jamie goode's wine blog

Monday, December 21, 2009

A high-end Cabernet from Clark Smith

I've profiled Californian winemaker Clark Smith on wineanorak before (here). He's an interesting person. Often controversial, frequently funny, and almost always worth listening to. This is one of his wines, and I really like it.

Wine Smith Crucible Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 Napa Valley, California
A really intriguing wine. It’s had a 42 month elevage, and knowing Clark Smith there will have been a bit of alcohol reduction and some microoxygenation thrown into the process. It has a very fresh, focused nose with spice, a hint of oak, and blackcurrant and red cherry fruit. The palate is concentrated and intense with firm tannins, a fresh fruit profile that’s more red than black, and a slightly drying finish. It has some spicy, earthy complexity, and it’s a really sophisticated, savoury, potentially ageworthy wine. I like the freshness and savouriness, something you don't always find in high-end Napa wines. 92/100

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Sunday, December 20, 2009

A wine movie: bottle shock

Picked up a copy of Bottle Shock in Blockbusters the other day, and watched it over the space of two nights.

It's so good to see another film about wine. It's just a shame it wasn't better.

The film is (loosely) based on the celebrated 1976 tasting, organized by Stephen Spurrier, which pitted the best of France against the best of California, blind. Guess who won?

I enjoyed bits of it. I really liked the visual appeal of Napa as a wine region. Almost worth watching for this alone. The film makers really captured the essence of Napa wine country - it was less Highway 29, and more Silverado Trail. It can't have been easy filming and making it look like 1976, but they managed this bit well.

But the characterization was really poor. This was a mass-appeal Hollywood feel-good film, and I suspect they took a lot of liberties with the truth. There was a high corny quotient, and cheese to spare.

Despite all the problems, though, it's still quite an enjoyable watch by Hollywood standards. After a slow start, there's enough here to hold the attention, and while it could have been so much better, it's not a total disaster of a film. It's quite fun. If I was Stephen Spurrier, I'd be quite flattered that (a) someone had made a film about my tasting, and (b) Alan Rickman was playing me. [Even if I was involved in a competing film project on the same subject.]

Reference: There's a really good Wikipedia page on the Judgement of Paris. It gives all the judges' individual scores. I didn't realize that Aubert de Villaine was one of the judges, and it was interesting to see how they ranked the wines.

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Tuesday, December 08, 2009

An icon a day: Screaming Eagle 1996

Screaming Eagle 1996 Napa Valley, California
This is not a big, spoofy wine. It's actually amazingly elegant and refined. Beautiful nose is aromatic and floral with spicy sweet cherry and plum fruit. Integrated, harmonious and profound. The palate is really elegant and smooth with open, midweight fruit and perfectly integrated oak. It's just a beautifully expressive wine that's hard to spit, combining softness and openness with real interest. 96/100 (tasted at The Sampler)

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Monday, December 07, 2009

Two brilliant new world Chardonnays

New world Chardonnay is a relatively uncool category for wine geeks. But styles and fashions are changing, and there are some that I really like. Here are two very good, equivalently priced Chardonnays that I really enjoyed. They're both from the 2006 vintage and are ageing beautifully, with good balance.

Clos du Val Chardonnay 2006 Carneros, Napa Valley
13.5% alcohol. Very fresh aromatic nose with subtle toasty notes, bright lemon and melon fruit, as well a subtle creaminess. The palate has a lovely savoury toasty streak to the lively lemon and just-ripe peach and white plum fruit. Complex with a hint of spice on the finish. Fresh, broad and focused, this is a lovely wine with great balance. 92/100 (£18.99 Hennings Wines, £16.50 Caviste)

Penfolds Bin 311 Tumbarumba Chardonnay 2006 Australia
13.5% alcohol. Lovely bright fresh fruit-driven nose with lemon oil, grapefruit, white peach and pineapple notes. The palate is fresh but rounded with focused bright fruit and subtle toasty, spicy warmth. Fresh, bright and developing in a lovely restrained style with good complexity and very little obvious oak influence. 93/100 (£17.99 Waitrose, Tesco.com)

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Saturday, November 21, 2009

Brief Napa reports: Trefethen

My second full day in Napa began at Trefethen, in the Oak Knoll district. It was another beautiful morning, and I was meeting with Jon Ruel – like me, another lapsed scientist (he'd done research on plant ecology in a previous life). John was a great host.

Trefethen is a large family-owned property of 440 acres of vineyard, planted on the valley floor. There's also a 40 acre property not far from the estate in the hills, called Hillspring. While the valley floor estate looks like one big vineyard, there are some quite significant differences in the soils. The more gravelly bits from alluvial fans are better suited to Cabernet, while Chardonnay prefers the more fertile sections with deeper clay loam soils. There's also a fair bit of Riesling here (some was still on the vine with botrytis, for making a sweet wine), as well as some Pinot Noir that is sold to sparkling producers.

The Hillspring property, tucked into the hills, has more rocky, less fertile soils and is also warmer by a few degrees. It's really beautiful.

Sustainability is a big issue for John, and he's working hard to make the vineyards as naturally farmed as possible. As well as a large compost heap, there's a large array of 572 solar panels supplying 20% of the winery's needs.

The wines? They're solidly good. The Riesling is attractive, fresh and lime, and the Chardonnay is restrained and appealing, with a light touch of oak. The Merlot is well defined and supple, while the Cabernet is a bit richer, but still made in a bright, digestible and fruit-focused style. There's no hint of over-ripeness or excess here, and the wines are better for it. The 2005 Reserve is largely from the Hillspring property and shows lovely rich aromatics with a concentrated, ripe forward palate. It's a big wine, but it shows restraint with it.

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Friday, November 20, 2009

Brief Napa reports: Lagier-Meredith at Bottega

Americans like to eat dinner early. When I arrived at Bottega for dinner with Steve Lagier and Carole Meredith, some people we already finishing their main courses, and it was just 6.30 pm.

Husband and wife team Steve and Carole began their small Mount Veeder vineyard back in the late 1980s, but were both at the time gainfully employed elsewhere, Steve as a winemaker with Mondavi and Carole as a professor at University of California Davis. Carole was the researcher responsible for showing that Zinfandel actually hails from Croatia, among other things.

The first thing they had to do was repair the damage done by the previous owner, who had cut down lots of trees but left large root fragments in the soil. These can transmit root fungus to vines, so Steve and Carole needed to comb the soil to remove them all, and then plant cover crop, before establishing the new vines. The first vines were planted in 1994, and rather unusually for Napa the choice was Syrah.

Four acres of Syrah are planted, at an altitude of 400 metres. A little Mondeuse Noir has just been added. Steve and Carole do everything themselves, including viticulture and winemaking. The wines are aged in used barrels bought from Saintsbury.

We tried the 2005 and 2001 Syrahs, and both were utterly fantastic: bright, focused, a bit peppery, with lovely purity and precision. These are ageworthy wines that resemble more the northern Rhone than typical Californian Syrah. I love them, and for $48 retail, they are (by Napa standards at least) really good value.

Bottega really impressed. It's a restaurant owned by TV chef Michael Chiarello, and the food is beautifully executed modern Italian based on excellent ingredients, not over-elaborately prepared. We began with a creamy mozarella burrata with butternut squash, mushrooms and balsamic caviar that was just stellar. I then had a beautiful roast octopus dish, a near-perfect duck gnocci (pictured), and rich, tender short rib with a polenta side. As an added benefit, this seriously good restaurant, with its assured service, has a generous wine mark-up of just 10% on retail prices.

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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Brief Napa reports: Corison

Corison took me by surprise a bit: it's a smaller operation than I had been expecting, and the wines were made in a style I love: the antithesis of the big, in-yer-face, points chasing excess. Cathy Corison wasn't around (she was in a plane at the time), but I was ably hosted by Maurey Feaver. We tasted and lunched on the balcony of the top floor of the winery, warmed by the late autumn sun, and looking across to the Mayacamas Range and Spring Mountain.

Cathy chooses to make the wines in a more restrained, ageworthy style than many here. She picks a little earlier, and so doesn't have to add acid. As well as coming from the Kronos vineyard around the winery, grapes are sourced from other vineyards from this west side of the valley floor, plus some mountain fruit.

A vertical of Corison Cabernet Sauvignon from 1998-2002 showed how well these wines age. Indeed, they positively need age: the current release 2006 is tight, tannic and brooding, only hinting at what is to come. They are fantastic, pure, structured, ageworthy wines, and with the library releases the same price as the current release ($70), I'd suggest that the remaining bottles of 1998 are one of the Valley's great bargains.

