Saturday, February 25, 2012

Australian Shiraz: 2004 Marquis Phillips Shiraz "9"

2004 Marquis Phillips Shiraz 9 – McLaren Vale, Australia

I just bought this wine off a friend and opened it for my girlfriend tonight. She’s a huge fan of big Australian shirazes, and this seemed like a good choice.

In the glass, this wine has a dark purple core, with bright ruby rims. The aromas of this wine are thick, complex, and seductive: gushing red plums, cherry liquer and chocolate-covered cherries.

The gorgeousness of this wine is evident as soon as it hits the palate. It's so powerful but also elegant. This wine instantly coats the palate with chewy tannins and dark fruit. Plum, dark chocolate and coffee flavors, also lots of fig paste. I really enjoy the way this wine feels on the palate. It’s so juicy and pure, but the tannins are still so powerful that it almost feels like drinking liquefied fig paste. The finish is very long, accented by candied plums and dates and just a touch of toasted of oak.

In 2004, winemakers Marquis Philips didn’t release their highest bottling, the Integrity shiraz. So the grapes that would usually go into that wine went into this “9” shiraz bottling. The fruit is so ripe that this baby clocks in at 16.5% alcohol, so make sure you’re not driving. This wine has some serious sediment, so a decant is a good idea. It really opened up over the course of four hours in the decanter. This wine is showing very well right now but it will continue to age well for at least five more years.

91 pts (IJB) 

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Review of "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich"

A Review of “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” - a novel by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

If you haven’t read this Russian classic, that’s okay. There are other Russian novels that are higher up on the must-read list. (“Crime and Punishment” takes #1 on mine). But this novel earned its status as a modern Russian classic for good reason. It’s still going strong fifty years after its publication in Russia and it deserves a read by pretty much everyone.

Why? Well, for one, Solzhenitsyn accomplishes an incredible amount in a small number of pages. The book weighs in at about 55,000 words, making it possible to finish the book in a Sunday. Each sentence is crafted with surgical precision. There are no wasted words, no paragraphs that could be shortened into sentences.

As the title implies, the novel takes place over the course of an average day in a Siberian prison camp. Not much different happens on this day as opposed to the nearly 4,000 other days that make up Denisovich ’s sentence in the prison camp. When the circumstances and environment are so extreme, you don’t need twists and surprises to make the story work. There are no prison breaks, sorry. No one gets shot in the head by a guard. And as much as I might want them to, the prisoners don’t riot and burn down the officers’ quarters while they’re sleeping in their beds.

Instead, we have an 18-hour day of toil, hunger and ice. There are no breaks for chapters or extended flashbacks. The reader gets almost no back story on Denisovich. This book is a great example of what I like to call parachute fiction: the reader is dropped in to a unique environment and left to figure it out for himself. Like a new jack thrown into the prison camp, the reader stands beside Denisovich as he struggles through life under authoritarian Soviet rule. The point of view is so intimate, that the reader is right there with Denisovich as he tries to fend off the ever present dangers of frostbite, starvation and violence.

I won’t summarize the course of Denisovich’s day, because Solzhenitsyn does such a masterful job of taking the reader by the hand and letting them experience it on their own. Besides, what stands out most in this novel is not the plot, but the way Solzhenitsyn takes a frozen Siberian wasteland and chisels an intense literary experience out of it. By ratcheting up the tension, slightly shifting the narrative tone, drawing out some scenes while compressing others, Solzhenitsyn immerses the reader in Denisovich’s struggle. Despite the gray, icy feel of this novel, the reader leaves feeling not depressed, but invigorated.

I first read this novel when I was 15. I remember sitting on a balcony at my parents’ apartment in downtown Kyiv, Ukraine. Even though I was in the former Soviet Union, Siberia was still incredibly far away. It's so far away, I almost cannot imagine it as an actual place. This was the mid-90s, when Ukraine was still reeling from the Soviet collapse. Bread lines still reached down the street and babushkas begged for change in the snow. I read this book, like many other Russian novels, as a way to try and understand the Russian soul. I remember "One Day" being incredibly difficult to read in English, and the overall feel of the book being bleak and disheartening. A dozen years later, I re-read this book for a class as part of Johns Hopkins University’s master’s writing program. The experience was vastly different. Of course, some of this is due to changes in me, personally, and changes in the mindset I bring with me to the reading experience. But I’m convinced that the reason I liked this book so much more this time around is in no small part because of the translator.

