Sunday, April 29, 2012

A 2002 Red Burgundy

Ten years from vintage is a good time to taste red Burgundy. Obviously different vintages show differently, buy it seems that ten years of age will provide a good amount of insight into a the character and personality of a red Burgundy.

Well, it was a rainy day and I needed to do some writing, so I figured I'd pop a 2002 Burg and see what was going on...

I don't have a ton of experience with the 2002 vintage of red Burgundy, but I do remember tasting a lot of them when they first came out. I was just 21, and The Man finally allowed me to legally purchase wine, when some 2002s were still sitting on the shelves. I went to a lot of retailer tastings and tastings with more experience Burg-heads, and I was taken by the mystique of 2002 red Burgundy. I didn't have much money at the time (nor do I now), so I didn't buy many bottles, but the 2002 vintage has a place in my heart.

So yesterday I opened a 2002 Domaine Arnoux Pére et Fils Savigny-lès-Beaune Les Peuillets.

It was clear cherry colored in the glass, with just a bit of brick around the rims. It took at least an hour for the savory aromas of red meat, dried roses and damp earth to come out. Then - wait, what’s this? Some sweet cherries? - Yes, some fresh fruit. Just a hint of strawberries as well. Even after four hours open, I could tell there was still a lot of aromatic power that wasn't ready to come out. I’d love to revisit this wine again in five more years.

Initially, the palate sensation was similar to chewing on grape stems: dark, gritty and green. It smoothed out with two hours+ and the tannins focused. Over the course of a few hours in the decanter the wine completely changed to show soft cherries, chewing tobacco, and cranberry flavors. This is definitely a more traditional Burgundy, with strong acid, dusty-firm tannins, and a finish of beef broth and savory spices.

89 points IJB

I think I need to drink more 2002 red Burgundy. If you've had one, I'd love to hear your impressions.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Pass the Pickle Juice: Notes on a 1983 Napa Cabernet

I was born in 1983, and I have enjoyed  several wines from that year. The best, by far, was a 1983 Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet from Napa: subtle yet complex, mature yet still vibrant. Considering my luck with that wine, this week I figured I’d try my luck by popping a 1983 Inglenook Napa Cabernet “Reunion Reserve Cask.” 

This bottle was belligerent from the start. My friend Bob tried to get the cork out with a waiter’s friend screw, only to destroy half of the cork in the process. I tried my hand at it, and managed to mangle a bit more of the wet, crumbly cork. We didn’t have an ah-so opener, so I used a grilling fork and tried to finagle it out of there. It didn't work and I almost stabbed myself. We ended up having to filter the wine out before we could get it in our glasses.

After all that work, the wine ended up the way I fear I may end up some day: tired, old and weird.

It was a cherry-auburn color in the glass. Initially it had a strange combination of sage, mushroom and white raisin aromas. A hint of nighttime cough medicine came out as well. The palate showed faded tannins, tired fruit and a mélange of bizarre flavors: sour cherries, pickle juice (seriously, dead ringer for pickle juice, like straight from the jar), leather and animal musk. There’s a hint of sweetness on the finish, like someone added sugar to that pickle juice.

Bob “liked” it, and I admit that I did too, but I feel the need to add this disclaimer: we’re both strange dudes. We finished maybe half of the bottle between us. (We’re strange, not insane.) I’d say this wine was at least 10-15 years past its peak, but then again I have no idea how good it was back in the day. Hell, I was drinking boobie juice at the time.  

Having said all of this, I can never get too furious when an older wine like this shows poorly. It’s all part of the wine game. You win some, you lose some. And sometimes you end up stinking of leather and pickle juice.

Score? Beats me.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

2004 Mas de Boislauzon Châteauneuf-du-Pape "Cuvée du Quet"

2004 Mas de Boislauzon Châteauneuf-du-Pape "Cuvée du Quet" (France, Southern Rhône, Châteauneuf-du-Pape)

I picked this baby up on for $25, which turned out to be a screaming deal considering the quality of the wine. The Cuvee du Quet is Mas de Boislauzon's high-end cuvee, and the fruit is sourced from a single vineyard on higher elevation rocky plateau.

The wine is a clear ruby color in the glass, showing the beginning signs brick color that come with age. Right out of the bottle this wine has a pungent mushroom aroma. At first that wet earth and mushroom was all I could smell, but with some air the wine started to sing with cherry, currant and dried roses. The palate starts off with grainy tannins, followed by powerful flavors of cassis and diced green peppers. Complexity is this wine's game, following with flavors of sour cherry, chewing tobacco and beef broth. After being opened for two hours, the flavors of beef broth and mushroom really come out in full. Those grainy tannins don’t ease up one  bit, they just keep going, providing a granite-like structure to the wine.