The temptation for writers is sometime to praise certain wines for what they are not. In this case, I'd reassure you I'm not just plugging Corison because the wines are not made in the big point-chasing spoofulated style, but because they actually have complexity and character as well as restraint.

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Brief Napa reports: Saintsbury

For my next visit I was off to Carneros, the cooler-climate bit of Napa at the south of the valley, where the influence of breezes from the San Francisco bay are more keenly felt. This is where Pinot Noir and Chardonnay thrive, and Saintsbury was my destination.

David Graves (above) was waiting for me when I arrived, and we had a broad-ranging discussion and tasted some nice wines. David and his business partner have been making wine here since 1981, and have established a good reputation.

The vineyard is planted in a lyre system, which works well for Pinot Noir. 'It's like a giant bonsai project', quips David. They've stopped tilling the vineyards because they want to avoid compaction, and they use straw and compost, too. Irrigation is now managed much more carefully using pressure bombs to look at water stress in the vines.

There's a huge solar panel array (above) next to the vineyard that generates 85 kw/h. It cost $991 000, but with subsidies from the state and a complex sale leaseback financial arrangement, it's not that much more expensive than the original electricity costs. And it powers the winery completely. 'I obsess about sustainability as it relates to climate change,' reveals David.

Saintsbury is best known for Pinot Noir, but also makes some fantastic Chardonnay. The Brown Ranch 2006 is particularly impressive, showing restraint, complexity and minerality. Beautifully expressive, this will age well.

The Garnet Pinot Noir 2008 is one of the wine world's great bargains at $20. Made since 1983, it is a selection of the lighter, fresher lots that enter the winery, and shows lovely fruit.

The Carneros Pinot Noir is a bit more meaty and dense. All the Pinots here show a family resemblance, but the single vineyard lots also show some site differences. They're rich an d fruit-forward, but elegant with it. I found it hard to choose between the Lee Vineyard, Toyon Farm and Stanly Ranch, but they are all superb wines. I was less taken by the outlier: the Anderson Valley (Mendocino) 'Cerise', which is fresher with bright herby cherry fruit, but lacks the smooth elegance of the Carneros wines. Perhaps my favourite wine is the expressive yet powerful Brown Ranch Pinot Noir 2007.

2007 is the first vintage made since the winery was expanded, with 12 new open-top fermentors adding to the capacity for making small lots.

David's theme is that while terroir is important winemakers should have a point of view. 'Any winemaker worth their salt is trying to construct a point of view and present it to the drinker,' he argues. 'Winemaking is an amazingly human enterprise.' I agree with him.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Brief Napa reports: Schramsberg

Schramsberg is my second visit. On a spellbindingly crisp, sunny morning I meet with Keith Hock, the winemaker here. Schramsberg reeks of history. When Jack and Jamie Davies brought the property in 1965 it was pretty much abandoned, and they decided to make wine here again. But they made an interesting decision. They saw that the 20 or so wineries in the valley at the time were all making table wines, and to carve out a niche, they decided to focus on sparkling wine.

The first vintage was done at Charles Krug (using Chenin Blanc) which was where the Mondavis were at the time – before Robert had struck out on his own. The Davies decided to replant their property with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and became the first producer in the USA to make traditional method sparkling wine from the classic Champagne varieties.

Now the large hillside property (250 acres with 50 acres of vineyards), doesn't produce grapes for sparkling wines: instead, grapes from 95 different vineyard blocks farmed by 45 different growers are used. 1300 tons were crushed in 2009.

In addition to the sparkling wines, a J Davies Cabernet Sauvignon is also made here.
Keith took me through the cellars where we tried quite a few base wines (as in base for sparkling, not 'base' in the other sense), as well as some stunning reserve wines. A quarter of the wines here are fermented in barrel. 'We like the richness, the mouthfeel and the texture we get from barrels,' says Keith. All barrels are about three years old, or older, and around 60 are brought into the cellar each year. Reserve wines are aged in larger puncheons (500 litres).

The tasting of bottled wines showed that Keith is making some very serious fizz here. Blanc de Blancs 2006 is complex, fresh and lemony, while the Blanc de Noirs 2006 has more fruitiness and purity. J Schram 2001 is the flagship wine, and it's really complex and focused. The Reserve 2001 is a high end Pinot-dominated blend with lively, intense fruit and both the Brut Rose 2006 and the J Schram Rose 2000 are very successful, dry, complex roses. We also tried the Schramsberg 1992 Reserve 'Napa Valley Champagne', which is rich, complex, very fruity and bold. I rated all the wines highly and would be delighted to drink them.

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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Brief Napa reports: Cain

I arrived at San Francisco airport on a gorgeous late autumn day, just after 2 pm. After clearing homeland security and picking up a hire car, it was already 3.15 pm – travelling with just hand luggage, something I was very proud of, hadn't really saved me any time. According to my schedule I was supposed to be at my first visit, Cain, by 4.30pm, which wasn't going to happen, even given a nice steady drive out of town. Oh well.

This was to be my first visit to Napa, and so by the time I crossed the Oakland Bay Bridge, I was getting excited. The sun was dipping, and my only cause for regret was that it would be dark by the time I got to Spring Mountain, where Cain are located, and so I'd miss the views. It's about a 90 minute drive to the town of Napa on a good run, and the vineyards begin as you leave the town limits.

I called ahead to let Chris and Katie Howell at Cain know my progress. Very kindly they offered to pick me up from my accommodation, which turned out to be a lovely cottage at Cakebread Cellars just south of St Helena. In my jet-lagged state, not having to negotiate a windy mountain road was a real relief.

Their home is idyllically situated at the top of Spring Mountain. Even though it was dark, we could see the general layout of the valley, and over a ridge we could see to Sonoma. Katie was cooking – she'd spent the last year training in chef school, so the food was close to perfection. This was a really good start to the trip.

Chris Howell (above) is an interesting, thoughtful person, and this is reflected in his wines. Cain Cuvee NV6 is a Merlot-dominated blend of two vintages and is fresh and elegant. 'I think Napa Valley Cabernet is stereotyped as being very oaky, very ripe and high in alcohol', says Chris. 'The goal with Cuvee is to get a lighter style, although this is all in context.' It's picked a little less ripe and extracted less.

Cain Five 1996 is a really thrilling wine, with intense, savoury, spicy character and just a hint of animal. The purist might call this as bretty, but it's definitely good brett. It reminds me a bit of Trevallon, but maybe a bit more refined and focused. Cain Five 2005 is beautifully focused and structured, and I really like it. Cain Concept 'The Benchland' 2005 is poured by Chris to compare with Five – this is from the valley floor, as opposed to the mountain vineyards. It's sweeter and purer, but perhaps a little less intense and compelling.

Cain make proper wine. I was impressed.

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Monday, November 16, 2009

More from Napa

Another quick stop in St Helena library, sandwiched between appointments. Last night had a fantastic dinner with Steve Lagier and Carole Meredith at the wonderful Bottega in Yountville. This morning I was at Trefethen and Trinchero, and now I'm off to Grgich Hills, which is probably the world's largest biodynamic vineyard.

The weather continues to be fantastic, and Napa is truly beautiful at this time of year. This was an unexpected and welcome surprise. Must dash...

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Friday, October 16, 2009

Two from Gallo

Should I just ignore giant brands such as California's largest, E&J Gallo? Or are big brands something that wine writers should comment on?

Of course, Gallo is just one brand of many (c. 60) in the E&J Gallo portfolio, but as a company, they probably crush more grapes than the entire Australian wine industry, and are the second largest wine company in the world (if you count Constellation as a single wine company). Size is only hinted at on their website (gallo.com), where they mention that they employ 4600 people. Production is around 60 million cases a year.

Here are my notes on two Gallo wines. They sell very well in the UK, but I can't help feeling that punters could buy much tastier wines than these for £6, if they'd leave the comfort zone of a familiar brand. The Chardonnay is nicer than the Cabernet Sauvignon.

Gallo Family Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 California
13% alcohol. Why do I dislike this wine? It’s really not because it says ‘Gallo’ on the label (the wine company that many love to hate, simply because it is so big). Rather, it is because it has a superficial attractiveness, with sweet red berry fruit, and then as you look closer you find a green, aggressively herbal streak hidden underneath all the confected, jammy fruit. It’s both over-ripe and green at the same time, and I find it a bit sickly. But it is certainly drinkable. 74/100 (£5.99 just about everywhere)

Gallo Family Vineyards Chardonnay 2008 California
13% alcohol. A ripe, almost off-dry fruity white wine with hints of butter and toast alongside the smooth peach, grape and pear fruit. Simple and monodimensional, but clean and correct. An accessible, easy drinking wine – perhaps a stepping stone from Liebfraumilch to drier styles of white wine? No rough edges. 79/100 (£5.99 just about everywhere)

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Sunday, August 30, 2009

Fume Blanc

The late Robert Mondavi was famous for many things, among them creating a new white wine style. The year was 1966, and his idea was to oak age Sauvignon Blanc and call it Fumé Blanc. It was a hit, and now this name is also used by other producers for similarly styled versions of this variety. Normally, Sauvignon works best unoaked, but the estate Fumé Blanc works really well (I was surprised how much I liked this). The Private Selection is less successful, although it’s still quite an attractive wine.