During our class discussion, the professor handed out excerpts of “One Day” from three different translations, and we compared and contrasted them as a class. Russian is a terribly difficult language to translate into English, as demonstrated by two of these three translations. They sound clunky, disorganized and are frankly tedious to read. This is how I remembered “One Day,” as a painfully garbled but somehow rewarding read. But HT Willetts has done something very beautiful with Solzhenitsyn’s original Russian text. He has given us an English version that flows smoothly. There’s a subtle poetic tone to much of this novel. It’s a master work of translation, and it kept me turning the pages one after the other.

So if you haven’t yet read this masterpiece, pick up HT Willetts’ translation and enjoy. As always, I’d love to read your comments.

Rheingau Riesling, Bitte

I picked this bottle up at a weinschenk in Hamburg during my European vacation last year. My girlfriend and I were roaming the city of her ancestors, drinking beer and taking pictures when I stumbled across a tiny wine shop bursting with rieslings from Germany's Rheingau and Mosel regions. I bought this bottle for about 8 Euros. Now I wish I would’ve bought a half-case.

I had planned on drinking this wine later in the trip when we spent several days in the Mosel Valley, but I had more wine than I knew what to do with, so I ended up bringing it back to the states with a bunch of other hand-picked German rieslings. Last night my girlfriend and I put together a German meal of paprika-spiced pork chops, cauliflower and potato mash and pickled red cabbage. With a meal like this, riesling is a no-brainer.

The aromas are the epitome of freshness: lots of white flowers, lemon zest, minerals. The intensity of the aromas is impressive.

On the palate, this wine is full of tangy acid, which is matched by lots of fresh fruit. The wine has a plump feel, especially on the finish, but the acid is ever-present, keeping it balanced. It starts off with fresh lime and ruby red grapefruit flavors, and transitions to nectarine and fresh apricot. The fruit is absolutely delicious. And this wine is “trocken,” meaning it’s a dry wine, so the fruit doesn’t taste sweet or goopy.

This is what I look for in the 2009 vintage, that pure fruit, but also some brisk acid and minerality to give it that firm backbone. The finish tingles with Meyer lemon and minerals.

German rieslings. This is why I love them. And the pairing worked out perfectly.


Sunday, February 19, 2012

An Explosive Spanish Syrah

2005 Finca Sandoval Manchuela

Right out of the bottle this wine is a plummy, purple, inky color, reminiscent of a young high-end Barossa shiraz. The aromas initially show cedar planks, cassis, black cherry and a hint of green olive. Over the course of three hours the aromas evolved to show sweet cassis and rich pipe tobacco. The palate is really smooth and sexy, with fine tannins and dense fruit. Cassis and black cherry are the primary flavors, but there's also some tobacco and meat gravy as well. Just enough acid for freshness. There's a really velvety feel to this wine, although it maintains its power through and through. Oak accents the finish. At first the oak seemed too pronounced for my tastes, but as the wine opened up the oak became less of an issue. The finish also has notes of bitter chocolate and coffee. This wine is showing very well right now, but there's clearly at least another five years of maturation until this wine reaches its peak. I drank this with my friend Kevin at his place, and we had a great time. He really enjoyed the wine. 78% syrah and some mourvedre and bobal.

91 points

Friday, February 17, 2012

An Aged Muscadet Delivers

As far as zesty white wines that can complement salads and seafood, muscadet is classic. In their youth, these Loire Valley wines show sharp acid and sometimes bracing minerality, along with lemon-lime and sea salt flavors. They can be very creamy as well, especially when the wine is aged on the yeasts for a while longer, and labeled as “sur lie.” Muscadets can be brisk enough to stand up to the most saline-driven oysters. While most are consumed young, aging muscadet can add a whole different level of richness and complexity.

