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September-October 2002


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THE PLEASURES OF PAHLMEYER (October 19, 2002) I guess there will always be a few grumps who mutter that Pahlmeyer wines are too ripe, rich and showy, just as there are people who don't like chocolate. As for me, I'm just having trouble deciding which vintage I like best. Last night, we lined up 6 different Pahlmeyer Reds and Merlots, and the mid-nineties vintages were so uniformly great, it was almost monotonous.

     The MERLOTS may be the three greatest examples of this grape I've ever tasted from California. Just to be sure, someday I'd like to taste one of these alongside 1992 Matanzas Creek:

***+1994 Pahlmeyer Merlot is deceptively juicy at first sip. With its cocoa aromas and palate-staining raspberry, blackberry (and any other berry or cherry you're in the mood for) flavors, you might be tempted to suck it down too fast. That would be a shame, because as the night wears on, it gets even bigger.

***+1995 Pahlmeyer Merlot plays the same flavor notes and may be the deepest of the trio. It certainly finishes longest, which in this case is very long indeed. But it's also the leanest in texture (bear in mind this a relative thing!) and I'm not quite sure what this means. Perhaps it simply needs more cellar-time.

***+1996 Pahlmeyer Merlot is hands-down the most succulent of the three and looks to be the darkest, as best I can judge in the restaurant lighting. The flavors aren't quite as complex as the 1994, but I'm pretty sure this is a tannin thing. Needs a few more years to fan out. It's very tough choosing among these wines (have you noticed?), but I'll name this my BEST IN FLIGHT.

     The PROPRIETARY REDS (made from a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and even some Malbec) may be showing a little sterner tonight, but the ones from the mid-nineties are even more massive than the Merlots, if that's possible:

*+1986 Pahlmeyer Proprietary Red Wine is clearly from a different era -- still pretty youthful, nice in its way, but higher in acidity and lacking the opulent mouthfeel of later vintages.

***+1995 Pahlmeyer Proprietary Red Wine is, well, HUGE. Incredibly intense plum and berry fruit, with some pretty blueberry highlights that I attribute to the Petit Verdot. It's still showing some oak, but this is a mere babe and can only get more beautiful over the next ten years. My WINE OF THE EVENING.

***+1996 Pahlmeyer Proprietary Red Wine is preferred by at least one other taster and it may indeed be a bigger wine, but by this point I'm so dazzled as to be shell-shocked. I think it may not be quite as perfectly balanced as the 1995 -- a little plummier? -- but frankly, I'm groping for some flaw, any flaw, to prevent me from simply gushing about everything in front of me.

     ALSO TASTED alongside these fleshpots are some other good efforts that might have pleased me even more on some other night. All but one are served blind:

MYSTERY WINE #1 shows higher acid and more tannin than the Californians, with flavors of cranberry, blackberry and Bordeaux herb. Finishes well and develops very positively over the hour I follow it. I guess Bordeaux, which is correct, then impulsively say Grand Cru, which is not. It's *++1995 Tayac Prestige from the Ctes du Bourg. Needs maybe five more years to shed its tannins, at which time it may merit a higher score.

MYSTERY WINE #2 is a big, fruity wine -- bigger for sure than the Tayac -- with some dill flavors that doubtless come from aging in American oak. I blurt out "California" before someone reminds me that Australia's more likely. Turns out to be *++1997 Brokenwood Shiraz Rayner Vineyard, and maybe I'm being too stingy. I'm not one of those fragile types who throw their skirts over their heads and scream at the slightest hint of oak, but tonight the dill does bother me.

MYSTERY WINE #3 is more in keeping with the Pahlmeyers, albeit more backward. Dense and loaded with berries, it gets gritty on the finish, and seems to need another three years at least. I guess California Cab from the mid-'90s, and it's not the first time I've been faked out by a new wave Italian Merlot. It's **1996 Ornellaia Massetto Vino da Tavola.

