Friday, August 24, 2012

A Night of (Mostly) Rhone Wines

Ah, the wines of the Rhone Valley: Northern Rhone syrah; the grenache, syrah and mourvedre (GSM) blends of Châteauneuf-du-Pape; viognier, roussanne and marsanne, those big and bold white varietals. Rhone Valley wines have always been my favorite in the world. Suffice it to say I was excited when some wine nerd friends and I decided to have a tasting dinner focused on Rhone varieties. The theme of the dinner was loose: bring a wine from the Rhone Valley or a wine from somewhere else made from a Rhone grape variety or a Rhone-style blend. The result was a great tasting of diverse wines.

The wines were consumed along with a lovely mix of rich Italian-inspired food at Dino's in Washington, DC's Cleveland Park neighborhood. It's long been one of my favorite restaurants, and a long-time gathering place for my wine crew. The food was spectacular, as always, and the service top-notch. I got a three-course meal, which started with Dino's house charcuterie platter containing lamb tongue, "truck patch pig head terrine," Tuscan liver spread and a wild boar and mustard pate. The compelxity of flavors and textures was crazy. For my main course I ordered my favorite dish: a pappardella ai cinghiale bianco, which is a lovely pasta served with ground wild boar, onion, wine and shaved pecorino. To finish it off I had a homemade ice cream topped with fresh espresso.

Now, to the wines...

The Whites

1990 Domaine du Viking Vouvray Tendre - France, Loire Valley, Vouvray
Okay, this isn't a Rhone white but it was a welcome addition to the tasting. The cork was crusted on top, but it came out without a problem. It was soaked almost to the end, but the wine inside was still lively. What a unique nose on this chenin blanc. Apricot, oil, white tea, apple sauce and, here’s the kicker, a distinct note of arugula and garlic. Crazy stuff. The palate has nice plump feel to it, almost waxy. Flavors of candied orange rind, lamp oil and a pungent flavor of green onion and arugula, no kidding. There’s a hint of sweetness that makes this wine easy to drink and fresh acid for balance. Quite nice, although clearly a wine for the open-minded. (87 pts.)

2004 Alban Vineyards Roussanne Estate - California, Central Coast, Edna Valley
I opened a bottle of this wine in March and absolutely loved it. I figured it would be fun to share another bottle with the group and see what they thought. I love the cloudy pineapple-copper color and the thick legs on this wine. You know this is gonna be a big wine just by looking at it. Aromas of pineapple, peanut shell, chestnut, mango and wax. (Is there such a thing as a mango candle?) Plump and rich on the palate, full of nutty flavors and tropical fruit, accented with honey and brown sugar. The acid, which tingles the palate, saves this wine from being too big and overdone. There’s some oak here (the wine is aged in two-thirds new French oak) but somehow it’s integrated. Age has done some really interesting things to this wine. The wine was even better the next day. (92 pts.)

2007 Kenneth Volk Viognier Live Oak Vineyard - California, Central Coast, Paso Robles
Vibrant light gold color with fat legs. This viognier bursts with aromas of white peach, lemon zest, white flowers and fresh biscuits. On first sip, it’s evident we’re in California. Huge and fat, like oil on the palate, with flavors of honey, peach, mixed nuts and toast. This wine is very big and viscous, and the oak is a little too much for my palate. The alcohol burns a bit. I could see a lot of people loving this, but it’s not exactly my style. I like this producer a lot, and at least they warn you with “oak” right there in the name of the vineyard. (85 pts.)

A Blind Red

2005 Bodegas Dos Victorias Toro Gran Elías Mora - Spain, Castilla y León, Toro
This was poured blind before we moved into the Rhone wines. Bright purple color, showing a bit of age in the sour cherry-tinged rims. Dark, brooding aromas of sweet plum, cassis, clove and a hint of tobacco. The palate is packed with tight tannins and sweet cassis and blueberry fruit. A little low on the acid. The dark fruit is mixed with toasty oak and a distinct flavor of clove tobacco. My guess: a Toro with 5+ years on it. I don't mean to brag, but I was pretty excited that I nailed this one. This wine probably needs a decant or a few more years to unravel. (90 pts.)

(Mostly) Rhone Reds

2000 Domaine de la Charbonnière Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée Mourre des Perdrix - France, Southern Rhône, Châteauneuf-du-Pape
I was pleasantly surprised by this wine. It was a good Chateauneuf to start with, being elegant and fresh. Ruby color, tinged with beef broth. Aromas of sour cherry, wild raspberry, tree bark and a bit of tomato paste. Silky and light on the palate, with fine tannins and fresh acid. Tangy, snappy red fruit, black pepper and charcoal flavors glide over the palate. Very nice, restrained wine. Almost Burgundian. (88 pts.)