Robert Mondavi Private Selection Fumé Blanc 2008 California
Interesting nose, with a combination of sweet pear fruit, some herby greenness and a touch of sweet oak. The palate is richly flavoured with a herbal edge to the sweet fruit, bolstered with a hint of vanilla. Attractive and broad, this is a distinctive wine. 85/100 (£9.99 Planet of the Grapes, Drinks Direct)

Robert Mondavi Winery Fumé Blanc 2006 Napa Valley, California
This is really good. It’s very fresh, with minerally, lemony fruit, a touch of grassiness and also some subtle vanilla and spice from barrel fermentation. There are some richer melon notes, but the fruit profile tends to the fresher end of the spectrum, and the oak is both high quality and really well integrated. It works, and the result is a sophisticated, fairly complex dry white wine. 90/100

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Monday, July 06, 2009

Randall's Cigare

Randall Grahm is one of the most interesting people in the world of wine. Yet his Bonny Doon wines haven't done all that well in the eyes of the critics. Following on from tasting Randall's delicious Sangiovese a couple of days ago, I turned to his top red - Le Cigare Volant 2005. This is a great dop. I particularly like the way it manages to taste of the old world, with a beautiful savoury dimension and a distinctive minerality. It's just as good on day two as it was the night before.

Bonny Doon Le Cigare Volant 2005 California
A blend of 50% Grenache, 24% Mourvèdre, 22% Syrah, 3% Carignan and 1% Cinsault. This has a lively, vibrant, spicy nose with a distinct meaty savouriness to the plum and blackberry fruit. The palate shows a lovely complex spicy character with some lemony acidity bringing freshness to the sweet, meaty plummy fruit. It finishes dry, a bit grippy, and quietly mineral. This is a lovely complex, meaty, spicy, Rhône-like wine with a delicious savoury dimension, and I reckon it will age well for some years to come. 13.5% alcohol. 91/100 (UK retail c. £23, 2004 available from Hailsham Cellars, imported by FMV)

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Friday, July 03, 2009

Biodynamic-ish Sangiovese from California

A conundrum of a wine. It's from Randall Grahm's Bonny Doon operation. It's mainly from a vineyard farmed biodynamically in San Benito County, yet it contains an ingredients list that most emphatically is not an indicator of typically natural wine making. Yet you have to respect the honesty and integrity that led to that list appearing on the bottle. It reads:


Then, on the front label, it has a picture of the sensitive crystallization of the wine.

Ca' del Solo Sangiovese 2006 San Benito County, California
Intensely savoury with tarry, spicy notes on the nose as well as dense blackberry and plum fruit. The palate shows rich, ripe dark cherry and plum fruit backed up with savoury, spicy, earthy notes and high acidity that sticks out a little. Dense, savoury and seriously structured, this is a bit rustic, but is one of the best non-Italian expressions of Sangiovese that I've encountered, and is utterly delicious and thoroughly food friendly. 90/100 (the 2005 is £13 at Berry Bros & Rudd)

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Sunday, June 21, 2009

Napa Cab on a summer's eve

Where can you find world-class Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines outside Bordeaux? Australia does a good job in Margaret River and Coonawarra (and I'd add Clare Valley, too), but perhaps the leading contender is California's Napa Valley, where the leading wines compete in price with the very best from Bordeaux.

Tonight's wine, on a glorious summer's evening, is a decent Napa Cabernet. It's not one of the top examples, but it's still really good - and also pretty expensive. But the price tag comes with the territory. Napa is not a place to come to if value for money is a requirement.

Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Artemis Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 Napa, California
Lovely dense blackcurrant fruit nose with real savoury, gravelly depth and some earthy hints. There's a really nice subtle greenness here. The palate shows nice plum and blackcurrant fruit with dark, savoury tannic structure. Very minerally and gravelly with good acidity. Nice restraint here: a stylish, savoury wine that bridges the gap between old world and new world successfully. 92/100 (£40 Majestic)

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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Heitz Cabernet Sauvignon

Almost as if to prove that this hasn't become Jamie's Australian Wine Blog, I'm switching my attention to a Californian wine tonight.

But before I continue, a quick note about one of the wines Quantas was serving on my flight home last night/this morning. It was the Clonakilla Hilltops Shiraz 2006, and it was fantastic. I drank a fair bit of it, as I tried to understand what the film I was watching was about (Synedoche New York).

Back to tonight's wine. I'm pretty jet-lagged, but determined to stay up until I reach a sensible bed time. You can't cheat your body clock, but you can try to help it resynchronize as fast as possible (light, food and excercise at the right time are all beneficial).

Heitz Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 Napa Valley, California
This wine spends three years in oak - one in large casks made of American oak, and two in French oak barriques. That's a lot of time, and it shows in the wine, which displays an attractive spicy, cedary edge to the plum and blackcurrant fruit. The palate has a strongly savoury, spicy woody character which meshes pretty well with the sweet fruit. There are notes of herbs and tar adding complexity, as well as hints of iodine and medicine. While my initial thought that this is a wine that has spent just a bit too much time in oak, there's no doubting that it does have a very attractive savoury, spicy complexity, too. This distinctive wine may age well into a mellow spicy warmth with another five years in bottle, but it is starting to dry out a bit on the palate. Whether or not this is for you depends on how much you like oak character in your wine. 88/100 (UK retail c. £30)

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Monday, March 16, 2009

A good lunch with some lovely old wines

I attended my first ever lunch at Berry Bros & Rudd's historic St James' St premises today. I was invited by Jasper Morris, the occasion being the visit of Californian winemaker Douglas Danielak; also present was fellow wine writer Margaret Rand.

We began by tasting through the Paras Vineyard wines that Douglas makes (you can read my review of these here). Then we went through to lunch, where we drank some rather interesting wines. I should lunch like this more often!

All the following were BBR bottlings/own labels. First, a white Burgundy, and then three reds from the 1960s, the first of which was served blind. Drinking older wines like these is a total gamble (sometimes they can just be nasty), but today, they all showed really well.

Puligny Montrachet 1er Cru Les Folatieres 1983
From Prosper Mafoux, a negociant-eleveur in Santenay. This is deep coloured, and initially it seems a bit nutty and sherried. But after a while it reveals lovely fresh mineral notes under some richer, apricot and barley sugar notes. An interesting, rather evolved wine. 89/100

St Amour 1964
From Thorin, this was served blind. It was a revelation. Lovely aromatics: pure, a bit spicy, with wonderful purity of fresh red fruits. The palate is really elegant with sweet, pure fruit, a hint of sappiness and a little spicy structure. Beautiful balance here - you'd never expect this from an old Beaujolais. So elegant. 93/100

Gevrey Chambertin 1er Cru Combes aux Moines 1964
This came via Reid, Pye and Campbell and is from Maison Lupe-Cholet. BBR paid £122 for the hogshead. It's a rich, dense wine with some meaty, soy sauce and herb notes on the nose, as well as just a hint of musty earthiness. The palate is dense and rich with dark fruit and some structure. Not totally pure, but deliciously rich and still drinking very well indeed. 92/100

Chambertin Clos de Beze Grand Cru 1966
No information on who this is from. It's fresh and spicy with a dark cherry fruit nose. Well defined on the palate, this is almost youthful, with just a bit of earthiness. Really well defined, and ageing beautifully, this will continue to drink well for some time I reckon. 92/100

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Icon wines at The Sampler

On the main site, I've just posted a lengthy review of innovative wine merchant The Sampler, which I visited last Friday (www.wineanorak.com/thesampler.htm). Here, as promised, I'm posting notes of the icon wines they currently have on tasting. It's always difficult tasting wines like these when you know what they are, because you don't want their reputations to influence you (either way).

