Tasting Notes


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October-December 2003

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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2000 TITAN (December 14, 2003) Someone forgot to tell Sine Qua Non that 2000 was a light vintage in California. This is not just a case of a great producer overcoming a daunting vintage -- they've outdone themselves.
     Granted, the ***+2000 Sine Qua Non Incognito isn't Cabernet, but my golly it's wine! When the generous friend who brought it to dinner swore it was Grenache, I could scarcely believe him. I've never had New World Grenache so black, complete and palate-drenching. In fact, it really doesn't remind me much of Southern Rhnes, either. With flavors of deep black raspberry and bacon, it brings to mind a great Hermitage.
     This could be the most amazing wine I've ever tasted from Sine Qua Non, and that's saying something.

TOP 99 CABS: TANNIC! (December 14, 2003) By many accounts, 1999 was a challenging vintage for California Cab, but we've had some good times lately tasting the top ones. They're delicious and duly stuffed, but stand advised they tend to be more tannic than previous vintages from the same producers. Decant, decant, decant. For example:

***+1999 Screaming Eagle was my favorite wine in an over-the-top evening that also included a well-stored example of ***+1982 Latour. Can't fault the Latour -- it's got octaves of flavor, like drinking Bach organ music. But when the Eagle spreads its wings, you gotta gasp. Watermelon, blueberry, raspberry fudge fly by, and the tail is impressively long. For a while you simply admire the show and then you sense the grit on the finish. We did not decant this wine and we probably should have.

***+1999 Shafer Hillside Select may not be quite as mighty as the '97, but that's comparing Hector to Achilles. The biggest difference is that it's much more backward. Hillside is usually all about supple; this year the story's a little different. The expected chocolate cherries pop out after about an hour's airing

And I've never tasted a Colgin before that wasn't ready to rip, but the ***1999 Colgin Cariad needs coaxing right now. Flavors are also different than you'll remember from Colgin Herb Lamb Vineyard bottlings. Coffee, cassis and blackberry jam on toast, instead of the Herb Lamb's more exotic fruits.

RAMEY PREVIEW (October 18, 2003) I'm still writing up last month's interview with David Ramey, but I can't wait any longer to spill the beans about his terrific 2001 wines.

     While visiting his new winery in Healdsburg, I tasted through the entire 2001 lineup, plus some selections from previous vintages for comparison. The single-vineyard designates are expensive, but well-priced vis a vis the competition -- and the Russian River Valley Chardonnay is a steal. I'll have more to say about them in the interview, but here's what you need to go shopping:


Priced in the mid to low $30s, **+ 2001 Ramey Chardonnay Russian River Valley is everything you want in a white for tonight. Big blast of tropicals, followed by apple, almond and wet stones. Has Ramey's characteristic crispness, but won't require the cellar time of his single-vineyard stuff. Following the tasting, we sucked down two bottles of this stuff over dinner and a picnic. Great with goat cheese, salad, snails, crab, pretty much anything we could throw at it. Restaurants should be buying this by the case.

The **++2001 Ramey Chardonnay Carneros District comes mostly from Sangiacomo El Novillero Vineyard with the remaining third from Sangiacomo Tall Grass Vineyard. This one may prove even fuller than the RRV, but needs at least another 6 months of cellaring to smooth out the sharp spots. Lemons and apples on the attack and even more mineral on the long finish.

Taste the ***-2001 Ramey Chardonnay Hyde Vineyard blind, and you'll swear it's got to be Burgundy. Displays the basic flavor profile of the Carneros, but packs even more clout and trails longer on the finish. Aromas show a hint of honeysuckle and I would guess this will intensify as the wine matures. It does need time. Give it a couple of years before you even think of touching it.

Pardon me if I compare ***+2001 Ramey Chardonnay Hudson Vineyard to a minerally Batard-Montrachet, but that's about the best I can come up with. Huge -- and so backward, it's practically all finish right now. Opened enough during the hour or so I gave it to convince me more's on the way, maybe 3-4 years in the future. However, I would guess this wine may develop well for 5-10 years or more. Checking the geek-sheet, I see that the clones here are Wente and Robert Young, which may account some for the structure, but this is one impressive feat of winemaking. Home run.

Underscoring my impression of the 2001, the ***-2000 Ramey Chardonnay Hudson Valley is only a bit more approachable and practically as long. Minerals R Us.

And here's a hint of how you may expect the 2001s to taste given time. ***+1997 Ramey Chardonnay Hyde Vineyard is shooting off with florals, papaya, mango, flint, plus some earthy undernotes that knit it all together. Yet it's still pretty packed up. More tricks to come?

Not so ***-1996 Ramey Chardonnay Hyde Vineyard. This one's all fanned out in the proverbial peacock's tail. Even more complex than the '97 right now, but I doubt it's going to get better. Showing a hint of caramel with air.


If you liked the 2000 Rudd, you're going to die for the ***+2001 Ramey Jericho Canyon Vineyard, Napa Valley. Same winemaker, same vineyard (northeast of Calistoga), stronger vintage -- and wow, does it taste good even now. Black and grapey, with compelling aromas of mocha and blackberry. To call it penetrating on the palate would be understatement. Finish lasts at least 30 seconds For those who care, the cuve is 45% Cabernet Sauvignon, 36% Merlot and 19% Cabernet Franc. 2001 trophy hunters, take aim.