Tonight I’m sipping just such a wine. It is the 2001 Domaine du Haut Bourg Muscadet-Côtes de Grandlieu.

This wine is soft golden color, looking bright and shiny in the glass. This 11-year-old muscadet shows mature aromas of nougat and honey, but also brisk minerals and fresh citrus fruit. The wines starts off with a dose of rich apple cider, then the acid comes through and provides freshness. The lively mineral flavor blends with subtle flavors of bruised apple and apricot. There’s a hint of clover honey and seashell. This wine is still vibrant, but has gained richness with age. I’m always amazed at how aged muscadet gets plump and complex but maintains its zesty acidity. This is a delicious wine that begs for lobster with lemon butter.

89 points - IJB

Not bad for $15.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

An Aussie Shiraz for Valentine's Day

2009 Mollydooker Shiraz "Blue Eyed Boy" (South Australia, McLaren Vale)

I unscrewed this wine on Valentine’s Day with my lover Val. She's a fan of big, fruity, dark wines, so this fruit bomb of a shiraz made perfect sense. 

This 100 percent shiraz is dark purple color in the glass… no surprise. Initially the aromas were quite restrained, and it took at least an hour in the decanter to open up and show aromas of paint, blueberry jam, violets and chocolate shavings. The longer it sat in the decanter and swirled in the glass, the brighter the fruit smelled. On the palate, this wine is solid. Dense tannins converge with plush fruit. It tastes like espresso beans crushed and mixed with blueberry pie reduction. Also some dark plum fruit and freshly crushed blackberries. The purity and smoothness of fruit is really astounding. The bitter chocolate on the finish is delicious. The mouthfeel of this wine is silky, but there’s also some grit. It doesn’t totally coat the palate. Vanilla accents the long finish. 

This is a classic Mollydooker sytle: bold, bombastic, pure. It is what it is, and I love it. I tasted the 2006 two years ago and have been looking forward to trying other vintages. Unfortunately, they made only a small amount of the Blue Eyed Boy in 2007,  and none in 2008 due to a difficult growing season. Lucky for my girl and I, the 2009 is back, and it kicks ass.

93 points (IJB)

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Gem Tasting

One of the best parts about being a wine lover is having the opportunity to share your wine with close friends. That has been the idea behind my wine tasting group’s Gem Tastings. Once a year, we all get together and bring a bottle (or two) we consider to be a "gem." There is no objective criteria for what makes a bottle of wine a gem. It's not about price point, or how high Wine Spectator or Robert Parker scored the wine. It’s about personal preference, rarity, uniqueness, and the desire to share a special bottle with other people who would appreciate it.

After much planning, we finally got together this week at Palena in Washington D.C.’s Cleveland Park neighborhood. We’d organized the wines into flights beforehand and given that information to the restaurant, who in turn devised several courses to go along with the wines. The food was great, the wine and conversation even greater.

This tasting in particular was a good chance to taste a wide variety of special bottles, many from regions I haven’t focused on for a long time. Without further delay, here are my notes from what turned out to be an epic evening. Cheers!

A Muscadet to Start
1997 Domaine Pierre de la Grange (Luneau-Papin) Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine Sur Lie Le "L" d'Or - France, Loire Valley, Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine
While waiting at Weygandt Wines for everyone to arrive for the tasting, we popped this aged muscadet. My experience with aged muscadet has been very good, as I really enjoy the complexity of flavors these wines have to offer. I was really impressed with this bottle. Aromas of lemon peel, sea salt and mixed nuts. The combination of nervy acidity and mature, nutty fruit is spectacular. Still vibrant and solid, and I'd love the opportunity to drink this over the course of a few hours to see how it develops. (90 pts.)

1995 Pommery Champagne Brut - France, Champagne
Unfortunately, the first Champagne was corked. At first it smelled a lot of yeast, with a slight cork taint. But over time the cork taint became much more evident, and on the palate the wine really dropped off and left me with a gross moldy taste. (FLAWED)

1998 Ruinart Champagne Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru - France, Champagne
Since the 1995 Pommery was corked, I spent a lot of time with this Champagne. What a beauty. Aromas of lemon, almond, some musk. The aromas are powerful at first, yet the longer I smelled the wine the more subtle and complex it got. The palate is bright and bold, with tangy acid, bracing minerals and delicious fruit. Lots of golden apple and almond paste, and accentuated by sea salt, minerals and toast. Delicious, long finish. Thanks Tim! (92 pts.)