Domaine de la Romanée Conti Romanée St Vivant 1993
Beautifully elegant, perfumed nose is warm and open with subtle herbiness, hints of earth and nice spiciness. A bit of greenness, but in a nice way. The palate is earthy and spicy with good structure and lots of elegance. The fruit is beginning to recede a bit but there’s lots of complexity here, and some herby notes meshing well with spicy tannins. Some people I was tasting with were disappointed by this, but I found it thrilling, although I wouldn’t say it has a huge amount of evolution ahead of it. And it’s absurdly expensive, but it is DRC. 95/100 (£699 The Sampler)

Harlan Estate 2002 Napa Valley
My first time with this cult Napa wine, which sells for around £600 a bottle. Fresh, spicy, earthy aromatic nose with sweet blackcurrant fruit and warm, subtly tarry, spicy notes. Hint of chocolate, too. The palate is sweetly fruited and dense with really nice dense, spicy, slightly earthy structure under the rich, but not overblown fruit. It’s an accessible new world-style wine but it’s balanced and has a long finish. 93/100

Screaming Eagle 1999 Napa Valley
A rare chance to try one of the most sought after Napa cult wines. Wonderfully aromatic with perfumed, sweet, complex, beautifully poised nose of tar, herbs, spice and sweet berry fruits. The palate is evolving beautifully with notes of leather and spice under the elegant sweet red berry fruits. Really nicely balanced with beautiful fusion of complex spicy notes, fruit and structure. 96/100 (£1500 The Sampler)

Château Margaux 1934 Margaux, Bordeaux
It’s always a great experience to taste very old wine, even though it is a bit of a lottery. This elderly Margaux is an orange-brown colour, and the nose is earthy, spicy, mature and quite complex. The palate is light with some earthy notes and fresh acidity, as well as some meaty hints. Not much left here: it has a beguiling, faded, haunting beauty, but it’s beginning to taste of old wine. There’s real interest, but I suspect this isn’t a great bottle. 92/100 (£550 The Sampler)

Château Petrus 1983 Pomerol, Bordeaux
A little disappointing considering the reputation of Petrus, but still an attractive mature Pomerol. Warm, spicy and earthy on the nose, with some sweetness. The palate is earthy, slightly herby and has fresh acidity, with some evolution. Quite structured but the fruit is beginning to recede a bit. An attractive, savoury wine, but some way short of greatness. 92/100 (£850 The Sampler)

Château Le Pin 1995 Pomerol, Bordeaux
This cult Pomerol is very appealing, but surely you don’t have to spend a grand to get something like this? Lovely sweet aromatics showing subtly leafy sweet red fruits. Quite complex. The palate has some firm savoury character with nice spiciness and freshness. It’s balanced, earthy and fresh with nice bright fruit and a hint of nice greenness. 93/100 (£1000 The Sampler)

Château Mouton Rothschild 2000 Pauillac, Bordeaux
Earthy, spicy and slightly rustic on the nose. Quite firm. Is there some brett here? The palate is earthy and dense with a robust spicy character. Dense and firm at the moment but lacks real elegance. To be honest, I expected a bit more from this. 91/100 (£700 The Sampler)

Château D’Yquem 1983 Sauternes
Totally beautiful. This is concentrated and perfectly balanced with dense, complex spicy lemon/citrus flavours with waxy, spicy notes and wonderful depth. Drinking perfectly now. 96/100

Château de Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape 1990 Southern Rhône, France
This is a lovely, light, evolved wine drinking at its peak. Complex, warm, spicy and earthy with a lovely earthy, spicy character, as well as some meaty funkiness. A savoury style with lots of interest. 94/100 (£160 The Sampler)

Added later: people have asked about the sampling prices - they're all on the website - http://www.thesampler.co.uk/sampling.asp?submenu3

For these wines:

Wine Icons
DRC Romanée Saint Vivant 1993 £31.46; Harlan Estate 2002 £27.00; Screaming Eagle 1999 £60.00; Château Margaux 1934 £20.37; Pétrus 1983 £38.25; Le Pin 1995 £43.33; Château Mouton Rothschild 2000 £31.50; Château de Beaucastel 1990 £7.20

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Friday, November 07, 2008

Choosing the first dog, and wine for Obama

Silly but fun article on the BBC News site about one of the important choices facing Obama: which puppy to choose for his kids?

The favourite candidate breed seems to be a goldendoodle (retreiver/poodle cross), although labradoodle is also mentioned in the piece. If he can wait until December, our very own RTL should have some puppies coming - he can have one at a discounted rate.

We're not totally sure she's pregnant - they don't sell pregnancy tests for dogs in Boots - but her nipples have swollen. Fiona has been reading all about the whole puppy issue and she tells me that this is one of the signs.

I also got a press release yesterday from Kendall Jackson who say that they are sending Obama two cases of Vintners Reserve Chardonnay. That will make his day! It's not a bad wine, but there are plenty of others in the KJ portfolio that I'd rather have two cases of! (See my report on KJ's wines here). I quote from the release:
"A recent story in People Magazine profiling the family life of then-candidate, now President-elect, Barack Obama, mentioned that a bottle of Kendall-Jackson chardonnay sat on the Obama’s kitchen countertop. It now seems only fitting that the California winemaker send a few congratulatory cases of the brand to the incoming President for his new wine cellar on Pennsylvania Avenue. So the company is doing just that."


Monday, September 22, 2008

Two Californian Chardonnays

'Have I gone mad?' asks Jancis Robinson as she selects the Robert Mondavi Woodbridge Chardonnay 2006 as her wine of the week. As one of the world's top wine commentators and a super-nice person to boot, Jancis is clearly pretty sane, and there's some real merit in this wine, although it is still quite a commercial style of Chardonnay without a whole load of complexity. Much more impressive is another Californian I opened tonight, from Miguel Torres' sister Marimar in the Russian River Valley. Admittedly, this wine is much more expensive, but then it offers a lot more.

Robert Mondavi Woodbridge Chardonnay 2006 California
Fresh, fruit driven nose with hints of citrus peel and white peach. The palate is quite crisp with a bit of nutty richness, some tropical fruit and notes of lemon and spice. A solid commercial Chardonnay with some freshness and definition. 83/100 (£7.20 all supermarkets, Thresher and some independents, but it's much cheaper in the USA, apparently)

Marimar Estate Acero Chardonnay Don Miguel Vineyard 2006 Russian River Valley, Sonoma
This unoaked Chardonnay is really stylish. This is full flavoured and concentrated with a nice nuttiness and some buttery richness to the focused, slightly sweet-tasting fruit with good acidity and a long, minerally finish. Much more complex than many unoaked Chardonnays, with good food compatibility. You sort of expect Californian Chardonnay to be over-blown, so it's a lovely surprise to find a wine like this, even though it is a hefty 14.2% alcohol. 90/100

Find these wines where you are with www.wine-searcher.com

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Monday, September 08, 2008

Cricket and a strange Ridge

Played cricket today for the wine trade down in Keevil, Wiltshire, against Further Friars. The pitch was a little damp after all the recent rain, but we had good conditions to play in. Batting first, the wine trade team did well against some good bowling, and headed in to lunch at 80-3. After lunch, the wickets fell quite steadily, and I came in at no. 8 only to catch a ball full in the face off a top edge. There was quite a bit of blood, but fortunately I didn't lose any teeth, which would have been expensive. I carried on, but was last out bowled for 3, with our total at 126.

We then bowled well and got Further Friars out for just under 100. I had a long spell where despite my swollen face I was quite accurate, and came away with nice figures of 9-3-13-3. It was a good game on a tricky pitch. Afterwards Jasper Morris (who was captaining the wine trade side) opened several bottles, including a Ridge Alicante Bouschet 1995. It was dense, dark and incredibly intense, with some spicy American oak adding a rich, almost medicinal note to the bold fruit. Not terribly fine, but really striking, and potentially long lived. I don't think this wine was ever released commercially.

The state of my face plus bad traffic on the M3 meant that I wasn't able to make it for tonight's Roederer Awards ceremony at Somerset House. I was shortlisted for the online category, as was Jancis Robinson - but it was Tom Cannavan (of wine-pages.com) who won. Congratulations to him.

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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The perfect wine...for tonight

I don't know about you, but for me, mood has a lot to do with my drinking pleasure. Sometimes it takes me a long time to find just the bottle that's right for the moment, which is one of the reasons I'm quite keen on having physical (as opposed to virtual) wine merchants nearby so you can buy the right wine for any particular evening, rather than having to rely on just what's in the cellar or stash at home.

Tonight is a beautiful evening. Warm, but not muggy. I'm sitting outside in the slowly fading light, with the kids in bed. I guess one of the benefits of these northerly latitudes is the long summer evenings, even if, in some sort of trade-off, you have to sacrifice the frequency of warm summer evenings in exchange for their duration.

Fiona is out for the evening with her girlfriends, and I've put some meat on the barbie. It's a Weber gas barbecue, and while for a long time I was wedded to the charcoal ritual, I have to confess that the convenience of gas means you can fire up the grill much more frequently and easily, even if it doesn't satisfy all those Neanderthal fire-making male urges.