Finally, I'm sorry I didn't have more time to savor the delightful **1978 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars "Stag's Leap Vineyard Lot #2". Shows some oxidation at first, but those notes are quickly drowned out by a chorus of cherries and hot fudge. Silky texture. Lovely exemplar of gracefully aging California Cab.


CHAVE BLANC VERTICAL (October 12, 2002) If I ever needed convincing that Marsanne can be profound, tonight would have sealed the deal. The white wines of great Rhne producer J. L. Chave are just as majestic in their way as his reds, and this evening we tasted 12 different vintages:

     FLIGHT #1

*++1984 Chave shows aromas of sherry, sweat and olives at first. Over the hill? But as minutes tick by, hidden fruit comes out to play. Marzipan and almonds emerge. Good stuff and quite a comeback.

Delicious from the first sniff, **+1985 Chave only gets better. Lots of honey, some cashews and a big wallop of mineral flavors. Oily and velvety on the palate; seems to be holding more treats in reserve. The group and I vote it our FAVORITE OF FLIGHT.

*-1986 Chave starts out almost as nice as the '85, then falls apart abruptly, just as the 1984 starts to swell. It never quite dies, though. After a while, aromas of petrol and road tar emerge. Decent wine, but lacks the stuffing of the others. LEAST FAVORED IN FLIGHT by group vote.

Some love **-1987 Chave at first taste, but it polarizes the table. I'm put off by the alcohol and what may be some volatile acidity. Like it better after some airing -- sweetens up, gains depth, acid falls back. A few vote it their favorite of the flight, but most prefer the '85.

     FLIGHT #2

*++1988 Chave, though not too shabby, is plainly the weakest in this strong flight. LEAST FAVORED IN THE FLIGHT by group vote, it's still very much alive and appealing, but just can't compete with wines like the following three.

The yummy **++1989 Chave quickly blows off some bottle stink and delights with flavors of buttered toast and marmalade, but if you think that's exotic, try the sensational...

***1990 Chave! Take all the above, add a sexy honeysuckle fragrance, sensuous, slippery texture and a tremendous finish. It's my favorite of the flight, but the group is even more impressed with the next vintage.

Now, I'll admit the ***-1991 Chave is very special, with flavors of peach, almond, apricot, even a hint of pastry. There's some tangy botrytis at play too -- and weird as it sounds, the finish reminds me of RED Burgundy, with more than a hint of game and raspberry. Try serving this one in black glasses and see if your guests guess the color. GROUP FAVORITE OF FLIGHT and I can't fault their choice, but I prefer the 1990.

FLIGHT #3

1992 Chave has a nice thick texture, but something funky's going on. Oxidation and raisin flavors make it the weakest wine in the tasting. Just seems out of place with the others. Over the hill or bad bottle? LEAST FAVORED IN FLIGHT by group vote.

Nothing wrong, however, with the **1993 Chave! Tasted blind, you might guess Batard-Montrachet. Tropical fruits, minerals, vanilla, ample length, lovely balance.

If tonight were two years from now, ***1994 Chave might be the wine of the tasting. Right now it seems a little closed and refuses to budge, swirl though we may. Very concentrated and pure with a very long, mineral-laden finish.

Finally, there's nothing shy about the fantastic ***+1998. This stuff is knock-your-back HUGE. Showers your palate with melon, peach, tropicals, wet stones. Big attack, great palate presence, lingering finish, home run. What a way to end the vertical. GROUP FAVORITE OF FLIGHT and my WINE OF THE EVENING.

     Next, just for fun, we open a RED FLIGHT from various parts of the Rhne...

**-1998 Domaines des Relagnes "Cuve Vignerons" (Chteauneuf du Pape) is a fruit bomb at this stage, oozing raspberry, blueberry and blackberry juice, with a hint of vanilla on the tail. (POSTSCRIPT: Just tasted the currently available **-2000 Relagne Cuve Vignerons today and it's very similar -- great buy for about $23. For a few bucks less you can have the *+2000 Relagne regular cuve, a more drink-me-now style that's also quite delicious.)