The complexity of this wine really evolved over four hours, which makes me think this wine should sleep for a few years to let those nuances develop.

Unfortunately, I only bought one bottle. Damn!

92 points IJB

Monday, April 23, 2012

Merry Edwards and the Pleasures of Russian River Pinot

Merry Edwards is a fascinating woman, and the festively bad-ass way she spells her name is just the beginning. Merry Edwards has been making wine in the Russian River Valley since the mid-1970s, when Sonoma wines were unknown to the world and even to most Americans. She made wines under a variety of labels, and I was interested to learn that one of her first winemaking mentors was Joseph Swan, whose nearby boutique winery I had visited just before Merry Edwards. (I wrote about Joseph Swan Vineyards here.) Merry is a true trailblazer, a woman who has been busting down gender barriers for decades, all the while gaining a ridiculous amount of winemaking experience and an encyclopedic knowledge of the Russian River Valley.

2006 saw the opening of the new Merry Edwards Winery. The place is a Bacchus-send for Sonoma wine tourists. The winery sits next to the Coopersmith vineyard in a beautiful corner of the Russian River Valley near Sebastopal. Unlike most wineries that are home to one (or more) dogs, Merry Edwards is a place for cat-lovers. When I arrived on a cool March afternoon I saw one cat sprawled out near the foot of a vine and another begging strangers for belly-rubs on a wooden bench. Before I even entered the winery, my olfactory system was primed by the rich, loamy smell of mushrooms wafting down from a neighboring mushroom nursery-of-sorts.

The winery's interior combines modern design with old-fashioned wooden simplicity. It boasts several private tasting rooms designed to handle groups of visitors. An employee welcomed our group of four to a private room. He was helpful, down-to-earth and full of information about the region's history. 

Okay, the wines...

Merry Edwards is known mostly for her single-vineyard pinot noirs, although she has become quite the evangelist for the sauvignon blanc grape. Her pinot noirs display a bold and bombastic style, which was quite a shift from the relatively leaner wines I'd tasted at Copain and Joseph Swan. Merry Edwards' pinots are full of fruit and plush tannins, but they also express a lot of personality and elegance. Give me any one of these wines on any day of the week, and I'd be honored to sip and enjoy it. 

Note: All of the wines I tasted in this report are sourced from grapes in the Russian River Valley appellation.

2009 Merry Edwards Pinot Noir Russian River ValleyMerry Edwards blends pinot noir grapes from several RRV vineyards to make this bottling: Klopp Ranch, Meredith Estate, Coopersmith and Olivet Lane vineyards. This is not some hastily-thrown together regional blend, but a hand-crafted wine with real personality. Vibrant purple color in the glass. Rich cherry on the nose as well as freshly-baked strawberry pie filling. The palate is smooth and jammy, but the wine maintains an elegant mouthfeel. A distinct cinnamon flavor accents the rich cherry fruit, and the finish shows a taste of integrated oak. Silky, pure and elegant with a long finish. (91 points)

2009 Merry Edwards Pinot Noir Georganne - Gorgeous bright purple color. Aromas of carmelized sugar and fresh blackberries. On the palate this wine is jammier than the 2009 Russian River pinot noir, with cherry pie and mocha flavors. Silky tannins support the rich, unctuous fruit. Lovely, but very rich indeed. For fans of full-throttle pinots (or for fans of California fruit bomb syrahs, for that matter) this wine is for you. (90 points)

2009 Merry Edwards Pinot Noir Meredith EstateThis is what I look for in a big Russian River pinot noir. The aromas are sweeter and darker than any of the other pinots in the tasting, very much reminiscent of blackberries, cherry fountain soda and mocha. Dense tannins and firm fruit provide grip on the palate, much more so than the Georganne vineyard. Gushing flavors of mocha-accented raisins, black cherry and boysenberry blend with spicy pepper for complexity. For this style, this wine nails it. Simply delicious. I imagine a few years in the bottle would do this big girl some good. (92 points)

