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September-October 2001


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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IS MONDAVI SLIPPING? (October 28, 2001) I've long been a big fan of this winery, but complaints have been surfacing lately, and from Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator, no less. I too was puzzled when Mondavi announced they were replacing their steel fermentation tanks with oak, and I still haven't heard a logical explanation for it.

     But truth, as they say, is in the bottle. How do recent releases compare with earlier benchmarks? That's all the excuse a friend of mine needed to put together a tasting. Except for the one Chardonnay and an obviously heat-damaged 1990 Reserve Cab, all the others were tasted blind.

     CHARDONNAY (TASTED WITH LABEL SHOWING)

Tasters tonight agree that the 1998 Mondavi Reserve Chardonnay isn't much to write home about. Yes, 1998 it's the weakest Napa vintage of the '90s, but that didn't stop the folks at nearby Beringer from fielding a very worthy '98 Sbragia Limited Release. The Mondavi effort pales in comparison. Flavors are very nice, but the concentration just isn't there and it thins even more with airing.

     CABERNET SAUVIGNON, FLIGHT #1

Mondavi Reserve Cabs are famous for their classic, straight-down-the middle, varietally true flavors. Except where noted, the Cabs we're tasting tonight bear this out. The ***1993 Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon doesn't surprise me with its blackcurrant fruit, herbal shadings and long finish, but I am a little startled to find it my favorite of the flight. This and the next two wines, however, are so closely bunched in quality that on another night, my preference could change. Like them, it opens slowly, and plainly has more to reveal with more cellaring. It's my second favorite Cab of the entire tasting.

***-1994 Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon is the tightest wine of the flight, so perhaps I'm underrating it some here. The tannins are supple, but they're out in force. I can detect buckets of fruit, but it's not flowing yet. I've found this to be true of many other '94 Napa Cabs right now. If you've got some, cellar for at least another few years.

Just a shade less tight and equally impressive is the ***-1992 Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. It's so similar to the '94 and '93 that really I can't think of anything else to say about it.

We all agree that **1996 Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon is the odd man out. One taster pronounces it his favorite of the flight, but I find less to like here wherever I look. The flavors are plummy, or you might even say overripe. While the others gain with airing, this one thins. It's possible this wine may not have been stored as well as the others. Or it may just be not as good.

     CABERNET SAUVIGNON, FLIGHT #2

The biggest disappointment of the tasting is surely the glowingly-reviewed 1990 Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, ordered by one taster especially for this evening. This particular bottle shows signs of leakage around the cork and we all agree it smells and tastes like it's been cooked in transit or storage. Caramel aromas abound. After a little airing, the fruit attempts a comeback, but gives up the ghost after about an hour.

Amusingly, the second-best Cab in this flight turns out to be a ringer, the **+1989 Mas Daumas Gassac from France. I'm also intrigued by how closely it resembles the better Mondavis from the '90s. It's got the ripeness, the pure Cabernet flavors and the depth. Yes, it's a little rounder and more approachable, but it's also a little older. Nice going!

But there's just no question that the WINE OF THE EVENING is the truly amazing ***+1991 Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. It's everything I hoped the 1990 would be and maybe more. The one wine of this tasting that you could call "unctuous." Big stuff, showing beautifully, with some dusty tannins to remind you that the best may be yet to come.

We open not one, but two different bottles of the *1987 Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon tonight. I've previously found this wine to be sensational -- essence of Napa Cabernet. Tonight it's just another Cab, with traces of burnt rubber on the finish. So what happened? You've got to wonder about storage again. It's tough to believe the '87 could really have dropped off the cliff so quickly.

     CABERNET SAUVIGNON, FLIGHT #3

This flight starts with the *1998 Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, by all accounts the weakest bottle that wasn't obviously damaged. It's got a few sweaty notes, some good cherry fruit and shows well on the palate, but finishes short.

Then, after puzzling over yet another heat-damaged bottle that tastes like Port but turns out to be a ringer, the 1995 Chteau Montelena, we move onto...

The noticeably Australian **-1997 Riverrun Cabernet Sauvignon. It's a great big wine and I like it, but it tastes to me more like Shiraz than Cabernet. Maybe it's the oak treatment. Maybe if they used French instead of American, they'd hit a home run.