2008 Raveneau Chablis
François Raveneau just makes some of the best damn Chablis, period. And I love what he's done with the 2008 vintage. These two wines were so young, and what they showed at the tasting is only a fraction of what they will have to offer in the future. Still, they were great. Richer maybe than some 2008s I've had, but the balance, minerals and cut to these wines is just stellar.

2008 François Raveneau Chablis 1er Cru Montée de Tonnerre - France, Burgundy, Chablis
This flight was such a great addition to the evening. I always love Raveneau, and even though these wines were young, they showed tremendous potential. The Montée de Tonnerre is everything I love about young Chablis, and the 2008 vintage in particular. Intoxicating aromas of lemon peel, green appled, limestone and fresh cream butter. The richness, intensity and freshness of the palate combine to form a lovely, balanced young wine. Fresh pear, whipped butter and lemon zest flavors line up perfectly with the med+ acid and the complex minerality. A cream and almond flavor carry the finish. This shows the acidity and minerality of the 2008 vintage, but there's also a creaminess and a lushness that I find amazing. Having tasted a 2001 from this producer and vineyard, I would love to get a case of this and drink one every two years or so. Thanks, Tim, for representing chardonnay so well. (92 pts.)

2008 François Raveneau Chablis 1er Cru Butteaux - France, Burgundy, Chablis
I know we were killing these 2008 Chablis far too soon, but they were both just so delicious. The 2008 Butteaux showed explosive aromas of green melon, lemon peel, sea shell and just a hint of seaweed. The hint of seaweed on the nose brought this wine a level just above the 2008 Montée de Tonnerre, at least for me. The aromas in this wine need many years to define themselves, but they can still sing now, even at this young age. The palate starts off with a plump, butterscotch flavor, with some green apple. Then the acid streaks in, along with racy minerals. A sea shell flavor combines with yellow apple and popcorn butter. The finish is laced with acid and minerals, but also some nutty, buttery flavors. It has the minerality and oceanic elements of the best Chablis with some of the richness of Cote de Beaune chardonnay. The complexity packed in this wine will take a decade+ to unwind, when it will emerge an even more glorious Chablis. Thanks, Tom. (93 pts.)


Aged Produttori del Barbaresco
Thanks to Bob and Ian, we were able to scrape together a mini Produttori del Barbaresco flight. Both wines were really unique and delicious, and it was interesting to taste two old Barbarescos back to back. I know a lot of people who have fallen head over heels for Barolo and Barbaresco, and it’s a love affair they never walk away from. Both of these wines are made from 100 percent nebbiolo grown in the Piedmont region of northwestern Italy. We started off with the aged wines because they would show more subtlety and restraint than the brawny young Barbarescos.

I'd hear good things about the 1967 vintage in Barbaresco, and they turned out to be correct. Since my experience with 1970s Barbaresco is next to nil, I asked some wine forum friends what they thought of the 1975 vintage. Based on their responses, and a search of tasting notes from 1975 Barbarescos, my impression was that these wines should've been consumed many moons ago. Wine drinking being an ever-surprising endeavor, I was luckily wrong about the 1975.

1967 Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco - Italy, Piedmont, Barbaresco
I had no idea what to expect with a Barbaresco this old, and that was part of the fun of drinking it. The color is an auburn red. The first aromas out of the glass were blood and iron. Aromas developed into dried cranberry, violets and hints of balsamic. It wasn't vinegary, but it had that rich aroma of balsamic that I love. The tannins have softened, but they still provide structure, and the acid was high. The flavors were really interesting, starting off with corned beef and peppercorn, later some flavors of oregano, dried cranberry, meat drippings and iron. Acid lingers on the finishing, keeping the wine fresh. This is one of those wines that you can critique and analyze all you want, but in the end it's about the experience. And I absolutely loved the experience of this wine. (91 pts.) 