2009 Merry Edwards Pinot Noir Klopp Ranch - Another great big pinot from Merry Edwards. The nose on this shows that classic Russian River black cherry, but also a unique mix of cranberry and rhubarb. The palate is both silky and dense at the same time. Pure, lush currant and black cherry fruit flavors, along with peanut shell and cocoa powder. The finish is soft, showing black pepper, baking spices and forest underbrush. This was a big hit with the tasting group and I'm sure it would please any crowd. Several years in the cellar could do wonders for this baby, as I'm positive it has some serious complexity that needs unpacking. (92 points)

2010 Merry Edwards Sauvignon BlancAmong a plethora of wonderful Sonoma County pinots, syrahs and chardonnays I tasted over the course of my trip, this wine still stood out and demanded my attention. This and past vintages of this sauvignon blanc have received gobs of praise from all the big shots, which, I confess, made me a bit skeptical. Was it all hype? All that skepticism was assuaged when I took the first sniff. The aromas are superb: white flowers, white peach, chives and jalapeno peppers. Creamy on the palate, showing white peach, honey and honeydew melon, along with a distinct flavor of freshly chopped chives. It's complex as hell, and a medley of flavor carries long onto the finish. Unlike many sauvignon blancs that sit in stainless steel tanks, this wine is fermented in seasoned French oak, 18 percent of which is new. This process adds creaminess to the wine and gives it a toasted peanut flavor. I'm not usually a fan of oaked sauvignon blancs, but I was really impressed by how the oak was integrated into a balanced and beautiful wine. Acid lingers on the finish, leaving the palate refreshed. My girlfriend and I both swooned over this bottle, and she declared it wine of the trip. I gave it an unabashed and completely subjective (94 points) 

I can't say enough about the quality of these wines and the tasting experience. In a region filled with beautiful tasting rooms and great wines, Merry Edwards stands out among the top. And, hey, it's open seven days a week!

Forget Napa, head here instead.


Friday, April 20, 2012

2006 Kenneth Volk Sierra Madre Vineyard Chardonnay

I drink more chardonnay than any other wine. It's true, and it has been for three years+ now. I don't know what my problem is. The grape is just so damn versatile, its range of flavors and sensations so broad. Between regions like Chablis, Burgundy, Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino, the Jura, the Loire Valley.... there are enough chardonnays to last ten lifetimes. And I'm not even getting into Chile, Argentina, Australia and South Africa, all of which produce world-class chardonnay.

Well, tonight my chardonnay-loving palate is focusing on a 2006 Kenneth Volk Sierra Madre Vineyard Chardonnay (California, Central Coast, Santa Maria Valley).

This Central Coast California chardonnay is bold yellow colored with thick streaming legs in the glass. It has a lush, full nose of green pear and honeysuckle, with an underlying lemon cream pie aroma. Over time, more roasted peanuts came out on the nose.

On the palate, this is big and boisterous. It definitely falls on the right wing of my chardonnay spectrum. There's a thickness on the palate, like someone blended whipped butter and lemon rinds together and stirred it with a charred oak stave. There’s a flavor like a combination of green pear and toasted marshmallow, leaving a bit of sweetness on the palate to linger with the creamy oak. Believe it or not, this warm-climate, Central Coast chardonnay actually has some goddamn acidity! I love and require acid in my chardonnays, but at the same time I do like that creaminess, and I’m open to oak influences. This wine really rides that line of maintaining balance while showing some of those classic California traits.

Look, this wine is what it is. Yet, despite its viscosity and bold flavors, it’s not out of whack. At least, not to my palate.

89 points IJB

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Falanghina: A Southern Italian White Shines

Feudi di San Gregorio has long been making some of Campania's best wines. The home of Naples, this region is located on the lower shin bone on the Italian boot, and it's the source of some spectacularly unique and hard-to-pronounce wines. I'm drinking such a wine now. The 2003 Feudi di San Gregorio Falanghina Sannio (Italy, Campania, Sannio). It's made from 100% falanghina — [FA-lan-GHEE-nah] — an ancient indigenous white grape, in the Sannio appellation.

At nine years old, this white wine is showing beautifully. It’s the color of marmalade and apple juice in the glass, with thick, syrupy legs. The aromas change their focus with oxygen and time in the glass, shifting from lanolin, lemon candle wax and honeysuckle to green melon and banana peel. 

Upon first sip, this wine feels thick and powerful. The thickness and density of this white would surprise a lot of people, pleasantly so, I’d wager. But the acid slides in a few seconds later  another surprise  and it begins to feel like you’ve just sucked on a fresh lemon. There’s some serious minerality in this wine as well, like that shot of lemon juice was poured onto a fresh oyster. Combined with that flavor and sensation, hints of peanut shell and toffee carry onto the finish.