     CABERNET SAUVIGNON, FLIGHT #4

Our horizontal tasting of Mondavi '97s begins with the moderately textured and gracious **-1997 Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District. It's excellent wine, with nearly identical flavors to the next, but it's nowhere near as appealing as...

***-1997 Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. Oh yeah! If Mondavi's slipping, you'd never know it from this grapey young blockbuster. Reminds me a lot of the '94 at an earlier stage, and like the '94 it plainly needs much cellaring. I'm not sorry I purchased this wine for my own cellar, but I am kicking myself for not getting the much less expensive...

***1997 Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville. I guessed this to be the '97 Reserve before the label was revealed and who wouldn't? Tonight it seems like its bigger and younger and holding more fruit in abeyance for future years. Not that I'm complaining, but why weren't these grapes blended into the Reserve? Were the vines younger?

We also taste another ringer, the **1998 L'Arossee from St. Emilion. Well chosen to fool us, this wine tastes quite a bit similar to the '97 Mondavi Stags leap, but it's somewhat fuller on the palate. Some of us comment that we might have expected a better performance from such a well-regarded Bordeaux Chteau in this vintage. If you're holding any, I can't see any reason not to start drinking it now.

     AND THEN THE SHOW GETS STOLEN BY...

***+1990 Guiraud (Sauternes). We have this with dessert, but it's such a wonderfully balanced wine, you could drink it all through dinner. It's showing all the strong suits of Sauternes -- deep apricot, pineapple and pear flavors that persist on the palate for more than 30 seconds. Lots of sugar, but the acid cuts through it like a hot knife through honey. As an hour passes, there's more...and more...and more.


NEW WIZARDS FROM OZ (October 17, 2001) You knew that Australian producers are wizards with Shiraz, but tonight I was also surprised at their mounting prowess with Chardonnay.

     It happened at a swank new eatery on Philly's Main Line, Le Mas Perrier, where a generous friend hosted a tasting of his favorite Australian '97s. We tasted the wines "single blind," meaning we knew the lineup, but had to guess the contents of each glass. In a devilish twist on tradition, our host also "helped" us (not!) by providing reviews of the wines from Halliday, Parker, Tanzer, Wine Spectator and others.

     So how did I do? Oh, I nailed some correctly, but as you'll see, I also made some embarrassing goofs, wrongly assuming highly-hyped wines would dominate their respective flights. Here's what we tasted...

     CHARDONNAY FLIGHT

WINE #1. Medium gold, it's the deepest-colored wine in the flight. Aromas of cider and butterscotch are followed by penetrating Chardonnay fruit on the palate, and a whisper of apricot on the finish. I wonder if the grapes had a brush with botrytis? In any case, this is super juice that could compete with the likes of Kistler. Not shy with the oak, but well within my tolerance. Close in quality to the next, but I finally name it my WINE OF THE FLIGHT, as does the group by a convincing margin. But I'm waylaid by my own snobbery, expecting the best wine to be Penfold's Yattarna, when it's actually the little-known ***-1997 Leeuwin "Art Series" Chardonnay (Margaret River).

WINE #2. Just a shade lighter than #1, offering up hazelnuts and vanilla to your nose, and plenty of crLme brule on the palate. Gets a little funky on the long finish, which turns off a couple of tasters, but doesn't bother me. Pretty close in quality to #1, so I have to ponder a bit before naming it my second preference, as does the group. I guess correctly that it's **+1997 Rosemount "Roxburgh" Chardonnay (Hunter Valley).

WINE #3. By far the most controversial wine served this evening, this is massively delicious stuff, but the flavors remind me more of Gewrztraminer or Pinot Gris than Chardonnay. Wonderful floral aromas! The texture is thick and the oak's been totally soaked up by the fruit. It may be the biggest white on the table, but it's not quite what I look for in a Chardonnay, so it's my third preference. Happily, Parker's tasting notes match up well with my impressions, so it's not hard to nail this as **+1997 Nicholson River Chardonnay (Gippsland).