1999 M. Chapoutier St. Joseph Les Granits - France, Northern Rhône, St. Joseph
Northern Rhone syrah, now we're talking. Vibrant, clear plum color in the glass. The aromas are elegant and complex: rhubarb, red currant, bacon fat, rosemary... just beautiful. On day two it was even more elegant and exotic. On the palate, this St. Joseph is everything I love about Northern Rhone syrah: solid tannic grip, fresh acid, and a beam of minerals and iron. Flavors of red plum fruit, grilled steak, a bit of charcoal. Lovely finish with hints of red licorice. This is still going strong. (91 pts.)

2001 Paul Jaboulet Aîné Hermitage La Chapelle - France, Northern Rhône, Hermitage
I can't deny it, I love this wine. The aromas are seductive and complex: lots of fresh red cherry fruit, a mix of green and black olives, spices like bay leaf, white pepper and potpourri. I poured myself a glass and smelled it over the course of the evening, and every ten minutes it was shifting aromas, evolving in its complexity. On the palate, this wine is pure silk. The wine coats the palate with fine tannins, but the acid is so fresh, keeping the wine elegant. Amazing complexity of flavors: crushed berries, grilled herbs, cured meat, olive tapenade and smoke. Long finish. Superb stuff. I'd love to re-taste this in five more years. (95 pts.)

2005 Patrick Lesec Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée Bargeton - France, Southern Rhône, Châteauneuf-du-Pape
I tasted this wine alongside the 2006. The 2005 was a darker purple color than the 2006. The aromas are compact and primary, with plum skins, blackberries and toast. Grippy tannins on the palate. This wine is big and opulent, showing sweeter fruit than I was expecting. Gushing raspberries, sweet plums and a flavor that reminds me of an herbal liqueur. I'd like a bit more acid in this wine, but the fruit and savory flavors are delicious and pure. Very nice stuff. (90 pts.)

2006 Patrick Lesec Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée Bargeton - France, Southern Rhône, Châteauneuf-du-Pape
I tasted this alongside the 2005, and I know it goes against conventional wisdom, but I liked this better. Much more old world in its approach, with more acid and earthiness. A bit brighter ruby colored in the glass. Aromas of raspberries, rosemary, loam and minerals. Silky on the palate, with fine tannins and fresh fruit. Flavors of fig paste, cherry, rhubarb and licorice. Cocoa powder and iron linger on the finish. This wine was superb with the pasta and wild boar ragu sauce at Dino's. I'd say the group was split between those who liked the 2006 and the 2005 more. Both wines are very well-made, it's just a matter of personal preference. (92 pts.)

2007 Domaine de l'Edre Côtes du Roussillon Villages l'Edre 
France, Languedoc Roussillon, Côtes du Roussillon Villages
Wow, this wine is a thick purple color. Aromas of candied plum, baker's chocolate and sweet spices. A bit of smoke and prune aromas came out with air. This wine is like creme de cassis on the palate, just enormous and thick. The plum and fig fruit tastes ultra-ripe, almost bruised. Menthol lingers on the finish. This is a very modern wine, especially in the hot 2007 vintage, so don't expect subtlety here. This wine announces its presence, and it's just a bit too bombastic for me. It's undeniably delicious, however. I think a few more years to settle down might be a good idea. (89 pts.)

2007 Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe Châteauneuf-du-Pape La Crau - France, Southern Rhône, Châteauneuf-du-Pape
This is one of those wines that will reward years of patience. Bright cherry fruit and a medley of herb aromas, but the nose is so primary and young, very hesitant. The palate is full of pure fruit and silky tannins. Snappy cherries, wild raspberries, the fruit is very creamy. It's very tasty, but I think time will do wonders in the way of bringing out secondary flavors and more complexity. (90 pts.)

2006 Jean-Michel Gerin Côte-Rôtie Les Grandes Places - France, Northern Rhône, Côte-Rôtie
I tasted this wine with importer Peter Weygandt in 2010, and wrote: “Spectacular stuff, but surely one to put down for a while.” Well, time has done wonders for this wine, although it still has a long life ahead of it. The aromas have opened up a lot more, showing red and black plums, black olives, herbs and a hint of smoke. Incredible aromas. It's got a palate showing a mix of crushed red berries, bacon and herbs, again, everything I love about Northern Rhone syrah. I am in love with the intense mineral, granite and charcoal combo in this wine. The acid keeps the grippy tannins in check. With time, this wine began opening up and expressing serious complexity. Delicious stuff, but no reason to hurry if you've got a bottle. (93+ pts.)