Apparently this bottle made the Wine Spectator's Top 100 list back in 2004, albeit 96th place. It's aged very well since then, and I'd give it 88 points. This wine makes me wish I was sitting at some Mediterranean bistro eating Southern Italian squid or clams.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Shot-in-the-Dark Wines - $12 or Less

I’m always trying to get decent wine on the cheap. It’s been a mantra of mine since the wine bug bit me as a 21-year-old, broke-ass writer.

Over the years I’ve found lots of great bottles for less than $20. It's harder to find good wine under $15, and searching for good bottles that cost $12 or less borders on palate masochism. In this price range, I’ve found a lot of quaffable juice, but also some downright nasty vino. I buy up a lot of bargain-priced wines from different sources, paying much attention to the producer, region, vintage and storage conditions of the wine. But I buy such wines knowing that there’s no way to know exactly what I’m going to get in my glass. Especially when dealing with aged wines, there are simply too many variables in play to accurately predict how a wine is going to show. Of course, that’s part of the fun.

To illustrate my point, here are some recent shot-in-the-dark wines I’ve explored in the past few weeks, with varying degrees of success.

2004 Margerum Sauvignon Blanc Purisima Mountain Vineyard (California, Santa Ynez Valley)
An apple juice color in the glass. The aromas are unique, to say the least: honey, oil, grape seeds, melon rind. At first I could barely take a sip of this wine. It was sharp with bitter acid. I mean, it's not like I was expecting much from this wine. If anything, I was expecting an eight-year-old domestic sauvignon blanc to be undrinkable. That green bitterness is really strong at the start, but it slips away after two hours open. And, get this... it turns into a decent wine. There's some green apple and lime flavors, along with some hay. Medium-bodied, with some nougat and wax flavors that remind me of some aged chenin blanc. It’s not totally spent after all. A shot-in-the-dark wine I picked up for $8 with low expectations, it turned out to be a fun wine experience. 85 pts
1999 Homewood Winery Chardonnay Odmann Vineyard (California, Carneros) Well, this was definitely a shot-in-the-dark wine. I bought this $9 bottle with a strange curiosity and no expectation that it would be any good. Well, it wasn't any good. The nose smells like dried paint. I drank this with my parents, who both described it as smelling like a Crimean wine called massandra, and that makes sense because massandra an oxidized and off-dry white wine. The palate tastes sweet and oxidized as well. The acid is still present, and it's actually drinkable. But the brandied raisin flavors are strange, and probably not appealing to any normal human being. Interesting, but not "good" in any sense of the word. Score? I have no freakin' idea... no score
2005 Alma Rosa Pinot Gris La Encantada Vineyard (California, Santa Rita Hills)
Not much on the nose to start, some golden raisins, lemon. On the palate, this wine tastes a bit thin, the fruit a bit faded. This wine was bottled under screw-cap, which could've affected the wine as it aged for seven years. Flavors of apricot and nutshells, but the acid is really emhpasized. It's an odd enough wine to buy and try, and it's intellectually stimulating, but ultimately not a fully enjoyable experience. My girlfriend said, "This tastes like cheap wine that my dad would buy." Maybe this pinot gris had something going when it was released, maybe not. For $10, it was an interesting experience.
70 pts

1996 Parducci Cabernet Sauvignon Vineyard Select (California, Mendocino)
I've been a big fan of Mendocino, CA-based Parducci wines since I visited the winery in 2009. I've been a member of their wine list for a long time and drank many of their wines. So I was excited to find an older estate cabernet sauvignon at auction for a whopping $8. Cranberry-cassis color in the glass. Nose: creamy currants, some subtle dried leaves and oak. On the palate, the tannins are still firm and solid at sixteen years of age. Fresh currant flavors, as well as dried rose petals, vanilla. There is some creamy oak in here, but the flavors are well-integrated. I was really surprised by the power and youth of this wine. Delicious. My mother guessed it as a California cabernet from the aromas alone. I was quite impressed! What a unique find.
89 pts

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

12-Year-Old Riesling Still Going Strong

2001 Dr. Bürklin-Wolf Riesling Burklin Estate (Germany, Pfalz)

I popped this wine with some friends last night and was impressed at how it showed, especially considering I picked it up at auction for $12. Initially, the aromas were a bit subdued, but they really came out after about an hour to show lemon, green apple and quinine. The palate is very sharp, with ripping acid all the way through and lots of minerals. Not much in the way of sweetness, which lets the precise flavors of grapefruit and green apple shine. This wine must've been austere in its youth, because it's still very sharp. It doesn't show much in the way of typical aged riesling flavors (oil, nougat), but it's quite delicious. It would be great with shellfish or salad.