***Chapoutier Le Pavillon Cuve MC2 (Non-Vintage Hermitage) is a fascinating wine, made from late '70s and early '80s juice. Starts out dripping with bacon fat, but straightens out in a hurry. Cassis, old saddle leather and rare steak -- very Rhne-ish and very much strutting its stuff.

***+1992 Chapoutier Le Pavillon (Hermitage) is barely out of rompers. Adhesive tape and blackcurrant, with some new leather and game on the finish. Dense and almost syrupy, it could use another few years in the cellar.

Just as big, ***+1989 Chteau Beaucastel (Chteauneuf du Pape) is a pristine example of this legend. Nothing from the barnyard here -- just a barge-load of raspberries, herbs and a finish that keeps rolling along like ol' man river.

The red 1988 Chave (Red Hermitage) starts out smoky and gamy, resembling the NV Le Pavillon. Then it suddenly turns to library paste. Oh well.

But **++1994 Chave (Red Hermitage) is a fine coda to the flight, showing mostly sweet blackberry with a touch of smoke. This one was served blind and it's so much about ripe fruit, folks mostly guessed California Syrah.

     And for dessert, we're treated to a stingingly young...

***+1990 Yquem. "I'm not sure this qualifies as white wine," says one amazed taster, and that about sums it up. Perhaps it's a sin to open it now -- but the attack is so piercing, the finish so endless, I'm glad somebody did.


WIN-WIN. (September 21, 2002) Huge cuts of prime rib stare up at us, demanding to be matched to great wine. Who could resist pitting Napa Valley Cab against Bordeaux? The order of battle:

     BORDEAUX

Tasted twice this year, ***+1983 Chteau Pichon-Lalande once again makes the table look up, drop jaws, gush praise. Again I wonder if the more famous 1982 could possibly be more loveable. Deep purple and surprisingly youthful, this pristine bottle deals aces in PL's strong suits violet aromas, velvety texture, sweet blackcurrant fruit, thundering finish. Some call it Bordeaux of the evening, but my favorite is...

***+1990 La Conseillante. This wine doesn't bang your head for attention, but it's got so much finesse in the word's correct sense. "Elegant" can be code for "lacks oomph," but not here. The '90 La Conseillante is deep as you could desire, plus an astonishing acrobat. CrLme de cacao gives way to cherry and finally raspberry, then all flavors play at once. At one point I'm tasting different notes on the top and bottom of my palate. (Humans have taste buds on the tops of their palates. You could look it up.)

Outstanding but not quite as sublime is **1989 La Conseillante. Like many '89s, it's more tannic and may need more cellaring, but I doubt it will ever be quite such an athlete as its sister.

I may be underrating plummy, ultra-ripe **+1990 Troplong Mondot. Approaches the Pichon-Lalande in power, but doesn't yet match its complexity or that of '90 La Conseillante. This one may indeed benefit from further aging.

Served blind, *+1994 Mouton shows mysteriously like Montrose. Why? Anyhow, notes of blood, brass and meat predominate, with some rough edges on the satisfying finish. Not the toasty, cleanly-made style you'd expect from Mouton. Widely dissed tonight, it doesn't live up to its price tag, but let's be fair. It's still good, if not great wine. 

1990 L'Angelus is regrettably, infuriatingly corked. But there's little time to cry when you've still got to open...

     NAPA VALLEY

I've had great bottles of ***+1991 Dominus, but this one...woo-woo-woo! The expected chorus of cherry, tobacco and game greets you at the git-go, and then the real fun begins. Broadens, deepens, could Cabernet get any better than this? But watch out, here comes...

***+1991 Shafer Hillside Select is a stealth wine, always has been. At first pour, it doesn't overwhelm and it's so supple, you assume that's the show. An hour later, you take a sip and think hmm, I underrated this wine. Two hours go by and it's kicking the doors down. Tonight it starts out significantly behind the Dominus, catches up and... well, I think it narrowly wins. They're about even in concentration, length and complexity, but those black cherry flavors in the Shafer are irresistible. This is the second time I've experienced this the first at a blind tasting of '91s where I assumed it must be Dominus, because it stomped the field.