New World Reds

2005 Pax Cuvée Moriah - California, Sonoma County
This wine is the love child of California and Chateauneuf du Pape. It’s a blend of 75% Grenache, 14% Syrah, 10% Mourvedre, and 1% Roussanne. While it wasn't the best new world wine in the tasting, it was incredible, and we all had a blast talking about its quirks and complexities. Bright cherry color. The first aroma I notice is sweet cherry and cola , similar to what I find in a lot of Sonoma Coast pinot noirs, but it opens up with air and shows raspberries, grilled herbs and a hint of roasted red pepper. A lovely herbal/menthol aroma comes out with time. Fine tannins on the palate, and a very elegant approach. Sour cherry fruit and raspberries, accented with earthy flavors of beef broth, smoke and pickle juice. It has the feel of a well-aged Chateauneuf du Pape, but with a California purity of fruit flavors. This is in a perfect spot right now, and I'm glad I got to taste it. Another demonstration of Pax's delicious and thought-provoking wine. (92 pts.)

2004 Massena Shiraz The Eleventh Hour - Australia, Barossa Valley
This was the only Australian wine of the tasting, and it was a welcome and very unique addition to the tasting. Ruby-plum color with very thick legs. At first the aromas struck me as strange, like a combination of huckleberry jam, IHOP’s raspberry pancake topping and pickle juice. There’s a serious hint of pine resin and herbs on the nose that I love. Again, kind of weird, but I like that stuff. Aging has turned this into a smooth and delicious wine, with flavors of black cherry jam, brown sugar and vanilla. I would’ve liked some more earthy flavors, but overall this is a really solid package that’s in an ideal drinking window. (89+ pts.)

2006 Cayuse Syrah Cailloux Vineyard - Washington, Columbia Valley, Walla Walla Valley
Wow, what a tremendous syrah. Beautiful and vibrant purple color, clear and bright. I believe this had been opened for a while before the tasting, because it showed instant aromatic complexity: sweet violets, rose petals, blueberry. There's a hint of green olive on the nose, and also some sweetness, like creme brulee. Simply captivating to sniff. On the palate, we're talking tannins made of the finest silk. Pure flavors of blueberry and fig paste are backed up with charcoal, coffee and olive tapenade. The complexity is absurd! I took like half a page of notes on this wine, but I'll stop now. It's awesome. Cayuse is the cult syrah of Washington State, and for damn good reason. For years this wine in particular has garnered crazy high scores from the big reviewers. The 2006 vintage was rated 98 points from the Wine Advocate’s Jay Miller, if that means anything. And it ain’t cheap. If you can find it you’ll pay maybe $150. This wine follows Cote-Rotie’s tradition of co-fermenting a small amount of viognier with the syrah. This wine was blended with 4% viognier, which adds to its aromatic complexity. I imagine this will improve for another ten years. Kinda epic. (95+ pts.)

2006 Favia Rompecabezas - California, Sierra Foothills, Amador County
This red blend (43% grenache, 37% mourvedre and 20% syrah) comes from California’s Amador County. In a tasting with so many wines, this one grabs you by the neck. It's a massive, bold wine with aromas of black cherry, dried rose petals, iron. The palate is rich and expressive, with grippy tannins. The fruit tastes very sweet to me, like it's been boiled down to a concentrate. There's a milk chocolate and vanilla aspect to this wine, which lingers on the finish. I can see a lot of people absolutely swooning for this wine, and I'm not ranking on the wine. It's a bit too much for me, especially at the dinner table. I'd love to sip this in the winter, late at night with some chocolate, and I'd probably be more excited about it. (87 pts.)

Last But Not Least, a Sauternes

2005 Château Rieussec - France, Bordeaux, Sauternes
Thanks, Tim, for bringing this. Nothing like a Sauternes to the evening. Obviously young, and it will get so much better with time, but the boldness and deliciousness of this wine is serious. It smells like white flowers, apricot, potpourri, coconut shampoo... just endless aromas. Very dense and rich on the palate, loaded with apricot, honey, creme brulee, nougat. The tangy acid provides freshness. I loved it, but this wine is capable of much more in the future. (94 pts.)

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