WINE #4. Lightest white on the table in color and in flavor too. Restrained aromas are followed up by a moderate performance on the palate. A hint of mustiness on the finish makes me wonder if this wine may be marginally cork-tainted, which would partially account for the muted flavors. In any case, I would never have assumed this wine is the vaunted 1997 Penfolds "Yattarna" Chardonnay (Adelaide Hills). The only disappointing wine in tonight's lineup, it's easily blown away by the other 3 Chardonnays.

     SHIRAZ FLIGHT

WINE #1 is almost black, with initial aromas of coconut, licorice and caramel -- a pretty clear tip-off to lavish use of American oak. After an hour or more of airing, the coconut blows off and the wine emerges as classic Oz Shiraz. It's rich on the palate, finishes well, but in fast company tonight, so I name it my third favorite of the flight. But I goof when I confidently assuming the heavy oak means it's the famous Elderton Command Shiraz, when in fact it's **+1997 Jim Barry "The Armagh" Shiraz (Clair Valley). It's a terrific wine, but the tonight's competition is stiff, so I name it my third preference. The group likes it even more, voting it as their second.

WINE #2 is a straight-down-the-middle beauty -- with loads of blackcurrant and cherry flavors, shaded by a bit of anise and pepper. Love it! The delicious flavors play to my weakness for Cabernet Sauvignon, and sure enough it's ***+Lindemans "Limestone Ridge" Shiraz-Cabernet (Coonawarra). Not even covered by many reviewers, it's easily my WINE OF THE EVENING and I think my notes are telling me that it got the most first-place votes from the group.

WINE #3 is odd man out. Not bad, but clearly less attractive than the other three. The aromas go from perfume to toffee and the flavors are very plummy, verging on overripe. I comb through the reviews to see if anyone else noticed this super-ripeness. I should have noticed that at least two reviews for *++1997 Elderton Command Shiraz (Barossa Valley) mention "plums" -- and one even says "ripe plums -- but I just can't believe that Elderton would trail the flight, so I outsmart myself and wrongly guess this to be the Jim Barry. It's my least favorite wine of the flight and trials in the group voting too.

WINE #4 polarizes the table, perhaps because it's got some barnyard, tar and peppery flavors, in addition to lots of grapey young fruit. This pleases me mightily, reminding me of, say, an Ogier Cote Rotie, but it tends to turn off the rest of the guests. In any case, this wine is very complex, very deep and if I weren't so in love with the Lindemans, it would have won me over totally. Parker's review of ***-1997 Clarendon Hills "Atralis" Shiraz (McLaren Vale) is accurate as far as it goes, but he calls it "exotic." My take is more like "kinky," so do taste it before you shell out the huge bucks it fetches. My second preference, but pretty far down in the group voting at a distant third.

     DESSERT WINES

These are served with the labels showing and I'm hard pressed to say which I prefer. The 25-year-old ****Stanton & Killeen "Grand Rutherglen" Muscat is deep amber -- heck with the geek-talk, it's dark brown -- and tastes like liquid Christmas pudding. With flavors of nuts, preserved fruit and molasses, it's hugely sweet and the finish just keeps rolling along.

But if I must pick a favorite, I guess I'll go with ***+Yalumba "Museum Release" Tawny Port (Barossa Valley). My crib sheet reveals it was made shortly after the end of World War II, from a jumble of Shiraz, Grenache, Dolcetto, Mourvedre and Muscadelle... but let me cut to the chase and tell you that it tastes like great old Port from Portugal. You can taste the fortifying brandy on the finish, but this in no way detracts from the enormous pleasure offered by this blockbuster. The intensity is nearly hurtful and the finish is fantastic.


BIG TIME TEMPRANILLO (October 14, 2001) Some of Spain's greatest reds are made from the noble grape Tempranillo. But confusingly, one of the best Tempranillo-based wines that I've tasted in a long time comes from France.

     **+1999 Domaine de la Combe Blanche "Les Dessous de L'Enfer" (Ctes du Brian) is made by the same outfit that brought us the wonderful 1998 La Chandeliere. But this cuve may be even bigger stuff. It's nearly black, brimming with concentrated black cherry and blackcurrant flavors, joined by licorice and tobacco notes on the long finish. It easily contends with the great Tempranillos of Spain's Ribera del Duero region -- or for that matter, with classified growth Bordeaux. Congratulations to Dan Kravitz of Hand Picked Selections for importing this blockbuster. It's a big time bargain at under $30.