What wine for tonight? Well, it's a Californian wine that, perhaps, in another context, I'd dismiss as rather crude and over-done. But tonight, it's perfect. Well, that may be an exaggeration: if you offered to trade me a Grand Cru Burgundy from a top producer, a first growth Claret, an aged traditional Barolo, or a Chave Hermitage, I'd accept in the blink of an eye. But you know what I mean.

EOS Reserve Petite Sirah 2004 Paso Robles, California
An inky dark purple black colour, this is a bold, intense red wine of real character, although it won't appeal to everyone. It's bursting with rich blackberry and raspberry fruit, together with some bitter dark chocolate notes, as well as a bit of earthiness. I'm even getting a hint of rubber here. All this is underlain by some firm spicy tannins. Not at all shy, but savoury and dense enough to stop it being just another sweet, over-ripe, over-cooked new world red. Hard to score such a distinctive wine. It's edgy, imperfect, but interesting. 89/100 (£9.99 Co-op)
Petite Sirah is actually a synonym for the Durif variety. You can read a lot more about it here, at a website set up by an advocacy movement for the PS grape variety in California.

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Sunday, June 01, 2008

Back home with some Californians

Another vivid, bright sunny day in Portugal. We walked along the beach and found a seafront restaurant, where we dined well in the sun. I had a half bottle of the 2007 vintage of the Vinho Verde Tinto I'd drunk the previous nights, which was even more vibrant and primary. It was fantastic, and just E4.20. Fiona had another half bottle of Aveleda.

Then we headed to the airport, and a rather painless journey home. As soon as we got back, it was off to St Margarets to pick up RTL. She was overjoyed to see us again, but there was an element of school report time as we asked how she'd got on with the dogsitter, who has an impeccably behaved poodle. Apparently, she was mostly good - just a little possessive.

So, tonight, a couple of Californians from the Co-op. They're not expensive, but they are a lot better than most Californian branded wines at a similar price. First, a wine from Cline - a winery I visited way back in 1997, which has a reputation for really reliable, flavourful, affordable reds. Then a good value example from Washington State.

Cline Syrah 2005 California
A distinctive wine, showing ripe plummy, berry fruit along with some meatiness, a touch of olive character and a hint of herbal greenness. It's ripe, sweet and accessible, but there's a savoury meatiness that reminds me a bit of some South African Syrahs (although this isn't meant to be taken negatively). My only criticism is that it's tending towards the medicinal end of the spectrum. 86/100 (£7.99 Co-op)

The Magnificent Wine Co. 'Steak House' Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 Columbia Valley, Washington State
Nicely packaged, and billed as a steak wine, this is a bright, quite refined Cabernet that is light in style. There's some bright red fruit here, but also a complex, earthy, spicy, slightly phenolic quality that makes me suspect a bit of brettanomyces. Fresh and quite European in style, this is attractive and food friendly. 87/100 (£7.99 Co-op)

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Friday, May 16, 2008

Friday night thoughts

Had a day working from home today. A bit of a late start, but then some serious work on Brettanomyces, that most complex and interesting of wine 'faults'. Found out that the theme for my next Sunday Express column has been changed at short notice - this goes with the territory. Forgot to do some much-needed invoicing (I'm not the most financially motivated of writers). Walked the dog twice.

Then I took elder son to play golf at what turned out to be a really nice nine-hole course in Ascot called Lavender Park. Good greens, bunkers in good nick, thoughtful layout - ideal place to learn how to play. Finished off by watching a rather dud film, Charlie Wilson's War. There was just something deeply wrong with the idea of a comedy about such a serious subject as the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and its aftermath. And casting ultra-clean Tom Hanks as a playboy congressman was simply absurd. Philip Seymour Hoffman is a serious actor who was also incongruous in his role, although he pulled it off well. Then a chance to catch the latest episode of Peep Show, which is a fantastic comedy. One of the best.

So, wine? Yes. Bonterra Rose 2007 Mendocino, California is pretty good - savoury and bright, a fusion of cranberry juice and red cherries, with some grassiness, too. It's very hard for a rose to be serious or really exciting, but this is rather nice. But, at £9.99 from Waitrose, it isn't cheap: I wonder whether it's ever necessary to pay £10 for a rose. Shaw & Smith Adelaide Hills Shiraz 2006 is pretty impressive. It has a fantastic peppery, cool-climate Syrah character, with some meatiness and raspberry fruit. There's also a darker blackberry fruit character, and some spicy oak in the background. At the moment this is quite tight-wound and tannic, but I'm very impressed by the freshness and definition. This is pretty serious, and I'd rate it at 93/100. But perhaps this should have been labelled 'Syrah', to better reflect its old-world leanings, rather than 'Shiraz'?

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A pair from Monterey, California

California makes some great wine. It also makes some dire wine. I know this is a bit of a generalization, but in the UK we mostly see the former - central valley rubbish (the big Californian brands - I don't need to name names) - because the good stuff works out too expensive for our competitive market and tight wallets.

Part of the problem is that California seems to make a lot of very cheap wine, and a lot of very expensive wine, but the middle ground of good quality, affordable wine is a bit of a desert.

So it's nice to see a new pair of wines from Monterey, priced at £8.50 each, both of which taste pretty good. They are imported by Bibendum wine (http://www.bibendum-wine.co.uk/). I wasn't sure about the back labels (see the picture...'everyone remembers their first love...' puhleeze!), but the juice inside is very attractive.

Loredona Pinot Grigio 2006 Monterey, California

I’m not sure about the packaging: it comes in a clear-glass, Alsace-shaped bottle that doesn’t flatter the wine at all. But the juice itself is quite nice. It has a grapey, fresh nose that’s a little spicy – it reminds me a bit of Muscat. The palate has a bit of herby freshness and a slightly rounded texture. An attractive wine. 87/100 (£8.50 retail, agent is Bibendum)

Loredona Pinot Noir 2005 Monterey, California
Bright, focused, slightly sweet cherry and raspberry fruit on the nose. The palate is fresh and fruit driven, with the sweet fruit countered nicely by good acidity and a spicy twist. It’s a focused wine of real appeal that avoids being overly jammy or sweet, even though it is made in an attractively modern, fruit driven style. Quite delicious. 89/100 (£8.50 retail, independents and on-trade, agent is Bibendum)

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Friday, March 14, 2008

A mountain white and three Pinots

It's been a nice day here at the Goode residence, as I end week two of my freelance life. I confess: Fiona and I took another long Friday lunch together. This time we went to Richmond and ate at Wagamama, which I think I'm slightly addicted to. We both ordered no. 42 - yaki udon (£7.25) which consists of: teppan-fried udon noodles with curry oil, shiitake mushrooms,
egg, leeks, prawns, chicken, chikuwa, beansprouts and green and red peppers, garnished with spicy ground fish powder, mixed sesame seeds, fried shallots and pickled ginger. It's fantastic. I had a beer and Fiona had a glass of Chilean Sauvignon.

Tonight, three Pinots (what a fickle grape) and a mountain white. Tomorrow I'm going to Twickenham for the rugby.

Blanc de Morgex et de la Salle 2006 Vallee d'Aoste, Italy
From the Cave du Vin in Morgex, this is a pure, fresh mountain wine that's part of the Vini Estremi group (http://www.viniestremi.com/). Weighing in at just 11.5% alcohol, it's delicate and minerally with a subtle apple and herb flavour and high acidity. There's a lovely bright savouriness to it: remarkably refreshing stuff. I do like mountain wines. 88/100 (Les Caves de Pyrene)

Parducci Pinot Noir 2006 California
Mendocino-based Parducci are these days riding the sustainability wagon (I haven't used the perjorative term 'bandwagon' here) - see www.parducci.com/sustainability. I remember Oddbins used to stock a Parducci Charbono a few years back; now they are stocking this Pinot Noir. By Californian standards this is an inexpensive wine, and it certainly tastes like Pinot, although at this price point it's facing strong competition from the cheaper NZ Pinots. The nose is quite sweet, with bright berry and cherry fruit, but there's also a savoury green herbal streak. The nicely balanced palate has a bit of this sweet and savoury thing going on, with sweet berry fruit countered by a spicy herby savouriness. It's not quite elegant enough to be a must buy, but it's certainly acceptable at this price, and avoids being confected and forced. Reminds me a bit of the Cono Sur Pinot. 86/100 (£8.49 Oddbins)

Domaine Mas Viel Pinot Noir 2006 Vin de Pays d'Oc, France
Sealed with ProCork, a natural cork with a special membrane attached to each chamfered end, to prevent any risk of TCA transmission from the cork to the wine: I haven't seen many of these around. It has a ripe, forward sweet berry fruit nose that's richer than you'd expect from Pinot. Quite dense on the palate with some firm tannins, ripe fruit and a herby tang, together with some sweet vanilla oak notes. It's attractive, in a flirty sort of way, but this doesn't really taste like Pinot. Still, it's quite cheap, and I suspect that if it was from Chile or California, it would have its fans. 81/100 (£6.95 http://www.therealwineco.co.uk/)

Blason de Bourgogne Mercurey 2003 Burgundy
This is bright and quite tart, displaying cherry and raspberry fruit with some stern, savoury earthy undercurrents. It's lean, a bit acidic, and ungenerous. There's also a rustic herbal streak. It was just a shade under £10 from Tesco and Asda a couple of years ago, and I think it was a bit overpriced. It would work well as a food wine, I suspect, but it's a bit severe on its own. 80/100

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Saturday, February 23, 2008

Organic, biodynamic and Californian

I've had mixed feelings in the past about the Bonterra wines, if I'm honest. I've enjoyed them without falling in love with them, and I have to admit to being slightly suspicious by the way that Brown Forman (the parent company) have seemed to over-play their organic hand. It just seems like there's a disconnect between big company/corporate marketing strategy and the generally smaller scale organic/biodynamic approach.