88 points IJB

Friday, April 6, 2012

A Dark and Meaty Aussie "Syrah"

It's not often that I  see an Australian wine labeled "syrah" instead of  "shiraz." But, then again, it's not every day I drink an Australian syrah with this much Old World mystique. By bucking the Australian trend, the winemaker is making a statement: this is not your average Aussie shiraz. And I agree.

This single-vineyard syrah is dark purple colored with thick legs. I poured this bottle into a decanter to get rid of some sediment and give it some air. Initially the aromas were dark and tightly-packed. Over the course of a few hours it started to smell like a Starbucks espresso machine, with these grainy, roasted aromas. There's a really peppery aspect to the aromas as well, like peppered beef. That beef aroma got more prominent over the course of the evening.

On the palate, this wine is dark and intriguing, not loud and obnoxious. I approach most Australian shiraz with a level of caution, always a bit nervous that the wine is going to destroy my throat with oak and pruned fruit. This wine is big, no doubt, but its also beautiful and - Dare I say it? - elegant. The grainy tannins grip the palate from start to finish. The fruit starts off as compact, but after a few hours of air, the wine began expressing pure plum and cranberry fruit. The focus and precision of the flavors is amazing. Blended in with the fruit are intriguing flavors of beef bouillon, pepper-crusted steak and charcoal. There's an Australian richness and density to the fruit, but an homage to the syrahs of France's Northern Rhone Valley, especially with the iron flavor on the finish.

I'd be thrilled to drink this wine again in five more years, because it's still young at nine years of age. 

A completely subjective, nearly meaningless 94 points.

Camus on Liberty and Art

Since my teenage years I’ve been intrigued by the raw power and urgency of Camus’ words, his poetic sensitivity and his dedication to personal and social liberation. I remember reading The Stranger as a 15-year-old and being amazed that a novel could dig down so deep into the human soul. As soon as I was done reading the book, I flipped back to the first page and began reading it again. It was the first any only time I’ve ever done that with a book. Maybe it had something to do with my teenage fascination with self-destruction, but I like to think it was more than that.

It took me until now to get around to reading a collection of Camus’ essays titled Resistance, Rebellion and Death. (Such a subtle title, right?) It’s clear to me now that Camus is not only one of the greatest modern novelists, but also one of the 20th Century’s greatest essayists.

Camus is a man of tremendous intellectual curiosity and moral intelligence. He’s also a true lover of freedom. But he understands that freedom does not come easily, and, once obtained it is constantly vulnerable to threats: “Like all freedom, it is a perpetual risk, an exhausting adventure…” And unlike many so-called libertarians, Camus also understands that “The freedom of each finds its limits in that of others…”

It’s hard to describe the conviction with which Camus writes of liberty. The only writer/philosophers who have expressed a love of liberty with such passion are perhaps Thomas Paine, Martin Luther King and Frederick Douglass.

Camus decries all forms of censorship in every circumstance. Whatever the ends may be, the means cannot include censorship and limits on free expression, even temporarily. Echoing Voltaire, Camus lays out his support for free speech absolutism: “Those who applaud [free speech] only when it justifies their privileges and shout nothing but censorship when it threatens them are not on our side.” Again: “… if you want the happiness of the people, let them speak out and tell what kind of happiness they want and what kind they don’t want!”

Camus is a firm believer in “objective truth,” and a firm believer that those who attempt to destroy truth through oppression and censorship should be called out. It infuriates Camus that men of power, and those who they control, subvert language and art for malicious intent. He makes a distinction between “true art” and the use of artistic methods put to use in the service of tyranny. But Camus is an artistic optimist, a man convinced true art is a force for good in the world: “No great work has ever been based on hatred or contempt. On the contrary, there is no single true work of art that has not in the end added to the inner freedom of each person who has known and loved it.”

To Camus, art is more than just paint on canvas or words strung together: “The aim of art, the aim of a life can only be to increase the sum of freedom and responsibility to be found in every man and in the world.” Art, “by virtue of that free essence I have tried to define, unites whereas tyranny separates. It is not surprising, therefore, that art should be the enemy marked out by every form of oppression.”