SPOTLIGHT ON HIRSCH VINEYARD (October 14, 2001) For some years now, Hirsch Vineyard has been supplying the raw material for some of California's greatest young Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. Tonight we had a chance to compare a few wines from this Sonoma Coast benchmark, alongside some ringers. (All wines were tasted double-blind, although they all turned out to be either Chardonnay or Pinot Noir.)

     CHARDONNAY:

WHITE #1 is medium gold with aromas of hazelnut, crLme brule and honeysuckle. Lots of minerals on the palate and easily the tightest wine of this sensational flight. Needs time. We all correctly guess California Chardonnay and yes, it's another stunning performance for ***-1997 Flowers Camp Meeting Ridge Chardonnay.

WHITE #2 has the lightest color of the flight. The nose is more muted than #1, but there's lots of tropical fruit on the palate, with notes of wet slate. The finish is palate-drenching and there's very little oak showing anywhere. Huge wine. Much discussion about whether it's California or Burgundy. I guess California, shrugging my shoulders, and it turns out to be ***1997 Williams- Selyem Hirsch Vineyard Chardonnay. Checking the label, I notice the alcohol is said to be over 16%. That's freakishly high even for a California Chard, yet no one detects any undue heat.

WHITE #3 is the deepest gold of the flight, showing mature aromas of apple and spice. On the palate you can taste piecrust, too. Most complex wine of the flight, though not the biggest. I guess Burgundy and get fooled by **+1995 Kistler McCrae Chardonnay.

     PINOT NOIR

RED #1 is very deep ruby and gushing with berry flavors -- raspberry, blueberry, huckleberry, one yum after another. It's still very young, very tight and could probably use another few years in the cellar. The concentration of this wine makes it somewhat controversial, but it's by far my favorite of the flight. Seems to me it's plainly California and has to be from one of the very top winemakers. Who? Oh, say, Steve Kistler or Helen Turley. Yes, it's ***+1994 Kistler Hirsch Vineyard Pinot Noir, still in its babyhood.

RED #2 couldn't be more different than #1, showing strong cinnamon and cola notes that moderate with airing. Cherry flavors emerge after a while and it turns into a delicious Pinot Noir. Still, those kinky initial aromas lead me to guess Santa Barbara. But no, it's *+1994 Williams-Selyem Hirsch Vineyard Pinot Noir, quite overshadowed by Kistler's effort of the same vintage.

RED #3 shows some barnyard aromas, followed by a rush of raspberry and blackberry flavors. Nice concentration, but unlike #1, seems at its peak. I'm stumped by this one. Burg California? Can't decide. Turns out to be another terrific performance for Kathy Joseph's **+1992 Fiddlehead Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. I drank my own bottles years ago, so it was fun to check up on it now.

RED #4 is clearly Burgundy, with prominent mineral flavors, a trace of sweat and lots of ripe red cherries. It can't match the depth of #1 or #3, but it's got lots of class and finesse, and yes it's **+1993 Arlaud Charmes-Chambertin.


GREAT WITH GREEK (October 6, 2001) So often we think of Italian and French as the world's wine-friendliest cooking traditions. But there are other ways to play the Mediterranean game. Consider these match-ups we tried at a fine local Greek BYO.

     WHITES (with grilled octopus and warm pita slices):

***1990 E. Barnaut Champagne "Millesime" is yet another super argument for the new wave of smaller-production, grower-produced Champagnes. Medium gold, it's in the same league with the awesome 1990 Egly-Ouriet Millesime -- toasty, nutty, long, like Grand Cru Burgundy with bubbles. GREAT MATCH to the octopus, cutting through the olive oil while complementing the toasty flavors of the Pita.

**+1999 Paolo Scavino "Sorrriso" is served blind and everyone falls in love it at first sip. It reminds me of a Mia Klein Sauvignon Blanc -- with honeysuckle aromas, flavors of honeydew melon and lemon and a rather soft but nicely textured body. It's actually a blend of Chardonnay and SB, so I'm not far off. EXCELLENT MATCH to the octopus, palate cleansing without being shrill. Another terrific bottle from this super Italian producer.