But I'm an open minded sort of guy (or, at least, I like to think I am), and so I judged these two wines as I saw them. The Viognier is fantastic, and good value at £10. The flagship biodynamic McNab is quite a serious effort, which I reckon will show brilliantly with a few years in the cellar.

Bonterra Vineyards Viognier 2006 North Coast, California
Organic. Wonderful aromatic Viognier nose showing apricot, peach, honey and lemon. The palate has appealing bright fruit with a nice rich texture. It's apricotty and fresh, with some vanilla. Good concentration: a lovely full flavoured dry white. I'm impressed. 90/100 (£9.99 Booths, Majestic [from May])

Bonterra The McNab 2003 Mendocino, California
A blend of 47% Merlot, 36% Cabernet Sauvignon and 17% Old Vine Petite Sirah. Initially fruity and a bit oaky, but after a short while this is beginning to show its true colours: there's some earthy, minerally, spicy depth to the ripe fruit. Quite elegant, albeit in a ripe style, with an attractive plummy savouriness. A stylish, well balanced, intense wine that finishes with firm tannic structure, suggesting it has some way to go. I reckon the oak will integrate well with a few more years in bottle, and this has great potential. It's almost like a serious, traditional Rioja in terms of flavour profile. 92/100 (£19.99 Vintage Roots)

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Nice bottle, shame about the wine

Aside: Spooks is back! Tonight's episode was a good start. But back to wine:

I'm not a negative person, but unlike a critic I spoke to recently who claimed their refusal to publish critical comments was because he was essentially a 'polite person', I think it's only right to occasionally put the boot in a bit...only where it's deserved, mind.

A disappointing recent bottle was Ravenswood's Lodi Zinfandel. I remember visiting California 10 years ago (rather topically, we left England the day of Princess Di's funeral) for a glorious two week tour with good friends Paul and Judith. This was pre-kids, so travelling was a good deal easier then. While wine was a minor part of the holiday, we did spend some time in Sonoma, and one of the wineries we visited was Ravenswood, which was known for its serious Zinfandels. The winery motto was 'no wimpy wines'. One of the distinguishing features of the Ravenswood wines was their wonderful packaging (elegant label, short silver-coloured capsule reminiscent of Ridge), and this Lodi Zin shared this beautiful appearance. The appearance creates expectation, and the wine turned out to be a real let down. Despite the Ravenswood motto, this was wimpy. No, it's not one of the single-vineyard offerings, but at £9, this doesn't deliver any great pleasure at all. And if Zin doesn't give raw visceral pleasure, what does it give?

Ravenswood Lodi Old Vine Zinfandel 2005 California
Beautifully packaged, but unfortunately the contents don’t quite live up to this. A cherry red colour, this medium-bodied wine has a modest berry fruit nose, and this leads to a sappy palate showing some sweet red berry fruit but not a lot else. Rather disappointing. 14.5% alcohol. 83/100 (£8.99 Majestic, Oddbins, Thresher)

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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Bizarre Mondavi campaign?

Snapped at Waterloo Station this morning: Mondavi Woodbridge have started a new poster campaign in the UK with what seems a rather bizarre message.

The two posters I have seen so far are the one above, where a hippy is playing guitar in a vineyard (a barred G chord to be precise), and another where a tour group in the winery is doing yoga. The message is 'California, but not that California", with the implication being that in the past California has been associated with hippies and alternative lifestyle, and that Mondavi has nothing to do with this.

It seems barmy to me. Who would you rather have make your wine? Hippies, surf dudes and creative types, or suits, bean counters and chemical engineers?

What is more appealing? Californian alternative culture as portrayed in these adverts (albeit here as a bad thing), or the California of materialistic conspicuous consumers ambitious to climb the social ladder and make loads of money, but little else? Am I the only one who thinks Mondavi Woodbridge are making a mistake with this campaign message?

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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Three whites

If you pushed me, I’d have to confess to being a red wine sort of guy. It’s reds that I tend to plump for, unless my food choice absolutely dictates a C-thru (as some Aussies refer to white wines).

Tonight, three whites to report on. A seductive, aromatic Californian; a Roussillon white that I was a little harsh on yesterday; and a surprisingly good inexpensive white Rioja.

Folie à Deux Ménage à Trois 2005 California
This is really interesting. It’s a blend of Chardonnay, Moscato and Chenin Blanc from California and it works. The result of this coming together of three rather different varieties is an accessible, pretty, grapey aromatic white with good balance between the floral, grapey aromas, a little touch of sweetness, and acidity to keep things fresh. A wine for casual sipping that doesn’t need food, and which would really appeal to novice wine drinkers. It’s just good fun. 85/100 (£7.50 http://www.winedirect.co.uk/)

Domaine Lafage Cuvée Centenaire Blanc 2005 Côtes du Roussillon, France
This is made predominantly from 100 year old white Grenache vines, fermented in oak. I was a little unfair declaring this to be like Chilean Chardonnay when I tasted it yesterday. There’s prominent oak here, but closer inspection reveals an extra dimension that I’d like to believe comes from the old vines and terroir. The nose shows vanilla, nuts, honey and a subtle, fresh minerality. The palate has nice fresh, almost lemony fruit, alongside the richer toasty, nutty oak and some tropical fruit richness. If these were my old vines, I’d pick a little bit earlier and tone down the oak (use old rather than new, and perhaps 500 litre rather than 225 litre) and aim at a reductive élévage that brings out the flinty minerality in a more pronounced way. This isn’t a bad wine – I quite like it, and at £6.99 it’s a total bargain. But I reckon it could be a bit better and have more of a personality. 86/100 (£6.99 Waitrose)

Rioja Gran Familia White 2006 Rioja, Spain
Hand-picked Malvasia and Viura, without any of the oak that sometimes kills off white Rioja. The fresh, bright nose is quite lemony with some nutty, honeyed depth. The palate is crisp with good acidity and lovely fruity, herby, slightly nutty flavours. Nice balance and freshness: delicious for the price. 84/100 (£4.99 Tesco, Co-op)

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Monday, July 16, 2007

The world's best Chardonnay?

The title is somewhat misleading; it's meant to be provocative, but there's a more serious side to this question. Perhaps I should have re-titled it 'the world's most important Chardonnay'. This wine is significant.

Tonight, I'm drinking Kendall Jackson's Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay (which I'll abbreviate as KJVRC) 2005, which is an interesting wine, and not just because of the liquid in the bottle. I wrote a little about Kendall Jackson here on this blog a few weeks ago. They're an important player in the premium Californian wine scene, owning about 25 different estates and pumping out between 3.5 and 4.5 million cases per year all from estate-grown fruit.

The KJVRC was first made in 1982. It was an instant hit, and was the driving force behind the establishment of KJ as one of California's top wine estates. The secret to its success was that (1) it was based on good quality fruit from Sonoma Coast; (2) the wine was attractively priced considering the quality; and (3) there was a good dollop of residual sugar, together with a hint of botrytis.

It's the residual sugar that has been the 'story' that's most often brought up in connection with this wine. Basically, the first time it was made, some sweet, low alcohol Chardonnay - the result of a stuck fermentation - was later blended back into the main batch of wine (presumably after sterile filtering), resulting in a final wine with some sweetness. But it's clear that this was one of the reasons why this wine resonated with consumers, and is now a staggering 1 million case production.