Tasted several times this year with consistent notes, **++1991 Joseph Phelps Insignia, while beautiful, can't overtake Shafer and Dominus. With plenty of ripe cassis, cigar and a touch of smoke, it may have done better among the Bordeaux, rather than duking it out with these sluggers.

Finally, we assess a wine poured blind from an enormous bottle. With opening notes of adhesive tape and shoe polish, followed by lots of ripe red cherry flavors, **-1998 Schrader Gaudeamus tastes like a scaled-back Peter Michael Les Pavots. Nice juice, but the container is over the top. Please, cult producers, have mercy on our racks.

     So who wins tonight? We do. If I had to name a favorite wine, it might be 1990 La Conseillante, but three others could just as easily claim the crown.


HOW'S IT GOING, OLD FRIEND? (September 17, 2002) It's always nice to check up on a favorite wine and find it's still going strong, but alas, one old friend has bit the dust...

1992 Judd's Hill Cabernet Sauvignon was once a lush, juicy exemplar of realistically priced Napa Valley Cab. Guess I should have gone through my case a bit quicker. My next-to-last bottle, opened this week, might have been good for salad dressing. Gets me wondering how many other '92s could be secretly dropping their fruit.

     Happily, though, these bottles had better news: 

*++1992 Clos Pegase Hommage is fully mature and pretty darned tasty. Blackberries and a pinch of pomegranate keep flowing convincingly through the evening and the texture is satisfyingly smooth.

*1990 Chteau Fourcas Loubaney (Listrac) is still enjoyable, but drink up! This Bordeaux Cru Bourgeois was once a dead ringer for a classified growth Mdoc, but 12 years from vintage may be pushing your luck. The cedar has gained on the fruit since I last tried it, a year ago. 

*++1994 Hess Collection Cabernet Sauvignon is just coming into its own, with  ample mineral-laden cassis to balance those Mount Veeder tannins. Consumed over the course of several evenings, the last third of this bottle was easily the best -- very smooth and Bordelaise -- so I won't be in any hurry to consume my remaining few.

**1995 Clarendon Grenache "Blewitt Springs" remains my benchmark for Australian Grenache, though I fear it's lost a step since release. It's developing more like Zinfandel than Chteauneuf du Pape. Maybe it's gained some complexity, but the once-overwhelming raspberry flavors have moderated, and the tradeoff doesn't wow me.

And my last bottle of **1991 Ravenswood Pickberry Proprietary Red Wine proves to be a sheer pleasure, expanding over the course of two hours to flaunt its full spectrum of earth, blackberry, gunpowder and game. No reason to rush if you're holding any, but you won't go wrong indulging tonight.


BUBBLIES FOR ULTIMATE BRUNCH (September 15, 2002) I've got a friend who's idea of Sunday brunch exceeds most people's dreams for Thanksgiving dinner. Over the course of some five hours, while we weren't scarfing down his delectable cold crab and fresh corn soup, caviar with whole wheat blinis and crLme fraiche, peel-and-eat jumbo shrimp with mango-ginger dip, smoked salmon, grilled chicken and a whole lot more, we popped a few corks and compared the merits of:

Yarden Brut "Galil." Believe it or not, they make sparkling wine on the Golan Heights. I've tasted still wines from Yarden that were pretty good, but the contents of this bottle are oxidized, halfway flat and, well, you get the idea. I'm not sure whether the damage was done at the winery, in transit, or at the store where I (yes, I brought this dud; seemed like a brilliant idea at the time) purchased it. I don't intend to repeat the experiment, so I guess we'll never know.

*+1997 Reisling Brut Sekt b.A. Geisenheimer Monchspfad from Schumann-Nagler gives Champagne a far better run for its money. I've had sparkling Riesling that would make you run from the very idea, but this one gets the sweetness, acidity, fruit and bubbles all balanced just right. The diesel aromas are not exactly what you'd expect from Champagne, but I like 'em!