     REDS (with fall-off-the-bone lamb, cooked with spinach in a lemon sauce):

**+1997 Paoletti Cabernet Sauvignon is made by a small producer in Calistoga, Napa Valley. I tried their Sangiovese-Cab blend once and liked it, but I love this bottle. Dark and concentrated, it's supple enough to seduce even at this young age. The flavors lean to blackcurrant and spice, with a hint of shoe polish on the finish. If you go for the likes of Pride or Peter Michael, you'll feel right at home with a glass of this. PRETTY GOOD MATCH to the lamb and spinach, though it doesn't quite work with the lemon.

Need any convincing that the Sonoma Coast is The Place For Pinot Noir? ***1998 Landmark Kastania Pinot Noir seals the deal. Starts off with some gamy aromas that might have you thinking Burgundy, but then comes a big blast of raspberry and cherry. Oh yeah, California and kicking tail! Has just enough acid to make this wine an EXCELLENT MATCH to the lemony lamb, although I'll concede an Italian Sangiovese might have been even more appropriate.

Finally we pour a Mystery Wine that pleases, but totally fools me. It's dark, young, grapey and very pure -- not unlike a Steve Edmunds Syrah, though it doesn't have quite the extraction to make me confident with that call. Turns out to be **1994 Cheval Sauvage Pinot Noir , a rarity from the Central Coast. As it airs, the red bramble-fruit flavors tell me that yes, it's Pinot Noir. But I never would have guessed the location -- absolutely no veggies or cola notes. Very impressive performance, very youthful for a '94 and an EXCELLENT MATCH also with the lamb.


COMING ON STRONG (September 30, 2001). "So what do you think?" says a friend, as he pours a mysterious red from a decanter.

"Ooh," I say. "Huge florals. Perfume!" I sip it. "This is exotic. Cassis, raspberry, blueberry, is that watermelon?"

"So what is it?" he persists.

"No question it's California Cab, but hmm, really special. Maybe 1995 Bryant Family?" I know he has some in his cellar. "How long has it been sitting in that decanter?"

"Nearly 24 hours," he says.

"Impressive! Okay, what is it?" And...

I've always loved ***+1990 Laurel Glen, but it's never tasted better than this. One of the all-time greatest California Cabs I've ever tasted. Kudos once again to Patrick Campbell.


ITALIAN REDS THEN & NOW (September 30, 2001) It could just be the producers we picked, but in a very unscientific tasting recently, I liked 'em better young:

     BRUNELLO:

*1990 San Felice "Campogiovanni" was a little too tannic on release and has never come into better balance. The dried cherry and hazelnut flavors are pleasant and match well with my chicken, pasta and red sauce, but as I wait an hour for more to emerge, I realize this is all she wrote. Now's as good a time as any to drink up.

**1995 Ciacci Piccolomini "Vigni di Pianrosso" is a happier story from start to lengthy finish. Here the fruit is big, round and ripe. The oak that often annoys on lesser Brunellos is blessedly absent. Drink now or over the next five years.

     BAROLO:

**-1989 Luigi Einaude is big stuff in the old style, with shoe polish, tar and floral aromas, plenty of fruit on the palate, but some tannins on the finish that are never going to vanish. It's good stuff, but I prefer the younger...

**+1997 Scavino "Carobric." Now this is super! No softy, but broad and generous, offering up heady aromas of roses and plenty of fruit on the palate. Tannins are present, but so supple, you'll get a lot of enjoyment right now. The kind of Barolo you don't need to acquire a taste for.

     BEST OF THE BUNCH?

Tasted blind, the **+1997 Ornellaia seems to me at first like a big young Brunello, with deep cherry-raspberry flavors and a healthy dollop of oak. I don't have enough in my glass to keep sampling it through the meal, but others at the table are wowed by how well it develops. Ah well. I wouldn't be surprised. Call me a heretic, but I've often found that "Super Tuscan" blends (made with Bordeaux varieties) outperform their traditional peers.


See more tasting notes (July-August 2001)

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