I may be underrating the **2001 Ramey Diamond Mountain District. The aromas are sexy as all get out -- violet, blueberry, hint of band-aid -- and it's delicious when you sip it, but the dusty tannins give me a little pause. Five years on the rack may be all it needs. I'd like to taste this again over a meal. The grapes come from young vines fairly high up on Diamond Mountain, up above Diamond Creek Vineyard. It's 66% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot, 12% Petit Verdot and 7% Cabernet Franc.

Finally, **-Ramey 2001 Claret Napa Valley offers outstanding current drinking. Sniff it and you get licorice, cocoa and cassis on the nose. Flavors veer to blackberry-mocha-milkshake. Made from declassified juice that would have gone into the single-vineyard wines, it's plummier and softer. 56% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Cabernet Franc and 17% Merlot. I think it's priced in the mid-$30s.

2000 BORDEAUX STRIKES AGAIN (October 18, 2003) Pardon me for strumming on this string yet again, but I only wish California made more Cabs as lush and well-priced as *++2000 Chteau Plaisance from St. Emilion. At about $17 a bottle plus tax, it's not quite cheap enough to make our bargain page -- but be a sport and spring for the extra buck if you can find it. It's got plush texture, beautiful coffee bean and blackberry aromas, plenty of palate presence and a convincing finish. Not exactly a cellar candidate, but should drink well over the next few years.

RUSSIAN RARITY (October 18, 2003) I never thought I'd be marveling over a wine made in Stalin's Soviet Union. Well, I won't be -- but I did just taste a sensational one that must have been made about six months after he died, in autumn of 1953.

     A generous friend picked up a bottle of **1953 Massandra on a recent trip to Russia, and shared it with us over dinner. It seems to be made from Muscat, and perhaps someone who reads Cyrillic can tell me more. Click here to see a photo of the bottle.

     No one knew what to expect when the brownish, sediment-strewn liquid was poured, but as minutes ticked by, smiles blossomed. Sweet, fruity and full on the palate, the wine is still charged pear and apple flavors, shaded by a hint of allspice and nutmeg. What a treat!

MAGNUM MAGIC (October 12, 2003)  WARNING: I'm not sure if this is a tasting note or just bragging, but here's what happened. A friend reached his 50th birthday, and invited just under 50 folks to help him celebrate. He encouraged those who happened to be wine geeks to bring magnums. Did they ever.

     Better still, those who weren't wine geeks didn't know enough to Bogart the good stuff. So we label-sluts wound up with all we wanted of wines like...

***+1998 Harlan Estate Proprietary Red Wine (from magnum). You'd never know 1998 was a bust from this baby! As expected, it's black as Mobil 1 and nearly as thick. But this is not the backward monster of 1991 or 1997. Poured straight form bottle, it blossoms beautifully in about 15 minutes, yielding great gushes of mocha java, lead pencil and blackberry. Oh, it may not be as nice in 50 years, but it's certainly got at least two decades great drinking ahead of it. WINE OF THE EVENING.

**+1998 Jones Family (from magnum). Here's another one that beat the vintage, even if it can't best Harlan at the arm-wrestle. Has the same unctuous texture as previous Jones vintages and darned if it doesn't seem to be equally extracted. Blueberry, vanilla, touch of red plum. After a few swirls, it goes straight to the back of your head and shuts down your critical faculties. You are SEDUCED, end of story.

***1999 Behrens and Hitchcock Alder Springs Merlot (from magnum). This one's more concentrated than the Jones and takes about an hour to unwind. Those who bother to follow it (its tough to focus on one glass with so many other sugar plums dancing in front of your nose) are rewarded with buckets of raspberries and bittersweet chocolate. Not your typical Mendocino Merlot. Not your typical anything.

***1986 Shafer Hill Side Select (from double-magnum). Over the years, I've had this wine several times from bottle and at least twice from magnum. I consider it the prototype for the great Hillsides of the 1990s, although a tad less complete. It has never tasted taste better than tonight, that's for sure. Thick, rich and showing no trace of oxidation. Cherries, milk chocolate, currants, classic Hillside. Oh, you could quibble. There's a slight, shrill note of something buried under the fruit -- green tannin? acid? -- that you won't find in later Hillsides. But yeow, what a wine.

BARREL-TASTING AT B&H (October 1, 2003) If you want the complete interview with Les Behrens and Joe Bob Hitchcock, click here. If you'd rather just jump to the barrel-tasting notes for their 2002s, here goes:

***+2002 Alder Springs Syrah is singing in three-part harmony this morning. Aromas of violets erupt from the glass. The palate's mostly about raspberries, with shades of strawberry-rhubarb pie. The finish is long and soaks your senses. This is not your normal Syrah -- it's got the flavor profile of great Pinot Noir. Only the concentration and density might lead you to guess the grape.

***+2002 Hommage to Erna Shein is 40% Merlot, plus about 30% Cabernet Franc and 30% Cabernet Sauvignon. And not to put too fine a point on it -- this is pedal to the metal FRUIT. Lots of it. Many different kinds. Blueberries to the max, plus any other berry you like. 

They're thinking of calling the next one ***+Rudy's Cuve, after one of the Behrens sons. It's roughly equal parts Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Entirely different from the Erna Shein, this is more like Bordeaux on steroids. Blackberries and other dark fruit, plus a trace of herb and anise. Yum.

***+2002 Chien Lunatique is Napa Valley Syrah from Yountville's Page-Nord Vineyard. Here again, we've got a totally different wine than the 2002 Alder Springs Syrah. It's much more like classic Syrah, but huge -- swarming with blueberries and blackberries, plus lesser notes of dark chocolate and earth. The texture is wonderfully thick and velvety.

See more tasting notes (May-September 2003)

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