Another positive note: “I am tired of criticism, of disparagement, of spitefulness – of nihilism, in short. It is essential to condemn what must be condemned, but swiftly and firmly. On the other hand, one should praise at length what still deserves to be praised. After all, that is why I am an artist, because even the work that negates still affirms something and does homage to the wretched and magnificent life that is ours.”

Well said, sir.

A significant amount of this book is dedicated to the subject of capital punishment. Camus’ argument against execution of individuals by the State is probably the best I’ve read on the topic. It’s a rational and moral argument, not a stuffy, lawyerly one, and I challenge any supporters of capital punishment to read his essay and think about it.

“[Capital punishment] is to the body politic what cancer is to the individual body, with this difference: no one has ever spoken of the necessity of cancer.” Executing a convicted murderer does not serve justice, Camus argues: “this new murder, far from making amends for the harm done to the social body, adds a new blot to the first one.” I won’t lay out his entire argument because he does so with a poetic wit I simply don’t possess. But for anyone interested in criminal justice, this essay is a must-read.

While all the essays in this book are notable and interesting, a couple of them really stuck out. Camus’ essay “The Liberation of Paris” is a beautiful homage to French Resistance writer René Leynaud. Camus praises Leynaud, a devout Christian, for pouring his talents and beliefs into the most meaningful struggle of the time. “Truth,” Camus writes, “needs witnesses.” For Camus, the act of documenting hatred and oppression serves society’s larger goals of decreasing hatred and oppression. The essay is a great foray into the French Resistance and the broader issue of the responsibility of artists and intellectuals to oppose tyranny.

In a brief essay titled “The Unbeliever and Christians” Camus argues (quite convincingly, in my opinion) that Christian doctrine is not necessary in order to understand evil or the ways to reduce it.

His essay on Algeria is politically incisive and moving. It is further proof (as if any were needed) that Camus’ work is relevant today. He describes the moral and political faults of imperialism without neglecting the gritty realities of violence and terrorism. And his discussion of the French-Algeria situation in the 1950s has many parallels in the United States-Afghanistan debacle of today.

Only the coldest of hearts could read this collection of essays and not be moved. This book now has a permanent spot on my bookshelf, and it serves as another example of why Albert Camus is one of my favorite writers. 

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Tasting Wine at Joseph Swan Vineyards

When my girlfriend, brother, sister and I were finished tasting at Copain Winery, I asked the man who poured our wines if he could recommend another winery nearby. I knew we were headed to Merry Edwards later in the afternoon, but we had enough time for another stop. He suggested Joseph Swan, saying they make lighter, more Burgundian-styled wines. That sounded good, so we drove a few miles into Forestville and found the spot.

Joseph Swan is a small, no-frills kind of winery, housed in a barn packed full of barrels, tanks and winemaking equipment. When we arrived, the winery Labrador, who had been splashing around in a nearby pond, ran up to greet us with excited barks. The staff was very friendly and helpful, full of information about Joseph Swan’s vineyard sources and winemaking practices.

The wines I tasted were very diverse, but they all had a common aura, a rustic, hand-made quality that is unfortunately rare in a lot of California wines. Hats off to the people at Copain for recommending this winery and supporting other producers.

Now, the wines…

Near the entrance of the winery, a grandaddy vine.
It's not used for winegrowing, but it's pretty gnarly.
2010 Joseph Swan Vineyards Gewürztraminer Saralee's Vineyard - Russian River Valley
This was one of the more interesting surprises of the whole trip: a single-vineyard, bone-dry gewurtz with a lot of class. Aromas of lychee, white peach and spice. The palate is dry, almost chalky, with pineapple and banana peel flavors. Long finish with lychee nut. The group really liked this wine's unique personality. (88 pts.)

2010 Joseph Swan Vineyards Chardonnay Cuvée de Trois - Russian River Valley
Aromas of yellow raisins and white grapes. The nose is a bit boring, to be honest. The palate shows a hefty dose of plump tropical fruit. It seems quite typical in its style, but it's still a solid chardonnay. (86 pts.)

2010 Joseph Swan Vineyards Viognier Saralee's Vineyard - Russian River Valley
This viognier is a tropical explosion of aromas: honeysuckle, pear and pineapple. The palate is much different, with a strong clover honey flavor along with distinct notes of grass. It's thick, with honey and wax on the finish. The alcohol might bother some, but I enjoyed the density of this viognier. (88 pts.)