1975 Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco - Italy, Piedmont, Barbaresco
The second Produttori Barbaresco of the evening was much darker in the glass. The nose showed a plethora of aromas. The fruit was more vibrant than the largely fruitless 1967, showing plum and ripe cranberry aromas, as well as smoked meat and roasted lamb. The palate is dense with fine tannins. My initial reaction was that this wine seemed much younger than it is. High acid. Flavors of plum pits, smoke, a little beef. While the 67 showed more stewed meat and drippings flavors, the 75 tended toward more rare red meat flavors. This wine was really complex, and I'm surprised by how well it showed considering its age and the vintage. (90 pts.)

Pinot Noir
Brett was kind enough to bring a Magnum of Cameron's "Clos Electrique" pinor noir. We've shared other vintages of this wine, and I am not exaggerating when I say I think it is one of the best domestic pinot noirs. It's always stunned my palate. Well, the cork gods were against us, apparently, because the wine was tainted. I felt bad because I was sure the wine would be thrilling. Fortunately, we had Tim's 2001 Bonnes-Mares to save the filght.

1998 Cameron Pinot Noir Clos Electrique - USA, Oregon, Willamette Valley
Damn it, the cork taint strikes again. This time, it was much more disappointing, because I've loved more recent vintages and was looking forward to trying one with more age on it. At first, the cork taint was mild, but as the wine aired out, it became much more dominant. Too bad. (FLAWED)

2001 Domaine Robert Groffier Bonnes Mares - France, Burgundy, Bonnes Mares Grand Cru
When Robert Groffier is on, he is on. This Bonnes Mares originally made an appearance at the previous Gem Tasting, which I missed, so I was thrilled to try it this time. And what a gorgeous wine it is. Vibrant purple color with brick red rims. The aromas alone made this the wine of the night. Sexy, smooth, pure aromas of cranberry, white pepper and potpouri, a hint of Indian spices. The palate starts off brisk, almost tart, but then a wave of fine-grained tannins and lush fruit pour in. Roses, ripe cherries, dark soil flavors, but acid sails through the whole time. The purity of flavor on the finish... it's just incredible. For my palate, this wine had that pefect balance of power and elegance. I would love to revisit this in another five years, as some of those mature flavors start to develop. This was my wine of the night, for sure. (95 pts.)

Bruno Giacosa Barbaresco "Santo Stefano"
Faryan and his brother contributed two vintages of this superb Barbaresco, and both were incredible and different.

1997 Bruno Giacosa Barbaresco Santo Stefano - Italy, Piedmont, Barbaresco
Right out of the bottle, this wine was singing. I believe Faryan decanted it for some time, which helped it open up and show aromas of dried flower potpouri, fresh cherries, and hints of mushroom and meat. The palate is gorgeous, a combination of gritty tannins and lush fruit. The meaty, leathery aspect of this wine is just great, and it went so well with venison steak. The wine was still vibrantly young, with fresh fruit and strong tannins, not to mention superb acid. This wine is amazing right now, but I'd love to revisit this in five years. It has the stuffing to go for a very long time. (93 pts.)

2001 Bruno Giacosa Barbaresco Santo Stefano - Italy, Piedmont, Barbaresco
It goes without saying that this wine is way too young. But that doesn't mean it isn't tasty. Gorgeous purple-red color. A burst of aromas: tar, plum, black cherry, and a medley of spices. Even after decanting, this wine just needed more air to show its full stuff. The palate is full of dense tannins, spicy acid, and gritty plum fruit. There's a hint of brine that is just delicious. It's a gritty wine that needs time to settle down, but it was delicious with the venison. As Tim put it, "Only twenty years too young." (92 pts.)

Aged Reds
This flight of aged reds was a lot of fun. The two New World wines in the tasting both showed really well. It was fun to revisit the López de Heredia Viña Bosconia, and to taste Chateau Musar for the first time.