**1988 Champagne L'Harbonville "Premier Crus En Fft De ChLne." This tLte de cuve by the relatively small producer Ployez-Jacquemart was hand-carried from the winery by our host. Treads a taut thread between fat and finesse -- thick and creamy, yet racy and elegant. Nice trick. Cuts through the oil of the caviar and sets off the flavors beautifully. (Checking availability in the U.S., I see the 1990 vintage of this cuve is imported by Weygandt-Metzler. Good luck!)

***1989 Champagne L'Harbonville "Premier Crus En Fft De ChLne." This vintage veers more toward fat and richness, and to me it succeeds even more brilliantly. At least one other taster disagrees, preferring the leaner 1988 -- but if you like your sparklers voluptuous, this is your date.

**++1988 Piper Heidsieck "Rare" underscores what vintages can do in Champagne. The '88 L'Harbonville actually has more in common with this wine than with its '89 stable-mate. I give a slight edge to the Piper with its longer finish.

***+1990 Dom Perignon can wow you or underwhelm, depending on how it's been stored. (Pet peeve. So many bottles of Dom Perignon are cooked before the corks are pulled!) This one wins big, delivering the unctuous, silky, yeasty nectar I remember so fondly. May not be as good a match to some of the foods as the '88s above, but not to the point where I really care. Love this stuff!

*+Pierre Gimmonet et Fils 1er Cru Brut NV is apple and pear-scented, crisp, complex on the palate and holds up well against stiff competition. This 100% Chardonnay cuve from 40-year-old vines is one of my favorites from Terry Theise's portfolio of grower-made Champagnes.

And once again, **Egly-Ouriet Brut Ros (dgorg Juillet 2001) gets my vote for the Worlds Best Ros Champagne for under $75. Graceful, long, raspberry scented -- well, if you've never had it, you're missing one of the most sinful pleasures you can have on a Sunday afternoon (after getting out of bed, anyhow).

No meal's complete without a red, and **1998 Cape D'Estaing Cabernet Sauvignon "Kangaroo Island" fits the bill admirably. Served blind, it reminds me of 1994 St. Francis Pagani Ranch Zin, minus the high alcohol -- so drenched with raspberry and blueberry flavors, you could top it with whipped cream. Not what I'd call a typical Cab, but how can you not love a wine from Kangaroo Island? 


1997 CALIFORNIA CABS: AWKWARD AGERS? (September 13, 2002) Some wine geeks have been whispering that 1997 California Cabernet Sauvignons are wandering into prunes-ville. As barrel flavors fade, they say, hidden flaws are emerging.

     Is it true, or are my friends just sour on California prices? What a great excuse to pull some corks! Here's what happened when I blind-tasted a bunch in the company of similarly selfless, knowledge-seeking wine geeks:

WINE #1. Mild dry cherry, earthy notes and whoosh, the whole thing falls apart. Before long all you can smell is wet fireplace. Uck. Can this really be a '97? No, it's 1992 Bernard Pradell Howell Mountain.

WINE #2. Ultra-ripe aromas. Pruney? No, not quite. Some nice cassis on the palate. Finishes a little short, but not upsettingly so. Not bad, not a star, this turns out to be *-1997 Gallo Sonoma Barelli Creek Vineyard.

WINE #3. Bottle funk quickly blows off and -- ooh. Now this is more like it. A great big bucket of chocolate-covered cherries. Very ripe, almost like kirsch, but not over the top. Penetrating. Finish won't quit. Too acidic? Guess not. Overall, I'm impressed with ***1997 Tom Eddy Napa Valley.

WINE #4. Strawberry scents plus tobacco. Doesn't have quite the oomph of wine #4, but pleases many with its Bordeaux-like breeding. Supple when you sip it. Fairly lengthy coda. A few herbal notes betray the fact that it's **++1997 Pride Cabernet Franc.