2007 Joseph Swan Vineyards Pinot Noir Saralee's Vineyard - Russian River Valley
I'd love to pour this pinot noir blind for some wine nerd friends. I'm willing to bet some would guess it as a pinot from the Willamette Valley, or maybe even Burgundy. It's a clear auburn/cherry color in the glass with medium viscosity. The nose shows fresh wild strawberry and a distinct beef bouillon and broth aroma. Fine tannins for structure. The mix of currant tea and savory beef broth flavors are really interesting and exciting. Sour cherry as well. Medium+ acid makes this easy to sip and a great accompaniment to a lot of foods. (The first thing that comes to mind is beef stew!) Very pure, light and sexy. This is a wine for those who love to slam Russian River pinots as being too fruity and extracted. Joseph Swan does some great things with the Saralee's Vineyard fruit, and this was no exception. (91 pts.)

2009 Joseph Swan Vineyards Pinot Noir Cuvée de Trois - Russian River Valley
For my palate, this pinot was tied with the Saralee's Vineyard 2007. Light cherry color in the glass. Richer fruit on the nose than the Saralee's, with red currant and a streak of minerality. Fresh cherry fruit, bold and bright, along with hints of earthiness. Superb acid and structure. This wine has years ahead of it, but it's so pure and fresh right now. I’m very impressed with the restrained, complex nature of this pinot. (91 pts.)

2006 Joseph Swan Vineyards Zinfandel Trenton Station - Russian River Valley
It's a light red color in the glass, but don't let that fool you. This is a big-ass wine. Juicy red fruit on the nose, gushing cherry and a hint of white pepper. The wine is creamy and juicy on the palate with raspberry, candied cherry and strawberry pie flavors. Those flavors are usually associated with boozed-up zinfandels, but this wine stays balanced and light with smooth tannins and fresh acid. Nice stuff, Joseph Swan! For a six-year-old zinfandel, this is still surprisingly young. Sadly, the winemaker notes, this is the last vintage of this wine because “
the vineyard was sold and the vines are no more.” Damn! (90 pts.)

2006 Joseph Swan Vineyards Zinfandel Stellwagen - Sonoma Valley
What a crazy/interesting zinfandel. Auburn/red color in the glass. The nose shows stewed cherry and freshly-cracked black pepper, along with a savory mushroom aroma. On the palate, this wine is really crazy. It starts off with sweet cherry and caramel (there’s some residual sugar in here, adding to the richness and sweetness). But then flavors of pork roast and peppered steak rush in. I really like the combination of sweet and savory flavors in this wine. My sister Bekah summed it up quite well: "This is the weirdest zinfandel I've ever tasted." Good thing I'm weird. (88 pts.)

The winery has posted a lot of great pictures of Saralee’s Vineyard here. If you’re ever in Sonoma and looking a laid-back and rustic wine experience, this is the place. And just check out their prices! Joseph Swan may put out some of the bargains in the Russian River Valley.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

California Bubbles at Iron Horse Vineyards

During my trip to Sonoma last month, my brother Zeke and I got up at dawn and drove to a remote beach break on the Sonoma Coast called Salmon Creek. We suited up, forged the creek and paddled out into the cold water. The waves were pounding and powerful, and the conditions were, to say the least, epic. By noon the winds had changed and the conditions had crapped out, but we were cold and exhausted anyway. We had the afternoon to spend bumming around Sonoma, so I suggested visiting Iron Horse Vineyards, a well-known producer of sparkling (and still) wine located in Sonoma's Green Valley appellation. 

During my visit, vineyard workers were busy
tying cordons of young vines to the trellises.
The winery is hidden at the end of a one-lane road, tucked between wavy hills of vines. As we arrived the sky turned cloudy and the winds cold, but the beauty of the area was unmistakable. When we pulled up, I was still cold from surfing and I realized the Iron Horse tasting room is actually outside, under a kind of lean-to. Luckily, it blocked the wind and the heating machines hanging above were warm, which helped me restore my core body temperature.

The winery has a decent tasting setup, offering a flight of sparkling wines, a flight of white wines, and a "Reserve" flight that included both sparkling and still wines on the high-end of Iron Horse's spectrum. My brother and I went for the reserve tasting, and were were both glad we did. All of the wines in the flight cost more than $50, so they're not exactly cheap. That said, the tasting was a lot of fun. We had a great time sipping our generous pours, warming up and taking in the view.

I'd definitely recommend this winery to people traveling in Sonoma, especially lovers of the bubbly. And who doesn't love bubbly?  