I'm sure that KJ are fed up with questions about the residual sugar level of the KJVRC. At a recent press tasting, the technical fiches didn't mention it, and the suggestion was that it is now much lower than it used to be. Interestingly, residual sugar is the key to the success of a number of branded wines. Increasingly, commercial reds are being sweetened by as much as 9 grams/litre residual sugar, most commonly added post ferment as grape juice concentrate.

KJ winemaker Jed Steele left in 1991 and in 1992 was subject to legal action by his former employers. KJ weren't happy that he took with him the secret of the success of KJVRC (see this contemporary news article). I quote:
"In a milestone ruling for the wine industry, a county court in California has ruled that a winemaking process constitutes a trade secret belonging to a winery and may not be divulged by the winemaker to subsequent employers or consulting clients."

It's a ruling that upset the industry. There are only so many ways to make wine, and most of them have been practised for generations. If you are a winemaker who leaves a previous winery, legal shackles preventing you from using the techniques you utlized in your previous employment could effectively finish your career.

So what is the wine like? First, let's judge this in context. In the USA it sells for $13, but loads of places have it for just a few cents under $10. That's a fiver over here. At this price, it's a no-brainer. In the UK, retail is £8.99 through Morrisons, which puts it into a slightly different bracket, although it can certainly compete at this price level.

My first impression is of richness allied with freshness. There's some spicy peach, apricot and fig richness, coupled with fruit sweetness, but offset by good acidity and a citrussy focus. I'm getting a hint of grapefruit, too, on the finish. The sweetness here is alluring - I'm not sure how much is due to the fruitiness or whether this is a wine that still has a bit of residual sugar in the mix. If it wasn't for some of the more distinctive Chardonnay (fig, tropical fruit) characters and the subtle oak, the texture here - with sweetness offset by acidity - would lead me in the direction of a Riesling Kabinett from the Mosel. If points mean anything to you, I'd give this 88/100. Given the quantities made, the low price, the impact this wine has had, and the market penetration, this is one of the world's most important Chardonnays.

One further historical note. In the mid-1990s Gallo launched their 'Turning Leaf' range, including a Chardonnay. The logo for Turning Leaf has a picture of a vine leaf in its autumn colours, an image that appears (to my eye) to be somewhat similar to the autumnal vine leaf that's the visual hook for the KJVRC label. KJ sued Gallo about this and lost. Twice (once on appeal). Interestingly, one of my editors recently asked me a question about the 'Kendall Jackson Turning Leaf Chardonnay'.

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Sunday, July 01, 2007

Serious Sonoma Cab

California has been off my radar screen for a while, but in the last week or two it has suddenly reappeared. A few wines I've drunk recently have struck me as reasonably serious, and this is one of them, which I first encountered at last week's Jackson Estates lunch, and which I'm drinking again tonight.

Hawkeye Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 Alexander Valley, Sonoma, California
One of the wines in the Kendall-Jackson Vineyard Estates 'Highland Estates' Portfolio. Deep coloured, this initially has a slightly oaky nose, but after a while the oak subsides to reveal a complex, intense nose of spicy blackberry and blackcurrant fruit with a distinctive minerally complexity. The palate shows great concentration and intense flavours of black fruits, underpinned by firm, minerally tannic structure. Despite the sweetness of the fruit, the overall impression is a savoury one: this is a tight, structured Cabernet that can be drunk now for its wonderful intensity of fruit, or cellared for a decade to allow the development of complex tertiary aromas. Pretty serious. 92/100

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Thursday, June 28, 2007

Sliverado, Priorat, Tesco, Lenz and Russ

Began today with Tesco's press tasting at County Hall. The Tesco team were beaming with pride as they launched their new range: all 180 wines on show were new additions. Dan Jago was bursting with boyish enthusiasm - he makes everything he does look very easy, as if he's just having a bit of fun. I suspect the reality is that it's like watching a swan cross a pond: on the surface everything looks smooth, but under the water those legs are paddling like crazy. I also discussed football with fellow Man City fan Jason Godley. Interesting times.

Then it was off to lunch with Lenz Moser (above) and Russ Weis (below), with the theme being Silverado (the Napa estate where Russ is manager) and Melis/Elix, Russ' Priorat venture. We were due to meet at Tendido Cero, but when Russ and Lenz got there the manager refused to let them open their own bottles, irrespective of corkage fee. They tried to explain they were presenting their wines to a journalist, but got absolutely nowhere. A strange attitude, really, and it meant that proceedings were moved to Bibendum, a short walk away. It was the first time I'd visited Bibendum (the restaurant, not to be confused with the wine merchant), and the setting in the Art Deco ex-Michelin building is stunning. The food is also pretty good.

Lenz and Russ are buddies from the time when they both worked for Mondavi. They are both charismatic brand ambassadors, and the lunch had a real sense of openness and energy to it. We began by looking at one of Russ' Priorat wines, the Elix 2005, which was superb, even though it is the young vines cuvee. Then we tried two Silverado wines side-by-side. The 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon really impressed, with lovely structure and focus to the dense fruit. The 2oo2 Solo Cabernet Sauvignon takes things up a bit in terms of elegance and density, and up a lot in terms of price (retail is c. £80). It's a lovely wine.

Over this last week, my view of California has shifted a bit. I've seen with some of the high-end Jackson Estate wines that California can offer serious wines that have some old world complexity and balance with new world intensity, and this has been confirmed today by these two Silverado wines. California needs ambassadors like Russ, because the image we have of Californian wines in the UK falls into two categories: first, cheap brands that aren't very good and, second, ego-driven wines made by exceptionally rich ex-doctors, lawyers and movie stars which sell for absurd sums to wealthy Americans. This image needs to change.

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Monday, June 25, 2007

Barbara Banke and Jackson Wine Estates

Had lunch with Barbara Banke of Jackson Wine Estates today. Barbara, wife of Jess Jackson (who pulled out of the gig because of negotiations surrounding a race horse, his new hobby), is fully involved in running Jackson Wine Estates, and communicated the story behind Kendall Jackson very effectively. As usual, I'll write up the interview and tasting in full soon, but here's a taster.

Kendall-Jackson began life 25 years ago as a leisure pursuit. 'Jess and I started the winery for relaxation', says Banke – they were both busy attorneys whose work was driving them a bit crazy. 'We bought a small property in Lake County and were going to sell the grapes', she recalls, but when selling the grapes proved tricky in 1982 they decided to make some wine.

The first wine was from eight cool climate coastal Chardonnay vineyards, and when the ferment of one of these stuck, the wine was blended in with the rest to create a slightly sweet Chardonnay that American consumers just loved: it got written up well and sold out in six weeks. KJ decided to stick with this style – a Chardonnay with a little residual sugar, and it proved to be a winning formula.

Of course, the high residual sugar style of Chardonnay isn't universally acclaimed, and you get the distinct impression that to this day KJ squirm a bit whenever the term 'residual sugar' is uttered by journalists. The current Chardonnay is made in a less sweet style, but there's still some residual sugar there, although no one I asked seemed to know how much, and the technical fiches don't disclose it.

The success of the Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay was the beginning of a steady growth, to the extent that KJ are now one of the largest players in the Californian wine scene.

But KJ have taken their business in a direction that's rather different from that of the rest of the wine industry. They are a big producer – depending on who you listen to they make between 3.5 and 4.5 million cases of wine each year – yet they make everything from estate-grown fruit. This contrasts strongly from the current situation where large publically listed wine companies divest themselves of capital-hungry assets such as vineyards in the quest for a better return on investment.
No short-cuts are taken in the winemaking: the Vintners Reserve Chardonnay, their big seller, is 80% barrel fermented, and no oak chips or staves are used. To satisfy their huge demand for barrels, for the last 10 years they have owned a stave mill in the Vosges forest of France.

Not only have vineyards been acquired – the current total stands at around 14 000 acres – but Jess and Barbara have also been buying up wine estates. They own 25 of them, mainly in California, but also stretching to Europe, Australia and South America. 'Essentially, we are collectors of these little vineyards', says Banke.
With lunch we tried several wines. The KJ Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay 2005, which retails at $12-15 in the USA, impresses, with plenty of weight allied with some freshness. It's unashamedly Californian in style. The Grand Reserve Chardonnay 2004 hails from Santa Barbara, and is a bit weightier and richer, with toasty complexity – nice stuff in a full flavoured style. A Hawkeye Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 comes from a mountain vineyard in the Alexander Valley of Sonoma, and has lovely savoury, tannic structure supporting vivid fruit. This really impressed. The 1999 Stature Cabernet Sauvignon from Mount Veeder in Napa was supremely elegant and ageing very nicely. Serious stuff. La Crema Pinot Noir 2005 from Carneros is fresh and cherryish with nice expressive fruit, while the Hartford Court Land's Edge Pinot Noir 2005 from a subregion of the Russian River Valley is a step up, with lovely clarity of pure red fruits – it should age well. Verite La Muse 2002 is Jess and Barbara's wannabe Petrus, and this is a serious effort: the Merlot-dominated blend from Sonoma County has clarity, focus and a nice mineral core. Not a heavy wine at all. Moving to St Emilion, the Chateau Lassegue 2003 is a wine that has overcome its vintage handicap and is actually pretty elegant and fresh, although the tannins do clamp down a bit hard on the finish. Finally, the Lokoya 2003 Diamond Mountain Cabernet is in a different style altogether. It's big, with 14.9% alcohol and lots of fruit, but the fruit never runs away with the wine: it is held in check by lovely spicy minerality. Pretty serious stuff in this forward style, and it should age well. Quite a portfolio.