WINE #5. Harsher oak treatment than #3 and #4 makes a few folks wrinkle their shnozzes. The finish is more dilute too and it doesn't get better with air. Taste that dill? American oak. Could this possibly be *-1997 BV George de Latour Reserve? Yes, and I'm disappointed.

WINE #6. Now what have we here? Sensational, spicy, exotic aromas. Huge blackberry and sour cherry flavors that roar through the finish. Tannic youngster, but in balance and enjoyable right now. Love it, but what the heck is it? A ringer! ***1998 Paolo Bea Sagrantino di Montefalco Secco -- made in Umbria, from a little known Italian grape that's deservedly attracting a cult. (My thanks to savvy taster Don Demuth for providing this eye-opener. For more information about Paolo Bea from the U.S. importer's website, click here.)

WINE #7. Starts out stern and structured, but smooths out in about 15 minutes. Plenty of chocolate, pinch of Asian spice, some cigarette and uh, prune whip. If that sounds like I'm panning the wine, I'm not -- I like it, overripeness and all. Outstanding stuff, but this is one wine that does justify my friends' complaints. It's **+1997 Beringer Private Reserve.

WINE #8. Big bruiser in velvet boxing gloves. Sexy violet aromas, plus some gamy notes. Deep fruit flavors that go beyond blackcurrant. Carries its alcohol well, but it's obviously higher octane. Are you ready for the shocker of the tasting? This fabulous stuff is ***+1997 Clos du Val Cabernet Sauvignon.

WINE #9. Medium-bodied stuff that may suffer a little in comparison to wine #8. Balanced, classic Cab flavors with a moderate finish. No complaints, but I'm not overly excited over *++1997 Arrowood Cabernet Sauvignon.

WINE #10. Very similar flavors to #9 -- is this the same wine? No, not quite. Medium body with plenty of cassis, some anise and quite a long finish. A balanced, well-mannered beauty that won't shout for attention, and may deserve more praise than it got today. It's **+1997 Arrowood Rserve Special.

WINE #11. Quite a step down in quality here. American oak with a fairly heavy char. We mutter about "Australian style" and the weedy dill on the finish. It's the second appearance today for *-1997 Gallo Sonoma Barelli Creek Vineyard and we're still not bowled over.

WINE #12. Way overripe! Super depth, but surreal in the fruit department. After the prunes play, I like the watermelon notes that kick in at the close. Another double-entry, it's a pretty consistent showing for **1997 Beringer Private Reserve.

WINE #13. Couldn't be more different than #12. Flavors are textbook Cab. Peppery accents, some pretty stern tannins and a whale of a finish. Like wine #9, this wine doesn't holler, more than holds its own. Super showing for ***1997 Robert Mondavi Reserve.

WINE #14. Yow, is this wine stuffed! Concentrated essence of blackcurrant that rips through your senses from first sniff to wonderful finish. Previously, I've faulted ***+1997 Chteau St. Jean Cinq Cpages for being too oaky, but not today. Can't find anything not to like. WINE OF THE TASTING. 

Finally, with dessert, one of us produced a...

BONUS! WINE #15.  Nearly black but smooth as silk, with flavors reminiscent of Ben and Jerry's Cherry Garcia. Still has youthful tannins to shed, but they're round and ripe. This wine could have been a '94 tasted in its youth. It's ***1997 Etude Napa Valley.

SO WHAT'S THE VERDICT?

     At least one or two wineries are guilty. Of all the wines we tasted today, the **Beringer Private Reserve seems to have pushed ripeness furthest. Some liked it -- I found it outstanding, but this was in spite of the overripe flavors. I'm also unsure how it will age. If the prunes come out any further, things could get ugly.

     The *-Gallo Sonoma Barelli Creek also tests the bounds of ripeness, but not quite as far. It's the weakest 1997 Cab we tasted today, but for other reasons.

     Lastly, some stubborn purists might carp about the super-ripe ***1997 Tom Eddy Napa Valley, but not me! I like it a whole lot just as it is.

     Conclusion: I'm not too worried about the '97s in my cellar. If you have evidence to the contrary, shoot me an email.


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