1991 R. López de Heredia Rioja Gran Reserva Viña Bosconia - Spain, Rioja
I tasted this wine in 2010, and I liked it even more this time. Aromas of sour cherry, but also some seaweed and cheese rind. The palate was soft and silky, with fresh cherry fruit. It still had this tomato paste and celery seed flavor, along with sour cherries and hemp. It's a funky wine, and it's really fun to have a glass of. But it is kind of abrasive, so share it with friends. Still, in my book, this gets serious crazy points. (89 pts.)

1995 Chateau Musar - Lebanon, Bekaa Valley
Brett brought this bottle, and it was a welcome addition to the tasting. The aromas were really unique: burned sugar, caramel, red apple and plum. Smooth palate, balanced tannins and acid. Even in a tasting with this many wines, this one stood out with its bizarre but delicious flavors: caramelized sugar, raspberry, sweet plums. This wine tasted really sweet to me, but it had enough funky earth flavors to keep it interesting. I would like more time with this wine, as I think it deserves attention. My first time tasting a Chateau Musar, and I'm definitely intrigued. (90 pts.)

1984 Groth Cabernet Sauvignon - USA, California, Napa Valley, Oakville
This wine was an interesting auburn-plum color in the glass. The aromas remind me of stewed plums, rhubarb and anise. The palate showed a complicated medley of medium tannins and sour cherry, plum, must and tobacco flavors. A hint of seaweed to keep you guessing. I thought this wine would be spent, but it's still got enough going on to keep me interested. Actually, over time it opened up to show some green pepper and sweet cherries. Surprisingly good, and it goes to show once again that I like older Napa cabernet much more than younger ones. (89 pts.)

1999 Renaissance Cabernet Sauvignon Vin de Terroir - USA, California, North Yuba
Jeremy brought this cabernet from a producer I'd never heard of, from a region I have little experience with. It showed remarkably well, however, and the whole crew seemed to enjoy it. The nose showed dark chocolate, black cherry juice, and some funky, earthy atomas. The palate is tangy with soft tannins. It's a really soft wine all over. Dark and plummy, but elegant. This wine was by far the most New World, but it maintained a juicy acid to keep it fresh. I really enjoyed this wine, and would love to try it again on its own. (90 pts.)

Rieslings to Top Off the Night
To end the night, we compiled three rieslings and a weisburgunder eiswein. I expected a bit more from J.J. Prüm, but the Trimbach Cuvée Frédéric Emile Vendange Tardive was phenomenal.

1994 Freiherr Langwerth von Simmern Erbacher Marcobrunn Riesling Spätlese - Germany, Rheingau
This riesling was a golden amber color in the glass. Fat, full aromas of oil, orange marmelade, and nougat. The palate is full of nougat, almond paste, oil and caramel. The acid is lower than I usually like, but I still really enjoyed this wine. Gorgeous finish with lovely diesel and marmelade. This has aged well, but I'm glad I popped this now because I'm not sure how much longer it can go with low acid. (91 pts.)

2001 Joh. Jos. Prüm Bernkasteler Badstube Riesling Spätlese - Germany, Mosel Saar Ruwer
The nose on this riesling showed oil, lemons and nuts. The palate seemed a bit flatter than I was expecting. Lovely salty flavor to accent the oil, lemon and nutshell flavors. (88 pts.)

2001 Trimbach Riesling Cuvée Frédéric Emile Vendange Tardive - France, Alsace
Wow, this riesling really kicked some ass. Gorgeous golden color in the glass. Lush aromas of lemon oil, wax, petrol and guava. The palate is really plump and delicious, just oozing with marmelade, pear and peach fruit, combined with minerals and slate. This is still a really young wine, with layers of complexity. Orgasmic. (93 pts.)

2004 Eugen Müller Forster Weissburgunder Eiswein - Germany, Pfalz
Okay, so this wasn't a riesling, but what a way to end the evening. This was quite possibly my first weissburgunder eiswein, but it won't be my last. Golden orange colored and thick in the glass. The nose shows fresh peach, apricot and caramel. The palate is fresh, plush and silky. Deliciously nutty, with honey, almond and apricot. Endless finish. Very rich, but maintains balance and finesse. (93 pts.)