2007 Iron Horse Vineyards Brut X - Green Valley
The first sparkling wine of the trip, and it was a really impressive one. Very pale straw color, almost translucent. Very yeasty nose, with lemon-lime and minerals. Razor sharp and very focused on the palate. Sea shell, salt and lime zest flavors streak across an extremely dry palate. You could've fooled me that this was Champagne. I was begging for oysters with this sparkler. Zeke really loved this as well. (91 pts.)

2007 Iron Horse Vineyards Fairy Tale Cuvée - Green Valley
Apparently, this is the wine that Iron Horse serves on Disney cruises and resorts, so I wasn't expecting much. To my surprise, this wine was quite nice. It's a gorgeous salmon color. Wild strawberries and fresh biscuits on the nose. Tangy acid on the palate with a burst of white cherry and a rush of minerals and ruby red grapefruit. I was expecting something sweet and fruity, but this is much more my style. (87 pts.)

I love it when wineries display artwork,
especially when it's a funk-tastic sculpture.
2009 Iron Horse Vineyards Chardonnay Native Yeast - Green Valley
This chardonnay is only made in certain vintages, when the native vineyard yeasts do the fermentation job without any help from introduced yeasts. Aromatically, this wine is both rich and lively, with lots of lemon and tangy grapefruit as well as cream. The palate starts off with a rush of acid, then creamy pears swoop in, as well as grapefruit candies and Smarties. Very complex, showing whipped honey and melon rind as well. Acid lingers on the refreshing finish. Very nice. (91 pts.)

2010 Iron Horse Vineyards Pinot Noir Estate Bottled - Green Valley
This pinot is heavenly. Bright ruby color. Smooth black cherries on the nose, an aroma that reminds me of those black cherries you come across in the best black cherry ice cream. There's some cherry cordial as well and rose petal. The palate starts off with tangy acid and smooth black cherries. Subtle tannins and pure fruit make this one elegant pinot noir. It's pretty much all fruit flavors, but it's so complex as the wine graces the palate. Tangy acid carries the finish, which ends with just a hint of that gorgeous sweet black cherry. This was one of Zeke's favorite pinots of the trip and it was right up there on my favorites list as well. (92 pts.)

2010 Iron Horse Vineyards Pinot Noir Russian River - Russian River Valley
This pinot was darker in color than the 2010 Green Valley Estate. Lovely aromas of raspberry jam and smoke, then there's this carmelized sugar aroma that reminds me of creme brulee and cloves mixed together. Aromatically, this wine is serious stuff, and I'm loving it. Significant tannins, but they feel plush. The fruit tastes sweet, but not goopy. Still, this is a much bigger pinot than the Green Valley. Finishes like a hedonist, with vanilla and chocolate-covered cherries. That hint of clove sneaks in on the finish. (90 pts.)

A 2010 Northern Rhone White Packs Punch

2010 Pierre Gonon St. Joseph Blanc "Les Oliviers" (France, Northern Rhone, St. Joseph)

Pierre Gonon produces relatively small amounts of St. Joseph reds (made from syrah) and St. Joseph blanc (made from marsanne grapes, although I think there's some roussanne in here as well.) The red "Les Oliviers" bottling is superb and can age for decades. I tasted a 1989 last year and it was beautiful, so I was obviously excited to try the white wine for the first time.

This 2010 wine is still in its incubation phase, very young and powerful but showing incredible potential. It's bright golden color in the glass  with very thick legs. The aromas are initially tight and compact, and this wine took a good three hours to open up and show cantaloupe rind, honey, oil and nougat on the nose. This white wine is very dense on the palate, leaving an almost tannic feel. Dense, grippy melon fruit, nougat and oil flavors bounce back and forth, but there's also acid and a shot of racy minerals which keeps the fruit from feeling goopy or baked. This is a beautiful wine, but this needs at least three-to-five years to show its true potential, and another ten to show the lovely secondary flavors that are packed in here.

Thanks to a good friend for opening this!

92 pts IJB

Monday, April 2, 2012

Another Great Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

2009 Failla Sonoma Coast Estate Pinot Noir

This was my first time tasting a wine from this producer, and I'm already a big fan. This wine shows lovely Sonoma Coast aromas of sweet cherries, brambles, a hint of smoke and lavender. The palate displays silky tannins, bright fruit and an overall sense of focus and balance that is really attractive. Rich cherries and just a bit of mocha on the finish. Very good stuff. I ordered this bottle at Ripple in DC and it went really well with a delicious pork tenderloin dish.

91 pts IJB