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Saturday, June 16, 2007

The raspberries are peaking

It's mid-June. My favourite time. The vines have flowered (early), the evenings are long, and the raspberries are peaking. It's going to be a good raspberry season, with ripening well spread out. Last year the three different varieties I planted all fruited at the same time (I chose a mix of early, normal and late, to extend the season). This year it's been a bit cooler with plenty of rain, so they are nicely spread out. I love wandering into the garden and grazing for 10 minutes on soft fruits (we also have strawberries). The secret to good grazing is to pick berries at optimal ripeness. Not too tart, but then not too sweet and flat. Appropriately ripe is best, a bit like grapes.

Two wines tonight. De Loach Pinot Noir 2005 California: this will be one of the wines in the Bibendum summer sale, and is a steal at the sale price of £6. It's quite rich - it reminded me a bit of a northern Rhone Syrah with it's meatiness and nice greeness - but it still tastes of Pinot Noir, with plenty of dark cherry fruit. Drinkable and moreish, which is not something I say often about cheap Pinot. I've got five more to try from the Bibendum sale - this looks like a good one if the samples I've been sent are anything to go by.

Torres Salmos 2005 Priorat: Torres first wine from the most famous of Catalan terroirs (see their description of it here). It's a fairly serious effort - it reminds me of a Douro wine. Dark and intense, with some new oak evident backing up the ripe, taut, leathery-edged fruit. Quite savoury and structured. Some minerality, too - or is this a suggestion prompted by the label image of terraced schistous vineyards. There's a fair bit of alcohol (14.5%). At the moment this isn't a wine that seduces: it's too big, tight and edgy, and I think it needs a few years of bottle age to show what it's capable of. A blend of four varieties - Cabernet, Syrah, Carignan and Grenache, I'd be curious to know what the components tasted like. This tastes quite Carignan dominated, but it could be that the distinctive terroir overrides the variety somewhat. Retail price £13.99, which for Priorat is pretty good value.

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Sunday, June 10, 2007

Four rubbish wines, one good one

I don't like to be negative. At the same time, a critic's job is to be critical of the bad as well as praising the good.

Last night I opened four wines, all of which depressed me. Wine should be authentic; it should be fun; it should inspire and captivate; it should make us think a bit. Sadly, there's a lot of rubbish wine out there that does none of these things.

Tonight, therefore, I played safe. I opened something I knew I'd like. I have a soft spot for Bandol, and Domaine Gros' Nore is one of the top producers. The 1999 which I'm sipping now has a haunting nose: it's sweetly fruited, but the dominant theme is a perfumed earthiness - a savoury melange of spice, herbs, crushed rocks and turned earth. In the mouth it is savoury, dense, earthy and shows a bit of tarry, spicy fruit. There's quite a bit of tannic structure and good acidity. Beginning to drink really well, and I reckon it's good for another 10 years. As with all Bandols, Mourvedre is the key grape here.

Back to the duds. Oddbins Selection Bordeaux 2006 is the best of them: I like the dark, sweet chocolatey blackcurrant and blackberry fruit. My problem is that it tastes like Australian Cabernet, with sweet jammy fruit you just don't expect from Bordeaux. Is there residual sugar here? I wouldn't be surprised. Next, Yaldara 'The Farms' Shiraz 2004 tastes like an average £7 Barossa red, with sweet fruit and disjointed acid, together with heat and astringency. Problem is that Laithwaites sell this at £18.95, a price at which it represents spectacularly bad value. It has a twintop closure. Not usually seen on £20 wines. Now Chileno knock out some decent cheapo Chilean wines. Their Shiraz Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 is not one of them. The vibrant fruit has distinctive herbal greeness, and the result is a bit sickly. It's cheap, though, at under a fiver, but to be honest I'd rather drink water. Finally, Kendall Jackson's Cabernet Sauvignon Vintners Reserve 2003 from California is sweet and confected, with a vanilla streak to the red and black fruits. A crowd pleaser, but at £10 I was very disapponted: it just tastes 'made'.

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Sunday, May 13, 2007

Pinot Noir...yet again

Continuing the Pinot theme, tonight I revisit California. In my trusty Riedel Burgundy glass (or should I use the rather pseudy term 'stem'?) I have a bright, supple, ripe Pinot Noir that hasn't been tricked around with too much and tastes as Pinot should. It's a bit of a suit of a wine: it could do with just a smidgeon more personality - maybe even a bit of wildness - but it's a nice drink that ticks most of the right boxes.

La Crema Pinot Noir 2005 Sonoma Coast, California
Quite a dark colour, but fortunately not too intense or inky. The nose shows quite sweet cherries, with a bit of spice. The palate has a lovely smoothness to it, with bright but seamless red fruits and a bit of spicy warmth in the background. Texturally, it's smooth without being heavy. It's ripe but not over-sweet. There's a bit of tannin to give balance to the fruit, and the alcohol is a sane 13.5%. Enjoyable stuff, and quite food compatible. Very good+ 89/100

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Saturday, May 12, 2007

More Pinot Noir

My recent experiences with the Cono Sur Pinot Noirs from Chile have led me to pursue this grape. Two bottles opened last night: one, a rather better Chilean Pinot Noir; the second, an agreeable effort from California.

Secano Pinot Noir 2006 Leyda Valley, Chile
From Vina Leyda, this wine has usurped Cono Sur's cheapie as the world's best value Pinot Noir. It has a lovely sweet cherry and berry fruit nose which is perfumed, with a bit of spice and some subtle herbiness. Forward and quite elegant. The palate is smooth with elegant cherry fruit. It's simple and primary, but there's some spice and again a bit of herbiness. Just a hint of green sappiness, but it doesn't clamp down too much on the bright fruit. Delicious. Very good+ 89/100 (£6.99 Marks & Spencer)

Kendall Jackson Vintner's Reserve Pinot Noir 2005 California
From the North Coast, Monterey and Santa Barbara; aged in a mix of new and old French and American oak. This is quite a pale cherry red colour, which is reassuring, and it has a sweet nose of cherry and red berry fruit with a spicy, slightly roasted vanilla oak overlay. The palate is soft with sweet ripe fruit complemented by some spicy vanilla from the oak. It tastes like Pinot and has some elegance, but might be better with a touch less oak. Still, a nice wine. Very good+ 89/100 (UK retail c. £10)

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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

when the points don't work...more Chardonnay

Scoring wines with points shouldn't be taken too seriously. It's quite a useful shorthand for saying how much you like a wine - and in this sense, people who choose not to use points neatly avoid putting their necks on the line, because you can read a written description any number of ways.

But despite their utility, points fail in some circumstances. They convey no information about style and character - or about the sort of context where a particular wine might perform very well or badly.

Two Chardonnays that have recently passed my lips are good examples of wines where points aren't up to much. One is a big, fat Californian; the other, a remarkably intense Slovenian. Both could be enjoyed or hated, depending on the occasion and personal preference - information not contained in a score.

Simcic Chardonnay Réserve 2003 Goriška, Brda, Slovenia
3133 bottles produced in March 2006; this spends 7–8 days in contact with the skins. A deep yellow/gold colour it has a really interesting nose. It’s quite tight with some herbal fruit married with bakery smells and vanilla oak, but there’s also a savoury, slightly oily complexity here. The palate is dense, a little tannic even, with a heavy toasty oak imprint and sweet, bready, herby fruit. It’s a full-on Chardonnay of great intensity and concentration – no doubt a bit too full on for some. I like it, though. Very good/excellent 90/100 (H&H Bancroft) 01/07

Hess Select Chardonnay 2004 California
A fat, buttery Californian Chardonnay that’s rich and broad with thick tropical and figgy fruit. There’s also some sweet vanillin butteriness. It’s a seductive, immediate sort of wine whose obvious charms tire a little quickly, but if you like fat Chardonnays you’ll love this. Very good+ 85/100 (£8.49 Wine Society. Oxford Wine, D Byrne, Handford)

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