tasting. I like it for what it is. If youíre oak-averse, you may not.

     CONCLUSIONS: Based on this tasting, your best buys in wine today tend to be German Reisling, California Chardonnay, Italian Sangiovese and red RhŰne grapes from anywhere.

     If you like Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir, prepare to search harder. Or pay more. Or both.

NEW WORLD POWER WINES (October 14, 2000) The food tonight is spicy South American -- and thatís all the excuse we need to bring out the Power Wines. Big ripe fruit, muscular structure, long finish and let the alcohol be what it will be. The challenge, of course, is to bring it all off in a wine thatís not a mere brute, but can dance and do back flips.

     Off to our cellars we go and come back with a New World Duel. In this corner, New Wave Australian Shiraz. In the other, Cult California Zinfandel. May the most complex and graceful Sumo Wine win:


**+1997 Martinelli "Jackass Hill." Very pure blackberry essence. Very full on the palate and unquestionably the most concentrated, dominating wine on the table tonight. I try to guess the alcohol level and fall way short. Turn out to be a whopping 17.5%, almost Port territory, but thereís no burn in this bottle. I mark the wine down only because itís somewhat monolithic at this stage in its development. If youíve got one, Iíd suggest cellaring for a year or two so the flavors can fan out.

***1995 Turley "Whitney Tennessee Vineyard." A shade less concentrated than the Jackass Hill, but the slightly older vintage date has allowed this wine to blossom. You can taste plum, allspice, blackberry, black cherry and more. Big stuff, but tap dancing like Tommy Tune. I canít imagine it getting any better. Drink now and prepare to enjoy. Tied for WINE OF THE EVENING.


**1998 Dutschke Barossa Valley Reserve "Oscar Semmler." Right now this wine is a blueberry bomb, showing ample American oak as well. Dark, thick stuff with some licorice on the long finish. Offers plenty of pleasure tonight, but shows the least finesse of all the reds. Could just be its youth. Hold for two years or more, unless youíre in the mood for pure Oz power.

***1997 Fox Creek "McLaren." If the Dutschke wore brass knuckles, this oneís got velvet gloves. Mouth-coating berry flavors that caress your senses rather than clobbering you. The deftest of our New World quartet, it reminds me of 1996 Bordeaux or the best Washington State Cabernets. Others mark it down as weaker, but Iím in the mood. Tied for WINE OF THE EVENING.


*+1996 Chapoutier "La Sizeranne" is no lightweight, but in tonightís lineup it just canít win. With pepper, smoke and bacony flavors, it stands out from the fruity New World wines. Yet I notice that even the Francophiles among us arenít overwhelmed.


*+1997 Wellington Vineyards Sonoma Valley Port. Considering the reds weíve just tasted, is Port redundant tonight? Still, I like this wine -- it seems to have some Zin, but it must contain other grapes too. Round, ripe, with good structure, though much less tannic than the Real Portuguese Stuff. Think of a fortified Ridge Geyserville. Nice for drinking in the near term.

SUPER SPARKLER FROM...WHERE? (October 8, 2000) We served this bubbly blind the other night to knowledgeable friends. It doesnít quite taste like Champagne, so they guessed Alsace or the Loire. Of course, it never occurred to anyone that a sparkling wine so crisp and complex could possibly come from...Italy!

**Franciacorta Bella Vista Cuvťe Brut sure tastes good to me. With graceful notes of melon and peach, it wonít satisfy Champagne purists. But do give it a try. At around $26, itís pretty good value, great with food and nice for a change.

WITNESS TO A WONDERFUL VINTAGE. (October 8, 2000) One of the hallmarks of an excellent vintage is that even the "lesser" wines can be terrific. This seems to be the case with 1998 Oregon Pinot Noir. Just take a taste of *+1998 Witness Tree Oregon Pinot Noir. Deep ruby, it tempts you with ripe raspberry aromas and delivers a lot of flavor with every sip. The finish is very good, although here the wine shows a little more tannin than it ought to. Still, if you want a well-stuffed Pinot Noir to drink over the next couple of years, this is a lovely bottle of wine for under $20.

THE DOMINATOR. (October 8, 2000) Remember back when Dominus cost under $40 a bottle? Better still, the ***1990 Dominus has aged with admirable grace. Served tonight alongside some other California heavy hitters, it started out impressive and just kept getting better. Itís taking on the mushroom and exotic berry notes that Iíve noticed in older vintages. And oh my what a long finish! This wine will probably continue to develop well, but thereís really no reason to hold yourself back if you have a few stashed away.

PRIME TIME FOR 1987 CALIFORNIA CABS? (October 8, 2000) Tonight we tasted two beautiful Cabs from the 1987 vintage. Both were drinking very well, even though one is rightfully famed for its tannins:

**1987 Diamond Creek Volcanic Hill. Take a sniff and youíre up to your eyebrows in violets and honeysuckle. Sip it and the sweet cassis is delightful -- but thereís lots of other stuff going on. Bell pepper, herb, more too. Still has tannins to shed, but they can't stop this wine from tasting like a winner tonight.

**+1987 Abreu. Did you know that David Abreu was bottling his own Cabs back in Ď87? I didnít -- and did I ever miss out on a good thing! Itís dark, fruity, viscous, velvety and long, but what fascinates me most is the way it develops in the glass. Right out of the bottle, it reminds me of an outstanding Graves, with aromas of cigar and blackcurrant. Give it some air, however, and the tobacco notes vanish. Strawberry and eucalyptus appear. Imagine a combination of Heitz Marthaís Vineyard and Pape Clement. Add a plateful of lamb chops and you're in heaven.

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